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Midnight Visits to the Casual Wards of London - The Strand and St Marylebone (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 second instalment in the series:




Possibly there are no two metropolitan districts where the operations of the Houseless Poor Act have been more fully carried into effect, and its efficacy in dealing with the casual and vagrant poor of the metropolis more effectually tested than those subjected to our unofficial visit above-mentioned. The Strand Union, from the central character of the district which bears its name, and the workhouse of the parish of Marylebone, from the facilities of access which it affords, are both calculated to be well-patronised receptacles for the class in reference to whom our nightly peregrinations are devoted.

Dealing first with the Strand Union, which comprises the parishes of St. Clement Danes, St. Mary-le-Strand, St. Paul, Covent-garden, the precinct of the Savoy, and St. Ann, Soho, its workhouse with which the casual wards are associated is situate in Cleveland-street, close to Howland-street, Fitzroy-square, in the parish of St. Pancras. The out-door relieving office, however, of the union is in a far more central position, in Bow-street, and in close proximity to the police office. Our visit to the casual wards of the Strand Union took place at a late hour on Wednesday night, without any previous notice; and if such visitations have no other effect, it may be here remarked at the outset that they will by the discoveries made be at least instrumental in affording information to the Poor-law Board upon a subject upon which they appear to be at present in utter ignorance. The public are aware that in consequence of the advantages recently alleged to have been discovered to have taken place by the introduction of the police as a check upon vagrancy in the Poplar Union, the Poor-law Board have been in negotiation with the Police Commissioners, and are recommending to the various guardians' boards throughout the metropolis to adopt, as the last link in the chain required for controlling the vagabondism of London, the introduction of the policeman. As far as the Strand Union is concerned, however, the introduction of police authority in the admission of casuals and vagrants to a night's lodging, and the accompaniments of food and clothing where necessary, is no new innovation at all, but has been co-incident with the "Houseless Poor Act" becoming the law of the land. Since this event the police at the Bow-street station have, in reality, been the relieving officers, as regards the admission of casual paupers and vagrants to the wards of the Strand Union. The police are apprised of the number the casual wards will accommodate, viz., 29 men and 10 women, and are provided with tickets, which they use their discrimination in giving to casuals and wayfarers who apply for them, and who, on presenting them at the Cleveland-street Workhouse, are admitted to the casual wards. In cases of persons applying there without such tickets after the wards are full they are sent by the master to the relieving office in Bow-street, where there is an official constantly in attendance, night and day, and he provides them with such accommodation as be may deem necessary.

On reaching the workhouse, and inquiring for the master, we were shown into the entrance hall, reached by a narrow paved forecourt, and our card was conveyed to Mr. Thomas Thorne, the governor; who, on being informed of the object of the visit, at once, with the utmost readiness, expressed his willingness to show us over the casual wards, and give us every information in his power, simply premising that we had happened, very unfortunately, to come at a time when their arrangements for bathing were out of order, the large bath having been that day removed from the male casual ward for conversion into six single baths, as an improved sanitary measure. Passing from the paved forecourt at the entrance to the southern side, we were conducted through a door in a wall to an inner yard, and thence to a small low shed-like building, forming the southern boundary of the establishment. On entering, to the right was the depository for the inmates' clothes and the washing department; and here it may be remarked that the array of towels hanging from the wall verified the truth of the statement that each casual is provided with a separate towel, and that there is not, as in some cases, one only for all the occupants. Turning to the left, we found the bath had been removed, and in its place were two of the ordinary domestic single baths, for temporary purposes. This bath room opens by means of a door into the principal casual ward, at the entrance to which is a closet. It is an extremely low and narrow building, with but a narrow passage between the feet of the beds or "bunks," as they are technically termed, and is appropriated for 18 inmates. It was full at the time of our visit, and the peculiar smell as well as novelty of the scene could not fail at once to attract attention, and to make us acquainted with the fact that in the opinion of the guardians of the Strand Union there is for the sleeping accommodation of the casuals of London "nothing like leather." Each man lay in his "bunk," a species of tray rising gradually from the feet to the wall, and separated from each other by some five or six inches of woodwork. In each "bunk" there is a straw mattress, the straw of which we were assured by our guide is changed at least once a month, and each casual on his arrival, after taking his bath and being supplied with a night shirt of very large dimensions and somewhat of the texture of a hop sack, is served with his "leather," or, in very cold weather, two leathers, which are the substitutes for a quilt or blanket. The object of this substitute, we were informed, is cleanliness, as the leathers, unlike blankets or coverings of cotton or woollen material, neither absorb contagion nor harbour vermin. A brush passed over the interior and exterior of the leather each morning, and a thorough cleansing with water once a month or six weeks is all, it is stated, that is required. The leathers appear to be the whole hide, but nevertheless we could not help noting the peering out at their ends of the feet and toes of some of the "gentlemen," who were possibly wandering in "the land of dreams" at the period of our visit. It may be remarked that the shirts to which we refer are washed every morning, and that the ward, although narrow and low-pitched, appeared to be well ventilated; the "leathery" smell,however, conveyed the impression that we were in a currier's shop or the purlieus of Bermondsey. Outside this building is the copper, the fire of which was lighted, containing the hot water as required for the baths; and immediately opposite, on the other side of the yard, is a small narrow building in which the labour for casuals is exacted, viz., the picking of 1lb. of oakum for the doubtful characters, whilst others, supposed to be more respectable, are employed in washing down the yards and household work. Returning from this yard to the forecourt, and descending a flight of stone steps, we reached the male casual ward, No. 2, in which some 10 or 11 persons could be accommodated. This ward had also its full complement, but in consequence of being short of "leathers" the occupants of this ward lay in ordinary sheets and quilts on iron bedsteads, and appeared very comfortable, as all who were awake at the time of the visit expressed themselves to be. On the northern side of the front forecourt was a corresponding flight of steps and ward appropriated to 10 casual women. It contained six beds, and has a ward's-woman, but at the time of the visit there were only three inmates, two in one bed, and one lying by herself. The bath, which is in this case at the top of the flight of steps leading to the ward, is not exacted in all cases, unless the women are found to be in a very dirty condition. It is the duty of the night watchman to visit all these wards once within every hour, and any swearing or disorderly conduct is instantly reported to the master, who with the aid at his command, without the slightest hesitation, very properly at once bundles the delinquent, or delinquents, into the street. The arrangements, generally, reflect credit on the guardians of the Strand Union, and the novelty and utility of the "leathers" may not be lost on other boards.


