Friday, 6 November 2015

An horrific secret in Old Windsor.

I had a quiet birthday - we went out in the afternoon and on the way I was able to take some photographs of something I'd been meaning to record for some time.

We'd driven almost by accident through Old Windsor and then up towards Windsor Great Park - the Crown Estate.

As we were passing I stopped here;


These days it's a rather exclusive and expensive housing development;


As you can see, the basis of the development is a 19th century building; imposing and well built in the 'Victorian' style.

The old buildings have been stripped of the grime of 150 years of coal smoke - the brickwork is like new. There are apartments carved out of the old buildings.

There are some tasteful new houses which fit in well and everywhere there are big cars and well maintained gardens.

Was it once a school or a government building?
I wandered around, most of the time wondering if the Police would be called out on me.
It's so respectable.
Around the back, this was what I was looking for;
This building hides a dark secret, a shameful secret.
Before 1834, the poor and unemployed received payments (Poor relief) from their local parish. Everyone knew that farming required a lot of labour at certain times of the year. Employment was high during sowing or harvest but in the winter everybody was out of work.
Everybody from farmers, employers and workers was happy with the system but the new capitalists didn't want to pay for it; they needed a workforce when there were orders but they didn't want to pay for them when the orders dried up.
In 1834, The Poor Law Reform Act was passed, bringing about the 'reforms' that the awful Edwin Chadwick had pushed through.
Instead of 'Poor relief', a network of Workhouses were to be built where families were separated and once you were made an inmate it was hard to get back out.
For the old it was a death sentence.
The Workhouses were set up to cover many parishes which is why they were called 'Parish Unions' and this was intended to exclude anyone who might feel generous to the poor.
The new system was bitterly hated and opposed but lasted until the second world war and the 1945 Labour Government which swept it away.
Sadly, when The National Health Service was set up, many of the old Workhouse buildings were reused. 'West Middlesex Hospital' is on the site of the West Middlesex Parish Union while Upton Hospital in Slough is the Parish Union for part of Berkshire.
Old Windsor served part of Surrey, the next Union was at Guildford.
So what's my building at the back of the complex?

It's 'The Spike', or more officially 'The Casual Ward'.

While most people in The Workhouse were permanent residents, it was recognised that some people needed to walk to areas there might be work for them and it was possible to stay for just one night.

This horrific building was for that - it offered accommodation locked in a cell with a minimal and inadequate diet in return for some very hard work.

The Casual Wards were nicknamed 'The Spike' because often that work was breaking up tarry old ships ropes using a spike to separate it into tiny strands that could be recycled into new rope - 'picking oakum'.

In the case of Old Windsor, the work was breaking stones by hand.

Here's an individual cell - you can see the barred windows;


At night, the inmate would be supplied with a pile of stones and a hammer and in the morning would be expected to break them up before he would be released.

Behind the red hatch at ground level would have been a chute and the inmate would have put the broken stones in the chute, which led to a grill behind the red door which let only those stones small enough for the regulations to pass through.

Each morning the routine was that the inmates would be given their meagre food, the red hatch would be opened and an overseer would walk around checking on progress.

When the work was done, the inmate would be released and unless he wanted to become a permanent resident he would have to walk to the next Spike to stay the night.

It's hard to comprehend the inhumanity behind this and it's also impossible not to see the roots of Thatcherism and Reaganism in it too.

And of course, in the Victorian age it was all about science and efficiency.

So, the cells were as small as they could be, the food as cheap as they could get away with, the task a huge one.

It is the mentality behind the efficient organisation of The Holocaust, where every penny had to be accounted for and how this somehow seemed to obscure the horror of what was actually going on. 

I believe the building is listed and has to be preserved. The casual ward looks like it's being used for storage at the moment.

I would like every local schoolchild to come here to witness the inhumanity of our past, to understand the reality behind the 'Oliver Twist' depiction of the workhouse and the true basis for our Industrial Revolution.

Oh, by the way, the whole 19th century was blighted by periods of very high unemployment completely unaffected by The Workhouse system.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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