Extracts from Dr. J .H. Stallard's report on Walsall Workhouse.
Published in The Lancet. November 9th, 1867

The male tramp ward is a narrow barn-like building, only eight feet wide. Within it is something like a hound kennel, though neither half so clean or comfortable. It is paved with rough brick, and there is a small window for ventilation at the side. There are two wooden shelves across the end, one above the other; the lower is three feet, the other six feet from the ground, and on them the unfortunate vagrants are supposed to sleep, under cover of a dirty rug. The only accommodation is a filthy-looking iron bucket sprinkled with carbolic acid, and enclosed by the present master in a wooden box. This ward, in the opinion of the medical officer, is fitted to contain seven inmates, but the average is much more, and on several occasions twenty seven tramps have been locked in, without food or light, or any means of communication with the officers outside. Imagination cannot picture the fearful pandemonium on such occasions, and we cannot trust ourselves to comment on the continuance of such a gross enormity for twenty years.

In the interval between these two reports we find no hint recorded of imperfection or complaint. When the yards were unpaved and the privies had stinking cesspits; when the sick were compelled to go to the receiving wards to get a bath, and were scattered about the house, far removed from their nurses; when the supply of linen barely sufficed to afford a pair of sheets for every bedstead, or a change for every inmate; when there was not a cupboard in the wards, and the general storeroom was not larger than a closet, the state of the workhouse was still "reported satisfactory”.

No attention appears to have been directed to the fact that sickness and infirmity had completely occupied the place of idleness, and that the workhouse from having been the refuge of destitution and the lodging of vagabonds, had become an infirmary for sick almost from top to bottom. Not withstanding the change of inmates, "the workhouse test" must be maintained, and no deviation from the rules or dietary was or is willingly permitted. Even the poor old women may not smuggle in a teapot to make themselves a quiet cup of tea; they must be contented with the workhouse slops, which if anyone desire to try, let him pour fourteen imperial pints of boiling water on an ounce of tea at 1s. 8d. per lb., add 5 oz. of moist sugar, and a little skim milk, and taste it if he can.

But the local authorities have kindly hearts; they wink at the women's smuggled teapot, and give tobacco to the men; they have made the wards look cheerful; they have polished the floors and painted the walls; they have put matting between the beds and curtains to the windows, and, at the instigation chiefly of the master and the surgeon, they have attended to a variety of minor matters, which show that more still would have been done if only they had known how to do it.

From an old postcard.

Throughout the entire establishment there is but a single wash handbasin, and it was a mystery to the master how it came there. The bedridden, the fever-stricken, the venereal, the infected with itch, and the convalescent, nay, even the infants in the nursery, are washed in dirty-looking wooden buckets. Two towels a week are given to a ward of ten patients; and there are neither combs nor brushes given out to any throughout the house. So little are the essentials of cleanliness attended to that the male nurse has but a single iron basin, which is used to wash all wounds alike, to make poultices, and for every office for which a basin is required.

The tidy appearance of the wards is equally superficial and deceptive. The male infirmary consists of seven wards, which are for the most part 17ft. wide, and 9ft. or 10ft. high, with opposite windows. They look light and clean. But the beds are so close together that another could not anywhere be placed, and there is scarcely space to walk between them. There is, therefore, no room for lockers. The ventilation is throughout defective, and the water closets (where there are any) open directly upon the wards. They are universally small and badly ventilated, and stink abominably.

The fever ward contains 3978 cubic feet, and has nine beds. It is, therefore more than twice too crowded. The classification is most extraordinary, and shows the unfitness and inadequacy of the building in the strongest light.

The female infirmaries, though scrupulously clean and tidy looking, are even worse than the male in all essential points. The wards are generally crammed to the full with beds, the ventilation is defective, and the water closets equally objectionably, and even more unclean. An acute case had just been admitted into No. 1 ward from the school. The presence of four epileptics would scarcely conduce to her quiet or recovery. As there are no special wards, the imbeciles are distributed amongst the sick and bedridden; a most improper arrangement, which cannot be too strongly condemned.

Before concluding, it is necessary to make a few observations on the condition of the children, a considerable number of whom are confined in a separate ward on account of skin disease. The schoolroom appeared to us close and overcrowded, and both playgrounds are reported by the surgeon damp and insufficient. The boys’ bedroom is also overcrowded. As there is no garden, green vegetables are only exceptionally provided. These circumstances would seem to account for the obstinacy of skin complaints, and should be remedied at once. If this be impossible, let the guardians break up the school and distribute the children in the villages around on the Scotch plan. They would thus relieve their overcrowded house, and avoid the necessity of the proposed extension.

In conclusion, the Walsall Workhouse presents an example of cleanliness and order calculated to deceive a superficial observer. A closer inspection, however, reveals the absence of all essentials for the proper treatment of the sick. The wards are ill furnished, overcrowded, and for the most part unfitted for their purpose. The ventilation is defective and ill arranged. The stinking closets open upon the wards, many of which are not provided for at all. There are no baths, no day rooms, and no airing ground. There is a shameful deficiency of lavatories and washing apparatus. There is no classification of the patients, who are necessarily disturbed by imbeciles and epileptics. There are no night nurses, and not sufficient paid assistance to secure attention to so large a number, the master being overwhelmed with accounts and other duty. The surgeon is ill-paid, and the dispensing arrangements are unsatisfactory in the extreme. Indeed, we can only wonder that anyone could have visited the wards without discovering causes of complaint.

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