The Evening Standard of Wednesday contains the following description of the casual wards of Whitechapel, the shamefully disgusting condition of which we described about twelve months since:—
The workhouse of St. George's-in-the-East is near the Docks. I had the greatest difficulty in finding it, and was very tired when I arrived. The doors were open, and in the gangway I saw a stout man with a cap on, who was leaning over the half-door of the office, smoking a cigar. Puffing the smoke in my face, and taking it very easily, he questioned me as follows: 'What do you want?' 'A night's lodging' 'What brought you this way? What are you?' 'I am a shirtmaker.' 'Where have you been living all your life, and what are you now?' 'I have been a widow three years, and have lived at Deptford.' 'Why not make your claim to the proper authorities at Deptford?' I answered, 'that I only wanted a night's lodging to get over this bother, and that I hoped soon to get some work.' 'Where did you sleep last night?' I replied, 'Holborn.' 'How old are you?' 'Forty-two.' I was very confused, his manner was more searching than that of the police, and he said, 'I cannot make out what you want here. Do you know what a casual ward is? It is a great pity that you cannot manage better than to come here. What is your name?' I told him, 'Ellen Taylor.' Again he looked me over from head to foot. He clearly suspected that I was not a vagrant, and was surprised that any other person should venture into a casual ward, nor do I believe that he would have admitted me had my boots been better than they were. Here, as at Whitechapel, they saved me from detection. This conversation took place in the large gateway of the workhouse, and it was so clean and airy that I hoped the wards would be the same, and I fully anticipated a better and more comfortable lodging than I had as yet had. After a few minutes a woman appeared and ordered me to follow her. She brought three pieces of stale and mouldy bread, pinned together with a wooden skewer. They were evidently the leavings of the sick ward, and if I had been really hungry I could not have touched them. We went outside the workhouse, and, descending a flight of stone steps, she unlocked the door of an underground cellar.
It was now ten o'clock, and quite dark, so that on entering I could not see my conductor, and I shivered on perceiving the stifling closeness of the air, and a stench which was much worse than anything I had yet experienced. I said, 'What a dungeon! Surely I am not to sleep here! I cannot do so. I really dare not.' But my conductor padded carelessly across the dark cellar, and opening the door of a second place, where there was a gaslight and some rugs, she brought one for me, and said, 'That is your bed.' I said, 'Where?' for I could see nothing; but I put my hand upon a cold bench, which I afterwards found to be covered with a kind of tarpaulin. I said, 'I cannot undress and lie on that place. Must I do so? Will you want my clothes?' She replied, 'You may please yourself about that, and either take them off or not.' I said, 'I must keep them on, for if I lie there without I shall catch my death.' Dreading to be left, as I then thought, quite alone, I tried to detain the woman, and asked her what time we rose in the morning? She replied, 'A quarter to six o'clock;' and locking all the doors she went away. I had now become accustomed to the light. I saw that I was in a square apartment, lighted by a gaslight, opposite to an opening about one foot square, leading to the place where the rugs came from, and where the light really was. Groping about, I came in contact first with a black mass, in the corner, which I found to consist of women's clothes, and satisfied that other persons were near, I turned, towards the bench, and aroused a young girl, who said, 'This is your bed, next to mine.' I took off my bonnet, and folded up my cloak, and said to the girl, 'What a dreadful place!' She replied, 'Yes, indeed it is ; you can't see me, but feel my arms, I am bitten all over.' I felt, and found her arms covered with wheals. 'God help you, poor girl!' said I, 'you seem young.' 'Yes,' said she, 'and I do not feel very well; do you perceive this dreadful smell?' I replied, 'I do, and I feel faint myself.' Indeed, I became greatly alarmed. The idea of having cholera haunted me, and I sat down trembling with fear. The nurse now unlocked the door and came in. She placed three pint-tins full of water upon the window-sill, and went away. I spoke to her, but she did not hear me. I was then seized with faintness, sickness, and diarrhoea. A cold perspiration came over me, and I said to the girl, 'Where is the closet?' I opened the door in the corner and found it, and whilst I live I can never forget it. I thought it must be the dead-house, and that I had made a mistake, and when I lifted the seat-lid I flew back, for there was no pan, and the soil reached nearly to the top. I felt too ill to remain, for even the floor was saturated and wet with the filth which oozed up out of it. I returned to the ward and vomited, which relieved me of the pain. I then rested against a bed, and the occupant asked me what was the matter. I replied, 'I am very ill.' She said, 'It is enough to kill us; it is not fit for human beings.' I was very much alarmed, and tired the door, and sought for the means of making my illness known, but there was neither bell nor knocker, nor any means of getting out, and having heard that walking about was the best remedy, I never ceased doing so until it was nearly daylight. I then tried to lie down, but the rugs were alive, and the vermin so bad, that I could not even sit. The girl in the next bed lay upon the bare tarpaulin, with nothing on but her chemise. I said, 'Are you not afraid to lie in this way?' But she said, 'What is the use of making a bother about it? They do not care for us.'
For an hour I watched, thinking only of the horror of this stinking dungeon. How I longed that some one interested in the treatment of the poor could look in! I thought of the kind interest which that dear lady, Miss Burdett Coutts, had taken in the laying out of the live child at St. Pancras, and I thought if she could see the way in which her sisters suffer she would stir to help them. Often and often I hoped you would look in, and I prayed that you might hear the groans of the women and the wailing of the children, one of whom was at the mother's breast, and was crying at intervals the whole night long. Far better that the vagrants be put in an open shed upon the bare stones, or that they should be permitted to sleep in the gutter itself.
There were in all six women and three children lying half exposed in the glimmering daylight—all of them restless, their sleep broken by exclamations of 'Oh dear!' 'God help us!' 'What shall we do!' I then got very cold, and vomiting incessantly I was forced to cover myself with the rug to preserve my life; and from that moment my torture was beyond the power of any tongue to tell. It was impossible to see anything, but I felt stung and irritated, until I tore my flesh till it bled in every part of my body.
About six o'clock the door was opened and the woman exclaimed, 'Oh dear, what a horrid smell! it is enough to kill you;' and then she tried to pull the window down, but could not. Most of us were half-dressed when she came, and before they had all finished two men came down the stairs and brought the skilly and the bread, and then, turning round to see who had been my fellow-sufferers, I saw with astonishment my old friend Cranky Sal. One of the men said, looking at her, 'We have some fine women here to-night.' Sally laughed, and taking the compliment entirely to herself, said 'that she had been told that before.' The man remained whilst Sally was dressing. She was a long time, and took great pains with her toilet, being very proud of her good looks. One of the women was still asleep, and Sally roused her up to tell her of the compliments she had received, 'You — fool,' said the woman, 'it was not you that he said to, but that woman yonder,' pointing to me; but Sally observed that she knew better, and had been told so many a time; and then another woman came up, and said, 'Hold your — row,' and struck her a most violent blow in the face. This person was short, about 60 years of age, and with white cropped hair. She wore no cap, and was literally clothed with dirty rags, which, if once taken off, could not possibly be put on again. She had a thoroughly brutish expression, and the savage manner of her blow not only frightened Sally but all the rest. I threatened to call for help, for the row was very great and the language dreadful. Sally behaved very well, and only said that she would have them locked up if they did not give over. She told the woman that she had no business there, but ought to have been lodged in the station-house, for that she was drunk when she came in. Sally winked at me dot to speak, and as at Lambeth, she became my protector until they got again quiet. One of the women now came and sat down on the bed beside me. She looked at very hard, and said, 'What a respectable woman you seem to be, and what a pity it is to see you here!' and then leaving for a moment, Sally jumped and took her place, saying, 'I think I have seen you before;' but I pretended not to know her, for I was anxious to see how far her memory went, and what she would say. The other woman then returned, and demanded her seat next to me, but Sally refused it, saying that she would not get up. The other replied, 'It was my place before it was yours;' but Sally answered, 'I slept nearer to her last night than you did, and I shan't get up, and that ends it.' She appealed to me for protection, and said again, 'I think I have seen you before; I cannot make you out;' but I again pretended to have no recollection of her. 'Sally,' said I, 'you have got a black eye; how did you get that?' She replied, 'Because I would not let a man do as he liked with me;' upon which all the rest set up a loud laugh. They began to tease her, and one said, 'Did I not tell you what she was?' Sally answered with great spirit, and indignantly said, 'she was not that which they suspected.' 'Shut up,' said she, and the old woman with the grey head again came up, and said, with a threatened blow, 'I will shut you up if you are not quiet.'
The skilly and bread were now consumed, and Sally and I began to talk about the casual wards. She said, 'Lambeth is the best place out.' I asked her when she slept there last? She replied, correctly, 'Tuesday night and Friday night.' I asked her if she recollected a woman tearing up her clothes? and giving me a full look of inquiry and astonishment, she said 'she saw her do it.' 'Do you think she was really dirty?' 'Yes,' she replied, 'I am sure she was. Some of them thought her mad, but I did not.' I asked her if she remembered what she had on, and she described it all accurately, and said it was a shame to turn her out in that way. I told her that I had heard she had better things given her before she left, and Sally thought that it was very lucky that she had. I asked her if she had seen her since, and she said not, and that she had herself left Lambeth with a woman, through whom she had got her black eye. Coming close to me she whispered in my ear that the woman had promised to be her 'pal' to Wimbledon; that they went into a field together to lie down and have a sleep, and that when she awoke the other had bolted clean away. I said, 'Was that the woman you went strawberry-picking with?' and she said, 'How do you know about that? If you are hard of hearing you have got a good memory; and now I will tell you how I got my black eye. Does it look bad?' I said, 'Rather.' 'Well I will tell you. I met a man on Saturday night in the New-cut and he asked me if I would have a pennyworth of whelks. He seemed decently dressed, and I told him I didn't mind.' 'What time was that, Sally?' said I, and she replied, 'It was getting late. He then asked me if I would have a pie, so I said I didn't mind, and I had a twopenny pie, for I thought I might as well have a twopenny pie as a penny one. Then we strolled along, and stopping at a doorway he offered me a shilling. He said he would get a lodging for the night, and by this time we had reached St. George's-in-the-Borough, and he asked if I was going to take his money, and I said, 'Oh no! I don't do business like that,' and he gave me a violent blow. I screamed out, and he ran away. I began to cry, and a policeman came up, to whom I complained; but he only laughed at me, and said that the man must have a strong stomach to fancy such as me. He asked me for my photograph; and at last he told me to go along, and that he had known me for five years, which was not true, for I had never been out of the workhouse or seen life for more than two.' She then met another policeman and complained to him, but he also refused to listen, and pushed her from the pavement into the middle of the street, and then the two laughed at her together. A little further on she met a third, who spoke to her more kindly. He looked at her eye and saw that it was swollen; and he said that other police ought to be ashamed of themselves, and that he would have been glad to have thrashed a rascal who could strike a woman in that way. I then asked Sally how she lived, and what she meant by seeing life? 'There,' said she, 'it is hard to tell. I do not do anything really bad. You know what I mean. I beg and pick up what I can, and go about anywhere for a bit of food or a night's lodging. Sometimes I make do on what they give me at these places here; sometimes I get a few pence given me. For months I have not tasted meat until last Saturday, when I met a crippled old woman, who gave me a piece of bread and meat and three quarters of a pint of beer. I thought she was going to be kind to me and be my pal, but whilst I was eating and drinking she ran away, just as the other did. I am very badly off now. I have applied several times for an order to go into the workhouse, but they refuse to give me one whilst the weather is fine. I belong to Lambeth, and they send me out when the summer comes. I mean to go and ask the guardians for 5s. and if they give it to me, I want to buy a clean gown, a pair of shoes, and a few pipe lights to sell. I am so dirty now that I do not know what to do, and I want some soap to wash me and my clothes, more than food.' Poor Sally! I am convinced that she is not vicious and is to be greatly pitied. I promised her a penny for some soap, and she scarcely believed me in earnest, for said she, 'You know I never get much kindness, especially from women, they hate each other so much.' When we had finished breakfast, they give us two pounds of oakum to pick, and they expect you to do it all. A notice is put up that 'Every person who receives relief in this ward will be expected to pick two pounds of oakum.' About half past ten the nurse came in and helped me to pick mine. I asked if we were expected to do it all, and she said in a whisper, 'Do all you can, and they will not be hard with you,. Say you are a needle-woman and cannot do it, and at eleven o'clock they will let you out whether you have done it or not;' and at the hour a man came and took away our work without remark. Whilst we were at work one of the girls asked for some water to wash. The woman replied that there was none, and no place for a bath. She said that the bath-rooms and other wards were given up for the cholera cases; and another remarked 'that she thought they were going a good way to have it there, as the stench was so bad, and they were all ill. Can't we have a drop of water in a pail just to swill our faces?' 'No,' said the woman, 'we have no orders.' We were then turned out. Sally kept very close to me, and asked me where I was going. I was sorry indeed to leave her, and I told her so, but I was obliged to say she could not join me. I offered her a glass of beer, and whilst she was drinking I started home. I had gone a good step, when I found her again at my elbow, and I only pacified her by a promise to see her again at some future time. I felt truly sorry, and left her with regret, wishing that I could do more for her.
I can only hope, in conclusion, that these experiences will not have been in vain, for since my visit to Whitechapel I have felt how necessary it was that the dreadful character of these places should be better known, and that better regulations should be made for these unfortunate women, many of whom are not altogether bad.