Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

patience waiting until the "supreme moment" of which our author speaks, but which is to them not an escape from the miseries of this world, but a joyful entrance into the world everlasting.

Ay, thank heaven, though the highest human intellect may fail to hear it, there are millions of human hearts yet living and throbbing, or mouldering

quietly into dust, who have felt, all through the turmoil or silence of existence, though lasting for threescore years and ten, a continual still small voice, following them to the end: "Fear not: for I am thy God."

Would that in some future book, as powerful as "The Mill on the Floss," the author might become a true "Ayyeλos,” and teach us this!

WORKHOUSE SKETCHES.

BY FRANCES POWER COBBE.

IT is not as to a scene of touching pathos or tragic interest that we invite our readers, in asking them to examine the condition of our Workhouses. There is pathos there, and many an unwritten tragedy. Often have we thought, in hearing the tales so simply told from many a bed of suffering, "Talk of 'The Romance of the Peerage!'; 'The Romance of the Workhouse' would offer many a stranger and more harrowing incident." But these interests come later. We crave the reader's attention on this plea only: It is a DUTY laid on us all. In other countries the condition of the destitute poor is mostly determined by government. Here the whole community is answerable for their treatment. No system of democratic rule has ever been devised which, so effectually as the New Poor Law, casts the responsibility of action on the whole population, male and even female. What if it should some day be proved that under few despotisms have worse evils flourished?

In the present paper we cannot pretend to make anything like an exhaustive survey of the subject of the Poor Laws generally. We shall merely attempt a brief inquiry into three of the leading branches of workhouse arrangement, and state in conclusion the plans suggested, or in operation, for the removal of the more important evils in these.

We assume that the Poor Laws have

a treble aim. 1st. They should repress pauperism, by making the lives of the vicious and idle disgraceful and wearisome. Thus he who is yet outside the workhouse may be spurred to industry and frugality, by knowing that it is no Castle of Indolence, but a stern millround of labour, which awaits him if he enter there, and the pauper himself, if redeemable, may be goaded to better habits. 2dly. The Poor Laws should provide for the education of orphan and friendless children in such a manner as should secure them against becoming either criminals or paupers (as their parents commonly have been), and should fit them to earn their bread honestly. 3dly. The Poor Laws should extend to the sick, the aged, the disabled, to all who have no other asylum, and whose present case is helpless and suffering, a shelter which should partake of none of the penal elements which belong to the treatment of the idle and vicious pauper.

Such being, it is assumed, the legitimate ends of a Poor Law, it remains to be considered whether on the whole the system commonly adopted effects any of these objects in a reasonably satisfactory degree.

First, then-Is pauperism repressed by our treatment of adult able-bodied paupers, male and female ?

A pauper we may define to be "a

person who can work, but will not work without coercion :" one who might have supported himself independently by his labour, but has been degraded by idleness or vice to fling himself on the community for maintenance. To those who properly belong to this class it is obvious that indulgent treatment is no real charity in the highest sense of the word. A workhouse, where they may gossip and idle, and drone and grumble, is neither a threat nor a correction. On the other hand, the difficulty which already harasses us in our jails-to make confinement therein really penal, while forbearing all cruelty and affording all the means of health-is still more serious in the case of workhouses, where there is no crime to be punished, only the negative fault of idleness to be repressed.

On the whole, perhaps, as regards the male able-bodied paupers, the treatment pursued is less injudicious, and its results less unsatisfactory than in any other branch of workhouse discipline. Even here, however, the state of stagnation and hopelessness in which life is passed ought surely to be combated by the introduction of some system of rewards which should afford hope to the meritorious, and some penalties of a negative kind which should make the indolent feel that their position here was worse than that of the industrious. Captain Crofton has suggested that his system of marks, which has been found to work so wonderfully well among the convicts of Ireland, should be tried with some modifications in the workhouses. We should wish to see this subject properly considered.

