The girl from the workhouse

conducted by Charles Dickens

Date Posted: December 18 2013

This is an article extracted from ‘All the Year Round’ a weekly publication “conducted” by Charles Dickens which contained both serialised fictional stories as well as articles like these which addressed social issues of the day.

In this account of the experience of the girls and young women who lived in the workhouse 150 years ago, a reader today may experience the tone of the text in varying intensity – condescending to young women, moralistic, enshrined in the mores of the class system, sexist and pompous. Nevertheless those who are presently involved with endeavours to help families and children who are poor, troubled and excluded will find many of the issues that they are dealing with today were present 150 years ago. There is also evidence of sincere care and concern and prescient thinking about the ways a community can help its disadvantaged children.

The girl from the workhouse

What have we to show for the 30,000 a year spent on the teaching of the young in workhouses? Instruction without education. That the arrangements of work houses are unavoidably such as to make it extremely difficult to prepare your Worse than nothing in the case of girls. There the girls are – not young criminals as in a reformatory, but simply destitute of means, and dependent upon those who undertake to teach them how in after years they may earn bread for themselves and be of some use in the world. These children are poor without blame; we cannot help having been born dependent upon parents unable, whether through misfortune or misconduct, to give them requisite support. They cannot help their orphanhood. Still of an age when nature makes them dependent upon adult help for maintenance and education into the future duties of their lives, the charge of them, dropped from private hands, falls into those of the guardians of the poor. No young girl can be rightly trained into a woman’s sense of work and duty, under conditions that exclude all Part in home affections, all perception of the varied duties of family life. Where nothing is done to cultivate into strength, wholesome affections; where washing is done by machinery, where cooking is done upon a great system having nothing in common with the pot on the cottage fire, and where the thriftless vicious talk of the elder ne’er-do-wells of their sex is common in their ears, girls are ill bred into the power of self-help. They leave such a place with little sober thought of becoming useful earnest happy wives. They must come back as their lives draw to a close, to live again upon the rates. The number of girls who do so return is twice that of the boys. There were more than 13,000 illegitimate children in the English workhouses last New Year’s Day – 10,500 and more of them under three years old and with their mothers: the rest motherless – and their number never will be less, until destitute young girls get something like real aid out of the rates.

A little has been done here and there by the good sense of ladies. Miss Twining, for example, has, at number 22 New Ormond Street, not far from the Hospital for Sick Children, an Industrial Home for Young Women, in which girls between the ages of 13 and 25, either taken from the workhouse or withdrawn as they are about first to cross its threshold, are received, and in which they are trained for service at home or in the colonies, taught household work in kitchen and laundry, needlework, and where they even – by the help of the infant nursery connected with the children’s hospital close by – receive initiation in the art and mystery of nursing. here, with more than the mere name of a Home to characterise the wisely-devised little institution, 60 or 70 girls are trained and aided in the course of a twelvemonth. Many of them, not only rightly prepared for service and for honest marriage, but saved also from the contamination of the adult ward of the workhouse, may owe to this home the future happiness and usefulness of all their lives. A young girl, by loss of situation or bereavement, is sometimes driven to the temporary shelter of the workhouse; on the way thither it is desired that the doors of a house like this should be open to her; that she should have something really a little like a home to go to – as like a home as the warm sympathy of strangers can succeed in making it. Through such an institution, helping hands maybe stretched to the young, the weak, and honest, to sustain them and deliver them from evil.

In the hamlet of Brockham, not very far from Dorking, where a pretty rivulet flows into the Mole, and a bridge crosses the smooth the river that reflects the old oaks and tall beeches on its bank, there has been established for the aid of workhouse girls about 14 years old, another sort of Home. The founder and the chief support of it is the Honourable Mrs Albert Way. This lady has for the last 14 years paid active attention to the subject of the education of pauper girls. Bred in the workhouse, eight out of ten remain essentially paupers; many do, and more must hereafter, return again and again to parish care from vain efforts to maintain themselves. Large majority of the children in workhouses, she considers to be orphan children of parents who have been hard-working and industrious, and who never received parish money. Sixty per cent are so in the district schools, but in the workhouses it is not quite so, though bad enough. The number of the children in our workhouses last New Year’s Day was above 52,000. Of these, 11,385 were fatherless and motherless. 3446 children of widows were in the workhouse with their mothers. It is in the workhouse that these children – to whom the stigma of being workhouse-bred ought not to attach – are made paupers for life.

