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‘Cruel beyond belief’? Secrets from the Workhouse, ITV, episode 1, 25 June 2013.

2013 June 28
by lucinda matthews-jones

Lesley Hulonce (Swansea University)

Secrets of the Workhouse followed a similar path to the BBC’s successful Who Do You Think You Are? However, its exploration of the workhouse experiences of the ancestors of not one, but four celebrities guaranteed heartbreak and regular celebrity tears throughout. Episode One (of two) looked at the family histories of Brian Cox’s antecedents in Glasgow, Fern Britton’s in rural Kent and the experience of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s mother and grandmother in Ripon. Kiera Chaplin, the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and the only participant less famous than their ancestor, traced her grandfather’s experiences of London workhouses.

To borrow a phrase from peerless John Motson this programme was indeed a game of two halves. One half saw leading historians such as David Green, Elizabeth Hurran and Allannah Tomkins offering articulate and knowledgeable commentary which was often bowdlerised by narration provided by Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey (Jim Carter), whose script oscillated between reasonable historical rationalisations and rather hysterical (and often untrue) pronouncements.

The workhouse as a medical treatment centre for the poor connected all the family histories. Fern Britton’s ancestor was treated in the local workhouse infirmary and later transferred to a London teaching hospital when his condition worsened and where he subsequently died. Rather than foreground the fact that the poor were able to obtain medical treatment, the programme concentrated upon the more sensational detail that his body was later used for dissection by medical students. Thus, gruesome photographs and Carson provided melodrama and cautionary tale, the eminent historian relayed the historical context and relevant legislation and Fern Britton delivered the tears and moral outrage.

Some of the statistics presented, such as ‘1 in 10 died’ in the workhouse’, implied that the deprivation, cruelty and humiliation of being ‘sent’ to the workhouse was responsible for these deaths. As the programme itself later demonstrated, workhouses always contained a large proportion of the old and the sick. There were indeed scandals in workhouse across Britain, but although these were in the minority, they were often disseminated widely via the Victorian press. Similarly, the impression given by the programme was that the destitute either accepted the workhouse or starved on the streets. This again was not true. Apart from London, where outdoor relief (or relief in their own homes), was less common until the twentieth century, the numbers of paupers in Wales and England receiving out-door relief outnumbered those in workhouses by a considerable margin. In 1873, discounting the metropolis, the ratio of outdoor to indoor paupers was six to one. [1] In Scotland, David Englander argues that ‘there was no attempt to abolish outdoor relief’ although the unemployed were excluded from a legal right to poor relief. [2] This kind of poor relief was ignored completely by the programme and, even taking into account that the focus of the show was workhouses, it was rather disingenuous to overlook the primary form of Victorian poor relief.

The experiences of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s mother as a child appeared to be similar to a sizeable group of children who, with their parents, entered and left the workhouse on many occasions, and the children were known as ins-and-outs.  It was thought that ins-and-outs were deprived of education, and child welfare campaigner, Florence Davenport Hill, argued that they came ‘in and out from all sorts of horrible places and scenes of vice, and mix with the children in the schools and are constantly turning their moral filth on them’. [3] Barbara Taylor Bradford’s mother was the eldest of three illegitimate children and the programme focussed on this and how the youngest two were born in Ripon Workhouse. Many women used workhouse infirmaries to give birth to illegitimate children, rather to the dismay of workhouse management and the central poor law authorities. Some workhouses wanted these ‘profligate’ women to be marked out by different dress, badges or inferior rations but the central authorities tried to curtail this practice. [4]

Kiera Chaplin’s great-grandmother apparently suffered violent abuse in the workhouse. In one of his most outraged voice-overs, Carson decried the segregation of families in the workhouse, but implied that the injuries suffered by Chaplin’s mother were inflicted by workhouse staff. It is far more likely that she was bullied by other female inmates, some of whom were extremely violent and far from submissive. This, as was pointed out, was the reason for keeping children away from the more ‘immoral’ and ‘vicious’ inmates, and not a cruel attempt to tear families apart. Chaplin and his brother Sydney were later transferred to Hanwell District School. These large ‘schools’ were established to move children from the overcrowded conditions of the London workhouses. David Green, who is also the historical adviser for the programme, remarked that Charlie Chaplin’s school mates appeared healthy and sported ‘chubby’ faces in photographs which was in marked contrast to the emotive voice-over which told of Charlie being sent to a ‘pauper school’.

