Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Workhouse – The original Tory “Barracks of the Poor”

Last year I spent a lovely week in a rented cottage in Stanhope, County Durham. This is a really smashing place to visit and there are just fantastic walks all around the county. It is Yorkshire without the tourist crowds.

The end terrace "cottage" we stayed at appeared to be part of some sort of wider local complex and I did wonder about its origin. I thought that it was part of a former hospital or possibly purpose built worker accommodation for some long lost local factory, pit or quarry. The nearby road was even called “Union Street” and even that didn’t wake me up from my stupor.

On the last day as we packed up to leave I spoke to its owners who lived next door and asked about its history and they looked at each other before saying that this area all use to be part of the local workhouse. Our cottage was part of the “stone breaking” building. In the 19th century if you were unemployed, sick or elderly you would have to go into the local work house in order to not starve to death. If you were “able bodied” you had to break large stones up into small pieces with hammers and pick axes. Often there was no economic point to this stone breaking and after they were broken up they were just dumped. The only purpose was to discourage anyone from applying for relief by making it as physically unpleasant and demeaning as possible.

It was a little bit shocking to think that we had enjoyed a pleasant week’s accommodation at what had been the site of a sadistic punishment camp for the poverty stricken.

Thinking about such things you can understand the race memory amongst the working class about “The Workhouse” and why even nowadays so many pensioners refuse to even apply for what they think is modern day “poor relief” (pension credit).

It has also made me think about the recent Tory "think tank" report Principles for Social Housing Reform which shamefully refers to public housing as “slums” and “barracks of the poor”. While I am not saying that the Tories if they get back in power will reintroduce concentration camps for the poor I do think that their recent pronouncements on getting rid of security of tenure for secure tenants, introducing market rents for all and exporting their poor out of their local boroughs reminds us that they are still the same old “Nasty Tories”.
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