THE TRAMP WARD.
by Mary Higgs
The Tramp Ward was one of a number of undercover excursions made by Mary Higgs into the accommodation available for the homeless poor and destitute, mainly in her home area of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Her first venture, A Tramp Among Tramps, was originally published anonymously in 1904 by "A Lady" and attracted much attention. The Tramp Ward, also published in 1904 in The Contemporary Review under the pen-name Viatrix, was its sequel, intended to counter criticism that experiences and conditions reported A Tramp Among Tramps were unrepresentative and atypical. The Tramp Ward took Higgs and her companion inside the casual ward at the Tame Street "labor test" workhouse in Manchester. There they were met with insult and abuse, inadequate and often inedible food, and beds with wire mattresses.
THE TRAMP WARD
Having, with a friend, spent five days and nights of the summer of 1903 as a Tramp among Tramps, I was led to pursue social investigation a little further. The reasons were many. It was suggested in several quarters that our experiences might be exceptional, that they were the result of specimening isolated workhouses, that mismanagement in detail was possible. Abnormal conditions might prevail by accident. It might also be that in the larger centres of population cleanliness and food were both better managed. Also the time of year at which we went was one when the tramp ward was empty; we did not come in contact with others and learn their character. It was possible that conditions which pressed hardly on us were easy to them. It seemed very desirable to ascertain exactly the winter circumstances in some large centre of population. There were reasons which made the one we chose exceptionally interesting as an experiment. The story of our Tramp was a matter of public knowledge; the personal assurance of Guardians had been given that the evils mentioned did not exist. They had examined and convinced themselves that, as regards the destitute poor, their workhouses were free from blame. Not only so, but the workhouse tramp ward chosen had been frequently mentioned in the public Press. A large "sleeping-out" problem existed in the town. It was suggested that it might be desirable to relax regulations so as to make it easier for destitute persons staying there to go out in the morning to look for work. "It was thought that in this way men who shunned the casual ward might be induced to enter it in preference to sleeping out." So said the public Press. The experiment of slightly relaxing the rules was tried. Very few availed themselves of it. The Guardians also opened the wards early, but very few men came. The applicants were mostly men "tramping in search of work," but all who applied had slept in the neighbourhood the night previously.
The Clerk added that "the experiment made it clear to the public that there was no necessity for the men to sleep in the brickfields."
Here evidently was an exceptional Board of Guardians, bent on meeting a public need. With such a desire on their part, probably ideal conditions would prevail. An ungrateful vagrant class, "men in search of work, but who don't want to find it," nevertheless refused to flock to the provision made for them. They obstinately preferred brickfields after six weeks of relaxed conditions! Was it ignorance or prejudice on their part? Or was it possible that the Guardians were mistaken in thinking provision had been made? One thing only could test the matter: another descent from respectability, and identification with the claimants for relief. One night as a tramp might give insight into real conditions. It is so surprisingly easy to become a tramp that it is strange it has not occurred to Guardians personally to test conditions by sampling each other's workhouses, or at any rate by sending into them some trustworthy witness.
So my friend and I started on a well-planned tour of investigation. We dropped out of civilisation in a town far enough away to tramp from, and set our faces towards a place where friends were ready to receive us. We told no lies. We were at 5.30 P.M. so penniless that through a partial miscalculation we had only 3½d. between us (besides two pennies husbanded for after needs) wherewith to procure the substantial tea with which we wished to fortify ourselves! Consequently we could not afford 2d. for a cup of tea, and our first surprise was to find that a id. cup was hard to procure. It was only by searching in a poor neighbourhood that our evident poverty procured us, as a favour, a cup of tea each and four slices of bread and butter for our 3½d.. The usual price was 2d. for a "pot of tea" in a small, poor, but clean, shop, and bread and butter was id. a slice. When I asked the woman to give us 1½d. worth instead of a twopenny plateful, she gave us two extra slices "free gratis for nothing." Evidently we were objects of charity, poor and respectable, and we appreciated her kindness. But, considering the real price of food, we paid for what we had. Cheap cups of tea are a preventative of evils. Thirsty men and women must drink. Surely a penny cup of tea easy to be obtained might keep many out of the public-house. Of course, we were ignorant of where to go to obtain cheap food, but so, maybe, are other wanderers who are not habitués.
