Bath: the workhouse dead

Forced Walk: the Workhouse Dead

Odd Down Workhouse Burial Site Wednesday 15 April 2015 notes for the intervention

Odd Down field Richard WhiteThis place where we are standing is a cross-roads in many senses.  The road behind us was once a section of the Roman Fosseway, which ran from Bath to Exeter. Near here, and we shall soon be walking on it, is a section of the Wansdyke which once divided Anglo-Saxon England from the Celtic peoples of the West.  But it is also a cross-roads in another sense, a meeting-place of different ways of addressing the needs of people for shelter and welfare, and of recognising (or not recognising) their rights to a minimum standard of living and care.  To the north, you can see the remains of the Bath Workhouse.  It is not my intention to sketch even briefly the history of Victorian workplaces, but it was certainly a highly regimented way of dealing with the human needs of people thrown out of employment and on to hard times by rapid social and economic change. To be blunt, it ignored their human rights

This field which at first sight is simply a piece of uncared for and unloved public open space has never been built on for a very good reason.  Beneath it lie the remains of 3182 people who had the misfortune to die at the Workhouse between 1839 and 1899.  Not only are their individual lives not remembered here but there is no plaque to register this extraordinary mass grave on which we are standing. Bath recognises temporary visitors with blue plaques, but fails to even note the Workhouse Dead

My own link with this is very personal. I come from a very long line of farm labourers from the village of Chewton Mendip, high up on the Mendip Hills.  My great-grandfather Charles Payne was born in 1829, one of a family of 9 brothers and sisters. In about 1850 he went off to Bath to make his fortune, marrying Ann Phipps here in 1853. He worked as a gardener, but was unable to make provision for his old age.  Both he and his wife died in the Workhouse and are buried beneath this field.

We are walking today to remember the many people – Jews, Communists, Roma – who were interned in concentration camps during the war. Many of them died. I am not saying that the suffering of people in the workhouses of Victorian England in any way equates to that of the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. The historical context is quite different. What I am saying is that to remember the dead and to mark with respect their passing is part of what makes us human.  A simple memorial in this field, perhaps carved from the Oolitic limestone that is the bedrock of this place, would be of great comfort to the many descendants of those whose mortal remains were buried here in unmarked graves.

There is one other fact that links the Workhouse and our Walk today. In 1940 the Workhouse Infirmary formed the basis of a wartime emergency hospital, under the direction of two very remarkable doctors. One was Dr Clara Cross, the first woman consultant in the area, who had married Roland Cross, the founder of Cross Engineering, the engineering firm that still thrives opposite the main entrance to what we now call St Martin’s Hospital.  The other was Dr Fritz Kohn, a Jewish doctor from Czechoslovakia, who had arrived in England fleeing the Nazi advance.  Their names are both remembered, both given respect, in the present hospital, which specialises in the care of the elderly.

Respect underlines for me the contrast between the Workhouse Burial Ground at Odd Down and the Jewish Burial Ground at Combe Down The fine memorials we shall see in an hour’s time at Combe Down are not ostentatious but record in Hebrew and English the lives of a pretty ordinary cross-section of the town’s population. Here at Odd Down, it is as if the inmates of the Workhouse who died there had never existed.  Charles Payne and Ann Phipps may not have made their fortunes in Bath. But they worked hard, brought up children and were part of that working-class city which those who govern the City of Bath have usually ignored. Like the other people buried in unmarked graves here, they deserved and deserve better. So before we say anything else, I’d like us to observe a minute’s silence in their honour.

John Payne April 2015


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