Ancestry UK

Midnight Visits to the Casual Wards of London - St Pancras (1866).

In January 1866, shortly after the sensation caused by James Greenwood's undercover exposé of conditions in the Lambeth workhouse casual ward, The Observer newspaper (a weekly title published on Sundays) conducted a series of unannounced midnight visits to other London casual wards. These were conducted by journalists from the paper, who were open about who they were and only entered each workhouse with the consent of its master. Here is the first instalment in the series:




The sensation created by the startling picture drawn by an amateur "casual" of the wards appropriated to the class of society coming under such denomination in one of our south metropolitan workhouses, has very naturally led to extensive inquiry as to whether such description applies equally to the casual wards established under the Houseless Poor Act m the other districts of London.

The disadvantage of attempting any description of one, of the receptacles for the migrating classes, who constitute the lower orders of pauper poor, must be manifest, after the disclosures of "A Night in the Casual Ward of Lambeth Workhouse," and, moreover, it will have, no doubt, the difficulty to contend with that there may be an impression on the minds of its readers that the effect of the exposé with regard to Lambeth may have induced the authorities of other similar establishments to "put their houses in order." Be this as it may, it is only fair to the public, as well as to the metropolitan poor-law guardians, that the whole of the institutions over which they have control should not be judged by the single sample that has already been given to the world through the medium of the press, but that visitations, without notice, should be made, and the details which such visits may disclose be faithfully and truthfully recorded. Such a task it is now proposed to perform, and, as a commencement, a description having been given of the casual wards of the workhouse of the largest and most populous parish on the Surrey side of the Thames, it has been deemed by the writer that it will be most appropriate to open the chapter with a description of wards appropriated to a similar purpose in the workhouse of the corresponding largest and most populous district on the Middlesex side of the river.

On the night of Monday, the 22d January, about nine o'clock, might be seen, in the more secluded parts of Camden Town, two unpretending-looking persons, attired in the ordinary winter garb of men belonging to what in newspaper parlance may he termed "the middle class of society." They wended their way on that damp and dismal night towards the isolated and sombre-looking conglomeration of buildings known as St. Pancras Workhouse, with its towering neighbour, and at night fortress-like structure, recently erected as stores by Messrs. Bass and Co., the Burton pale ale brewers, which form part and parcel of the stupendous works of the Midland Railway, now progressing. These two persons were neither amateur "casuals," nor had they any intention of introducing themselves within the walls of it building which under any circumstances is looked upon as the abode of wretchedness by any misrepresentation. They reached the workhouse door and knocked fur admission. It was opened by a little elderly man, who from his appearance corresponded with the "Daddy" of Lambeth. At the lodge stood the night porter, a tall, military-looking man, with a blue frock coat of equal military cut with its wearer and cap to match. The question was, "Is the master in the way?" "Yes, sir," was the reply, "I think you will find him in his office up at the house," and the deputy, whom we shall call "Daddy," was directed to "show the gentlemen up." The master, Mr. Morrison, was found us described in the committee room of the main building, at his books, and on being informed of the object of the visit, at once expressed his readiness to show his visitors the "wayfarers" and "casual" wards of the establishment.

It may be here as well to premise that the authorities of St Pancras make, as far as judgment will allow them, or the officer deputed on their behalf, a distinction between those who came within the meaning of the Houseless Poor Act as casuals and wayfarers, and the confirmed or reckless tramp and vagrant; and hence it is, as will be found, that there are five wards appropriated to these classes. The dimensions, &c., of each, it may be also stated, have been obtained subsequently to the visit from official sources.

