BY JAMES GREENWOOD
At about nine o'clock on the evening of Monday
the —th instant, a neat but unpretentious carriage
might have been seen turning cautiously
from the Kennington Road into Princes Road, Lambeth.
The curtains were closely drawn, and the coachman wore
an unusually responsible air. Approaching a public
house, which retreated a little from the street, he pulled
up; but not so close that the lights should fall upon the
carriage door, not so distant as to unsettle the mind of
any one who chose to imagine that he had halted to drink
beer before proceeding to call for the children at a juvenile
party. He did not dismount, nor did any one alight
in the usual way; but any keen observer who happened
to watch his intelligent countenance might have seen a
furtive glance directed to the wrong door,—that is to
say, to the door of the carriage which opened into the
dark and muddy road. From that door emerged a sly
and ruffianly figure, marked with every sign of squalor.
He was dressed in what had once been a snuff-brown[Pg 57]
coat, but which had faded to the hue of bricks imperfectly
baked. It was not strictly a ragged coat, though it had
lost its cuffs,—a bereavement which obliged the wearer's
arms to project through the sleeves two long inelegant
inches. The coat altogether was too small, and was only
made to meet over the chest by means of a bit of twine.
This wretched garment was surmounted by a "bird's-eye"
pocket-handkerchief of cotton, wisped about the
throat hangman fashion; above all was a battered billy-cock
hat, with a dissolute drooping brim. Between the
neckerchief and the lowering brim of the hat appeared
part of a face, unshaven, and not scrupulously clean.
The man's hands were plunged into his pockets, and he
shuffled hastily along in boots, which were the boots of a
tramp indifferent to miry ways. In a moment he was
out of sight, and the brougham, after waiting a little
while, turned about and comfortably departed.
This mysterious figure was that of the present writer.
He was bound for Lambeth Workhouse, there to learn
by actual experience how casual paupers are lodged and
fed, and what the "casual" is like, and what the porter
who admits him, and the master who rules over him;
and how the night passes with the outcasts whom we
have all seen crowding about workhouse doors on cold
and rainy nights. Much has been said on the subject,—on
behalf of the paupers, on behalf of the officials; but
nothing by any one who, with no motive but to learn
and make known the truth, had ventured the experiment
of passing a night in a workhouse and trying what it
actually is to be a "casual."
The day had been windy and chill,—the night was[Pg 58]
cold; and therefore I fully expected to begin my experiences
among a dozen of ragged wretches squatting about
the steps and waiting for admission. But my only companion
at the door was a decently dressed woman, whom,
as I afterwards learnt, they declined to admit until she
had recovered from a fit of intoxication from which she
had the misfortune to be still suffering. I lifted the big
knocker and knocked; the door was promptly opened,
and I entered. Just within, a comfortable-looking clerk
sat at a comfortable desk, ledger before him. Indeed,
the spacious hall in every way was as comfortable as
cleanliness and great mats and plenty of gaslight could
"What do you want?" asked the man who opened
"I want a lodging."
"Go and stand before the desk," said the porter; and
"You are late," said the clerk.
"Am I, sir?"
"Yes. If you come in you'll have a bath, and you'll
have to sleep in the shed."
"Very well, sir."
"What's your name?"
"Joshua Mason, sir."
"What are you?"
"An engraver." (This taradiddle I invented to account
for the look of my hands.)
"Where did you sleep last night?"
"Hammersmith," I answered—as I hope to be forgiven.
"How many times have you been here?"
"Never before, sir."
"Where do you mean to go to when you are turned
out in the morning?"
"Back to Hammersmith, sir."
These humble answers being entered in a book, the
clerk called to the porter, saying, "Take him through.
You may as well take his bread with you."
Near the clerk stood a basket containing some pieces
of bread of equal size. Taking one of these, and unhitching
a bunch of keys from the wall, the porter led me
through some passages all so scrupulously clean that my
most serious misgivings were laid to rest. Then we
passed into a dismal yard. Crossing this, my guide led
me to a door, calling out, "Hillo! Daddy, I've brought
you another!" Whereupon Daddy opened unto us, and
let a little of his gaslight stream into the dark where we
"Come in," said Daddy, very hospitably. "There's
enough of you to-night, anyhow! What made you so
"I didn't like to come in earlier."
"Ah! that's a pity, now, because you've missed
your skilley (gruel). It's the first night of skilley, don't
you know, under the new Act?"
"Just like my luck!" I muttered dolefully.
The porter went his way, and I followed Daddy into
another apartment, where were ranged three great baths,
each one containing a liquid so disgustingly like weak
mutton broth that my worst apprehensions crowded back.
"Come on, there's a dry place to stand on up at this[Pg 60]
end," said Daddy, kindly. "Take off your clothes, tie
'em up in your hank'sher, and I'll lock 'em up till the
morning." Accordingly I took off my coat and waistcoat,
and was about to tie them together, when Daddy
cried, "That ain't enough; I mean everything." "Not
my shirt, sir, I suppose?" "Yes, shirt and all; but
there, I'll lend you a shirt," said Daddy. "Whatever
you take in of your own will be nailed, you know. You
might take in your boots, though,—they'd be handy if
you happened to want to leave the shed for anything;
but don't blame me if you lose 'em."
