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  • peter-macinnis 18 Feb 2012 at 11:42
    Rather like George Orwell, two generations later, in "the spike".

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A NIGHT IN A WORKHOUSE.

(From the Pall Mall Gazette )

> I.

AT about 9 o'clock on the evening of Monday, the 8th January, a neat but unpretentious car- riage might have been seen turning cautiously from the Kennington-road into Prince's-road, Lambeth. The curtains were closely drawn, and the coachman wore an unusually responsible air. Approaching a public-house, which re- treated a little from the street, he pulled up : but not so close that the lights should fall on the carriage door ; not so distant as to unsettle the mind of anyone who chose to imagine that

he had halted to drink beer before proceeding   to call for the ohildren at a juvenile party. He did not dismount, nor did any one alight in the usual way ; but any keen observer who hap- pened to watch his intelligent countenance might have seen a furtive glance directed to the wrong door-that is to say, to the door of the carriage which opened to the dark and muddy road. From that door emerged a sly and ruf- fianly figure, marked with every sign of squalor.

He was dressed in what had once been a snuff brown coat, but which had faded to the hue of bricks imperfectly baked. It was not strictly a ragged coat, though it had lost its cuffs-a bereavement which obliged the wearer's arms to project through the sleeves two long, inelegant inches. The coat altogether was too small, and was only made to meet over the chest by means of a bit of twine. This wretched garment was surmounted by a " bird's-eye" pocket-hand kerchief of cotton, wisped about the neck hang- man fashion ; above all was a battered billycock hat, with a dissolute, drooping brim. Between the neckerchief and the lowering brim of the hat appeared part of a face, unshaven, and not scrupulously clean. The man's hands were plunged into his pockets, and he shuffled hastily along in boots, which were boots of a tramp in- different to miry ways. In a moment he was out of sight, and the brougham, after waiting a little while, turned about, and comfortably departed.

This mysterious figure was that of the pre-

sent writer. He was bound for Lambeth work- house, there to learn by actual experience, how casual paupers are lodged and fed, and what the " asual " is like, and what the porter who ad- mits him, and the master who rules over him ; and how the night passes with the outcasts whom we have all seen crowding about work- house doors on cold and rainy nights. Much has been said on the subject-on behalf of the paupers-on behalf of the officials; but nothing   by any one who, with no motive but to learn and make known the truth, had ventured the experiment of passing a night in a workhouse, and trying wbat it actually is to be a "casual."  

The day had been windy and chill-the night was cold ; and therefore I fully expected to begin my experiences among a dozen of rag- ged wretches squatting about the steps und waiting for admission. But my only companion at the door was a decently dressed woman, whom, as I afterwards learnt, they declined to admit until she had recovered from a fit of in- toxication from which she had the misfortune to be still suffering, I lifted the big knocker and knocked ; the door was promptly opened, and I entered. Just within, a comfortable- looking clerk sat at a comfortable desk, Iedger before him. Indeed, the spacious hall, in every way was as comfortable as cleanliness and great mats and plenty of gaslight could make it. "What do you want ?" asked the   man who opened the door. " I want a lodging." "Go and stand before the desk," said the   porter; and I obeyed. "You are late," said the clerk. "Am I, sir?" "Yes; if you come in you'll have a bath, and you'll have to sleep in the shed." "Very well, sir." " What's   your name ?" " Joshua Mason, sir." " What are you ?" "An engraver." (This taradiddle I   invented to account for the look of my hands.) "Where did you sleep last night?" ''Ham- mersmith," I answered, as I hope to be for- given. " How many times have you been here?" " Never before, sir." "Where do you mean to go when you are turned out in the morning ?" " Back to Hammersmith, sir."

These humble answers being entered in a book, the clerk called to the porter, saying, " Take him through. You may as well take his bread with you." Near the clerk stood a basket containing some pieces of bread of equal size. Taking one of these, and unhitching a bunch of keys from the wall, the porter led me through some passages all so scrupulously clean that my most serious misgivings were laid to rest. Then we passed into a dismal yard. Crossing this, my guide led me to a door, calling out " Hillo!   Daddy, I've brought you another!" Where- upon Daddy opened into us, and let a little of his gaslight stream into the dark where we stood. " Come in," said Daddy, very hospi-

tably, " There's enough of you to-night, any-

how! What made you so late?" "I didn't like to come in earlier." " Ah! That's a pity,   now, because you've missed your skilley gruel. It's the first night of skilley, don't you know, under the new Act!" "Just like my luck!" I muttered dolefully.

