Politics, Satire, Social Justice

Weighed In The Balance & Found Wanting

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“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”.

 

 

 

 

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Hypocritical Cant

Reflections Upon The Milk Of Poor Law Kindness

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T’is a little after one in the afternoon (that is approximately three hours before tea-time) and  precisely seven hours before Mr Ethelbert-Smythe must find himself in attendance at the home of the eminent politician. T’is only three sleeps before Christmas but a’las the poor are ever with us, for they line the alleyway leading up to the Spitalfield’s workhouse as if the mills and the match factories scattered through London had no vacancies!

Some slouch against the grimy walls of the workhouse alley as if those were the only props that might keep them standing. Others appear to have heaped themselves one upon the other, a heap of damp, muddied, half-filled clothes on the equally muddied, cobbled, path. All form a ragged queue straggling down the length of the alleyway,through the narrow entrance way, and into the workhouse stable yard (known to the poor as the casual ward). Some will be lucky enough to spend their first night in the workhouse itself, the rest will sleep here,in their undergarments (the rules of the workhouse do not permit otherwise), amongst bales of hay.

T’is festive enough for the destitute is it not? After all did not Our Lord spend his first night in a cow shed? Safely swaddled and laid a-bed by sweet Mary in a cow’s crib? And attended by no fewer than three eminent sages? Now step forth the guardians of the gate-way, Billy, Gilly and Alfie Croft, known to all as knows them as ‘The Croft Brothers’ and to their betters as the work house porters. At a glance they can tell who can be touched for a sovereign (ere they be let through the gate) and who is likely to be bringing in opium pipes or gin and will thus need throwing out again. “What? You ‘ere is you Milty? Still on the swell I takes it? Well my boy you ‘ad better hook it! And fast! We ain’t feedin none as is destined for Newgate! Hook it proper!” the brothers advancing as one muscular force, their hint is at once taken.

In they advance as one, the wretched armies of the poor, exposed to the brutal unflinching gaze of porterhood. In staggers Queenie McKillen with her baby, little Ellen, clutched to her scrawny chest. Oh she has tried her best to dress herself appropriate for the scrutiny of them that governs who is fit to enter the workhouse; but it is not these pitiful efforts which gain her entrance. Gilly Porter takes in her fragile, heart shaped face and the worn once-costly garments she wears. ‘Whore’ thinks he and visibly bridles with righteous indignation; but then his hard unflinching gaze takes in the child carried close to her bosom. The child whose pitiful pain-wracked whimpers send chills down his spine, though the heart rending cries are as nothing next to the faint reek of vomit emanating from the shawl she is wrapped in.

Gilly Croft stops her as she reaches the entrance and is about to slide through the iron gates. “Where is thy ‘usband gel?” he enquires but she does not hear him, raising a pale trembling hand to her brow Queenie pitches forward, the child falling out of her hands and into those of Gilly Croft who looking with dismay upon the child, cries out for the infirmary nurse to be sent for right quick. The nurse, or rather such as may be named one, arrives in due course. A gin bottle hidden none too discretely in her pocket, she weaves her way through the stable yard until at length she reaches Queenie, now dragged to one side and propped against the iron -gate “Cholera is it?” she enquires loudly squatting down in the mud to examine the face and hands of the half-conscious mother, “Cholera no doubt” mutters Gilly gently clasping the babe in his hands “She’ll be dead by the morn, t’is Bobbish Todger’s woman”

The nurse rises abruptly she does not look at him, but he can see that despite the gin, a rosy red flush grows on her cheek that is indicative of anger. Bobbish Todger as laid his hand to any work he could for the sake of wife and child and now lies dead; hanged by the neck at Newgate.”She’s gawn! Bury er, an gie the babe to me” gently Gilly hands the child over to the nurse who clasping the swaddled babe to her, staggers back toward the infirmary. There is room for four more in the workhouse, besides the child who need never suffer the scrutiny of the workhouse committee.

Alfie Croft looks over the worn and weary souls that have passed through and now lie slumped in the yard. A handsome man of average height, rippling with muscle, soberly dressed, is never likely to know the suffering and hardship that has assailed and assaulted the destitute souls sitting on the ground before him or so one would think. “Felicia Tarpin! George Wedum! Luke Crudd! Amelia Fard! Get ye in through that door right quick! You’re to stand before the committee this eve!”

“And who is he as ‘eds the committee?” one brave soul loudly asks, “Ethelbert-Smythe!” Alfie replies glancing at the expressionless faces of his brothers, “The Right Honourable Ethelbert-Ruddy-Smythe?!” Alfie nods his head. There is much dark muttering all around at this, for was it not he who shut down the Spitalsfield Orphanage, on the grounds that the toddlers nurtured and nourished therein was fit for work? And was it not he ‘as shut down the Infantrymens’ Rest-Home for the Disabled and then forced men as had next to no health onto the streets a-begging? “Tell us true Gilly! Tell us true!” everyone cries in panic,”Is there any as makes it  through that door into the workhouse?” Gilly glances at Alfie who in turn looks across to Billy, “Some do” they declare in unison, “Now!” bellows out Alfie Croft. “The rest of you kit orff! And into the stables you goes!” this time another brave soul cries out, “I say! Is the straw heated?”

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