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Tuesday 7 February 2012: Bleak House

This being, as everyone knows, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, I started reading a small volume I'd recently bought, called Night Walks, a compilation (extracted from his non-fiction work The Uncommercial Traveller) of his nocturnal wanderings in mid-19th century London. I had not read any of Dickens' reportage before and this was a revelation. An insomniac, he got into the habit of leaving his house around midnight and tramping the streets until daybreak, observing and talking with other night-walkers and workers he encounters: the watchmen, the homeless, the drunkards, the lurkers, the market-traders. Passing prisons, insane asylums and workhouses, he wonders about their unquiet inmates. Covent Garden market, he writes, provides one of the worst night sights I know in London... in the children who prowl about this place, who sleep in the [vegetable] baskets, fight for the offal, dart at any object they think they can lay their thieving hands upon, dive under the carts and barrows, dodge the constables and are perpetually making a blunt pattering on the pavement with the rain of their naked feet.

In the market coffee-house he observes a regular customer who took out of his hat a large meat pudding, a meat pudding so large that it was a very tight fit , and brought the lining of the hat out with it. This mysterious man was known by his pudding, for on his entering, [they] brought him a pint of hot tea, a small loaf and a large knife and fork and plate. Left to himself... he stood the pudding on the bare table and, instead of cutting it, stabbed it, overhand, with the knife, like a mortal enemy; then took the knife out, wiped it on his sleeve, tore the pudding asunder with his fingers and ate it all up.

Dickens was no activist social reformer* but he did draw attention to the appalling living conditions of the Victorian poor in many of his novels. In Oliver Twist he wrote about the workhouses, those sinks of disease and despair to which the sick, the old, the helpless and the homeless were consigned to "fester and rot" if they were without means of support. The workhouses were grim and cheerless institutions where husbands and wives were separated, and the relatively fit had to work for their keep while the infirm were left to fend as best they could. It has recently been revealed that Dickens lived only doors away from one of the London workhouses of which the structure still survives. A new book, Dickens and the Workhouse, is shortly to be published.

As I had errands to do in Haverfordwest today I took the opportunity to pay a visit to what was once the local workhouse. Built in 1836/7 it was designed to house 150 pauper inmates from the local area: tramps, unmarried mothers, and those who had fallen on hard times. It had separate quarters for men and women, the fit and the sick, all with exercise yards which still exist today and can be seen in my shot here.

In 1894, the British Medical Journal set up a commission to investigate conditions in provincial workhouses. The report on Haverfordwest found much to criticise. The infirmary wards were small, dirty, and lacked hot water and adequate ventilation and heating; most of the patients slept on low plank beds with chaff mattresses; there was no lighting or attention at night; the toilet facilities indoors consisted of a few commodes, with one on each landing for night-time use; the water-closets, all located outdoors, were described as "simply cesspools, and some were very unpleasant." The report concluded that the workhouse infirmary "is unsuitable for its purpose, and the system on which it is worked is faulty in every particular." The whole thing makes grim reading as you can see here.

The old building, which became the local hospital in WW2, has been turned into flats. I chatted with a man who was at his front door: what was it like living here? Nobody likes it he said. Because it was the workhouse? No, because the roof leaked and it was impossible to heat, the stone walls were so damp and cold.

A few years ago I learnt that my maternal great-grandmother died in Bethnal Green workhouse in the East End of London, around the time of the BMJ commission. I do not know how or why.

*Although he was instrumental in founding a safe hostel for 'fallen women' which had humane standards and success in helping them move on in life.

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