4 star reviews, History, Non-fiction

Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

4/5 stars

I absolutely adore the PBS series Call the Midwife. I love the simple, wholesome way of life and the way they live their faith. I love seeing how people lived in a poor London ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s. I also love it because I feel like I get a glimpse into what life was like for my parents, who were in their late teens/early twenties in the 1950s and 1960s.

I LOVED the first book in the series Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth. After reading the first book, two of my real life friends said they would be interested in reading and discussing the second two books with me.

Shadows of the Workhouse is the second book in the series. It was difficult to read and very depressing. In the nineteenth century poverty was a huge concern in England. The Act of 1834 proposed workhouses to house all of the poor – the old, the sick, the chronically ill, the mentally impaired, children, as well as able-bodied men and women who could not find work and were therefore destitute. In order to ensure that this was a “place of last resort” the Act had conditions where the workhouses should not be pleasant, husbands and wives were separated, children were separated from their parents – in many cases never to see one another again. It was inflexible and harsh. People lived in fear of the workhouse and when someone found themselves unable to feed their children and had a child starve to death, they would have no choice but to knock on the workhouse door, knowing they may never again see their children. Everyone was given a cot, a rough Army blanket, rough unflattering clothing and three meals per day, though the meals were sparse and not very good. Discipline and punishment were harsh, often abusive.

This book tells the story of several people who lived in the workhouse. Jane was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man and a servant girl. She never knew either of her parents. She had a fun spirit as a child that the workhouse master broke. It was horrifying and devastating to read. I only stayed with the book because one of my friends pointed out that if we want to make the world a better place, we need to be aware of all the facets of humanity, we can’t turn a blind eye to bad situations. Reading this with two friends definitely helped.

This book also tells the story of Peggy and Frank, an orphaned brother and sister who lived in a workhouse. A fish coster – someone who sells fish in an open-air market – comes to the workhouse to get a boy to work with him and help him and the Master of the Workhouse picks Frank. I found it fascinating to read about the life of a coster and how they go about their business. I found Frank’s story to be motivating and inspiring. The relationship between Peggy and Frank challenged by boundaries in a way similar to “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Brynn Greenwood and made me think, once again, that you can’t judge someone unless you walk in their shoes.

Another story was about how one of the nuns was accused of shoplifting and how that affected the convent and the community.

The final story was about a man whose father had died when he was young, in the 1800s. It told the story of what growing up poor in London in the 1800s was like and went on to show how the British military recruited poor young boys. As I read this story, I thought about how wonderful it is that Jennifer Worth wrote these books about people’s lives in a time gone by, stories that we would never know about otherwise, a way of life that is so different from how we live a century later and yet we can learn so much from how people lived in the past.

Although this book was difficult to read and depressing, I am glad that I read it. I really appreciate the two friends who read it with me. It really helped to have someone to sound off with about how upsetting things were in the story and to bring positive perspectives to light.

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