IN THE WORKHOUSE – CHRISTMAS DAY
This is the correct title for the monologue / poem better known as ‘It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ published in 1879 by George Robert Sims (1847-1922). It is a powerful indictment of the conditions of the Victorian workhouse. Sims is a fascinating figure who began by writing humorous verse and ended up as a voice for social reform. Under the pseudonym of Dagonet, he wrote a weekly column for The Referee called ‘Mustard and Cress’ beginning in 1877 and not missing one week until his death 45 years later. It was his contributions to this Sunday sports and entertainment paper that he turned into a book in 1879 – The Dagonet Ballads – and ‘In the Workhouse – Christmas Day’ is the poem that opens the volume. Few poems have ever attracted so many parodies – including one which I think of as the funniest poem ever written. I wish I knew who wrote it. It seems an appropriate place to wrap up this collection. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it!
In the Workhouse – Christmas Day
George R Sims
It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight:
For with clear-washed hands and faces
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables,
For this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast:
To smile and be condescending,
Put puddings on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for – with the rates.
Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their ‘Thank’ee kindly, mum’s’;
So long as they fill their stomachs
What matters it whence it comes?
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
‘Great God!’ he cries; ‘but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died.’
The guardians gazed in horror
The master’s face went white;
‘Did a pauper refuse his pudding?’
‘Could their ears believe aright?’
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man might die
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.
But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose ‘mid a silence grim,
For the others has ceased to chatter,
And trembled every limb.
He looked at the guardian’s ladies,
Then. eyeing their lords, he said,
‘I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:
‘Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dank, unhallowed graves.’
‘He’s drunk!’ said the workhouse master.
‘Or else he’s mad, and raves.’
‘Not drunk or mad,’ cried the pauper,
‘But only a hunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture’s feast.
I care not a curse for the guardians,
And I won’t be dragged away.
Just let me have the fit out,
It’s only Christmas Day
That the black past comes to goad me,
And prey my burning brain;
I’ll tell you the rest in a whisper, –
I swear I won’t shout again.
‘Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how the paupers
The season of Christmas spend.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watch the captured beast.
Hear why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.
‘Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You’re doing a noble action
With the parish’s meat and drink?
Where is my wife, you traitors –
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above us
My Nance was killed by you!
‘Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish, –
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For, ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.
‘I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for a woman who’d loved me
Through fifty years of my life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief?
That “the House” was open to us,
But they wouldn’t give “out relief”.
I slunk to the filthy alley –
‘Twas a cold, raw Christmas eve –
And the bakers’ shops were open
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together
Holding my head awry,
So I came home empty-handed,
And mournfully told her why.
Then I told her “the House” was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
And up in her rags she sat,
Crying, “Bide the Christmas here, John,
We’ve never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger, –
The other would break my heart.”
‘All through that ever I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord, and weeping
Till my lips were salt as brine.
I asked her once if she hungered
And as she answered “No,”
The moon shone in at the wondow
Set in a wreath of snow
‘Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling’s eyes
The far-away look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went,
For she raved of her home in Devon,
Where her happiest days were spent.
‘And the accents, long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more,
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo’d by the Devon shore.
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, “Give me a crust – I’m famished –
For the love of God!” she groaned.
I rushed from the room like a madman,
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying “Food for a dying woman!”
And came the answer, “Too late.”
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street,
And tore from the mongrel’s clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.
‘Back, through the filthy by-lanes!
Back, through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush.
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill,
For there in the silv’ry moonlight
My Nancy lay, cold and still.
‘Up to the blackened ceiling
The sunken eyes were cast –
I knew on those lips all bloodless
My name had been the last;
She’d called for her absent husband –
O God! had I but known! –
Had called in vain and in anguish
Had died in that den – alone.
‘Yes, there in a land of plenty
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
For a loaf of parish bread.
At yonder gate, last Christmas
I craved for a human life.
You, who would feast us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!
‘There, get ye gone to your dinners;
Don’t mind me in the least;
Think of your happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day.’
CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE WORKHOUSE
Weston and Lee
It was Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And dangerous Dan McGrew
Was fighting to rescue the pudding
From a lady that’s known as Lou.
Then up spake one old pauper,
And speaking from 2LO,
He said, “List to the tale of Gungha Din,
The whitest man I know.”
It was the schooner Hesperus.
It was sinking with all hands on shore;
So we wired, “Send the lifeboat from Wigan,
We’ve never had that here before.”
But the brave lifeboat men, sir, at Wigan,
Replied on a postcard, “No fear!
It’s too far to come to the Goodwins.
Wrap the wreck up and send it on here.”
’Twas a terrible railway disaster [whistle]
When the Scotch Express came with a roar.
It gave a shrill blast on its whistle—
It was Scotch so it wouldn’t give more.
It was then that the accident happened.
They found ’mid the rattle and din
A Scotchman had mislaid his corkscrew
And the cork had been pushed too far in.
We were all marching on to Khartoum, sir,
And we knew by the cannon’s loud booms,
The Sepoys were drawing our gunfire
And Tom Webster was drawing Khartoums.
Then Nelson fell back and he whispered,
“Put my statue in Trafalgar Square,
But tell them to make it look like me;
I don’t want an Epstein affair.”
But, see! There’s a man on the glacier;
His nose is turned into an icicle.
Don’t you know him? It’s Walls the ice-cream man,
Riding round with ice-cream on his tricycle.
It was Christmas in the workhouse
It was Christmas in the workhouse,
The snow was raining fast,
A bare-footed man with clogs on
Came slowly whizzing past.
He turned a straight crooked corner
To see a dead donkey die,
He pulled out his gun to stab him
And the donkey spat in his eye.
Next day he went to the pictures.
He had a front seat at the back.
He fell from the floor to the gallery
And broke a front bone in his back.
Christmas Day in the Cookhouse
Billy Bennet (1930)
‘Twas Christmas Day in the cookhouse
And the place was clean and tidy,
The soldiers were eating their pancakes –
I’m a liar, that was Good Friday.
In the oven a turkey was sizzling
And to make it look posh, I suppose,
They fetched the battalion barber
To shingle its parson’s nose!
Potatoes were cooked in their jackets
And carrots in pants – how unique!
A sheep’s head was baked with the eyes in
As it had to see them through the week.
At one o’clock ‘Dinner Up’ sounded,
The sight made an old soldier blush –
They were dishing out Guinness for nothing
And fifteen got killed in the crush!
A jazz band played in the mess-room,
A fine lot of messers it’s true.
We told them to go and play Ludo
And they all answered ‘Fishcakes to you’!
In came the old Sergeant Major,
He’d walked all the way from the billet.
His toes were turned in, his chest was turned out,
With his head back in he’d spill it.
He wished all the troops ‘Merry Xmas’,
Including the poor Orderly Man;
Some said ‘Good Old Sergeant Major’,
But others said ‘Sweet Fairy Ann.’
Then up spoke one ancient warrior,
His whiskers a nest for the sparrows.
The old man had first joined the army
When the troops used to use bows and arrows.
His grey eyes were flashing with anger,
He threw down his pudden’ and cursed,
‘You dare to wish me a Happy New Year?
Well, just hear my story first.
‘Ten years ago as the crow flies,
I came here with my darling bride.
It was Christmas Day in the Waxworks,
So it must be the same outside.
We asked for some food, we were starving –
You gave us pease pudden’ and pork.
My poor wife went to the Infirmary
With a pain in her Belle of New York.
You’re the man that stopped bacon from shrinking
By making the cook fry with Lux
And you wound up the cuckoo clock backwards
And now it goes ‘oo’ ‘fore it ‘cucks’.
So thank you, and bless you and b— low you.
You just take these curses from me,
May your wife give you nothing for dinner
And then warm it up for your tea.
Whatever you eat, may it always repeat –
Be it soup, fish, entrées or horse doovers.
May blue bottles and flies descend from the skies
And use your bald head for manoeuvres.
May the patent expire on your evening dress shoes,
May your Marcel waves all come uncurled,
May your flannel shirt shrink up the back of your neck
And expose your deceit to the world.
And now that I’ve told you my story
I’ll walk to the clink by the gate.
And as for your old Xmas Pudden’,
Stick that – on the next fellow’s plate.’
Christmas day in the Cookhouse
It was Christmas day in the Cookhouse,
The happiest day of the year,
Mens’ hearts were full of gladness,
And their bellies full of beer,
Then up stands Private Shorthouse,
His face as bold as brass
Saying “We don’t want your Christmas pudding
you can stick it up your…”
Tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
It was Christmas day in the harem,
The eunuchs were standing around
And hundreds of beautiful women
Were stretched out on the ground.
Then in walked the bold, bad Sultan
And gazed on his marbled halls
Saying “What do you want for Christmas boys?”
And the eunuchs answered…
Tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
Christmas Day in the Mortuary
It was Christmas Day in the mortuary,
The coldest day in the year,
When a corpse sat up and suddenly said,
“It’s bloody cold in here!”
Then in came the mortuary-keeper,
His face all aflame with beer,
Took one look at the corpse and said,
“You can’t do that there ‘ere!”
Christmas Day in the Workhouse
It was Christmas Day in the workhouse
The merriest day of the year
The paupers and the prisoners
Were all assembled there.
In came the Christmas pudding
When a voice that shattered glass
Said, “We don’t want your Christmas pudding
So stick it there with the rest of the unwanted presents.”
The workhouse master then arose
And prepared to carve the duck
He said “Who wants the parson’s nose
And the prisoners shouted “You have it yourself, sir.”
The vicar brought his Bible
And read out little bits.
Said one old crone at the back of the hall
“This man gets on very well with everybody.”
The workhouse mistress then began
To hand out Christmas parcels.
The paupers tore the wrappers off
And began to wipe their eyes, which were full of tears.
The master rose to make a speech
But just before he started
The mistress, who was fifteen stone,
Gave three loud cheers and nearly choked herself.
And all the paupers then began
To pull their Christmas crackers.
One pauper held his too low down
And blew off both his paper hat and the man’s next to him.
A steaming bowl of white bread sauce
Was handed round to some.
An aged gourmet then called aloud
“This bread sauce tastes like it was made by a continental chef.”
Mince pie with custard sauce was next
And each received a bit.
One pauper said “The mince pie’s nice
But the custard tastes like the bread sauce we had in the last verse!”
The mistress dishing out the food
Dropped custard down her front.
She cried “Aren’t I a silly girl!”
And they answered “You’re a
perfect picture as always ma’am !”
“This pudding “, said the master,
“Is solid, hard and thick.
How am I going to cut it?”
And a man cried, “Use your penknife sir, the one with the pearl handle.”
The mistress asked the vicar
To entertain his flock.
He said, “What would you like to see ?”
And they cried, “Let’s see your conjuring tricks, they’re always worth watching.”
“Your reverence, may I be excused ?”
Said one benign old chap.
“I don’t like any conjuring tricks.
I’d sooner have a carol or two around the fire”
So then they all began to sing
Which shook the workhouse walls.
“Merry Christmas!” cried the master,
And the inmates shouted “Best of luck to you as well sir!”