THE FEMALE CASUAL AND HER LODGING.
by J H Stallard
The Female Casual and her Lodging was published in 1866 — the same year that James Greenwood published A Night in a Workhouse a highly sensationalized account of an undercover visit to the casual ward of the Lambeth workhouse. The Female Casual was written by by medical reformer JH Stallard who hired a working woman to make visits to four of London's casual wards under the names 'Ellen Stanley' and 'Jane Wood'. From these visits Stallard compiled a shocking catalogue of the conditions that were found there — poor sanitation, sickening smells, and vermin infestation.
THE FEMALE CASUAL
I SET out to visit the casual ward at Newington Workhouse on Friday evening, the 13th of July. I put on a blue velvet bonnet, very old and dirty; a grey skirt much torn, which I have been ashamed to wear in the streets for some time; and a cloth check shawl and worn-out boots. I purposely went out as dirty as I could; but I may mention it here that I was regarded by the officials in every case with great suspicion: they looked at me as though I were not a real casual, and only let me through when they had seen my boots, which appeared to satisfy their standard of distress.
Thus dressed, I went off to the workhouse at Walworth about half-past seven o'clock. I found the porter at the gate talking to a detective, and I asked him to give me a night's lodging. He inquired if I had an order, and I said "No." He said I must get one at the police-station, P division, in Kennington Lane. It took me three-quarters of an hour to find it, and I had to wait about a quarter of an hour until the inspector was disengaged. He then asked me my name. I told him, Ellen Stanley; that I was a tailoress out of work; that I had lived last at Deptford, but had been without any fixed residence for several days. He asked me where I worked, and I told him I was only a helper, and that my last employer worked for some one in the City. He scrutinized me very fiercely, and wanted to know why I came there; and I told him I had been to see a friend at Norwood, but was too tired to get home. He then wrote out the order. Whilst this was going on several men of the force stood by, and one in particular stared very closely at me, and they laughed and jeered at me as if it was fine fun; one was different, and seemed to pity me, for he said he was sorry he had not a penny in his pocket for half a pint of beer.
It was after nine o'clock when I again reached the workhouse-door, and I was obliged to knock very gently because the knocker was fastened down with wire. A pauper opened the door, and shut it again as soon as he saw my order for admission. I waited ten minutes and a lot of people came out of the neighbouring cottages to stare at me, which they did until the porter let me in. He asked my age, and beckoned to a woman with some keys to take charge of me, and she conducted me to a building on the right-hand side of a small yard near the principal entrance to the workhouse. She gave me a piece of bread, and opening the door, told me to undress. She waited to take everything away from me but my boots, stockings, and chemise, and I made the rest into a bundle, which she took charge of. I was then left quite alone.
The place was about 13 feet long, and 7 or 8 feet wide, with a sloping roof, in which was a skylight of six panes. Over the door was a small opening for ventilation, but the place was dreadfully hot, and I tried in vain to open the skylight. There was a gaslight at one end, and only a narrow passage between the beds and the wall. There were nine beds arranged in wooden troughs, with sides a foot high, so that when you lie down it is impossible to see the person in the next bed. The beds are made of straw in canvas ticks, with a straw bolster, both being very hard. There were two thick rugs to each bed; they were like horsehair, and both doubled to the width of the bed. One was placed underneath, and the other was used to cover, and as the beds were so narrow the whole weight of the upper rug was thrown upon you if it was used at all; there was, in fact, no alternative but lying without any covering on so warm a night.
After a time I felt very lonely, and began to cry, for I feared my visit would be in vain, and very soon my trouble was increased by finding that the place was alive with vermin, and that scores of bugs were running about the bed. Feeling sick and faint, I got up and sat upon the end of the bed, and shortly afterwards two women came in and relieved my loneliness. They were after hours, and their clothes were not taken away. The first was an elderly woman of about fifty-four years of age, very strong, ruddy, and sunburnt; she had a basket with some scraps of food in it, and a blacking-box with Day and Martin's name upon it, which was filled with cottons, tapes, stay-laces, and other articles of a similar kind. She was literally clothed in filthy rags. Her dress consisted of an old body-lining, which scarcely reached her waist, and a black skirt — she had nothing on else but a bonnet and shawl. After taking these off she removed a series of rags which were pinned in pieces round about her, and as each was taken off she drew it briskly through her hand to knock off the vermin with which everything was covered. She then removed her boots, which were without a bit of sole and very old, and her stockings, which had no feet, a few rags being tied round the toes to protect them on the road. When she had reduced herself to complete nudity she commenced to destroy the vermin on her body, the skin being covered with sores and dirt, such as made me ill to look upon.
The other woman was somewhat younger; her outside clothes were rather more respectable, but underneath she was quite as bad, and was very soon as naked as the other, and actively engaged in the same way.
When they had finished with themselves they began to pick their clothes, shaking them over the beds generally, and turning over the gathers of the dresses to find out what they sought.
After a time I got a little tranquil, for no one can conceive my horror at the sight which presented itself, and which I could not help watching spite of all my fear. I asked them what time it was, and they said it was about eleven o'clock, and I then said, "I suppose you are friends." They said, "No, they had met accidentally at the police-station." Both were hawkers out of luck. The younger had no money, and nothing to sell. She said that she would like to wash her chemise, and the other said she could go to the public wash-house at three-halfpence an hour; but what, said the former, if you have not got the money? They remained in this way fully one hour and a half, and then they shook the rugs and the beds, making a great dust, and lay down talking to each other in low tones which I could not hear.
