All the paupers in the workhouse, except those disabled by sickness or infirmity, persons of unsound mind, and children, shall rise, be set to work, leave off work, and go to bed at such times, and shall be allowed such intervals for their meals as the Board of Guardians shall, by any regulation approved by the Poor Law Commissioners, direct; and these several times shall be notified by the ringing of a bell.
Report of the Poor Law Commissioners (1845)
A bell was ringing clang clang in my ears. The chapel bell from the Congregational Church down at the bottom of our street. Pa hates the chapel bell—Saturday nights he works late in the hot dusty composing room drinking porter and rum to cool his throat. When he’s done he stops by the Public Baths in Queen’s Road to have a wash and when he comes home all clean and tired he has his supper while we read from the paper and then he goes straight to bed and wants to sleep till noon. He says if he ever finds out the name of the bloody Christian ringing that bell he’ll thump on his door at midnight and see how he likes being woken in the middle of the bloody night.
The bell kept ringing and it wasn’t the chapel bell we weren’t at home we were in this other place and Papa was in Africa. It was morning and the old granny was standing in the doorway ringing a bell and telling us to get up and get dressed. I fell asleep after all and Vic didn’t come to bed. She was still standing in the corner her head pressed against the wall. Miss Humphrey didn’t come back. She let Vic stand there all night.
“Forgot about you most likely,” the old lady said and went back out.
The floor was cold as ice.
“Vicky? Are you all right?”
Vic lifted her head from the wall and looked at me but it was like she wasn’t seeing me. Her skin was dark under her eyes and there was a sore-looking place on her forehead from pressing against the wall.
“Come to bed, Vicky.”
She shook her head—no, she couldn’t do that. Not till Miss Humphrey said.
I put my arms around her waist and hugged her and I could feel her shivering with the cold. The skin on her arms and legs was blue-white like Gran’s willow pattern platter. Would she catch her death? I thought of William being an angel now up in Heaven. Was Vic going to be an angel too? Was she going to die from standing here all night in the cold?
The other girls were getting dressed and looking over at us but nobody said anything. Then the door opened and it was Matron and the granny and I thought I’d get in trouble for not being dressed. She didn’t look at me though did she? She came up to where I was standing next to Vic and put a hand on her shoulder. She said she might go to bed now. She said it kindly too in a very different sort of voice and kept her hand on Vic’s shoulder to guide her. Together they walked slowly over to Vic’s bed and Matron helped her get under the blanket. Then she told the granny to bring a hot water bottle and a cup of tea right away. And then Matron did something I never expected to see: she said she was sorry.
“Miss Humphrey didn’t mean you to stand there all night,” she said. “She got busy and forgot about you. I promise you, it won’t happen again.”
Vic’s eyes stayed closed and it was hard to tell if she even heard what Matron said. But I heard and the rest of the girls heard and we looked at each other like we could hardly believe it. “Well!” we were thinking. “What do you think of that, then?”
Before she left the room Matron told the granny she’d be back to look in on the girl but she wasn’t to be moved all morning.
“Will she need the Dispenser, do you think?”
“I hardly think that’s likely, Mrs. Pratt. Let’s not be making mountains out of molehills.”
The granny said something about Vic looking poorly and Matron said was it any wonder, she’d been standing in the cold all night. But she sounded worried and went back to the bed and put her hand on Vic’s forehead for a moment.
“No fever,” she said. “She’ll be all right. But let her sleep. And be sure she has something hot to eat when she wakes up.”
Once she was out the door I went to see if Vic needed anything but she had her eyes closed like she was asleep or pretending to be. So I pulled the blanket up to her chin and when no one was looking I told her I was sorry I got her in trouble and I wouldn’t ever say anything about you-know-what even if they tortured me. Torture is when they tie you up and set you on fire or maybe pull your fingernails out one by one till you tell them you hate Jesus and love the Devil. Sometimes at night I think about being tortured and I just hope and hope it never happens because once Vic dared me to put my hand in a candle and I got burnt and Vic got in trouble for being mean and I got in trouble for being foolish. It hurt a lot and that was just a candle.
After breakfast me and six other new girls were taken downstairs to the kitchen. Rose was already there cutting up carrots on a long table and she stopped to help us put on aprons and get up on stools to reach the table.
