FIVE DAYS AND FIVE NIGHTS AS A TRAMP AMONG TRAMPS.
by 'A Lady'
A Tramp Among Tramps was originally published anonymously in 1904 by "A Lady" — later revealed to be one Mary Higgs. She was born in 1854 at Devizes in Wiltshire, and was the daughter of a Congregational minister William Kingsland. In 1862, the family moved to Bradford where her father became minister at College Chapel. She was educated at a local private school, and at Girton College in Cambridge where she was the first woman to study for the Natural Science Tripos. In 1879, three years after her father's death, she married the Revd. Thomas Kilpin Higgs. She later settled in Oldham and, amongst many other religious and philanthropic activities, became Secretary of the Ladies Committee visiting the Oldham Union workhouse.
Mary Higgs became particularly interested in vagrancy reform and determined to discover first-hand what conditions were like in accommodation such as casual wards and common lodging houses. Her experiences revealed the squalid conditions often to be found, and how vulnerable female vagrants could be. Her writings were published to a wide audience in the pages of the Daily Mail, as well as through her 1906 book Glimpses into the Abyss. She was also able to provide important evidence to Local Government Board's Departmental Committee on Vagrancy in 1904. Her descriptions of her undercover exploits have now acquired a certain charm, partly through her profuse and occasionally slightly comical use of italics, and also because her refined sensibilities were clearly affronted by the conditions inside the establishments she visited, such as the gruel in the casual ward being perfectly saltless.
Although not revealed in the text, places she visited included a Municipal Lodging House at Huddersfield (Chapter I), a Common Lodging House at Dewsbury (Chapter II), the workhouse casual wards at Dewsbury (Chapter III) and North Bierley (Chapter IV), and a Women's Shelter in Bradford (Chapter V).
A Tramp Among Tramps was followed by a number of other similar excursions such as The Tramp Ward (1904), Three Nights in Women's Lodging Houses (1905), A Night in a Salvation Army Shelter (1905), London Investigations (1905), and Glimpses in the Abyss (1906).
I. A NIGHT IN A MUNICIPAL LODGING-HOUSE.
HAVING gradually been brought to the conviction, by investigation of numerous cases of destitution among women, that there were circumstances in our social arrangements which fostered immorality, I resolved to make a first-hand exploration, by that method of personal experiment, which is the nearest road to accurate knowledge, of the conditions under which destitute women were placed who sought the shelter of the common lodging-house or the workhouse.
It was necessary to find a friend willing to share the possible perils of such an experiment, and to arrange in such a way that it should be unknown to all but a few. I was fortunate in finding a fellow-worker willing to go with me, and as to the truth of the following story she is a sufficient witness.
We dressed very shabbily, but were respectable and clean. We wore shawls and carried hats, which we used if desirable, according to whether we had sunshine or rain, or wished to look more or less respectable. We carried soap, a towel, a change of stockings, and a few other small articles, wrapped in an old shawl. My boots were in holes, and my companion wore a grey tweed well-worn skirt. My hat was a certificate for any tramp ward, and my shawl ragged, though clean. We had one umbrella between us.
Our plan of campaign was to take train to a town some way from home, arriving in the evening, and then to seek lodging. We had five nights to spend, and were expected at a town some way off by friends who thought we were on a "walking tour"! We cut ourselves off from civilisation on Monday with 2s. 6d. in our pockets and a considerable distance between us and home. We were expected on Saturday by our friends. We thought that we should be able to sample only two workhouses after the first night, expecting to be detained two nights at each.
Escaping observation by going to a country railway station, we took train to a town about fifteen miles from home. We enquired of the police and others, and found that there was a large municipal lodging-house, so we bought a loaf and a quarter of a pound of butter, and applied for beds. We were just in time to get a double bed in the married couples' quarters, for which we paid sixpence. We were shown by a servant — a young woman, about twenty-three apparently — into a large, lofty kitchen, furnished with wooden tables and benches. There was a splendid kitchen range, and all was clean and tidy; hot and cold water were laid on to a sink, and boiling water for making tea could be drawn from a tap. Pots and pans, and basins to drink out of, were kept in a handy cupboard. One roller towel, however, was all the convenience for personal washing or for wiping pots. There was a dishcloth, and we preferred to wash our pots and put them away to dry rather than to wipe them on the towel used by our fellow-lodgers.
Our first difficulty was as follows: We had bread and butter; we had, also, in our bundle, some tea and sugar, the latter mixed with plasmon, as we feared we might not keep our strength up till the week-end without some such help. But we had neither spoon, knife, nor fork, so we could not spread our butter nor stir our tea. A woman, with a girl of twelve, whose language left much to be desired, told us we could have the three necessary articles, and also a locker in which to keep our food, by depositing one shilling. 'We accordingly did this, but were not given a locker, as we were only staying one night. We had to put our provisions in the corner of a cupboard used by others, but they were not touched. Provided with the necessary implements, we proceeded to make tea, and to cut our bread and butter receiving friendly hints from people who saw we were novices, and studying our companions. We drank out of basins. Besides the loud-voiced woman and child of twelve, there was a man and his wife, and a very nagging woman, whose husband received a great deal of abuse. The inmates appeared to know each other somewhat, and talked about others who had lived there.
We made enquiries for the closet, and found that the key hung by the fireside, and gave admission to a single water-closet, very small, in a yard through which everyone passed to the kitchen. This appeared to do duty for the single women also, as they used the same kitchen and sitting-room as the married couples. There was a good flush of water caused by a movable seat. There was no lavatory or any convenience for washing except the sink in the kitchen used by all the lodgers, men and women alike, but there was a notice up that "slipper baths" could be had for twopence. This absence of any opportunity for personal cleanliness, apart from extra payment, must lead to uncleanliness of person where people are all living on the edge of poverty; it is, too, most desirable that women should be able to wash apart from men.
After tea we found our way upstairs to a sitting-room, also furnished with wooden tables and benches and fairly clean. Beyond it was a bedroom for single females, separated by wooden partitions into cubicles. The servant was in attendance, and was the only official we saw during our stay, except when we purchased our bed at the office, and obtained and returned our knife, fork and spoon. Being very tired, we asked for our bed, and were shown a boarded-off cubicle, the door of which we could bolt. It was lighted by a large window, and in the dim light looked fairly clean, but the floor was dirty. The top sheet of the bed was clean, the bottom one dirty, and the pillows filthy. We spread a clean dress skirt over them and resigned ourselves. The bed was flock, and was hot and uncomfortable; it smelt stale. We opened the window. There was no furniture besides the bed; we hung our clothes on nails in the partition. I killed a bug on the wall close to my head.
Compared, however, with our further experiences, this lodging-house was fairly comfortable — indeed, one of our fellow-lodgers, who apparently was a respectable working-man, said it was "a palace" compared to others!
