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The Brighton Workhouse

Yesterday morning I had a physiotherapy appointment at the General Hospital. It was the first time I had actually been there for medical reasons. In 1978 a grandparent spent her last few days in one of the wards, but other than that I have had no real cause to visit.

The hospital is ageing, to use a polite term, although the facility I went to has been modernised inside. It appears that the hospital is used for a variety of services, but I’m not aware that there are wards for any length of stay.

The hospital appears to have a history befitting its gloomy aesthetics.

The Buildings originally formed part of a Victorian Workhouse (or Poorhouse) and up until 1930 it continued as such. For those not familiar with this concept, these were places where the poor and destitute found themselves when they could no longer afford to live-mainly through lack of work or being old an infirm. Although many of the ruling classes saw them as places of great charity, they were in fact far from that.

For most, to become an ‘inmate’ entering the workhouse was an ultimate indignity, and some would rather starve or take their own lives. Although regimes often differed from place to place, unless unable to do so, inmates would perform menial work for up to ten hours a day. Mealtimes were set, and food was very basic. Regimes were not that dissimilar to modern day prisons, although a person could leave the Workhouse and go back to society if they chose. Tellingly, in 1875, less than 10% of folk offered placements in Elm Grove Workhouse chose to accept them, despite the appalling conditions that many were still living in.

How times have changed. Even when I look at the old buildings I can’t help thinking that, for all the pomp and ceremony that would have greeted their opening, the only back patting and handshake would have been for the great and good. Many of the workers who gave the hard labour for there creation were never that far of entering.

For me social history comes before any other history. The understanding of the toil and suffering of those who facilitated the modern age. History books at school always seemed to present the working class in society in a pitiful or disparaging way. Even nowadays the names on blue plaques seem to support this view.

Makes you think.

For further reading on Workhouses in Brighton:

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Brighton/

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