The workhouse

life culture

At the weekend, I caught up with the first part of a documentary about the workhouse: Secrets from the Workhouse. It was made by the same production company as ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, and the element of finding out about the ancestors of celebrities was the same. However, in this programme, they focused on one aspect: people who ended up in the workhouse. It consequently featured a number of different celebrities, each of whose ancestors reflected a different experience of the workhouse.

Workhouses were present from the 17th Century, but it was the Victorians who really got serious about them. For the Victorians the workhouse was there primarily to shame those who got into financial or medical difficulties, the two being closely inter-linked in a time when there was no free healthcare. That sense of shame — and the terrible physical and psychological conditions of the workhouse — also acted as a strong deterrent to others. People would do almost anything to avoid having to go into the workhouse.

Does that ring any bells? It did for me. We may not have a physical workhouse any more, but the current government’s attitude to all forms of welfare benefits (except perhaps pensions1) is that people should be ashamed to claim them, presumed a priori to be trying to cheat the system, and that they should make life so terrible on welfare that it should act as a deterrent.

All of the stories featured were interesting and heartbreaking in equal measure, but it was Brian Cox’s2 involvement that I found most interesting. His great grandfather was in and out of the poorhouse (the Scottish version of the workhouse) for most of his life. He suffered from poor health and so would go in for a few weeks, be certified fit and thrown out, then his health would break down again, and the whole ghastly cycle would continue. Brian absorbed all this information with visibly growing disbelief and anger, but it was learning about how the authorities coded his grandfather’s case that sent him over the edge.

The researcher showed him that he had been coded ‘R10’3, and asked him to read the definition of that code. He read silently and then spat out one word (“Bastards”), before reading the definition, essentially that his ancestor was deemed to be a malingerer.

I think that the academic was a bit taken aback by his response. He raged about the unfairness, immorality and inhumanity of the system, trying to elicit similar levels of anger from her. He wasn’t just outraged on behalf of his ancestor, but for all of those unfortunate enough to have ended up in the system. I think that she was probably just trying to maintain some academic distance and objectivity, but she had a slightly panicked look on her face as Brian raged at Storm Force 10. I thought his anger was magnificent and totally justified.

We don’t really hear that kind of voice against unfairness and injustice in the media these days, and it made me immediately want to appoint Brian Cox as a kind of unofficial spokesperson against out current ‘virtual’ workhouses.


  1. People are deemed to have ‘worked for’ their pensions, but not for unemployment benefit, even though they fund the latter indirectly through the payment of tax. This has always puzzled me. Apparently you are ‘entitled’ to a benefit if you have paid directly into your own pot of money, but not if you have contributed to a common good (or will contribute, once you are out of your current difficult circumstances).
  2. Not that Brian Cox, this Brian Cox.
  3. As far as I recall — it’s not imporant what the code was in any case, but what it meant.
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