Ancestry UK


A Workhouse Farm forms a chapter of the book The Eyes of the Thames by Arthur Thomas Pask (1889). For more information on the Cuckoo Farm Schools see the web page for the Central London School District.


The branches and twigs of the trees in the hedges are covered with snow, and form a white lace work, through which I catch glimpses of the turquoise sky. The golden sunset light is tinting the distant hills. It is rough work tramping through the heavy snowdrifts in the narrow lane, but the sky is so bright, and the cawing of the rooks is so cheerful, that it is impossible to be low spirited and weary. Coming towards me, whistling as he walks, is a small, ruddy-faced boy, carrying a basket on his arm. He is clad in a plain uniform of blue and corduroy, which, although it is not so hideous as that of the Charitable Grinders, at the same time is distinguished by that lack of smartness which seems almost peculiar to the garb of the Asylum or the Workhouse. This is a workhouse lad. As I am on my way to the Workhouse Farm, and am in a road that I know nothing whatever about, his appearance is most welcome. I ask him where the Cuckoo Farm Schools are, and he points with his thumb over the fields. There I see, rising sharply from a number of roofs, a tall square clock tower. Trudging on through the snow, clad in a heavy ulster, is rather fatiguing work, and the sight of a small lodge and an open gate is quite a relief. A footpath is here cut through the drift, and in a few minutes I am under the walls of the great collection of brick buildings. In front there is a rich growth of evergreens, of deodara with snow-laden branches bending down, and of various kinds of fir. Following the footpath I come to a great portico, between the pillars of which are, for what purpose I know not, several tolerably large siege guns. The hall of the Schools is of considerable size, and is by no means suggestive of any of the dulness of a pauper's palace. Many of our better Government offices are not, in this respect, nearly so well accommodated. The only noteworthy peculiarity about the large hall, excepting its size, is its singularly depressing silence. Not a sound of any sort is to be heard. When the official slowly conies forward to whom I make myself known, I find him clad in a plain uniform, a composed and determined person. The silence, the uniform, and the composure, however, grimly call to mind divers visits to county gaols and institutions of a like nature, where there is, possibly, more discipline than comfort. After the opening and shutting of sundry iron gates that do not tend to dispel a somewhat unpleasant illusion, I am taken to a curious room — a mixture of store-room, office, and kitchen, yet still with the dash of the prison about it. On the walls are a number of bird cages, in which the birds are chirping merrily, to suggest only still more, like the song of the immortal starling, that they "can't get out."

Before going the round of the buildings I find myself somewhat languidly chatting with one of the officials. When the loneliness of the orphan children without relatives is referred to, he remarks that it is all the better. The worst enemies the pauper children ever have are their reputed friends. When a boy has left the "Farm," and is in a decent situation where he can earn a shilling or two a week, his friends, as a rule, are down upon him directly, either to borrow his savings of him or else to induce him to spend them in pleasure. The pauper apprentice, too, indeed, begins life with the world somewhat against him. Now-a-days masters do not care to take indoor apprentices. There is more independence of sentiment in this respect than there used to be. When work is done the masters like to have their families to themselves, without the presence of any awkward interloper. Thus the chances of the pauper lad making really useful and decent friends are considerably reduced. Again, when the boy leaves the "Farm," where he has been subjected to a necessary amount of discipline, he fancies that at once he will, so to speak, have all the world to himself. However, he finds that masters can be still more severe than officials, that at times they can even be guilty of deliberate cruelty; for, unlike the official, they have no immediate superior to call them to account. So sometimes the boy will run away and take to evil courses; though not so often as might be imagined. The pauper lad comes from the pauper class, seldom from the criminal class — a great and grave distinction. As we are talking, I see, standing in the passage outside, a smart, well-set-up lad, in scarlet tunic and glengarry. My companion and the school bandmaster, who has just joined us, call the young warrior in. He is now serving as a flute player in the band of the — Regiment. He has sixpence a day pay, and often earns three shillings or four shillings a night, extra playing outside barracks. Wednesday, "high mess," being the only night he cannot get leave. There is a certain amount of the modest swagger of independence about the lad, there is an air of gloves and cane about him, and an extra flavour of pomatum, yet he is evidently on good terms with the world. In the School there is a hand of fifty boys, all of whom are carefully trained, and most of whom enter the Army. Going from one kind of discipline to another, they seem to adapt themselves to circumstances much better than when serving as apprentices to small tradesmen; still, as the bandmaster remarks, they cannot all be band boys. It is here observed, as rather a curious fact, that exceptional musical talent is by no means confined to the children of better parentage; the boy of the lowest birth will often enough be the best musician.

Leaving the store-room and office, we enter the great dining-hall, which holds some thousand children. I was here some ten years ago, and cannot help noticing how much more brightly the walls are decorated. There are paper panel portraits of the Kings and Queens of England, there are plenty of good engravings, and a sort of act drop picture of the Bay of Naples, painted by one of the officials. In the kitchens, close by, the fittings are of the best and on the most extensive scale. These we leave, and I proceed to a long room, in which several hundred boys are seated in their shirts and trousers, but with bare feet. On a low stool is seated the surgeon's assistant. The boys file out from the forms, and as they come up and halt before him, one by one, he carefully examines their feet. It is impossible to help smiling at the idea that the modern pauper boy is actually treated to a practical chiropodist. Many fairly well-to-do middle-class men would think it a rare piece of extravagance to pay a shilling at a Turkish bath for the benefit of similar inspection and attendance.

