The Whitechapel Workhouse loomed over the streets of the area in 1888 and features in the mystery of Jack the Ripper in that it was to its mortuary that the bodies of several of the victims were taken in the immediate aftermath of their murders.
Today, I thought I’d bring you some Victorian newspaper reports that feature the everyday goings on inside the workhouse in the decade or so prior to the Whitechapel murders occurring in the streets around it.
THE OGRES OF WHITECHAPEL WORKHOUSE
The first report appeared in the Sunday 9th of June 1861 edition of Reynold’s Newspaper under the headline “The Ogres of Whitechapel Workhouse.”
It illustrates how some workhouse employees could let the power that their positions bestowed upon them go to their heads:-
“On Tuesday, at Worship-street Police-court, Henry Warner and Mary Warner, man and wife, were charged before Mr. Knox, with being found at night in the open air, destitute, and without any visible place of abode.
The subject matter of the above charge is this :—
About a fortnight since, the woman Warner preferred a charge of assault against a gate-porter, named Coxall, at the Whitechapel workhouse, for violently assaulting her.
COXALL TO ANSWER THE CHARGE
Mr. Knox, after an attentive hearing and corroborative evidence on a remand, ordered that Coxall should enter into recognisanses to appear and answer the charge at the Middlesex Sessions, at the same time desiring it should be signified to the authorities of the workhouse that it would be advisable for them to protect the mother and child until the result of the proceedings against their servant should be known.
That this humane suggestion was not acted upon appeared from the testimony of Police-constable Gerrety, 159 H, who had the conducting of the present case.
SITTING ON THE WORKHOUSE STEPS
He deposed: “Last night, about ten o’clock, I saw this man and woman, the latter having a child in her arms, sitting on the steps of Whitechapel workhouse. In answer to my inquiries, they said that they had been denied entrance.
Coxall, the porter, came up at the moment, and I referred them to him.
He said, “You will not be admitted here go to the casual ward.”
The woman then observed, “You know, Mr. Coxall, that Mr. Knox, the magistrate, told you he should wish us to be admitted every night while the charge against you was pending.”
To which Coxall replied, “Who is Mr. Knox ? I would care about as much for him as I would for you.”
THE WORKHOUSE MASTER
He then went in and shut the door, but opened it almost immediately, and said, “Constable, the master wishes to speak to you.”
I then went into the workhouse, where I saw the master, who asked, “What do you want here?”
I replied, “The porter invited me in.”
He continued, “I am master in this house, and you have no business here without my permission.”
To this I answered, “Well, sir, I shall go out if you please,” and I put my hand on the door to do so, but he called out, “Let that door be.” He then got between me and the door, and again asked, while he held it fast, “What business have you here?”
I told him as before, and then I left.
HE TOOK THEM TO THE STATION
I took the man, woman, and child to the station; it was raining at the time. I was there directed to take them to the casual ward, and saw a man named Lambert, whom I told that admission was required for the three.
He said, “We are full of men, and I can’t take the man in at all, but as the child is ill, they say, why you shall have an order for the doctor.”
THE HOUSE DOCTOR
He then gave an order to Dr. Richardson, the house doctor, and I took the poor things there.
The doctor examined the child, and gave an order for admission to the house. I then took them back and gave Coxall the order.
He kept us waiting about ten minutes, then returned, and said he would not admit them.
It was one o’clock. I again saw them to the station, and learning that they had not eaten anything all day. I supplied them with tea and bread and butter, and they remained there until I brought them to this court.
PROVIDE FOR THEM
Mr. Knox directed Mr. Wood, one of the officers of the court, to see that the husband, wife, and child were provided for under this emergency until the issue of the charge against Coxall was known.
Such conduct on the part of any parish authorities he said was disgraceful in the extreme, and the more so on account of the vindictive feelings displayed.
One step he (Mr. Knox) should most certainly take, and that was to communicate immediately with the president of the Poor-law Board.”
A WORKHOUSE ASSAULT
However, as the next press report demonstrates, sometimes the staff at the workhouse could face danger from the inmates.
