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 this brand-new two part series, presenter Fern Britton, actress Kiera Chaplin, 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 first episode, Fern Britton is shocked to discover one of her ancestors was dissected for medical research because his family couldn’t afford a funeral for him.
Brian Cox learns that his great grandfather was branded a malingerer by the workhouse when they refused to believe he was really ill.
Barbara Taylor Bradford discovers her grandmother was forced into the workhouse to give birth to two illegitimate children.
And Kiera Chaplin discovers her grandfather, Charlie, was sent to a school for poor children when his mother was taken away from him and put in a mental asylum.
The first programme starts in Lambeth with Kiera visiting the place where Charlie Chaplin was born. Secrets From The Workhouse explains that Charlie’s mother was a singer and his father was an alcoholic who left the family. When work for Charlie’s mother dried up, she was forced to take Charlie and his half-brother to the Lambeth Workhouse.
Kiera meets historian, Alannah Tomkins, at the site of the Lambeth Workhouse, which is now a museum, and she gives Kiera details about what life in the workhouse would have been like. She reveals that there would have been 1000 people living in the workhouse at the time and that Charlie and his brother would have been separated from their mum and put in different areas of the building as soon as they arrived.
Kiera visits what is now a screening room at the museum, but would have been the room where, once a week, Charlie and his brother were allowed to see their mother. Shortly after arriving in the workhouse, Charlie and his brother were sent away to a pauper’s school. Alannah reveals to Kiera that Charlie’s mother, Hannah, was admitted to the infirmary suffering bruises to her body. It was thought that she had been bullied by the other residents.
Then, after just seven weeks in the workhouse, Hannah was sent to a mental asylum.
Kiera says: “This place sounds like hell. The poor thing.”
Secrets From The Workhouse sees Kiera as she visits the school that Charlie would have been sent to, which is now a community sports centre. Professor David Green meets Kiera and takes her to the gym, which doubled as a punishment room when it was a pauper school. Prof Green tells Kiera that Charlie was taken to be punished after being accused of setting fire to a toilet block.
He hadn’t committed the offence, but, when asked in front of everyone, he said he had done it. Prof Green explains that extracts from Charlie’s autobiography reveal that, despite being caned, Charlie felt triumphant because he managed not to cry.
The programme explains that when he was 24, Charlie moved to Hollywood and was soon earning the equivalent of $18m a year, making him one of the highest paid people in the world at the time. He then came back to England to get his mother out of the asylum and she spent the last seven years of her life living in luxury in California.
Actor Brian Cox heads to Glasgow to find out more about the life of his great grandfather Patrick McCann who survived on the breadline before becoming so poor that he had to enter the workhouse.
Brian is shocked when he visits the building where Patrick and his wife and eight children lived together in one room. And he is devastated to learn from historian Dr Anne Tindley that documents show that Patrick’s mother-in-law was forced to live on the stairs in the building, as there was no room for her anywhere else.
Brian says: “Family structure seems to have been destroyed. It seems to have been eradicated…all around you there’s despair. People are constantly applying for Poor Relief and constantly trying to keep ahead of the game. I have talked about my fear of poverty, and now I know where it lies. It’s a reality, it’s right in the system, it’s there because of what they went through. It’s really bad. It’s really bad.”
Brian discovers that Patrick was forced to submit to the workhouse for the free healthcare they provided every time he was too sick to work. But whenever he was thought to be better, he was thrown back out to work.
Brian says: ‘It’s an endless assault on human dignity. We’ve got to rub their faces in it.”
Finally, after years in and out of the workhouse, at the age of 54, Patrick was declared insane and sent to an asylum. There are emotional scenes as Brian is stunned to discover that his great-grandfather was also branded a ‘malingerer’ as the authorities didn’t believe his bronchitis was genuine.
Presenter Fern Britton investigates what happened to her ancestors when her great, great, great grandfather, Friend Carter ended up in a workhouse in Kent. Secrets From The Workhouse reveals to Fern that Friend managed to scrape a living working on the land in Kent, but was forced to go to the workhouse temporarily with his youngest son, Jesse, when Jesse fell ill. Records show that Jessie was then transferred to a London teaching hospital and Fern goes there to meet with Dr Elizabeth Hurren, a medical historian.
Dr Hurren takes Fern to a galleried operating theatre where she reveals to the presenter that Jessie was alive when he arrived at the hospital but then died and was given a post-mortem in the very room where they are stood.
Dr Hurren also reveals that it is likely that Jesse’s body was given up for a full dissection for the medical students because his family couldn’t afford to bury him.
Fern says: “I always think of the Victorians as philanthropic, very religious, God-fearing, charitable, kind, and yet, if you were living on the poverty line, you were considered, scum. You were a criminal because you’d never made it up to the next rung of the ladder and, because of that, you were penalised. So much so that you gave your body when you died. That was it.”
After learning about Jesse, Fern discovers Friend subsequently managed to stay out of the workhouse until he was 91 but eventually had to move into one shortly before his death. Fern tells Secrets From The Workhouse that she is relieved to discover that her great, great, great grandfather had saved for his own funeral so was able to be buried and didn’t have to be given up for dissection.
Author Barbara Taylor Bradford visits the site of the Ripon workhouse in North Yorkshire in a bid to find out more about her mother’s time there. Barbara’s mother and grandmother went to live in the workhouse when Barbara’s mother, Freda was just six years old. Barbara tells the programme that her mother never mentioned the workhouse to Barbara, and Barbara only found out about it when her biographer was researching her biography.
She says: “I really cried one day as I couldn’t imagine my mother, who was a very sweet and rather reserved woman, as a little girl put in the workhouse. And then it leads to that awful question, why?”
The programme shows Barbara meeting with her biographer, Piers Dudgeon, outside the house where her mother was born. Barbara is shocked when Piers shows her her mother’s birth certificate and she has no father listed. Piers also reveals that Barbara’s grandmother gave birth to two more illegitimate children, both of whom were born in the workhouse.
Barbara goes to the workhouse and meets a woman who used to live there and there are emotional scenes as she discovers what life was like. The residents were fed a diet of gruel, bread and, sometimes, meat and all their personal things were taken off them.
Barbara now understands how the workhouse was the making of her of her own destiny. How the shame and stigma of the institution made her mother determined to give Barbara a different life, she wanted her to be a ‘lady', which is exactly what Barbara became. In the next episode, Barbara will discover how her family eventually escaped the workhouse once, only to return, be split up, and then forced to migrate to the other side of the world.