Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)
The 1880s were a desperate decade for many in London. After the prosperous years of mid century England suffered an economic slump, if not a full blown depression. Work was harder to come by and in 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. There were demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1886 and 1887, the latter being broken up by police and the military with heads being broken in the process. Opponents of free trade clashed with its proponents and members of what Marx and Engels would have dubbed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ smashed windows in Pall Mall.
If you couldn’t find work in London you had limited choices. There was no social security or benefit system as we would understand and begging was illegal and those caught risked a spell in prison. There were plenty of charities and plenty of people prepared to donate to them, just as there are today, but this was open to abuse and so donors were chewy in who they helped. The Mendicity Society went to war on indiscriminate charitable giving and its recipients, believing that beggars should be directed back to their place of origin rather than being a drain on the capital’s ratepayers.
So when legitimate work and begging were closed to you what was left was illegal gain or the workhouse. The first carried a very real risk of being caught up in the Victorian criminal justice system which was a brutal machine designed to ‘grind men good’. Victorian prisons were grim institutions where ‘hard bed, hard work, and hard fare’ were the order of the day. Subsistence diets, sleep deprivation and a multitude of petty regulations (all too easy to break) combined with backbreaking ‘hard labour’ were designed to break the spirit of convicts in a system that had long since abandoned any notion of ‘reformation’.
Given that even the smallest theft prosecuted before a Police Magistrate could land you inside Cold Bath Fields gaol for a month or more, crime clearly did not pay.
The final alternative then was the workhouse. But this too came at a price. If you were admitted to the workhouse proper then you would be there for a long while with little hope of earning your freedom. Workhouses were feared by the working classes almost as much (sometimes more) than the prison. Families were separated, food was basic and work was compulsory.
If you chose to take your chances with what work you could pick up day to day then the only safety net that Victorian society provided was the workhouse casual ward. Here you could enter for a day and, in return for some hard labour you would be fed and watered and allowed a place to sleep. You would then be released in the hope you could find proper employment outside.
The casual ward was a last resort; it carried a stigma that the working class wished to avoid being tainted with. For some it seems, it was the work – the hard labour – they wished to avoid but failure to obey the rules of the ‘house’ might well find you in front of a magistrate. This is what happened to Thomas Williams and James White in July 1881.
The pair were Irishmen – so straight away they were in the cross hairs of the magistrate’s ‘gun’. The Irish (despite building Britain’s transport networks and fighting Britain’s wars for over a century) were seen as lazy, criminal and drunken. Prejudices against the Irish continued throughout the Georgian and Victorian period well into own with jokes at their expense only becoming considered ‘racist’ and inappropriate in the late 20th century.
Williams and White had admitted to the Hammersmith workhouse casual ward on the previous Thursday but had refused to do any work. George Perry, superintendent of the workhouse’s casual ward told the Hammersmith Police Court that on the Friday morning ‘they were set to shone breaking’. This literally meant breaking larger stones into smaller ones and was exactly the sort of work prisoners and paupers had been forced to do for over a hundred years.
The men were not keen however. Williams complained that he was injured and couldn’t do the work, his ankle was too painful he said. A doctor was called and confirmed there was nothing the matter with him, he was shamming. As for White, he told Perry that ‘he was not accustomed to break stones’. This surprised the magistrate, Mr Paget.
‘Are you not Irish?’ he asked.
He was, came the reply. Then ‘why could he not break stones’?
‘The hammer was too light’ was White’s response.
This was met with a stony face and the magistrate determined that the two ‘last casuals’ would not get away with their ‘ingratitude’ towards the beneficent state or avoid the hard work that they had been tasked with. He sent them to prison for a month, with hard labour.
[from The Standard, Monday, July 25, 1881]