Waking the dead in a Dickensian workhouse

Archaeologists are digging up the cemetery behind the Strand Union workhouse in Camden – and the remains reveal some grim secrets about the way Victorian society viewed the poor. Sean Russell finds those attitudes haven’t changed much

Wednesday 02 December 2020 16:00
<p>Many skeletons show the bodies were dissected before burial</p>

Many skeletons show the bodies were dissected before burial

In 1856, after an outbreak of cholera had decimated his general practice, 36-year-old Joseph Rogers took a job as the medical officer at the Strand Union workhouse on Cleveland Street in Camden. He had been practicing medicine for 14 years but had never once stepped foot in a workhouse.

“Could I have foreseen what was in store for me,” he wrote in his book, Reminiscences of a Workhouse Medical Officer. “I question whether I should have applied for the appointment at all, but, having been appointed, I resolved to try it for a time at least.”

The workhouse was an intimidating, hulking, red-brick building which could well have been a prison, and on the front was inscribed the motto, and perhaps message for the poor: “Avoid idleness and intemperance.” 

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