Workhouse grief

Dec 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Mrs Jenkins lived in extreme deprivation. Dressed in clothes that had not been changed in years, shunning the company and care of others, living in a single room of a house approaching dereliction, rambling about a girl called ‘Rosie’; she resembled someone many will have encountered, in both urban an rural communities.

The source of Mrs Jenkins’ psychological state is the memories of her children being taken from her in the London of the 1900s. A resident of a workhouse, Mrs Jenkins was not regarded a fit person to be mother of her own children. They were taken from her and each of them died in the care of the institution and were buried in unmarked graves in a common plot.

Mrs Jenkins was a character in BBC television’s Christmas Day edition of ‘Call the Midwife‘; a fictional creation, or semi-fictional for the series arises from the writer’s own experiences as a nurse in the East End of London, working with an Anglican religious order, in the East End of London. Her years of grief prompt Jenny Lee, the central character, to investigate the fate of the children and to discover their final resting place and to take Mrs Jenkins to the spot where the mortal remains of her children were laid in the cold ground. More frequently, children in such circumstances were sent to foster homes or given for adoption.

Jenny Lee’s investigation brings her a gentle rebuke from one of the sisters of the religious community at the convent from which she works. Quoting lines from the Apocrypha, the sister tries to suggest that there is little good served in reminding people of their former pain. Nurse Lee believes that it matters for a person to know the truth.

Watching the programme, there is a moment of realisation. My grandfather was Born at Isleworth Infirmary, Middlesex on 2nd November 1906, his mother Ellen Poulton, a machinist from Chiswick, immediately disappears from view. No father’s name appears on the birth certificate. The infirmary, which was part of Brentford Workhouse, is given as Ellen’s address.

Was my grandfather one of those taken from his mother in the workhouse? Did Ellen Poulton cry the tears of Mrs Jenkins? Did she scream the ‘workhouse howl’ described by one of the sisters in ‘Call the Midwife’?

Jenny Lee discovered the truth for Mrs Jenkins, through painstakingly going through registers at the public record office. No such research seems possible for Ellen Poulton; the workhouse records seem to have been destroyed when it became a hospital in 1915.

Perhaps there is little good in digging up former stuff.




The thought of the workhouse howl prompted further searches for my great grandmother. It was sad to discover that in 1911, five years later she was in another workhouse and died the following year, aged 24.




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  1. I watched the episode of the Midwife tonight in Texas, USA. I found it very moving.

    I grieve for all those who ever experienced the horrors of the workhouse. I grieve that you have ancestors whose life stories are unknown to you beyond a few facts.

    I am struck, however, by the thankful realization that you must have come from a line of true survivors and be a survivor yourself.

    We are blessed by Grace and Redemption. How wonderful that from such a frightening and unfortunate world and time and history that you could be delivered to the world of today to serve God and your fellow man and, presumably, to live a life that seeks to alleviate the trials & sufferings of humanity in whatever ways you have been called to do so!

    Bless you and all of yours! Thank you for being a light to the paths of others in our modern world.


  2. Hi Eileen,

    Thanks for your kind words. It was only when I watched ‘Call the Midwife’ on Christmas Day that I realised how dreadful life might have been for my great-grandmother. My grandfather was raised by very kind and generous foster parents.

  3. Have you read `shadows of the workhouse` by the same author of `call the midwife`? xxx.

  4. We have a copy – I must read it. Going back through of what we know of Ellen, there is a deep sadness.

  5. I read in a local history book (I live in the South West UK) that when Thornbury Workhouse was later re-used as a cottage hospital, it was very difficult to get people to even enter the gates for treatment, such was the deep-seated fear and loathing to just enter the bricks and mortar of the place. In fact, people used to avert their eyes and cross the road as they would not even walk past it. We can have absolutely no idea of the pain and hardship endured by these people, try as we might. Poor Mrs Jenkins, whose story must have been so typical has haunted me ever since I read it. I felt like unleashing a primal scream or two myself, afterwards. I believe that we still suffer “handed down” mental health issues, as a result; after all, it’s only about three generations ago. I am 59 and I knew people who went to Fishponds Workhouse, Bristol as late as the 1930’s, though I believe this was the last one to close in the UK, although this may be anecdotal.

  6. I served as a curate in Newtownards in Co Down in the late 1980s where the hospital occupied the old workhouse buildings. The workhouse had closed in 1922, but the memory was so strong that older people still wished to avoid the place, even calling it ‘the Union’.

  7. I wonder if you might know of good books regarding the workhouses in England. I would like to know more. I know Charles Dickens wrote about them in his books in the 1800s and I was surprised to read in your posts that workhouses remained open into the 20th century. My ancestors came from the Manchester area and I do hope none of my relations were in those horrid places.

  8. I’m not sure. There are many local histories of workhouses in particular places, but there may also be a good overall survey.

    Growing up among older people who remembered the workhouses and knowing people who feared going to the local hospital because it had once been a workhouse was enough to quell my curiosity.

