Ancestry UK

Midnight Visits to the Casual Wards of London - Whitechapel, Mile End and Poplar (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 fifth instalment in the series:




A perambulation of the purlieus of the East End of the metropolis on a cold February night, in the midst of a thick fog, may be easily conceived to be no very pleasant or interesting occupation: yet, when an object is to be achieved, and that object is to set before the world the simple facts in connection with a subject upon which the public mind has of late been much interested, and in respect to which it has also been sometimes misinformed, the pleasures or the discomtorts of such an excursion are insignificant.

Determining (not before the moment of starting) that the route on this occasion should be "Eastward, Ho!" cabby was directed to make through Marylebone and Euston roads, and via the Pentonville and City roads, for the Whitechapel Workhouse, in, as we supposed, the Whitechapel-road. This spot was reached after a ride through the reeking neighbourhoods of St. Luke's and Shoreditch, passing to the southern side of the Eastern Counties Railway terminus, and through the new "Commercial"-street, to our supposed destination. Judge of our surprise, however, on reaching the spot we knew formerly to be occupied by Whitechapel Union, to find the site of its lung dead wall occupied by an elegant row of shops. Inquiries produced the information that a new workhouse had been erected in a place called Metropolitan-buildings, and that, by taking the second turning to the left, the first to the right, the second to the left, the third to the right, and the fourth to the left, we might, with a due amount of perseverance, be enabled to reach it. Cabby essayed the task with the aid of one of our company on the box as a sort of intelligent pioneer. After traversing a maze of the most narrow and miserable streets to be found in London, coming in contact with a donkey-cart, and capsizing it into to greengrocer's shed, and knocking over a costermonger's barrow or two, we reached the New Whitechapel Workhouse. Externally the building looked like a huge workshop or stores, but being night, and dark and foggy, we were unable to see much of its frontage. On entering we found ourselves in a spacious hall, remarkable for its white stone flooring and general cleanliness. The arrival of visitors being announced soon brought Mr.C.H.Mayer, the master, a most polite and gentlemanly personage, to our presence. Our business disclosed, he requested a minute to put on his great coat to show us to the casual wards, which he described as, although being in no way connected with the house, close at hand. We set out, and, after traversing a variety of "back slums," we reached a paved court, the street entering from which was so narrow that our guide suggested and gave directions to the cab driver to get back into the main road and there wait for his "fares" near the Royal Pavilion Theatre, close by the north-western rear of which the casual wards are situate. At the end of the court were gates, and, in answer to a ring, a small door was opened, and we found ourselves in a large space, which the heaps of piled granite showed was the workhouse "stone yard." On the left hand side on entering the gates there is a group of wooden, shed-like looking buildings, with the exception of one, the western wall of which is of brick. A portion of these buildings are occupied for temporary out-relief offices. We were informed that the casual wards we were about to visit were temporarily certified by the Poor-law Board fur forty-six inmates, viz., twenty-five men and twenty-one women, but that they were going to have some permanent ones built nearer the workhouse. On entering the male ward No. 1, which we were informed is 18 feet by 15 feet 10 inches, and 13 feet 6 inches in height, there were seventeen bunks, and eleven inmates. The second, turning out of the first, is the same length and height, but only 8 feet wide, and having one row of eight bunks. In these there were no casuals. Some of the initiates were asleep, but two or three who had just been admitted were sitting up eating the ration of bread which had been awarded them. One of these was a hearty-looking youth, with a blue shirt and wideawake hat on. On interrogating him he said he had neither father nor mother, that he was willing to work if he could obtain it, and that he would sooner earn money and pay 3d. per night for a lodging than be obliged to come to the casual ward. These wards bore a very melancholy and chilly aspect; they were only lighted by a lantern, high up in the outer hall of the gable roof, enclosed by wire, and serving also the purpose of throwing a light on the yard; the inmates, however, being supplied with a sheet and double blanket for their straw mattresses, did not complain of cold. The women's wards are also wooden sheds, excepting the one before referred to. Shed No. 1 is described as being 18 feet 2 inches by 15 feet inches, and height 13 feet, with 13 bunks. No. 2, same length and height, with eight bunks. On the night of our visit there were four women and three little children, and some of the poor little creatures lifted their heads and crowed as we stood gazing on their position. The chilly aspect described in the men's ward was here intensified by the fact that the only portion bricked was a whitewashed wall, which was saturated with damp. 'This, we were informed, had resulted from the gutter giving way during the late snow storm. Women and infants sleeping in such a place we conceive to be exceedingly wrong under any circumstances. The wards are only separated by wooden partitions, there are no baths and no washing appliances. The only allowance now is 6oz. of bread: no gruel, the guardians, it is stated, having the granting of the latter under discretion. There is a superintendent and matron to these wards, but neither in regard to cleanliness nor in appearance of comfort can they be in any way commended even as a temporary measure. The southern end of the stone yard abuts on a species of mews, running into the Whitechapel-road, and as we emerged through the gates we passed a wretched applicant, and overheard the following conversation between the porter and the casual: —

