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Having once made up my mind to pay the place a friendly visit, I begin to fear that many of my former impressions may be dispelled.
Not that I ever associated it with much of luxury, or with other than a depressed sense of such enjoyments as might be found there; but I have sometimes heard a great shouting of boys, as I passed along the lane by the back wall, which, I am told, abuts on the playground; and I have a very lively recollection of certain large and deep fruit pies (rhubarb pies, or I am mistaken) which sent up fragrant odours on Sunday mornings, as they stood on the long white dressers beneath the half-opened windows of the kitchen. On such occasions, say on my way to church, or to a queer, old-fashioned chapel- of ease-where the responses, beginning properly with the clergyman, but unequally prolonged by his followers, ended first with the national-school children,- most of the old men and women, clad in russet brown and blue check, were on their way to church too, or, in fulfilment of their "day out," sunning themselves on the tombstones in the churchyard before they proceeded to visit such of their relations as were not either in some other churchyard, or in some other Union. There were cases I had heard, where paupers who had seen better days, and did not care to bring the workhouse livery to their children's tables, kept a decent [-33-] suit at a friend's house, and for the day at least were quietly clad old persons, who lived, it was supposed, "upon their means." There were others, I have reason to know, who scarcely shrunk from mendicancy, and, failing to obtain small change from chance wayfarers in quiet nooks, where they lay in wait for them, would beg tobacco, or whine in mumbling accents for snuff.
These I have seen, towards evening, returning to the protection of the gate-porter, with an unnatural liveliness upon them, to be accounted for by ardent rather than by animal spirits, though, heaven help them, poor old creatures, they never have confessed to more than "half a pint of four ale," and "jest the least drop - a quartern and three outs amongst three on us" - of gin. Well, upon their temperate old heads, which seldom have to contend with anything stronger than tea, even half a pint of ale, and one of three "outs" would work a marvellous change; and to get away from the four walls of the workhouse ward for an entire day, even when they are a kindly shelter, is an event not without an intoxication of its own.
There are no rhubarb pies on the dressers to-day as I glance down into the kitchen, for it is not Sunday; but I can fancy the same odour wafted towards me as I pull the great bell-handle which hangs beside the gate, and wait for admittance.
The gate itself is a tremendous structure, covered all over with great iron clamps and bolts, and studded with polygonal-headed nails- a gate whose fearsome lock seems intended to hold a number of desperate prisoners in safe keeping, or to fasten up some cherished treasures hidden in a remote storehouse. I am happy to say that it is not designed (as I have known to be the case with similar gates [-34-] in other parishes) to keep out a still larger number of famished men and women, or to bar the common treasures of humanity and loving-kindness from dying mothers and helpless children, till they comply with the remorseless tests of those who bring shame and hate upon the very name of "Guardian" of the poor.
My Union is a great pile of brick, with those unsightly proportions, and that utter absence of anything but unsuggestive hopelessness which ordinarily characterise poor-law architecture; but it has the advantage of being removed from London streets. It is, in fact, situated at the very end of the main thoroughfare which composes one of the few remaining villages standing on the northeastern rim of the great city, and opens by a lane, more or less green, to the marsh country, across which Dick Turpin used to ride after he had been on an expedition to the metropolis. Beyond this connection with Black Bess, a doubtful interest in a once famous fishery, where ardent anglers still believe in the existence of monstrous pike, and such a smack of learning as may belong to a theological seminary, also famous in its time, I know of nothing to distinguish the village but the Union, which is at once its glory and its strength, and is distinction enough for a place of fifty times the size.
Conscious that the bell has taken a mean advantage of me by continuing to clang with a persistence which is all the worse for its seeming to resound in some great empty space high up above the portal, I am admitted by an old porter, who wears a sort of undress pauper uniform, and would anywhere be distinguished for his rosy cheeks, which are all streaked with red, like a well-stored apple. He is a little lame, I notice, as he walks backwards to open the heavy gate, and if there is any expression of surprise on his [-35-] good-humoured but otherwise impassive face, he gets rid of it and me together, by referring my inquiries for "the Master" to one of two other old men, who stand quietly wondering what parochial accident can have brought me into that cool, shady, brick-paved courtyard, or whether I really expect to be invited to enter the doorway on the left, near which a neat parlour window is ornamented with some bright scarlet geraniums. The master is "about somewhere;" and while I am noticing that the parlour itself, from being, as it were, under the shadow of the gateway, lies in a dim, peaceful twilight, I am conscious, by a shuffling of feet and the deferentially inquiring glances of the three old gentlemen, who are evidently curious as to my business, that my message has been very promptly attended to.
Having been informed in an under tone, which, however, has nothing servile in it, that "master's not in the way, but that here's the matron," I make my apologies to a buxom lady, with a fresh-coloured, vigorous face, and a decided manner, which, taken in conjunction with a determined expression about her mouth, would be a little repellant, but for a kindly twinkle in her bright, dark eyes. "Discipline without unnecessary harshness, and humanity without sentiment," I say to myself, in a neat and appropriate manner, as I hand her a card.
She isn't put out a bit by my sudden request to look over the establishment. She thinks it necessary to mention that, as it's clearing- up day, I may not find everything in perfect order, and must excuse the presence of some of the women who are scouring the stairs; but apart from these slight drawbacks, she is very glad to see me, and to conduct me to that portion of the establishment over which she presides, after which I shall be consigned [-36-] to the master, who is at this moment engaged in receiving stores.
