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Sunday, 17 October 2010

James Greenwood: 1832 - 1929

Since I continue to mention James Greenwood on this blog, on Twitter, and citing him as my favourite Victorian writer, I thought it prudent to write a little about him here so that any readers who are unfamiliar with him can get to know him a little better, and hopefully be inspired to read some of his work.

Greenwood was a writer and social journalist after the fashion of Henry Mayhew, but whilst Mayhew and his “London Labour and the London Poor” went on to achieve recognition and plaudits for over a hundred and fifty years, Most of Greenwood’s work is largely unknown today.

Social journalism such as Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives”, published in 1890, and the work it inspired; Jack London’s undercover study of the poor east end of London, “The People of the Abyss” in 1902, and of course, Mayhew’s work, sold copy after copy as the public read with horror the living conditions of the underclass of the Metropolis, but half a century before Jack London conducted his famous study, James Greenwood - then working for the Pall Mall Gazette - undertook his own investigations into the manner in which London's poor spent their days.

The 19th century workhouses were largely ignored by the middle and upper classes of London society, as were most issues relating to the poor, until Greenwood took it upon himself to conduct an investigation into the manner in which workhouses were run. Disguising himself as a vagrant, he checked himself into Lambeth workhouse for an evening and his experiences there were soon after published as the ground-breaking “A Night in a Workhouse” in 1866.

This report was different not only for the subject it tackled, but for the way in which it was described. The poor had been written about before by various newspapers of the time, but these accounts always retained a strong sense of "Victorian propriety", i.e. "unpleasant" issues were not discussed, and poetic euphemisms often replaced the actual horrors London's indigent populations had to face.
Greenwood took a different approach with his report. For the first time, the subject of London's poor was described in vivid and revealing detail. Greenwood writes of the dehumanization which takes place within the workhouse, people stripped of all their possessions and sent to bathe in water so grime-filled it had the consistency of soup. He describes in horrific detail how he discovered his own mattress soaked with the blood of its previous inhabitant.
On mentioning this to the keeper, he was told to flip it over and "you'll be alright."

Yet through it all, Greenwood describes the often incredible strength of the workhouse inhabitants, who manage to keep a sense of humour throughout, and don't often complain of the small lot they've been given.
The response to “A Night in a Workhouse” was phenomenal, and the subject of the poor was thrown immediately into the London spotlight. One surviving broadside from 1866 goes far to display the public's reaction to Greenwood's pamphlet with a lyrical report:

“All you that dwell in Lambeth, listen for a while, 

To a song to enlighten and amuse you, 

In the workhouse only mark, there's queer doings after dark. 

And believe me it is true I now tell you; 

It's of the ups and downs, of a pauper's life, 

Which are none of the best you may he sure sir. 

Strange scenes they do enact, believe me, it's a fact, 

In Lambeth workhouse among the casual poor, sir. 

Oh my, what a rummy go, oh crikey, what a strange revelation, 

Has occurred in Lambeth workhouse a little while ago, 

And through the parish is causing great sensation.
Now a gent, with good intent, to Lambeth workhouse went, 

The mystery of the place to explore, sir, 
Says he, without a doubt, I shall then find out, 

What treatment they give the houseless poor, sir. 

So he went through his degrees, like a blessed brick, 

Thro' scenes he had never seen before, sir, 

So good luck to him, I say, for ever and a day, 

For bestowing a thought upon the poor, sir.
Says he, when you go in, in a bath you are pop’t in, 

To flounder about just like fishes, 
In water that looks like dirty mutton broth,
Or the washings of the plates and the dishes; 

Then your togs are tied up tight, to make sure all is right,

Like parcels put up for a sale, sir, 

A ticket then you get, as if you are for a trip, 

And a-going a journey by the rail, sir.

Then before you go to bed, you get a toke of bread, 

Which, if hungry, goes a small way to fill you, 

And if not too late at night, you may chance to be all right, 

To wash it down with a draught of skilley; 

Some they will shout out, Daddy, mind what you are about, 

And tip me a comfortable rug now, 

And be sure you see it's whole, for I'm most jolly cold, 

And mind you don't give us any bugs now,
Then you pig on a dirty floor, if you can, you'll have a snore, 

And pass away time till the morning. 

Then you're muster'd up pell mell, at the crank to take a spell, 

Just to give your cramp'd up body a good warming. 

Thou see them all in rows in their torn and ragged clothes, 

Their gruel and their bread they swallow greedy, 
hen through London streets they roam, with neither friends or home, 
It's the fate of the suffering and the needy.

Now a word I've got to say, to all you who poor rates pay, 

Tho', of course, offence to none is intended. 

Before you your poor rates pay, just well look to the way, 

And inquire how your money is expended; 

Do as you'd be done to, that is the time of day, 

And with me you'll agree, I am sure now, 

As you high taxes pay, it is but fair I say, 

To look a little to the comforts of the poor now.”

Today, still, Greenwood's “A Night in a Workhouse” is heralded as the first example of true investigative journalism as these recent quotes show:

"Another event, early in 1866, changed the way journalists investigated questions concerning the poor, and the way the stories about the poor were told.
Dressing himself in shabby clothes, James Greenwood spent a night in the casual ward of a London workhouse. His account of his evening first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, then was reprinted in the Times, and finally published as a pamphlet, A Night in a Workhouse.
Not only did Greenwood's expose initiate a standard for investigative reporting of conditions among the urban poor, but the stark reporting established a tone picked up by working-class writers such as Arthur Morrison later in the century. "
 - Bulletin of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association (Summer 2000)

"British and Continental students of poverty provided Americans with more precise models for down-and-out social investigation. Peter Keating has identified a British tradition of such explorations, generally intended to stimulate reform through state action, that he dates from journalist James Greenwood's 1866 account of "A Night in a Workhouse." "
 - A World of Difference: Constructing the "Underclass" in Progressive America by
Mark Pittenger 
American Quarterly (1997)

To this day, “A Night in a Workhouse” retains a poignancy unparalleled in most descriptions of the poor of Victorian London. These are the same workhouses discussed in the works of Dickens and Morrison - the same workhouses frequented by the victims and of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, 1888. The importance of the workhouse in the lives of London's poor can not be overstated - it was where they slept, ate, worked, received medical attention, and, often, where they died.

After leaving The Pall Mall Gazette, Greenwood became a journalist with the Daily Telegraph, and continued to produce articles relating to social issues and poverty in London.

Throughout his career he produced a good quantity of work, and his articles, put together and released as books. I have included a link here to Wiki-source, where his compiled works (listed below) can be read, including “A Night in the Workhouse”:

   In Strange Company (1874)
   Low-Life Deeps (1881)
   Toilers in London (1883)
   Unsentimental Journeys (1867)
   The Wilds of London (1874)

Anyone interested in Victorian social journalism or Victorian society should take the time to look at Greenwood’s work, as many aspects of it can be found within it.

Greenwood’s writing, not just in “A Night in a Workhouse” – his most popular piece – but in all his work, I find is amongst the most readable of the Victorian social journalism because of the humour and humanity that runs through the writing of this intelligent, affable and pioneering Victorian journalist.

Thanks to Stephen from for letting me use some of his words on greenwood, and for anyone interested in what Greenwood looked like, he is the handsome fellow on my profile picture!


  1. I always enjoy the works of the London investigating journalists, however I question whether Greenwood was writing out of sympathy or sensation. He savaged the writers of penny dreadfuls in more than one article and yet he wrote a few iffy titles himself for the pd publisher Edwin Brett. The thing about it is that many of the investigative authors wrote about crime and poverty because it was sensational and the subject had a huge audience after Mayhew. Worth keeping in mind when reading Wilds of London and similar works.

  2. This is true, in the same way that if you want to sell a product, use sex, if you want to sell news, make it bad news. nobody is interested in good news stories, but you're quite correct in what you say, there was a very fine line between slum-lit novels such as those by Arthur Morrison and these journalistic pieces.

    Morrison was even criticised that "A Child of the Jago" was over sensationalised, despite it being a novel, and some of the things in the work of Greenwood, Mayhew, Sala et al is not far from the mark of that particular book.

    Thanks for the comment, all appreciated, as is the debate they can lead to!

  3. Greenwood was actually quite sensitive to the plight of the poor. He took up the cause of railwaymen and was instrumental in gaining them a union and in 1895 he arranged with The Ragged School Union to send poor children to the country for summer holidays. An appeal by the editor of The Telegraph provided 80,000 pounds for Christmas hampers for crippled children. In 1866 he wrote The True History of a Little Ragamuffin, a documentary (?)account of a street Arab, of which, alas, I have never been able to find a copy.

    1. "Little Ragamuffin" is available on Amazon now.

  4. I love his work and find it, unlike a lot of similar journalism of the time, easy to read and not moralistic in the same way that, say, J. Ewing Ritchie was.

    Much as i love Greenwood and find his work to be up there with some of the most inspiring Victorian journalism, I can find very little information about him, if there were a biography about him, that would be as gold dust.

    For now, I search out antique copies of his books and enjoy his work.

  5. Is it correct that a original first edition of the "The Seven Curses of London" in good condition, is now worth Tens of Thousands of Pounds?
    I know my dad had one when i was younger, but he lent or gave it away to an old colleague, and i never saw it again.