Refreshed, but not satisfied, we began to search for S— Street. No one knew where it was, so we had to resort to the usual refuge and "asked a bobby." He knew, and knew why we asked! After a moderate walk through a very poor neighbourhood we easily identified the place by a row of six men propped up against a wall waiting, and one woman hovering near. We found, somewhat to our surprise, that the hour of admission was one hour later than that which prevailed in the towns we knew. Seven o'clock is late on a winter's night, and it may be you will suffer from cold, snow, or sleet if you arrive as a stranger at six o'clock. Besides, what about early admission? However, no one was being let in, so we took a short walk and returned. All the loiterers had disappeared inside, so we followed. We were, however, only admitted to further waiting under cover in a curious ruinous shed. It was a very cold place, the roof would let water in through holes in the skylight. It was, however, a fine night, and only moderately cold. So we joined two women, and saw the men, about fifteen by that time, arranged in a row against the opposite wall. Two women were sitting on a step and one on the handle of a wheelbarrow. We sat on the edge of a plank with our backs against a hole that gave a view of a place we found afterwards was under the tramp ward, apparently used for bricks. A married woman, somewhat respectably dressed, came in with her husband. One by one men dropped in. The women spoke little, but a buzz of conversation went on among the men, whose numbers grew to over thirty. Two facts struck me. Hardly any one was old, most were in the prime of life, and, with a few exceptions, if you had met them in the street, you would say they were ordinary working men. Some few, however, were evidently of the "moucher" type. We waited, growing cold, for a full half-hour in this draughty place, and then, as the hands of the office clock pointed to seen, we women were told to crowd into a corner near the office window, "married people first," and an official in uniform proceeded to take particulars. Husband and wife, in the case of three couples, had to give name, age, where they came from, and destination and occupation. Then began, as each candidate came forward, a process which I can only describe as "bully-ragging." If the unfortunate applicant stated the facts in a meek and ordinary voice, this official asked, "Have you been here before?" If the reply was "No," "See that you don't come here again," "Sponging upon the rates!" and various other expressions not to be repeated were used in a hectoring tone of voice. If the reply was "Yes," he became threatening and violent in language. One married woman ventured the reply, "Not since before Christmas." He flew out upon her and used insulting language. This preyed on her mind so that in the course of the next two days she frequently said to us, "I only said 'not since before Christmas,' and he said I sauced him." One poor woman with a bandaged head was summarily dismissed. "Get out with you, you—!" "Off with you — sharp!" Threats of five days' detainment or of "gaol" for "impudence" were used, and he announced as a clincher, "All you women will have to stay in two nights and pick three pounds of oakum."
My heart sank low. These must be desperate, well-known characters with whom I was to associate, the very scum of the earth, to be treated so. Even this habitual imposture hardly could justify the official's language. He was evidently a "lion in the path," and not muzzled! But I was a decent, married woman rejoining my husband who was working in a neighbouring town, too far from him to reach him that night, without means to procure a bed, and seeking shelter simply in order not to be on the streets at night, and to proceed as soon as permitted. I gave particulars which were true, and in answer to the question, "Have you been here before?" could truthfully say "No." But this was not enough. "And what are you doing here?" "I am going on to my husband." "You've no business to be here imposing on the rates. Do you know I could give you three months for it? I've a good mind to send you off and make you tramp to him to-night." I was so dumbfoundered, my friend says, I replied, "I wish you would!" Then he proceeded to insinuate I was a woman of bad character; my eyes fell and my face flushed, and I suppose gave colour to his statement. Reply or justification was worse than useless. I grew so confused I could not state correctly the number of my children, but said I had "one or two." Evidently a bad character, leaving children up and down the country. "See you don't come here again. I shall know your face, and it will be worse for you if you do." I earnestly replied, "I won't," and was allowed to pass on. I waited at the top of a flight of stairs while he "bully-ragged" my friend for going about the country with such a bad character. He made her cheeks flush by insinuating she was no better. She said when she joined me, piteously, "Do I look like a prostitute?"
We entered together the tramp ward, a barn-like room, furnished with a wooden table and three forms. We found afterwards that the whole ward was the top storey of a converted mill. It was sky-lighted and divided into several rooms — a very large dormitory, a bath room with w.c.'s, an attendant's private sitting-room and store-room, and the day-room we entered, which was approached by a flight of stairs from outside. The room was very little heated, apparently by a steam pipe overhead. There was no fire, and a very cold draught from outside, when, as frequently, the door was left ajar. The table was so placed that the draught came to those who sat there. We were told to hang up our shawls and sit down. A very stately officer in spotless uniform received us and marshalled us like soldiers, peremptorily, but not unkindly. We sat at table and were given brilliantly polished tin mugs and spoons. Then each of us was helped to gruel, very good in quality, almost thick enough to be called porridge, and sufficiently salted not to be tasteless. A salt-box was on the table. We each received also a thick slice of good bread. We fell to with appetite after our slender tea and long waiting. Gruel was not so bad — for the first time! The table and floor were spotlessly clean. So far good. I did not at the time reflect that it is usually supposed to be bad to have a bath immediately after a meal. As soon as we had finished eating it was, "Now, women, come to the bath, two of you." My friend and I eagerly embraced the first turn, and were soon marshalled each to a corner of the bath-room, searched (for pipe and tobacco!), and told to get into the six inches of warm water, which a notice told us we were entitled to, and carefully asked if it was too hot or cold. We had, however, only soft soap to wash ourselves with, and were told to wash our hair. This we had previously escaped. My friend had very long hair, needing careful drying, and the prospect of wet heads was not cheering. If you wish to frequent tramp wards it is desirable to have short hair. However, there was no help for it, so with the officer standing by to hand a clean towel and enforce haste — "Come, hurry up, women" — I hastily bathed, dried my hair as well as I could, and got into the garments provided — a modern substitute for a hair shirt — a coarse garment of dark blue bathing flannel of most peculiar shape. It just covered the elbows and barely came to the knees! The neck, of white calico, was dirty. I had to perform an act of self-sacrifice in leaving my friend the cleanest. Blankets and nightgowns are stoved every night, rendering insect pests impossible, but, unless I am greatly mistaken, they are not washed often. My friend, who afterwards folded the blankets, found they made her hands filthy. It is not very nice to think of sleeping thus, but it would, of course, be impossible to wash the blankets every time. But it might be possible to give a person a clean nightgown, and the same one for two consecutive nights. As it was, we knew the second night we must be wearing some one else's. They were lumped and sent to be stoved. With regard to the blankets, every night the regulations have to be relaxed for one or two women unfit to be bathed. These sleep in their own clothes. They cannot be clean. But in the morning all the blankets were also lumped and stoved. Consequently, the next night you might be sleeping in your neighbour's blankets. Two women on one night slept without changing or bath. It would seem to be a simple precaution to wash the blankets from these beds, and thus in rotation wash all. However, these delights were yet to come. We folded our clothes and were marched through the sitting-room in our scanty costume to fetch from the store-room pillows and blankets. An American leather pillow, very low, and a straw pillow with a white cover were allowed us, but the second night only the American leather one was allowed. This was much too low for comfort. One woman begged a white one, but we were stopped from asking. It was only for women who had just washed their heads! It was a special favour to her.
