Ancestry UK

Midnight Visits to the Casual Wards of London - West London and Holborn Unions (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 fourth instalment in the series:

MIDNIGHT VISITS TO THE CASUAL WARDS OF LONDON.—No. 4.

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WEST LONDON AND HOLBORN UNIONS — ST. GILES'S AND CLERKENWELL.

"Misery acquaints us with strange bedfellows."

Whether the "immortal bard," when he put the foregoing sentence into the mouth of Hank, on the occasion of his taking shelter from the pitiless storm under the rough gabardine of the "monster" Caliban, had any idea of its relation to the "houseless poor" of the reign of Elizabeth or not, is a question upon which, we believe, none of the learned savans in Shakesperian research have ventured to enlighten the world. Of its applicability, however, to a very large number of such class of the present day, the scenes which have already come under the observation of our London "casual ward" visitor bear ample testimony.

We mentioned in "No. 3" that we had already "taken stock" of the establishment appropriated to casuals and wayfarers by one of the three unions to which the 96 parishes comprising our metropolitan city are apportioned, namely, the West London Union. The workhouse of this union, which formerly occupied a large space of ground in West-street, Smithfield, has been forced to succumb to the tide of railway innovation, and, in order to make way for the works of the Moor gate-street branch of the Metropolitan, has, with but a comparatively small remnant, been transplanted from the purlieus of Smithfield to the certainly more airy, if not more healthy, situation of Upper Holloway. When the negotiations were pending between the directors of the Metropolitan Company and the guardians of the West London Union, the necessity forced itself upon the latter of retaining out-relief offices, reception wards, &c., for the poor in the districts assigned to the union, and it being ascertained that there was one angle of the workhouse (the south-eastern) not required for the purposes of the railway, steps were taken fur its retention. This angle, fortunately, contained the kitchen and a large portion of the apparatus and boiler, &c., belonging to the old establishment. When the Houseless Pour Act passed casual wards were established for the admission of tramps, vagrants, and wayfarers, and there is possibly no building in the metropolis more admirably adapted to such purposes. The certified accommodation for casuals is for 110 inmates — 65 men, and about 45 women, two children under 12 counting as one adult; but there can be sleeping convenience afforded for a larger number. The establishment is under the control of a master and matron — Mr. and Mrs. Dunnettówith a gate porter and other officials. On the night of our visit the mass of the casuals had been received, and were already in bed; they consisted of 50 men and 30 women, with a corresponding number of children. Our appearance was at first received with some surprise, but our object being declared, the greatest readiness and civility were manifested, and we were invited to commence with the basement. We had previously noticed the air of comfort the entrance had possessed, with its cocoa-nut matting, which we found continued doWn an extremely broad staircase to the kitchen. At the foot of the stairs on the right was a passage, at the entrance to which, and immediately facing the kitchen door, were the bath rooms, having, without light, much the appearance of police cells. There was a bath in each corner, constructed of compo, and not of very inviting appearance. Outside these baths on the stones was open woodwork, leading to the foot of the stairs, where the cocoa-nut matting commenced. At this point it is advisable to mention the ordeal the West London casual has to undergo front bath to bed, leaving the reader to form his own opinion as to whether the course adopted here be not a pampering calculated to increase rather than to destroy that vagrancy of which the general public have a ground to complain, and which they are called upon to support. The male casuals of the West London, the moment they leave the bath, are furnished with a long night robe, of much finer texture than those described at other places, and have nothing to do but to run up-stairs over the cocoa-nut matting which extends along the passage to their ward and jump into bed. The female casual paupers have still greater indulgences. In addition to the long and soft-textured blue and yellow striped night-gown, they are each provided with a pair of carpet shoes, and, in addition, a warm, grey flannel dressing-gown, which they doff' on reaching their bedside. Here is a luxury which thousands of our well-to-do tradesmen and their families even cannot boast of. The beds are not confined in "bunks," but, although the mattresses be of straw, they are placed on iron bedsteads, six feet long by two feet six inches wide, for each inmate. The men's lower ward, at the time we visited it, was nearly fully occupied. It is a large, well-ventilated room, possibly some 30 or 40 feet in length by 27 in width, and 11 feet in height. There was, however, a somewhat unpleasant smell. This ward communicates with an upper room 44½ feet by 18 feet, by means of a narrow-made staircase, which was at the time empty, although prepared for visitors. The women's ward was up a second flight of stairs, also carpeted with the cocoa-nut matting. On the left of the landing was the female warder's room, leading to the women's wards, a spacious apartment, 33 feet by 18 feet, in which there were some 20 or 30 single women, whilst on the left was a smaller ward, 21 feet by 17 feet, descended to through an open doorway by two or three steps, in which slept the women who had children. The receiving wards for the regular poor, prior to their transfer to Holloway, are in another part of the establishment. Having directed our attention to the sleeping accommodation, our next inquiry was as to the food afforded and the labour test exacted from the casuals. With regard to the former, we were informed that in lieu of gruel each casual on his or her arrival had for supper a pint of cocoa and six ounces of bread, and a similar quantity for breakfast. Upon the invitation of the superintendent we were induced to taste what was called the cocoa. It certainly possessed somewhat the flavour of that nutritious ingredient, but, from its strength, the proportions of cocoa to hot water must certainly be arranged upon the homoeopathic principle. Possibly the guardians of the West London, however anxious they may be for the personal comfort of the poor casuals who honour their wards with a visit, have an aversion to supplying them with anything in the shape of strong drinks. The labour test consists of oakum-picking for men, and the women are employed in cleaning wards, washing shirts, rugs, &c.

