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Captain Lobe

Chapter XVII

THE BASTILE (Extract)

   Captain Lobe rang the workhouse bell, which was immediately answered by an official, who said, "The master is in the garden, near the cabbages."
   They proceeded to look for him, passing by neat flower-beds, closely shaven grass plots, smooth paths, and trees which had been pruned until their branches had reached the legitimate amount of foliage. The Bastile stretched further than the eye could see, and seemed a standing rebuke to its poverty-stricken surroundings, for it was clean, — so clean that it made Captain Lobe shiver; not a spot was on it, not a stain, nothing to show a trace of sympathy with the misery and sin of the people who lived in the neighbourhood.
   The Whitechapel Union is a model workhouse ; that is to say, it is the Poor Law incarnate in stone and brick. The men are not allowed to smoke in it, not even when they are in their dotage; the young women never taste tea, and the old ones may not indulge in a cup during the long afternoons, only at half-past six o'clock morning and night, when they receive a small hunch of bread with butter scraped over the surface, and a mug of that beverage which is so dear to their hearts as well as their stomachs. The young people never go out, never see a visitor, and the old ones only get one holiday in the month. Then the aged paupers may be seen skipping like lambkins outside the doors of the Bastile, while they jabber to their friends and relations. A little gruel morning and night, meat twice a week, that is the food of the grown-up people, seasoned with hard work and prison discipline. Doubtless this Bastile offers no premium to idle and improvident habits ; but what shall we say of the woman, or man, maimed by misfortune, who must come there or die in the street? Why should old people be punished for their existence ?
   They passed an ancient pauper on their way to find the master, and the doctor stopped to speak to him. He was standing beside two black, upright coffins. His Bastile dress hung loosely on his old limbs, and the cap showed white hair hanging about his neck. He was peering at the coffins, and rubbing his finger up and down them. They were made of coarse wood, and roughly smeared with black paint; there was nothing attractive about them, and yet the old man seemed to be fascinated by these grim coffins.
   "How old are you." inquired the modern Prometheus.
   "I be eighty-six."
   What are you doing ? "
   " I be just a-thinking that I'd like to make my own coffin. I've been making coffins here this ten years, mister ; I've made 'em for a many, and I'd like to make one for meself"
   The old man's tone was so hopeless !
   Presently they came in sight of the master. He was an orthodox Poor Law servant, but he found it difficult to keep up the rôle of a disciplinarian, for nature had made him tender-hearted ; and although his attempts at severity had hardened into a sort of second nature, he was constantly trespassing against Poor Law discipline. For instance, when the doctor and Captain Lobe reached him, he was counting his cabbages in order to see if he could give the old people "a feed" the following Sunday, and thinking that he would root up sundry currant bushes to make room for more vegetables; and a few minutes before that he had paid his pigs a visit, thinking on the way how trying it was to live in a London union after years spent in a lax country workhouse. But when he opened his mouth to speak, behold! a eulogy of the Poor Law came out of it, and he said that "discipline is discipline;" which sentence, of course, needs no interpretation. He was a man of about forty, tall, strongly built, with a pleasant voice, and possessed of the sine quâ non of his office, invincible courage, although he had nothing more dangerous to deal with than paupers and lunatics.
   After the doctor had told him about the old woman in the infirmary, he conducted his visitors over the labour-yard, which, he told them, received visits from all people interested in the poor of London.
   "We are almost self-supporting," he remarked, looking proudly about him; "we grind our own corn, we make our own clothes, boots, and coffins ; in fact, meat, grain, and clothes-stuff are all that we take from the outside public. But paupers are so lazy ; upon my word, I don't wonder that these people come to the workhouse; they won't work if they can possibly help it."
   "I've heard men say they would rather go to prison than enter the Bastile," Captain Lobe suggested.
   " They tell me that every day," answered the master, "yet we get the same paupers here again and again. If it's so bad why do they come back to us? We don't want them. But," he added, "I wish the old folks could have alms-houses—I mean those who have become paupers through no fault of their own ; it's hard to enforce discipline with old people."
   The workshops lay close together, and in each of them men were redeeming the time by making something for the use of the workhouse. Tailors squatted on tables, bootmakers cobbled and patched, men plaited mats ; each pauper had his task, and each knew that the morrow would bring the same work, that as surely as the sun rises and sets, his task would be the same to-morrow as it was at that moment. Six o'clock would set him free for tea, but after that he would be handed over to an instructor until bed-time.
   The Whitechapel Union allows no man to remain idle from the time he gets up until he goes to bed again. A sodden look had settled on the faces of the older men, and they apparently thought little of what they were doing. The younger paupers seemed to take more interest in their work, for hope was not quite dead in them. But not a voice was to be heard in the workshops; the men did not whistle or sing; they looked like schoolboys in disgrace rather than free-born English citizens.
   Captain Lobe, who was hyper-sensitive, felt a strong sympathy for these men. The atmosphere of the Bastile seemed to stifle him. lie longed to preach, or to pray, to do something for these hopeless looking creatures; but he was told that the paupers' souls were well provided for by the parish.
   General Booth has stormed many places, but he has not gained admittance for his red vests and poke bonnets into the metropolitan workhouses. These places remain closed to him. The Salvationists hold meetings and sing hymns at the gates, and they seem to think the time is coming when their drum will be heard even in the Bastile. But at present workhouse religion is carried on to order, and pauper souls are as strictly watched as pauper bodies. Paupers pass from the Bastile into the infirmary when too old for work, and before they go there the routine of their lives makes them into automatons. At last death snaps the chain of Poor Law discipline, and they are buried in coffins made on the premises. Little wonder, then, that poor men and women have a wholesome dread of the parish !

John Law – 1889

["John Law" was the pseudonym of Margaret Harkness — socialist, feminist and novelist. Her two novel Out of Work (1888) and Captain Lobe: A Story of the Salvation Army (1889) vividly portray life in the East End of London.]

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