A NIGHT IN A WORKHOUSE
At 9 o'clock on the evening of Monday the 8th inst., a neat and unpretentious carriage might have been seen turning cautiously from the Kennington road into Princes road, Lambeth. Approaching a public-house which retreated a little from the street, he pulled up; but not so close that the lights should fall upon the carriage door; not so distant as to unsettle the mind of any one who chose to imagine that he had halted to drink beer before proceeding to call for the children at a juvenile party. He did not dismount, nor did any one alight in the usual way; but any keen observer who happened to watch his intelligent countenance might have seen a furtive glance directed to the wrong door—that is to say, to the door of the carriage which opened into the dark and muddy road. From that door emerged a sly and ruffianly figure, marked with every sign of squalor. He was dressed in what had once been a snuff-brown coat, but which had faded to the hue of bricks imperfectly baked. It was not strictly a ragged coat, though it had lost its cuffs—a bereavement which obliged the wearer's arms to project through the sleeves two long inelegant inches. The coat altogether was too small, and was only made to meet over the chest by means of a bit of twine. This wretched garment was surmounted by a "bird's-eye" pocket-handkerchief of cotton, wisped about the throat hangman fashion: above all was a battered billy-cock hat, with a dissolute drooping brim. Between the neckerchief and the lowering brim of the hat appeared part of a face, unshaven and not scrupulously clean. The man's hands were plunged in his pockets, and he shuffled hastily along in boots which were the boots of a tramp indifferent to miry ways.
This mysterious figure was that of the present writer. He was bound for Lambeth workhouse, there to learn by actual experience how casual paupers are lodged and fed, and what the "casual" is like, and what the porter who admits him, and the master who rules over him; and how the night passes with the outcasts whom we have all seen crowding about workhouse doors on cold and rainy nights. Much has been said on the subject—on behalf of the paupers—on behalf of the officials; but nothing by any one who, with no motive but to learn and make known the truth, had ventured the experiment of passing a night in a workhouse, and trying what it actually is to be a casual.
The day had been windy and chill—the night was cold; and therefore I fully expected to begin my experiences amongst a dozen of ragged wretches squatting about the steps and waiting for admission. But my only companion at the door was a decently dressed woman, whom, as I afterwards learned, they declined to admit until she had recovered from a fit of intoxication from which she had the misfortune to be still suffering. I lifted the big knocker, and knocked; the door was promptly opened, and I entered. Just within, a comfortable-looking clerk sat at a comfortable desk, ledger before him. Indeed, the spacious hail in every way was as comfortable as cleanliness and great mats and plenty of gaslight could make it.
'What do you want?' asked the man who opened the door.
'I want a lodging.'
'Go and stand before the desk,' said the porter; and I obeyed.
'You are late,' said the clerk.
'Am I, sir?'
'Yes. If you come in you'll have a bath, and you'll have to sleep in the shed.'
'Very well, Sir.'
'What's your name?'
'Joshua Mason, Sir.'
'What are you?'
'An engraver.' (This taredaddle I invented to account for the look of my hands.)
'Where did you sleep last night?'
'Hammersmith,' I answered—as I hope to be forgiven!
'How many times have you been here?'
'Never before, Sir.'
'Where do you mean to go when you are turned out in the morning?'
'Back to Hammersmith, Sir.'
These humble answers being entered in a book, the clerk called to the porter, saying, 'Take him through. You may as well take his bread with you.'
Near the clerk stood a basket containing some pieces of bread of equal size. Taking one of these, and unhitching a bunch of keys from the wall, the porter led me through some passages all so scrupulously clean that my most serious misgivings were laid to rest. Then we passed into a dismal yard. Crossing this, my guide led me to a door, calling out, 'Hillo! Daddy, I've brought you another!' Whereupon Daddy opened to us, and let a little of his gaslight stream into the dark where we stood.
'Come in,' said Daddy, very hospitably. There's enough of you to-night, anyhow! What made you so late?'
'I didn't like to come in earlier.'
'Ah! that's a pity now, because you've missed your skilly (gruel). It's the first night of skilly, don't you know, under the new Act?'