On taking our leave an amusing incident occurred, showing the class of poor casuals with which the authorities sometimes have to deal. On reaching the entrance hall to place our names in the visitor's book, we were startled by the loud and anything-but-polite expressions addressed to the comely little matron by a stalwart-looking, middle-aged woman of the Billingsgate class, whose brogue at once announced the fact that she was a sister of the "Emerald isle." "Am I to have a lodging here to-night, and be —— to you?" she, with a most unlady-like soubriquet, addressed the poor matron. Our appearance at this juncture altered her tone, and, as well as her state of inebriation would enable her to keep her perpendicular, she attempted to curtsey, and managed to articulate in an insinuating manner, no doubt taking us for guardians, "God bless you, gentlemen, for giving us poor these nice places." But suddenly her eye, "with fine frenzy rolling," again resting on the unfortunate matron, caused her mouth to open and emit still stronger and more offensive language. The natural consequence, as we anticipated, was that instead of being allowed to disturb at midnight the peace and quiet of the whole ward, she soon found herself On the outside of the door. Here her onslaught upon the bells, which were unhooked, was of no avail, and a few minutes sufficed to find "Honora" in the hands of one of the guardians of the night belonging to the City, instead of the comfortable bed of the West London casual ward. A push and "go on" from the constable, and a volley of abuse from the lady, were duly repeated pro and con at every turn; the rejected casual calling out the moment she and her tormentor came into proximity with any passers by, to attract attention, "Arrah, this is time way they trate the poor people," &c. It turned out that "Honora" was an old offender. She was a frequent visitor to the casual wards, end the first time she came the matron gave her a pair of boots; but as "Honora" was never seen with them on her feet afterwards she had been refused another pair. This was the cause of her hostility to the matron. When drunk, which was mostly the case, she disturbed the whole house, and was consequently ejected. Our unanimous verdict was "Served her right."

