Ancestry UK

On Duty With the Inspector

The following (abridged) article, by civil servant and journalist Joseph Charles Parkinson, was published in the Temple Bar magazine in 1865. According to the author, the unnamed Inspector was someone who "holds a place of high trust under the Crown, possesses a lengthened and varied experience of the working of the Poor Law in many parts of England, and has had for years the sole charge of the metropolitan district."


Starting for the Marylebone Workhouse one fine morning in May, I found the Inspector and the workhouse master already at work. Half the building had been gone through on a previous occasion, and the remainder was to be our care to-day. The flagged yard I crossed had a chapel at one end, in which service is performed on Sundays, and on only one day in the week besides. Was it an idle fancy? was I mocked by some malicious demon, or did I really hear "the chaplain wouldn't like it" given as a reason for the paupers not being assembled daily for morning and evening prayer? There is a printed regulation in one of the "convalescent wards"—a misnomer, for they are crammed with people suffering from a complaint which knows no convalescence, to wit, old age—which says a particular prayer is to be offered up by the wardswoman night and morning, but a few searching questions speedily convinced the Inspector that this excellent rule is not uniformly carried out. Neither male nor female pauper would, however, admit this. Ask yon old graybeard, who is tremulous and timid at being brought face to face with the representative of the law, whether he ever reads out of the Book of Common Prayer to the fellow-paupers and children over whom he rules, and he will tell you "yes." Will he show you his prayer-book? "Certainly;" and after a confused and fumbling search among some dusty papers lying idly on an unused shelf, he hands us a Latin breviary, with an air of quiet triumph he finds it impossible to repress. Yes, he is quite sure this is the book from which he reads; and on being gently convicted of mistake, becomes at once pitiable in his humiliation. Note the first by the Inspector: the spiritual needs of the hundreds of people living within these walls are insufficiently ministered to; and even at the risk of the chaplain "not liking it," a short prayer—five minutes would be quite enough—should be offered up; and the young barber, who is learning to shave and cut—he has been lathering the whole day; the young seaman who is a ne'er-do-weel, and who is now employed in the kitchen in mincing beef for baby paupers, instead of doing his duty before the mast;the sun-burnt children who have come up from the parish-school at Southall, or been bathed at the private speculator's pauper-infirmary at Margate,—are to be thus daily reminded that there is a God in the world.

After we have seen the new lavatories, commented on the absence of a wooden standing-place, and noted an apparent deficiency of towels, we proceed to the kitchen. Past a young tree, whose bright spring leaves suggest green fields and smiling landscape, rather than a workhouse yard, and which makes us wonder whether inappropriateness of career and uncongeniality of surroundings are as irksome in vegetable as they assuredly are in animal life, and we gain an isolated building, whose paler bricks and less smoke-stained aspect shows it to have been of more recent construction than the rest of the house. The master, a bright-eyed, well-spoken, intelligent man, introduces us to the chief cook, a tall and hirsute person, of military bearing and rubicund face, who, in his suit of white linen and cap to match, might have been an Indian officer rejoicing in cool mufti, and playing at some new game with dozens of other officers similarly attired. Constantly flitting to and fro, now with empty plates, now with plates bearing nicely-proportioned slices of fat and lean; frequently diving into a huge sack, and merrily extracting brown balls said to be "potatoes with their jackets on;" perpetually peering into cauldrons, testing stews, looking at soups, and gauging measures,—would seem to be the leading principles of the amusement to which these Oriental warriors are devoted. After the still-room, or the storekeeper's department, where tempting-looking casks of porter are dexterously made to yield their frothy treasure, and where, as the master aptly quoted, they do not "muzzle the ox which treads out the corn," my predilections would lead me, were I consigned to Marylebone Workhouse, to some duty about the kitchen. It is clean, comfortable, conveniently arranged, has modern improvements, notably a huge stove, which will bake, boil, stew, and roast at one time; and there is a look of jovial good-living about his excellency the chief cook which, with the highly satisfying and aromatic meaty miasma you breathe in, makes that culinary temple an irresistibly fascinating resting-place. This is what I thought while the Inspector was seeing portions weighed, tasting bread, examining vegetables, questioning young ne'er-do-weel with the shifting eye and resentful manner as to his reasons for running away from sea, and generally posting himself in the usages of the kitchen, the routine of its business, and the amount of comfort {t confers. A few years ago, I learn, each pauper had to cook his own food, which was served to him or her raw, and had to be warmed and eaten by their bedroom fire. Riotous noise was the normal condition of the building; the washing accommodation was miserably insufficient, and the wards stifling in their closeness. But repeated official droppings have their effect in time; and after seven years or so have passed by, the urgent instructions of the Poor-Law Board bear fruit, and the Inspector has the gratification of knowing that the reforms insisted on so often have a chance of being carried out. Thus, at the present hour, the Marylebone Workhouse is, by comparison, a model of sanitary arrangement and airy comfort; and, with one or two exceptions—notably a place called "the Building," in which no human being should be confined—is as well appointed as is possible on its present ground.

