‘Saucy Harry and his Moll’ – (Workhouse) Men Behaving Badly

There is no doubt that grim tales of brutality in Victorian workhouses sell popular history books, and of course the workhouse system did generate many cases of neglect and cruelty. Most perceptions of the poor laws are defined by these incidents, but some paupers also used (and abused) the system successfully.

The horrifying scandals in the Andover workhouse in 1845, where inmates were so hungry that they took to gnawing at the rotting bones they were crushing into bone meal, are retold seemingly automatically whenever the word workhouse is used. One of the major flaws within the Andover Union was the failure of local poor law guardians to properly supervise the brutal master, Colin McDougal.

We know so much about this scandal because of subsequent widespread press coverage and a Government Select Committee being charged to investigate and report on the incidents. This publicity and Government inquiries initiated much needed changes to the poor law system.

A fascination with the ‘evils’ of the workhouse system was very apparent in the nineteenth century. From 1837 to 1842, The Times lavished more than two million words on the ‘new’ poor law’s administration and related 290 ‘horror’ stories. Many of the more sensationalist pieces proved to be untrue, but instances of cruelty and neglect to workhouse inmates were not uncommon. The Age argued that if the measures proposed by the Poor Law Commission were enacted, their opinions about ‘the united wisdom of the country’ would turn into ‘sentiments of indignation and horror’; later in the year John Bull alleged that the Poor Law Commissioners had ‘begun their reign of terror’.

However, far less publicity has been given to the graffiti reprinted by poor law inspectors in the 1866 Reports on vagrancy (cmd 3698). There are pages of comments like the ones below and also excerpts from poetry written on the walls by ‘gentlemen of the road’ or, as described by the inspectors, tramps and vagrants.

graffiti

There were long, long lists of paupers just appearing to ‘sign-in’ and advertise they had stayed in a certain workhouse. Many comments complained or praised the treatment in the workhouse, which reads at times rather like a workhouse ‘trip adviser’!

One of my favourite comments is:

‘Bow Street and two other ragamuffins slept here on the night of the 12th April, and was quite shocked at the clownish impudence of the old pauper at the lodge. The thundering old thief denied us a drink of water. So help me Bob’.  I would think he was referring to the porter.

Before I appear as an apologist for the workhouse system, some graffiti seen on a wall of Swansea Workhouse and copied by Noah Williams in his journal/diary between May 1888 and May 1890 demonstrates that the life  a ‘vagrant’ was a harsh one. With thanks to his descendent Darris Williams of Family Search.

Jesus wept and well he might

To see us poor tramps in such a plight

A can of skilly in our hand

They call it relief in a Christian land

O God! defend the tramps say I

Send the Guardians to hell as soon as they die

We lie on boards at their command

They call it relief in a Christian land

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