Charles Dickens: A Walk in a Workhouse' (1850)

         A few Sundays ago, I formed one of the congregation assembled in the chapel of a large metropolitan Workhouse. With the exception of the clergyman and clerk, and a very few officials, there were none but paupers present. The children sat in the galleries; the women in the body of the chapel, and in one of the side aisles; the men in the remaining aisle. The service was decorously performed, though the sermon might have been much better adapted to the comprehension and to the circumstances of the hearers. The usual supplications were offered, with more than the usual significancy in such a place, for the fatherless children and widows, for all sick persons and young children, for all that were desolate and oppressed, for the comforting and helping of the weakhearted, for the raising-up of them that had fallen; for all that were in danger, necessity, and tribulation. The prayers of the congregation were desired "for several persons in the various wards dangerously ill"; and others who were recovering returned their thanks to Heaven....

         When the service was over, I walked with the humane and conscientious gentleman whose duty it was to take that walk that Sunday morning, through the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls. It was inhabited by a population of some fifteen hundred or two thousand paupers, ranging from the infant newly born or not yet come into the pauper world to the old man dying on his bed.

         In a room opening from a squalid yard, where a number of listless women were lounging to and fro, trying to get warm in the ineffectual sunshine of the tardy May morning,—in the "Itch-Ward," not to compromise the truth,—a woman, such as Hogarth has often drawn, was hurriedly getting on her gown before a dusty fire. She was the nurse, or wardswoman, of that insalubrious department—herself a pauper—flabby, rawboned, untidy—unpromising and coarse of aspect as need be But on being spoken to about the patients whom she had in charge, she turned round, with her shabby gown half on, half off, and fell a-crying with all her might. Not for show, not querulously, not in any mawkish sentiment, but in the deep grief and affliction of her heart; turning away her disheveled head; sobbing most bitterly, wringing her hands. and letting fall abundance of great tears, that choked her utterance. What was the matter with the nurse of the itch-ward? Oh, "the dropped child" was dead! Oh, the child that was found in the street, and she had brought up ever since, had died an hour ago, and see where the little creature lay, beneath this cloth! The dear, the pretty dear!

         The dropped child seemed too small and poor a thing for Death to be in earnest with, but Death had taken it; and already its diminutive form was neatly washed, composed, and stretched as if in sleep upon a box. I thought I heard a voice from Heaven saying, It shall be well for thee, O nurse of the itch-ward, when some less gentle pauper does those offices to thy cold form, that such as the dropped child are the angels who behold my Father's face! ...

         In one place, the Newgate of the Workhouse, a company of boys and youths were locked up in a yard alone; their dayroom being a kind of kennel where the casual poor used formerly to be littered down at night. Divers of them had been there some long time. "Are they never going away?" was the natural enquiry. "Most of them are crippled, in some form or other," said the wardsman, "and not fit for anything." They slunk about, like dispirited wolves or hyaenas; and made a pounce at their food when it was served out, much as those animals do. The big-headed idiot shuffling his feet along the pavement, in the sunlight outside, was a more agreeable object every way.

         Groves of babies in arms; groves of mothers and other sick women in bed; groves of lunatics; jungles of men in stone-paved down-stairs day-rooms. waiting for their dinners; longer and longer groves of old people, in up-stairs Infirmary wards, wearing out life, God knows how—this was the scenery through which the walk lay, for two hours. In some of these latter chambers there were pictures stuck against the wall, and a neat display of crockery and pewter on a kind of sideboard; now and then it was a treat to see a plant or two; in almost every ward there was a cat.

         In all of these Long Walks of aged and infirm, some old people were bedridden, and had been for a long time; some were sitting on their beds half naked; some dying in their beds; some out of bed, and sitting at a table near the fire. A sullen or lethargic indifference to what was asked, a blunted sensibility to everything but warmth and food, a moody absence of complaint as being of no use, a dogged silence and resentful desire to be left alone again, I thought were generally apparent. On our walking into the midst of, one of these dreary perspectives of old men, nearly the following little dialogue took place, the nurse not being immediately at hand:—

         "All well here?"

         No answer. An old man in a Scotch cap sitting among others on a form at the table, eating out of a tin porringer, pushes back his cap a little to look at us, claps it down on his forehead again with the palm of his hand, and goes on eating.

        "All well here?" (repeated).

         No answer. Another old man sitting on his bed, paralytically peeling a boiled potato, lifts his head and stares.

        "Enough to eat?"   No answer. Another old man, in bed, turns himself and coughs.

         "How are you to-day?" To the last old man.

         That old man says nothing; but another old man, a tall old man of very good address, speaking with perfect correctness, comes forward from somewhere, and volunteers an answer. The reply almost always proceeds from a volunteer, and not from the person looked at or spoken to.

         "We are very old, sir," in a mild, distinct voice. "We can't expect to be well, most of us."

         "Are you comfortable?"

         "I have no complaint to make, sir." With a half shake of his head, a half shrug of his shoulders, and a kind of apologetic smile.

         "Enough to eat?"

         "Why, sir, I have but a poor appetite," with the same air as before; "and yet I get through my allowance very easily."

         "But," showing a porringer with a Sunday dinner in it, "here is a portion of mutton and three potatoes. You can't starve on that?"

         "Oh, dear, no, sir," with the same apologetic air. "Not starve."

         "What do you want?"

         "We have very little bread, sir. It's an exceedingly small quantity of bread."

         The nurse, who is now rubbing her hands at the questioner's elbow, interferes with, "It ain't much really, sir. You see they've only six ounces a day, and when they've took their breakfast, there can only be a little left for night, sir."

          An old man, hitherto invisible, rises out of his bedclothes, as out of a grave, and looks on.

         "You have tea at night?" The questioner is still addressing the well-spoken old man.

         "Yes, sir, we have tea at night."

         "And you save what bread you can from the morning, to eat with it?"

         "Yes, sir—if we can save any."

         "And you want more to eat with it?"

         "Yes, sir." With a very anxious face.

         The questioner, in the kindness of his heart, appears a little discomposed, and changes the subject.

         "What has become of the old man who used to lie in that bed in the corner?"

         The nurse don't remember what old man is referred to. There has been such a many old men. The well-spoken old man is doubtful. The spectral old man who has come to life in bed says, "Billy Stevens." Another old man who has previously had his head in the fireplace pipes out:—

         "Charley Walters."

         Something like a feeble interest is awakened. I suppose Charley Walters had conversation in him.

         "He's dead," says the piping old man.

         Another old man, with one eye screwed up, hastily displaces the piping old man, and says:—

         "Yes! Charley Walters died in that bed, and—and—"

         "Billy Stevens," persists the spectral old man.

         "No, no! and Johnny Rogers died in that bed, and—and —they're both on 'em dead—and Sam'l Bowyer" (this seems very extraordinary to him), "he went out!"

         With this he subsides, and all the old men (having had quite enough of it) subside, and the spectral old man goes into his grave again, and takes the shade of Billy Stevens with him.

         As we turn to go out at the door, another previously invisible old man, a hoarse old man in a flannel gown, is standing there, as if he had just come up through the floor.

         "I beg your pardon, sir, could I take the liberty of saying a word?"

         "Yes, what is it?"

         "I am greatly better in my health, sir; but what I want to get me quite round," with his hand on his throat, "is a little fresh air, sir. It has always done my complaint so much good, sir. The regular leave for going out comes round so seldom, that if the gentlemen, next Friday, would give me leave to go out walking, now and then—for only an hour or so, sir!— "

Who could wonder, looking through those weary vistas of bed and infirmity, that it should do him good to meet with soma other scenes, and assure himself that there was something else on earth? Who could help wondering why the old men lived on as they did; what grasp they had on life: what crumbs of interest or occupation they could pick up from its bare board; whether Charley Walters had ever described to them the days when he kept company with some old pauper woman in the bud, or Billy Stevens ever told them of the time when he was a dweller in the far-off foreign land called Home!

         The morsel of burnt child, lying in another room, so patiently, in bed, wrapped in lint, and looking steadfastly at us with his bright quiet eyes when we spoke to him kindly, looked as if the knowledge of these things, and of all the tender things there are to think about, might have been in his mind—as if he thought, with us, that there was a fellowfeeling in the pauper nurses which appeared to make them more kind to their charges than the race of common nurses in the hospitals—as if he mused upon the Future of some older children lying around him in the same place, and thought it best, perhaps, all things considered, that he should die—as if he knew, without fear, of those many coffins, made and unmade, piled up in the store below, and of his unknown friend, "the dropped child," calm upon the box-lid covered with a cloth. But there was something wistful and appealing, too, in his tiny face, as if, in the midst of all the hard necessities and incongruities he pondered on, he pleaded, in behalf of the helpless and the aged poor, for a little more liberty—and a little more bread.

Question:  What does this passage tell you about conditions in the workhouses?