the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

| index page for 'focus on' | 

'When I Was a Child' - autobiography of Charles Shaw
a first hand account of life as a child worker in the North Staffordshire
Potteries in the 1840's


Chapter 13 - A Glimpse of Workhouse Life Sixty Years Ago

next: Other Workhouse Glimpses - A Case of Discipline
previous: A Strike and its Consequences


Workhouse food

I was now making an epochal entrance into a new life, conducted by "the august Mother of Free Nations," and by the genius of the country that was then said to be "great, glorious, and free." I did not then realise the high guidance that was given to a little hungry waif like myself. 

Even if I had been told of this high guidance, I am afraid it would not have helped me to dine that day with any more pleasure. I was ushered or shoved into a large room which I found was both dining and schoolroom. There were many guests assembled, and on the principle, "The more the merrier," we ought to have dined merrily. But I saw no merriment, not even in that company of boys, at whose age Heaven usually endows them with almost irrepressible fun. I saw hungry-looking lads, with furtive glances, searching everything and everybody, and speaking in subdued whispers. 

I saw a stern, military, cadaverous-looking man, who was said to be the schoolmaster. I noticed his chilling glances, carrying menace in every look. When dinner was ready this stony-looking individual bent his head a few seconds and mumbled something. I suppose it was grace he was saying before meat, but as far as I could see there was no grace in anything he did. 

I noticed he did not join us in our repast, and I know now he was a wise man for not doing so. He had asked God's blessing on what we were to eat; but he would have cursed it had he had to eat it himself. 

It was a fine piece of mockery, though I did not know it then, or I should have admired his acting. I was hungry, but that bread! that greasy water! those few lumps of something which would have made a tiger's teeth ache to break the fibres of! the strangeness, the repulsiveness, and the loneliness, made my heart turn over, and I turned over what I could not eat to those near me, who devoured voraciously all I could spare. It was the first great dinner I ever attended, and I didn't like it. 

I have been at other big dinners where there were many courses, and flowers, and gleaming silver, glass, and other amenities. But this big dinner was simply coarse, and looked only coarse even for a poor lad who had not been too daintily fed. In the afternoon we had our school work to do, and as I could read well I had no trouble with such lessons as were given. But if some of the other lads had had heads made of leather stuffed with hay they could not have got more knocks. 

It was a brutal place for the "dull boy." However hard he worked, and however patiently he strove, he got nothing but blows. If the devil had kept a school to teach boys how not to learn, he could not have succeeded better than that schoolmaster who asked God's blessing on the dinner he didn't share. Tea and supper by a wise economy were joined together. 

The New Poor Law was to be economical if anything, even to the least quantity of food a growing boy's stomach could do with. But supper time came. What would it bring ? That was the question for me. It brought a hunch of bread and a jug of skilly. I had heard of workhouse skilly but had never before seen it. I had had poor food before this, but never any so offensively poor as this. By what rare culinary-making nausea and bottomless fatuousness it could be made so sickening I never could make out. Simple meal and water, however small the amount of meal, honestly boiled, would be palatable. 

But this decoction of meal and water and mustiness and fustiness was most revolting to any healthy taste. It might have been boiled in old clothes, which had been worn upon sweating bodies for three-score years and ten. That workhouse skilly was the vilest compound I ever tasted, unutterably insipid, and it might never have been made in a country where either sugar or salt was known.

Skilly in those days was the synonym for Bastile repulsiveness, and I can well understand how that came to pass, having tasted such a maligant mockery of food. My supper that first night was as disappointing as my first dinner had been. But here I was, caged as in iron bars, with no power to say what I liked, even to a pinch of salt. Oh, "august Mother of Free Nations ! "too august to look down at thy poorest and weakest, bound in a tyranny which closed the lips from even saying, "A little salt, please."


