Ancestry UK

'The Spike' (Extract)

by Everard Wyrall

Everard Wyrall was one on the many "social explorers" who donned dirty old clothes in order to make a foray in the world of the spike — the workhouse casual ward which gave overnight accommodation to tramps and vagrants. Like others who undertook such ventures, mostly from the educated middle classes, Wyrall's accent was not so easily disguised as his appearance, as his early encounter with "Tommy" illustrates. The Spike appeared in pamphlet form in 1910.


As I stepped away from the station my spirits began to rise. I have always been fond of walking, both for pleasure and exercise. And now that I was through the first dreaded part of my task I began to revel in the open countryside: houses became less frequent as I left the station behind me. But the rain still fell heavily and my clothes and the parcel I carried suffered accordingly.

At various intervals along the road, I passed, both coming and going, men of the stamp I was imitating. Sometimes they looked at me with a questioning expression on their none too clean faces, but I did not stop — it was too early as yet to slacken my pace. I had previously marked on the map I carried, a little country town where I imagined there must be a workhouse, and I had still ten miles to cover.

I wondered what time it was, and after enquiring from a passing van-man, found to my astonishment that it was but ten o'clock; I had imagined it to be at least noon. Therefore, I took shelter in a small plantation, hoping that the rain would soon cease.

Presently the clouds lifted slightly, and the rain became less heavy, so that I once more stepped on to the road and continued my journey.

On the way I munched a few biscuits and a thick piece of bread and cheese. I thought I should get a decent feed in the workhouse, though I knew I should have to work for it.

After two more hours I began to near the little village of C—: this was apparent from the number of houses by the wayside.

But no sooner did I come into close touch with my fellow-beings than feelings of shame and a sense of being "out of it" came back to me, and I hurried through the one little street without a pause, though I was almost gasping for a drop of water. As soon as I was clear of the village and beyond the sight of the nearest house, I looked about for a sheltering tree, and standing as close to it as I could, for the rain had once more begun to fall heavily, drew out my map and took stock of my surroundings. I found I had still five miles to go, and I calculated the hour as two o'clock. As I leant against the friendly tree, I heard a slow, uneven tread upon the wet roadway. Then a bent and limping figure came into view — that of a man walking evidently with pain. I might have struck up a conversation with him, for he passed quite close to the tree behind which I stood, but as yet I was shy of strangers, and knowing that at night I should have to make the acquaintance of many I did not know, preferred to do my little tramping alone.

When he had disappeared in the distance I again ventured out, and without undue hurrying made my way towards D where I imagined I should find a workhouse. By now I began to feel tired. The country air and the fact that I had been on my feet since early morning told on my strength. I longed for a drink of water. I knew I should have to go through one more village before I reached D— and I determined to ask at a house or shop for a drink. Perhaps the reader might wonder why I felt thus shy knowing that my disguise was of my own choosing. But the truth was I knew I was in such a disreputable state that I unconsciously exaggerated it to myself: also it is not easy to permit oneself to be taken for a member of that great family — the submerged. As yet I had spoken to one man only — the van-man in the early morning. And I was pleased to find that the village I was just entering was almost deserted; the rain I suppose kept them all indoors. Looking about, I saw one tiny general shop, and summoning up courage opened the door and asked the woman who apparently kept it if she could give me a glass of water. After eyeing me suspiciously, she called out to someone to bring a glass of water. I suppose she thought she dared not leave me alone in the shop. Thanking her, with I suppose more genuineness than she generally experienced from such a class as she imagined me to be (for her stony features somewhat relaxed themselves), I hurriedly left the little shop and continued my journey. My next stop would be a long one.

Night had begun to fall and already the street lamps were turned up when I entered D —. A lad was coming towards me, and from him I enquired the way to the place I wanted.

"Tommy, where's the workhouse?

The lad looked up with a dubious expression on his face — first at my unshaven chin, then down at my torn and muddy trousers, and a wave of pity swept over his face. The silent sympathy, of little children is very sweet.