They soon went to sleep, but I was frightened to death. I found myself covered with vermin, and in a state of constant misery the whole night through. I could neither sit nor lie, and I went as near the door as I could get, in order to get a breath of air if one came in through the narrow opening I have already noticed.
About three o'clock I heard the bell ring, and the key turned in the door. Fearing to be found out of bed, I again forced myself to get in before the woman came, and I had scarcely done so when she brought in a woman of about thirty years of age, who was tall, strong, and almost as dark as a gipsy. She appeared under the influence of drink, but not intoxicated, and she sat down sullenly in the corner, and began to pick over her "dress" as the others had done. She wore a dark linsey skirt, very torn and dirty; the body was of striped calico, and she said she had bought it for twopence of a workhouse nurse, but she added that they chaffed her about getting it in gaol, which seemed more likely. She said, "D— that fellow that made a bother about the vagrants; he has only given us extra trouble. I came here at two o'clock, and they made me go all the way to the police-station for an order; if I had known that, I could have got one easy enough on my way, for I have passed them twenty times." Her feet were also encased in rags, and she said "she bad not had a wash for more than three weeks."
In my life I never saw a human being in such a dreadful state; there she sat, tearing her skin to pieces, and on her back were sores as large as your hand, which must have been intolerably painful. The stench was terrific; and, dirty as she was, I was obliged to ask her for a little water to prevent my fainting. She fetched the tin and poured some water into it, and, seeing me shiver at the dirty can, she put in her fingers to clean it out. I thought I must have died, for I could not touch the water, and when she saw the reason she said, "What a fool I am, I forgot what I had been doing;" and then she swilled the tin several times, and I took a little and was revived. She remained sitting in the corner until it was daylight and then lay down, and they were all fast asleep when the nurse arrived in the morning soon after six o'clock.
For myself, I never felt more thankful than to see the door open, and to breathe once more the fresh air. The heat and stench were indescribable; the whole place swarmed with vermin, and the restlessness even of those who were asleep was most painful to behold. The woman brought in my bundle, and I was soon dressed, but we had to wait for the others, who were a long time putting on their few rags.
When all were ready, we went through the workhouse to the oakum room, which is fitted up with benches and scats all round. It was clean and more airy than the dreadful hole in which we had passed the night. Here we were served with a pint of oatmeal porridge and a piece of bread. It was very good, but I could not touch it. The rest ate it greedily and asked for more, and as there was some left it was divided between them. Two men were also brought in to have their breakfast and do their work, and as soon as it was given out a great deal of slang chaff began. The tall woman especially joked with them, and I asked her how it was that she was always scratching herself. She replied, "All who come to these places have the itch, and are covered with vermin;" and when I said that I was clean, she replied, "You will not be so long, for the beds in these places are all infected."
I asked whether we could not have a little water to wash. "You may have as much as you like to drink," they said, "but none to wash." "Ah," said the woman, "I should so like a bath, for I am in a wretched state;" and the old hawker said it was a shame that they might not wash themselves, because their hands were dirtied by the oakum, and it was impossible to sell her bits of laces without soiling them.
The young woman advised me to stay as long as I could over my work, "for," she said, "it is the only chance of making yourself clean."
I asked her why, and she explained that in the fields men were often about and drove you away, and that "if you did it in the streets the police are down upon you, you are so well looked up."
When the rest left she had not done picking one quarter of her work, and even in the presence of the men she constantly turned up her dress to remove vermin. I came out with the youngest hawker, and we tried at several cottages to get some water to wash, but they all refused us. I asked her how it was there were so few, and she said that most of them were in the country, lying out in the fields.
When I got home I found scores of vermin on my clothes, and I was obliged to burn my chemise. I felt very ill from fright and loss of rest, and thought it was impossible that I could ever again enter a casual ward.
AFTER a few days' rest I again set out, and on the evening of Tuesday, July 17, 1866, I applied at the Lambeth Workhouse for a night's lodging, and was sent to the police-station in Kennington Lane for an order of admission. The inspector on duty was very abrupt; he did not seem to like his duty, and he asked me shortly what I wanted. I said, an order for a night's lodging. He continued:—
"What is your name?"
" Jane Wood," I answered.
"Where did you sleep last?"
" What are you?"
"A hawker of embroidery."
" Where is your stock? "
" I have none."
" Where is your stock-money? "
"I have none."
"Then," said he, "you ought to have; here is your order; go along."
I then returned to the workhouse, and was admitted by two men, and the elder, having read the order, sent the other with me to the casual ward.
I was here taken charge of by a stout woman of about fifty years of age, who said, "Come along, this way to the bath."
The whole place is far superior to that at Newington; the bath-room is separated from the sleeping ward by a door and a curtain; there is a stove in it to dry the clothes if they are wet, and three zinc baths, well supplied with hot and cold water; the floor was very clean and covered with wood. I had a very clean and comfortable bath, with soap to wash with, and a clean towel to dry myself, and then I put on a blue gown which was given me to sleep in.
I then went into the sleeping ward, which was a large place, with twenty-four beds in it, each one made in a wooden trough, which turns up against the wall when not in use. The beds are of straw, in rough canvas ticks. They were tolerably clean, but the rugs were very dirty; and I saw many vermin upon the one on my bed, so that I sat on the edge of the bed nearly all night, as I did before. There were eight women, all busily engaged in picking vermin from their clothes, and they began to chaff me as soon as I got in. I had put on a very old and brown chemise, yet they soon observed that it was better than their own, and they wondered how I had got it and why I wore it. In the next bed to me was a stoutish woman, of about thirty-seven years of age, with her face drawn to one side by a fit. She was well known to them all as Cranky Sal, and she took my part whenever she had a chance to do so.
