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Cissy, a workhouse victim of old social prejudice

MEMORIES of a childhood visit to a Sunderland workhouse inspired former midwife Jennifer Worth to write a book. Today she tells us why.

CISSY Gibbs found herself at the centre of a huge family scandal when she fell pregnant out of wedlock just before the First World War. The young Sunderland servant girl was sent in disgrace to Highfield Workhouse, in Hylton Road, where she gave birth alone.

Many years later, still confined within the grim old building, Cissy received a fleeting visit from her great-niece, Jennifer Worth. Now Jennifer, a former midwife living in Hertfordshire, has written a dramatised version of true-life experiences in Britain's workhouses.

She said: "The visit to my great-aunt was the catalyst for writing Shadows of the Workhouse. That experience has stayed in my mind all my life.

"I was only six or seven when my mother took me to see Cissy, and I remember her as rather a sweet old lady with grey fluffy hair.

"She was wandering round in what looked like a nightdress, but my mother later told me it was the workhouse uniform."

Cissy's tragic story began at the turn of the 20th century, when her family's Wearside farm became plagued by foot-and-mouth disease. The disaster almost bankrupted the Gibbs but, with hard work, they managed to struggle on for a couple of years – until the disease struck again.

Cissy and her sisters were forced to go into service after the family was left penniless, while her brothers sought work in the docks and Army. Jennifer said: "Most of the sisters married respectably and produced families, of which I'm a descendent, but Cissy fell pregnant out of wedlock.

"We can't imagine today the scandal that would have caused. She was dismissed from her job and either her family couldn't, or wouldn't support her. "Maybe it was one of the men in the family she was in service to that got her into trouble, we just don't know. But she was left alone and penniless."

Cissy was aged only 19 or 20 when she entered the Hylton Road workhouse and, after giving birth, the baby was immediately taken away from her. She continued to live at the workhouse until her death, believed to be in the late 1940s, but the fate of her baby remains a mystery.

Jennifer said: "It was usual practice at that time to separate unmarried mothers from their babies, and we don't even know if it was a boy or a girl.

"A report in 1909 showed that 40 per cent of children born in workhouses died within the first two years, so it is quite possible that it would have died."

Jennifer's one and only visit to Cissy was arranged as a "family gesture" at the start of the Second World War, and lasted only a short time.

"I remember it as a very scary experience. There were huge walls, locks on the doors and windows so high that you couldn't see out of them," she said.

"My aunt seemed rather vague, but was very sweet to me. She sat me down, patted me on the head and talked to me. That was the only time I saw her.

"My mother gave her some sweets and cigarettes and then we left. I drew her a picture later, which my mother posted to her, but that was it."

Jennifer, 70, had already written one book, Call the Midwife, before drawing on Cissy's experiences as inspiration for Shadows of the Workhouse.

The book details the grim yet courageous lives of several workhouse residents and is now on sale at 14.99. "Cissy had a tragic life but, sadly, many other people in her situation suffered the same fate," said Jennifer.

* Shadows of the Workhouse is available from all major book shops. It can also be ordered from Merton Books on 0208 892 4949.

A dumping ground for the poor

THE first Sunderland Union Workhouse was built in 1834 at Gill Bridge, but quickly became too small. The new one at Highfield (so-called because it was surrounded by fields) was built in 1856 and extended in 1869.

Highfield housed men and women too poor to pay for their own accommodation and inmates often worked on the nearby farm to earn their keep.

The old Board of Guardians controlled the institution until 1929, when workhouses were abolished by an Act of Parliament. It continued to operate along workhouse lines, however, under the name Highfield Hospital, providing help for the poor, sick and homeless.

The National Assistance Act of 1948 transferred administration to the local council, but Highfield was still used to house the homeless for many years.

The old workhouse finally shut its doors in the late 1970s, following an Echo campaign for its closure.

Publish Date: 09 November 2005