We had a restless night, disturbed first by the coming to bed of several married couples in adjacent cubicles. We could hear all the conversations, and the nagging woman kept telling her husband, in a tone of voice much louder than his own, to "Shut up!" Then sleep was difficult in such strange surroundings: outside, trams went past till after midnight inside, many of our companions were audible by snores. We got some uneasy sleep, but were awakened very early as some of the men were called about five o'clock. Towards six o'clock we got up ourselves, with a longing for fresh air. We dressed, but could find nowhere to wash but the sink in the kitchen, with all our clothes on, as a man was already in possession, and was washing up his pots when we came down. We reflected that with only this poor lavatory accommodation, however clean our fellow-lodgers looked, they could not be personally otherwise than dirty, if they stayed on here; unless, which is very unlikely, they kept on spending twopence for "slipper baths"!
We got our breakfast in the same manner as tea, and were prepared to go, but had to wait an hour before we could get our one shilling deposit returned, the office not being open till eight o'clock. We sat in the sitting-room, watching and talking to our fellow-lodgers. Their talk was very free and often profane. Several women and the little girl were sitting round a table, crocheting the articles which are hawked from door to door. Men were reading papers. One by one the single women lodgers came out of the inside room and went downstairs to wash and get breakfast. The servant was sweeping the room. Her language was not altogether clean; she smoked a pipe and mentioned a drink. It did not seem altogether desirable that a young woman should practically be left in charge. Her presence could be no guarantee for conduct or language, and she might easily herself be tempted into immorality by men lodgers. Her language showed that she was not much above the rest of the inmates.
The conversation turned first to the accommodation. We learned that we had been fortunate in our cubicle, as some were infested with bugs. One woman described how they harboured in the crevices between the woodwork of the cubicles which were not close fitting, and how she cleared them out with a hatpin and exterminated them. The relative merits of various cubicles in relation to the absence or presence of these insect pests were discussed at length. The conversation naturally turned on the accommodation at various lodging-houses, and we heard of horrors that explained why this was called "a palace," and was so much appreciated, that we were reckoned lucky to obtain a bed after seven o'clock at night. We were told of a place where eight married couples slept in one room, with one bucket for all purposes. As the time went on the conversation turned to visitors, and we learned that people came once a week to sing and speak, and were much appreciated. "It was only what they ought to do." We tried to get a little more information on this subject, but the talk veered round to the Moat Farm murder. The execution was due just at eight o'clock, and all eyes followed the clock, and surmises as to the murderer's feelings were coupled with references to the crime, with which all present seemed to be familiar. We were glad when eight o'clock put an end to this topic and our sojourn, as we could obtain our deposit and depart.
II. A NIGHT IN A COMMON LODGING-HOUSE.
The morning was fairly fine, though grey, and we inquired our way to a town on our route, about nine miles distant. We left the road for the canal side, and sat down in the fields to rest a little, and then walked on. We passed some men who were working in a barge; they shouted to us, and invited us to come to them. We walked away and took no notice, but repeatedly on our journey we were spoken to, and I could not help contrasting the way in which men looked at us with the usual bearing of a man towards a well-dressed female. I had never realised before that a lady's dress, or. even that of a respectable working-woman, was a protection. The bold, free look of a man at a destitute woman must be felt to be realised. Being together, we were a guard to one another, so we took no notice but walked on. I should not care to be a solitary woman tramping the roads. A destitute woman once told me that if you tramped, "you had to take up with a fellow." I can well believe it. About mid-day we dined on our loaf and butter, as well as we could without a knife. A woman, also tramping, came to sit by us; she was going to seek her husband, she said, in the town to which were also going. She was accustomed to tramp, as he went to different towns in search of work, and she was anxious to push on to get there early. As she seemed to know the neighbourhood, we asked her about lodgings. We had determined to sample a common lodging-house, as we were not yet sufficiently destitute to claim the workhouse. She told us of two lodging-houses where single women were taken, but one was "very rough," and the beds so crowded that heads almost touched heels. She recommended the other one "on t'hill" as a respectable lodging-house, suggesting that we could get a married couple's furnished room for sixpence a night. We decided, therefore, to make for this respectable lodging-house.
Towards one o'clock, after we resumed our route, it began to rain hard. We found a path off the main road that led into a wood, and managed to rest and shelter under the trees till the rain began to drop heavily upon us. We then began to walk again, and found that outside the rain had moderated. We were rather stiff and cold, so as soon as we came to the houses we looked out for somewhere to get a cup of tea, and were fortunate enough to find a coffee-shop, where we got a mug of hot tea each for one penny, and ate some more of our loaf. We still had a good walk, through outlying streets, before we reached the town, and by dint of many enquiries we found the lodging-house. We first asked a postman (after sending a post-card home, which we wrote at the post-office). We gathered from his looks that, if respectable, our chosen lodging-house was nothing very special; but it was "Hobson's choice" apparently, for a man in charge of another lodging-house, where we made enquiries, said it was the only place where they took single women, the "rough" place having given up taking them. So we found ourselves, between six and seven o'clock, at the door of the house, which was not bad-looking outside — an old-fashioned, roomy-looking, stone house, which might once have been a farmhouse and seen better days. The landlady, a stout, pleasant-faced woman, received us cheerfully. She told us that the "furnished apartments" were not in order, but we could have a boarded-off apartment and sleep together for eightpence the night. The bed would be clean. This sounded just as good as we could expect, so we paid her eightpence and turned in. I shall never forget this interior. Fortunately it was getting dark, and not till morning did we fully realise the state of the place. We found ourselves in a double room, consisting, probably, of a kitchen and front room thrown into one, each possessing a kitchen firegrate, and the back room a tiny sink. Round the wall was a wooden seat, and wooden tables and benches completed the furniture, except that the corner was occupied by a large cupboard. Numerous articles of apparel were hanging from lines; saucepans, teapots, etc., were to be found on the kitchen mantelpiece and over the sink (all more or less dirty), and mugs, to be had for the asking. Two perambulators partly stopped the large opening between the two rooms; one belonged to a mother with children, the other to a blind man and his wife, and contained their musical outfit and belongings. Two doors led into this double apartment; one gave access to the entrance passage and the landlady's rooms, the other to a small yard. In this was the only sanitary convenience for at least forty people, the key of which hung by the fireside — one small water-closet, perfectly dry. The stench in it was enough to knock you down; one visit was enough to sicken you. Yet some of the lodgers had been there six weeks. This and the small sink by the fireside were the only provision we could discover for sanitary purposes of all kinds. Yet it was not the place itself, but its inhabitants, that are quite unforgettable. We sat down on the wooden bench behind a table, and immediately facing us was a huge negro with a wicked face. By his side a quiet-looking woman, who had a little girl and boy, was sitting crocheting. An old woman, active and weather-beaten, was getting supper ready for her husband, a blind beggar, who shortly afterwards came in led