One woman said she supposed I had bilked some old fellow, as I was well up; and Sal told her to mind her own business, for it was nothing to her if I had. I said I must have clean linen if I washed it in the ditch.
They did not believe me, and said, "Ah, I dare say, but you have your own reasons for all that."
They then asked me if I was married, and how many children I had, or if I was an old maid. "Old maid be —," said one.
" Ah," says another, "I suppose she is like the rest of us." "I suppose you are a bad one yourself," replied Cranky Sal, "or you would not ask."
They then made me show them my hair, at which they uttered expressions of the greatest admiration.
" So help me G—," says one, "if I had your head of hair, it would make my fortune."
" Yes," said another, "if you were hard up you could cut it off and sell it."
I then began to chaff them in return, to prevent a row. I told them I had been crossed in love; upon which a woman said, "She would be — if she would take that in; she dared say I was no better than I should be, but that she'd find out what I was;" and another said, "I was — modest, and that being crossed in love was all — kid. She supposed that I had come like that — fellow who had caused all the bother, and made them get orders from the police. What good had he done? They thought they were going to have meat every day all over London, so much stir as he had made."
" D— him," said another, "I should like to give him twelve on his back;" but twelve what I could not tell.
At length the row became so great, that Cranky Sal told them to shut up, and if they would not be quiet that she would call the nurse; upon which they said, "You may call her and be —, she will not come."
Cranky Sal then related her luck. She had been in the country, and had got at one place bread-and-butter and meat, and twopence in money, but she met some others, and they "collared her can" — that is, divided it between them; she then met a navvy, who treated her with beer. After this she fell in with a woman named "Navvy Nell," who had been lucky, and had "nailed" one of her powerful friends for half-a-crown, and by this time, as it was night, they agreed together to look for a place to sleep in. They went into a field, and made a bed between two haystacks, but they were disturbed by a labouring man, who told them to be off. Their next attempt was more successful, and they had a good night's rest.
In the morning they met a man, who asked them if they wanted work, and said he could give them strawberry-picking for a fortnight, at which he said they could earn two shillings and sixpence per day. Sally, however, thought they would not like it, as the sun was so very hot, and they declined. Soon after that they met a man who paid their fare to London, where they arrived very late, and the beershops being all closed, he treated them to coffee instead.
Since then they had been to Wimbledon and Wandsworth, where Navvy Nell had made a good thing of it. A few weeks ago she had neither stockings nor clothes; but, said Cranky Sal, "she is now well togged up."
They then began to talk about workhouses and casual wards, to all of which Sal had paid a visit. She said the wards at Richmond were the best; there they had feather-beds to sleep upon, and everything that was nice; they had also good fare at Marylebone, and a few other places were well spoken of. The nurse knew Sally well, and said, "What! are you here again?"
In the winter Sally prefers Marylebone or Richmond, and then she trades upon her reputation for crankiness to get into the imbecile ward, where, as she boasted, there is meat every day and nothing to do.
All this time the operation of picking her clothes was going on, and the appearance of the women, nearly all with short hair, was most extraordinary. About eleven o'clock another woman came in. She had been picking roses all day at one penny per bushel; and "Strike me dead," says she, "if it is not too bad, for I only earned fivepence all the day. Last year it was much better, and I got twopence a bushel."
The last arrival was at twelve o'clock, when a woman and three children were shown in. They were at the police-station when I was there, and she said they had been kept waiting for more than two hours for the order for admission. One child was put into bed with the mother, another in a bed by her side, and the eldest was sent over to the men's ward. They seemed very tired, but for a long time they never ceased getting up and tearing themselves to pieces; indeed, the constant scratching of every one in the ward went on until it was quite daylight. They all seem accustomed to vermin, and they look for nothing better.
One woman said, "She didn't care how many l—e she had, but that she couldn't abide them Pharaoh flights" (fleas); and she sat for twenty minutes catching them with great industry, and cracking them between her nails.
Another woman said, "She would be d—d if she would ever pay for a night's lodging, even if she had a pound in her pocket;" but another said, "She would; for see," said she, "what a time they keep you in to pick the oakum."
"Ah," replied the first, "if it wasn't for that I would come here every night; but I do not care while the weather is fine, I would as lieve sleep out of doors as in."
" Ah," said a third, who suffered greatly, "we have more peace in winter, there are fewer vermin."
They all seemed to know that sleep was out of the question until the feeding-time was fairly over, and daylight had arrived; then a common repose gradually took possession of the casuals and their voracious companions, and I was the only person awake when the bell rang for us to get up.
Shortly afterwards the woman came in and expressed surprise that they were not yet dressed, and hurried them on. The beds were then turned up, and a deaf-and-dumb girl brought in a pint of good skilly and a piece of bread for each. After breakfast the oakum was brought in, and we were set to work, superintended by the female already described.
The operation of picking their clothes went on even whilst they were eating their breakfast, and seems the only habitual method of cleanliness; it was continued whilst they were at work, and there was a woman named Shipton, of middle age, the wife of a vagrant in the male ward, who could not sit still one moment without turning up her clothes to relieve the violent irritation of her skin. After sitting at her work for an hour and doing very little, this woman became suddenly frantic; she jumped up, and rushed about the ward, as if she were insane, crying piteously, "I cannot bear it—I cannot bear it."
