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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, August 01, 2006
    Born in a workhouse

    Quite an awesome discovery whilst trawling the web for local info tonight: I never knew this before, but I was born in a former workhouse. Walton-on-the-Hill workhouse, administered by the West Derby Poor Law Union, was constructed to accommodate 1,000 inmates, and on its opening in March 1864, the main building was already nearly full; a report of the day said that 'it is probable that in course of time the accommodation will not be too much for the numerous poor chargeable to the rates of the West Derby Union.'

    The report goes on to say that the Walton Workhouse 'gradually expanded and by 1930 could hold up to 2,500'. It's likely that the switch from workhouse to sick-house came with the genesis of the National Health Service in 1948. I'm just struck by the proximity - in years - between that and my birth there. By June 1962 it had become Walton Hospital and like most babies of North Liverpool of the time that was where I screamed my way into the world.

    Just 14 years ... and what had the city done with its destitute people in that time?

    I'm also struck by the proximity of other workhouses to where I was then, and am now: the West Derby Poor Law Union ran workhouses/hospitals at Mill Road, Walton-on-the-Hill, Belmont Road, Fazakerley, Alder Hey and Waterloo.

    So many institutions in a relatively small area - so many poor and insane at a time of the city's alleged flowering.

    And I'm struck by the proximity to another aspect of my family history: the Union 's Waterloo operation was Seafield House, a former convent converted to provide accommodation for 'mental defectives', mainly children. A nursing home in 1990, Seafield House was the place where my nan ended her days in the terrible confusion of age and illness.

    Was the madness in the walls of that sombre place?

    I'm not sure what all this means, except to reinforce the truth that the poor are always very much with you, a truth ingrained in the very architecture of public space and family histories in a city like ours.

    [Based on material compiled by Peter Higginbotham in his informative website www.workhouses.org.uk]