Ancestry UK

The Experiences of a Lady "Amateur Casual" (1892).

In March 1892, the Pall Mall Gazette, the newspaper which in 1866 had published the story of the original 'Amateur Casual', James Greenwood, commissioned an unnamed woman to undertake a similar investigation. The casual ward she visited is not identified but may that at Poplar.




THE accommodation provided for the destitute in the Casual Wards is attracting a good deal of attention just now on all sides, and from many points of view. The President of the Local Government Board has given striking evidence of the importance he attaches to the subject by his "surprise" visit of inspection to some of the East-end Casual Wards. Inspection is good, but experience is better. The male "Amateur Casual" is an old story in the Pall Mall Gazette, and his piece of bread still figures in the Museum at this office. But no attempt has yet been made, so far as we are aware, to throw the search-light of experimental journalism upon the condition of the Female Casual. Mr. Ritchie, we observe, limited even his inspection to the male casuals. But at the same time that the President of the Local Government Board was making his tour of inspection in the East-end a lady representative of the Pall Mall Gazette was taking her turn as an Amateur Casual. She stayed in two nights, and the following is the plain, unvarnished tale of her experiences. We will for the present leave our readers to draw their own morals, if any, confining ourselves on this occasion to the bare recital of our Amateur Casual's experiences and impressions:—


It was bitterly cold on the evening a few days ago when, after eating the very largest meal I ever had in my life, I set out for one of the workhouses in the poorest parts of London. It is quite close to the docks — in a neighbourhood, as everybody knows, where poverty and wretchedness abound. That is why I selected it. I drew my old dolman tightly round me — it was so very old that no pawnbroker would have taken it as a gift — and walked fast to get warm. But the cold went through my rags and pierced me to the bone. It was quite dark when I reached the workhouse. I had with me a humble friend — the woman who lent me the things I was wearing — to show me the way. "I believe this is the door," she said, pulling a bell. I was astonished, for I expected to see a shivering crowd waiting to be admitted. But there was nobody. This seemed to me strange at the time; but I think I can understand it now. A woman opened the door — I couldn't see her face in the darkness — and a couple of big dogs made their appearance.

"Is this the casual ward?" said my friend.

"Yes, what do you want?" was the reply.

"Nothing, only this young woman wants a night's lodging."

"Well, what have you got to do with it?" snapped the other. "She's big enough to speak for herself I should think. Have you got nowhere to go?" was the next question, addressed to me.

"No," I answered, simply.

"Well, what are you, married or single? Have you ever done any work?"

"A widow. When I can get work I work at paper-bags."

"Well, if you come in you'll have to pick two pounds of oakum, and if your task isn't done by eleven o'clock in the morning you won't go out till the following day, Wednesday."

I said that I had quick fingers, and if the task was anything like a reasonable one I could do it. The woman was the wife of the superintendent, I learned afterwards. She was fair and florid, clean, and neatly dressed. I somehow imagined that her hard expression and snappish manner were both assumed. She left me standing in the passage in care of the two big dogs, and went into the office to enter particulars in a book.

"Where did you sleep last night?"

I gave an address in a back street at London Fields — boldly, as I hope to be forgiven.

"Hackney way, isn't it? I don't think there's a street of that name there."

" You can look and see," I said.

"In the directory?" (with a look of real or feigned surprise).

" Yes."

I gave my correct age, but there is no reason why I should tell it here.

"Have you any money about you?"


"Nor knives?"

" No."

In answer to the other questions, I said that I was making my way to Bromley in Kent where I hoped to find a relation who would give me shelter.

The woman came out of the office and opened a door opposite me, to call somebody. A man came forward whom she sent downstairs for something, and I just caught a glimpse of a narrow stone passage with a row of doors on each side.

The man came hack in a minute or two with a pint can three-parts filled with porridge, and a penny loaf. "Take your supper and go upstairs," said the woman. She went up with me, followed by one of the big dogs. I was taken into a bathroom. "Sit down there and eat your supper. You'll have a bath." The hot-water tap was turned on and allowed to run about six inches of water in the bath. I gulped down a few spoonfuls of the porridge. It was rather nasty. There was a lot of salt in it, and got two or three half-dissolved lumps in my mouth. With difficulty I managed to eat a few mouthfuls of bread. I said I was not dirty, and didn't need a bath. But the woman told me I should be compelled to have it, and I could see from her manner that she meant what she said. So I undressed, and told her I could manage. "Oh, no; I must watch you in. I am not supposed to leave this door while you are in there. You say you're a paper-bag maker. I should've thought a young woman like you was fit for something better."

"I've not been at it long," I said. "I have come down in the world through no fault of my own."

She went out for a second, but the dog lay outside the open door keeping watch. "You needn't be afraid of the dog," she said, coming back. "He is here to protect me. There's some desperate characters in here sometimes. He nearly had a woman who was in about a fortnight ago. She he was drunk and caught hold of me."

"Are that many people here to-night?" I ventured to ask.

