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Secrets from the Workhouse

Tue Jun 25, 9-10pm, ITV

Episode one
While we’re pretty sure that, given half a chance, Iain Duncan Smith would reopen them in an heartbeat, this two-part documentary makes a compelling argument for the welfare state ahead of the workhouse.

These Victorian institutions were deliberately monstrous, brutal and terrifying; all the better to shame the undeserving poor into standing on their own two feet. People like Patrick Cox, who was left a single father at 40 while already physically disabled and stricken with bronchitis. The workhouse did for his sanity too – he wound up in an asylum. Fortunately, his great grandson, the actor Brian Cox, is on hand to furiously defend his honour.

As you may have surmised, these films use celebrity involvement to make their point – look out for Fern Britton and Charlie Chaplin’s great-granddaughter Kiera too. This could seem like lazy populism but actually, it works fine, serving to humanise what, a mere century ago, was a routine horror for a sizeable chunk of the population. A timely reminder that, however much politicians might demonise people in poverty, a humane safety net is a minimum requirement of any society worthy of the name.


M. Lint
M. Lint

I just read a good book that talks about the Poplar Workhouse and Will Crooks MP who was actually sent to the workhouse as a child but then went on to become a reformer of the workhouse system as an adult. 'Where there's a Will, there's a way' was the book's name. It was fascinating stuff about Britain before the safety net of the welfare state as you mention in the above article. Please don't ever let the country slide back into the days of the workhouse. Hopefully showing TV shows like 'Secrets of the Workhouse' will show the public at large (and especially politicans) the horror of these institutions and why we should never think of returning to those dark days.