If they could enter their first service under fair conditions of comfort, to receive the care of a mistress wise and kind, the chances for their future would be very, very different. As a common rule, girls of fourteen are hired out of the workhouse by persons who are in need of a cheap drudge. They get wages that will scarcely buy them clothes ; are overworked ; are left untaught or ill-taught, to become weary, slovenly, and out of heart with life ; are often left much alone, while their employers, who themselves must drudge, are absent at their place of work. These poor little girls break down and are discharged : they sink under the temptations to advice, that disguise under the false names of rest and pleasure, its unrest and Misery. And so they come back to the workplace, not seldom with illegitimate children in their arms, and they’ll receive as young mothers a consideration which has been found suggested to girls who have not yet ass from the workhouse into the world, of an ambition to come back to the house Young mothers too.

Such considerations led Mrs. Way to the establishment of her Brockham home for pauper girls, which has now been in existence three years and some months. It was two years old when its plan was described by Mrs Way one day last year to the Poor Relief Committee of the House of Commons. At that time forty girls, all taken at the age of about twelve out of the workhouse, have passed through its discipline. Thirty of the forty were orphans of parents – bricklayers, painters, carpenters, farm labourers gentlemen’s servants – who had never been upon the parish. Generally the mother died when they were young, and the father, with a large family, had not afterwards thriven. In the Brockham Home, the design is that these girls shall have “just the training that they would receive from a very good mother.” They are entirely cared for at the institution, which is chiefly maintained by voluntary subscriptions – some Unions, however, paying what would have been the cost of workhouse food and clothing – three shillings a week; and it is a Home to which we may come back, as to my parent’s house, whenever they are out of service. Two matrons friends and schoolmistress find not the smallest difficulty in the management of such a place by moral influence alone. The cost at Brockham is seven shillings a week for the whole expenses of each person. In a workhouse, including also whole expense of staff, and etc., it is eight shillings. In the detached district schools for pauper children, isolation of the children to the utmost possible degree from the demoralising influences of the workhouse is essential. The children fresh from the workhouse should not, as they pour in with a steady flow, be instantly mixed up with those under better training. There should be a probationary ward for the due preparation of newcomers. There should be removed from the district school, and that in the utmost degree, all appearance of mere training by the machinery of paid officials; the children must not be taught to consider themselves so much stiff clay in course of being worked up into bricks, but as being helpless themselves among friends who are strong to help, with some people about their daily path who have a loving way with them that can unlock the treasury within their desolate hearts, and teacher them how to become rich in the spending all their young affections. Moreover, for those who have left the district school and gone to service, there should be, in some corner of it, a refuge – established partly, perhaps, by voluntary need, and in part only by the parish – for those who may afterwards need temporary shelter. Instead of thrusting them upon the workhouse, let the friendship at the school that has supplied the love of father to the fatherless, find them again and sustain them in their hour of need. Let there be somebody there, who does not find the faith and friendship of the young and poor a burden and vexation; somebody to whom an old pupil may come at any turning-point of life, and tell its trouble, confident of receiving sympathy and counsel. Mrs. Way, with whose views we are here coinciding, would like to see, but does not hope to see, well-managed workhouse nurseries in which within the workhouse walls children younger than eight might be prepared for the homes and district schools. She would have Homes like her own multiplied by voluntary exertion, and assurance of law to boards of guardians that they may legally pay out of the rates for pauper children maintained in such places as the Brockham Home. As to the shameful character of the present workhouse training of the young, and especially girls, she thus heaps evidence together:


“I have evidence here from some of the poor law inspectors. One of them says, ‘Children who enter the workhouse vicious, become worse.’ Another, ‘So bad are workhouse children considered at this moment, that even reformatories and penitentiaries are in a great measure closed against them.’

“At Dalston, a rule has been passed that they will not receive any girls who have ever been in the workhouse, as they find that they are hopeless and irreclaimable. A lady, who is a friend of mine, has been trying to get a girl on nineteen years of age, who was educated in the workhouse, I fell into crime into the Magdalen; but the treasurer said, ‘Of all cases, those from workhouses are the most hopeless, so that we have now determined not to receive any.’ That lady had a great deal of trouble to get this girl admitted. I myself have seen a letter from the master of the reformatory at Exeter, who says, ‘We find workhouse children who come to us, almost hopeless; we have never had any softening influence exercise over them, and we do not like taking them.’ The lady superintendent at Bussage, which is a large penitentiary, said that, out of eight workhouse girls, there was only one that was at all hopeful. The master of Stafford jail told me that of all females under his care, the worst were are those that had been trained or educated in workhouses. The chaplain of Newgate has said that all the worst cases that came under his notice were cases of those who had been workhouse children. Mr Leyland, the master of a large boys’ reformatory at Wandsworth, said, ‘I can do anything with street children but I cannot manage workhouse children.’ My only experience in a large penitentiary in London (at Pentonville) is, that if a girl is sent by anybody there, and they find she has been in the workhouse, they say, ‘We will have none of those workhouse cases, they are quite irreclaimable.’

”I am only speaking of those who have been in the workhouse from the time when they were seven or eight years old. What I have stated refers only to children who have fallen into crime simply from having into the world as paupers, and who, from having no friend to look after them, after leaving the workhouse school, have fallen into vice. One of these girls I myself found, and I traced her history. She had been in the Sutton district school for three years. I found her in the penitentiary. Her history was that she got into very bad places; she could not do the work she was set to do, which was much too hard for a young girl of 14 years of age. She said, ‘My master swore at me all day. I did what I could, but I could not do the work, and then I ran away. I met with companions who tempted me to evil. She committed some small offence, and was taken by the police, and afterwards sent to a penitentiary. I have taken that girl out, and she has proved a most respectable servant, and she has been in service for a year. She said to me, ‘Until you spoke to me, I never felt that anyone cared for me. I have been in the workhouse school, but never felt I had a friend. When I went wrong I had no one to go to or to advise me, and I could not help myself.’ I mention that, as one out of thirty cases that have come within my own knowledge.”

It is only fair here to observe that the corruption by example in the workhouses is rather more the ordinary fault of local management which fails to supply an effective classification according to character, as well as according to sex and age. Thus, in the first report of the poor relief committee for the present year, we find the chairman of a board of guardians, questioned about an asserted compulsion of innocent daughters of respectable working men to associate with girls who are offscourings of the streets, thus explaining himself : “I presume we have to do with them as inmates of the workhouse, and, if they are orderly there, I do not know that we dissect their character to that nicety ; at the same time, if they are disorderly in any respect, we have a refractory ward for individuals of that sort.”

The report of the Royal Commission upon Education, presented to parliament last year, declaring workhouses to be places in which children are brought up in vice and idleness, saw no remedy but the encouragement of district and separate schools. Some of the conclusions were, “that the workhouse schools are generally so managed that the children contained in them learn from infancy to regard the workhouse as their homes, and associate with grown up paupers whose influence destroys their moral characters, and prevents the growth of a spirit of independence. That the arrangements of workhouses are unavoidably such as to make it extremely difficult to procure or retain competent teachers.” The only sure remedy was to be, the compulsory establishment of district and separate schools, and compulsion upon guardians to make them use the power they now have – and do not use – of teaching children of the out-door paupers, with consent of their parents. Such education, paid for from the rates, should be made the condition of out-door relief. Such were the conclusions in this matter arrived at last year by the Education Commission, and they have led to the taking this year, by the select commission upon care relief, of exculpatory evidence by poor-law inspectors.

