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Thursday, 14 July 2011

“This Mysterious Figure Was That of the Present Writer. He was bound for Lambeth Workhouse…” Or: Lessons in Investigative Journalism for Public Interest:

With the furore currently surrounding the Murdoch press, phone hacking, blagging and the extinction of the News of the World, the ability and integrity of British journalism is being placed under the most severe scrutiny and called into question.

Whilst I was never a particular fan of the News of the World (in truth, I have never really ‘taken’ any specific paper) from a purely Victorianist point of view, it is sad to see the cessation of an institution that began in 1843, just as it is sad to see anything with links to the Victorian age cease to be.

Whilst true investigative journalism appears to have largely been replaced in this country in favour of re-hashing press releases from media corporations or celebrity agents, I though it the perfect time to return to the birth of investigative journalism and the beginnings of the tabloid press in the UK. To do this, we shall be looking at the Pall Mall Gazette, and first, must go back to 1865.

The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at this time was Frederick Greenwood, and, wanting a sensational story that would shock the public, and having a younger brother, James Greenwood, (My Victorian hero, about whom I blogged last year, here) who was a journalist, he put the two together, and suggested James spend the night in the casual ward of a workhouse.

They chose Lambeth workhouse, in London. Frederick dressed his brother in shabby clothes and together they climbed into a brougham and headed for Lambeth. James Greenwood takes up the story:



At about nine o'clock on the evening of Monday, a neat but unpretentious carriage might have been seen turning cautiously from the Kennington Road into Princes Road, Lambeth. The curtains were closely drawn, and the coachman wore an unusually responsible air. 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; nor 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 the 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 “birds-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 into his pockets, and he shuffled hastily along in boots which were the boots of a tramp indifferent to miry ways. In a moment he was out of sight; and the brougham, after waiting a little while, turned about and comfortably departed.


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 evenings. 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, who, 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 hall in every way was as cheery 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 taradiddle 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 tonight, 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 skilley (gruel). It's the first night of skilley, 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 (only he used a word more specific than “filthy”) 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. Number 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 shoulders, he accompanied me to the 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 flagstones 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 in.

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 thirty feet by thirty enclosed on three sides by a dingy white-washed 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 two feet wide at top, widening to at least four feet at bottom. This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so thickly encrusted with filth that I mistook it at 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 learned the use), with their many arms raised in various attitudes, as the stiffened arms of men are on a battle-field. My bed-fellows lay amongst 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 thirty of them - thirty men, and boys stretched upon shallow pallets which put 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 awaiting the coroner.

From the moral point of view, however, the wakeful ones were more dreadful still. Towzled, dirty, villainous, they squatted up in their beds, and smoked foul pipes, and sang snatches of horrible songs, and bandied jokes so obscene as to he absolutely appalling. Eight or ten were so enjoying themselves, - the majority with the check shirt on and the frowsy rug pulled about their legs; but two or three wore no shirts at all, squatting naked to the waist, their bodies fully exposed in the light of the single flaring jet of gas fixed high up on the wall.

My entrance excited very little attention. There was a horse-pail three parts full of water standing by a post in the middle of the shed, with a little tin pot beside it. Addressing me as 'old pal', one of the naked ruffians begged me to hand him a “swig”, as he was ‘werry nigh garspin.’ Such an appeal - of course no 'old pal' could withstand, and I gave him a pot full of water. He showed himself grateful for the attention. ‘I should lay over there if I was you,' he said, pointing to the left side of the shed; ‘it's more out of the wind than this ere side is.' I took the good-natured advice and (by this time shivering with the cold) stepped over the stones to where the beds or straw bags were heaped, and dragged one of them to the spot suggested by my naked comrade. But I had no more idea of how to arrange it than of making an apple-pudding; and a certain little discovery added much to my embarrassment. In the middle of the bed I had selected was a stain of blood bigger than a man's hand! I did not know what to do now. To lie on such a horrid thing seemed impossible; yet to carry back the bed and exchange it for another might betray a degree of fastidiousness repugnant to the feelings of my fellow lodgers and possibly excite suspicions that I was not what I seemed. Just in the nick of time in came that good man Daddy.