How we walked through room after room, uniform in arrangement and precisely similar in tenancy; how the pauper nurses are now so clothed as to be distinguishable from the other occupants of the wards; how we turned down the bed-clothes of empty couches, conversed with the bed-ridden, soothed the sinking, went into distant corners to speak to the inmates out of earshot of master and matron; how we peered into medicine-bottles, inquired after flannel dressing-gowns; gave instructions as to the sloping of settle-backs, the shape of invalid trays, and the construction of ventilating-shafts, let me now tell. First, to a long range of two-storied buildings, wherein some hundreds of decrepit old women are lying sick and ill, and the great defect of which is insufficient accommodation. The Inspector has previously pointed out how this could be supplied without great expense. Not that the paupers lie too near each other, or that the necessary chattels are absent. Apart from the painful contrast between the school-room look of the regularly-arranged curtainless beds, and the withered forms of the aged people reclining on them; apart, too, from the painful publicity of fading, and becoming worse, and passing away under the gaze of thirty or forty other invalids, there is nothing in the appearance or appointments—always excepting the grave defect I can only glance at here—of these sad chambers to provoke criticism. But when the chloride of lime was asked for—a chemical imperatively necessary under the conditions I hint at—we at once discovered a hole in the armour, and knew by the shuffling manner and ostentatious fussiness of the nurse, that the bottle would be empty when found. Of course it was. "The last night that ever was" it had been used up. "Oh dear, no, sir; there is no stint of chloride of lime, sir; and I've only to ask the master to get every thing I want, sir; and I use a great deal of it, sir—only it happens, sir, that I'm out of it to-day, sir." Same inquiry made in the next ward, with the like result; whereupon the Inspector astutely applies his nose to the bottle, and handing it to me, we unitedly declare, on unmistakable olfactory evidence, not only that is it empty now, but that it has not held chloride of lime for many a day. Meek protestations against this conclusion on the part of the wardswomen examined, and an air of disappointment in the other wards when the chemical was not asked for, made me half fancy the intelligence had spread, and that the little store-rooms had been filled and swept and garnished for inspection, much as a lad is crammed up to certificate point for a Civil-Service examination. Frequently stopping at the different beds, the Inspector holds kindly colloquies here and there, and constantly checks a disposition to rise and curtsey on the part of the old people who are up. "Ladies, have you any complaint to make?" uttered in solemn tones, and addressed to a long row of old women ranged shoulder to shoulder as if on parade, was, I learnt, the formula used by a pauper wardswoman at some other inspection; but there was no intimidation perceptible here, and we readily learnt the feelings of the people conversed with. There, leaning against a bed, at the head of which is a small shelf holding a cheap crucifix and a gaudy picture of the Virgin, is an old woman, whose dim eyes, shrivelled parchment skin, and coarse iron-gray hair, of the texture and quality of a horse's tail, combined to give her a weird and eerie look. "Blissid be God!" is her startling, but not intentionally irreverent mode of prefacing her simple remarks, which, omitting the Inspector's questions, run as follows: "Oh yiz, the priest comes kindly; he does indade, sur;" and the tears well up, and the little nervous sobs at speaking to a stranger become more pronounced; "and I'm very comfortable, sur,— very comfortable indade, sur, yis; and ladies, sur, come and rade to mee, sur—bless them for it, and they do; but oh, sur, if I was dying to-morrow, I shouldn't know where to sind for my children, and it's that brakes mee heart, sur, it is indade." A short interval of quiet crying, and she resumes: "Oh yiz, they come and see mee—thei're gurls, sur, and in sarvice—and it isn't they won't tell mee where they live; but oh, sur, I can't write, and it's not the head to remimber it I have, sur, whin they tell mee." A word to the matron, who promises to take the addresses of "the gurls" when they see their mother next, and we wish the poor woman good-bye. In answer to the Inspector's farewell hope that her asthma would improve, came a quiet uncomplaining moan, which, in its freedom from affectation and its unconscious pathos, was infinitely touching. "Indade, sur, and you're good to wish it, sur; but I'll be glad whin it plases the Almighty to take mee, for oh, sur"—and the expression of hopeless uncomplaining weariness;she was upwards of eighty; became painful in its intensity—"I'm very, very tired."

