London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Increase and Decrease of Number of Applicants to Casual Wards of London Workhouses.


THE vagrant applying for shelter is admitted at all times of the day and night. He applies at the gate, he has his name entered in the vagrant book, and he is then supplied with ounces of bread and ounce of cheese. As the admission generally takes place in the evening, no work is required of them until the following morning. At time every vagrant was searched and bathed, but in the cold season of the year the bathing is discontinued; neither are they searched unless there are grounds for suspecting that they have property


secreted upon them. The males are conducted to the ward allotted to them, and the females to their ward. These wards consist each of a large chamber, in which are arranged large guard-beds, or inclined boards, similar to those used in soldiers" guard-rooms; between these there is a passage from end of the chamber to the other. The boards are strewn with straw, so that, on entering the place in the daytime, it has the appearance of a well-kept stable. All persons are supplied with , and in the cold season with , rugs to cover them. These rugs are daily placed in a fumigating oven, so as to decompose all infectious matter. Formerly beds were supplied in place of the straw, but the habitual vagrants used to amuse themselves with cutting up the mattresses, and strewing the flock all over the place; the blankets and rugs they tore into shreds, and wound them round their legs, under their trousers. The windows of the casual ward are protected on the inside with a strong guard, similar to those seen in the neighbourhood of racket-grounds. No lights are allowed in the casual ward, so that they are expected to retire to rest immediately on their entrance, and this they invariably are glad to do. In the morning they are let out at in the winter, and in the summer. And then another ounces of bread and ounce of cheese is given to them, and they are discharged. In return for this, hours" labour at the hand corn-mill was formerly exacted; but now the numbers are so few, and the out-door paupers so numerous, and so different from the class of vagrants, that the latter are allowed to go on their road immediately the doors of the casual ward are opened. The labour formerly exacted was not in any way remunerative. In the hours that they were at work, it is supposed that the value of each man"s labour could not be expressed in any coin of the realm. The work was demanded as a test of destitution and industry, and not as a matter of compensation. If the vagrants were very young, they were put to oakum-picking instead of the hand-mill. The women were very rarely employed at any time, because there was no suitable place in the union for them to pick oakum, and the master was unwilling to allow them, on account of their bad and immoral characters, as well as their filthy habits, to communicate with the other inmates. The female vagrants generally consist of prostitutes of the lowest and most miserable kind. They are mostly young girls, who have sunk into a state of dirt, disease, and almost nudity. There are few of them above years of age, and they appear to have commenced their career of vice frequently as early as or years old. They mostly are found in the company of mere boys.

The above descriptions apply rather to the state of the vagrants some or years back, than to things as they exist at present. In the year , a correspondence took place between the Commissioners of Police and the Commissioners of the Poor-law, in which the latter declare that "if a person state that he has no food, and that he is destitute, or otherwise express or signify that he is in danger of perishing unless relief be given to him, then any officer charged with the administration of relief is bound, unless he have presented to him some reasonable evidence to rebut such statement, to give relief to such destitute person in the mode prescribed by law." The Poorlaw Commissioners further declare in the same document, that they will feel it their duty to make the officers responsible in their situations for any serious neglect to give prompt and adequate relief in any case of real destitution and emergency. The consequence of this declaration was, that Poor-law officers appeared to feel themselves bound to admit all vagrants upon their mere statement of destitution, whereas before that time parties were admitted into the casual wards either by tickets from the ratepayers, or else according to the discretion of the master. Whether or not the masters imagined that they were compelled to admit every applicant from that period my informant cannot say, but it is certain that after the date of that letter vagrancy began to increase throughout the country; at gradually, but after a few years with a most enormous rapidity; so that in , it appeared from the Poor-law Report on Vagrancy (presented to both Houses of Parliament in that year) that the number of vagrants had increased to upwards of . The rate of increase for the years previous to that period is exhibited in the following table:—

I.—Summary of the Number of Vagrants in Unions and Places under Local Acts, in England and Wales, at different periods, as appears from the Returns which follow:—

