The Slippery Slope/Notes from a Workhouse Examination Committee

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NOTES FROM A WORKHOUSE EXAMINATION COMMITTEE


The question of workhouse management has been very much to the fore of late years. We have had two circulars, at least, from the Upper Board upon the subject—one in January 1895, the other in July 1896. The first is general, and suggests various improvements in workhouse and infirmary, such as classification, improvements in nursing, and various details, such as the abolition of distinctive clothing and other minor relaxations. The second deals chiefly with the treatment of the aged and infirm, for whom it prescribes classification as especially important, and reiterates the suggestions made in the former circular as to leave of absence and non-distinctive clothing. The circulars are only a reflection of what had been taking place in many parts of London prior to their issue. Altogether, no doubt, the tendency of the last few years has been in the direction of greater indulgence for certain classes of the inmates of workhouses. With this, so long as it is rightly applied, no one will quarrel.

The Local Government Board in its second circular lays especial stress upon the importance of classification of the aged and infirm, and of separating those who have previously "led moral and respectable lives from those who, from their habits of speech, or for other reasons, are likely to cause them discomfort." It would be interesting to know how far this classification has been carried out. We know, indeed, that a proper separation would involve the rebuilding of at least half the workhouses in London. Most of them are already overcrowded, and want of space prevents any modification of existing arrangements. But even supposing there were room, the difficulties of classification are not surmounted. As it was once put, "How are we to decide who shall be placed in the back row of the stalls, and who shall be in the front row of the pit?"

The Poor Law which divides those receiving relief into the able-bodied, the sick, the aged over sixty, and the young, rather naturally leads to the presumption that all those over sixty are to be treated alike. They are no longer "able-bodied." Relaxations of discipline and a more indulgent dietary scale is prescribed for them. If tobacco or snuff is given it is given to them, and they are selected for any treats or outings which may be available. Their clothing is to be non-distinctive. In short, the sixtieth birthday is a milestone: all those who have passed it, whatever the cause of their entering the workhouse, whatever their conduct whilst in it, can legally be treated by the Guardians with certain indulgences which are prohibited for those under that age. It will probably be found that the practice of most Boards of Guardians follows the presumption of the law, and that those past sixty are in the main treated alike.

The importance of considering this question is obvious when we remember that the vast majority of the inmates of workhouses, both in London and country, are above the age of sixty, and that the overcrowding of our workhouses is chiefly due to the influx of this class of the poor. Are we to treat them all alike as a privileged class? That there are many very decent old people, both men and women, in our workhouses, no one would deny; and though there can be no doubt that many even of them need not have been there if they had thought more of old age when they were young, yet now that they are there no one would be disposed to treat them harshly or to grudge them the little indulgences that the law allows. On the other hand, any one who has had any lengthened experience of the matter, knows that inmates over sixty differ just as much, both morally and physically, as those under sixty.

One point that will strike any one who has any experience of the subject, is, that many people who have passed the age-limit are physically much more capable than others many years their juniors. A typical case is that of an old man of seventy-four who is, or was till quite recently, an inmate of a London workhouse. He is as hale and hearty a man as any one could wish to see. He has married a wife about forty years younger than himself, and has occupied his "declining" years in begetting a family of five or six young children, the eldest of whom cannot even now be much more than ten years old. The Guardians have kept his children almost continuously for several years, and himself and his wife intermittently. He has always pleaded that he is unable to find work on account of his age, and he has been constantly given passes "to look for work" for this reason. His wife also took her discharge from time to time, and only a few months ago returned to the workhouse prepared to present the Guardians with another "Poor Law child." Subsequent inquiries have shown that upon at least one occasion when he was out on pass, and was representing to the Guardians that he was unable to get work, he was actually at work, and earning over £1 a week. His employer spoke of him as a strong, active man, and a good workman.

Another man, just over sixty—also strong and hearty—was let out repeatedly on pass to look for work. His want of success led to inquiries being made, and it was reported that he never prosecuted his researches further than "The Well and Bucket."

Another old man, charged with coming in drunk, confesses his failings, but excuses them on eugenic grounds. "Sometimes," he says, "I think it's hereditary. My poor dear mother suffered from it badly, and I am her only boy." Possibly those who believe that we are not responsible for our actions, but are the creatures of circumstance, may be able to make some use of this.

