New book sheds light on life in a Northumberland workhouse - and the lessons the author feels we can learn

A new book has been published about the way that vulnerable and impoverished people were viewed and treated in the 19th century.

Saturday, 25th July 2020, 6:00 am

The book tells the stories of a group of people living in the Berwick-upon-Tweed Union Workhouse at the time of the 1881 census, who were categorised as ‘Imbeciles’.

It explores what function categorising people as ‘Imbeciles’ served at the time and how this impacted on the lives of those concerned. Many ended up being placed in the Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum in Morpeth.

George Murray, one of the authors explains: “If someone was called an ‘Imbecile’ today it would be an insult, but this was the official term used at the time to classify people who didn’t have the means or ability to support themselves.

Making ‘Imbeciles’ of the Poor: The Lives of People in the Berwick-upon-Tweed Union Workhouse.

"In writing the book, we wanted to acknowledge the lives of this group of people. We provide a historical context for the processes that have shaped services for vulnerable people today and discuss some of the lessons that can be learned.”

Karen McKenzie, co-author, added: “One of the saddest stories that we uncovered was of a woman who was born in the Workhouse and spent the whole of her life in different institutions until she died in the County Lunatic Asylum in Morpeth at a relatively young age.”

The authors are grateful to Linda Bankier and Friends of Berwick Archives, staff at Northumberland Archives, and Kevin and Denise Shearer at Printspot for their help.

‘Making Imbeciles of the Poor’ by George Murray and Karen McKenzie is available at Grieve’s Bookshop in Berwick and via Amazon.

'Berwick Workhouse' by Paul Scotland.

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Making 'Imbeciles' of the Poor: The Lives of People in the Berwick-upon-Tweed Union Workhouse.