He still seemed puzzled, and I repeated the question.

"Keep straight on, s—sir." He had to blurt the last word out. He could not come to a compromise between clothes and voice.

"Keep straight on." What a travestied phrase that is to the poor outcast. They tell you anything when you are in rags.

By now the water had begun to ooze from my boots. The rain had long ago penetrated my thin overcoat, and had commenced a frontal attack on my undercoat. The water trickled down my face. I trudged on, almost worn out, and cold and hungry. Heavens I fancy such a life all the year round!

It is comfortable to contemplate the workhouse from before a roaring fire with tea and toast at one's elbow. In front of it, without a farthing in your pocket, your scanty clothing in rags and these drenched with rain, homeless and friendless, its proportions are considerably magnified. And this was how I felt, for all at once a grim, weird mass of stone loomed up out of the darkness. There was no mistaking it: it was the workhouse. I was on the very threshold of what I came out to seek. What would happen to me? I had no fears; but a certain feeling, born within us all, of hatred of the unclean and dirty, rose up within me, and I shuddered as I passed in at the iron gate. At that moment the place appeared horrible to contemplate; but it offered relief, held out prospects of food and warmth, and somewhere to lay my tired limbs.

I entered the gates alone!

In a whitewashed outhouse, on to a seat which ran round three sides of it, the fourth forming the doorway to which there was no door, I sank down exhausted. Under such conditions one might be forgiven for wanting to die. Then on the gravel path, which swam in water, the fall of heavy, feet reached my ears.

"Is this where yer waits, matey?" Two tramps poked their noses into the shed. I said I thought it was, and they came and sat down by me. It was my first contact with the genuine article.

When one of them began to shrug his shoulders I edged away: when he rubbed his nearly-bald head I shrank still further away: when the other wheezed out a consumptive cough I got up and walked up and down the shed.

For an hour we waited there, soaked to the skin, shivering and hungry. Once a weird-looking individual came to look at us; I was told he was the "tramp-major" — an inmate whose duty it was to look after Casuals. Then he went away, and again we contemplated each other in gloomy, silence. Again the sound of footsteps. A short, stout man with a bullet-shaped head stood in the doorway.

"I suppose you men understand you'll be kept for work all day to-morrow?" He had a way of firing off his words like penny crackers.

"Yes." In our condition we should have given a similar answer a thousand times over. Hunger sometimes makes men foolish. I wondered what the poor wretch who could not work, who had no strength, would have done. Surely the authorities would not have turned him out into the rain! But I was to find that out! The man disappeared, reappearing a few moments later on the further side of a tiny box-shaped window built in to one of the walls. Through that window the inmates had to hand over their only belongings in this world.

"Name? "

"Age? "

"Trade? "

"Where from? "

"Where to? "

"Hand over your belongings."

One of the men handed in a little rain-sodden bundle, the outer cover of which had at one time been a respectable handkerchief.

The second man, from the pocket of one of the three coats he wore, produced a small canvas bag. We were then searched.

"Follow me!" And the man turned to the door of the outhouse.

The air bit keenly as we stepped outside and followed him. How we shivered!

He stopped in front of the door of a low heavy-looking building. The tiny slits of windows were iron-barred. They looked like prison cells.

As if we were loathsome, he stepped aside for us to enter, came in after us and locked the door.

As the key turned in the door I longed to tear it out — too late. The first moments of the loss of one's liberty can scarcely be written down; the soul falls back upon itself, that is all.

The dim gas threw weird fantastic shadows on the four walls of the casual ward, for such I deemed it to be. The flooring was half of red brick, half of wood, the latter in the form of a dais. Three stone steps led up from the ward to a brick passage, on each side of which were a number of small doors fitted with bolts.

In a corner of the ward stood the baths. The exquisite tyranny of "baths" is widely known, also the effects which those who are forced to undergo them frequently feel. I felt sick at heart at the prospect of having to enter the one which was evidently to be mine.

