Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

When Poor Was Poor

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

When Poor Was Poor

Article excerpt

Byline: NICOLA TYRER

Shadows of the Workhouse: The Drama of Life in Post-War London byJennifer Worth (Weidenfeld, [pounds sterling]13.99)

IT IS fashionable, these days, to criticise the Welfare State for underminingpeople's self-reliance. It is salutary, therefore, to be reminded what life waslike for the hundreds of thousands of families at the bottom of the social heapbefore it came into being; the desperate widow with a brood of children and noincome, the orphans whose parents had been killed by poverty, the sick with nomoney for doctors.

This is the world Jennifer Worth evokes in her book, set in Poplar, whereduring the 1950s she worked as a nurse and midwife with an order of Anglicannuns. It was one of the most deprived areas of east London, where one squaremile housed 50,000 people.

The book is a harrowing readnot just because of the suffering from cold, hunger and the casual cruelty of"charitable" institutions, but because it was still happening so recently.

The workhouses, where so many of the poor ended up, had been closed(officially) for more than 20 years, but the east London Worth describes, withits bug-infested tenements, its women worn out with child-bearing, its gaunt,hungry youngsters, is still the London of Dickens. The characters in thismemoir were the helpless victims of the harsh Victorian belief that poverty isa selfinflicted ill.

Jane, a drab, middle-aged spinster who lives in the convent, has so littleself-confidence she is incapable of the simplest task. Handed over to theworkhouse as a baby because her unmarried mother couldn't afford to keep her,as a small child she received a beating for a minor misdemeanour so severe itnearly killed her. She never recovered.

Peggy, who cleans the convent, was placed in the workhouse aged two with hersix-year-old brother Frank when their half-starved widowed mother was founddead in the offices she cleaned. For a year the siblings were allowed to betogether, but at seven Frank was removed to the boys' section. …

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