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?
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My heroine is encumbered by having been involved in a scandal, and by a lack of useful experience other than as a domestic servant. She heads down from Newhall Street, past St Martin’s in the Bullring and the Court of Requests debtors’ prison, along the High Street towards Bordesley. All of this street is lined with shops and small businesses: tea dealers, basket makers, bookmakers, cheese factors, bottle merchants, hardware men, woollen drapers, printers, chemists, brewers hop merchants, seed and corn factors, hatters, confectioners, auctioneers, wine and spirit merchants, glovers, hosiers, lace manufacturers, jewellers, engravers, tobacconists. In a courtyard near Smithfield is a slaughterman’s shed with a crowd of urchins trying to peek through chinks in the wall as a bull is butchered. The 1839 Directory bears evidence to thousands of small businesses jostling for space in the streets of the town – this is the High Street:
My heroine applies for work in a fruiterer’s, a tailor’s and a pin and needle manufactory (relocated for the purposes of my chapter from Bordesley Street) and is turned away. With a sinking heart she finds her way through a slum area to a dairy, an urban cowshed where the TB – ridden cows are fed on brewer’s grains, the atmosphere is rancid with the animals’ excrement and open milk pans are left on the dirty floor (thanks, Mr Chadwick!). It’s not her day.
Carl Chinn’s book was handy for details of factory life in Birmingham and along the way I discovered some nuggets of information that I can’t use in my novel as they happened too late:
Elkington’s – the first industrial electroplaters in the world – had a factory on Newhall Street, Birmingham, which later became the Museum of Science and Industry. One of their early employees was one Joseph Lucas (1834-1902). After leaving Elkington’s, he sold paraffin for lamps from a handcart. He then decided to manufacture oil-lamps and persuaded some of his former colleagues from Elkington’s to join him. Branching out into bicycle lamps and accessories made him successful. His company has become Lucas Aerospace.
Joseph Chamberlain (1836 -1914), MP and mayor of Birmingham, made his money in the screw-making firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain on Broad Street which turned out 130,000 gross of screws a week. Nettlefold and Chamberlain became part of GKN (Guest, Keen and Nettlefold).
Sam Goldwyn (1879 – 1974) of MGM began life as Samuel Goldfisch, a penniless Polish-Jewish migrant who at an early age travelled from Warsaw to Birmingham. He too had a handcart, in the employment of Charles Henry Whittingham, a manufacturer of safes. He went to America and made his fortune in the Hollywood film industry. Mr Whittingham meanwhile perfected ‘steel fire proof Cinematograph Storage Film Boxes.’
If we understand attitudes to the poor in 19th century England it sheds light on our attitudes to the poor today. Being richer has not made us kinder. History still has much to teach us. To quote Donna Taylor: “PLEASE SUPPORT OUR ARCHIVES, CURRENTLY UNDER THREAT AS A RESULT OF CUTS TO THE LOCAL FINANCES – ONCE THEY’RE GONE, THEY’RE GONE FOREVER.”