The inherited work ethic
One night, in the midst of researching the life of my Irish great-great-great grandmother Catherine, I had a dream about where she came from. It was just to the east of Belfast, in Ulster. A few months later I made a trip across to Northern Ireland to visit and booked a B&B to stay in for a few days.
On arriving at the B&B, I noticed a book on the coffee table about nineteenth century Manchester, the area where I had spent a lot of time during my adult years. I started to talk to the B&B owner, Ken, about his life. He proudly told me that he was 81 years old, and his mother lived until she was 91. She was alive during Victorian times, and Ken could remember the stories she told him.
I asked questions about what he remembered his mother saying about life during these times. Ken spoke of how his mother described the gangs of boys that would walk the streets in their bare feet, working as boot polishers and newspaper sellers. I kept on with my questioning, and he enthusiastically replied politely to each of my questions.
I found the synchronicities fascinating as I was researching what life was like in Victorian Britain at the time. This was my direct line into what it was like back then, not by reading information recorded on pages but through word of mouth.
Then I asked: ‘what did your mother say the workhouses were like?’
Instantly, Ken's face changed. His smile fell away, and the brightness in his eyes left. It was as if a black cloak folded around him. He looked straight into my eyes and said: ‘No, she never spoke of them. The workhouses were so terrible that people never spoke about them. I am sorry your ancestors had to live in those places.’
The conversation ended there, and shortly afterwards, he left the room.
This blog is the second in a trilogy of blogs I am sharing in the run-up to my book launch. The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma is my first book. It's an accumulation of over a decade's work researching my family history and healing inherited ancestral trauma.
In my first blog, 'Severance: inherited ancestral trauma from forced migration', I explain the science of epigenetics that proves trauma can be passed down in the genetic code from parent to child, down multiple generations. I talk at some length about one traumatic period in recent human history, the Industrial Revolution. I share how a severance from the land resulted in deep-rooted trauma for millions of people, our ancestors, during the eighteenth and nineteenth century as they fled almost certain starvation as they were cleared from the land and lived a life of poverty in the slums of industrial Britain.
In this blog, I am going to carry on this exploration. I am going to share an example of how an ancestral trauma resulting from the severance from the land has played out in my life. To do this, I will spend some time describing workhouses, as I believe their existence so recently in our history bears significance in the ancestral trauma many of us carry.
In my third blog, I will offer ways I have gone about healing this trauma and re-writing the story.
Into the workhouse
What was the workhouse? Why did it invoke such a reaction from Ken during my conversation with him as I stayed in his B&B?
I knew about workhouses as a teenager. My mum told me about them, as my nan was right on the edge of going into one when she was a little girl. My mum told me: ‘If you went into a workhouse, you never came out again.’
The best way I can describe them is a prison for the poor. In fact, it was said that they were worse than prisons. Some people would commit crimes to avoid going into them, as the conditions in jail were considered better.
Workhouses, also called poorhouses, originated in the 14th century and were widespread across Britain by Elizabethan times. They were a means of accommodation and employment for those unable to support themselves financially. There was a workhouse in every parish. In larger parishes, such as the parishes of inner city London where Catherine lived, they would house upwards of 1,000 people.
A workhouse was a last resort. It was a place where the poor would get a bed and be fed in return for work. On paper, they sound like a good idea, yet the streets were filled with people who would rather sleep on the pavements than go through the workhouse gates. It's hard going reading first-hand accounts from people who lived in workhouses. They were gruelling institutions designed to strip the very soul from people.
On entering the workhouse, a person became an inmate, much like in prison. They handed over their clothes, were strip-washed, their hair cut short and handed a uniform. Family members were split up, with women sent to one ward and men to another. Children were taken from their parents, who gave up any rights they had over them. Families could only meet for 1-hour on a Sunday, subject to good behaviour, and this was under the stern, watchful eye of the matron. The silence in those awkward meeting spaces was pierced only with the echoes of sobbing children as they wept into their mother's shoulders.
