Magazine article The Spectator

A Workhouse Story

Magazine article The Spectator

A Workhouse Story

Article excerpt

1864

On Sunday the papers were full of details of the amazing amount of eatables which the trains had poured into London for the Christmas consumption. The country seemed to have been spoiled to feed the metropolis for one day. The railway companies were overweighted with good cheer, the trains in some instances brought to a stand by the weight of beef and fish and poultry poured into the metropolis for its Christmas dinner. On Friday, while these scenes were occurring, Mary Hale, a servant woman of sixty-four, who had earned her own living for forty years, was found dead in a back attic in Homerton of sheer want of food and warmth. She had been five years out of work, people not liking servants of that age, and had tried to live by charing, but though scrupulously clean she could get little to do, 'only three days' work a week', and that paid for at the rate only of sixpence a day. One charitable innkeeper gave her a shilling and her food for a day's work once a week, but she could buy no clothes, and at last she became so badly dressed that he could not have her in the house but sent her her money without demanding the work in return. The guardians gave her two shillings a week for two weeks, and then stopped the allowance, and then for eleven months, through the winter and the bitter spring and the summer and winter again, the poor woman slowly starved to death, dying at last just as the Christmas festivities began. She had no bed in her room, only a few rags and bits of paper, and no fire, though the cold was killing the rich in dozens; she had nothing to wear except rags so thin and filthy that the Union surgeon had to cut them away from her body in order to examine it; there was 'a complete absence of fat in the body', the 'blood was very thin', there was 'no food in the stomach'; in short the old woman, after forty years of respectable labour, had died of actual hunger. …

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