"You're the only woman, and there won't be any more to-night. They don't like coming here. It's too clean. They like to go to some of the other places where they're all together. Here they don't see each other."

"But aren't there any men?"

"Oh, yes, a lot downstairs."

"What am I to put on?"

"You all have a nightdress. There it is; you're not allowed to take anything of your own into your cell." I puts the nightdress on. It was made of the coarsest stuff and only reached to my knees. "Fold your clothes up together in a bundle. You'll take them with you to your cell door and leave them outside. You can put on your shoes to go down the passage. Take your bread with you; I can't throw it away."

I was shown into a little stone cell, about the size of an ordinary bathroom, with whitewashed walls. It had a small window, high enough to be out of reach, contained an iron bedstead, a straw mattress and bolster, and two rugs. I was locked in. There was an aperture with iron bars at the top of the cell on the same side as the door, and I got some gaslight from the passage through this. Across one side of the floor there was a hot-water pipe, but never, when I touched it, was ever it more than warm. I wrapped myself in the blankets and lay down, but the bedstead was so short that to keep in my feet I had to lie somewhat crouched up. I tried to be philosophical, hut this was difficult, for I was shivering horribly. It would soon be all over, though, I kept saying to myself, and I resolved to work as I could at my task next morning, so that I might get out at eleven. At midnight, when everything was quiet, I began to wish I hadn't read "Real Ghost Stories." I covered up my face and tried to go to sleep. But I couldn't even get drowsy, and it was a positive relief to me in the small hours of the morning to bear somebody snore. I scarcely had a wink of deep all night.

About half-past six in the morning the door of my cell was unlocked; not by the woman I saw at night — an older woman, with a more forbidding expression. She didn't speak at first. I suppose she thought that to stare was as good as to speak. I got up. "Take your bed in there,' she said, pointing to the cell opposite. "Bring out the rugs as well. Take in your clothes." I was locked in again. The woman came beck in about ten minutes with a can of porridge such as I had at night, and another loaf. "Take your breakfast." she said, and locked me in just as before. I had only had a mouthful or two of the porridge when she came in again. This time she brought with her a dozen pieces of cart-rope, each about ten inches long.

"You've never done any of this sort of work?"

"No" She took up one piece of rope, untwisted a coil, and thrashed it against the iron bedstead. It was now in about forty pieces of string. She partly shredded to fluff one piece to show me how to do it.

"How long will it take me to do it all?" I asked.

"Nearly all day, I reckon."

"If I work very hard can't I get it finished by eleven?"

"No, you couldn't finish it by then. You're not going out to-day, you know," she said rather tauntingly. "The missus told you you weren't last night."

She went out, but crime back in a minute or two with a can of water. Seeing that I was working instead of eating my breakfast, she said, You're not going out to-day, my girl, so eat your breakfast."

I went on working without making any answer. The men downstairs were breaking stones. To the sound of their ceaseless hammering I thrashed and tore away at the rope as fast as my fingers could move, never stopping to rest for a minute. It was tarred and very hard and sticky. I suppose the time must have been about eleven, when the "missus" looked in and said, "Well, how are you getting on?

A little prattling baby girl had followed her to the door, and she pushed in her inquisitive little face to look at me.

"I am afraid I haven't made much progress," I said.

I had shredded two pieces of the rope, and there were ten more to do yet.

"Beat it against your bedstead," said the woman. You'll find that'll soften it a good deal." I told her that I had been doing that. "Yes, but you don't beat it half hard enough."

She went away, locking the cell door as usual. I went on working fast and steadily for about another three hours. My shoulders were beginning to ache, and I had blisters on the first and second fingers of my right hand that were getting very painful. One, in fact, had become raw, and was bleeding. The woman who brought me my breakfast brought me my dinner. It was a piece of cheese and another penny loaf. She wasn't so boorish this time. She asked me if I wanted another can of fresh drinking water. I didn't touch the bread and cheese, but went on working. I had got live pieces of the rope shredded, and there was only the afternoon left to finish the other seven. It would be too dark to work after six. What if I didn't get finished before then! I was getting Into a feverish, distracted state.

"Do you think I shall get it done to-day?" I asked. “It's to be hoped so,” said in a tone that implied that she did not think anything of the sort. You've picked that first lot fine, but this lot's coarser. It's no use to pick it any coarser than this."

She left me at that, and, still hoping that I might complete my task in time to escape another sleepless night in the cell, I tore distractedly at the oakum. From one o'clock till six I never ceased the monotonous, painful toil — my fingers every moment becoming more sore and painful, but hard as I worked I could see as the daylight faded that my efforts were hopeless. When the matron brought what I suppose I must call by courtesy my tea — it was bread and porridge — only that and nothing more — I was standing on the bedstead picking at the rope and catching the last glimmer of daylight. I had had practically no food — I couldn't eat what had been offered me — and I was really heartsick at the prospect of much more of this prison-life rigour. I had played the amateur casual long enough, but, there was my unfinished task before me. To have confessed myself would have been to court a prosecution for getting food and lodging (save the mark) by false pretences. Besides that, it would have been cowardly. No; that task must be done. Could I finish it by candlelight, and so free myself?" This faint ray of hope for an instant lightened the darkness, but the "missus" soon extinguished it.

