Orwell’s first night in a casual ward is uncomfortable and stifling. All the lodgers are required to strip naked and turn over their possessions to the porter, who abuses them verbally. They begin their evening in the ward by bathing, but the facilities are so inadequate that many of the men end up washing with water fouled by other men’s dirty feet. They’re given skimpy nightshirts to wear and a dinner of bread and hot chocolate. They are then locked up in 8 by 8 foot cells with one other man. Orwell’s companion is an old tramp who tries to rape him during the night.
The men who stay in casual wards are herded together like beasts. Stripped of their own clothing, they lose their individuality and are, in effect, treated like prisoners. Orwell goes on to show how they are likewise prisoners of an unfair system of laws perpetuated by the wealthy. The attempted rape is yet another violation, the old man an example of what a lifetime of poverty does to body and soul.
The next day they are given back their clothes, fed a breakfast identical to their dinner, and let out into what amounts a prison yard to peel potatoes. A medical student comes to inspect them for smallpox. Again, they’re stripped naked and the sight of their underfed, ravaged bodies is ugly and pathetic. Orwell panics for a moment upon seeing that his cellmate’s chest is covered in a red rash, but it’s not smallpox, the medical student deems. It’s simply a symptom of malnourishment.
Orwell suggests that poverty is an illness in itself—not contagious like smallpox, perhaps, but nevertheless quietly insidious, it eats away at a man’s sense of self. The ugly line of bodies and, more specifically, the red rash, is proof that poverty is a pox on an entire population of men.
Orwell pairs up with Paddy Jacques, a melancholy Irishman, and the two set out to make the 12-mile walk to another casual ward, stopping at a coffee shop along the way to spend the meal tickets given to them at the previous spike. The waitress at first refuses to serve them, but she finally gives them bread and tea, the value of which is far below what the ticket promised. Cheating tramps with casual ward meal tickets is a common practice.
English law allows men only one-night stays at the city’s casual wards, so the poor are forever going on long and pointless hikes made even more arduous by their malnourished state, and they’re malnourished partially because they’re continually cheated out of their fair share of food. Another day, another cruel an inescapable cycle.