The porter went his way, and I followed Daddy into another apartment, where were ranged three great baths, each one containing a liquid so disgustingly like weak mutton broth that my worst apprehensions crowded back. " Come on, there's a dry place to stand on up at this end," said Daddy kindly. " Take off your clothes, tie 'em up in your hank'sher, and I'll lock 'em up till the morning." Accordingly I took off my coat and waistcoat, and was about to tie them together, when Daddy cried, " That ain't enough, I mean everything." " Not my shirt, sir, I suppose?" "Yes, shirt and all; but there, I'll lend you a shirt," said Daddy, " Whatever you take in of your own will be nailed, you know. You might take in your boots, though-they'd be handy if you happened to want to leave the shed for anything ; but don't blame me if you lose 'em."    

With a fortitude for which I hope some day to be rewarded, I made up my bundle (boots and all), and the moment Daddy's face was turned away shut my eyes and plunged despe rately into the mutton broth. I wish from the bottom of my heart my courage had been less hasty, for hearing the splash, Daddy looked round and said, " Lor, now ! there was no oc- casion for that ; you look a clean and decent sort of man. It's them filthy beggars " (only he used a word more specific than "filthy ")   "that want washing. Don't use that towel here's a clean one! That's the sort! and now     here's your shirt" (handing me a blue striped one from a heap), "and here's your ticket. No. 34 you are, and a ticket to match is tied to your bundle. Mind you don't lose it. They'll nail it from you, if they get a chance. Put it under your head. This is your rug-take it with you." " Where am I to sleep, please, sir?" "I'll show you." And so he did. With no other rag but the checked shirt to cover me, and with my rug over my shoulder, he accompanied me to the door at which I en- tered, and opening it, kept me standing with naked feet on the stone threshold, full in the draught of the frosty air, while he pointed out the way I should go. It was not a long way, but I would have given much not to have trodden it. It was as open as the highway, with flagstones below and tho stars overhead, and, as I said before, and cannot help saying again, a frosty wind was blowing.

^"Straight across," said Daddy, "to where you see the light shining through. Go in there, and turn to the left, and you'll find the beds in a heap. Take one of 'em, and make yourself comfortable." And straight across I went, my naked feet seeming to cling to the stones as though they were burning hot instead of icy cold, (they had just stepped out of a bath, you should remember,) till I reached the space through which the light was shining, and I en-

tered in.

No language with which I am acquainted is capable of conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then encountered. Imagine a space of about 30 foot by 30 foot, enclosed on three sides by a dingy whitewashed wall, and roofed with naked tiles which were furred with

the damp and filth that reeked within. As for the fourth sido of the shed, it was boarded in for, say, a third of its breadth ; the remaining space being hung with flimsy canvas, in which was a gap 2 feet wide at top, widening to at least 4 feet at bottom. This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so thickly

encrusted with filth that I mistook it first for a floor of natural earth, Extending from one   end of my bedroom to the other, in three rows, were certain iron "cranks," of which I sub sequently learnt the use, with their many arms raised in various attitudes, as the stiffened arms of men are on a battlefield. My bedfellows lay among the cranks, distributed over the flag stones in a double row, on narrow bags scantily stuffed with hay. At one glance my appalled vision took in thirty of them,-thirty men and boys stretched upon shallow pallets, with but six inches of comfortable hay between them and the stony floor. These beds were placed close together, every occupant being provided with a rug like that which I was fain to hug across my shoulders. ln not a few cases two gentlemen had clubbed beds and rugs and slept together. In one case (to be further mentioned presently), four gentlemen had so clubbod to- gether. Many of my fellow casuals were awake   -others asleep, or pretending to sleep ; and, shocking as were the waking ones to look upon, they were quite pleasant when compared with the sleepers. For this reason the practised and well-seasoned casual seems to have a peculiar way of putting himself to bed. He rolls, him-   self in his rug, tucking himself in, head and feet, so that he is completely enveloped ; and, lying quite still in his pallet, he looks precisely like a oorpse covered because of its hideousness. Some were stretched out at full lengtli ; some lay nose and knees together ; some with an arm or a leg showing crooked through tho coverlet. It was like the result of a railway accident : these ghastly figures were awaiting the coroner.

From the moral point of view, however, the wakeful ones were more dreadful still. Towzeled, dirty, villanous, they squatted up in their beds,   and smoked foul pipes, and sang snatches of horrible songs, and bandied jokes so obscene as to be absolutely appalling. Eight or ten were so enjoying themselves-the majority with the check shirt on and the frowsy rug pulled about their legs ; but two or three wore no skirts at ail, squatted naked to the waist, their bodies fully exposed in the light of the single Ilaring jet of gas fixed high up on the wall.