'What! not pitched yet?' he exclaimed; ‘here, I'll show you. Hallo! somebody's been a-bleedin'! Never mind; let's turn him over. There you are, you see! Now lay down, and cover your tug over you.'
There was no help for it. It was too late to go back. Down I lay, and spread the rug over me. I should have mentioned that I brought in with me a cotton handkerchief, and this I tied round my head by way of a nightcap; but not daring to pull the rug as high as my face. Before I could in any way settle my mind to reflection, in came Daddy once more to do me a further kindness, and point out a stupid blunder which I had committed.
  'Why, you are a rummy chap!’ said Daddy. ‘You forgot your bread! Lay hold. And look here, I've brought you another rug; it's perishing cold tonight.'
  So saying, he spread the rug over my legs and went away. I was very thankful for the extra covering, but I was in a dilemma about the bread. I couldn't possibly eat it; what, then, was to be done with it? I broke it, however, and in view of such of the company as might happen to be looking made a ferocious bite at a bit as large as a bean, and munched violently.
By good luck, however, I presently got half way over my difficulty very neatly. Just behind me, so close indeed that their feet came within half a yard of my head, three lads were sleeping together.
  'Did you ear that, Punch?' one of these boys asked.
  'Ear what?' answered Punch, sleepy and snappish.
   Why, a cove forgot his toke! Gordstruth! you wouldn't ketch me a-forgettin' mine.'
  'You may have half of it, old pal, if you're hungry,' I observed, leaning up on my elbows.
  'Chuck it here, good luck to yer!' replied my young friend, starting up with an eager clap of his dirty hands. I 'chucked it here', and, slipping the other half under the side of my bed, lay my head on my folded arms.

***

It was about half-past nine when, having made myself as comfortable as circumstances permitted, I closed my eyes in the desperate hope that I might fall asleep, and so escape from the horrors with which I was surrounded. ‘At seven tomorrow morning the bell will ring,' Daddy had informed me, ‘and then you will give up your ticket and get back your bundle.' Between that time and the present full nine long hours had to wear away. But I was speedily convinced that, at least for the present, sleep was impossible. The young fellow (one of the three who lay in one bed, with their feet to my head) whom my bread had refreshed, presently swore with frightful imprecations that he was now going to have a smoke; and immediately put his threat into execution. Thereupon his bedfellows sat up and lit their pipes too. But oh! If they had only smoked - if they had not taken such an unfortunate fancy to spit at the leg of a crank distant a few inches from my head, how much misery and apprehension would have been spared me! To make matters worse, they united with this American practice an Eastern one: as they smoked they related little autobiographical anecdotes - so abominable that three or four decent men who lay at the farther end of the shed were so provoked that they threatened, unless the talk abated in filthiness, to get up and stop it by main force.
Instantly, the voice of every blackguard in the room was raised against the decent ones. They were accused of loathsome afflictions, stigmatized ‘as fighting men out of work' (which must be something very humiliating, I suppose), and invited to ‘a round' by boys young enough to be their grandsons. For several minutes there was such a storm of oaths, threats, and taunts - such a deluge of foul words raged in the room - that I could not help thinking of the fate of Sodom; as, indeed, I did several times during the night. Little by little the riot died out, without any the slightest interference on the part of the officers.

Soon afterwards the ruffian majority was strengthened by the arrival of a lanky boy of about fifteen, who evidently recognized many acquaintances, and was recognized by them as 'Kay', or perhaps I should write it 'K'. He was a very remarkable-looking lad, and his appearance pleased me much. Short as his hair was cropped, it still looked soft and silky; he had large blue eyes set wide apart, and a mouth that would have been faultless but for its great width; and his voice was as soft and sweet as any woman's. Lightly as a woman, too, he picked his way over the stones towards the place where the beds lay, carefully hugging his cap beneath his arm.
  'What cheer, Kay?' Out again, then, old son!' What yer got in yer cap, Kay?' cried his friends; to which the sweet voice replied,
  ‘Who'll give me part of his doss (bed)? - my - eyes and limbs if I ain't perishin'! Who'll let me turn in with him for half my toke (bread)?' I feared how it would be! The hungry young fellow who had so readily availed himself of half my “toke” snapped at Kay's offer, and after a little rearrangement and bed-making four young fellows instead of three reposed upon the hay-bags at my head.
  'You was too late for skilley. Kay. There's skilley now, nights as well as mornins.'
  'Don't you tell no bleeding lies,' Kay answered, incredulously.
  'Blind me, it's true! Ain't it, Punch?'
  'Right you are!' said Punch, ‘and spoons to eat it with, that's more! There used to be spoons at all the houses, one time. Poplar used to have em; but one at a time they was all nicked, don't you know.' (“Nicked” means “stolen”, obviously.)
  'Well, I don't want no skilley, leastways not tonight,' said Kay. ‘I've had some rum. Two glasses of it; and a blow out of puddin' - regler Christmas plum puddin'. You don't know the cove as give it me, but, thinks I this mornin' when I come out, Blessed if I don't go and see my old chum. Lordstruth! he was struck! "Come along, he ses, "I saved you some puddin' from Christmas. "Whereabouts is it? I ses. "In that box under my bed, he ses, and he forks it out. That's the sort of pal to have! And he stood a quartern, and half a ounce of hard-up (tobacco). That wasn't all, neither; when I come away, ses he, "How about your breakfus ?" "Oh, I shall do, ses I. "You take some of my bread and butter, he ses, and he cuts me off four chunks buttered thick. I eat two on em comin' along.'
  'What's in your cap, Kay?' repeated the devourer of “toke”.
  'Them other two slices,' said Kay; generously adding, ‘There, share em amongst yer, and somebody give us a whiff of bacca.'

