Ada Chesterton: a night in Southwark workhouse, February 1925

Journalist and social reformer Ada Chesterton wrote In Darkest London(1926) after spending two weeks as ‘a down-and-out’ on the streets of London. Her testimony provides many interesting descriptions of homelessness, welfare provision, and charity, including her night in the ‘casual ward’ at Southwark workhouse – and highlights some of the common stereotypes surrounding homelessness, destitution and vagrancy. Some of her comments have been reproduced below.

Mrs Chesterton’s seeks out the workhouse, and gains an order of admission and a tram token:

On asking a policeman where she might find the nearest casual ward, he informed her that there was only workhouse for women in London, located in Great Guilford Street, Southwark. However, on passing the (men only) workhouse near Lambeth Walk, she decides to make inquiries. Ada spoke to the porter at Lambeth on her arrival, who gave her an order of admittance to Southwark, and a red counter bearing the figure ONE, which entitled her to a ticket on the tram. She asked the porter what would be expected of her at the workhouse, who in trying to reassure her told her they’d take away her money until the morning, and reminding her that she’d not be admitted if she had above a shilling. The tram conductor was polite and kindly to her when she gave him the token, although a woman next to her seemed to shrink away at mention of the Casual Ward.

Mint Street Workhouse, Southwark

Workhouse by night: 

Admission procedures: possessions, privacy and cleanliness Due to the height of the walls, Ada found it difficult to detect the entrance in the dark. The admission process included a number of questions: name, place of birth, place of schooling, age, hair and eye colour, and height. After being questioned by the porter, Ada was then sent upstairs to be seen to by female attendants, who asked the same questions, and explained the process. She was told that she was unable to keep her own nightdress – one would be supplied (‘a striped garment, fastening at the back, with long enveloping sleeves’) – or to take anything on to the ward (and that any private paperwork would be ‘sealed in a packet…We have no desire to pry…’). On entering the workhouse, clothes are removed, and an attendant oversees the inmate’s bath. In the case of Ada, she said with surprise ‘Why you’re quite clean…It’s such a relief…to find someone who isn’t dirty. By-the-bye, is your head all right ?”, after which she was inspected. Then ‘You’ve no idea what some of them are like, you know. We have women here who are fairly alive”. Ada responded by “They can’t help it really, can they ?…It’s difficult to find the money for a wash, let alone a bath.” “But it’s unfair to the others, all the same…and the worst of it is some of them won’t let you touch their heads.” Ada describes how heads are shaved and ‘excavations [are] conducted under the scalp – for lice burrow deep.’ Ada notes the effects of lice upon health. “Leave your clothes on the floor outside the door…they’ll be inspected, and, if necessary-baked”. ‘This was a polite way of telling me that should my garments prove to be insectivorous they would be dealt with. There is always a hot chamber working in the House. Sometimes the clothes suffer as well as the insects, and the unfortunate casual gets back a singed skirt, or an encindered petticoat.’ The ‘cell’ Ada ‘was given a mattress, a pillow, and a pair of blankets, and told to take them into my ” cell “‘ and muses if  the term was perhaps employed as ‘it is so exact a replica of the prison variety that even the official sense of humour would boggle at another name’ suggesting that ‘cubicle might be tried; it would not have so ominous a suggestion.’ She was then ‘left in the darkness very much alone…in the terrible isolation of my cell, my soul ached for the company of the women with their unspeakable bundles…’ ‘High up in the wall was a tiny, round window, like a port-hole, far beyond my power to reach. [more in privacy section]…The mattress was not too hard, the blankets soft and warm, but the pillow was as stiff as a log of wood. It is as though the Guardians feel the casual must not have comfort everywhere.’ ‘The ” cell “, slightly funnel-shape, is like a coffin, as it suddenly occurred to me. I felt myself entombed in an instant, cut off for ever from the light of day. Workhouse by day:  ‘We were aroused the next morning about half-past five. The cell door was open. I found my clothes outside the door and put them on in the dim light… When we were all dressed we folded up our blankets and carried them to the end of the corridor from whence they were dispatched to be fumigated. Outside each door the number is painted in bold figures-a discovery which somehow made me feel more than ever like a convict. Food Ada was informed by a regular resident of regulations that ensured residents should be fed before being put to work. ‘We were then shepherded into the day room, a mournful place with bare boards, whitewashed walls and a long trestles table. There was no fire in the grate. Large tin mugs full of what was supposed to be tea [which Ada describes as ‘loathsomely luke-warm…I could have cried at this uncalled-for rebuff. I was prepared for weak or unsweetened, but not cold tea.’] were placed on the table together with slices of bread spread with a particularly distasteful brand of ” marge. ” …I tried to munch a piece of bread, but the marge was more than I could stomach…The hour for leaving… is somewhere between about half -past seven.’ ‘I left before the midday meal, which consists of potatoes, bread, and a little cheese. The evening meal is skilly. The casuals have no tea, except in the morning.’ Work and punishment Work was an obligation of the workhouse, and ensured effective incarceration of residents. Ada was told “You can’t go until to-morrow morning…unless the superintendent gives you permission. According to law, you’ve got to give a day’s work for your lodging.” Another resident described the consequences of (apparent) refusal to work. This woman had argued with the ‘Master’, who had both tried to put a fellow inmate to do his personal washing (which was against the regulations), threatening her with gaol if she refused to comply. She was ultimately given 14 days imprisonment for non-compliance, as the Master didn’t admit that it was his own washing that the inmate (on advice from a regular resident) refused to do. This other resident was subsequently asked by the Master to work on an empty stomach, which was also against the regulations; she was then given a piece of cheese. Before she left, she was given “a cup of cold gruel, though something hot in the way of tea is the right of ev’ryone…He wouldn’t give me any, so I took the gruel an hides it in the garden…”. She then asked to speak to a member of the committee, who reprimanded the Master and gave the woman a sixpence. But she told Ada that she could never return to that workhouse. On instruction from the superintendent at Southwark, Ada went to another inmate (who in the absence of tools, was shovelling ashes from the grate with her hands), to find what work she should undertake, and was told “There’s nothing particular you can do…just lookbusy, that’s what matters.” It was apparent when looking around that all of the domestic jobs had been done, and she found she had to re-do these jobs. Oakum picking – which she asserts ‘of all tasks is most cruel. It tears the finger nails and soils the soul ; it has no value, social or economic’ (although acknowledging its use as hospital swabs) – is seen by Ada as part of the system deliberately designed to deter people from claiming a night’s lodging to which, as members of a community heavily rated, they are entitled.’ She goes on to say ‘The same system compels the compulsory detention of any casual until the morning of the second day. There could be no ethical objection to a woman doing two or three hours’ useful work. This, however, is not the object, which is to undermine all feelings of self-respect, and implant in the mind the belief that poverty is a crime which must be heavily punished. Not by any active or deliberate cruelty, but by the imposition of futile yet degrading denials. This denial of liberty, this abnegation of freedom, is so insistent that only in the last resource will a London outcast go into the House.’

Incarceration

Describing feelings of claustrophobia Ada notes ‘I wanted to scream…I knew that of I tried the handle of the door it would not open. No handle was there. I could not escape from my funnel-shaped coffin…[unable to sleep, later] I crept out and went to the door. And it was even as I had thought. Some months ago there was a case in the police court, where it was alleged an inmate was ” locked ” in her cell. The superintendent stated upon oath that this was not so. ” There are…no keys. ” ‘I know better example of the letter of the truth – and the violation of the spirit. There are no keys, but, as I have said, when the casual is duly in bed, the handle of the door is withdrawn. The official explanation of this device would appear quite reasonable. It is said that if people could open their cells, they would visit each other all night. One or two convivial spirits might, perhaps, drift into the corridor, but for the most part the casual is so dog-tired that any such spirit of enterprise is knocked out. But even were every casual to emerge, an attendant on night duty could shoo them back with a warning that if they came out again they would be shut in. It is as I have said, the Guardians do not desire to extend hospitality too often. Therefore they inflict slight penalties upon the body and the soul, which, in the aggregate, make up a sum sufficiently imposing to make a night in the ward a thing most strenuously to be avoided…’ Ada, on (untruthfully) telling the superintendent that she has an offer of work awaiting her, and therefore asking for release, is told (as this is her first time on a casual ward) that she may go, although “…if you come back here within a month you will have to stay [effectively imprisoned] for threedays.”

Fear of institutional life

Ada notes ‘…the thing that survives longest and most fiercely among the destitute is a passionate fear of restriction, the horror of detention within four walls, under a strange roof. For this reason before they will ask for a night’s lodging at the Poor Law Guardians they will push endurance to an inhuman limit.’ After a night in Southwark Workhouse, she relates ‘I was beginning to wish to get out. The walls seemed to be closing in on me. I got a little panic-stricken. Supposing this machine with which I had placed myself in contact should held me against my will ? Suppose they said that I must stay. Guardians have such plenary powers to use against the poor. I saw myself sentenced to remain permanently in an institution, I remembered with quick alarm the ” tests ” by which they measure your intelligence. They might easily find me mentally deficient ! I went to the attendant and asked if I could go. It was then that the jaws of the trap began to close. Ada was ‘beginning to have a wholesome fear of the State ; I did not want to be thrust back into that awful cell. The thought of another night in that funnel-shaped coffin appalled me.’ On leaving, Ada was accompanied by the ‘feeling as if I had escaped from the grave. I reeled almost with the sense of liberty…I understand then why it is that humanity dreads what is know as organised relief. I contrasted the ghastly regulations of the Workhouse with the warm, unfettered welcome of the Salvation Army, and I knew that if I found myself again in such a plight rather than go to the casual ward I would spend the whole night walking the streets. And if I felt this in an institution characterised by the humanity of the officials, how intolerable must be the bitterness of a House ruled by in sentient force? There is, I understand, a Union of Poor Law Officials, who, apart from their work of obtaining decent wages and conditions for the members, are steadily striving to alter the regulations governing casuals. In this they are helped by individual guardians. But on the whole Boards have developed little consciousness since the days of Bumble. They have no souls to save nor bodies to be kicked and, while in London, at any rate, superintendents, male and female, have lost that sense of brutal superiority condemned by Dickens, their superiors have remained untouched. In the process of economic evolution, the soul of Bumble has ascended to a higher social plane.’ Change Ada states that ‘Following on the publication in a Sunday newspaper of my article dealing with the Casual Ward, a revision of the rules has taken place. Oakum picking has been abolished for both male and female casuals, and the latter are now permitted to spend two or three hours daily in washing and mending their clothes and attending to their persons…[along] with the provisions of hot tea at breakfast…I rejoice to think that on this morning on which I write the women at Great Guilford Street have their tea hot ; a small thing-but to them a great feat to have accomplished.’ For more information on the history of the workhouse, see the excellent website of Peter Higginbotham.

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One thought on “Ada Chesterton: a night in Southwark workhouse, February 1925

  1. Pingback: ‘Secret Histories’ of London’s Streets in the 1930s: Voices from the Notting Dale ‘slums’ « Underworld Archaeology

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