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Whitechapel Workhouse: Casual Ward

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Whitechapel Workhouse: Casual Ward

Post by Karen on Sat 27 Feb 2010 - 18:56

Seeing as there is clearly some confusion as to the precise difference between the Whitechapel workhouse and the Whitechapel Infirmary, I thought it necessary to print here an article in regards to Jack London's "The People Of The Abyss." Mr. London did not stay at the Whitechapel Infirmary, as has been suggested by Miss Scarlet (please get a "Clue") Pimpernel; he stayed at the Whitechapel Workhouse (Casual Ward). These are two different buildings in two separate locations, with two different sets of rules. The Casual Ward (where London stayed) is a temporary means of obtaining a bed for the night (through work), whereas the Infirmary (where London did not stay, but Robert Mann did) is a more permanent (hospital-like) setting for those who are seriously ill. Mortuary attendant Robert Mann would have only been permitted to leave the facility under orders of the Infirmary, and he would have been accompanied by another inmate (in this case, James Hatfield) and was answerable to the Infirmary, by being clocked as to his departure and arrival at the Infirmary. These opportunities would have been rare and few. In a Casual Ward, or "Spike", one was free to leave, only after their work had been performed.


When Mr. Jack London, the rising American novelist, wrote "The People Of The Abyss," he probably intended, like Mr. Wardle's favorite page, to "make our flesh creep." That he can depict life in graphic sentences those who have read his two novels, "The God Of His Father's" and "The Son Of The Wolf," are well aware. A man who has served before the mast on board a whaler, has tramped the United States for work, and has labored in the Klondyke Mines, is not likely to be shocked at many things that would prove full of horror to those who sleep soft o' nights. But the East End appalled Mr. London. He came to London on a visit, and spent two months sleeping in "doss" houses, tramping the streets for work, lying out in the parks, and did his alloted task in the casual ward of a workhouse. At times the scenes proved too strong for his nerves, and he fled to clean sheets and warm fires. What he has set down in "The People Of The Abyss" will not please everybody. The lines of social amelioration he would move along are different from the accepted ideas of many worthy people laboring to improve the condition of the poor. But his book is full of fresh, original criticism and suggestion, and one that ought to be studied.

"Don't Let Yourself Grow Old."

Let us take our place beside Mr. London in a string of human failures waiting to be admitted to the casual ward of Whitechapel Workhouse. It is an aged sailor who is speaking as we draw near: - "I won't stand it much longer, I won't. I'll smash a windy - a big 'un - an' get run in for fourteen days. Then I'll have a good place to sleep, never fear; an' better grub than you get here. I've been out two nights now, wet to the skin night before last, an' I can't stand it much longer. I'm gettin' old, an' some mornin' they'll pick me up dead." He whirled with fierce passion on me. "Don't you ever let yourself grow old, lad. Die when you're young, or you'll come to this."

"Full Up."

The line of men slowly moves up towards the wicket door, but the Workhouse is getting full. "At the moment we happened to be standing on an iron grating, and a man appearing underneath, the old sailor called down to him, "How many more do they want?" "Twenty-four," came the answer. We looked ahead anxiously and counted. Thirty-four were ahead of us. Disappointment and consternation dawned upon the faces about me. It is not a nice thing, hungry and penniless, to face a sleepless night in the streets. But we hoped a great hope, till, when we stood outside the wicket, the porter turned us away. "Full up," was what he said, as he banged the door. Like a flash the old sailor was speeding away on the desperate chance of finding shelter elsewhere."

A Casual's Criticism.

There seems to be much force in the views of an out-of-work as to casual ward regulations. I set them out in full, as they explain many things the public do not at present comprehend: - "'Ere I am, old, younger men takin' my place, my clothes gettin' shabbier and shabbier, an' makin' it hard 'arder every day to get a job. I go to the casual ward for a bed. I must be there by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, or I won't get in. You saw what happened today. What chance does that give me to look for work? S'pose I do get into the casual ward? Keep me in all day tomorrow, let me out mornin' o' next day. What then? The law sez I can't get in another casual ward that night less'n 10 miles distant. Have to hurry an' walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to look for a job? S'pose I don't walk. S'pose I look for a job? In no time there's night come, an' no bed. No sleep all night, nothin' to eat. What shape am I in the mornin' to look for work? Got to make up my sleep in the park somehow, an' get somethin' to eat. An' there I am! Old, down, an' no chance to get up."

Sleeping In The Parks.

I have no intention of entering the "spike," as a casual ward is termed by its frequenters. The horrors are too dreadful to reproduce from Mr. London's book. But I note down a criticism of the police rule of "moving on" waifs attempting to snatch a little sleep during the night: - "I came by the Green Park at 1 in the afternoon, and counted scores of the ragged wretches asleep on the grass. It was Sunday afternoon, and the well-dressed West-Enders, with their wives and progeny, were out by thousands, taking the air. It was not a pleasant sight for them, those horrible, unkempt, sleeping vagabonds; while the vagabonds themselves, I know, would rather have done their sleeping the night before...Do not think they were lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work. Know that the powers that be have kept them walking all the night long, and that in the day they have nowhere else to sleep."
- "One Of Them," in Men and Women.

Source: Otago Witness, Issue 2605, 17 February 1904, Page 66

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