'Just like my luck!' I muttered dolefully.
The porter went his way, and I followed Daddy into another apartment where were ranged three great baths, each one containing a liquid so disgustingly like weak mutton broth that my worst apprehensions crowded back.
'Come on, there's a dry place to stand on up at this end,' said Daddy, kindly. 'Take off your clothes, tie 'em up in your hank'sher, and I'll lock 'em up till the morning.'
Accordingly, I took off my coat and waistcoat, and was about to tie them together when Daddy cried, 'That ain't enough, I mean everything.'
'Not my shirt, Sir, I suppose?'
'Yes, shirt and all; but there, I'll lend you a shirt,' said Daddy. Whatever you take in of your own will be nailed, you know. You might take in your boots, though—they'd be handy if you happened to want to leave the shed for anything; but don't blame me if you lose 'em.'
With a fortitude for which I hope some day to be rewarded, I made up my bundle (boots and all), and the moment Daddy's face was turned away shut my eyes and plunged desperately into the mutton broth. I wish from the bottom of my heart my courage had been less hasty; for hearing the splash, Daddy looked round and said, 'Lor, now! there was no occasion for that; you look a clean and decent sort of man. It's them filthy beggars that want washing. Don't use that towel—here's a clean one! That's the sort! and now here's your shirt (handing me a blue striped one from a heap), and here's your ticket. No. 34 you are, and a ticket to match is tied to your bundle. Mind you don't lose it. They'll nail it from you if they get a chance. Put it under your head. This is your rug—take it with you.'
'Where am I to sleep, please, Sir?'
'I'll show you.'
And so he did. With no other rag but the checked shirt to cover me, and with my rug over my shoulder, he accompanied me to a door at which I had entered, and, opening it, kept me standing with naked feet on the stone threshold, full in the draught of the frosty air, while he pointed out the way I should go. It was not a long way, but I would have given much not to have trodden it. It was open as the highway—with flag stones below and the stars overhead; and, as I said before, and cannot help saying again, a frosty wind was blowing.
'Straight across,' said Daddy, to where you see the light shining through. Go in there and turn to the left, and you'll find the beds in a heap. Take one of 'em and make yourself comfortable.' And straight across I went, my naked feet seeming to cling to the stones as though they were burning hot instead of icy cold (they had just stepped out of a bath, you should remember), till I reached the space through which the light was shining, and I entered.
No language with which I am acquainted is capable of conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then encountered. Imagine a space of about 30ft. by 30ft. enclosed on three sides by a dingy whitewashed wall, and roofed with naked tiles which were furred with the damp and filth that reeked within. As for the fourth side of the shed, it was boarded in for (say) a third of its breadth; the remaining space being hung with flimsy canvas, in which was a gap 2ft. wide at top, widening to at least 4ft. at bottom. This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so thickly encrusted with filth that I mistook it first for a floor of natural earth. Extending from one end of my bedroom to the other, in three rows, were certain iron 'cranks,' of which I subsequently learnt the use, with their many arms raised in various attitudes, as the stiffened arms of men are on a battlefield. My bed-fellows lay among the cranks, distributed over the flagstones in a double row, on narrow bags scantily stuffed with hay. At one glance my appalled vision took in 30 of them—thirty men and boys stretched upon shallow pallets with but only six inches of comfortable hay between them and the stony floor. Those beds were placed close together, every occupant being provided with a rug like that which I was fain to hug across my shoulders. In not a few cases two gentlemen had clubbed beds and rugs and slept together. In one case, to be further mentioned presently, four gentlemen had so clubbed together. Many of my fellow-casuals were awake—others asleep or pretending to sleep; and shocking as were the waking ones to look upon, they were quite pleasant when compared with the sleepers. For this reason the practised and well-seasoned casual seems to have a peculiar way of putting himself to bed. He rolls himself in his rug, tucking himself in, head and feet, so that he is completely enveloped; and, lying quite still on his pallet, he looks precisely like a corpse covered because of its hideousness. Some were stretched out at full length; some lay nose and knees together; some with an arm or a leg showing crooked through the coverlet. It was like the result of a railway accident; these ghastly figures were awa ...