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George Sims : In the Workhouse: Christmas Day

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  • George Sims : In the Workhouse: Christmas Day

    http://thevictorianist.blogspot.com/...-george-r.html


    ‘In the Workhouse: Christmas Day:’

    It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
    And the cold, bare walls are bright
    With garlands of green and holly,
    Ad the place is a pleasant sight;
    For with clean-washed hands and faces,
    In a long and hungry line
    The paupers sit at the table,
    For this is the hour they dine.

    And the guardians and their ladies,
    Although the wind is east,
    Have come in their furs and wrappers,
    To watch their charges feast;
    To smile and be condescending,
    Put pudding on pauper plates.
    To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
    They've paid for — with the rates.

    Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
    With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
    So long as they fill their stomachs,
    What matter it whence it comes!
    But one of the old men mutters,
    And pushes his plate aside:
    "Great God!" he cries, "but it chokes me!
    For this is the day she died!"

    The guardians gazed in horror,
    The master's face went white;
    "Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
    "Could their ears believe aright?"
    Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
    Thinking the man would die,
    Struck by a bolt, or something,
    By the outraged One on high.

    But the pauper sat for a moment,
    Then rose 'mid silence grim,
    For the others had ceased to chatter
    And trembled in every limb.
    He looked at the guardians' ladies,
    Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
    "I eat not the food of villains
    Whose hands are foul and red:

    "Whose victims cry for vengeance
    From their dark, unhallowed graves."
    "He's drunk!" said the workhouse master,
    "Or else he's mad and raves."
    "Not drunk or mad," cried the pauper,
    "But only a haunted beast,
    Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
    Declines the vulture's feast.

    "I care not a curse for the guardians,
    And I won't be dragged away;
    Just let me have the fit out,
    It's only on Christmas Day
    That the black past comes to goad me,
    And prey on my burning brain;
    I'll tell you the rest in a whisper —
    I swear I won't shout again.

    "Keep your hands off me, curse you!
    Hear me right out to the end.
    You come here to see how paupers
    The season of Christmas spend;.
    You come here to watch us feeding,
    As they watched the captured beast.
    Here's why a penniless pauper
    Spits on your paltry feast.

    "Do you think I will take your bounty,
    And let you smile and think
    You're doing a noble action
    With the parish's meat and drink?
    Where is my wife, you traitors —
    The poor old wife you slew?
    Yes, by the God above me,
    My Nance was killed by you!

    'Last winter my wife lay dying,
    Starved in a filthy den;
    I had never been to the parish —
    I came to the parish then.
    I swallowed my pride in coming,
    For ere the ruin came,
    I held up my head as a trader,
    And I bore a spotless name.

    "I came to the parish, craving
    Bread for a starving wife,
    Bread for the woman who'd loved me
    Through fifty years of life;
    And what do you think they told me,
    Mocking my awful grief,
    That 'the House' was open to us,
    But they wouldn't give 'out relief'.

    "I slunk to the filthy alley —
    'Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —
    And the bakers' shops were open,
    Tempting a man to thieve;
    But I clenched my fists together,
    Holding my head awry,
    So I came to her empty-handed
    And mournfully told her why.

    "Then I told her the house was open;
    She had heard of the ways of that,
    For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
    and up in her rags she sat,
    Crying, 'Bide the Christmas here, John,
    We've never had one apart;
    I think I can bear the hunger —
    The other would break my heart.'

    "All through that eve I watched her,
    Holding her hand in mine,
    Praying the Lord and weeping,
    Till my lips were salt as brine;
    I asked her once if she hungered,
    And as she answered 'No' ,
    T'he moon shone in at the window,
    Set in a wreath of snow.

    "Then the room was bathed in glory,
    And I saw in my darling's eyes
    The faraway look of wonder
    That comes when the spirit flies;
    And her lips were parched and parted,
    And her reason came and went.
    For she raved of our home in Devon,
    Where our happiest years were spent.

    "And the accents, long forgotten,
    Came back to the tongue once more.
    For she talked like the country lassie
    I woo'd by the Devon shore;
    Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
    And fell on the rags and moaned,
    And, 'Give me a crust — I'm famished —
    For the love of God!' she groaned.

    "I rushed from the room like a madman
    And flew to the workhouse gate,
    Crying, 'Food for a dying woman!'
    And the answer came, 'Too late.'
    They drove me away with curses;
    Then I fought with a dog in the street
    And tore from the mongrel's clutches
    A crust he was trying to eat.

    "Back through the filthy byways!
    Back through the trampled slush!
    Up to the crazy garret,
    Wrapped in an awful hush;
    My heart sank down at the threshold,
    And I paused with a sudden thrill.
    For there, in the silv'ry moonlight,
    My Nance lay, cold and still.

    "Up to the blackened ceiling,
    The sunken eyes were cast —
    I knew on those lips, all bloodless,
    My name had been the last;
    She called for her absent husband —
    O God! had I but known! —
    Had called in vain, and, in anguish,
    Had died in that den — alone.

    "Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
    Lay a loving woman dead,
    Cruelly starved and murdered
    for a loaf of the parish bread;
    At yonder gate, last Christmas,
    I craved for a human life,
    You, who would feed us paupers,
    What of my murdered wife!"

    'There, get ye gone to your dinners,
    Don't mind me in the least,
    Think of the happy paupers
    Eating your Christmas feast;
    And when you recount their blessings
    In your smug parochial way,
    Say what you did for me, too,
    Only last Christmas Day."
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  • #2
    "Then the room was bathed in glory,
    And I saw in my darling's eyes
    The faraway look of wonder
    That comes when the spirit flies;


    They don't write with this kind of eloquent emotion anymore.
    Best Wishes,
    Cris Malone
    ______________________________________________
    "Objectivity comes from how the evidence is treated, not the nature of the evidence itself. Historians can be just as objective as any scientist."

