1. ITV Report

Life in the workhouse

George Cruikshank illustration for Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens Credit: PA

Life in the workhouse is, thanks to Charles Dickens, forever associated with the pitiful, hungry figure of Oliver Twist asking for more - or in the 1968 film Oliver!, singing for more.

It's an image that belongs both to fiction and the distant past, and if we're asked to picture the people living in workhouses, we're likely to imagine them in Victorian clothes, very different to ourselves.

In fact, as I was surprised to learn when working on this report, workhouses were still in use in the East of England up until the 1940s.

Although officially abolished in 1930, many continued in all but name until the establishment of the NHS. Chesterton Hospital in Cambridgeshire was an example of this, and rare footage filmed by Pathe in 1947, captures the daily life of some of the last known inmates of a British workhouse in our region.

Tower Court, the old workhouse at Ely, is now residential flats. Credit: ITV

The workhouse buildings at Chesterton have since been demolished, but many are still standing in our region, and are being used as residential flats, such as Tower Court in Ely, or as public buildings, such as St Marys Hospital in Kettering.

We even have some records of the people who lived there, which were shown to me by the historian and author Peter Higginbotham. A list from Oundle workhouse in 1861 makes for heartbreaking reading.

Among those named is Elizabeth Fox, who had lived in the workhouse 22 years, labelled 'Imbecile', Richard Walker had lived there 20 years, labelled 'Infirm from old age', while William Dyson had lived there 18 years and is labelled as 'Cripple.'

In a world before the NHS, the workhouse was the place of last resort for those too sick, elderly or destitute to look after themselves.

"It's really depressing. But for people whose families couldn't cope with them, couldn't provide what we might call terminal care, the workhouse was really the only place that would provide any kind of support."

– Peter Higginbotham
Peter Higginbotham shows Elodie Harper workhouse cutlery at the old dining hall in Kettering Credit: ITV

Peter Higginbotham explained that workhouses weren't tough environments by accident, they were deliberately unappealing as a deterrent. The idea was that if you could possibly survive unaided, it would be preferable to living off the state.

But the records suggest peoples' spirits weren't entirely crushed by the system.

"Things went on that you might not expect - black markets in food and alcohol and tobacco - a lot of things smuggled in - you know it wasn't the totally grim existence you sometimes hear about."

– Peter Higginbotham
Notice of illness sent out by workhouses to relatives. Credit: ITV

Of all the historical records Peter Higginbotham showed me, the one I found most poignant was a notice of illness from 1896.

This informs an unknown friend or relative that Hezekiah Coster, is 'very ill.' The standard form provides a space for visiting times, but the master of the workhouse has added a handwritten note that Hezekiah 'wishes to see you.'

A hundred years on and that plea captures the loneliness and vulnerability of life, and death, in the workhouse.

The workhouse at Kettering is now St Mary's Hospital Credit: ITV Anglia

Towards the end of the day's filming at St Mary's Hospital in Kettering, a member of staff came up and asked cameraman Gary Mabee and I what we were working on. I explained we were looking at the hospital's history as a workhouse.

"Look at how we treat our elderly people as a society now. Are we so much better?" she asked me. "I'm not so sure."

Whether or not you agree, the question of how we treat today's Hezekiah Costers, the most vulnerable, those who cannot care for themselves, is surely a question that's still worth asking.

More on this story