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 20TH, 1866.

ON the evening of Friday I again set out for a visit to the female casuals, and having ascertained that the police are not employed either at Whitechapel or St. George's-in-the-East, I selected the former, being glad enough to escape the ordeal of the station, which is enough to deter any one who is respectable from seeking a night's lodging in the places provided for the destitute. I again dressed myself in my worn-out and dirty clothes, and after a long and fatiguing walk I arrived at the gate of the Whitechapel workhouse about half-past nine. Having asked for a night's lodging, I was told to go. to the stone-yard, which is at the back of the Pavilion Theatre, in the Whitechapel Road. Passing up a wide entry the gates are on the left-hand, and near it there are many stables and a number of empty carts, which seemed to be employed by contractors who mend the roads.

I had great difficulty in finding the place, and when I had found it could not make known my wants, because the knocker was tied down, and could not be raised so as to make any noise. After kicking at the door I succeeded in bringing out a little grey-headed old man, clad in the workhouse clothes, who had a kindly expression, which he tried to disguise by a very stern manner. He asked me shortly what I wanted. I told him a night's lodging. He replied, "You cannot have it; we are full."

I said, "I must have a night's shelter somewhere;" and looking through the gate at a wooden lodge which appeared to be his room, I added, "I can sit down there, if you please."

"Oh, no, indeed," said he, "you will get me into fine trouble if you go there; you had better go somewhere else, for we cannot take you in here."

I pretended to be greatly distressed, but he said, "You must be off, I have no room," and he slammed the gate, taking good care however to leave it a little open, that he might see what I did.

I said, "I shall go and sleep in one of those carts, and then the police will come, and lock me up, for I cannot go any further; and if they find me there, you will catch it."

All this time he watched me through the nick of the door, which he held ajar, and seeing that I still remained, he said, "Well, there, come along; I got one bed left, and you seem a decent sort of woman. I don't think you were ever here before;" and looking at me very hard, but very kindly, he added, "Poor soul, I hope you will not want to come again, for there is a rough lot here;" and, thinking that I was still crying, he said, "There, come along in, and you shall have a bed."

I was then shown into a little square office, just inside the gate, and was asked my name, which was on this occasion Ellen Smith. He asked me where I slept last, I told him Dockhead. My trade? I told him, a tailoress, but not a regular hand. My age? I said forty-two; and he then dismissed me with a ticket, upon which my name was written, and with a man's blue and white calico shirt to sleep in.

I asked him if I was to undress and give him all my clothes, and he said, "Yes, everything I had, as there was a very rum lot."

Looking at the shirt, I said, "But this is not clean, and if I put it on and get disease what would become of me?"

He then whispered in my ear, and said, "Well, you don't look like one of the roughs, and if I was you, I wouldn't put it on; I can't answer for it, they are a dirty lot. But mind what you are about, and put it under your pillow, and don't let the nurse see you in your own shift in the morning, or I shall catch it; and now put your clothes together, and pin them in a bundle, and put the ticket on them, that they may be safe."

He then led me across the yard to a wooden building; which seemed to have been built for a waggon-shed, the sides shaving been boarded up to make it habitable. He unlocked the door, and showed me in. The place was already well filled; it was nearly square, two sides being occupied by shallow trough beds inclined from the wall. It was about eighteen feet long, and there were nine beds on the one side and seven on the other. There was a tap of water on the right-hand side of the door, and a gaslight hanging from the ceiling. At one corner there was an opening into a second ward, which was about eight feet wide, and held also nine beds, similar to the rest. In the first compartment all the beds were occupied except two, and I took one of those vacant next the door. They were altogether eleven women and five children, and they all lay without speaking whilst the old man went into the other ward, and brought out a bundle of clothes. He told me to undress, and when he came out I was obliged to screen myself with the shirt he gave me.

