Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bah! Humbug indeed

"Are there no prisons?" "Are the workhouses still in operation?" Not the exact quotes but it got me to wonder what conditions were like way back then. What poor souls had to endure in life when their economy took a dive. It was an odd time indeed to say the least. Some background. The Black Plague had just wiped out much of the population of Europe as we all know but then what? It created a labor shortage just as the industrial revolution was about to begin. What to do with the poor? Laws had been enacted before to deal with the problem with little success. Draconian in nature they called for the beating of vagrants and on a second time round an execution although few if any were carried out of the latter. The Poor Laws were eventually seen as the answer. A tax on incomes and goods was to pay parishes to build these quarters and pay for their nutrition and creature comforts if they could be called that. But there was a condition to all of this. The quarters and food was not to be greater than the least of the lowest class laborer. All accounts of this system of institutions seem to be the same and they weren't pretty.

A brief description and then an actual account from a woman who was hired to check on the conditions. An undercover operation paid for by a local newspaper.

The "casuals" as the poor were called arrived at the gates of the workhouse before 6 in the evening and lined up at the gate for inspection. A caretaker, usually a former resident, took vital information such as name age and occupation if any. Once interviewed they would proceed to an area to disrobe bundle their clothing to be locked away for the night. A bath tub or two provided less than adequate cleanliness as the water was not changed between baths and one tub might be used by as many as twenty people. Upon bathing the casuals were handed night shirts and sent to their sleeping area for their evening meal. Most sleeping areas were nothing more than a long hall with canvas hammocks strung between four hooks about 8 inches off the floor and six inches apart. Any movement by anyone would set all the hammocks in motion. If not hammocks then straw beds with thinly woven covers or just a rug on the floor complete with house vermin. Dinner consisted of a watered down unsalted potato soup and a lump of bread and maybe a bit of old cheese. Nothing was put to waste as even the leftover food from the sick section was served up the next day. Often the gruel was made from old milk that was again heated and served the next morning. Work consisted of either breaking large rocks into smaller ones used for road beds or unraveling rope strands to be resold.

And on to an actual account:

At this time the night was indescribably dreadful. There lay the women, naked and restless, tossing about in the dim gaslight, and getting up from time to time in order to shake off their disgusting tormentors, which speckled their naked limbs with huge black spots. When the old man came in, he motioned to me to lie down and go to sleep, but I told him I dared not, for the vermin were so bad. "Ah," said he, "you are not used to it." About twelve o'clock the closeness and heat of the room became intolerable, and every one began to feel ill and to suffer from diarrhoea. Several were drawn double with cramp, and I felt sick and ill myself. The children began to cry constantly, and seemed extremely ill. From this time the closet was constantly occupied by one or another, and the stench became dreadful. "So help me God," said one, "I will never come here again. I would rather go to prison a hundred times." Another said, "Hold your tongue, you — fool, or he will hear you." Another groaned for a little brandy, with language too dreadful to repeat; and some one else added, "If you were dying, you would get none here." For myself, I suffered more than I can say, and as long as I live I shall never forget the horrors of that dreadful night. No wonder there is cholera at the East of London, for it is generated every night in the Whitechapel casual ward.

Fortunately Mr. Scrooge turned a leaf before it was too late. Hopefully our dear leaders will do the same but I'm seeing quite a few similarities from days long gone by.


Ole Phat Stu said...

JFYI : The Black Death was in 1350, the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850, so 400-500 years later.

BBC said...

or unraveling rope strands to be resold.

Hum, um, hum. The rope was made from strands, why would one want to unravel it?

Compared to many I guess I've had a gifted life and now I'm comfy in my warm little cave and have beer.

Mostly just watching the freak show.

BBC said...

The only thing I've seen rope unraveled for is to make nests for starting fires with a flint and steel.

Demeur said...

Stu that was when the first of the Poor Laws were enacted by Elizabeth I believe it was. After that two other sets of laws were enacted.

Billy your place probably looks like one of those workhouses. Watch it? You're part of it. hehe

BBC said...

My place looks like a one room shack built during the great depression, because it was, and I'm happy to have it. :-)

Ole Phat Stu said...

Scrooge was 1843 in Dickens' Christmas carol, at the end of the Industrial Revolution in GB. The Elizabethan Parish Act was 1662, her first Poor Act was 1602.
OMG, I've retained my schoolboy history lessons for 50 years!

Demeur said...

You say you were around during that period 1602?