Ancestry UK


In January 1904, an unnamed reporter made an undercover visit to the casual ward at Bradford workhouse. His account of the establishment, below, was published in the Brighouse News. A few weeks later, the same journalist was given a guided tour of the main workhouse, an account of which also appeared in the Brighouse News.


(By an Occasional Correspondent.)

When a man is the wrong side of 40, looks 50 without his hat, professes to feel only 18 in a ball-room, claims to be an expert judge of feminine beauty, boasts of having photographed the prettiest woman in Europe, and declares it is his mission in life to cause more laughter than tears, that man can never be relied on as to where he will break out next, for there is absolutely no limitations to such a man. I should make a poor monk. A human being after all is very like a billiard ball, the slightest touch from cue or cush sends it into the pocket off the red, and makes it cannon from the white. In any case it is a fluke.

This is just my case and this is what happened to me on that eventful night that I strolled along Market-street at midnight. It seems all so dramatic that I wonder whether you will really believe me, but positively there are stranger things occur in real life than anything that is told to us in coined stories.

I had only got as far as the Exchange when I saw on the sign board of a certain shop a familiar sentence written in white chalk — It ran like this — "Except ye become as one of these ye cannot enter the —" here the words had been rubbed out and a word substituted to finish the text written in red chalk so that it now stood as follows — "Except ye become as one of these, ye cannot enter the WORKHOUSE."

At that precise moment there rolled into view a most pitiable object — human in shape — but so gaunt, ghastly, and spectre-like, that for the moment it startled me — It is amazing to what grim and unpleasant forms want and sorrow can reduce a fellow being. I was really disturbed and felt like Macbeth in the presence of Duncan's ghost and almost cried out in fear — "Avaunt and quit my sight thy bones are marrowless, there is no speculation in those eyes with which thou stareth." Yea, he took his eyes off me and I saw he caught a glimpse of the chalked sentence especially the red word, and I was nearly exclaiming, "Thou cannot not say T'was I that did the deed." They say that "Silence is golden" but in this instance it was red hot steel. There seemed such cruel mockery in it all. Who shall speak first? What could be said? Who was this man? Who was I? for the matter of that. All this flashed in on my brain in electric strokes — for his eyes had all the seeming of a demon that was dreaming, and the lamp light o'er him streaming cast his shadow on the street. The strain was too severe to last long without madness setting in. Pointing his long thin fore finger at the word written in red, he said “Perhaps you have never been there?" "No." I replied, "but I don't know why I have not?" "Would you like to go?" he asked. The very idea I had been seeking. Certainly for would it not make a splendid article. My experiences in the casual word may not be cheerful reading for Xmas time, but what reason is there against feeling the trials and sorrows of others. This man would be able to tell me how I could get through. I put it to him that supposing a person landed into the city here, without friends, food, money or the wherewithal to get a feed and a bed, what would become of such a being? "Well, there are several ways out of a corner like that. For instance one could drop into the canal, break a window, or go to sleep on a door step and thus get run in." "Yes, but suppose one does not wish to break the law, what then?" "Well, there's the casual ward but you can't go there at this hour without a bobby takes you — and very often a policeman will give you your bed money rather than be bothered." After getting from him all the information needed on that score we drifted into conversation about himself and the hardships of life — He told me that his name was Death Jimmy Death, and he remarked that though Death was not generally thought to be alive yet it was a vital force in the world — he had got his names from the fact that he gloried in attending assizes where death sentences were delivered. The more the merrier, he seemed to think — his very life was made up by the most morbid experiences one could imagine. Yea, they will the Death — Jimmy Death — I know what suffering is and want and hunger, I feed on it — it my life — I have faced Death so many times that I have grown like the picture people make of him. I never go to sleep before saying "Long nestle" "But is Death your real name?" "What's in a name? I care nothing what they call me. I know that Death comes once to all.

— "You are a bit of a philosopher? I gather." — "Yes. I have ten commandments in my creed."

1 — "Honesty is the best policy. I have tried both."

2. — Avoid three things in life — Poverty, old age and getting found out. I am guilty on all three counts."

3. — The early worm was not as wise as the bird that gobbled him."

4. — Something for nothing is dear."

5. — One man, one life."

6 — Economy is wealth."

7. — "Curiosity is worth a guinea an ounce."

8. — "Truth is mightier than lying."

9. — "Cast thy bread upon the water and it will be soppy when you want it."

10. — "From clogs to clogs is but two generations!"

"There seems little in all that to comfort any one." I remarked.

That depends on who you are — it helps me to forget." he said. "What do you wish to forget?" "Forget all, who I am, what I was, what I may be. It enables me to unlink myself from the past."

He said this with a little laugh that tried to be real, but it was dreadful; and then added:

"It amuses me!"

"Is this your only amusement," I ventured.

"No, I have a great hobby in life, shall I tell you what it is?"

I nodded assent. "Well. I make it a point to attend Assizes and hear the trials, and always prefer those at which the greatest number of murder cases are to be dealt with. It is meat and drink to me to see that judge don the black cap and hear him grind out the sentence, and if the prisoner be a woman and faints, it seems to me to be good to be there. I have suffered so much myself that it is good to find companionship on the highways of life. The wheel of torture grins exceed small "Ah! Ah!" His hollow laugh resounded through the empty street like the mockery of a stage villain as be triumphs for the moment and shoe into the wings Before turning the corner of Charles-street he shouted not again, "Good-bye old party, a bald, head needs no comb." I passed to the end of Market-street and decided to go home via Leeds road, and was deep in thought how best to disguise myself and go through the casual ward when I was again encountered with Jimmy Death, who had hurried along the side street and was making towards Wakefield-road. He espied me and sang out "It's a long worm that never turns." I have never seen him since, and want to that I know of.

