Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Secrets from the Workhouse - review

I've just watched the first episode of the two part series Secrets from the Workhouse on ITV, and have to say that that was a truly worthwhile hour of television. All of those horror stories that you think you know about from the workhouse, or the poorhouse as it was known here in Scotland, were everything you believed them to be and probably more.

The approach was to take four celebrities with different stories about ancestors in the workhouse. Fern Britton's ancestor with the joyful name of 'Friend' managed to keep himself from the institution for as long as possible before finally going in aged 91 and dying shortly after; a story in marked contrast to Brian Cox's Irish ancestor by the name of McCann, who fell into a cycle of constant admission and discharge to a poorhouse through no fault of his own, before being committed to an asylum. The actor's comment on the Victorian era authorities, deciding between the so-called 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor? "Bastards". There was Barbara Taylor Bradford's discovery that her mother was illegitimate and that her mum also had two illegitimate siblings born in a workhouse, something that was clearly a shock to her, whilst Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter went in search of his story, discovering how he and his brother were sent to a pauper school after his mother entered a workhouse, before transferring to an asylum also.

The themes were bleak throughout - control through degradation and opium, the threat of dissection as a punishment for poverty following the 1832 Anatomy Act, and more. In the 21st century it all seems horrendously disgraceful that a society should once have treated its poorest citizens as it did, placing a question mark at times against the 'Great' of 'Great Britain', in an era where poverty was considered a crime.

For someone not usually bothered about celebrity participation in history programmes, this one worked an absolute treat in terms of being a well structured essay into one of the darker aspects of imperial Britain's past. The stories were genuinely engaging if not for the most part tragic, but next time I see the word workhouse or poorhouse in a census or vital record, I'll be a little closer to understanding the true significance of the word. It was also great to see Irene O' Brien and Glasgow City Archives feature, with the Glasgow poor law records some of the best genealogically useful resources in the country, despite the tragedy often contained within.

The second episode will be on next Tuesday at 9pm, ITV. Thoroughly recommended viewing.


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My Scottish land and church records ebooks are available at http://www.gen-ebooks.com/unlock-the-past.html, whilst my next Pharos Scottish course, Scottish Research Online, starts Sep 4th - see http://pharostutors.com/details.php?coursenumber=102. Time to smash a few brick walls...!


  1. As the grand daughter of a Barnardo Boy, I was very interested in this program as well. I'm sure Canada seemed a miracle escape from the workhouse, although the reality was equally as horrible. In this program, I was taken with how emotional these stories were even after so many years. Brian Cox's anger was genuine and visceral. The program would have been improved by not jumping around so much. I would have preferred to have them stick with one person's story and then go on to the next. That's just a quibble. I'm only sorry that I will be back in Canada before the next episode.

  2. Here's the opposing view of the programme: http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2013/06/28/%E2%80%98cruel-beyond-belief%E2%80%99-secrets-from-the-workhouse-itv-episode-1-25-june-2013/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=%25e2%2580%2598cruel-beyond-belief%25e2%2580%2599-secrets-from-the-workhouse-itv-episode-1-25-june-2013. It's a bit closer to my thoughts about the bits I managed to catch