A Visit To Whitechapel Casual Ward

The East London Observer, on Saturday, 24th February, 1866, published an article in which it described a visit that a reporter had paid to the Casual Ward at Whitechapel:-


“Whitechapel is in strong contrast to St. George’s East in its treatment of the casual poor. The “wards” – as we suppose we must call them by way of courtesy – are situated on a piece of ground that stretches behind the site of the old workhouse it Whitechapel Road, and that has been for many years used as a stoneyard by the guardians.

The entrance is from Pavilion-yard, through a gateway, and the opposite end of the yard abuts upon a flagged court or cul de sac leading from Old Montague Street, the last house in which has been taken by the guardians for the residence of the ward superintendent and his wife.


Immediately within the gateway there stands a small wooden box, where the casual who has been allowed inside presents himself for the particulars of age, ordinary occupation, last night’s lodging and next day’s destination to be duly entered in the prescribed register – two old paupers appearing to superintend this portion of the business of admission.

He then crosses the open yard towards some sheds of the very roughest description. What was the original purpose of these erections we are not in a position to say. They were built “before the time” of the master of the workhouse or the superintendent of the wards, so they can give no information concerning them. They could not be intended for stables, for they are too cold and comfortless, and they are scarcely sufficiently watertight for haylofts.

These are the “casual wards.”

People preparing to enter an East End Casual Ward.
People Lining Up To Be Admitted To An East End Casual Ward. From The Penny Illustrated Paper, September, 15th, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board And Richard Jones.


On the threshold of one of these, covered overhead, but otherwise unprotected from the weather, and standing on the bare unfloored ground (save when, as we are told, in very bad weather some straw is spread for him to walk on), the casual strips, and consigns his clothes to the care of an attendant, who rolls them in a bundle and places them away in a cupboard.

The disinfecting room at the casual ward.
The Disinfecting Room. From The Penny Illustrated Paper, September, 15th, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board and Richard Jones.


A padlocked door being then unfastened, he enters his “ward,” gets to bed, and the key is turned upon him. If we were at all disposed to conjure up sentimental grievances, we should certainly make a point of this locking up. The Whitechapel casuals from the moment they consign themselves to the “wards” are close prisoners.

We are not quite sure that Mr. Gladding, although he has a hand in the doing of it, would regard this as altogether constitutional. Regarded, however, as a practical measure, it is doubtless necessary, and though a sensation might easily be made out of it, we wish everything in Pavilion-yard were equally unobjectionable on the score of comfort.

The offices of the superintendents – male and female – are near, so that a knocking would soon attract notice in case of necessity.


The “ward” in which the casual find himself padlocked is a rude, primitive erection of wood and brick, with an open tiled roof, dingy and black.

The snows of January have found out the defects in this roof notably in the female ward – and poured down the end walls, which look and feel still saturated, though the leakage has long been stopped.


Here, in barrack bedsteads – the best idea of which will be conveyed by comparing them to broad egg-boxes – the casuals lie side by side, their bunkers close together, but with a sufficient separation to keep them apart unless they desire not to be so.

There are twenty-five of these sleeping-places in the men’s shed, and twenty-one in the women’s. Ten of the former are occupied at the time of our visit, which is about nine o’clock at night, and eight of the latter. Only twice since the passing of the Houseless Poor Act, we understand, have the wards been full.

The beds immediately adjoining the wet wall are out of use, and we are told are kept so since the rain came in. The sleepers are closely enveloped in a rug or railway wrapper of more than usual warmth and thickness, and each has a stout nightgown in addition. The beds are the usual straw bags.

Once stretched upon them, and swathed in their wrappers, the casuals are doubtless perfectly safe from the winter’s inclemencies, even under such wretched circumstances as those the Whitechapel Guardians have placed them in.

The dormitory in a casual ward.
The Interior Of The Casual Ward At Marylebone in 1869.


When not asleep they are able to lie and gaze upon the blackened grimy rafters overhead, or at the grotesque figures the rain has formed upon the whitewash; and may indulge in curious reflections upon the various modes in which metropolitan guardians interpret the obligations the law has imposed upon them.

Those of them who have been in gaol may also cogitate on the superior treatment of English criminals as compared with that of such of the honest poor as may sink to a Whitechapel casual ward.

The description we have given applies equally to the male and the female wards. They are some short distance away from each other, but except that the shed for females is the smallest, and has suffered worst from the weather, they are “much of a muchness.”


Most of the inmates were far away in the land of dreams when we entered. It would be a tempting theme for an imaginative writer to inquire what scenes and circumstances in a chequered life, commencing, perhaps, in many cases with a happy childhood, the drowsy god had summoned to the pillows of these wretched outcasts. But we have forsworn imagination in these articles!

