London: Pall Mall Gazette. 1866.
47pp. [Victorian London]
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:
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.
gent, with good intent, to Lambeth workhouse went,
when you go in, in a bath you are popt in,
you go to bed, you get a toke of bread,
pig on a dirty floor, if you can, you'll have a snore,
word I've got to say, to all you who poor rates pay,
Today, still, Greenwood's Workhouse is heralded as the first example of true investigative journalism: