Shadows of the Workhouse
Yesterday I finished reading the vivid tale, Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth. Jennifer tells the heart wrenching stories of the denizens inhabiting the pest-infected slums of the Isle of Dogs. It’s these colourful East Enders who spent early years in London’s workhouses who tell their tales as they live out their lives in the shadows of the workhouse years.
Although it seemed the workhouses were originally meant to provide basic sustenance for the poor and unemployed, the harsh discipline and separation of family members meant that these poor Londoners were stripped of the nurturance that comes from human warmth found in a mother’s arms or the familiar voice of a brother or sister.
One boy found employment, set up his own business, and rescued his younger sister from their workhouse, but learned his mother, who was shunted off to another location, had died. One old soldier joined the army hoping to help his mother and siblings avoid the workhouse. His army digs seemed like a bit of luxury. Whilst many served as cannon fodder, he survived his stint in South Africa and became a career postal worker. Tragically, his loving wife and all his children died during the first and second World Wars. We discover him alone and visually impaired living in a derelict old tenement when Nonnatus House nurse Jennifer comes to treat his ulcerated legs and retell his amazing life story of trauma and survival punctuated with moments of love and laughter.
Jennifer includes a comic interlude as we learn that the elderly Sister Monica Joan is charged with theft of some fine jewels. She’s in court. Is she round the bend? A psychiatrist and psychologist weigh in with ancient understandings of aging and psychopathology. The surprising outcome sounds like the twist you find in a well-written novel.
In the Shadows of the Workhouse isn’t for everyone. But for me, it’s not just an entertaining look at a bit of hometown history but it helps provide a context for my ancestors’ lives. Most of may family have lived in or near London for centuries. Some lived in workhouses or nearby, some served in Britain’s many wars, and others, including my parents, survived the Blitz. And in my early years, I had a brief stay, separated from my parents, in an old London hospital at a time when Jennifer and her nurses were helping those so much worse off than we were in our one-bedroom flat.
So, of course I recommend the book.
Geoffrey W. Sutton, PhD is Emeritus Professor of Psychology. He retired from a clinical practice and was credentialed in clinical neuropsychology and psychopharmacology. His website is www.suttong.com
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