Brian Cox’s antecedents in Glasgow appeared to have been extremely poor and prior her admittance to the workhouse one woman’s address was ‘on the stairs’ of a tenement building. His reaction to the ‘injustice’ shown to his ancestors was so fierce that I trembled for the poor archivist who was relating the family’s ever-downward spiral. Again, the programme’s interpretation was skewed relentlessly towards the ‘cruelties’ of the workhouse. Over many years Cox’s ancestor was treated in the workhouse for bronchitis, but was apparently ‘thrown out’ after treatment. Couldn’t this also be interpreted that he was discharged, as hospital patients were and are?

The biggest inaccuracy, which was inevitably signposted by Oliver Twist asking for more, was concerning the workhouse diet. Carson informed us that although paupers were given three meals a day they consisted of ‘watery gruel’, bread and occasionally meat. This is one of the biggest misconceptions of workhouse life as most inmates would have had a better diet than poor labourers. This was especially true for women and children who would not have had to compete with fathers and siblings for food. Although the programme did point out that this was the case in the twentieth century, it was almost certainly true for the most of the nineteenth century too. The workhouse dietary for women and children in 1837 allowed for five ounces of meat three times a week, one and a half pints of soup three times a week and 12 ounces of rice or suet pudding weekly. Breakfasts were six ounces of bread and a 1½ pints of the dreaded grue, and supper either 1½ pints of broth or two ounces of cheese with seven ounces of bread. Over the years, the main changes in workhouse diets were in the variety of foods, quantities more or less remained the same with a little more protein and vegetables and a little fewer carbohydrates. As Valerie Johnston argues, ‘starvation had no role’ in the workhouse. [5]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Gradgrindian fact-fascist, I don’t really care about the historical inaccuracies in dramas such as The White Queen because I rather enjoy most of Philippa Gregory’s novels and it’s Sunday night escapism at its best. Similarly, one of my favourite TV programmes was The Tudors, despite its historical faux pas; any TV series that could come up with a book called, King takes Queen must be seen as a bodice-ripping romp and not serious drama. These productions are, after all, historical fiction and spotting anachronisms is part of the fun.

Flaws in historical fiction are unfortunate but inevitable, but presenting a biased version of history to ‘sex-up’ a purportedly factual documentary is very much another.  Although the voices and arguments of historians were apparent in the commentary, they were overpowered by dumbed-down anachronistic comparisons and the ‘wasn’t it all awful back then and didn’t they know any better’ school of historical thought. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act promoted the deterrent aspect of the workhouse and, as the programme argued, most of the ‘respectable’ poor would have been totally humiliated by a stay there, but most people in receipt of poor relief never entered any workhouse. It is not helpful for historical documentaries to propagate such myths and portray the poor as passive, preyed-upon victims. Programme makers do themselves and the viewing public a disservice by using historians to legitimise their half-truths and melodramatic constructions rather than foregrounding the evidence from historians and trusting the viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Lesley Hulonce has recently submitted her PhD entitled ‘Imposed and imagined childhoods: the making of the poor law child, Swansea 1834-1910’ at Swansea University where she is also a lecturer in modern British history.

Email l.hulonce@swansea.ac.uk, blog: Workhouse Tales


[1] Local Government Board, Second Annual Report, 1873, 286.

[2] David Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Nineteenth Century Britain, 1834-1914 (London: Longman, 1998), 51-2.

[3] Poor Law Schools Committee, ‘Mundella Report’, 1896, cd. no 8027, vol. I. 72, 78.

[4] Appendix to Sixth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1840, cmd. 253, 56, see Lesley Hulonce, ‘Profligate Women?’, Workhouse Tales, http://lesleyhulonce.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/profligate-women/.

[5] Valerie Johnston, Diet in Workhouses and Prisons, 1835-1895 (New York: Garland, 1985), 5.

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