British Lung Foundation
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'The Past Is A Foreign Country'

from distant neighbours and relatives...then you went home and had your supper.

We shudder in horror...because our lives are led differently. We support campaigns to end child labour in the Third World but our not so distant ancestors would have considered it very odd indeed if their daughters hadn't been placed in service once used to suck my teeth when I first began to research the family on Ancestry...all those people described as 'paupers' and not to mention the 'idiots' and the plain 'lunatics'...then there were the small children employed as 'bird scarers' on farms when they were only eight years old and ought to be in school...little girls of twelve who were kitchen servants and at the other extreme very old men of eighty plus describing themselves as farm labourers...

But you have always to remember...calling someone who couldn't walk properly a 'cripple' or describing your thirty-year old son as 'an idiot from birth' was perfectly normal and acceptable for the time...

Going to town on a sunny afternoon in the horse and cart with all the family to watch the latest public hanging was considered nothing out of the made for an afternoon were witness to some hapless soul receiving their just desserts and you caught up with the gossip they reached the age of twelve or near enough...

It was perfectly acceptable for landlords to lay vicious man-traps to catch go to the local market place and watch a dancing bear who'd had all his teeth pulled...

My Great Grandfather once thrashed his twenty-two year old daughter because she'd been walked home from a village dance by the local police constable...we'd call that abuse and she'd have to go for counselling and he'd have been subject to group therapy and anger management and six months suspended...but he was a typical early Victorian father and the way he behaved was perfectly acceptable for the time he was living in...

I re-posted the article I wrote here...My Alice Isn't Your Alice...I re-posted on another social networking site and someone said they'd never put labels on people...meaning in this instance the 'idiots' and 'imbeciles'...but they were quite missing the point. We don't use those terms anymore because we consider them offensive...but in the eighteen hundreds it was the norm to do so...when prowling about on Ancestry or anywhere else you have to remember the terms used were the time.

It'd be too silly if I guessed that John...described on the census form as having been an idiot since his birth thirty years before... actually had Downs or Prader Willi'd be daft to hazard a guess as to his for the purposes of the family tree or any other kind of social history John will need to be described as 'an idiot from birth'...

There's absolutely no point in stating that an eight year old shouldn't have been scaring the crows from a newly seeded field...compulsory schooling was still in the future...and he was no doubt pleased to be able to bring some pennies home at the end of the weren't there...a young widow living in a basic cabin with six little ones you had to feed and clothe.

You'd probably have the horrors at the thought of watching a man hang...but you aren't living a hundred and fifty...two hundred years ago...

To understand the past....your past... you have to put aside your present thoughts of what is right and proper...easier said then done maybe.

16 Replies

As you said easier said than done, I have looked back at my family to the 1600 and the work house featured a lot and what went on in there.Also a great grand father stole to feed the children and ended up in jail and my father was also born in the workhouse down here in Devon which he was embarrassed about when he heard I had found out, which I told him he had no control over that so don't be so silly and any way he had did well and brought us children right. So we have no control over the passed all we can do is look to the future.


I remember on the bus going from St. Budeaux into City Centre of Plymouth, we passed what was the work house, no one was there at that time, must have been about 1955, grim looking place!


Don't think any of the Workhouses were built for their looks!


Perhaps it's as well the memories live on...if nothing else, it reminds us we are lucky enough...


Very true Vashti, It's beyond imagination what was acceptable 200 or more years ago, I shudder to think how ordinary people managed to survive, Life must have been so very hard and so very cruel, Bulpit


And it was always the poor who suffered the most...


And that's one tradition we retain today. The bankers make the mess and the poor suffer years of austerity to pay for it.


I can remember my mother telling me of the poverty she grew up in. Her father (my grandad) was killed in an accident at work. My gran had five children and took in washing to help feed the family. the Relief people came and told her to sell a chair when she asked for financial help. My mother and her little brother, being the youngest had to go into a childrens home and the other children had to find work. Mum hated her years in care, she told me of scrubbing floors, and the matron kicking over the bucket and hitting her with the scrubbing brush. However you look at it, that was poor treatment, common at the time or not.

On my fathers side, my grandma was put in an asylum age 40 and died there and on the death certificate it said carcinoma of the uterus. My dad and his siblings used to collect manure from the streets to sell. The good old days.


the awful part is that your family weren't alone...there were far too many just like them...


Its not as long ago as you might think......the care had improved but

the residences remained the same.

Back in the very early 60's I joined the NHS as a cadet nurse for a year or two.

The hospital in a town a few miles from my home was an old workhouse that had been recommissioned

and extended....but a sectioned off part still contained

people put in there as youngsters. They had various medical conditions and congenital deformities...all appeared happy.......that was their life ..all they knew.

They were well fed..clothed ..had their friends and a routine... What they didn't have was loving families.

A great many were elderly.......those that could work helped the staff in the running of the unit.

It was pitious to see patients peering through the windows

knowing they could not come out into our world.

That hospital was demolished in the 1980's

what happened to the last patients in that section I do not know.


I to went into nursing in the '60's...too many of the patients had been in that hospital for very many years...far too institutionalised to have ever been allowed to leave...


Agreed ... ........What I should have said was .......when the hospital closed...I was unsure if these inpatients were moved into private home type accommodation or those suitable into properties with a resident warden or back into long stay geriatric wards.

I think the latter most likely.




As always, you totally understand!




I remember some sixty years ago marching up the steps on to the stage in the school hall. Each hand was held out in turn and received two whacks from a sturdy bamboo cane wielded by the headmaster.

These days it would be called humiliation and brutality or abuse. In those days it was regarded as justified punishment. My offence? I had played truant. Did I ever truant again? No!

Bobby xxx


Sadly all the above reminiscences are still happening all over the world. Scandalous slave labour, child labour, poverty and hunger, wicked abuse and disappearings are still happening.

My father once told me he was ashamed to say that as a boy in the '40s they all used to cheer in the early mornings when they heard the bells toll at Wandsworth Prison nearby. It meant that someone was being or had just been hung. Grim eh.

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yes when you look at your ancestry, the words are often horrific, my grand father was one of 8 children put in the" poor house " because their mother and father died at 38 and 39, then there was the "workhouse " where my his father died.

one of the "poor houses" for children [orphans] was actually part of the western general hospital edinburgh , this was off course before the nhs.

but there still a lot going on in this world, aye getting worse instead of better ,

as the great bard , robert burns said , and his words are so true,,,,,

"mans inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn"

sad isnt it, especially when really there's no need for it.


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