Evening prayers

Soon after supper, prayers were read by that saintly-looking schoolmaster—saintly, that is, if flintiness and harshness can make a saint good enough to read prayers in such a place. Our schoolmaster was distinctly two personages. In matters of school work, he was always militant and menacing. His face to all the appeals rising from the faces of those poor children day by day was as chilling as the grey of a winter's sky. No gleam of sunshine ever seemed to fall on the face of any child. 

Yet when he read prayers he tried to be awe-inspiring by speaking in his deepest tones, but the tones and the face never suggested the thought of a Father above who watched over us. The feeling in us was, while the prayer was going on, that He was rather an infinite schoolmaster who was mercifully distant and invisible.

We had been under the vicarious care of the Guardians during the day. We were now com¬mended to the care of our Heavenly Guardian for the night. If we had to interpret the one by the other we should have gone uneasily to our beds. But some of us had the faith of children who had prayed at their mothers' knees, and we never thought of such a comparison. We thought only of One who was to us, "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild." We believed He was looking upon us in that cold loneliness, away from our fathers and mothers, and we thought of Him as we saw Him in His glorified form in pictures blessing little children.

The sleeping room

Our bedroom was a long, narrow room, with the beds in rows on each side of the room. Down the middle of the room was a long, narrow passage. The bed clothing was scant enough, and the beds hard enough for athletic discipline. 

At the end of the room, near the staircase, was a wide, shallow tub. There were boys there as cruel as neglect and badness could make them. They soon found out the timid ones, and would "walk the midnight air " to frighten all they could by ghostly appearances. A poor lad, seeking the tub at night, would sometimes shriek through some brutal attempt to frighten him. By sheer weariness some would soon drop off to sleep, while others, alive with fears, would have to listen to the most harrowing stories of ghosts, boggarts and murders. 

Every new boy had to sing a song or tell a tale —the other boys wanted a taste of his quality—the first night, and pitied was that poor boy to be who could neither sing nor tell a tale. He was bullied, was pulled out of bed, and scarified by pitiless mockery such as that of " a schoolboy ere he's learned to pity." There were, of course, demons among these youngsters, made so partly by the cruel treatment they themselves daily received. 

These demons, by the grace of the Guardians, governor and schoolmaster, were permitted each night to hold their revels, and so long as they kept within their bedroom they might riot in their cruelty. That bedroom brought strange contrasts of company together. 

Misfortune brought boys there who shrank to the very narrow of their souls from the brutalities, obscenities and coarseness allowed. Other boys were there who were verily "children of the devil " ; yet these two sorts of boys were forced into association and community. If "guardian angels" looked over those beds they must have seen little hearts palpitating with horror and fear, and that helpless wonder of a child which finds no reason anywhere for things as they are. 

Feverishly and restlessly I spent that first night. Hunger and terror were about my bed. A lively imagination made real and present some of the characters in the tales which had been told by the boys who were now asleep. I saw the ghosts they had spoken of. I saw the murderers, red-handed, rushing through the room. I heard their footsteps, and only found out too late that the footsteps were those of the poor little fellows who were visiting the tub at the end of the room. Sanitation was an angel undreamed of in the workhouses in those days, as well as in England generally. That tub, too, had to be carried down the stairs every morning before breakfast by two small boys in turn.

It can easily be imagined how its contents were spilled on the staircase, but that was nothing. If fever came and took ofF a lot of the inmates, that was a double gain—the parish was relieved and Heaven was enriched, for who can suppose that such workhouse boys, even the "demons," went anywhere else. Such was the sleeping-room, the order, and the sanitary arrangements provided for these boys by the statesmanship of England, aided by the perfect wisdom and disinterestedness of "the Guardians of the Poor." I wonder who invented that phrase for those times. 

If Voltaire, with his supreme cynicism, had been invited to coin a descriptive phrase for these men, he could not have surpassed this in mockery, in relation to the men who held these positions in those days. I knew some of these men in after years. They were gentlemen farmers and large employers, who had a remorseless faculty for "keeping down the rates" just when the Protection policy of Parliament was as remorselessly forcing them up by robbing the people of their industry and cheap food. It was a grim battle, but I think "the Guardians of the Poor" won. 