But, whatever may be our judgment of the treatment of the male able-bodied paupers, very different must be our conclusions as regards the management of female adults, for whom it may be truly said that a residence in the workhouse is commonly moral ruin. The last rags and shreds of modesty which the poor creature may have brought in from the outer world are ruthlessly torn away, ere many weeks are past, by the hideous gossip over the degrading labour of No. 18.-VOL. III.

oakum-picking, or in the idle lounging about the "women's yard." It is a common assertion that proper separations are made among the women, and the well-conducted freed from the contamination of the degraded. But, except in a few country unions, this rarely holds good, and perhaps could hardly be expected to do so. The case of one girl at this moment in a London workhouse (a case which we are sure might be paralleled in half the unions in England) offers to us a contemplation quite as horrible as if we were accustomed to shut up our destitute children in a fever hospital or a lazar-house. The girl of whom I speak had been decently educated in a district school. Forced to go into the workhouse, and there conducting herself irregularly, she was threatened with some usual penalty. "I shall take my discharge," she answered, "and go out of the house." "But how will you support yourself, my poor girl?" inquired the kindly-disposed master. The answer was horrible enough-she indicated bluntly the sinful "livelihood," whose secret she said she had learned since she came to the workhouse.1

Every master and matron could multiply cases like this, and corroborate the assertion that a "girl is ruined if once she passes into the adult ward." In well-ordered houses efforts are always made to save the children by passing them directly from school to service. But what then are the places which we support at public cost, and wherein it is contamination for a girl once to set her foot?

Again, for these miserable fallen women themselves. What are we doing to save them, now they have been cast up by the Dead Sea of vice, and left stranded for a time within our reach upon the shore? Here and there a few efforts are made, and warm, kind hands stretched out to draw them up. But usually we leave these most miserable beings unaided in their sin and shame -sin felt now, perhaps for the first time, in all its horror, under that iron monotony of life, and bound to the com1 Workhouse Visiting Journal. No. 11, p. 532. G G

pany of souls lost like their own. The chaplain of a large union once described to us a scene which has haunted us ever since a ward full of these "unfortunates," locked up together through the whole blessed summer time, wrangling, cursing, talking of all unholy things, till, mad with sin and despair, they danced, and shouted their hideous songs in such utter shamelessness and fury that none dared to enter their den of agony.

Now for the second object of the Poor Laws-the education of the young. How do we succeed in our proper aim of cutting off the entail of pauperism, and making the child of the drunken father or profligate mother an honest member of society?

It must be admitted that we have great difficulties to contend with in this undertaking; for the poor children are commonly physically burdened with disease inherited from their parents, or acquired in their own neglected infancy. Perhaps it is true that, in the inscrutable mysteries of Providence, there is also a moral proclivity to the coarser vices in such children, while the apparently happier lot of others is to win the heavenly goal through less miry paths of trial. However this may be, it is certain the pauper child requires very especial care. He needs good food and clothing to strengthen and purify his frame from the probable taint of scrofula; and he needs much tenderness and kindness of treatment, to draw out the affections and sentiments which will have to contend with a low organization.

Are these cares for body and mind really taken? Assuredly they are in some unions; and the healthy happy children are the just pride of the benevolent guardians. But all the experience we have been enabled to obtain, after long attention to the subject, and the visitation by ourselves and friends of a vast number of workhouses, leads us to the sad conclusion that these wellmanaged unions form the exceptions and not the rule. The pauper children in the majority of workhouses are not properly cared for. They are poorly fed,

considering their constitutional depression, poorly clad, considering their cold abodes, and not only have no proper encouragement given them to the healthy sports of childhood, but are effectually debarred from them. Well can we recall how this fact struck us for the first time on seeing a group of children in a workhouse in the country, turned for our inspection into their "play-ground." Rarely have we beheld so dismal a sight; for the ugly yard miscalled by that pleasant name was three inches deep in coarse gravel, through which walking was difficult, and running impossible, even had not each poor little creature been weighed down like a galley-slave by a pair of iron-shod shoes as heavy as lead. The poor babes stood huddled in a corner, scared and motionless, when bidden by the matron in an unctuous manner to "play as usual, my dears!" We tried to play ourselves, but were utterly foiled by those sad childish looks. Our companion, the wife of the chairman of that union, promised a carriage load of toys next week. May she have remembered that promise to the poor little ones, to whom life had never yet brought such wonders as a ball or a skipping rope! Perhaps it was too late already to teach them what such sports might be.