Roaring with madness, she stripped herself entirely naked, retaining only her bonnet and a small shawl. The clothes she took off scarcely held together, and she tore them into rags. At this moment the woman came in and began to blow her up.
"What have you done that for?" she said; "you ought to be ashamed of yourself. This is the twelfth case of tearing up, and you will have three days for it on bread and water. If you wanted to tear up, why did you not do it outside, and riot keep me here two or three hours waiting on such as you?"
"I could not bear it any longer," answered the woman, "and I cannot help it."
The attendant then went out for the assistant matron, who was a sour-looking woman in spectacles. When she came in she turned over the torn rags with her keys, and said that they were clean and free from vermin; that she had seen much worse; and that it was not through dirt she did it, but devilment. She went away, but turned back again to tell the superintendent to take care that the woman did her oakum before she left. Neither the nurse nor the other person seemed to have a grain of pity for this poor creature, but I believe her sufferings to have been genuine. She appears to have had the fever, which made them less easily borne; even the nurse was frightened, and in my whole life I never saw so pitiable an object. For myself, I cried at her distress, and I wished to help her. They brought her an old petticoat to put on; it was of blue and white calico behind, and dark damask in front; it was clean, but patched all over, and reached scarcely to her knees; a jacket of workhouse cotton, and a checked chemise, and in this shameful costume, without stockings etc., she was made to finish her work. I heard afterwards that the master of the workhouse forbade her being sent out in this shameful way, and gave her better clothing. We left her behind, and as soon as we were ready a tall stout man came in and took us to the door.
Cranky Sal went out with me, and was extremely anxious that I should go to Wimbledon with her. She said we should be sure to do well whilst the camp was there, and then we could go to Richmond, which was as good as your own home. She said she enjoyed herself finely in the summer-time, and that she could always pick up a navvy. In the winter it was not so easy and pleasant, and then she went in. I came to the conclusion that she was more rogue than fool, and indeed she boasted that she was so. I had a great difficulty in shaking her off, but in Lambeth Walk she complained of thirst, and I offered her a pint of porter, which she drank with great gusto, whilst I gave her the slip and returned home.
ON the evening of Friday I again set out for a visit to the female casuals, and having ascertained that the police are not employed either at Whitechapel or St. George's-in-the-East, I selected the former, being glad enough to escape the ordeal of the station, which is enough to deter any one who is respectable from seeking a night's lodging in the places provided for the destitute. I again dressed myself in my worn-out and dirty clothes, and after a long and fatiguing walk I arrived at the gate of the Whitechapel workhouse about half-past nine. Having asked for a night's lodging, I was told to go. to the stone-yard, which is at the back of the Pavilion Theatre, in the Whitechapel Road. Passing up a wide entry the gates are on the left-hand, and near it there are many stables and a number of empty carts, which seemed to be employed by contractors who mend the roads.
I had great difficulty in finding the place, and when I had found it could not make known my wants, because the knocker was tied down, and could not be raised so as to make any noise. After kicking at the door I succeeded in bringing out a little grey-headed old man, clad in the workhouse clothes, who had a kindly expression, which he tried to disguise by a very stern manner. He asked me shortly what I wanted. I told him a night's lodging. He replied, "You cannot have it; we are full."
I said, "I must have a night's shelter somewhere;" and looking through the gate at a wooden lodge which appeared to be his room, I added, "I can sit down there, if you please."
"Oh, no, indeed," said he, "you will get me into fine trouble if you go there; you had better go somewhere else, for we cannot take you in here."
I pretended to be greatly distressed, but he said, "You must be off, I have no room," and he slammed the gate, taking good care however to leave it a little open, that he might see what I did.
I said, "I shall go and sleep in one of those carts, and then the police will come, and lock me up, for I cannot go any further; and if they find me there, you will catch it."
All this time he watched me through the nick of the door, which he held ajar, and seeing that I still remained, he said, "Well, there, come along; I got one bed left, and you seem a decent sort of woman. I don't think you were ever here before;" and looking at me very bard, but very kindly, he added, "Poor soul, I hope you will not want to come again, for there is a rough lot here;" and, thinking that I was still crying, he said, "There, come along in, and you shall have a bed."
I was then shown into a little square office, just inside the gate, and was asked my name, which was on this occasion Ellen Smith. He asked me where I slept last, I told him Dockhead. My trade? I told him, a tailoress, but not a regular hand. My age? I said forty-two; and he then dismissed me with a ticket, upon which my name was written, and with a man's blue and white calico shirt to sleep in.
I asked him if I was to undress and give him all my clothes, and he said, "Yes, everything I had, as there was a very rum lot."
Looking at the shirt, I said, "But this is not clean, and if I put it on and get disease what would become of me?"
He then whispered in my ear, and said, "Well, you don't look like one of the roughs, and if I was you, I wouldn't put it on; I can't answer for it, they are a dirty lot. But mind what you are about, and put it under your pillow, and don't let the nurse see you in your own shift in the morning, or I shall catch it; and now put your clothes together, and pin them in a bundle, and put the ticket on them, that they may be safe."