Very different in manner and demeanour was the little old woman we chatted with in another ward. Small, and wizened and shrunk, with a face like a wrinkled pippin that had been put in a store-room and overlooked for half-a-century or so, she had an eye like a bead, a full-toned voice, and an air of preternatural vitality and sharpness, which was wonderful enough. "How long had she been in the house?" "Fifteen years; she came in when she was seventy, and she's eighty-five now. Not that she hasn't been earning her own living some portion of that time. Has she not been out nursing many times, and do not all the ladies say that there is no nurse like her? but she can't do that any more"—holding up her hands to show their feebleness, but proceeding with unabated energy—"for she finds it enough to do to nurse herself." This with a pleasant smile, a curtsey, and a twinkle of the eye, as if infirmity were a practical joke, and decreasing physical power the most humorous fact in the world! "Yes; she has children, and they live at Putney, and she goes to see them sometimes; but you see it's too far for her to walk,"—eight miles at eighty-five!—"and it costs eighteen-pence, ninepence each way, for you have to take two omnibuses;" and so, beaming over with cheerfulness and serenity, we leave her for some of the men's wards. Entering one of these when the beds are being made, we have a long chat with an old Frenchwoman who came from Bordeaux when a girl, and who, after marrying and spending her prime here, has settled down as pauper bed-maker and room-cleaner of Ward No.— Two dominant ideas strove for mastery in this lady's mind. One, that the new-fangled method of rolling up the bed-clothes in military fashion at the bed-head, and unfolding them each day when the bed was made, was an outrage on her feelings and an insult to common sense; the other, that she ought to have beef every day instead of alternately with "nasty soup." Her mental horizon was bounded by these desires, and it was utterly in vain the master reminded her that in her own land soup was not altogether unknown as food; and that sanitary authorities were in favour of a thorough supply of air permeating bedsteads. "Ah, bah my country—wat that—ah, bother—I like beef—bah your soup—bother your new ways wid de beds—in my country wine— you give me wine then," suddenly turning to the present writer with a snapping action of the mouth and a clutching movement with the hands which were any thing but pleasant; "if not wine, den beef—it is beef I like;" and as neither playful expostulation nor attempted soothing could drive her from her point, we left her muttering, "Beef, wine, Bordeaux, bah," and shaking her head and waving her arms in a subdued frenzy of half irate, half playful gesticulation. Through the men's wards, some empty, the beds ranged in the same fashion as in those already inspected, and the tenants of which we could see sunning themselves in the yard or at work in the various shops; others, again, with old men in bed, or lounging on the settles and chairs about the room. The Inspector here calls attention to an awkward bar of wood running up the settles, and directs that the support or framework of any future ones shall be so made as to leave a smooth surface to the sitter's back. In a bed in one corner lies a figure apparently in extremis. Perfectly pale and motionless, with a sheet tucked under the chin, and so bespread about the head as to remind one of the drapery about a corpse; the pinched nose, sunken cheeks, and open toothless mouth, all seemed to whisper— Death. Yet the pauper-nurse—a matronly woman this, who had served in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale, had learnt cookery under Ude, and been in the best families—assured us that this pitiable object was well, that he ate heartily, was "quite fat in the body," and was now only taking his after-dinner sleep. In proof whereof, and before the Inspector could prevent her, she roused him with "Some gentlemen want to speak to you." Whereupon the corpse became a singularly grumpy old man, with a deep bass voice, who declined to be bothered, and vigorously protested against being disturbed "in the afternoon." The contrast between appearance and demeanour was so comic, that it was impossible to restrain a smile, even while the nurse was chided for her too great zeal in showing-off her patient's "points." Old paupers reading a penny newspaper—"four of them subscribe to take it in," says the master; old paupers dozing, dreaming, dying; old paupers contemplative and subdued; old paupers chatty and argumentative,—made up the bulk of those we saw. One man of good manners, intelligent face, and rather lofty bearing, had been a commercial traveller, and would have been perfectly satisfied with his present condition and treatment if he "could be allowed to visit his friends more frequently." With the exception of unpleasantly smirking and leering when the Inspector asked if he had ever been married, this pauper's demeanour was so superior as to make one regret his being in the workhouse at all. "Had been a very gay man," we learnt subsequently; "had been in a first-rate position in the City; but his habits and raking had brought him down, and even now, if he could behave himself, a very respectable lady, who had known him in better days, would take care he did not want." No time to ponder over this instance of opportunities wasted and talents misapplied; for we have to look up flues, into closets, through shafts, down holes, and round corners, to keep up with the Inspector. Feeling that I am gradually assimilating myself in optical efficiency to the lynx, I hear an even sadder instance of reverse of fortune and punishment for weaknesses and foibles than the foregoing. On that very day had died a barrister who had been in the house for years; who had come into a large fortune, and retired from his profession in middle life; and who, by dint of two or three irregular establishments and other follies, had reduced himself to pauperism. Retaining the feeling of his station to the last, his chief trouble was having to associate with his fellow-inmates, and his chief pleasure smoking, and the perusal of the Times. Unloved, unknown, uncared for, he had passed away on a workhouse-bed in the parish wherein his family had been known and respected for years, and would receive a pauper's burial at that parish's cost.

