Recently I have had to park in a different place in the hospital where I work, and it was with a sort of grim delight that I photographed these mid Victorian buildings in an obscure corner of the hospital grounds. The remains of the mid-Victorian West Bromwich Union Workhouse infirmary (above is the former ‘Itch and Venereal Ward’) date from around 1857-8.
I suspect that the old iron railings and brick piers fronting onto the street also date from this time.At that time the workhouse and all the trappings of the Poor Law were feared and loathed by many. Victorian values – the work ethic, a stern religiosity and harsh class divisions, in which the ruthless capitalists preyed upon the poor in a laissez-faire economy, have had a bad press. Historians express surprise that England did not tumble into revolution during the 19th century.
But the picture was more complex. In some cities, Birmingham for example, the social divides were narrower, with much manufacturing being in small workshops where a craftsman could easily become an employer, and vice versa. The Birmingham Political Union, in which working class and middle class people campaigned together, was a driving force behind the Reform Act. There grew a concept of civic pride, in which citizens worked together in the newly incorporated towns to build their local infrastructure. And, nationally, there were plenty of people who campaigned for political reform, for education, and for public health. The reason we even know nowadays about the awful living conditions of the poor is that public health campaigners went out and documented what was going on. Read the small ads in the Times in the 1840s and you will find innumerable philanthropic societies; ladies’ knitting circles holding sales of work for charity; the establishment of voluntary organisations, the RNLI for example, that we still hold dear today. The Times editorials will be full of criticism for the plight of the workhouse paupers and the neglect and abuse which they suffered. ‘Victorian values’ were not a single entity, any more than are 21st century political beliefs.
The workhouse infirmaries of the Victorian age evolved into a health service for the poor, and, in the 20th century, became the hospitals that were the foundation of our National Health Service. Across the country, workhouse buildings and land have been used for our modern hospitals, gradually being developed and rebuilt. Could we have had the NHS without the workhouses, or our welfare state without the lessons learned from the Victorian age? I think not.