Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter II.: AN INTERIOR. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
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Chapter II.: AN INTERIOR. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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Miss Burke had gone into the country the morning after the fire, and remained some weeks. When she returned, she inquired of her brother what had become of the family who had been burnt out. She was an occasional visitor at the workhouse school, and besides knew some of the elderly paupers, and went to see them now and then. Her visits were made as disagreeable as possible by the matron, who hated spies, as she declared, and had good reasons for doing so; many practices going forward under her management which would not bear inspection. She was sometimes politic enough to keep out of sight, when she was aware that something wrong had already met tile lady's eye; but she more frequently confronted her near the entrance with such incivility as might, she hoped, drive her away without having seen anything. The master was an indolent, easy man, much afraid of the more disorderly paupers, and yet more of his wife. He seldom appeared to strangers till called for; but was then quite disposed to make the best of everything, and to agree in all opinions that were offered. There was little more use, though less inconvenience, in pointing out abuses and suggesting remedies to him than to his wife; yet Mr. Burke and his sister conscientiously persevered in doing this,—the gentleman from the lights he obtained in his office of surgeon to the workhouse infirmary, and the lady, from her brother's reports and her own observations.
Miss Burke's first inquiry at the workhouse gate was for nurse Rudrum. The porter's office consisted merely in opening the gate; so that when the lady had entered the court, she had to make further search. The court was half-full of people, yet two women were washing dirty linen at the pump in the midst. Several men were seated cutting pegs for the tilers and shoemakers, and others patching shoes for their fellow-paupers; while several women stood round with their knitting, laughing loud; and some of the younger ones venturing upon a few practical jokes more coarse than amusing. At a little distance, sat two young women shelling peas for a grand corporation dinner that was to take place the next day, and beside them stood a little girl whose business was apparently to clean a spit on which she was leaning, but who was fully occupied in listening to the conversation which went on over the pea-basket. This group looking the least formidable, Miss Burke approached to make her inquiry. Being unperceived, the conversation was carried on in the same loud tone till she came quite near, when one of the young women exclaimed,
“I don't want to hear any more about it. I wonder you had the heart to do it.”
“To do what?” asked Miss Burke. “Something that you do not look ashamed of,” she continued, turning to the first speaker.
“Lord, no,” said the girl with a bold stare. “It is only that a young mistress of mine, that died and left a child a week old, bade me see that it was taken care of till her husband came back, who was gone abroad; and I could not be troubled with the little thing, so I took it direct to the Foundling Hospital; and I heard that the father came home soon after, and the people at the hospital could not the least tell which was his child, or whether it was one that had died. I kept out of the way, for I could not have helped them, and should only have got abused; for they say the young man was like one gone mad.”
“And was it out of your own head that you took the child there, or who mentioned the hospital to you?”
“I knew enough about it myself,” said the woman with a meaning laugh, “to manage the thing without asking anybody. It is a fine place, that Foundling Hospital, as I have good reason to say.”
“Pray find the matron,” said Miss Burke to the little spit-cleaner, who was listening with open mouth; “and ask whether Miss Burke can be admitted to see nurse Rudrum. I think,” she continued, when the little girl was out of hearing, “you might choose your conversation better in children's company.”
“And in other people's company too,” said the other sheller of peas. “I've not been used to such a place as this, and I can't bear it.”
“You'll soon get used to it, Susan, my love,” replied the bold one.
“Where do you come from, Susan, and why are you here?” inquired Miss Burke.
With many blushes, Susan told that she was a servant out of place, without friends and with no one to give her a character, her last master and mistress having gone off in debt and left her to be suspected of knowing of their frauds, though she had been so ignorant of them as not to have attempted to secure her own wages. It was a hard case, and she did not know how to help herself; but she would submit to any drudgery to get out of the workhouse.
“And who are you?” said the lady to the other. “Are you a servant out of place too?”
“And without a character?”