Another typical case is that of an old pensioner. He has been in and out of the workhouse for years. He goes out regularly about quarter day and has a debauch, and then returns to the workhouse. His pension is one which is not attachable.

It would not be difficult to show that on the women's side as well as on the men's side the distinctions are equally wide. The woman who has led a drunken, disreputable life, and has passed the age of sixty, is unhappily no uncommon phenomenon in London workhouses. One such, known to the writer, has also had two daughters in the workhouse, both of whom had come in with illegitimate children.

Again, it is well known that a very large number of the old people—both men and women—return from their weekly leave of absence the worse for drink; also that many of them are by no means too refined in their language. It must necessarily be a considerable hardship to those who are decent and respectable to be mixed up with these rougher elements. Miss Twining quotes a case in which a blind man in a London workhouse was forced to go to bed at six, in order to get away from the foul language used in the day-room. Altogether, everything points to the necessity of some differentiation of treatment, as suggested by the Local Government Board, between those aged inmates of our workhouses who are decent and respectable and those who are not. The notion that to be over sixty confers of itself a halo of respectability is a dangerous fallacy. If metropolitan workhouses are not to be swamped with those who have been and are still leading dissipated and disreputable lives, greater stringency will have to be adopted in respect to them, both as a matter of public policy and in fairness to the more decent inmates. A fair percentage at least of those who frequent our workhouses need not be there at all if they behaved themselves even moderately well outside. We must all of us know cases, for instance, in which children would have kept their parents away from the workhouse altogether but for their intolerable and continued misbehaviour.

The difficulties of classification are, as already pointed out, considerable. But we can, at all events, refrain from encouraging impenitent old age by gifts of tobacco, snuff, and sweets, by unlimited liberty to come and go, and by dressing it up in clothes which are sometimes better than those of the respectable tradesman outside. It is not at all necessary to go into people's past lives. The line of demarcation between those who behave themselves decently and respectably and those who do not, is quite sufficiently defined, and no good workhouse master, if he has the support of his Board, will find much difficulty in doing justice, broadly speaking.

And now we come to another class of inmates, and by no means the least important one, namely the able-bodied adults. The typical able-bodied "in-and-out" is usually a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care sort of fellow, whose chief characteristic is that he is totally devoid of any wish to maintain himself. He can often work, and work well by fits and starts; but he has come to look upon the workhouse or the casual ward as his home, and when he has once got that idea into his head it is extremely difficult to get it out again.

One such, a young fellow of about thirty, has been in and out of the workhouse since he was fourteen. He is short and thick-set, strong and well-made, not bad-looking, with dark curly hair. He has all his wits about him, and if there had been no Poor Law would, undoubtedly, have been earning his own living. Several times he has disappeared for a short time, and it has been reported that he is at work. He has, however, invariably turned up again, stating upon almost every occasion that he has had "an accident" which has obliged him to throw up his work. He is by turns threatened, cajoled, lectured, and prosecuted, but all in vain. He takes it all quite good-humouredly. When last remonstrated with he mildly remarked that "he had not been in and out so wonderful many times."

Another was always in and out "because of his leg." It was quite true that he had a sore place on his leg, but the medical officer, who knew him of old, hinted that that sore place was as good as an old-age pension to him, and that it was not very likely that he would allow it to heal. He was otherwise an able-bodied, healthy man.

Another strong, active young man who "could not get work," was passing his time in a flirtation with one of the ladies on the other side of the House. An intercepted letter, which ran as follows, was one day laid before the Guardians:—

"Dear liz lizey I am going out on Monday. If you like you can come with me. I shall wait for you at the prince of wails, yrs. truly, Bill."

Flirtations of this kind are by no means uncommon in workhouse life. Probably every workhouse has its in-and-out couple who have originally been "married by the chaplain of the workhouse." Sometimes even the aged succumb. Two old men have taken to themselves wives from amongst the female inmates. In neither case, unfortunately, have the marriages turned out happily. "She isn't at all the sort of woman I expected," said one of them plaintively; "she drinks a bit."