On 21st of October 1882, The Manchester Courier reported on a vicious assault that had been perpetrated on the master of the Whitechapel Workhouse by one of the inmates:-
A WORKHOUSE FURY
At Middlesex Sessions on Tuesday, Ann Golden, 41, was indicted for assaulting and beating Samuel Waterer, and occasioning him actual bodily harm.
Mr. F. Mead prosecuted, whilst the prisoner was undefended.
AN INMATE OF WHITECHAPEL WORKHOUSE
It appeared from the evidence that the prisoner had, for same months past, been an inmate of Whitechapel Workhouse, and on the 20th of September Eleanor Edwards, the female labour superintendent, put her out into the laundry yard for using disgusting language.
Soon afterwards Mr. Waterer, the master of the workhouse, saw her behaving improperly, and remonstrated with her.
SHE USED FOUL LANGUAGE
She then used very foul language, got up, seized hold of him, and inflicted a very serious injury upon him during a struggle which lasted for two or three minutes.
HE SUFFERED GREAT PAIN
The medical superintendent of Whitechapel Workhouse saw the master soon after the assault, and found him suffering from great pain.
It would be some considerable time before he recovered his health, and there was great danger of the injuries he had sustained becoming chronic.
The prisoner’s conduct in the dock during the examination of the witnesses was most disgraceful.
The jury found the prisoner guilty, and the assistant-judge sentenced her to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.”
COMPLAINT AGAINST GUARDIANS OF THE POOR
On 4th July 1883, the St James’s Gazette carried a report about two workhouse children who were about to be sent to the United Stated or Canada against their will, and against the wills of several people who knew them.
The report read:
“A woman, named Mrs. Taylor, living at South-grove, Bow, appeared at the Thames Police Court to-day for advice.
She said that she had two nieces, aged respectively fourteen and eleven years, in the Whitechapel Workhouse, their parents having died and left them destitute.
A short time ago she heard that the guardians were about to send the two children, with others, to the United States or Canada; and upon inquiry found this to be correct.
She at once applied to the board, and told them, as the girl’s nearest relative, that she did not wish them to be sent abroad, and that she was now in a position to take them home and keep them if they would let her have them.
This, however, the guardians declined to do, and the girls were now to be sent off to Canada against their own wish and the wish of their friends.
The magistrate said it was not a matter in which he could interfere.
She had better see the guardians again or lay the matter before the Local Government Board.”
A FELONIOUS ATTEMPT TO MURDER A CHILD
One of the more shocking cases – that didn’t actually occur at the Whitechapel Workhouse, although it did feature in the aftermath of the case – was that of a woman who had attempted to murder her new born child.
On the 28th February 1884, The London Evening Standard published the following, rather disturbing, article concerning an alleged attempt to murder a newborn baby:-
“Kate Marshall, 22, was indicted for feloniously attempting to murder her child by throwing it into a dust-bin, and putting dust and ashes into its month, with intent to murder the said child.
Mr. Poland and Mr. Montagu Williams prosecuted for the Public Prosecutor.
The Prisoner is married, but she has been separated from her husband for several years.
DELIVERED OF A CHILD
On the 16th of January she was lodging at a house in Old Montague-street, Whitechapel, and on that day she was delivered of the child.
She at once wrapped the child in a shawl and placed it in the dust-bin in the yard, where she left it; but the cries of the child attracted the attention of someone in the house, and it was removed and taken to the Whitechapel Workhouse in an exhausted condition.
Several cinders were in its mouth and, but for its timely discovery, the child would have lost its life.
SHE WAS VERY DRUNK
The Prisoner was very drunk at the time, and she told the mistress of the workhouse that she had been drinking heavily for several days, and thought the child was dead when she placed it in the dust-bin.
The Prisoner, in her defence, said that she was very drunk, and did not recover her senses for some time. She was very sorry for what she had done.
FOUND NOT GUILTY
The Jury, after a short deliberation, found the Prisoner Not Guilty.
There was another charge against the Prisoner of having unlawfully abandoned and exposed the child, and thereby endangered its life. The evidence given in the previous case was again read over.
The Prisoner made the same defence as before, and said that she thought the child was dead at the time she put it into the dust-bin.
The Jury again returned a verdict of Not Guilty.”
You can read a full transcript of Kate Marshall’s trial on this page.