Christmas Day in the Workhouse

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Christmas day when my father was alive and I was living at home as a child and a youth would always find my father reciting some of “It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse”…Often he would quote “Bah Humbug!” and stuff like that, He was not always around Christmas time as he was a fireman and they worked longer shift patterns back in the day.

When he was at home It would be up at a reasonable time for the family and we would share out the gifts I often bought him cigarettes Benson and Hedges and whiskey Johnny Walker if I could afford it maybe some Tom Thumb cigars. My mom I would buy some kind of perfume a diary and chocolates. My dad would always unwrap the present I got him no matter how small and state “Is it slippers?”

After the gifts it would be breakfast and the smell of black pudding cooking my dad loved black pudding and we only ever had a cooked full breakfast at Christmas.

Then after that it would fall apart. Mom tried to sort out the turkey and dinner and my dad’s mates would arrive. There would be many cheers of whiskey and maybe the neighbours would pop in and they would pop around theirs but only for a few minutes.

His mates George Fox and his brother Bernard would say “Gordon Legion”!

Off they would go the men. The morning and the mid morning and dinner time would be spent awaiting his return. Often and Very often if not always they would return just as the dinner had been laid on the table. Then an hour or two later with the dinner cold George and Bernard and anyone else they had dragged home would stagger off and in fact drive away. Sometimes we would have eaten our dinner because they didn’t come back until 4pm.

As you can imagine this did not go down too well with mom. The afternoon would be spent in angry silences and dad asleep. Mom would go to bed early and they would argue about why they were not going next door to the neighbours who had invited them for a drink.

This would be the same every Christmas until I vacated the home when I was 20.

New Years Eve was more than not a repeat of the event without the presents and food.

But mostly my memory was a happy one of the tree and the decorations and the excitement. My mom would many times forget to wrap stuff and once they forgot to put the presents under the tree. This caused me a massive trauma at the time.

Here is the whole of the poem Christmas Day in the Workhouse as a memory shared.

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

George R. Sims, 1847-1922

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse, 
And the cold, bare walls are bright 
With garlands of green and holly, 
Ad 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, 
Put pudding on pauper plates. 
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet 
They've paid for — with the rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly 
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
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 the pudding?" 
"Could their ears believe aright?" 
Then the ladies clutched their husbands, 
Thinking the man would die, 
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. 
He looked at the guardians' ladies, 
Then, eyeing their lords, he said, 
"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 
Through 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 as she answered 'No' , 
T'he 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 woo'd 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 byways! 
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 — 
O God! had I but 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 smug parochial way, 
Say what you did for me, too, 
Only last Christmas Day."

 

 

Comments 2

 
Former Member on Friday, 26 December 2014 13:53

I don't know of George R. Sims if it matters. Not a famous poet, I assume, but maybe I assume incorrectly. However, this must have come from personal experience and is truly heart-wrenching. While things in developed countries are mostly better today hardened hearts still exist and often where they shouldn't -- I mean among those who've fared well in life without much of this kind of pain. There are still those who will say, as one of our recent presidential candidates did, "get a job!" "But your peers just sent the jobs out of the country." "Excuses, excuses. We had to send them out of the country because you people didn't know when you were better off than you should be!" There is no more workhouse. If there was I'd be there, I guess. We have reminders of a time not all that long ago, such as a highway called Almshouse Road. There are no more debtors' prisons but historically a hundred years isn't ancient times. Within the 20th
century small children worked long hours on the "breakers" sorting the coal as it slid down the chutes, the black on their faces permanently embedded. This was often the case because their fathers had been killed or maimed in the mines and a bill was owed at the
company store. Those times might be gone but should never be forgotten. There are those among us who would welcome them back.

I don't know of George R. Sims if it matters. Not a famous poet, I assume, but maybe I assume incorrectly. However, this must have come from personal experience and is truly heart-wrenching. While things in developed countries are mostly better today hardened hearts still exist and often where they shouldn't -- I mean among those who've fared well in life without much of this kind of pain. There are still those who will say, as one of our recent presidential candidates did, "get a job!" "But your peers just sent the jobs out of the country." "Excuses, excuses. We had to send them out of the country because you people didn't know when you were better off than you should be!" There is no more workhouse. If there was I'd be there, I guess. We have reminders of a time not all that long ago, such as a highway called Almshouse Road. There are no more debtors' prisons but historically a hundred years isn't ancient times. Within the 20th century small children worked long hours on the "breakers" sorting the coal as it slid down the chutes, the black on their faces permanently embedded. This was often the case because their fathers had been killed or maimed in the mines and a bill was owed at the company store. Those times might be gone but should never be forgotten. There are those among us who would welcome them back.
John R Bishop on Friday, 26 December 2014 14:55

according to Wiki...
George Robert Sims (2 September 1847 – 4 September 1922) was an English journalist, poet, dramatist, novelist and bon vivant.
Sims began writing lively humour and satiric pieces for Fun magazine and The Referee, but he was soon concentrating on social reform, particularly the plight of the poor in London's slums. A prolific journalist and writer he also produced a number of novels.
Sims was also a very successful dramatist, writing numerous plays, often in collaboration, several of which had long runs and international success. He also bred bulldogs, was an avid sportsman and lived richly among a large circle of literary and artistic friends. Sims earned a fortune from his productive endeavours but had gambled most of it away by the time of his death.
Fun was a Victorian weekly magazine, first published on 21 September 1861. The magazine was founded by the actor and playwright H. J. Byron in competition with Punch magazine.

according to Wiki... George Robert Sims (2 September 1847 – 4 September 1922) was an English journalist, poet, dramatist, novelist and bon vivant. Sims began writing lively humour and satiric pieces for Fun magazine and The Referee, but he was soon concentrating on social reform, particularly the plight of the poor in London's slums. A prolific journalist and writer he also produced a number of novels. Sims was also a very successful dramatist, writing numerous plays, often in collaboration, several of which had long runs and international success. He also bred bulldogs, was an avid sportsman and lived richly among a large circle of literary and artistic friends. Sims earned a fortune from his productive endeavours but had gambled most of it away by the time of his death. Fun was a Victorian weekly magazine, first published on 21 September 1861. The magazine was founded by the actor and playwright H. J. Byron in competition with Punch magazine.
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