    Comment


    • #3
      Cris:

      Sims was a very talented man.

      He was also very capable of leveling some good shots :

      And the guardians and their ladies,
      Although the wind is east,
      Have come in their furs and wrappers,
      To watch their charges feast;
      To smile and be condescending,
      Put pudding on pauper plates.
      To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
      They've paid for — with the rates.
      To Join JTR Forums :
      Contact [email protected]

      Comment


      • #4
        And the accents, long forgotten,
        Came back to the tongue once more.
        For she talked like the country lassie
        I woo'd by the Devon shore;


        That’s very poignant.

        Comment


        • #5
          We don't have workhouses any more, just the condescending couldn't care less attitudes of those in power.

          Comment


          • #6
            It is a classic English poem designed to tug at the heartstrings of Victorian gentlefolk. But, unfortunately, it's factually inaccurate.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Phil Kellingley View Post
              It is a classic English poem designed to tug at the heartstrings of Victorian gentlefolk. But, unfortunately, it's factually inaccurate.
              In what way?

              Comment


              • #8
                The workhouse would give out food - in this case a loaf of bread. Sims was a great campaigner on behalf of the poor and downtrodden but he overstepped the message in this poem. To be fair 99% of his readers wouldn't have known that. Towards the end of the 19th century there were many books (supposedly for children but actually targetted at their parents) throwing a light on such poverty. The works of Hesba Stretton (who help found what became the NSPCC) are full of similar themes. Read them now and you'd need a heart of stone to stop yourself gagging over the portrayals - such as a poor child who finds God, just as she pops off from hunger.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Phil Kellingley View Post
                  The workhouse would give out food - in this case a loaf of bread. Sims was a great campaigner on behalf of the poor and downtrodden but he overstepped the message in this poem. To be fair 99% of his readers wouldn't have known that. Towards the end of the 19th century there were many books (supposedly for children but actually targetted at their parents) throwing a light on such poverty. The works of Hesba Stretton (who help found what became the NSPCC) are full of similar themes. Read them now and you'd need a heart of stone to stop yourself gagging over the portrayals - such as a poor child who finds God, just as she pops off from hunger.
                  Of course they gave out food, but not on demand 24/7.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    The refusal of outdoor relief seems to have been a hot topic in the 1880s. It was argued that the fact that the amount of money saved by not giving outdoor relief was considerably higher than the increase in the expenditure on indoor relief, was proof that many of those who had formerly received outdoor relief did not actually need it to survive.



                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Gary Barnett View Post

                      Of course they gave out food, but not on demand 24/7.
                      If you read the poem it is clear that he first approached the workhouse during the day. Perfectly reasonable. There is no reason to assume refusal - except for Sims own purposes.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Click image for larger version

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                        Originally posted by Phil Kellingley View Post

                        If you read the poem it is clear that he first approached the workhouse during the day. Perfectly reasonable. There is no reason to assume refusal - except for Sims own purposes.
                        The time of day isn’t mentioned at all. My point was that it wasn’t just a case of anyone turning up at any time and being able to get a loaf of bread on demand.

                        If you research the subject you’ll find that it was quite common for outdoor relief to be refused. The clipping above is from the Islington Gazette of 9th August, 1892. It’s easy to find numerous examples of people being refused outdoor relief but being offered indoor relief. Exactly the situation Sims was describing. He had it spot on.



                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I believe the poem was first printed in 1877. In 1876, a Poor Law Conference was held at Northampton Town Hall attended by representatives of 64 PL Unions.

                          The main topic was the subject of outdoor relief. Most delegates were against it, some suggesting it should be abolished and replaced with something better, others arguing that paying out of work paupers encouraged idleness and demanding it should simply be abolished leaving indoor relief as the only alternative.

                          One delegate suggested the government should be asked to absolve relieving officers of any responsibility for the deaths of paupers who ‘refused the house’.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            An ancestor of mine, Esther Brandum, applied to the Bethnal Green Guardians for outdoor relief and was refused. The examiner described her as a ‘pernicious liar’.

                            It wasn’t simply a case of knocking on the workhouse door and asking for food. Paupers were first examined to establish whether they were eligible for relief. The decisions made by the Guardians were very often arbitrary and extremely harsh.

                            That said, many in-house paupers were treated to a slap up Christmas dinner with plum pudding to finish.

                            It may be that Sims’s poem was based on an actual case, but even if not it was perfectly in line with reality.

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Gary Barnett View Post
                              Click image for larger version

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ID:	578171

                              The time of day isn’t mentioned at all. My point was that it wasn’t just a case of anyone turning up at any time and being able to get a loaf of bread on demand.

                              If you research the subject you’ll find that it was quite common for outdoor relief to be refused. The clipping above is from the Islington Gazette of 9th August, 1892. It’s easy to find numerous examples of people being refused outdoor relief but being offered indoor relief. Exactly the situation Sims was describing. He had it spot on.


                              I suggest you read the poem and deduce the time of day. He writes that the 'house was open'. He also writes that the bakers were open. And, however much you argue against it, outdoor relief was available. The article you put up shows an argument for reducing it but not cancelling it. Somewhere I have a book "The Workhouse Encyclopedia" which refutes more than just the unavailability of the bread. I'm fairly sure it also said that the poem indicates the separation of the two if they went into the workhouse whereas it was common to admit those in their old age as a couple. Unfortunately, the book is in storage so I can't quote it exactly. But it did make the point that, as with many such works, they somewhat exaggerated the reality.

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