Haunted by Workhouses

#HeartOfCruelty #Histwriter #Birmingham

Wherever I had a job in the NHS – in London or the West Midlands – there was almost always an old workhouse, often still in use as a part of the hospital. I was employed for years in Sandwell and West Birmingham: at City Hospital the office was in a converted workhouse school, while at Sandwell the office was in a former workhouse’s venereal diseases ward. Now I work in Wexford, Ireland, where, just down the hill from the modern district hospital, is… a former workhouse.

Peter Higginbotham’s amazing website workhouses.org.uk provides a complete catalogue and history of these darkly gothic buildings.  

My debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ is set in the old Birmingham workhouse, which was on Steelhouse Lane, near the city centre. I have no evidence of any wrongdoings occurring in that workhouse and the events in my novel have been rehashed from other places and times. But in 1840 it would have been a harsh experience: the ‘Workhouse Test’ meant that life inside had to be harder than for the lowest paid worker on the outside. Paupers fared worse than convicted criminals, with less food and longer hours of forced labour.

Attempting to starve the poor into work caused huge suffering in the Victorian age, and failed to create the healthy and educated workforce which the labour movement achieved in the 20th century. In the 21st century, that hard-won advantage has been forgotten. Welfare cuts have caused severe hardship. For Anna Burns to acknowledge her local food bank in her prize-winning novel ’Milkman’ shows how far down we have sunk.

As I watch the Covid-19 pandemic rage around the world I become convinced that it cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eradicated. If people are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation, how can they self-isolate?

For more about my debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’: (Link)









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