A Visit to Shoreditch 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 1889.

A Visit to Shoreditch Workhouse

We have already seen Marylebone Workhouse in the north-west, and St. Mary's, Shoreditch, in the north, and we proceed now to visit St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, in the east of London.

It may be remembered that this workhouse, together with its sick wards, was one of those condemned by the Lancet Commission; it was, therefore, with a special kind of interest we made our way thither.

It is a huge building in the Kingsland Road, in a populous parish (pop. 127,000), and is an example of workhouse and infirmary joining each other, but being under entirely different management, and having entrances in separate streets.

It is capable of holding eight hundred inmates. The day we were there, the number within its walls was seven hundred and twenty-seven; and the highest number last winter was seven hundred and ninety—the proportion of men and women being about equal.

Among them are the very old, the infirm, and the able-bodied. Those over the age of sixty, compared with those under, are as four to one, and many of those under sixty, perhaps one-half, so it seemed to us, were afflicted with physical deformity, paralysis, defective eyesight, imbecility and infirmity of some kind or other. Among tho able-bodied are some who have been here for years.

The arrangements for the infirm are extremely good. Their day-rooms, dining-halls, night ward and lavatories are all on the same floors, to prevent their having fatigue in mounting steps. I speak of both sides of the house.

The women's day-room is bright with a clock, pictures, and flowers; and a number of them, some thirty or forty, were sitting there in blue gowns, white caps, and red shawls, which is the uniform of the house. On our asking how it was they had no work to do, the matron said they were mostly too infirm for any exertion, and that they liked chatting and reading books and newspapers, and that visitors came often to talk with and read to them. These are not allowed to go out, the matron remarking very justly that if they are too infirm to work they must needs be too infirm to go out into the streets alone.

Their night-ward is opposite their day-room, with a row of large windows on one side and sky-lights into the passage affording both light and ventilation. Here, again, pictures and texts brighten up the room; and everything is scrupulously clean. We looked through the beds, and found them covered with white quilts, a contrast, indeed, to a quarter of a century ago. The beds are flock. Sheets and pillow-cases are changed weekly.

The lavatory for the infirm is next door to the night-ward, and is supplied with round towels which are changed every day. When a special case occurs, such as of skin disease, or a fastidious pauper desires it, an extra and separate towel is allowed. Formerly these old people were farmed out to the infirmary; this certainly is an improvement.

On this same corridor is the officers' mess-room, neat and airy, where the assistant matron, the porter, the labour-master, the female attendant, the laundress take their meals. These, by the way, are all paid, otherwise the house is served by pauper labour.

Such of the old people as are not too infirm go out every fortnight; but, unfortunately,they often abuse their freedom by returning home drunk in the evening, in which case they are reported to the visiting committee and their liberty stopped for three months.

That which struck us as the most pleasant and noteworthy feature of this workhouse was the married couples' quarters, each couple having a room to themselves, six in the front of the house and two on the men's side. They are quite large high rooms, with a table, chairs, nice bed, a convenient little grate, and a washstand. Pictures adorn the walls, and on the mantelpiece remnants of decorations add to the brightness. These old couples are allowed tea and sugar, and have their dinner sent to them. It is considered a great privilege to inhabit one of these rooms, which struck me as some of the pleasantest I had seen.

There is here a blind-ward, fitted with green Venetian blinds, though all using it are not quite blind. As we left the ward we met a blind man going in, led by a little girl-guide. He was a frequent visitor, the matron said, and his special object was to read and talk with the sightless inmates.

The women have earned the same character here as elsewhere, that of being much more troublesome and difficult to manage than the men. The pauper children are at present farmed out; but the guardians are building new schools at Hornchurch, near Romsey, in the guise of little villas, each in its own garden, and with a chapel in the midst.

In the nursery, well-lighted and ventilated, a fire burning in the grate, and pictures on the walls, we found eleven tiny babies, two of whose mothers only were married. On the floor were little basket-cots, which the matron considers safer than any other kind. The lying-in ward is not in the workhouse, but in the infirmary. Opposite the nursery was the lavatory, provided well with tiny baths, which, the matron said, frightened the children less than being put into large ones.

On the same floor was a night-ward, where the mothers are allowed to sleep with their children until they are two years old. They are sent to school at the age of three, unless they are very backward, in which case they are kept here until the matron considers them capable of learning.

On our way to the basement, the first room we looked into was stored with the rations of bread and butter upon the same plan as that adopted at Marylebone, viz., the half-ounce pat of butter and a roll. There was also a pail of clean, sweet dripping, an ounce of which is given out on Tuesdays and Fridays instead of butter. The paupers much prefer the butter, as they shrewdly suspect the dripping is given for the sake of economy and that they are being defrauded. The mode of making the pat of butter is ingenious. The little wooden mould having the print at the bottom, is struck into the butter and brings up exactly half an ounce and no more, with the pattern stamped on it. It looks much more appetising, and is less wasteful than a rough-hewn piece dabbed on the plate. A similar process is gone through to get the ounce of dripping, only instead of the wooden mould a piece of metal is used with a groove down the centre equal to one ounce, which it measures off accurately.

The bakery is managed by a paid superintendent and pauper-labour. Next came the room for storing flour, potatoes, rice, and oatmeal — the latter is given every morning for breakfast; and when the paupers complain of it they are easily silenced by hearing that the master takes it himself.

All the food is contracted for, and seemed to us of excellent quality. The grocery-room was well stocked.

Next came the shoe-store, well stocked with boots and shoes of all sizes; they are all handmade by men over sixty years of age, under a superintendent. Those who work in this department are allowed tea and bread and butter at three o'clock. Their work is both good and abundant; they make and mend for the house; they make the surgical boots for the infirmary, and supply the Harold Court School (100 children) with boots and shoes. Ten men were working in this room the day we saw it; as a rule there are many more shoemakers than tailors in the house, Shoreditch being essentially a shoe-making district.

We next looked into the tailors' shop, where all the clothes are made and repaired by house labour, under a paid tailor, who receives thirty shillings a week. Eight men were working here when we visited it.

Next came the painters' shop. In the carpenters' shop a good deal was going on, for the paupers execute all repairs, make furniture, cupboards, sideboards and even wardrobes.

In the blacksmiths' shop the paupers alone repair the iron and tin wares, and make cans, trays, saucepans and other articles.

From here we went to the wood-cutting, in which work above sixty men are employed. A ready sale is found for the bundles of wood, although the price charged is higher than in the outside market. During the half-year ending March, the men chopped 250,000 bundles, which were sold at 3s. 3d. a hundred to shops, and 3s. 7d. to private customers.

Some of the very old men pick a little oakum to pass the time away, but are not tasked. The oldest and most infirm of the men have no work to do, but are allowed to read or play games, and, as has been already stated, they have ward and yard separate from the others. The able-bodied men have to scrub and clean windows on the men's side of the house.

It will be seen that the work of the inmates is very varied: a great advantage where so many have to be employed. While speaking of their occupations, it must be stated that the women perform all the ordinary domestic work — including eighteen young women who are told off daily to go to the infirmary laundry. The older ones do most of the making and mending for the house and the infirmary.

Our next visit was to the laundry, which was well fitted up with all things necessary, with a good washhouse and ironing-room attached, and plenty of drying-closets. The labour employed is that of the able-bodied women paupers under a paid laundress. We remarked what a good colour the linen had, and were told that as far as possible it was dried outdoors.

And now for the kitchen. It has a glass roof and good ventilation, and capital scullery and larder attached. The head man-cook is a pauper who has never once been behind with his meals for seven years, and as his cooking is very good he is quite looked up to.

It was close upon the dinner hour. The stew, hot and savoury, was standing ready in huge pails to be taken into the large dining-hall which runs the height of the house and is really a beautiful room.

This hall is fitted up at one end with pulpit and reading-desk, and there is an organ in the gallery, for it is used also by the chaplain to hold service in.

As we entered, one side was filled with men, the other by women, all waiting to be served. These masses of paupers affect one with a sadness impossible to describe. It would be depressing enough if one of these huge buildings and its living freight represented the unsuccessful life of the whole of London; but when one remembers that it is only a gathering up of one district it is appalling.

And, now wishing the master and matron goodbye, and thanking them for their courtesy, we left the workhouse proper, and, through a long glass corridor, made our way to the door of the infirmary. We were shown into the doctor's room to await his return from the wards: it was a dreary apartment looking on to blank walls.

Dr. Forbes, the chief medical officer of this infirmary, is identified with many of the improvements which have taken place in the metropolitan infirmaries.

At the time of his appointment, the infirmary was regarded as part and parcel of the workhouse, and those who ministered to the sick wore paupers; any Sairey Gamp indeed who happened to be in the workhouse was put to the task. This close intimacy between the workhouse proper and its sick-wards gave rise to grave scandals, the paupers placed in authority abusing the trust by trafficking in the food and stimulants, and levying blackmail on the patients and their friends.

