All the talk of Dickens and choosing of preferred Dickens’ novels has reminded me of a lonely monument tucked away in a cemetery. Oliver Twist is first choice for many readers. Doubtless the numerous stage and screen adaptations have helped. The scenes in the workhouse live long in the memory, whether it’s Cameron Mackintosh’s stage production, Polanski’s film or Dickens’ novel.
Workhouses are not in our distant past. When I walk the dog I’m often reminded of this. Just outside Stafford a cemetery lies on a bank overlooking marshes, peaceful but for the rattle of the mainline railway and distant hum of the M6. If that sounds post-industrial, it’s not. It’s a tranquil spot, whipped by westerly winds but hemmed by bull-rushes, meres and sinking gravel tracks. There are dog-walkers, fishermen, runners and ramblers. Tucked away beneath towering Scots pines and a dripping yew is a stone monument. It’s a marker for the fire-dead who lost their lives in Stafford workhouse in 1901.
It’s important town history but I’ve heard no one speak of it.
Brittle leaves drift against the foot of the monument. Even in summer it hides in shadows. It was even moved to this graveyard some 30 years ago from its former home at Christ Church (now demolished). Christ Church was a shoemakers’ church – the local industry.
‘Sacred to the memory of’ it begins. It lists the dead.
Ann Middleton – 54
Geo Cartwright – 67
Peter Ellis – 83
John Higgott – 88
Edward Powell – 70
Samuel Smith – 67
Henry Stanley – 26
Who perished in the fire at the Stafford Union Workhouse, May 16, 1901.
‘In the midst of life we are in death.’