The allowance of "extra diet to helpers" is a difficult question. It is probably not uncommon in London workhouses, and doubtless counts as one of the attractions to the able-bodied. At first sight it would appear that if a man or woman can work inside a workhouse they can work outside, and that they would be better outside. If, however, they prefer to remain in, then they should work for their keep. In neither case is it good either for them or for the ratepayers to bribe them to stay. It is assumed, of course, that the workhouse has a proper and sufficient dietary scale.

There are some who think that the able-bodied day-room, both on the men's side and on the women's, has its charms for a certain class of inmate. They are said to be scenes of a certain rough conviviality, not always of too lofty a tone, which is dear to the heart of the able-bodied in-and-out. The supervision is often not very stringent, and one has heard of such things as card-playing, chuck-penny, and other similar amusements being carried on there sub rosa. One Board of Guardians at least has interfered with such amusements by appointing "mental instructors," whose business it is to spend a certain time in the day-rooms, and to endeavour to influence their inhabitants in the right direction.

The question of the able-bodied inmate has been much discussed during the last few years. We have heard much of "paupers' paradises" and the like, which shows which way the wind blows though the particular Board gibbeted is often no worse than its neighbours.

In illustration of the attractiveness of the workhouse for able-bodied women, two stories may be quoted, both quite authentic, from the same workhouse. In both cases situations had been found for the women by the matron or otherwise. In the first case, the inmate in question consented to go to the situation, but represented that she must be back at the workhouse in time for the "Christmas entertainment." In the other case, that of a girl with an illegitimate child, she went to the situation, but soon came back to the workhouse, as she said that the work was not so hard there, and the hours were shorter. Moreover, in private service she had to get her own breakfast.

The following lines, accompanied by a cartoon, were sent to the writer by an inmate who had evidently been studying this question:—

"I'm the able-bodied Fee-Foh-Fum—
From the warm workhouse ward I come;
And whether they can or cannot pay,
I swallow ratepayers every day."

There are a few other points in connection with workhouse management. The first is whether it is wise to give clothes to those who are leaving the workhouse. Of course there are times when it is necessary to do this. The inmates' own clothes may have been lost or destroyed, or a friendless man may be discharged from the infirmary, and the doctor may certify that his own clothing is insufficient to keep him warm. Or it may be a case in which a girl or young woman is to be sent to service. If it were certain that nothing but the want of a coat or a pair of boots stood between an able-bodied man and his chances of work, we should all get them for him somehow. If the matter rested there, and were confined to such cases, it would hardly be necessary to allude to the subject. In some workhouses, however, the giving away of clothes has attained very considerable proportions, as is evident from the fact that the Local Government Board has issued a special minute upon the subject. A gentleman of great experience said a few days ago, in reply to the question: "Does your Board give away clothes?"—"Of course it does. Often a man who comes before it says, 'If you will give me a pair of boots I will tramp away, and you shall never hear of me again,' and my Board think that the cheapest thing to do is to give him a pair of boots."

When there is a Workhouse Examination Committee the periodical appearance before the Committee begins in time to be recognised as the opportunity for the application of something, usually clothing or passes to look for work. These may have been granted, in the first instance, in perfectly legitimate cases, such as those above specified; but when you have a Committee which is known to grant such things, and it soon becomes known, applications multiply at an astounding rate. We thus have, on the one side, a sympathetic committee—committees are always sympathetic; on the other, an applicant who says that he could get work, or at least would free the ratepayers from the burden of keeping him, if he had, let us say, a pair of boots. The difficulty of testing his statement is insuperable. There can only be one result—he gets the boots. In this manner the granting both of clothes and passes soon assumes very large proportions. That this in some cases—it may possibly be in very few cases—constitutes an "attraction" of the workhouse, is clear from the following authentic dialogues:—

A young and lusty tramp appears before the Committee.

Chairman.—"Well, what brings you in here?"

Tramp.—"A pair of boots."

A well-known character who has been passed to another Union turns up again.

Chairman.—" What! You here again? You know you have rendered yourself liable to prosecution. I should like to know what you have to say for yourself."

Well-known Character.—"Well, I hadn't got no trousers to go out in: that partly brought me in."

Another habitué does not even wait to be questioned, but begins at once—"I came in for a pair of trousers this time."

The wholesale giving away of clothes has long since been abandoned in the workhouse in question. There are many reasons why a Committee of Examination soon becomes popular, in spite of the fact that a great number of those who come before it receive "severe reprimands" from the chairman. Severe reprimands, however, when repeated possibly for the twentieth time to the same inmate, are apt to lose their force, and even a chairman's resources of language are not inexhaustible. Meanwhile, there are many who appear to delight in their weekly appearance before the Guardians. Some desire to give them a bit of their mind. "If it wasn't for the likes of us, I should like to know where the likes of you would be?" said a promising youth of nineteen to the chairman one day. The question still remains unanswered.

Another handed in one day, with a low bow, a copy of verses dedicated to the Committee. It began:—


"Who are the powers at
Whose conduct's base and low and mean?— 

Our Guardians.


Who try to crush the very poor?
Who every honest man ignore?—

Our Guardians.


Whose heads are empty as a bladder?
Who couldn't if they tried be madder?—

Our Guardians.


Whose ways are base and dark and mean?
Who do their work with hands unclean?—

Our Guardians.


Who honest ways do not approve,
Who others' goods with care remove?—

Our Guardians.


Whose wicked ways we will not tell,
Who when they die will go to——

Our Guardians."


There had been some difference of opinion with him as to his settlement, which it took nearly two years to ascertain—hence his animus. He was passed to his parish and now some other Board has its laureate. Even if the inmates had nothing to complain of, they liked to have a chat. It was said also that they liked coming before the Committee because they got an extra shave that day.

The dietary scales of different London workhouses vary considerably. One, which is said to be "the best in London," gives those over sixty butcher meat four times a week, bacon or pork the fifth, and meat puddings and meat broth on the other two days. Though this is said to be the best, there are several other Unions in which the scale is practically the same, and the tendency in all Unions is now to pay more attention to the feeding of the inmates than to any other matter. The following appeared in a paper the other day: "Ample food supply at ——." The Guardians had asked the Local Government Board to sanction an addition of half a pint of milk a day to the present dietary. The Local Government Board reply that they will do so, "provided that some readjustment be made in the present dietary." The Clerk pointed out that at present the inmates had a breakfast, lunch, a dinner, an early cup of tea and three ounces of cake, tea again with bread and butter and more cake, and then a supper. One of the Guardians, "What a day's feeding!"

Again, an inquest was held last year upon an inmate who had died suddenly in a London workhouse. The doctor certified that the cause of death was syncope, produced by an overloaded stomach acting upon a diseased heart.

The Coroner.—"One may say that he was killed by kindness. It may or may not be kindness to overload a man's stomach. Well, it shows that he did not go short of food."

The Doctor.—"Short! By no means. They have nothing to do but eat, drink, and sleep. And this is the third case from the same workhouse where death has been due to an overloaded stomach."

A Juror.—"When I am out of work, I shall want to go there!"

The question, however, is no new one. In the year 1835 a document, of which the following is an extract, was posted on the walls of a certain workhouse in Kent. It contained the terms of the contract between the Guardians and contractors for the catering for that workhouse. The contractors were to furnish "warm, wholesome, sweet, comfortable beds; servants to cook and serve the victuals and attend on the poor; good, sweet, wholesome, fat meat; good, sound small beer; best flour; good Gloucester cheese; good and clean butter. Pork and salt meat were forbidden, but bacon and fish were allowed as a variety. The fires were to be good and kept up in certain rooms at all hours, so that the paupers might boil their kettles. Lastly, the contractors were to supply wigs for such as wear them or require them." Earlier again, at Bedford, Sir F. Eden gives the dietary of the workhouse where meat was given six days a week, and broth and "hasty pudding" the seventh. Of this Sir F. Eden, writing in 1797, says, "The food was better than the most industrious labourer, either then or at present, could afford himself in his own habitation. In those days small beer was usually given for supper every night, and "good strong beer" on Christmas Day.

