James Greenwood

James Greenwood

James Greenwood, the second son in the family of eleven children of James Caer Greenwood and his wife, Mary Ann, née Fish, was born in London in 1831. After leaving school he was apprenticed as a compositor. Later he was employed as an engraver.

On 21st December, 1851, Greenwood married Eliza Hayson (1824–1917), a dressmaker. They had at least three sons and five daughters. His brother, Frederick Greenwood, was a journalist and together they wrote a novel, Under a Cloud (1860). This was followed by several adventure books for boys. He also had several stories published in Beeton's Boy's Own Magazine. One of these stories, King Lion, was later credited as an influence by Rudyard Kipling. His books and stories were often illustrated by the artist, Ernest Griset.

Frederick Greenwood eventually became editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. He employed James to write several articles for the newspaper. His biographer, Alannah Tomkins, points out: "Late in 1865 Frederick commissioned him to spend a night in the casual ward of a London workhouse. He was allegedly reluctant, but agreed to the work when offered a fee of £30 or £40 in advance, and further payment if the resulting articles made a significant impact on the Pall Mall Gazette's circulation. Accompanied by a friend named Bittlestone, a stockbroker, he entered Lambeth workhouse for a night in January 1866, both men having adopted clothing appropriate to occupants of the casual ward, which housed vagrants seeking overnight shelter. They remained in the workhouse for fourteen hours and emerged the following morning to be collected by Frederick's carriage."

Greenwood wrote: "No language with which I am acquainted is capable of conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then encountered. Imagine a space of about 30ft. by 30ft. enclosed on three sides by a dingy whitewashed wall, and roofed with naked tiles which were furred with the damp and filth that reeked within. As for the fourth side of the shed, it was boarded in for (say) a third of its breadth; the remaining space being hung with flimsy canvas, in which was a gap 2ft. wide at top, widening to at least 4ft. at bottom. This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so thickly encrusted with filth that I mistook it first for a floor of natural earth."

He added: "Those beds were placed close together, every occupant being provided with a rug like that which I was fain to hug across my shoulders. In not a few cases two gentlemen had clubbed beds and rugs and slept together. In one case, to be further mentioned presently, four gentlemen had so clubbed together. Many of my fellow-casuals were awake - others asleep or pretending to sleep; and shocking as were the waking ones to look upon, they were quite pleasant when compared with the sleepers. For this reason the practised and well-seasoned casual seems to have a peculiar way of putting himself to bed. He rolls himself in his rug, tucking himself in, head and feet, so that he is completely enveloped; and, lying quite still on his pallet, he looks precisely like a corpse covered because of its hideousness. Some were stretched out at full length; some lay nose and knees together; some with an arm or a leg showing crooked through the coverlet. It was like the result of a railway accident; these ghastly figures were awaiting the coroner. From the moral point of view, however, the wakeful ones were more dreadful still. Towzled, dirty, villainous, they squatted up in their beds, and smoked foul pipes, and sang snatches of horrible songs, and bandied jokes so obscene as to be absolutely appalling. Eight or ten were so enjoying themselves - the majority with the check shirt on and the frowsy rug pulled about their legs; but two or three wore no shirts at all, squatting naked to the waist, their bodies fully exposed in the light of the single flaring jet of gas fixed high upon the wall."

The articles about the workhouse appeared in three successive issues of the Pall Mall Gazette. According to Alannah Tomkins "Greenwood's revelations of squalor, neglect, and degradation, and maladministration by the workhouse authorities, together with the shock of his and his companion's personal experiences (submerged in the filthy bathwater and sharing a bed with paupers), caused a sensation." The articles were reprinted in full in The Times, and they were issued later in the year as a pamphlet. It has been argued that Greenwood was the first journalist to use the pioneering technique of temporarily adopting the dress and circumstances of others and therefore provided a model for successors like Jack London, Mary Higgs and George Orwell.

