“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”.
Around Sloane Square all has ground to a halt, all is quiet and although it has been a most busy day for Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe, he cannot help but to look back upon it with a degree of tremendous satisfaction. Three hundred ragged dependants sought the refuge of Spitalfields workhouse today! Three hundred! And of those sifted through by Willoughby Croft and then presented to the board of guardians, only twenty could in all good consciense be admitted. The casual ward held two hundred more, the rest being tainted by their association with the Grid-Iron Square riot, were turned away. Most workhouses in the poorer neighbourhoods were burgeoning with those who were supposedly destitute, Martin-in-the-Fields was one such example, but Spitalfields had a surplus of places. Only those he deemed truly deserving where admitted to the main building, the rest (whose claims were dubious at best) were consigned to the casual ward, where they might either survive the night or freeze to death, depending on the state of their health, and the life choices they had previously made.
Yes, all is quiet throughout the home of the Right Honourable Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe, the Ethelbert-Smythe children are all a-bed, Edwina curled around her brand new doll’s house as though it might grow legs and leave her. And young Thomas, his thumb in his mouth, wears the astrakhan trimmed dressing gown his mama bought him to keep him warm in the dead of night. Downstairs in the hallway the grandfather clock lets out a steady tick-tocking that serves as an undercurrent to the warmth and stability of that happy home environment. The servants all lie fast asleep in their attic rooms, worn out by the days ministrations to the wants of the right honourable Smythe and his guests. Being as it is the festive season, they have barely been off their feet since five in the morning, indeed not till twelve past midnight were they permitted sufficient peace, to be able to disrobe and take to their beds. The hours served in this household are many and hard, the times laid aside for rest few and far between, staff turnover is high, still, nobody dare complain, t’is either this, the mills or the workhouse.
Tick-tock! Tick-tock!The clock strikes three and at the foot of the stairs the household guard dog barely stirs in its sleep. Three thirty and a gust of cold air drafts through the narrow gap between cherrywood panelled front door and hearth, it is a dim, grey nebulous breeze that wafts up the spiral stair case pausing for a moment at each bedroom door until at last it reaches that of Mr and Mrs Ethelbert-Smythe and slips over the threshold. The Ethelberts being most comfortably esconsed in a four poster bed carved of ebony wood, replete with an immensity of linen bed sheets and woollen blankets, over which have been thrown two goose feather stuffed quilts (for it is deadly cold at this time of year). The most honourable Ethelbert-Smythes are deeply and tranquilly asleep or should be, but except that there is much tossing and turning beneath the comfy load for that pater familia,Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe.
“Let me in sir, it’s me sir. let me in! Let me in sir!” a little voice cries out, surprisingly it touches the heart of Hardy so that on mere paternal instinct he leaps out of bed , strides to the bedroom door, and opens it believing the distressed voice to be emanating from one of his children, but as he opens the door peering out into the darkness he spies no one their. Uttering an irritated sigh he clambers back into bed, smooths the covers over his side and closes his eyes. “T’is I sir! T’is Dommy! Dommy Woodbine! Let us in sir! I’ll be good I swears! Let us in sir, please!” at this Ethelbert-Smythe leaps out of bed for now he is certain that there is indeed somebody (other than his wife), present in the room. T’is pitch dark and so he spies them not, but he is certain that somebody (something) of that workhouse ilk, has broken into his home. He might be enraged at the fact where it not for the hairs standing up on the nape of his neck, and the goose pimples springing up all over his body. “Let me in sir! Let me in!” two little cold, damp hands fasten themselves around his neck, two little damp legs around his waist,”Don’t sends us there sir! Don’t sends us to Master Turple-Sleath! I swears I’ll be good! Honest I will sir!”
“Let go of me and I will let you in” replies the right honourable gentleman who upon being freed leaps for the bedroom door, forgetting that having left his wife in bed and asleep she may be in some danger. All at once the workhouse child whose face he has yet to see leaps upon him, wrestling him to the ground with a prodigious display of inhuman strength, Crying out in a frenzy of terror Hardy rolls frantically to and fro, to and fro in a desperate attempt to dislodge the pint-sized monster. “Let me in sir! Let me in!” the child cries hysterically until his cries and the screams of Ethelbert-Smythe mingle as one and are indistinguishable, “Aaargh! Dear God! Help meeee!” crying out to the very god his daily actions refute, Ethelbert-Smythe awakens, chilled, clammy, but still very much esconsed in his plush and comfy bed.
Of course there is no child assassin present in his room there is merely him and his wife, a lady grown expertly accustomed to feigning sleep whilst her husband works his way through his night terrors; something he has consistenlty done ever since taking on responsiblity for poor law relief in their parish. These night terrors are the one thing that have prevented her from leaving him; they assure her that though he may not be a true Christian he does at least have something reasembling a consciense and is therefore still human.
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?”
Christmas Eve is a mere three sleeps away and Thomas Holton’s meat cleaver has never been busier. For last year goose was all the rage but this year it is turkey, and Holton’s farm breeds these in prodigious quantities. Polished and sharpened to within an inch of it’s life, the sliver thin edge of Holton farm’s meat cleaver sparkles joyously, and in readiness, for that ceremonious occasion which is yet to come. “Mrs ‘Olton! I says Mrs ‘Olton! Is you ready ma’am?” Mr Holton cries out for today is a big occasion, the offering up of the Holton Farm prize turkey, to be slaughtered and bled out; plucked fastidiously and proffered at great expense to the royal kitchens and no lesser. Mrs Holton shuffles forward, clad in her Sunday best (a silken black worsted gown), with a leather apron fastened tightly around her waist, “Mr ‘Olton I says Mr ‘Olton sir! There’s no need to take on so! The turkey shall in due course be plucked, and singed, and scrubbed, and then sent on it’s way to ‘er Majesty’s kitchens! Only don’t take on so sir! T’will make you ill! T’will never do sir!”
“T’will never do? T’will never do? Why t’is the Queen, ma’am, we serve! And if we serves er well and serves it up well we may be rich ma’am! Acknowidged as a farm of ‘igh repute and with the monies we makes we may does as we wish!” cleaver in hand Mr Holton marches briskly out of his parlour through the kitchen and into the backyard, immense wealth is to be his! He espies it hung around the neck of Holton Farm’s prize turkey!T’is but a short walk to the barn but oh! Horror of horrors! Upon entering that dark and foul smelling place Mr Holton and Mrs Holton observe a most disturbing thing! The turkey has fled! For in the farthest corner of that damp slaughter quarter lies an empty nest. Mr and Mrs Holton marshall the servants; the servants search both far and wide, but the much prized bird is in no place they can find. Oh tragedy! Oh ignominy! But, dear reader, let us become airborne with the turkey, as in prophetic anticipation of its imminent demise it takes flight and wings it’s way over field, and dale, and hill, till it comes to rest, at last, on the roof top of a certain house, overlooking a little scene, being played out on the corner of Ponsonby Street in the heart of London.
“Bonjour Monsieur, l’argent ‘sil vous plait!” a begrimed old lady holds out a shaking hand, Hardy Ethelbert-Smythe glancing down at the hand, grasps it gently in his gloved one and examines it in minute detail. Although decidely filthy, it is a soft hand, unused to hard work, in fact unused to work of any kind, Mr Ethelbert-Smythe sighs, “Parlez Anglais?” she nods, “My Anglaise” she whispers clasping her flimsy, ragged, shawl to her painfully thin chest, “It iz not very good” Mr Smythe nods, he smiles brightly. A French speaking gentlewoman fallen into disrepute no doubt, he knows exactly the palliative that would cure her of her ills. “Connais vous le workhouse? Vous tournez a gauche et allez tout droit, eh voila! Le workhouse!” stooping forward and tipping his hat towards the horrified woman he wishs her a hearty “Good day!” he places his hat back on his head and strides off.
“Madre de Dieu! As ‘e no shame?” whispers the shocked petitioner for alms (who incidentally hadn’t eaten a thing in two weeks), “A curse on ‘im!” mutters the elderly gent across the road from her who has had the great misfortune of being privy to this cheerfully conducted verbal exchange, “Such as ‘im wouldn’t give you the scrapings orffa ‘is quill pen! The work ‘ouse?! I’m waitin on the day of judgement as it says in them revelatiunns orff of King James! For then such as ‘e will be toasted broww’ner than an overdone turkey twizzler!!”
Unaware of the ire he has provoked Mr Ethelbert-Smythe continues merrily on his way to the Spitalfield’s Workhouse, wherein lies the greater part of his business for the day for he is senior guardian there. First, however, he must stop at the the pie shop on Petticoat Lane, there he orders a a game pie such as Messrs Hobson & Flynd are held in renown for, to be delivered to his house in Sloane Square, freshly baked on Christmas Eve. Then to the butchers, Tarquin and Pettership, to order the Christmas goose and finally to Master Redwood’s toyshop whereat he purchases a cherrywood rocking horse for his son, Thomas Ethelbert-Smythe and a Georgian doll’s house for Edwina Ethelbert-Smythe (his daughter).
The streets of London are damp, and dark, and wet and the populace of the city in the main, wend their weary, tired ways through its straw covered streets on foot. Some of these feet are eccentrically shod, wrapped as they are in bits of paper and strips of rag, and some of these feet are not shod at all.