The nursery? The very name of a "nursery" seems almost inconsistent with the notion of a workhouse, but the appearance of the matron reassures me and I follow, not without pleasant anticipations, "Up stairs and down stairs," according to the burden of the old nursery rhyme.
Blue eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes; fair, dark, plump, rosy, and only two or three pale faces; little pudgy legs, and dimpled arms and shoulders, showing beneath and over blue check frocks and pinafores;- all these belonging to some score or so of little ones, averaging three to five years old, in a long bare room, furnished with a few forms and low stools, and with a coloured print here and there upon the wall.
Floors and forms are all scrubbed to the last pitch of endurance, and the place smells fresh and sweet, and is at this moment ringing with the prattle of children's voices, which are hushed on my entrance by a juvenile providence - also in blue check - who has them in charge; her duty for the time being the care of these little creatures, who seem to love her; and order her hither and thither, and expect her to find helpful hands in their play, and consolation in their troubles, and generally rule her as children will rule those whom they love. At the moment she is in quest of a doll, which is being plaintively demanded by a little clear-skinned, ruddy fairy, with big blue eyes, that look with fearless inquiry at the matron as she calls to her.
I find that she is called Rhoda, and it requires very little penetration to discover that, beauty having the same influence everywhere, little blue-eyed Rhoda is a pet and [-37-] favorite amongst every man, woman, and growing girl in this great workhouse.
The look of half apologetic pride with which the girl who has her in charge releases her tiny hand and pushes her forward to return our greeting - the scarcely repressed glance of pitying admiration which beams for a moment in the matron's face as she stoops down to speak to the wee thing standing there, so poor in all but the love which moves the souls even of pauper men and women towards helplessness and innocence - these indicate a report, which I hear presently, to the effect that Rhoda is half spoilt. But, poor little thing, she is an orphan, only her old grandmother surviving of all the family, and she is here, too, amongst the women who are just now busy with the "cleaning up." Rhoda makes her pretty little courtesy, and lisps her little greeting (the great dark-blue eyes staring immoveably all the time, till they seem to grow wider and darker in their clear pearly setting), as I pass through the door, to the music of a verse which some of her companions are singing, and ascend a fresh flight of stairs to the real nursery, where the infant pauper first learns to crawl upon the workhouse floor. Two or three of them are busy at this exercise on a large rug before the fire, where, on a high "guard," some articles of baby apparel hang to air. The obtusely angular, aggressive faces, and the red hair of two of these little ones, proclaim their Irish origin, these peculiarities being more strongly presented by their mothers, who, with another woman, are engaged in nursing.
On the low check-covered beds, or on pillows placed upon the floor, other infants sprawl, or play with impromptu toys made up of bundles of rag- the most amusing and the safest plaything of all being, I am told [-38-] the sticks from a bundle of firewood, first inspected as to splinters. Some of these helpless little ones have neither father nor mother, save the parish-none to own them, at all events - for they have been picked up, slightly animate bundles of old clothes, under doorways, by the roadside, or at the workhouse porch, deserted very soon after birth, and left to the mercies of the police and the board of guardians. Sitting in a low chair, and evidently the presiding genius of this part of the establishment, is an elderly lady of that kind and degree of stoutness which causes her to resemble an irregularly shaped blue check double pincushion, from which some of the stuffing has escaped; her whole physical aspect is that of softness, all the angular parts of the human frame having in her case been rounded, or more properly speaking, padded by nature into the proper proportions for nursing. For, in truth, nursing is the business of her life, and has been any time during these forty years, eighteen of which she has passed in this Union as "monthly."
Being curious to know how many units she had been instrumental in adding to the population - that is to say, chiefly to the pauper population, I am scarcely astonished, though perhaps at first a little startled, to learn that she don't know, she's sure, "but something like eight or nine hundred, or maybe more." She knows that "there's been a good deal too many of 'em;" but that conviction scarcely influences her in her attention to the poor weird looking little creature now seated on her short lap. It was deserted two nights ago-this child-and by its pinched, anxious-looking face, and wild, scared eyes, seems to my fancy to be vainly endeavouring to recall a dream of some previous state of existence from which it had been summoned, without at all understanding the reason.
