‘Despite workhouses being accessible, many people lived in terror of entering them.’
In previous centuries, those who found themselves in desperate financial situations had very few choices. As the number of poor grew in Victorian times, taxpayers became dissatisfied with the situation. Many of them saw the poor as accountable for their disadvantaged situations and didn’t think it was right to provide care for able-bodied adults and their families.
Despite workhouses being accessible, many people lived in the shame and terror of entering them, and many went homeless and hungry rather than endure these cruel institutions. The regular workhouse provision was intended for those who lived in the parish: parishioners paid the rates, and the principle was that the workhouse took the place of the old, much-abused, ‘outdoor relief’ system.
From 1864, if the police in London certified a person was genuinely in need, they could stay for one night on a ‘casual’ basis, and leave the next morning.
People considered vagrants as potential trouble-makers and probably disease-ridden. So, casual wards were developed to deal with short-term applicants and designed to make the vagrant’s life so disagreeable that they would hesitate to come back. Poverty and vagrancy were pressing issues in Victorian London, and ‘casual’ tickets doubled from around 200,000 in 1864 to over 400,000 in 1869. Those who sought short-term accommodation were separated from the longer-term residents of the workhouse confined to the ‘casual wards.’
The casual wards in the workhouse were initially designed for those moving around the country searching for work. But there were more than tradesmen moving from one job to another on the road. Being a tramp became, for some, a career. The ward usually provided tramps with enough money for the most basic food for the day, but they relied on charity or small-scale theft for other food and clothes. Tramps lives were hard, they suffered from malnutrition and inadequate clothing, and it is not surprising that some turned to crime. They were known in society as rogues, thieves and villains and regarded with caution by the rest of the community. They were regarded as the lowest of the low and were even looked down on by the workhouses’ inmates.
After queuing, sometimes for hours, a ‘casual’ would be admitted if there was space available. A casual ward consisted of a large room with bedding and a bucket for sanitation. The bedding was often nothing but straw, with rags for coverings. On admission, they provided a vagrant with a supper of six ounces of bread and an ounce of cheese. Every vagrant was then searched and bathed. Once they had washed, they went to the dormitories, set out like barracks, and warmed with a stove. Here there might be a Bible reader walking up and down, reading aloud. Women and children stayed in a separate ward from that of the men. In the morning, they were given another meal of bread and cheese and allowed to go on their way. Sometimes, they were required to work in the morning to pay for their accommodation.
Casual wards were also known as spikes, possibly after the tool used there for rope-teasing. A more disrespectful name was dosshouse, although the latter was also used for any low-cost overnight accommodation, often run by charities.
The working day provided little relief from the monotony of life in the workhouse. The work provided for the inmates was of a vindictive rather than useful nature. People were asked to perform menial tasks such as breaking stones for roads, breaking up bones to make fertiliser, turning a mill handle and picking oakum.
Picking oakum entailed taking lengths of old, tarred rope and unpicking the pieces. It was hard on the fingers and often performed by women or child inmates. In many workhouses, these tasks were to take place in silence. Because the tramps who stayed in casual wards had to move on, they spent their days on the road. Walking from one casual ward to another and often spending nights between under hedges or in barns, once they entered the ward, many only left when they died.
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