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Image provided by Gressenhall Workhouse


by John Yeo 


He started on the work gang I am associated with, Roger East, he called himself. A rough, dirty incredibly offensive fellow who would truck no nonsense from anyone. He worked hard, he played hard and he swore volubly and offensively at anyone who crossed him. I have heard tell he struck someone with a spade, severely injuring them, hence he had arrived at the workhouse on his release from prison.

   He was sadly uneducated and spoke in monosyllabic sentences. Yet the Guardians thought the world of him. He was second in charge of the institutional farm and by golly his clothes reeked of cow manure. A harsh hard man who worked alone in all weathers, a survivor, who lived hard and always slept alone on the floor of the dormitory in the clothes he stood up in.

    My colleague in the records office had no prior information on him whatsoever. He had been released from prison into the workhouse to get sustenance and all his earnings were squandered on drink. A legalised life sentence of interminable work with shelter provided. A permanent institutionalised inmate. A man who would be dismissed with nothing at the end of his working life or his working abilities.


     I am Roger East from Norfolk in East Anglia. It’s been a rough ten years since I left the army. I was a Signalman in the Royal Signals for two years. I got on well there. After I had completed my basic training. I was shipped off to fight in the Crimean war for a year, before I was hit in the leg by a sniper in the battle of Balaclava and returned home to a base job. At the end of two years I was discharged into civvy street, with a limp, wearing a standard demob suit and very little money. I got digs, but the money quickly ran out, and I found myself living by my wits. I drifted around doing odd jobs for a while, mainly on farms. My spare money went on drink in the local pubs, I enjoyed supping a few pints. I got into a few scrapes over the next few months. I would doss down where I could, sleeping in empty railway carriages in the goods yard, there were quite a few of us sleeping there, with nowhere else to go.

    Some nights a gang of youngsters began to jeer at the people sleeping in the carriages, and one old fellow was severely beaten. I carried my spade everywhere, then about a week later I was approached and the gang began to push me around. I picked up my spade and wrapped it around the head of the biggest lout, then I began swinging around at the rest of the gang. They ran for it carrying the injured leader with them, I never gave chase, I was too breathless to bother. 

    The next night the police arrived and arrested me for assault. I was hauled into court and the magistrate sent me to prison for six months. I survived the rough violent days and nights in prison, the conditions were harsh and the days dragged by. 

     As it became near my time for release, I was up before the Governor for an interview, there was another man in the office at the same time, who introduced himself as Mr Potts.

      “Well East, you will be leaving us soon. What are your plans? Where will you go?” Asked the Governor. 

     “I dunno yet, I will find work I suppose.” I said.

     “That’s not good enough East, I think you will be destitute and living on the streets, of the parish. I am going to recommend you to be detained in the workhouse at Gressenhall, where you will work for food and shelter, until you have somewhere to go.”

       “I am not sure I like the sound of that Sir, but I will give it a try.” I replied helplessly, I knew there would be no sense in arguing.

       “Good! Mr Potts here is a Guardian from Gressenhall and he will look after you and escort you to your new home. I don’t want to see you back here again. Good luck to you!”

       “Thank you Sir.” I responded with a great deal of apprehension.

   That’s how I finished up here in the ‘Spike,’ I can look after myself, but the conditions here are not much better than jail. The food is simple, basic bread and gruel, with beans for a treat. We are not allowed out at all and drink is strictly forbidden. I have been allocated a job on the farm and I look after the animals, lately I have been shunned by some of the other workers who say I smell of cow muck. I never worried about that as I don’t mix with people very well anyway. I was tricked by the Guardians who sent me to the sick bay, where I was forcibly scrubbed by three other workhouse inmates. I will deal with them individually later.

   I have been made second in command on the farm now and I can save a bit of the money I never see. I was able to get hold of some money from the office to buy soap and toothpaste, but my friend who visits the farm sneaked in some drink for me and I gave the money to him.

    I am not sure where I would go if I didn’t live here now, or what I would do. I have become a forgotten nobody, serving a legalised life sentence of interminable work, with shelter provided. A permanently institutionalised number. A man who will probably be dismissed with nothing at the end of my working life or abilities.

Copyright © Written by John Yeo ~ All rights reserved 

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