A Visit to Lambeth Workhouse

The text below is an abridged version of an article by Mrs Emma Edwards, published as part of the series 'Workhouse Life in Town and Country', in the magazine Sunday at Home in 1890.

A Visit to Lambeth Workhouse

To have visited Lambeth Workhouse twenty-five years ago would have been an insane act on the part of any one not obliged to do so. It was too filthy and disorganised for decent people to put their heads into.

This became known through the length and breadth of the land by the revelations of "A Night in a London Workhouse."

To-day, thank God, things are different. Nowhere can be found a better example of the beneficent work of order and cleanliness which has taken the place of misrule and neglect.

The Lambeth New Workhouse, situate in the Renfrew Road, Kennington Lane, and built some eighteen or twenty years ago, is a large and imposing collection of buildings. It is next door to the police court, and close to a fire-station, so that the whole block is a type of law and order.

It is certified for 1235 inmates, but on the day we were there only 1100 were present — yet this number is large indeed for one parish, taking into consideration that the children and insane and sick are not included.

One of the peculiarities of this house is that no stimulants whatever are used. The master is a blue-ribbon man, and carries out strictly what he himself believes in; and it speaks well for his influence and judicious management that the inmates, eighty per cent. of whom are there through drink, seem content and cheerful under the restriction.

Both paid and pauper labour are employed here, and the making and mending for the house, the infirmary, and the schools are done by the old women under a paid labour mistress.

The room where the needlework was being done is large. Windows on both sides let in plenty of light and air, and pictures and flowers give it a look of homeliness, to which a sort of picturesqueness was added by the dress of the old women, consisting of blue cotton dresses, red shawls, and clean white caps.

The laundry is good, and its walls of white tiles give it a clean and cheerful aspect. Forty women were working away here with a good will. Running out of this are passages, with drying closets on either side, leading to two rooms for folding, ironing, and sorting.

The store-room was full of bins, each of which contained a complete outfit of cap, apron, dress, shawl, and linen. To those who have been in the habit of wearing flannel and night-dress those articles are allowed, not otherwise. Among the women who drift in here, there is a great love of secreting. On their return from a day out it is necessary to search them, otherwise spirits and food, equally injurious, would find their way to the lockers. Men give less trouble in this respect and are more to be trusted.

The infirm wards, whose pink walls and chocolate-coloured dado were further adorned with red banners and shields with texts in bold letters on them, looked quite cheerful with the clean beds, and pictures hanging at intervals.

At the head of each bed was a card with the name, age, religion, date of admission, and address of the nearest friend of the occupant, in case of sudden or serious illness, written clearly on it.

The children's ward is large and had a low division down the centre, as most of the adult wards had. They are kept here eighteen months, and a paid attendant looks after them. Little cots, wee tables and forms made up the furniture, while bright pictures on the walls, and the little inmates themselves in red frocks and clean pinafores, made no unpleasing picture.

The kitchen, with its white and red tiles, was very clean and airy, and every one in it was busy as we passed through, for the dinner-hour was close at hand. From this the food is passed through a trap door into the dining-halls, so that there is no time for it to get cold. The diet is varied, viz., boiled legs of mutton, and potatoes in their skins; stew, bacon and cabbage, and plain baked pudding. The master would like to give stewed fruit now and then if those people who have large gardens would send him some of their windfalls.

No tablecloths are used in the dining-halls, but the tables are scrubbed so white that their absence is not noticed.

As we made our way to the men's side we learned that five years ago some abled-bodied young men inmates banded together and gave great trouble; but by good and judicious management the clique was broken up, and some of the men induced to go to Canada. Only a few weeks ago one of these very rebels wrote a capital letter to the master, enclosing five pounds to help some other man over.

There is no oakum-picking in this workhouse; but a large sum is made annually by the chopping of wood.

The old men's quarters are quite as comfortable as the women's, and there are green plots in the yards for them to look out on. As we passed through one of these yards we were attracted by the sight of an old man and woman who were holding an earnest conversation together. Seeing the master with us, the man came up and pleaded earnestly that he might not be separated from his wife, adding pathetically, that he was quite well and strong now, and needed not to go into the Infirmary. He and his wife came from Yorkshire, and were reduced to their present condition by speculation. Our conductor listened calmly and sympathetically to all the man said, and finally told him that they should not be separated. The old man's joy scarcely allowed him to express his thanks, as ho hurried off to impart the news to his wife.

We visited the infirm men's ward while they were at dinner; some were quite unable to help themselves to food, but were assisted with great gentleness by those less infirm. This was a very large room, divided in half by a low skirting of wood, the second half forming a day room, well supplied with books and papers, and made bright by a scarlet cloth on the table and pictures on the walls. The journals are supplied by a box at the railway station, into which people are asked to put the papers they have done with.

Among the infirm inmates we saw a solicitor reduced by drink, a head city clerk by embezzlement, and a chief clerk to guardians also by drink.

The married people's quarters pleased us greatly, eight couples are accommodated; their bedrooms were cosy and snug, with looking-glass, carpet, and every necessary for their use; outside was a little kitchen for making tea, etc.

The married couples dine together, in a room set apart for them in their own quarters.

As a rule, however, the married couples do not consider it a privilege to dwell together in separate rooms; the old man having had enough of the old woman, or vice versa. On being asked to give a reason, they have often no better excuse than "that his cough keeps her awake," or "her tongue, it do nag that dreadful."

The women are, as a rule, braver and more enduring than the men, and will often remain out working long after the men have given up and taken refuge in the "House."

The day we were there the authorities had ninety remand boys in charge; but as the large oakum shed has been turned into a dormitory for them there is no difficulty in accommodating them in large numbers, and it is surely more merciful to the boys than sending them to prison.