 Average number relieved in one night in 603 Unions, &c., in the week ending 20th December, 1845....... 1,791 
 Average number relieved in one night in 603 Unions, &c., in the week ending 19th December, 1846...... 2,224 
 Average number relieved in one night in 596 Unions, &c., in the week ending 18th December, 1847...... 4,508 
 Total number relieved, whether in or out of the workhouse in 626 Unions, &c., on the 25th March, 1848....... 16,086 

Matters had reached this crisis, when the late Mr. C. Buller, President of the Poor-law Board, issued, in , a minute, in which—after stating that the Board had received representations from every part of England and Wales respecting the continual and rapid increase of vagrancy—he gives the following instructions to the officers employed in the administration of the Poor-law:—



With respect to the applicants that will thus come before him, the relieving officer will have to exercise his judgment as to the truth of their assertions of destitution, and to ascertain by searching them whether they possess any means of supplying their own necessities. He will not be likely to err in judging from their appearance whether they are suffering from want of food. He will take care that women and children, the old and infirm, and those who, without absolutely serious disease, present an enfeebled or sickly appearance, are supplied with necessary food and shelter. As a general rule, he would be right in refusing relief to able-bodied and healthy men; though in inclement weather he might afford them shelter, if really destitute of the means of procuring it for themselves. His duties would necessarily make him acquainted with the persons of the habitual vagrants; and to these it would be his duty to refuse relief, except in case of evident and urgent necessity.

It was found necessary by the late Poorlaw Commissioners at one time to remind the various unions and their officers of the responsibility which would be incurred by refusing relief where it was required. The present state of things renders it necessary that this Board should now impress on them the grievous mischiefs that must arise, and the responsibilities that may be incurred, by a too ready distribution of relief to tramps and vagrants not entitled to it. Boards of guardians and their officers may, in their attempts to restore a more wise and just system, be subjected to some obloquy from prejudices that confound poverty with profligacy. They will, however, be supported by the consciousness of discharging their duty to those whose funds they have to administer, as well as to the deserving poor, and of resisting the extension of a most pernicious and formidable abuse. They may confidently reckon on the support of public opinion, which the present state of things has aroused and enlightened; and those who are responsible to the Poor-law Board may feel assured that, while no instance of neglect or hardship to the poor will be tolerated, they may look to the Board for a candid construction of their acts and motives, and for a hearty and steadfast support of those who shall exert themselves to guard from the grasp of imposture that fund which should be sacred to the necessities of the poor.

Thus authorised and instructed to exercise their own discretion, rather than trust to the mere statements of the vagrants themselves, the officers immediately proceeded to act upon the suggestions given in the minute above quoted, and the consequence was, that the number of vagrants diminished more rapidly even than they had increased throughout the country. In the case of union alone— the Wandsworth and Clapham—the following returns will show both how vagrancy was fos- tered under the system, and how it has declined under the other:—

The number of vagrants admitted into the casual ward of Wandsworth and Clapham was,

 In 1846 . . . 6,759 
   1847 . . . 11,322 
   1848 . . . 14,675 
   1849 . . . 3,900 

In the quarter ending , previously to the issuing of the minute, the number admitted was , whereas, in the quarter ending December, after the minute had been issued, the number fell to .

The cost of relief for casuals at the same union in the year was ; in it was

The decrease throughout all London has been equally striking. From the returns of the Poor-law Commissioners, as subjoined, I find that the total number of vagrants relieved in the metropolitan unions in - was no less than , whereas, in the year -, it had decreased to the extent of and odd, the number relieved for that year being only .

During the great prevalence of vagrancy, the cost of the sick was far greater than the expense of relief. In the quarter ending , no less than casuals were under medical treatment, either in the workhouse of the Wandsworth and Clapham union or at the London . The whole cost of curing the casual sick in was near upon , whereas, during it is computed not to have exceeded

Another curious fact, illustrative of the effect of an alteration in the administration of the law respecting vagrancy, is to be found in the proportion of vagrants committed for acts of insubordination in the workhouses. In the year , when those who broke the law were committed to Brixton, where the diet was better than that allowed at the workhouse— the cocoa and soup given at the treadmill being especial objects of attraction, and indeed the allowance of food being considerably higher there—the vagrants generally broke the windows, or tore their clothes, or burnt their beds, or refused to work, in order to be committed to the treadmill; and this got to such a height in that year, that no less than persons were charged and convicted with disorderly conduct in the workhouse. In the year following, however, an alteration was made in the diet of prisoners sentenced to not more than days, and the prison of Kingston, of which they had a greater terror, was substituted for that of Brixton, and then the number of committals decreased from to ; while in , when the number of vagrants was more than double what it had been in , the committals again fell to ; and in , out of admissions, there were only committed for insubordination.


 WORKHOUSES. Population. First Quarter, ending Christmas. Second Quarter, ending Lady-day. Third Quarter, ending Midsummer. Fourth Quarter, ending Michaelmas. TOTAL. 
     1847 1848 1848 1849 1848 1849 1848 1849 1848 1849 
 Kensington........................... 26,830 3,502 2,667 1,369 1,233 5,580 7 4,125 10 14,866 3,917 
 Chelsea .............................. 40,177 2,480 4,507 1,985 4,146 2,604 5,189 2,849 1,357 9,918 15,199 
 Fulham .............................. 22,772 2,014 162 805 157 1,352 452 1,137 246 5,308 9,017 
 St. George, Hanover-square ... 66,453 50 ... 10 ... ... ... ... ... 60 ... 
 St. Margaret"s, Westminster... 56,481 1,514 2,575 2,973 1,809 2,100 1,815 2,335 1,211 8,926 7,410 
 St. Martin-in-the-Fields ...... 25,195 3,875 847 3,637 428 2,718 536 ... 12 10,230 1,823 
 St. James, Westminster ......... 37,398 96 139 127 86 104 86 79 61 416 371 
 Marylebone ........................ 138,164 ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 
 Paddington........................... 25,173 48 1,450 566 1,455 1,438 1,525 1,176 948 3,228 5,378 
 Hampstead ........................... 10,093 ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 
 St. Pancras ........................ 128,479 3,762 7,427 2,982 4,439 6,097 3,911 7,422 4,082 20,263 19,859 
 Islington .............................. 55,690 944 944 823 374 2,439 2,518 1,148 725 6,079 4,561 
 Hackney .............................. 42,274 89 210 76 123 280 308 245 192 690 833 
 St. Giles .............................. 54,292 106 174 106 132 100 86 244 189 556 581 
 Strand ................................. 43,894 663 62 1,063 6 3,040 ... 63 ... 4,829 68 
 Holborn .............................. 53,045 4,309 1,808 3,346 2,234 4,302 2,708 3,072 1,197 15,029 7,947 
 Clerkenwell ........................ 56,756 115 43 42 5 115 26 25 14 297 88 
 St. Luke"s ........................... 49,829 691 575 841 1,086 1,258 1,251 1,293 497 4,083 3,409 
 East London ........................ 39,655 1,720 962 1,116 1,390 1,863 1,975 1,176 585 5,875 4,912 
 West London ........................ 33,629 3,915 2,481 2,873 2,279 3,966 2,914 3,264 2,103 14,018 9,777 
 London City ........................ 55,967 8,703 5,709 8,181 1,476 11,090 384 9,732 256 36,706 6,825 
 Shoreditch ........................... 83,432 959 1,585 721 1,274 1,121 1,954 1,399 1,108 4,200 5,921 
 Bethnal-green ..................... 74,087 291 441 315 227 454 538 501 415 1,561 1,620 
 Whitechapel ........................ 71,758 4,654 1,074 4,454 612 4,552 1,123 3,744 495 17,404 3,304 
 St. George-in-the-East ......... 41,351 5,228 31 4,572 ... 7,977 ... 5,713 ... 23,290 31 
 Stepney .............................. 90,657 4,229 4,801 4,318 3,428 6,564 3,984 6,243 1,656 21,354 12,869 
 Poplar ................................. 31,091 2,838 835 3,463 474 5,019 278 2,516 150 13,836 1,737 
 St. Saviour, Southwark ......... 32,980 30 7 7 8 ... ... ... ... 37 15 
 St. Olave............................... 18,427 ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 
 Bermondsey ......................... 34,947 ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 
 St. George, Southwark ......... 46,622 272 2,673 1,176 2,316 1,240 1,810 1,484 919 4,172 6,918 
 Newington ............................ 54,606 2,196 3,796 4,022 1,841 5,025 132 4,217 206 15,460 5,975 
 Lambeth ............................... 115,883 10,221 483 7,530 674 4,917 873 3,358 486 26,026 2,516 
 Wandsworth ......................... 39,853 2,444 784 3,374 1,257 5,730 1,344 1,858 463 13,406 3,848 
 Camberwell ......................... 39,867 907 768 706 463 1,625 793 1,122 80 4,360 2,104 
 Rotherhithe ......................... 13,916 375 445 161 439 309 917 353 826 1,288 2,627 
 Greenwich ............................ 80,811 2,977 283 2,436 384 4,761 481 4,908 256 15,082 1,404 
 Lewisham ............................ 23,013 13 2 4 ... 18 7 43 3 78 12 
 Total ............................ ............ 76,230 51,700 70,180 35,255 99,846 38,325 77,198 20,748 310,058 143,064 

Of the character of the vagrants frequenting the unions in the centre of the metropolis, and the system pursued there, description will serve as a type of the whole.

At the workhouse (St. Andrew"s) there are casual wards, established just after the passing of the Poor-law Amendment Act in . The men"s ward will contain , and the women"s . The wards are underground, but dry, clean, and comfortable. When there was a "severe pressure from without," as a porter described it to me, as many as men and women have been received on night, but some were disposed in other parts of the workhouse away from the casual wards.

Two years and a half ago, "a glut of Irish"" (I give the words of my informant) "came over and besieged the doors incessantly; and when above a hundred were admitted, as many were remaining outside, and when locked out they lay in the streets stretched along by the almshouse close to the workhouse in Gray"s-inn-lane." I again give the statement (which afterwards was verified) verbatim:—"They lay in camps," he said, "in their old cloaks, some having brought blankets and rugs with them for the purpose of sleeping out; pots, and kettles, and vessels for cooking when they camp; for in many parts of Ireland they do nothing—I"ve heard from people that have been there—but wander about; and these visitors to the workhouse behaved just like gipsies, combing their hair and dressing themselves. The girls" heads, some of them, looked as if they were full of caraway seeds—vermin, sir—shocking! I had to sit up all night; and the young women from Ireland—fine-looking young women; some of them finer-looking women than the English, well made and well formed, but uncultivated—seemed happy enough in the casual wards, singing songs all night long, but not too loud. Some would sit up all night washing their clothes, coming to me for water. They had a cup of tea, if they were poorly. They made themselves at home, the children did, as soon as they got inside; they ran about like kittens used to a place. The young women were often full of joke; but I never heard an indecent word from any of them, nor an oath, and I have no doubt, not in the least, that they were chaste and modest. Fine young women, too, sir. I have said, "Pity young women like you should be carrying on this way" (for I felt for them), and they would say, "What can we do? It"s better than starving in Ireland, this workhouse is." I used to ask them how they got over, and they often told me their passages were paid, chiefly to Bristol, Liverpool, and Newport, in Monmouthshire. They told me that was done to get rid of them. They told me that they didn"t know by whom; but some said, they believed the landlord paid the captain. Some declared they knew it, and that it was done just to get rid of them. Others told me the captain would bring them over for any trifle they had; for he would say, "I shall have to take you back again, and I can charge my price then." The men were uncultivated fellows compared to the younger women. We have had old men with children who could speak English, and the old man and his wife could not speak a word of it. When asked the age of their children (the children were the interpreters), they would open the young creatures" mouths and count their teeth, just as horse-dealers do, and then they would tell the children in Irish what to answer, and the children would answer in English. The old people could never tell their own age. The man would give his name, but his wife would give her maiden name. I would say to an elderly man, "Give me your name." "Dennis Murphy, your honour." Then to his wife, "And your name?" "The widdy Mooney, your honour." "But you"re married?" "Sure, then, yes, by Father——." This is the case with them still. Last night we took in a family, and I asked the mother—there was only a woman and three children—her name. "The widdy Callaghan, indeed, then, sir." "But your Christian name?"" The widdy," (widow,) was the only answer. It"s shocking, sir, what ignorance is, and what their sufferings is. My heart used to ache for the poor creatures, and yet they seemed happy. Habit"s a great thing—second nature, even when people"s shook. The Irishmen behaved well among themselves; but the English cadgers were jealous of the Irish, and chaffed them, as spoiling their trade—that"s what the cadging fellows did. The Irish were quiet, poor things, but they were provoked to quarrel, and many a time I"ve had to turn the English rips out. The Irish were always very thankful for what they had, if it was only a morsel; the English cadger is never satisfied. I don"t mean the decent beat-out man, but the regular cadger, that won"t work, and isn"t a good beggar, and won"t starve, so they steal. Once, now and then, there was some suspicion about the Irish admitted, that they had money, but that was never but in those that had families. It was taken from them, and given back in the morning, They wouldn"t have been admitted again if they had any amount. It was a kind- ness to take their money, or the English rascals would have robbed them. I"m an Englishman, but I speak the truth of my own countrymen, as I do of the Irish. The English we had in the casual wards were generally a bad cadging set, as saucy as could be, particularly men that I knew, from their accent, came from Nottinghamshire. I"d tell one directly. I"ve heard them, of a night, brag of their dodges— how they"d done through the day—and the best places to get money. They would talk of gentlemen in London. I"ve often heard them say, ——, in Piccadilly, was good; but they seldom mentioned names, only described the houses, especially club-houses in St. James"s-street. They would tell just where it was in the street, and how many windows there was in it, and the best time to go, and "you"re sure of grub," they"d say. Then they"d tell of gentlemen"s seats in the country—sure cards. They seldom give names, and, I believe, don"t know them, but described the houses and the gentlemen. Some were good for bread and money, some for bread and ale. As to the decent people, we had but few, and I used to be sorry for them when they had to mix with the cadgers; but when the cadgers saw a stranger, they used their slang. I was up to it. I"ve heard it many a night when I sat up, and they thought I was asleep. I wasn"t to be had like the likes o" them. The poor mechanic would sit like a lost man— scared, sir. There might be one deserving character to thirty cadgers. We have had gipsies in the casual wards; but they"re not admitted a second time, they steal so. We haven"t one Scotch person in a month, or a Welshman, or perhaps two Welshmen, in a month, among the casuals. They come from all counties in England. I"ve been told by inmates of "the casual," that they had got 2s. 6d. from the relieving officers, particularly in Essex and Suffolk—different unions—to start them to London when the "straw-yards" (the asylums for the houseless) were opened; but there"s a many very decent people. How they suffer before they come to that! you can"t fancy how much; and so there should be straw-yards in a Christian land—we"ll call it a Christian land, sir. There"s far more good people in the straw-yards than the casuals; the dodgers is less frequent there, considering the numbers. It"s shocking to think a decent mechanic"s houseless. When he"s beat out, he"s like a bird out of a cage; he doesn"t know where to go, or how to get a bit—but don"t the cadgers!" The expense of relieving the people in the casual ward was twopence per head, and the numbers admitted for the last twelve months averaged only twelve nightly.

I will now give the statements of some of the inmates of the casual wards themselves. I chose only those at who were habitual vagrants.


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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men