Eliza’s ordeal in the workhouse

By Colin Moore

Frances Hook looked down at the old woman lying on the workhouse bed with growing horror.

At first she thought there was some mistake but then she saw that the scrappy, disease-ridden old hag really was her 17-year-old daughter, Eliza.

As she lay dying, Eliza told her mother how she had been starved and tortured by the matrons at a Chatham reform home for prostitutes. And yet those same women were never brought to justice More incredible still, they were allowed to continue their “charitable” work at the Chatham House of Refuge.

Eliza was an unruly girl. She ran away from her job as a maid a few weeks before Christmas, 1889. Later she entered a servants’ home near where her family lived in Greenwich, to learn the laundry trade.

She was seduced by a man who promised to marry her. But Mrs Hook always denied that her daughter became a prostitute. She said she would never have allowed Eliza to go to the refuge if she had known the sort of place it was.

Mrs Hook visited her daughter once during the year she was at Chatham. She seemed happy. But on her deathbed, Eliza was free at last from the terror that kept her silent. She poured out the misery of her life at the home. Later Mrs Hook was to tell the coroner: “She looked old and dreadful, I thought it was an old woman: not my child.”

Eliza told her mother: “They have been cruel to me. They gave me only dry bread to eat ever since you came to see me I have been shut up alone at weekends. Miss Brown (the assistant matron) dipped me in a cold water tub and made me work over and over again in the laundry with my wet chemise on. “Once Miss Brown held me down so long I thought I would drown.” Eliza claimed she had been prevented from telling her family before.

“I couldn’t. If I wrote one word she burned letters and beat me so. She beat me if I couldn’t do my work and she beat me the other day when I couldn’t get up to wash.” Life at the refuge was a dull grind — even without the especially brutal treatment meted out to Eliza.

The inmates ranged from teenagers like Eliza who been so brutalised by poverty that they aged beyond their years, to harridans of 30 who had spent the past 20 years living as prostitutes. They were all virtually prisoners. They were free to discharge themselves, but none of them had anywhere to go. The local clergy and do-good businessmen who ran the refuge insisted that the women attended church regularly and never talked of their past lives. But there was no way they could erase what the women had been through.

In return they were taught the laundry trade. This meant 12 hours a day spent standing in the steaming heat of the workroom elbow-deep in washing. Eliza was made to work barefoot on the cold stone floor in this steamy hell, her underclothes sopping from duckings she received.

The plump girl her mother knew was by this time nicknamed “the long lamppost” by the other girls. She was growing steadily weaker but since all medical treatment was in the matron’s hands, a doctor was never called. And when Dr Henry Foster finally saw her as she lay dying in Chatham Workhouse Infirmary, he said her condition showed fearful and shocking neglect.

“A dead bone protruded from one of her toes. The stench was very offensive. There were two ulcers on the ankle and a large swelling on the right hip which was giving her much pain. There were vermin in her hair. I never saw a case before where a patient was in such a state.”

He said that Eliza, described by her mother as a fine, plump girl, weighed just five stone at the time of her death. Most eight-year-olds weigh more. Dr Alexander Foulerton, who performed the post-mortem examination, confirmed at the inquest, held at the workhouse, that Eliza died of pneumonia, but she had been weakened by cold and neglect.

Staff at the home closed ranks to deny the allegations. Miss Jane Davey, the matron, described at great length the diet and conditions in the home. “None of the 22 girls has ever complained,” she said proudly. Corporal punishment was not allowed. If a girl was disobedient she was sent to her dormitory. But she could go downstairs and go into meals whenever she became penitent.

“Eliza had never remained upstairs for more than 24 hours at a stretch. She was too fond of eating to go for long without ordinary food. It is a positive lie for the girl to tell her mother that she had nothing but dry bread since August.” Early in February, the matron noticed that Eliza’s feet were bad. But she did not call a doctor.

“There was nothing alarming in her condition, she told the coroner, Mr WJ Harris. Asked about Eliza’s condition, she said: “She was well enough to fight with other girls.”

But Miss Davey admitted to the coroner that she may have made an error of judgment in not calling a doctor to see Eliza. Her assistant, Miss Eliza Brown, denied ducking the girl and censoring her letters. All the girls were allowed to write letters once a month, she said. The coroner asked the jury to consider “whether Eliza was properly treated at the home or not and whether her death was accelerated by an error of judgment or carelessness.”

It took the jury just 15 minutes to decide that the matrons had been careless. But they said this carelessness did not warrant criminal proceedings. The two women were called before the coroner and told not to let it happen again.

If the coroner let them off lightly, the poor people of Chatham did not. There was a feeling that this could happen to any of their daughters. By the time the hearing had ended a crowd of 3,000 had gathered outside the workhouse. News of the verdict reached the mass of hostile parents before the matrons and the home’s governors left.

As their coach moved off, the crowd jeered then someone threw a stone from the back of the crowd which smashed a coach window. That was the signal for the crowd to run after the coach, hurling stones and garbage. Although the coachman whipped his horses into a gallop up Chatham Hill, he failed to draw away from the crowd and they were still there when the matrons got out at the home.

Police had to hold back the crowd which remained, outside the building howling threats all through the night.

Even if justice failed, people in Chatham had no doubt who was responsible for turning a lively teenager into a dying old woman in just a year.

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