The care and training of children are matters which should receive the anxious attention of Guardians. Pauperism is in the blood, and there is no more effectual means of checking its hereditary nature than by doing all in our power to bring up our pauper children in such a manner as to make them God-fearing, useful and healthy members of society.
The Poor Law Handbook (1903)
They cut everybody’s hair excepting mine. Matron said they weren’t to cut my hair not touch a lock of it because of it being so pretty. She didn’t say that to my face she wouldn’t would she as it would likely make me swellheaded and boastful.
“The Good Lord doesn’t care what you look like.” She rose into the air like a mountain and the great swelling of her bosoms made the blood rise in my cheeks. “He doesn’t care if you have three heads or if your skin is brown as a picaninny’s. He sees into your soul and He knows it to be black. As black as tar.”
Like the tar on my sister’s feet. Vic had no boots all summer they were too small and I wore them instead. Down to the corner Vic’s old boots flop-flopping against the cobbles watching the men in their cloth caps and bare arms all sweating. Lifting shovels of dripping hot coals into the air then dropping them hard on the ground turning the dirt shiny and black. Vic was barefoot. Mama said stay inside don’t run around like a hooligan child but Vic wouldn’t listen—well she never does does she? And now the bottoms of her feet were thick with pieces of tar hard as shoe leather.
I thought of telling Matron what Papa always says. Papa doesn’t believe in God. He says God was dreamed up by the state to make people forget the hunger in their bellies. He would have laughed at Matron and we would have laughed too. Because Papa was there and we wouldn’t be afraid. But Papa is gone to find diamonds and we aren’t allowed to talk about him. Not to mention his name nor ask questions.
This is something I keep forgetting. When Mama said we were to come here to this place I said why and Mama said because your father has left us. I started to cry and Gran sent me to the greengrocer’s for a bag of windfall apples on account. The greengrocer gave me the apples and a piece of barley sugar to suck. She called me a poor wee tyke and then she and Old Lady Finnegan shook their heads: it was a shame a man should not be allowed to leave his family to the workhouse. But I was happy because the sweet was filling my mouth with loveliness and I hadn’t had any since Papa left.
When Matron said my soul was black I thought I’d tell Papa when he got back. He’d fix her he would. But then I heard Matron speak to the old woman with the scissors. “Have you ever seen such a beautiful head of hair? It would be criminal to cut it. She may be a pauper’s brat but she has the hair of an angel. Run a comb through it to check for nits then send her to the bath.”
Vic’s hair was long and straight the colour of roast chestnuts. Matron pushed her at the old woman. “Take this one in hand and be quick. I don’t like the look of her. We’ll see how smart she feels with her head shaved.”
I thought Vic would say something but she only winked like to say this is just a game we don’t care do we? (This was before the bath where they tried to scrub the tar from her feet. She didn’t feel like winking after that.)
When Vic’s hair was lying on the floor and what was left on her head was jagged like a raggedy boy’s Matron pointed to where a girl stood waiting leaning on sticks. One leg was shorter than the other and she wore a gray smock with faded stripes and an apron and no cap so you could see her hair was short as short as Vic’s almost. She was fatter than me and she had a purple mark on her face from where the stork bit her.
“This is Jane Sullivan,” Matron said. “Jane has been here a long time and she knows where everything is, don’t you, Jane? I want you to go with her and she’ll show you where to get undressed. Then you’ll be washed and come back to me. Get along, now.”
It was surprising how quick Jane moved pulling herself forward on her sticks. We had to hurry to keep up. We passed an older girl with a big stomach carrying a mop and pail and Vic whispered, “Up the pole.” I turned to see but the girl gave us such a hard look that I turned around again and hurried after Vic.
Mama says this is our new home but it doesn’t seem like it can be a home with no ceilings only bare rafters and everywhere the smell of carbolic soap and stale bread. She says we won’t stay here long, a week or two at most. Just till she finds work. Or until Papa comes back. Mama didn’t say that but I know he’ll come back when he knows how sad we are without him. He won’t come back for the baby though. He doesn’t want Teddy. I heard him say so.
