Ancestry UK

Midnight Visits to the Casual Wards of London - St. George's, Hanover-square; St. Martin's-In-The-Fields; & St. James's, Westminster (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 third instalment in the series:




"Look upon this picture—and on this."

Sensational newspapers, like sensational dramatic managers, hope to gain popularity with the reading and playgoing public in proportion to the startling lines or striking titles they may be able to display in their placards, and hence his that we witness such attractive announcements as "Horrible Treatment of Casuals in Lambeth Workhouse, "Another Starvation of a Pauper in Bethnal Green," &c., in the contents bills of some of our daily and weekly contemporaries. An enterprising manager of one of our minor theatres has, with that activity for which he is proverbial, hit upon the last sensational event of the day, and announced in his play bills a spirit-stirring drama, full of startling incidents, a though by no means brilliant effects, entitled "Workhouse; or, Life in the Casual Wards." The principal scene is, as a matter of course, laid in the Lambeth Crank Shed, and the incidents are, without doubt, based upon the graphic sketch of the "Amateur Casual" which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Our midnight visits to the London casual wards have, however, no sensational objects in view, but simply paint their pictures as they really exist, awarding praise where it is due, and censure where it may be deserved. The nocturnal perambulations of our visitor this week have been directed, not alone to the receptacles for the "houseless" in the aristocratic district of St. George, Hanover-square, and the "royal" parishes of St. James and St. Martin, but those of one of our City Unions have engaged his especial attention. Space, however, will render it necessary that the description of the latter should be deferred for "Visitation No. 4."

There are probably very few persons passing through Mount-street, Grosvenor-square, who would recognise, in the long, dingy-looking building, situate about its centre on the southern aide, the refuge for the aged and infirm parishioners in their adversity and need of that parish, which contains within its precincts more of the noble and aristocratic element of England than is probably to be found throughout the whole length and breadth of the land beside; but so it is. Dingy and dirty, however, as this building may appear externally, its interior presents a widely different aspect. Although old and antiquated, even the very staircases indicate the extreme of comfort as well as cleanliness. Our business, however, is with the casual wards. In the rear of the workhouse, towards its western side, are the remains of a disused burial ground, and by means of a circuitous gravel path we were conducted by Mr. Cole, the very civil and obliging master, to a somewhat isolated building. Having, by means of an outside wooden flight of stairs, reached an upper story, we found ourselves at the entrance to the male casual ward. On entering we were struck with the rather overpowering smell of chloride of lime; and here we found the conveniences, lavatories, and bath rooms, the latter consisting of two single baths, divided by partitions, with appliances for hot and cold water. In answer to a question, it was ascertained that they do sometimes bathe two casuals in the same water without changing, but never more. On entering the ward, which is certified for 32 inmates, we found 30 "casuals," chiefly young men and youths, in their cribs or "bunks" on an inclined plane from the wall, each crib divided by a boarding about one foot high. The ward was some 50 feet in length by possibly 20 feet in width, with a gable roof, affording most perfect ventilation. The beds were of dock, and the initiates were covered with one or two blankets as their taste required. In the middle of the central avenue, between the beds, stood a table, on which lay an open Bible, and underneath were a large stone pitcher and a pannikin for drinking purposes. On the walls were affixed Scriptural texts and Scriptural illustrations of the Good Samaritan" and other appropriate subjects, which we were informed had been placed there, as well as in the women's ward, by Dr. Brewer, a member of the board of guardians. The flooring, the walls, and every appliance betokened the extreme of cleanliness and comfort, and with such accommodation in addition to food, it is not to be wondered at that both here and at Marylebone, to which it is closely assimilated, there is a large excess of applicants over the space appropriated for their reception. A stalwart wardsman sleeps in a little comfortably-furnished room at the entrance to the ward, and in case of misconduct or illness he hits full authority to act and to send, through his deputy, information to the master. Returning by the gravel walk, and crossing a large paved yard ill the rear of the workhouse to its extremes south-eastern corner, on the ground floor was the women's casual ward — a long apartment, divided in the centre by some brickwork and an arch, from the crown of which was suspended an ordinary street lamp with a brilliant batswing gaslight. The beds or cribs were arranged in the same way as those in the men's ward. The walls, which showed the bricks, were painted a cheerful light green and drab, and, like the former, they were decorated with Scriptural texts and illustrations, also the gifts of Dr. Brewer. The table, the Bible, the pitcher, &c., completed the furniture. This ward we understood to be certified for 25 women, two children under 12 counting as one adult. It was not full. The women and children, with one or two exceptions, were asleep. A comely and extremely cleanly wardswoman was on duty; the ventilation was perfect, and there was an absence of all smell. The flooring was so scrupulously clean that any one might have eaten off it, and the class to whom it of shelter must look upon it as a sort of elysium compared with what is to be found in the miserable dwellings of the pour; aye, in many of those inhabited by our industrious artisans. In the ante-room to this ward are situated the baths, and also a large stove, in which there was a great fire, the pipes from which pass entirely through the ward for warming purposes. This stove also performs the office of keeping the gruel — which stands in a large vessel by its side — warm. This, then, is the picture of the casual wards of St. George's, Hanover-square; but there is another matter connected with the administration of casual relief in this parish which requires deep consideration, and raises the question as to the policy of the "Homeless Poor Act," which requires, if accommodation cannot be afforded at the workhouse, that lodgings for casuals and tramps should be provided by the authorities elsewhere. The applicants for admission over and above the number that can be accommodated vary between six and twenty nightly. The guardians contract with a lodging-house keeper, duly certified as a common lodging-house under the act, in that delightful neighbourhood, "Perkins's Rents," Old Pye-street, Westminster. When the wards are full, the applicants, after having been served with their supper, six ounces of bread and a pint of gruel, are supplied with a ticket to this lodging-house keeper (who, by the bye, is a lady), calling upon her to "admit the bearer (mentioning his or her name) for a night's lodging." At the foot of this ticket is a note to the following effect:— "The bearer is to return to the workhouse in Mount-street to-morrow morning by eight o'clock, and will be then supplied with breakfast." The casuals and tramps are by no means deficient in discernment, and having a shrewd suspicion that there is something appended to this polite invitation to breakfast, in but few instances condescend to accept it. The "houseless pour" don't like work, and two hours' amusement in picking l½lb. of oakum by the men and 1lb. by the women, is in their opinion too much of a good thing as an equivalent for another six ounces of bread and a pint of gruel, so in the cases of 400 sent to lodge out, only 30 out of that number have returned to breakfast. Whether any, or what, punishment is inflicted upon the absentees on their next appearance has not transpired.

Parting company with the authorities of St. George's, our steps were directed to Hemming's-row and Archbishop Tennyson's School, facing St. George's Barracks, in the rear and soon to form part and parcel of the National Gallery. Front what was brought to our knowledge by our visit we should say the sooner such an event shall come to pass the better. The entrance to the workhouse of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is by a gaol-like doorway, with iron-barred wicket, near its south-western extremity. The interior was not much more inviting; hut the announcement of a late visit by some three or tour persons soon brought the master, Mr. Hislop, an exceedingly polite and gentlemanly man, down a long flight of stone steps, which, as we subsequently found, led to his apartments. The object was stated, and the master courteously led the way up the stone flight aforesaid, probably to the height of some 20 feet. Following him through a long and narrow passage running eastward, we soon found ourselves, to our astonishment, at so great a height from the level of the streets and neighbourhood around, in time centre of a large paved quadrangle. which our polite and communicative guide informed us formed part of the site of the ancient village of Charing, and the original burial ground of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, a fact which was at once established by tablet let into the wall of the front building, bearing an inscription, which we read by the light of a "bullseye" lantern, carried by a veritable "Daddy," who subsequently accompanied the party in the remainder of their underground researches. It ran as follows:— "This churchyard was consecrated by Dr. Monford, vicar of this parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Field, in the yere of our Lord, 1606, this ground being enclosed at that time, Christopher Hackett and Richard Style being the churchwardens." Mr. Hislop informed us that when the ground was excavated for any purpose piles of bodies and coffins were discovered, and in connection with them he related, as incidents which came under his own notice, the fact that, on opening one coffin which was whole, it was found to contain the body of an apparently very beautiful young lady, face and neck entire, with a wreath of flowers lying across her breast. In a few moments, however, the contact with the air dispelled the view, and face, neck, and flowers vanished, and left nothing but the bones. In another coffin he found a short pipe, of peculiar form, and therefore assumed that the body was that of an Irishman. These revelations and others disclosed the fact that for the last century or two the workhouse of St. Martin has been little better than a charnel house, and that thousands have been living with thousands of the dead in the midst of them. Crossing the quadrangle to the north-western corner, preceded by "Daddy" with his "bullseye," we descended a flight of stone steps into what appeared to be a sort of subterranean passage, where, in a recess, we found arrangements for bathing, in the shape of one or two single baths. This led to the women's casual ward, an exceedingly low and ill-ventilated room, which, we were informed, had not been certified, as the Poor-law Inspector had not seen it. The walls were lime and whitewashed, and there was a good fire burning. The accommodation was for 23 women, but at the time of our visit there were 11 inmates only in bed, and one or two standing about, whom we suppose had just been admitted. The bedsteads were of iron and the bedding of straw in ticks, with two blankets to each. A form ran down the centre between the beds, on which, packed up in bundles, were the women's clothes who were in bed. The close and unpleasant character of the atmosphere made our visit exceedingly short, and the fresh air of the quadrangle appeared a pleasant relief. Keeping on the same side, following in the wake of the "bullseye" lantern, we reached a corresponding — though, as it appeared, a far deeper — flight of stone steps, leading apparently into a veritable vault. At the foot of these steps was an iron-railed or grated door, which was either opened by "Daddy" himself or by the wardsman front the inside, to whom he gave the signal. We were evidently, as was admitted by the master, below the ground, and there was a very hot and oppressive smell. The ward itself looked like a bakery, and between it and the washing and bathing department, &c., there was a peculiar-looking recess, which gave the idea that it had once been the baker's oven. The ward, which was very small and close, contained its full complement of 16 adult males, their respective numbers being painted over the heads of their "bunks." They looked a miserable, dirty lot of fellows, although they had, as we were informed, each had his dip. Passing from this ward, which we understood had been certified, and through the "baker's oven," we reached what looked like a yard, although underground, from the appearance of its wet stone flags, which might have just been washed. In the left-hand corner was a large copper or boiler for hot water, and on the right, in close proximity to a large cistern of "cold without," were two iron baths, the appearance of which were by no means enticing, although if they had contained any "mutton broth" it had been drawn off. From these baths were placed boards, instead of the stones, for the men to walk on, from bath to bed. The close and unpleasant atmosphere induced a retreat as speedily as possible, and although some of the inmates expressed themselves as perfectly satisfied, the impression conveyed was the sooner these St. Martin's casual wards are done away with the better. Those described, however, are not the only ones occupied at St. Martin's. Crossing the quadrangle to the south, in the immediate rear of St. Martin's-place, is a ward on a level with the ground, in which wayfarers and sick casuals, who are pronounced so by the medical officer, are placed until they are able to leave the establishment The accommodation is for eight or ten of this class, and there were four inmates, but there was no light burning, nor is it allowed in this ward. Retracing our steps towards the entrance, and proceeding downstairs, there was another male casual ward, with 21 inmates, which was also below ground, and equally close and confined. All applicants are accommodated by some means or other in the house, and for the six ounces of bread and pint of gruel, given night and morning, the labour test exacted is 2lb. of oakum to be picked by men, and 1lb. by women. The defects, and sad ones they are, which exist in the St. Martin's casual wards are in the situation, construction, and character of the wards themselves, and by no means attributable to neglect or want of cleanliness on the part of those who have the management of them. We repeat, therefore, it is a good thing that St. Martin's Workhouse is about to be pulled down to make way for the improvement of the National Gallery.