by a black dog. A woman tramp was getting supper ready for the negro; she wore a wedding ring, but I question if she was his wife. Several young children, almost babies, were running about, or playing with the perambulator. A young man on the seat near us was tossing about a fat baby born "on the road," whose healthiness we duly admired. It was not his own, but belonged to a worried-looking woman, who also had a troublesome boy. The next room was full of people, whom we could hear but not see distinctly. The little boy of two caused much conversation, as he was always doing something he should not, and caused disgust by his uncleanliness, freely commented on. His mother made raids on him at intervals, but neither cleanliness nor discipline was possible in such surroundings. The most striking character, next to the negro, was a girl, apparently about twenty. She wore a wedding ring, and belonged to some man in the company, but from the character of her conversation I doubt if she was married. The negro told some story, and she capped it with another; evidently she was noted for her conversation, as she was laughingly offered a pint to keep her tongue still! Her face would have been handsome, but for a crooked nose and evident dissipation. All the stories were more or less foul, and all the conversation, on every side, was filthy or profane. The negro told how he had outwitted a harlot who tried to rob him. The whole story of his visit to her house was related in the most shameless way, with circumstantial details, no one appearing to think anything of it. He told how he discovered where she kept her money — in a flower-pot — and hid his money there, shammed sleep, and watched her surprise when she found nothing in his pockets, coolly took all her money in the morning, driving off in a hansom after a good breakfast. He said he bought new clothes, and danced with her the same night, being taken for a "toff," and hearing the story of her wrongs, but refusing her blandishments! The girl told, sitting on the table near the negro, how she had got her nose broken by an admirer and made him pay for it. A conversation sprang up about the treatment of wives, and it was stated that a woman loved a man best if he ill-treated her. This theory was illustrated by examples well known to the company. The girl related that she had lived in the same house with a man who used to beat his wife. If he came home singing a certain song his wife knew she was in for it. She used to try to hide, but one day he caught her and beat her severely with a red-hot poker. The police got him, but she refused to bear witness against him. Similar instances were given both by men and women. Such sentiments augured no very good treatment for wives of this class — in fact, the position of a mistress seemed preferable. All the conversation was unspeakably foul, and was delivered with a kind of cross-shouting, each struggling to make his or her observations heard. A man read — or tried to read — amid frequent interruptions, replied to by oaths, the story of the execution of the Moat Farm murderer that morning, and other interesting police news, freely commented on. Little children were running about all the while, and older ones listening. As time went on more and more came in, including the landlady and her children, and a married daughter with a baby. It could not be possible for a woman to exercise any effective control under such circumstances, as it would be her interest to keep on good terms with her lodgers. The strongest man might be needed as a "chucker-out" if there was a row. All present that night were "down in their luck." A gala day at the park near by had been very unsuccessful owing to the wet, and there was but little drink going; otherwise we might have seen and heard still worse. One could imagine how swiftly a brawl would arise. A rascally - looking "cadger" came in from his rounds, and proved to be the father of the troublesome boy and husband of the worried mother. He and a companion had been doing a regular beggar's round, but had missed each other. His luck was so bad that his wife had to borrow his supper. All the company except a few appeared to be of that sort that preys upon society. The black man had been on board ship; he was powerfully made, and looked cruel and lustful. I avoided his eye, he kept staring at us. His mistress was, however, kind to us; she brought us a mug of their tea, which we drank for courtesy with considerable difficulty, eating some of our food with it. I suppose the company thought us very poor, for almost everyone had something tasty for supper, and the smell of fried bacon, onions, potatoes, and beefsteak, the steam of cooking and drying clothes, mixed with tobacco smoke and the stench of unclean humanity, grew more and more unbearable as the doors were shut and all gathered in for the night. The continual shouting made one's head ache, and no one seemed to think of putting a child to bed. At last, about nine o'clock, we decided that upstairs would be preferable. I may say that no one interfered with us or questioned us, except one old woman, who was satisfied when we told her that we had spent the last night in a Model, and were going on tramp to a neighbouring town. She saw we were new to "the road," and descanted on the healthiness of the life, pointing to the baby in proof of it, and assuring us we should "soon get accustomed to it." She told us this was a very decent lodging-house, and that there were "nice, clean beds." We hoped so, and asked the landlady to show us upstairs. After we left the fun waxed still more fast and furious. Just before we went upstairs a man in the inner room propounded the question, "Who was Adam's father?" The conversation on the subject seemed to cause great amusement. Afterwards they began to sing, not untunefully, various songs; amongst others several hymns. I wished almost that we had stayed below to ascertain what led to the singing of "Jesu, Lover of my soul." It sounded odd, sung lustily by lips so full of profanity; yet I could not but thank God that there was One who loved sinners, and lived among them.
Upstairs we found rooms full of beds, but we were to have a "cubicle." Apparently it was the only one, and it was very imperfectly partitioned off. The door fastened with a wooden button, but by the head of the bed was an entrance, without a door, to a compartment which held a bed occupied by a man, this again being accessible by an entrance without a door to the rest of the room. Anyone could therefore enter if so disposed. Three beds, occupied by married couples and their children (who shared the same bed), filled the room, and beyond was another apartment crowded with beds, and, so far as we could see, without partitions. The landlady told us not to mind the man who slept in the next bed, for he was blind! He slept there, and so did his dog. The other occupants of the room, who came to bed later, we could not see, but we could hear them plainly. From the conversation we think the n*gger and his mistress slept just outside, and next to them (no partition) a married couple with a baby and a child. A third couple would be round the corner. The room barely held the beds and partition, with room to stand by the side; there was no ventilation but a chimney close to our bed. We could hear someone continually scratching himself, and the baby sucking frequently, and other sounds which shall be nameless.
When we first went to bed, however, we were in peace, except for the noise from below. We found our sheets were clean, and fortunately could see no more by the light of the candle, without candle-stick, which our landlady gave us. For two hours the noise went on downstairs; comic songs and Sankey's hymns alternately came floating up the stair. Then, at about eleven o'clock, suddenly everyone came to bed with a rush. It almost seemed as if they were coming on top of us, so great was the noise, and all was so near. The blind man stumbled in so close, and half-a-dozen people, all talking, got to bed close by. My companion woke frightened and clutched me. A candle flickering in the next compartment revealed a huge bug walking on the ceiling, which suddenly dropped over a neighbouring bed! By degrees, however, the noises subsided, and my companion and I fell into an uneasy slumber. I woke in an hour or two, in dim daylight, to feel crawlers. The rest of the night was spent in hunting. I had quite a collection by the time my companion woke. They were on the bed and on the partition. I watched them making for our clothes; but there was no escape till morning was fully come. Besides, my companion was resting through it all; so I slew each one as it appeared. We found that the clean sheets concealed a filthy bed and pillows.