  9. Work houses exist today in a lot of countries. Run by rich people to maximize profits I suppose.
    In England it was well known what went on, no getting around it. The class system and of course the economy
    Really made life miserable. I lived in a middle class neighborhood as a kid, yet was working as a 5 year old. We were low class I guess… Many of my siblings are still that way. Never thought much about bettering themselves so still dwell in a fantasy world of expecting someone else to carry the load. This makes me wonder what will happen in the near future. I know a few people that are close to living in the street. Not a good thing but a sign of the times. They all have iPhones though. Weird generation, living paycheck to paycheck.

  10. I just watched the episode of “Call the Midwife” that deals with the subject of the workhouses, so I googled it and it lead me here. Very informative, thank you. I found myself in complete horror at the thought of this. I am a mother myself and the thought of being kept away from my son had me in tears. Literally! I cried for nearly an hour! I kept telling myself that “it’s just a television show” and then I would remember that these horrible places actually existed and I’d start all over again. I’m not sure if these ever existed in the United States but oh I hope not. It’s a scary thought to think that only a little over 100 years ago, life was so, SO different for many people.

  11. I suppose there was a happy ending of sorts in the programme. My great grandmother died six years after my grandfather was born, in another workhouse. He seems to have been fostered out, and was to enjoy a comfortable upbringing judging by photographs, but in the 1911 Census, he is invisible, presumably registered under the name of the foster family. Ellen died probably never knowing what had become of her son.

  12. I wept.

  13. I was able to watch this episode on NetFlix. While I have been watching this series I have been doing the hunting for the past thing and found a lot of my relatives ended up in something referred to as “boarding houses.” Looks like they were all in their senior years. So sad to me that you could end up at the mercy of others that would seek to harm you and yours. Makes one frightened of becoming frail. Wonderful Show I might add. So well written and acted and I just dearly love Chummy.

  14. Here is something I should have posted with my comment. It a link to a Documentary about the workhouses if anyone is interested.
    The Horrific World of England’s Workhouse (Full Documentary)

  15. The workhouse stories are so bleak – and the treatment of women so hypocritical. No matter what treatment a woman had suffered, it was her fault if she became pregnant.

  16. I visited a workhouse, long abandoned. I forget where, it was somewhere, I think, in Co. Down.

    It was boarded up, but I tore the boards away and went in to look, I will never forget it. The .”beds” were just concrete blocks. At one end of the long room was a kind of stone font built into the wall to hold water in case someone needed a drink. The toilets were communal 10 or so in a row.

    In a local paper I read in the archives that a group of workhouse women had “waited on” a local MP who had pushed to restore their daily cups of tea, to thank him for his kindness.

    I saw the huge built in edifice that once houses an enormous copper cauldron. In this was poured corn and water, then boiled to make stirabout. Find one, go there, you will not need to read of the horrors, you can experience them.

  17. There is a workhouse, preserved as it was in the 19th Century, here in Co Laois.

    Mercifully, by the time my grandfather was born in the Brentford workhouse in 1906, conditions had improved. My great grandmother died six years later, in another workhouse, at the age of 23.

  18. I just recently discovered “Call the Midwife” on Netflix. I immediately became a fan of the show. I watched the episode you described with Mrs. Jenkins last night. It made me cry to think of all of the cruelty that people have endured and do endure since the beginning of time. The workhouses sounded positively horrible from the description the show gave. I was “Googling” the workhouse howl when I ran across your story. I am so very sorry about your Great-Grandmother. Growing up in a small city in Ohio has peaked my interest in history of other countries. Especially that of France and the United Kingdom. My Mom was from Paris and was a teenager in Nazi-occupied France. That is one reason I became so enamored with “Call the Midwife”. I know a lot about the 1950s from my parents. Thank you for the information.

  19. Thanks, it is hard to imagine what people endured in supposedly civilized societies.

    One of the best novels I have read set in Nazi-occupied France is Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Charlotte Gray’

  20. Mrs Jenkins story in “Call the midwife” haunts me. I am a mother of two, I can not imagine her grief. Mary’s story (the pregnant prostitute) was also disturbing. My grandmother was an unmarried mother. Her child (my mother) was not taken away from her as often happened. I wonder why, but my mother refuses to talk about it. As a child my mother has lived with the nuns for a few years, and she refuses to talk about this to. All this happened in the 1940’s. These wounds probably never heal. I hope she finds the courage to tell me her story one day.

  21. My regret is that we can find no record of where my great grandmother was buried; many of the workhouse files seemed to have been routinely destroyed.

  22. I just watch call the mid wife and mrs Jenkins story just made me cry I googled the info on the work house howl and it made me so sad to think people where treated so horribly because one was poor. I called my mother and asked her about these places for her mother and father both came from England. She said she had heard the stories but was told they were to sad to talk about .

  23. Alice, you are right. People did not talk about them because of the sadness, but it meant that there were people who could never tell of the pain they had suffered.

  24. Ian. I am so saddened that your great grandmother suffered such a tragic life. If only we could reach back in time and comfort her. If only she could have somehow known that at least there would be people caring and grieving for her so many years later. At least these institutions don’t exist here any more and more of us have more compassion nowadays.

  25. Thank you, Willa. It is hard to imagine the pain she must have felt. Were it possible to find a grave, I would visit it, but even that dignity seems to have been denied her, paupers being buried in an unmarked common plot.

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