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Florence Cole as a child

Casual wards - also known as spikes:
an overview

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What casual wards were

Casual wards provided basic food and overnight accommodation for individuals of no fixed address. These individuals, in return, had to do a morning's work before moving on.

The name casual ward probably came from the 'casual' nature of the stay, although the meaning of 'ward' in this context is uncertain. Of all the various online definitions, the rather archaic 'A means of protection' is probably the most fitting.

Casual wards were part of workhouse complexes, but because workhouses were funded locally for local people, they would not take on responsibility for the long-term care of non-locals. So everyone staying at a casual ward had to move on after just one night, or occasionally two, and they were not allowed to return within a given time.

Casual wards were also known as spikes, possibly after the tool used there for rope-teasing. A more disrespectful name was dosshouse, although the latter was also used for any low-cost overnight accommodation, often run by charities.

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Users of casual wards users - vagrants and tramps

Because people who stayed in casual wards had to move on, they spent their days on the road, walking from one casual ward to another and often spending nights between under hedges or in barns. So they were often to be seen walking/tramping along the roads. That is why they were commonly known as tramps, although officially they were called vagrants.

The previous night's casual ward normally provided tramps with enough money for the most basic of food for the day, but for other food and clothes they relied on charity or small-scale theft. Tramps' lives were hard - see the page on their experiences: they suffered from malnutrition and inadequate clothing and it is not surprising that some turned to crime. Consequently, though, all tramps were widely regarded with caution by the rest of the community. They were given a wide birth as potentially criminals and were certainly regarded as the lowest of the low. They were even looked down on by the inmates of workhouses.

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How casual wards were managed

Casual wards, like their associated workhouses, were managed locally by a Board of Guardians. For many years my uncle was chairman of our Board of Guardians for Edmonton.

Day-to-day staffing of casual wards was in the hands of paid individuals known as tramp majors.

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The Edmonton casual ward

Our casual ward in Edmonton was part of the same building as the workhouse. The entrance was off Silver Street in Bull Lane.

The Edmonton casual ward by George Orwell

There is an account of first hand experience of casual wards, written by the acclaimed author George Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris, published in 1933.

Orwell writes that he first frequented a casual ward in 'Romton' and then one in 'Edbury'. After some scrabbling around on the internet and some map work, on the basis of times and distances, I am reasonably sure that these were Romford and Edmonton. A later Introduction to the book confirms that the publishers insisted that certain names were changed.

Richard Mellor

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