"Strip — you men! Tie your clothes up in bundles, and make haste in."

I suppose we were keeping the good man from his own cosy fireside.

Thank heavens the water was tepid; but I shuddered as I used the small piece of soap and a grey towel, which had evidently done good service. But in a few minutes it was all over. There are, by the way, no doors to the bath-rooms; the officials watch the bathers in order to see that they really do wash.

(A case was reported in the papers not so long ago in which a sailor had been brought up before a magistrate, and charged, because he had refused to perform his task; he refused because he had been made to wash in a bath the water in which had been used by three men.)

As I crept out of the bath a woefully thin cotton shirt was thrown to me and to each of my companions. We were then ordered to pick up our bundles, and follow the dour man down the cold stone passage; that we were barefooted, and had just come from a warm: bath, did not matter. What matters where the poor casual is concerned

Outside some of the doors little bundles of clothes were already laid; loud snores and muttered oaths told the remainder of the story.

A door was unlocked and thrown open in front of me. I was told to place my clothes on the floor outside, and enter. I did so; but almost started back at the forbidding prospect in front of me. A low wooden bench, four evil-looking blankets, a hunch of bread, all dimly outlined in the fitful glare from the one small gas jet in the centre of the passage outside, and a window a few inches square, iron-barred — good heavens! it was a prison cell!

"Make down your bed there!" The voice of the prison warder over the most hardened criminal could not have been more cutting; the difference has yet to be learned by this official. I sank on to the edge of the "bed." He took it as a sign that I was going to lie down; the door slammed, the locks clicked loudly, the bolt shot — and I was alone. The cold brick floor sent an icy chill through my body. As I tried to arrange the well-worn blankets to the best advantage I envied the sentenced thief his straw pallet.

Thousands feel as I did that night, and in their broken-hearted wretchedness seek in prison that relief which should be given them in the place meant for that purpose — the casual ward.

I lay down, but not before I noticed that some thing hard and white beat every now and then against the tiny barred window. The rain had turned to snow. For two hours I writhed in agony. The hard boards chafed my body, no matter which way I turned. The closer I drew the thin blankets the more intense the agony became. I fell into a dull stupor. Gradually my senses were slipping from me and I began to dream.

Bang! Bang!! Bang!!! The bottom of my wooden bench shook violently as I sprang up in terror. It still creaked and groaned. What to do I did not know. Then I sat on the bottom of the bed and listened intently; presently I understood. The bench was joined to that in the next cell When my neighbour moved in "bed" mine moved also. I lay down again, but only to stare into the darkness — for sleep had gone from me — waiting for dawn, each minute seeming like an age. It came at last to the tune of a clanging bell, a bustle of feet, a jingle of keys, and an unlocking of doors. Mine was thrown open.

In the grey morning light I saw the outline of the "tramp-major," his arms full of thick hunches of bread. A piece of the latter was thrust into my hands with an order to "Catch 'old," the door slammed, and I was once more alone to contemplate the meal — and, the corning payment.


For the space of half an hour I was left alone. Then once more the jingle of keys and the shooting of bolts announced the fact that the time had come to "pay our bills." A sharp voice in the ward called to us to "Come on," and after folding up the four thin blankets and laying them on the wooden bench, I opened the door and went down the stone passage to where the other men had already begun to collect.

In the grey of that winter's morning we formed a group of a dozen men down the centre of the ward. Some of my companions defied description; they can only be written down as "awful." In front of us stood a sour-looking man with the face of a bully and a coward, one who knew he had, the whip hand and meant. to use it. The thin lips denoted meanness and an uncontrollable temper. The eyes were sleek, cunning and watchful. He was the taskmaster. In his hand he held a long sheet of paper, and at intervals he rapped out the names of the men in front of him.

"John Butler?"


"Thomas B—?" — then he looked up. "Hullo! here again, are you — you vagabond? All right!" and a cruel light flashed in his steely eyes.

