Shadows of the Workhouse – Jennifer Worth (2005)

A former midwife writes of her time during the 1950’s in East London when she worked with a group of nuns helping the poorer families. Divided into three parts, the book looks at this time through the eyes of three very different people: brother and sister Frank and Peggy who were both raised in the workhouse, Sister Monica Joan (a not-so-good nun) and then old Mr. Collett’s heart-breaking story to end with.

Although the first two stories are powerful in their own rights, Mr. Collett’s story was the one that I found most poignant and memorable. The author, also a nurse as well as midwife, is assigned to help Mr. Collett with his slow-healing leg ulcers, and in doing so, the young nurse becomes friends with the old soldier. Through describing the conversations they both had, you get to know the old man – his life fighting in the Boer War and his family afterwards. Although his story is probably similar to lots of other elderly people (with respect to fighting in various wars etc.), it was sad to realize just how much importance he placed on the daily visits of his nurse and friend. How many other elderly people are out there in similar incredibly lonely situations like his?

Very poignant for me to think about, especially with all the holidays coming up.

Another over-arching theme throughout the book was the looming shadow cast by the workhouse and its reputation on the patients to whom the author was nursing. Workhouses officially closed in 1930 by Acts of Parliament, but they remained very similar but now called “institutions”. However, for many of the older population, the memory of the workhouse threat still hung over them and filled them with horror.

An interesting book about a forgotten (or at least neglected) part of history. I will be moving my other workhouse book up the TBR pile to get a different view point.

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