He then led me across the yard to a wooden building; which seemed to have been built for a waggon-shed, the sides shaving been boarded up to make it habitable. He unlocked the door, and showed me in. The place was already well filled; it was nearly square, two sides being occupied by shallow trough beds inclined from the wall. It was about eighteen feet long, and there were nine beds on the one side and seven on the other. There was a tap of water on the right-hand side of the door, and a gaslight hanging from the ceiling. At one corner there was an opening into a second ward, which was about eight feet wide, and held also nine beds, similar to the rest. In the first compartment all the beds were occupied except two, and I took one of those vacant next the door. They were altogether eleven women and five children, and they all lay without speaking whilst the old man went into the other ward, and brought out a bundle of clothes. He told me to undress, and when he came out I was obliged to screen myself with the shirt he gave me.
As soon as he was gone three of the women rose up in their beds and began to talk. It was fearfully hot, and there was not a breath of air. "Oh dear," said one, "what a dreadful night, and what a dreadful place!" "It is enough to kill us," said another; and the third observed "that she would be eaten alive." Indeed the place was swarming with vermin. The walls were all of wood, whitewashed, but very old, and the vermin ran in and out of the cracks like bees at the entrance of their hive on a summer's morning. It is no exaggeration to say that there were myriads; indeed, it is difficult to conceive so many in so small a place.
A woman now said, "Have you got your pannum, old girl?" I did not understand, and another said, "Don't you know, your toke?" and a third then put in, "Why the — don't you speak plain? Don't you see the woman ain't up to your flash talk?"
" No," said I, "I've got nothing."
"Then, why," said she, "don't you ask him?"
Presently the old man came in and asked me for my clothes. I was sitting up on the bed, with a cotton apron over my shoulders, which I had taken on purpose to put over me. Fearing to betray myself I said, "I could eat a piece of bread, for I am very hungry." He went and got it for me, and said, "There, there! I am sure I forgot you, but here it is." I put it under my head, for it was impossible to eat; and very soon afterwards I saw it absolutely covered with black vermin. At the same time one of the women asked for some water, and he went for a can and drew some from the tap. He then took away my clothes, and after some time he brought in another woman, and passed her through into the other ward. About two o'clock he again came in, smoking his pipe. He went into both compartments to see that all was quiet, and at four he brought in a ladder and turned the gas off.
It was utterly impossible to lie down: the beds were alive with vermin, and the rugs with lice. The walls and woodwork were all spotted over with marks where they had been killed. On the opposite side of the ward the women lay quiet for some time, but on my side they were up and down the whole night. Here, as elsewhere, there was no rest until daylight. The principal subject of conversation was the filthiness of the place, which they all agreed to be the worst in London. One asked me from what part of the world I came, and I said, Dockhead. She asked me what I worked at, and I told her my needle. "That is hard lines," said she; "you had better do anything than that, it is so — badly paid for." She recommended me to try the road, where I might do much better; and she wanted me to join her, as she was herself getting too well known. She was evidently a cadger and beggar, and she seemed to think that I might do well under her guidance.
At this time the night was indescribably dreadful. There lay the women, naked and restless, tossing about in the dim gaslight, and getting up from time to time in order to shake off their disgusting tormentors, which speckled their naked limbs with huge black spots. When the old man came in, he motioned to me to lie down and go to sleep, but I told him I dared not, for the vermin were so bad. "Ah," said he, "you are not used to it." About twelve o'clock the closeness and heat of the room became intolerable, and every one began to feel ill and to suffer from diarrhoea. Several were drawn double with cramp, and I felt sick and ill myself. The children began to cry constantly, and seemed extremely ill. From this time the closet was constantly occupied by one or another, and the stench became dreadful. "So help me God," said one, "I will never come here again. I would rather go to prison a hundred times." Another said, "Hold your tongue, you — fool, or he will hear you." Another groaned for a little brandy, with language too dreadful to repeat; and some one else added, "If you were dying, you would get none here." For myself, I suffered more than I can say, and as long as I live I shall never forget the horrors of that dreadful night. No wonder there is cholera at the East of London, for it is generated every night in the Whitechapel casual ward.
About seven o'clock in the morning a big, stout woman came in and said "All up!" and she was followed by a man who brought the clothes. "Here," said she, throwing them towards us, "make haste." She stood by watching us dress, and urging them to get on and be quick. If any one lingered for a moment to pick vermin from her clothes, she immediately stopped them, saying "that she would not have it done there," and she seemed determined to get over her disagreeable duty with the utmost speed. She stared particularly at me, and seemed to wonder what business I had there, and appeared to be only satisfied when she saw my boots. Outside the door there was a pail of water, but neither soap nor towels. Several attempted to wash, and particularly a woman with three children, who was more decent than the rest. The majority never washed at all, for they had no time, the big, fat woman continually driving them on by saying "be quick," "be off," "get on," etc. etc. Those who succeeded in wetting their faces dried them on their own rags.
When all were ready, we were conducted across the yard to the office before mentioned, and skilly and bread were there served out. The former was horrible stuff; it was black, and totally unfit to eat. At the former places I ate some of it, but I could not touch it here, and many others also left the greater part. It was served partly in tin cans, and partly in white earthenware mugs. We had to carry it across the stone-yard to the oakum-room, which is also a filthy place. It is a wooden building covered with tar, and whitewashed inside, the walls being covered with slang writing and directions for the road. Some now began to undress, and three of them stripped naked to look over their clothes to destroy the vermin. Two of them commenced smoking. Altogether there were sixteen women and five children. One child asked a woman for a block to sit upon, and she refused it. The mother said, "You know it is not allowed to sit on the oakum-block," and a row commenced, in which the language used cannot he repeated; it ended in a fight, which was interrupted by the entrance of the old man. The woman again sat down on. the block, and the other appealed to him, saying, "You know me before to-day;" and he said, "Yes, you are always kicking up a row," and he then ordered the woman to get off the block; but as she did not move he pulled her off, and he said, "I won't have this talk, and if you are not quiet I'll turn you out." She said, "I wish you would." He replied, "If you do, it will not be at the door you want to go out of."
