Chapter 4: Living in the Workhouse
(I am now reminded that although I am writing the History of my Life, I have not stated the Day of my Birth. I was born Dec 5 1814. That year, I am told , had a severe winter. They held a Fair on the Thames and roasted two Bullocks. Coals cost five shillings a Measure of a Hundred Pounds weight, and the four pound loaf cost ten Pence. That was before the Corn Laws were repealed. Of course, as I have already said, my Father took me to Germany - stayed there seven years - after nearly starving, got into Chelsea Workhouse as I have said).
Well, it was a Kind Providence brought me there, for I was nearly broke down with the Labour too hard for me, having such poor fare and not able to speak English. But, when I got into the House I soon forgot my Trouble and picked up English fast. Being In the School among the Children, but being a big Boy of my Age, I was not permitted to stay there long, for a Mr Batsworth, one of the Overseers of the Parish, seeing me, talked with me and asked me what I should like to be a Tailor or a Shoemaker? I said "A Tailor", not that I had any particular Choice, but because my Brother was a Tailor.
I was now sent up to the Tailor shop. Mr Tomkins the Master Tailor slept in the Shop, and I was to sleep there also and be his Apprentice and servant. Mr Tomkins had been an Old Soldier, and was rather fond of Tippling. When he took a Holiday, which was generally once a Month, he would generally spend all the Money he would save during the Month. The following Morning after the Booze he would say to me: "George, you must fetch me a Glass of Gin, for my Copper is hot". Then he would bemoan himself, saying what a fool he was to get Drunk.
My getting into the Tailor Shop was good in some respects, but in some not so good. The Tailor Shop was a general Meeting Place for the Old Men that had nothing else to do. They would talk of times when they were young - about Wilks and '45 - about Dr Dod when he was hung for Forgery - later on about Queen Caroline and her Trial. They would talk about anything and everything, to my great delight, and I think also profit, for I learned thereby a good deal of the English History of their time, as well as the English Language, which I much needed. Something I heard then had a particular bearing on my after Life. for among our Visitors was a Begging Letter writer that gave me Information which afterward brought me to Chatham.
My being Mr Tomkins' Tailor Boy gave me more Liberty than I otherwise should have had; for I could get a Pass from the Master to go Errands for Mr Tomkins - which was an Advantage sometimes and sometimes not! I was, I think, between two and three Years in the Tailor's Shop, during which time I learned to read and write English in my spare hours. Now I began to be uneasy about my position. I wanted to make my own Living and be a Pauper no longer; but how to accomplish that I did not know. I thought that if I could get to sea, that would do. So I asked the Master to allow me to look for a Ship. I got leave and went up and down the Docks, asking anyone I thought likely "Did they want a Boy?", but met with nothing but snubs. Coming to the East India Docks, to a large Ship where the men were mending sails, I asked the Men "Would I have a chance in getting a Boy's Place there?" They answered ;"You had better go and hang yourself and drown your Clothes afterwards". I think that was about the last try I had about the Docks.
I have said that, among the Men that used to come up to our Shop to talk, was a Man that was a Begging Letter Writer. He told me that if I went to Chatham, I might get work at the Barracks, making Soldiers' Fatigue Jackets. Upon the strength of that, I made Application to the Board to allow me to go out of the House to seek my fortune where I might find it. They allowed me to go: but first I went to see my Brother, who was working for a Man named Sullivan in the Minories, who did a Sweating Trade - that is, a man that worked for a shop and took the Garments to his own home to be made up by him or others that he might employ. Mr Sullivan told me that I could work with my Brother, for he had plenty of work for us both. I remained at that work for some time; but it was poor work. I had to sit in a Close Room, working from early Morn until late at Night, making only enough to keep Soul And Body together.
I said to myself; "This won't do: I must get out of this somehow". So I concluded I would go to Chatham and get a ship there if I could.