A number of unions since visited, and many inquiries from experienced persons, have confirmed our impression that, in the usual treatment of children in workhouses, there is terrible disregard of the natural laws of a child's being, and that the consequences are most piteous and fatal. We cannot multiply examples; but the following little sketch given us by a friend, of her impressions of one of the rare gala-days of workhouse children, will sufficiently convey the general results of our investigations :

"The first time I made acquaintance with the children of C- Workhouse School, I went with some friends to see them receive presents of toys, sugar-plums, &c., collected for distribution among them by some kind-hearted ladies. We began with the nursery, where the babies and children under three years old are kept. It was a cheerless sight enough,

though the room was large and airy, and clean
as whitewash could make it, and the babies-
there were about twenty altogether showed
no sign of ill-usage or neglect. Most of them
looked healthy and well fed, and all scrupu-
lously neat and tidy.

"But it was the unnatural stillness of the little things that affected me painfully. They sat on benches hardly raised from the floor, except a few who were lying on a bed in a corner of the room. All remained perfectly grave and noiseless, even when the basket of toys was brought in and placed in the midst of the circle. There was no jumping up, no shouting, no eager demand for some particularly noisy or gaudy plaything. They held out their tiny hands, and took them when they were bid, just looked at them listlessly for a minute, and then relapsed into quiet dulness again, equally regardless of the ladies' simulated expressions of delight and surprise made for their imitation, or the good clergyman's exhortation to them to be good children, and deserve all the pretty things the kind ladies gave them.' I saw only two children who looked really pleased, and understood how to play with the toys given them; and they, I was told, had only been in the house a few days.

"I went to the bed, where three tiny little things were lying fast asleep; a fourth was sitting up wide awake, looking demurely at the strangers and unwonted display of toys, but not asking for anything. She was a pretty little girl of some two years old, with curly flaxen hair, and soft blue eyes,-a fair delicate little creature, who seemed made to be some fond mother's pet, but with the same languid spiritless look all the other children wore. I lifted her from the bed, and tried hard to bring a brighter expression to the childish face. I gave her one of the gayest toys, but it soon dropped from her passive hand. I showed her my watch; she looked and listened as I bade her, but gave no sign of pleasure. 'Ah,' said the nurse, that one's an orphan, and never knowed father or mother. She don't understand being made of or petted.' Poor little friendless one, and must she pass through all her desolate childhood, ignorant of what love or petting means? God help her! It was very pitiful to look at that innocent's face, and to think that it might be no look of love would ever rest on it! As I put her down again on the bed, I kissed her, whispering at the same time some words of baby endearment, and then she nestled a little closer to me, and looked up into my eyes with the first faint glimmer of a smile on her lips, as if my words and looks had roused some answering feeling in her baby heart. I do not think any one could have borne that appealing wistful gaze unmoved. I confess my heart felt very heavy, as I left her to relapse again into that mournful gravity, more touching to see in such young creatures than tears or noisy complaints. I must repeat again that I saw

451

no signs of harshness or unkindness on the part of the two nurses; but they were both old women, one paralytic; and it is naturally their first object to hush their charges into the state of stupid joyless inactivity, which gives them the least fatigue and trouble. 'Good

ness' and dull quiet are with them synonymous terms. I remembered the many complaints made to us by mistresses of workhouse girls, 'that those girls never so much as knew how to handle an infant, and could not be trusted for a minute alone with the children;' and I longed to turn some of the elder girls from the school into the nursery, for at least some hours every week, under the charge of some good motherly woman, who would teach them both by precept and example how to manage young children. I am told this plan has been tried in some workhouses and found to succeed. Surely, it would be well to adopt it in all.

"Leaving the nursery, strewed with neglected rattles, rag-dolls, &c., we passed on to the large school-room, where all the children, girls, boys, and infants, were to be regaled with tea and plum-cake. The room was, like the other, spotlessly clean and tidy, as were also the children, who stood in long hushed rows before the tables, waiting to sing their grace before they began. The children of the infant school were as still and solemn as the babies; not a smile among them. A little fellow, half hidden by a huge round plumcake, which stood on the table before him, attracted my attention by his woe-begone face, and piteous efforts to repress an occasional sob. He was one of the healthiest-looking of all the children there, with a brown rosy face, sturdy brown legs, and fat, dimpled arms-& great contrast to some of his poor, pallid, stunted companions. I lingered behind the rest of the party to ask what ailed him. The sobs came louder as he faltered out 'Mammy!' I enlarged on the glories of the coming Christmas tree, hoping to direct his mind from his grief for a little; but my eloquence was quite wasted; he only looked up and wailed out, 'Mammy! mammy!' The sugar-plum I gave him was disdainfully thrown on the floor, as he begged, in passionate, broken accents, to be taken to 'mammy.' I was quite at a loss; but the mistress came up to us, and quieted him with the often repeated and often broken promise that, if Jemmy would be a good boy and leave off crying, she would take him very soon to see his mammy. The poor little fellow manfully choked down his sobs, and sat with eager black eyes fixed on the mistress, evidently trying hard to show promised reward. her how good he was, in hopes of earning the