'Kay’ showed himself a pleasant companion; what in a higher grade of society is called ‘quite an acquisition'. He told stories of thieving, and of a certain ‘silver cup' he had been “put up to”, and avowed that he meant to nick it afore the end of the week, if he got seven stretch (seven years?) for it. The cup was worth ten quid (pounds?), and he knew where to melt it within ten minutes of nicking it. He made this statement without any moderation of his sweet voice, and the other received it as a serious statement. Nor was there any affectation of secrecy in another gentleman, who announced amid great applause that he had stolen a towel from the bath-room:
  'And s'help me! it's as good as new; never been washed more'n once!'
  'Tell us a "rummy” story, Kay,' said somebody: and Kay did. He told stories of so “rummy” a character that the decent men at the farther end of the room (some of whom had their own little boys sleeping with them) must have lain in a sweat of horror as they listened. Indeed, when Kay broke into a “rummy” song with a roaring chorus, one of the decent men rose in his bed and swore that he would smash Kay's head if he didn't desist. But Kay sang on till he and his admirers were tired of the entertainment.
  'Now,' said he, ‘let's have a swearing club! You'll all be in it?' The principle of this game seemed to rest on the impossibility of either of the young gentlemen making half a dozen observations without introducing a blasphemous or obscene word; and either the basis is a very sound one, or for the sake of keeping the “club” alive the members purposely made slips. The penalty for “swearing” was a punch on any part of the body, except a few which the club rules protected. The game was highly successful. Warming with the sport, and indifferent to punches, the members vied with each other in audacity, and in a few minutes Bedlam in its prime could scarcely have produced such a spectacle as was to be seen on the beds behind me. One rule of the club was that any word to be found in the Bible might be used with impunity, and if one member “punched” another for using such a word the error was to be visited upon him with a double punching all round. This naturally led to much argument; for in vindicating the Bible as his authority, a member became sometimes so much heated as to launch into a flood of real “swearing”, which brought the fists of the club upon his naked carcase quick as hail.
 
These and other pastimes beguiled the time until, to my delight, the church chimes audibly tolled twelve. After this the noise gradually subsided, and it seemed as though everybody was going to sleep at last. I should have mentioned that during the story-telling and song-singing a few “casuals” had dropped in, but they were not habitués, and cuddled down with their rugs over their heads without a word to any one.
In a little while all was quiet - save for the flapping of the canvas curtain in the night breeze, the snoring, and the horrible, indescribable sound of impatient hands scratching skins that itched. There was another sound of very frequent occurrence, and that was the clanking of the tin pannikin against the water pail. Whether it is in the nature of workhouse bread or skilley to provoke thirst is more than my limited experience entities me to say, but it may be truthfully asserted that once at least in the course of five minutes might be heard a rustling of straw, a pattering of feet, and then the noise of water dipping; and then was to be seen at the pail the figure of a man (sometimes stark naked), gulping down the icy water as he stood upon them icy stones.
And here I may remark that I can furnish no solution to this mystery of the shirt. I only know that some of my comrades were provided with a shirt, and that to some the luxury was denied. I may say this, however, that none of the little boys were allowed one.

Nearly one o'clock. Still quiet, and no fresh arrival for an hour or more. Then suddenly a loud noise of hobnailed boots kicking at a wooden gate, and soon after a tramping of feet and a rapping at Daddy's door, which, it will be remembered, was only separated from our bedroom by an open paved court.
  'Hallo!' cried Daddy.
  'Here's some more of em for you - ten of em!' answered the porter, whose voice I recognized at once.
  'They'll have to find beds, then,' Daddy grumbled, as he opened his door. ‘I don't believe there are four beds empty. They must sleep double, or something.'
This was terrible news for me. Bad enough, in all conscience, was it to lie as I was lying; but the prospect of sharing my straw with some dirty scoundrel of the Kay breed was altogether unendurable. Perhaps, however, they were not dirty scoundrels, but peaceable and decent men, like those in the farther corner.
Alas for my hopes! In the space of five minutes in they came at the rent in the canvas - great hulking ruffians, some with rugs and nothing else, and some with shirts and nothing else, and all madly swearing because, coming in after eleven o'clock, there was no “toke” for them. As soon as these wrathful men had advanced to the middle of the shed they made the discovery that there was an insufficient number of beds - only three, indeed, for ten competitors.
  'Where's the beds? D'ye hear, Daddy! You blessed truth - telling old person, where's the beds?'
  'You'll find em. Some of em is lying on two, or got em as pillows. You'll find em.'
With a sudden rush our new friends plunged amongst the sleepers, trampling over them, cursing their eyes and limbs, dragging away their rugs; and if by chance they found some poor wretch who had been tempted to take two beds (or bags) instead of one, they coolly hauled him out and took possession. There was no denying them, and no use in remonstrating. They evidently knew that they were at liberty to do just as they liked, and they took full advantage of the privilege.
One of them came up to me, and shouting, I want that, you ----‘, snatched at my “birdseye” nightcap and carried it off.
There was a bed close to mine which contained only one occupant, and into this one of the newcomers slipped without a word of warning, driving its lawful owner against the wall to make room. Then he sat up in the bed for a moment, savagely venting his disappointment as to “toke”, and declaring that never before in his life had he felt the need of it so much. This was opportunity. Slipping my hand under my bed, I withdrew that judiciously hoarded piece of bread and respectfully offered it to him. He snapped at it with thanks.

