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U3A Writing: The Workhouse

John Ricketts recalls the horrors of the workhouse.

It is impossible for us in these days of easy living and the welfare state to realise how terrible the threat of the workhouse was to the poor at the beginning of the century and how it lingered in the folk memory after such institutions were no more.

How Mrs. Woodward came to my father’s attention I don’t know but mother was an expert at picking up strays. Mrs. Woodward had owned a cottage in a run down area of Birmingham and expected to live her life out there. Shortly after her husband died she was given notice to quit because the leasehold on the ground had run out and all the property reverted to the man who owned the ground.

Knowing the people concerned I imagine that there was conversation on these lines. “Jack, she’s got nowhere to go! She was crying and asking me to help her. She’s terrified that she’ll be sent to the workhouse. She said she would kill herself before she would let that happen.”

“But Nel, what can we do? He’s certainly within his rights to take over all those houses. What cam we do about it?”

“I’ve been thinking about it. You’re away such a lot now with the lorries which means that I have to be in the shop all the time. We really need someone to look after John, especially at weekends. It’s not fair to expect Win to do it all the time and all Wal thinks about is sport. We’ve got the front bedroom going spare. She could have that until she can find somewhere else. I think she would be fine.”

“Can we afford it?”

“Of course we can. The transport has taken off well and both shops are showing a profit.

So Mrs. Woodward moved in and became my nanny. To me she was always a very old woman with a face like a wrinkled apple and wispy white hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head. In fact she was probably in her early sixties. She became a fixture in the family and stayed with us long after I had any need of a nanny. She became a general helper around the house.

My parents had seen some of the bombing in the Spanish Civil War and like many people at the time expected the bombs to start falling as soon as the inevitable war started. We lived right in the centre of Birmingham so they decided it would be safer to move to the outskirts. (In fact during the blitz the whole area where our house was located was completely flattened. I cannot even find it now) As they were moving from a very large house to a three bedroom semi there was no room for Mrs. Woodward. So they bought a small terraced house into which they moved her.

We kept in touch and I visited her every holiday. In about 1944 realised that she was going senile and could no longer look after herself. We contacted Mrs. Woodward’s son and suggested that he visit his mother to see how the situation was. Her son had gone to the Great War and not returned. He had joined the War Grave Commission, first of all recovering bodies and then looking after the cemeteries. He only returned to England with his Belgian wife and daughter when the war started in 1939.

The next time I came home from School I was intended to visit her as usual. But my mother told me that she had been taken into hospital. I said that I would go and see her and my mother told me that she would go with me. It was dreadful. In the huge ward there were four rows of beds with no more that fifteen inches between them. The beds looked clean but the whole place stank of urine overlaid by disinfectant. The worst thing was that she did not know me.

“That’s not John.” She kept saying. My John’s only little”

I stayed the shortest time that I possibly could and then I fled the place.

Above the door carved into the front of the building were the words BIRMINGHAM WORKHOUSE.

She died a few weeks later while I was away at school.
I can still hear her saying “You’re mother’s a wonderful woman, she saved me from the Workhouse.

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