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.