My entrance excited very little attention. There was a horse pail three parts full of water standing by a post in the middle of the shed, with a little tin pot beside it. Addressing me as "old pal," 0ne of the nakod ruffians begged me to " hand him a swig," as he was " werry nigh garspin." Such an appeal of course no " old pal" could withstand, and I gnve him a pot full of water. He showed himself grateful for the attention. " I should lay over there, if I was you," he said, pointing to the left side of the shed ; " it's more out of the wind than this 'ere side is." I took the good-natured advice, and (by this time shivering with cold) stepped over the stones to where the beds of straw bags were heaped, and dragged one of them to the spot suggested by my naked comrade. But I had no more idea of how to arrange it than of making an apple pudding, and a certain little discovery added much to my embarrassment.  

In the middle of the bed I had selectod was a stain of blood bigger than a man's hand ! I did

not know what to do now. To lie on suoh a

horrid thing seemed impossible ; yet to carry back the bed and exchange it for another might betray a degree of fastidiousness repugnant to the feelings of my fellow lodgers, and possibly excite suspicion that I was not what I seemed. Just in the nick of time in came that good man Daddy. " What ! not pitched yet ? " he ex- claimed : " here, I'll show you, Hallo ! some- body's been a bleedin' ! Never mind ; let's turn him over. There you are, you see ! Now lay down, and cover your rug over you."

There was no help for it. It was too late to go back, Down I lay, and spread the rug over me. I should have mentioncd that I brought in with me a cotton handkerchief, and this I tied round my head by way of a nightcap ; but not daring to pull the rug as high as my face. Before I could in any way settle my mind to reflection, in came Daddy once more to do me a further kindness and point out a stupid blunder

I had committed.

" Why, you are a rummy chap," said Daddy.   "You forgot your bread! Lay hold. And look here, ï've brought you another rug ; it's perishing cold to-night." So saying, he spread the rug over my legs and went away. I was   very thankful for the extra covering, but I was in a dilemma about the bread. I couldn't pos- sibly eat it ; what then was to be done with it ? I broke it, however, and in view of such of the   company as might happen t0 be looking made a ferocious bite at a bit as large as a bean, and munched violently. By good luck, however, I presently got half-way over my difficulty very neatly. Just behind me, so close indeed that their feet came within half a yard of my head, three lads were sleeping together. " Did you hear that, Punch ?" one of them asked. "'Ear what?" answered Punch, sleepy and snappish. " Why a cove forgot his toke ! Gords-   truth ! you wouldn't ketch me a forgettin mine."   " You may have half of it, old pal, if you're hungry," I observed, leaning up on my elbows. " Chuck it here, good luck to yer," replied my   young friend, starting up with an eager clap of his dirty hands. I " chucked it here," and, slipping the other half under the side of my bed, lay my head on my folded arms.

Hore I must break my narrative. In doing so permit me to assure your readers that it is true and faithful in every particular. I am telling a story which cannot all be told-some parts of it are far too shocking ; but what I may tell has not a single touch of false color in

it.

II.

It was about half-past nine when, having made myself as comfortable as circumstances permitted, I closed my eyes in the desperate hope that I might fall asleep, and so escape from the horrors with whioh I was surrounded. "At seven to-morrow morning the boll will ring," Daddy had informed me, " and then you will give up your ticket and get back your bundle" Between that time and the present full nine long hours had to wear away.

But I was speedily convinced that, at least for the present, sleep was impossible. The young fellow (one of the three who lay in 0ne bed, with their feet to my head) whom my bread had refreshed, presently swore, with frightful imprecations, that he was now going to have a smoke ; and immediately put his threat into execution. Thereupon, his bedfellows sat up and lit their pipes too. But oh ! if they had only smoked-if they had not taken such an un- fortunate fancy to spit at the leg of a crank dis- tant a few inches from my head, how much misery and apprehension would have been spared me ! To make matters worse, they united with this American practice an eastern one : as they smoked they related little autobiographical ance

dotes-so abominable that three or four decent men, who lay at the farther end of the shed, were so provoked that they threatened, unless the talk abated in fllthiness, to get up and stop it by main force. Instantly the voice of every blackguard in the room was raised against the decent ones. They were accused of loathsome afflictions, stigmatized as "fighting men out of work," (which must be something very humiliat- ing, I suppose,) and invited to " a round " by boys young enough to be their grandsons. For several minutes there was such a storm of oaths, threats and taunts-such a deluge of foul words raged in the room-that I could not help think- ing of the fate of Sodom ; as, indeed, I did several times during the night. Little by little the riot died out, without the slightest interfer- ence on the part of the officers.