"Donald McAlister? What's this?" and he bent his eyes closer to the sheet; "Veterinary surgeon? Oh! are you? Where's your certificate? Are you a M.R.C.V.S.? Bit of a come down, ain't it, my beauty? What are you doing here?

Donald McAlister hung his head and muttered he "didn't know."

Workhouse officials have no respect for "feelings."

Having called the roll, the taskmaster folded the paper and placed it in his pocket.

"Thomas Brown, you are to scrub out the ward and the cells, and move your lazy bones a bit. If I catch you skulking, I'll stop your dinner."

"Dinner I subsequently found consisted of a tin of hot water, a few ounces of bread and an ounce and a half of cheese.

"You six men will saw timber — a pleasant little job, much too good for the likes of you. You four — follow me."

I was one of the four. I wondered what exquisite piece of devilry he had reserved for us. We walked, or rather slunk behind him in no pleasant frame of mind, and soon found ourselves in front of a strongly-built corrugated iron shed. The small windows were heavily barred, and massive bolts were on the door. But some of the panes in the window were broken, and through these apertures the snow blew in in clouds.

Flinging open the door of the shed the taskmaster pointed first to a number of piles of stones which lay on the ground inside, then to a meshed sieve.

"Each man will break a pile of stones — two hundredweight — and pass them through that sieve."

We literally gasped as the enormity and almost impossibility of the task dawned upon us. The mesh of the sieve was less than a quarter of an inch; some of the stones were at least twelve inches in diameter.

When I made this statement in the newspapers indignant letters from workhouse officials were received by the editor, saying that two-inch sieves were always used. But in this instance it was not so. I very carefully noted the mesh, knowing that a grave scandal was being committed in forcing the men to break the stones small enough to pass through the meshes. It was but one of the many abuses which exist all over the country.

"When you've finished," added the tyrant, "you can go." He knew the task was well-nigh impossible. "If you don't break them, I'll run you.'" In tramp language, to be "run" is to be handed over to the police.

With loud protests one of the men started forward

"I'm an ex-soldier; I've four medals. I've served my country, and curse me if I'll do it."

With a snarl the taskmaster turned upon him.

"Get on with it, or it'll be the worse for you."

I have forgotten to mention that one of the men was the poor old man who limped along the road and passed me on the previous day while I was sheltering beneath the tree. He was also one of those who had been selected to break stones. And now he began to plead:

"I'm lame in one foot, and can scarcely stand. I'm aching in every limb. I want to see the doctor. I—," but all to no purpose. One might just as well have spoken to the stones piled up on the floor as to that brutal taskmaster.

"Can't see the doctor, he's gone."

"I've a sore arm," said one of the other men, pulling up his tattered coat sleeve showing a long raw scar; "and," pointing to a heavy bar of iron having a square end, "I—"

But the door slammed in his face, and the bolts shot on the outside.

Of the ghastly tasks imposed on the poor casual stone-pounding is the most horrible. For, let it be understood that stone-pounding is entirely different from stone-breaking. Pounding is carried out with long heavy bars of iron having square ends, the length of the bars being about four feet. They are of such a weight that only men in good health can use them properly. By the side of each pounder was a wooden box with an iron bottom. The stones were placed inside of the latter. Then, grasping the pounder with both hands, it was lifted about a foot above the stones and brought down with all the force at one's disposal. Nothing was given to us to protect our eyes, and one sieve had to do service for four.

For half an hour I tried my best to pound those stones, but I seemed to make little or no impression upon them. Then I began to feel a peculiar tingling in the palms of my hands, and my fingers became so sore that it was most painful to grasp the pounder. Finally, blisters put in an appearance, and these breaking, the chafings gave way to blood, which soon began to trickle down my fingers. I do not think my hands were particularly tender, because the hands of the other men were affected in much the same way.

The lame man worked like one demented — smashing, sifting, and piling up the fragments. It was a ghastly task. In his eyes I noticed something suspiciously like a tear, and he often cried out that his back ached. He now and then rubbed his wrinkled face as a sharp chip of stone struck him.