At what price, you ask ? Never mind the price. The pockets of the principal ratepayers were saved, and pockets during the reign of the Corn Laws were considered by "Queen, Lords and Commons" to he more sacred than stomachs any day. The Queen's name here is only used as part of a constitutional formula. We know she had an overflowing personal solicitude for all her people, but especially for poor children.

Even those, too, represented by " Lords and Commons" were better than the Corn Laws be¬hind which they stood. Men can do things by " policy" and Acts of Parliament in their impersonal generality which they would not do individually, and many of them, even in those cruel days, nobly strove to soften the blow of their own "laws."

Sunday Dinner

This first day's experience of the Bastile was like most others, and the night's too.

On the Sunday, I remember, we were taken to church in the morning. After the church the clergyman came to our "dining-room," but, like the schoolmaster, not to dine with us. He was to say "grace before meat" in place of the schoolmaster as it was a most sacred day. 

He also gave us a preliminary homily as long as the sermon he had given in church. We stood up while this was given. We were told on that and other Sundays, as I well remember, of the great mercies we enjoyed, of the good food provided, of the comfortable clothing we had, and how we were cared for by those about us. 

All this was said while before us on the table lay a small hunk of bread, a small plate with a small slice of thin, very thin cheese, and some jugs of water. This was our Sunday dinner, and for such a dinner "that good man, the clergyman," was brought to say grace. 

It was a dinner we liked, nevertheless, because of the bit of cheese with its appetising taste, and its power, as was said in those days, "to eat a lot of bread." And because we liked it we disliked the parson for keeping us so long from enjoying it. However, the homily and the grace came to an end at last and the parson departed, but not to a dinner, however sumptuous, that he relished more than we did that bit of cheese. This was the one bit of food that reminded us of home. It was tasty in itself and cheering in its association, so there went up to Heaven that day from the hearts of those poor lads a thanksgiving, "uttered or unexpressed," more acceptable to the Divine Father than went up from many a table "groaning with luxuries."

Sunday afternoon

Sunday afternoon brought an hour of unspeakable joy. The children who had mothers were permitted to go to the women's room. It can easily be imagined what happened then. Bedlam was let loose for an hour. Wild joy, frantic exclamations, every conceivable form of speech possible to such people under such circumstances were employed. Love went mad in many cases. But all did not give way to the wild revelry of passion. Some mothers and children hung together in quiet, intense endearments. These were conveyed more by soft pressures of hands, embraces, and lips, than by words. Even among the poor many stand worlds apart. This was the one sweet merciful relief in the harsh discipline of the workhouse.

It was a reminder of home and of the humanities outside. It was an oasis in the desert of our common life. The Sunday afternoon shone through all the week. Even the troubles which burdened the children's hearts got release on the Sunday. 

Many stories of young griefs were told in the mother's ear, but forgotten as soon as told. There was, however, one dreadful moment came, when the bell was rung in the room by a porter to tell us our time was gone. It would have made no difference if that bell had been a silver one, its tones would have been as harsh as metal could make them, and the man who rang it would have been regarded as the incarnation of cruelty. We never thought of discipline, order and authority. 

The man who rang the bell was alone the author of all this dismay, and hurry-scurry, and sudden tears, and even yells, seen and heard in the women's room. We knew that he would let us have no supper that night if we did not leave the room at once. 

Woe to any stubborn or nervous loiterer. For that child there were menacing words, harsh looks and a supperless night. "There must be discipline, you know" ; yes, there must, as there must be many things under which "the whole creation," gentle and simple, must groan and travail in pain. But true discipline should never take the form of cruelty.


next: Other Workhouse Glimpses - A Case of Discipline
previous: A Strike and its Consequences




Related Pages..

Poverty and the Poor Law

also see... 

index page for 'focus on'