Go To The Workhouse

The Workhouse loomed large over the lives – and in some cases the deaths –  of many of the poor and destitute in Whitechapel at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders.

In particular Workhouses features in the lives and deaths of several of the Whitechapel murders victims.

Mary Nichols, for example, had had connections with Lambeth Workhouse; Annie Chapman had sought respite behind the sombre walls of a similar establishment; and Catherine Eddowes and her paramour, John Kelly, had spent the night at the Shoe Lane casual ward on returning from hop-picking in Kent, shortly before her murder.

Indeed, look into the backgrounds of the majority of the the victims, and the Workhouse will, in almost all cases, have featured somewhere in their history.


Understanding the social context that formed the backcloth against which the saga of the Jack the Ripper murders was played out is hugely important – in fact, it is probably more important  than trying to discover the identity of the killer himself since, it could be argued, those conditions were what led the victims into the clutches of their murderer.


On the Monday 24th of October 1887, The Pall Mall Gazette published a report, which had been compiled by their “Special Correspondent” concerning the lives of the London destitute and the problems posed to them – and to Victorian society as a whole – by the Workhouses.

The article is worth reading in full and is, to that end, reproduced below:-


“Go to the workhouse” is the only response which the unemployed and destitute receive from the magistrates when they ask for assistance or advice. It does not seem ever to strike these gentlemen of the bench that it is just possible that the workhouses and casual wards may be full.

One of the unemployed, however, who appeared at Bow-street last week found out this unpleasant fact for himself, having been refused admission at two casuals.

In order to ascertain whether the accommodation in casuals and workhouses was more than usually taxed just now, we sent a representative to make inquiries.


Robin Hood-court, where the City casual is situated, the first (writes our representative) which I visited, is a narrow, dirty alley  in Shoe-lane.

I knocked at the door of a suspicious-looking building at the end of the court.

“You have no sign,” I remarked to a gentleman whom I afterwards learned was the “guv’nor.”

“We don’t want a sign, sir,” he replied, “plenty of customers without that; we are full up every night, and have to send them away.

This, you see, is our busy season.

There is always a lot about in October. The cold nights commence now, but next month the soup-kitchens and private refuges are opened, and some of our customers will go away.

Yes; I should say we have had rather more than usual this year.”

This ward, which is kept nice and clean, holds ninety – about the usual number for a London casual.


Suppose now that an applicant ,unable to gain admission to the hospitable quarters in Robin Hood-court, were to go in search of a bed elsewhere.

He would perhaps first turn to Vine-street, where he would find the Holborn casual ward.

But this refuge is also full; for I was informed by the master at the workhouse in Gray’s-Inn-road that vagrants ask for admission there every other night, after being sent away from the casual.

The wanderer might try the next nearest casual, which is situated in Macklin-street, Drury-lane.

Again, he would most likely be unsuccessful, for on the very night before my visit, no fewer than twenty applicants, all furnished with tickets for admission, had to be sent away for want of room.

After this round the outcast would naturally gravitate towards Trafalgar-square, where, until recently, he would have become one of Mr. Plunket’s “unfortunate creatures,” whom no power could lawfully disturb, but from which he would now be ruthlessly “evicted” by the police.

There is a casual ward in Willis’s-yard, Buckingham Palace-road – not a stone’s throw from the Palace itself – but this place (the ward, not the Palace) has been overcrowded for weeks.


It will thus be seen that there is competition among the destitute for admission into the casual wards in the central parts of the metropolis. “There is plenty of room in the casuals and workhouses in the less central parts,”  observed a master to me, “only they will persist in keeping in the centre because there is more chance of picking up something by begging there.”

In St. Pancras workhouse, near the Great Northern goods depot, and in the casual ward in Camden Town, there are just about the same number of occupants as last year.

In Hackney there is nothing more than the normal increase.

The same may be said of St. Olave’s, in Southwark.

There are rather more than usual in the Whitechapel casual ward (Thomas street), but the master explained that “they had just returned from the hop-picking,” and that when the private charities began next month some would go away.

There. are just as many in this ward in summer as in winter.