The ex-soldier stood with his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets surveying his scarcely, begun task. He stood in that attitude for more than half the day, alternately cursing the taskmaster and commiserating with himself. It's a way men have.

The workhouse clock struck four. We had been allowed to cease work between the hours of twelve and one, and "dinner" had been served to us. At the end of that painful hour we were taken back to the shed and again locked in, with many admonitions and warnings.

And now the time had come when we should be judged for what we had clone.

The ex-soldier was still grumbling. "I'd like ter break 'is bloomin' neck. It's a disgrace, that's wot it is — just because I'm poor." And he sat down, but before doing so, slung the sieve to the other end of the shed.

The lame man bent over the few remaining fragments lying at the bottom of the pounding box.

"Thank 'eaven I've nearly done, and that devil can't run me."

He had refused dinner, and had worked all the time. The fear of being "run," and for ever branded as a jail-bird, had taken hold of him.

The man with the sore arm looked at the ex-soldier. "'E can't run yer, mate — why, 'e —" the door opened, and the taskmaster appeared.

The lame man was nearest the door; he was judged first. "Humph! you've nearly done, you can go in."

The poor fellow nearly took to his heels.

"You two men who haven't finished can stay out here 'till it's dark."

He referred to the man with the sore arm and myself.

"You" — to the ex-soldier — "you've refused to do your task, you're one of the lazy ones." He stepped to the door and beckoned to someone who had hitherto remained out of sight. A blue-uniformed figure stood in the doorway.

"Arrest that man. He is charged with refusing to do the work laid down by the Local Government Board in exchange for relief.'

"Relief! you —" almost screamed the poor fellow.

"Come quietly, mate," whispered the man in blue. "You'll be better in chokey than in this 'ere 'ole. Chokey's all right compared with this. They deals with yer too summary 'ere."

The ex-soldier was "run."

As he was led away the eyes of the taskmaster gleamed with satisfaction. What a triumph! My companion and I worked at the stones until it was almost too dark to see the pounding boxes, and then they fetched us back to the casual ward. It was "tea-time."

The eyes of my half -starved companions, seated in stony silence on the wooden bench which ran round three sides of the ward, glistened at the prospects of warm water and bread. Of such was to be our tea. In one corner of the ward was the drying-room, where the clothes of tramps should have been dried, though no one had offered to dry mine. This drying - room was used also as a store-room. Outside the baths were a row of tin wash-hand basins and a pile of enamelled iron mugs, dirty and well-worn; the enamel was to be imagined, not seen.

As we sat gloomily regarding one another a key grated in the lock and the door of the ward was thrown violently open, admitting a queer-looking individual carrying a galvanised iron water-can filled to the brim with hot water. Dressed in yellow corduroys, a black crush hat on his nearly bald head, having but one eye and talking with a peculiar half -idiotic lisp, the "tramp-major" set the can down in the middle of the ward. He was followed by the taskmaster.

Outside the rain had begun to fall again, and the wind hurled itself at the half-opened door. The drops of water beat with a loud noise on the iron roof of the building. It beat also on the dark figure of a man whom I noticed had crept close to the door. I suppose the warm glare of the gas had caught his eye. And perhaps the shuffling sound of feet as the tramps crowded round the man with the can of hot water had also its attractions, for in the half-light I saw how eager was his gaze. His thin lips, blue with cold, were pressed more firmly as he shook the rain from his battered hard hat. A sudden rush of wind pushed the door wide open, and as the tramps gathered round the door of the store-room the man, scarcely knowing what he did, slipped in and took up his stand behind the last of the line. It was not my place to say him "nay," though I knew he would be discovered before long.

The taskmaster stood in the doorway with his arms full of 'portions of bread. To some of the hungry men he threw the pieces of bread as one might a bone to a dog.

"Here — you — and you — and you — and —" The rain-sodden man stood before him. He had almost tossed a piece into the eager outstretched hands of the shivering man. Then he noticed who it was.

