Ancestry UK

The Female Casual and her Lodging.

This page contains Chaper I of The Female Casual and her Lodging, publishd in 1866 by Dr. Joshua Harrison Stallard. Other chapters can be found on separate pages.



JULY 13TH, 1866.

I SET out to visit the casual ward at Newington Workhouse on Friday evening, the 13th of July. I put on a blue velvet bonnet, very old and dirty; a grey skirt much torn, which I have been ashamed to wear in the streets for some time; and a cloth check shawl and worn-out boots. I purposely went out as dirty as I could; but I may mention it here that I was regarded by the officials in every case with great suspicion: they looked at me as though I were not a real casual, and only let me through when they had seen my boots, which appeared to satisfy their standard of distress.

Thus dressed, I went off to the workhouse at Walworth about half-past seven o'clock. I found the porter at the gate talking to a detective, and I asked him to give me a night's lodging. He inquired if I had an order, and I said "No." He said I must get one at the police-station, P division, in Kennington Lane. It took me three-quarters of an hour to find it, and I had to wait about a quarter of an hour until the inspector was disengaged. He then asked me my name. I told him, Ellen Stanley; that I was a tailoress out of work; that I had lived last at Deptford, but had been without any fixed residence for several days. He asked me where I worked, and I told him I was only a helper, and that my last employer worked for some one in the City. He scrutinized me very fiercely, and wanted to know why I came there; and I told him I had been to see a friend at Norwood, but was too tired to get home. He then wrote out the order. Whilst this was going on several men of the force stood by, and one in particular stared very closely at me, and they laughed and jeered at me as if it was fine fun; one was different, and seemed to pity me, for he said he was sorry he had not a penny in his pocket for half a pint of beer.

It was after nine o'clock when I again reached the workhouse-door, and I was obliged to knock very gently because the knocker was fastened down with wire. A pauper opened the door, and shut it again as soon as he saw my order for admission. I waited ten minutes and a lot of people came out of the neighbouring cottages to stare at me, which they did until the porter let me in. He asked my age, and beckoned to a woman with some keys to take charge of me, and she conducted me to a building on the right-hand side of a small yard near the principal entrance to the workhouse. She gave me a piece of bread, and opening the door, told me to undress. She waited to take everything away from me but my boots, stockings, and chemise, and I made the rest into a bundle, which she took charge of. I was then left quite alone.

The place was about 13 feet long, and 7 or 8 feet wide, with a sloping roof, in which was a skylight of six panes. Over the door was a small opening for ventilation, but the place was dreadfully hot, and I tried in vain to open the skylight. There was a gaslight at one end, and only a narrow passage between the beds and the wall. There were nine beds arranged in wooden troughs, with sides a foot high, so that when you lie down it is impossible to see the person in the next bed. The beds are made of straw in canvas ticks, with a straw bolster, both being very hard. There were two thick rugs to each bed; they were like horsehair, and both doubled to the width of the bed. One was placed underneath, and the other was used to cover, and as the beds were so narrow the whole weight of the upper rug was thrown upon you if it was used at all; there was, in fact, no alternative but lying without any covering on so warm a night.

After a time I felt very lonely, and began to cry, for I feared my visit would be in vain, and very soon my trouble was increased by finding that the place was alive with vermin, and that scores of bugs were running about the bed. Feeling sick and faint, I got up and sat upon the end of the bed, and shortly afterwards two women came in and relieved my loneliness. They were after hours, and their clothes were not taken away. The first was an elderly woman of about fifty-four years of age, very strong, ruddy, and sunburnt; she had a basket with some scraps of food in it, and a blacking-box with Day and Martin's name upon it, which was filled with cottons, tapes, stay-laces, and other articles of a similar kind. She was literally clothed in filthy rags. Her dress consisted of an old body-lining, which scarcely reached her waist, and a black skirt — she had nothing on else but a bonnet and shawl. After taking these off she removed a series of rags which were pinned in pieces round about her, and as each was taken off she drew it briskly through her hand to knock off the vermin with which everything was covered. She then removed her boots, which were without a bit of sole and very old, and her stockings, which had no feet, a few rags being tied round the toes to protect them on the road. When she had reduced herself to complete nudity she commenced to destroy the vermin on her body, the skin being covered with sores and dirt, such as made me ill to look upon.

The other woman was somewhat younger; her outside clothes were rather more respectable, but underneath she was quite as bad, and was very soon as naked as the other, and actively engaged in the same way.

When they had finished with themselves they began to pick their clothes, shaking them over the beds generally, and turning over the gathers of the dresses to find out what they sought.

After a time I got a little tranquil, for no one can conceive my horror at the sight which presented itself, and which I could not help watching spite of all my fear. I asked them what time it was, and they said it was about eleven o'clock, and I then said, "I suppose you are friends." They said, "No, they had met accidentally at the police-station." Both were hawkers out of luck. The younger had no money, and nothing to sell. She said that she would like to wash her chemise, and the other said she could go to the public wash-house at three-halfpence an hour; but what, said the former, if you have not got the money? They remained in this way fully one hour and a half, and then they shook the rugs and the beds, making a great dust, and lay down talking to each other in low tones which I could not hear.

They soon went to sleep, but I was frightened to death. I found myself covered with vermin, and in a state of constant misery the whole night through. I could neither sit nor lie, and I went as near the door as I could get, in order to get a breath of air if one came in through the narrow opening I have already noticed.

About three o'clock I heard the bell ring, and the key turned in the door. Fearing to be found out of bed, I again forced myself to get in before the woman came, and I had scarcely done so when she brought in a woman of about thirty years of age, who was tall, strong, and almost as dark as a gipsy. She appeared under the influence of drink, but not intoxicated, and she sat down sullenly in the corner, and began to pick over her "dress" as the others had done. She wore a dark linsey skirt, very torn and dirty; the body was of striped calico, and she said she had bought it for twopence of a workhouse nurse, but she added that they chaffed her about getting it in gaol, which seemed more likely. She said, "D— that fellow that made a bother about the vagrants; he has only given us extra trouble. I came here at two o'clock, and they made me go all the way to the police-station for an order; if I had known that, I could have got one easy enough on my way, for I have passed them twenty times." Her feet were also encased in rags, and she said "she had not had a wash for more than three weeks."

In my life I never saw a human being in such a dreadful state; there she sat, tearing her skin to pieces, and on her back were sores as large as your hand, which must have been intolerably painful. The stench was terrific; and, dirty as she was, I was obliged to ask her for a little water to prevent my fainting. She fetched the tin and poured some water into it, and, seeing me shiver at the dirty can, she put in her fingers to clean it out. I thought I must have died, for I could not touch the water, and when she saw the reason she said, "What a fool I am, I forgot what I had been doing;" and then she swilled the tin several times, and I took a little and was revived. She remained sitting in the corner until it was daylight and then lay down, and they were all fast asleep when the nurse arrived in the morning soon after six o'clock.

For myself, I never felt more thankful than to see the door open, and to breathe once more the fresh air. The heat and stench were indescribable; the whole place swarmed with vermin, and the restlessness even of those who were asleep was most painful to behold. The woman brought in my bundle, and I was soon dressed, but we had to wait for the others, who were a long time putting on their few rags.

When all were ready, we went through the workhouse to the oakum room, which is fitted up with benches and scats all round. It was clean and more airy than the dreadful hole in which we had passed the night. Here we were served with a pint of oatmeal porridge and a piece of bread. It was very good, but I could not touch it. The rest ate it greedily and asked for more, and as there was some left it was divided between them. Two men were also brought in to have their breakfast and do their work, and as soon as it was given out a great deal of slang chaff began. The tall woman especially joked with them, and I asked her how it was that she was always scratching herself. She replied, "All who come to these places have the itch, and are covered with vermin;" and when I said that I was clean, she replied, "You will not be so long, for the beds in these places are all infected."

I asked whether we could not have a little water to wash. "You may have as much as you like to drink," they said, "but none to wash." "Ah," said the woman, "I should so like a bath, for I am in a wretched state;" and the old hawker said it was a shame that they might not wash themselves, because their hands were dirtied by the oakum, and it was impossible to sell her bits of laces without soiling them.

The young woman advised me to stay as long as I could over my work, "for," she said, "it is the only chance of making yourself clean."

I asked her why, and she explained that in the fields men were often about and drove you away, and that "if you did it in the streets the police are down upon you, you are so well looked up."

When the rest left she had not done picking one quarter of her work, and even in the presence of the men she constantly turned up her dress to remove vermin. I came out with the youngest hawker, and we tried at several cottages to get some water to wash, but they all refused us. I asked her how it was there were so few, and she said that most of them were in the country, lying out in the fields.

When I got home I found scores of vermin on my clothes, and I was obliged to burn my chemise. I felt very ill from fright and loss of rest, and thought it was impossible that I could ever again enter a casual ward.

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