workhouses

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Hart Island has been many things: a prisoner of war camp multiple times; in the mid-19th century, it housed confederate POWs; in the mid-20th, it held POWs from World War 2. The island has also been home to a womens’ asylum, a boys’ workhouse, a drug rehab, and a NIKE missile base. But if the average person knows anything at all about Hart Island, it is likely the fact that, since 1869, the island has served as New York’s sixth potter’s field. Approximately 800,000 bodies are buried on the island, making it the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.  The bodies are buried in simple pine boxes, the adults in trenches that hold up to 200 coffins; the infants, in trenches that hold up to 1,000.  Since the island is owned by the New York City Department of Corrections, and the burials performed by inmates, nobody is permitted to so much as land a boat on the island.

In 2008, Marie Lorenz and I set out at about 4:45 in the morning and landed a boat on the island.  In the roughly 4.5 hours I had to photograph the island before Marie got jittery and wanted to leave, we came across many amazing things.  The top photograph depicts the view from a window on the top floor of the White Dove building, originally part of an 1880s lunatic asylum for women, and last used as a drug rehab.  (Here’s a post showing the interior.)  In between the wings is a pit covered in plywood.  This was a half-filled mass grave for infants.  Around the corner from the building was another mass grave (middle photograph) - this one for adults, and just starting to fill.  Both are surely covered now as many more trenches have taken their place.  And on the first floor of the White Dove building, several coffins - this one not buried, and several disinterred (bottom photograph depicts the unburied coffin).  For more on Hart Island, check out my 2008 blog post on the topic.

Prints of the “White Dove Building” photograph available here.
Prints of the “Mass Grave” photograph available here.
Prints of the “Coffin and Storage Crate” photograph available here.

Patients at the Workhouse


In the photographs of the Workhouse, which is also inconsistently also named the Infirmary, perhaps because the two buildings sit side by side, sharing an internal wall, there are a group of men who are known as inmates, or so it’s written here, or sometimes patients, as it’s written elsewhere. They work to make the crops grow, or to make themselves better, or a more complete man, or in order that they may eat, or in order that the workhouse can grow and take in more people to be cured, restored to work again, that the city stays in order, that the city can be cured.

People are awful surplus, old men with not even a belt to hold up their trousers, so they must use stolen rope, with not a voice to speak of them, not even to record the crime, not two pieces of paper that agree on what to call them. They are the shape the state needs. Almost. For belonging.

Either they weren’t sure what to call you or, waste matter, they thought that you must have several names. The Furies. Unkindly Ones. Unkin.

Certain sicknesses for certain times. Are you still sick, they ask each month, and then every six months, tell us how. Can you wash yourself, what work are you able to do then? You’re not prone, but we don’t know what to do with you, because, you see, you won’t tell us what to do with yourself. We haven’t invented the workhouse yet. Here we are in our past unpoliced, unpolicied state. Apply a sticking plaster to the surplus until something more robust can be constructed. Something with an inside, an outside, and a shared wall.



(NB The photo is of the Swansea workhouse, around the 1920s. The piece was inspired by a photograph of Crumpsall Workhouse, near Manchester, in 1897) 

Went on an adventure this morning!

They’ve just put in an extension to rails to trails in our town. All of our rails to trails is sort of awesome because we’ve got this really nice trail that’s paved and has gravel on the side and there’s lots of joggers, and families with dogs, and cyclists, but then you’re walking through the old train line and on one side is the street with nice little houses, and on the other are all the old abandoned train stations, and outposts, and old workhouses. They don’t look terrible - they’re sort of the ‘run down’ that makes you go, “Oh cool!” instead of, “Wow ugly!”. 

The best part is that I’m a fan of this wonderful trilogy by Eoin McNamee that takes place in Ireland about this boy named Owen who ends up going to these abandoned workhouses, and then time starts flowing backwards, and some crazy stuff goes down, and it’s EPIC. And basically, when I first moved to my town I used to imagine that the old workhouses were like the ones in the Navigator Trilogy. And now they’ve put in an extension to the trail, so I can actually go and explore all those areas where the workhouses are a bit more. And so that’s what I did this morning. 

It was pretty fun. 

In the time that I’ve had in the last few days I decided to read up on something I heard mentioned a while ago.

The Northern General Hospital in Sheffield was apparently a workhouse.I pass this building on my way to training. I’ve been reading up on the history and day to day operations of workhouse in the UK. It’s pretty chilling reading.

A lot of information is to be found here http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

Info on Sheffield workhouses http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Sheffield/

it is also about modern day workhouses. historically, men have had workplaces (factories) in which to meet & organize whereas women have been separated in our mini-factories (homes). even if we worked doubledays in both factories, we were on the clock to get home, making meetings at factory or pub, difficult to attend. that’s not to say we haven’t met & organized, but it’s not been as easy. is that partly why our work is still not valued? and online homeworkers? the web is our factory and our meeting ground but where is our work protection? and is there now a greater blur between doubleday jobs?

Thursday March 4th 1915

Wet. A little better. A journey to Workhouse and then to St Pauls Station. Am too early, so I call in to see Miss Simpson.

Go to Dramatic class in the evening. Previous to going, I call in to Miss Brewer, who gives me another jar of Marmalade. Good soul!

At class we discuss new play and decide on “Doctor Wakes Patient”. I am cast for Mrs Wake and also for Queen Katherine in the Court Scene of Henry VIII. We are also asked to do the “Playgoers” again, Saturday March 13th. They have got several engagements for the “Walls of Jericho”.

Info on “Dr. Wakes Patient”, the 1916 silent film.