A Visit to Islington Workhouse

The text below is an abridged version of an article by Mrs Emma Brewer, published as part of the series 'Workhouse Life in Town and Country', in the magazine Sunday at Home in 1889.

A Visit to Islington Workhouse

The Islington workhouse is an immense pile of buildings, raised from the level of the road by grass terraces and stone steps, and made pleasant to the eye by a row of young budding trees behind the handsome railing which divides the grounds from the road.

It is situate in St. John's road, Upper Holloway, in the north of London, and furnishes an example of workhouse and infirmary under the same roof.

This house contains mostly old people, the younger ones being sent on to Shadwell House, a sort of workhouse of ease to this one, which accommodates six hundred and ten inmates.

The thought repeats itself with every new workhouse we visit, that the aged and infirm inmates, more than any other people, stand in need of gentleness and tenderness, for to many of them this is their last earthly home, and one in which they must wait patiently for the Master's call to begin life once again.

I never so saw many old people together, and although it made one unhappy to see such numbers bereft of home and all that makes home lovely, yet certainly they were not miserable, nor did they give one the idea of being cast aside as useless.

All were busily engaged in work of some kind suitable to their age and capabilities.

In the large, airy day-room, many of the women were reading; some were at needlework or at the knitting-machines, for all the stockings are made here with a soft kind of fingering; while in the work-room, presided over by a paid needle-mistress, an immense amount of work was going on to the tune of sewing-machines and chatter, which gave a tone of cheerful activity to the room. The whole of the making and mending of clothes for the men and women is done here. The bedding for 1,400 inmates is made, together with several hundred articles for the school belonging to this workhouse; last year as many as seven hundred were made in this room. Still further, they make clothes and bedding for the vestry to disburse to those whose property has been destroyed through infectious diseases. Last year £60 8s. 7d. was earned, in addition to all this, for needlework done for warehouses. When we think of so much being done by the old people, we are struck by the results. It is plain that age is not "useless" here.

Noticing that each person went about her work in a very capable manner, we heard that, as far as possible, they were given the same occupation as they had been accustomed to outside.

As we made our way through the spotless corridors, we enquired what provision was made for old married couples, and were very grieved to hear that while formerly they were accommodated with separate and comfortable quarters, now, owing to want of space, these have been taken back and turned into wards.

We now came to the babies' part of the house — first a small neat kitchen, then an ante-room, and next a bright sunny large day-room, liberally supplied with toys, rocking-horses, swings suspended from the ceiling, and bright pictures on the walls, presided over by a motherly paid nurse, who was occupied when we entered, sewing up an unfortunate and decrepit doll, to the great satisfaction of a little baby-girl.

All the children here were under three years old. One, a bright laughing baby-girl, was found some eighteen months ago in a corner of a locked-up deserted room, life almost extinct, and with no sign to tell who her parents are or what her name is.

At mid-day the mothers are allowed to come in and feed the babies. The food of those a little older is prepared in the matron's kitchen, and consists of mutton broth, beef tea, rice pudding and such like food.

At the age of three they are sent to the schools belonging to the workhouse, where there are four hundred children.

We next went to the ward where lunatics are kept until passed on to an asylum. The paid nurse was trained at Caterham. She told us a sad story of a woman here who had been a gentleman's nurse. He died and left her a legacy which seems to have unsettled her mind; for the first thing she did was to marry a man old enough to be her father, who wanted her money more than herself. After discovering this, she gradually grew worse till she had come down to this — a lunatic in a workhouse ward. She is most uncertain in her humours, sometimes quite quiet, and at others quite unmanageable. We found her in bed in a strait waistcoat, and she told us a long rigmarole about her early life and her future plans. Beside this woman there was quite a young girl suffering from "delirium tremens." This lunatic division of the house consists of' the nurse's room, a small bright day-room, and a night ward containing seven beds. The nurse has a woman-pauper to clean the place, and to assist in managing the refractory patients. An able-bodied pauper sits up at night, beside the regular night attendant who goes round the house to see that all is right.