“O yes, quite,” said the woman with a laugh. “It is well for me that there are some places where characters don't signify so much as the parson tells us. Susan and I are on the same footing here.”
Susan rose in an agony, and by mistake emptied the shelled peas in her lap among the husks.
“There! never mind picking them out again,” said the other. “If I take such a trouble, it shall be for my own supper, when the rest are done.”
“So you really think,” said Miss Burke, “that you and Susan are on the same footing because you live under the same roof and sit on the same seat? I hope Susan will soon find that you are mistaken.”
At this moment appeared Mrs. Wilkes the matron, shouting so that all the yard might hear.
“Is it nurse Rudrum you want? She is out of her mind and not in a state for prayer. Gentlefolks are enough to send poor people out of their minds with praying and preaching.”
“I am not going either to pray or preach,” replied Miss Burke; “and you well know that it is some years since nurse Rudrum was in her right mind. I only ask the way to her.”
“Yonder lies your way, madam. Only take care of the other mad people, that's all.”
Surprised and vexed to perceive Miss Burke persevering in her purpose, notwithstanding this terrifying warning, she continued,
“Remember, if you please, that the doctors don't allow their patients to be made methodists of; though God knows how many are sent here by the methodists. You'll please to take it all upon yourself, ma'am.”
Miss Burke, not seeing how all this concerned herself and nurse Rudrum, who were about equally far from methodism, pursued her way, as well as she could guess, to the right ward.—She could not easily miss it when once within hearing of nurse Rudrum's never-ceasing voice, or the tip tap of her ancient high-heeled shoes, which she was indulged in wearing, as it was a fancy not likely to spread. Nurse was employed as usual, pacing to and fro in the ward appropriated to the harmless insane, knitting as fast as her well-practised fingers would go, and talking about Jupiter.
“Miss Burke, I declare,” cried she, as soon as her visitor appeared. “You are welcome, as you always are—always very welcome; but,” and she came nearer and looked very mysterious, “you are come from them people at a distance, I doubt. Now don't deny it if you be. If they have practised upon me, you didn't know it; so no need to deny it, you know.”
“I am come from Mr. Earle's, nurse; and Mr. Earle sent his love to you, and hopes you will accept some tea and sugar; and the young ladies will come and see you when they visit me, and in the meanwhile they have sent you a Sunday shawl.”
A dozen curtseys, and “My duty to them, my duty and many thanks; and I dare say it is because they are so sorry about them people at a distance that practise upon my ancle, without so much as shaking their heads.”
“O, your ancle! I was to ask particularly how your ancle is. You seem able to walk pretty briskly.”
“That's to disappoint 'em, you see,” and she laughed knowingly. “I only tell you, you know, so you'll be quiet. They can't touch me anywhere else, because of Jupiter in my cradle.”
“What was that, nurse?”
“O that was when they made me a watch-planet; and a fine thing it was to keep me from harm,—all except my ancle, you see. It was Jupiter, you know; and I feel it all over me now sometimes,—most in my elbows. It was only Jupiter; none of the rest of them. That was my mother's doing; for Jupiter is the most religious of all the planets.”
And so she ran on till her visitor interrupted her with questions about some of her companions in the ward.
“Aye—a queer set for me to be amongst, a'n't they? That poor man! Look at his sash;” and she giggled while she showed how a poor idiot was fastened by a leathern belt to a ring in the wall. “He spins a good deal as it is; but if he could walk about, he would do nothing. He has no more sense than a child, and people of that sort are always for tramp, tramp, tramping from morning till night, till it wearies one's ears to hear them.”
And nurse resumed her walk. When she returned to the same place, she went on,—
“If these people could be made to hold their tongues, they would be better company; but yon never heard such a clatter; they wont hear one speak. That girl sings to her spinning-wheel the whole day long, and she has but one tune. They say I am growing deaf; but l'm sure I hear that song for ever, as much when she is not singing as when she is. But do you think that I am growing deaf, really now?”