Mrs. Prickett who’s in charge of the kitchen set us to work peeling potatoes. Peeling potatoes is something I’m good at. I can do it faster than Vic even who always cuts the peel too thick and leaves bits of it on when she’s done. Rose was working beside me and she was impressed. She said she could see I knew my way around a knife. “You better be careful,” she said to Liz, who was mopping the floor. “She might be more dangerous than her sister.”
Liz didn’t say anything. I guessed she was smarting from spending last night in the Refractory. I was surprised to see her after what Miss Humphrey had said last night about maybe sending Liz away. I wondered was it because of Vic and it being Miss Humphrey’s fault that Vicky almost froze to death. I couldn’t ask anyone but I could think it.
Some of the other girls never used a knife this way. Emily was one of them. She didn’t seem embarrassed about it only said she never did it before. “We always had our meals in the hall,” she said, meaning the musical theatre halls where her parents worked. “We never cooked ourselves. Mama says it’s a sign of good breeding not to be able to cook.”
She said it the quality way—Muh-mah. Most likely that was because of her parents being on the stage. Mrs. Prickett rolled her eyes. “She must go hungry a good deal of the time.”
“Maybe. But she’s an artiste, so she doesn’t mind. Mama says food for the soul is more important than food for the body and if we’re hungry we should learn to rise above it.”
“Your ma sounds like a piece of work to me. Well, you’re here now so pick up that knife and Mrs. Griggs here will show you how it’s done.”
Now it’s not a nice thing to say but I think Mrs. Griggs is a bit simple. She’s not such an old lady but she’s so short I could look her right in the face not even standing on a stool and she gabbled the whole time. She was nice though and she showed Emily how to hold the knife so she wouldn’t cut herself and she told us how the potatoes and carrots and all the veg were grown right there in the Workhouse garden and everyone in the House gets a potato a day and there’s six hundred people in the House so my-oh-my just think how many potatoes that is, do you have any idea?
I made a guess. “Six hundred?”
“Yes! Six hundred potatoes to be peeled, ducks, don’t it make your head waggle?”
It did. Six hundred potatoes is more than I’ve ever seen in my life. And I never saw a kitchen this big. You could feed giants here. The range was huge with two oven doors and Mrs. Griggs said you could roast three or four joints at a time or bake half a dozen pies at the same time as you were boiling cabbage and steaming potatoes on the stove. Steam-jacketed coppers and roasting ovens lined the walls and the soup tureens held gallons of broth.
“You see that there teapot?” she said. “It takes two of us to pour from it and them milk-cans—well, you could milk thirty cows before you’d fill even one of ’em.”
The ones who weren’t peeling potatoes were given other things to do: they fetched coal and cinders and kept pots of water boiling on the stove and stood on stools at the washing tubs to scrub and rinse the pots and pans and rolling pins as they were used. Olive who was the littlest girl was given the very worst job. At least I thought it was the worst. She had to go around the room and look for bugs. If she saw any she had to step on them and make sure they were squashed good and dead. She didn’t seem to mind. She kept track of every bug she killed and told us when she reached one hundred. I thought of Bertha and hoped she was being smart and staying safe in the dormitory.
The only one who didn’t do any peeling or chopping or cooking was Mr. Marshall, the Cook. He mostly just gave orders. He was nice though. He asked did I want a puff of his pipe and then he laughed and said he was just joking, he could see I wasn’t one of them modern girls who smoked and went on a tear. And then he laughed again and gave Rose a nudge and said, “Not like some I could mention. Ain’t that right, my little Rose of Tralee?” Rose ignored him but he didn’t seem to mind. Then he said he’d give me a sweet if I wanted to come outside and look at the garden but Mrs. Prickett told him to behave himself or she’d report him to the Master. He didn’t like her saying that. He went all huffy and left the kitchen and didn’t come back till dinner was ready.
“Good for you, Mrs. Prickett, that’s telling him,” Mrs. Griggs said. “He needs to be reminded to keep his hands to hisself if he wants to keep his position.”
“Oh, I don’t mind telling him off. He thinks we don’t know what he’s up to but his reputation precedes him, as they say.”
An old woman across the room looked up from rolling out dough. She shook her finger and little clouds of flour dust flew around in the air. “He should be reported to the Guardians. It’s the littleuns I worries about. Why don’t he pick on someone his own size?”
“Well, that’s what it’s all about, ain’t it?” Mrs. Griggs said. “He don’t like anyone his own size and that’s the whole problem.”
