More About London After World War II

After enjoying Call the Midwife so much, I was pleased to find out that my library acquired the second and third books in the series. Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End are less about midwifery (with a few interesting exceptions) but full of interesting observations about the social and economic conditions of inner city London after World War II.

Both books were much more bleak than the first in the series, especially Shadows of the Workhouse.  Although the author tried to caveat that workhouses were created with good intentions, the reality of life in those institutions was so dreadful, that even though some of Worth’s anecdotes ended on a note of slight redemption, the overall feeling is one of horror that such places existed for so long into the modern era.  It was also terribly sad to read about how workhouses affected children, and how they catered to the most base and violent impulses in the caretakers.

The value to reading about the workhouses though, in my opinion, is two-fold.  First, it informs our broader understanding of history and gives context to complicated modern problems like the cycle of poverty.  Second, I think it’s a good reminder that injustice and oppression are not things that other people do, they are things that all people do, when constraints are removed.  It’s a sobering thought to think of what commonly accepted injustices will be viewed as abhorrent in a generation or two.

Farewell to the East End is a little more hopeful, although still full of sad and desperate situations.  There was one chapter in this book that was so horrifying I had to stop reading and pick back up after that particular story was over.  I very rarely actually skip (rather than skim) anything in a book, so be warned.

While in many ways the stories contained in these books are heavy and dark, overall the series is not oppressive because Worth also describes the dignity and hope of the people she observed.  If you’re interested in British history or social history, I think you’d find this series fascinating and engaging.


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3 thoughts on “More About London After World War II

  1. I think I’ve commented before on how much I loved Worth’s books. Some of the stories are indeed harrowing and although I knew that workhouses were terrible places, I had no idea how awful they were until I read ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’. There is an old workhouse not far from where my in-laws live that has been preserved by the National Trust and is open to the public. It is on my ‘to visit’ list for this year. Worth’s book will make the visit all the more poignant.

    If you can get hold of ‘In the midst of life’ (Worth’s book about death and palliative care), it is well worth a read.
    Paula recently posted..Ten Years!

  2. I really enjoyed both of these books, though not without caveats. Like you mentioned, several parts were difficult to read, especially as a mother of young children. (For me, these would not have been good books to read while pregnant, as I tend to have nightmares if I read about horrific situations dealing with children; at the same time, it is incredibly sad that this is/was reality for many, while I can simply mention that reading it is hard.) I think one thing that really stood out to me about the workhouse system and dock workers was how trapped many people were, and how impossible it was for them to escape their horrible circumstances–something very foreign to our current American experience.

    I also concur with your concluding thoughts, and believe this type of book can be helpfully eye-opening and paradigm-shifting, especially to those of us born with a degree of privilege (not talking about wealth, but about a type of life that is not in cycles of poverty and social injustice).

    I do wish Jennifer Worth had written more about her experiences and were still around to respond to questions her books have made us think about.
    Keren recently posted..Reading 2013: Whispers Through Time

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