Sympathetic to the plight of the working-class, Greenwood wrote several articles highlighting the problems of poor housing and public heath for the newspaper. His investigations into poverty also appeared in the books, Unsentimental Journeys, or, Byways of Modern Babylon (1867) and Seven Curses of London (1869). Greenwood developed ideas that resulted in him attempting to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. He also proposed emigration to the colonies as a remedy for pauperism. During this period Greenwood was described as "a short, squarish, good-humoured man, dressed in a long black frock-coat, and black tie - the cut of a slum missionary".

In 1871 Greenwood was commissioned by Michael Bass, to investigate working conditions in the railway industry. The articles appeared in the Daily Telegraph and exposed the conditions endured by railway workers. As a result Bass helped finance the formation of the Associated Society of Railway Servants Union. He also provided generous support for the Railways Servants' Orphanage at Derby. For a while, Greenwood became the editor of a new journal, the Railway Service Gazette.

Greenwood created great controversy in 1874 by writing an article for the Daily Telegraph about attending a fight in Hanley, Staffordshire, which a man fought a dog. The account aroused public anger and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals attempted to trace the organizers of the fight. However, Greenwood was unable to provide further details to back-up his story.

In 1883 he published Odd People in Odd Places. He stated in the preface that the book contained pen portraits of the "homes, haunts, and habits of some of the lower grade of the great community" of London. Greenwood later became involved in philanthropy and established two funds for children, to provide outings to the countryside and to supply Christmas hampers. Greenwood also published a books about his experiences as an observer in the London police courts. His final book, published in 1905, included interviews with the inmates of lunatic asylums.

James Greenwood found it difficult to find work in the last 30 years of his life and endured the kind of poverty he described in his earlier writings. He died at the home of his daughter in Catford on 11th August 1927, at the age of ninety-six.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) James Greenwood, Pall Mall Gazette (12th January, 1866)

At 9 o'clock on the evening of Monday the 8th January, a neat and unpretentious carriage might have been seen turning cautiously from the Kennington road into Princes road, Lambeth. Approaching a public-house which retreated a little from the street, he pulled up; but not so close that the lights should fall upon the carriage door; not so distant as to unsettle the mind of any one who chose to imagine that he had halted to drink beer before proceeding to call for the children at a juvenile party. He did not dismount, nor did any one alight in the usual way; but any keen observer who happened to watch his intelligent countenance might have seen a furtive glance directed to the wrong door - that is to say, to the door of the carriage which opened into the dark and muddy road. From that door emerged a sly and ruffianly figure, marked with every sign of squalor. He was dressed in what had once been a snuff-brown coat, but which had faded to the hue of bricks imperfectly baked. It was not strictly a ragged coat, though it had lost its cuffs - a bereavement which obliged the wearer's arms to project through the sleeves two long inelegant inches. The coat altogether was too small, and was only made to meet over the chest by means of a bit of twine. This wretched garment was surmounted by a "bird's-eye" pocket-handkerchief of cotton, wisped about the throat hangman fashion: above all was a battered billy-cock hat, with a dissolute drooping brim. Between the neckerchief and the lowering brim of the hat appeared part of a face, unshaven and not scrupulously clean. The man's hands were plunged in his pockets, and he shuffled hastily along in boots which were the boots of a tramp indifferent to miry ways.

This mysterious figure was that of the present writer. He was bound for Lambeth workhouse, there to learn by actual experience how casual paupers are lodged and fed, and what the "casual" is like, and what the porter who admits him, and the master who rules over him; and how the night passes with the outcasts whom we have all seen crowding about workhouse doors on cold and rainy nights. Much has been said on the subject - on behalf of the paupers - on behalf of the officials; but nothing by any one who, with no motive but to learn and make known the truth, had ventured the experiment of passing a night in a workhouse, and trying what it actually is to be a casual.