By the time the churches were chiming two, matters had once more adjusted themselves, and silence reigned, to be disturbed only by drinkers at the pail, or such as, otherwise prompted, stalked into the open yard. Kay, for one, visited it. I mention this unhappy young wretch particularly, because he went out without a single rag to his back. I looked out at the rent in the canvas, and saw the frosty moon shining on him. When he returned, and crept down between Punch and another, he muttered to himself, ‘Warm again! O my God! Warm again!'

***

I hope, Mr Editor, that you will not think me too prodigal of these reminiscences, and that your readers will understand that, if I write rather boldly, it is not done as a matter of taste. To me, it seems quite worthwhile to relate with tolerable accuracy of an adventure which you persuaded me (“ah! Woful when!”) to undertake for the public good.
Whether there is a rule which closes the casual wards after a certain hour I do not know; but before one o'clock our number was made up, the last corner signalizing his appearance with a grotesque pas seul. His rug over his shoulders, he waltzed into the shed, waving his hands, and singing in an affected voice, as he sidled along, - 

‘I like to be a swell, a-roaming down Pall Mall,
Or anywhere, I don't much care, so I can be a swell,’ –

a couplet which had an intensely comical effect. This gentleman had just come from a pantomime (where he had learned his song, probably). Too poor to pay for a lodging, he could only muster means for a seat in the gallery of “the Vic”; where he was well entertained, judging from the flattering manner in which he spoke of the clown. The columbine was less fortunate in his opinion. ‘She's werry dickey! - ain't got what I call “move” about her.' However, the wretched young woman was respited now from the scourge of his criticism; for the critic and his listeners were fast asleep: and yet I doubt whether any one of the company slept very soundly. Every moment some one shifted uneasily; and as the night wore on the silence was more and more irritated by the sound of coughing. This was one of the most distressing things in the whole adventure. The conversation was horrible, the tales that were told more horrible still, and worse than either (though not by any means the most infamous things to be heard - I dare not even hint at them) was that song, with its bestial chorus shouted from a dozen throats; but at any rate they kept the blood warm with constant hot flushes of anger; while as for the coughing, to lie on the flagstones in what was nothing better than an open shed, and listen to that, hour after hour, chilled one's very heart with pity.

Every variety of cough that ever I heard was to be heard there: the hollow cough; the short cough; the hysterical cough; the bark that comes at regular intervals, like the quarter-chime of a clock, as if to mark off the progress of decay; coughing from vast hollow chests, coughing from little narrow ones - now one, now another, now two or three together, and then a minute's interval of silence in which to think of it all, and wonder who would begin next. One of the young reprobates above me coughed so grotesquely like the chopping of wood that I named him in my mind the Woodcutter. Now and then I found myself coughing too, which may have added just a little to the poignant distress these awfully constant and various sounds occasioned me. They were good in one way: they made one forget what wretches they were who, to all appearances, were so rapidly “chopping” their way to a pauper's graveyard. I did not care about the more matured ruffians so much; but, though the youngest, the boys like Kay, were unquestionably amongst the most infamous of my comrades, to hear what cold and hunger and vice had done for them at fifteen was almost enough to make a man cry; and there were boys there even younger than these.

At half-past two, every one being asleep, or at least lying still, Daddy came in and counted us: one, two, three, four, and so on, in a whisper. Then, finding the pail empty (it was nearly full at half-past nine, when I entered), he considerately went and refilled it, and even took much trouble in searching for the tin pot which served as a drinking cup, and which the last comer had playfully thrown to the farther end of the shed. I ought to have mentioned that the pail stood close to my head; so that I had peculiar opportunities of study as one after another of my comrades came to the fountain to drink: just as the brutes do in those books of African travel. The pail refilled, Daddy returned, and was seen no more till morning.