But it was quite as curious to note the differences of character perceptible in the men and women lounging about the yards as to listen and ponder over such details as these. Here is a regular-featured, swarthy man, with one foot supported in a sling, who civilly touches his hat as we go by. He has been a gentleman's servant, and is now past work. The families he has lived in testify to the respectability of his life and the comforts he has known; while the courteous manner and suavely-modulated voice speak unmistakably of the abiding influence of refined associations and surroundings. Through serving gentlemen he has acquired somewhat of their bearing; and it is melancholy enough to contrast the comparative luxury in which his youth and prime were spent with the regimen and regulations to which he is inevitably doomed now. Beyond him again is an old man who might have been a law lord, so crabbed and ugly, so preternaturally solemn and oracular does he look. His poor furrowed face is screwed up into an expression of sublime contempt, and first expectorating sardonically as we go by, he sits with folded hands, like the Genius of the Past in the Chinese Exhibition. The fussy little fellow who gesticulates so vivaciously, and says something "is a shame" when he thinks we are out of earshot, might be an agricultural member of parliament, or a parochial vestryman, so ingeniously does he convey the notion of words without thought; while the old Irishman, who answers "Och! yiz an I du, by G—d!" with great alacrity, on being asked some questions as to his personal habits, is the very counterpart of a well-known member of the fashionable world whom I saw this afternoon sucking his stick over the railings in Hyde Park. In the ward devoted to skin disorders are men and boys in bed. The doors and a window or two are open, and the place, despite a faint aroma of drugs, is very fresh and sweet. A lad who was clerk to a firm of London tradesmen at the time of his falling ill gives "poverty of blood" as a reason—palpably a false one—for his being here. His rich dark hair floating in wavy profusion on the pillow, his expressive eyes, winning smile, and ready speech, enlist our sympathy, and make us regret the profligacy of which he stands convicted, and made at least one of the party speculate as to the whereabouts of his mother and his home—he is but seventeen—and the intensity of that mother's hopes and fears, her sorrow and her despair. Through another lavatory, where male inmates are sluicing themselves rigorously in cold water, whereof there is an unlimited supply; through the carpenter's shop, where paupers are vigorously at work with plane and saw and adze and hammer, and the flavour of which is an agreeable compound of sawdust and shavings—reminding you equally of Astley's amphitheatre and the back parlour of a milliner's shop well stocked with bonnet boxes; through, too, the barber's retreat, where shavings of a different character have been carried on to a great extent this day, where the barber himself is stropping a razor with an air of fashionable languor, as if even that exciting pursuit palled upon a man used to it, and where we interchange civilities and ask questions; and through several other and different yards, where some claret baize coats and the same variety of physiognomy are perceptible; until we are in, the linen store-room, looking at the reserve stock of flannels, and stockings, and cottons, and caps, and gowns. The stock seems to be as admirably kept as it is liberal in quantity, and it is pleasant indeed to note the vast number of substantial and warm-looking garments which are piled away. The clerk and bookkeeper at the adjoining desk overlooks the casks of porter previously alluded to through the glass case in which he sits, and, as I understand, keeps accurate record of the goods I see around me now. Glancing at the hatchway through which the edibles are passed, the Inspector makes a suggestion as to some minor alteration, and we leave this pleasant and highly satisfactory department.