Conditions varied between workhouses. Many were overcrowded, and sometimes people had to sleep two to three to a bed. The workhouse master was often ex-military. Inmates lives were regimentally ruled by the bell. There were instances of starvation and abuse. The inmates were given the same monotonous work every day from Monday to Saturday. They had to work in silence and eat in silence. The food was bland, such as oats and water and dried bread. On Sundays, after church, they were given the afternoon off. Yet, they were forbidden to leave the workhouse, and there were no recreational activities to be enjoyed inside the walls. No games, books or magazines were allowed until the end of the nineteenth century. So, in these few hours of free time each week, the inmates would just sit and stare. One written account says: ‘even the sparrows avoid the place’.
This photo was taken in Kings Cross St Pancreas Workhouse around the time Catherine lived in London. The image has stayed with me ever since I came across it during my research into life as a pauper in Victorian Britain.
Each of these women has a story behind her: one of misfortune and great sadness. When they were alive, they would have carried with them a great shame for being in a workhouse. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were for a person going into the workhouse, it was shameful. A person was tarnished a failure in society as they could no longer financially support themselves. Such was the shame of going into a workhouse that, in rural areas, families would walk across the fields, so they weren’t seen rather than take the direct road.
Workhouses existed in one form or another until the 1950s, yet, they are rarely spoken of now. But I believe they have great relevance for us. I believe the fear of the workhouse is ingrained in us, in our DNA. I also believe that for those people that had ancestors who lived in workhouses, their shame still lingers, playing out in the dark, hidden corners of the psyche.
On researching my family tree, I have found that several of my ancestors lived in them, in both my paternal and maternal line. Some of my ancestors spent their childhoods in workhouses, separated from their parents. Both my great-great grandfather in my paternal line and maternal line spent their childhoods in workhouses. None of these stories got passed down - I had no idea. These stories were never spoken about because of the disgrace that surrounded them.
Inherited workhouse trauma
People who spent time in the workhouse would have undoubtedly experienced great trauma. These were harrowing places to live.
I also believe that even if people didn’t end up in the workhouse, there would be trauma around doing everything they could to avoid ending up in one. There was no other place to go than the workhouse, and people would do almost anything not to go there. For example, it meant that people would take on just about any work, working any number of hours, as if they didn’t, they would end up in the workhouse.
In my previous blog, I explained how trauma experienced by an ancestor can get passed down the family line through our DNA, in non-coded DNA or ‘junk DNA’. I believe that workhouse trauma is playing out in many of us. I know it has and still is playing out within me.
When someone is in a workhouse, they are trained as a worker. They are taught that working is the only way to achieve value in the world. It is ingrained in them. When someone avoids entering a workhouse, they develop the value set that it is essential to work above all else, otherwise, they might risk being unable to support themselves financially and end up in the workhouse.
This work ethic was an essential component behind the success of the Industrial Revolution. It didn’t come about by accident. The government and the industrialists orchestrated this work ethic at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to provide a ready and willing workforce.
Work by design
Before the factories of the eighteenth century came about work was a much more haphazard and unstructured affair. People worked and had ‘jobs’ but the idea of being chained to one particular employer to the exclusion of all other money-making activity was unknown. The average person enjoyed a much greater degree of independence than today.
The Industrial Revolution saw the dawn of employment, with families becoming entirely dependent on earning a wage rather than being able to feed themselves by growing their food. They might have been earning more money, but at a great cost to their quality of life. The job was created to make things easier for those at the top. People were stripped of their independence in order to service the dreams of a socially aspirational mill owner, for example. Such a person believed the working class should work hard.
The poor were forced into factories and modern wage slavery, doing manual work, whilst the rich assured them that this was the only way to wealth and civilisation.
