It’s never easy being jobless, but for unemployed East Enders in Victorian times there was another insult to add to the injury of poverty.
Victorian politicians – preaching the doctrines of philosopher Bentham and his creeds of utilitarianism and political economy decided that charity degraded the poor and that every person should help his or herself.
Poor Law and East End of London
With the institution of the Poor Law, the destitute would henceforth work for their daily crust – and so the cruel and hated workhouses were born. Of course, the wealthy didn’t just have the welfare of the poor at heart. In 1888 the East End News, a local paper of the time, wrote that there were an astonishing 108,000 paupers in London.
To the toffs, thousands of destitutes on the streets of the capital were an eyesore and a nuisance, something had to be done – and the workhouse, which kept them out of sight and kept their hands busy, was the ideal solution.
East End docks and casual labour
The East End had more than its share of the poor. Much of the local work was seasonal or casual, such as dockwork. Much was poorly paid, such as the grinding piecework of sweatshop garment makers or matchsellers – and many ended up on the streets.
Workhouses were set up all over Tower Hamlets – Poplar, Whitechapel, Mile End, Bethnal Green, Spitalfields and Ratcliff (Limehouse/Highway). All had their institutions and the poor were set to work – and hard work it was.
After a breakfast of cheese and bread, the inmates would break rocks – large chunks of granite with a small hammer, or pick oakum – stripping down old rope to make new. After a long day’s labour they would be rewarded with bread and gruel.
The idea, of course, was to make it as unpleasant as possible and so deter the poor from falling on the charity – and the pockets of the parish.
As if the work and pay wasn’t pitiful enough, families were torn apart, men housed separately from wives, children taken from their parents. William Vallance, who gave his name to Vallance Road, and was clerk of Whitechapel Workhouse, took his duties very seriously.
Whitechapel was a model that would have delighted the self-help brigade. Vallance, a stickler for the rules, ran it with military precision, wasted not a pennny on the inmates and – as a little extra punishment – banned the men from smoking and the women from drinking tea.
Workhouse then a pauper’s grave
Even death was no release. For those who died in the workhouse there was the final indignity – a pauper’s grave and their very identity taken from them.
And, amazingly, you don’t have to go back to Dickens’ time to see the horrors of the workhouse. They were not finally scrapped till 1929.