A Walk in the WorkhouseCategory: 19th century
Because of the famous scenes in ‘Oliver Twist’, there is a popular tendency to see Dickens as a critic of the ‘bastilles’ of the New Poor Law of 1834, There are several descriptions of the workhouses in Dickens’s writings, and in these the element of satire gives way to a deeper social criticism. Here there is no attack on the personnel who run the institution, nor are the inmates pictured as martyred saints, but as representatives of all conditions of distress, from honest poverty through to downright criminality. It is on this failure to use the workhouse as anything other than a social dustbin, that the attack is made. The Poor Law Commission had hoped to make the workhouses cater suitably for the non-able-bodied poor, but uppermost in their minds was the task of transferring labour from the land, where it was redundant, to the industrial market, where it was needed. To criticise this was to criticise the mechanistic utilitarianism, the conception of men as economic units rather than human personalities, which underlay Britain’s industrial success.
On a certain Sunday, I formed one of the congregation assembled in the chapel of a large metropolitan Workhouse. With the exception of the clergyman and clerk, and a very few officials, there were none but paupers present. The children sat in the galleries; the women in the body of the chapel, and in one of the side aisles; the men in the remaining aisle.
Among this congregation, were some evil-looking young women, and beetle-browed young men; but not many-perhaps that kind of characters kept away. Generally, the faces (those of the children excepted) were depressed and subdued, and wanted colour. Aged people were there, in every variety. Mumbling, blear-eyed, spectacled, stupid, deaf, lame; vacantly winking in the gleams of sun that now and then crept in through the open doors, from the paved yard; shading their listening ears, or blinking eyes, with their withered hands; poring over their books, leering at nothing, going to sleep, crouching and drooping in corners. There were weird old women, all skeleton within, all bonnet and cloak without, continually wiping their eyes with dirty dusters of pocket-handkerchiefs; and there were ugly old crones, both male and female, with a ghastly kind of contentment upon them which was not at all comforting to see. Upon the whole, it was the dragon, Pauperism, in a very weak and impotent condition; toothless, fangless, drawing his breath heavily enough, and hardly worth chaining up.
When the service was over, I walked through the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls. It was inhabited by a population of some fifteen hundred or two thousand paupers, ranging from the infant newly born or not yet come into the pauper world, to the old man dying on his bed …
Groves of babies in arms; groves of mothers and other sick women in bed; groves of lunatics; jungles of men in stone-paved down-stairs day- rooms, waiting for their dinners; longer and longer groves of old people in up-stairs Infirmary wards, wearing out life, God knows how-this was the scenery through which the walk lay, for two hours. In some of these latter chambers, there were pictures stuck against the wall, and a neat display of crockery and pewter on a kind of sideboard; now and then it was a treat to see a plant or two; in almost every ward there was a cat.
In all of these Long Walks of aged and infirm, some old people were bedridden, and had been for a long time; some were sitting on their beds half-naked; some dying in their beds; some out of bed, and sitting at a table near the fire. A sullen or lethargic indifference to what was asked, a blunted sensibility to everything but warmth and food, a moody absence of complaint as being of no use, a dogged silence and resentful desire to be left alone again, I thought, were generally apparent.
As we turn to go out at the door, another previously invisible old man, a hoarse old man in a flannel gown, is standing there, as if he had just come up through the floor.
‘I beg your pardon, sir, could I take the liberty of saying a word?’
‘Yes; what is it?’
T am greatly better in my health, sir; but what I want, to get me quite round,’ with his hand on his throat, ‘is a little fresh air, sir. It has always done my complaint so much good, sir. The regular leave for going out comes round so seldom, that if the gentlemen, next Friday, would give me leave to go out walking, now and then-for only an hour or so, sir!’
Who could wonder, looking through those weary vistas of bed and infirmity, that it should do him good to meet with some other scenes, and assure himself that there was something else on earth? Who could help wondering why the old men lived on as they did; what grasp they had on life; what crumbs of interest or occupation they could pick up from its bare board.
From: A Walk in the Workhouse by Ch. Dickens
The Lot of the Deprived
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 meant that in future an able- bodied pauper would have to enter a workhouse if he wished to obtain relief. Widespread hostility was felt to the new law; many believed that life was harder in the workhouse than in prison. The Royal Commission on the Poor Law had reported in 1834:
The most pressing of the evils which we have described are those connected with the relief of the able-bodied poor. They are the evils, therefore, for which we shall first propose remedies …
… nothing is necessary to arrest the progress of pauperism, except that all who receive relief from the parish should work for the parish exclusively, as hard and for less wages than independent labourers work for individual employers.’
Charles Dickens agreed: the lot of the poor was very hard. One of his characters-Betty Higden-would sooner die than be caught and thrown in the workhouse: The day was cold and wet, but she [Betty Higden] scarcely knew it. She crept on, poor soul, like a criminal afraid of being taken, and felt little beyond the terror of falling down while it was yet daylight, and being found alive.
‘She had no fear that she would live through another night. Sewn in the breast of her gown, the money to pay for her burial was still intact. If she could wear through the day, and then lie down to die under the cover of the darkness, she would die independent. If she were captured previously, the money would be taken from her as a pauper who had no right to it, and she would be carried to the accursed workhouse.’
From: The Age of Dickens by P. Rooke