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Pall Mall Gazette, 1866 (pamphlet)
Night in a Workhouse, A
Greenwood, James
London: Pall Mall Gazette. 1866.
47pp. [Victorian London]

Casebook Review:

Half a century before Jack London conducted his famous undercover study of London's East End in People of the Abyss, a journalist named James Greenwood, then working for the Pall Mall Gazette, undertook his own investigations into the manner in which London's poor spent their days. In Victorian times, the poor and indigent of London were housed in buildings called "workhouses", where in return for a few hours' manual labor, the poor would receive food and shelter for the evening. These workhouses were largely ignored by the middle and upper classes of London society, as were most issues relating to the poor, until James Greenwood took it upon himself to conduct an investigation into the manner in which these houses were run. Disguising himself as a vagrant, he checked himself into Lambeth workhouse for an evening - his experiences there were soon after published as the ground-breaking A Night in a Workhouse in 1866.

Greenwood's Workhouse was different not only for the subject it tackled, but for the way in it was described. The poor had been written about before by various newspapers of the time, but these accounts always retained a strong sense of "Victorian propriety" - "unpleasant" issues were not discussed, and poetic euphemisms often replaced the actual horrors London's indigent populations had to face. Workhouse was different. For the first time, the subject of London's poor was described in vivid and revealing detail. Greenwood writes of the dehumanization which takes place within the workhouse, people stripped of all their possessions and sent to bathe in water so grime-filled it had the consistency of soup. Greenwood describes in horrific detail how he discovered his own mattress soaked with the blood of its previous inhabitant. On mentioning this to the keeper, he was told to flip it over and "you'll be alright."

Yet through it all, Greenwood describes the often incredible strength of the workhouse inhabitants, who manage to keep a sense of humour about it and don't often complain of the small lot they've been given.

The response to Workhouse was phenomenal, and the subject of the poor was thrown immediately into the London spotlight. One surviving broadside from 1866 goes far to display the public's reaction to Greenwood's pamphlet:

All you that dwell in Lambeth, listen for awhile,
To a song to enlighten and amuse you,
In the workhouse only mark, there's queer doings after dark.
And believe me it is true I now tell you;
It's of the ups and downs, of a pauper's life,
Which are none of the best you may he sure sir.
Strange scenes they do enact, believe me, it's a fact,
In Lambeth workhouse among the casual poor, sir.
Oh my, what a rummy go, oh crikey, what a strange revelation,
Has occurred in Lambeth workhouse a little while ago,
And through the parish is causing great sensation.

Now a gent, with good intent, to Lambeth workhouse went,
The mystery of the place to explore, sir,
Says he, without a doubt, I shall then find out,
What treatment they give the houseless poor, sir.
So he went through his degrees, like a blessed brick,
Thro' scenes he had never seen before, sir,
So good luck to him, I say, for ever and a day,
For bestowing a thought upon the poor, sir.

Says he, when you go in, in a bath you are popt in,
To flounder about just like fishes,
In water that looks like dirty mutton broth,
Or the washings of the plates and the dishes;
Then your togs are tied up tight, to make sure all is right,
Like parcels put up for a sale, sir,
A ticket then you get, as if you are for a trip,
And a-going a journey by the rail, sir.

Then before you go to bed, you get a toke of bread,
Which, if hungry, goes a small way to fill you,
And if not too late at night, you may chance to be all right,
To wash it down with a draught of skilley;
Some they will shout out, Daddy, mind what you are about,
And tip me a comfortable rug now,
And be sure you see it's whole, for I'm most jolly cold,
And mind you don't give us any bugs now,

Then you pig on a dirty floor, if you can, you'll have a snore,
And pass away time till the morning.
Then you're muster'd up pell mell, at the crank to take a spell,
Just to give your cramp'd up body a good warming.
Thou see them all in rows in their torn and ragged clothes,
Their gruel and their bread they swallow greedy,
Then through London streets they roam, with neither friends or home,
It's the fate of the suffering and the needy.

Now a word I've got to say, to all you who poor rates pay,
Tho', of course, offence to none is intended
Before you your poor rates pay, just well look to the way,
And inquire how your money is expended;
Do as you'd be done to, that is the time of day,
And with me you'll agree, I am sure now,
As you high taxes pay, it is but fair I say,
To look a little to the comforts of the poor now.

Today, still, Greenwood's Workhouse is heralded as the first example of true investigative journalism:

"Another event, early in 1866, changed the way journalists investigated questions concerning the poor, and the way the stories about the poor were told. Dressing himself in shabby clothes, James Greenwood spent a night in the casual ward of a London workhouse. His account of his evening first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, then was reprinted in the Times, and finally published as a pamphlet, A Night in a Workhouse. Not only did Greenwood's expose initiate a standard for investigative reporting of conditions among the urban poor, but the stark reporting established a tone picked up by working-class writers such as Arthur Morrison later in the century. "

- Bulletin of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association (Summer 2000)

"British and Continental students of poverty provided Americans with more precise models for down-and-out social investigation. Peter Keating has identified a British tradition of such explorations, generally intended to stimulate reform through state action, that he dates from journalist James Greenwood's 1866 account of "A Night in a Workhouse." "

- A World of Difference: Constructing the "Underclass" in Progressive America
Mark Pittenger
American Quarterly 49.1 (1997) 26-65

To this day, Workhouse retains a poignancy unparalleled in most descriptions of the poor of Victorian London. These are the same workhouses discussed in the works of Dickens and Morrison - the same workhouses frequented by the victims and of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, 1888. The importance of the workhouse in the lives of London's poor can not be overstated - it was where they slept, ate, worked, received medical attention, and, often, where they died.

Related pages:
  Social Conditions
       Press Reports: Blood Money to Whitechapel 
       Press Reports: Boston Daily Globe - 10 December 1888 
       Press Reports: East London Observer - 17 August 1889 
       Press Reports: Eastern Post and City Chronicle - 7 December 1889 
       Press Reports: Echo - 9 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Punch - 29 September 1888 
       Press Reports: Reno Evening Gazette - 5 December 1888 
       Press Reports: Sheboygan Press - 5 April 1910 
       Press Reports: Star - 10 November 1888 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 20 August 1889 
       Press Reports: Williamsport Sunday Grit - 4 August 1889 
       Ripper Media: City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in ... 
       Ripper Media: East End 1888 
       Ripper Media: People of the Abyss 
       Ripper Media: Tales of Mean Streets 
       Ripper Media: Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs 
       Victorian London: An East End Vicar and his Work 
       Victorian London: Down East 
       Victorian London: East and West London 
       Victorian London: Engineering Feat that Rid London of Cholera and the 'Grea... 
       Victorian London: Saturday Night in the East End 
       Victorian London: The Worst Street in London 
       Victorian London: To Check the Survival of the Unfit 
       Press Reports: Morning Advertiser - 14 November 1888