I heard him say something else too: he called Mama a whore. I know about whores. I’ve seen them sitting on the steps waiting for sailors to come up from the canal and soldiers leaving the pub. Some of them are dressed lovely with their hair up and all smiling at the men. Agnes Mitchell is one. She used to be a hat-maker but when she was going to have her baby the man who owned the factory told her not to come to work anymore so she waited until her baby was born and gave him up to a wet nurse so she could go back to work. But the factory man wouldn’t take her back he said he had enough girls. And her mother said she couldn’t come home to Putney for the shame of what she did having a baby without a husband and all.
Vic says she’s never going to get her baby back. She says the wet nurse killed him even though Agnes paid money each week for his keep. I wish I knew how Vic knows this but she won’t say she never will. And Agnes doesn’t talk about her baby any more except when she’s been drinking. If we pass her doorway she holds out her arms and says come here little one let me pat your curls. And she puts her arms around me and cries for her baby and I let her do it because I feel sorry for her. But still it isn’t very nice with the smell of the tap-room on her. Soon as I can I get away and don’t pass her doorway again until I see her go out.
I told Mama I’m going to be a whore when I grow up and wear lovely clothes and smile at the men. Mama laughed but Gran was upset and said I must never say such a terrible thing again as long as I live.
Afterwards when we were in bed Vic said she won’t marry at all—she’ll have lovers instead. I asked what are lovers and she said it’s what Mrs. Fenwick had who used to live next door. Mr. Fenwick was a stoker at the brewery and he worked nights shoveling coal. Mrs. Fenwick’s lover came in time for supper and left early in the morning. He was a fat man with a red face who laughed all the time and he always had sweets for the Fenwick boys. He was nicer than Mr. Fenwick and never hit her and when they ran away together her boys had to go live with their grandmother. Still he was very fat. I thought about what Vic said and decided I’d still rather be a whore.
The windows here are too high up to see out of and whitewashed so even if they were down low you wouldn’t know if there were gardens or nice places to play. Are you allowed to play here? Nobody says.
There’s writing everywhere mostly about God: God Is Good. God Is Holy. God Is Love. There’s other signs too: Smoking is Strictly Forbidden. Master’s Dining Room. Nursery. Mortuary. Papa says we should take every opportunity to practice our reading so I read the signs out loud as we walked till Vic told me to shut up. All along the hallways old ladies were crouched on their hands and knees scrubbing scrubbing not lifting their heads nor saying a word. The doors we passed were all shut with great iron bars nailed across them. Do they lock you in? Can you get out if you need to? What if I have to go at night and I can’t get out? Mama says I’m always worrying about things that may never happen. But I don’t know how to stop thinking about these things once I start.
We followed Jane through an open door that said DISINFECTORS and into a small room fitted out with an iron tub and a stove. My nose filled with the smell of carbolic. Jane said this was where we’d have our wash.
“Have yeh had a wash before?”
“Of course,” Vic said. “We wash in the scullery every night. And on Saturday night we have a bath in front of the fire.”
Vic laughed but it wasn’t a nice laugh. Her neck looked sore and hurting from where the old woman held her while she cut off her hair. “Why? Don’t you?”
“I never had no bath in my life till I come to this place. They put me in that tub and rubbed my whole skin off and I hope I never have another one again.”
“What a dirty pig you are.”
“I ain’t. I ain’t a pig.”
“You must be.” Vic said it in the soft voice she uses to tease. “Pigs roll around in muck and don’t wash and if you don’t wash then you’re a dirty pig aren’t you? A stupid dirty little pig.”
Jane’s eyes filled with tears and she started sniveling which only makes it worse. I felt sorry. I wished Vic would stop.
“I ain’t a pig.”
Jane left and it was just me and Vic.
“You made her cry. That was mean.”
Vic grabbed hold of my hair and pulled it, hard. “Shut up Curlylocks. Shut up shut up shut up.”
I shut up and she let go of my hair. I went back to practicing my reading: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
It was written on the wall above the copper tub and it sounded lovely like some kind of poem. What does hyssop mean? Vic might know but she was being mean and you can’t ask when she’s like that. A kind of soap most likely.
