Ancestry UK

A Workhouse Probe

The following article appeared on 30th November 1867 in All The Year Round, a magazine founded, owned and edited by Charles Dickens. It was probably written by Joseph Charles Parkinson — journalist, civil servant, social reformer, and one of the magazine's regular contributors. Although not explicitly mentioned in the text, the article is clearly describing the Hursley Union workhouse in Hampshire.


A COAL-CELLAR without coals; a punishment-cell for refractory criminals; a dreary black-hole, with grated windows, and cold damp floor and walls; a tank with the water let off, and the oldest fish-inhabitant departed — such is the Hampshire casual ward we are visiting to-day. It is very small. Its sole furniture is one bedstead, without clothes or wraps; and, though we are assured that a fire is lighted in it "sometimes," there is no evidence of any such genial contingency now. Its massive door is plentifully studded with the heavy iron nails which adorn the entrances to her Majesty's jails, and are supposed to strike terror into the hearts of evil-doers; and it is altogether as cold, comfortless, and penal a resting-place as the sternest disciplinarian could wish. If it does not do duty as village lock-up, the local authorities are extravagant; for a fitter place in which any obstreperously convivial Giles or Roger might shake off the hilarity of a Saturday night's carouse, and might become penitent, meek, and subdued, it would be hard to find. You step down into it direct from the road without intervening hall or corridor, and the approach to its one door is graced by a stagnant pool, the foetid smell from which offends the least sensitive nose. "We're not much troubled with tramps here, gentlemen; they prefer going on to the town, four miles off," remarks the matron, with a smile. As we look down shudderingly, this wet and foggy autumn day, into the damp dark place, and fancy the key turned and ourselves locked in till morning, we fully appreciate the preference shown. Any sensible wayfarer, however footsore, hungry, and exhausted, would struggle on for another four miles to avoid spending the night in a dungeon, compared to which a police-cell is comfort, and a model prison luxury.

"No admittance to the workhouse, except on business, by order of the guardians," does not apply to us. Our open sesame is the inquiry we have on hand; for "we" are the Lancet Commission, which your servant, the present writer, has been permitted to accompany on its errand of humanity, and admission is cheerfully accorded, apparently by instinct, certainly without a question as to our credentials. A snug, cozy little union of four parishes, managed by a board, the chairman of which is the squire of the neighbourhood, with for a vice-chairman the squire's namesake and near relative; a union in which the workhouse is rented by the board of managers from the presiding member of that board (!) — a union where the clergyman of the parish is paid an annual sum, not for holding regular service as chaplain, but for occasionally visiting the twenty-one paupers now in the house; a little place where "wards" are cottage-rooms, and where the master and matron are collectively chief nurse, governor, superintendent, labour-master, mistress, and head-cook. Matters which would be abuses on a large scale are part of a system here, under which paupers are, perhaps, better cared for than in many an establishment whose pretensions are fourfold.

The "workhouse" consists of twelve little cottages, forming an enclosed quadrangle, in which there is practically no classification, and where some of the sanitary arrangements are as bad as ignorance and old-fashioned prejudice can make them. A cesspool which has "not been cleared out in the twelve years we've been here," lies under the windows of the lying-in and infectious wards; and the closets, which have been "inspected" twice a year, with great regularity, by the representative of the Poor Law Board, are as disgustingly unfit for human use as if they belonged to some savage kraal, where the commonest laws of decency and health were unknown. But in many of the inner domestic details in which kind and thoughtful interest makes people happy, the twenty-one men and women were well placed. You see it in the bright alacrity of the matron, in the cheerful readiness of her replies, in the snugness of some of the internal arrangements, and in the cleanliness and contentment of the small handful of paupers at home. The entrance to the master's house — which is simply one of the cottages furbished up and snugly furnished — is opposite the door of the dungeon in which tramps pay the penalty of their calling. The master is at church, but his wife will show us over the workhouse with the greatest pleasure. There is no pause, nor evasion, nor holding back; and, in two minutes from the time of our ringing the hell, we have passed through the private apartments, and are on the female side of the central yard. Such a little place to be a union workhouse! After a long experience of workhouses like towns, of long and dreary chambers in which a short-sighted person could easily mistake his own father if placed at the opposite end to himself, Mr. Wemmick's Walworth fortress, with its Lilliputian drawbridge, moat, and guarded postern, irresistibly occur to us as we are shown over "wards" not much larger than bathing-machines, and "refectories" and "day-rooms" which would be undersized for a family of six. There is no communication through what we suppose we must call the house. The cottages are — save here and there, where two bedrooms have been thrown into one — almost as distinct as in the pre-New Poor Law period when they were built. Hearing with pleasure that the child-inmates are sent to the ordinary parish school, and not educated like pariahs apart, we pass into the first cottage on the women's side.