It still wanted four hours and a half to seven o'clock - the hour of rising - and never before in my life did time appear to creep so slowly. I could hear the chimes of a parish church, and of the Parliament Houses, as well as those of a wretched tinkling Dutch clock somewhere on the premises. The parish church was the first to announce the hour (an act of kindness I feel bound to acknowledge) Westminster came next, the lazy Dutchman declining his consent to the time o' day till fully sixty second afterwards. And I declare I thought that difference of sixty seconds an injury - if the officers of the house took their time from the Dutchman. It may seem a trifle, but a minute is something when a man is lying on a cold flagstone, and the wind of a winter night is blowing in your hair. Three o'clock, four o'clock struck, and still there was nothing to beguile the time but observation, under the one flaring gaslight, of the little heaps of outcast humanity strewn about the floor; and after a while, I find, one may even become accustomed to the sight of one's fellow-creatures lying around you like covered corpses in a railway shed. For most of the company were now bundled under the rugs in the ghastly way I have already described - though here and there a cropped head appeared, surmounted by a billy-cock like my own, or by a greasy cloth cap. Five o'clock, six o'clock chimed, and then I had news - most welcome - of the world without, and of the real beginning of day. Half a dozen factory bells announced that it was time for working men to go to labour; but my companions were not working men, and so snored on. Out through the gap in the canvas the stars were still to be seen shining on the black sky, but that did not alter the fact that it was six o'clock in the morning. I snapped my fingers at the Dutchman, with his sixty seconds slow, for in another hour I fondly hoped to be relieved from duty.

A little while, and doors were heard to open and shut; yet a little while, and the voice of Daddy was audible in conversation with another early bird; and then I distinctly caught the word “bundles”. Blessed sound! I longed for my bundle - for my pleasing brown coat - for my warm if unsightly “jersey” - for my corduroys and liberty.
'Clang!' went the workhouse clock. 'Now, then! wake em up!' cried Daddy. I was already up - sitting up, that is - being anxious to witness the resurrection of the ghastly figures rolled in their rugs. But nobody but myself rose at the summons. They knew what it meant well enough, and in sleepy voices cursed the bell and wished it in several dreadful places; but they did not move until there came in at the hole in the canvas two of the pauper inhabitants of the house, bearing bundles. 'Thirty-two,' twenty-eight!' they bawled, but not my number, which was thirty-four. Neither thirty-two. nor twenty-eight, however, seemed eager to accept his good fortune in being first called. They were called upon three several times before they would answer; and then they replied with a savage ‘Chuck it here, can't you!' ‘Not before you chucks over your shirt and ticket,' the bundle-holder answered, whereupon 'thirty-eight' sat up, and, divesting himself of his borrowed shirt, flung it with his wooden ticket; and his bundle was flung back in return.
It was some time before bundle No. 34 turned up, so that I had fair opportunity to observe my neighbours. The decent men slipped into their rags as soon as they got them, but the blackguards were in no hurry. Some indulged in a morning pipe to prepare themselves for the fatigue of dressing, while others, loosening their bundles as they squatted naked, commenced an investigation for certain little animals which shall be nameless.

At last my turn came; and “chucking over” my shirt and ticket, I quickly attired myself in clothes which, ragged as they were, were cleaner than they looked. In less than two minutes I was out of the shed, and in the yard; where a few of the more decent poor fellows were crowding round a pail of water, and scrambling after something that might pass for a “wash” - finding their own soap, as far as I could observe, and drying their faces on any bit of rag they might happen to have about them, or upon the canvas curtain of the shed.

By this time it was about half-past seven, and the majority of the casuals were up and dressed. I observed, however, that none of the younger boys were as yet up, and it presently appeared that there existed some rule against their dressing in the shed; for Daddy came out of the bath-room, where the bundles were deposited, and called out, ‘Now four boys!' and instantly four poor little wretches, some with their rugs trailing about their shoulders and some quite bare, came shivering over the stones and across the bleak yard, and were admitted to the bath-room to dress. ‘Now four more boys!' cried Daddy; and so on.

When all were up and dressed, the boys carried the bed rugs into Daddy's room, and the pauper inmates made a heap of the “beds”, stacking them against the wall. As before mentioned, the shed served the treble purpose of bed-chamber, workroom, and breakfast-room; it was impossible to get fairly at the cranks and set them going until the bedding was stowed away.

Breakfast before work, however; but it was a weary while to some of us before it made its appearance. For my own part, I had little appetite, but about me were a dozen poor wretches who obviously had a very great one: they had come in overnight too late for bread, and perhaps may not have broken fast since the morning of the previous day. The decent ones suffered most. The blackguard majority were quite cheerful - smoking, swearing, and playing their pretty horse play, the prime end of which was pain or discomfiture for somebody else. One casual there was with only one leg. When he came in overnight he wore a black hat, which added a certain look of respectability to a worn suit of black. All together his clothes had been delivered up to him by Daddy, but now he was seen hopping disconsolately about the place on his crutch, for the hat was missing. He was a timid man, with a mild voice; and whenever he asked some ruffian ‘whether he had seen such a thing as a black hat', and got his answer, he invariably said ‘Thank you,' which was regarded as very amusing. At last one sidled up to him with a grin, and showing about three square inches of some fluffy substance, said, ‘Is this anything like wot you've lost, guv'ner?'
The cripple inspected it. 'That's the rim of it!' he said. What a shame!' and hobbled off with tears in his eyes.

