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Saturday 25 December 2010

‘In the Workhouse; Christmas Day’; by George R. Sims

It wasn’t my intention to put any more poetry on here, but I picked up a copy Staffordshire newspaper, The Sentinel last week whilst on a Christmas gift delivery mission to Miss Amateur Casual’s home town. I only read the paper a few days ago, though, and came across an article entitled:
Christmas Day in The Wolstanton And Burslem Union Workhouse in Chell.’
(Chell being an area of Stoke-On-Trent) The article cited a few lines from the poem ‘In the Workhouse: Christmas Day’ by George R. Sims.

With this being the festive season, I thought this as good a time as any to put this poem up, whilst at the same time writing a little bit about the author, George R. Sims.

George R. Sims
George R. Sims was born in London in 1847, the son of a successful businessman who owned a wholesale and export cabinet manufacturing business.
George was educated at Eastbourne College, after which he worked for his father. This, he found unsatisfying, as he had a strong desire to become a writer, he went some way to achieving this in 1872 when he began writing theatre reviews for two journals, ‘Dark Blue’ and ‘Woman’.

Three years later he became a staff writer with Fun and in 1877 moved to Referee. He also wrote a column for the ‘Weekly Dispatch’. 
George indulged his creative writing desires with plays. He wrote one of moderate success entitled ‘Crutch and Toothpick’ in 1879, aged 32, but it was ‘The Lights of London’ that established him as a playwright.
His other plays include ‘Romany Rye’, ‘The Member for Slocum’ and ‘The Harbour Lights’. 

In the 1880s Sims often wrote poetry on social issues for Referee, whom he had now been contributing to for over five years. These poems became known as the ‘Dagonet Ballads’, the most famous of these being ‘In the Workhouse: Christmas Day’.
Its passionate social concern for the plight of the poor caught the ears of the public in the same way as Greenwood’s ‘A Night in the Workhouse’ had in 1866.
In the Workhouse: Christmas Day’ made Sims a strong voice for reform, using his writing and poetry to dramatize the plight of suffering Londoners and bring it the public attention.

Sims wrote in his memoirs that after In the Workhouse: Christmas Day’ was first published it was "vigorously denounced as a mischievous attempt to set the paupers against their betters". 

With the bit between his teeth after his success
, Sims, along with his great friend, John Burns, gave lectures on the need for social reform. After one of these meetings in Southwark, Sims was approached by Arthur Moss, a local School Board officer. Moss told Sims of the terrible poverty that large numbers of working class people were experiencing in London, and offered to take Sims of a tour of the district. 
The tour shocked and opened Sims eyes at once. He decided he would try to find a way of bringing this information to the notice of the general public. He approached his friend, Gilbert Dalziel, the editor of a new illustrated paper, ‘The Pictorial World’ who agreed to publish a series of articles by Sims on the living conditions of people in London.

Illustrated by Frederick Burnard, the articles were later published as a book in 1889 entitled ‘How the Poor Live’. Articles originally published in the Daily News appeared in another volume in 1889 entitled Horrible London.

Sims also wrote many popular ballads attempting to draw attention to the plight of the London poor, a selfless undertaking that raised public opinion on the subject of poverty and led to reform legislation in the Act of 1885

Sims was intrigued by the psychology of crime, and in the 1890’s he wrote some ingenious detective stories. Dorcas Dene’, written in 1897, featured a woman detective. At Arthur Lambton's Crimes Club, Sims enjoyed discussing cases with Max Pemberton, Conan Doyle and John Churton Collins. He was consumed with the murders of Jack the Ripper and at one point he was even a suspect.

Although by now Sims was mainly a playwright, he continued to write on social issues. In 1909, At the age of 62, he wrote a series of articles on child poverty that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. These were eventually published as the books: ‘London by Night’ and ‘Watches of the Night’. Sims also wrote for the Daily Mail and the Evening News, newspapers which were owned by his friend, Lord Northcliffe. 

Sims enjoyed his position as a successful author and playwright and reported earnings of nearly £150,000 in 1898, but he gambled most of his wealth away, or gave it to charities. Sims was a charitable man, a trait no doubt brought about by his work on behalf of the poor, and along with Mrs. E. W. Burgwin, he founded the Referee Children's Free Breakfast and Dinner Fund in 1880, which became London's largest charity of this kind. He also worked to promote the boys' clubs movement and campaigned to open museums and galleries and permit concerts on Sundays as part of the National Sunday League.

He used the Daily Mail to wage a campaign to secure the pardon and release of a Norwegian, Adolph Beck, who had twice been imprisoned because of mistaken identity. This effort led to the establishment, in 1907, of the court of criminal appeal. For his assistance, in 1905, the king of Sweden and Norway made him a knight of the order of St Olaf, first class, awarded by in 1905.

