Relieving Officers And Outcasts

One of the establishments that crop up time and time again as you research the social history of Victorian London and the plight of the poor in the Metropolis around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, is the workhouse.

Throughout the century, the authorities had struggled to know what to do with the destitute poor, and the Workhouse was seen as the best option, by which society could provide accommodation for those who fell upon hard times.

However, there was also a belief that these places should be made as unpleasant as possible, in the belief that if you made them pleasant, the idle poor might prefer the option of relying on the state to support them, as opposed to resorting to their own devices to make a living.

There are many records of people who would go to any lengths to avoid going into a Workhouse, as is illustrated by this article.

Indeed, it is safe to say that the Victorian Workhouse was the place of last resort to many of the destitute 19th century poor.


In addition to accommodation for, more or less, permanent residents, each of the Workhouses also possessed a Casual Ward, in which tramps, itinerants and the desperate could find a night’s lodging – providing, of course, these places weren’t already full by the time the hopefull inmates arrived at their gates.


The following story, which is indicative of the problem, appeared in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 12th February, 1888:-

“James Diole, 28, “no home,” fireman, was charged at Lambeth police-court, on Wednesday, with not having any home or any visible means of subsistence, at Lucretia-road, Lambeth.

Police Constable Turner, 283 L, stated that about 20 minutes past one o’clock that morning, whilst on duty, he came to the gate of the casual ward in Lucretia-road.

He there found the defendant lying on the pavement with a coat wrapped about him.


He roused him and asked why he did not go into the casual ward, and he said he had applied, but was told it was full.

Witness ascertained that that was correct, and also that the man had been sent to a relieving officer; that this officer, according to the statement of the man, had sent him to a second relieving officer, and that one had sent him back to the casual ward.

[A relieving officer was an officer who had been appointed by the parish to administer poor relief to the poor of the age.]


Mr. Biron: This is a matter which must be inquired into. Let the superintendent of the casual ward be sent for.

The superintendent shortly afterwards came to the court, and the case was explained to him.

He said he was off-duty at the time, but the assistant had told him of the circumstances. It was quite true the casual ward was full.

Mr. Biron: Who is responsible for this state of things?

Superintendent: The relieving officers, your worship.


Later in the day, Mr. Parker aid Mr. Easter, two relieving officers of the Lambeth parish, came before his worship, who explained what had been stated to him.

Mr. Parker said it was not before 25 minutes past 11 o’clock that the man came to his house, and he referred him to the relieving officer of the district, Mr. Easter. He might add that the night was a very fine one.

Mr. Biron: That is no reason why a man should wander about the streets all night.

Mr. Parker: Arrangements are made if a person went to the workhouse that he would be sheltered.


Mr. Biron: How are persons to know of such arrangements? Here is a poor man going to two relieving officers, and fails to obtain shelter.

Mr. Easter: I referred the man back to the ward.

Mr. Biron: Perhaps that is what is called the arrangement.

Mr. Easter : I should have given an order if I had known the ward was full.


Mr. Biron: Such a condition of things should not be permitted to exist. It is a matter that requires thorough investigation, and I shall certainly make it my business to communicate with the Board of Guardians, and I trust there will be no recurrence of such a thing.

The man, who said he worked hard when he could get it, was discharged.”