Full three-quarters of an hour of loitering and shivering, and then came the taskmaster: a soldierly-looking man over six feet high, with quick grey eyes in which “No trifling” appeared as distinctly as a notice against trespassing on a wayside board. He came in amongst us, and the grey eyes made out our number in a moment. ‘Out into the yard, all of you!' he cried; and we went out in a mob. There we shivered for some twenty minutes longer, and then a baker's man appeared with a great wooden tray piled up with just such slices of bread as we had received overnight. The tray was consigned to an able-bodied casual, who took his place with the taskmaster at the shed door; and then in single file we re-entered the shed, each man and boy receiving a slice as he passed in. Pitying, as I suppose, my unaccustomed look, Mr. Taskmaster gave me a slice and a large piece over.
The bread devoured, a clamour for “skilley” began. The rumour had got abroad that this morning, and on all future mornings, there would be skilley at breakfast, and ‘Skilley! skilley!' resounded through the shed. No one had hinted that it was not forthcoming, but skilley seems to be thought an extraordinary concession, and after waiting only a few minutes for it, they attacked the taskmaster in the fiercest manner. They called him thief, sneak, and “crawler”. Little boys black-guarded him in gutter language, and, looking him in the face, consigned him to hell without flinching. He never uttered a word in reply, or showed a sign of impatience; and whenever he was obliged to speak it was quite without temper. 

There was a loud 'hooray!' when the longed-for skilley appeared in two pails, in one of which floated a small tin saucepan, with a stick thrust into its handle, by way of a ladle. Yellow pint basins were provided for our use, and large iron spoons. ‘Range round the walls!' the taskmaster shouted. We obeyed with the utmost alacrity; and then what I should judge to be about three-fourths of a pint of gruel was handed to each of us as we stood. I was glad to get mine, because the basin that contained it was warm and my hands were numb with cold. I tasted a spoonful, as in duty bound, and wondered more than ever at the esteem in which it was held by my confrères. It was a weak decoction of oatmeal and water, bitter, and without even a pinch of salt to flavour it - that I could discover. But it was hot; and on that account, perhaps, was so highly relished that I had no difficulty in persuading one of the decent men to accept my share.

It was now past eight o'clock, and as I knew that a certain quantity of labour had to be performed by each man before he was allowed to go his way, I was anxious to begin. The labour was to be “crank” labour. The “cranks” are a series of iron bars extending across the width of the shed, penetrating through the wall, and working a flour mill on the other side. Turning the “crank” is like turning a windlass. The task is not a severe one. Four measures of corn (bushels they were called - but that is doubtful) have to be ground every morning by the night's batch of casuals. Close up by the ceiling hangs a bell connected with the machinery; and as each measure is ground the bell rings, so that the grinders may know how they are going on. But the grinders are as lazy as obscene. We were no sooner set to work than the taskmaster left us to our own sweet will, with nothing to restrain its exercise but an occasional visit from the miller, a weakly expostulating man. Once or twice he came in and said mildly, ‘Now then, my men, why don't you stick to it?' - and so went out again.

The result of this laxity of overseeing would have disgusted me at any time, and was intensely disgusting then. At least one half the gang kept their hands from the crank whenever the miller was absent, and betook themselves to their private amusements and pursuits. Some sprawled upon the beds and smoked; some engaged themselves and their friends in tailoring, and one turned hair-cutter for the benefit of a gentleman who, unlike Kay, had not just come out of prison. There were three tailors: two of them on the beds mending their own coats, and the other operating on a recumbent friend in the rearward part of his clothing. Where the needles came from I do not know; but for thread they used a strand of the oakum (evidently easy to deal with) which the boys were picking in the corners. Other loungers strolled about with their hands in their pockets, discussing the topics of the day, and playing practical jokes on the industrious few: a favourite joke being to take a bit of rag, anoint it with grease from the crank axles, and clap it unexpectedly over somebody's eye.

The consequence of all this was that the cranks went round at a very slow rate and now and then stopped altogether. Then the miller came in; the loungers rose from their couches, the tailors ceased stitching, the smokers dropped their pipes, and every fellow was at his post. The cranks spun round furiously again, the miller's expostulation being drowned amidst a shout of 'Slap bang, here we are again!' or this extemporized chorus:

We'll hang up the miller on a sour apple tree,
We'll hang up the miller on a sour apple tree,
We'll hang up the miller on a sour apple tree,
    And then go grinding on.
        Glory, glory, Hallelujah, etc., etc.

