Poorhouse casts its eerie shadows still

IMAGINE a little girl of seven taken to a workhouse to see an aunt she had never met. "Poor Lily, always a bit doolally. Went mad, you know," the grown-ups said. It was a strange experience for a young child, so it's no surprise it burned itself into my memory.

Lily was 19, and disgraced her respectable parents by becoming pregnant "out of wedlock". Scandalised, they would not keep her to shame them before the neighbours, and sent her to a refuge for fallen women in Edinburgh.

The baby was born and taken away from her. Lily nearly went mad from shock and grief. She was described as "weak-minded and excitable, with hysterical outbursts", and confined to the infirmary of Craiglockhart Poorhouse. When she became calmer, she was put among "women of morally degenerate character". She never saw her child and never left the poorhouse. She died there many years later.

Is this a story from Dickens? No; this occurred in 1924. Even then, an illegitimate baby was so shocking that a girl could expect no mercy. My mother clearly had a conscience about her elder sister. Unknown to her parents, she visited Lily and on one occasion she took me with her. I have a clear memory of a long grey corridor, so long it looked like a street, and locked doors, and people in grey uniforms with keys.

We were taken into a huge room in which sat a lot of old ladies in night dresses - or so I thought in my child's mind. But it was the uniform for inmates, and the old ladies were probably the same age as my mother.

I was frightened; the place was so huge and cold and alien, and I was surrounded by strangers. I was introduced to my aunt, but I was tongue-tied and burst into tears. She put her arm around me, but I pulled away, screaming. The meeting was not a success.

It may not have been a good idea, taking a small child to such a place to meet an unknown aunt, but I am glad my mother did, because I have never forgotten my poor, sad Aunt Lily. Thoughts of her fermented in my mind for years, and I determined to find out more about the workhouse system and why it drove people to madness or despair, and one day to write about it.

In 1834 (1836 in Scotland), the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed and large workhouses were built all over Great Britain. The aim was philanthropic - "for the relief of destitution" - but this was soon abused. So deterrent rules were introduced: families were split up; hard manual labour was required; food was scarce; little heating in winter, and huge dormitories with no privacy.

Rules, regulations, discipline and harsh punishments were the norm. Inmates were locked in, the workhouses became prisons and the crime was poverty.

"The workhouse should be the place of last resort", was the remit to deter the indolent, but the result was that the most vulnerable people in society - the old, the sick, cripples, mentally defective people, children and unmarried mothers - suffered dreadfully.

After many damning government reports, the workhouses were closed by an Act of Parliament in 1930. But they did not really close. In practice, they could not, because they housed thousands of people who were institutionalised, who could not have coped outside. So workhouses just changed their names and carried on much the same as before, with the same staff whose traditions and mind-set remained firmly entrenched in the 19th century.

When I was a young nurse and midwife in the 1950s, I met several people who had been workhouse inmates. I collected their real-life stories, which led to my book, Shadows of the Workhouse.

I, personally, can testify to the continued existence of workhouses well into the 1960s. Unmarried mothers were still stigmatised and made to pay for their "sins" until well after the Second World War; the elderly were herded into wards of old workhouses, re-named "Old People's Homes", and children were housed in large orphanages run by a disciplinarian staff. The vast mental asylums were the last to go, closed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The dark shadow of the workhouse fell over the whole of Victorian Britain and right up to the reign of our present Queen - 150 years of social history that should not be forgotten. Most of the original grim buildings have been demolished, in order to erase the memory from public consciousness. A few, like Craiglockhart, have been retained for their fine architecture, and converted into luxury apartments.

But the ghosts of the past linger, and every time I see Craiglockhart, I think of my Aunt Lily, who spent her life there for the crime of having loved a man and born his child out of wedlock.

• Jennifer Worth, SRN SCM, is author of Call the Midwife and Shadows of the Workhouse, both 14.99 from all good bookshops and Amazon. Publisher Merton Books 020 8892 4949. Large print edition Isis Publishing 01865 250333.