Ancestry UK



Indoor Paupers was published anonymously in 1885 by 'One of Them' and purports to give the real insider's story of life in a London workhouse. Despite the author's dismissal of the 'strange tales' that had been told of casual ward inmates — presumably a reference to James Greenwood's sensation-causing A Night in a Workhouse — he goes on to tell some equally colourful yarns of his own. The author's obvious literary talents perhaps also raise some questions how authentic the his account actually is. Whatever the answer, his portrait is very much at odds the conventional image of workhouse inmates being wholly oppressed and submissive.

The complete text of Indoor Paupers, including an identification of the author and the workhouse he described, is has now been republished. However, two extracts from the text are presented below: first, the writer's admission to the workhouse, then a description of Sunday (a day of rest) in the institution.

I found the process of becoming an indoor pauper easy enough. The relieving officer was kindly disposed, did not ask any superfluous question, and gave the order without demur. This took place just inside the gate. I was then ushered into the receiving ward, a detached building of two floors, in charge of a pauper. Here males, who present their order after the departure of the doctor, spend the rest of the day and the following night, nobody being passed over to the body of the house until examined by the medical man and pronounced free from skin-disease.

I was then taken to the bath-room and treated with, what was to me a luxury indeed, a dip in clean warm water. Then my own clothes were taken away, folded up and ticketed, while I was supplied with a workhouse suit. In the process the ward-man made a merit of supplying me with an extraordinarily good suit, and a still greater merit of letting me have a flannel singlet. This latter act he took care to tell me was a very great favour indeed, and therefore, well worth a bit of tobacco or a copper. And he got a penny — my last — a part of a small sum raised the evening before by the sale of a handkerchief. But the old fellow lied in every particular. The singlet, as it turned out, was a portion of the ordinary workhouse dress, while the clothes were so bad that the taskmaster ordered them to be changed for better ones a few days later. Thus my first experience of the place was, to be victimized.

Immediately after my change of clothing the doctor made his appearance. I passed the scrutiny successfully, and was immediately transferred to the house, being sent incontinently to the stone-yard, a place where, according to rule, all males must spend their first week. There was no stone-breaking, however. Myself and about ten others were employed for the rest of the week in removing the hemp from a lot of telegraph-wires. There was no hurry over the job — very much the contrary — but plenty of chatter and larking when the taskmaster was out of sight. There was not a little skulking, too, at all times. The last — the skulking — I soon found was common all over the place, most of the inmates vying with one another as to which of them should do the least possible amount of work, and with much success, I must confess. It would require a dozen officers, each with the eyes of an Argus, to watch these gentry and keep them up to even a decent seeming of industry.

The following Monday I was transferred to the oakum-shed, where I have remained ever since, and where the task imposed is anything but killing. The younger men are supposed to pick four pounds of oakum, and the older two pounds. A few of the latter do their work regularly — only a few, however; but no young man that ever I saw completed his four pounds.

Of course the quantity of oakum a man can pick depends on the quality of the stuff, and at times the latter is of such sort that it can almost be blown asunder. But, good or bad, it is always the same. The oldsters, as a rule, pick a pound or a pound and a half, and the youngsters one pound to three, according to the elasticity of their several consciences.

My great apprehensions respecting the house were, first, how I should be received by the other inmates; and, second, lest any of them should recognize me. With regard to the latter, I have been agreeably disappointed. So far, I have not met a single person who was acquainted with me even by sight. As to the rest, I found plenty of bullying and trickery going on; but it was soon seen that I was no fit subject for either practice, and, with a few exceptions, the bullies and tricksters have kept aloof.

A fortnight passed before I could realise my position or recover the balance of my mind. The latter had been sadly disturbed by the fearful experiences already sketched. However, when I settled down, though acknowledging to myself that there were worse places than the workhouse, one idea took possession of my mind, and held its place to the end. It was to get out of the workhouse, and resume my position in society as soon as possible.