A little room, with what seemed to be the car of a balloon in wicker-work standing in one corner, and one small tin basin — of the size of the vessels in which "half portions" of soup are served at a club — filled with soapsuds, is shown us as the lavatory. On remarking that the latter article looked, if anything, a trifle small to be the washing vessel of the establishment, we were told of increased accommodation looming in the future; and that upon a board or sub-committee making up its mind and presenting a report, a larger basin and a more copious supply of towels would be granted. The balloon-car turns out to be a cradle, unoccupied at present, but in which four pauper babies can be rocked at once, two at each end — a comprehensive provision if the total population of the workhouse, twenty-one, all decrepid or disabled, be considered. Two women, one weak-minded and the other subject to fits, a child, and a bedridden old man, are the only inmates at home. The other paupers — including a couple of idiots and a young man of suicidal tendencies — are with the master at church, for a great anniversary festival is being held, and the little knot of male worshippers, in clean white smock-frocks, seated to the right of the middle aisle, and the handful of poor women opposite them, are the workhouse's contribution to the celebration of the day. The child smiles upon us, and gazes up wonderingly, with grave black eyes, in which, by the way, there is not a trace of fear, as the matron precedes us into the room. It is another cottage apartment, with the two women just spoken of busily at work. They are all scrupulously clean, despite the size of the tin cup just hinted at; and here, as elsewhere, during our visit, we are disposed to declare the little place to be exceptional, and not to be judged by the rules it is essential to enforce in other establishments of its class. That it should, in spite of some grave defects, rise superior to circumstances, is doubtless due to the character and disposition of its governing board and their two delegates, the master and matron. The latter is as cheery and kind as a warm heart and good disposition could make her. The pauper child's smile of recognition and welcome, and the way her little hand closed familiarly upon our guide's gown, spoke volumes as to habitual kindnesses; while the demeanour of the two women — familiar and confident; though not wanting in respect — was a testimonial infinitely more convincing than a whole wilderness of votes of thanks and minutes of approval. After a question from one of the women on a point of household discipline has been answered, and the little girl's whispered petition smilingly granted, we pass to the kitchen, where boiled bacon, cabbages, and some added condiment, giving a deliciously appetising flavour, are swimming in the coppers we are invited to peer into. A most savoury and toothsome mixture it seems to be, and our railway journey from London, and moist drive subsequently from Barchester, has left us hungry enough to envy the paupers for whom it is preparing.

