“By reason of some defects in the law, the poor used not to be restrained from travelling from workhouse to workhouse; taking up residence in those poor houses which provided the largest bowls of gruel and the comfiest pallets of straw”.
“Shameful!” declared the Countess De Lacey and the gentleman accompanying her (the Reverend Farthengrodden) looks similarly shocked. But the Right Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe smiles reassuringly, “the Poor Law Amendment Act soon put paid to that criminal practice, as a result we have far fewer workhouses and those we do have are much more efficiently managed”. He ushered his guests into a poor ward where four dozen women sitting on wooden stools were stooped low over wooden pails peeling potatoes. Heaps of unpeeled potatoes lay piled on the floor beside them,”You see that here on this ward the time of the poor people is well spent. Here, dissipation and depravity are discouraged. Once they were steeped to the neck in vice but now their energies are redirected to the betterment of themselves and their fellow man”.
“Pray tell, what is it they are doing?”
“Preparing dinner for the brotherhood”
“The brotherhood have a monastery here?” Ethelbert-Smythe beams with pride,
“The Spitalsfield monastery was established in the first year of my guardianship and, by the end of this year, the Spitalsfield Industrial School will open. As is usually the custom it will be staffed by two dozen novitiates of the Goveen Brotherhood”. Countess de Lacey looks awed and Ethelbert-Smythe feels certain that her donations to the workhouse will increase as a result.”With the aid of the brotherhood we hope to turn the eyes of the poor people ever toward heaven and their revered benefactors, St. Gove be praised!”
“Sweet Gove!” clutching his prayer beads tightly the Reverend Farthengrodden whispers the blessing in such a way as to cause the hackles to rise up on the back of the workhouse guardian’s neck. “If you would come this way you will see how we correct that degeneracy so syptomatic of indolent living”.
The Right Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe ushers his guests from the ward and down the corridor encountering an attendant cradling a babe in the crook of one thin arm. “Thanks to the poor law amendments the number of bastards born to unwed mothers has significantly decreased. For those which remain we supply wet nurses at modest cost”. He gestured dismissively toward the wet nurse smiling with approval as she produced a tiny bottle of laudanum administering a dose to the child in her arms. “Once children are of age they are sent to the industrial schools for morning instruction and from thence to work”.
“At what age are they sent out to work?”
“Why as soon as they are out of swaddling clothes and are lucid enough to be able to talk! Most commonly at the age of four, at the age of three if they seem able bodied enough.”
“But at that age they are so diminutive!”
“Quite, making it extremely easy for them to move amongst the cogs and wheels of mill machines for lint cleaning and such. Once they are eight they are released from our care unless they have decided to take up holy orders, in which case they are received into the brotherhood and trained as novitiates”.
The smell of the workhouse is as turgid as it is cloying and it is almost with relief that his guests enter the workhouse gardens. For there the burgeoning, ripening tomatoes and turnips, elderberries and apricots, give off an appetizing fragrance. In fact the aroma of this abundance of hanging fruit and flourishing vegetables seems to nullify the lingering unpleasantness of the gloomy workhouse interior. It is as if the gardens were a bridge transporting them from grimy pauperism to fragrant affluence. “Are all these for the consumption of the poor?” inquires the countess and a raised eyebrow is her reply,
“these are for the consumption of the guests at the Midland Grand Hotel under an arrangement which we have with the cook there. Any profits generated are ploughed back into the work, the consent of the guardians permitting”.
“M’lud” a wizened looking man has shambled up to the Honourable Ethelbert-Smythe and is now ferociously plucking at the sleeve of his tailored jacket with his gnarled, grimy fingers,”M’lud”
“Yes Master Fluttock, what is it?”
“You’re needed in the infirmary sir”
“Is Doctor Garrick not in attendance?”
“Nurse says he is somewhat indisposed and to call on you to come diwectly sir”
“And what of Master Wisteria?” Master Fluttock flinches at the mention of that name and a look of dread marrs his worn face,”Looked for him but couldn’t find him sir”
“Tell nurse I shall be along shortly” tugging his greasy forelock the elderly gent slowly shambles back the way he came. As he passes her the Countess wrinkles her nose for the old man smells more strongly than any item or person she has yet encountered within the Spitalfields poor house. “Are there many old people here?” she asks, if there were what should we do with them? He thinks. “Precious few” he replies,”The profligacy of debauched living, of drunkeness and unbridled vice mean that precious few endure old age here. No, our inmates range from the age of three months to forty years”
“And how old is Master Fluttock?” inquires Reverend Farthengrodden
“Forty two years or so, he might well be younger” replies Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe carelessly, he has long since ceased to be amazed at the weary, wizened appearances of the Spitalsfields inmates. Perhaps if they had been inclined to live lives less steeped in gin, and if they had taken more care over their observance of the Sabbath, theirs would have been an old age radiant with vibrant youthful promise as his had been.
“Forty two years old!” declares the Reverend disparagingly “and wholly dependent upon the largesse of the workhouse? How so?”
“He stated that he had broken his back in an accident at a Montaperti Silk Mill but it later transpired that the accident had been due solely to his own drunken negligence”
“And yet you permitted him to remain?” Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe shrugged,
“The poor are ever with us and Master Fluttock is an excellent gardener”.