[-39-] I learn that this is frequently the appearance of these poor little castaways, and that they at first refuse to eat; but in a few days they "settle down" happily enough amongst their brethren and sisters on the rug, or learn to stand by the legs of the iron bedsteads in the nursery, till they are old enough to be consigned to the room where blue-eyed Rhoda and her playmates are assembled, there to remain, it may be, till they attend the school which I am about to visit. First, however, I pass with bated footsteps through a passage belonging to two or three small rooms lying off from the nursery, and away from the general traffic of the building by a side stair. There are reasons for my visit being a little exceptional, and I enter one of these apartments, light, airy, and with hangings and furniture differing from the mere bare appurtenances of the ordinary ward. Here, in the white-curtained bed lies the mother of one of the latest additions to the nursery, for whom the contents of the saucepan I have noticed on the hob are intended. An open, fair, intelligent face- the face of a young woman, but with an expression which seemed like that of a quiet, innocent girl, just growing from childhood to womanhood. The best expression of an earlier time, as I think, coming back mysteriously with the other mysteries of maternity. There is no need to dwell upon the story of the poor pale fugitive lying here. It is the old, old story of grievous wrong and foolish trust, and vague terror prompting to who knows what of sin and misery. The old story of remorse and shame. The old story of impunity on one side, and degradation on the other. Thank God that the fugitive from the outraged decorum of rabid virtue, and from the treachery of successful vice has trusted not in vain to find a succour not altogether stern and unpitying. I linger [-40-] but a minute to speak a word or two of hope and comfort, for I can see traces of tears in the large dark eyes which look so wistfully at the door as we enter; but little can be said in the presence of so great a wrong, a wrong which time itself may fail to heal. Down to the basement story again, and along more passages, till the humming of boys' voices, and a strong smell of new corduroy tell me that I am approaching the school, a supposition which is verified by the sudden opening of a door, and the appearance of the schoolmaster, who seems to me to share very completely in the deference which everybody here pays to the matron. I say everybody here, and I am glad to notice the fact as a very proper indication of a feeling in which I find myself participate. For by this time I am beginning to defer to the matron myself, and am quite conscious that with her quick perception, and prompt energetic manner, she could take me in hand along with all the rest, and feel very little accession of responsibility. The first intimation I have of the present condition of the boys is, that "this is pudding day" - the day, that is to say, which is known at sea as "banyan," and it has been celebrated by the substitution of suet pudding and treacle for the ordinary meat, bread, and vegetables-much (as I am informed) to the satisfaction of the boys themselves, though as they give no confirmation of this remark, I do not consider the matter as definitely settled. Anyhow, they appear none the worse for their occasional abstinence, and are now making ready, briskly enough, to go out for the afternoon to play at cricket under the superintendence of the master himself, who seems to exercise a ready but familiar and gentle sway; the stick which he carries in his walks being, I have reason to know, used only as a general's baton for directing their movements, and not as [-41-] an instrument of punishment. I subsequently remark that some of the boys are in possession of halfpence- for I casually overhear a request to the master for permission to buy cherries-which, after a good-humoured remonstrance, is granted readily enough. I am, I confess, a little disappointed at the schoolroom, which is but roughly furnished with desks and forms, and is a long, narrow slip of a room on the basement floor, in a wing of the main building. It is less light and cheerful than I think all schoolrooms should be, and the boys are rather cramped for space. There is a good gravelled playground, however, were the atmosphere of corduroy is mitigated; and here I observe one or two bars for gymnastic exercises, and a pole with swinging-ropes. I am glad to learn too, that traps, bats, balls, and some other toys are amongst the recognised properties of the school, while in their own playground, apart from that of the boys, the girls are provided with skipping-ropes, and other means of healthy exercise and recreation.
The garden, which is laid out in pretty plots, has a division on each side, which both boys and girls are allowed to cultivate according to their fancy; and generally twice a week the children are taken out into the adjacent country, there to gambol about at their pleasure, with no more than a judicious restraint.
The boys receive instruction in English, or in that course which is familiarly known as reading, writing, and arithmetic, with a little geography and history, and, when they are old enough, are apprenticed to one of some half dozen trades according to their own choice. In fact, I remember noticing an announcement, fastened to the wall by the front gate, that one of them is now waiting to learn the art and mystery of the bakers' business.
[-42-] In addition to their ordinary rudimental education, the girls are taught plain sewing, and some of them even acquire a knowledge of the higher classes of needlework, under the instruction of the more efficient of the sempstresses on the female side; they also help in washing, and in such household work as can be given them in the various wards, so that many of them have at least attained the orderly habits and personal cleanliness which belongs to a good servant, and require only further instruction under the direction of a kind and not too exacting housewife.
A great cloud of steam, and the clinking of pattens, indicate that I am approaching the laundry- a long outbuilding, almost open on one side, and furnished with sinks and troughs and coppers, which are fully sufficient to provide for the due cleanliness of all the apparel in the establishment.
Having, somehow, foolishly associated laundries with ruddy complexions, lawn-dried linen, and loud laughing-talk, I am a little disappointed at the appearance of the women who are engaged in this part of the building. To tell the truth, they are amongst the least attractive females it has ever been my fortune to become acquainted with; and what personal advantages they may possess are not heightened by the flat-bordered workhouse cap, the blue check uniform covered with a coarse apron, and bare arms, the elbows of which resemble knobs carved out of some hard, but easily discolorable, substance.
I may mention here, as part of my experience, that although amongst the regular paupers-inmates of workhouses - there are often pretty children, and very old women who still bear the traces of former beauty, the middle-aged and "elderly" females are, for the most part, [-43-] if not absolutely repulsive, at least by no means comely, either in form or feature. In many cases, hard and exigent labour, amidst the anxieties of a half-starved brood of children- in other instances, the ravages of disease and want, have told upon these inmates of the poor-house. But there is another reason for their appearance conveying an unpleasant impression to the casual visitor.