Mrs. Prickett snorted. “He couldn’t handle a woman his own size. Wouldn’t know what to do with her is my guess!”
Then they all laughed and it was nice the way they talked back and forth like regular people. It was like when Mama and Aunt Mary and Gran get together to make pickles. All the while they’re cutting up the cabbages and French beans and mushrooms and the pots are boiling on the stove with the steam rising and the vinegar and onions stinging their eyes and they’ll be laughing about poor Mr. Elliot down the street who dyes his hair with shoe polish and goes out in the rain without a hat. Or little Miss Cranmer who teaches at the Infant School and rides to school on a tricycle. The tears just stream down their cheeks and you don’t know if it’s because they’re laughing so hard or the onions are causing it.
Those are the best times to be around Mama. It only happens when there’s no men in the room. If Papa or Uncle Joe sticks their head in to ask about a cup of tea or when is supper going to be ready it all stops.
“We’re up to our elbows in it, can’t you see? Off with you now and we’ll call you when it’s ready.”
Any other time Mama would drop what she was doing to fetch the tea or get supper and Aunt Mary would do the same. Times like these though when there are more women than men is when the women are in charge. And the men just go away and wait.
Mrs. Griggs nudged me. “Someone’s in luck,” she said, looking over to where they were rolling out pastry on a long table with a marble top. “They’re making meat pies there for somebody’s dinner.”
Pies! Lovely pies filled with meat and carrots and baked till the dark brown juices come squishing through the pricks in the crust. I could be happy peeling potatoes forever if pie was waiting at the end of it.
As they were rolling out the dough a big old tabby cat leaped on to the table, right in the middle of where they were working.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Mrs. Prickett. She caught him up and put him back on the floor. “Go on now, catch yourself a mouse.”
“That’s Thomas,” Mrs. Griggs said. “He belongs to Mr. Marshall. He’s a great mouser that cat, catches three maybe four mice a day. Takes ’em outside and buries ’em, would you credit it? But he shows us them first and gets his saucer of cream—that’s his reward, ain’t that right, Mrs. Prickett?”
“Right you are, Mrs. Griggs, and it’s an outlandish extravagance. If the Guardians knew even a penny of the Workhouse food budget was being spent on a cat they’d take measures.”
“But he won’t eat nothing else, will he?” Mrs.Griggs turned to us girls and explained: “We’ve tried to give him bits of whatever’s cooking and he turns up his nose. And if you don’t give him his cream he goes off in a sulk and hides away until Cook goes and find him and makes peace. Ain’t that right, Mrs. Prickett?”
“It is indeed, Mrs. Griggs. Gruel and gravy are fine for the likes of us but Lord Thomas has higher standards!”
All this talk about food was making my stomach growl. I thought about what I’d had to eat since yesterday: bread and butter and tea for supper and bread and tea and porridge for breakfast. Not like Gran’s porridge though. Workhouse porridge is nothing like what Gran makes. It’s thin as water and has no taste and worst of all you get it cold. Maybe it starts out warm but by the time it gets to you it’s cold and disgusting and the slippery paste sticks in your throat and you can’t get down more than a couple of spoonsful.
But dinner was going to be better. There’d be potatoes of course or why would we be peeling so many? And pie. I could live on pie. When it’s berry season Mama sometimes gives us a penny for the pie-man as a treat. Not in the winter though as then his pies are made from cats-meat and the little boys run after him yelling “Mee-yow! Mee-yow!” Mama says it’s not so but best not to chance it anyhow.
Gran makes the best meat pies. She says rabbits make the best pies because every part of the rabbit is good to eat but I don’t like to think about eating rabbits. I like it better when she makes fish pies or cottage pies. Conger eels make good pies too. On St. Stephen’s Day she makes a pie with ham and turkey that’s the best in all the world. When Gran was little growing up on the farm they kept geese and her mother always made pies with the goose left over from Christmas.
“You mean Mother Goose?”
Old Mother Goose/When she wanted to wander/Would ride through the air/On a very fine gander.
“No, child, not Mother Goose. Just an ordinary goose. Well, perhaps one of her children.”
“I’m joking, Edith bach. Nothing to do with Mother Goose, I promise.”