After deep and anxious cogitation reaching over weeks, could see but a single way to attain my wish. It was to pen a small volume respecting indoor paupers and the life they led. The subject, it was clear to me, was deeply interesting, and could not but interest the public, if properly handled. Better still for my purpose, it had never been dealt with before; at least, from the points of view from which I saw it. And these points, let me remark, seem to me the only ones from which it can be properly surveyed. Further, a volume on indoor paupers, written by one of themselves — and every line in a workhouse — could hardly fail to excite curiosity. In short, such a book, if at all well written, was bound to prove successful. And such a book I determined to write.


Sunday is not a pleasant day in this house of ours. But as it is, in all its weary dreariness, so it was intended to be, and nothing else. The principle of its managers, that is to say, its guardians, has been from the first to make the place anything rather than an agreeable sojourn; and they have succeeded perfectly in realizing their intent.

The Sabbath among us is a day of rest; emphatically so, or of stagnation rather. We have an hour longer in bed of a morning in the summer. We go to divine service once a day — that is, those of us who belong to the Established Church — and, immediately after supper, we have a troop of preachers let in upon us, who howl at us in the most uncompromising manner, without ever asking leave — very much against the will of many of us, indeed — from half-past six until bedtime. But more of these gentry hereafter.

Beyond this, it may be as well to state, no special provision is made for the spiritual wants of any of the numerous body of Dissenters. We have Baptists, Independents, Congregationalists, etc., among us, and a few Roman Catholics, too. The latter are duly looked to by their priest; but the Dissenters are on Sundays as though they were not. Even Mr. Spurgeon seems to have forgotten that the workhouse contains fellow-sectarians.

As to how we are to spend the eight hours, or thereabouts, that remain after meals, church, and howlers are disposed of, nobody, except ourselves and a few private friends outside; cares in the least.

The letter-writing of the place is not much: perhaps fifty letters a week may be received and replied to by its hundreds of inmates. Some of the replies are penned as soon after the receipt of the letter as circumstances will permit, but the greater number are deferred till Sundays. Then — always after church — about a dozen men wait their turn for the use of the solitary ink-pot and pen belonging to the apartment. This for the young men's hall. But it is much the same among the old men, and in each of the divisions into which the females are divided.

Letter-writing, however, occupies but a few inmates out of many; and these few for no more than half an hour or so apiece. They get through the rest of the time as the others get through the whole of it — anyhow, and mostly very drearily. The lazy fling themselves on the benches or on the floor in the corners, and doze through the day in a way utterly beyond the comprehension of people with active brains. But this plan of killing time is not peculiar to the workhouse. It is that invariably adopted by the sluggish of the lower classes when lack of funds, or the fact that the public-houses are closed, forbids them to resort to the only livelier means of getting through their leisure that they care to adopt.

Others lounge about the yard in listless fashion; and a most uninteresting promenade that said yard is. It is a broad quadrangle, girt in by the main building and its offices on three sides. The fourth side is bounded by a lofty wall, beyond which rises a high-level railway. We can hear the snorting of the engine, and we can see the steam and smoke, as a train passes; and that is the sum and substance of our intercourse with the world, apart from letters and from the visits of friends once a month.

This yard is covered with gravel from side to side. Not a leaf of grass or green thing is to be seen anywhere. The very sparrows seem to avoid the place. There is none of their chatter in the eaves, and none of their Sunday gambols on the ground. There is nothing whatever, indeed, to relieve the dull monotony of this dullest of haunts.

Here in the summer men lounge on the low wall of the dust-hole, or lie at full length, as in the halls, in the corners or close up against the walls on the sunny side; and here they stroll to and fro, at all seasons, in groups of twos, threes, and fours, but more frequently solitary. If they speak, it is with bated breath, in undertones, as if conscious that the very walls have ears to hear and tongues to tell to the authorities every word that falls. Nor is all this circumspection without reason; for the conversation is mostly in high criticism and censure of the shortcomings of the place, the poorness and scantiness of the food, the harshness — not to say tyranny — of the officials, and the general disregard displayed by the guardians of the wants and wishes of the pauper inmates. These, indeed, are the favourite themes of the talkers, indoors and out.