Accompanied by the master, with "Daddy" as his lieutenant, the visitors were first introduced into what is termed the "female wayfarers'" ward, a low building, situate in the rear of the Vestry Hall, on the southern side of the vast area on which the workhouse, &c., stands, and what was formerly occupied as the "dead house." This ward is 22 feet by 16 feet 6 inches, and 9 feet high, and is fitted for 13 adults, with 3,524 cubic feet of space, or 291 feet for each. On entering we found a stout, well-behaved woman, who acted as wardswoman, seated by a large and comfortable fire. The sleeping arrangements, which were ranged on the opposite side of the room to the fire, were by means of slanting wooden shelves, at the lower part about one foot from the ground, and gradually rising to the wall. These were separated by a ridge into compartments, and in each was the mattress and bedding, rugs, &c. At the end of these bedsteads (near the entrance door on the left-hand side) were the baths, three in number, enclosed by curtains: and in the opposite corner was the large boiler, from which the warm water for the baths in this, as well as those in the adjoining men's ward, is supplied. There was at the time of the visit no "mutton broth" for an amateur casual, however disposed or indisposed, to plunge into, for that process, with regard to those already in bed, had previously taken place, and the baths, which were empty, as we were assured, were in readiness for a fresh supply of water in each case, unless for a woman and her children, who used the same bath. At this time there were in the beds some eight or ten persons. In one compartment a mother and two children, in another a woman and one child, and the remainder women, apparently in each case under the age of 30. These, we were informed, were the real "wayfarers," and from the fact that at this early period of the night they were in nearly every instance in sound sleep, it gave a strong confirmation to the assertion, One woman who was awake was questioned. and in answer expressed herself perfectly satisfied and grateful for her comfortable quarters. The adjoining ward, devoted to male "wayfarers," was next visited, and is calculated for 12 adults, 27 feet 9 inches by 14 feet, and 9 feet high, containing 3,492 cubic feet of space, or 291 feet for each. In this ward the bedding arrangements corresponded exactly with those of the female ward, except that the baths, three in number, also enclosed by curtains, were at the further extremity instead of at the entrance to the ward. There were some eight or ten men and boys in bed, mostly asleep. Those awake also expressed satisfaction at their treatment. Adjoining to the east ward, but separated by a gateway and wall, are what are termed the male vagrant wards, No. 1 being 29 feet by 18 feet, and 10 feet high, calculated for 20 adults, with 5,554 cubic feet of space, or 2713 feet for each, and No. 2, also for 20. 30 feet 6 inches by 18 feet 9 inches, and 10 feet high, with 5,995 cubic feet of space, or 299 feet for each. The latter ward had been converted, in consequence of the large increase of casuals, from an ablebodied men's ward, to a casual and vagrant ward for sleeping purposes. On entering the vagrant ward No. 1, we found we had created a great commotion amongst its inmates, who were crowded all together in front of a large fire in an open grate. These were the real roughs, including the "Kays," the tramps, and known vagrants. It appears that on this occasion the "Daddy," or superintendent of the ward, who had had leave to go out, had stayed rather later than he ought to have done, or by the time (9:30) the inhabitants of these wards ought to have been in bed. We were most struck by the variety of character displayed by this band of vagrants, and the keen and cunning looks with which they received this unexpected visit. They came towards the master and his companions, and one young fellow, very much answering the melodious-voiced "Kay," was prominent, by reason of the wretchedly ragged appearance of his suit. His arms were perfectly bare, his tattered remnants of shirt, which looked as if it hadn't seen anything in the shape of soap and water for six months, hanging from his shoulders in rags. On being questioned as to his fororn condition, and how he came in such a state, he replied—

"I'm on the roads."

On the roads? Oh, you are a road sweeper, I suppose."

"Oh, no; I tramps on the roads from place to place."

"But what do you do that for?"

"Oh, I does that to look arter work."

"But, my good fellow, you can never expect any one to employ you in that condition?"

"That's just it; but what am I to do when I ain't got no other clothes."

The master here said although known, they had not seen this youth there for a long while, but he should give him a jacket when he went out in the morning.

Next to this tramp stood a young man whose contrast was remarkable for the excellence of the suit he wore — a black round coat with side pockets, a dark-coloured waistcoat and trowsers, and a black billycock hat. His explanation of how he came there was that he was a carpenter, and had come to London for employment; but, being unable to obtain it so readily as he had expected had expended all his money, and rather than tramp the streets had applied for and obtained admission. The others in the mass bore the ordinary stamp of roughs and vagrants, but whether they are of a more refined class than the Lambeth casuals it is impossible to say; at all events there was in the hearing of the visitors an absence of that foul and disgusting language which has been represented to have taken place on the memorable night of the amateur "casual's" visit to Lambeth.