Midnight was now approaching, but traversing the sombre and ill-lighted streets of that which was formerly one of the most aristocratic parts of north-west London, and passing over that portion of the ground where the rank and fashion of the 17th century were wont to indulge in orgies of a far different character, in what was at that period known as the Marylebone Gardens, the portals of that dismal-looking clump of buildings, the architecture of a bygone age, known as the Marylebone Workhouse, in Northumberland-street, was reached. The knocker was instantly responded to by two aged men, the rear being brought up by a fine, tall-looking fellow, who. with a blue double-breasted frock-coat, two rows of large bright buttons, and blue cap, with showy broad gold band to match, might have been taken for the captain of a man-of-war rather than the night porter of a metropolitan workhouse. "Has the master gone to bed?" "No, sir," was the response, and in a twinkling appeared, in propria persona, the polite and indefatigable Mr. Douglas, who, to use the phraseology of some of the Marylebone guardians, and adopting the complimentary opinion of Mr. Farnall, is a master of a workhouse "who never sleeps." Our business at the witching hour of night was at once explained. "Well, gentlemen, I am happy to submit our arrangements for casuals to inspection at any time, and although I had not the slightest notice of this visit, and, therefore, as you must be aware, there is no preparation here, we will go to work at once—follow me." Doing as we were bid, we took a turn to the right, after passing the porter's lodge in the outer court of the eastern wall of the workhouse, formerly the covered place in which the applicants for out-door relief assembled, and on which has been erected a long, narrow building, now, it appears, appropriated for the reception of tramps and vagrants. We were about to be introduced, as Mr. Douglas informed us, to the "roughs," to which ward No. 1 is appropriated, and which has been judiciously placed close to the street, as, in the event of misconduct, their ejection from the building may be the more readily accomplished. In order that we might see the "roughs" in all their nightly glory whilst in a somnolescent state, we were requested to step softly and on tip-toe, as they were a "wide-awake" lot. Opening a small window, which bad an iron grating inside, we then had a full view of the interior, so far as the half-turned-down gaslight would enable us to see,and a similar inspection through a little wicket window in the door of the ward itself, which appeared to be bolted on the outside. In another moment we had reached the interior,and the inmates lay in "bunks" somewhat similarly constructed to those at the Strand. The mattresses were, however, of flock, the ordinary brown blankets were in use instead of "leather," and each inmate wore a blue woollen shirt, given to him after his bath, and which undergoes the process of "baking" every morning. This ward is 30 feet 4 inches long, 17 feet 10 inches wide, and 8 feet 10 inches high, and contains 4,778 cubic feet of air. In its centre was placed a gas stove, and at its extremity, instead of the repeated dips in the pail by the thirsty souls of Lambeth, as described by the "Amateur Casual," we found a running stream from a veritable drinking-fountain, fixed in a slab painted to represent green marble, and a hanging tankard attached, from which the inmates could regale themselves at any hour. The clothes of the inmates were neatly packed in racks over the heads of the "bunks," and there were evidences of the greatest regularity and order; but, at the same time, a somewhat overpowering smell of tobacco, notwithstanding that one of the conditions of entry is the delivery up to the paid wardsman of pipes, and all other appliances requisite for the use of the narcotic weed, and of which there was a goodly collection. The ward, which accommodates 25 males, was full, and one or two who were awake expressed themselves as "werry comfortable." At the entrance, but not connected with the ward, were three baths and a copper, with fire lighted, containing hot water — hot and cold being laid on to each bath. Perfectly satisfied with the too good accommodation afforded to the class the inmates were represented to be, yard to the western extremity of the workhouse buildings, and passing through that which looked in the moonlight somewhat like ancient ruins, by means of an iron gate opening into a dark passage, we emerged into a small yard, and were at once introduced into No. 2 ward, This was for a better class of male casuals, and was a well-ventilated ward to accommodate 22 persons, and in contradistinction to No, 1 there was an open fire in the grate, a well-arranged lavatory and other conveniences, all accessible without going from under cover, together with baths having taps for the introduction of hot and cold water. This ward, which had its full complement of inmates, is 52 feet 6 inches long, 11 feet 4 inches wide, and nine feet high, and affords 3,355 cubic feet for air. These are the two certified wards for male casuals, but in consequence of the extraordinary demands over and above the restricted number a temporary ward has been opened, to which we were next conducted. This is situate on the eastern side of the southern quadrangle, and is without doubt the most spacious and well-ventilated ward of the whole. It is ascended by two flights of stairs, and is calculated to accommodate 50 persons. It is 57 feet 6 inches long, 28 feet wide, and 18 feet high at the top of the building, and its air space is 20,916 cubic feet. In this ward the mattresses and bedding, which were laid on the floor, had on this night, at the time of visit, but 14 occupants. A large fire was burning in the grate, near which the wardsman slept. The unoccupied mattresses lay neatly turned up ready for use. We were now conducted through some wooden gates to the women's casual ward, and were in the first instance ushered into the lower or admission department, where a strong gaslight was burning, and a large fire, with extensive large copper-boiling apparatus, etc., gave it a very cheerful aspect. A comfortable, good-looking, paid official as nurse appeared in charge. One or two benighted wayfarers who had just come in were waiting their turns for the baths, three of which, beautifully clean, were ranged in one corner, and in another corner one of large dimensions for a family. On the other side was a range of desks, with hooks in them, for oakum-picking. On these were laid a quantity of washed clothes, which inmates are invited to do, care being taken that they shall be dried for use the following morning. Passing upstairs we had a view of the women's ward.' This ward contains 28 double beds, or accommodation for 56 children under ten, two being reckoned as one adult. It is 57 feet long, 15 feet wide, 12 feet 6 inches high, and contains for air space 10,687 cubic feet. Although the ward was completely filled the ventilation was exceedingly good. The inmates slept on iron bedsteads.