We now made our way upstairs to the women's dormitories, or night wards — they are large and airy but a little crowded.

The bedsteads are iron, the beds flock, and the rest of the bedding good and sufficient with warm-looking red quilts.

The night nursery is a splendid room, with a good open view from the windows, and looking so pretty with the many tiny cots covered with blue and white quilts, and the pictures on the walls. A nurse sits up here all night

A large ward is set apart for nursing mothers and babies.

The large store-room with shelves reaching to the ceiling, was amply supplied with neatly covered and folded articles. Bales of stuffs ready to be cut up lay on the long tables; and on the mantelpiece were dozens of neatly rolled bandages made here. A smaller room running out of this was stocked with men's clothes, made under the supervision of the paid tailor on the premises, and boots and shoes made by the paupers under the resident shoemaker.

We next came to the beautiful chapel, with its polished wood seats and its organ, presented by Sir James Tyler. The lectern, which is wonderfully carved, is said to have been done by a lunatic. The chaplain attends the infirmary daily, and conducts Divine service in the chapel twice on Sundays and on Wednesday afternoons.

The Roman Catholic priest also visits the infirmary daily, but the Roman Catholic inmates go out every Sunday to their service — so also do the Nonconformists.

All inmates of whatever creed, over sixty years of age can, if they will, go out on Sundays, and one week day in the month.

We passed on to the spacious dining-hall, well furnished with tables and seats, leaving an alley down the centre: one side being for men, the other for women.

Breakfast commences at half-past six in the morning: cocoa or tea, and bread and butter. Dinner is at twelve. On Sundays, Australian meat and potatoes; Monday, pea soup; Tuesday, stew; Wednesday, bacon and rice; Thursday, pea-soup; Friday, fish, and Saturday, suet pudding. Tea is at four o'clock, but the inmates provide their own tea, each putting a pinch into one of the large urns we saw in the day-room. They also provide for themselves condensed milk, and jam if they like it. Supper is at six.

As it was Tuesday, we watched the cook weighing out the stew, four or five ounces to each person. Think of the number to be provided for, viz.: 866 in the house, and 540 in the infirmary; of course it is done with the utmost rapidity. The stew was very good, and the contrivance for carrying the food about was excellent: a tin fits into another filled with hot water, and the two are placed in a square box, with lid lined with green baize, and handles and straps outside by which it can be easily carried.

The kitchen was a large busy place with huge coppers and other cooking apparatus. On the walls hung diet tables, with the names of the various wards attached, and others with the days and hours when boilers and flues were to be attended to. Joining the kitchen was the bakery The baker and his assistant work fifteen and sixteen hours a day. The hours need not be so long if another oven were added and a little extra help given. Forty-three to forty-eight sacks of flour are made up every week.

The laundry consists of a set of rooms, high, light and airy. There are twenty-three women washers and men assistants, besides engineer, stoker, and handy-man. The machines and hot presses are all good; and we found quiet and order throughout.

From this we went to the infirmary, leaving the men's side of the house till later. Each floor is divided by a partition running down the centre of the principal corridor, the men's wards being on one side, the women's on the other. There is, as a rule, a trained nurse to each ward, under whom paupers are employed "with safety and efficiency," the master says.

The names of the wards are peculiar, viz.:—

MEN'S WARDS: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Luke, John, Matthew, Mark, Stephen, Daniel, Samuel.

WOMEN'S WARDS: Charlotte, Rachel, Ruth, Leah, Hannah, Martha, Mary, Esther, Elizabeth, Eve (Lying-in), Sarah.


MEN'S WARD: Lazarus.
WOMEN'S WARD: Magdalen.


MEN'S WARD: Ishmael.

I asked if there was any special reason for the names, and the master said No — he had chosen Scriptural names with one exception for they were easy to remember and pronounce.

In the Isaac ward there were thirty cases, nineteen of which wore advanced consumption.

Accidents happening outside are brought into the infirmary, though not so often as formerly, the Great Northern Hospital relieving them in this direction.