Jane came back with a lady in a long white apron carrying another large brass kettle—this was the Washerwoman and you saw that in Jane’s head she was saying now yer in for it. The woman set that kettle on the stove and poured hot water from the other into the tub and said to get undressed. “And be quick about it if you please. There’s six more of you waiting to be done before I get my tea.”
After testing the water with her elbow the Washerwoman added some cold water and then a little more. When she was satisfied with the temperature she turned around and saw that we were still in our clothes. “Are you shy now is that it? Well you’ll want to be getting over that and that’s the truth. We don’t stand on ceremony here do we Jane? Come along now girls get those clothes off. I don’t have all day. Or do you want me to undress you myself?”
We hurried to do as she said. I dropped my underclothes on the floor and held my shift in front of me but Vic stood there in her birthday suit staring at Jane. Daring her to look. Jane kept her eyes on the tub of hot water like she feared a drop might splash and scald her.
“Heavens above,” the woman said. “Will you look at the child? What did you do? Hide behind your sister when they were looking to cut your hair off?”
I looked down at my toes and said nothing. It was Vic who told her that Matron said I was to keep my curls. Vic said it proudly and I was happy because she wasn’t angry anymore and we could be friends. The woman shook her head and smiled. “So the missus has a soft place for beauty. Who’d a-thought it? All right child get yourself into this tub and I’ll wash you curls and all. It’ll make more work for me but I reckon it’s worth it to have one pretty thing in this place. Come along—in you go.”
She was bossy this woman but she wasn’t frightening like Matron. She was a little like Gran except for being Irish with her white hair peeking out from under her day cap. She was clean like Gran too and when she scrubbed her fingers knew where to be hard and where not to. I closed my eyes and thought of being back in Gran’s flat with Uncle Arthur telling funny stories in front of the fire and the strong smell of Gran’s soap tickling my nose.
Diddle diddle dumpling my son John
Went to bed with his britches on
One shoe off and one shoe on
Diddle diddle dumpling my son John.
“Do you have a son Uncle Arthur?” I wanted to know.
“Me? Perish the thought girl. I’m too busy working to be having sons. Or daughters for that matter.”
Uncle Arthur is a Commercial Traveler except Papa calls him a bagman. He spends the week out on the road selling shirts for the White Shirt Company. Saturday nights he comes home early and takes his shoes off and Gran puts her sewing aside and rubs his aching feet. Afterwards she puts a pot of milk on the stove and makes cocoa while we have our bath. And then she settles us down in her bed in the corner of the room and we sip our cocoa while Gran tells stories of Saint David and how he showed the Welsh to take cheese and melt it in a skillet and pour it over biscuits and it is the best food in the world and only Gran makes it so well. Gran knows about the olden days when the Cymric folk drove out the monsters from their land and made Wales the most beautiful place on earth. Gran hasn’t been to Wales since she was a girl and came away to London. When she dies she will be buried there on the farm in Llandbadarn Fawr.
“Will you die then Gran?”
“Someday child—we all die someday.”
“I don’t want you to die Gran.” I began to cry.
Gran said it would be a very very long time before she died and Vic and I would be old ladies and have grandchildren of our own by then. Still I don’t like to think about Gran dying.
The Washerwoman finished with me and helped me out of the tub onto the cold stone floor. I picked up my shift and went to put it on but the woman said no and pointed to where a stack of smocks and aprons were piled neatly on the floor. “You’ll find something there that’ll fit you.” Turning to Vic who had been waiting all this time she said, “All right girl your turn now. Let’s see if we can scrub that frown from your face.”
She said it kind enough but Vic glared at her. Was she going to refuse to be washed? What would happen then? Vic can be very stubborn and since Papa left Mama can do nothing with her. Gran says she’s running wild and if they aren’t careful I will be too because Vic will take me with her.
They’re wrong though. These days Vic wants nothing to do with me. She leaves the house early in the morning and when she comes back at night she won’t say where she’s been. If anyone asks she just says nowhere. Nowhere can mean anything but it usually means doing something you shouldn’t. Or going somewhere you’ve been told not to go. Nowhere is what you tell Mama when you’ve been rolling barrels down Primrose Hill and you come home all scratched up with your nose bloody. Or you go along the Harrow Road to get a drink at the fountain at Paddington Green and some bad boys take your penny and chase you and you come home crying. Or you walk up to Bishop’s Road Bridge to watch the trains and your straw bonnet falls off onto the tracks—the one Gran made with the little cotton flowers—and a train runs over it and Mama says now you’ll get freckles which is what you deserve for leaving the estate without asking.
