Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Returning to the Workhouse.

Genealogy does not feature very regularly on British television. Neither, too, do depictions of the kind of grinding poverty that was a feature of so many lives in the nineteenth century. But this unusual combination was last night featured on prime time television, in the form of ITV's Secrets from the Workhouse.
Ripon Workhouse, as visited by the novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford.
The premise of having celebrities visit, or simply find out about, workhouses associated with their relative, was not altogether a bad one. In the case of Kiera Chaplin, the fact that her antecedent was so famous rather skewed the perspective; evidence coming from Charlie Chaplin's autobiography removed the sense of genuine social history and discovery that the each of the other cases in their own way brought. Similar to Who Do You Think You Are?, to which comparisons by producers and audience must have been obvious, the emotive quality of the past was brought to life. At least in this case, no-one could have expected much else from the title. Again, the success of the programme may depend on how the celebrities are judged to react, but for me the merit of the show (or otherwise) must lie in its historical presentation and interpretation.

The depiction of nineteenth century social history, was, in fact, riveting. The sheer poverty of life outside the workhouse in many cases was not omitted and the particular use by the elderly and mothers of illegitimate
Shoreditch Workhouse today, where Louis Glück's
daughter was born in 1846.
children were rightly highlighted. My own family connection to a workhouse comes through the last of these: in 1846, after the death of his first wife, my ancestor Louis Glück had a daughter by a woman called Sarah Brown, who gave birth in the Shoreditch workhouse on the eighteenth of February. The story of this woman and her daughter ends here, but it is perhaps telling that Louis never allowed his legitimate family to see the inside of one of these institutions in his lifetime. Genealogical connections aside, the shocking modernity of this institution was laid bare. Barbara Taylor Bradford spoke to a woman in Ripon, who had herself been an inmate in the 1940s.

The workhouse, whose shadow was cast over so much of the last two centuries, must also be reflected in genealogical survey of the time. As Brian Cox described it, this "endless assault on human dignity", must not be forgotten.