|Luke Fildes Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)|
Henry Mayhew, writing twenty years earlier, paints an equally vivid picture. He describes:
''..the homeless crowds gathered about the Asylum, waiting for the first opening of the doors., with their bare feet, blue and ulcerous with the cold, resting for hours on the ice and snow in the streets. To hear the cries of the hungry, shivering children ..is a thing to haunt one for life. There are 400 and odd creatures utterly destitute - mothers with infants at their breasts - fathers with boys holding by their side - the friendless - the penniless - the shirtless, shoeless, breadless, homeless; in a word, the very poorest of this the very richest city in the world.''
(Mayhew, London Labour & The London Poor volume 111)
Although the Workhouse has had a very bad press - think of Oliver Twist, many poor people had no option but to enter it, even if only temporarily. For a large percentage of the working poor, jobs were seasonal or sporadic. Men were hired by the day (docks), by the season (agriculture) or for a limited time (May-June was the London Season). With no trade unions, no labour laws and no minimum wage, they were unable to budget. No work = no pay. Any work-related accidents at a time when medical care had to be paid for, could spell disaster.
Once they entered the Workhouse, personal possessions were taken away, and families split up. Inmates quickly became institutionalised and neglected. The routines of hard physical labour, the poor quality food, the feeling of belonging nowhere and having no future must have been devastating upon their sense of self.
In Honour & Obey, the Clapham family are driven out of their slum tenement by their ruthless landlord, Morbid Crevice. Here, they encounter their first taste of Workhouse life:
The family are led through a series of dark passages, then across a dismal yard to a bare unlit room. Cold from stone flags seeps into their thin shoes.
''Women and children in there,'' the porter says, pointing at a closed door.
The woman clings desperately to her husband's arm
''Come along old gel,'' the man says. ''It won't be for long. I'll go out and find work tomorrow and we'll soon be on our feet again.'' But the hunch of his shoulders and the hopelessness in his voice belie his cheerful words.
The girl tugs at her skirt.
''C'mon Ma,'' she says. '''Best not to linger, eh?''
The man gives the girl a grateful look. She stares back, her eyes hard like stones. She isn't fooled. She knows that it is the end of the road for her family. That her little brothers and sisters will be sent elsewhere, that her father will sink even further into drink and her mother into despair. That is what always happens.
What she doesn't know is how she is going to get revenge on those who did this to them. Not yet. But she will.
(Honour & Obey by me)
Couple the sense of utter despair with the knowledge that society regarded the poor as 'undeserving' - it was widely thought character defects, drink or sheer idleness meant that people were reduced to beggary, homelessness or reliance upon the meagre provisions of the Workhouses. Reading derogatory articles in the press about the 'underclass' that inhabited the less savoury parts of the city, one can see how many on both sides of the poverty line regarded the workhouse as one step away from actually being in prison.
|Workhouse dining room|
Consider too the demonization of the poor via TV programmes like 'Benefits Street', the rush to condemn 'improvident' parents who have too many children/feed their families on junk food. The eagerness with which private landlords and councils now employ bailiffs to turn whole families out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the extortionate rent.
This Autumn, one in five 'low-waged working parents' will go without food to feed their kids. Many people will visit Food Banks, or be reliant upon the charity of friends and relatives. We may have moved away from incarcerating the poor and elderly in barrack-like Workhouses, but little in our public attitudes towards them seems to have changed much.
As one inmate of Poplar Workhouse plaintively said: ''Poverty's no crime, but here it is treated like a crime.'' (quoted by Will Crooks, Poplar Workhouse guardian 1893)
In our time too.