Porter : Well, what do you want? — Casual : A night's lodging, but I want also to ask a question. I have got a day's job in the morning at six o'clock. If I come in, may I go out at that time?

Porter : No; If you come in here you won't go out till eleven o'clock. — Casual: Then I must walk about all night.

Porter: Very well [shuts door in casual's face].

On mentioning this to the master, who was in advance with one of our party showing us the way to our cab, he said these tales were dodges frequently resorted to in order to avoid the picking of oakum, although there it was only ¾lb. for men, and ½lb. for women, as they did not like the work. If, however, they could by any means ascertain that a casual was telling the truth, they did not stand in the way so that he should lose a day's work. In regard to the discrepancies in the quantity of oakum given to pick at various houses it should be mentioned that in places where 21b and 1lb are given, hooks and other appliances are permitted to be used. Where the smaller amounts are prescribed the oakum in its worst state has to be picked entirely by the fingers.

The workhouse of the hamlet of Mile End Old Town, which has now some years been separated from the Stepney Union, of which it originally formed part, is situate in the Bancroft-road, Mile End. The frontage in the Bancroft-road at night has all the appearance of a stately mansion of the Elizabethan period. On alighting at the gate we were directed by an old and respectably-attired man to a side entrance, at which a woman and a child and one or two other persons were standing and shivering in the cold. The signal for admission was responded to by the workhouse porter in a loud tone, "What the d—l are you pulling the bell like that for?" This was followed by the immediate opening of the door by a burley specimen of the ancient "beef eater." Opening his eyes to their full extent, and peering through the fog, the light suddenly broke in upon him he had not casuals of the ordinary class to deal with, and his loud tone dwindled down to a sort of guttural murmuring, and an inquiry as to our business. This was soon told. "We wished to see Mr. McDonald, the master." The respectable old man who had directed us to the gate thereupon led the way through a glass-covered avenue into a sort of garden, about the centre of the main building, where we found a spacious hall. Mr. McDonald speedily made his appearance. "What can I hae the pleasure o' doin' for ye, gentlemen?" said he, apparently astonished at seeing three or four visitors so late at night. The reply was, "We wish to see your casual wards," and our purpose in so doing was stated. "Weel, so you can," was the reply "but I doubt you'd a seen 'em to more advantage had ye made yer visit to-morrow neet, for ye must ken there's been a stinging article in the Deely News about it. The geenteelman that came was a vary neece respectable mon, but he says that the casuals have to walk after their bath from 20 to 30 feet on the beare stones and in the open air to bed; whereas I have measured it mysen, and its only just 21 feet open from bath to bed; but ye can see for yoursels, so come along." Mr. McDonald then led the way to two low brick buildings enclosed within walled yards, towards the western side of the workhouse, and after several loud calls for "Shippard," the key was brought, and we found ourselves in a small yard, say some 20 or 30 feet square. This was the women's casual department. The ward was entered by a flight of one or two steps, and between them and a little shed-like building, with a light perceptible through a door, the upper part of which was filled in with white painted glass windows, ran some open woodwork. This, we were informed, was the bath room, which the Daily News had given the stinging article about. A diagram in chalk was pointed out to us, showing the improvement that was to take place, by the construction of a wooden passage, and the opening of a door into the casual wards on either side, so as to prevent the necessity for the future of the casual crossing the yard at all after taking his or her bath. This was the improvement we were to have witnessed had we come on the "morrow neet." We presume the women casuals were either undressing or in the bath at this moment, for we were not then shown the female ward, but were hurriedly escorted next door to an exactly corresponding yard and ward on the men's side. Here we observed another little glass door on the right, with the woodwork running to the ward door, for walking on. Inquiry introduced us to the novel and economical, though we can hardly consider it delicate, mode at this house of bathing the casuals. The little glass doors are exactly opposite each other, one leading into the women's and the other the men's wards, and in the inside of each is the bath, holding 62 gallons of water, "with hot and cold laid on." At the time of our visit it had evidently just been used, for there was the "mutton broth" hue, and from the scum floating on the surface a considerable amount of soap had been used. Only six are allowed to use the same water before it is changed, and a man and woman frequently use it alternately. Outside this shed is the boiler for hot water, and beneath the stones is a species of camp fire, from which hot air is conveyed through pipes passing into the wards, constructed for 24 of each sex, for warming purposes. The wards are in themselves very comfortable, but there must be a tremendous leakage in the hot air pipes somewhere, for at the time of our visit both apartments were very largely infused with smoke. The arrangements for sleeping were in the usual style of barrack beds, or "bunks," with straw mattresses, each man having two rugs and a thick, coarse shirt allowed him, and each woman a lung bedgown of a similar material. The male ward was full at the time of our visit, but in the female ward there were but five women and two children. They were clean and comfortable, and with the exception of a little more ventilation to carry off the smoke, there will be little to complain of when the bathing improvements are effected. The labour test is 2lb. of oakum for the men and 1lb. for women.