We were then marched into the large dormitory and told to let down a wide board propped against the wall, one for each. A row of sleeping women occupied similar "plank beds." There were a few straw beds on bedsteads, but only for sick folks, and also some children's cribs. A gas jet or two burned all night and revealed the gaunt rafters and skylights. Now to test the delights of a plank bed! We were told to make it "one blanket below and two above." So we meekly did so, and the officer retired.
Now began, about 7.30, a night which I can only describe as one of long-drawn-out misery.
The human body is not made to accommodate itself easily to a plank bed even with "three good blankets." If you lie on your back your hips are in an unnatural position unless the knees are raised; then the air comes under the narrow doubled blankets. Try first one side and then another. Your weight rests on hip and shoulder squeezed into flatness and speedily sore. Add wet hair, a low pillow very hard, a garment that left arms and legs uncovered and pricked you all over, and conditions are not easy for sleep. Double a blanket under you four-fold, get another round you, and place the third on top double. This is more tolerable, but still cold. My back was sore after three nights in a soft bed. Do not imagine either that we slept more uneasily than others. Everyone complained of their hard couches, though some said even they were preferable to wire mattresses, on which you "couldn't get warm." A simple expedient would provide an efficient remedy. If a strong hammock material was fastened in a frame bedstead by eyelets on pegs, this could be removed and stoved, washed, if necessary, would give to the body, and allow of easy sleep. But even on this uneasy couch sleep might have been obtained but for a number of disturbances which made the night prolonged torture. The end of the room was occupied by a large cistern. At intervals, day and night, a flush of water was sent along a pipe for sanitary reasons. A very good arrangement, but we happened to be at the cistern end of the room. Anyone who knows how a cistern behaves can imagine the peculiar noises that issued. It seemed possessed by a demon bent on preventing sleep. It would s-s-siss for a few moments, then gurgle, then hiss, then a rush would come, followed by a steady tap, tap, tap that speedily became maddening. Water on the brain with a vengeance! Wet hair and running water in combination! This proximity to the cistern was, however, an accident carefully avoided the second night, but several poor unfortunates would always have to suffer it. It was, however, a minor evil compared with others. The beds were so close they almost touched, quite unnecessarily, as the room was large, but so we were ordered. Your neighbour breathed right in your face, and you had all the twisting and turning of a sufferer on each side to add to your own. Most of the women had bad colds, and you succumbed yourself under the double influence of contagion and chilliness. Then your coughing and sneezing added to the common misery. Only the women there for the second night lay still apparently, but not really, asleep. Later, I knew why: sheer fatigue and exhaustion prevented restlessness. But all of us newcomers turned and squirmed, some sighed and groaned; others gave vent to exclamations of misery. "My God, what a hell hole of a place," said a woman, roused from uneasy slumber for about the sixth time. Far the worst thing of all, which made it a punishment fit for Tantalus, was the interruption to slumber. Nominally, women could be admitted till to o'clock, but really, for one reason or another they were admitted till past midnight, under protest. An officer was in charge, and in each case her manner of procedure was as follows: She turned the handle of the door with a loud noise, marched in the newcomer (after previous cistern gurglings connected with bathing operations), ordered her in a loud tone of voice to let down the plank bed. Down it came with a bang, startling all sleepers. Then she administered some rebuke, mixed with orders, left the new unfortunate, and shut the door sharply. One newcomer was a poor old granny, very bad with rheumatism, whom she loudly accused of drink, probably with truth. This old woman sighed, groaned, and moaned, "Oh! deary me!" "Lord help us!" most of the night, and was in real pain. She got out of bed twice with numerous sighs and groans, taking a quarter of an hour at least each time. Bed after bed was let down and dragged across the floor. A woman came in very late, could not settle, was moved to a straw bed, was too frightened to sleep (perhaps d.t.), finally was allowed to go out in the middle of the night. No doubt the post of this night watching officer was tiresome and onerous, but a little thought might have brought about considerable improvement. If a number of spare beds were placed ready overnight, and scoldings administered in the day room, if doors were opened quietly, and orders given softly, with some consideration for a room full of weary sisters, one would have been thankful. As it was, people grew more and more restless; some one was constantly wandering to the adjoining lavatory, or sitting up and coughing or moving uneasily. It was nearly impossible to snatch more than a few brief moments of restless slumber before, with early morning, sheer weariness reduced us to quietude. Then at 5.30 we were roused by the mandate, "Now then, women, all of you get up; be sharp now." A hasty obedience, swift and unwavering, is enforced by several stern sanctions. In the first place, before you lies a day of service, the conditions of which can be made hard at will. Behind that is the possibility of being detained four, or, if Sunday intervenes, five days, for "cheek" or "impudence." No one could face such a prospect with equanimity. Yet for very slight cause it was possible. We had an object lesson before us of the tender mercies of officials. A poor woman, a silk weaver by trade, who had been reduced to live by casual labour at charing or by selling bootlaces, had entered the previous night. She was ignorant of the two nights' detention, and had a cleaning place to go to. When she found she was to be detained she begged and prayed to go, and the officer was moved by her tears to take her to the matron and give her her liberty. But this took time, and she reached her charing place too late. Work was denied her, and she wandered about all day, and came back rather late to claim her second night, having difficulty in re-finding the place, and having nowhere to go. I have every reason to believe her story was true, for she repeated it to us again and again, it fitted in with her character and history, and she had no motive for deceiving us. But for this offence of returning, after having asked off, she was condemned to remain five days. Her story was not believed, though she begged with tears to go out and seek work. One officer, indeed, spoke to almost all in a most peremptory, and one might also add, insulting manner, casting doubt on the truthfulness of what was told her. Reply was useless, as it would only provoke penalty. She hurried people up and ordered them about. One woman, an old hand, the second morning said, "Come, come, you needn't be so knotty with us," but no one else ventured anything that could be interpreted as disobedience or "impudence." She turned a deaf ear to one poor, tired woman whose feet were swollen, and who wished to remain another night, and tried her best to order poor old Granny out. "You won't stay here," "You can walk right enough," "You won't come over me with your tales." Fortunately for us, her regime was limited. We had altogether dealings with three officers. One was careful and stately, strict but kind, only not considerate in the matter of protecting our sleep. This one was "knotty," and the third far more kind. Fortunately her share of us fell at dinner time, but of that more anon.