But a few days after that I bad made all arrangements for going through the casual ward.

Before you can enter there are three things to face — stone, iron, and steel, for set in a stone porch is an iron gate, and behind that gate there is a man named Steele, who admits you, and goes through you with the alacrity of the professional pick-pocket: he is up to all the moves on the board, but is kind and discrete in spite of his firmness, which I admit is quite essential to the situation.

But I am now before my tale. Standing in the doorway or porch there are two women; one wee old, short, sunburnt, and hardened to the rough life of the road aide by years of bitter experience: the other wee young, tall, black-eyed, blank-haired, oval-faced, and clear-skinned, but both were read-stained and ragged, with boots from which their feet were bursting out at every inch. The old women told me she was 51 years of age, and the girl was her own daughter. I could readily believe the first statement, but had very strong doubts about the second, for the girl was not like her in any particular whatever. It flashed on me that at the back of that girl's position there was something better and brighter than this accursed kind of life. I seemed to see a happy home, in which she played with other children, and that there came a time when she was snatched away, and in time partly forgot her past. I can't get it out of my mind but that that impression was really true. I tell you there are far stranger things in life than in books.

We are admitted one at a time: our names are set down in a book, with trade, where we came from, where we intend to go, what papers or other articles (not money or saleable) we have on us, and we pass into the day-room where we get a meal consisting of good wholesome broth, and after that we are taken into a room where we strip off all our clothes, and if these are considered by Mr. Steele to be "crumby" they are stowed, and we pass along to the bath-room, where there are three full-sized baths, into which Mr. Steele pours a certain quantity of vermin killing liquor, and fills the bath up with hot water, passes soap and brush, and watches us wash. If we pass his examination he next supplies us with a strong clean shirt, and shows us to our bed. This is situated in a long corridor lined with glazed bricks: the door is opened and we pass in, and Mr. Steele shown us the electric button to he pressed only in came of necessity (you must not call for a tooth pick) as it communicates with his bedroom, and he can tell who it is that rings. The light goes out and the door is barred on the outside. We roll up in the rugs, each man in his separate cell, and trys to sleep the sleep of the just made comfortable. The cell is heated by means of two large pipes which run the top of the bed, and which keeps one nice and warm. Morning comes at last, and so does Mr. Steele. "Six o'clock," he shouts in a voice that means command. Our clothes are given to us, and after a wash we have breakfast, and are then taken back to our cells. Here we find that at the opposite end to where we enter there is a door leading into a very narrow hole — it can't be designated better — you can stand in the centre and touch the walls with your hands. It is lit up by the limited light that radiates through a perforated iron grate, which opens on to the yard. During our absence some kindly soul has lifted this grate and deposited eight hundredweight of rocks, a long-handled hammer, and a shovel. These rocks must be broken to a certain size before they will pass through the gauge and that is the only way of getting the rock out into the yard again from whence they came. Mr. Steele is allowed the discretion as to whether a man is fit to do that class of work, and if not, well he takes him out into the yard and sets him painting, whitewashing — Julia Varley is a Guardian — or grinding beans. I brought a few of them out with me, and they now lie on my desk.

Mr. Steele thought I had better grind beans, so for four hours I had a "beano" at the wheel. Then I went to dinner, which was remarkably good and wholesome, and after a decent rest we went back to the beanery and continued till tea time.

Now next door to me was a man who was working on "test." He gets 13s. per week for six hours per day — 6s. 6d. money and 6s. 6d. in flour. The beans could be split for nothing by the beautiful electric engine that is the pride of the house. But these men who present themselves before the authorities with a declaration of abject need must be found something to pass their time on with, so they let them grind beans.

The testman told me that it was impossible to find work, and he had a wife and three children depending on him, and therefore it was between this and begging, which also has its drawbacks, inasmuch as you are likely to get "pinched" even at that game. As the man talked on I found out that he read considerably, and I asked him his favourite books. We got quite interesting to each other until the time came in which he said that the silliest book he had ever rend was the one entitled "How to live 100 years." The idea of living so long at a game like this! I shut up like a hedgehog who scents a bull-dog that may tear the heart out of him. I could not decide whether the fellow had recognised me and intentionally dug into me with his bitterest sarcasm, or if it was after all a mere co-incident that sometimes happens in life. However, I said n more, and was pleased when Mr. Steele called the time for him to go home, and me to tea and bed.

Next morning I got my breakfast, and a few buttons, a needle and black thread that I had placed in my pocket to give me the greater semblance of a regular roadster, with a wish from Mr. Steele that I should never have the hard luck to return there. I was weighed and discharged. I waited about a while to try and get another glimpse of that old woman and girl, but I think they had got the start, and had gone out of my life for over, perhaps, like "Ships that pass in the night."

After a shave, change of clothes, a good square meal, and a laugh, I try to look as though nothing had happened. As the Market Street philosopher said: "The builders of the Pyramids are dead."

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

[Top of Page] [Bradford Union] [Explorers Index] [Home Page]

Ancestry UK

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *