Ancestry UK

F.G. Wallace-Goodbody in the St George's Hanover Square Workhouse Casual Ward, London

In 1883, Frederick George Wallace-Goodbody, a former soldier, who had served in the British colonies, found himself down on his luck after returning to England. After being forced to spend a night in a London workhouse casual ward, he wrote an account of the experience for the Gentleman's Magazine. The thinly disguised workhouse is clearly the one on Mount Street belonging to the parish of St George Hanover Square, by then part of the St George's Union. Wallace-Goodbody's florid writing style indicates he was from an educated, well-to-do background.


Homely, ragged, and tanned.

Under the changeful sky, &c. — The Vagabond.

MISFORTUNES greatly open the mind and mentally enlighten us, and are so far to be hailed as our deliverers, inasmuch as, when once plunged by them into the depths of misery, we appreciate the more any slight benefit that may accrue to us, and, once raised from the abyss, experience a feeling of contentment with circumstances and surroundings, however modest, that in the days of our former prosperity we should have looked upon almost as hardships. To a mind capable of undergoing such impressions I cannot recommend a more salutary cure for extravagant ideas, and consequent production of contentment, than my experience of the Casual Ward in Sinai Avenue, where I discovered that I had capped all my former follies and evil-doings by a crime that, until that night, I had not been aware of having committed — the most heinous of all — poverty.

The victim to this criminal malady can, in its advanced stages, hardly be reckoned as a human being; he is to be classed with unclean beasts and venomous reptiles, with this difference, that whereas the latter are killed instantly when once under the heel of their lord and master— Man, the pauper, on the other hand, is made to die, or rather live as it were, a slow and lingering death — a mortal life — so ignominious, so shameful, that the most exquisite tortures of Torquemada's tribunal would be a mere bagatelle in comparison with the sufferings that he must undergo. For at least around the victims of the Inquisition there was shed the lustre and halo of martyrdom, that to some degree, in the eyes of the fervent, atoned for the horror of the death; but the unfortunate creature, termed, when an inmate of the workhouse — a pauper, and when at large penniless, friendless, and starving — a vagabond, what is he? This is what he is: a creature utterly lost to the possession of all individual rights; he has merely the outward semblance of man. He has, it is true, the same number of veins and arteries as the most adored of modern society; but his very breath, his limbs, his sinews are not his own; the wretched rags, swarming with vermin, that barely cover his own nakedness, are not so much intended for their original purpose as that his superiors may wipe their feet upon them. (This last expression was actually made use of by a tramp with whom I was once conversing.)

Worn-out, footsore, famished, travel-stained, the tramp arrives in London, after many nights passed on the bare roadside under a hedge or a hay-stack, and, perhaps, as a dishonoured guest in one of those dens similar to the one that he now hails as a haven, and which are a standing disgrace and shame to this our enlightened country. There, at least, he will obtain a crust of bread and a straw-pallet, grudgingly bestowed it is true, and to be paid for by hours of labour on the morrow.

I have been led into this somewhat lugubrious train of thought by the memory of the experience vouchsafed to me upon a previous occasion, when I, for a period extending something over twenty hours, became an inmate of the Casual Ward in Sinai Avenue. One eventful evening — and I shall not easily forget it — I found myself fairly at a loss where to obtain shelter for the night. During the few weeks previous, since the horrors and sufferings of poverty had come upon me, I had succeeded in extricating myself (or, more properly speaking, Providence had extricated me) from my temporary dilemmas; but this night I was fairly driven to bay, and I pondered within me what course I should pursue. Should I walk the streets during the whole of the night, miserably clad as I was, and famished? But then, on the other hand, why go through so much martyrdom? On the morrow, my position by this act of deprivation would be unimproved, and my sufferings would have become intensified. At length my mind was made up. I would take advantage of the charity provided by my wealthier fellow-creatures; and, dismissing some wandering, yet not entirely evanescent, ideas of suicide, I directed my faltering steps towards my destination.

Sinai Avenue is not situated in a quarter of the capital by any means in keeping with the character of this charitable and hospitable institution, nor (may it be added on the other hand) is the entertainment there to be met with administered at all in the manner in which it is lavished in mansions situated but a few yards off. Sinai Avenue is not surrounded on all sides by a labyrinth of filthy alleys and lanes teeming and seething with vagabond turbidity; but, on the contrary, reposes at a stone's throw from one of London's best-known squares. It was dusk when I attained these environs of contrarieties, and paused, animated by no agreeable thoughts — by such thoughts, in fact, as were most likely to occur to one upon such an eventful occasion; at length eight o'clock sounded from a neighbouring church and I started from my painful reverie. To my surprise, the vicinity of the entrance whereat I had taken my stand, and which but a few moments before had been almost deserted (the habitual frequenters having shrunk shudderingly by, in deadly fear doubtless of the fate that overtook birds when fluttering over the entrance to Avernus), was now occupied by a long line of vitality of a most motley description, their abject feelings prompting them to shrink as closely as possible to the railings; at the sign of the wicket being opened, they sidled into the interior, myself among them, the burly janitor who acted as porter counting each individual by inflicting upon his shoulders something partaking of the nature of a blow and a "shove" combined, and, his number completed, peremptorily closing the door to the remainder. Men and women alike were ushered into a room or hall of considerable size, presenting that mixed appearance of plainness, cleanliness, and deal boards characteristic of workhouses. With the women I have nothing to do; after certain formalities had been fulfilled they were led away by the matron (a harsh-visaged virago) to some secret portion of the building that it was not permitted to my gaze to fathom, and I saw no more of them; consequently, I shall confine my remarks entirely to my immediate associates — the men. It occurred to my mind as I gazed around the bare apartment, so devoid of ornamentation of any description, that the arms of the parish might well have been displayed upon some part of the wall in a conspicuous situation, so that some of the occupants of the rows of bare benches might have been thoroughly convinced as to their whereabouts, should they have any doubt upon the subject. The seal of the Guardians, by-the-by, is a pretty and appropriate device (as all the world knows), comprising a sheaf of wheat, with "fiddle"* pendant, surmounted by two swords inclining cross-ways, the whole inclosed within what I at first poetically imagined to be a St. Catherine's Wheel, but which is in fact a less romantic and more modern symbol of martyrdom, viz. the wheel of a corn mill. Returning, however, to thoughts less visionary and more appropriate to the occasion, I turned my regard upon my companions for the night, and never in my life did I — and most fervently do I hope never shall I again — gaze upon a scene that even in the midst of my own troubles typically revealed to me all the harrowing idiosyncrasies of poverty. One and all were clothed in rags that exposed rather than covered their nakedness, and upon the countenances of most was pictured that look of abject penury that stamped the being accustomed to perpetual misery. By this time the porter, or more strictly speaking the tramp-master, had imposingly taken his seat at a table situated at the head of the apartment (I have seen the Lord High Chancellor of England assume his seat upon the Woolsack with far less ceremonial); and as I eventually came into contact with this functionary, in a manner somewhat humiliating to ray dignity, I will devote a few lines to the description of this Nebuchadnezzar, before whom all stood in awe.

[* This is not a musical instrument, but an elegant and ingenious contrivance made use of in workhouses for the purpose of facilitating the operation of picking oakum.]

He was a tall, stoutly built, burly man, provided with a stomach that denoted by proof ocular that if the paupers themselves are half-starved in a workhouse, the same remark need not be applied the the officials of those institutions. His countenance was heavy, sensual, and brutal, indicating self-indulgence and a propensity to cruelty; but was not wanting in a certain kind of intelligence withal, which, however, is at best a species of cunning that, in the facility it affords to its owner to take advantage of circumstances, is productive of the epithet of "fly." He himself gave this quality another term, as will be eventually seen. This agreeable physiognomy was illuminated at the upper extremities by a pair of greenish-hued, baleful optics, whilst the lower was decorated by a full dark beard — the whole being surmounted by a greasy threadbare skull-cap that had once been velvet This magnate having settled himself firmly in his chair, and having opened a huge volume placed upon the table before him, assumed a pair of spectacles, dipped the pen in the inkstand, and took a look round with the eye of a slaughterman running his gaze over a bevy of sheep, and mentally calculating which he shall first select for the knife.

No one stirring, the tramp-master grew impatient, and cried out in a loud, surly voice: "Now then, No. 1, come on, if you're coming."

The man crouching on the extremity of the first row of seats, nearest to the chairman, considering that this amiable invitation was addressed to him, rose, and shuffled towards the table, when, at the peremptory order of the dictator, having removed his head-gear, he stood, the veriest picture of sordid humility, and responded to the following interrogations, dictatorial enough in themselves, but furthermore couched in the most contemptuous language, and rendered still more intolerable by every look, act, and gesture that place it in the power of trumpery authority to trample upon the unfortunate victim of circumstances.

"What's yer name, if you've got one?"

"Samuel Smith," was the rejoinder.

"How old are yer?"


"What are yer?" (with the most contemptuous emphasis on the word what.)

"Nothing!" was the demure reply.

The castigator was evidently accustomed to this mode of indicating a pursuit in life, for he inserted a word in the book without comment.

The fourth question was answered still more characteristically.

"Where did you sleep last night?"

"Nowhere," was the answer.

"Nowhere?" repeated the scribe, with ever so little evidence of astonishment and slightly elevating his eyebrows; then added, after a pause, "Are yer going back to the same place?" At this sally there was an attempt at a very slight titter on the part of the assembled congregation, and one old vagabond, evidently irresistibly tickled by the cheerful nature of the comic scene, indulged in a hoarse chuckle, and nudged his neighbour with his elbow.

The gesture did not escape the prowling eye of the Cerberus, who apparently this evening was in one of his playful moods: "Look here, old chap," roared he, "you ought to have something else to think about besides laughing when you come here. If you were a young man, I'd pitch yer out."

The poor old misérable completely collapsed at this energetic reproof, and shrank within himself, whilst the tramp-master, having relieved his feelings by this unmistakable assertion of authority, continued his cross-examination.

"Where are you going to?" was the next question.

"Anywhere!" answered the vagrant.

"Anywhere," repeated the catechiser; "you must say where you're going to, if it's only to the nearest pump." The poor wretch murmured something unintelligible, which was duly inserted.

Question No. 6 — "Have yer got any money?" — I at first thought somewhat superfluous, but, as the individual to whom the question was addressed was actually in the possession of one halfpenny and a farthing, I altered my opinion, and mentally acknowledged the surpassing wisdom of the interrogation.

"Take everything out of your pockets and pitch them into that basket," said the master, indicating the "pot-à-salade"* in question, that was placed upon the floor next to the table. The man produced a few miserable penates enveloped in a dirty piece of newspaper. "Shall I put the three fardens in with them?" said he, bending down earnestly and inquiringly.

["Pot-à-salade" was the name given to the basket into which the head fell after having been severed from the trunk by the guillotine.]

"No, give me your money," said the task-master with an air of sleek pomposity, "and p'r'aps I'll give it yer back in the morning."

At this juncture a loud knocking was distinguishable from the exterior, to which, however, the president paid not the slightest attention.

"There's some one knocking at the door, sir," squeaked a shrill tenor from the benches.

"Well, let them knock," answered he contemptuously; "they won't get in to-night unless they break the door down, and I'll take care they don't do that."

"Number one" then returned to his seat, and was succeeded by number two. It would be wearisome to recapitulate the answers delivered to the same series of questions, which, to be brief, were repeated to all, and of which the answers of number one were fairly typical with slight variations. In fact, one and all seemed to be starving; had no idea when or how they would obtain their next meal; appeared hardly to know where they had been, whither they were going, and except in the case of the most hardened vagabonds seemed hardly cognisant of where they actually were.

One old misery, who had evidently served his time of three-score and ten, greatly excited the ire of the task-master by being in possession of threepence, and by endeavouring to conceal the same by a subterfuge. Upon its discovery the latter indulged in a powerful classical address appropriate to the occasion, and, inserting the guilty coppers in his fob, concluded with a remark more sensibly humane than I could have expected from his former evidence of brutality, which was to the effect that an old man like the culprit need not feel ashamed at having a few "a'pence" in his pocket, nor need he tell a lie to conceal it.


At length my own turn came, which, with a nervous timidity, easily conceivable upon such an occasion, I had hesitatingly postponed until almost the last. The functionary whose duties are ostensibly to afford relief to the poor, being as I have already observed in a sweet and playful mood, had not hitherto discovered in the commonplace nature of the cases passed in review before him a strictly appropriate subject for the exhibition of his peculiar banter, nor, as it appeared, had the spring been touched that gave full play to his amiable wit and humour and propensity to repartee. As ill-luck would have it, I, by my total ignorance of the forms observable in such places as the present, where I was now an unwilling applicant, and the blundering manner in which I answered his surly interrogatories, furnished him with the missing key-note.

It will be here necessary to state that, being in ill-health from recent exposure in a tropical climate, I had obtained a certificate from my friend Dr. Coupons, to the effect that I desired treatment in a Workhouse Infirmary, and this certificate I had presented according to instructions received from the doctor at the workhouse itself the preceding evening, and, having been informed that the infirmary was "au complet," I had been recommended by the porter, who favoured me with this information, to apply for admittance at the Casual Ward at the opening hour, and to present myself before the doctor of that establishment in the morning.

It so happened that, upon this particular evening, an ugly rush unexpectedly took place when the door was opened, and I failed to gain admittance. I, however, applied to the Cerberus, stating the urgency of my case, and referring to the order that I had received in the morning from Dr. Coupons; but he answered that he was unable to admit me, and declined to examine the order in question. Upon leaving, I was so irritated by my want of success and the dogged manner in which the refusal was framed to what I, in my innocence (ignorant of the position that parochial authorities through their satellites take up vis-à-vis of applicants to their bounty), considered to be a most harmless and reasonable request, somewhat impatiently and imprudently, as it afterwards transpired, exclaimed "that rather than enter one of those dens I would throw myself into the river." Utterly ignorant of the forms in use for obtaining admittance to Union Infirmaries, on the following day it occurred to me that I could do nothing better than present myself again at the same hour, taking care this time to gain admittance, and eventually see the doctor in the morning.

This, it is unnecessary to say, I had consequently done. I now found myself in a most awkward predicament, being under the necessity of accepting hospitality (such as it was) that I had barely twenty-four hours before contemptuously repudiated; join to this my state of mental anxiety, the physical disabilities under which I was labouring, and the precarious nature of my prospects — the reader, if endowed with but a drop of the milk of human kindness, will easily imagine the unenviable nature of my feelings. In fact, the sentiments that predominated within me at this moment were simply indescribable; I desired, moreover, to propitiate the animal before me by the modesty of my demeanour, and to maintain at the same time something of the bearing of a man who had once been possessed of considerable advantages in a mundane sense — wilfully discarded; a bearing that sometimes disarms brutality and puts a curb upon insolence.

Strange to say, it never occurred to me not to allude to the verbal fracas of the preceding evening, as this man had nothing whatever to do with the workhouse itself, far less with the infirmary, being simply the master of the Casual Ward. Of all this, I repeat, I was in entire ignorance.

I approached the table with a slow and hesitating step, and by no means with the matchless dignity mingled with grace attributed by the Northern Minstrel to Bois-Guilbert, as when, benighted (in his turn) by the storm, he advanced up the Hall of Rotherwood to take advantage of the half-unwilling hospitality of Cedric the Saxon, nor did my appearance correspond externally with the flowing robes of the warlike crusader. My attire was in fact unique. The upper portion of my body was shrouded in a coat, that evidently to the most obtuse observer did not belong to its original, if legitimate, owner, whilst my nether limbs were encased in a pair of trousers presented to me some time before by a benign friend who had accidentally upset upon them some description of acid; the natural shabbiness of my appearance was thus enhanced by the corrosive matter absolutely in various places eating the garment off my limbs. I bore, moreover, an expression on my miserable countenance that would have excited the commiseration of all but those who, by long intercourse with the poor, are hardened to wretchedness in all its aspects. But in this case the effect was quite the reverse; the tramp-master saw nothing before him but a fresh object for his banter. He took a slow, deliberate look at me as I approached the table, and being an acute man took in the whole situation at a glance.

"What's yer name?" began he, eyeing me curiously.

"Downatheel," answered I, meekly.

"Lord Downatheel, Earl Downatheel?" inquired he insolently, with a look at the nether garment before alluded to.

"No," answered I," nor Duke Downatheel either. Slitcoat is my Christian name." And down went into the omniscient volume my patronymic of Slitcoat Downatheel.

Now, as I have said before, had I simply confined myself to answering his questions, all would have been as well as could have been expected under such circumstances; I should have, obtained my night's lodging, and should have been allowed to go about my business on the following morning. But no sooner had I launched into my story, and hardly had the name of Dr. Coupons issued from my lips, when a gleam of gratified malice shot from the monster's eyes, and, settling himself more firmly in his chair, he said to me, weighing with great deliberation each word —

"Didn't you come here last night?"

"I did," I answered calmly.

"And didn't you," continued he in the same tone, "tell me a cock-and-a-bull story about Dr. Coupons recommending you for admittance to the infirmary?"

"It is perfectly true," I replied. "I was told by the porter at the principal entrance to apply here at eight o'clock for the purpose of seeing the doctor in the morning, as it was too late to see him then."

"And so," continued he in the same ironical tone, "you came here this evening to be too late again, just because you were too lazy, too cursed lazy, to come at a proper time."

I immediately entered into an explanation, but he would not allow me to continue; I offered at the same time to show him the passport from Dr. Coupons, but he answered impatiently, "I don't want to see it." Finding myself totally incapable of making the slightest impression on my amiable host, I then asked him with great simplicity, "What do you advise me to do, then, sir?"

"You can stand on your head, if you like," was the sympathetic answer.

This piece of advice, the very last that I should have suspected of being of any practical utility to me in my present distress, left me completely dumbfounded. After a pause he added, "I can give you a night's lodging." He then proceeded to the second interrogatory.

"How old are yer?"

"Thirty," I answered.

"What are yer?"

"Lately discharged," I replied, "from the 'Austral Brigands' on account of ill-health."

"I don't want to know what you've been," he rejoined. "What are yer now?"

"I have no occupation at present," I answered, "or I should not be here."

"Well, you are a tramp, then," and down went the word "tramp," after my hereditary appellative of Slitcoat Downatheel,

"Where were you discharged?" he continued.

"At Georgetown," I replied.

"How did you get back? Did they send you over?"


"Well," he continued, "I'm not surprised at their discharging you from the 'Brigands'; they want people with what is called 'nous' out in the Colonies — at least, they did in my time — a thing that you don't seem to have got. Are you a good hand at picking oakum?"

"No," I answered, with a hectic attempt at a smile.

"Well," said he, "you'll have a good spell of it to-morrow, if that's any consolation to you."

With the consolatory reflections induced by this last remark, I returned to my seat

It would be hard indeed if the poor-law authorities inflicted all these humiliations upon candidates for their bounty without a reward in some shape or another beaming in the immediate future; and doubtless, under the presumption that hunger is one of the principal motives that drive people to accept this species of hospitality, means are provided for the refreshment of the inner man.

The grand inquisitor now rose from his chair and approached the benches, bearing a wooden tray containing a quantity of pieces of brown bread corresponding to the number of guests assembled, gruffly ordering each individual to "take one "; each, in response lo this cordial invitation, plunged his hand into the receptacle and withdrew it, containing a portion of the bread in question. The principal ingredient in the composition of this panacea seemed to me, to judge by the flavour, to be sawdust; and if it did not serve the purpose of appeasing hunger, it possessed at least the somewhat doubtful advantage of being singularly provocative of thirst

The insertion of the names and descriptions, interlarded as it had been by the appropriate jocosity of the tramp-master, had occupied some considerable time, but the ceremonial, as will be ultimately seen, was far from being concluded.

The bread having been distributed, we proceeded to devour it, but not before we had been thoroughly searched; and no dynamite or other explosive material being discovered upon our miserable persons, we were ushered in great state — that is to say, we were driven like so many wolves — into another portion of what Bucklaw, in the "Bride of Lammermoor," would have termed this "beggarly castle of starvation," preparatory to benefiting by our much-needed repose.

I must now touch upon a subject that I approach with extreme diffidence, but which it would be impossible to omit, constituting as it does one of the most important features of the hospitality accorded by the parochial authorities; and in fear that ears polite may be offended, 1 will extricate myself from the temporary difficulty by addressing my remarks, bearing upon this particular subject, to devout students of the Koran. These latter then, knowing the importance attributed to cleanliness by the votaries of Mahomet, will not be surprised to find that one of the most salient points in the night's entertainment provided in the Casual Ward is the Oriental ceremony of the bath.

The religious element to be observed to so marked a degree in the Mussulman custom is in its Protestant prototype conspicuous by its absence, nor is the vernacular generally in use upon the occasion, or, indeed, the whole machinery of the institution, productive of divine ideas or inductive of religious inspirations — unless the much-cherished axiom be borne in mind of cleanliness being next to godliness. Be this as it may, the object of this institution is strictly corporeal and sanitary rather than religious, and if becomingly carried out would be in accordance with necessity, although the same brutality is observable in its infliction that characterises every phase of the hospitality granted to the unfortunate devotees— guilty of that most heinous crime of all, poverty.

To resume, after this slight digression, we now found ourselves in a species of shed or outhouse, situated at the back of the building, where we were ordered to remain whilst the "bath" was being prepared for our reception; and, judging by the appearance of some of my companions that more than one of them would soon be able to walk without the exercise of his limbs, I mentally resolved to be, if possible, one of the first. In the course of a few minutes a voice was heard from the exterior, exclaiming, "Now then, come on four of you!" and the requisite number immediately issued forth, myself among them, where a few paces led us to the foot of a rickety flight of wooden steps, which we duly ascended, and attaining the summit found our further progress, I was about to say barred by a door, but, the night being extremely cold, the door was upon this Occasion hospitably thrown open, so that we should not lack ventilation during the process of disrobing and immersion.

The interior presented that of a small room, in one comer of which, but in a separate compartment, stood the famous "bath." My companions in misfortune I should say, speaking roughly, numbered about thirty souls, and the whole of us, each in our turn, were to be immersed in this single receptacle. This, to the innocent reader, would appear to be somewhat of a lengthy operation, but the parish authorities possess in the roaster of the ceremonies, who now performed the function of entertaining Her Majesty's brigade of vagabonds, a master-spirit equal to any emergency, however insurmountable the obstacles might appear; and it was a source of no small wonder to me, and has been ever since, why such a bel esprit occupied so lowly a station. He now proceeded to expedite matters, and to be brief, instead of thirty "coups," the tramp-master, with the power of calculation of a chancellor of the exchequer or the keenness of vision of the most astute Monte Carlian, made fifteen by the simple mathematical process of ordering two individuals to plunge into the bath at the same time; the operation being repeated until the whole thirty had performed their ablutions by absolutely bathing in one another's filth. Not once was the water changed; as soon as two were out another two were in, and so on to the end of the chapter.

I marvelled at the time what reasons, sanitary or other, could possibly justify such an act of wholesale bestiality, and what were the mysterious economical precepts (secreted probably in the brain of some inscrutable Guardian) that failed to acknowledge the necessity for more than one bath and one supply of tepid water for thirty human beings to be plunged in two at a time, several of whom I noticed were suffering from various descriptions of skin diseases. In a similar establishment that I once had occasion to visit in the City I was informed that there were three baths provided, one of which was particularly reserved for diseases of the skin; but in this pandemonium no such precaution was considered necessary. Each man entered the bath dirty, and issued therefrom dirtier still, and perhaps in addition had the good fortune to contract some contagious malady. By the provision of two or three baths cleanliness would have been observed, or at least something in the shape of it, and undue humiliation would not have been inflicted— not upon a collection of hyaenas and jackals escaped from the gardens of the Zoological Society — but upon a score or two of human beings whose only crime was poverty.

* * * * * * *

"Put yer head under!" said the tramp-master, who was presiding over the whole of the arrangements, to me, when my turn came to step into the bowl of ditch-water. I may here observe, parenthetically, that upon a former occasion, which among the tramps has attained the dignity of being historical, one of the guests entertained in this same hospitable mansion happened to be a gigantic negro, who, either misunderstanding the order to plunge his head into the greasy mixture, or, what is more probable, being unwilling to do so, the tramp-master, losing patience (and not possessing the necessary amount of nous, notwithstanding his colonial experience, to be aware that there are certain occasions when negroes are not always philosophers), violently pushed the man's head beneath the surface. The black immediately sprang out, seized his burly persecutor in his arms, and fairly hurled him into the bath, clothed as he was — whence he extricated himself with something less than his usual dignity. From that time the tramp-master confined his operations when superintending the ablutions to a verbal order.

The ceremonial was now concluded for the evening, and we all passed from the bath-room into the dormitory, or whatever name would be most appropriate to describe an apartment resembling the interior of a barn, provided with a somewhat steep and lofty roof, and along the sides of which were ranged two rows of what I, in my ignorance, at first imagined to be paupers* coffins. I must confess that I was startled for the moment, and the thought occurred to my mind that our sufferings were about to be terminated by a holocaust, and that it was intended to immolate us and subsequently bury us all on the premises; and that, in addition, we were on the point of being elevated from our present degradation to the dignity of the Castilian monarchs, who, by a visit to the subterranean chapel beneath the Escurial, can behold, whenever the fancy seizes them, their sepulchral urns.

There was no ground for alarm, however, for on a closer inspection what I imagined to be paupers' coffins turned out to be straw-mattresses spread upon the ground, and separated from one another by a deal board. Upon each of these luxurious couches was what by a stretch of imagination might in parochial language be termed — a blanket, but which in reality was a threadbare quilt of the most meagre description, which, whatever might be its ostensible object, utterly failed to guarantee the shivering caitiff shrinking beneath it from the frigidity of the atmosphere.

Over the summit of our beds, or rather dosses, as they are termed in Bohemian parlance, and extending the whole length of the wall, was a shelf, upon which we were ordered to place our rags formed into a bundle — a night-garment in the shape of a cotton shirt being lent to us for the occasion by the institution. We were not permitted to place our clothes upon our beds to further an increase of warmth, and, it being cold for the period of the year, my sufferings were intense, and were greatly enhanced by the peculiar nature of my situation, by my doubts as to the treatment I should meet with on the morrow, and by my harrowing anxieties. At length, at a late hour, I forgot my cares in a troubled slumber.

* * * * * * *

I had been awake but a few minutes when, at the matutinal hour of six, as I should judge, the door was thrown open and the tormentor of the preceding evening made his appearance in his shirt-sleeves. I had enjoyed a banquet composed of brown bread and water, had partaken of the luxury of the bath, and had profited by a night's lodging — now was to come the hour of reckoning.

"Now then," roared he, at the top of his voice; "out of it, all of you; tumble out! tumble out! Roll up your mattresses," continued he, with the commanding air and gesture of a Roman general giving the order to his legionaries, "and put your shirts on the top of them." This operation being soon performed, and our toilet completed with equal rapidity, we all passed out of the dormitory into the bath-room, and thence by the flight of rickety stairs we emerged into the chill morning air.

The master having selected some half-dozen as cleaners, served out to each of the remainder, after duly weighing it in the scales, a bundle of short pieces of tarred rope to be unravelled and picked, by means of the fingers, into a fibre as fine as the production of the silkworm, and we all entered the shed or outhouse, the salle d'attente where we had waited the night before, previous to the arrival of our turn for taking part in that ceremony that I most cordially hope I shall never more have occasion to refer to.

A more miserable aspect than that presented by this den would be difficult to describe, and as I gazed upon the blackened wall?, and upon my companions ragged and forlorn accroupis upon the two rows of benches, engaged in their hideous and ignoble employment, I fairly owned to myself that never until this moment had I known what misery was. And here was I to remain the whole of the day, for it would be a moral impossibility to my inexperience to complete my task within the prescribed limits, eleven o'clock being the hour of deliverance. An allowance of bread, of the same magnitude as that issued the preceding evening, was now distributed to us by the task-master, and, should it be necessary to detain any of us until eight o'clock at night, this was all that we had to depend upon to support nature.

An incident now occurred that it would be well to place before the public eye — an incident that I beheld with mingled disgust and rage, and after being a spectator of which I unhesitatingly affirm, and shall always maintain, that given a task-master possessing the necessary amount of brutality, and a pauper in the last stage of destitution, the position of the latter is as downtrodden as that of the serfs before they were emancipated by the late Emperor of Russia. The victim upon this occasion was not a colossal negro, but a discharged soldier of emaciated aspect, slightly made and considerably under the middle height, and, as it afterwards transpired, in an advanced state of consumption, possessing only one lung — a worthy object for the barbarity of this transplantation from Siberia to the banks of the Thames.

Like myself, he had presented himself for the purpose of seeing the doctor, and being ill and infirm stated his inability to perform the task allotted to him when ordered to do so by the master. No sooner had the refusal passed his lips than the gaoler seized him by the shoulders and pushed him outside the door with great violence, inflicting at the same time more than one blow on the ears of the unhappy wretch with the flat of his hand.

"You are a cowardly man," shrieked the object of this atrocious act of cruelty.

"You humbug," roared his assailant, "you shall see the doctor at ten, and if he says you are fit for work, woe betide you 1"

He then stalked off, and the sick man resumed his seat in the shed.

With the exception of myself I noticed that all the spectators beheld this scene with the most stolid indifference. One old tramp did so far express his feelings as to observe that, should he who had just submitted to this castigation have the courage to make his complaint before a magistrate, "no one in such a crowd as this," looking round the shed, "would back him up; and they wouldn't be believed if they did." Now that I am upon this subject, I may as well terminate it at once. At ten o'clock the poor soldier was summoned to the presence of the doctor; he did not return, and I was for a time ignorant of his fate. A few weeks after, having occasion to visit a Union Infirmary, I recognised in the wearer of one of the workhouse suits my companion of the eventful evening that I am describing. He informed me that he had been duly examined by the doctor, who immediately granted him admittance to the infirmary. Battered and trampled upon, he was unable to summon up the necessary amount of courage to formulate a complaint against the tramp-master, and was moreover but too delighted to escape from his talons; but this worthy, with the cowardice of low minds, said to him apologetically, as he escorted him to the infirmary: "You mustn't pay any attention to what I said to you this morning. I didn't know you were as bad as you are."