I should remark that I felt considerable sympathy for these our task mistresses. Even with a cosy sitting room, and stove, and sofa, it must be an irksome and disagreeable task, and our "knotty" friend looked weary. By the end of the time she had sufficiently differentiated us to tell us before leaving "not to believe" the others. But I think she was to a great extent harsh and wrong in her judgments; at any rate, the assumption that all were liars was wrong. My friend and I are accustomed to judge characters of this class, being engaged in Rescue work, and having destitute women constantly in hand. You cannot live a whole two nights and a day with women, under pressure of hard circumstances, in fellowship, without eliciting confidence. The women who went out after one night with us we did not know. They ate, or did not eat, a hasty breakfast, and departed very early — about 6.30 probably — some of them to join husbands. But the following may be taken as a truthful description of our sisters who remained. The main impression on my mind is a double wonder at their patience in affliction, and at the qualities revealed in them, and a wonder whether, if I had selected a similar number of better class friends and placed them in like circumstances, they would have borne the test as well.
Our morning ablution had to be performed with cold water and soft soap. Our clothes were restored to us mostly stoved (in which process some are said to be ruined, becoming limp and creased). Breakfast, the same as supper, was meted out to us. Gruel a second time, and dry bread is not appetising. Oh for a drink! The room was cold, and only cold water from the bath tap available; it tasted of metal polish or soft soap.
We sopped our bread in our porridge, and, knowing we had the day to face, ate all we could. No one ate all their porridge and bread. We were not exceptional, hardly anyone ate much. Some kept their bread and munched it at intervals through the day. The porridge, including some nearly full mugs, and what remained in the can, was simply thrown away. Naturally enough, when the officer left us and we waited for the task mistress, the conversation turned on food and treatment. Those who knew other workhouses declared that this was "the worst they knew." In the course of the day we heard the merits of most of the workhouses near, and of some far away. It may be well to summarise as follows: The comparative merits of a tramp ward depend first on drink the women feel dreadfully the need of drink, especially after hard work. Coffee or tea makes all the difference to dry bread. Gruel is not drink. Some can bring in a bit of tea and sugar, and as a favour beg hot water, but it is often denied them. We procured it once, and it was once denied in our hearing. We had but a screw of tea and sugar, and some had none.
The second requisite would seem to be food, but it seems as if only a few can eat the gruel more than once a day. It is played with and left by most. Hence dry bread and a morsel of cheese at dinner is the real fare. As the quantity of food allowed is not even that which will sustain life in an adult, semi-starvation is the result.' The tramp men who brought back the stoved blankets, eagerly and hungrily hid under their jackets the pieces of bread the women had left.
Now to commence, after a night of misery, with a freshly-caught cold, to sit in a cold and draughty room with no fire, and feast on gruel and dry bread, with a possible drink of water, is punishment, not charity, or alleviation of misery.
The third merit or demerit of a tramp ward is the bed. Straw beds are a luxury, wire mattresses disliked for cold, plank beds for hardness; the floor is preferable, as there is more room.
The fourth and perhaps the most important item is the character of the officers. Any who have even a drop of the milk of human kindness are remembered with appreciation. But they seem rare. Not, I believe, that there are many intentionally unkind. "They know not what they do." The constant habit of dealing for so brief a period with individuals prevents the formation of the customary links of human kindliness; the worst characters return, the best stay so short a time and are lost to sight; any act of kindness meets apparently no reward. Kindness for kindness' sake is difficult, a peremptory official habit easily acquired. There may be texts in an officer's sitting room, and yet the Christian qualities fortitude and patience and self-sacrifice may be better exhibited to one another by the tramps outside her door than by the inmate in authority. Some workhouses are to be avoided like poison. There positive cruelty and insult reign, but the slightest resentment might be interpreted as "insubordination" and earn prison. A cast-iron system administered in a cast-iron way may, without intentional unkindness, be responsible for a vast sum of human misery.