It cannot be denied (however irrational may seem the horror of those belonging to the poorer classes at the prospect of becoming recognised paupers) that many of the regular inmates of the workhouse, and especially the women, are characterised by that sort of degradation which produces an eager, grasping covetousness, and a constant dissatisfaction with the means taken for their relief. Under the look of half-audacious curiosity with which they regard the stranger who pays them a visit, there lies an expression which seems to ask in how much they will each be benefited by him. Many of them need only the opportunity to ask him in a whining voice for alms, and the probability of obtaining them would change their curiously bold and almost defiant manner into one of more offensive servility.
That much of this prevailing influence on the pauper mind may be the result of the present condition of the poor-law there can be little doubt. According to the very constitution of the means used for providing for the destitute, the suffering poor have a right to claim relief from the officers who are the paid servants and almoners of the public. These officers themselves have neither the right to refuse such relief nor the power to display any authority which would seem to arrogate to themselves the public beneficence. This is true in theory, but in practice it too frequently happens that the forms and tests used [-44-] are distorted into official persecutions of the poor who are compelled to become inmates of the Union, and that they produce at once a spirit of antagonism, all the more bitter because some of these people have themselves been taxpayers.
I see less of this feeling here than I have observed elsewhere, and I am certain, as far as my inquiries extend, that in this particular Union there is no reason for such a feeling existing; but all those who have had much to do with the labouring classes know how obstinately they hold to certain opinions, which are so generalised as to apply to entirely different branches of the same subject. These are my reflections as I look at the women, who, in return, look at me, from amidst a cloud of steam and a shower of foaming suds; but I am restored by the sight of the boys, who are by this time ready for the cricket-field, where they will be out of the way for two or three hours at least.
Again I refer to the provision of toys, and this open playground, with its covered shed for wet weather, as a piece of rational humanity which it would be well to make into a law; and, in referring to it, verify what I have believed long ago, that two or three times a year the boys and girls are taken to some mild and inexpensive amusement, one of which has been the visit to a celebrated equestrian circus, which is annually pitched in a field close by, and, in return, admits the children either free, or at a very great reduction in price. I picture to myself the breathless and eager wonder with which some of these chubby little men and women, bound in corduroy and blue check, follow the astounding evolutions of Mazeppa, or the enthusiastic delight with which they greet Signor Paillasse in his wonderful feats of horsemanship. Was there ever more genuine applause than that with which [-45-] they salute the old sawdust jokes of the ring clown, or the brilliant apparition of the sylphide who bounds through the paper tambourine?
Peeping into the little chapel, which stands aside between the main garden and the plots devoted to the children, and looks strangely like one of the little illuminated plaster of Paris edifices which Italian image men sell in poor neighbourhoods, I learn that the curates of two churches preach here alternately on Sundays to those amongst the paupers who are too infirm to go out. It is a neat, clean little place, as bright as a new pin, and made ornamental by a judicious and economical use of terra cotta and painted glass, but I seem to have come upon it as the last bit of ornament I shall be likely to meet with, for skirting it and crossing the area in which it stands, I pass through a gate, and so into the stone-yard. There are no paupers breaking stones at present, for it is the haymaking season, and there are ships in the docks, so that many of the able-bodied have found work, the two or three who are at work here being the idiots, who are mostly permanent inmates; one of them has just taken his spell at the pump, and fixes his lustreless prominent eyes upon me, as his head moves to and fro, as though he had a dim notion that I had come there expressly to see him on duty, and he was bound to keep up the credit of the establishment. He and his fellows, with two or three old, but not decrepid, men, are just now engaged in drawing this water, and in attending to the garden on the men's side, in which some, who are both old and decrepid, are sunning themselves on painted benches, and in one or two special cases smoking their pipes beneath the trees.
Adjoining the stone-yard - a bare, arid quadrangle with a white wall, and a glaring light gravel, and stone-chip [-46-] soil, is the casual ward - a shed-like building, leading by a gateway to a back lane, apart from the regular entrance to the house. Around this door on warm summer nights, and often on keen winter evenings, I have heard the tramps who have come from distant expeditions across the marsh, shouting or quarrelling, amidst the shrill voices of half-frozen, or utterly weary and dust-begrimed women, and the wailing of infants. To the credit of my workhouse, I never heard of an urgent case of distress being unrelieved, or of any refusal to admit a perishing man, woman, or child, on the excuse of some trivial informality.
It is for this reason, and because I notice in this particular Union a determination to read the Poor-law in the spirit of righteousness and charity, rather than in the bare letter of sparse justice and cruel repression, that I take it to represent, as far as the present imperfect state of the law will allow, "Parochial Relief." For Parochial Relief and the Poor-laws are terms not to be confounded. They have often been made entirely antagonistic, and susceptible of a precisely contrary meaning. Coming from across the marsh country, or wandering in that direction from the pitiless London streets, the tramp who seeks the shelter of the casual ward, is admitted by this door in the back wall, at nine o'clock in the evening, and after having submitted to the necessary ordeal of a bath, which forms part of the arrangements of the outbuilding known as the casual ward, is supplied with a long and ample coarse cotton bedgown, a thick slice of bread, and a mug of water. The bedding upon the low iron bedsteads, in the small, bare, cleanly scrubbed room, is coarse, but clean, and it is usual here for the ordinary clothing of each temporary pauper to be removed, and only restored in the morning by the attendant in charge.
