October 9, 2022

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’.

Workhouse shame

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.

Moving beyond

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. 

Further reading

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:

  • ‘Severance’: Inherited ancestral trauma from forced migration. Click here to read.
  • ‘Rewilding’: Claiming back our connection to the Earth. Click here to read.

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. Looking forward to attending the online launch; and to buying a copy of your book. Overcoming Hardship; and hunger and being creative; are so important; as is connecting to our environment. Our connection to our ancestors is living and vital. I am so encouraged by your determination to heal the trauma. Mental health issues related to institutionalisation touches a bone with me;; my mother suffers still from spending part of her childhood (over a year in an East End Children's Hospital suffering from malnutrition) as a result of being removed from her Mother when she arrived in England from Australia at the end of World War 11 having been born into a military family in Singapore and escaping the Fall of Singapore on the last boat out of the Harbour during the Fall of Singapore. Family tales of surviving the Irish Famine were still repeated to me as a child; as were tales of my Grandfather surviving torture in Changey. I agree such experiences go deep. Your perspective on healing ancestral trauma is do relevant to healing our connection to the land now and healing the land.

    1. I have read your family stories here with such internet Miranda. Goodness. I can’t imagine what those experiences must have been like. So much trauma. It is incredible how they coped. Thank you so much for your kind reflections about my book and launch 🙂

      1. It is clear your book and your work on your path is going to help inspire people to heal their lives as well as connect with ancestors….exciting!

  2. Fantastic Nicola. I never knew that about the stocks or the Statue of Labourers 1351 but it is no great surprise to find it out. Great research and well done you. I read a book called the Traumatised Society by Fred Harrison ten years ago, he goes right back to the story of Cain and Able and paths away from Eden. I think yours will be an easier read though. I couldn't help thinking about all this as the royal pageantry went on, those lords and ladies, kings and queens who took the land from the people and for themselves and yet we still lap it up in some sort of Stockholm syndrome way. Very well done Nicola

    1. Thanks so much for your note here Chris, I am really touched by your congratulations! I talk about the story of Cane and Abel in my book as it happens. It is an important record to help understand what happened back then that is still playing out now. Well, it has helped me in my understanding anyway! Your reference about the royal pageantry also strikes a chord with me. I feel only one story is told, and told very well. My book tells the other side of the story. The original purpose of the stocks is really interesting isn’t it. I heard this years ago but lost the reference and then found it again and wove it into this blog. Thanks again Chris 🙂

  3. Wow Nicola!
    Powerful stuff – I feel this too, as I believe many from the Industrial North will do. Bless you for all the hard work unearthing all this for the rest of us – this does indeed need to be heard.
    2008 Crisis – wow – still reeling from that too – oh the anger, frustration, devastation and loss! = Trauma – I lost everything that I'd "grafted" for my whole lifetime – but thanks to the strength and determination of my forebears (strong women around me) I'm still here – stronger and tougher for the process. When they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger – it's true- tempered steel now. 🙂 that's apt too for the industrial north
    What had a great impact on me what your image of the "Women" in the work house – omg – that was powerful.
    Where I'm from – started digging already (thanks to your inspiration here) are the pit villages; the mining villages – oh there are stories to tell believe me.
    You are an inspiration writer Nicola Smalley – keep going girl – you're out there – but we're right behind you – as are all those women and men who have endured –
    United we stand – divided we fall.

    1. What words to read here, thank you Paulina. Yes, that photo of the women in the workhouse is quite something isn’t it. I have found it fascinating reading your story here, thank you for sharing. I am sorry to hear you had a tough time in the last financial crash. And thank you so much for your encouragement!

  4. Fantastic, informative blog, Nicola. Such a shame that things seem to be going backwards with working hours and pressures, as well as attitudes towards people with little money. As to the workhouses – hellish, inhumane places. It must feel strange knowing you had ancestors there.

    1. When I first discovered I had ancestors in the workhouse, my stomach literally turned a somersault. I am so pleased you enjoyed my blog Ali, thank you. Yes, things have deff. gone backwards. I really feel for anyone on a zero-hour contract. I just can’t believe they exist. It really is tough for people.

