Ancestry UK

Stepney Casual Ward (1866)

On 27 January 1866, in the wake of James Greenwood's startling exposé of conditions in the Lambeth casual ward, reporters from The Times visited the Stepney Union's casual ward at Ratcliffe. Here is an extract from their subsequent report.


In the yard of the old workhouse is a row of worksheds with a loft overhead, and this loft, which has a sloping roof, is about nine or ten feet high in the best part, and is reached by a ladder. All round the floor, on the floor, as closely packed as possible, and without any division whatever, are the beds of the men, made of mere hay-bags and stuffed with a handful of hay or straw — just enough, in fact, to keep the sleeper off the ground. Incredible and inhuman, debasing and demoraliziug as it may appear, it is a fact that the men have to lie upon these hay-bags stark naked; for all their clothes are taken away, and no shirts are supplied to the men or nightgowns of any sort to the women, and all the covering the wretches have is a rug and a worn out blanket, and this in a place not built for human habitation, and unlighted and unwarmed. The women's "beds" are not made up so close together as the men's, but each is doubled, and misfortune thus makes the unpitied, houseless women — most of whom, it was stated by the official, were of a somewhat decent class — acquainted with strange bedfellows, the old being thus "pigged" with the young, the fever-smitten London tramp with the healthy girl from the country,and the clean wayfarer with the parasite-covered denizen of the street. This is no overdrawn picture. The ordeal which the recipients of relief have to undergo is as revolting as the sleeping arrangements. The casual is admitted at the gate by the porter, a pauper, and introduced to the paid official, who fills the office of clerk as well as superintendent, and whose wife looks to the female casuals. The casual is searched, and then handed over to a pauper, who has charge of the lower shed, where he is kept until it is his turn to be bathed. If he is the first in order, he goes into an apartment the floor of which is paved, and which is in charge of a pauper only one degree removed from being an imbecile. In this apartment is a large copper, and a bath, the latter fitted with taps for hot and cold water. The casual, having stripped and bathed, passes into another apartment, where he leaves his clothes and receives a blanket, wrapped in which he goes into the shed where the other waiting casuals are, and having mounted the ladder leading to the loft he drops the blanket to the next candidate for a bath, and skips off to bed coverless. The old man in charge of the bath-room was asked how many people he bathed in the same water. He looked vacantly into the face of his interrogator, and, after touching his forehead with his forefinger for a few moments, as though he felt the thinking apparatus to be out of order, replied, "Oh, six on 'em." He was asked if he did not mean "ten on 'em," and, after shaking himself hopelessly, he announced that he thought the number was six. It must be understood that in this loft, so overcrowded with beds, there is no supervision during the night, and the quiet and helpless, the young and the old, are left to the mercy of the ruffians who, thrust from the neighbouring wards of Poplar by the supervision of the police there, crowd to Ratcliff, where, if they have had beds and a place to sleep in which when full must be pestilential, they have what all the ruffian class highly appreciate — the liberty to indulge unchecked in whatever brutal and vicious sports they think proper.

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