Still, I’m glad Gran uses turkey in her pies. Or chicken. It would be best if you never had to eat anything that was alive but chickens are annoying and the turkeys they sell at the market are ugly and a little bit frightening. They’re birds but you can’t keep them as pets. Aunt Mary had a bird as a pet but it died. Not a pigeon like Uncle Arthur has but a blue and green budgerigar and he chattered to himself in bird-talk all day long. My cousins were always trying to get him to say real words but he wasn’t interested. Aunt Mary said he preferred to hold discussions with the bird in the mirror of his cage because he thought it was another bird just like him. His name was Poppy and when he died we gave him a proper funeral in the little park across the street. Uncle Joe made a marker out of wood and wrote on it: POPPY 1870 – 1878. Farewell our little feathered friend. R.I.P.
I asked Uncle Joe what R.I.P. meant and he said it was Rotting In Perpetuity but then he said he was only joking and that it really meant Rest In Peace. Sometimes my uncle’s jokes aren’t very funny.
It wasn’t just me getting hungry. A girl everyone calls Skinny Minnie was taking scraps of peel and stuffing them in her mouth when she thought no one was looking. She looked hungry enough to think a raw potato skin is as good as food. I hoped no one would see the way she was sneaking bits of peel in the pockets of her apron to eat later on but Mrs. Prickett saw and thumped her on the back of her head with a wooden spoon. “If I catch you stealing food again you’ll be reported. Now empty your pockets and let’s see what all you got in there.”
Skinny Minnie did what she was told and set out the scraps of peel on the table in front of her. Everybody stopped working and watched to see what would happen.
“I know you,” Mrs. Prickett said. “I remember you from when you were in here before. You should know better, shouldn’t you? If Mr. Marshall found you out you’d be given a whipping. Go stand over in that corner and keep out of the way till we finish. And if I see you pinch so much as a breadcrumb I’ll thrash you myself.”
The rest of us kept quiet but it seemed a lot of fuss over a handful of potato peelings. They were only going into the bin to be fed with slops to the workhouse pigs . . . what was the harm in eating a couple?
Mrs. Prickett seemed to guess what we were thinking. “You lot think it’s not stealing, don’t you, taking a bit of potato peel and hiding it in your apron? Well, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ve known kitchens where the staff helped themselves to a bit of this and a bit of that and what happened? A bit gets to be a lot and pretty soon you’ve got people walking out with their pockets full of bread and packets of cheese hid up their skirts. And the food that’s rightfully meant for the inmates gets sold outside the house and everyone’s being cheated all ’round. And it all starts with a bit of potato peel stuffed in a pocket.”
We all got very quiet after this. Even Mrs. Griggs stopped talking and just kept her head down and worked on the potatoes. Just as the pies were coming out of the oven, the dinner bell went.
“Off you go now,” Mrs. Prickett said. “And Lord knows I hope you’ve learned something here today. Especially you.”
She said that to Skinny Minnie who was snuffling in the corner and wiping her tears with the back of her sleeve. I caught up with her on the way out. I had something for her—a piece of raw potato that slipped onto the floor and didn’t get swept up. It wouldn’t taste very good but if you’ll eat a peel you’ll eat anything won’t you? Skinny Minnie took it and slipped it into her pocket and we smiled at each other and I thought how it was nice to have a friend here even if I wasn’t going to be staying.
Vic was already in the dinner line. I snuck in behind her and took her hand and gave it a quick squeeze. She didn’t say anything and she didn’t squeeze back but she was out of bed which meant she hadn’t caught her death and God forgave me for getting her in trouble. Did this mean I must always be good like I promised and stop pulling at my hair? Because God didn’t really answer my prayer the way I asked did He? He let Vic stand in the corner all night and almost catch her death which was sort of mean. So maybe I could try to be good and only pull my hair when I really, really need to.
This is what you call a Compromise. Papa says it’s what they do at the paper when the printers want more money and the people who own it don’t want to give it them. He says it like it’s not a very good thing and when it happened last time he came home and threw his printer’s stick in the corner and said he was quitting. He said he’d emigrate before he’d let himself be treated like a common labourer and there were plenty of places in the world desperate for compositors especially journeyman printers like him and he was damned if he was going to turn himself into a drudge for forty bloody shillings a week. Mama said the children meaning not to swear in front of us but he just turned around and went back out and slammed the door behind him. He did go back to work the next day but they let him go and then he didn’t work for a long time. And then William died and he left.
The Assistant Matron came through the door and began her walk down the corridor checking for Infractions. When she got to Vic she smiled and kept walking.
Like a real person.
Vic had won.