Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.
In transcribing this article, which recreates a day in a London climic at the turn of the century, I have used the Hathi Trust’s online version. Because its garbled text version mixes lines from right and left columns, I have had to scan each column separately and use ABBYY OCR software to create the following text. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow
It is two o'clock on the out-patients' afternoon and the hall of the hospital in which they assemble is already well filled with women and children; men are not treated here. Some thirty thousand of them enter these doors in the course of the year, passing in turn into the consulting-room, where high ability and wide experience are at their service, thence through another door to the dispensary where the prescriptions are made up, and down a passage into the street again. The number of patients is large and the time allotted to them is relatively very short indeed; but this is not a consideration which has much weight with the majority of the visitors who are chatting sociably in the waiting-room. As the clock strikes, the nurse on duty ushers the first comer into the consulting-room. She advances with a cheerful smile towards the doctor, dragging the little patient behind her.
“Well, what’s the matter?”
“Well really, doctor,” says the patient's mother, “I don’t rightly know what’s the matter with ’im but ’e’s downright bodily ill,—bodily ill.”
“Well, but what do you notice wrong with him yourself?”
“I ’ardly know, doctor. My young man, ’e says to me,—’e just got a bit o’ work yesterday, ’e did, ’e’s a labourer at the docks—an’ as I was say in’, ’e just come ’ome from ’is work larst night an’ ’e says, ‘W’y, Missus, what’s tho matter with the kid? ’ An’ I says to ’im, “W’y, yer do frighten me—” “yer, doctor,” the woman answers, a little injured by the interruption. “When my young man says to me “W’y what’s the matter with the kid? I tell yer I was that scared I began to feel queer all over. I do suffer from the ’eart, doctor, an’ ’ave done for years, an’ when my young man—”
“Look here, Missis,” the doctor interposes; “if you can’t tell me what’s the matter with the child you must go outside and wait.”
The woman ignores this suggestion. “Yer see, doctor,” she pursues, “I carn’t ’elp feelin’ anxious about ’im. ’Tain’t as if I ’ad a lot; I never 'ad but three, an’ buried two of ’em with the fever, which they was taken to Homerton an’ me livin’ down at Deptford, it was a terrible long way to get to see ’em; an’ so when my young—”
“Look here, my good woman,” says the doctor decisively, “you go and sit on that chair over there, and when you’ve made up your mind what’s the matter with the child, you can come back. Next one, please, nurse.”
The next one comes in carrying a baby in her arms and leading a little girl of five or six.
“And what’s the matter with you, Polly?” says the doctor.
“Oh it ain’t ’er, it’s the baby, doctor. She’s got a corf.”
“Yes; a narsty, ’ackin’ corf.”
The doctor wishes to examine the patient’s chest and the woman lays the baby flat on its face, undoes several knots, and removes a series of small garments, but is finally checked by a knot which only becomes tighter for her efforts to untie it. She tackles it vigorously with tooth and nail, while the baby howls dismally. Growing desperate, she breaks the string and discovers to her dismay that this is not the last line of defence. Underneath the little jacket is a piece of flannel sewn firmly round the body. With this she wrestles silently and at last the nurse offers a pair of scissors.
“How long has she had the cough?”
“It ain’t a she; it’s a boy.”
“Well, how long has he had the cough?”
“Oh, ’e’s ’ad it a long time.” “What do you call a long time? A week?”
“Oh, more’n a week, doctor.”
“Oh no, ’e ain’t ’ad it a year.”
“About a month?”
“Well,” in a burst of candour, “I really dunno, doctor; you see it ain’t my child, it’s my sister’s child. That’s ’ow I was so long undressin’ of ’im.”
“But why is your sister not here?” “She’s that nervous,” the deputy explains apologetically, “an’ so I says as ’ow I’ll take ’im myself. She’s a-sittin’ outside, she is.”
The case is quickly treated and the conversation with the first lady resumed. “Well, Missis, have you settled why you brought the child?” She has; during the interval she has recalled the symptoms and is able to describe them with a wealth of picturesque detail.