On the opening of this building, in 1872, the sick-wards were entirely separated from the workhouse proper, and, in spite of opposition, the doctor succeeded in obtaining permission to replace pauper with paid trained labour.

The opposition was of course based on the ground that paid labour would add to the rates, and so increase the local burdens, while paupers were on the spot having nothing to do. Whereas, the doctor contended, it would be a great saving all round to do away with pauper labour altogether, and the result proved him in the right. So beneficial was the result that the Local Government Board ordered the facts to be printed and sent round to the London Guardians.

There are now trained nurses throughout the infirmary, and permission has just been obtained to take probationers, who are to have 10l. for the first year, and if then they pass the examination successfully to become assistant nurses at 17l. a year. After remaining three years their salaries are to be raised one pound each year till they reach 20l., when they are to become head-nurses, with an increasing salary till it reaches 26l.

This infirmary is really the hospital of the district. It is certified for 472 patients, but has just now only 430; but during the year 2248 cases were treated here, and 2738 in the workhouse which were not sufficiently serious to need being brought into the infirmary.

Three hundred and twenty-four deaths occurred during the year. The cost of each patient per head for fifty-three weeks is 34l. 18s. 3d.

Dr. Forbes contends that a man coming into the infirmary ought not for that reason to be stigmatised thenceforth as a pauper. He thinks it positively cruel that a patient must needs pass through the workhouse when he is sufficiently well to return home; it is an atmosphere of pauperism, and therefore to be avoided.

The doctor considers that it would be true benevolence, and a saving to the parish, if the guardians would afford help to the wife and family to keep up the home for the bread-winner to return to when he leaves the infirmary. Disease and sickness should be no stain on a man's character.

An admirable plan is adopted here in case of fire which is that of outside light iron balconies running from one ward to another, the indoor stairs, of course, being used on all other occasions. It was by this extraordinary means we made our way to some of the night wards.

There were bright, pleasant pictures on the walls, plants on the tables, and screens standing about. The bedsteads were excellent, being wire, chain, or wire springs. The nurses' faces too were bright and sympathetic,as they should be in the midst of sick people.

We were very pleased with the order and classification of the drug cupboard at the end of each ward. The poisons were in bottles of distinct colour and shape, and those containing stimulants were divided into doses and clearly marked with the patients' names. Under each cupboard was a drawer filled with neatly made bandages. Beside this there is a stock cupboard to each ward, so that the nurse has everything to hand. Each patient had a locker by his bed, made after a model shown to the guardians by Dr. Forbes; it contains a cupboard and drawers, and is of the greatest convenience and comfort to the sick man or woman.

We noticed with pleasure the bright copper baths on castors which can be moved to the bedside of any patient too ill to be moved out of the ward and yet requiring the comfort of a bath.

There is an apparatus in use here for lifting helpless patients out of bed, but it is much more clumsy than that we saw in the Carola House in Dresden.

Again we heard the same opinion expressed that the men are so much more grateful for what is done for them than the women. How strange this seems.

We next visited the dispensing departments. Out-patients are received in a large, airy room with red washing tiles on the walls. On a blackboard facing them as they enter, the hours and names of the various doctors are written. They can get medicines and consult the doctors from eleven to one o'clock, and from four to six.

The consulting room joins this.

The officer in charge calls out the names of the patients in order, and in this way they see the doctor, who gives them a prescription. They pass on to the dispensary, where they stand at the window, give in their paper and receive the medicine. The dispenser can dispense thirty in an hour.

The chemist's room for the in-patients is quite separate and much larger, but the two adjoin, to enable the dispenser to attend to all without loss of time.

The water for both workhouse and infirmary is obtained from an artesian well nearly three hundred feet deep, but they have communication with the water companies, lest at any time the well should fail. The infirmary tanks are always filled first.

We noticed the hose and pails in the passage in case of fire, and were glad to hear that the porters were trained once a week in the fire brigade.

The doctor has in his bedroom a tell-tale clock under glass, by which he can tell at what part of his duty the night superintendent has arrived.

The casual wards here are on the cell system. The superintendent of these is an ex-lifeguardsman, a very giant of a man, whose presence alone suffices to subdue the casuals if they are at all inclined to be troublesome.

Dr. Forbes has his own ideas upon the casual wards, as he has upon most things. He says that the whole casual system is a relic of barbarism, for in the present day, when there are so many societies which give their members the means of going and looking for work, the casual wards are not necessary, and that it is only the lazy ones who take advantage of them. He conceives that there should be a place where the lazy should be made to work, and not come into the casual wards at all.

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