I forbear all comment.

But to resume. If my immediate surroundings were miserable and forlorn, the view presented to my gaze from without was mournful in the extreme; the shed, the scene of our present confinement, opened upon a small paved court, bounded by a row of iron railings, that served to separate the precincts of the workhouse from what struck me as being perfectly in consonance with my situation, namely, a graveyard, over which protruded the irregular backs of the houses of a London street. Downpours of rain fell during the day, brightening the hues of the emerald green that carpeted the surface, upon which rested the tombstones indicating the last dwelling-place of the departed. Fine old tombs some of them, composed of solid blocks of masonry that in their time had had other spectators interested or disinterested than a bevy of wretched paupers. Rare gleams of sunshine— how rare! — occasionally broke forth, casting slanting shadows from the tombstones, the effect of which, either from the state of my mind or other causes, was to produce the very ecstasy of mournfulness and sorrowing. At that moment the silvery chime of a chapel bell fell upon my drowsy ears and recalled me for a moment, but for a moment, to the things of this world. "That's for the morning service of a Roman Catholic chapel," remarked an old tramp next to me, observing my look of mental interrogation, "and it's generally very fashionably attended."

The little chapel bell continued to tinkle summoning its votaries to morning prayer, conjuring up thoughts in my watchful mind that led me far away from the oakum-shed: I saw in my mind's eye the mysterious obscurity of the interior of the building, the variegated reflections from the stained-glass windows, the high altar with its lighted tapers, the urbane and priestly officiant administering to his wealthy communicants; the breviaries, and the incense. I beheld the beautiful young mother as she stepped from her carriage into the sacred building, holding by the hand her daughter with the golden locks clustering over the velvet jacket, and could even distinguish the earnest devotion perceptible in the violet eyes of the child as she knelt before the altar.

* * * * * * *

Pathos and comedy, for some reason undefined, advance hand in hand in this world, and I was summoned from my too luxurious and inappropriate reveries by the gruff voice of the tramp-master, who at that moment made his appearance at the entrance of the shed, completely darkening it and bearing the "pot-à-salade" before alluded to, containing, to use the language of Gil Bias, the hardes and the nippes of the assembled company. Never had such a motley collection of novelties found a home in a conjuror's basket: knives with several blades and every one of them broken; halves, nay, quarters, of old combs in an advanced state of decay, with nearly all the teeth out; broken old clay pipes black with use, dilapidated old newspapers, &c. &c. "Whose is this?" said the humourist, with an agreeable smile, holding up one of the latter objects; "to whom belongs the Tramp's Journal" continued he, inflicting a name upon the periodical in question. Roars of hilarity. "He's not a bad sort of a chap," said the old beggar, my neighbour, "when he's let the steam off."

The various objects having been returned to their legitimate owners, and it being moreover eleven o'clock, those who had completed their task were at liberty to depart, among which number, it is needless to say, I was not included.

"Some of you will be pretty hungry before you've done," said the tramp-master, grimly eyeing in particular my performance, which I must own presented a most contemptible appearance; "you're only wasting your time now," added he: "all that will have to be picked over again."

The long hours succeeded one another, the rain fell, the gleams of sunshine ceased to appear — but enough of this I My back is nearly broken with the crouching, stooping posture I am compelled to adopt in the performance of my humiliating employment. At length, at half past five, I was liberated and emerged by a back entrance into the miserable streets. On finding myself once more upon the world's pavement and at liberty, I murmured involuntarily, as I stood half-clad in the drizzling, clinging rain that was gradually saturating me to the skin, "Post tenebras lux; is it possible that I have been but twenty hours a resident in that hateful place?" — weeks, months, in fact, had seemed to have flown over my head with the bitter experience and sombre thought crowded into a few hours.

Who says that London is not a beautiful city? asked I, as, starved, wet, and miserable, I gazed upon the brick buildings looming through the dank, murky atmosphere, with feelings of pleasure that had never visited me when gazing at sunrise over the Bay of Naples.


(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

[Top of Page] Explorers index] [Literature index] [Home Page]

Ancestry UK

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *