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Saturday, 15 March 2014


My great grandfather’s cousin Alice Maria Grey was the only surviving child of parents who had both died before her eighth Christmas. She was 87 when she died and must have made a life and a world for herself. But the blunt outline of her life in dates and places is a sad and solitary one.

She was an orphan who bounced from pillar to post for the last eighty years of her life, with no roots or family of her own. She is, in the available census returns,

  • 1861, a nine-year old schoolgirl boarding with the widow Blunt in Hackney
  • 1871, with her half-sister Helen visiting Helen’s maiden aunt Martha Kingsbury
  • 1881, visiting her cousin William Gurney Jameson
  • 1891, in her own home in Lambeth
  • 1901, visiting William’s unmarried sisters Alice and Evangeline Jameson
  • 1911, in her own home in Leatherhead
In 1896 she was one of the Guardians of the Lambeth workhouse. We know this because she made the pages of the Daily Mail that year. The article on Monday 26th October, headlined THE PAUPER’S PIPE – LIFE IN LAMBETH WORKHOUSE, examined the problem of universal benefit, ten years before Liberal reforms ushered in the welfare state in Britain. Being a Daily Mail article it also sought to inflame its readers’ passions with the spectre of squandered ratepayers’ money.

Lambeth Workhouse

Men in the workhouse were not required to do work beyond the age of sixty. But in fact many of them were still able to do so with useful skills, and they were granted a perk in the form of a ration of tobacco. In time the perk was extended to all men over sixty, whether they could work or not. There was a further accidental extension of the franchise because elderly-looking men in their late fifties also began to claim the benefit. And then non-smoking sexagenarians felt they were losing out and started to claim the tobacco and to sell it on.

Next, the old women of the workhouses complained that they were not eligible, and were granted a comparable perk in the form of snuff, which they called “the sneeshin’ stuff.” The snuff-taking habit then spread amongst the older women; and then young women learned the habit by association, giving the non-snuff-taking older women a ready market for their claimed but unwanted snuff allowance. As the Daily Mail reporter observed to one of Alice Grey’s fellow Guardians, “So, as one might say, you have established an Academy of Snuff-Taking?” “Something unpleasantly like it,” the Guardian replied.

Women in the Lambeth Workhouse

The cost of supplying the snuff and tobacco had risen in the course of just three years from £120 per annum to £290. More efficient policing of the claimants would require extra staff, “and then the ratepayers would have their backs up immediately.” Nearly 120 years later as the NHS is crippled by staff cuts in the name of the taxpayer, how much has changed?

The intrepid Mail reporter then turned to Alice Grey, “a lady of generous instinct and of sound common sense,” who was in favour of a means- and needs-tested approach. She believed that “men who have drunk themselves into the workhouse are entitled to food and shelter but not to luxuries.” She thought snuff-taking a dirty habit and was a supporter of the workhouse board’s Rev Jephson, who advocated giving sweets instead of snuff. “Indeed,” she noted, “Sweets versus Snuff was a subject of keen debate for a time.”

Alice was altogether against handing out snuff. “When it was first mooted at the Board meeting a few years ago, I had just got upon my feet to oppose energetically the encouragement of the habit. Fortunately I saw just in time that a large snuff-box was passing down the table from member to member, and so, of course, I sat down and said nothing.”

Was her own childhood, boarded out to Widow Blunt, the reason she became a workhouse guardian? One of the best known former inmates of Lambeth workhouse was a very young Charlie Chaplin, born in 1889, who was there at some point between 1896 and 1898 and certainly came under Alice Grey’s guardianship. The Lambeth workhouse buildings now house the Cinema Museum.

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