“I think myself ’e’s got a touch of the croup,” she says confidently. " ’E’s so wheezy on ’is little chest, an’ ’e gets that convulsed of nights as you dunno whether Vs dead or alive; an’ ’is little spine do rattle so, that we don’ get no sleep. Sometimes ’e burns like a little coal, you carn’t ’ardly abear ’im in bed wi’ you, ‘e’s that ’ot; an’ sometimes ’e perspires like a bloomin’ pond, an’—”
“My good woman,” says the doctor irritably, with his ear to the child’s chest, “how do you suppose I can hear anything while you keep on talking!”
“Beg pardon, I’m sure, doctor,” says the mother much aggrieved by this unjust reproach; “but I thought as ’ow you’d arsked me wot was the matter with ’im.”
She disappears, injured but not unforgiving, prescription in hand through the second door into the dispensary.
The next patient was evidently seriously ill.
“You must leave the child here,” the doctor says. “She has inflammation of the lungs.”
“Leave ’er ’ere,—in the ’orspital? Oh my gracious!” says the mother, much agitated by the suggestion. “Oh, I don’t see as I can do that, doctor. I lef’ ’er ’ere once before an’ they turned ’er out more dead’n alive. An’ then there was ’er boots,—she come in with a good pair o’ boots on ’er feet, an’ I never saw ’em no more.” “And you think we stole them?” says the doctor.
“I don’t go so fur as to say stole,” says the mother darkly; “all I says is she ’ad a good pair of boots on ’er feet when she went in, an’ I never seen ’em since. It ain’t fur me to say ’oo’s wearin’ them boots now, but I don’t ’ardly like to leave ’er ’ere agen.” “You must do as you like,” says the doctor shortly; “but if you take her out, you will kill her;” and influenced either by this warning or by the fact that the boots the child is now wearing are hardly good enough to seduce either doctors or nurses from the path of honesty, she acquiesces reluctantly.
Her successor is a Polish Jewess who had come in two days previously, speaking no English but armed with a piece of paper on which some friend had written an account of the illness. “Had Measuls, now got no Measuls, have a Corf, tissicky Corf,” ran the document, but it did not shed enough light on the case, and the doctor had sent her away with a piece of paper on which he had written, “Some one who speaks English must come with the patient to-morrow.” She has now returned, with a companion.
“Ask her what’s the matter,” says the doctor.
The interpreter turns to the patient and repeats, “Doctor says, what’s the matter?” The Jewess shakes her head. “Doctor says, what’s the matter?” repeats the interpreter very loudly. The Jewess patiently shakes her head again. The interpreter puts her lips to her friend’s ear and screams at the top of her voice, “Doctor says, what’s the matter?”
“Why don’t you say it in Polish?” asks the doctor.
“Oh, I dunno no Polish,” says the interpreter much surprised.
“But what have you come for then?”
“I dunno, sir,” says the interpreter; “but you said on her paper as ’ow you wanted someun ’oo could speak English. But she don’t understand no English, she don’t,” she adds with a pitying glance at her companion; “she’s a furriner, pore thing.”
The mother of the next patient is also a Jewess who professes to be able to talk English. In reply to the opening question, “What is the matter?” she replies readily, “I not know; he is seek.”
“Does he cough?”
“Does he cough,— husten, you know. Don’t you talk German?”
“No, he not husten,” she answers,
“he is seek.”
“Does he take his food?” “Whaat?”
“Does he eat?—essen” says the doctor rapidly champing an imaginary meal. The woman looks at him, faintly interested in his pantomime and repeats despondently that the child is “seek.”
“You don’t understand German? Yes, all right, I know he is seek. Oh, you’ve got a friend outside? Let’s have her in, then.”
The friend appears and a long and animated conversation in Yiddish follows accompanied by expressive gesticulations; then the newcomer turns to the doctor and smilingly gives him the gist of the dialogue.
“Zis chile, he is seek.”
“So I have heard already,” says the doctor coldly; “if you can’t tell mo anything more than that—”
“He is seek all over,” the linguist continues impressively. “He not eat, he not sleep, he all fire.” She stops short dramatically.
“Yes?” says the doctor encouragingly. But there is no response; the history of the case is at an end.