This movement to shift from ‘a nation of idlers’ to a productive workforce was achieved by creating an environment where people were driven by the need to work. It was achieved in two ways. The first was by using religion to create this message and manipulate the masses. ‘It was God’s will that you work hard’. The other way of converting the rural idlers into industrious workers was hunger. Keeping people hungry ensured they would work and work to earn more money. Then to make them work even harder, they would be paid less so that they needed to work longer hours to earn enough money to survive. All these factors led to the delusion of a love of and an intense desire to work, well beyond the point at which an individual is exhausted. This has parallels with the experiences of many of my ancestors. This belief is still ingrained in me now, and my spiritual path is to find ways to overcome this.
The need to work above all else is still a mantra that remains today in the UK government. During her recent leadership campaign this summer, our Prime Minister Liz Truss said "British workers need ‘more graft’". A decade ago, she co-authored a book, Britannia Unchained, which contained a controversial passage about British workers being among the ‘worst idlers in the world’.
The pattern and values established during the Victorian era haven't gone away: either in British culture or in the genetic makeup of our bodies.
The challenge of making workers work goes back a lot further than the eighteenth century at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Here is a photo of stocks. They still feature in many villages across Britain as historical artifacts. They might be viewed as an amusing legacy of our past and how we used to punish criminals. Only, the stocks weren’t built for this purpose. I was taught that they were an instrument of discipline to reprimand criminals. That might have been the case for much of history, but this wasn’t why they were first built and placed in every community.
The stocks were built in the Middle Ages following the Black Death, where 30-40% of the population died in just a few years. This left a shortage of workers, who suddenly found themselves in a position where they could demand higher wages. English parliament created a law in response to this labour shortage, the Statue of Labourers 1351. In part, it was to ensure that workers could not demand higher wages. It was also to punish those who refused to work when they were required to. Any able-boded worker who refused to work in the summer as required by the lords, stewards, bailiffs and constables were to be placed in the stocks for three days or sent to gaol. Poignant thought, isn’t it?
Idling has been looked down upon in British culture for a very long time.
The inherited work ethic
In my book, I go into some detail challenging the notion that idling is bad. It is something I find myself resisting accepting, even though I am aware of the benefits of taking time out to do nothing and the great things this can lead to. Idling is an essential part of the creative process. Idling is an essential part of spirituality. But idling is very hard to do when you have such a strong work ethic.
What does this inherited work ethic from workhouse trauma look like? How has it played out in my life?
I will list these retrospectively, although I admit I am still working on many of these patterns:
- It kept me in an unhealthy work cycle where I prioritised work above all else.
- I accepted working in a job that I wasn’t happy in for fear of what would happen if I left.
- I felt compelled to work long hours.
- I would prioritise work above my own health and my relationships.
This trauma runs deep. I have been working on it consciously for fifteen years, and I am still noticing the patterns and putting strategies in place to overcome this. I still have the internal thought patterns of work above all else. But I have ways of spotting these and overcoming them on a daily basis. It is getting easier, and I have a lot of support.
I know I am not alone in these symptoms of inheriting an unhealthy work ethic. I know a lot of people are unhappy with their work. I began the process of ending my career in the corporations as a result of the 2008 financial collapse. It was tough then. I imagine a decade on, with a greater financial crisis on the back of Brexit, the pandemic and the energy crisis, it is even harder now.
I made it through though. This photo of my little red van next to an old office block I used to work in sums up the polarity between the world I once worked in and the world I am in now.
Many people who are drawn to The Way of the Buzzard can feel their soul tugging them somewhere else. But where? And how do they take steps to reach there? How do they take back their power and choose a life based on their soul's desires leading them to a life of greater freedom and creativity?
In my book, I share the tools I used to help me move away from a career I was unhappy in and ill-suited for. I will talk about some of these in my next blog too: ‘Rewilding: Claiming back our connection to the Earth’, which you can read via this link.
Post blog update
The launch event
Over the festival of Samhain we held an online event to launch my new book, The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma. Click here to watch the replay.
Order your copy
Click here to read more about The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma and order your copy.
This blog is the second in a trilogy of blogs on ancestral healing. If you would like to read the first and third blogs, here are the links: