stand, fire guard, two fish baskets, old shoes
and a poker.”
Dickens describes them as “a gloomy suite
of rooms, in a lowering pile of building…no-
body lived in it but Scrooge…He had little of
what is called fancy about him.”
A miserly nature, a mean spirit and a bleak
lifestyle characterised the way Scrooge “edged
his way along the crowded paths of life.”
“Are there no Workhouses?”
The union workhouses, about which
Scrooge had enquired, were doing a brisk
business, if such may be said. Though the term
“workhouse” originated in the seventeenth
century, those early institutions were not
initially residential. This would come later.
But their intercession in providing relief—
food, clothing, a little money—to paupers
was such that by the nineteenth century their
numbers had swelled to well over a thousand
throughout England and Wales. And the provision of money had become increasingly rare.
Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of
1834, they came under the administration of a
grouping of parishes—called unions—and were
overseen by an elected Board of Guardians.
Widely referred to as the New Poor Law,
passed by the Whig government led by Prime
Minister Earl Grey, it replaced earlier legislation
and was directed toward improving poverty
relief. There were supporters and critics. Dick-
ens, among the critics, assessed this new law as
overly stern, and despite being well intentioned,
it tended to penalise the destitute.
Within the workhouses, men and women
were given separate rooms except for couples
over 60 who could room together. Those
healthy enough to work were compelled to
do so, the men often assigned labour such as
breaking rocks and picking oakum. Old ropes
removed from ships were cut, unravelled and
picked into fibres which when mixed with tar
created oakum, used to caulk gaps between
wooden planks of ships. Women cleaned,
laundered and cooked.
Gaining admittance into workhouses was
difficult. Hopeful entrants were examined by
a doctor and the sickly shunted to a special
ward. Once each week the Board of Guardians
met with applicants who had to justify being
granted formal admission.
Interviews could be exacting, highlighted by
Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony Trollope) in
her 1844 novel Jesse Phillips—A Tale of the Pres-
ent Day, wherein Jesse fainted under the stress
of answering continuous probing questions.
Conditions within the workhouses
shredded any assumptions of being cozy and
welcoming. Comfort was not their intent.
They were deliberately made as foreboding as
possible to deter a relentless flood of appli-
cants. But the destitute still came.
The very existence of workhouses and their
expanding numbers indicated a burgeoning
population in dire need. But those entering
the arch of the Birmingham Union Work-
house dubbed it the “Archway of Tears”. And
the Chell, built in 1838, was colloquially
called “The Bastille”.
However, a few were not quite as grim. And
at least on Christmas Day, administrators
made some effort to foster a little cheer among
And then there were the prisons.
Look for part two of Ziral’s A Christmas Carol
in the winter issue of The Bermudian.
Together we can all make a
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