With a fortitude for which I hope some day to be
rewarded, I made up my bundle (boots and all), and the
moment Daddy's face was turned away shut my eyes and
plunged desperately into the mutton broth. I wish from
the bottom of my heart my courage had been less hasty,
for hearing the splash, Daddy looked round and said,
"Lor, now! there was no occasion for that; you look a
clean and decent sort of man. It's them filthy beggars"
(only he used a word more specific than "filthy") "that
want washing. Don't use that towel: here's a clean
one! That's the sort! and now here's your shirt"
(handing me a blue striped one from a heap), "and
here's your ticket. No. 34 you are, and a ticket to
match is tied to your bundle. Mind you don't lose it.
They'll nail it from you if they get a chance. Put it
under your head. This is your rug: take it with you."
"Where am I to sleep, please, sir?"
"I'll show you."
And so he did. With no other rag but the checked
shirt to cover me, and with my rug over my shoulder,[Pg 61]
he accompanied me to the door at which I entered, and,
opening it, kept me standing with naked feet on the stone
threshold, full in the draught of the frosty air, while he
pointed out the way I should go. It was not a long way,
but I would have given much not to have trodden it.
It was open as the highway,—with flag-stones below
and the stars overhead, and, as I said before, and cannot
help saying again, a frosty wind was blowing.
"Straight across," said Daddy, "to where you see the
light shining through. Go in there, and turn to the left,
and you'll find the beds in a heap. Take one of 'em
and make yourself comfortable." And straight across I
went, my naked feet seeming to cling to the stones as
though they were burning hot instead of icy cold (they
had just stepped out of a bath you should remember),
till I reached the space through which the light was shining,
and I entered in.
No language with which I am acquainted is capable of
conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then
encountered. Imagine a space of about thirty feet
by thirty feet enclosed on three sides by a dingy whitewashed
wall, and roofed with naked tiles, which were
furred with the damp and filth that reeked within. As
for the fourth side of the shed, it was boarded in for
(say) a third of its breadth; the remaining space being
hung with flimsy canvas, in which was a gap two feet
wide at top, widening to at least four feet at bottom.
This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so
thickly incrusted with filth that I mistook it first for a
floor of natural earth. Extending from one end of my
bedroom to the other, in three rows, were certain iron[Pg 62]
"cranks" (of which I subsequently learnt the use),
with their many arms raised in various attitudes, as the
stiffened arms of men are on a battle-field. My bedfellows
lay among the cranks, distributed over the flag-stones
in a double row, on narrow bags scantily stuffed
with hay. At one glance my appalled vision took in
thirty of them,—thirty men and boys stretched upon
shallow pallets, with but only six inches of comfortable
hay between them and the stony floor. These beds were
placed close together, every occupant being provided
with a rug like that which I was fain to hug across my
shoulders. In not a few cases two gentlemen had
clubbed beds and rugs and slept together. In one case
(to be further mentioned presently) four gentlemen had
so clubbed together. Many of my fellow-casuals were
awake,—others asleep or pretending to sleep; and
shocking as were the waking ones to look upon, they
were quite pleasant when compared with the sleepers.
For this reason, the practised and well-seasoned casual
seems to have a peculiar way of putting himself to bed.
He rolls himself in his rug, tucking himself in, head and
feet, so that he is completely enveloped; and, lying quite
still on his pallet, he looks precisely like a corpse covered
because of its hideousness. Some were stretched
out at full length; some lay nose and knees together;
some with an arm or a leg showing crooked through the
coverlet. It was like the result of a railway accident;
these ghastly figures were awaiting the coroner.
From the moral point of view, however, the wakeful
ones were more dreadful still. Tousled, dirty, villanous,
they squatted up in their beds, and smoked foul pipes,[Pg 63]
and sang snatches of horrible songs, and bandied jokes
so obscene as to be absolutely appalling. Eight or ten
were so enjoying themselves,—the majority with the
check shirt on, and the frowzy rug pulled about their
legs; but two or three wore no shirts at all, squatting
naked to the waist, their bodies fully exposed in the
light of the single flaring jet of gas fixed high up on the
My entrance excited very little attention. There was
a horse-pail three parts full of water standing by a post
in the middle of the shed, with a little tin pot beside it.
Addressing me as "old pal," one of the naked ruffians
begged me to "hand him a swig," as he was "werry
nigh garspin." Such an appeal of course no "old pal"
could withstand, and I gave him a potful of water. He
showed himself grateful for the attention. "I should
lay over there, if I was you," he said, pointing to the
left side of the shed; "it's more out of the wind than
this 'ere side is." I took the good-natured advice, and
(by this time shivering with cold) stepped over the stones
to where the beds of straw-bags were heaped, and
dragged one of them to the spot suggested by my naked
comrade. But I had no more idea of how to arrange it
than of making an apple-pudding; and a certain little
discovery added much to my embarrassment. In the
middle of the bed I had selected was a stain of blood
bigger than a man's hand! I did not know what to do
now. To lie on such a horrid thing seemed impossible;
yet to carry back the bed and exchange it for another
might betray a degree of fastidiousness repugnant to the
feelings of my fellow-lodgers, and possibly excite sus[Pg 64]picion
that I was not what I seemed. Just in the nick of
time in came that good man Daddy.