We will give a sketch of the rebutting argument. In the first place, it is urged that much of the ill character of workhouse schools dates from before the year ‘forty-seven or is founded on reports and statements made before that date, when the system of workhouse education, one year in advance of Europe as to that matter, was revolutionised. In that year the grant obtained by Sir Robert Peel’s government, of thirty thousand a year for the salaries of teachers in workhouse schools, came into play, under supervision of the Committee of Councils on Education. Reform of the schools was got in this way by reform of the teachers, and the general tone of inspectors’ reports has been for the last 15 years growing more and more favourable. It was in the year ‘forty-eight that the first district schools were established. As good an intellectual education is now given in an in-door workhouse school, as in a national or district school. As to advantages of workhouse society and morals of the taught, Mr. Doyle, inspector for the Midland district, who is a strong and able advocate of the workhouse as against the separate or district schools, scouts an idea of workhouse contamination, and considers it a triumph to show by investigation that on a given day about three-fourths of the adult women in all the workhouses of his district were mothers of illegitimate children, and that of these one in each dozen had been in a workhouse school. Mr. Doyle shows quite satisfactorily that while the intellectual results at the workhouse school are certainly not below those of the district school, the district schools, as now constituted, have their full share of complete failure in results. In the workhouse school the number of children under one teacher is small, and regular attendance is assured; this approximates in one respect to the family system; but Mr. Doyle objects also to all association of homes established by benevolent persons with the poor-law administration. Any connexion with the poor-law system, like the payment by a board of guardians of three shillings a week – the cost of workhouse maintenance – towards the care of a pauper orphan in the Brockham Home, Mr. Doyle thinks “entirely unsound in principle, and quite impracticable….. There can,” he says, “being no greater mistake, I think, that to mix up the operation of two totally distinct principles – the principle of charity, and the principle of poor-law administration.”

There is, no doubt, a notion in some minds, obtained (however it may seem to an official unsound and impracticable) from the highest source, that the principle of Charity is the principle which should activate all human actions, and that, whatever is totally distinct from it, is nothing worth. There is a notion that by the best machinery, if it be machinery alone, it is not in man or nation rightly to consider the poor, and be a father to the fatherless. There is a notion that the principle of Charity is to the principle of poor-law administration very much as soul to substance; and if that notion be true, it is bold doctrine that tells us soul and body he cannot be kept too much apart.

But, after all, Mr. Doyle has to admit of the workhouse girls pretty much what Mrs Way asserts, and what daily common experience shows to be true: he acknowledges it to be, “true to a great extent” of workhouse girls, as a very intelligent union clerk had said to him, that, “when put out to service they only find places with persons who are little better than the class they take as servants; the consequence is, there is no prospect or even chance for a girl to get on with such people; we give them bare wages to find them shoes and stockings, and sometimes refuse to give them any at all; keep them six or twelve months, during which time the whole of the clothing they took with them is worn out, the mistresses then quarrel with them, and there is often no place for them but the workhouse again, or they are perhaps driven to something worse.” Well, do we not come back then, even with the advocate of an impeccable, impassive poor-law, to the need of that spirit of human charity which we find working at Brockham and in Great Ormond Street? Let there be from the advocates for the thorough drying of the pauper’s crust, license for some womanly help to the poor girls at any rate. The boys, no doubt, fight their way up when there is stuff in them. If he have cunning and greed enough, the workhouse boy sent out to sweep an office may learn how to sweep money by the dustpanful just had out of his neighbours’ tills, may learn to be a famous “operator” in the money market, and to die in the blessed assurance that he is bequeathing a plum to his heirs.

Mr. Weale, another poor-law inspector, reports to the committee his inquiry into the facts which is induced the chairman of the board of guardians at Birmingham, to declare to the board, four years ago, “that the system of bringing up children in the Workhouse had utterly failed in rendering them useful members of society;” that “independently of their ignorance, where untruthful and dishonest; and that his visit to the disorderly girls ward on that very day “afforded lamentable confirmation of the fact that the guardians were bringing up their girls in a manner that would only tend to increase pauperism, and he might say, prostitution, in the town.” The chairman of the board was not speaking at random; he founded his statement on inquiries made, without exception, into the cases of all the girls sent from the workhouse into domestic service, between April, fifty-six, and May, fifty-eight, that is to say for the two years preceding his complaint. The whole number was thirty-four, and the poor-law inspector finding this reason for not counting some of the cases, that reason for not only others, and another reason for not counting others again, consents to join issue only upon, 16, and then argues that two of them turned out well, one of the two being returned to the workhouse only for ill-health. The others he manipulates and tabulates into degrees of badness, but it is clear enough that the official rebutter is a substantial corroboration on the statement made by the chairman of the board whose poor were in question, that there was no fit training of the young girls in the workhouse. Mr. Weale thinks that much of the admitted evil might be obviated if the casual pauper children, some of them demoralized to an incredible extent, were separated from the permanent inmates.

Mr. Lambert, an inspector of sixty-one rural unions – while testifying that the workhouse schools are unjustly decried, and that the overcrowded homes of the out-door poor in his district are of worse influence on the morality of the young than workhouse training – produces a return for one week last year, showing that in the workhouses inspected by him there are two thousand two hundred and thirty-five women, of whom he arranges nearly a thousand fancy as bad, under unpleasant categories that represent degrees in vice, three hundred and sixty-three are imbecile, one hundred and fifty are deserted wives, thirty-one are wives with husbands in jail, eighty-seven are wives with husbands in the workhouse, and respectability is confined to three hundred and sixty-three old women, one hundred and eighty-nine women and girls incapable of getting their own living by reason of bodily defect or infirmity – and not counting those crippled by vice – against the nine hundred who are profligate and able-bodied, there are only seventy-five women and girls to be set who are able-bodied and respectable !

Among the witnesses upon this subject, we have the Rev. J .Armitstead vicar of Sandbach, Cheshire, who has long been in his parish, where he has a rebuilt one large church, built two new churches, and established several schools. During the whole lifetime of the new poor-law, this gentleman has been a guardian, attentive to the needs of the poor in a well-managed union. But in all his experience he has never known of a girl passing out of the workhouse school, to service in a gentleman’s family. The stigma of the workhouse stands in the girl’s way. Mr Armitstead offered himself as a witness for the compatibility on the principle of Charity with the principle of poor-law administration, for he has seen the misery and profligacy, into which girls with starved undisciplined affections, fall, after quitting either the workhouse or the district school, for want to help from anything that has the aspect of a home. He is not deluded by the fallacies of returns that report all well with those who are out of sight, and lead to pen ink conclusions contradicted by the commonest experience of common life. Mr Armitstead thinks that in dealing with destitute children, orphans and others, towards whom it stands in place of a parent, the State should make the nearest practicable approach to the fulfilment of a parent’s duty. For the last nine years, and with the greatest possible success, the system has been tried in his own parish of seven thousand people, of taking pauper orphans by two or three at a time from the workhouse, and placing them with respectable dames in their own district: the dames being under the superintendence of the clergyman, the guardians, and the relieving officer. The orphan children are thus placed in the homes, with childless couples and others, who with small pay for their maintenance are glad of their service and companionship. Experience has proved that strong domestic attachments arise out of such relations. They’re well-selected household guardian usually becomes a lasting friend. The child, dressed in no workhouse clothes, and its relation to the workhouse almost unknown to itself, goes to the national school, in due time goes out to work with a fair chance of getting good situations, and when out of work, the orphan girl knows where to find a chimney-corner where she may look for a welcome. Upon some such system, Mr. Armitstead believes that the radical defect in poor-law administration as applied to the young, may in all country and some town districts be greatly softened.

Meanwhile, let us, in GOD”S name, increase the influence and power – let us hope for increase also in number – of the few are labouring to add from without that element in the case of the young, the friendless, and the most helpless, which is so hard and so difficult to get recognised from behind the official desk.

From All The Year Round conducted by Charles Dickens October 18th, 1862 issue


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