Shadows of the Workhouse


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Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth.

Jennifer Worth was a district midwife in the London Docklands in the 1950s, working with an order of nuns. She recounts the moving lives, loves and backgrounds of the different cockney characters she met and the stories she learnt about some of the men and women who began their lives in the workhouse, an experience which had dramatic consequences.

It was as a district nurse and midwife in Poplar, East London in the 1950’s that Jennifer Worth came into contact with people who as children, lacked what we would call “the bare necessities of life”. If parents died, the children were put into a workhouse, brothers separated from sisters, of course. If a man lost his livelihood-well, tough. Conditions were pretty basic in their lodgings, and where was Nanny State in all this? You could argue that the workhouse provided for the orphans’ needs: They were fed, sheltered, and trained to earn their living. What they lacked was love and individual attention; if you think your grandparents, who were brought up in the tough Docklands environment, seem a bit unsympathetic about your alleged problems, you spoilt brats, this story will surely enlighten you.

Now it’s not one long wallow in misery! Jennifer Worth has interwoven various life histories of the people she interacted with during her work into an intensely interesting novel. She was attached to a religious nursing order, founded in Poplar in 1870, and these excellent women pioneered nursing as a respectable profession. The story of Sister Monica Joan, and the subsequent denouement, gives us a view of convent life not normally exposed to the public. And I’m not talking about naughty goings-on, if you know what I mean.

We are told the stories of the children who were put into the workhouse, and their lives in the outside world as adults. I found a fascinating detail about Costers-those men who rose early in the mornings, attended the wholesale markets, then spent all day selling their wares-well, they never had homes of their own. As soon as they had money in their pockets, it was spent on food, drink (plenty of that), girls, and a bed in a rooming-house. No possessions, apart from some flamboyant clothes to swagger about in in the pubs.

There is also an insight into the differences in perception. Jenny visits an old man she has befriended during the time she visited him to dress his leg ulcers. He lives in a dirty little flat in Poplar, all alone, and seemingly deprived of all comforts, in her eyes. On her first visit, she refuses a cup of tea when she sees the state of the cups, and realises she has hurt his feelings, so against all rules she accepts a small glass of sherry. Joseph though considers himself really well off. He has his pension, plenty of coal for a good fire and he can afford to buy sherry and chocolates to offer Jenny when she visits him. She was his only human contact. The flat harboured many other inhabitants however. The walls of these tenements heaved with bugs-something my mother would relish telling us about when we made to faint on spotting the odd spider in the bath. So, she saw filth and discomfort, but he saw cosy comfort and felt well off. Until the inevitable demolitions…..

This has been a very satisfying read and I look forward to reading her previous book “ Call the Midwife”. My own grandmother was a midwife in East London and I often wonder how many of your ancestors were helped into the world by her skilful hands. She was very intolerant of modern moaners after all she had seen. Do you think our descendents will find unsavoury things about our lives to write about? I hope they do so with the same insight and research skills shown by Jennifer Worth. ( by S.K.Oldfield, aka my Mum!).

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Phoenix New edition 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2585-3
Condition: New
Availabilty: In stock

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