The next child is a sadly emaciated infant of five months. “’E don’t put on no flesh, doctor; ‘e’s awastin’ awav to a shadder, that’s what ’e’s doin’, pore little angel. ’Is chest do sound ’oiler, don’t it, doctor? That’s ’cos ’e ain’t ’ad ’is tea.”
“What are you giving him in the way of food?”
“Oh, ’e ’as a bit of what’s goin’, same as we do; ’e’s wonderful ’earty at ’is food.”
“But what sort of food?” asks the doctor contemplating the tiny wrinkled haggard face of the hearty eater. “Cheese?”
“No, ’e don’t ’ave much cheese; ’e don’t like it.”
“Yes, ’e ’as a tidy drop of tea.”
“No, ’e don’t often ’ave no beer; ’is father gives ’im a drop now an’ agen.”
“He doesn’t have any milk, I suppose?” asks the doctor sarcastically.
“He do ’ave some milk, doctor, but ’e don’t care for it without there’s tea in it. I dunno what ’e’d do if we was to stop ’is tea.”
She is followed by an anxious little girl with a baby in her arms and a mite of three hanging on to her scanty skirts. “Please, doctor, I du’no what ter do with the baby; ’e keeps on a-’ollerin’.”
“Why didn’t your mother bring him?” asks the doctor.
“We ain’t got no muvver, sir.”
“Who looks after you all, then?”
“There ain’t no one but me, sir; I looks after ’em;” and the baby’s clean well-cared for condition testifies eloquently to her success.
“Well, Polly, you say that baby’s always crying; what are you giving him?”
“I did giv’ ’im cow’s milk but it only made ’im ’oiler more, sir, so I’m tryin’ Nestle’s milk wich a lady downstairs give me, and a hegg of a mornin’ sometimes; but ’e don’t seem satisfied, and ’oilers so of a night father don’t get no sleep.”
“Look here, Polly, you go home and ask your father if you may leave him in the hospital; that would be the best thing for him.”
The child hesitates. “Very well,” she says reluctantly after a doubtful pause. “But I may come an’ see ’im in the orspital, mayn’t I, sir? cos ’e’s my bruvver, and ’e’s a nice baby.”
“Of course you can; and by the way, how old are you?”
The baby’s careworn guardian was nine last birthday.
The next interview is extremely brief and somewhat stormy. A woman hurries in determined to leave her child in the hospital, but unfortunately for her convenience it is not ill enough to justify its admission. She tries persuasion and coaxing in vain and finally sweeps out of the room with a shrill crescendo of taunt and denunciation. “Call yerselves a ’orspital?” is her parting volley as she slams the door behind her. “I calls yer a set of bloomin’ murderers!”
The out-patient department is open only at stated hours, but the casualty-room, where the house-surgeon sees minor ailments, is never closed. The accident-bell rings frequently enough, but there is never a great stream of patients waiting to pour in, and consequently a more leisurely air prevails. Here are two children aged eight and three; the elder child explains that her little sister, Sally, has swallowed a farthing; at least the coin has disappeared mysteriously while in Sally’s possession and they are naturally anxious to recover it; the consequence to Sally’s digestive arrangements is evidently of only secondary importance. An emetic is administered and the little patient sits demurely on the edge of the sofa with her hands folded on her lap, awaiting events, observing doctor and nurses solemnly with her large grey eyes. After a due interval another dose is given, but still no result follows. Various devices are tried but without success; in defiance of all contrivances for making a child sick, the little maiden sits unconcernedly on the sofa, her hands still calmly folded, gently swinging her toes. But the elder child’s patience is at last exhausted. With a series of violent thumps on her sister’s spine, she shouts : “Sick it up, Sally, carn’t yer? Sick it up at once, silly; wo won’t get no tea if yer don’t.” The method is unprofessional but efficacious; and the next moment a wild-eyed three-year-old has “sicked up” the missing coin.
The little girls go home to tea and are succeeded by an individual in baggy trousers several sizes too large for him, a coat that reaches down to his ankles, and an enormous pair of boots in which he shuffles along with considerable difficulty. The quiet deferential tone in which he speaks would do credit to a butler in Berkeley Square, but his accent is unmistakably of the East. His age he states is ten.
