Ancestry UK

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

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 first instalment can be found on a separate page.



Shortly before dawn, as nearly as I could judge about seven o’clock, an attendant aroused us, and we all hurried downstairs to dress. There were, I found, about two dozen other casuals in the ward besides myself. My things had not dried in the night, and as there was still no fire to air them by, I had to wear them, soaking as they were. Breakfast was an exact reproduction of supper — “skilly” and salt and bread. I found it rather difficult to eat much of mine, but what I left one of my companions willingly finished for me, declaring as he did so that he could put any amount of gruel away inside him. Breakfast did not take long, and immediately after it the labour-master gave us all our work, and those whose time was up were then let out. Some of us were set to whitewashing, some to clearing up, while about a dozen (of whom I was one) had to pick oakum. The regulation amount required at Stepney is four pounds of picked oakum per man a day,but three of us, whom the labour-master saw to be new hands, were only given two pounds of rope each. When I started, the little pile of rope that I had to pick seemed to me, in my inexperience, a ridiculously easy tale of work. I soon learned my mistake! Oakum-picking is as tiresome and unprofitable labour as can be imagined. The process is as follows:—The lumps of old tarred rope are cut into pieces about a foot long. Each of these has to be separated into its three parts, and each part has again to be divided into the numerous strands of which it is made up. These strands are usually as hard and solid as pieces of leather, so they have to be tied together with cord, and beaten for some time as hard as possible against a block of granite placed in a corner of the ward for that purpose. If the casual is an old hand, he provides himself with a small metal ring or an old horseshoe before he comes in. This is known as a “fiddle,” and he ties it around his leg, and rubs each strand a few times against it to soften it still more. Then he plucks the strand into yarn with his fingers. When it is remembered that there are several scores of strands in a moderately small piece of oakum-picking is not quite so easy as it looks.

Being a novice, I had no “fiddle,” so my fellow casuals showed me how to tie a bit of rope round my leg, and make that do as a substitute. Two or three of them (though they may have been sad rogues in ordinary affairs) were very kind to me when they saw that I was ignorant of how to go to work. They showed me how to unlace my rope, how to tie and beat it, and the easiest way to pick it. When I did it too fine, and so gave myself extra work, they told me of it, and taught me how to do it as easily for myself as possible. Had they not done so, I doubt if I could have got through half a pound in a day.

We were left alone most of the time, and were allowed to talk undisturbed to each other. During the morning an inspector, whose sole duty is to go from ward to ward looking for habitual vagrants, came round and scrutinised us all, to see if any of us had been in other workhouses during the last month. Those who go to casual wards more than twice in one month are kept during their second visit for three days. Most of those at Stepney were admittedly old hands, and were staying for the longer time. We were certainly a very mixed lot. At my side sat a man who in moments of rest devoted himself to the study of a study of the “Universal Instructor.” On the form in front of me was another who bore about him all the marks of decayed gentility. He chatted quite freely about certain parts of America,and it casually came out that his people are large merchants there. “Some people curse the adjectival country because they are down,” he said. “I don't. I admit it's my own fault. I was too big, and wanted to live like a millionaire, so here I am now.” “Of course it's our fault that we're here,” gruffly replied another.

Behind me sat a young jail bird who represented the most perfect type of male criminal I have ever come across. His forehead was low and over-hanging, his lips were thick, ill-formed, and apart, while his eyes wore a look of stupid cunning which it would take a Dickens to adequately describe. This bright youth’s talk was everlastingly of crime, prisons,and charities. He was a walking guide to all the free meals and philanthropic societies in the Metropolis, and had evidently been in more than one institution in his time. He related how he had been “ pinched” (i.e., caught) a few weeks before for picking a lady’s pocket, and had got a month’s imprisonment for it. He knew the life of Charles Peace (as told in penny horribles) by heart, and was evidently anxious to imitate the exploits of his favourite hero. Prison he did not mind, for it is as comfortable as a casual ward, but the one thing he dreaded was the cat-o’-nine-tails. When someone mentioned how certain thieves had been given the lash he shivered with horror, and he quoted, in broken tones, the opinion recently expressed by a judge that “the lash is for slaves, not free men.”

But he was by no means the only one among us who was familiar with the inside of a prison. The crimes that most had been sent to jail for were, however, nothing more serious than infraction of workhouse rules, sleeping in empty houses, or similar offences to which their poverty had driven them.

Naturally much of the talk was about casual wards. The best union to spend Christmas was said to be Brighton, as there each man receives a good dinner and a shilling. Lincoln was also on the favourable list, but Dover was reckoned a very bad place, on account of the granite stones that casuals have to break there. My friend at St. Giles's—“old D——,” as they called him—came in for much vituperation, but all were agreed that the worst ward for casuals is Shoreditch. “The Guardians there have passed the Master a vote of thanks for keeping us away,” says one. “When you ask to be taken in, he shows you a great pile of stones in the yard, and says, ‘There’s ten hundredweight here, and if you come in you’ll have to break all of them before five o'clock to-morrow night. 1f you don't, I'll call a policeman and run you in.’ And he runs them in, too, and they get two months’ hard labour. He drives everyone away.”

At twelve o'clock we had dinner, consisting of a small loaf of bread and about an ounce of cheese each. I took very little time for this meal, for I was anxious to get on with my work. I knew that if I did not finish a reasonable quantity the officials might, if they pleased, have me sent to prison for one or two months, and this lent a feverish activity to my fingers. I wanted, also, to get out, if I could, that night, and not to have to stay till next morning. But how slowly one seemed to get on! My back was aching as though it would break with the constant stooping over the work; my fingers were sore with the unceasing plucking; and my head was throbbing with pain in in every vein. Yet I dared not rest. How I cursed my folly, time after time, in undertaking such a quixotic expedition! Most of those who had four pounds to pick declared that they could never get through it; and, judging from my result with half that quantity, I was not surprised. Only one man, so far as I could see, seemed in a fair way towards accomplishing his task, and he was a very old hand. A respectable young fellow close to me appeared in despair over his work. His face was flushed a deep crimson, his eyes were dimmed with tears, and every now and then I caught the sound of a half-suppressed sob in his throat, Whether it was weariness, or shame at his position I could not say, but it was half-pathetic, half-comical, to see the big, strong fellow ready to whimper over his task like a whipped schoolboy. By a few minutes to four I had nearly finished, and as the Master passed through I asked him if I might leave that night instead of waiting till next morning, as is usually done. Why did I want to go? he asked. I explained that it was a fine night, and if I got into the City I might be able to make a little money. This was true, though he might have been surprised had he known how I meant to make my money. Had I been in before? was his next question. When I answered in the negative he said he would speak to the Labour Master about it. A few minutes later the Labour Master came in, and bade me carry my oakum to the weighing-room. Then he told me I might go, but as I was leaving he called me back. “Here,” he said kindly, “would you like some bread.” I, of course, dared not refuse, and a minute later I was outside the gates with a small loaf in my pocket. The loaf now stands among my curios as a memento of my night in the workhouse.

When I got back to Bloomsbury that night, the first thing I did was to send the Guardians a couple of shillings as payment for the 2lb. of bread, quart of gruel, and ounce of cheese they had given me. Let me add, in conclusion, a word of praise for the way in which the Stepney Workhouse officers behave. So far as I saw, there is no bullying or brow-beating the casuals there; they seem to remember that even paupers have feelings, and to behave like gentlemen to them. It would be surely an excellent thing if the officers of St. Giles, Shoreditch, and one or two other Metropolitan Unions, could be sent to Stepney to learn the elementary lessons of kindliness and consideration.


(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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