In reply to the question as to the character of the casuals who visited this place generally, the master replied,

"Oh, dock labourers, who go and work in the dooks all day, and cum here to sleep at neet."

"But in that case they must be earning money. Do you not search them and find money upon them? "

"Oh, bless ye, they're a leetle too artful for that. They stows it somewhere before they come in. I'll tell ye a little anecdot that'll show ye what's done. One neet a respectable looking mon, his wife, and cheeld cum and wanted to be admitted. Weel, they were told they would be bathed, &c., and they said they woud'nt cum in, and went away. In about ten minutes they cum back and said they'd made up their minds to cum in and they did so. Directly after, one of our people went round the corner by a post and found a purse, in which there was eighteenpence in silver and a lot o' coppers; but the parties wuuld'nt own it, and naebody has owned it to this dey."

On leaving the yard a new building opposite attracted our attention, and on inquiring what it was for, "Oh," said the communicative Mr. McDonald, "That's for our men's new casual ward. It's cost aboot £800. It's aboot 72 feet, and will hold about 60 casuals."

"Then you anticipate a large increase?"

"Lor' bless ye. Why they re gettin' quite the upper hand o' us altogether. And they're going to make 'em more comfortable, and give 'em three baths and a dressing room."

"And I suppose, like the West London Union, cocoa-nut matting and carpet slippers?"

"Weel, I should say that 'ud he too hard for their feet, but I know they wudn't mind a leetle brandy and water into the bargain."

A general acquiescence of our party in this last little joke of the really very pleasant and civil Mr. McDonald brought our visit to a close, and we bid Mile End adieu, and by another intricate route wended our way to Poplar.