"What! not pitched yet?" he exclaimed; "here,
I'll show you. Hallo! somebody's been a bleedin'!
Never mind; let's turn him over. There you are, you
see! Now lay down, and cover your rug over you."
There was no help for it. It was too late to go back.
Down I lay and spread the rug over me. I should have
mentioned that I brought in with me a cotton handkerchief,
and this I tied round my head by way of a nightcap;
but not daring to pull the rug as high as my face.
Before I could in any way settle my mind to reflection,
in came Daddy once more to do me a further kindness
and point out a stupid blunder I had committed.
"Why, you are a rummy chap!" said Daddy. "You
forgot your bread! Lay hold. And look here, I've
brought you another rug; it's perishing cold to-night."
So saying he spread the rug over my legs and went away.
I was very thankful for the extra covering, but I was in
a dilemma about the bread. I couldn't possibly eat it;
what then was to be done with it? I broke it, however,
and in view of such of the company as might happen to
be looking, made a ferocious bite at a bit as large as a
bean, and munched violently. By good luck, however, I
presently got half-way over my difficulty very neatly. Just
behind me, so close indeed that their feet came within half
a yard of my head, three lads were sleeping together.
"Did you hear that, Punch?" one of them asked.
"'Ear what?" answered Punch, sleepy and snappish.
"Why, a cove forgot his toke! Gordstruth! you
wouldn't ketch me a forgettin' mine."
"You may have half of it, old pal, if you're hungry",
I observed, leaning upon my elbows.
"Chuck it here, good luck to yer!" replied my young
friend, starting up with an eager clap of his dirty hands.
I "chucked it here," and slipping the other half under
the side of my bed, lay my head on my folded arms.
It was about half past nine when, having made myself
as comfortable as circumstances permitted, I closed my
eyes in the desperate hope that I might fall asleep, and
so escape from the horrors with which I was surrounded.
"At seven to-morrow morning the bell will ring," Daddy
had informed me, "and then you will give up your ticket
and get back your bundle." Between that time and the
present full nine long hours had to wear away.
But I was speedily convinced that, at least for the
present, sleep was impossible. The young fellow (one
of the three who lay in one bed, with their feet to my
head) whom my bread had refreshed, presently swore
with frightful imprecations that he was now going to have
a smoke; and immediately put his threat into execution.
Thereupon his bedfellows sat up and lit their pipes too.
But O, if they had only smoked,—if they had not taken
such an unfortunate fancy to spit at the leg of a crank,
distant a few inches from my head,—how much misery
and apprehension would have been spared me. To make
matters worse, they united with this American practice
an Eastern one; as they smoked they related little autobiographical
anecdotes,—so abominable that three or
four decent men who lay at the farther end of the shed
were so provoked that they threatened, unless the talk
abated in filthiness, to get up and stop it by main force.[Pg 66]
Instantly the voice of every blackguard in the room was
raised against the decent ones. They were accused of
loathsome afflictions, stigmatized "as fighting men out
of work" (which must be something very humiliating,
I suppose), and invited to "a round" by boys young
enough to be their grandsons. For several minutes
there was such a storm of oaths, threats, and taunts,—such
a deluge of foul words raged in the room,—that I
could not help thinking of the fate of Sodom; as, indeed,
I did several times during the night. Little by little the
riot died out, without any the slightest interference on
the part of the officers.
Soon afterwards the ruffian majority was strengthened
by the arrival of a lanky boy of about fifteen, who evidently,
recognized many acquaintances, and was recognized
by them as "Kay," or perhaps I should write it
"K." He was a very remarkable-looking lad, and his
appearance pleased me much. Short as his hair was
cropped, it still looked soft and silky; he had large blue
eyes, set wide apart, and a mouth that would have been
faultless but for its great width; and his voice was as soft
and sweet as any woman's. Lightly as a woman, too, he
picked his way over the stones towards the place where
the beds lay, carefully hugging his cap beneath his arm.
"What cheer, Kay?" "Out again, then, old son!"
"What yer got in yer cap, Kay?" cried his friends; to
which the sweet voice replied, "Who'll give me a part
of his doss (bed)? —— my —— eyes and limbs if I ain't
perishin'! Who'll let me turn in with him for half my
toke (bread)?" I feared how it would be! The hungry
young fellow who had so readily availed himself of[Pg 67]
half my "toke" snapped at Kay's offer, and after a little
rearrangement and bed-making, four young fellows instead
of three reposed upon the hay-bags at my head.
"You was too late for skilley, Kay. There's skilley
now, nights as well as mornin's."
"Don't you tell no bleeding lies," Kay answered, incredulously.
"Blind me, it's true. Ain't it, Punch?"
