A workhouse heritage

In the Victorian period the UK had the most delightful institutions called ‘workhouses’ for the ‘deserving’ poor. Inevitably it was filled with the elderly, the young and the ill.Today’s post was inspired by a documentary on ITV entitled ‘Secrets of the Workhouse’ showing celebrities uncovering their links with the workhouses of the Victorian era. Inevitably the stories as to how their great great grandfather or mother or uncle came to be in a workhouse were heart-wrenching. The saddest being the illegitimate offspring of mothers ‘adopted’ by the state and all parental rights taken away. Felicity Kendal’s relative pleaded with the authorities to return Albert to her but they would have none of it. Touchingly Albert made the link with his natural mother and father in a public record of his marriage and children (following a successful career in the army, surviving the Great War and receiving a Medal of Honour). Yet another child from the same mother died aged 18 months of diarrhoea, a common cause of infant death in workhouses. A death that is still claiming thousands of children’s lives in third world countries today. 

In the programme novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford discovers a letter written by her mother to the charity Barnardo’s pleading for them to return her sister from Australia. Her auntie was forced to emigrate to Australia during a period that dated right up to the late 60’s when Barnardo’s and the authorities thought it best to send children who could not be cared for by their natural parents to Australia with no hope of return. In the reply back from Barnardo’s, her mother is told that they cannot do this as it would be too expensive, unless she was willing to pay between £34 and £36 to cover her travel expenses – a very expensive amount in those days. Needless to say Barbara’s mother could not afford that and she never saw her sister again. It was Gordon Brown who apologised, on behalf of the state, for this cruel policy of sending children abroad on a compulsory basis, effectively severing their roots and family ties.

When you hear of these accounts of authorities over the years getting it so badly wrong with mistakes that ‘echo in the halls of eternity’, it is now wonder that it now takes so long to go through the adoption process. It is also understandable why social workers now insist that adopted children are fully aware of their past and given the opportunity, albeit supervised, to meet with their natural parents. 

To see the programme, click on this link.

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Thanks for reading.