The casual wards of Poplar are the model places which have been so much relieved of the roughs by the introduction of the police as relieving officers, and which have also been honoured by a visit from Sir George Grey and other high officials. Having reached Old Poplar Workhouse, we found that the casual wards had no connection with the main building, but were reached by a narrow turning from the High-street, a little to the westward. In a nook at the left-hand corner we found a couple of large gates and a wicket-door, leading into a small yard, and surrounded by what looked outwardly like workshops. A strong gaslight in a doorway directed our steps, and we soon found ourselves inside an old building, but a model of cleanliness, and apparently newly-painted. These wards are under the superintendence of Mr. Merrick and his wife, and, judging from what we saw, they are just the persons for their position. At the moment we entered the former was conning down stairs with a beautifully-clean zinc pail, in which were the remains of the gruel he had been serving out to the "casuals" in the ward up stairs. It looked so clean, white, and nice, that we desired to taste it. A bason was soon filled, and some salt produced, and we all pronounced it excellent, but a little too thick. One of the party, however, was so enamoured of the specimen that he finished the whole pint, accompanied by the six ounces ration of bread into the bargain. Our first inquiry was as to the operation of the police system. Mr. Merrick informed us that it commenced on the 1st of December last, and the wards, which are for 23 men and women, had never been full but twice since. Before that they used to have applications from 600 or 700 in a week, but now they' seldom exceeded 100, and had been as low as 81 in a week. He attributed this to the dislike of the real vagabonds to come in contact with the police, and believed that it was only those untainted with crime, and who were really necessitous, that applied. In cases of emergency or sickness casuals are admitted without the police order. We were first shown into the bath room for males, on the ground floor, in which there were three baths, enclosed by slate screens separately, the flooring being of the same material. The baths themselves are constructed of Stourbridge clay. and are thus cleaned out with the greatest facility, and we were assured that each casual has separate and clean water. At the moment we entered a casual had just emerged from his bath, and was sitting on a form taking his gruel and ration. An overpowering smell of sulphur was the only unpleasantness encountered. Mr. Merrick informed us it came from the clothes-baking oven in the corner, where some garments which were found to be exceedingly unclean were undergoing the only means for their purification. Desirous that we should see the mysteries of this receptacle for the condemned, the superintendent opened a large pair of iron doors, but our sight was transient, for the suffocating fumes of brimstone which poured out in volumes of smoke induced a hasty retreat into the open air. Returning in a few minutes our astonishment was excited at seeing the newly-bathed casual sitting in the midst of the fumes perfectly unconcerned and unassailed by its effects, still diving into the remains of his "skilly" and bread. It turned out, however, that he had been accustomed to the lower regions, as the following colloquy will show:—

"Well, my man, you seem to stand brimstone pretty well, where do you come from?" "Glasgow, sir." — "What are you?" "A donkey driver." — "A donkey driver! why whatever brings a donkey driver front Glasgow to London. How long have you been here?" "Four or five days, sir." — "Where have you been before?" "India." — "What as?" "A donkey driver." — "What do you mean Do you mean to say you went out to India as a donkey driver?" "Yes, I was donkey driver on board a vessel." — "What? I suppose you mean you were driver of a 'donkey' engine?" "Yes, sir, on board a merchant ship." This explained the donkey driver's real occupation. He added that he had been sleeping on board ship; that he had been in a workhouse before, where they gave him some coffee, but did not know where it was. He was looking for a ship, and intended to get where he could "drive a donkey" again, as he was used to it.

We now proceeded to the ward, where we found fourteen men, some lying down, others sitting up, and most of them coughing loudly, the sulphuric fumes having ascended into the dormitory — a more cleanly or comfortable-looking place of the kind it is impossible to conceive. Although the mattresses are of straw there were two thick rugs to each inmate, and each was provided with a long blue shirt, though, as we observed,several of them were rather ragged about the shoulders. There was a large gaslight burning in the centre, and the place appeared thoroughly warm, as how could it be otherwise with a large copper and boiler, and the baking apparatus, before alluded to, immediately underneath. The bedsteads turn up from their frames, like trap doors, so that they can be swept or washed under, and thorough cleanliness be thus preserved. The closets are also upon that which cannot fail to be a cleanly principle, as the opening and shutting the doors operates to turn the water supply on and off. Questioning several of the inmates, they all expressed themselves perfectly satisfied, and the superintendent was equally pleased they had got rid of the roughs; though where they have gone to, and what their occupations at night are, is a question which, we doubt not, a few weeks will solve. Having inspected the boiler and warming apparatus, the lavatories, &c., we crossed the yard to the women's ward, in which a solitary casual had the ward to herself. She was sound asleep, and all the bunks were prepared for the reception of others. Thorough cleanliness prevailed here also, and we ended our inspection of the Poplar casual wards with those favourable impressions which are justly due to them and to their managers.

Visits on the same night to the City of London Union and to the casual wards of Old Ratcliff Workhouse are postponed for No. 6, on account of want of space.

[The sixth report in this series appears not to have been published.]

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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