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Up a steep lane banked with a flint wall

are the remains of a workhouse. A heritage

lottery grant has preserved the section

for men in its pristine austerity.


In return for a wash, clothes boiled, a bowl

of gruel, a night’s sleep, the following day

from first light they would grind stones – working

a cast iron, giant-size egg slicer, like

a destructive loom. After midday,

and no food, they would tramp, like their Poor Law

forebears, to the next parish, the next workhouse.


My grandmother, despite the Welfare State,

her widow’s pension and her three daughters’

pensionable, public service ‘jobs for life’,

invoked the spectre of the workhouse.

And the spectre haunts us still. Poverty is,

at best, a venial sin purged through

working for nowt or as near as nowt –

or a mortal sin, punishable

by eternity in bed & breakfast

after bed & breakfast from town to town

with no table to eat at, nowhere to play…


All luxuries were forbidden, so,

at the bottom of the lane, the lads

would stow their smokes in gaps between the flints.

As they set off on their next tramp, I would

like to think they’d all light up and joke

how they had fooled the master yet again

– and curse a bit and laugh a lot. But, perhaps,

they had been brought too low.




© Copyright David Selzer
1 Response
  • John Huddart
    June 21, 2014

    My wife’s office is in a former workhouse, where in spite of my suggestion, little visible remains of its history.

    Such places are reminders of the past’s cruelty and attempts to improve on the cruelty they saw. True, they felt the poor were undeserving, and a burden on the parish – at the same time knowing an obligation not to let them die in a ditch.

    These days the benefits of outdoor versus indoor relief still haunt our welfare debates.

    Meanwhile, at the Cheviot Centre in Wooler, as it is now called, the manager’s office is the former morgue. I’m not sure I could manage that!

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