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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 5 August 2008
I was born in the East End in the 1950's, and still live there. However, Jennifer's account has brought to life the tales my parents and grandparents told me about how much a struggle life was for so many people, barely a bus ride from where I was living. Jennifer's portrayal of Mr. Collet's demise in an 'old folk's home', in the 60's, which was little better than the workhouses of 30 years previously starkly reminds us that man's inhumanity to man can come in many different forms, no matter how affluent / civilised / reformed our societies pretend to be. This book should be read by anyone who works in public office, if only to remind them that the attitudes and conditions of the recent past have not gone away; they're still out there and will come back if we allow them to.
Jennifer's comparison of modern East London tower blocks and housing estates taking the place of the old tenements tells us that rather than improving conditions, society has simply torn down the old and replaced them with tacky copies. Jennifer Worth should have gone into politics, for judging from her excellent books, this is one person who would have made a real difference. Next time I travel through Poplar, Limehouse and Stepney, I will now do so with a new interest.
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on 30 December 2005
If you enjoyed Call the Midwife, you will definately enjoy this book, although the content is not midwifery related. There are three parts to the book, each containing stories of people who the author had known through her work.
Her descriptions of the hardship and poverty of early 1900's London, along with personal tragedy and sacrifice will make you weep, and feel thankful to be living in the 21st Century.
- Frank and Peggy, brother and sister, separated from their parents by death and then from each other by the workhouse... courage, hope, joy, and a real tear-jerker ending.
- Joe Collett - this story is a testament to the truly caring and generous spirit of the author - she goes above and beyond the call of duty in my opinion to befriend an old man - and hears a tale of army life and family courage spanning three wars, with more than a touch of tragedy along the way.
Beautifully written, I could not put it down.
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VINE VOICEon 12 October 2008
Matthew Parris states in the blurb on the back of the book that reading this made him cry on a crowded train. It managed to make me burst into floods of tears in the middle of Schipol Airport at 6am - not many books manage to make me cry anywhere - let alone in public. It's a wonderfully evocative read, based on Worth's life working as midwife in 1950s London. The fascinatingly detailed descriptions of the housing, the patients, the costermongers and the nuns make the book quite un-put-down-able I found. The story of Sister Monica Joan is poignant yet makes you smile with every other line, whereas the story of Joe is heartbreaking from the off. I can't wait for the next instalment of Worth's memoirs!
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on 7 September 2008
I read this book in 24 hours- I just could not put it down. I had high expectations, having "enjoyed" Call the Midwife. I say "enjoyed" because I also found it horrifying and I cried over the stories of Mary and Mrs Jenkins.

This book doesn't disappoint, and the stories of Jane, Peggy and Frank are just as compelling. It's written in the same style as Call the Midwife so you can really get your teeth into a character's story in each chapter.

The stories are not as bleak as CTM's- Jane finds love in later life which finally helps to restore the sparkle she lost when she was badly beaten and humiliated in the workhouse. Peggy and Frank have each other, and Joseph Collett doesn't see his own situation as bleak, and is appreciative of the filthy tenement rooms that he's been given. His story is fascinating and I think the friendship between him and Jennifer is beautifully portrayed, especially the incident in the final pages of the book.

The only gripe I have is that I thought a lot of pages were wasted on the trial of Sister Monica Joan, which I didn't find as fascinating as the author I'm afraid. But it's a small gripe, and all adds to the characters of the nuns of Nonnatus House.

Jennifer Worth is very fair in her description of workhouses. They served a purpose, even though they were ill thought out and socially destructive to those who were ripped apart from their family members. Descriptions of life in the workhouse are well written and the most grisly details are in general spared us although clearly implied- the sexual abuse that was alluded to in Frank's story for example.

I want more! I can't wait for the third book. Jennifer Worth must have thousands of stories in her head of the people she met- I want to hear them all.
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on 22 February 2009
After reading Call the Midwife and aboslutely LOVING it, I couldn't wait to get hold of this book. THe book is split into three segments, each telling three different stories. I was really interested in the workhouse aspect, and found the first segment enthralling and couldn't stop reading. However, the following two segments didn't relaly ahve much to do with workhouses and, whilst they were interesting in their own ways, they weren't as gripping as the first segment and in a way felt like they had been shoved in to make up the pages. I was left feeling disappointed after finishing this book, as it wasn't as good as I thought it would be.
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on 30 January 2009
Couldn't wait for the arrival of this paperback after reading Call the Midwife. Got it yesterday and it's living up to all expectations. I forced myself to shut off the light way after midnight but can't wait to get back into it. Three chapters in and it's compelling albeit brutal. Jennifer Worth is such a good storyteller and as a fellow midwife I recommend this book as essential reading - even if you're not a lover of social history. Thanks Jennifer.
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on 15 March 2009
Once again Jennifer Worth has achieved an amazing feat in vividly bringing alive the London of the 1950s, and how the lives of so many individuals was still wrapped up in the shadows of the workhouse which had been abolished some thirty years before.