The task mistress came and asked us if we could wash or clean. Three of us were set to pick oakum. I could not volunteer to stand over the wash-tub, and, besides, I wished to unravel the mysteries of oakum picking, and learn the histories of my comrades in misfortune. So we three sat on a wood bench in a cold room, and three pounds of oakum each was solemnly weighed out to us. Do you know what oakum is? A number of old ropes, some of them tarred, some knotted, are cut into lengths; you have to untwist and unravel them inch by inch. We were all "'prentice hands." One woman had once done a little; we had never done any. After two hours I perhaps had done a quarter of a pound, and my fingers were getting sore, while the pile before me seemed to diminish little. Then I was asked if I could clean, and gladly escaped to a more congenial task. One woman only picked oakum all day; she was the one who was penalised. She had never done it before, and did not nearly finish her quota, though I helped her a little later on. Fortunately it was not demanded, but it might be at the will of an officer.
It will easily be perceived that long before this any dream I had of ideal tramp ward conditions had vanished. I was instead filled with amazement that any enlightened and Christian men and women could consider this a refuge for destitution, and wonder at a preference for brickfields and liberty. Prison treatment would be preferable, but my wonder was still to grow.
For the prevailing idea in my class of society, which I to some extent shared, was that tramps as a class were so incorrigible, and so determined to lead a nomad existence, that the life had somehow a mysterious charm for them, and the only thing was to severely penalise vagrancy in order to deter men and women from it. Viewed in this light, it might be desirable that the treatment in a tramp ward should be equalised to that of a prison as a deterrent. A suspicion had been gradually growing in my mind that there was a destitution that was not voluntary vagrancy, and an actual forcing of lives into nomad existence. But I had not realised the pressure our system exerts in the direction of a wandering life.
Let me introduce you to my companions and assure you I shall ever regard them with affection and respect.
There is first of all "Granny," a poor old body of seventy sorrowful years. Once she had a little home of her own, and brought up a family of five sons and daughters. But her "old man" died; still her son supported her, and she led a precarious existence, much plagued by "rheumatics." But one day, not long ago, the place where her son worked was burned down, and she lost her stay and was turned adrift. She had mother-wit enough to beg her way; people gave her tea and pence. She "paid her way" in tramp wards, taking in a little tea and sugar and "tipping" officials with a penny for hot water. She offered me a halfpenny for a screw of sugar. She had begged unsuccessfully of a child at a door before coming in; the mother stood behind and refused. "As if a spoonful of sugar would have hurt her," Granny scornfully said. One thing remained to her — liberty — but to keep this she was forced to walk from town to town, sampling tramp wards. She had not done it long, but it was too much for her. One arm was too painful to be touched; it was hard to put on her tattered garments; she provoked the wrath of officials by dilatoriness. Her legs were a study. Each leg was swathed in bandages, her feet wrapped in old stocking legs and bandaged, and men's, boots put over all, a long — long process. Poor old soul! she wanted to end her wanderings, and told us, I believe truthfully, that she had tried to get into two workhouses, but had not succeeded. Knowing the reluctance of officials to admit paupers out of their own parish, I can well believe it. She was really ill when she came, besides possible complications of having been "treated" to a drink of whisky. She could hardly stand, had a cough and looked feverish, and only fit to lie down; we had to help her on her feet several times. Perhaps her ailments bulked large — most old people's do — but she did not after all groan so very much considering. She was ordered out, but she said with truth that she might "fall down in the street." It did seem likely she might just go wandering on "till she dropped," so we all advised her to stay and see the doctor, who might order her into the House. She seemed to have only a mazy idea of how to go to work to get in, but she took our advice, saw the doctor, and was allowed to stay another night, but not ordered in, as she could stand. However, she might the next day, after being turned out, herself apply for admission, and this we all united to advise her to do. The one effect her wanderings had produced in her was a deadly hatred of workhouse officials. In the afternoon, after singing a hymn, I comforted her by telling that her wanderings might soon end in a better place. She was not sure of going to "heaven," but she felt sure she should meet many of these her tormentors in hell, and "then," she said, "I'll heave bricks at 'em!" I couldn't help suggesting "hot bricks" as appropriate, and then talked to her about "loving her enemies." "I can't help it," she said, "if it keeps me out of heaven, I hate 'em — I hate 'em all!" Poor old soul, she lay on a form most of the day, obviously ill, worried out of the bed on which, in the absence of an officer, she laid her poor old bones. The officer next morning truly said that the workhouse, and not the tramp ward, was the place for her; but she scoffed unbelievingly at her story of having tried to get admission. Yet Granny continually told us she longed to get in and have "a good bed," and one can imagine a poor old body like that, with no one to speak for her, might have difficulties with a relieving officer. But we had to leave her behind us, though one longed to take her by the hand, and see her safely in. I was not in a physical condition to stand the long hours of waiting from 6.30 a.m. till the office at which she would be admitted was opened. We advised her to stay as long as she could, and then go there. Next in order was a married woman, whom I would gladly own for my own relation.
Her husband was on the men's side. "That's my old man," she said, on going out; "I know him by his cough." She had been well brought up and had sisters in good circumstances comparatively. She was the "black sheep of the family," and had drifted, probably through marriage, into destitute circumstances. She and her "old man" were comfortably ensconced in a workhouse where, as a good steady worker, she was probably not unwelcome. But she heard her sister in a distant town was dying, and they took their discharge and walked there and back, close on seventy miles, arriving in time and staying for the funeral. She was very, very weary with the long tramp, accomplished within a week. I believe they were re-entering the workhouse. This woman had a pleasant face and manner, and took several opportunities of doing small kindnesses; she did not grumble, she only mildly complained of the task set her. I think she had cause — she was set to scrub a very long and wide corridor. She steadily scrubbed away for hours; she had no kneeling pad, and it was "hard lines" on poor food and in a tired state. How many of us would have walked seventy miles to see a dying sister, and, weary and sorrowful, work without complaining, and with a cheerful face, and an eye for others' sorrows?