[-47-] At a pretty early hour the "casual" is aroused, and receives another slab of bread by way of breakfast. It often happens, however, that neither breakfast nor supper is eaten, the needs of the tramps extending not so much to food as to rest. I am not disappointed in believing that this Union is conducted on the principle of relieving the poor, and it is on this account that broken-down women coming there with young children to seek a night's shelter, are often regarded with a larger charity than that which would limit them to the cold and repulsive fare of mere bread and water.
Such remnants of the day's supply of food, as a little warmed- up broth, sweetened gruel, or other savoury surplusage, will the kindly matron devote to those poor little famished stomachs, and as there are always to be found even in a workhouse - stray garments, and the forgotten scraps of some former pauper's wardrobes, the half naked limbs of mother and children are not unfrequently clad in attire improvised from such cast-off drapery, already transformed by the needles of the younger inmates during their lessons in sewing.
With another glimpse of the stone-yard, lying silent and deserted, now that no able-bodied pauper has been admitted by order from the relieving officer for a week past, I conclude my inspection of the pretty garden, where flowers, vegetables, and gooseberry and currant bushes are in full bearing, under the cultivation of two or three old, but not inactive residents, who are still able to wield a spade, or plant out a border. Here I shake hands with the matron, who goes off to see to the children's tea, and am consigned to the master, fresh from weighing and checking stores. A quick-eyed, healthy-looking gentleman, I find him, with a kindly, clear voice - a "bright," [-48-] highly-pitched voice, evidently meant to be heard by deaf ears. He reminds me, somehow, of a brisk first mate on board a bustling merchant vessel, registered A1, at Lloyd's; and the fancy is still further increased by his wearing a straw hat, which he takes off presently, but puts on again in a moment, as though he had no time to lose. He is in no hurry with me, however, and he is neither too quick, too bustling, nor too loud, with these eight old men lying in bed, or sitting half dressed in the chairs which are set on the bedside mats in the infirmary ward. They are very old fellows indeed, some of them, their complaint being, as one of the number informs me, "old age, which there's no cure for, as he ever heard of, leastways the doctors haven't found it out yet." Some of them, however, are suffering from bad legs, and one from the remains of old-established rheumatism, which keeps him on his back for a great part of the year. They are a little merry as we go in- if such evidences as a broken laugh here and there, and several humorous but still half deprecatory grins can be called mirthful; for the master going up to a certain bed where a grizzled, but good-looking old face, shaded as to the head with a blue cotton handkerchief, is looking up at him rather wistfully, is listening to a remarkable statement respecting four hats, supposed to be the property of the old gentleman lying there, but now, and for some time past, missing, notwithstanding repeated inquiry.
To all the master's kind inquiries, this old fellow, propping himself up in bed, and with his shirt open at the throat, replies, that he himself is "tolerable well, but he can't hear nothing of them four hats, that his niece left there when she brought him-can't be found nowhere," and he "can't make out who's taken 'em away, since it's [-49-] nobody in that room, he's sure. It can't be that his niece took ‘em back again, that's certain. Four hats were there? the master thought there were but three. "Yes, four hats-four; four of 'em, and a cap." Well, the master must ask his niece about it; with which assurance he is quite satisfied, and it is not till the door of the ward is shut behind us that I learn that the four hats, like Falstaff's men in buckram, will probably increase in number, and are but a harmless delusion, the confusion perhaps of some long-past incident with the latest event of his life by one who may have lost some of the threads of memory in the long skein of eighty-one years. Both on the male and on the female side the ordinary sleeping wards are rooms opening out of long corridors, some with two or three beds, some only with one; but all of them provided with well-constructed windows, and the means of complete ventilation. One of the most distressing conditions to which the life of the pauper family is subject is, undoubtedly, the separation of father, mother, and children, except for rare intervals during the time of their stay in the union, and it is this separation which is one of the things so much dreaded by the suffering poor; for it often happens, not amongst the poor only, but in all classes, that an apparently very imperfect perception of the claims of husband, wife, or children, in the ordinary actions of daily life, and in kindly, mutual forbearance, is altogether apart from the sentiment which regards separation either by death or any accidental arrangement as a great calamity. Those who have observed closely will ever be inclined to think that people who most constantly disregard their duties to others are more strongly, though less permanently, affected by disunion. At any rate, although it would be impossible to permit the ordinary family arrangements [-50-] to be continued in the workhouse, and for ratepayers to contribute to the support of a constantly increasing pauper population, some scheme might be devised for rendering the separation of parents and children less absolute. I am glad to find that some such arrangement is made in my present Union, and that several old couples have nearly as much of each other's society as is mutually agreeable. Speaking of the old people, it occurs to me that till I had some little acquaintance with the subject, I held (probably in common with many other folks) an illusion respecting these "oldest inhabitants," whose memories extend beyond the present "Poor Law" altogether. That I regarded them as ancient authorities, who could reveal from actual observation a great deal of that which to the present generation is but traditional; that, in short, the narratives of the workhouse, the reminiscences of the workhouse, and even the romance or sentiment of the workhouse, would be of deep and lasting interest if there we're only the means of getting at them.
I cannot hold this opinion as the result of actual experience, however. The truth is, that I have known only two pauper gentlemen, and hut one pauper scholar. With regard to those who have been gentlemen, there are few whose friends would suffer them to "come to the Union," and if there were any, they could scarcely bear with the administration of those workhouses to which they would be entitled to admission (I am speaking now of London), since the worst localities are near neighbours of the best; and the "Poor Laws" are too often acted upon in the full bitterness of "the letter which killeth."
