The Rise of the Casual Wards

It took London some time to get it together after the passing of the New Poor Laws. It wasn’t until 1837 that the City of London Union (CLU) formed from a collection of a whopping 98 parishes. Remember, London was a destination for the unemployed. Migrants swarmed the city in search of work during a turbulent time of industrial change. The CLU wasn’t just responsible for the city’s native impoverished population, but also those who arrived in the city in search of better opportunities.

Casual wards were known as infamous centres of vice and disease. They were segregated from the workhouse, keeping the alleged tramps away from the resident paupers. If you walked past a casual ward, you’d see a queue of people forming from around 6 PM, waiting to be admitted for the night, and that queue would be even longer on harsh winter evening.

By the 1840’s, relieving officers were charged with the task of admitting vagrants, collecting their name, age, occupation, where he or she came from and where they were going. Staff members were encouraged to give preferential treatment to those they believed were honest cases, for there was always a fear casual wards strictly served the "lazy" poor, encouraging vagrancy. Within 28 days you couldn’t be seen in the same casual ward for more than two nights or else you’d be detained.

The hard-line legislative approach of the New Poor Laws aimed to repress vagrancy and casual wards were often criticised for the passive relief of tramps. Work tasks were issued because, officially, casual wards were not to issue relief to able-bodied men without the exchange of labour. In some cases, work tasks were hard work, such as stone breaking, which were especially taxing for malnourished inmates. In other cases, wards issued no work task at all because they saved costs on purchase of raw materials and inmate supervision.

The operation of London’s casual wards was distinct from others around the country. The CLU casual wards were overwhelmed with applicants. London’s population was already at 1 million in the early 1800’s and by the 1850’s it had doubled. Despite the dissuasion of outdoor relief, the casual wards in London gave out bread in place of a night’s stay and issued money for a night’s shelter in a private lodging house. In many ways, the CLU was charged with an impossible task. If they limited the number of casuals relieved, they received backlash from the press and the City’s authorities, but when they gave money for lodging to those they were unable to help, Poor Law Commissioners and ratepayers moaned.

Wanna see a similar sight to the queues outside of the casual wards? Head to Charing Cross Station and towards the Embassy of Zimbabwe on any given night, you'll see hundreds of rough sleepers queuing for food. 

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