More cottage apartments, the down-stair rooms, with flooring of stone or brick; those up-stairs holding three or four beds, all well appointed, and each cottage containing two rooms. Chairs or benches, a rough table, and a cupboard used in common by the occupants, comprise the furniture. After traversing the yard, and going over every room of every cottage — finding, of course, a wonderful uniformity throughout — we come to the one bedridden old man. A room has been fitted up for him on the ground floor, and here he is lying cozily enough, but quite alone, with his feet to the door, and his limbs and body stretched out in an attitude which suggests rather painfully the time when lameness, and old age, and poverty will be over, and when he will be carried from his present resting-place for ever. Not that there was anything in the man himself, as distinguished from his attitude, to suggest aught but the keenest appreciation of life; for he started up in bed and bobbed his head to the Commission, as if he guessed the purport of the visit, and had been waiting these thirteen years to speak his autobiography. He was a hale, ruddy, vigorous old fellow, who had lost an eye, but whose voice showed no sign of infirmity. Nay, as we had understood before we visited him that he was very deaf, this vigour of voice led to a rather boisterous colloquy between one of our party and himself. "How do you find yourself, my man?" inquired our friend, in tones adapted to a patient whose infirmity aural surgeons had failed to relieve. "Noicely, thankee, zur, but oise lame, you know, oise lame!" shouted back the invalid, in accents fitted for the quarter-deck of a battle-ship in the heat of action; and so the conversation went on, each sorry for the other's deafness, and politely anxious to accommodate himself to it. For the old pauper was not satisfied with emulating the bellow of an exceptionally strong-lunged bull. He made a speaking-trumpet of his wrinkled hands; and, taking steady aim at his visitor's ear, repeated every assertion twice. " Yes, am well enough;" then more slowly, " Oi'm well enough" (pause), " bar the lameness — bar the lameness." He had been at full pitch for some minutes now, and though red in the face could still have cleared the busiest thoroughfare for a fire-engine's progress. "It was Mr. Mullings's horse, it was, yes. It was Mr. Mullings's horse. Kicked me he did! He kicked me, yer knaw" (louder). "Oi can stand up though" (louder still); "oi can stand up." Then, not quite so loud, but with a slow distinctness of enunciation, meant to give his hearer every chance, " Oi can stand up, but it's walking that bothers me, that bothers me, just here, yer knaw; just here. Oi'm well enough, and comfortable enough, thankee, zur. Now I don't want for nothing, I dawn't, thankee kindly." A shelf half-hidden by a neat curtain held a couple of bottles and a Bible and prayer-book, and a convenient stand at the bed-head served for the veteran's dinner-tray. " I suppose he's very deaf," said his late interlocutor, commiseratingly, as we left him bobbing his head like some huge and bulbous sensitive plant, after his bed-linen and accessories had been examined, and found clean: "I suppose he's very deaf. How old is he?"

"Well, sir, he's eighty-five, and his sight's failing, but his hearing's as good as ever!" This discovery rather weakened the spirit of our cross-examination; but time pressed, and we passed to what was called the old men's day-room. The pseudo deaf man, who, though confined to his bed, looked as hale and strong as any of us, had been a soldier, then a wanderer, then a farm-labourer, but "had never made himself a home," and was locally known as a boisterous Lothario up to the time of his accident "a long time ago, I don't exactly know how long, but he was here when we came in 1855."

A corner cupboard containing an odd volume of a religious work, a soap-dish and shaving-brush, three stale crusts, two small bits of cooked meat, and some odd cups and saucers; a table, a bench, and a Windsor chair with unnaturally long legs, which lifted it from the ground like stilts, and a cottage interior to match the rest, made up the old men's day-room. A pauper, recently deceased, had laboured under a spinal infirmity which compelled him to sit in a certain position, and the chair had been altered by order of the guardians for his benefit. The other inmates, both male and female, are too old and infirm for household work, so a charwoman, and in time of pressure two charwomen, are hired from the village for as many days a week as are necessary to keep the place in order. Everything is on the same cozy scale. The "infectious ward" — it really seems absurd to use these titles when we recall the little place — is the upper room of one of the cottages. It is seldom used. How often? "Oh! perhaps twice or three times a year, perhaps not so much — we had a case of itch here last, but that's five months ago. No, we've never any able-bodied people here, and the others are nearly all of the same class as the old man you've been talking to, who have never made themselves a home. Our guardians relieve out more than in; for if they can help people at their own places, they prefer doing it to breaking up their homes and forcing them into the house. Do I consider it safe to keep two idiots and a young man of suicidal tendencies together, with their medicine bottles within reach to drink from, or ply each other with? Well, it's some months ago since the young man attempted his life last, and he's been a good deal easier in his mind lately. Indeed, sir, if you think the Commissioners of Lunacy ought to know about him, and that he shouldn't be kept here, I'm sure I'll tell the board so, and I dare say they'll have him moved. No, sir, I don't remember that the gentleman from the Poor Law Board ever mentioned this; but you shall see the visiting book directly. May I ask if you're from the Lancet, gentlemen? Yes! I thought as much (smiling). Well, I hope you don't find us very bad. I'm sure we try our best, and when there's any one sick I don't think they're badly cared for. I generally nurse myself, and the ladies from the Hall and the clergyman's wife often come to read to the inmates, and lend them books as well; oh yes, the clergyman visits the workhouse regularly. No, sir, there's no service held here, but the ten pounds a year is paid him for coming, don't you see, and he's very good and kind, I'm sure."