One man has been awakened and recalled to the hard realities of life by the turning of the key in the padlock, and the grating of the gate upon its rusty hinges.

The Master of the Workhouse asks him if he is warm. “Oh, yes, Sir, quite warm,” he replies, without uncovering his face, which is almost wholly nestled in his rug. “And you want anything?” “I should like a basin of skilley.”


This brings us to the question of the fare of the vagrants, and we learn, greatly to our astonishment, that five ounces of bread and water for supper and the same for breakfast is all that is allowed – six ounces of bread and a pint of “skilley” being the allowance at each meal in St. George’s, Mile-end, Bethnal-green, and, indeed, not at most metropolitan parishes!

In the women’s shed the same questions were put by the Master to some of the waking occupants:- “Are you warm?” “Yes, Sir.” “And quite comfortable.” “We’d be more comfortable if we had some skilley,” said the spokeswoman of the party; “we do have it at some places now.”

Not, however, in Whitechapel! There the rule applied to casuals appears to be in all respects consistently hard and harsh. The task of work exacted is, however, proportionately less – like the food – than in other places, three-quarters of a pound of oakum for men, and half a-pound for women – only about half the task exacted elsewhere.

Inmates getting food.
Inmates At And East End Casual Ward Getting Food Prior To Bed. From The Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th September, 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board and Richard Jones.


And about the bath? It is probably a question that has risen in the reader’s mind.

There is here another deviation from the uniform treatment. Casuals in Whitechapel are not bathed. The sheds in Pavilion-yard are a little paradise for the great unwashed. They lie down exactly as they are, and unless some special providence governs the distribution of nightgowns, the poor respectable clean tramp or wanderer of tomorrow has the reversion of the covering of the frowsy, filthy vagabond of tonight!

We started a difficulty on this score, which led to an explanation of the course adopted. Each week as many clean nightshirts are served out to the superintendent as there are beds in the “wards;” and as the beds are very rarely more than half full, this would allow a change of shirt say twice a-week. But sometimes you get a very dirty person? Yes, in that case the shirt can be washed at any time. How far this fact, however, affords a security against what we have indicated, the reader will judge.


Such are the Whitechapel casual wards, and such the treatment of vagrants by the Whitechapel guardians. We believe that no fault lay in carrying out the regulations.

The master of the workhouse is a man calculated to inspire confidence in his humanity, as well as in his powers of management and sense of responsibility. He appears to feel the inadequacy of these miserable sheds for lodging human beings, however degraded.

We have his assurance, too, that the guardians feel it; and without doubt in their individual capacity they are men all of whom would revolt at subjecting fellow creatures to the harshest possible construction of a law designed to be a humane one.

But how happens it – and here comes the question that so often arises in dealing with the acts of public bodies – how happens it that the individual responsibility is so completely merged in the general responsibility as to allow of these gentlemen, when they meet as a board, permitting such things within their jurisdiction?

Admitting, for the sake of putting the question more cogently, all they urge of their difficulties in providing new and better wards – we ask how comes it that such easily preventable pieces of harsh management as this condemning of the poor to bread and water should continue many weeks after the recent exposures first directed public attention to casual treatment, and a month after they were in receipt of the circular of the Poor-law Board, based on the resolutions of the conference of guardians, at which the chairman of their Board was present, recommending the adoption of a uniform diet of gruel and bread throughout the metropolis.

What is the answer of the guardians? Do the simply plead as their excuse a laissez faire policy or have they some theory for the . repression of vagrancy by cold and semi-starvation?


Before leaving Pavilion-yard, we encountered some “specimen casuals”. Three young men, all under thirty, applied at the gate and were admitted.

They were decently dressed like mechanics, and, whatever else they may be, looking far ton clean to take their chance in the sheds we had just inspected.

They described themselves as “tramps”  – boilermakers by trade, coming from Oldham, and had slept last night at St. Albans, They had been out of work for five weeks. When in work, each admitted his weekly earnings to be thirty shillings. They only had threepence between them, and therefore could not get a lodging.


“Well you can come in, but you’ll have to do a task of work after breakfast,” said the superintendent.

The announcement evidently staggered them. There was a moment’s pause. “Didn’t you know that?” “No, we never slept in any of these places before.” Then there was consultation aside, ending with surly, “Well, we’ll come in.”

And they sauntered to the little office to be entered in the books, hands deep in trousers pockets – lazy, hulking, mean-spirited, despicable characters – lacking the spirit to be honest, independent workmen; and, to all appearance, lacking even the energy and boldness to be thieves.

Here, at least, we said, are three fellows that even the Whitechapel casual wards are too good for.”