Homeless and destitute, he sought refuge in a Victorian-era workhouse in Central England. Shortly thereafter, in August of 1900, he fell ill and was taken to that same institution’s infirmary for medical attention. There, by and by, he expired – a lowly pauper with his duly assigned administrative number affixed to his beggar’s clothes. Late in that same summer season, the mendicant’s body was enterred “at the corporation’s expense” in a municipal burial ground on the periphery of the city centre. The cycle that is life was now complete; in this case, that of my Birmingham-born great grandfather.
The unrelenting and crushing poverty omnipresent in Victorian England was such that the fate of my late great grandfather was far from unique. During a recent and otherwise pleasant visit to Birmingham’s Central Library just opposite the historic Council House on Chamberlain Square, I painstakingly studied a ledger for admissions to that city’s now defunct Western Road Workhouse. The register was, like so many other records from that period, a massive document which revealed that on any given day there would be found in just the infirmary alone well over 1,000 patients.
Such was one of the many paradoxes of Victorian Britain that a log detailing such profound human misery was meticulously kept in a beautiful hand, containing some 45 items of diverse data about the inmate in question. Two columns in particular troubled me. One read simply “Number Affixed to the Pauper’s Clothes” while the other coldly instructed the attending clerk to write merely the word “dead” in case of death. “Alfred William Wilkins, number 258, dead.” It’s odd seeing a comparatively close ancestor described in such unaffected, brusque language.
Yet, in terms of longevity, my great grandfather did not do too badly for those times. For men, average life expectancy in 1900 in much of the industrialised world was about 50 years of age. While he eked out an existence to the age of 63, what can be said of an infant who lived but three days – all in the Workhouse Infirmary? According to the surprisingly well-preserved record book, his impoverished mother, Ellen Gwinnell, gave birth to twins in the sick-quarters of the legendary parish facility on June 1, 1900 only to lose one of the newborns three days later in that same dark and dismal nineteenth century stone structure. One can only wonder about the eventual fate of the baby’s mother and twin.
Yet, as I continued to thumb my way through the infirmary’s ledger, I could not help but remark the great number of children who passed through the dreaded gates of the Workhouse. In many cases, little ones accompanied one or both of their parents into the poorhouse, some so young that they could not possibly have understood what was happening to them. Others – orphans – wandered in on their own accord, or were brought there off the streets by Birmingham bobbies.
The Western Road Workhouse, like most others in Britain, also served as a sort of crude yet inevitable delivery venue for women in trouble. A quick glance at the shelter’s records as well as parish baptismal registers details a very high number of illegitimate births which took place in these rather contentious facilities. As it happened, the 1885 ledger for that identical infirmary brought unexpectedly to light to me the fact that the nineteen year old unmarried daughter of my great grandfather had herself given birth in the same asylum in which her father died fifteen years later. The popular notion of Victorian prudishness is rapidly repudiated by such archives.
With my time at the Birmingham Library and its precious ledgers quickly ebbing, I picked up my pace. One of the last references I came upon before returning the dated books to the Local Studies’ Sixth Floor counter was that of a 42 year old man whose name was reported as “unknown.” What further could be said (I thought to myself) about the demise of an individual whose very earthly existence could not be filed in any official document, particularly a death certificate?
Later, when back in Canada, I subsequently discovered that the main entrance to the Western Road Workhouse was commonly known throughout the years in the Midlands of England as “The Archway of Tears.” Then, struck by my finding, I could not help but wonder if my great grandfather wept as he passed through that vaulting entryway and into the infamous building on its other side. Like most, he was surely aware that the better part of those who set foot in the shabby structure never left it alive.
On February 19, 1999, a memorial plaque was placed on the now recycled edifice that was once the Birmingham Workhouse. It reads: “In Memory of All Those Folk Forced by Hardships through the Archway of Tears and into the Workhouse. In Life They Endured Misfortune, in Death They May Rest in Peace.”
Indeed, may he rest in peace.