There are not many people who have not seen, or at least heard of the BBC drama Call the Midwife. However, few are aware that the first series was based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth, and the women and families she encountered in the East End of London in the 1950s. She wrote a trilogy of memoirs and the second of these is Shadows of the Workhouse.

When we think of workhouses we tend to think of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. However, workhouses persisted until much later: the last ones only closed their doors in 1948. Among the communities that Worth worked in, many people were haunted by their recent memories and experiences in these institutions.

There is Jane, who works with the midwives but as a child in the first decade of the 1900s grew up in a children’s workhouse as an
unwanted child. Frank and Peggy, a brother and sister, were sent to the workhouse in 1908 when their parents died, their later lives forever affected by the harsh and uncaring institution they grew up in. As the workhouses fade from living memory this memoir provides a reminder of how they shaped the lives of countless men, women and children.

By Willow Coby