The workhouse of St. James, Westminster, is situate in Poland-street, Oxford-street, and occupies a large space of ground, with a pleasantly laid out central garden, lying between Great Marlborough-street and Broad-street, Golden-square. The casual wards are situate at its south-western corner, and the casuals and vagrants are admitted by an entrance in Dufour's-place, and have no connection whatever with the 'workhouse. On the night of our visit, however, ingress being obtained by the workhouse, and not the casuals' entrance, our description must necessarily be from the former point. We found Mr. J. J. Mackay, the master, equally civil and communicative as those holding similar positions ,in the other establishments previously visited. He readily conducted us across the main enclosure to the western side, in the southernmost corner of which, reached by passing round a kind of outhouse, there was what appeared at night to be the funeral equipage of the institution. Through a narrow doorway, we at once found ourselves in a large desolate-looking shed, which from the mass of granite, broken and unbroken, in various parts, left no doubt upon our minds but that we had been introduced into time casuals' "stone-yard," where in exchange for supper, bed, and breakfast, they are compelled (such as are able) to break two bushels of stone to a specimen size before departure. The master informed us that the roughs like oakum-picking better than either stone-breaking or "coir," which is the other employment given at this house; but the option is, of course, not permitted to them. On the left side of this shed is placed the separate stalls for the stone-breakers and their hammers. At the southern extremity we found a door, through which we were conducted to the St. James's male casual ward. Although not so bad as those we had just come from at St. Martin's, still the atmosphere was anything but pleasant, which was somewhat surprising, considering the dimensions of the ward. There were 19 men in beds constructed upon the same principle as those already described, and down the centre of the flooring ran open iron work, and under it were pipes through which hot air passed for warming. The ward appeared clean, and the inmates, covered with the ordinary brown blankets, comfortable. There were points, however, in which there might be amendment and improvement. The women's ward was on the other or western side of the stoneyard, and is certified for 21 women, but there were only six in it up to the hour of visit that night. The St. James's Board of Guardians are utterly opposed to the interference of the police in any way with their casuals. There is an office in the stone-yard, at the end of the women's ward, where the superintendent remains during the night, and on hearing the least noise in any of the wards he can readily check improper conduct, or attend to any applicants for admission at all hours of the night—circumstances which the master considers accounts for the little trouble they have generally with their casual poor.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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