Ancestry UK

A Night in a Workhouse (1894) — Part I.

In December 1894, London's Echo newspaper published two-part account of a social explorer's undercover visit to the casual ward of Stepney workhouse. The second instalment can be found on a separate page.



Why do the homeless poor hate casual wards? Why do so many of them prefer to spend their nights tramping the wet cold streets, or crouching under railway arches, rather than accept the food and shelter offered to them by a beneficent nation? It was to obtain a satisfactory answer to these questions that I determined to go myself as a casual, and see ‘what treatment the outcasts of society receive from those appointed to relieve and help them.

One Wednesday evening, a little before eight o'clock, I stood outside Marylebone Workhouse in the disguise of an out-of-work clerk. “Can you tell me where I'm to go for a ticket for the casual ward, Sir?” I asked the porter who answered my ring at the bell. “You don't want a ticket,” the man replied; “but we can't take you in to-night, for we're full up.” Is there nowhere else I can go, Sir?” “You may ‘be able to get into St. Giles's if you're sharp; it doesn't open till eight o'clock. Hurry along, now! I did hurry, and a walk of about half-an-hour brought me to the casual ward in Macklin-street, Drury-lane. It is a grim building, made still gloomier by an imitation iron portcullis hung above the entrance way. There was room here, and the attendant — a big, loudmouthed man in uniform—let me into the hall. “You know, if you come here, you'll have to break stones all to-morrow, and won't be let out till Friday morning,” he said.

“If I get my work dome in time, can't I leave to-morrow night, Sir?” I humbly asked.

“No, you can't!” he shouted; “so, are you coming in?” I answered in the affirmative, and he then wanted to know where I had slept the previous night. On my answering “Medland Hall,” his tone and manner became twice as disagreeable as before. A rather offensive personal question came next, and when I started following him into a side room he shouted me back. “Don’t come near me!” he cried. I had to stand on one side of a little opening while he, on the other side, pulled a book from a shelf and entered various particulars about me. “Ho, ho!” he muttered, “so you're one of the Medland Hall gentlemen, are you?” “I was only there one night, Sir, and I tried to keep as much to myself as I could” “I daresay. Why didn't you go there again to-night? Wouldn't ‘they have you?” “I didn't want to go there again, Sir.” At this he gave a disdainful snort, and then he proceeded to ask the routine questions. I had to give my name, age, calling, birthplace, and other particulars. “Where are you going when you leave here?” “I'm going to look about for some way to earn money, Sir,” I truthfully answered. “How much money have you?” For reply, I pulled my little stock of coppers from my pocket. “Spread it out, so that I can see it,” I was told. I did so, and displayed 3½d. “You've got enough to get a bed at a lodging-house there,” the official shouted. “ They charge 4d. for a bed at lodging-houses, Sir.” “ You can get one for a penny, twopence, or threepence at the Salvation Army shelters,” he retorted. “They are quite close to here. Why don't you go?” “I suppose I'd better, Sir.” This was what the official wanted, for the more casuals the porters can drive from the gates, the more competent the Guardians consider them. He came round to the passage, unlocked the entrance, and in another moment I found myself again in the street.

It would be wearisome for me to relate every detail of my search that night. I was only a poor man seeking that charity which it is said every pauper can have. At last, a little after ten o'clock, I found myself outside the great workhouse of St. Mary’s, Islington, at Hornsey-rise. By this time I was tired, cold, and hungry, and ready to rest in the roughest shelter in London. The cold wind seemed to search through and through my ragged garments, and the greasy mud of the traffic-worn pavements had been working its way into the gaps and holes of my worn shoes. But there was to be no rest for me. A pleasant-spoken Scotchwoman opened a peep-hole in the door in answer to my ring, and demanded my business. “Can I get in the casual ward?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “we've been full up since five o'clock.”

So far as I knew, there was no other casual ward within walking distance, and even had there been, it was almost certain to be full by that time. As I trudged wearily back to Bloomsbury again, I ceased to wonder why the homeless do not all go to the workhouses.

For a day or two after this, I felt strongly inclined to abandon the search, but plucking up courage again I started out on the following Monday evening. For some time on this evening my experience was as before, and it was not until I arrived at Stepney Workhouse, between nine and ten o'clock, that I was told I could come in. An official civilly asked the necessary particulars about myself, and I was then sent in charge of a pauper attendant to the casuals’ department across the yard.

Another pauper attendant took charge of me here, and wanted to know if I had anything to hand over, particularly any tobacco or matches; for a casual to use tobacco while in the house is an offence that renders him liable to imprisonment. I had nothing but a pair of spectacles in my pocket, so these were taken from me, and I was given a number — 40 — which I would have to remember when I wanted them back on leaving. We then proceeded to the bath-room. A big copper stood in one corner, with a fire under it, and a metal bath was close by. Around the copper were a number of large damp towels that had been used by those who arrived before me. I sank on the nearest seat, and the attendant went off to get my supper. Just then an uniformed official strolled in, and not unkindly asked me a few questions about myself. These I answered (or evaded) as best I could; and soon the attendant returned with a pint of gruel in a bright tin basin, and a small loaf of bread weighing about half a pound. This was my supper. A large pinch of salt had been dropped in the centre of the surface of the gruel, and as no spoon was provided, and I did not care to use one of my fingers as a stirrer, I did not for the moment know quite what to do. The official noticed my dilemma. “Break a bit of your bread, and stir it with that,” said he. Fortunately, the stuff was thin, so that I could drink it; but, try as I would, I found it impossible to swallow more than a little of the dry bread. Both articles were of medium quality. The bread was heavy, and might with advantage have been better mixed; the gruel was well enough cooked, and, of course, one could not expect it to be made of the best oatmeal.

Supper over, I had to take my bath. All my clothes were tied together with my braces, and placed on a rack until the morning. I was not allowed to take anything with me for the night. My boots, socks, and the bottoms of my trousers were soakingly wet, for it had been a very rainy day, but I saw no means of drying them. The bath was a real luxury to a tired man. The tub was large and clean, the water was fresh and hot, and the attendant looked on to see that I did not shirk the process of washing. This over, I was given a scanty cotton nightgown, slit down the front to the hem. A blanket and rug were also handed over to me, and my cicerone guided me through a passage way and up a flight of steps to the sleeping chamber.

At first glance the dormitory seemed like nothing so much as a mortuary, A couple of lights placed on the other side of the windows dimly revealed two long rows of hammocks running down the length of the room, suspended from the walls and from iron rods. The room was still as the grave, and for a few minutes not one of the occupants of the canvas couches gave forth a sign of life. The night-dress I had been given was so damp that I preferred to do without it, but the blanket and rug were both large and heavy, and with these I made up as comfortable a bed as I could. But try my utmost, I could not go to sleep. My neighbours soon broke the silence. Two or three were coughing, as though their chests would tear asunder, almost the whole night through, and the snores of many were profound, if not musical. At first my blanket and rug seemed sufficient, but, as the hours passed on, I would have given a good deal for another rug to help to keep out the cold. I have passed many a wearisome night in my time, at sick beds, in cyclones, and amidst all manner of things that made the hours long drawn out and weary; but never have I spent a night that seemed so interminable or so wretched as during the hours that I lay huddled in my hammock in Stepney Workhouse — a pauper!


(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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