"The Building" already named is a wretched outhouse, unfit for any human being. It has a dozen or twenty men seated at its table, and gloomily looking at the wall, for the windows are too high to admit of the extremely moderate relaxation implied in gazing into the yard. Their depression is obvious and reasonable, and with the Inspector's dictum that the whole place should come down I thoroughly concur. Again traversing the yard, children are talked to by the way, men asked as to their previous calling, their hopes of getting out, and the treatment they experience. Great stress is laid upon the imperative necessity of better ventilation, and the master promises in all things to make the official wishes known to the local board. After this to the office, where the books, kept in an exquisitely neat handwriting by one of the inmates, a man of good education and antecedents, who is at work upon them, are shown to us. Amongst them is the report-book, showing how often the guardians go over the establishment intrusted to their care; and this reveals a curious degree of neglect. The essence of this supervision is that it shall be frequent, and I believe the Whitehall authorities may appoint a paid visiting committee to go through with it, if they convict the local board of persistent shirking. It is therefore, to say the least, peculiar to find one, two, or six months intervening between visits which ought to be made at least once a fortnight. This it was that modified my pleasure at what I had seen. Comfortable as many of the paupers seemed, bland and civil as their nurses and warders were, and immensely improved as I understood the entire establishment to be, the element of uncertainty came in directly I asked how soon the Inspector's suggestions and commands would be carried into effect. Being, like a great number of other metropolitan parishes, under a local Act, I learn that the guardians of Marylebone are less immediately under the control of the Poor-Law Board than if they were elected by the rate-payers, and that it is quite possible that the deficiencies noted may be declared trivial, and the official complaints be pooh-poohed. It has taken years to bring about some essential reforms, and other necessary alterations are yet refused. So that, despite the zeal and conscientiousness with which the inspection has been made, it is actually possible that its results may be nil. This is, of course, not probable; but it is the possibility which is startling; and when I leave the Inspector and meditate upon the experience I have gained, the following questions assert themselves, and will not be laid. If local Acts really impede public benefits, why are they not repealed? and if Government has any difficulty in taking the initiative, have we no independent member who will bring their privileges and their drawbacks prominently before the country and the House?

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