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by Rory Herbert
I am a third year History student and President of the History Society at the University of Portsmouth. I enjoy trying to grapple with the vastness and complexity of this subject, and the challenges it can present. On the rare occasions that I have free time, I can be found playing hockey or researching historical facts and events.
James Greenwood was an author of relative obscurity who came to fame abruptly following the publication of his serial A Night in the Workhouse in the 1860s by the Pall Mall Gazette. He soon found himself rising through the ranks of the Victorian social ladder and became one of the leading social commentators of his age. This revolutionary piece saw Greenwood experience the conditions of a workhouse firsthand in one of the first examples of investigative journalism. Yet, while his work was quickly adopted by social reformers and critics alike, it seems the author himself was somewhat less interested in the people he claimed to support and, instead, focused on appealing to a wider audience.
In the first instalment of this dramatic serialisation, easily accessed via Gale’s British Library Newspapers digital archive, we are met with a long and detailed description of an individual’s disheveled and appalling appearance – only for the surprising reveal that it is, in fact, Mr. Greenwood himself. His reasons for such a disguise are quickly noted and he makes sure to emphasise the ordeal that he is about to experience. All this, he clarifies, is to unmask the terrible workhouse conditions for the people which he, on the same page, describes as outcasts and ruffians.
Now, in Greenwood’s defence, the following pages – after his brief encounter with a chap called ‘Daddy’ – focus quite a lot on the deplorable conditions of the workhouse, most notably the significant lack of space that forced men into weird and unnatural contortions giving the appearance of a ‘railway accident’. However, even here, his attention drifts and we find him focusing on the untidy, dirty, and villainous men who remain awake at night telling obscene jokes and singing horrible songs.
Unsurprisingly, Greenwood’s focus for the next few issues remains unchanged, except for the fact that his active dislike for the fellow workhouse inhabitants continues to grow with each serial. By the final issue, in fact, he concludes that out of all his experiences in this investigation his least favourite aspect was simply the horrible conversations he had with the people around him!
A final piece to consider is an article published several decades later on the history of the Pall Mall Gazette, which highlights the desire of the editors to play on the controversial nature of workhouses to stir up business, subscriptions, and the idea of A Night in the Workhouse was born.
So while there are certainly some elements of social investigation present within Greenwood’s A Night in a Workhouse, the serial seems too focused on the undesirable ruffians that inhabit the workhouses to really be a piece that champions the poor. That said, I would highly recommend reading beyond this abridged breakdown, if not just for his strange obsession with one of his fellow casuals ‘Kay’.
Blog post cover image citation: (small section from) “New-Year’s Eve at St. Giles’s Workhouse.” Illustrated London News, 12 Jan. 1884, p. 36. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5o8bG1. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.