On referring to his book, Mr. Douglas found that on the night in question, up to midnight, the number of casuals admitted were 114, viz., 60 men, 44 women, and 10 children; but others had been admitted after that hour. During the previous week there had been admitted 620; on one week in December they reached 1,029, and in another week 1,049. It is the practice to open the doors at six o'clock, and although only certified for 140 inmates, on one recent occasion there was, on the opening of the doors, a rush of 180; of this number 113 were men and youths, and of the male sex there were not more than the odd 13 above the age of 30 years. It is the practice, when the casuals are admitted, to at once compel them to take their baths, pack their clothes, and get to bed, and then the gruel and bread are served out, during which time a Scripture reader visits the wards and reads, and endeavours by exhortations to improve the minds and, if possible, the morals of his hearers. In reference to the tricks of these casuals, some amusing incidents were related by Mr. Douglas, one which occurred that night will suffice. — Master to Casual: Where have you just come from? Casual: From Harwich. — Master (sharply): Where did you sleep last night? Forgetful Casual: Kensington. — With respect to clothes-tearing, Mr. Douglas looks upon it as a species of epidemic. For nine weeks he had not a single case, but it began on Monday, and he has had a case every day since. With respect to two young ladies whom he took before the police magistrates a few days since for this crime, he states that they were very young, and after severely admonishing them, he had no desire to inflict further punishment, till after sending them to their wards, as they crossed the yard they turned round, and in derision to him indulged in the following elegant refrain:—

"Here we are, and here we goes,
We're the young — as tears our clothes."

This induced him to give them into custody, and they were committed for 21 days to the House of Correction. Wardsmen go round every hour, and on reported misconduct, the parties are at once ejected from the house. The task work for lodging and food — a pint of gruel and 6oz. of bread night and morning — is two bushels of stones to break or 2lb. of oakum for able-bodied men, and 1lb. of oakum for able-bodied women, or scouring wards, &c. If a woman enters with two or three children she is compelled to give them a thorough cleansing and then to depart.

The whole of the arrangements of the Marylebone casual wards have been carried out under the sole supervision and direction of Mr. Douglas, the master, and their cleanliness, order, and regularity reflect the highest credit on the management.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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