Unlike her first book, we do not meet so many different characters this time or have so many stories. Instead, the book is divided into three parts. The first deals with a middle aged woman called Jane and a grown up brother and sister whose friendship was forged under the crushing and brutal atmosphere of the workhouse over forty years before. The second is a more light hearted section, almost comedy relief, with the trial of an elderly nun for theft. The final section I found most moving, and it brought tears to my eyes. It tells the moving story of her friendship with an elderly man, and reminds us all that just being there to listen to someone can transform their lives in more ways than we can hope for.

In reading this book, you cannot fail to admire Jennifer Worth - that at such a young age, she must have been in her mid twenties at the times these events are recorded, she had so much compassion for the destitute, the elderly and lonely. This book also makes me admire the elderly man she befriends - who never sees his situation as belak and is grateful for the NHS and social housing, even though that housing is whiolly inadequate.

Jennifer Worth is a very talented writer, and in writing these memoirs she celebrates the life of the ordinary person and their suffering. So far I have found both her books very moving and cannot wait for the final volume.
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on 17 August 2011
We know very little about the inmates who lived in the workhouses. Photos are few and far between. The few photos that do exist show people with hollow cheeks and desperate eyes. The death and sickness rates of workhouses speak for themselves. Poor people were forced to live in the most terrible conditions to ensure they didn't get too attached to them. Families were split up as a matter of course.

Jennifer Worth tells the story of three people whose childhood was spent in the workhouse, whom she encountered as a midwife in the East End of London in the 50s.

I'll be surprised if you can read their stories, and that of the elderly soldier that Worth befriends, Mr Collett, without weeping. Mr Collett ends up being moved to the "sanctuary" of an old people's home - a former workhouse - where visitors are virtually unheard of.

Worth as always writes superbly, is a born story teller and creates a compelling social history of a time which wasn't so long ago.
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on 16 December 2013
I haven't read any of this author's work before but was attracted to the title because I'm so interested in history. However, despite clearly advertising itself as non-fiction, I felt that the whole thing read as a twee novel, with slightly unbelievable characters and situations. It doesn't surprise me that its predecessor has been turned into TV series, as some of the anecdotes lend themselves so perfectly to cosy Sunday night viewing.

I really expected to find more exploration into the workhouse part of the book - as it was, the first section focussed on three people who had grown up in workhouses, but the reader was left with little understanding of the realities of their lives. One of the characters, Jane, seemed more like a caricature; I was scratching my head with bewilderment during the part where she is taken to the hairdressers and shopping for a new wardrobe. I think this part of the tale was intended to be funny and heart-warming (perfect fodder for cosy Sunday night viewing on TV) but it just grated. A further criticism of this section is that she tells the stories of the three characters without us ever really 'meeting' them. To all intents and purposes, this piece comes across as fiction; did those people honestly give the author that much detail about their lives? It seems very unlikely, given the content and circumstances.

I got about a third of the way through the utterly pointless second part, which centred on a very odd nun called Sister Monica Joan. The author seemed blindly in awe of the woman but she came across as many of the other characters saw her: manipulative and rude. After a lengthy dialogue over a Monopoly game, during which a particularly plummy-mouthed character speaks in a manner that makes Enid Blyton's boarding school girls sound like troglodytes, I skipped to the final part of the book. Sister Monica Joan's self-inflicted dilemmas held no interest for me and the whole sorry debacle had nothing whatsoever to do with the shadows of the workhouse!

The final section, in which we meet an old Army veteran, was probably the most interesting part of the book. Thanks to the author's self proclaimed ignorance ('I didn't know much about the First World War... I must confess I didn't even know what trenches were!' - in her early twenties? Really??) she is able to encourage the old man to talk about his days as a soldier, and those of his children. Because she is relaying it as a first hand account, it feels much more real and honest, and the subsequent descriptions on the issues of rehousing the tenement occupants also sound authentic (at least compared to the first section).

I don't want to slate the book because Worth can write well, but I do feel that her experiences would have been better channelled into works of fiction rather than this slightly disjointed work. At times, I wondered where on earth she was going with her stories and the 'shadows' of the workhouse never really loomed large enough to justify the title. Perhaps, as someone who is not a fan of cosy, Sunday night TV viewing, this explains why the book was not for me, especially given the glowing 5 star reviews here. However, I will not be reading another Jennifer Worth book.
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on 9 May 2010
All three books in this series have been a thoroughly enjoyable read. My father was a doctor in this area of London during this time and although he is now in his late eighties and struggles to read, he is also thoroughly enjoying the evocative scenes of this part of London in the middle of the last century. These books are sad, funny, and extremely interesting when you think how far medicine has progressed during the last 50 years and the writer skillfully takes you with her into her world of learning about nursing, midwifery, convent life, poverty and growing up! A very entertaining read.
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