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Florence Cole as a child

What happened
in casual wards

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On arrival at our Edmonton the casual ward in the late afternoon, the men and occasionally women would start lining up outside.

Personal experiences of casual wards

The 'Romton' [Romford] spike*

At about a quarter to six, I arrived at the spike where there was already a queue waiting. They were a disgusting sight, nothing villainous or dangerous, but graceless, mangy, ragged and palpably underfed. Sometime after six, the gates opened.

In the yard was an office where an official wrote down in a book our names, trades, ages and where we were coming from and going to - this last is intended to keep track on the movements of tramps. No tramp may enter any one spike, or any two London spikes, more than once in a month on pain of being confined for a week. The official also asked if we had any money because it is against the law to enter a spike with more than eightpence. Everyone said 'no' although it is normal practice to smuggle money in.

We were led into the spike by the 'tramp major' who is generally a pauper from the workhouse, a great, bawling ruffian in a blue uniform.

The 'Edbury' [Edmonton] spike*

The Edbury [Edmonton] spike did not differ much from the one at Romton [Romford], although all spikes are slightly different. The worst feature was that all tobacco was confiscated at the gate. We had tea instead of cocoa and - unlike at Romton [Romford] - there was a bed for one person in the cell and two straw mattresses, one for the bed and the other for a second person on the floor with plenty of blankets which were dirty but not venomous.

edited extracts from George Orwell's
'Down and out in London and Paris'


*  Orwell wrote of Romton and Edbury, but there are good reasons for believing that he was describing Romford and Edmonton.

On entry, they would have to have their personal details entered into a book.

Then their clothes and possessions were taken from them, and their clothes were fumigated.

Then they had to take a bath, after which they were dressed in temporary clothes belonging to the casual ward or the workhouse.

They were then given a very basic meal, usually just bread and soup, and a bed for the night.

The next morning, they were given a very basic breakfast.

In return for the charity of the casual ward, the vagrants would have to do some manual work rather like the inmates of the workhouse.

More insightful extracts from George Orwell's experiences of casual wards

Supper in a casual ward

The tramp major brought our supper from the workhouse. Each man's ration was half-pound wedge of bread smeared with margarine and a pint of bitter sugarless cocoa in a tin billy.

Locked in for the night like prisoners

After supper our cell doors were locked, and they remained locked until eight the next morning. ...

The scrabble for the casual ward's bathroom

Once the cell doors were opened, the passage was full of grey-shirted figures, chamber pot in hand, scrabbling for the bathroom, where there was only one tub for the lot of us. I took one glance at the black scum floating in the water and went unwashed.

Breakfast in the casual ward

Breakfast was identical to the previous evening's supper.

The work for our keep

Then our clothes were returned to us and we were ordered out into the yard to work. This was peeling potatoes for the dinner of the paupers in the workhouse.

A rather meaningless medical check

A doctor turned up at about 10 o'clock. We had to strip and stand in the passage for inspection. You cannot conceive what ruinous, degenerate curs we looked. A tramp's clothes are bad, but they conceal worse things - every kind of physical rottenness was there. Nearly everyone was under-nourished, and clearly some were diseased - but the inspection was designed only to detect smallpox, and took no notice of our general condition. The doctor examined one tramp's rash and just said that it was due to under-nourishment - for which nothing was offered or done.

Discharge for the onwards tramp to the next casual ward

After the inspection, our possessions were returned to us and we were sent on our way with a meal ticket worth sixpence for lunch. These could be redeemed at certain named coffee-shops. Mine was later redeemed for four slices of bread and dripping.

edited extracts from George Orwell's
'Down and out in London and Paris'

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Pat Cryer, webmaster

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