There is a very curious case of dementia here: a man who will persist that he is older than his mother, and when one tries to convince him of the contrary he is extremely angry. They not infrequently have doctors, lawyers, and clergymen in these wards, many of whom have been thus reduced by drink.

On our way to the upper floors, we looked in at what may be termed the kitchen-of-ease, where mutton broth, beef-tea and extras are prepared and served for the infirmary.

We next visited the women's wards which were made bright and pleasant with flowers, birds and plants. Tile lavatories and baths are at one and of each ward, and the nurse's sitting- and bedroom at the other.

The most depressing sight I ever saw was the lying-in ward. Most of the patients occupying the beds were domestic servants.

The old women's ward, which we next went into, was cheerful in comparison, with its red quilts and bright flowers, and spotless cleanliness. The head nurse in this ward had been trained at Guy's.

Leaving the infirmary, we made our way to the men's quarters, passing on the outside an iron staircase to be used in case of fire.

In the oakum room were about two hundred and thirty men sitting in rows, wearily picking away at the bundles of rope, reducing it to the fluffy condition in which it is used for caulking ships. Many of the faces were good and refined; and one old white-haired spectacled man was pointed out to us as having formerly been a man of property, and as having kept hunters.

We asked if it were not very hopeless work, and were told the men much preferred it to sitting and doing nothing, which is given as a punishment. When a man has behaved badly, his punishment is to sit in the master's office with him all day, to have his meals there, and be content to sit silent and idle. The master says he rarely has the same man a second time.

We now went down to the basement, every corner of which is utilised. In one part men were chopping up the preserved meat boxes for firewood, which has not been bought for a very long time. Then came the carpenter's shop, where some very beautiful work was being done under a skilful artisan.

The tailor's shop came next, pervaded by an unpleasant smell of corduroy, but the scene of cheerful industry was quite different from one's idea of workhouse life.

Another room contained a storage of rags, and men were sorting the white from the coloured, ready for sale.

Again we saw heaps of lead paper, such as is used for wrapping up tea, and asked what good they were. We learned that, as a rule, these were sold, but that lately when some of the pipes wanted repairing lead papers had been melted down by a pauper who understood the work, and had been used for the pipes.

Then came a room where the women's own clothes are kept for two years, and at the end of that time are sold.

Last, not least, was a large airy bath-room, where the women bathe, well provided with baths and towels.

Asking how much water was daily used in the house and infirmary, we learned that about 26,000 gallons was the amount.

Gas is used throughout the building.

The basement, like other parts of the house, was clean, light, and airy.

A paid bricklayer and carpenter reside on the premises.

The arrangements for casuals are exceedingly good. They are open wards with twenty-four single beds, and six double for women with babies. These beds are all provided with mattresses stuffed with cocoanut fibre, and having red woollen coverings. The allowance of food is one pint of gruel and six ounces of bread for supper, the same for breakfast, and bread and cheese for dinner.

Passing through the hall we saw a locked letter box, where the inmates put their letters for post and which is cleared five times a day. Out into a large yard we went next and saw the imbecile men walking about; and so on to the carpenter's shop, where a large amount of work is done, seeing that no outside labour is used for anything in the house and infirmary.

These buildings consist of three pavilions, and cover an area of seven and a half acres. The average expense of each pauper is 5s. a week. Paid labour consists of:— 1 superintendent nurse; 12 day nurses; 3 night nurses in infirmary; 1 night nurse in workhouse; 2 lunatic nurses; 1 nursery nurse; carpenter, bricklayer, labour-master, needle woman, assistant matron; all the rest being pauper labour. This last is undoubtedly good and efficacious, under the excellent master and matron who are now in authority, but how would it be if they were removed?

Pauper labour reduces expenses, but it is only good when under close supervision.

The social questions of the great city are repeated in the workhouses. Dark and depressing as some of them are, there is yet reason to hope that the energy and charity which have effected so many improvements in these great establishments, may be enabled to answer them. The only sufficient cure for the worst evils is to be sought in individual reformation.

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