“Where do you live?” asks the nurse with the register.
“Loimce, Miss,” he answers politely.
“Loimce?” repeats the nurse, a new arrival at the hospital. “How do you spell it?”
A shade of embarrassment crosses his face at this disconcerting question but he is not unequal to it. “Oi just spells it Loimce, Miss, when oi writes it.”
“L-O-I-M-C-E?” suggests the nurse.
“Yes, Miss, that’s roight; you’ve got ’im on the boko.”
“Got what?” asks the nurse puzzled.
The boy looks round somewhat wearily, as if asking what is the use of talking to such uninformed people as this.
“He means Limehouse, Nurse,” says the doctor.
“Thanks, guvner,” says the boy, infinitely relieved at finding someone at hand who is evidently not without glimmerings of intelligence. “And what’s the matter with you, sonny?” the doctor continues. “Why, who did this?” It is a nasty knife-wound in the arm.
“A bloke, guvner.”
“What were you doing to the bloke?” asks the doctor as he washes the wound.
“But you must have been doing something.”
“No, guvner, oi ain’t touched ’im,” he declares earnestly.
But the doctor notes the singular discrepancy between the size of the boy and the size of his boots. “Are those your fathor’s boots?” he enquires with apparent irrelevance.
“No, guvner; ’e ain’t got none.”
“Where did you get them, Johnny?”
“From a bloke.”
“The bloke that knifed you?” Johnny hesitates a moment and then nods assent.
“Drunk?” asks the doctor busy, with his bandages.
“Corse not, guvner,” answers the patient. “’E wouldn’t ’ave got me if i ’e’d been drunk, only a bit on, ’e was. Yer see ’e ’ad the kickers under ’is arm, and oi thought ’e was all roight, i so oi pinched [stole] ’em and ’e knoifed me.”
“You must come up to-morrow and get it dressed,” says the doctor, and the boy shuffles away. The doctor glancing out of the window after him, observes that he slips off the boots, making his way discreetly and warily barefoot down the street, lest by any chance the “bloke” should be lying in ambush.
There is an interval of silence; then a sudden peal at the accident-bell is heard, and the next moment an agitated parent is seen running down the passage with a child tucked under t her arm, its bare legs streaming behind 1 it in the wind of its mother’s rapidity.
“What’s the matter, Missis? Has she swallowed some poison?” “No, sir, it ain’t that,” she pants; “but I’m that scared, I don’t know ’ardly which way to turn.”
“Well, but what’s happened? Has she hurt herself?”
“No, sir; and ’er father ’e’s that upset ’e couldn’t do nothink, else I ain’t used to running like that, and ’e’d ’ave brought ’er up, but he says as ’ow ’e daren’t touch ’er, and I’ve run all the way, an’ me ’eart—”
“Come now, Missis, just tell me quietly what’s the matter with the child.”
The patient, a pretty little thing of four, looks enquiringly at her alarmed parent; there seems to be little the matter with her.
“It’s all very well yer a-sittin’ there and a-tellin’ of me to be quiet,” cries her mother; “if yer ’ad any children of yer own, yer wouldn’t like ter see ’em die afore yer eyes, oh dear, oh dear, and there ain’t only two more and the baby.”
The doctor in despair examines the little girl, but fails to discover anything wrong. “Now look here,” says he firmly; “I can’t find anything the matter with your child, so you’ll have to go away unless you tell me why you brought her up to the hospital.”
“Well, doctor, we was all a-havin’ our tea a minute ago as it might be, and ’er father was eatin’ a nice bit of tripe as was over from dinner, when Susy, that’s ’er, says as ’ow she loved God and was goin’ to ’eaving [heaven] when she doied. What?” in tones of horror, “Ain’t yer goin’ to give ’er no medicine?”
- Medicine and Medical Care in Victorian England (homepage)
- Hospitals in Victorian England (homepage)
- Public Health (homepage)
- Applicants to a Casual Ward (1874) by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, R. A.
“Out-Patients.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 84 (1901): 114-19. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. Web. 8 November 2020.
Last modified 9 November 2020