A woman who interested me much was also a married woman. Once she had been waitress in an hotel frequented by the gentry, a place I knew well, and travelled with her wages in her pocket to buy clothes. She was still better dressed, a shapely woman, with a face almost handsome, graceful in her movements and a capital worker. Her husband did not look a bad specimen of a working man. Her story was that they had had a comfortable home; he was once a singer in a church choir. But his particular branch of trade failed, and he had to seek a growingly obsolete kind of work where it was to be found. They had tramped north in vain to find it, and were now tramping back to their old neighbourhood in the hope that things would be better. This woman also did not complain, and behaved in a self-respecting manner, not a foul word or reproach; she worked steadily, but was very weary and restless at night. She had a heavy cold on her and grew worse instead of better. I seem to see her sitting wearily up in bed, unable to get the needed repose. They had walked long distances recently.
A more doubtful character was "Pollie," who apparently was well known to the officials. She was left stranded, as her husband, one fine day, being let out of a tramp ward before her, left her behind. She complained bitterly that the men were let out so long before the women, they had time to get "miles out of the road." If she caught him he would "get three months." Meanwhile she intended to visit a sister who would give her a few shillings, and then make tracks for another sister. Her face was not unhandsome, but her nose betrayed the real reason of her misfortunes, and her tongue was ready, and not too clean. She knew the workhouses far and wide, and had had her tussles with the authorities. She had thrown her bread and cheese at a matron who gave her it after hard work, giving another woman a workhouse diet. She had been in prison for "lip." She was, in fact, a tramp proper, and with a little drink and boon companions probably foul-mouthed and violent. But she and Granny were the only ones who used expressions not polite to give point to their opinions, and that only occasionally. They were under no restraint, unless our interior character insensibly sweetened the atmosphere, for no one, not the most travelled, suspected us. We had been "on the road," could refer to workhouse reminiscences, and "knew the country" far and wide. We freely rewarded confidences by real bits of history. As we sang in concert, probably that was thought to be our "line of business." We were complimented on our voices — I, like the husband above mentioned, had once "been in a choir." I felt sure we should have got a good living "on the road." A tramp man who passed us told us he thought we should have been "miles further by now." He watched us, and made in the same direction. I twitted my companion on the loss of a chance for life.
It might be thought our speech would betray us, but I do not know that it was more educated than that of one at least of our companions. We were with "all sorts and conditions of women" but not the worst.
There remains to be described a little Scotch woman, also married. She had been a servant, and was a "neat-handed Phyllis." Born near Glasgow she married south. Work failing, she and her husband had tramped the weary miles to her friends in the hope of work. They had returned, via Barrow, and were bound further south, so far seeking work and finding none. They had become habituated to tramp wards on the long march, and could tell the character of most, and the stages of the journey.
These were the only ones we got to know intimately; a sorrowful woman with a sickly-looking child, who came overnight, were seeking admission to the workhouse that morning.
If these were tramps, with one exception they were made so by circumstances.
Shall I picture my brave little friend and companion, who worked on hour after hour with a splitting headache caused by a sleepless night? She had to clean the officer's room thoroughly, and to scrub tables, forms, floor — everything in short, in the large day room and down the stairs, a big piece of work. Meanwhile the two married women scrubbed the big dormitory and the bath room. The Scotch woman was told off to wash, by her own request, and related gleefully how she managed to wash and dry some of her own clothing before the officer came and told her to "mind and wash nothing of her own." We were meanwhile growing dirtier, and in more need of a bath than the first night. One woman washed a pocket handkerchief and dried it on the steam-pipe. Nothing else was possible.
I was taken away after two hours' oakum picking and set to clean. While waiting for a bucket I saw a fire. Welcome sight. I dried my boots and warmed my feet, wet from the previous days' tramp. I was provided with materials, shown where to get water and set to clean, "Scrub, mind you," two lavatories, two w.c.'s, and a staircase with three landings and three flights of stairs. I was also to clean the paint in the lavatories, etc., and do the taps and the stair-rods. Of the latter task, however, I was relieved by a pauper woman, who said her work, of which she was thoroughly sick, was constantly to clean brasses. I like cleaning, and set to work with a will, only one soon comes to the end of one's strength after a restless night and an insufficient breakfast. I found I must moderate my speed or I should not last the day out. Men were doing a cistern in the downstairs lavatory, and kept passing and re-passing with dirty boots as fast as I cleaned. My taskmistress, after one inspection, left me alone to it. I fetched bucket after bucketful and completed my task to my own satisfaction, and hers apparently, by twelve o'clock. She was not unreasonable, but a little sharp. She sent me back to dinner in the tramp ward, and "hunger sauce" enabled me to finish the bread and cheese allotted, washed down by tea. We all brought out our husbanded treasures, and the kinder official let us have boiling water. The man in the office sneered at her and remonstrated, "You are soft!" "I can't help it," she replied. May God bless her, for it can hardly be imagined what a warm drink was to a thirsty soul, even without milk and with little sugar. We gave Grannie some, and all ate our frugal meal without repining and with thankful hearts. We were allowed an hour, and resting my head on the table I snatched a few moments of most badly-needed rest. Then it was time to work. I was taken to the House and given a new task, to wash out an office, the little Scotch woman dusted the board room and my room. All had to be ready before three. I finished to satisfaction in good time, being once rebuked for sitting to do the last piece of floor (I had been on my knees without a pad for hours), and once for not saying there was no coal in the coal-box. But these were gentle rebukes. I was now very tired and could hardly carry my bucket. I slopped the water, a little; perhaps my taskmistress saw I was tired, at any rate, she laid on me nothing further, but sent me back to the ward.
