Remembering the Workhouse at the Vestry Museum
While the gentrification of Walthamstow Village continues apace with the addition of a wine bar (I'm not complaining), it was nice last weekend to be able to enjoy one of E17's long-lasting attractions, the Vestry House Museum.
The Vestry's current exhibition harks back to the former life of the building as a workhouse. Created in the early eighteenth century to reduce the burden on tax-payers of 'outdoor relief' (subsidies to the poor for rent and food), workhouses were built to provide an often permanent home for those not able to provide for themselves (as well as single-mothers, ostracised by religiously inspired prejudice).
The regime in Walthamstow was apparently relatively benign, at least compared with the near-slavery of other institutions. Nevertheless, the Vestry committee had to be over-hauled in 1779 when Churchwarden, Alexander Dalmahoy, was found to be spending “far beyond moderation” on fine food to make more pleasant the difficult meetings he held to determine how much gruel and stale bread should be doled out to the workhouse inmates.
Walthamstow itself was still a village in this era, although its population had swollen to nearly 3,000 by 1800 as rich Londoners built themselves country houses just outside the capital, and created hundreds of servile jobs in the process. We are going through a different phase of wealth moving into the area at the moment, but as this pernicious Tory government continues to destroy universal welfare provision, it doesn't seem entirely ridiculous to imagine a new era of the workhouse.
There's no sign of that on Orford Road, however, and so after our little mid-afternoon educational trip my Dad and I repaired to In Vino Veritas to enjoy a refreshing glass of Chianti (me) and a chalky little sauvignon (him). Relaxed by the friendly service and the prospect of now being able to purchase decent wine on my doorstep, we recalled the experiences of my great aunt Elsie, who was employed in a post-war workhouse in Newport, just as the welfare state was being created that did away with such institutions and gave my parent's the opportunity to be the first in their families to benefit from a university education. How lucky we are.
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