Merely the mention of the word ‘Workhouse’ invokes Dickensian images of dark, cold and dank buildings, harshness, poverty, hunger, men and women in drab uniforms forced to labour at menial tasks in return for those barest of necessities to stay alive; a hunk of bread, a bowl of gruel and a bed on which to rest their weary bodies. Perhaps the worst part of that frozen imaginary picture of a line of inmates, staring morosely, shoulders slumped, cheeks hollowed by hunger and jaws set, is the hopelessness in their eyes.
Paradoxically, however black we paint the picture of the Victorian Workhouse, and there is no doubt life in many of them consisted of drudgery, hardship and privation, conditions were little better outside. Certainly in the armed forces, army or navy, and much of the civilian population in the north of England lived in deplorable conditions at subsistence level, perhaps little better than those within the austere walls of the Workhouse. Whitby’s ‘yards’ where fishermen, shipwrights, jet workers and labourers lived with their families were overcrowded and unsanitary while their occupants were malnourished, ill-educated - if at all, their only consolation being the pride of independence and freedom. They must have been forever conscious that unemployment, debt, illness or the infirmity of age placed them only two steps away from the Workhouse. And that foreboding shadow was all too evident in Whitby, the dreaded building squatting on the skyline
Below: The central section of the Workhouse from the south-west (facing the harbour) in 2012, still serving the community, housing small business units.