The day had been windy and chill - the night was cold; and therefore I fully expected to begin my experiences amongst a dozen of ragged wretches squatting about the steps and waiting for admission. But my only companion at the door was a decently dressed woman, whom, as I afterwards learned, they declined to admit until she had recovered from a fit of intoxication from which she had the misfortune to be still suffering. I lifted the big knocker, and knocked; the door was promptly opened, and I entered. Just within, a comfortable-looking clerk sat at a comfortable desk, ledger before him. Indeed, the spacious hail in every way was as comfortable as cleanliness and great mats and plenty of gaslight could make it....

No language with which I am acquainted is capable of conveying an adequate conception of the spectacle I then encountered. Imagine a space of about 30ft. by 30ft. enclosed on three sides by a dingy whitewashed wall, and roofed with naked tiles which were furred with the damp and filth that reeked within. As for the fourth side of the shed, it was boarded in for (say) a third of its breadth; the remaining space being hung with flimsy canvas, in which was a gap 2ft. wide at top, widening to at least 4ft. at bottom. This far too airy shed was paved with stone, the flags so thickly encrusted with filth that I mistook it first for a floor of natural earth. Extending from one end of my bedroom to the other, in three rows, were certain iron 'cranks,' of which I subsequently learnt the use, with their many arms raised in various attitudes, as the stiffened arms of men are on a battlefield. My bed-fellows lay among the cranks, distributed over the flagstones in a double row, on narrow bags scantily stuffed with hay. At one glance my appalled vision took in 30 of them - thirty men and boys stretched upon shallow pallets with but only six inches of comfortable hay between them and the stony floor. Those beds were placed close together, every occupant being provided with a rug like that which I was fain to hug across my shoulders. In not a few cases two gentlemen had clubbed beds and rugs and slept together. In one case, to be further mentioned presently, four gentlemen had so clubbed together. Many of my fellow-casuals were awake - others asleep or pretending to sleep; and shocking as were the waking ones to look upon, they were quite pleasant when compared with the sleepers. For this reason the practised and well-seasoned casual seems to have a peculiar way of putting himself to bed. He rolls himself in his rug, tucking himself in, head and feet, so that he is completely enveloped; and, lying quite still on his pallet, he looks precisely like a corpse covered because of its hideousness. Some were stretched out at full length; some lay nose and knees together; some with an arm or a leg showing crooked through the coverlet. It was like the result of a railway accident; these ghastly figures were awaiting the coroner.

From the moral point of view, however, the wakeful ones were more dreadful still. Towzled, dirty, villainous, they squatted up in their beds, and smoked foul pipes, and sang snatches of horrible songs, and bandied jokes so obscene as to be absolutely appalling. Eight or ten were so enjoying themselves - the majority with the check shirt on and the frowsy rug pulled about their legs; but two or three wore no shirts at all, squatting naked to the waist, their bodies fully exposed in the light of the single flaring jet of gas fixed high upon the wall.

My entrance excited very little attention. There was a horse-pail three parts full of water standing by a post in the middle of the shed, with a little tin pot beside it. Addressing me as "old pal", one of the naked ruffians begged me to "hand him a swig", as he was 'werry nigh garspin.' Such an appeal of course no "old pal" could withstand, and I gave him a pot full of water. He showed himself grateful for the attention. "I should lay over there if I was you," he said, pointing to the left side of the shed; "it's more out of the wind than this 'ere side is." I took the good-natured advice and (by this time shivering with cold) stepped over the stones to where the beds or straw bags were heaped, and dragged one of them to the spot suggested by my comrade. But I had no more idea of how to arrange it than of making an apple-pudding, and a certain little discovery added much to my embarrassment. In the middle of the bed I had selected was a stain of blood bigger than a man's hand! I did not know what to do now. To lie on such a horrid thing seemed impossible; yet to carry back the bed and exchange it for another might betray a degree of fastidiousness repugnant to the feelings of my fellow lodgers and possibly excite suspicions that I was not what I seemed.