Although we had reason to believe that paupers — always excepting the male casuals, who were evidently housed wretchedly on principle — were properly treated in the main, the arrangement under which the workhouse is hired struck us as peculiar. One regulation of the new Poor Law is, that "all contracts to be entered into on behalf of the Union, relating to the maintenance, clothing, lodging, employment, or relief of the poor . . . . . shall be made and entered into by the guardians;" and, in a note to this clause, we find that "heavy penalties are imposed on persons having the management of the poor" — i.e. the guardians — "if concerned in contracts for the supply of goods," — " goods," in this sense, obviously referring to lodging as well as maintenance, "for the use of such poor."

This salutary regulation is, it is well known, frequently evaded. The influential ratepayer, who virtually returns a section of the guardians, is a tradesman whose tenders are not often refused; guardians have nephews, or brothers, or wife's relatives, who sell bread, or groceries, or meat, on such disinterested terms, that it is the bounden duty of the parochial board to deal with them; or guardians sell the raw material out of which the goods for contracts are made, and make their vote contingent upon the tradesman buying of them in return. These things are notorious; and the following anecdote fairly illustrates the system. Not many months ago, a contract for painting a metropolitan workhouse was signed; and, in due course, the painter entered upon his work. On the first day a guardian, who is a wholesale dealer in colours, looked in at the workhouse during the dinner-hour, and while the workmen were away, and in his intense regard for the paupers' comfort, asked to see the wards then being restored, that he might judge for himself how the work was performed. The good man then, without passing a word of censure or comment, wrapped up two minute specimens of the paint, put them in his waistcoat-pocket, and walked quietly away, first telling the workhouse-master to let the contractor know of his visit. The next day this guardian and colour-dealer received in answer to his hint an order for the very paints required to carry out the workhouse contract; so that all unpleasant analyses of the quality, or quibbles as to the work, were promptly avoided. Here was no corruption, no touting, no undue influence. What could be more strictly in accordance with a high-minded guardian's sense of duty than that he should devote his special knowledge to the ensuring fit materials for parish work being used? And how could this end be better attained than by examining them for himself? On the other hand, the contractor was merely anxious to please his customers; and if one of them furnished the paints himself, it was scarcely likely that the board would be dissatisfied; or questions arise as to an inferior description being used, or less work being given; or on the contract generally being performed in a slovenly but inexpensive fashion. The tacit understanding manifested between guardian and contractor was beautifully simple, and in large towns, where parochial boards are mainly composed of small tradesmen, there is no reasonable doubt that similar practices prevail almost universally. But in the agricultural districts, where country gentlemen, magistrates, and their friends serve as guardians, where a patriarchal interest is supposed to be felt in the poor people of the township, or the estate, we expect matters to be managed without taint of jobbery. Yet, in the establishment we are visiting, where we find so much to praise and so comparatively little to blame, the chief guardian lets the workhouse to the rest, and draws his rent from the poor-rates he administers!

It is possible that no very serious wrong ensues. It is possible that the ratepayers are better served than if a workhouse were built, in another portion of the parish; and it is probable that the paupers are more kindly treated, when the squire of the parish serves in the double capacity of landlord and chief guardian. But that the practice is loosely illegal, and open to grave abuse, there cannot be a doubt. Suppose a man to be less high-minded than there is reason to believe this present chairman to be. Suppose other guardians coalesced to purchase, build, and let to each other for the use of the poor. Suppose land to be owned by one guardian, bricks made by another, building undertaken by a third, and so on — what check have we then? The answer is, the Poor Law Board, which, through its representative, the district inspector, undertakes to see that the law is properly observed. Let us turn, then, to the visiting-book, and see how the official visitor, who is already celebrated for his discharge of duty at Farnham, has performed this duty His inspections have been made with great regularity twice a year, and " Wards in good order," "Satisfactory," "Very satisfactory," form the staple of his monotonous remarks. Not a syllable concerning sanitary arrangements, closets, cesspools, classification, or the ownership of the house. Not a grumble, scarcely a suggestion. That some vegetables should be moved from one empty room to another, is positively the most important recommendation made for years. Another entry, in which some minor alterations are suggested, has under it, as the guardians' minute thereupon, "refer to the land-lord, and request him to make the changes advised." That is, refer to our chief, and see whether he will put his hand in his pocket, as owner, to satisfy a request officially made by himself as guardian. Comment is needless upon a system of control which makes this state of things possible, and we left the workhouse honestly wondering that its abuses are so few.

