Today, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what life was like for the destitute poor of Victorian Britain.
As is evidenced by the tragic lives of the majority of the victims of Jack the Ripper, the difference between living comfortably and grinding poverty often turned on a pinhead of circumstance.
Just one unforeseen change – the death of a child or a spouse, or a sudden bout of unemployment or ill-health – could lead to a, till that point, reasonably well off individual, plummet down through the lower stratum of society and end up living a hand-to-mouth existence in which every day was a battle for survival, and cheap alcohol was the only means of forgetting the waking nightmare that fate had thrust upon them.
Those who could at least raise the required fourpence for a bed in a common lodging house could, at least, enjoy some semblance of independence.
But, for those for whom even this meagre sum was an impossibility, the only resource was the local Workhouse.
A DREADFUL REPUTATION
Workhouses, on the whole, had a dreadful reputation, and there were some that were awful places to end up in.
But there were others that did their best to make the lives of inmates a reasonably pleasant experience. Residents were treated with respect, even with affection, by the staff, and there was a genuine sense of community amongst those who ended up living out their lives behind the imposing walls of these Victorian institutions.
The problem for us today is that, as with the social conditions in the East End slums, journalists were more interested in reporting the bad and, as a consequence, it is mostly the conditions in the bad apples in the Workhouse barrel that have been preserved for posterity, whilst the memory of the good ones was often interred when they were demolished, and their remains raked into the earth.
A PLEASANT EXAMPLE
However, it is possible to find reports on the conditions inside the more pleasant Workhouses.
The Essex Standard, for example, on Saturday 7th March, 1885 published the following article which painted a reasonably pleasant picture of life inside Colchester Workhouse, and which enables us to gain some idea of the lives of the residents, both whilst they were residing at the Workhouse and in the years prior to their admission.
The article read:-
A GLIMPSE AT COLCHESTER WORKHOUSE
“To the majority of Englishmen, the precincts of a Workhouse are as unfamiliar as the regions inside a prison walls.
These sombre-looking structures are seen by many without a thought being hazarded as to what goes on in the interior, some wonder what is to be seen there, and pass on, others, perhaps, think of the indigent people within their portals, and remark what a grand country England is to erect and maintain such huge buildings in order that the poor may have relief; but few are cognisant of the class of people to be found there, or of the manner of the working of these practically benevolent institutions.
But to those who are at all curious, many interesting particulars may be gleaned, much sympathy aroused, and perhaps a moral suggested by a visit to one of the many Workhouses spread over the face of the country.
COLCHESTER A GOOD EXAMPLE
Although, of course, different towns have different ways of conducting their affairs, Colchester may be taken as a specimen (and a good one) of what is to be seen at one of these places.
Thanks to being governed by a humane Board, and possessing a Master and Matron not by any means lacking in this particular, together with ample ability for their posts, those who are unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to be compelled to seek refuge there meet with every care and attention, whilst many leave with regret.
In fact, it has become noteworthy as a house where the inmates are well treated.
At the same time, the Poor Rate of the town is not a burdensome one, whilst it has been gradually decreasing of late.
DISCIPLINE AND CLEANLINESS
A walk through the House at once impresses one with the strict discipline, together with the perfect cleanliness, which is to be observed everywhere.
If anyone expects to find a House full of lazy middle-aged people, such as are to be seen daily begging from door to door, or parading the streets, they will be very much surprised at the scene which meets the eye.
No, this class come under the term “casuals” who are got rid of as speedily as possible, and they are also only too glad to depart themselves, for they prefer to trade on the “benevolent and sympathising public.”
Compare the Workhouse to a Hospital for the aged and infirm poor, or a large almshouse, or benevolent institution, and you would be nearer the mark.
SOME OF THE RESIDENTS
Everywhere infirmity and old age are to be met with, and yet withal cheerfulness.
Yonder old lady is 83, and she has been in bed for several years with a “bad back,” but she is propped up in her cosy clean bed, and plies her needle as rapidly as if her livelihood depended upon it.
By her side sits another “young girl,” as the Master jokingly terms her, over 70 years of age, who chats pleasantly while attending to her elder’s wants.
Those who are able to get about are to be seen busily trotting here and there helping their less fortunate associates, and looking to all their requirements.
One room has twelve occupants, the eldest being 86 years, and the youngest 23, although the next above her is 52.
Another room has only eight old ladies in it, whose ages range from 83 down to 61.
By the fireside sits an old lady aged 73, who, it is said “could a tale unfold” if she was so inclined, but not being very communicative just now, we pass on.
THE LADY CONFINED TO BED
Perhaps one of the most distressing cases in the House is that of a middle-aged woman, who has the privilege of a room apart from the other patients, with the exception of a couple of female attendants.
She is only 44 years of age, yet just half that period she has been laid on the very bed on which you see her. At the promising age of 22 she, unfortunately, fell downstairs, injuring her back so severely that on being brought to the Workhouse all hope of curing her was given up, and she has been a cripple ever since.
Still, it does one’s heart good to see how cheerfully she is resigned to her hard fate, and with what a bright smile she greets everyone. She is a universal favourite, not only amongst those in the Institution, but with many visitors, as testified to by the many tokens of affection which adorn the walls around her cot.
Photographs without number, are placed within her reach, artistically arranged around, whilst nearby are a couple of pet pigeons and a jackdaw.
Sophie, one of her attendants, is a lively little body subject to hallucinations, and she gabbles away all kinds of imaginary stories until stopped short by her more infirm but stronger-willed companion.
A FEAR OF DISSECTION
The majority of the old ladies in the House seem apprehensive lest their mortal remains should be sent to “Cambridge for dissection,” one old dame quaintly remarking that she would be of little use as her bones had scarcely any flesh on them.
There was one exception, however, in an elderly inmate who jokingly remarked she had already disposed of her body for the modestly low sum of sixpence, and when asked where the purchase money had gone she pointed to her nose, indicating it had been spent in the much-relished delicacy snuff.
Two women, both over 70, claim the privilege of having been inmates ever since the opening of the Workhouse, about 48 years ago, one of them having been transferred from St. Peter’s Alms Houses, and the other from St. Leonard’s Alms Houses.
THE OLDEST RESIDENT
Notwithstanding the large number of female inmates who have attained a great age, the palm in this direction is carried off by a member of the sterner sex.
The old gentleman who claims this honour has reached the good old age of 92, and looks equal to many summers yet. He is a jolly and hearty old customer, who chats glibly enough, telling with pleasure that he was born at Myland and can see his birthplace from yonder window.
His features are not half so wrinkled, nor his countenance so careworn as many of his younger companions, and he can crack a joke or smoke a pipe with the best of them.
Although he will end his days in the Union, to his honour, be it said, he worked hard for 53 years, only changing his masters thrice during that period.
THE RETIRED WAITER
That grey-headed, smart-looking old man sitting by the window was once a familiar figure to those in the habit of attending the Board meetings; but he is suffering from a broken leg now, so his place as doorkeeper is filled by another.
Asked to relate some of his experiences, and his face brightens up immediately.
“I was a waiter,” he said, “at Dorling’s Hotel, Walton-on- the-Naze, for nine years during Mrs. Kent and Mr. Dixey’s time, and many a queer affair have I been witness of. That was before the railway was made, when old Bob Cresswell used to drive the coaches from the S van.
He had some rough drives too, had Bob. I well remember one terribly dark night. The wind howled, the sea dashed furiously against the cliffs, and it was as dark as pitch. That was the night, Sir, when Mr. Leech, chemist, St. Botolph’s Street, was blown off the coach near Weeley Black Bay and killed.”
THE BLIND FORMER SHOEMAKER
The old man over there, who says be will be eighty-five next birthday, has been blind for seven years, but he does not lose spirit, “for what’s the use of being melancholy?”, he observes.
“I was a shoemaker by trade,” he said, “and once made a pair of boots for a man 6 feet 6 inches in height who had also a very large foot, measuring five-and-a-quarter inches. across the sole.”
On being asked by a companion what he was going to do with his body, he exclaimed, “Oh, I don’t care what becomes of me. I shall go to Cambridge.”
He also indulged in what appears a standing joke at the Workhouse, stating that he had sold his body for sixpence, and, what was more, he had “got the money.”
THE MAN WITH THE WONDERFUL STONE
An interesting character, who is perhaps as well known out of the Union as he is in, declares that he is possessed of a “wonderful stone,” which he found on the highway near the town.
It is said to be perfectly split in two equal parts, and, according to his story, some marvellous things are to be seen on the split sides.
Whether this is is all correct, or, as some suppose, is pure imagination on his part can only be solved by those who have had the privilege of a view of the stone.
THE BALANCE OF INMATES BIRTH, LIFE AND DEATH
It is curious to note that there are exactly the same number of male and female inmates who are over 80 years of age, namely, ten each, their aggregate ages reaching the formidable total of 1,720 years.
Another peculiar coincidence is the fact that there are the same number of infants as those who have attained the age of 80 and upwards, viz., 20.
The number of deaths that take place in the year average about 50, or nearly one a week.
Roughly speaking, about 2,000 tramps pass through the Honse in the year, the greater majority of’ these being men, who average about ten to one of women and children.
MOSTLY CHURCH OF ENGLAND
Amongst the large number of “settlement” inmates of course are to be found men and women of many shades of religion, but a glance through the books shows that either it is more convenient for the majority to say they belong to the Established Church, or that really is the case, for out of 172 who are in the House, 159 are put down as belonging to the Church of England, whilst only five are returned as Baptists, three as Roman Catholics, two as Independents, two as Dissenters, and one as a Wesleyan.
From October, 1881, to January, 1885, the number of Colchester residents who entered the House was 786, many of these seeking admission and then discharging themselves frequently within that period, some as many as ten times.
Of these 786, the majority came from St. Botolph’s parish, namely 220, followed by St Giles’ 122, St. James’ 97, St Peter’s 85, St Nicholas and St Runwald 63, St, Leonard’s 53, St Martin 45, Lexden 64.
THE LATE MARY FROST
The oldest individual amongst the lot was a woman from Lexden parish, named Mary Frost, who died Oct 26th, 1883, aged 94 years.
Many other facts and particulars might be given, which, no doubt, would be interesting, and much more said about the Institution, and the people who for the time being are resident there, but space will not permit.
If some little interest, however, has been created on their behalf, so as to induce people to think a little for those who have been compelled to seek refuge there, this article will not have been written in vain.”