Holborn Union is situate in Gray's Inn-lane, a short distance to the north of Theobald's-road, and the guardians have been for some time at loggerheads with the Poor-law Board and their Poor-law Inspector (not "commissioner", as some of our daily contemporaries have been pleased to designate him) on account of their having failed or refused to carry out the provisions of the Houseless Poor Act of 1864, the result being that the only casual wards they possess are at the present moment uncertified. These, by direction of Mr. Francis, the master, on the night of our visit, were readily shown to us. The accommodation afforded is but for 20 men and 20 women, although the nightly applications average, on the part of the men and youths, three times that number. The wards themselves are little better than underground cellars, on the right and left of the entrance yard. The men's ward is reached by descending some 14 or 15 steps, and although at the time of our visit there were the full complement of inmates, there was a cold and chilly atmosphere about the place, increased by the moist "washing-day" smell, which we discovered arose from the steaming bath still full of warm water, and which exhibited the particular hue described by our friend the "Amateur Casual" as presenting the appearance of "mutton broth." The bath is a large one, it is true, possibly some seven or eight feet long by four feet wide; but when we were informed by our guide in explanation that "only the twenty" casuals whom we saw in bed had been bathed in it, and that each had to use his ration of "soft soap," contained in a large wooden box at its side, the "mutton broth" colour of the liquid was easily accounted for. The men lay on straw mattresses, and appeared to be covered by a sort of canvas, and they complained of cold, its well they might do, for, although at the basement, the ventilation appeared to be rather too perfect. Crossing the yard to the right, and descending into a kind of second and smaller yard, we reached the women's casual ward: or rather wards, for they consisted of two small rooms running into each other. The only light was from a gas lamp on the outside shining through some glass, which formed a kind of corridor leading to the wards. The place was, therefore, in semi-darkness, but there was the same cold and chilly atmosphere pervading it — even more so than that of the men's ward. The women generally appeared to be standing about as if unwilling to go to bed, whilst others had retired. There was no fireplace or fire of any kind, and one old woman complained bitterly of the cold. Having only accommodation, such as it was, for 20 of each sex, and the demands nightly for shelter being so largely in excess of that number, the authorities are obliged to resort to the reprehensible practice of giving tickets to tramps and vagrants for lodging houses, which prevents the exaction of any labour test, and leads to the greatest abuse. When the wards are full, a ticket, for which the guardians pay at the rate of 5d. per night per head, is handed to an applicant for a lodging at a place in Fullwood's-rents, which, we are informed, is in close proximity to an establishment known to the police as the "Thieves' Kitchen." They are, on receipt of this, requested to come in the morning and they will get their breakfasts, which also means that they are to break two bushels of stones or pick 21b. of oakum. As our guide informed us, "they hardly ever come." We should think not. But there is another evil attendant upon this lodging-house ticket system. Out of 400 issued last week upwards of 100 never went to the lodgings; and yet the tickets were produced to be paid for, the inference being that they had been sold. The labour test for women here is washing the yards, scouring the passages, wards, &c. In reference to carrying out the provisions of the Houseless Pour Act the guardians have now secured a site in Bedford-street, Liquorpond-street, where a cowshed formerly stood, and the remains of it now stand, which together with the buildings, will cost £3,000, to be defrayed by the ratepayers of the union, in consequence of the non-compliance of the authorities with the act.