There my friend's task was by no means ended, she was on her knees scrubbing painfully, a quarter of the floor yet to do. I tried my hand, but was not quite "in the know," so I sang to her to cheer her and the others. Even old Grannie cheered up to the sound of "When ye gang awa', Jamie," an old favourite of her youth. It was easy without offence or suspicion to pass to hymns that might leave some ray of comfort in sorrowful hearts, and to get in a few words about the bourne "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." I could not help considering that probably nowhere in the wide world were there souls more dear to our suffering Saviour than such as these, who were sharing the life He chose on earth. Grannie used to sing, "Oh, let us be joyful, when we meet to part no more," and all were ready for the "Kindly light" to lead them home. I have discovered that this and "Abide with me," with "Jesus, Lover of my soul" are tramps' favourites. Could the deep-seated religious sentiments of the human soul choose better expression?
The little Scotch woman loved some of the "songs of bonnie Scotland." In spite of scrubbing, my friend chimed in, and the hours passed. I grew rested in thought and body. Then our taskmistress appeared just as the floor was finished; she had forgotten the store room, it was locked up and not cleaned. She chose my poor weary friend, but I could not stand it, and volunteered instead. I had watched till I knew how, so I set to work with a will and acquired a new accomplishment, how to scrub a floor with sand and soft soap!
My performance "gave satisfaction." At last all was finished, and we awaited the next meal, not with eagerness, for the third time of gruel and dry bread "pays for all," but at any rate with hunger. It was a long, long wait from twelve dinner to somewhere about six. A slender breakfast at six, dinner at twelve, and hard work left something lacking; the morning gruel was slightly sour also, and I began to have uncomfortable feelings. Nevertheless, after a seemingly long wait, during which we all grew quite "chummy," and I extracted much information and confirmation of personal histories and social condition, at last supper arrived, and I finished the gruel with appetite, but could not, without a drink, eat dry bread.
Then another wait. We all grew tired to utter weariness. I longed even for a plank bed. We sat in various listless attitudes, half starved, cold, too weary to talk. There was nothing to see, skylighted as the room was, nothing to do but to pick oakum, which still lay in measured heaps on the floor, no literature save the "regulations for tramps" on the walls.
This, then, was the kind of thing which left "no necessity for men to sleep in the brickfields!" I questioned the married women, none of them knew anything of any relaxation of rules. Evidently in their world it was not a matter of public knowledge that a man might enter earlier and go out after one night.
At last it was bed time once more, we were "officered" to our uneasy couches. We were allowed to remove our shawls to the room where we slept — a great boon, as I smuggled mine into bed, covering my bare arms, and securing a little more comfort. But I was sore from the night before, and no position gave ease. Being near the week-end few came in, as it meant an extra day's detention, but the same ordering and bumping went on. I shall never forget my next door neighbour who came in rather late and was near enough to touch. She was a respectable woman of the barmaid class, slightly grey, and therefore rather old for employment. She was well dressed. She was out of a place, and had applied at a Shelter too late to be admitted, and was sent here. She had never been in such a place before, and her astonishment at the conditions amounted almost to horror. We told her how to make the most of her bed — none of us near her were asleep. She twisted and turned her wet, grey head on the hard pillow, sneezing with a commencing cold. She sat up and lay down. "My God!" I heard her say, "one can't sleep in this place." And with reason, for though the interruptions were not so numerous, they were sufficient to effectually break sleep. Grannie did not groan so much, but she got out of bed, was scolded, and had to be helped in. "Don't be so soft," I heard the hard official say, as she gave an involuntary small scream when one of her aching limbs was touched. It was true she had given trouble, but she was old, feeble, and ailing. It would not have been hard to be kind. I was myself by this time ill. The last meal of gruel coming as a distasteful meal on a tired body had not been digested. Sickness came upon me, and I had to be a disturber of the peace by three times getting up, and parting with my hardly-earned supper. Each time, paddling over great bare spaces in scanty attire, I grew colder, but I was in terror of attracting the attention of the officer, being considered ill and detained. Anything rather than another day in such a place of torture. As on the night before, some slept the sleep of utter weariness, most groaned and twisted, some lay awake. I never understood so well the joy of the first dim daylight, the longing of those who "wait for the morning." A woman sat up, "I'm dying of hunger," she said. It was the poor woman condemned to stay five days. What would she be at the end? I felt a mere wreck. Only two days ago I was in full health and vigour. It was no absolute cruelty, only the cruel system, the meagre and uneatable diet, the lack of sufficient moisture to make up for loss by perspiration, two almost sleepless nights, "hard labour" under the circumstances. Before me lay home and friends, a loving welcome, good food, sympathy, and rest. What about my poor sisters?" I have nobody, nobody in the wide world; I wish I had," said the poor soul next me, new to such treatment. A good-looking woman beyond had never been in before. I shuddered for those I should leave behind, new to such conditions.
