Women on the Tramp: Workhouses and Shelters

Mary Higgs and her unnamed friend(s) set out to find the truth about where a woman with little money could stay while travelling looking for work. Workhouses, shelters and lodging houses and none of them nice. They never spent more than a couple of days at a time on the tramp — it was all they could bear.

They tried to dress appropriately and carried with them only a few shillings, precluding the possibility of even a small escape. You can find her background and impossibly Victorian intellectual framing of the problem of ‘women tramps’ in part one of this three part series, but here we get into the good stuff. The only thing they brought with them that the other women would not have had was plasmon, which Higgs felt made a huge difference.

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Plasmon advertisement, 1902

Plasmon? It sounds like nutritional nectar capable of saving them from starvation in this account. I had never heard of it but it was big dietary news at the time — a powder, a milk albumen or kind of protein, more commonly used in biscuits, and sworn to by a fairly astonishing array of famous people: Ernest Shackleton took these biscuits with him on his arctic expedition, George Bernard Shaw ate them, actress Ellen Terry, Mark Twain, and Victor Whitechurch’s fictional vegetarian detective Thorpe Hazell.

Immediately they realised the difference between traveling as a protected middle-class woman and as a poor one, and this is one of the most revealing passages of the whole book I think:

We passed some men who were working in a barge; they shouted to us, and invited us to come to them. We walked away and took no notice, but repeatedly on our journey we were spoken to, and I could not help contrasting the way in which men looked at us with the usual bearing of a man towards a well-dressed female. I had never realised before that a lady’s dress, or even that of a respectable working-woman, was a protection. The bold, free look of a man at a destitute woman must be felt to be realised. Being together, we were a guard to one another, so we took no notice but walked on. I should not care to be a solitary woman tramping the roads. A destitute woman once told me that if you tramped, “you had to take up with a fellow.” I can well believe it.

And so we come to the first lodging-house, and it is fascinating:

So we found ourselves, between six and seven o’clock, at the door of the house, which was not bad-looking outside–an old-fashioned, roomy-looking, stone house, which might once have been a farmhouse and seen better days…

Yet it was not the place itself, but its inhabitants, that are quite unforgettable. We sat down on the wooden bench behind a table, and immediately facing us was a huge negro with a wicked face. By his side a quiet-looking woman, who had a little girl and boy, was sitting crocheting. An old woman, active and weather-beaten, was getting supper ready for her husband, a blind beggar, who shortly afterwards came in led by a black dog. A woman tramp was getting supper ready for the negro; she wore a wedding ring, but I question if she was his wife. Several young children, almost babies, were running about, or playing with the perambulator. A young man on the seat near us was tossing about a fat baby born “on the road,” whose healthiness we duly admired. It was not his own, but belonged to a worried-looking woman, who also had a troublesome boy. The next room was full of people, whom we could hear but not see distinctly. The little boy of two caused much conversation, as he was always doing something he should not, and caused disgust by his uncleanliness, freely commented on. His mother made raids on him at intervals, but neither cleanliness nor discipline was possible in such surroundings. The most striking character, next to the negro, was a girl, apparently about twenty. She wore a wedding ring, and belonged to some man in the company, but from the character of her conversation I doubt if she was married. The negro told some story, and she capped it with another; evidently she was noted for her conversation, as she was laughingly offered a pint to keep her tongue still! Her face would have been handsome, but for a crooked nose and evident dissipation. All the stories were more or less foul, and all the conversation, on every side, was filthy or profane. The negro told how he had outwitted a harlot who tried to rob him. The whole story of his visit to her house was related in the most shameless way, with circumstantial details, no one appearing to think anything of it. … The girl told, sitting on the table near the negro, how she had got her nose broken by an admirer and made him pay for it. A conversation sprang up about the treatment of wives, and it was stated that a woman loved a man best if he ill-treated her. This theory was illustrated by examples well known to the company.

It’s exactly like staring at the past through a window, and though you could wish for a slightly less prudish narrator, this is still racy stuff for the times and cracks my image of widespread repression. I’m only saddened by the confusion of abuse and jealousy with love.

The landlady told us not to mind the man who slept in the next bed, for he was blind! He slept there, and so did his dog. The other occupants of the room, who came to bed later, we could not see, but we could hear them plainly. From the conversation we think the nigger and his mistress slept just outside, and next to them (no partition) a married couple with a baby and a child. A third couple would be round the corner. The room barely held the beds and partition, with room to stand by the side; there was no ventilation but a chimney close to our bed. We could hear someone continually scratching himself, and the baby sucking frequently, and other sounds which shall be nameless.

I had to laugh at that last sentence… though I know I would never have been able to sleep in such a place. And despite the casual racism of the epithet, this is a scene unimaginable anywhere in the US at the time, there is not a sign of other boarders’ discomfort much less  of a white mob or a lynching.

By degrees, however, the noises subsided, and my companion and I fell into an uneasy slumber. I woke in an hour or two, in dim daylight, to feel crawlers. The rest of the night was spent in hunting. I had quite a collection by the time my companion woke. They were on the bed and on the partition. I watched them making for our clothes; but there was no escape till morning was fully come. Besides, my companion was resting through it all; so I slew each one as it appeared.

The morning light also showed just how filthy the place was.

Curious that here and at the workhouse where they stayed the next night, the main topic of conversation was the ‘Moat Farm Murder‘. Even more curious now that I have looked it up: Miss Holland, ‘a maiden lady of means’ and a lodger of boarding houses (though clearly of a different kind than those described here) was married by Dougal, ‘an expert in the art of sordid amours’ and within weeks murdered on the farm they bought in Essex. Whereas money clearly offered some level of protection for single women moving through a far superior set of temporary lodgings, they remained vulnerable.

This vulnerability is emphasized the following night at one of the infamous workhouses — again you feel perhaps she is being prudish, but on reflection the power relations and the powerlessness of poor women on their own must have made rape a common occurrence in these places, and this is clearly on Higgs’ mind as part of her investigations:

and then he took my age, and finding I was a married woman (I must use his exact words), he said, “Just the right age for a bit of funning; come down to me later in the evening.” I was too horror-struck to reply; besides, I was in his power, with no one within call but my friend, and all the conditions unknown and strange.

The conditions here were terrible, the food inedible, the work hard and thankless and such to ruin your clothes. She later writes:

the Tramp Ward is itself a factor in national degradation, the mockery of a provision for need; meaning often semi-starvation, weary toil and unrest. A man or woman must emerge from it more unfit for toil, and learn to avoid such a place if possible in future.

The way it stayed with her — and the lessons she learned about human dignity — are clear in her fears upon approaching the Salvation Army:

Would it be possible to escape personal interrogation? The “bullying” in the Workhouse was fresh in my mind, and in contrast with this the perfect freedom of the common lodging-house has its attractions. You may come and go, and “mind your own business.” No one has any right to interfere with you as long as you “pay your way.” I did not, of course, expect anything but kindness, but I thought I might be interrogated “personally,” questioned as to my antecedents, and possibly about my soul… In thus thinking I was probably sharing the feelings of my poor sisters (your feelings undergo a curious assimilation to those of the class you represent). Many a woman may be deterred from entering a suitable Home by fear of cross-questioning. Poor thing! The only thing that belongs to her is her past.

I actually find this strange sense of class solidarity through representation endearing (and worthy of more thought around representation itself), though I am not quite sure why. She finds the Salvation Army quarters the best of all of them, but to compare the following sentence with all of the theoretical rubbish that frames her actual experience is so telling:

But the immediate and crying need is for the abolition of an old, inhumane and insufficient provision for suppression of vagrancy, in favour of adequate provision for the modern fluidity of labour, coupled with honourable relief of destitution, neither degrading nor charitable.

I liked this also:

When shall we apply common sense to the daily matters of town life? Not till we recognise that a community is a unit, composed of many parts, but when one suffers, all suffer.

Now we come to London — even then it was more expensive and just as terrible as the conditions Higgs found up north, and this also gives a rough sense of women’s labour and how they were forced to live:

I have been deterred from specimening women’s lodgings in London by this difficulty–that one could not be sure of emerging in a fit condition to be received into the house of respectable friends.

I found that to secure a bed I must go into the men’s lodging-house and pay my money–6d.–to a man who was playing cards with several others. No rude language was used, the men eyed me, that was all. I paid and passed in next door. Upstairs was a small room in which a number of women, all with their hats on save one–the “deputy”–were sitting. Some passed in and out, but being a stranger I was not welcome, and was told to “go forward.” This was downstairs; and I found myself, after some turns I cannot remember, in a long low cellar room, with concrete floor, very dirty looking. A window at one end was half underground. A fireplace on the right had bars and hobs, but no oven or range or proper kitchen convenience. This was, however, the living and cooking room. Plenty of garments were hanging up to dry on strings. Under the tables were heaps of dirt and débris. A number of women were present sitting on forms, who seemed to be hawkers, or women gaining some scanty livelihood. The general conditions were much the same as in northern lodging-houses, where 4d. is charged for a bed, only the cooking facilities were poorer and the price was higher. I learned that in London a bed was not easily got under 6d. “It took a good bit of getting,” one woman said. The sanitary state was no better than in the north, and I was thankful I had not to stay the night.

One of Higgs’ big reform ideas was the labor colony where people would go, live, work for weeks at a time. I quite love that she actually asked people what they thought, and reported their answers faithfully:

I mentioned the Labour Colony, but though I sang its praises, it did not seem to be very acceptable, though tolerable if a step to better things.

There is such a wealth of detail to be mined here on food, clothing, customs… but my next and final post will look more at the question of labour, beginning with a lodging house for prostitutes and Mary Higgs’ ruminations thereon.

Part 1 | Part 3

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