“Why, I’ve been sitting here for five years, and I shall sit on here to the end. I’m just waiting you see. We’re all just waiting.”
From an article called ‘In the Day-Room of a London Workhouse’ by Edith Sellers, published in “Nineteenth Century and After: a monthly review” in September 1902.
This was said by one of the elderly inmates of a “Great London Workhouse” (the author declines to tell us which one) which Edith Sellers visited as part of her Europe-wide investigation of different systems of caring for the poor and aged. This woman was one of the 20,000 over-65s living in London workhouses at the time, a number that was much higher than in the rest of the country, although it was by no means rare to see an older face in the workhouse throughout the nineteenth century. They found their way there through the reluctance of London Unions to pay outdoor relief even to the very old, and through a general culture of poverty, mortality and high rents that left few families able to afford to support anyone too old or infirm to work – if the elderly person in question even had any family left alive in the first place.
Sellar’s piece is a damning indictment of the conditions of the elderly in the workhouse. It is littered with poignant statements from the inmates like the one above, such as a man who noted pointedly that he was just “killing time”, and another who told Sellers: “I had to choose between the workhouse and starvation, you see, and – I chose badly.”
She makes little mention of the mental state or mental infirmities of the people she talks to (or lack thereof); although the overall atmosphere is one of dejection but resignation. We know that there were older people with chronic mental infirmities living in workhouses, and many asylum superintendents felt that that was where they should stay. Seller’s sympathies, it seems, were not with such people: she pitied those who must pass their days “elbow to elbow with a jabbering idiot”. More insightful or engaged pictures of the experiences of the elderly mentally ill in the workhouse, I have yet to find.