The only pauper scholar of my acquaintance was a man whose attainments had been always unavailable. He was never much above the condition of a pauper, since being [-51-] born in a very humble sphere, and having attained what he knew by assiduous study, he was prevented by want of opportunity as well as by physical infirmity from making any pecuniarily advantageous use of his knowledge. His case was altogether exceptional, and although some scholars and men of intelligence may for a time become inmates of the Union, their sojourn is generally too short for them to settle down into regular pauperism. Is it the case, then, that the "four inmates whose united ages amount to" - so astonishing a number of years, cannot or will not recount those experiences which even without the aid of scholarship should be so interesting? At all events they do not. Ask any aged pauper a question relative to his experiences, say of the Gordon Riots, or of later events in which he took a more personal part; endeavour to draw him out into confidential revelations of his own private history, and you will discover, except in very rare cases, that his remarks are confined to some few vague and only half intelligible observations of little interest to anybody. The younger paupers seem scarcely better able to recount their experiences; not in either case that they are necessarily unwilling to impart them; their mumbling answers, such as they are, seem to be the result of unaccustomed effort. Reticence is a matter of habit, not one of choice, and the sum of the information they are likely to impart is included in their having "heerd tell," or having "known summat of what you speak of," but at the same time "never takin' no partikiar notice except what they heerd from other people, or as it was talked of at the time, having, in a manner of speakin', their own work, an' what not, to look arter." What their work was you may easily learn; and, indeed, these common-place "annals of the poor" are so very common-place, [-52-] that even when the last vanity of age- that of believing that to be very old,- is in itself of sufficient interest to make all that belongs to such a condition interesting; the very oldest of the "four, whose united," &c., will sometimes seem to express a humorous wonder that the inquirer should be as idle as he himself is compelled to be, and find no other occupation than to ask such questions. There are, of course, many exceptions to this, but I speak of ordinary pauperism: the women are often more voluble if they are young, more garrulous when they are old; but, with immeasurably less reticence, they are generally able to talk only of their little grievances, or of the concatenation of domestic troubles which brought them to the house, which no mortal foresight could ever have regarded as their ultimate destination.
I once knew a man who had been smuggler, convict, and general ruffian, and he entering, in his old age, a workhouse where there were some violent characters, became, by the sheer force of his former habits, and a fearless unflinching bravado, a sort of recognised chief or "cock" of this strange school, who administered a sort of rough justice; but this was in the early days of the Poor Law, before it had been so thoroughly reduced to a repressive system. It is, in fact, to this sort of repression which we may look, in part, for the unmeaning monotony which characterises the lives and manners of the pauper inmates. Even to each other the ancients who sit on the benches in the evening sun are very seldom communicative. Such conversation as they indulge in is gruff, monosyllabic, and concerns something which is of interest only within the workhouse walls- they speak little of the past, still less of the future. Not always, as I have said before, because they desire to be reticent, but because the [-53-] very system under which they live has about it something obliterative. There is but little individuality in its blank monotony :- a record of meals, with a few days on which they are at liberty to leave the bare blank walls of the wards, - the barer and blanker stones of the Union yard; the quality of beef, and potatoes, and gruel; the rarely prospective indulgence in snuff or tea. These things have taken the place of conversational reminiscences, or of the participation in any hope for the future, in which they do not form a part.
Even here, however, I am impressed with the fact, which has been more distinctly presented to me elsewhere, that there is a pauper population- not those who are the recipients of out-door relief, and to whom it would be well that a more complete recognition should be granted; but those who might be almost termed professed paupers-people in whose families pauperism, that is to say, pauperism with short alternations of semi-starvation out of the workhouse, has become the ordinary condition. Their lives, out of the house, are supported by casual labour. The men often work at the docks, or at chair-mending, and deal in such small wares as can be sold from a huckster's barrow in poor neighbourhoods, or follow any chance calling for which they are strong enough. The women and children make lucifer-match boxes; plait strawmatting; make baskets. Many of them either work or cadge indifferently, live anyhow or nohow, and sometimes, but not very often, steal. Any of the elder girls getting a place, will rarely keep it for any length of time; they know nothing, indeed, beyond the commonest scrubbing and plain washing; but they love cheap and tawdry finery over their half-dirty ragged clothes, and are too often to be seen at street corners talking to "their young man," [-54-] who is a shade less reputable even than themselves, and may be generally classed amongst those who are said in official returns to follow "no regular occupation." With the coals obtained from some local charity; the bread allowed them from the Union; the scanty help thus precariously obtained, and such waifs and strays of old garments as can be begged of the neighbours, these families keep out of the workhouse for a certain period in the year keep out of it, it may be, till the mother is "over her confinement," by which time it will be strange if the elder daughter has not also contributed an additional inmate to the pauper nursery amongst those poor weird little foundlings crawling on the rug before the fire; stranger stilt if one or other of the boys has not "gone wrong." Others (some of them comparatively young women) have lost sight of their husbands, or with two or more children go out periodically for a month or two, come back at stated intervals to the workhouse, and accept pauperism as a convenient arrangement. Sometimes these women grow suddenly tired of restraint, and without even waiting for the regular method of departure, go out for a day or two "on the loose," and come back tired, half famished, or sometimes half drunk.