About five o'clock two working men were roused by their wives' admonitions, and got up to go to work. We rose at six o'clock, leaving our neighbours still slumbering. We searched ourselves as well as we could (with a sleeping man next door, audible if not visible). We could see him if we stepped forward a pace. We thankfully bundled up our things, including food, which we had brought upstairs to be safe, and we crept downstairs, hoping for cleanliness. The kitchen fire was lit — apparently it had never been out — and a kettle was on the bar; a working man was getting his breakfast ready; a girl, the landlady's daughter, apparently about 12, was sweeping the floor. We could now see the filth. The floor was strewn with dirty paper, crumbs, and débris, and dirty sand. All the cleaning it got was that it was swept and then freshly sanded by this small child. It then looked tidy. "Appearances" are proverbially "deceitful." But what we were not prepared for was, that all the wooden benches were occupied by sleeping men. The small child sweeping was at first quite alone with them. There was no place to wash but the small fireside sink: one man considerately cleared out from its neighbourhood, and I thought we were alone in that half of the room till I looked and saw a slumbering man on either side. They moved, as if uneasy on their hard couches. Of course, it was utterly impossible to attempt cleanliness, except hands and face. Yet our fellow-lodgers had some of them lived there for weeks, and it was reckoned by their class a superior lodging-house. I can hardly describe the feeling of personal contamination caused by even one night in such surroundings. Yet we escaped well, finding afterwards only two live creatures on our clothes. Cleanliness of person would be so impossible under such circumstances that it would soon cease to be aimed at. Yet most of the inmates had fairly clean hands and faces, and the tiny sink was used for washing clothes, which were dried in the room, and were hanging overnight from lines. Is it any wonder that such places are hot-beds of disease? How can one of this class possibly avoid spreading contagion under such bad sanitary conditions? It struck me that public money would be well spent in providing lodging-house accommodation under good sanitation and management, rather than in extending small-pox hospitals.
We did not feel inclined for breakfast, but the kettle was boiling, and a working-man showed us where to find things. We carefully washed the dirty-looking teapot and mugs, and borrowed a knife and spoon: no one insulted or questioned us. If our stay had been longer, however, doubtless we should have been obliged to get on friendly terms with our fellow-lodgers. We ate our food at the table farthest from the sleeping men, the sweeping still going on, and then we bundled up our things and left without seeing our landlady again.
The fresh air was sweet. Nowhere inside could be clean. Vermin might harbour in the wooden seating, doubly used by day and night: the imperfectly washed clothes, the unwashed humanity, the crowding, the absence of proper sanitation, would break down personal cleanliness in a very short time if a respectable woman was forced to sleep in such a place. Yet two shillings and fourpence a week, at fourpence a night, should surely finance some better provision for the needs of a migratory class. It must be considered that social conditions have entirely altered since the days of railway travelling have loosened social ties to particular neighbourhoods. Work is a fluctuating quantity, and men and women have to travel.
My own experience had taught me that single women frequently get shaken out of a home by bereavements or other causes, and drift, unable to recover a stable position if once their clothing becomes dirty or shabby. The question, To what circumstances and surroundings will a respectable destitute woman drift if without employment? is one which concerns society deeply, as immorality must be fostered by wrong conditions.
III. A FIRST NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE TRAMP WARD.
We were glad that the next ordeal before us would be the workhouse bath! For we were now really "destitute"; after purchasing a little more food we had only twopence left. We were so jaded by the imperfect sleep of the two last nights that we decided not to leave the town, but to wait about all day, and enter the workhouse at six o'clock. We had noticed a reading room and a park: to the latter we found our way. The day was gloomy and damp, but not actually wet, except for a slight drizzle at intervals. In the park we found shelter, drinking water, and sanitary convenience. We disturbed a sleeping man in a summer-house, and quickly left him. We wandered into every nook in the park, and talked, rested, or slept. The hours went very slowly, but we grew refreshed. Towards mid-day we made a frugal meal on our remaining provisions, drinking from a fountain. We still had a little sugar-plasmon left and a pinch of tea. In the afternoon, growing cold and stiff, we went to the free library, and stayed there reading an hour or two. Two or three ladies were there reading, but they took no notice of us beyond a stare; we had put our shawls over our heads, and might be taken for mill-hands. As soon as we thought it was time we set off to find the workhouse. It was about two miles, as near as we can guess, from the centre of the town, and on the way to it we made the acquaintance of an old woman who was going there. She was lame in one leg with rheumatism, and walked slowly, and she also stopped to beg at houses en route. She got a cup of tea and a glass of hot milk between the town and the workhouse. She was walking from P— to H— to find her brother, having been in the workhouse infirmary for many months. She said she had received a letter from her brother, offering her a home if she would come to him. She lost his address and could not write, so she had no resource but to walk from workhouse to workhouse till she reached her destination. She was very tired, and groaned with pain during the night, and almost lost heart and turned back, but in the morning she plucked up courage to go on. She had the advantage of being too infirm to be made to work hard, and she evidently knew how to beg food. She seemed a decent woman, and had reared a large family of children, who were all married, and had "enough to do for themselves." Her brother, she said, was in comfortable circumstances, and she would be all right if she found him. Her clothing was well mended, but not clean.
We arrived, alone, a few minutes before six, at the workhouse lodge, which stood all by itself down a long lane which ended in iron gates. This lodge was very small, and was occupied by a man, the workhouse buildings being a little way off. There were a good many trees around, and it was a pretty spot, but lonely. The man was a male pauper, and no one else was in sight. We had to enter his hut to answer questions, which he recorded in a book, and we were then out of sight of the house. The nearest building was the tramp ward, the door of which stood open; but there was no one in it, as we afterwards found. A single woman would be completely. at the mercy of this man. If our pilgrimage has had no other result, I shall be glad to be able to expose the positive wrong of allowing a male pauper, in a lonely office, to admit the female tramps. When we first arrived at the gate he told us to wait a few minutes, as we were before time. Some male tramps came up, and we saw him send away one poor, utterly ragged man, who begged pitifully to be admitted. The lodge-keeper told him he could not claim because he had been in that workhouse within the month. So he limped away. He could not possibly reach another workhouse that night. The man admitted three others, and sent them on to the male quarters. He let us in at five minutes to six. We thought this was kind, as he might have kept us waiting, and it had begun to rain. He took my friend's name, occupation, age, where she came from, and her destination, and then sent her on, rather imperatively, to the tramp ward. She stood at the door, some way off, waiting for me. He kept me inside his lodge, and began to take the details. He talked to me in what I suppose he thought a very agreeable manner, telling me he wished I had come alone earlier, and he would have given me a cup of tea. I thanked him, wondering if this was usual, and then he took my age, and finding I was a married woman (I must use his exact words), he said, "Just the right age for a bit of funning; come down to me later in the evening." I was too horror-struck to reply; besides, I was in his power, with no one within call but my friend, and all the conditions unknown and strange. Probably silence was best; he took it for consent, and, as other tramps were coming, let me pass on. I made a mental vow to expose him before I left the place. He took my bundle, and asked if I had any money. I gave him my last penny. I received a wooden token for the bundle. I then joined my friend, and told her she had better give up her umbrella and her penny. She went to do so after some tramps had passed, and though I stood and waited, and she was only gone a moment, he tried to kiss her as she gave him the things!
