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Workhouses were built in the late 1830 and into the 1840s (when this song was written). It is likely that the economic slump during the "hungry 40's" resulted in increased numbers of destitute people entering the workhouse but no figures have been found to support the assumption. The line "hundreds now that can't get in, do starve outside the door" may be inspired by the sight of people seeking the shelter of the Casual Wards. Bruce Rosen wrote that[i] The Poor Law Commissioners recommended that this" [casual wards] "should be provided as short term shelter (usually for a single night) and a meal in return for work…Those who sought such short term accommodation were separated from the longer term residents of the workhouse confined to the "casual" wards. According to Norman Longmate, the 'standard policy' which was developed to deal with such short term applicants was 'to make the vagrant's life so disagreeable that he would hesitate to come back.' … After queuing, sometimes for hours, and if there was space available, a casual might be admitted through the single entrance near which were the casual wards. A casual ward might consist of a large room with some bedding and a bucket for sanitation. The bedding was often nothing but straw, with rags for coverings as in the Richmond workhouse in the 1840s. In return for this largesse, the occupant was required to do a set amount of work before leaving on the following day. Often this work was soul-destroying. Men might have to spend hours breaking stones while women were set to picking oakum." A.N. Wilson [ii] has written "It is estimated - and we are speaking her of the years before he Irish potato famine - that more than a million paupers starved from simple lack of employment" Refernces: [i] Rosen, Bruce The Victorian Casual Ward, Victorian History website http://vichist.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-victorian-casual-ward.html [ii] Wilson, A. N. The Victorians (London, Huthcinson, 2002)

 

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