Inside A Workhouse

The Dundee Courier, on Monday, 25th June 1866, published the following article which looked at the awful conditions inside the workhouse:-


Mr Ernest Hart, accompanied by Mr Farnall, paid a visit to Whitechapel workhouse under the following circumstances. He had received a communication from a person of superior education, who had been very lately an inmate the sick wards of that establishment, and who on leaving them had made statements so horrifying to his friend, Mr Tom Hood, that he requested him to lay them before Mr Hart.

Finding that he was unwilling, now that he is in a fair way to redeem his position, to give notoriety to his misfortunes by stating on oath publicly what he described privately, Hart took the opportunity of telling his story to Mr Farnall, and Mr Farnall immediately agreed to go to the particular wards named, and to ascertain whether the state of things there tallied with the account given.

Mr Hart thus describes the result of his visit:-

We reached the workhouse about six o clock, and ascended to the wards referred to. They are known as the fever wards, and are numbered 4, 5, and 6.

A group gather outside the Workhouse.
Lining Up For Admission To The Workhouse


I was hardly surprised, however much horrified, to find the dreadful statements made to me confirmed in every respect, and to see that the very worst horrors of pauper sick nursing and treatment, which have often been exposed elsewhere of late, were here flourishing unchecked, even at the moment when public attention being most strongly turned to the subject, when public investigations are being held and are impending m various directions, and when both guardian and pauper nurses have had and still have the strongest reasons for setting their houses in order.


The first ward we entered (No. 6) is a ward containing ten beds, in two ranges, with one range of windows placed high in the wall. In the left-hand corner on entering lay a patient, stout, and of about the middle age; he was bed-ridden and helpless; he was lying on a very wet hard straw mattress.

On lifting him we found extensive bed sores; they were covered only with a bit of wet rag. I hope I may be excused for entering into details, which are indeed both painful and disgusting; but I know of no other way in which I can bring people who do not see these things, as I have now seen them so often to realise the sufferings of the sick who are thus treated.

The suffering to which this poor creature is exposed day and night by sheer neglect is hardly to be expressed in words. He is never changed or cleaned at night, and his condition, as we saw it, reflected disgrace upon the authorities.


Two beds beyond him lay a poor fellow who had been admitted into the ward on the previous afternoon; he had a sinus on the thigh and inflamed glands of the throat.

He believed the doctor had ordered something for him, but he had on the thigh at the time we saw him nothing but a piece of rag, which he brought in with him and no application or medicine whatever had yet been supplied to him.


Of the general management of the ward I will speak presently.

Passing from it for a moment we come to Ward 5, which is a miserable little passage-room between Wards 4 and 6, having one little window high on the wall, evidently never intended and quite unfit for the occupation of any sick person.


In this ward or passage are three persons – one a raving lunatic, of filthy habits.

This unhappy man has been there for many weeks. He has been in the habit of rising from his bed at night and wandering into the wards wrapped in a blanket, disturbing the rest of the patients, raving and threatening them, and declaring that he would not be kept there.

Like the first patient, he was never changed or cleaned at night, but was habitually a filthy nuisance to the other poor creatures in the ward (and this although there is a male pauper who sits in a chair by the fire at night and is called “a night nurse”).

This lunatic has quite lately made an attack on the female pauper nurse, and since about a week a night watcher is kept there to prevent him from getting out of bed; of course he cannot prevent him from disturbing all the other patients.

When we saw him he was lying in a state neglect and dirt, raving incoherently, and with a form set against his bed, apparently to prevent him falling out.


Next to him was a poor fellow half paralysed, inarticulate, and half imbecile, of dirty habits, and very restless, who was sitting in his shirt upon the edge of the bed, and had a coloured handkerchief tied over a sore place on his foot.

This passage ward was shared with the inmates by a decent old man in the possession of all his senses, and fully alive to the painful position in which he was placed.

He had a somewhat extensive ulcer of the leg; it was dressed with a dry rag (it had been wet in the morning), which adhered firmly to it, and was tied on with a piece of string. This is what is called in this ward a water-dressing. We did not in any case find oil silk or any other waterproof tissue applied to keep the rags moist.


In the further ward, which was under the care of the same “pauper nurse,” and was connected with this passage ward, the same state of things prevailed.

We found a poor fellow sitting on the bench, with a coat thrown over his shoulders, and bare legs and naked feet resting on the floor. He was very ill, with dropsy following bronchitis, and was partly paralysed.

In the bed next the door where he had all the annoyances of these unhappy men the passage, was patient recovering from rheumatism. His chief complaint was now, he said, weakness, and he had asked for some strengthening medicine; it had been ordered three days ago, and he expected it that night.


It is needless to multiply instances of neglect, but many others came under our notice in this ward.

Most of the patients, I may say, stated that they were hungry, one or two that they were half starved, and I may add that my first informant stated to me that when he was recovering he grew very hungry, and the diet being insufficient, he bought bread off the pauper nurse with money which Mr Hood had sent to him.

We heard in the ward that if patients got any halfpence from friends who visited them the nurse expected to have some of the money.


A number of patients are on a diet which allows meat for dinner only three times a week, soup three times, and bread and cheese on one day.

Only one patient had milk allowed him, and none had any beer, although several earnestly craved for it; and there were more than one whose present complaint was chiefly weakness.

The only stimulant allowed throughout the wards was two or three ounces of gin for the dropsical patient.

There were no head-cards showing the patients or nurses what diet and medicine each patient was to have, nor were any dietary tables suspended in the ward.

These are precautions against neglect and fraud which ought never to be omitted in any ward.


There were only three patients whom we found supplied with medicines; they had been ordered for several others, but none of them had what was ordered.

When we asked the nurse about this she said that she had the medicines in her cupboard: and when we asked her to produce them she showed us three large bottles. “House Medicine,” “Saline Mixture,” “Cough Mixture,” were, I believe, the labels that they bore. They had no corks.

I had previously been informed that the general custom was here for the nurse to say at night, “Anybody want medicine.”

Those who did want medicine usually avoided the “house medicine” as a drastic compound, and suited their taste in choosing “cough mixture” or “saline mixture,” or a combination of the two, which is said to be the favourite mixture.

I must say that the arrangements which we found in existence strongly confirmed this story.


I have not told you all that we saw, sir, but enough to give an insight into the horrors of this place of torture which is called a sick ward, and this mockery which is called nursing the sick.

The facts I have stated do not rest solely on my personal observation.

I can, if they be doubted, appeal not only to Mr Farnall, who will, I feel sure, testify to the moderation and the accuracy of the statement, but to one of the guardians and the master, who were making a round through another part of the house, and whose attention I was enabled call to every one of these facts when they came into the ward just at the close of our inspection.”