Many of the populace carry burdens with them, piece work, bundles of second-hand clothing, dried & preserved turkey twizzler strips, trays of unsold trout bloaters and baked potatoes, slathered in cold turkey twizzler grease. There are those who have the luxury of travel on wheels; the enslaved apprentices of Spitalfield’s Workhouse are crammed into a wooden cart till it weaves and waddles on its way, looking as though at any moment it might overturn. Horse drawn carriages are for the Aristocracy, whose feet are far too delicate to join the dance of the striving, struggling masses of London. One such carriage glides noiselessly through London’s darkened streets, it’s way lit by the gas lamps fixed on either side of the doors. The carriage bears no coat of arms though it carries a very important load, a very powerful individual of singular political influence.
Down into Lime Cutter Lane the carriage travels, past the rag and bone merchants and the stray child scrabbling for pennies in the dirt. Past the Old Bailey, where only just this evening another six men were sentenced to death, for having rioted. It is Newgate Street where the glossy coated horse slows, before entering the central courtyard of Newgate Prison.
The sole occupant of the carriage, swaddled in a heavy travelling cloak, opens the door and swiftly descends into the cobbled courtyard where the governor of the prison awaits. “M’Lord” the prison superintendent coughs nervously, for it is not every day (thank heavens!) that one of her majesty’s prisons is blessed with a visit from near-royalty. “Is he within?” the visitor inquires brusquely, “He is m’lord and has been waiting, much patient, for your visitation” saying no more the prison governor meekly ushers his guest in through the prison door.
A pervasive reek greets the nostrils of this priviledged visitor and for the merest of moments he rears back in disgust, then swallowing hard he journeys on, deep into the bowels of that sombre institution. Past the women’s quarters where much sobbing can be heard, past the chapel where redemption after the punishment of dire iniquities is preached. Till he arrives at last before the half open door of a decidedly cheery looking room wherein the man he has come to see sits, wrapped in a thick woollen shawl, smoking his pipe. “Good evening your lordship” the bon vivant chuckles,”I’d thought you’d never visit! Care for a glass of beer?” A look of distinct, frosty displeasure passes over the face of this great man as he unwraps himself ( he is dressed for the opera) and slowly sits down in a chair humbly proffered by the embarassed prison governor. For reasons that will become apparent later in this story, he is having much difficulty assuming a comfortable position in his armchair. Observing his physical discomfort the union rep raises one eyebrow and smirks.
“Well” the gentleman says dourly slowly removing the pristine white gloves from each hand and placing them in his lap, “Your time has run out. I trust that I may inform Her Majesty that you have agreed to the offer made?” the union rep makes no reply, he is too busy enjoying his brandy and the spectacle of a discomforted and extremely distracted politician, one whose mind is clearly elsewhere. “So far” the politician continues, placing one delicate white hand softly upon the other,”So far fifty-one rebellious souls have departed this earth and another hundred will very shortly be deported unless you come to an agreeable answer, this is all such needless and pointless suffering. We had rather all defiant indolence ceased, and the parties in question returned to work” the union rep takes a cigar out of the breast pocket of his prison jacket ushering for it to be lit, which the prison superintendent duly does, darting a nervous glance at the eminent politician.
Having taking a fragrant puff or two, he makes his reply, “You say OUR time has run out, I say this, when woz the last time you walked through the streets of your own city? You darst not. Name a single working man in this city, a single foot soldier you’d trust with your children’s lives, you can’t. Give me the name of the foremen whose ard work and dwilligence keeps your economy at full thwottle, name me a single child ground to death in them mill machines or burnt alive in one of your chimneys, or buried alive in your coal mines whose name you know, the names of your ‘oundz are dearer to thee than they! And you talk to me of ultimatums!” puffing once more on his fragrant cigar the union rep fixes a contemptuous stare on the politician who has dipped his lips into the subtlest sneer, “I take it the answer is no then?” the union rep nods brusquely, “Just so. No.”
The eminent politician smiles quietly to himself, unfolds his delicate hands, pulls on his gloves, replaces his hat upon his head, wraps himself once more in his cloak and as he turns to go these are the final words that are flung after him,”Try China Town, mayhap there’s a nunnery there NOT affiliated to the unions or related to such as are!” the eminent politician is ushered to the door and through it by the nervous prison superintendent who watches as he re-enters his carriage and departs. A gentle rain is falling so that the filthy cobbles of the prison courtyard glitter and glisten, dirt and all. He sighs, this has been the third such visit in as many weeks and each time he must needs fortify his nerves with a quart of gin “Ths can’t go on for much longer” he mutters to himself as he stands in the courtyard doorway smoking a cigar and watching the rainfall, “You’re right” agrees the union rep, smoking alongside him, “It can’t and it won’t” fixing him with an inquiring glance the prison superintendent says, “the brothel keepers are on strike you say?” the union rep smiles dourly,”Aye, whose kids do you think Lord Aberdeen has been executing?”