When she joined me, very indignant, we went forward into an oblong room containing six bedsteads with wire mattresses and filthy straw pillows. A wooden table and bench and "Regulations for Tramps" were the remaining articles of furniture. There were big, rather low, windows on three sides; the bottom panes were frosted, except one, which had been broken and mended with plain glass, and overlooked the yard where the male tramps worked. Presently our wayfaring friend arrived, and we all three sat and waited a considerable time. A solitary woman might have been at the mercy of the man at the gate some time. No one was in sight, or came near us, till at last a motherly-looking woman entered by a door leading to a room beyond. She asked us if we were clean. Our fellow-traveller (whose garments were at any rate not clean) was let off, as she had spent the last night in a workhouse tramp ward. We said we should like a bath, and were shown into a bath-room and allowed to bathe ourselves. Our clothes were taken from us, and we were given blue nightgowns. These looked fairly clean, but had been worn before. They were dirty round the neck, and stained in places; we hoped they had been stoved! The old woman dressed in one without bathing. We found in the morning that both blankets and nightgowns were folded up and put away on shelves, just as we found them, apparently, and left for new corners. We were told that the blankets were "often stoved," but I have since ascertained that they are not stoved at all workhouses every day. All kinds of personal vermin might be left in them by a tramp who went straight out of dirty clothes to bed, and even a bath might leave them open to suspicion. We saw several bugs on the ceiling in this ward. Perhaps the using of others' dirty nightgowns was the most revolting feature in our tramp. At neither workhouse were the garments handed to us clean. We found afterwards that by Government regulation clean bath water and a clean garment can be demanded, but this we did not know. It should be supplied. After the bath we were each given four blankets and told to make our beds and get into them. The art of bed-making on a wire mattress, without any other mattress to cover it, is a difficult one, even with four blankets. The regulation number is two, and with these I fancy the best plan would be to roll yourself round and lie on the mattress. For the wire abstracts beat from the body, and one is an insufficient protection. Even with one spread all over and another doubled under the body and two above I woke many times cold. In winter the ward is warmed by hot-water pipes, but the blankets are the same. A plank bed, such as is given in some workhouses, would probably be warmer, though harder. Put to bed, like babies, at about half-past six, the kind woman in charge brought us our food. We felt rather more cheerful after our bath, with the large, airy room, instead of the foul, common lodging-house; only one thing had exercised my mind — "What did that pauper mean by my going to him later?" However, I told the portress all about what he said. She was very indignant, and said I must tell the superintendent of the tramp ward next morning, that she had to leave us, but would take good care to lock us in, and I need not be afraid, he could not get at us. We were very hungry, having had nothing to eat since about twelve o'clock. Anything eatable would be welcome, and we were also thirsty. We were given a small lading-can three parts full of hot gruel and a thick crust of bread. The latter we were quite hungry enough to eat, but when we tasted the gruel it was perfectly saltless. A salt-box on the table, into which many fingers had been dipped was brought us; the old woman said we were "lucky to get that." But we had no spoons; it was impossible to mix the salt properly into the ocean of nauseous food. I am fond of gruel, and in my hunger and thirst could easily have taken it if fairly palatable. But I could only cast in a few grains of salt and drink a little to moisten the dry bread; my companion could not stomach it at all, and the old woman, being accustomed to workhouse ways, had a little tea in her pocket, and got the kind attendant to pour the gruel down the w.c. and infuse her tea with hot water from the bath tap. We were then left locked in alone, at eight o'clock, when no more tramps would be admitted. The bath-room, containing our clothes, was locked; the closet was left unlocked; a pail was also given us for sanitary purposes. We had no means of assuaging the thirst which grew upon us as the night went on; for dry bread, even if washed down with thin gruel, is very provocative of thirst. I no longer wonder that tramps beg twopence for a drink and make for the nearest public-house. Left alone, we could hear outside the voice of the porter. I wondered if he expected us to open a window. However, we stayed quiet, but had one "scare." Suddenly a door at the end of the room was unlocked, and a man put his head in! He only asked," how many?" and when we answered "Three," he locked us in speedily. I could not, however, get to sleep for a long time after finding that a man had the key of our room, especially as our elderly friend had told us of another workhouse where the portress left the care of the female tramps to a man almost entirely, and she added that "he did what he liked with them." I expressed horror at such a state of things, but she assured me it was so, and warned us not on any account to go into that workhouse. She said, however, that it was some time since she had been there, and "things might be different."
At last my companions slept the sleep of weariness. Sounds outside had ceased; within, my friend coughed and the old woman groaned and shifted. The trees waved without the windows, and two bugs slowly crawled on the ceiling. I measured distances with my eye. They would not drop on my bed! I pity the tramp who has only two blankets on a wire mattress. I could not get thoroughly warm with four; some part of me seemed constantly to feel the cold wire meshes through the thin covering. The floor would be preferable. I have been told since at one workhouse, with considerable surprise on the part of the portress, that the male tramps prefer the floor to their plank bed! I do not wonder. The pillow was too dirty to put one's face on, so I covered it with a blanket.
In this workhouse the management was lax — too lax to ensure cleanliness; clothes and towels appeared to have been used, and blankets were probably unstoved. As our own clothes are taken away and locked up, it would be impossible for a tramp to wash any article of personal clothing. Consequently she must tramp on, growing day by day more dirty, in spite of baths, especially as really dirty work is required of her in return for "board and lodging!" There was no comb for the hair; fortunately we had one in our pocket. In the morning we were roused about seven o'clock and told to dress. Our clothes were in the bath-room. We had the luxury of a morning wash. Our garments had been left on the floor just as we took them off, and so were our companion's, which looked decidedly unclean by daylight. The kind attendant said she had to go, but waited till I had told the portress (who arrived to set us our task) the conduct of the man at the gate, and I claimed her protection, as I should have to pass him when going out. Both exclaimed when I told his words, and one said, "Plenty of cups of tea I expect he's given, the villain!" The portress assured me she would watch me out, and that I need not fear him, as he daren't touch me when she was there, and she said that after I had gone she should report him.
Before this happened, however, we had our breakfast given us, which was exactly a repetition of supper — saltless gruel and dry bread. We ate as much as we could and were very thirsty. I had drunk some water with my hand from the bath-room tap as soon as I got up. We put what bread we could not eat into our pocket as a supply for the day, and were told to empty the rest of our gruel down the w.c. It thus disappeared; but what waste! A mug of coffee or tea would at least have washed down the dry bread; or a quarter of the quantity of gruel, properly made, would have been acceptable, with a mug of cold water for a proper drink.
The following list shows how we had spent our money:—
Lodging, first night 6d. Lodging, second night 8d. Loaf 2½d. Two cobs 3d. 1 brown cob 1½d. 1 tea-cake 1d. ¼-lb. butter 4d. ¼-lb. cheese 2d. In hand 2d.
We ate the cheese for dinner for two days. I do not think we could have kept our strength up for five days' tramping if it had not been for the plasmon mixed with our sugar, which we ate on our bread and butter or drank in our tea. My companion was very exhausted before evening this day, and her cough troubled her a great deal. Another week of this life would have made us both thoroughly ill. It is not only exposure and poor food, but anxiety as to the next night's experience, that tells on the mind. Yet we knew that in two nights we should be no longer friendless. Pity the poor woman who has no home. Is it not almost inevitable that she should sink?
