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In Victorian society the workhouse represented the underbelly of society, where anyone who was poor, homeless, unemployed or ill was sent to live.
With no benefits system in place, destitute people were either left to starve on the streets or forced to submit themselves to the harsh conditions of the workhouse where they worked ten hours a day doing menial tasks such as breaking rocks up or picking apart ropes.
Now, in part two of this new series, actor Brian Cox, actress Felicity Kendal and author Barbara Taylor-Bradford go back to the sites of the workhouses where their ancestors lived to find out what happened to them.
In the second part of this two-part series author Barbara Taylor-Bradford discovers letters that she has never seen before which explain what happened to her aunts and uncles after they went into the workhouse.
Actor Brian Cox finds out how his relations escaped the shadow of the workhouse and went on to lead happy lives.
And actress Felicity Kendal is shocked to discover that her great-grandmother was forced into the workhouse after she had an affair.
Secrets From The Workhouse sees Felicity visit a house in Cumbria where her great-grandmother, Mary Liddell used to live. The programme explains that Mary and her husband, John, had nine children together, but, Felicity is shocked to discover that Mary’s tenth child, Albert, was born in the workhouse.
The actress meets genealogist Martin Lowe, who shows her Albert’s birth certificate which reveals that Albert’s father is not listed. He explains to Felicity that it seems as though Mary had had an affair and was sent to the workhouse by her husband to have her illegitimate child.
Seven thousand illegitimate children were born in the workhouse each year. Their mothers were seen to be shameful and were often made to wear yellow and black striped outfits so they were instantly recognisable.
Felicity discovers that despite her spell in the workhouse, Mary managed to get a job as a cleaner in the house that Felicity is visiting. The actress looks around the house and goes into the attic where Albert and Mary lived with five other members of staff.
Felicity tells the programme: “This would have been his first home. It must have been absolutely magical. It’s like a little doll’s house for a boy who, all he knew, was the workhouse. To come here must have been a little bit like a sanctuary in a sense. A sanctuary of escape and his mother must have thought, ‘Ok, now there is hope.’”
But Felicity faces further shock when Martin reveals the probability that Mary had lied to her employers and told them that she was a widow to get her job. This was indicated by entries relating to her in the 1901 census documents and were the likely reason she was forced to leave her position.
Felicity says: “I’m quietly dreading the next bit. Because I don’t know how going back to the workhouse twice can end happily. I don’t think the dice are going to roll in her favour.”
The actress travels to Barrow-in-Furness to see the Cumbria workhouse records that reveal that Mary had a second illegitimate son called Claude and Albert had been taken into care. The programme explains that rules brought in at the time meant any child whose parents had died, were in prison or believed to be of low moral standing, were taken into care.
Felicity is devastated to hear of the tragedy her great-grandmother suffered as a result of her affair. The programme is with Felicity when she discovers that Mary lost Claude when he died of diarrhoea, a common cause of death at the time amongst poor people. Felicity visits the graveyard where Claude is buried.
She says: “I think one of the things that I’m taking away from Mary’s story is that it was tragic. And this, obviously, is the ultimate tragedy. Having buried little Claude, she may have been grateful that, at least Albert was safe, and that he would be looked after. But I don’t know.”
Mary was forbidden from seeing Albert again and moved away to another workhouse.
Despite the tragedy she has discovered so far, the programme sees Felicity continue her quest to find out more about Albert. She discovers that after leaving the care of the workhouse, he enlisted and went to war, after which he was awarded a medal. He was then given the opportunity to emigrate to Australia, where he got married.
Felicity is then thrilled to discover that Albert made contact with his family in the UK, as he later listed John Liddell as his father on his marriage certificate and left some money in his will to his half-niece.
Felicity says: “He has joined his family together. He’s got John and he’s got his mother on the same piece of paper that he is on. And he’s sort of legitimised himself. And I think that is one of the incredibly important things in this story, that he’s come from nothing, totally illegitimate and the bottom of the heap and not respected, and he ends up with respectability.”
Secrets From The Workhouse also catches up with Barbara Taylor-Bradford who discovered that her mother and grandmother had lived in the workhouse. Barbara is seen examining records which reveal that her grandmother managed to get out of the workhouse when she got married at Ripon Cathedral to John Simpson.
Barbara says she is very touched that John decided to take on Edith with her children. However, Barbara’s joy is short lived when she visits Ripon Town Hall and discovers that Edith and John had three children together who all ended up in the workhouse and then in the care of Dr Barnardos.
Barbara is seen writing to Dr Barnardos to find out what happened to her mother’s brothers and sisters. Barbara becomes emotional reading the reply from Dr Barnardos, in which she discovers that after Edith died her children were neglected so badly by John Simpson that he was eventually sent to jail for not looking after them. Barbara then discovers that her aunts and uncles were sent to Australia.
Dr Barnardos sent Barbara copies of letters which her mother had written to them. Barbara is moved to tears as she reads them. When Dr Barnardos wrote back to Barbara’s mother to explain that her sister Edith had been sent to Australia, Barbara’s mother asked if she could be returned to live with her.
Dr Barnardo’s replied to say that they couldn’t afford to send Edith back, and Barbara is devastated to realise that her mother died without ever seeing her little sister again.
In the first programme, actor Brian Cox discovered that his great-grandfather, Patrick McCann, was sent to a mental asylum after spending time in the Glasgow workhouse. Brian goes to the site of the asylum to meet historian Professor Ian Levitt to try to understand how and why his great-grandfather ended up there.
Prof Levitt explains that Patrick couldn’t afford a doctor so had to seek medical help in the workhouse. He was branded a malingerer by the authorities and Prof Levitt explains that this is because it was believed that individuals such as Patrick should have been able to look after themselves better.
Brian is stunned to hear that Patrick was also expected to work full time and take care of his six-year-old son, Samuel. When he realised he couldn’t, records show that Patrick tried to have Samuel taken into care, but was refused.
Brian tells the programme: “He’s just emblematic, my great-grandfather. Emblematic of an epidemic of poverty. And he’s trying to give validity to his life, you see that. You see that he’s trying to deal with his son, he’s trying to deal with his own dignity. This endless attack on your dignity. He just fought the system, he said, ‘No. No, I’m battling on.’ So there’s something heroic in his story in the end. It’s very upsetting this. The man was trying to make sense of it, and I think that’s the legacy he leaves his great-grandchildren.”
Prof Levitt tells Brian that Patrick persisted and Samuel was eventually taken into care and sent to a foster family in the countryside when he was ten. Brian goes to the farmhouse where Samuel lived and Prof Levitt shows him an inventory of the clothes Samuel would have been given so that he didn’t look like a pauper.
Brian: “We’ve spent four years, since he went into the poor house with his father, and it’s taken Patrick all that time to convince these people to put his boy into care. It’s the fact that he just persisted. He just went on, it’s heartening. He got his lad out of it.”
The programme reveals that as he grew up, Samuel went to Dundee to live with his brothers and Brian is moved to discover that Patrick went to Dundee to see them, and, at that time, Brian’s mother would have been two-years-old.
He says: “That’s incredible because I had it in my mind that he was on his own. He saw his wee granddaughter, she would have been two.”
Just three years later, Patrick died of pneumonia at the age of 54.
Brian says: “It’s an amazing story but it’s also a testimony to a whole time and period and a group of people who are not taken care of, and have never been taken care of. We’ve never really dealt with our poor. From generation to generation. These situations teach you that the only way is this sense of our responsibility for one another. That’s the only way. And if we don’t have that sense of responsibility for one another, our world is chaos.”