A line of men awaiting admission to the Casual Ward.
Lining Up For The Casual Ward


The peculiar thing about the casuals is that they are not casuals at all.

The masters of the wards told me that they know more than half the casuals whom they admit.

Out of twenty-nine, for instance, at least twenty will be “old ‘ands at it.”

They invariably put themselves down as labourers, but during the whole of the time they have frequented the ward, they have never been to labour at anything in particular, except to cultivate the art of sponging on other people.

Most of them belong to a class which oscillates between the prison and the workhouse.

This explains how about a third of them leave the wards on Saturday and Sunday, because on these days there are more opportunities for begging, stealing, or getting drunk.

With the view of enjoying the latter experience, many are induced “to leave the workhouse on Saturday – the day on which their pals outside are paid.”

It is also remarkable that the majority of this class which frequent the casuals are young.

The master of the Thomas-street casual told me that “our gentlemen” were a rather good class -physically he meant.

I saw “our gentlemen” – and they certainly looked a strong and healthy squad.


If the number of our pauper population is any criterion to the amount of distress which exists, then it was never greater.

On the last day of the second week of October there were 91,441 paupers in the metropolitan workhouses, exclusive of the vagrants in the casual wards, the patients in the fever and small-pox hospitals, and of the lunatics.

Compared with the first week of this month, this is an increase of 343, and it is 3,105 more than in the corresponding week of last year, and 4,02 in excess of the numbers in 1885.

The district in which the greatest increase has been during the year is Hackney, which shows an increase of 504.

In Hackney the jerry builders have been at work.

Good buildings have been taken down and cheap erections put in their place.

This has increased the poorer residents, and bad houses (attributable to the lease holding system and ground rents) competition, starvation wages, and drink have augmented the pauperism.

At present Hackney Workhouse contains two clergymen (not counting the chaplain), and would contain a third – whose wife is there – only he himself happens to be in prison just now.

After what the Rev. J. Chadburn, a Congregational minister in Poplar, has said about the distress and want of employment in the district; it is not surprising that several hundreds have been added to its pauper roll.

On the whole, it will be found that our pauper poor are increasing at a far greater rate than our population.

A view of Poplar Workhouse.
Poplar Workhouse


But next month all the charitable organisations which philanthropic people support will be in full swing.

Soup kitchens will be opened, alms will be distributed, refuges will be provided, and the Lord Mayor’s Council on Metropolitan Poverty, “who worked with such good effect last year,” will be set in motion, and for the time being the numbers in the casuals and workhouses may not increase so rapidly.

But while all these agencies may temporarily alleviate the sore in our social system, they ultimately end by adding to pauperism.

Loosely administered charity may bless those who give it certainly is not the best way of helping those who receive.


Our magistrates, the Times, and its correspondents agree in thinking that the workhouse is a sort of paradise for the working man out of employment.

We are told that when “the workman is sunk so low as to be destitute, the admirable Poor Law for which this country is honourably distinguished steps in and affords complete security against hunger and want of shelter.”

Quite so, but the workman, be he sunk ever so low, shrinks from stepping into the workhouse.

One of the reasons for this reluctance on his part to taste the effect of our “admirable Poor Law” is well put in a circular sent to all the boards of guardians from the Local Government Board on the 15th March last year.

“The spirit of independence,” it says, “which leads so many of the working classes to make great personal sacrifices rather than incur the stigma of pauperism is one which deserves the greatest sympathy and respect, and which it is the duty and interest of the community to maintain by all the means at its disposal. It is not desirable that the working classes should be familiarised with poor law relief, and if once the honourable sentiment which now leads them to avoid it is broken down it is probable that recourse will be had to this provision on the slightest occasion.”

The circular goes on to suggest that work “which will not involve the stigma of pauperism” should be found by local authorities for the unemployed.

There is another reason why working men should not go to the workhouse or the casual.

If they have any regard for their own moral well-being, they will avoid both.

The seclusion of the prison is preferable, for there is little in either the workhouse or casual to elevate, but much to degrade.

Thrust into this vicious environment the working man could hardly escape contamination.”