By such ditties the ruffians enlivened their short spell of work. Short indeed! The miller departed, and within a minute afterwards beds were reoccupied, pipes lit, and tailoring resumed. So the game continued - the honest fellows sweating at the cranks, and anxious to get the work done and go out to look for more profitable labour, and the paupers by profession taking matters quite easy. I am convinced that had the work been properly superintended the four measures of corn might have been ground in the space of an hour and a half. As it was, when the little bell tinkled for the fourth time, and the yard gate was opened and we were free to depart, the clock had struck eleven.

I had seen the show - gladly I escaped into the open streets. The sun shone brightly on my ragged, disreputable figure, and showed its squalor with startling distinctness; but within all was rejoicing. A few yards, and then I was blessed with the sight of that same vehicle - waiting for me in the spot where I had parted from it fourteen weary hours before. Did you observe, Mr Editor, with what alacrity I jumped in? I have a vivid recollection of you, Sir - sitting there with an easy patience, lounging through your Times, and oh! so detestably clean to look at! But, though I resented your collar, I was grateful for the sight of a familiar fate, and for that draught of sherry which you considerately brought for me - a welcome refreshment after so many weary hours of fasting.

And now I have come to he end I remember many little incidents which until this moment had escaped me. I ought to have told you of two quiet elderly gentlemen who, amidst all the blackguardism that went on around, held a discussion upon the merits of the English language - one of the disputants showing an especial admiration for the word “kindle” – ‘fine old Saxon word as ever was coined'. Then there were some childish games of “first and last letters”, to vary such entertainments as that of the swearing club. I should also have mentioned that, on the dissolution of the swearing club a game at “dumb motions” was started, which presently led to some talk concerning deaf and dumb people, and their method of conversing with each other by means of finger signs; as well as to a little story that sounded strangely enough coming from the mouth of the most efficient member of the club. A good memory for details enables me to repeat this story almost, if not quite, exactly.

  'They are a rummy lot, them deaf and dumb,' said the storyteller. ‘I was at the workhouse at Stepney when I was a young ‘un, don't you know; and when I got a holiday I used to go and see my old woman as lived in the Borough. Well, one day a woman as was in the house ses to me, ses she, "Don't you go past the Deaf and Dumb School as you goes home?" So I ses, "Yes.” So ses she, "Would you mind callin' there and takin' a message to my little girl as is in there deaf and dumb?” So I ses, "No.” Well, I goes, and they lets me in, and I tells the message, and they shows me the kid what it was for. Pooty little gal! So they tells her the message, and then she begins making orts and crosses like on her hands. "What's she a doin' that for?" I ses. "She's a-talkin' to you”, ses they. "Oh!” I ses, "what's she talkin' about?" "She says you're a good boy for comin' and tellin' her about her mother, and she loves you.” Blest if I could help laughin'! So I ses, "There ain't no call for her to say that.” Pooty little kid she was! I stayed there a goodish bit, and walked about the garden with her, and what d'ye think? Presently she takes a fancy for some of my jacket buttons - brass uns they was, with the name of the ‘house on em - and I cuts four on em off and gives her. Well, when I give her them blow me if she didn't want one of the brass buckles off my shoes. Well, you mightn't think it, but I gave her that too.
  'Didn't yer get into a row when you got back?' some listener asked.
  'Rather! Got kep without dinner and walloped as well, as I wouldn't tell what I'd done with em. Then they was goin' to wallop me again, so I thought I'd cheek it out; so I up and told the master all about it.'
  'And got it wuss?'
  'No, I didn't. The master give me new buttons and a buckle without saying another word, and my dinner along with my supper as well.'

The moral of all this I leave to the world. It seems necessary to say something about it, for the report which Mr. Farnall made after visiting Lambeth Workhouse on Saturday seems meant to suggest an idea that what has been described here is merely an irregularity. So it may be, but an irregularity which consigned some forty men to such a den on the night when somebody happened to be there to see, is probably a frequent one; and it certainty is infamous. And then as to the other workhouses? Mr. Farnall was in ignorance of what was done at Lambeth in this way, and I selected it for a visit quite at random. Does he know what goes on in other workhouses? If they are inclined to inquire, I may, perhaps, be able to assist the investigation by this hint: my companions had a discussion during the night as to the respective merits of the various workhouses; and the general verdict was that those of Tottenham and Poplar were the worst in London. Is it true, as I heard it stated, that at one of these workhouses the casual sleeps on bare boards, without a bed of any sort? 

One word in conclusion. I have some horrors for Mr. Farnall’s private ear (should he like to learn about them) infinitely more revolting than anything that appears in these papers.

Lambeth Workhouse Today


***
In his 1924 book of reminisces, ‘London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties’ Alfred Rosling Bennett remembers the work of James Greenwood whilst looking back at 1866:
“January was also noted for the “Amateur Casual” articles of Mr. Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who, got up as a tramp, gained admittance to a casual ward - at Lambeth, I think - and there found material for some remarkably good "copy." Very soon everybody was talking about his adventures, and Old Daddy, one of his co-casuals, became quite famous, receiving attention and even personation at some of the music-halls. Had the manager of one of these had the inspiration to engage Daddy as his chairman he would certainly have scored. Greenwood's experiences constituted a good journalistic "scoop” and led to some small reforms in casual ward administration.”

