Televising historical poverty: BBC and the workhouse


by Robyn Atcheson @randomrobyn

The celebrities in character (Source:

The celebrities in character (Source:

The recent BBC series 24 Hours in the Past reached its conclusion last week, following the fates of six twenty-first century celebrities as they worked and lived in the 1840s.  After spending a day in the dust yards, another in service at a coaching inn and getting fired from jobs in a pottery, the celebs were thrown into the workhouse.  As presenter Fi Glover explained,


“Homeless and broke, at the bottom of the heap, there’s only one place left to turn…”

The ‘time-travellers’ were sent to Southwell workhouse, currently under the management of the National Trust.  Leaving aside the numerous mentions of Dickens’ characters and the downright bizarre behaviour of some of the celebrities, this episode actually provided a fascinating insight into life in the workhouse.

As historians of the poor, we study the minute books of the Boards of Guardians, trace the admissions of paupers through indoor registers and analyse what life was like for those within the workhouse.  To see this environment resurrected and witness that lifestyle through the modern eyes of media personalities was astounding.  The historical context of the show and the attention to detail was impressive, with concepts and context explained by Ruth Goodman for the benefit of both the celebrities and audience at home.  But how do the experiences of the nineteenth-century poor of Belfast compare to what these modern figures endured?

Several themes were highlighted by the show, the first of which was the separation of the sexes and classification of the inmates.  Men and women were separated upon entry and slept and worked apart.  As all six celebs were adults, there was little discussion of children in the workhouse but there was an interesting distinction made for the more mature Ann Widdecombe (referred to as ‘Old Woman’ by the Matron).  The remaining participants were deemed ‘able-bodied’ meaning they were expected to earn their bed and board in the workhouse, not being included in the wider ‘deserving poor’ category.

As in the episode, many of the jobs and tasks in the Belfast workhouse were for the purpose of generating an income. The women were employed in oakum picking to sell the fibres from ropes while the men were employed breaking stones and crushing bones.  In the Belfast workhouse in 1846, oakum was sold for £25 12s 0d, the real price of this commodity in today’s currency is around £2,214.00 while bones and rags sold for £2 16s 11d, or £246.10 today.

Ann Widdecombe broke the rules of the workhouse three times before being punished by the Master and sent to solitary confinement.  In December 1845 a similar punishment was received in Belfast by Sarah D. for disobedience and was she placed by the Master in the probationary ward for one night. The Board of Guardians noted that they approved ‘of the punishment given to Sarah D., who they would have discharged but her being encumbered with three children’.  Even Officers in the workhouse were expected to maintain correct conduct at all times; Schoolmistress Miss Wallace was admonished by the Belfast Guardians in June 1843 before resigning from her post.

For not fulfilling their work targets, the celebrities were reprimanded with reduced portions of food.  Food, however, seems to have been standardised in Belfast workhouse in the 1840s as it was throughout Ireland under the Poor Law.  Attempts to alter the planned dietary due to poor quality potatoes in July 1843 were not well received by the central Poor Law Commission in Dublin who advised Belfast to rethink their proposals.

Southwell workhouse (Source:

Southwell workhouse (Source:

The experience of this television constructed reality highlights the similarities and differences between the recreated Southwell workhouse in Nottinghamshire and the Belfast Union workhouse.  Southwell opened in 1824, built to hold 158 paupers and later becoming a Union under the New Poor Law in 1836, while Belfast was designed to accommodate 1000 paupers and opened in 1841.  Southwell is now a National Trust site while Belfast workhouse forms part of the Belfast City Hospital.  Both histories of these workhouses have stories to tell and 24 Hours in the Past has introduced a wider audience to the austere and demanding routine of workhouse life in the 1840s.

*All Belfast workhouse facts from Belfast Board of Guardian minute books held at PRONI BG/7/A/2 – 5

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *