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?”