19 | 11 | 2017

East Greenwich Workhouse in 1872

Under the title of “ Christmas under the Poor Law,” the leading journal gave, some time ago, an article concerning thirty-two of the thirty-three unions in the metropolitan poor-law district. The one union of the thirty-three “ conspicuous by its absence ” is, singularly enough, that which includes two of the three towns—Deptford and Greenwich—represented in Parliament by the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, Prime Minister. The article in question contained statistics of varied character, embracing the number of houses, the number of inhabitants in the various unions at 1861 and 1871, the workhouses at which the inmates had egg-flip in the evening, and snuff and tobacco, and half ounces of butter, in addition to statements of the quantities of beef consumed, and of the ingredients of the plum-puddings prepared. It is too late now to describe the Christmas treat in the Union Workhouse at East Greenwich, but a few particulars of the establishment will not be out of place.

It is not necessary to quote statistics largely to show that the Greenwich Union House is entitled to a place among the others of the metropolitan district. In locality the union is an outsider, but in extent and numbers it is a fair average example, and entitled to mention. It has a total population of 100,601 in the union, and has 851 inmates in the union workhouse. Among the others enumerated by the Times, that have larger numbers of either population or poor, are :—the City of London, with a population of 111,784, and 2,390 inmates of the house; Marylebone, with 159,169 in population, and 1,874 inmates of the house; St. Pancras, with 221,594 in population, and 1,610 inmates. On the other hand, showing smaller unions, with lower numbers of populations and inmates of the houses, there are Chelsea, with 71,086 population, and 523 inmates of the house; the Strand, with a population of 42,978, and 916 inmates; St. George’s-in-the-East, with 48,235 in population, and 1,051 inmates; and Whitechapel Union, with a population of 78,970, and 836 inmates. We do not know how the elder children are dealt with in the several instances just referred to, but there are in the Greenwich Union Workhouse 66 children ; and at the educational and training establishment at Sutton, 357 children chargeable to the Greenwich Union. The inmates of the Greenwich Workhouse, are at present 851, consisting of 320 males, adults, 465 females, and 66 children.

The assemblage of buildings constituting the establishment is Elizabethan in style, of white Suffolk brick, with stone cills and lintels, and was erected about thirty-six years ago. It does not provide a palace, as regards external appearance or internal decorations, but embraces such healthy and cleanly accommodation as is necessary for the shelter and maintenance of the helpless poor. A considerable space is left vacant, as garden-ground and forecourt, between the front buildings and the public road. The entrance is through a block appropriated to the Board-room, and a number of offices. This building is in two stories, and is flanked on each side by two other ground-floor structures, used for miscellaneous purposes. Behind the front block is an extensive quadrangle, one side of which is formed by the main building, and by long wings, which intersect and project upon it, without joining at the ends. The principal building consists of a basement, a ground floor, and two upper stories for dormitories, infirmary -rooms, day-rooms, &c. The entrance to the house is in the centre, close to which is the master’s and other offices, and the dining-hall, which is used on Sundays as a chapel. A circular staircase, under a campanile, gives access to the rooms of the master and matron, and to the long corridors upon which the dormitories and infirmary and day rooms open. The number of cubic feet of air per inmate in the dormitories, the day-rooms, and the dining-hall, is in accordance with the ordinances of the Poor-Law Board. The statutory accommodation in the house is for 850 persons, we believe, and it contains at present just one over that number. Having gone over the whole house, however, we feel justified in saying that there is no evidence of crowding.

Mention has been made of the 400 Greenwich Union children that are at Sutton; but there are children chargeable that are too young to be sent thither, and about twenty will be found in the house.

Poor little waifs, three of them have been picked up in the streets ! Who can foretell their future? They are all clean, happy, rosy, and bright-looking now, whatever their after lot may be. They are so young as not to have reached the age when dress indicates the sex of the wearer; but the mode of parting the hair and a little head ornament marks the girls.

A visit to a workhouse suggests melancholy reflections. It is humbling to note such a low form of human life,—in many instances it is mere existence, not life,—an unvarying round of eating, maundering, sleeping, dozing through an existence that has ceased to have use, aim, or object. It is curious to notice the effect that the workhouse regime has in prolonging the lives of those who may have often survived hard buffetings in the world. Anxiety and care concerning the future are thrown off at the entrance to the house, and the inmates are henceforth placed under conditions more favourable to health and longevity than they have ever before experienced. In the Greenwich workhouse there are 431 inmates that are over sixty years of age, and of these more than fifty have seen more than fourscore years. Several have reached the verge of a century of life, and one, Thomas Taynton, of Bristol, who has been an inmate for four years, has passed, it is asserted, his 102nd birthday. These old persons of both sexes furnish startling illustrations of Shakspeare’s marvellous text descriptive of old age and its infirmities, and of the “labour and sorrow” attaching to life beyond fourscore years. How true the descriptions of the aged as they are seen here! “ The moist eye, the dry hand, the yellow cheek, the white beard, the decreasing leg, the increasing belly, the broken voice, the short wind, the double chin, the single wit; every part blasted with antiquity.” The poor creatures can only drowsily answer shrieks in their ears by piping a childish treble, and in their pitiable second childishness are “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

We heard good things said of Mr. and Mrs. Kilbey, the master and matron.

~The Builder 1872~

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