Soon afterwards the ruffian majority was strengthened by the arrival of a lanky boy of about fifteen, who evidently recognised many acquaintances, and was recognised by them as " Kay," or perhaps I should write it " K." He was a very remarkable-looking lad, and his appearance pleased me much. Short as his hair was cropped, it still looked soft and silky ¡ he had large blue eyes set wide apart, and a

mouth that would have been faultless but for its great width, and his voice was as soft and as sweet as any woman's. Lightly as a woman, too, he picked his way over the stones towards the place where the beds lay, carefully hugging his cap beneath his arm.

" What cheer, Kay ?" "Out again, then, old son !" " What yer got in yer cap, Kay ?" cried his friends ; to which the sweet voice replied, "Who'll give me part of his doss (bed) ? my-eyes and limbs if I ain't perishin ! Who'll let me turn in with him for half my

toke (bread) ?" I feared how it would be ! The hungry young fellow who had so readily availed himself of Half my " toke " snapped at Kay's offer, and after a little re-arrangement and bed-making, four young follows, instead of three, reposed upon the hay-bags at my head. "You was too late for skilley, Kay. There's skilley now, nights as well as mornings." "Don't you tell no bleeding lies," Kay an- swered, incredulously. "Blind me, its true! Ain't it Punch?" "Right you are !" said Punch, " and spoons to eat it with, that's more ! There used to be spoons at all the houses, one time. Poplar used to have 'em ; but one at a time they was all nicked, don't you know." ("Nlcked" means "stolen," obviously.)

" Well, I don't want no skilley, leastways not to-night," said Kay. "I've had some rum. Two glasses of it ; and a blow out of puddin' reglar Christmas plum puddin'. You don't know the cove as give it me, but, thinks I this mornin' when I come out, Blessed if I don't go and see my old chum. Lordstruth! he was struck ! ' Come along,' he ses, ' I saved you some puddin'from Christmas.' 'Whereabouts is it ?' I ses. ' In that box under my bed,' he ses, and he forks it out. That's the sort of pal to have ! And he stood a quarten, and half a ounce of hard-up, (tobacco.) That wasn't all, neither ; when I come away, ses he, ' How about your breakfus ?' ' Oh, I shall do,' ses I. ' You take some of my bread aud butter',' he ses, and he cuts me off four chunks buttered thick. I eat two on 'em coming along." " What's in your cap, Kay ?" repeated the devourer of " toke." " Them other two slices," said Kay ¡ generously adding. " There, share 'em amongst yer, and somebody give us a whiff' of 'baoca."

Kay showed himself a pleasant companion ; what in a higher grade of society is called " quite an acquisition." He told stories of thieves and thieving, and of a certain " silver cup" he had been "put up to," and that he meant to nick it   'afore the end of the week, if he got seven stretch (? seven years) for it. The cup was worth ten quid, (? pounds,) and he knew where to melt it within ten minutes of nicking it. He made this statement without any modulation of his sweet voice, and the others received it as a serious fact. Nor was there any affectation of secrecy in another gentleman, who announced amid great applause that he had stolen a towel from the bath-room ; "And s'help me, it's as good as new; never been washed more'n once !"  

" Tell us a'rummy' story, Kay," said some- boy ; and Kay did. He told stories of so " rummy" a character that the decent men at the farther end of the room (some of whom had their own little boys sleeping willi them) must have lain in a sweat of horror as they listened. lndeed, when Kay broke into a "rummy'' song with a roaring chorus, one of the decent men rose in his bed and swore that he would smash

Kay's head if he didn't desist. But Kay sang

on till he and his admirers were tired of the entertainment. "Now," said he, "let's have a swearing club ! you'll all be in it ?"

The principle of this game seemed to rest on the impossibility of either of the young gentlemen making half-a-dozen observations without introducing a blasphemous or obscene word ; and either the basis is a very sound one, or for the sake of keeping the " club" alive the members purposely made slips. The penalty for " swearing" was a punch on any part of the body, except a few which the club rules pro- tected. The game was highly successful. Warming with the sport, and indifferent to punches, the members vied with each other in audacity, and in a few minutes Bedlam in its prime could scarcely have produced such a spectacle as was to be seen on the beds behind me. One rule of the club was that any word to be found in the Bible might be used with im- punity, and if one member " punched' another for using such a word the error was to be visited upon him with a double punching all   round. This naturally led to much argument ; for in vindicating the Bible as his authority, a

member became sometimes so much heated as

to launch into a flood of " real swearing," which brought the fists of the club upon his naked carcase quick as hail.

Those and other pastimes beguiled the time until, to my delight, the church chimes audibly tolled twelve. After this the noise gradually subsided, and it seemed as though everybody was going to sleep at last. I should have men- tioned that during the story-telling and song singing a few " casuais " had dropped in, but they were not habitués and cuddled down with their rugs over their heads without a word to

any one.

In a little while all was quiet-save for the flapping of the canvas curtain in the night- breeze, the snoring, and the horrible, indes-   cribable sound of impatient hands scratching

skins that itched. There was another sound of

very frequent occurrence, and that was the clanking of the tin pannikin against the water pail. Whether it is in the nature of work- house bread or skilley to provoke thirst, is more than my limited experience entitles me to say, but it may be truthfully asserted that once at least in Ihe course of five minutes might be heard a rustling of straw, a pattering of feet, and then the noise of water-dipping ; and then was to be seen at the pail the figure of a man, sometimes stark naked) gulping down the icy water as he stood upou the icy stones.

And here I may remark that I can furnish no solution to this mystery of the shirt, I only know that some of my comrades were provided with a shirt, and that to some the luxury was denied. I may say this, however that none of Iho little boys were allowed one.

Nearly 1 o'clock. Still quiet, and no fresh arrival for an hour or more. Then suddenly   a loud noise of hobnailed boots kicking at the wooden gate, and soon after a trampling of feet and a rapping at Daddy's door, which it will be remembered, was only separated from our bedroom by an open paved court. " Hallo !" cried Daddy. " Here's some more of 'em for you-ten of 'em !" answered the porter, whose voice I re- cognised at once. " They'll have to find beds, then," Daddy grumbled, as he opened his door, "I don't believe there are four beds empty. They must sleep double, or something."

This was terrible news for me. Bad enough, in all conscience, was it le lie as I was lying

but the prospect of sharing my straw with some dirty scoundrel of the Kay breed was altogether unendurable. Perhaps, however, they were not scoundrels, but peaceable and decent men, like those in the farther corner.

Alas for my hopes ! in the space of five minutes in they came at the rent ¡n the canvas -great hulking ruffians, some with rugs and nothing else, and some with shirts and nothing else, and all madly swearing because coming in after 11 o'clock there was no " toke" for them. As soon as these wrathful men had advanced to the middle of the shed they made the dis- covery that there was an insufficient number of beds-only three, indeed, for ten competitors. " Where's the beds ? D'ye hear, Daddy ? You blesscd, truth-telling old person, where's the beds?" "You'll find 'em. Some of 'em is lying on two, or got 'em as pillows. You'll find

'em."

With a sudden rush our new friends plunged among the sleepers, trampling over them, curs- ing their eyes and limbs, dragging away their rugs ; and if by chanco they found some poor wretch who had been tempted to take two beds (or bags) instead of one, they coolly hauled him out and took possession. There was no denying them, and no use in remonstrating. They evidently knew that they were at liberty to do just as they liked, and they took full advantage of the privilège. One of them came up to me, and shouting, " I want that, you-," snatched at my "birdseye" nightcap, and carried it off. There was a bed close to mine, which contained only one occupant, and into this one of the new comers slipped without a word of warning, driving its lawful owner against the wall to make room. Then he sat up in the bed for a moment, savagely venting his disappointment as to toke, and declaring that never before in his life had he felt the need of it so much. This was my opportunity. Slipping my hand under my bed, I withdrew that judiciously hoarded piece of bread, and respectfully offered it to him. He snapped at it with thanks.

By the time the churches were chiming two, matters had once more adjusted themselves, and silence reigned, to be disturbed only by drinkers at the pail, or such as, otherwise prompted,

stalked into the open yard. Kay, for one, visited it. I mention this unhappy young   wretch particularly, because he went out with- out a single rag to his back. I looked out at the reut in the canvas, and saw the frosty moon shining on him. When he returned, and crept down between Punch and another, he muttered to himself, "Warm again! O my G-d', warm again !"

I hope, Mr. Editor, that you will not think me too prodigal of these reminiscences, and that your readers will understand that, if I write rather boldly, it is done as a matter of taste. To me it seems quite worth while to relate with tolerable accuracy every particular of an adven ture which you persuaded me (" ah ! woeful when!") to undertake for the public good. In another paper I shall conclude.

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