In the last few years of his life Sims worked on his memoirs. His autobiography, ‘My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London was published in 1917. He was passionate about sports, especially horse racing and boxing, and he played badminton and bred bulldogs. He even a baldness curing tonic named Tatcho, but his friends found this a source of mirth when it did not stop his own hairline from receding.

George R. Sims died at his home in Regent's Park, London, just after his 75th birthday in 1922, from liver cancer.
His autobiography, ‘My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London (1917) became very popular. It consisted of reminiscences originally contributed to The Evening News.

A modern edition of his poetry, ‘Prepare to Shed Them Now’ was published in 1968.

And now, as promised, the poem that gave George his big break,
‘In the Workhouse: Christmas Day:’

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
Ad the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table,
For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for — with the rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes!
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
"Great God!" he cries, "but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died!"

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master's face went white;
"Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
"Could their ears believe aright?"
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.

But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose 'mid silence grim,
For the others had ceased to chatter
And trembled in every limb.
He looked at the guardians' ladies,
Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
"I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:

"Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dark, unhallowed graves."
"He's drunk!" said the workhouse master,
"Or else he's mad and raves."
"Not drunk or mad," cried the pauper,
"But only a haunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture's feast.

"I care not a curse for the guardians,
And I won't be dragged away;
Just let me have the fit out,
It's only on Christmas Day
That the black past comes to goad me,
And prey on my burning brain;
I'll tell you the rest in a whisper —
I swear I won't shout again.

"Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how paupers
The season of Christmas spend;.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watched the captured beast.
Here's why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.

"Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You're doing a noble action
With the parish's meat and drink?
Where is my wife, you traitors —
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above me,
My Nance was killed by you!

'Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish —
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.

"I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for the woman who'd loved me
Through fifty years of life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief,
That 'the House' was open to us,
But they wouldn't give 'out relief'.

"I slunk to the filthy alley —
'Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —
And the bakers' shops were open,
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together,
Holding my head awry,
So I came to her empty-handed
And mournfully told her why.

"Then I told her the house was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
and up in her rags she sat,
Crying, 'Bide the Christmas here, John,
We've never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger —
The other would break my heart.'

"All through that eve I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord and weeping,
Till my lips were salt as brine;
I asked her once if she hungered,
And as she answered 'No' ,
T'he moon shone in at the window,
Set in a wreath of snow.

"Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling's eyes
The faraway look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went.
For she raved of our home in Devon,
Where our happiest years were spent.

"And the accents, long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more.
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo'd by the Devon shore;
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, 'Give me a crust — I'm famished —
For the love of God!' she groaned.

"I rushed from the room like a madman
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying, 'Food for a dying woman!'
And the answer came, 'Too late.'
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street
And tore from the mongrel's clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.

"Back through the filthy byways!
Back through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush;
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill.
For there, in the silv'ry moonlight,
My Nance lay, cold and still.

"Up to the blackened ceiling,
The sunken eyes were cast —
I knew on those lips, all bloodless,
My name had been the last;
She called for her absent husband —
O God! had I but known! —
Had called in vain, and, in anguish,
Had died in that den — alone.

"Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
for a loaf of the parish bread;
At yonder gate, last Christmas,
I craved for a human life,
You, who would feed us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!"

'There, get ye gone to your dinners,
Don't mind me in the least,
Think of the happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day."

Honestly now, that is the last bit of Victorian poetry until next Christmas at least!

Incidentally, to put a full stop on the opening of this post, the Chell Workhouse was built around 1838, and was bleak enough to earn the nickname, The Bastille.

The city council took over its administration from the Stoke and Wolstanton Board of Guardians in 1930, but it continued to take in the sick, elderly, impoverished and homeless.
Today, the Westcliffe Hospital stands on the site of the workhouse.


  1. Greetings from Stoke-on-Trent !

    Without doubt, the best site covering the history of the area is

    As regards the workhouse poem, there is a well-known (locally) book about a child who spent some time in Chell workhouse. It's "When I was a child" by Charles Shaw and Steve Birks, who runs has started adding it to the site.



  2. Thanks for your comment, Phil.

    I'll have to try and get hold of 'When I Was a Child', it sounds interesting. Other than Sims poem, the only other bit of workhouse literature is 'a night in the workhouse' by James Greenwood, which you can find elsewhere on here.

    Miss Amateur Casual will be pleased to see a comment from her home town, so thanks!

    All the best

  3. Hi! I just found this blog. It's awesome! I am in a Victorian class this year and we are having a Christmas party on Tuesday. Since I have to present something I decided to say a Victorian poem but I couldn't find poems anywhere! I am so glad I found this sore. Will you be sharing new Xmas poems this year? Thanks

  4. Victorian class? That sounds great!

    I'm sure I can find something you could use - keep checking back!

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