"In answer to my questions, the mistress told me that Jemmy had only been in the house two days. He was brought in with his mother, a respectable woman from the country, who had been forced by adverse circumstances to seek shelter in the workhouse. She further said it was hard work getting mother and

child apart. He was her only one, and they had never been separated for so much as a day before, and, though he was three years old, he clung like a baby to her, and she, poor soul, was fretting worse for Jemmy than Jemmy was for her.' No doubt the boy will soon get used to do without his mother's daily love and care, and be satisfied with the weekly visits which children in the workhouse schools are allowed to pay to their parents; but she will have many a sore struggle before she can learn patiently to resign her only child to strangers' scant care and tenderness. I suppose the separation between mothers and children must exist, but I never felt so forcibly its hardship in particular cases. The perfect indifference with which the matron, a goodnatured looking woman, talked of both mother and boy's distress, showed she was too well used to such scenes.

"While I was occupied with Jemmy, the children were standing quiet and silent before the yet untouched tea and plum-cake, listening to a long discourse from one of the clergymen, interspersed with anecdotes of sweet children, who unfortunately all died while still of very tender years, which it might perhaps have been better to defer till after the good things were disposed of. However, they were all too well drilled to manifest any signs of impatience, except one very small boy, who, after staring hard at his hot bowl of tea, was suddenly inspired by the idea that it was meant as a bath for his blue cold hands, and forthwith plunged them in, looking round at his companions with proud satisfaction, in spite of a whisper of Naughty boy! See to him then!' addressed to him by an older and better-informed child.

"At last the speeches were over, and the grace very nicely sung, and a refreshing clatter of spoons, and mugs, and subdued voices succeeded. I believe they all enjoyed themselves in their way; but still the difference between their general bearing and that of ordinary National-school children was very striking and very sad. By far the greater number had a depressed, down-cast, and spiritless look, almost as if they already felt themselves to belong to an inferior and despised class, and would never have energy even to try to rise above it. Surely it would be well not to go on herding pauper children constantly together, but to let them attend some National school (as is done at Upton-onSevern, and a few other unions), and so be mixed for some hours every day with nonpauper children?"

Let us turn now to a stage beyond early childhood and judge how the workhouse system acts in education. I must confine myself to the case of the girls, lest the subject should surpass all bounds, and also because the tougher

nature of boys enables them to escape with far less injury.

A few days ago a tradesman who has taken from a workhouse school a girl distinguished there for her good qualities, remarked to us with no little indignation, "I don't know why we build. reformatories and penitentiaries and then rear these workhouse girls on purpose to fill them! What can happen to them when they are not able to earn a penny by honest labour? This girl has been with me three months, and my wife teaches her all she can, but she is like a fool We cannot trust her to mind the baby, or sweep the room, or light the fire. She breaks every bit of crockery she touches. If we send her a message she cannot find her way down two streets. Poor people cannot afford to keep such a servant; but, if we part with her, what will become of her?-She is sure to go to ruin."

Now this is precisely what happens to these workhouse girls by hundreds every year in this kingdom. It is a most awful consideration how we leave these helpless creatures to almost inevitable destruction actually by system. We teach them indeed to read and write and sew and sing hymns. All that part of their education is probably quite as good as what is given in the day-schools of the ordinary poor. Also we teach them that portion of religion which may be conveyed in the form of question and answer by rote from a sharp "certified" teacher (generally armed with a cane) and a class of small scholars deeply interested in the employment of that theological instrument. But, if such literary and religious instruction as this be the creditor side of the account, what is the debtor one? It is only the sum of all that makes human nature (more emphatically woman's nature) beautiful, useful, or happy! Her moral being is left wholly uncultivated, the little domestic duties and cares for aged parent or baby brother are unknown. She possesses nothing of her own, not even her clothes or the hair on her head! How is she to go out inspired with respect for the rights of property and

[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »