TV on Tuesday: Celebs in the Workhouse

The past five Tuesday evenings, the Beeb has been showing the series 24 Hours in the Past. This is pretty much a reality TV show with an historical slant. Instead of being thrown into a jungle and then made to survive, or compete against each other to produce the finest cakes or dishes, each week the programme’s cast of celebrities are required to go back to a certain period in history and do some of the nastiest, dirtiest or most unpleasant work from the period. It’s like Tony Robinson’s 2004 Channel 4, The Worst Jobs in History, but with a crew of six as the unfortunate Baldricks forced to labour and grub for their living like the inhabitants of Victorian slums. Or the rookeries of 18th century London. Or whatever.

This week, however, they reach the very nadir of poverty and desperation: the workhouse. The blurb for the programme states that the workhouse was partly intended to reform the corrupt and indolent character of its inmates. It’s therefore a kind of irony that Ann Widdecombe is so bolshie, that she finds herself placed in solitary.

The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

As the six celebrities stroll up to an impressive redbrick institution for their final Victorian experience, Miquita Oliver reckons it looks like somewhere she’d go for a weekend spa. Hardly. It’s the workhouse, where there are no rewards, only punishments, explains Ruth Goodman. So immediately bolshie Ann Widdecombe is put in solitary confinement.

In order to “reform the moral character of the undeserving poor”, workhouse inmates were degraded,k overworked and mistreated, taking the time travellers almost to breaking point.

Tempers are definitely fraying but to give them credit, nobody shouts “I’m a celebrity … get me out of here”. It’s been a filthy, gruelling history lesson.


Hungry and penniless after stirring up a worker’s rebellion in the Victorian-era potteries, there’s only one place left for Ann Widdecombe, Zoe Lucker, Colin Jackson, Alistair McGowan, Tyger Drew-Honey and Miquita Oliver. Clad in rough uniforms and clumsy clogs they enter the harsh world of the workhouse – the 19th century equivalent of the benefits system – where they are immediately stripped of their belongings and indentities. Filthy and exhausted the celebrities must endure relentless graft and grind for their basic necessities. Will they rise to this most daunting challenge and prove they can work their way out of the workhouse and back to the comforts of the 21st century?

As left-wing bloggers like Tom Pride, the Angry Yorkshireman, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Jayne Linney, Mike from Vox Political and myself have pointed out, the ethos underlying the workhouse – that of ‘less eligibility’ – has returned to 21st century Britain in the form of the various tests, examinations and ‘work related activity’ benefit claimants are forced to go through in order to show that they really are looking for work, if fit, and genuinely deserving of invalidity or sickness support if they cannot. And as the government has made it very plain it wants to cut down on welfare expenditure in order to shrink the state back to its size in the 1930s, conditions are being made as hard as possible so that increasingly few people are considered deserving of state support.

And although not confined within the prison-like environs of the workhouse, its drudgery has been brought back in the form of workfare and the other requirements to perform ‘work-related activity’. This consists in performing unpaid, spurious voluntary work for particular charities, or big businesses like Tesco and so boosting their already bloated profits.

So far, conditions have not become quite so appalling as the Victorian workhouse, but real, grinding poverty, including starvation and rickets has reappeared in Britain, brought about by the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ atavistic desire to return to the very worst of the ‘Victorian values’ lauded by Maggie Thatcher. So far, 45 people have starved to death due to the withdrawal of their benefits, but the true number is probably much, much higher, perhaps 50,000 plus.

And it’s significant that while celebs, including a former Tory MP, are prepared to participate in a programme like this, the Tories have most definitely refused to experience its modern equivalent for themselves. Iain Duncan Smith was invited to try living on the same amount as a job-seeker for a week. He flatly refused, declaring that it was just ‘a publicity stunt’.

Well, what did you expect from ‘RTU’ Smith, the Gentleman Ranker. He’s a wancel (hat tip to Maxwell for this term), whose cowardice in facing his policies’ victims has been more than amply demonstrated over and again. Such as when this mighty warrior, who, according to David Cameron, ‘can crack skulls with his kneecaps’, hid in a laundry basked to hide from demonstrators in Edinburgh. Or when he sneaked out the back of a Job Centre he was opening in Bath to avoid meeting the demonstrators there.

Now I’ve no problem whatsoever with history programmes showing how harsh conditions were the bulk of people in the past, who didn’t belong to small percentage that formed the aristocracy or the middle classes. It gives a more balanced idea of the past in contrast to those programmes, that concentrate more on the lives of the elite. These programmes can give an idealised picture of previous ages, in which social relations were somehow more harmonious, and the lower orders were properly grateful and respectful to paternal employers and aristocratic masters. There’s been a touch of this, for example, in the Beeb’s Sunday night historical drama, Downton Abbey.

For most people, life was not a round of glamorous society balls, or a glorious career in the armed forces abroad, or in parliament at home. Most people did not have the luxury of fine food, wines and spirits, with their wishes attended by legions of dutiful servants.

Rather, the reality for most of the country’s population in the past was hard work, grinding poverty, and the threat of a very early death through disease and malnutrition.

However, there is also a danger with programmes like this in that they can give the impression of continual progress and improvement. There’s always the risk that some will look at the hard conditions of the workhouse and Victorian Britain generally with complacency. Well, that was terrible then, but everything’s somehow much better now. Things have improved greatly since then, and we have nothing to worry about. Indeed, the standard Tory attitude is that conditions have improved too much, to the point where the ‘undeserving poor’ have returned and are living very well from the taxes of ‘hard-working people’ like themselves, and other aristocrats, financiers and bankers.