"Right you are!" said Punch, "and spoons to eat it
with, that's more! There used to be spoons at all the
houses, one time. Poplar used to have 'em; but one at
a time they was all nicked, don't you know." ("Nicked"
means "stolen," obviously.)
"Well, I don't want no skilley, leastways, not to-night,"
said Kay. "I've had some rum. Two glasses
of it; and a blow out of puddin',—regler Christmas
plum-puddin'. You don't know the cove as give it
me, but, thinks I this mornin' when I come out, blessed
if I don't go and see my old chum. Lordstruth! he was
struck! 'Come along,' he ses, 'I saved you some puddin'
from Christmas.' 'Whereabouts is it?' I ses. 'In
that box under my bed,' he ses, and he forks it out.
That's the sort of pal to have! And he stood a quarten,
and half a ounce of hard-up (tobacco). That wasn't
all, neither; when I come away, ses he, 'How about
your breakfus?' 'O, I shall do,' ses I. 'You take some
of my bread and butter,' he ses, and he cuts me off four
chunks buttered thick. I eat two on 'em comin' along."
"What's in your cap, Kay?" repeated the devourer
"Them other two slices," said Kay; generously adding,[Pg 68]
"There, share 'em amongst yer, and somebody give us a
whiff of 'bacca."
Kay showed himself a pleasant companion,—what in
a higher grade of society is called "quite an acquisition."
He told stories of thieves and thieving, and of a certain
"silver cup" he had been "put up to," and that he
meant to nick it afore the end of the week, if he got
seven stretch (? seven years) for it. The cup was worth
ten quid (? pounds), and he knew where to melt it within
ten minutes of nicking it. He made this statement without
any moderation of his sweet voice; and the others
received it as serious fact. Nor was there any affectation
of secrecy in another gentleman, who announced, with
great applause, that he had stolen a towel from the bath-room;
"And s' help me, it's as good as new; never
been washed mor'n once!"
"Tell us a 'rummy' story, Kay," said somebody; and
Kay did. He told stories of so "rummy" a character
that the decent men at the farther end of the room
(some of whom had their own little boys sleeping with
them) must have lain in a sweat of horror as they
listened. Indeed, when Kay broke into a "rummy"
song with a roaring chorus, one of the decent men rose
in his bed and swore that he would smash Kay's head if
he didn't desist. But Kay sang on till he and his
admirers were tired of the entertainment. "Now," said
he, "let's have a swearing club! you'll all be in it?"
The principle of this game seemed to rest on the impossibility
of either of the young gentlemen making half
a dozen observations without introducing a blasphemous
or obscene word; and either the basis is a very sound[Pg 69]
one, or for the sake of keeping the "club" alive the
members purposely made slips. The penalty for "swearing"
was a punch on any part of the body, except a few
which the club rules protected. The game was highly
successful. Warming with the sport, and indifferent to
punches, the members vied with each other in audacity;
and in a few minutes Bedlam in its prime could scarcely
have produced such a spectacle as was to be seen on the
beds behind me. One rule of the club was that any
word to be found in the Bible might be used with impunity,
and if one member "punched" another for using
such a word, the error was to be visited upon him with a
double punching all round. This naturally led to much
argument; for in vindicating the Bible as his authority, a
member became sometimes so much heated as to launch
into a flood of "real swearing," which brought the
fists of the club upon his naked carcass as quick as hail.
These and other pastimes beguiled the time until,
to my delight, the church chimes audibly tolled twelve.
After this the noise gradually subsided, and it seemed as
though everybody was going to sleep at last. I should
have mentioned that during the story-telling and song-singing
a few "casuals" had dropped in, but they were
not habitués, and cuddled down with their rugs over
their heads without a word to any one.
In a little while all was quiet, save for the flapping of
the canvas curtain in the night breeze, the snoring, and the
horrible, indescribable sound of impatient hands scratching
skins that itch. There was another sound of very
frequent occurrence, and that was the clanking of the tin
pannikin against the water-pail. Whether it is in the[Pg 70]
nature of workhouse bread or skilley to provoke thirst is
more than my limited experience entitles me to say, but
it may be truthfully asserted that once at least in the
course of five minutes might be heard a rustling of straw,
pattering of feet, and then the noise of water dipping,
and then was to be seen at the pail the figure of a man
(sometimes stark naked) gulping down the icy water as
he stood upon the icy stones.
And here I may remark that I can furnish no solution
to this mystery of the shirt. I only know that some of
my comrades were provided with a shirt, and that to
some the luxury was denied. I may say this, however,
that none of the little boys were allowed one.
Nearly one o'clock. Still quiet and no fresh arrival
for an hour or more. Then suddenly a loud noise of
hobnailed boots kicked at a wooden gate, and soon after
a tramping of feet and a rapping at Daddy's door, which,
it will be remembered, was only separated from our bedroom
by an open paved court.
"Hallo!" cried Daddy.
"Here's some more of 'em for you,—ten of 'em!"
answered the porter, whose voice I recognized at once.
