When I visited my son and his girlfriend in Ampthill England, I felt like I was stepping into a storybook. The crooked narrow, cobblestone streets lined with thatched huts, red brick homes and tiny walk up shops looked like pages out of a Charles Dickens novel. Even their home, a former caretaker’s cottage, was on the grounds of a stately 2-story brick building, which once served as the Ampthill Union Workhouse. Built in 1835, the old “poorhouse,” where penniless paupers worked for porridge, was laid out in an octagonal hub. The rows ended in 3 story blocks with observational windows over the work yards. Renovated into an expensive apartment complex today residents can relax in an inviting, picture perfect English back garden.
In the past, poorhouses often looked and felt like prisons. Funded by the local parish able-bodied inmates toiled in exchange for food and shelter. Workhouses filled with orphans, unmarried mothers, widows, sick, elderly and vagrants who endured the harsh regime, Spartan conditions, and slept in communal dormitories
Behind the wrought iron entry gate, Nic and Larissa’s brick cottage, the size and shape of a shoe box sits at the front of the grounds. It was divided into a small living area, a kitchen galley, a bedroom, bathroom and a dining room with just enough space for a table of four. Apartments in the main building today would cost a pretty penny, but the cottage rental was a steal.
At night spotlights illuminated ancient trees casting shadows and as I wandered the grounds, my imagination ran wild. I expected to see Oliver Twist dart across the courtyard.
As the wind moaned in the treetops, I could hear echoes of the old nursery rhyme that even American children were weaned on. We grew up listening to our mothers’ lament, “oh no, we will be driven to poor house.”
Many old workhouse buildings became public assistance institutions and continued to provide accommodation for the ill and elderly. In 1942 The Ampthill Workhouse became St. Georges Hospital, and then later the Cedars Old Peoples Home.
But Larissa and Nic’s new abode, filled with light, laughter and good cheer, showed no sign of its grim past. Warm and cozy, we squeezed around the table enjoying the lovely meal they prepared. I gazed out the window and felt grateful that my family members had steady jobs, roofs over their heads and food on their tables.
In the UK the workhouse era ended officially on April 1, 1930. Fortunately poor houses became a thing of the past, but poverty is not. Many homeless people everywhere in the world sleep in the streets under cardboard boxes, rummage through trash bins for scraps and struggle to survive.
Everyone can offer aid. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Work at a food pantry. Contribute to the local charities.