As we had now no food, we were glad to appropriate the remainder of our workhouse bread, putting it in our pocket. We should have nothing else that day, for the portress told us when we had done our work we might go out at eleven o'clock. We thanked her — we had expected to stay another night, and perhaps pick oakum, but we should have almost starved on the food, as our sugar was in our bundle, so we were relieved to find we had only to clean the tramp ward and go. We were told to "sweep the ward and make all clean." We did not think of scrubbing the room, which, as it was large, would have been a big task, but the portress afterwards scolded us for not doing so. It was not dirty, so we swept it, cleaned the taps, bath, and wash-basins, washed up the pots, dusted, and, having made all tidy (except that we could find nowhere to empty our dust-pan, unless it was the w.c.), we waited for release. We sat on the form, and when the portress came in and saw us sitting down she spoke to us very sharply. I suppose she did not like to see us idle. We told her we would have scrubbed the floor if we had known we ought; but we did not know, as we had never been in a workhouse before. She was somewhat mollified, and let us off with a mild scolding some time before eleven o'clock. She stood at the door and watched us receive our things from the male pauper and leave the gates. He hastened to give us them without a word, and also restored our two pennies. We said farewell at the end of the lane to our companion, who was going the opposite way, and commenced our tramp. We expected the next workhouse to be about four miles away, in a town which we knew lay between us and our final destination. But it turned out that the Union we were leaving and the Union on the outskirts of the town to which we were ultimately bound absorbed all the paupers from the intervening places, though of considerable size. So we had really a very long walk before us; but, not knowing this, as it was very gloomy and inclined to rain heavily, we thought we had better seek shelter. We bought some butter with a penny, and walked on to find a quiet place to eat something, as it was some hours since we had had breakfast. We could not find anywhere but a damp stone wall in some fields. There we feasted on bread and butter and plasmon sugar; but we were very thirsty, so we took courage to beg, as we had a screw of tea left. I went to a cottage and asked for a drink. There was a boiling kettle on the fire, so I said we had a little tea of our own, and the kind young woman, who had a blind old father, made us tea and sweetened and milked it for us. I knew the town to which we were going well, so we talked about the changes in it of recent years, as I was "returning to friends there." She did not know the distance of the next workhouse, but told us about the intervening towns. We left refreshed, but it was beginning to rain, so we walked on, looking for shelter. We saw a church surrounded by trees standing all by itself, with a large graveyard. This looked a hopeful spot, so we made for it, though it was rather out of our route. There we stayed an hour or two, sheltering under trees or in the porch, and eating the last of our workhouse bread about one o'clock. Part of the time it rained very heavily, and though it was summer time we felt cold. At last the rain moderated, and we set off for a steady tramp.
IV. A SECOND NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE TRAMP WARD.
The miles between us and our destination seemed to grow as walked. The replies we got varied from four miles to eight; we discovered that some were directing us back to the union we had come from. I do not know what the distance really was, but if we added up the distances we were told it must have been nearly eleven miles. I believe we went considerably out of our direct route. We had come about two miles, and after we began to tramp in earnest we only rested a short time once or twice to dodge heavy showers. We were walking from about two o'clock till nearly eight before we reached the workhouse, but my companion grew so weary she could only crawl, and I pushed her up the long, long hills. We seemed to go up and up, and always a long hill in front. We had to give up trying to dodge the rain, and walk steadily on through the wet, which grew worse and worse. We were very wet indeed before we reached the shelter of the Union, and only just in time to be admitted. I feared we should have been left shelterless. The workhouse was in such an out-of-the-way place that it was hard to find; we thought we should never find it, and grew very discouraged, but could not walk faster. To ease our minds we told each other the story of our lives from childhood, taking turns as we got tired and out of breath. We had now had no food for nearly seven hours. At last we came to a dirty lane, by the side of a high stone embankment, leading to big gates. We plunged down it; our feet by this time were soaked and our shawls nearly wet through. With some difficulty we found the lodge, a large, substantial stone building, with an office occupied by a single man. He looked more respectable than the other one, and asked us the questions in a straightforward matter-of-fact way that was a pleasant contrast. He told us to sit on a seat and wait for the portress. We sat for quite a quarter of an hour in our wet things. Two young men, who seemed to be related to officials and familiar with the place, passed through; otherwise we were quite alone with this man, and he began to talk in a familiar and most disagreeable manner. He asked me where my husband was, and insinuated that I had been leading an immoral life. He said a married woman needed to "sleep warm." He told us he was a pauper and lived there, asked how we liked his house, said if there was one woman "he often shared his breakfast with her." He produced a screw of salt and gave it us as a favour. Being two we were protection to each other, and passed off the conversation as well as we could, telling him that we were not of that sort, that we had only taken shelter, and were going to friends. He said he hoped he should see us in the morning. We hoped not. He told us the portress often kept a single woman more than two days to do her cleaning, giving her rather better food. We dared not offend him. What might happen to a single woman alone with such men?
At last, to our great relief, the portress came. She was comparatively young, dressed somewhat like a nurse, very quick and sharp, and evidently she had many other duties, and this part of her work was distasteful to her. She was very cross at being summoned so late, and said at first we ought not to have been admitted, as it was past eight; but the man told her we had been waiting. We should have been glad of a little of "the milk of human kindness" in our wet, weary condition, but we were "only tramps," and were ordered about sharply. She told us to follow her to the bathroom. It was a stone-floored room at the end of a stone passage, from which led out four stone cells. Each contained a bed, and was imperfectly lighted by a square aperture, high up, leading into the passage. The walls were stone, spotlessly whitewashed. She asked what we had got in our pockets, but did not search us. She took our bundles and asked how much money we had, but did not take our solitary penny. She insisted on a bath, and watched us undress, telling us to leave our clothes, and giving us nightdresses doubtfully clean. (The necks were dirty.) We hurried for fear of offending her. She asked if we would sleep together or alone, as the beds were double. We were glad to be together. My friend said she should have cried all night if shut up alone in one of these prison-like cells. I was ready first, and was given four blankets. To walk on a stone floor straight from a warm bath in a thin cotton nightdress and make your bed is not very nice. But I have since seen nightdresses made of rough bathing flannel, and as broad as they are short! I suppose "anything is good enough for tramps." It is hardly realised that respectable destitute women might have no other shelter. The conditions are such that probably few do apply. The accommodation at this workhouse, which appeared to be a large one — four cells, with beds for a possible eight — showed that few probably applied at that Union, while the porter said that often there was only one. Yet there are many destitute women, as Homes and Shelters show. Are they forced into the common lodging-houses — or worse? The bed was a most peculiar affair. In addition to the wire mattress it had a wire pillow, and no other. This was a flat, woven wire shelf raised a few inches above the mattress. Its discomforts were still to be experienced.
I made this curious bed as well as I could, spreading one blanket over it and the pillow, doubling another for our backs, and reserving two to cover us. We got into bed and were given the regulation mugs of porridge and thick slices of dry bread. We were then locked in and left. We had one spoon between us. There was no light except from the aperture, but it was not yet dark. We were prisoners indeed, and a plank bed would have been more comfortable. The pillow was a cruel invention — it was impossible to place one's head upon it; the edge cut the back of your neck, even through a blanket, and the rough meshes hurt your face. We could not spare a blanket to double up for a pillow, we were cold as it was; the blankets underneath barely kept off the rough wires, and two were little enough to cover in a cold stone cell. The pillow was a torture; we finally put our heads under it and lay flat, screwed up into any position that gave ease. Over our heads was a framed motto and verses about "Jesus only." I wondered whether He would think this the proper lodging for a "stranger!" We were thirsty and hungry — but alas! when we tasted our gruel, our only drink, it was sweetened to nauseousness with treacle! It was, indeed, to all intents and purposes "treacle posset." Anyone with a grain of common sense can realise the effect on the system of taking this sort of stuff immediately after a warm bath, following a wetting. In fact, the diet produced a peculiarly loosened feeling in the skin, as if all the pores were open, which made it very hard to work. I usually perspire little, but next morning, while working, I was again and again in a profuse perspiration, and this produced a feeling of weakness, and culminated in a sharp attack of diarrhoea — fortunately after I had reached my friends. Anyone who thinks will see that this would only be a natural result of the diet with many people. We were terribly hungry, and ate our bread; this made us still more thirsty, but there was nothing to quench our thirst but the thick, sweet gruel — very good in quality, but most nauseous. The thirst we suffered from that night can be imagined better than described. "I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink," kept running through my mind whenever I turned my eyes up to spell out the words of "Jesus only." This was our worst night; we were very weary, but could get no ease; we fell into restless slumber, to wake again and again from thirst or cold or some pain caused by our uneasy couch. Long before we were called we were wide awake, longing to get up. About six o'clock, probably, our cell door was unlocked, and we were told to dress. We hastened to the bath-room and drank eagerly at the tap. Our wet clothes were lying just where we left them. They were still quite damp and our boots wet through. Had we known, we might have left them in a rather different position, on some hot pipes; but we thought they were sure to be stoved, as the portress knew we had taken shelter from pouring rain. We had told her we could not reach our friends in the neighbouring town because of it. There was nothing to do but to put our wet things on and set to work. A woman brought us a pair of men's boots, very damp, with blacking and brushes, and told us to polish them for her before we had our breakfast. We did this, which doubtless was extra, and were rewarded with a mug of her coffee, with one mug of the same sort of gruel, and two thick slices of bread. The coffee was such a treat. I have made some enquiries since, and have found at least one workhouse where the gruel is replaced by coffee, though this is contrary to regulations. The reason given is that the tramps never eat the gruel, and frequently throw it about, and even at one another, making a great mess! Also, being made in summer overnight, it turns sour, and "is not fit for pigs!" Is any comment needed? How many tons of good oatmeal must be wasted every year! It is absolute waste, as we were again told to empty our mugs of the night before down the w.c., and put them away clean. So not even the pigs have the benefit of it!
There was no room to sit in, or seat, except a short form, just big enough for two, in the bathroom. No table — and mugs and bread were put on a window-sill. We sat on the form by a window, a few inches open, that looked on some shrubs, and as we sat there a man — a pauper — passed and stared in. We moved away, He went, and we again took our seats, but presently he returned and stood staring in. We had fled to either side when we saw him coming, but presently my friend peeped, and there he was, standing staring in. She gave him some sharp words and ordered him off; he disappeared, but evidently this was a means of communication between men and women. The window, however, would not open wide, but conversation would be easy. Presently the portress came, very brisk and sharp. I was told to clean and stone a larder some distance off. We had already done a little work while waiting. Knowing we should have to do it, we folded our blankets, washed our pots, and cleaned the bath-room taps. All was made clean and tidy when the portress came, but we were not to get off so easily! My friend was told to stone the place completely through, including the three cells not used (which looked clean), to black-lead the hot-water pipes all down the passage, dust everywhere thoroughly, and clean the step. Meanwhile I had first to do some shelves and then stone a spiral stair and the floor of a small larder, and then go on to other work. I think, probably, the work we did would have taken the ordinary tramp a full day, and earned another bed and breakfast. But we did not dawdle, but worked steadily on, and pleased the portress so much that eventually she said we might go that day. We could not finish our task by eleven, so she kindly gave us our dinner and let us go after it, saying we should have time to reach our friends. Evidently she saw we were above the usual tramp, and our work pleased her. She asked us a few questions, but our answers, that we were tramping from L— to B— , having come short of money before we reached our friends, satisfied her, being true. This portress came backwards and forwards pretty frequently, and so did our acquaintance of the previous night, who seemed to have numerous errands by the larder where I was cleaning, but I neither looked at him nor spoke, so he did not make any advances. It would have been easy to "carry on" with him in the intervals between the times when the portress came. The woman pauper who brought in the boots was, however, to be seen within call, in a room near by, the door of which was open, so I felt protected. She was a decent woman and kind to us. She said she "didn't do it for everyone," when she afterwards brought us part of her dinner. After finishing the larder, the portress set me to turn out bundles, which were stacked in compartments on either side of a long, high room, right up to the ceiling. I had a high pair of steps, and was to take each bundle out and dust it with a brush, sweep out the compartment, and replace it. Each parcel, as a rule, was wrapped in rough linen wrappings, but a considerable number of things were unparcelled, and some dirty and foul-smelling — probably they had been only stoved and put away. All the bundles which were not tightly tied were more or less moth-eaten. It made my heart ache to see these clothes in such a state, remembering that they were all that some poor people possessed. I had often noticed the lack of care with regard to destitute women's clothing, having fetched girls out of the workhouse whose clothes were so crumpled, even when decent, that everyone stared at them — and had received from poor people many complaints that their clothes were lost or spoiled. After seeing the state of this store-room I can well believe it. Behind the bundles were cobwebs simply festooned with moths. They had attacked the bundles at every opening. The coverings kept them off, but some bundles were rotten, and one sad thing was that if a bundle was rather more respectable, and contained more clothes, it was not so tightly tied, and was, therefore, more open to attack. Besides, not a few things were quite unprotected and swarming. The place was heated with pipes. A better breeding ground for moths could hardly be imagined. Yet a simple expedient would have prevented most of the mischief. If each bundle had been provided with two wrappers, and the second one tied over the openings of the first, the moths could not get in. Besides this, however, the whole should be examined more, frequently. I turned out more than a hundred bundles, and was then told to simply dust down the front of the remainder. Doubtless this had been done often, and all looked right. I showed the portress, however, so many moth-eaten bundles that she said she must have them all stoved. She came and said I might stone the floor and finish, my companion having finished about the same time. We had rough aprons given us to work in; but I should like to mention, as a subject for thought, that all this rough, hard work naturally made our clothes dirty, and would soon wear them out. We were, after only two nights in workhouse tramp wards, far more dirty and disreputable in our clothing than when we left home. The sleeves of my blouse were very dirty by this time. Yet in the workhouse, as bundles are confiscated, there is no chance to change, and no opportunity to wash a garment. One is "between Scylla and Charybdis!" In the common lodging-house you can wash your clothes, but not yourself; in the workhouse tramp ward you can wash yourself, but not your clothes!
