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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.