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Slums, Workhouses and Casual Wards

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Types of work required of tramps and vagrants in casual wards

How realistic are these photos of heavy work by casual ward inmates

The following photos illustrate heavy work required of tramps and vagrants in return for their extremely meagre one-night stay - but read on, as they might not be all they seem.

Life-size model of a vagrant breaking rocks in the work area behind his cell in a casual ward (also known as a dosshouse).

Life-size model of a vagrant breaking rock in the work area at the back of his cell

Window grids which could be lowered to act as sieves or measures for 
the rocks broken-up by vagrants in a casual ward (also known as a dosshouse).

Outside the cells, showing the window grids that could be lowered to act as sieves to check the size of the broken rocks

The photos were taken with permission in the Guildford Spike, which has been restored on the original workhouse site.

The barred window 
of the cell of a casual ward (also known as a dosshouse), which doubled as a sieve or measure for the rocks broken up by the vagrants.

Detail of inside a cell showing the grid which barred the cell and could be lowered to serve as the sieve for the broken rocks

The photos tell the story of an inmate in the area at the back of his cell breaking rocks with some sort of spike. He has to break the rocks to such a small size that they can go through the 1½ inch grid that served as his cell window and which would have been lowered flat for his work. The broken rocks would then land in the yard outside, from where they would have been transported to where they were needed.

Can rocks be split with a spike?

Guildford Spike is a genuine restored casual ward on the original workhouse site. So there can be no doubt that rocks did have to be broken to such a size that they would pass through the window grid and that this was accomplished with some sort of spike.

Yet can rocks be broken with a spike by men who are half starved? And can these broken rocks be lifted up to go through the grid, albeit lowered into a horizontal position to let the pieces drop into the yard? Interestingly no sledgehammer and shovel are shown in the model.

The answer to the first question is yes - at the Guildford casual ward, where the photos were taken. Guildford is on chalk and chalk is soft. It certainly can be broken by stabbing into it with a long-handled spike.

But what about at other casual wards where the rocks are harder? Why, in fact, were casual wards widely known as spikes?

A possible answer

It seems to me that what happened is probably as follows:

The weak and malnourished tramps and vagrants were not, in general, given strenuous work. According to George Orwell, the work in the spikes that he knew was peeling potatoes for the meals of the inmates of the workhouse.

Yet his visits to casual wards included the casual ward at Edmonton, where we know from my uncle's notes that workhouse inmates did have to break solid rocks for use in building roads.

So this suggests that the work required of inmates in workhouses was more strenuous than that required of inmates of casual wards. In fact, my mother claims that a very heavy hammer in her father's shed came from the workhouse.

Probably the work of breaking stones for roads by workhouse inmates took place not at the back of the cells, but out in the yard where there was room to wield a sledgehammer. The window grids would have been lowered into a horizontal position to act as a sieve and the broken stones shovelled through.

So why were casual wards known as spikes?

Probably the worst job for casual ward inmates was the rope-teasing, which was highly unpleasant, but not physically taxing.

A possible answer

The spike used for this job, may have given rise to casual wards being referred to as 'spikes'.

A question without an answer

I have another uncertainty. I was told at the Guildford Spike that if a vagrant had not broken sufficient rocks, he was not allowed to leave. Yet I can't help wondering why he would not have preferred this to having to tramp up to 20 miles or so to reach another casual ward.


If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.


Text and images are copyright


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