We had bread and cheese given us for dinner; we had our bundles given us, and mashed our last tea with water from the bath tap. The kind woman brought us part of her dinner, telling us to return the plate and not let the portress see it. We then got leave to go. The portress was in the lodge, and we passed out without remark.
Once more we were free! — but very exhausted. We felt completely tired out, and struggling up the dirty lane we found a reservoir and some public seats. We took turns to rest, lying on a seat, for some men were about, and kept walking backwards and forwards and laughing at us. The ground was damp, so it was no use seeking a more sheltered place. We rested an hour or two, till we began to grow cold.
V. A NIGHT IN A WOMAN'S SHELTER.
We knew that three good miles lay between us and our friends, but we were also a day beforehand, as we had expected to be detained two nights. What to do for this last night considerably exercised us! Should we give in, and go to our friends a day earlier? This would be to lose an opportunity for research which might be long in recurring. Should we go to another workhouse? This would be to risk detention over Sunday. Should we try a night in the open? I knew the neighbourhood fairly well, and it might be possible to find shelter; but the weather was gloomy and damp, and it would hardly do to risk making an appearance in a police court when I had been announced to speak publicly on Sunday evening. So we determined to walk on, and, if we could not find any other alternative, to pawn our spare shawl for a night's lodging. Only we neither of us cared to face a common lodging-house; it would be hardly fair to our friends to arrive at civilisation straight from such surroundings. At any rate, we had the rest of the day for experiment, some workhouse bread, some plasmon sugar, and one penny! We went to a park, and spent part of the afternoon sheltering from rain, and then pushed on for the town. I passed the houses of friends who would have stared indeed to see me, but probably no one would have recognised us. It got near tea-time, and we tried again and again to spend our last penny on butter. No one would sell us a pennyworth, so finally we went to the third-class waiting-room of the station and ate our bread with plasmon sugar. Here our problem was solved! We saw by a notice that there was a "Woman's Shelter": beds 3d., 4d. and 5d. Just the thing! Here was a new and final experiment: we should not have to give in! So we went out to search for the shelter and a pawnbroker's, and easily found both; we changed our best shawl for the poor one that covered our bundle, but would do as a substitute, and pawned the shawl — which had cost 8s. 11d. — for 2s. 6d. We were then "passing rich"! We enquired at the shelter, which had only just been re-opened after the smallpox epidemic, and after engaging two fourpenny beds we went to a coffee-house near by, and indulged in the luxury of two half-pints of tea; my friend had some sausage and I a tea-cake buttered. After this welcome meal we returned to the shelter. It was a great relief to find ourselves once more in a decent place, and with women only. I cannot too highly commend this shelter as being just the thing needed for the class it provides for. It was not a charity, though doubtless not wholly self-supporting. We paid for what we received, and were free to come and go unquestioned. Particulars were entered similar to those in the workhouse (in addition, we were asked the address to which we were going). Women could enter up to eleven at night. The place was a converted mill. The basement consisted of a large, comfortable kitchen, with a large stove, benches and tables and shelves. There was also a well-appointed lavatory, deep basins, plenty of hot and cold water, a wringing machine for clothes, and baths could be had free. We easily begged a bucket to wash our tired feet. There was everything necessary for personal cleanliness, and in the presence of women only (especially as only one or two were in the lavatory), changes of clothing could be made. The women were friendly and cheerful, and appeared to appreciate their privileges. There was no restraint, but a pleasant, elderly woman in charge sat in the kitchen and prevented foul talk and brawls. Upstairs was a large, pleasant hall, with a piano. Some women of a better class apparently preferred this, and sat working. This also was easily supervised, without its being noticeable, by the presence of someone in the adjoining office. We could go to bed at nine, ten, or eleven, but not between, so that the bedrooms were only disturbed at these hours. Three stories above contained bedrooms — large, airy rooms, with beds at graded prices. The w.c.'s were in a yard out of an upper story, and were clean and well flushed.
Altogether I was most thankful for this opportunity of seeing just the sort of provision for migrating women which should exist in every town. Even if some of the inmates were immoral, they were in no temptation at least while there. One woman told another she knew she had given way to drink, but was glad to get back to "the old place," and there appeared to be some who lived there who tried as much as they could to exercise a good influence. There was a "Sankey" on the piano, and I played a few tunes as well as I could without spectacles; this was warmly appreciated, and several joined in singing, my stumbling playing suiting my condition of "having seen better days!" However I gained great insight not but of that hardly any mattered. Some young ladies passed through and said, "Who is she?" but made no further remark.
We went to bed at nine. My bed was clean, but my companion's was dirty, and a very dirty woman slept next, who had had drink, and got out frequently in the night, and sat on my friend's bed. She saw some vermin, but I saw none, and slept very fairly well. People came in at ten, and at eleven a woman and some children came in, and settled down rather noisily. Room-mates got out of bed at intervals, and early trams ran outside, and some got up early, but on the whole we had a good night compared with other experiences. The cleanliness of the floor left something to be desired, and we were told to make our beds before we went downstairs; so they would be left for the next comer, clean or unclean. We heard several expressions of thankfulness for the place, only one woman said, "They only did what they were paid for, and she didn't see that it was much charity." We found our way downstairs for a wash, and after sitting a little while in the kitchen we went to the neighbouring coffee tavern for breakfast. After this we had still 1s. 1½d. left out of our 2s. 6d., and some spare provision, including some workhouse bread. The remainder we decided to spend on making ourselves respectable. It may be thought that this would be difficult, but by a little contrivance we managed to make ourselves sufficiently presentable to elude scrutiny, and to pass for shabby tourists on a "walking expedition." Our luggage had been sent on, and supplies of money awaited us. Therefore the only problem was that of changing from "tramps" to "tourists." Bad weather would account for boots and untidiness. We found a cheap shop, and bought a hat and trimmings, tie, and belt for a shilling. My friend put on a more respectable underskirt of mine over her linsey petticoat. Her hat and shawl would pass muster. My new hat, tie, and belt "converted" me into a lady! We went to a park to trim the hat with pins, which we bought for a half-penny. There we remained till afternoon, dining on our remaining bread, except what we gave to the swans. Immediately overlooking this park friends lived who little guessed that one who was to visit them shortly was dining under their windows as a "destitute woman!" Our destitution was, however, at an end, and with hearts full of thankfulness at the successful issue of our research expedition we found our way at the appointed time to the house where we were expected by a friend, who thought she quite understood our desire for a speedy change of apparel after our "walking tour!"
These latter experiences of eluding questions caused us some amusement. But supposing we had had no friends, no cheerful welcome, no waiting supplies. What could we have done? Before us would have stretched, in grey monotony, the life of poverty, a possible search for uncertain work, a gradual pawning of every available article for food, more workhouses, more common lodging-houses. The last article gone, cleanliness lost, clothing dilapidated or dirty — what then?
To wander helpless and homeless, driven to tramp, or to descend still farther into vice. From such a life "facilis descensus Averni."†
Unless otherwise indicated, this page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.