As soon as he was gone three of the women rose up in their beds and began to talk. It was fearfully hot, and there was not a breath of air. "Oh dear," said one, "what a dreadful night, and what a dreadful place!" "It is enough to kill us," said another; and the third observed "that she would be eaten alive." Indeed the place was swarming with vermin. The walls were all of wood, whitewashed, but very old, and the vermin ran in and out of the cracks like bees at the entrance of their hive on a summer's morning. It is no exaggeration to say that there were myriads; indeed, it is difficult to conceive so many in so small a place.

A woman now said, "Have you got your pannum, old girl?" I did not understand, and another said, "Don't you know, your toke?" and a third then put in, "Why the — don't you speak plain? Don't you see the woman ain't up to your flash talk?"

" No," said I, "I've got nothing."

"Then, why," said she, "don't you ask him?"

Presently the old man came in and asked me for my clothes. I was sitting up on the bed, with a cotton apron over my shoulders, which I had taken on purpose to put over me. Fearing to betray myself I said, "I could eat a piece of bread, for I am very hungry." He went and got it for me, and said, "There, there! I am sure I forgot you, but here it is." I put it under my head, for it was impossible to eat; and very soon afterwards I saw it absolutely covered with black vermin. At the same time one of the women asked for some water, and he went for a can and drew some from the tap. He then took away my clothes, and after some time he brought in another woman, and passed her through into the other ward. About two o'clock he again came in, smoking his pipe. He went into both compartments to see that all was quiet, and at four he brought in a ladder and turned the gas off.

It was utterly impossible to lie down: the beds were alive with vermin, and the rugs with lice. The walls and woodwork were all spotted over with marks where they had been killed. On the opposite side of the ward the women lay quiet for some time, but on my side they were up and down the whole night. Here, as elsewhere, there was no rest until daylight. The principal subject of conversation was the filthiness of the place, which they all agreed to be the worst in London. One asked me from what part of the world I came, and I said, Dockhead. She asked me what I worked at, and I told her my needle. "That is hard lines," said she; "you had better do anything than that, it is so — badly paid for." She recommended me to try the road, where I might do much better; and she wanted me to join her, as she was herself getting too well known. She was evidently a cadger and beggar, and she seemed to think that I might do well under her guidance.

At this time the night was indescribably dreadful. There lay the women, naked and restless, tossing about in the dim gaslight, and getting up from time to time in order to shake off their disgusting tormentors, which speckled their naked limbs with huge black spots. When the old man came in, he motioned to me to lie down and go to sleep, but I told him I dared not, for the vermin were so bad. "Ah," said he, "you are not used to it." About twelve o'clock the closeness and heat of the room became intolerable, and every one began to feel ill and to suffer from diarrhoea. Several were drawn double with cramp, and I felt sick and ill myself. The children began to cry constantly, and seemed extremely ill. From this time the closet was constantly occupied by one or another, and the stench became dreadful. "So help me God," said one, "I will never come here again. I would rather go to prison a hundred times." Another said, "Hold your tongue, you — fool, or he will hear you." Another groaned for a little brandy, with language too dreadful to repeat; and some one else added, "If you were dying, you would get none here." For myself, I suffered more than I can say, and as long as I live I shall never forget the horrors of that dreadful night. No wonder there is cholera at the East of London, for it is generated every night in the Whitechapel casual ward.

About seven o'clock in the morning a big, stout woman came in and said "All up!" and she was followed by a man who brought the clothes. "Here," said she, throwing them towards us, "make haste." She stood by watching us dress, and urging them to get on and be quick. If any one lingered for a moment to pick vermin from her clothes, she immediately stopped them, saying "that she would not have it done there," and she seemed determined to get over her disagreeable duty with the utmost speed. She stared particularly at me, and seemed to wonder what business I had there, and appeared to be only satisfied when she saw my boots. Outside the door there was a pail of water, but neither soap nor towels. Several attempted to wash, and particularly a woman with three children, who was more decent than the rest. The majority never washed at all, for they had no time, the big, fat woman continually driving them on by saying "be quick," "be off," "get on," etc. etc. Those who succeeded in wetting their faces dried them on their own rags.