The guardians of of Giles's-in-the-Fields and St, George's, Bloomsbury, have set to work in right earnest to comply with the Houseless Poor Act, and by the time these lines are read, should the official certificate front the Poor-law Board arrive, there will be new casual wards opened under perfectly novel regulations, which, whilst they will comprise all the rigid determination to test destitution, will in most respects render them model establishments of their class. This step has not been taken before it was absolutely necessary, for although the existing wards are certified, they are mainly underground dwellings, and are redolent of an atmosphere anything but exhilarating to the sense of smell, or in appearance gratifying to the sight. The mattresses are on the floor, and the casuals, who at present sleep in their own "linen," and who at the time of our visit were in several cases retiring to rest, realised the description of Falstaff's ragged regiment, there not being in our belief a "whole shirt" amongst them. Thus much, then, for the casual wards of st. Giles's, which may now be looked upon as things of the past. The board of guardians have an energetic chairman in the person of Admiral Barnett, and an equally shrewd and energetic master in Mr. Rankley. On a casual presenting himself at the entrance he is interrogated as to where he has come from, what he has been doing all day, where he slept on the previous night, and various other questions, the replies to which, as the Cerberus informed us, but in more curt and expressive language, you would be sure was an outrageous perversion of the truth. Indeed, this is the unfortunate character this class have attached to them everywhere. But to return to the new casual wards now in operation at St. Giles's. We were first conducted by Mr. Rankley to a spacious shed-like looking brick building with a gable roof, the western end of which is formed of the high wall passing along Endell-street and backing the drinking fountain constructed in that wall, which will also supply the ward. In this ward we found two large gaslights burning, and accommodation for 40 casuals in the same number of compartments or "bunks," ranged in three rows, one on each side, standing from the walls, and the third in the centre. Each contained a thick straw mattress, quite new, and a blanket, and over the head of each wits a compartment for the occupant's clothes. On each bed lay a stout "Garibaldi" shirt, and pair of inexpressibles to match, made of dark blue serge. The shirt and body, as well as the fronts of the legs of the trowsers, were stamped, in white indelible paint, "St. Giles's Workhouse." Surely, we muttered, it is not intended to send the casuals out in the morning with these badges of pauperism stamped all over them? Our musings were at once understood by the master. "Ah, gentlemen, I see you don't understand the little dodge of these garments. You know the ragged and disgusting sight you have just witnessed amongst the shirtless roughs in the old wards? You must know that our chairman is an old sailor, and he says the sailors were never so comfortable as when sleeping in their trowsers, and the object is to combine comfort with decency." "Hear, hear," cried my colleague, on which the master took us to two well-fitted bath rooms at the eastern end of the ward, and continuing his observations, "Here is another 'little dodge' that I think you will find in no other casual wards in London," pointing to a large pile of "sabots," with toes brought up to is point, in the true French fashion. These wooden shoes are to be used by imitates in passing from bath to bed, and if they want to leave the wards. The female casuals are to be provided with a long blue serge bedgown, with hood, stamped, in like manner, all over, front mid back, with the words, "St. Giles's Workhouse." Attached to this ward, on its southern side, connected by an entrance in Short's-gardens, is the stone-yard, where the able-bodied men will be compelled to break two bushels of stones, or pick 2lb. of oakum, for which latter purpose a ward is constructing on the north-west corner of the casual ward described. The women's casual ward is in close proximity, and so constructed that, whilst the matron and master can by an askew lancet window see into the wards, they cannot be seen. In the event of misconduct it can be immediately discovered and checked. In connection with this house there were incidents which came under notice which deeply affect the question of administration of casual relief. Philanthropy is at all times deserving of credit, but it is very frequently exercised in the wrong direction. This was exemplified by a supper given the other night by a body of benevolent gentlemen to the houseless boys at the Parker-street Refuge. In order to entitle a youth to admission he had to produce a ticket, signed by the superintendent, either of a refuge or casual ward of such and such workhouse, that he had slept there en the preceding night, although, we believe, that rule was relaxed. When the boys were dismissed they were supplied with 4d. each to obtain a lodging, the effect being that the fourpence was, in a large number of instances, spent, and the casual wards resorted to. On a Casual applying for admission, and being passed onward, he is served with his "toke." which he carries with him to his ward, and there "gets his gruel." One man declined to take his "toke," as he said he was too ill to eat, This man, who appeared about forty years old, was a labourer. He could scarcely see out of his eves, in consequence of their blackened and swollen state. His lip was dreadfully cut, and he had evidently been the victim of some severe ill-usage. He said he had been knocked down and robbed by some men in Seven Dials, and that he was too bad to get home, which was a long way off. He appeared so dreadfully beaten that Mr. Rankley directed the porter to let the doctor see him before he went to bed. No doubt when the comforts of the shirt, trowsers, and "sabots" of St. Giles's become known, the casual wards of that parish will be fully patronised.