The next point of visitation was the female vagrant ward, which is situated on the north eastern extremity of the workhouse building, and is the same in which James and Grant, about whom Mr. Farnall held an inquiry some three or four months back, was alleged to have been confined. This ward is calculated to afford accommodation for 40 adults; it is 40 feet by 17 feet, and IS feet high; containing 12,726 cubic feet of space, or 318 feet for each inmate when full. On this occasion there were but three or four who had up to the period of visit arrived, and were already in bed. The ward is well ventilated, and a large fire in a patent stove in the centre of the room was burning brightly. The women were awake, and expressed themselves as comfortable and warm and thankful for their treatment. The mattresses were, however, laid upon the floor instead upon wooden bedsteads, attached to and turned up against the walls, and which resembled the squares contained in the apartments of a portcullis. The women preferred lying upon the floor, which it must be remarked was scrupulously clean, to the bedsteads, which, with only mattresses some four or five inches of flock thick between the latter and their bodies, was not inaptly described by one as like "lying on a gridiron." This, with an inspection of the bread and the gruel awarded to the inmates, which appeared exceedingly good, and in exchange for which and lodgings, each morning one pound of oakum picking is exacted from ablebodied women, and two pounds from men, ended the first visitation, occupying a little over an hour.

Returning to join some friends some mile and a half distant, the satisfactory result of the visit was reported; but it was suggested that it had been too early, and that either at or after midnight was the favourable time to view these receptacles for the "houseless" poor in their natural state. The suggestion' was adopted, and at 12:30 a.m. the party, now augmented to three, sallied forth in search of a fresh "sensation." The workhouse door was again reached, and in response to the "authoritative" knock, "Daddy," with staring eyes and open mouth, appeared at its portal. Turning to his military-looking superior, he said, "Oh! why, it's the casual gentlemen again, sir." The object of the second visit was explained,but the master had gone to bed; and, with the remark, "As the gentlemen had been before, and he supposed it was all right," from the commander-in-chief of the fortress, "Daddy" was deputed this time to attend and guide the deputation. The two wayfarers' and the vagrant women's wards were found much in the same state as previously described, with the exception that the number of inmates had increased, but in, the men's vagrant wards there was a marked change. The gentlemen whom the visitors had previously seen in their everyday full-dress costume had now retired to rest, some twenty in one ward and fifteen or sixteen in the other. The pile of matrasses which had been previously seen deposited at one end of the apartment were now placed in rows on the floor on either side of the wards, and of their occupants some were discovered peering out of their eyes, pretending to be asleep, others actually in the arms of Morpheus. We noticed that amongst most of them there was a peculiar restless motion, and a desire to keep their arms covered with the blanket. A sudden and unexpected move, however, on the part of a neighbour (for, in some instances, where the mattress was of double size two slept in the same bed) would cause the removal of the rug, and, to the great astonishment of the visitors, there was not a casual who, with the exception of the wardsman, went to bed with a shirt on his back. Indeed, the discovery was made that it was the common practice for the men, and even the women to go to bed in a state of perfect nudity. This astounding disclosure naturally required explanation, when the only inmate with a shirt, and who appeared to be a sort of "Daddy" to the ward, thus delivered himself in terms which, although not altogether elegant were, without doubt, expressive:— "Why, you see, genelmen, along with these here wagrants there is at times a good deal of warmint, so those as doesn't bring any warmint in vith 'em expects if they don't mind to take some o' the warmint out with 'em; so those as is got shirts tucks 'em under their 'eds for pillers, and gets into bed without 'em, and some comes in without no linen at all." This explanation was not considered in the highest degree satisfactory, more especially after another version had been given, which was that the casuals and vagrants were not allowed to sleep in their shirts, a statement apparently supported by the fact that on Tuesday last, upon the application of the master and the recommendation of the house committee, the guardians ordered for the future that the casuals should be provided with sleeping garments. It would appear that upon the principle of "first come first served," the vagrants select their own mattresses, and then rugs and blankets are served out by the wardsmen. In one corner of No. 2 male vagrant ward, under the stairs, the visitors were astonished to find two of these gentry having mattrasses, not only beneath but above them, and one, although perfectly naked, had no rug. The attention of "Daddy" was called to it, and one was given him. With the exception that there appeared to be but one towel (a jack), and that of not very large dimensions, and of a texture scarcely finer than whop sack, for the use of the whole of the inmates, and the unpleasant impression created by the discovery of the nude state of the occupants of these beds, there was little to complain of, considering all the circumstances and the character of those to which the arrangements applied.