The solitary mope about, with downcast melancholy countenances, consuming their souls in the scathing fire of sad reflections and wretched memories.

Indoors there is more variety. There are loungers, single and in couples. There are readers also; only they themselves must provide the reading, unless they prefer something ultra-religious, which has lain in a waste-paper box for many months, the said waste-paper box and its contents being produced regularly every Sabbath. This, however, in the old men's hall only; and even these religious publications are the contribution of pious and charitable outsiders. All the guardians have done in this way is to place a single Bible in one of the windowsills, where it lies untouched from week's end to week's end, unless when a hypocrite of a certain class, of which we have several specimens, takes it up and appears to study it in order to make an impression on somebody, and so secure a selfish end. It may be an officer or a guardian that is thus aimed at, or it may be a few fellow-paupers whom the rascal wants to wheedle into trusting him, in order that he may obtain an opportunity for playing off a piece of characteristic chicanery.

We have one sedulous Bible reader in the young men's hall, a low-sized, swarthy fellow, with harsh features and an Italian name, evidently of the breed which one meets with halfway up the Apennines in the interior of Tuscany. And this man is notoriously the falsest inmate of the house: there is no believing a statement he makes, and no having dealings with him without being cheated. This is so thoroughly understood, that he and his Bible are left pretty much to themselves; and the Bible, in several instances, just because it is so regularly the companion of the other.

There are a few tattered novels about the room — only a few — which have been passing from hand to hand for months, continually losing leaves in the process, and which will continue so to pass until the last leaf has been consumed as a pi pe light. Those in the very best state have lost covers, and the opening and concluding chapters as well. Others have three-fourths or a half of the pages remaining; while others, again, are reduced to a fourth or an eighth of their original size. But in all cases they are stuck to tenaciously by those who contrive to get hold of them, and read with as much attention as if there were life depending on it.

There are, perhaps, a dozen detached numbers of the cheapest illustrated publications — things relating the deeds of Claude Duval, Dick Turpin, and other desperadoes these among the younger inmates.

Newspapers, however, form the favourite intellectual fare. Three or four fortunate inmates receive a weekly journal regularly, and these are the men of standing of the place. They are deferred to, sought after, courted, and even paid in bits of bread or tobacco, for half-hour loans of the journals at their disposal.

Judging by the character of the newspapers among them, the politics of the indoor paupers are intensely radical. Reynolds's is preferred; then conies The Dispatch, and then Lloyd's. These three are common. Others appear occasionally; though, while we have odd specimens of county papers now and again, one of the great London dailies is hardly ever seen.

The indoor pauper, however, is simply content to read his journal. As a rule, he never talks about its contents, unless among them lies a divorce or breach-of-promise case, or a murder of more than usual interest.

So much for the readers.

Other men gather round the story-tellers, who are almost exclusively of the In-and-Out order, whose discourse is always of their own adventures, and who never by any chance have good to relate. On Sundays they dilate to attentive and sympathetic listeners concerning life on the road, and in the streets, prisons, casual wards, harlots, fences, thieving exploits, pugilistic encounters in the ring, ruffianly debauches, with their supplementary rows, dodging and squaring bobbies, and athletic competitions — the last being far and away the most innocent of the themes, even though they deal ad libitum with such personages as Jem Mace and Yankee Sullivan, and enlarge on how swell backers are 'done' by pre-arrangement between the competitors.

In spite, however, of all the methods of getting through the day just mentioned, the Workhouse Sunday, as we have it, is emphatically dull and dreary.

Some of the inmates, indeed — the married men — are allowed to pass an hour, immediately after divine service, with their wives and children; but in by far the majority of cases there is no pleasure in the interview. Such meetings take place under official supervision and in the sight of dozens. Tender feelings, therefore, must be suppressed, if such have survived the miserable period preceding the break-up of the home and the still more miserable — because in so many cases hopeless — imprisonment in the house that followed.

However, when the feelings are not tender, no great care is taken to suppress them at these interviews Husbands and wives, who bear one another grudges, take advantage of them to 'speak their mind,' and spend them for the most part in mutual recrimination.


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