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from Called to Account (formerly The Poor Law Inspector) by Frank Parker

Chapter 6
The Workhouse

The following morning I was woken early, as arranged. The meeting of the Guardians was set for ten o'clock. I had it very much in mind to carry out an inspection of the workhouse before hand so as to fully acquaint myself with its condition and that of its inmates. After breakfasting on porridge I ventured forth. Rain had fallen overnight, at times with such intensity that the sound of it lashing the window of my room had woken me. Now, however, the sky had mostly cleared, the few clouds driven away by a biting wind, the milky blue of the sky and the presence of a pale moon emphasising the imminent arrival of winter.

The workhouse was located on the North side of the town. Here the ground rose steeply and the buildings were positioned so that one had to climb a small hill from the lane to the entrance. In consequence of the rain, the sloping path was mired in filth such that I found it difficult to traverse. My passage was further hindered by the presence of so many individuals intent on seeking assistance. I have already described the condition of the swarm of paupers that occupied the square and the lanes leading off it upon my arrival in the town. The condition of those now surrounding the entrance to the workhouse and the lane leading to it was no better. Most were, I supposed, the same individuals. I wondered how they had survived the night, what manner of shelter they might have found to protect them from the rain.

I noticed one small group of unfortunates, shunned by the main body of the crowd, who exhibited the pustules of smallpox. All were experiencing the same difficulty as was I in negotiating the slime that coated the slope. The most shocking aspect of this pitiful collection of humanity was its silence. I had expected to hear a clamour of supplication, even angry shouts, expressions of resentment at the situation to which they had been reduced. There was only a sullen silence, as if each one was so used to the conditions, their minds so crippled by hunger, that they endure without comment or censure.

Upon seeing me, they moved without a word to create a passage through which I was able to walk unhindered, except by the slurry that sucked at my boots with every step. The odours rising from the unwashed bodies assailed my nostrils as I passed between them. My feelings upon finding myself for the first time in such close proximity to the most terrible suffering known to man are difficult to recall. It was a scene that would be repeated many times over the succeeding months. I certainly shivered, and not only from the cold. My cheeks burned. I was, I hesitate to admit, embarrassed by the gulf between my own circumstances and that of the mass of people with which I was surrounded.

Sturdy wooden gates, almost twice the height of a man, were set between two substantial stone pillars. Within the right hand leaf of this barrier a small door, when opened, admitted pedestrians. I wondered how whoever was responsible for opening the door would distinguish between the mass of paupers seeking admission and an individual with legitimate business. I rapped upon it with the head of my walking stick. A panel at eye level slid back and a pair of grey eyes came into view.

I introduced myself. “Captain Kennedy, Poor Law Inspector.”

The panel slid back into place and there came the rasping sound of bolts being drawn back. The door opened, but only by a few inches. “Be quick,” came the muttered instruction. I sidled through the gap thus provided. The door closed with a sharp thud, the owner of the eyes thrust the bolts back into place. I turned to inspect the gatekeeper. A young man of perhaps eighteen or twenty years, with an unruly mop of red hair on head and face. Though better clad than the unfortunate souls outside the gate, his attire showed signs of wear and was in need of a laundress. I took the black frock coat, tightly buttoned over flannel shirt and woolen trews tucked into high boots, to be some kind of uniform.

“Cathal Lillis, porter.” He held out a grubby hand which I reluctantly took in my own. His grip was firm. “I'll take you to the Master.”

I wondered who would guard the gate in his absence and suggested that he provide directions which he did. I had never before had need to pass beyond the gates of a workhouse. About 20 yards from the gate stood a building resembling a gentleman's residence, an arched doorway in the centre of a two storied facade having mullioned windows. Though substantial, this building seemed inadequate to accommodate more than a small number of paupers. I quickly discovered that it contained only offices and the Master and Mistress's quarters. The workhouse proper came into view when the Master led me out into the yard beyond.

My first sight of that personage caused me to doubt his suitability for the task of managing such an institution. I had expected someone of middle age, upright, of considerable stature. If I had an image in mind it would have been that of my regimental sergeant major, in whose presence officers as well as men quaked with apprehension. Instead I found a man whose white hair and stooped shoulders was suggestive of a man long past his most productive years. His small, bright eyes and aquiline nose gave him the cunning look of a fox, which fact at once made me question my own too hasty judgement.

The area between the gate and this fir...

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