It was Christmas day in the workhouse
The snow was raining fast
A bare-footed kid with clogs on
Came slowly whizzing past
He turned a straight crooked corner
To see a dead donkey die
Pulled out his gun to stab it
And it punched him one in the eye
I'm sure we used to parrot them in the playground and they are obviously a parody of something more 'grown up' (a Google search confirms this - and gives the rest of the version I've partially recalled). A little more probing and we reach the real thing. 'It was Christmas Day in the workhouse' is the first line of a poem, entitled 'In the Workhouse - Christmas Day', written in 1879 by George Robert Sims. He wrote it as a criticism of the harsh conditions that existed in workhouses under the 1834 Poor Law. Sims was, amongst other things, a man with a social conscience and his writings helped to open the eyes of the Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper classes to the very real suffering of the poor at the time. In modern parlance, however, he was a 'one hit wonder' and, whilst his melodrama made Victorians weep, modern audiences would probably snigger at the overt sentimentality of his words. Such have fashions changed and he is now forgotten. What should not be forgotten, in my humble (moi, humble?) opinion, is the influence social commentators such as he had at the time. His writings made a real difference to attitudes and helped change society. It's hard to think of a modern day poet or author who can claim the same. Why not? It can't be due to the calibre of writing or intellect. Is it down to the fact that the audience is largely indifferent to the plight of others? Or, perhaps, due to the anaesthetising effects of too much information coming at us from all angles? Answers on a postcard, please.
Something else not to be forgotten is the terrific emotional power of the word 'workhouse' to many people born before WW2. Workhouses were known as wretched places where the minimum of warmth, nourishment and clothing were provided to the poor and helpless. To people of my parents' and grandparents' generations, to "end up in the workhouse" was the direst and most demeaning fate imaginable.
Something else we can thank the workhouse system for is the concept of deserving and and underserving poor. If you thought this classification was extinct, think again! Just switch on the news and listen to Posh Dave's chums demonise anyone who has the temerity to make a benefit claim. Oh dear, I think it's time for me to get back in my box before I get too hot under the collar over this one!
And, finally, I give the poem that started this posting. It's long, it's sentimental but it's a fascinating piece of social commentary.
It is Christmas Day in the workhouse, and the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly, and 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, putting on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet, they've paid for with the rates.
0h, the paupers are meek and lowly with their 'Thank'ee kindly, mums'
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 their pudding? Could that their ears believe right?
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:
"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 thro' 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 she answered 'No.'
The 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 wooed 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 by-ways... 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... Oh God! Had I 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 parochial way,
Say what you did for me too... only last Christmas Day."