The young woman at the workhouse gate was desperate. Clutching her belly, she begged to be allowed inside. She had nowhere else to go. The workhouse — for all the stories of cruelty that went on within its walls — was her only hope. She desperately needed shelter, for she was about to give birth. But the gatekeeper was inexorable: he had his orders. Babies were expensive. They required feeding, clothing and supervising and it would be at least six years before they could earn their keep, either in the workhouse or in factories, mills or up chimneys.

The workhouse authorities had a duty to care for mothers in such a desperate plight. They were paid by the parish to house and clothe the wretched men, women and children who came to their doors as a last resort. For few would reside in the workhouse by choice. The conditions made prison seem comfortable in comparison. But the Beadle — the supervisor of the workhouse — cared less for the law than for his own pockets. He could make a small profit from able-bodied adults and children by setting them to work outside the workhouse, while he siphoned off some of the money that was supposed to feed them.

Babies, on the other hand, were not profitable. The workhouse gate clanged shut.
It was a bitterly cold day and a harsh wind was whistling up Cleveland Street, in the Georgian suburbs of North London. A crowd began to gather as the young woman went into labour on the pavement. They all knew that no newborn baby could survive long in such circumstances. ‘The infant perished during this inhuman scene,’ a local newspaper reported afterwards. What became of the unhappy mother is not recorded, but the incident became the talk of the neighbourhood. Local people bemoaned the inhumanity of the workhouse, praying that they never had cause to throw themselves on its cold charity.

Indeed, the story of the young woman was still doing the rounds when a young boy and his family moved into the street a few years afterwards. From his window, he watched the sorry procession of starving, destitute people make their way to the workhouse gates to beg for admittance. He would have seen girls and boys of only six years old — just a year older than him — bundled into carts and transported like cattle, often hundreds of miles away, to work in the factories and mills of Britain’s industrial heartlands, where they would be beaten as they laboured 16 hours a day in exchange for a few spoonfuls of gruel.

He would have heard the clanging of the workhouse bell, the piercing cries of insane patients confined behind its high walls, the thud of carpet-beating in the workhouse yard and the sound of inmates’ hammers as they smashed granite blocks into small chunks for road-mending. And he would have shuddered as he saw the thin pauper-coffins arrive to bury the dead in the graveyard behind the poorhouse. He never forgot the sight, sounds and smells of that workhouse. And when he grew up he drew on those memories to reveal to Victorian Britain the inhumanity that went on under their noses in the name of progress.

The boy’s name was Charles Dickens and his first major novel, Oliver Twist, was published in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria came to the throne. It revealed the horrific abuse to which children — whose only crime was to have been born poor — were subjected.

Workhouse History site

[ame= SIN=0199645884]Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor[/ame]