  5. Wonderful informative read which backs up my own thoughts/questions as to why my quest for a peaceful life is constantly sabotaged by work obsessed thinking which is so alien to my beliefs. I believe my great great grandfather died in a workhouse but I haven’t been able to find out details why he was there, I think it was due to illness which interestingly might link in with my fear of illness too (just realised that whilst writing!). Sorry for rambling! Thanks for a great read and lots of food for thought.
    Many blessings x

    1. Delighted you enjoyed the read Jai. I have ancestors who were in the workhouse when they were older. I believe it might be because no-one was able to take care of them – they were all too busy working and looking after so many children. The workhouses were the first hospitals, so elderly parents went there when they were very poorly. It must have been awful for them. You may be able to piece more together by ordering his death certificate and see what he died from. I am pleased that my blog has given you food for thought 🙂

  6. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading this second blog. Fascinating how history has played this must work ethic out into our current day. I made a comment in your first blog that I was unable to trace my ancestry but I can on my maternal side and I feel inspired now, having read this, to do so. I think, in my head, I replaced 'I fear' with 'I can't'. Your research must have been harrowing at times. I've come to think that my ancestral trauma is war. Every male relative on my mother's side joined up for WW2. Strangely, they all came home though, alive and intact bodily. When I read of your Irish elderly gentlemen saying that his mother never spoke of the workhouse that triggered a memory for me. No-one spoke of the war, ever and we were warned as children never to ask. I dreamed of my Great Uncle Donny last night,a strong, quiet man, also a soldier in WW2. I know nothing of my grandfather and I don't remember him. No-one spoke of him either other than I heard once 'he came back from the war a different man'. I do know that he 'opted out' and I won't go into any upsetting detail here but it was a violent end. Every year on remembrance day when I pay my respects and I hear the words of 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon, I cry when the poem gets to "At the going down of the sun" and when I hear 'The Last Post' trumpet it touches me to my very core. I feel it so deeply, yes there is ancestral trauma there. I have never thought about that before. I say again, this is incredibly important work you are doing, Nicola.Thank you!

    1. Gosh Lesley. I am so moved by your words. It harrows me to read of this in your family. All those things that went unspoken. I had a great uncle who returned from the war, but he did share stories. It was so common though to never speak of what happened. I imagine it was the only way people could find their way to coping. I just can’t imagine how they managed. I sense that this might just open up something really important for you. Big stuff.

      As for tracing up your maternal line, one tip I have is to look at the 1938 Register, if you didn’t already know about this. This allows you to begin further up the line, as your parents (so long as they were born 1938 onwards) and grandparents will be on this Register. It was the ‘census’ the government carried out just before WW2 to help plan who they were going to conscript into service and also plan for the bomb shelters, evacuations and so on. Its a great resource to draw on, as it post-dates the earliest census that is available for us by almost two decades.

      Thank you so much for your note here.

  7. Another wonderful article Nicola. The part about the evils of the industrial revolution remind me of a book I've just read by Jeanette Winterson – '12 Bytes – How we got here and where we might go next.' I'd never thought of the industrial revolution in that way before so your blog was very timely. Synchronicity is a powerful teacher. And I loved your comments about being idle. I was recently on a local radio station – think desert island discs. One of the songs I chose was 'The Importance of being Idle' by Oasis – for the exact same reasons you mention. We all need life to be punctuated by idleness for sure – it's the only way we can keep our sanity. Maybe the lack of it is the reason the world seems to be falling apart.

  8. Really enjoying these blogs and looking forward to your book! It’s so refreshing to connect with likeminded people through what you put out into the world.

  9. I loved reading this thanks Nicola, a really interesting perspective about idling, I resonate. I'm a 'work' in progress too on that front, trying not to to do! Several of my ancestors were in the workhouse, one a ratcatcher, and with child losses I found it quite an emotional journey looking into my family history. I'm looking forward to reading your book and watching the replay of the launch, as I missed it. Congratulations!

    1. Hi Emma, how interesting you are ‘working’ on these patterns too and you had ancestors in the workhouse. What a trade – ratcatcher! I can imagine it was a really emotionally journey looking into your ancestry. Delighted you are watching the replay and reading my book 🙂 And thank you for the congratulations!

  10. I love this. Makes me feel deeply sad. Thank you for enlightening me to this historical trauma. Though not all in the past as we continue to deal with our fear of 'not enough' and our alienation from the natural world. A beautiful work you are doing

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