When the breakfast was over, the pots were put on the floor, and we had to go again to the lodge to fetch the oakum. Every one had a pound. It was very old and hard, and quite unfit for women to pick. I was nearly four hours doing mine, although I worked very hard, and my hands were quite sore when I had finished. There were four women who, after doing a little bit, refused to go on. I observed that none of them troubled themselves to do it; and when I had nearly finished mine I said to a woman, "Why don't you get on? you will never be let out to-day." "Oh no," said she, "they cannot keep you in after twelve o'clock." I said if I had known that I would not have done mine. She said, "Ah! I thought you were a — fool, but we don't hurt ourselves with work." In the meantime there was a general conversation, chiefly about the road and the workhouse, conducted in flash language.
There were now four smoking, and some appeared very contented and happy. One asked another when she tore up last. She said, "it was a long time since, for she got seven days for it , "and another said, "she would tear up every day rather than go lousy, as she had done." Nevertheless, tearing up did not seem so popular as it had been, for they said the magistrates now gave it so — stiff. "Such places as this," said another, "ought to be set fire to, and a woman had better do anything than come to it."
One poor old woman, who had evidently been more respectable, sat in silence, but in great agony; she was sixty years of age, and quite grey. She said to me, "I feel very faint; I could not touch that muck of stuff, and it is a shame to make a woman do such work as this." She worked very hard, and got done ten minutes before me.
The woman and her boy continued quarrelling with some one or other the whole time, and one of the women told her that "she ought to be ashamed of herself coming there, the money she made on the road." All her clothes had the workhouse marks upon them, and she was evidently a regular beggar. She said, "How do I get more than you?" and the other replied, "Because you are so — impudent, and can go where we dare not." There appeared to be a great difference amongst the women, a few being more cleanly and respectable. Twelve out of the sixteen had a yellow look, as if they had been jaundiced, and six or eight had short hair, either from having had the fever or from having been in prison. There was none except the old widow who was not able to do a good day's work.
When I had finished I was in no hurry to leave, wishing to observe what was going on, and to read the writing upon the walls, but I was immediately taken to task. "What the — are you waiting for?" said one. "You seem — modest over it," said another; and a third thought that I would be glad to get out of it. It was half-past eleven when I had done, and I left five women amusing themselves, and making no attempt to finish their task. I asked them what the man would say. They said they did not care; they supposed they would get a good blowing up, but they did not mind that.
Bad as the night was at Newington, it was a palace compared with this, which was enough to kill any one, and ought to be at once closed.
ST. GEORGE'S - IN - THE - EAST.
JULY 23RD, 1866.
THE Workhouse of St. George-in-the-East is near the Docks. I had the greatest difficulty in finding it, and was very tired when I arrived. The doors were open, and in the gateway I saw a stout man. with a cap on, who was leaning over the half-door of the office, smoking a cigar. Puffing the smoke in my face, and taking it very easily, he questioned me as follows:—
" What do you want?"
" A night's lodging."
"What brought you this way? What are you?" "I am a shirt-maker."
" Where have you been living all your life, and what are you now?"
"I have been a widow three years, and have lived at Deptford."
" Why not make your claim to the proper authorities at Deptford?"
I answered "that I only wanted a night's lodging to get over this bother, and that I hoped soon to get some work."
"Where did you sleep last night?"
I replied, "Holborn."
"How old are you?"
I was very confused, his manner was more searching than that of the police, and he said, "I cannot make it out, what you want here. Do you know what a casual ward is? It is a great pity that you cannot manage better than to come here. What is your name?"
"I told him 'Ellen Taylor.' "
Again he looked me over from head to foot; he clearly suspected that I was not a vagrant, and was surprised that any other person should venture into a casual ward, nor do I believe that he would have admitted me had my boots been better than they were; here, as at Whitechapel, they saved me from detection.
This conversation took place in the large gateway of the workhouse, and it was so clean and airy that I hoped the wards would be the same, and I fully anticipated a better and more comfortable lodging than I had as yet had. After a few minutes a woman appeared, and ordered me to follow her. She brought three pieces of stale and mouldy bread, pinned together with a wooden skewer. They were evidently the leavings of the sick ward, and if I had been really hungry I could not have touched them. We went outside the workhouse, and descending a flight of stone steps, she unlocked the door of an underground cellar.
It was now ten o'clock and quite dark, so that on entering I could not see my conductor, and I shivered on perceiving the stifling closeness of the air, and a stench which was much worse than anything I had yet experienced.
I said, "What a dungeon! Surely I am not to sleep here! I cannot do so. I really dare not."
But my conductor passed carelessly across the dark cellar, and opening the door of a second place where there was a gaslight and some rugs, she brought one out for me and said, "That is your bed."
I said, "Where?" for I could see nothing; but I put my hand upon a cold bench, which I afterwards found to be covered with a kind of tarpauling. I said, "I cannot undress and lie on that place; must I do so? Will you want my clothes?"
She replied, "You may please yourself about that, and either take them off or not."
I said, "I must keep them on, for if I lie there without I shall catch my death."