“A Night in the Workhouse” was published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1866 and caused a sensation with the public. William Booth, of The Salvation Army, called it “The beginnings of the reform of our poor law.

***

Sticking with the Pall Mall Gazette, we jump forward to another piece of radical journalism, this time in July 1885, when the paper began a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. These articles were incredibly powerful journalistic pieces on the trade of child prostitution. In order to ‘bring down’ the activity under investigation, the journalist, W.T Stead used an extremely brave and risky method of undercover journalism.

On Saturday 4th July, 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette issued the following warning;

"All those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who would prefer to live in a fool's paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

This, of course, provided excellent publicity, and on Monday 6th July, the first installment of ‘Maiden Tribute’ was printed. In this first installment, the article shocked its readers with highly controversial subheadings such as “the Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper” “Strapping Girls Down” “The Violation of Virgins” and, most notably due to its subsequent consequences for Stead, “A Child of Thirteen Bought for £5”.
To demonstrate the truth of this last mentioned article, Stead, along with a few accomplices, arranged to ‘buy’ a thirteen year old girl named Eliza Armstrong. (Given the alias of Lily in the article.)
Stead’s articles were hard hitting, and exposed a side of London that society was either unaware of, or had chosen to brush under the carpet. "Maiden Tribute" focused on child prostitution, which involved the abduction and selling-on of young girls to what he described as Continental "pleasure palaces".

‘Maiden Tribute’ was a smash hit, despite the fact that W.H Smith and Sons refused to sell the paper due to its graphic content, other news-sellers did not flinch, and during the Pall Mall Gazette’s publishing of the articles, crowds would gather outside the Gazette’s offices in the morning, desperate for a copy of the paper so that they could read the next installment. The articles were so popular, that even second hand copies of the paper were sold for as much as a shilling – the equivalent of giving someone around £2.50 for their second hand copy of the Sun newspaper today.

W.T Stead
Despite his actions being well-meaning and in the name of journalism, after he revealed what he had done, Stead was arrested for the investigative methods he had used, and convicted, rather tamely, for not obtaining permission from Eliza’s father to ‘purchase’ her. Stead served time in Coldbath Fields and Holloway prisons for three months.

Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute’ articles caused shock and outrage in polite society, and in its aftermath a number of reform groups and famous social reformers and philanthropists demanded the government step in and end the problems highlighted by Stead and ‘the Maiden Tribute’. People wanted a law passed that would make child prostitution illegal, and that anyone found to be involved with it adjudged to be breaking the law. Protest meetings and marches were carried out in Hyde Park, with women dressed in virginal white marching in favour of the passing of the bill. The Government was now faced with a choice; listen to the people and make child prostitution illegal, or ignore the protests and, in effect, be seen to condone the act.
Of course, Parliament acquiesced to public demand, and on 14th August 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 passed into law, which raised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen, meaning anyone found to be having personal relations with a girl under sixteen was breaking the law.

The method’s used by Stead, and the almost penny-blood-like headlines that he used were instrumental in revolutionizing journalism, and heralded a new, investigative style in which reporters could create a news-worthy event themselves and report on it, rather than simply reporting on things that had happened already.

He also introduced the interview to the repertoire of the newspaper reporter when, in 1884, he interviewed General Gordon. This new tactic allowed the journalists to add different dimensions and perspectives to stories they were reporting on, rather than simply putting across their own opinions.
Stead’s 'New Journalism' is seen as the forerunner to what we today know as the tabloid press. So blame him for what is happening at the moment.

W.T Stead died in 1912, a passenger on the Titanic, aged 62.

Read the whole of ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ on victorianlondon.org here and find out more about W.T Stead on the super site attackingthedevil.co.uk

As a little footnote on the News of the World, Frederick Greenwood, aforementioned editor
of the Pall Mall Gazette, met newspaper proprietor George Riddell, and in the course of conversation Riddell said to him, "You know, I own a paper." "Oh,” Greenwood replied, “do you? What is it?" "It's called the News of the World, I'll send you a copy," replied Riddell, and in due course did so. Next time they met Riddell said, "Well Greenwood, what do you think of my paper?" "I looked at it," replied Greenwood, "and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, 'If I leave it there the cook may read it'—so I burned it!”

I'm sure many have shared a similar opinion over the years.

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating - the workhouse really was horrendous but it means so much more reading a contemporary account.

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  2. I think amid everything Greenwood wrote in the article the two stand out details that would make me blow my cover and want to leave are the blood on the mattress and the constant coughing!

    The workhouses, in general view over the course of time, have become almost parodies of themselves, people today know they were bad places, and articles like this, and others, bring the reasons and details into sharp focus.

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