Then came the question, argued earnestly and anxiously on our way home — How are securities to be made stronger, and laxity and cruelty less frequent? Our answer was — Publicity. Our workhouses must no longer be close boroughs, jobbed and managed, or mismanaged, by a clique or coterie. Inspection must be in the hands of the ratepayers, as well as of an official who lives in the county, who is on terms of friendly intimacy with the guardians, and who, having reported for the last thirty years that everything is in capital order, cannot well eat his own words, and stigmatise wards and infirmaries as imperfect now. At present, a painstaking inspector is to be pitied, for he has no reward but unpopularity and a conviction that in the most careful of his investigations he is beating the air. He reports unfavourably to the Poor Law Board, and a letter is sent from Whitehall to the country guardians, advising that the recommendations made by their officer be carried out. The guardians — we are quoting no imaginary case, but one which is constantly occurring — either order the official communication to "lie on the table," or argue the point with their Whitehall censors, showing how, with all due respect for the inspector in a general way, they cannot but feel that in this particular instance he is utterly wrong, and they must therefore decline to incur the expenditure advised. Then comes a pause. Meanwhile the months roll on, and the inspector visits the workhouse again, sees the same abuses, reports as before, and another official letter is sent to the guardians. This is either unanswered, or again answered as we have said. What happens then? Is the department irritated, or stimulated into action, or hurt at its own powerlessness? Not a bit of it. "Put by" is written on the papers relating to what is called "that troublesome case," and the matter drops into oblivion, the inspector becoming known as a man giving needless trouble. It may be a foul drain, killing off its tens or hundreds every year; a mode of dispensing medicines which ensures fatal accidents from blundering; or a defect in an infirmary ward which is slowly torturing the helpless into their graves. No matter. The Poor Law Board "has the honour to be," and, having acknowledged a report and made a request, comfortably washes its hands of the business, and feels it has done its duty. "The Poor Law Board," said a chairman of a board of guardians in conversation the other day, "appeal to the Poor Law Board! strengthen the Poor Law Board! Why, it's the greatest sham and obstructive of us all. Guardians are bad enough, and stupid enough, and sometimes corrupt enough; but for downright causing of evil, the government safeguard is the worst of all. We've never applied to it for advice in a difficulty, and had a satisfactory answer. Many a time have the obstructives at our board — he fellows who've but one notion of a pauper, something to starve, or put down, or get rid of — many a time have these used the Poor Law Board as an instrument against those anxious for humanity to the poor. Besides, if all I hear be true, the Board itself is as mythical as its influence for good. Keep quiet, avoid disturbance, and consequent unpopularity. Don't rouse people against us and make a renewal of the bill under which we claim our comfortable salaries impossible — those have been the outspoken tenets of 'the Board.'" Is it possible," we asked, "that successive Home Secretaries, the Presidents of the Council, and their colleagues in the Cabinet, can have been so mean-spirited and base?" "Not at all. But these high functionaries are only the sham board. The Poor Law Board potential is made up of the secretary and one or two colleagues. These are the men upon whom the responsibility of past and present policy rests. The parliamentary secretaries and the president are helplessly in their hands; and it is notorious in which direction the strings have been pulled. Let us have a succinct statement of what these paid advisers have done for the poor or for the country in the years during which they have drawn the public money; and let us hear why the secretariat complained of by one Poor Law President, Mr. Matthew Baines, as 'too large,' has been considerably increased since his time." . If it be true that the secretary of this precious department is its real chief, let us have the fact made known to parliament and to the country, and responsibility .properly awarded. There is neither merit nor justice in making a particular workhouse or a particular official the scapegoat of the rest — unless it be in the hope of reforming all. The rank abuses which are inseparable from the system must be traced to their source, and a righteous control established, to which both careless or corrupt guardians and supine officials must bend. Purging Whitehall may prove to be the only mode of securing wholesome workhouses, and healthily active boards.

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