Is this the treatment England gives in Christ's name to His destitute poor? What if some are "sinners." He chose such, and "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these my brethren, yet did it not to me." My heart burned within me. Thank God for every bit of suffering that I may bring home the truth. A public newspaper states, "The guardians only hear ex-parte statements, those of the men themselves." Supposing they speak true!
During the afternoon one poor woman had said, "If only the rich guardians, and the heavy ratepayers, knew how their money was spent, and how us poor things had to live, they wouldn't allow it." They felt bitterly the irony of so many officials being paid to order them about, and get the maximum of work out of them while they were practically starved. The conclusion of the whole matter is, the more rigidly the system is enforced in its entirety, the more hardly it presses on the destitute poor, while it makes no provision for their need. It is not even preventive, and it is costly? Morning dawned slowly as I pondered, and the welcome call came. My neighbour slept, her face drawn in sleep as if with suffering, her profile and grey, tossed hair as she lay on her back, as the easiest position, an appeal of sorrow to the eye of the Watcher of men. She woke with a start and moan.
No help for it. "You women all get up, be quick now; be quick and hurry up, Grannie." Short, sharp, decisive marching orders. Sick and shivering, with aching head and body sore from head to foot, I did my best to hide any sign of illness that might come between me and liberty. My companion suffered also from violent headache, neuralgic pains, and an aggravated cold.' Pollie's face was drawn and tired. No one complained much. I heard only one grumble at having to wash an already smarting face with soft soap. One produced a precious bit of white soap and lent it — a kindly deed. Grannie got under weigh with many a groan, very slowly. "Hurry up, women; three of you have not put your boards up. Now then, Granny, don't be all day." We will pardon her, for she has been on duty all night, and is also tired; but surely the woman who said, "Come, now, you needn't be so knotty with us," spoke true. We had little chance or time to speak much. It was only the early cold grey dawn of a winter morning, but already the message had come up that husbands were waiting. Gruel and bread for the fourth time. No one going out did more than pretend to eat it, some pocketed the bread. Neither my friend nor I could have touched it if you had offered us a sovereign — my soul loathed it so I could hardly bear to look at it.
The poor woman condemned vainly hoped for release; she wept, but this only hardened the officer. She was not to be "come over" this way. "Don't you believe her." Grannie must swathe her poor old legs and go; she had better get into the workhouse. We had to leave them to their fate. I shall never forget the last few moments of waiting. A raging passion for freedom took possession of me. I dare not ask to go a moment before I was ordered to for fear lest it should be construed as "impudence." May be I wrong the officer, but she interpreted so easily any appeal as interference. Oh, to be free! Oh, to lie down anywhere under God's free sky, to suffer cold and hunger at His hand. "It is better to fall into the hand of God than the hand of man." 'We both agreed we would face a common lodging-house and its pests, or even the danger of prison for "sleeping out," rather than pass again through such an experience.'
Do I exaggerate? It must be felt to be realised.
At length we escaped with "Pollie," leaving Grannie and the victim with the newcomers. It was very early, and about two hours lay between us and succour; my friend was almost too tired to walk. But God's free air was round us. Thank God for a fine morning! We are "on the road," and nothing in front can be so bad as what lies behind. We are tramps and "mouchers "; we can beg, for we need pity; sing for our living, sell bootlaces, and turn over the money; even if we steal, prison only waits us, and it cannot be worse — our companions, who have tried it, prefer it. One thing we could not do — we could not at this moment work for an honest living. It is physically impossible. By hook or by crook one or two restful nights must be put between us and the past. Strength to work has gone. One might perhaps tramp, for the air is reviving, and people are kind to a wayfarer. Do you wonder at our national tramp manufactories?
For this is what it amounts to. An obsolete system adapted to the times when population was stationary, is supposed to meet the needs of a population necessarily increasingly fluid.
Labour shifts from place to place where it is needed. Individuals drop out or are thrust out. There is never, on any one night, in our great centres of population, sufficient provision for this ebb and flow. The homeless and the homeless are a great multitude, as sheep without a shepherd. Day by day they make a moving procession." The decent man or woman who is stranded joins them, at first with the honest intention of gaining a livelihood. If it cannot be obtained, what is he to do? The common lodging-house can never be a sufficient provision for this need. It would never pay the private owner to provide the maximum number of beds required. Our friend "Pollie" grumbled that in many lodging-houses the price of a decent bed was 6d., and "then you could not be sure it was clean."
What is needed may take away the breath of a conservative public. It is nothing less than the entire sweeping away of the tramp ward, and the substitution of municipal lodging-houses, coupled with strict supervision of all private ones. The maximum need with regard to sleeping accommodation on any one night in a great city must be met. Shelters, sanitary and humane, not charitable institutions, but simply well-managed "working people's hotels," must be run privately and supplemented publicly, providing accommodation for everyone.° To meet destitution, these should be supplemented by "relief stations" on the German plan, where supper, bed, and breakfast can be earned. Freedom need not be interfered with beyond demanding work sufficient to pay. Payment should be on the graduated ticket system. The tramp proper hates work. If once a national system sufficient for destitution was inaugurated, the man who will not work could be penalised. A labour colony is his natural destination. The classification of workhouses and their adaptation to various necessarily destitute classes, such as epileptics, feeble minded and aged, might remove much destitution, placing it under humane conditions. But the immediate and crying need is for the abolition of an old, inhumane and insufficient provision for suppression of vagrancy, in favour of adequate provision for the modern fluidity of labour, coupled with honourable relief of destitution, neither degrading nor charitable.
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