"They'll have to find beds, then," Daddy grumbled,
as he opened his door. "I don't believe there are four
beds empty. They must sleep double, or something."
This was terrible news for me. Bad enough, in all
conscience, was it to lie as I was lying; but the prospect
of sharing my straw with some dirty scoundrel of the
Kay breed was altogether unendurable. Perhaps, however,
they were not dirty scoundrels, but peaceable and
decent men, like those in the farther corner.
Alas for my hopes! In the space of five minutes in
they came at the rent in the canvas,—great hulking
ruffians, some with rugs and nothing else, and some with
shirts and nothing else, and all madly swearing because,
coming in after eleven o'clock, there was no "toke" for
them. As soon as these wrathful men had advanced
to the middle of the shed they made the discovery that
there was an insufficient number of beds,—only three,
indeed, for ten competitors.
"Where's the beds? D' ye hear, Daddy? You
blessed, truth-telling old person, where's the beds?"
"You'll find 'em. Some of 'em is lying on two, or
got 'em as pillows. You'll find 'em."
With a sudden rush our new friends plunged among
the sleepers, trampling over them, cursing their eyes and
limbs, dragging away their rugs; and if by chance they
found some poor wretch who had been tempted to take
two beds (or bags) instead of one, they coolly hauled
him out and took possession. There was no denying
them and no use in remonstrating. They evidently knew
that they were at liberty to do just as they liked, and
they took full advantage of the privilege.
One of them came up to me, and shouting, "I want
that, you ——," snatched at my "birdseye" nightcap
and carried it off. There was a bed close to mine which
contained only one occupant, and into this one of the
new-comers slipped without a word of warning, driving
its lawful owner against the wall to make room. Then
he sat up in bed for a moment, savagely venting his
disappointment as to "toke," and declaring that never
before in his life had he felt the need of it so much.[Pg 72]
This was my opportunity. Slipping my hand under my
bed, I withdrew that judiciously hoarded piece of bread
and respectfully offered it to him. He snapped at it
By the time the churches were chiming two matters
had once more adjusted themselves, and silence reigned,
to be disturbed only by drinkers at the pail, or such
as, otherwise prompted, stalked into the open yard. Kay,
for one, visited it. I mention this unhappy young wretch
particularly, because he went out without a single rag to
his back. I looked out at the rent in the canvas, and
saw the frosty moon shining on him. When he returned,
and crept down between Punch and another, he muttered
to himself, "Warm again! O my G-d! warm
I hope, Mr. Editor, that you will not think me too
prodigal of these reminiscences, and that your readers will
understand that, if I write rather boldly, it is not done as
a matter of taste. To me it seems quite worth while to
relate with tolerable accuracy every particular of an adventure
which you persuaded me ("ah! woful when!")
to undertake for the public good.
Whether there is a rule which closes the casual wards
after a certain hour I do not know; but before one
o'clock our number was made up, the last-comer signalizing
his appearance with a grotesque pas seul. His rug
over his shoulders, he waltzed into the shed, waving his
hands, and singing in an affected voice, as he sidled
"I like to be a swell, a-roaming down Pall-Mall,
Or anywhere, I don't much care, so I can be a swell,"—
a couplet which had an intensely comical effect. This
gentleman had just come from a pantomime (where he
had learnt his song, probably). Too poor to pay for a
lodging, he could only muster means for a seat in the gallery
of "the Vic," where he was well entertained, judging
from the flattering manner in which he spoke of the clown.
The columbine was less fortunate in his opinion. "She's
werry dickey!—ain't got what I call 'move' about her."
However, the wretched young woman was respited now
from the scourge of his criticism; for the critic and his
listeners were fast asleep; and yet I doubt whether any
one of the company slept very soundly. Every moment
some one shifted uneasily; and as the night wore on the
silence was more and more irritated by the sound of
coughing. This was one of the most distressing things
in the whole adventure. The conversation was horrible,
the tales that were told more horrible still, and worse
than either (though not by any means the most infamous
things to be heard,—I dare not even hint at them) was
that song, with its bestial chorus shouted from a dozen
throats; but at any rate they kept the blood warm with
constant hot flushes of anger; while as for the coughing,
to lie on the flagstones in what was nothing better than
an open shed, and listen to that, hour after hour, chilled
one's very heart with pity. Every variety of cough that
ever I heard was to be heard there: the hollow cough;
the short cough; the hysterical cough; the bark that
comes at regular intervals, like the quarter-chime of a
clock, as if to mark off the progress of decay; coughing
from vast hollow chests, coughing from little narrow
ones,—now one, now another, now two or three together,[Pg 74]
and then a minute's interval of silence in which to
think of it all and wonder who would begin next. One
of the young reprobates above me coughed so grotesquely,
like the chopping of wood, that I named him in my mind
the Woodcutter. Now and then I found myself coughing
too, which may have added just a little to the poignant
distress these awfully constant and various sounds
occasioned me. They were good in one way; they made
one forget what wretches they were who, to all appearances,
were so rapidly "chopping" their way to a pauper's
graveyard. I did not care about the more matured
ruffians so much; but though the youngest, the boys like
Kay, were unquestionably among the most infamous of
my comrades, to hear what cold and hunger and vice had
done for them at fifteen was almost enough to make a man
cry; and there were boys there even younger than these.
At half past two, every one being asleep, or at least
lying still, Daddy came in and counted us,—one, two,
three, four, and so on, in a whisper. Then, finding the
pail empty (it was nearly full at half past nine, when I
entered), he considerately went and refilled it, and even
took much trouble in searching for the tin pot which
served as a drinking-cup, and which the last-comer had
playfully thrown to the farther end of the shed. I ought
to have mentioned that the pail stood close to my head;
so that I had peculiar opportunities of study as one after
another of my comrades came to the fountain to drink;
just as the brutes do in those books of African travel.
The pail refilled, Daddy returned, and was seen no more
It still wanted four hours and a half to seven o'clock,—the[Pg 75]
hour of rising,—and never before in my life did
time appear to creep so slowly. I could hear the chimes
of a parish church and of the Parliament Houses, as well
as those of a wretched, tinkling Dutch clock somewhere
on the premises. The parish church was the first to
announce the hour (an act of kindness I feel bound to
acknowledge), Westminster came next, the lazy Dutchman
declining his consent to the time o' day till fully
sixty seconds afterwards. And I declare I thought that
difference of sixty seconds an injury,—if the officers of
the house took their time from the Dutchman. It may
seem a trifle, but a minute is something when a man is
lying on a cold flagstone, and the wind of a winter night
is blowing in your hair. Three o'clock, four o'clock
struck, and still there was nothing to beguile the time,
but observation, under the one flaring gaslight, of the
little heaps of outcast humanity strewn about the floor;
and after a while, I find, one may even become
accustomed to the sight of one's fellow-creatures lying
around you like covered corpses in a railway shed. For
most of the company were now bundled under the rugs
in the ghastly way I have already described,—though
here and there a cropped head appeared, surmounted by
a billy-cock like my own or by a greasy cloth cap. Five
o'clock, six o'clock chimed, and then I had news—most
welcome—of the world without, and of the real beginning
of day. Half a dozen factory bells announced that
it was time for workingmen to go to labor; but my companions
were not workingmen, and so snored on. Out
through the gap in the canvas the stars were still to be
seen shining on the black sky; but that did not alter the[Pg 76]
fact that it was six o'clock in the morning. I snapped
my fingers at the Dutchman, with his sixty seconds slow,
for in another hour I fondly hoped to be relieved from
duty. A little while, and doors were heard to open and
shut; yet a little while, and the voice of Daddy was
audible in conversation with another early bird; and
then I distinctly caught the word "bundles." Blessed
sound! I longed for my bundle,—for my pleasing
brown coat, for the warm—if unsightly—"jersey,"
which I adopted as a judicious substitute for a waistcoat,—for
my corduroys and liberty.
"Clang!" went the workhouse clock. "Now, then,
wake 'em up!" cried Daddy. I was already up,—sitting
up, that is,—being anxious to witness the resurrection
of the ghastly figures rolled in their rugs. But
nobody but myself rose at the summons. They knew
what it meant well enough, and in sleepy voices cursed
the bell, and wished it in several dreadful places; but
they did not move until there came in at the hole in the
canvas two of the pauper inhabitants of the house,
bearing bundles. "Thirty-two," "Twenty-eight!" they
bawled, but not my number, which was thirty-four.
Neither thirty-two nor twenty-eight, however, seemed
eager to accept his good fortune in being first called.
They were called upon three several times before they
would answer; and then they replied with a savage,
"Chuck it here, can't you!" "Not before you chucks
over your shirt and ticket," the bundle-holder answered;
whereon "twenty-eight" sat up, and, divesting himself
of his borrowed shirt, flung it with his wooden ticket;
and his bundle was flung back in return.
It was some time before bundle No. 34 turned up, so
that I had fair opportunity to observe my neighbors. The
decent men slipped into their rags as soon as they got
them, but the blackguards were in no hurry. Some indulged
in a morning pipe to prepare themselves for the
fatigue of dressing, while others, loosening their bundles
as they squatted naked, commenced an investigation for
certain little animals which shall be nameless.
At last my turn came, and, "chucking over" my shirt
and ticket, I quickly attired myself in clothes which,
ragged as they were, were cleaner than they looked. In
less than two minutes I was out of the shed, and in the
yard; where a few of the more decent poor fellows were
crowding round a pail of water, and scrambling after
something that might pass for a "wash,"—finding their
own soap, as far as I could observe, and drying their faces
on any bit of rag they might happen to have about them,
or upon the canvas curtain of the shed.
By this time it was about half past seven, and the
majority of the casuals were up and dressed. I observed,
however, that none of the younger boys were as yet up,
and it presently appeared that there existed some rule
against their dressing in the shed; for Daddy came out
of the bath-room, where the bundles were deposited, and
called out, "Now four boys!" and instantly four poor
little wretches, some with their rugs trailing about their
shoulders and some quite bare, came shivering over the
stones and across the bleak yard, and were admitted to
the bath-room to dress. "Now, four more boys," cried
Daddy; and so on.
When all were up and dressed, the boys carried the[Pg 78]
bed-rugs into Daddy's room, and the pauper inmates
made a heap of the "beds," stacking them against the
wall. As before mentioned, the shed served the treble
purpose of bedchamber, work-room, and breakfast-room;
it was impossible to get fairly at the cranks and set them
going until the bedding was stowed away.
Breakfast before work, however; but it was a weary
while to some of us before it made its appearance. For
my own part, I had little appetite, but about me were a
dozen poor wretches who obviously had a very great one.
They had come in overnight too late for bread, and perhaps
may not have broken fast since the morning of the
previous day. The decent ones suffered most. The
blackguard majority were quite cheerful, smoking, swearing,
and playing their pretty horse play, the prime end
of which was pain or discomfiture for somebody else.
One casual there was with only one leg. When he came
in overnight he wore a black hat, which added a certain
look of respectability to a worn suit of black. All together
his clothes had been delivered up to him by Daddy;
but now he was seen hopping disconsolately about the
place on his crutch, for the hat was missing. He was a
timid man, with a mild voice; and whenever he asked
some ruffian "whether he had seen such a thing as a
black hat," and got his answer, he invariably said, "Thank
you," which was regarded as very amusing. At last one
sidled up to him with a grin, and showing about three
square inches of some fluffy substance, said, "Is this anything
like wot you're lost, guv'ner?" The cripple inspected it.
"That's the rim of it!" he said. "What
a shame!" and hobbled off with tears in his eyes.
Full three quarters of an hour of loitering and shivering,
and then came the taskmaster,—a soldierly looking
man over six feet high, with quick, gray eyes, in which
"No trifling" appeared as distinctly as a notice against
trespassing on a wayside board. He came in among us,
and the gray eyes made out our number in a moment.
"Out into the yard, all of you!" he cried; and we went
out in a mob. There we shivered for some twenty minutes
longer, and then a baker's man appeared with a great
wooden tray piled up with just such slices of bread as we
had received overnight. The tray was consigned to an
able-bodied casual who took his place with the taskmaster
at the shed door, and then in single file we re-entered the
shed, each man and boy receiving a slice as he passed in.
Pitying, as I suppose, my unaccustomed look, Mr. Taskmaster
gave me a slice and a large piece over.
The bread devoured, a clamor for "skilley" began.
The rumor had got abroad that this morning, and on all
future mornings, there would be skilley at breakfast, and
"Skilley! skilley!" resounded through the shed. No
one had hinted that it was not forthcoming, but skilley
seems to be thought an extraordinary concession, and
after waiting only a few minutes for it they attacked the
taskmaster in the fiercest manner. They called him thief,
sneak, and "crawler." Little boys blackguarded him
in gutter language, and looking him in the face, consigned
him to hell without flinching. He never uttered a word
in reply, or showed a sign of impatience; and whenever
he was obliged to speak it was quite without temper.
There was a loud "hooray!" when the longed-for
skilley appeared in two pails, in one of which floated a[Pg 80]
small tin saucepan, with a stick thrust into its handle,
by way of a ladle. Yellow pint basins were provided for
our use, and large iron spoons. "Range round the
walls!" the taskmaster shouted. We obeyed with the
utmost alacrity; and then what I should judge to be
about three fourths of a pint of gruel was handed to each
of us as we stood. I was glad to get mine, because the
basin that contained it was warm and my hands were
numb with cold. I tasted a spoonful, as in duty bound,
and wondered more than ever at the esteem in which it
was held by my confrères. It was a weak decoction of
oatmeal and water, bitter, and without even a pinch of
salt to flavor it,—that I could discover. But it was hot;
and on that account, perhaps, was so highly relished that
I had no difficulty in persuading one of the decent men
to accept my share.
It was now past eight o'clock, and, as I knew that a
certain quantity of labor had to be performed by each
man before he was allowed to go his way, I was anxious
to begin. The labor was to be "crank" labor. The
"cranks" are a series of iron bars extending across the
width of the shed, penetrating through the wall, and
working a flour-mill on the other side. Turning the
"crank" is like turning a windlass. The task is not a
severe one. Four measures of corn (bushels they were
called, but that is doubtful) have to be ground every
morning by the night's batch of casuals. Close up by
the ceiling hangs a bell connected with the machinery;
and as each measure is ground the bell rings, so that the
grinders may know how they are going on. But the
grinders are as lazy as obscene. We were no sooner set[Pg 81]
to work than the taskmaster left us to our own sweet
will, with nothing to restrain its exercise but an occasional
visit from the miller, a weakly expostulating man.
Once or twice he came in and said mildly, "Now then,
my men, why don't you stick to it?" and so went out
The result of this laxity of overseeing would have disgusted
me at any time, and was intensely disgusting
then. At least one half the gang kept their hands from
the crank whenever the miller was absent, and betook
themselves to their private amusements and pursuits.
Some sprawled upon the beds and smoked; some engaged
themselves and their friends in tailoring; and one turned
hair-cutter for the benefit of a gentleman, who, unlike
Kay, had not just come out of prison. There were three
tailors; two of them on the beds mending their coats,
and the other operating on a recumbent friend in the
rearward part of his clothing. Where the needles came
from I do not know; but for thread they used a strand
of the oakum (evidently easy to deal with) which the
boys were picking in the corners. Other loungers strolled
about with their hands in their pockets, discussing the
topics of the day, and playing practical jokes on the
industrious few; a favorite joke being to take a bit of
rag, anoint it with grease from the crank axles, and clap
it unexpectedly over somebody's eye.
The consequence of all this was that the cranks went
round at a very slow rate, and now and then stopped
altogether. Then the miller came in; the loungers rose
from their couches, the tailors ceased stitching, the smokers
dropped their pipes, and every fellow was at his post.[Pg 82]
The cranks spun round furiously again, the miller's
expostulation being drowned amid a shout of, "Slap
bang, here we are again!" or this extemporized chorus:—
"We'll hang up the miller on a sour-apple tree,
We'll hang up the miller on a sour-apple tree,
We'll hang up the miller on a sour-apple tree,
And then go grinding on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah," etc.
By such ditties the ruffians enlivened their short spell
of work. Short indeed! The miller departed, and
within a minute afterward beds were reoccupied, pipes
lit, and tailoring resumed. So the game continued,—the
honest fellows sweating at the cranks, and anxious to
get the work done and go out to look for more profitable
labor, and the paupers by profession taking matters quite
easy. I am convinced that had the work been properly
superintended the four measures of corn might have been
ground in the space of an hour and a half. As it was,
when the little bell had tinkled for the fourth time, and
the yard-gate was opened, and we were free to depart,
the clock had struck eleven.
I had seen the show; gladly I escaped into the open
streets. The sun shone brightly on my ragged, disreputable
figure, and showed its squalor with startling distinctness;
but within all was rejoicing. A few yards,
and then I was blessed with the sight of that same vehicle,
waiting for me in the spot where I had parted from it
fourteen weary hours before. Did you observe, Mr.
Editor, with what alacrity I jumped in? I have a vivid[Pg 83]
recollection of you, sir, sitting there with an easy patience,
lounging through your Times, and oh! so detestably
clean to look at! But though I resented your collar,
I was grateful for the sight of a familiar face, and for
that draught of sherry which you considerately brought
for me, a welcome refreshment after so many weary, waking
hours of fasting.
And now I have come to the end I remember many
little incidents which until this moment had escaped me.
I ought to have told you of two quiet elderly gentlemen
who, amid all the blackguardism that went on around,
held a discussion on the merits of the English language,—one
of the disputants showing an especial admiration
for the word "kindle,"—"fine old Saxon word as ever
was coined." Then there were some childish games of
"first and last letters," to vary such entertainments as
that of the Swearing Club. I should also have mentioned
that, on the dissolution of the Swearing Club, a game
at "dumb motions" was started, which presently led to
some talk concerning deaf and dumb people, and their
method of conversing with each other by means of finger-signs;
as well as to a little story that sounded strangely
enough coming from the mouth of the most efficient
member of the club. A good memory for details enables
me to repeat this story almost, if not quite, exactly.
"They are a rummy lot, them deaf and dumb," said the
story-teller. "I was at the workhouse at Stepney when I
was a young 'un, don't you know; and when I got a holiday
I used to go and see my old woman as lived in the
Borough. Well, one day a woman as was in the house
ses to me, ses she, 'Don't you go past the Deaf and[Pg 84]
Dumb School as you goes home?' So I ses, 'Yes.' So ses
she, 'Would you mind callin' there and takin' a message
to my little gal as is in there deaf and dumb?' So I ses,
'No.' Well, I goes, and they lets me in, and I tells the
message, and they shows me the kid what it was for.
Pooty little gal! So they tells her the message, and then
she begins making orts and crosses like on her hands.
'What's she a doin' that for?' I ses. 'She's a talkin' to
you,' ses they. 'O,' I ses, 'what's she talkin' about?'
'She says you're a good boy for comin' and tellin' her
about her mother, and she loves you.' Blessed if I could
help laughin'! So I ses, 'There ain't no call for her to
say that.' Pooty little kid she was! I stayed there a
goodish bit, and walked about the garden with her, and
what d'ye think? Presently she takes a fancy for some
of my jacket buttons,—brass uns they was, with the
name of the 'house' on 'em,—and I cuts four on 'em
off and gives her. Well, when I gave her them blow me
if she didn't want one of the brass buckles off my shoes.
Well, you mightn't think it, but I gave her that too."
"Didn't yer get into a row when you got back?" some
listener asked. "Rather! Got kep without dinner and
walloped as well, as I wouldn't tell what I'd done with
'em. Then they was goin' to wallop me again, so I
thought I'd cheek it out; so I up and told the master
all about it." "And got it wuss?" "No, I didn't.
The master give me new buttons and a buckle without
saying another word, and my dinner along with my supper