Dreading to be left, as I then thought, quite alone, I tried to detain the woman, and asked her what time we rose in the morning.
She replied, "A quarter to six o'clock;" and locking all the doors she went away.
I had now become accustomed to the light. I saw that I was in a square apartment, lighted by a gas-light, opposite to an opening about one foot square, leading to the place where the rugs came from, and where the light really was.
Groping about, I came in contact first with a black mass in the corner, which I found to consist of women's clothes, and, satisfied that other persons were near, I turned towards the bench and aroused a young girl, who said, "This is your bed, next to mine." I took off my bonnet and folded up my cloak, and said to the girl, "What a dreadful place!" She replied, "Yes, indeed it is; you can't see me, but feel my arms, I am bitten all over." I felt, and found her arms covered with wheals.
" God help you, poor girl!" said I; "you seem young."
" Yes," said she, "and I do not feel very well; do you perceive this dreadful smell?"
I replied, "I do, and I feel faint myself." Indeed I became greatly alarmed. The idea of having cholera haunted me, and I sat down trembling with fear.
The nurse now unlocked the door and came in. She placed three pint-tins full of water upon the window-sill, and went away. I spoke to her, but she did not hear me. I was then seized with faintness, sickness, and diarrhoea. A cold perspiration came over me, and I said to the girl, "Where is the closet?" I opened the door in the corner and found it, and whilst I live I can never forget it. I thought it must be the dead-house, and that I had made a mistake; and when I lifted the seat-lid I flew back, for there was no pan, and the soil reached nearly to the top. I felt too ill to remain, for even the floor was saturated and wet with the filth which oozed up out of it.. I returned to the ward and vomited, which relieved me of the pain. I then rested against a bed, and the occupant asked me what was the matter.
I replied, "I am very ill." She said, "It is enough to kill us all; it is not fit for human beings."
I was very much alarmed and tried the door, and sought for the means of making my illness known, but there was neither bell nor knocker nor any means of getting out; and having heard that walking about was the best remedy, I never ceased doing so until it was nearly daylight. I then tried to lie down, but the rugs were alive, and the vermin so bad, that I could not even sit.
The girl in the next bed lay upon the bare tarpaulin, with nothing on but her chemise. I said, "Are you not afraid to lie in this way?" But she said, "What is the use of making a bother about it? They do not care for us."
For an hour I watched, thinking only of the horrors of this stinking dungeon. How I longed that some one interested in the treatment of the poor could look in! I thought of the kind interest which that dear lady, Miss Burdett Coutts, had taken in the laying out of the live child at St. Pancras, and I thought if she could see the way in which her sisters suffer she would stir to help them. Often and often I hoped you would look in, and I prayed that you might hear the groans of the women and the wailing of the children, one of whom was at the mother's breast, and was crying at intervals the whole night long. Far better that the vagrants be put in an open shed upon the bare stones, or that they should be permitted to sleep in the gutter itself.
There were in all six women and three children lying half-exposed in the glimmering daylight, —all of them restless, their sleep broken by exclamations of "Oh dear!" "God help us!" "What shall we do?" I then got very cold, and vomiting incessantly I was forced to cover myself with the rug to preserve my life; and from that moment my torture was beyond the power of any tongue to tell. It was impossible to see anything, but I felt stung and irritated until I tore my flesh till it bled in every part of my body.
About six o'clock the door was opened, and the woman exclaimed, "Oh dear! what a horrid smell! it is enough to kill you;" and then she tried to pull the window down, but could not. Most of us were half-dressed when she came, and before they had all finished two men came down the stairs, and brought the skilly and the bread, and then, turning round to see who had been my fellow-sufferers, I saw with astonishment my old friend Cranky Sal.
One of the men said, looking at her, "We have some fine women here to-night." Sally laughed, and taking the compliment entirely to herself, said "that she had been told that before."
The man remained whilst Sally was dressing. She was a long time, and took great pains with her toilet, being very proud of her good looks. One of the women was still asleep, and Sally roused her up to tell her of the compliments she had received. "You d—d fool," said the woman, "it was not you that he said it to, but that woman yonder," pointing to me; but Sally observed that she knew better, and had been told it many a time; and then another woman came up, and said, "Hold your d—d row," and struck her a most violent blow in the face.
This person was short, about sixty years of age, and with white cropped hair. She wore no cap, and was literally clothed with dirty rags, which, if once taken off, could not possibly be put on again. She had a thoroughly brutish expression, and the savage manner of her blow not only frightened Sally but all the rest. I threatened to call for help, for the row was great and the language dreadful. Sally behaved very well, and only said that she would have them locked up if they did not give over. She told the woman that she had no business there, but ought to have been lodged in the station-house, for that she' was drunk when she came in. Sally winked at me not to speak, and, as at Lambeth, she became my protector until they got again quiet.
One of the women now came and sat down on the bed beside me. She looked at me very hard, and said, "What a respectable woman you seem to be, and what a pity it is to see you here!" and then leaving for a moment, Sally jumped up and took her place, saying, "I think I have seen you before;" but I pretended not to know her, for I was anxious to see how far her memory went, and what she would say.
The other woman then returned, and demanded her seat next to me, but Sally refused it, saying that she would not get up. The other replied, "It was my place before it was yours;" but Sally answered, "I slept nearer to her last night than you did and I sha'n't get up, and that ends it." She appealed to me for protection, and said again, "I think I have seen you before; I cannot make you out;" but I again pretended to have no recollection of her.