"Hullo I what do you want?

"I want a night's doss, mister."

"You'll have to pound stones — two hundredweight — and put 'em through the sieve."

"Carn't do that, mister. Truth I can't."

"Oh, why not?"

"Mister, I'm sixty-four." And the poor old man almost broke down.

Can't help it. Break stones up to seventy years of age. I keep to the law, and that's the law. If you 'don't like to do it, out you go, or — seven days. Anyhow, get outside until six o'clock. Can't take you in before."

And out into the icy wind and drenching rain the poor wretch crept.

Silence, broken only by an occasional grunt, reigned in the ward. I was aching and sore in every limb, and my hands were almost raw. Some of the tramps drew their threadbare coats up round their ears, and wrapped themselves in their own gloominess. Others sipped the doles of warm water and munched their few remaining crumbs of bread, or blew down their closed fists and swore loudly, and often.

"They puts us in 'ammicks ter night, mate," ventured my neighbour. I thought anything different from the horrors of the previous night attractive, and hammocks held out a fair prospect of a night's rest. I answered in a monosyllable. "Come on, you men."

I looked up. The sour-looking taskmaster stood in the doorway. "Go across the path and into that door."

One by one we slunk in and tottered up a few wooden stairs. The door below us slammed, and the locks clicked.

Locks are a great feature in workhouse life. By the light of a match we found we were standing in a small room, down the centre of which was fixed an iron rail.

"You fixes the 'ammick on that rail," they said. "Yes, but how?"

The match went out. It was the only one we possessed amongst the lot of us. But by the light of that one match I had seen enough of those hammocks — their appearance was quite enough. I made up my mind to sleep on the floor. We groped about for the blankets, and found them laid on the floor in piles of threes. Thin and evil-smelling they were, too. And when we came to count the hammocks we found there were only seven for eleven men. It was a problem we could not solve. Only workhouse officials are able to overcome such difficulties they ignore them. I sought out a corner of the floor, and taking off my boots and coat, made them into a pillow. Next, I wrapped the blankets round the lower part of my body and laid down to rest. It was something at least to have one's own clothes, for on this night they did not take them from us.

I have said that I laid down to rest. But what a misnomer, for it was one of the most awful nights I have ever experienced, compared with which the agonies of the previous night were as Paradise. I have slept in the open, through rain and in frost, I have laid down in an enemy's country within rifle shot of our foes, but nothing will ever compare with that horrible night. Shut up like dogs in a kennel, all the horrors of degradation forced themselves upon me. Some talked and babbled in their sleep. Others snored so loudly as to draw oaths and execrations from those who tried to lose their senses but could not. The atmosphere was awful! Filthy is a fitter word. The long hours passed but slowly. Not once did I lose my senses; it was all too horrible, too abominable; and even now I find myself shivering at the thought of that dreadful experience. In all that night I heard one real human cry. It came agonised and but softly from a huddled heap that, like me, had preferred the floor — "Oh Heaven! "

I turned my face to the wall. For a few minutes under thirteen hours (I was able to tell the time by a clock which chimed out the hours from a neighbouring church) we were shut up in that room.

But at last the dawn came, and a man entered bearing an armful of thick pieces of bread. He threw the pieces one by one to the huddled heap, and went away again, but not before he had told us that in half an hour we should be free to go our ways.

As we filed out of the door and through the iron gate I had entered so hopefully a little incident happened which shows the tramp's idea of the treatment he receives.

The lame old man, as he passed the taskmaster, who stood by the gate watching us out, turned on him like a tiger:

"Look 'ere, mister, if ever I get you outside this 'ere place I'll do fer you."

From that workhouse I got back to Town as quickly as I could; but how I managed it, seeing that the money I hid away behind a post outside the workhouse gates on the night of my "going in" had been found by someone else, and how, wandering in desperation about the streets of that little town, I at last found the editor of a local paper who supplied me with the necessary funds, I shall relate perhaps later.


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