Having arrived too late to secure a place for the night in the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward in the previous chapter, in chapter 8, Jack London and 2 other men try to make it to the Poplar Workhouse—3 miles distant from the Whitechapel Workhouse—in time to find a place to rest for the night.
We learn about these men as the author does during conversations while they walk. They are average, working class fellows, one a carter, one a carpenter. Jack London considers them old at ages 58 and 65 respectively, but I believe he arrives at his opinion based on context—the men are trying to survive in the city of London. Both men are unemployed and have no prospects because they are poor and considered too old for the job market.
The safety net in Great Britain at the time was the relief system of the workhouse. For a bed and the most crude form of nutrition, inmates of the system were required to perform labor for many hours at such tasks as picking 4 pounds of oakum per day, or breaking at leasts 1000 pounds of rock with a sledge hammer in the same time period. The breaking of stone into gravel is straight-forward enough, but picking oakum requires some explanation for modern audiences.
Oakum, a product of recycled rope, was used to fill the gaps in the timbers and decking of wooden ships. The fibers were tarred and pounded into the gaps to make ships water-tight. The task was one, much like rock breaking, that was used in penal systems in America as well as in Great Britain, and other countries. I included a scene of oakum picking in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride, Say Anything But Your Prayers. In the following scene, the character is receiving “out-relief” in return for daily labor. In her case, the relief constitutes a few shillings and a loaf of bread per week for her and her husband, John Stride. He has been too ill to work for such a long time that the couple is destitute, despite the fact that Elizabeth has been competing for every job she can get, and has for the longest time only been able to find short term sewing and scouring work. The funds and the bread provided by the relief system are barely enough to keep the couple alive. She walks to the workhouse each morning to perform the required labor:
The Matron led Elizabeth to a work station in a high-ceilinged hall, reminded her of the prohibition against talking, and left. Elizabeth sat on a hard wooden bench with other inmates. Short partitions on the bench separated her from the women seated on either side. Nearby inmates glanced at her with little curiosity. A staff member, perhaps another inmate, dumped at Elizabeth’s feet a bundle of rope segments chopped into ten to twenty inch lengths. The densely spun brown sections, streaked with tar, were to be carefully unraveled and untangled, each fiber liberated from the others and piled together.
She made short work of undoing her first length of rope.
The work isn’t as bad as you feared, she thought.
As Elizabeth performed the task repetitively over the course of many hours, reality set in. Sitting for so long on the hard seat that had no backrest drove her hips and spine to agony. In short order, the labor became an abrasive insult to the flesh of her hands.
This next bit of description comes from my Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (Polly is living in the workhouse at the time):
Chaplain Emes gave the after-breakfast devotion. While putting her hands together in prayer, Polly gently rubbed the aching joints of her digits, careful not to crack open the painful whitlows at her fingernails that came from endless hours of picking oakum.
The men with Jack London are in a hurry to get to the workhouse, knowing full well what awaits them: The labor, a crude bed, a breakfast consisting of 6 oz of hard bread, and 12 ounces of bitter-tasting oatmeal or Indian corn gruel called skilly, 8 more ounces of the hard bread and 1 1/2 ounces of cheese that constitutes a midday meal, and the same for supper, but with the addition of another 12 ounces of skilly. That is more than these men have on the street, and they fear the coming of night; trying to find a hidden spot to “sleep rough” through the long hours of darkness; trying to stay warm and relaxed enough to doze off and get some rest while the police try to disrupt them at every opportunity. No doubt they would also worry about being molested in some way while vulnerable with their eyes closed, but they know they must smell like hell, and that others can clearly see they have nothing of value to steal. Still, in the London night there were feral dogs, plenty of hungry rats, and of course the vagaries of human behavior.
Though they hurry to the Poplar workhouse, along the way, they also scavenge without breaking their strides, finding and eating the discarded parts people have dropped on the footway of fruit; orange skin, grape stems, rotting apple cores. They pick up anything that might hold any nutritional value, pop it into their mouths, and swallow.
They act like starving dogs, yet are intelligent, well-informed human beings. They have discussions about politics and human nature. They advise Jack London, who has given his circumstance as that of an American seaman who ran on hard times in London and became trapped in the city, to flee the country ASAP.
The three men did not make it to the Poplar workhouse in time, but I will not spoil Jack London’s tale by telling what else took place in chapter 8.
—Alan M. Clark
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