"Sally," said I, "you have got a black eye; how did you get that?"
She replied, "because I would not let a man do as lie liked with me;" upon which all the rest set up a loud laugh. They began to tease her, and one said, "Did I not tell you what she was?" Sally answered with great spirit, and indignantly said "she was not that which they suspected." "Shut up!" said she, and the old woman with the grey head again came up, and said, with a threatened blow, "I will shut you up if you are not quiet."
The skilly and bread was now consumed, and Sally and I began to talk about the casual wards. She said, "Lambeth is the best place out." I asked when she slept there last.
She replied, correctly, "Tuesday night and Friday night."
I asked her if she recollected a woman tearing up her clothes? and giving me a look full of inquiry and astonishment, she said, "she saw her do it."
Do you think she was really dirty?" said I.
"Yes," she replied, "I am sure she was. Some of them thought her mad, but I did not."
I asked her if she remembered what she had on, and she described it all accurately, and said it was a shame to turn her out in that way.
I told her that I had heard she had better things given her before she left, and Sally thought it was very lucky that she had.
I asked her if she had seen her since, and she said yes, and that she had herself left Lambeth with a woman, through whom she had got her black eye.
Coming close to me she whispered in my ear, that the woman had promised to be her "pal" to Wimbledon; that they went into a field together to lie down and have a sleep, and that when she awoke the other had bolted clean away.
I said, "Was that the woman you went strawberry-picking with?" and she said, "How do you know about that? If you are hard of hearing you have got a good memory; and now I will tell you how I got my black eye. Does it look bad?"
I said, "Rather."
" Well, I will tell you. I met a man on Saturday night in the New Cut, and lie asked me if I would have a pennyworth of. whelks. He seemed decently dressed, and I told him I didn't mind."
" What time was that, Sally?" said I; and she replied, "It was getting late. He then asked me if I would have a pie, so I said I didn't mind, and I had a twopenny pie, for I thought I might as well have a twopenny one as a penny one. Then we strolled along, and stopping at a doorway he offered me a shilling. He said that would get a lodging for the night, and by this time we reached St. George's in the Borough, and he asked me if I was going to take his money, and I said Oh no! I don't do business like that,' and he gave me a violent blow. I screamed out, and he ran away. I began to cry, and a policeman came up, to whom I complained; but he only laughed at me and said that the man must have a strong stomach to fancy such as me. He asked me for my photograph; and at last he told me to go along, and that he had known me for five years, which was not true, for I had never been out of the workhouse or seen life for more than two." She then met another policeman and complained to him, but he also refused to listen, and pushed her from the pavement into the middle of the street, and then the two laughed at her together. A little further on she met a third, who spoke to her more kindly. He looked at her eye and saw that it was swollen; and he said that the other police ought to be ashamed of themselves, and that he would have been glad to have thrashed a rascal who could strike a woman in that way.
I then asked Sally how she lived, and what she meant by seeing life.
Then said she, "It is hard to tell you. I do not do anything really bad. You know what I mean; I beg and pick up what I can, and go about anywhere for a bit of food or a night's lodging. Sometimes I make do on what they give me at these places here; sometimes I get a few pence given me. For months I have not tasted meat until last Saturday, when I met a crippled old woman, who gave me- a piece of bread-and-meat and three-quarters of a pint of beer. I thought she was going to be kind to me and be my pal, but whilst I was eating and drinking she ran away, just as the other did. I am very badly off now. I have applied several times for an order to go into the workhouse, but they refuse to give me one whilst the weather is fine. I belong to Lambeth, and they send me out when the summer comes. I mean to go and ask the guardians for five shillings, and if they give it to me, I want to buy a clean gown, a pair of shoes, and a few pipe-lights to sell. I am so dirty now that I do not know what to do; and I want some soap to wash me and my clothes, more than food."
Poor Sally! I am convinced she is not vicious, and is to be greatly pitied. I promised her a penny for some soap, and she scarcely believed me in earnest, "For," said she, "you know I never get much kindness, especially from women, they hate each other so much."
When we had finished breakfast, they gave us two pounds of oakum to pick, and they expect you to do it all. A notice is put up that "Every person who receives relief in this ward will be expected to pick two pounds of oakum."
About half-past ten the nurse came in and helped me to pick mine. I asked if we were expected to do it all, and she said in a whisper, "Do all you can, and they will not be hard with you. Say you are a needlewoman and cannot do it, and at eleven o'clock they will let you out whether you have done it or not;" and at that hour a man came and took away our work without remark.
Whilst we were at work one of the girls asked for some water to wash. The woman replied that there was none, and no place for a bath. She said the bath-rooms and other wards were given up to the cholera cases; and another remarked "that she thought they were going a good way to have it there, as the stench was so bad, and they were all ill. Can't we have a drop of water in a pail just to swill our faces?" "No," said the woman, "we have no orders."
We were then turned out. Sally kept very close to me and asked me where I was going. I was sorry indeed to leave her, and I told her so, but I was obliged to say she could not join me, I offered her a glass of beer, and whilst she was drinking I started home. I had gone a good step, when I found her again at my elbow, and I only pacified her by a promise to see her again at some future time. I felt truly sorry, and left her with regret, wishing that I could do more for her.
I can only hope, in conclusion, that these experiences will not have been in vain, for since my visit to Whitechapel I have felt how necessary it was that the dreadful character of these places should be better known, and that better regulations should be made for these unfortunate women, many of whom are not altogether bad.
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