Now the official who is with me asks the boys several questions. They answer with the regulation, public institution, smiling readiness, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir." Leaving this room for the next, I purposely put my head back through the door. I am not quite certain whether I saw an extended tongue or two. It would be no matter of surprise if I did. At any rate, let it be hoped that no boy will fare ill for this supposition on my part. If people who are fond of going through public institutions and interrogating good, clever prize-boys would occasionally do as I did, they would at times meet with the same result. The next room is perfectly damp with steam; a number of naked small boys are moving to and fro. Through the thick mist I saw beneath me quite a miniature Dantesque scene. In a deep bath, almost a pond of steaming water, are some, as far as I can make out, thirty boys or more. Why I know not, but it oddly reminds me of Dore's illustrations to the "Inferno." One of the lost boys, not souls, comes up and is interviewed. This is Johnnie Cannon, found nine years ago, the smallest of babes, in Cannon-street Station — found there, perhaps to his good fortune, for the Directors of the Railway Company, from the oddness of the fact, are likely to take some interest in him.

Crossing the great courtyard, on a sloppy path cut through the snow, we enter the reading-room. The walls are covered with pictures from the illustrated papers. The drawings are nearly all battle subjects. The boys, so I am told, always prefer them to any others. Turning over the books on the tables, they appear, rather to my surprise, to be the boys' favourites outside the Workhouse walls. They are not, as might be expected, of the ultra goody-goody class. Captain Marryat is there with an old friend, "Japhet in Search of a Father," the "Island Home," &c. No boy outside could want more. From here I go to the great playrooms and gymnasium. All is excellent, but are all the boys made good boys? My companion immediately lays down a law that would shock every lover of socialistic equality. Children that have come, no matter how young they were at the time of coming, from good parents are nearly always good children; children that have come from the better classes are better bred, and have a higher sense of honour; children of thieves, no matter if they came when almost infants, will thieve; children of paupers will be dull, and cunning for their comfort, and indolent. This is the opinion of one who has passed the whole of his life in the midst of the pauper world and has seen three generations come and go. My companion is perfectly frank on the subject. He may not have many columns of statistics ready to hand. To make amends, though, he has had, perhaps, more practical experience of the subject than anyone in the United Kingdom.

Every care is taken, money is spent almost lavishly, kindness is the rule everywhere. But do not expect too much. The finest workhouse school system that could be organised could never supply the want of father and mother and tender home influences. What, then, about the much-talked-of cottage system? Supposing children were to be sent to respectable poor people to be taken care of for a fair weekly sum, might they then not find something of the home influence? No. The people having the child handed over to them as a business transaction, would treat the child in a business way; they would meet with no more kindness than in the "schools," and would run the risk of being treated cruelly.

It is a common practice for the poorest people out of pure charity to keep an orphan, a foundling, or a natural child of a friend or neighbour. They will treat such a child with as much kindness as if it had been their own. It will take its place among them with that touchingly droll aspect of right that little ones will assume when they are loved for their own little sakes. But then nothing is paid for the child's keep. It is kept out of love that has grown out of pity. Love and pity cannot be bought for so many shillings a week. We cross the yard again to the workshops. The boys are very smart at smith's work. They would make good colonists. But who would pay for sending them out and looking after them?

And now we walk through the hospital wards. In one room there are some thirty little ones, all with shaven heads, for they are suffering from some mild form of cutaneous disease. They stand up. The nurse brings forward a handsome musical box. The air tinkled out is "Home, Sweet Home." One could almost laugh, only it is so touchingly sorrowful. In several wards the children have bandages over their eyes. In one large ward holding some thirty children there are nine with shades on. Of course, there is a great deal of ophthalmia — and we all know what that means. In another ward there are a number of very little ones. There is really nothing the matter with them, excepting a long course of starvation that they are slowly getting over. We pass out from a low door on to the roof, on a walk enclosed between two iron railings, which leads to another great dormitory containing one hundred and seventy beds. Despite the superior cleanliness, looking at the great number of beds, I cannot help thinking of the great dormitories in the common lodging houses in Flower and Dean-street, East. I wonder how many of the children who sleep here will, in the end, come down to the worse than pauper home.

There is a mighty sound of scuffling feet. We descend a dismal stone staircase, and again I find myself in the great dining hall. The children are at supper — the boys on one side of the room, the girls on the other. Now, mark this! The youngest children at the back rows, the mere infants, have by far the best faces, the eldest at the front have the worst. The forms are arranged according to the ages of the children. Despite all the good training, every year seems to bring out more strongly the evil that seems to be born in them. The furtive glance is still more furtive; the coarse lips grow thicker, the great ears grow still more ugly. Yet on the whole the children are better than they used to be. The children of paupers who come here are somewhat neater and more cleanly than their parents were, and their parents were neater than their parents at the old place. Three generations! Yes, I am told, too, that the hereditary pauper can be picked out in the playground at a glance. The official makes use of a word that expresses this well enough, though it be a word coined for the purpose. "There is a lazy slinkiness about them." But they are well taught and well cared for; so well, indeed, that never having faced any hardship they are little likely to hold their own against any hardship they may meet 'outside the workhouse walls, and consequently will needs fly back to the workhouse as a refuge. We have an hereditary pauper the same as we have an hereditary drunkard. As this is spoken of I cannot help calling to mind a character in Erckmann-Chatrian's "Waterloo" — an old pilgrim beggar, who sheds tears of happiness at the thought that the return of the ancien régime will enable her grandchildren to have the exclusive right of begging at the convent gates. There are hundreds upon hundreds who have almost an affection for the workhouse, and are by no means sorrowful at the thought that their children's children may take up their abode here.

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