The workhouse and more Bermondsey life

The past few days the word “workhouse” seems to have been popping up in conversations with different people. Most people today know little about an institution that struck fear into the hearts of Britain’s poor and infirm, especially during the Victorian era. There are a number of websites devoted to the subject including this one.

I just learned that my paternal great-grandfather spent time in a workhouse in Lewisham towards the end of his life. Other family members were also forced to spend time in the one in Tanner St, Bermondsey. Another old schoolfriend, Phil, told me yesterday that his great-grandfather spent time in the workhouse. The family were so poor that his great-grandmother had to move in with his grandfather’s family but there was no room for her husband. So although the system was abolished in 1930, there are still people alive today who remember the sense of humiliation felt by those forced to live – and die – in workhouses.

This photo is of a Victorian woman so poor and infirm that she was forced to beg from beggars.

I came across this picture is of a poor East End family in 1912. The parents seem uneasy about posing and I don’t blame them, although I have no idea in what circumstances they were asked to.

This morning, on the BBC website I read an article about how far Britain has come in the last 50 years.

“I tend to defend the 50s against those who think of them as just a damp patch between the battlefield of the 40s and the fairground of the 60s, and they were certainly great for people like me…

But the book [Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth] describes a very different scene.

Not sunny little children in short trousers as in the Hovis ads, but toddlers dressed only from the thigh upwards, no nappies and squalid outside privies used by half a dozen families. There’s a description of a death from an abortion which is not the fairly sanitized account shown in the film Vera Drake, but steel prongs and floods of blood.

The author describes a mad old woman who lives in one room with a hole in the roof, with toenails curling round inside the boots she hasn’t taken off for years. The author saw her as just a local nuisance until she found out about her history; a long grim tale of poverty and abuse and despair that ended with her being taken into a Victorian workhouse separated entirely from her children who died one by one. Well, at least the workhouses had gone by the 50s.”

It is a sobering reminder of the kind of life that some members of my family had in the not-too-distant past.

Phil gave me these two photos of his grandparents (who also lived in Bermondsey).

The first seems to have been taken on the beach at Ramsgate, presumably during a none-too-frequent day out. You can see the delight on the face of Phil’s grandmother. And his grandfather’s appearance is typical of the time – leather belt and braces (suspenders) and a rolled-up cigarette in his mouth.

This is another picture of Phil’s grandad in his flat in Bermondsey. This is a great photo of the way flats looked when we were children – down to the embossed wallpaper and washing drying in front of the fire. It looks like a radiogram behind him.

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33 Responses to The workhouse and more Bermondsey life

  1. jan says:

    This is a lovely site, glad I found it. My sister in law and her Mum,siblings had to live in a workhouse in 1950, they had come to london expecting to meet up with her father, who never bothered to meet them at the station..so the ‘ welfare’ put them in a workhouse environment where her mum had to clean..so they could stay under a roof!

  2. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Jan. Thanks for leaving a comment. It never ceases to amaze me how much Britain has changed even in my lifetime.

    I think the workhouse needs to be remembered, to honor all the people who were forced into them for different reasons.

  3. Brenda says:

    I have many relations from Bermondsey I have just found out an Ellen Worsley was born in the Tanner St workhouse 1862 she married a John Lattimer but I cant find any record of the marriage guess they were unable to register or maybe the cost was too much.

  4. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Brenda. Where have you looked for a record of the marriage? I wonder if they could have been living elsewhere when they were married?

  5. Ed says:

    Very good site!
    does anyone have pics of Dix’s Place – on Horney Lane, now called Grange Walk?

  6. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Ed.

    A good place for photos is the local history library close to St.Georges Church at the Borough. You can photocopy or photograph the many photos in their collection – they are organized by street names.

    Best regards,

    Peter

  7. Anna says:

    I have read call the midwife, shadows of the workhouse and now farewell to the eastend and they are truley fabulous true accounts of workhouses and living conditions with some very in depth horror stories that you just cant imagine that it was just 50 years ago. Its made me look into the history alot more and it is so interesting and this site is lovely, especially the old photos as it looks just like what ive been reading.

  8. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Anna.

    Glad you enjoyed the site. There is a wealth of interesting information out there.

  9. ellie redman says:

    brilliant information, am lovin researching the east end esp bethnal green/whitechapel… love these stories,,,, we truly dont know how easy we have it!!

  10. thebarrowboy says:

    Thanks, Ellie. I agree entirely. The quality of life improved so much for my generation (born after WW2).

  11. JoeFoster says:

    Did someone want pictures of Dixs Place if so I can help

  12. thebarrowboy says:

    Yes, please, Joe

  13. Ruth secker says:

    I am looking for the secker family.from 1884 lived in Bermondsey. can you help please

  14. Bob2000 says:

    Cecil (pork butcher) and Harriett Secker and family Elsie, Kathleen. Stanley and Alice of 33 Rolls Road Bermondsey SE in 1911 census

    (There is also a Robert and Emily Secker and family at 155 Lynton Road Bermondsey in the 1881 and 1891 census but not the 1911 census. They are originally from Norfolk.)

  15. thebarrowboy says:

    Thanks for that information!

  16. Ruth secker says:

    looking for family of Cecil Horace Secker or Stanley Ernest Secker [son] lived in st Olave Bermondsey in 1884 Thanks

  17. Ruth secker says:

    BOB 2000
    Stanley Secker was my father Thanks for the family information Ruth

  18. Bob2000 says:

    Ruth

    I think it may be the right man…

    Cecil’s son is Stanley Ernest Evans Secker born in Greenwich (New Cross) in 1907.