Again crossing the quadrangle of this large pile of buildings to visit the women's vagrant ward, already described, challenged as the party were every now and then by the "night watchman" on duty, at now about 1:30 am., and surrounded on all sides by towering buildings, from the numberless windows contained in which glimmered the rays of numerous gas lights, the fact could hardly be realised that the visitors were standing in the midst of a population of over two thousand one hundred human beings who were wholly and entirely dependent upon their fellow creatures for house, home, and their very subsistence Yet so it was in fact. The women's vagrant ward was reached, and the three or tour women had been augmented to some nine or ten. The cheerful fire had, however, gone out, but still the ward felt comfortable and warm, and although some of the inmates were awake they said they had no complaint to make.

Retracing their steps the visitors observed near, and, indeed, adjoining the "wayfarers" wards, two doors, on which were written "Male Receiving Ward" and "Female Receiving Ward," and expressing a desire to see these also, Daddy" gave the signal, and shortly an elderly gentleman, with an extraordinary elongated countenance, and who looked ancient enough to be Daddy's grandfather, made his appearance, and instantly complied with the "open sesame" of the guide. In this male receiving ward, which is 16 feet by 14 feet 2 inches, and 11 feet high, was a bed room above 22 feet 7 inches by 22 feet 2 inches, and 10 feet 6 inches high, calculated for 27 adults, giving 8,460 cubic feet of space, or 314 feet for each. There were in bed some 16 or 18 men and boys, and here a very curious incident took place. The visitors had to be shown the ward by the light of a candle, there being only a gaslight in the lower room, which threw but a faint light up the narrow staircase of the bed room, and in passing it over the beds the visitors were struck with the fine features and splendid head of one of the inmates, who lay in bed with a boy about 10 or 11 years of age by his side. It may be here remarked that in this ward the sleepers all wore shirts, but that of the party referred to differed front all the rest, being of the light grey flannel so fashionable at the present time. The flickering of the light across the man's face caused him to awake, and for a moment he looked surprised and bewildered. It was explained to him that the parties whom he saw were visiting the wards to ascertain how the poor were treated, to which he replied it was very kind of them. He was then asked how it came that he was there, the attendant having mentioned that he had come in very late, when he stated that he had been to the theatre with his boy and had been locked out, and not having sufficient cash in his pocket to get a bed he had applied there for one, and was thankful on the part of himself and his boy for the way he had been treated and the comfortable bed afforded him. On inquiry it was ascertained that on making the application and stating his case, and seeing his respectable appearance and that of his boy, and knowing there were vacant beds in the receiving ward, the porter placed him there instead of amongst the regular casuals.

It is to be regretted so favourable a picture cannot be drawn of the female reception ward next visited. The bed room of this ward, calculated for 33 adults, is 26 feet 9 inches by 22 feet 4 inches, with a recess 10 feet 3 inches by 8 feet 3 inches and 10 feet high, containing 9,916 cubic feet of space, or 300 feet for each. In this space were discovered 43 female children and 11 women. The place was extremely close, the air vitiated, and the ventilation bad. The impression conveyed by the visit was that unless a remedy in this case be speedily applied, the over-crowding may lead to some serious consequences in the shape of the outbreak of an epidemic.

These receiving wards are regular wards for the first receptions of admissions. They are usually occupied by a larger number of children than adults, and the present over-crowded state of the ward arises from the refusal of the authorities of Anerly and the other schools to take the children, in consequence of the recent prevalence of typhus fever in the house. The sleeping space for the aggregate number of casuals is 105 adults, but the greatest number received on any one night has been 93, amongst whom, as is always the case, were a number of children. Such is a faithful picture of the casual poor wards in St. Pancras.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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