The casual hall is large, high, bare, and clean. There are more casuals in winter than in summer, and there is an officer always there to receive and certify them.

In the board-room is a portrait of the present chairman by a pauper named Hughes. In the yard outside, grass, flowers, and pigeons give grace to the place.

The chaplain holds service in the chapel on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings. On other evenings lady-singers and soloists come from outside, and give the inmates beautiful music, or join with them in singing hymns, chiefly those of Moody and Sankey, which are very popular. This is a break in the monotony of workhouse life, and one that is greatly appreciated. One woman, a noted bad character, who has been before the magistrate forty times, has been greatly improved by her residence here, and she declares it is the music!

And now for the Infirmary, which adjoins the workhouse, but is under different management.

The entrance to the Lambeth Infirmary is in Brook Street, Kennington Lane, and not through the workhouse; still the admissions are by means of the relieving officer, and consequently the stigma of pauperism attaches itself to the inmates.

It was built eleven years ago, upon the pavilion principle, the administrative block being in the centre. The superintendent and responsible head is the chief Medical Officer, Dr. Lloyd.

There are one or two features in this Infirmary which single it out for special notice; one is, that ever since it was first opened, it has trained its own nurses; another, that throughout the building pauper labour is remarkable for its absence. Other features will be apparent as we go on.

There is a day and a night staff of nurses, and assistant nurses, the former ranking highest. The dress, which is given them, is pretty; for head nurses, dark-blue stuff dress, large white bibbed apron and lace cap with lace lappets; for assistant nurses, light blue cotton, white apron, and cap without lappets. The medical superintendent finds that he gets the best nurses from the upper set of the better servant class, who are prepared for, and not afraid of work, and are besides steady and reliable.

Lady nurses he considers as generally too hot and enthusiastic at first, and it is his experience that when the enthusiasm has died out the deep interest in their work is lost. He prefers them young, not older certainly than twenty-three or four, and if only nineteen, so much the better.

On first being admitted, the nurses get £17 a year, rising to £20, with board, lodging, uniform, and washing. At the end of twelve months they may become night nurses, with a salary of £20, rising to £25, and at the end of another year they may, if capable, become head day nurses, with a salary of £25, rising to £32. As a reward for good service they are allowed to serve in the Lying-in Ward.

The hours of the day nurses are from half-past six in the morning to half-past seven at night, from which time until ten o'clock they are free to go out. The night nurses come on at half-past seven and remain until half-past six next morning. This plan has answered well. Many of the nurses have been here for years, and are decorated with medals, and as to diplomas, they will be able to cover the walls of their sitting-room with them when they get homes of their own.

No one can pass through the wards of this Infirmary without perceiving that the nursing is excellent; and we quite agreed with the doctor, that a barrister in receipt of a good income ill of pneumonia in his chambers in the Temple is nothing like so well off as the patient here.

The nurses are well accommodated, both in their mess-room, sitting-room, and bedrooms. There are altogether six hundred and twenty-two beds, and the admissions are from three to four thousand a year. There are but few accidents brought here, St. Thomas's being so close.

The wards are large, some of them containing sixty-eight beds, the space being divided in the centre by a low skirting. But the doctor does not approve of this system, as he maintains that in consequence of it there is a certain amount of air which never moves at all. No ward, he thinks, should be over 24 feet wide, and these are 44 feet across.

A ward is in charge of one head nurse, and two assistants. Attached to each ward is a linen closet and tiny kitchen for hot water, beef tea, or any little thing required. Bibles and hymn books were on the tables, placed there by the chaplain, who visits the wards daily.

We asked if the women able to get up did any work, or read much, and were told that they preferred sitting round the fire, doing nothing; that they were not very intelligent, many of them having rarely gone beyond their own street or neighbourhood.

All medicines are kept in cupboards with glass doors, so that the doctor in passing through the wards can see at a glance anything out of order; it is an excellent plan.

The men's wards differed from the women's in that most of the inmates were reading, or amusing themselves in some way. Many of them were very intelligent and educated men; several soldiers and sailors, who had seen the world, talked well.

There were one or two sad cases amongst them, one of a book-maker, who took cold at Newmarket a few years ago, and in some curious way has since lost the use of his joints, so that he cannot raise a finger, even to brush off a fly. He is a great favourite, being very intelligent and grateful. The doctor has had a light frame-work made, covered with book-muslin, to put over his bed to keep the flies from worrying him.

The beds are excellent. First comes a wire spring mattress, called the "Dominion of Canada wire wove mattress," seen by the doctor at the Healtheries — they are good for all cases except broken thighs or legs, and for these they bend too easily. Then on this is an air mattress; over which is a waterproof sheet; and the usual amount of sheets and blankets, all spotlessly clean.

Connecting the pavilion is a roofed but open-sided corridor. Into this, on a clear bright day, the patients who can bear it are often brought bodily, beds and all, to enjoy the fresh air and change of scene.

The want of daily papers and illustrated journals is greatly felt; it would be a real kindness If people would sow and then send a packet to Dr. Lloyd for the use of the patients. It would wonderfully relieve the monotony of their life. While on the subject of wants, let me add that tickets for convalescent homes would be a great boon to the Infirmary.

The expense per week of each patient for food and clothing is, roughly speaking, about six shillings. I wish all interested in the poor could see this Infirmary, and the care and skill bestowed upon the sick. The number of admissions in a year varies from 3800 to 4100, and the number of deaths from 450 to 540. The stimulants, which formerly amounted to some hundreds of pounds, do not now exceed ten pounds in the year.

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