For others, however, the programme may provide a salutary object lesson in the kind of country ours will be come once again, if the Tories aren’t stopped. One of the commenters on either Tom Pride’s or Johnny Void’s blog dug out a ConDem proposal for something very much like ‘indoor relief’ – as the workhouse system was called – for the disabled in the form of special units to provide training and accommodation to the handicapped.

In actually fact, the workhouses weren’t just a feature of Victorian England. They lasted right up to 1947, when they were made obsolete under the new welfare state.

Now with the Tories trying to destroy state welfare provision completely, and sell off the NHS, there’s a danger that they’ll return. The Tories have already brought back unpaid labour and less eligibility. They just haven’t got round to putting everyone on them in a prison-like environment yet.

In the meantime, it should be very interesting indeed to see how six people from the 21st century fare in the harsh conditions of the 19th. And especially a former Tory MP, like Ann Widdecombe.

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10 Responses to “TV on Tuesday: Celebs in the Workhouse”

  1. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. stilloaks Says:

    Reblogged this on DWPExamination. and commented:
    Thanks Beastrabban, I will watch that it does look like it could very interesting.
    I think many of us are already living in a workhouse-like environment, but with no walls and no bars.
    A virtual construct created and controlled by Governments, within it’s confines people can cling to the hope of a meagre subsistence. Provided they can jump backward through an ever increasing number of hoops, they will be given some scraps from their benevolent masters tables and the faint hope of a roof over their head for one more night.
    Outside the construct, there is only the prospect of homelessness, destitution and starvation.
    Who knows once the Torags have rewritten the Human Rights Act perhaps the stone type will return and replace the virtual one. Private companies can profit from their inmates labour in much the same way as the privatised prison service in the UK do at present. The prison inmates are paid two pounds per hour but receive only a small portion of that, the rest being taken by the prison service to cover the costs of feeding and maintenance.

  3. jaynel62 Says:

    Reblogged this on jaynelinney and commented:
    As the Beast points out in this Excellent post, several bloggers (including myself) have considered how the continuing decimation of Social Security via the Infamous Welfare Reform Act will possibly result in Workhouses returning the Britain. Now we have another 5 years of #Tory rule – can anyone disagree?

  4. Ratty Says:

    As Mike has pointed out, the workhouses are not that far away:

  5. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating.

  6. Chris Says:

    The workhouse had Victorian prison punishments like the treadmill, even for those in their 70s.

    Many went insane.

    The nation had done perfectly well for centuries with the Old Poor Law of a shilling for a loaf of bread from the Parish.

    The New Poor Law forbade feeding people outside the workhouse so as to drive people into the horrors of factory working that killed or maimed so many men, women and even small kids, as seen by Engels in northern cities.

    The Tories and Liberals (now called Lib Dems) brought the workhouse into being.


    The Swans new party would end the entire benefits admin cruelty by ending the way benefits starve and make people suffer.

    The Citizen Income for all, with no benefits admin whatsoever, and no right of government to deny payment as long as you are a registered citizen of the UK.

    The same for a Citizen State Pension at 60 for men and women.

    No jobcentres, no work programmes, workfare, any kind of benefits admin at all. No IDS. No Lord Fraud sorry Freud.

    No just appointed employed Pensions Minister, not even worthy of a proper elected MP in post.


    Only you can bring about the Swans into reality.

    Written is the manifesto – the script. Easy after two thirds of a century of listening.

    The Swans are an England SYRIZA that can win a landslide.

    Not long into the future.

    Mr Salmond says this TORY government with its tiny majority cannot last 6 months. It certainly will not last the scandal of the flat rate state pension, that is not more but less or EVEN NIL STATE PENSION FOR LIFE.

    Labour is as dead as PASOK.


    Shw support in the comments to below:

  7. Quinonostante Says:

    Reblogged this on Mentally Wealthy.

  8. Bill Hayes Says:

    I agree with everything you said here, but you dilute your argument by claiming that “perhaps 50,000 people plus” have starved to death as result of their benefits being cut. If that were true, then in the period of the end of the 2nd year of the coalition (when the benefit cuts started kicking in) to today over 250 people a week would have starved to death. That kind of figure could not go unnoticed. No facts to support such a claim ever appeared during the election campaign from anyone.

    • vomsters Says:

      Starved to death is wrong – but died from other causes despite being found “fit for work” or died from illness/starvation/suicide after having benefit sanctioned/cut entirely, then yes we may be looking at over 60K people over the course of the last Parliament.

      The DWP have been ordered to publish the information fequested under FOI regarding people who have died within 6 weeks of their benefit being ceased etc. They were given 35 days which meant they could hold off until after the election – they then lodged an appeal against the order within the last 48 hours of that time frame (I believe that happened because the Tories & IDS got back in – appealing would have been pointless had Labour won, of course). We now await the outcome of all this nonsense – IDS claiming in Parliament this week that no such figures exist & then Cameron stating during PMQs that the figures would be released ASAP… they are fucking useless even at lying to the House.

      • Bill Hayes Says:

        Well maybe, lets see what the FOI delivers, but even so, 60,000 over the last parliament is 288 a week! That can’t be right surely.

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