When all were ready, we were conducted across the yard to the office before mentioned, and skilly and bread were there served out. The former was horrible stuff; it was black, and totally unfit to eat. At the former places I ate some of it, but I could not touch it here, and many others also left the greater part. It was served partly in tin cans, and partly in white earthenware mugs. We had to carry it across the stone-yard to the oakum-room, which is also a filthy place. It is a wooden building covered with tar, and whitewashed inside, the walls being covered with slang writing and directions for the road. Some now began to undress, and three of them stripped naked to look over their clothes to destroy the vermin. Two of them commenced smoking. Altogether there were sixteen women and five children. One child asked a woman for a block to sit upon, and she refused it. The mother said, "You know it is not allowed to sit on the oakum-block," and a row commenced, in which the language used cannot he repeated; it ended in a fight, which was interrupted by the entrance of the old man. The woman again sat down on. the block, and the other appealed to him, saying, "You know me before to-day;" and he said, "Yes, you are always kicking up a row," and he then ordered the woman to get off the block; but as she did not move he pulled her off, and he said, "I won't have this talk, and if you are not quiet I'll turn you out." She said, "I wish you would." He replied, "If you do, it will not be at the door you want to go out of."

When the breakfast was over, the pots were put on the floor, and we had to go again to the lodge to fetch the oakum. Every one had a pound. It was very old and hard, and quite unfit for women to pick. I was nearly four hours doing mine, although I worked very hard, and my hands were quite sore when I had finished. There were four women who, after doing a little bit, refused to go on. I observed that none of them troubled themselves to do it; and when I had nearly finished mine I said to a woman, "Why don't you get on? you will never be let out to-day." "Oh no," said she, "they cannot keep you in after twelve o'clock." I said if I had known that I would not have done mine. She said, "Ah! I thought you were a — fool, but we don't hurt ourselves with work." In the meantime there was a general conversation, chiefly about the road and the workhouse, conducted in flash language.

There were now four smoking, and some appeared very contented and happy. One asked another when she tore up last. She said, "it was a long time since, for she got seven days for it , "and another said, "she would tear up every day rather than go lousy, as she had done." Nevertheless, tearing up did not seem so popular as it had been, for they said the magistrates now gave it so — stiff. "Such places as this," said another, "ought to be set fire to, and a woman had better do anything than come to it."

One poor old woman, who had evidently been more respectable, sat in silence, but in great agony; she was sixty years of age, and quite grey. She said to me, "I feel very faint; I could not touch that muck of stuff, and it is a shame to make a woman do such work as this." She worked very hard, and got done ten minutes before me.

The woman and her boy continued quarrelling with some one or other the whole time, and one of the women told her that "she ought to be ashamed of herself coming there, the money she made on the road." All her clothes had the workhouse marks upon them, and she was evidently a regular beggar. She said, "How do I get more than you?" and the other replied, "Because you are so — impudent, and can go where we dare not." There appeared to be a great difference amongst the women, a few being more cleanly and respectable. Twelve out of the sixteen had a yellow look, as if they had been jaundiced, and six or eight had short hair, either from having had the fever or from having been in prison. There was none except the old widow who was not able to do a good day's work.

When I had finished I was in no hurry to leave, wishing to observe what was going on, and to read the writing upon the walls, but I was immediately taken to task. "What the — are you waiting for?" said one. "You seem — modest over it," said another; and a third thought that I would be glad to get out of it. It was half-past eleven when I had done, and I left five women amusing themselves, and making no attempt to finish their task. I asked them what the man would say. They said they did not care; they supposed they would get a good blowing up, but they did not mind that.

Bad as the night was at Newington, it was a palace compared with this, which was enough to kill any one, and ought to be at once closed.

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