Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth

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Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Jennifer Worth worked as a midwife-cum-district-nurse in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs in the 1950s, working among people whose lives had always been hard. In Shadows she shares some of their life stories with us. Evocative, heartbreaking, and a valid historical social record. What more do you want?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297853268

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The Workhouse. What does that make you think of? Dickens probably. Pictures of grimy people in 1800s unable to fend for themselves, ending up destitute and scared and carted off to the workhouse. The very fact that we use those words carted off implies an inescapable fate. No-one was ever carted to the workhouse. They walked in or crawled. But it did have a ring of finality about it, a fate every bit as terminal as a revolution tumbrel.

What most of us don't realise is how long 'the Workhouse' survived. The system wasn't abolished until the 1930s and then only in name.

In the 1950s Jennifer Worth became a midwife attached to a convent in the East End. Not a nun herself, she was one of a number of secular young nurses who worked with an order she has chosen to call the Sisters of St Raymond Nonnatus after the patron saint of midwives, obstetricians, pregnant women, childbirth & newborn babies.

It was in the course of this work in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs, work which was as much general District Nursing as it was midwifery, that she met and befriended the people whose stories she shares with us in this book. The work was carried out in an area that still bore the scars of war on the ground and in the minds of its inhabitants. Many of those minds also bore other scars: the memories of real abject poverty. The kind of poverty where 'the workhouse' became a reality or at least an ever-present threat.

The book is divided into three distinct sections:

· Workhouse Children

· The Trial of Sister Monica Joan

· The Old Soldier

The middle section is the most light-hearted. It focuses on poverty of a different kind. The kind that is chosen by nuns who take their vows. Sister Monica Joan took hers many decades before the period related here. By this time she is in her nineties, but still as sharp as they come and with a fondness for pretty things which lands her in the High Court. An excursion which causes much grief among her sisters and friends but which she faces with the equanimity of the black widows at the gallows, knitting away in the traditional fashion.

While the story of Sister Monica Joan is interesting in and of itself, the main worth of this central section is the light it sheds on the day-to-day life of the nuns and the nurses who chose to work with them. Life beyond the convent walls seems not to have been as bleak as one might have imagined. Is it really possible to drink two bottles of sherry over one game of Monopoly?

There is little light relief in the bookends around this vignette however.

We start with Jane who is neither nun, nor domestic, nor nurse… but a mixture of all. In her mid-forties but as much a stray waif as when the nuns had first taken her in many years before. Through her we meet Frank and Peggy. Together they were three 'orphans' abandoned to the workhouse as children. Taken in as an act of charity and then systematically brutalised and betrayed. But the world turns and Frank was a bright child who grasped at his chances and the world turns differently when you can do that.

These were lives not entirely without happiness, but even told as simply and to the point as they are here, they are heartbreakingly touching. And when you realise how many thousands of times those stories will have been repeated...variations on a theme...

The Old Soldier never suffered the true horrors of the workhouse. The mere threat of it was enough to have his mother working every second she was granted to keep the rent paid in the squalid tenement they called home. There was scarce ever a fire in the grate unless the coal could be scavenged and the kids went ragged and barefoot – but they were free and together and loved. And the rent got paid, and somehow they got fed.

Joe Collett had been a soldier in the Boer War… a very long time ago, even in the 1950s.

He got married and had children, but there were more wars to come. More hardship and sorrow. By now he is an old man, still living in the tenements. Again poor and squalid, but with a dignity and simplicity of needs… that at the end are utterly disregarded. Just one more sad story and again one among thousands.

Worth writes with a simple flare which manages to evoke the time of hearing the stories, and the earlier times in which they occurred. Recreated dialogue and 'dramatic action' of key episodes are interspersed with non-narrative historical explanations which could easily bring the reader up short, but don't. The whole is woven together seemingly without emotion, and yet provoking it. I wept more than once over this book.

As a collection of memoirs and as a social history, it is a wonderful read. The detail of daily life at the grubby end of the social scale in all its glory and ghastliness is well researched and depicted without judgement. For all Worth has chosen the Workhouse as her linking theme, and its Shadow looms over her characters, she does not ultimately condemn the system and asks us to put it in the context of the time. Perhaps her years with the nuns have made her more forgiving than I find myself able to be – especially in the light of the epilogue, which shows the shadow looming still, certainly as recently as the late 1990s.

Read it and form your own opinion.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more vignettes on life in hard times, still in the East End, try Gilda O'Neill's The Good Old Days.

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Buy Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth at


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