From this very place two of these regular paupers made a sudden departure over the high brick wall on the occasion of the Royal wedding, and, when "their spree was out," having by some means or other obtained food and drink and a few ordinary clothes, came back again resigned, but by no means repentant, to the accustomed restraint of the Poor Law routine.
There is no mistaking these regular paupers, men or women; the women, of course, are most numerous. Their looks of half-derisive impudence suddenly changed when [-55-] occasion demands to a hypocritical subserviency of manner-their almost ironical deference, which a moment may change into brazen threats or unexpected demands; above all, that sort of subdued devilry about them, which seems all the worse because they seem to glory in their capacity for keeping it in subjection-reminds me at a glance of the link which exists somewhere, and may be found here, between the pauper and the convict;- reminds me just as forcibly that, as in the prison there is too little distinction between the criminal of impulse and the deliberate scoundrel; so the Poor Law fails to discriminate between the unfortunate "poor," who have themselves contributed to the relief which they have a right to claim; and the accustomed pauper to whom the workhouse dress and official harshness are neither sorrow nor disgrace.
The hardened ruffian who slyly chews the cud of patience for a ticket-of-leave in penal servitude is too well off when compared with the convict whose offence was sudden and unpremeditated, as his repentance is probably sincere. The broken men or women who seek parochial relief as a last resource, and only when they are ready to perish, are often fed with too niggardly a hand, and are made to feel too keenly the petty tyranny of paid officials, when undistinguished from their fellow inmates, to whom officials are but natural enemies, and pauperism a convenient refuge with the advantages of voluntary permanence.
There is something here which partially suggests these thoughts to me,- something which has had a good deal to do with suggesting other thoughts; and amongst them one that has advanced civilisation centuries, and changed the whole commercial and political aspect of the world:- need I say that I allude to a tea-kettle? Yes; there it is, singing its evening song on the embers of the fire in that [-56-] cosy little ward; singing to half a score of old women more or less feebly acknowledging my presence, at the large cleanly-scoured table where they are taking their tea. The kettle belongs to the matron, who lends it to this little company every day, with an addition, sometimes, to their small supply of tea, in order that they may enjoy the luxury of an extra spoonful or so "for the pot;" and to do them justice, they seem fully to appreciate the opportunity of making their own brew without reference to that of the ordinary house ration. I don't think that any of these belong to the paupers of whom I have just been speaking; and I am quite certain that the brisk old body who is just now sitting down to rest in the lower ward, where other more active tea-drinkers have been assembled, never belonged to that class. She is a slim, active woman, with a certain grace of figure still, and a remarkably well-cut face, with some of its youthful spirit unquenched, and its quick appreciation a little diminished by a slight deafness. I am inclined to think that she has been mending her shoe as we come in, for the quick eye of the master sees her slipping up the heel of one, and at once calls out to her in his cheery voice, to inquire what is the matter. She's not startled- not a bit; there is a quick- it may seem strange to say it, but I almost think there is a coquettish-glance in her composed face; a face so different from the dull lineaments of the party up-stairs, and so far apart from the impudent servility of some of the other women, that I see in it the evidences of good breeding, whatever may have been her former station.
"They're nearly worn out. I wish I could have a new pair," she says, slightly drawing aside her blue skirt, and displaying a foot and part of an ancle remarkably small [-57-] and well-shaped. "I must put on my new ones." The new ones make part of a small blue cotton bundle on a form by her side, from which it is evident that they have already been doing duty.
"Oh, I dare say," says the cheery master, laughingly; "we must see how long these have lasted, and then perhaps I may look out a pair for you- a nice light pair. Are these the shoes you had at Christmas, when you and I opened the ball and danced together?"
"Aye, that they are, the very same," replies the bright old lady, growing still brighter; "but I don't think they'll last till the next ball, unless I have a new pair to wear for every day."
I am at first inclined to regard this conversation as a mutually understood fiction- a mere pleasant conceit; but it is good hard reality; not Poor Law reality, but the better truth which belongs to the genuine relief of the poor. There really is a Christmas jollification here amongst the paupers. A pauper feast, a pauper merrymaking over harmlessly enlivening drink and meat, a pauper ball, in which the master and the matron too (when she is not bustling hither and thither, to set the children to games for nuts and oranges, and plain Christmas cake) take a genial part. Of all this great family party none is more blithe and genial, I warrant him, than the quick, active governor of so many diverse charges, as he leads this bright old creature-one of the seniors of the house-down the long ward, to the merry music of an amateur workhouse band, improvised for the occasion easily enough, where there is sure to be somebody with a turn for playing on some sort of instrument.
Was I thinking that there should be some arrangement for discriminating between the different classes of paupers, [-58-] some recognition of the "decayed gentlewoman," for instance? Well, such an arrangement is far from impossible. Will I be good enough to wait here in this lobby on an upper floor, while the master knocks at the door before me? It is opened presently by an old woman, in a very clean copy of the Union dress; and as we are invited to enter, my companion removes his hat and goes in briskly, but, as I think, with a slightly abated footstep, and I follow him.
Five elderly ladies, of whom three are sitting in chintz-cushioned, old-fashioned, arm-chairs beside their beds, and two are reclining on the beds themselves, which have been turned into temporary couches by the introduction of large counterpanes. Of these old gentlewomen (for such has been their former condition), she who reclines nearest the door seems to be the mistress of the ceremonies, for she invites me to be seated, and at once commences a sprightly conversation with the master, who inquires very solicitously respecting the health of each, and learning that some have been able to walk in the garden, jocularly surmises that they may soon be leaving him altogether.
I notice that on the sills of the open windows a goodly array of bright flowers in pots makes the ward cheerful, and that its inmates are not subjected to the ordinary workhouse dress, but are quite independent, especially in the matter of caps, some of which are smart enough, while the old lady who first did the honours of the place is attired in an old-fashioned black silk gown, above which a snowy kerchief sets off to no little advantage her bright cheerful eyes and good-humoured face.
To attend on these old ladies- who would in any case require attendance, since they are all of them feeble-there are, I see, two respectable-looking women (themselves [-59-] long past middle age), who have occupied the position of domestic servants before their admission to the house. My visit is a pleasant, but still a slightly ceremonious call, and at its termination, after a little chat about the flowers, the weather, and such similar subjects as can most readily be found, we make our bows, and are once more ushered to the door by one of those neat attendants.
Once in the gravelled yard adjoining the garden, I become conscious of a bevy of strange beings- the idiot girls and women who are now lingering about without any apparent object, except it be to see the master at his usual time of visiting the wards on their side. There are one or two quite old women amongst them, and one young woman with a strange, bold, demonstrative manner common to the half-witted, and evidently affording a good deal of amusement to those who are cunning enough to notice that there is some peculiarity about her which is not common to the rest. She presses forward now, and stretches out her hand persistently till the master takes it in his own.
"She's been a wantin' to shake hands with you all the arternoon, master," says a woman with a blurred, epileptic face and cunning eyes.
"Well," retorts the other, with a grim laugh, "it ain't often as we gets a good hand to shake, it ain't."
At this sally all the rest grin, except one or two, who seem to mope apart, with little interest in anything. One of these, a girl of about thirteen, brings her. wild melancholy face nearer, and, with a scared look, takes hold of my companion with both hands.
"She wants to go home to her mother," she says, in a scared piteous sort of way. God help her; it would, to [-60-] my human thinking, he well if in His mercy He would take her home this very day.
Some sort of relief from that inevitable monotony which is the condition of Union life in general, is provided by a sort of reading or club-room, where the men are permitted to sit at certain times to read such newspapers and magazines as can he procured for their entertainment.
Passing through this room, a light clean place, with well-scrubbed seats and tables, and abutting on the quietest part of the garden, I notice that here, as everywhere, our old friend, the " Illustrated London News," is a welcome visitor, providing as it does gay and attractive pictures for the hare lime-whitened walls, and a fund of amusement to the old fellows, who are fond of good print and suggestive illustrations. Just now there is nobody present but the old gentleman who has the care of the place; for the last meal is about to be served in some of the wards, and many of the little ones are already being prepared for bed.
These little ones have had their tea an hour ago, their tea being much the same as breakfast, and consisting of four ounces of bread and butter and a mug of milk, for which a half pint of broth is substituted on one day in the week. Their dinners are composed, on three days, of three ounces of cooked meat and six ounces of vegetables, and on the four other days are made up of four ounces of bread and half a pint of soup, or of half a pound of rice or other pudding. This is for children of from two to five years old. Those whose ages are from five to nine years have an increase in quantity, except in the matter of bread; that is to say, half a pint, instead of a quarter of a pint of milk, four ounces of meat, eight ounces of vegetables, and three quarters of a pint of soup.
[-61-] The able-bodied men receive for breakfast six ounces of bread and a pint and a half of gruel; for dinner, five ounces of cooked meat, and twelve ounces of vegetables; and for supper, six ounces of bread and a pint of broth. This is for three days in the week, hut on two days the dinner consists of six ounces of bread and a pint and a half of soup, and on the two remaining days fourteen ounces of suet pudding; but on these occasions they receive half an ounce of butter with their bread, and some gruel for supper. The able-bodied women receive an ounce less of bread, and half a pint less of gruel, than the men. The children who are of that "growing age," between nine and sixteen, have the same rations as the women, with the addition of half a pint of milk and water morning and evening. Every infirm pauper over sixty years of age may have a pint of cocoa or tea, and half an ounce of butter every morning and evening, instead of the gruel, which so many of them dislike. To prepare all the food consumed, a large kitchen is generally in a bustle during all the former part of each day; and the reception of the stores, including clothing, shoes, medicines, and other necessaries, is a very onerous part of the master's duty. Here, at all events, every pauper can demand to see his rations weighed; and some new comers exercise this privilege with a morose disbelief in the probability of their obtaining their just due,- a disbelief for which their previous experiences may perhaps have given some grounds.
It cannot be doubted that the particulars to which I have just referred offer few attractions to those who come into the Union as a refuge from the responsibilities of self-support; hut, as I take my leave, I am impressed with a conviction that the old, the sick, and the suffering are [-62-] here regarded with wider and more generous charity than that represented in the dietary tables, and that no very great horror would he depicted on the good-humoured faces of master or matron, should some unusually hungry Oliver Twist venture to "ask for more."
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