Shadows of The Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

1 Feb



This is the sequel to ‘Call The Midwife’ by Jennifer Worth. A keen story -teller and obviously she had an eye for detail, a great passion for her vocation and the people she met. I was expecting a similar line of nostalgia as detailed in the first book, but this tackled darker themes of childhood abuse, incest and the horrors of war. Once again, set in the docklands of the East End in the 1950’s, it is another piece of social history  which tells the stories of the people Jennifer encountered as a midwife.

There is Jane, who appeared to be the general cleaner and helping hand at Nonnatus House who was left at the workhouse as a child. Siblings Peggy and Frank who are left to fend for themselves after their parents die and not only do they also find themselves in the workhouse but separated for a number of years before being “rescued”, only to seek solace in each others arms and so begin a seemingly unquestionable relationship, the eccentric yet philosophical/ Spiritual Sister Joan accused of shop lifting, the Reverend Thornton-Appleby-Thornton, a missionary from Africa who is unwittingly matched up to Jane as a suitable wife, and Joe Collett, an Old Soldier who recalls the pain and agony of War.

There are some light and amusing lines wrapped around dark and heavy themes and plots. The no holds barred approach to inform and explain in explicit detail the plight of the poor, the poverty, the abhorrent living conditions (compared to todays standards) the forms or different levels of abuse and the history of each individual leaves one shocked, saddened, bemused and glad or grateful to be living today.

What stands out to me is when Joe, the Old Soldier said that the young men were nothing but “cannon fodder”. I can’t help but feel that in todays political climate and the way of the world, this phrase still rings true….

Although Shadows of the Workhouse offers another fascinating and insightful look at a slice of history, I couldn’t help but feel that in the stories, especially Joes, the facts were too well-researched or clinical and in parts, it didn’t seem to ring true. To me, it just seemed to lack the warmth, humour  and empathy that was so evident in  Call The Midwife…but as we know, fact is stranger than fiction.


The Learned Kat



6 Responses to “Shadows of The Workhouse by Jennifer Worth”

  1. lightningjcb February 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    I’m loving the current BBC series! 🙂

    • thelearnedkat February 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

      So am I! Can’t help but feel nostalgic and sentimental – not that I was born in the 1950’s!

      • lightningjcb February 1, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

        Neither was I – but I think it’s a really powerful thing that this series has done to modern viewers – transporting them back to a different time period and exploring the issues of the day. Can’t wait for the next episode! 🙂

      • thelearnedkat February 1, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

        I agree!

  2. Mary April 3, 2013 at 1:39 am #

    The TV series has done a great job at adapting the books and capturing the time period. I’ve lived in Poplar so I can personally vouch for that. Another good book about the workhouse and Poplar is ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way’. It’s the life story of Will Crooks who was a bit of an East End hero. As a child he was sent to the Workhouse, but when he grew up he actually became Chairman of the very board of guardians that years earlier had sent him to the workhouse. He and George Lansbury (grandfather of the actress Angela Lansbury) set about not only reforming and humanising the workhouse system, but Crooks also fought for many social reforms. Many of which we still take for granted today in Britain. It was a fascinating read.

    • thelearnedkat April 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks for sharing the information. I’ll try and read your recommended book. that particular period of life seems to be quite popular lately what with vintage clothing etc. I’m enjoying The Village on BBC1 as well.

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