    Cecil lived at 55 Hither Green Lane in Lewisham at the time of the March 1901 census.

    If you go to the FreeBMD website, you will see that he married Harriet Louisa Page in the district of Lewisham (marriage registered Jan-Feb-Mar 1903).

    Cecil later fought in WW1 for the 11th London Regiment (Private 452988)

    In the 1891 census, Cecil is living with his parents Evans and Harriet in Ilford.

    The reason that it’s easy for me to find this information quickly is that I’m currently researching my own family who lived in Bermondsey during WW1.

    (I can send you the Secker documents if you want. My email address is in this post here if you would like them: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?s=&showtopic=140661&view=findpost&p=1342171)

  19. thebarrowboy says:

    Tx a lot, Bob. That’s a lot of useful information.

  20. Ruth secker says:

    hi Bob
    any information about 11 london regiment please or is their a web site. 1914-1918 thanks

  21. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Ruth. All I could find out on the Internet is that the regiment was part of the 56th (London) Infantry Division.

    “During the First World War, the battalions of the division were initially used for garrison duty overseas (including Malta) or as reinforcements for other divisions. In January 1916 the division was deployed as a unit to France where it served on the Western Front for the remainder of the war. It was demobilised in May 1919.”

  22. Ruth secker says:

    Thank you thebarrowboy Its a very good site glad I have found you

  23. thebarrowboy says:

    Thank you, Ruth. I just wish I had more time to devote to it, finding more info.

  24. Bob2000 says:

    Ruth

    The 11th London Regiment was also known as the “Finsbury Rifles”. They served in Gallipoli alongside the 10th London Regiment.

    More here:
    http://www.1914-1918.net/london.htm

    Your grandfather’s medal card is on the “Ancestry” website. Try here:
    http://tinyurl.com/yd56gt3

    If you need further information, I can recommend the Great War forum. Here’s a question posted about another soldier in the 11th LR:
    http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=123243&hl=11th+london

    Good luck with tracing his history.

    Agree that this is a great site. I particularly like the photos taken at th end of the Victorian era.

  25. thebarrowboy says:

    Thanks, Bob, that’s a lot useful information you’ve put out there.

  26. Ed Hallam says:

    I lived in Dix’s Place until i was about 6 – have been trying to get a pic – Joe Foster, can you get in touch, thanks

    Ed

  27. Jessica Atkinson says:

    I have also read the three books by jennifer worth for an entirly different reason(mainly because I am studying midwifery) and it has recaptured my passion for history. I can only imagin how tough it was I would love to have living relatives I could pick the brains of to find what they remember.
    But you have to remeber that jennifer worth is in her 20’s in the book and her friends who are older are remembering things from the workhouse’s & times from when they where young.
    It really puts things into perspective as to how hard it has been throught history and how much everything has changed.

  28. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Jessica. Thanks for your comment. I have watched a number of TV documentaries recently that drove home how difficult life was in the time of my parents and grandparents. I have never experienced war. It makes me wonder how the post-war generations like my own would react to real hardship.

  29. really glad i found this site , my mum was born and bred in Bermondsey she lived in webster rd i remember going there when i was little , she left Bermondsey to join the land army in Hertfordshire , thats where she met my dad , her maiden name was Drynan i now live in Australia and would like to learn more about the place thanks again

  30. Maureen says:

    Just came across this site, thanks very much. I have just found out my 3rd great grandfarther was at the workhouse bewtween 1851 – 1871 then i think he passed away. When I go to England next i will search the records there to get more information. Thanks again
    Maureen

  31. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Maureen. Glad you found it interesting. I watched a documentary about the workhouse not too long ago. It’s hard to believe that people in Britain lived such conditions in the not too distant past.

  32. Martin Lee says:

    Hi all, my maternal Granddad, Wilfrid Robert,. was born in 2 Vine Street Bldgs 1892. The Family name was Raper, His Father, William James was a Theatre Musician and his sisters were also musicians.
    Granddad never talked much about his childhood memories nor anything else about his family really due to the terrible ordeal he and thousands of other soldiers went through and witnessed in the trenches of France. He was with the expeditionery force Bedfordshire Regt in 1914.
    One theing he did tell us was that when he was a small boy he and his pals used to stand near the railway arch shouting out to the passengers ” throw out your mouldy pennies”. Whether or not they did he never said. many years ago my Mum and Dad took a trip from Devon to Bermondsey in an attempt to locate the railway arch and Vine St Bldgs. they took a photo of the arch they thought might be the one. I know Granddad and at least on of his seven sisters went to the Metropolitian School in Surrey. as I say he told us virtually nothing else which has made researching his Family History very difficult
    I came across this very interesting web site just by chance when looking for any information on
    Keetons Road during the late 1880’s, early 1900’s to get some idea as to where Granddad and his family grew up. Mind you theys did seem to move quite a few times, one address I found when researching two of his sisters was Queen Elizabeth Street.
    It’s so interesting to have found your site
    Regards Martin

  33. thebarrowboy says:

    Thanks for that, Martin. I certainly hope that, over time, more people will discover and publish new information. The fact that most people didn’t like to talk about the war (and other hardships, for that matter) only makes it more difficult. My mum has said to me several times that she wishes she had pumped her parents for more background info. No one could have envisaged that there would be such huge social and physical change in Central London in a relatively short period of time.

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