There is the further question of non-distinctive dress. Probably every Board of Guardians in London has now adopted it, as suggested by the Local Government Board, and the general impression is that it has worked satisfactorily. Some Boards have found it useful as a means of classification, giving it only to those who return sober from their leave. Others have probably given it to all, without distinction. One difficulty that appears to arise is the difficulty of finding any dress which is "not distinctive," the real fact being that the clothes provided are as a rule so much better than those worn by people of the same class outside, that it is impossible not to identify the inmate out for his weekly walk. When the matter first came before the writer's own Board, hats and bonnets of every conceivable shape, with every variety of trimming, double-breasted reefers, and every variety of trouserings were submitted for selection. It was a most arduous task. Finally, the old men, at least, were rigged out in a very neat and workmanlike manner; but the old women were not so fortunate. One fine day they all blossomed out with dresses, some with red moons on a blue ground, some with white moons upon a brown ground. The dress, alas, though fashionable, was more distinctive than ever!

If the writer, who has been chairman for many years, off and on, of a Workhouse Examination Committee, were asked to specify the ruling characteristic of those with whom he has had to deal, he would say that it is a sort of happy-go-lucky irresponsibility. Occasionally some rather desperate characters enter a workhouse, but they seldom stay there long. There are also some who are clearly mentally or physically deficient, for whom some better system of treatment is desirable; but the majority are neither actively bad nor deficient, except in the desire to keep themselves. They know that the parish is bound to maintain them, and they ask for nothing better. There are many single men without dependents. One of them was asked recently why so many single men came into the workhouse, whilst married men were able to keep a wife and family outside. His reply was eminently candid: "I suppose it is because we ain't got no wives to keep us." But responsibility sits lightly also upon many married men. A young woman became chargeable not long ago, deserted by her husband. All that she had to show as to his whereabouts was a letter, without address, in which he exhorted her to "feed the rabbits and pigeons well whilst he was away." A married man was allowed out to look for work, leaving his wife and children chargeable, and, as is the rule, was told to report himself before the next fortnightly meeting of the Committee. He did not appear, but sent a letter to the Committee, apologising for his absence on the ground that "he had to go to a concert at the Radical Club." Another young woman is in the workhouse, and her husband in Canada. She has received a large number of affectionate letters expressing a hope that she will join him, but the only address given is 1063 James' Street, North America, and all letters come back from the Dead Letter Office.

Another family has been in and out for a number of years. They stay out most of the summer, and come in regularly in the winter. Most of the children have been adopted by the Guardians to save them from an in-and-out career; but a new infant is born nearly every year; only a few weeks ago it was reported that Mrs W—— had presented the Guardians with another baby.

The great majority are quite well behaved whilst in the workhouse, and work fairly well under supervision. They are, except in rare instances, not unpleasant to deal with. Though impervious to exhortations to self-support, they bear no malice, and are quite friendly. Some time ago a hawker, who had been prosecuted again and again for wife desertion, and against whom a warrant was still outstanding, presented himself at the workhouse door and offered to sell the master a "bunch of sage." He was, of course, arrested and taken to the police station. On his way, he invited the warrant officer to have a drink with him.

The path of a Workhouse Examination Committee is no easy one. Its members have to deal with every variety of human nature. They are engaged in an unceasing attempt, on the one hand, to discourage pauperism; on the other, to give a helping hand to any one who shows any sign of a desire for better modes of life. They begin by the belief that every one has some good in him. Every able-bodied man who comes in for the first time is encouraged to go out and look for work; he is, of course, now always referred to the Labour Exchange, but seldom with any result. Work is, indeed, often found for him by the workhouse master. No one can say, when there is an efficient committee and an efficient master, that a man is "done for" when he comes into the workhouse. Special attention is paid, of course, to the younger inmates, who are never lost sight of. At one time it was the practice in many workhouses to send their able-bodied inmates to the various institutions of the Church and Salvation Armies. Some sixty or seventy of them were sent from the writer's own workhouse; but they were returned, almost without exception, and the experience was the same elsewhere. A committee of ladies deals with single young women who come into the maternity wards, and endeavour to reinstate them in society. Generally speaking, the "curative and restorative" treatment advocated by the Royal Commission has been in practice in well-managed workhouses for a number of years. It is very difficult work, and often very disappointing. We may doubt whether the Training Schools and Colonies, of which we have heard so much of late, would have a much better result.