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  • Carolyn Kirby

The Archway of Tears

Updated: Jan 29, 2019




Following the 1834 Poor Law and the extension of poverty relief by local Unions of parishes, the old workhouse in the centre of Birmingham became increasingly inadequate. In 1852, Birmingham Poor Law Union opened a much larger workhouse on former farmland by the canal in Winson Green. This same area on the edge of the growing town was also home to the recently built prison and lunatic asylum.

The new workhouse was a huge building with facilities like hot water taps, flushing lavatories and gas lighting. It was built to accommodate over a thousand paupers and to designed to the foster habits of frugality and hard work which it was hoped would lift them out of destitution. A contemporary account describes the new building:

Accommodation is provided for 700 adults, including officers and tramps, 600 children, and an infirmary for 310. The principal features of the design are the isolation of each from the other, of the workhouse, the infirmary, the tramp department, and the asylum for the children, and of the perfect separation of the classes in each department. The asylum for the children has every accommodation for their maintenance and education, with a view to promoting habits of industry and self-reliance in in their future career

It is interesting that the children's quarters are described as 'asylum.' This has nothing to do with the 'lunatic asylum' across the canal. The word is used merely in the sense of a place of safety, but it gives an indication of the similarities there must have been in the way that these two buildings looked and felt to those who lived in them, whether as inmates or staff.

Whilst I was writing The Conviction of Cora Burns during 2016, I did not want to be too influenced by the appearance of present-day Birmingham and I concentrated instead on Victorian maps and photographs. But there were some areas around the workhouse and asylum where few historic photographs exist. For this reason, I decided to use Google Streetview to take Cora's walk as she leaves her childhood home in the workhouse and goes to start work as a laundress in the nearby lunatic asylum.

Cora sets off on this walk from the entrance gatehouse of the workhouse on Western Road, Winson Green. Like most other workhouse sites, Birmingham's is now occupied by a hospital. Some of the later Poor Law Union buildings (like the 1880s infirmary and Test House) have become incorporated into Birmingham City Hospital. But, in 2016, the original 1850s buildings seemed to have vanished. Then, as I clicked the little orange man onto Cora's starting point inside what is now the hospital car park, hairs on the back of my neck prickled up. Because there, surrounded by parked cars, was the last surviving remnant of the 1852 workhouse; the colonnaded entrance gateway known locally as the 'Archway of Tears.'

When I then researched this surviving building, which seemed like a precious fragment of Birmingham's history, I was glad to see that there was a campaign to preserve it. As well as having historic interest, the gateway was an impressive example of early Victorian municipal architecture. So, in 2018 once I had finished the book and was planning to take Cora's walk for real, I had another look at the City Hospital car park on Google Streetview. I very nearly cried. There was nothing on the spot where the Archway of Tears had stood except a pile of rubble. The Archway had been demolished in September 2017 to make way for new hospital buildings.

It seems really sad that I left my visit to the workhouse too late. But it is even more of a shame that conservation authorities including English Heritage and Birmingham City Council placed so little value on the last relic of a building which, for many decades, was central to the lives of the very poorest people in the city. The dreaded reputation of the workhouse, in splitting families and imposing its harsh regime on paupers of all ages, is encapsulated by the unofficial name of the now vanished 'Archway of Tears.'

The Archway of Tears in 2016

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