Miss Burke could only say that when people got to nurse's age, and so on.
“Well now, 'tis only because of Jupiter,—listening as a watch-planet should, you know. You should have heard his music last night;— that that I used to sing to the little Earles, when master Charles was afraid to go to bed alone because of the ghost-story I told him; and I put him to bed in Miss Emma's room for once, and nobody knew: so don't tell my mistress, for she never forgave such a thing.”
Miss Burke smiled and sighed; for this master Charles was now a man of forty, and Mrs. Earle had been in her grave nearly twenty years. As the visitor was about to take leave, nurse laid her hand on the lady's arm, drew up her tight little person to its best advantage, and gravely said,
“One thing more, Miss Burke. You will give me leave to ask why I am detained in this place, among idiots and dolts that are no companions for me? This is a poor reward for my long service, and so you may tell Mr. Earle.”
“We hoped you had everything comfortable, nurse. You always seem in good spirits.”
“Comfortable! You mean as to tea and sugar and shawls; but what is that compared with the company I keep? The Earles don't know what they miss by what they do. Many a time I would go and see them, and carry them a piece of gingerbread, if I was not prevented.”
“Well, nurse, you shall come and see them at our house by and by. In the meanwhile,— you know the boys in the yard are very rude, and they are too apt to teaze old people. We think you are more comfortable out of their way.”
Nurse still looked haughty and dissatisfied.
“Besides,” continued Miss Burke, “watch-planets are not common, you know; and who knows how they might be treated in the world?”
“True, true, true, cried the delighted old woman.” “There are but two in the world besides me, and they are at Canterbury, where my mother lived nuise twenty years. 'Tis only them that study the stars that bow before watch-planets. Well! we shall all study the stars up above, and then will be the time for us watch-planets.”
So saying, nurse Rudrum returned to the track she had worn in the floor, and Miss Burke heard the well known pit pat all the way down stairs.
The lady now turned into the school, where she was equally welcome to mistress and scholars, especially after an absence of some duration, as now. The mistress, Mrs. Mott, was not exactly the person the ladies would have appointed to the office, if the choice had been left to them; but, all things considered, the appointment might have been worse filled. Mrs. Mott, a starched, grim-looking personage, had kept a dame school in a village for many years, during which time she had acquired a very high opinion of herself and her modes of tuition;—an opinion which she continued to instil into the guardians of the poor, by whom she was appointed to her present office; their choice being also aided by the consideration that Mrs. Mott must have parish assistance at all events, and might as well do something in exchange for it. The ladies who interested themselves about the children, seeing that the choice lay between having no school at all and having Mrs. Mott for a schoolmistress, made the best of the latter alternative.
When the lady entered, Mrs. Mott was doing what she rather prided herself upon,—carrying on two affairs at once. She was fixing work for the girls,—plying her needle as fast as possible —and leading a hymn which the children sang after her, kneeling on their benches, with their hands clasped before them, and every little body rocking from side to side to mark the time. When it was over, and the children scrambled down into their seats, a universal grin of pleasure greeted Miss Burke from her old acquaintance, and a stare of wonder from the new comers who yet knew her only by reputation. Mrs. Mott, meanwhile, went on drawing out her thread most indefatigably, and murmuring as if under some emotion.
“Good morning, Mrs. Mott. It is some time since I saw you last.”
“Time, madam! Aye: time is given, time is given where all else is given. 'Tis ours to seize it ere it flies.”
“How are your family, Mrs. Mott? I hope your sons are doing better.”
“Son, madam, son! I suppose you don't know that the Lord has made choice of Jack?”
Miss Burke was much concerned; and tried to hear the story notwithstanding a hubbub at the bottom of the school, which at length roused the teacher's wrath.
“Tommy bit Jemmy,” was the reply of twenty little voices to the inquiry of what was the matter.