"Can I have a light?" I asked, with tears in my voice and in my eyes, though she couldn't see them. "You can't," she said, but there was a tone of pity even in this short answer, and it tempted me to plead.

"For Heaven's sake, if you've any pity, let me have a light. If I am in this dreadful place another day I shall go mad."

"Well, I don't know that it's very dreadful. If you go into other casual wards you'll find you wouldn't get spoken to as you've been spoken to here or treated the same way. And I told you when you came in what you would have to do,"

"But the task is a monstrous one," I retorted, my indignation beginning to get the better of my other feelings. "To think that human beings should so treated like this for being destitute. It's shameful! It's monstrous!"

Did this outburst make her doubt whether I was a genuine casual, I wonder! Do the poor creatures who really are destitute dumbly do the prison task — the hard, painful prison task — for the shelter of a cell mad a bit of coarse food? I Whether it was a guess at the truth, or only the natural pity of a woman's heart, she softened to me. She was anxious that I should not think that she personally was to blame.

"It's not my fault, you know. It's nothing to do with me." She even went so far as to explain that the guardians ordered the food. She was there, she said, only to enforce the rules. One part of her apology deserves to be especially noticed. "They're not all like you, you know. I should think from your manner you've been educated and well brought up. Most people who come here are used to this sort of life, and many of them have been in prison."

A faint reflection, this, of the ideas of what is due to the poor and ignorant held by many who are higher placed than the of the casual ward. This opportunity to lighten at least her darkness I instantly seized on. "Are not the poor and ignorant, and even those who have perhaps committed a theft and suffered punishment for it, human beings with the same feelings and emotions as the educated and well brought up?"

She seemed to see the matter in a new light. It was too strong, and dazed her. She only said in a confused, half-convinced sort of way. "Oh, yes, they're human beings, but ——"

The end of our talk was that she left the cell door open so that I could see to work by the light of the gas outside. I had worked away some little time, not even looking up from the rope I was fluffing, when a faint little voice caught my ear. Looking up I saw standing at the door the matron's little girl—a pretty little fair-haired thing about two years old. She seemed to have been watching me for some minutes, and now was ready to make up to me. She said something I didn't quite catch. Just as I was about to speak (I had almost snatched her before I remembered I was a tramp), when her mother's voice was heard, "Come away from there." There was a moment of hesitation and a look of disappointment, and then the little thing ran away.

My progress after this incident seemed doubly slow. Soon I gave it up in despair and resigned myself to another night of the cell. Still I was picking away when the second woman I have spoken of came along and told me that I need not do any more. I had been let off the thin pieces of rope yet unpicked. This did not mean escape, however. Of course, as far as they knew I had no shelter for the night. By the woman's instruction I got the straw mattress and the two rugs from the cell I had carried them to in the morning, made the best disposition of them I could, and then was locked in for the night.

I suppose by this time I was getting used to it, for I certainly did sleep a little. My sleeping and waking thoughts got curiously mixed. I fancied that daylight had brought another task, and shuddered with the conviction that I should so be kept a prisoner for ever. When the morning came and I found myself undoubtedly awake I felt sickening fear that perhaps more oakum would be served up with the breakfast and skilly. The sudden throwing open of the door startled me a little. It was the attendant, who stood in the doorway. I asked her the time. It was half-past six. She left the cell unlocked and came back in a few minutes with my breakfast, thinking, perhaps, that by this time hunger would give me an appetite for the stuff.

All I wanted was the word to go. I thought I might escape without any formality, and plucked up courage enough to ask, "Can I go now?" "Not just yet," the woman said; "it isn't seven o'clock." From this point my mind was at ease. I knew that I soon should have played out my part. With my normal amount of philosophy I sat down on the mattress. I sat down on the bed and ruminated. Mentally summing up my impressions, I thought In a keener way than I have ever thought before how hard is the lot of the homeless. With my fingers still smarting I understood better than ever I did before why poor women huddled down on bitter nights in the corners of bridge recesses and on inhospitable doorsteps. I reviewed the argument that the lot of the lazy should be a hard one, and that people who won't work must be deterred from making themselves a burden on the rates. But I remembered that among the homeless and the workless there must be many who are able and willing, and I asked myself whether for those the casual ward was all it ought to be — whether the fruitless task of picking oakum and breaking stones should keep men and women from seeking the work that would enable them to live at least like honest people. I was fast coming to the conclusion that for the honestly deserving the casual ward was a place to be avoided, when the woman came to tell me I was free to leave it. A gruff question from the man at the door — "Is there anything here that belongs to you?" — a thankful "No," a hurried walk to a house near by — and soon I had thankfully put off with my rags my character of the Amateur Casual.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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