Sir David Attenborough is one of the higher profile residents of Richmond Hill in Surrey. Recently, while his builders were converting the old "Hole in the Wall" Pub by his home, a severed skull was unearthed and examined, solving the "Barnes murder" dating back to the 1800s. Inspired by this discovery, I decided to do some research on my own childhood home, a street away.
Richmond Hill is now one of the most sought after areas in the UK. Though our home was a small housing association property for low income, single parent families, being right by Richmond Park (Henry VIII's hunting ground) was utter bliss. But as another vast Porsche Cayenne with one tiny woman in it sails by, what, i wonder, was life like for the ordinary local folk, like me, that are forgotten when history is written?
As luck would have it, the Public records office is down the road in Kew. I'm soon surprised to find that this land between Richmond Park's 'Cambrian' and 'Sheen common' gates does not have a happy history. Queens Road, then known as "Black horse lane" was home to Richmond Union Workhouse.
With an attitude to housing the poor that mimicks battery hen farming, individual parishes had a responsibility for the welfare of those born within them, and often they united to provide institutional care for those in need. If you had fallen on hard times, maybe widowed or laid off during an agricultural depression, you would be unable to pay the bills. With a family starving and no Social Security system, the only option would be a long trek back to your parish of birth, begging for food and sleeping rough en route. Once you arrived, you would be split up. Men, women and children were cruelly segregated and made to work brutal hours in exchange for a meal, bed and clothing, lucky if they saw their loved ones again. Each dormitory would be heaving with other heart broken people.
Richmond Union Workhouse opened on the site of Grove Road in April 1787. A plaque on the building declared it was 'Erected by the Munificence of His Majesty George the III for the use of the poor of Richmond and Kew'. An infirmary, an institution for the mentally ill and a mortuary were later added to the site, probably predominately for residents suffering ill effects of abuse.
In 1832, the Reverend Millman had this to say: "The Workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness, with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity.". Unbelievably cruel, the intention of the workhouse was to dehumanise, which it did successfully, using the Church's warped values. Though inmates could leave, there were usually no other options.
Later converted to a first world war hospital, and now mostly knocked down, replaced with affordable housing, this place is haunted by terribly sad memories of heartbroken men, women and children; crushed and beaten, pining desperately for lost loved ones. Everyday souls who might have been us. Today things are better in the UK, but it's by no means equality yet. The haves indulge, turning a blind eye, and the have nots trundle on, accused of bitterness if they complain, and kept at bay with enough tv and happy pills to keep them from revolting against the economic and political disparity and spiritual destitution. We are a long way from Buckminster Fuller's idea "to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone".
Though we still have politicians who run the country with shameless greed, at least the draconian Church influence is now more under control. Anyone who has read the Bible, believer or not, knows Jesus as promoter of equality, love and kindness, not cruelty. I hope the former residents of Richmond Hill are at peace now, and I wonder what future ones will think of us if Russell Brand gets his revolution. (Ps. I won't be voting for no choice either).