“Tommy is a bad boy and must be punished,” was the verdict; and the sentence speedily followed. “We are going to prayers, and I will have no disturbance while prayers are going on; but I will have justice. So, as soon as prayers are over, Jemmy shall bite Tommy in whatever part he chooses.”
Miss Burke considered how she might best interfere with the process without setting aside the mistress's authority. She waited till prayers were over, and then called the two boys before her. She represented to the sobbing culprit the enormity of biting human flesh, and then asked Jemmy if he had any urgent desire to bite Tommy.
“I don't want to bite him, unless I'm bid,” was the reply.
“Very well; then, suppose you forgive him instead. This will make him very careful not to hurt you another time. Will it not, Tommy?”
Tommy agreed, and words instead of wounds were exchanged.
The next inquiry was for the Bridgemans. Ned was called out of the ranks of departing school-boys, and Jane was sent for, being detained from school this day to help to prepare for the corporation dinner. On her appearance, she was recognized as the cleaner of spits, who had listened so eagerly to the praises of the Foundling Hospital. Miss Burke told them how she had heard of their circumstances, and her intention to visit them from time to time. She asked them if they were happy.
“Yes, ma'am,” replied Jane, readily; “a deal happier than we thought.”
Ned, however, only bit his lip to keep back his tears. Miss Burke framed her speech to suit both.
“You know,” she said, “that we all consider that you are here only for a time, and we trust a short time. It has pleased God to take from you your natural protectors and teachers; and children like you must be taken care of, and taught, before you can find a way in the world. But, if you choose, you may soon make yourselves fit for a better and a happier place than this; and the more cheerfully you set about it, Ned, the more quickly you will learn. You, Jane, should seek out the more sober and quiet young women to talk to, instead of listening to the foolish gossip that goes on in the yard. Has Susan been kind to you?”
“She always keeps by herself when she can, ma'am.”
“She will be kind to you, however, I am sure, if you deserve it; and I believe she can teach you many things you will like to learn.”
In order to unloose Ned's tongue, the lady the several inquiries about their comforts. made had nothing to complain of but that they did not like milk-broth, which composed their dinner twice a week, and that the workhouse dress was very hot and heavy. The first evil could not be helped—the other seemed very reasonable; and Miss Burke determined to urge an objection to it through her brother, as it appeared that a thick woollen dress was the most liable to dirt of any that could be fixed upon, and the most unseemly when worn into holes; besides this, the children were exposed to colds from the temptation to throw off the dress when heated, and from exchanging it for their own old clothes on Sundays and holidays. Jane had, as her brother declared, been scarcely ever without colds since she entered the workhouse, as cousin Marshall had been kind enough to provide her with a complete suit on her entrance, which Jane was fond of wearing whenever she went to church, or to the gardens, or——”
“To the gardens! What gardens?”
The public tea-gardens, where the girls and boys were treated very often on Sundays, sometimes under guidance, and sometimes without any. Jane was very eloquent in describing these frolics, and others which took place within the walls.
Miss Burke had little hope of counteracting such influences as these by an occasional visit; but she now said what she thought most likely to impress the mind of the poor girl, and then proceeded to find Susan, in order to recommend Jane to her care. She was glad to see Wilkes, the master, unaccompanied by his wife, and conversing with a gentleman whom she knew to be one of the visitors. Before she reached them, she perceived that Ned was following her with a wistful look.
“Have you anything more to say to me?” she inquired.
“Only, ma'am, that perhaps you may know when we may get out. I should like to see the time when we shall get out.”
“I wish I could tell you, my dear boy; but I can only guess, like you. I guess it will be when Jane is fit for service, and you for labour in the fields or elsewhere.”
“I can labour now,” said the boy, brightening. “If they would try me, I am sure l could dig all day.”
“Be patient, Ned; and then, if you turn out a clever workman when the right time comes, who knows but you may not only keep out of the workhouse yourself, but prevent somebody else from coming in?”
Ned smiled, pulled his forelock, and went away cheered.
Mr. Nugent, the visitor, met Miss Burke with an observation on the improvement of workhouses which rendered them accessible to female benevolence; whereas they were once places where no lady could set her foot. Miss Burke gravely replied that there was much yet for benevolence to do. The necessary evils of a workhouse were bad enough; and it was afflicting to se them needlessly aggravated,—to see poverty and indigence confounded, and blameless and culpable indigence, temporary distress, and permanent destitution, all mixed up together, and placed under the same treatment. These distinctions were somewhat too nice for the gentleman's perceptions; at least, while announced in abstract terms. He stood in an attitude of perplexed attention, while Wilkes asked whether she would have the paupers live in separate dwellings.
Miss Burke observed that the evil began out of the workhouse; and that the want of proper distinctions there made classification in the house an imperative duty.
“We are too apt,” she said, “to regard all the poor alike, and to speak of them as one class, whether or not they are dependent; that is, whether they are indigent or only poor. There must always be poor in every society; that is, persons who can live by their industry, but have nothing beforehand. But that there should be able-bodied indigent, that is, capable persons who cannot support themselves, is a disgrace to every society, and ought to be so far regarded as such as to make us very careful how we confound the poor and the indigent.”
“I assure you, ma'am,” said Wilkes, “it grieves me very much to see honest working men, or sober servants out of place, come here to be mixed up with rogues and vagabonds.”
“But they are all indigent alike,” observed Mr. Nugent, “or your honest labourers would not have to come here.”
“All indigent, certainly, sir; but not all alike. We have had cottagers here for a time, after losing cows and pigs by accident; and even little farmers after a fire on their premises; and labourers, when many hundreds were turned off at once from the public works. Now, this sort of indigence is very different from that which springs out of vice.”
“It seems to me,” said Miss Burke, “that as wide a distinction ought to be made between temporary and lasting indigence, and between innocent and guilty indigence, within the workhouse, as between poverty and indigence out of it; and as the numbers are, I believe, very unequal, I should think it might easily be done. I suppose, Mr. Wilkes, those who require permanent support, the invalids and the thoroughly depraved, are few in comparison with those who come in and go out again after a time.”
“Very few indeed, ma'am. Mr. Nugent knows that our numbers are for ever varying. One year we may have seven hundred in the house, and another year not so much as three hundred. It seems to me the surest way of making the industrious into vagabonds, and the sober into rogues, to mix them all up together; to say nothing of the corruption to the children.”
“I heard the other day,” said Mr. Nugent, “that few of the children who have been brought up here turn out well. But it can't be helped, madam. The plan of out-door pay must have its limits, and our building a new house for the moral or immoral, is out of the question in the present state of the funds. The rate has increased fearfully of late, as your brother will tell you. I confess I do not see what is to become of the system altogether, if we go on as we have been doing for the last five years.”
Miss Burke observed that she was far from wishing to urge any new expenses. She rather believed that much money would be saved by enabling the industrious to pursue their employments undisturbed, and by keeping the young and well-disposed out of the contagion of bad example. She pointed out the case of Susan as one of great hardship, and that of little Jane as one of much danger. Wilkes confirmed the fact of Susan being a good girl, and a well-qualified servant, and told that the other woman had been discharged from various services for theft an other crimes.
Mr. Nugent who, in the midst of his talk about improvement, disliked trouble and innovation, related that an attempt at classification had once been made by building a wall across the yard, to separate the men and women; but that the wall had been pulled down in a riot of the paupers, after which it was considered too formidable an undertaking to rebuild it.
Miss Burke thought, on her way home, that classification must begin among the guardians of the poor, before much reformation could be looked for. The intrepid and active among the gentlemen, if separated from the fearful and indolent, might carry the day against the ill-conducted paupers; but such a result was scarcely to be hoped while the termagant Mrs. Wilkes monopolized all authority within the walls, and the majority of the guardians insisted on the let-alone plan of policy being pursued; a plan under which everything was let alone but the rates, which increased formidably from year to year.