The workhouse of St. James's, Clerkenwell, in the Bagnigge Wells-road, has, through age and other infirmities, caused by the operations of the Metropolitan Railway, been for some time in a very shaky condition, but we never expected to witness in any establishment the scene that met our gaze on our visit to this receptacle of a portion of the mendicity of London on the night of Tuesday last. Up to this moment we have not had the opportunity of seeing except what we are told is a very truthful representation, including the real old "Daddy," of the Lambeth casual ward, on the boards of the Marylebone Theatre, or the crank shed which has obtained so much notoriety; but we venture to assert that had the "Amateur Casual" made a choice of Clerkenwell for his dip into the mysteries of metropolitan vagrancy instead of Lambeth, he never would have had the courage to have passed the night in the latter, as he is said to have done in the former. At all events he had the advantage of an airy situation and a cool atmosphere, instead of one of a directly opposite character. The casual wards in Clerkenwell Workhouse, are, it is stated, "not certified." We should rather think not; but whether they be certified or uncertified, the Metropolitan Poor-law Inspector must certainly be aware that there are such dens in existence; and without saying another word stronger than to express a conviction that they are a foul blot upon the humanity of our age we will proceed, as far as we are able, to describe them. On our visit there was at first an evident reluctance to show the melancholy sight, but a, "Daddy" (most of the attendant warders at the portals of our metropolitan workhouses have arrived at that age when the term is applicable) by his direction lighted a lantern,and we were conducted and accompanied by the master into a back yard. Descending some two or three steps there was what appeared to be a closet. On the left, by the light of the lantern, we observed a small, low door, perforated all over with round holes. This was opened, and in an instant we were, to use a common phrase, literally "knocked down" by the hot and foetid atmosphere which rushed out. All within was dark as pitch, but, following the lantern, in another moment we were in one of the four casual wards of St. James's, Clerkenwell. Judging by the light of the lantern, which cast its gleam around, we found ourselves in what can only be described as a species of cell, in which one could hardly stand upright, about 10 feet square. Around this space on mattresses of straw, which in some instances appeared to be so small that, even with the dim light afforded, we could see the open "gridiron" bars of the wooden bunks on which they rested, lay the bodies of 11 men and youths. The sudden light caused many of the inmates to open their eyes, and on hearing that questions were being asked about them and their quarters, one of them said, "It is a shame, sir; here are two of us in this place," "So there are here, sir," exclaimed a juvenile voice from the opposite side, and true it was that in two instances, in a space about 2 feet 6 inches wide, were jammed two occupants. Those who made the first complaint appeared in their daily clothes without covering; the others had a blanket, but whether they had their clothes or anything on under it was not ascertained. On turning round to put some questions to the master our visitor found that he as well as his companion had no relish for the place, and having examined the tickings of the mattresses, which appeared to be in no very creditable condition, we beat a retreat also. Crossing the yard to the opposite side there was a corresponding ward, but not quite so bad, in which there were ten male inmates, making a total of 21, the whole accommodation that can be afforded. Being informed that the women's wards corresponded with those just inspected, and these also could receive 21 inmates, but had only six in them that night, a visit to them was deemed unnecessary. Passing again from the yard to the master's front office, and whilst in the act of making inquiries, with a view of obtaining statistics, one question being, "Surely your house must be very much overcrowded to induce you to place people in such wards as those I have seen?" the master suddenly altered the tone of his voice, and exclaimed, "You do not expect I am such a fool as to answer questions like that." And on our astonished visitor looking up he found himself in the presence of a number of persons, who, he subsequently ascertained, were the guardians who had adjourned from a meeting, and through an open window on the opposite side had been listening to the whole of the conversation. One gentleman volunteered a statement. They had, he said, been placed in great difficulty about this casual ward question. They had secured a site for a building, and on the owner discovering what it was wanted for, he had served them with notice of ejectment; and on appeal to the Poor-law Board they admitted that an ejection action would be successful. Under these circumstances, they had no other accommodation to afford to casuals than their present wards, and they repudiated the outdoor lodging system. Whatever may be the causes which have led to the existing state of things in Clerkenwell, our visitor left with the strong conviction that those who seek a night's lodging in the casual wards of that workhouse must really be in the abject state of destitution.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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