Thursday, 5 September 2013
Stealing their souls
At Southwell's Workhouse, costumed volunteers demonstrate how life there was lived in the 19th century. The two ladies pictured looked - and smelled - a lot cleaner than I suspect the real inhabitants would have done! Nevertheless they kept 'in role'. When I asked permission to take the photo, they feigned amazement at my fancy gadget and worried that it would 'steal their souls'. I assured them it would only take their likeness. Made me think that being in the workhouse in the first place may well have been what stole their souls. But, as the guides were at pains to point out, for many people entering the workhouse was - literally - a life-saver. For the first time in their lives perhaps, women (segregated from the men) might have felt safe from abuse. Children were given an education, something that at that time they would not have received outside. Being able to read and write would have enabled them to make a much better life for themselves as adults, a means ultimately of escaping the workhouse.
Nevertheless, workhouses carried a terrible stigma. Many of the buildings went on to be used as hospitals or residential homes for older people. The maternity hospital I was born in had been the old workhouse. It later became a community hospital. My mother (and many others) hated the place; it still cast a dark shadow. Even after the building was pulled down and a new hospital built, she still dreaded ending her days in there. (Thankfully, she didn't.)