Sometimes if you are feeling very brave nowhere is going up the Edgeware Road to Bell Street to see if you can sneak into the Metropolitan to watch the conjuring acts and the lady on the trapeze. You have to be careful though. If you’re caught they’ll take you by the ear and haul you out to the street and whistle for a constable. And the constable will give you a tick on the head with his truncheon and send you home crying and when you get home Mama will get it out of you and give you another tick on the head and tell Papa when he gets home. But Papa will laugh and say the theatre should be free and available to everyone so good for you girls for cheating the bastards out of their blood money. And then he and Mama won’t speak all night because of swearing in front of the children and he’ll go out to the pub and Mama will send you to bed early.
That’s where nowhere gets you.
Vic stood for a minute—the cold room making goose-bumps on her skin—then she tossed her head as if to say if you like I’ll get in, I’ve nothing better to do.
It was when she was climbing into the tub that the Washerwoman saw the tar on her feet. “The state of you! Would you credit it? Jane go along to the kitchen and tell them I need a pair of wire brushes and some emery powder. And be quick about it, before the water gets cold.”
All this time Jane was standing not far away saying nothing just watching while I had my bath. She looked at Vic once when she first took her clothes off and Vic looked back and made a face and Jane looked away quickly. She was afraid of Vic already you could tell. Did she tell the Washerwoman what Vic said to her about being a pig and all? Probably not. She looked too frightened to tell anybody anything.
Jane left and when she came back she was carrying two small wire brushes like Gran uses to scrub potatoes and a saucer of powder. The Washerwoman took the powder and spread some of it on the bottoms of Vic’s feet. “You do one foot,” she told Jane, “and I’ll do the other.”
You could see Jane didn’t want to have to go anywhere near Vic or the tub. But she did what she was told and once she started scrubbing away at Vic’s foot she seemed to like it. She must have known how much it was hurting so she was happy to be getting back at Vic for what she said about being a pig.
Once while Jane was working on her foot Vic kicked out at her but the woman saw and spoke sharply: “Here now, we’ll have none of that, miss. You mind your manners or you’ll be sorry.”
So she could be hard too like the Matron. I decided I didn’t like her so much after all. She and Jane scrubbed so hard you’d have thought the skin would fall off. It must have hurt but Vic wouldn’t cry she wouldn’t make a sound. Only bit her lip and looked straight ahead the whole time.
While they were scrubbing away at Vic I put on my new clothes which were not so very new after all. And they were ugly—uglier even than the black dress I was wearing when we came.
“Why do we have to wear black Mama?”
“Because we’re in mourning is why. It’s a sign of respect.”
I said it wasn’t morning and it made no sense but Vic said it was a different kind of morning. It meant being sad because of William.
I didn’t think William cared what we wore because he never did before so why would he now? I kept quiet though because asking made Mama upset.
The stockings were coarse and scratchy and the calico chemise was made for a bigger girl. The petticoats were heavy flannel and the dress was so long I had to hold it up when I walked so as not to trip. There was a sleeveless shapeless smock to put over it and everything smelled of washing powder and starch. The boots were just like Jane’s—heavy and hob-nailed with iron tips.
The Washerwoman looked at me and shook her head. “Never mind. You do look a sight but you’ll be fitted out proper once you’re at school.”
I was struggling with my bootlaces. I’m always bad at tying them. Papa did it for me when he was home. Mama said I’d never learn if he was always doing things for me and Papa said he could never win could he? She found fault when he stepped in to lend a hand and criticized when he didn’t.
The Washerwoman leaned back on her heels. “I give up. The tar will peel off eventually and the dear only knows it’ll be a long time before you’re out running in the roads again.”
A long time? How long I wonder? Mama says we must behave while we’re here and mind our Ps and Qs. “Remember, where we’re going if you misbehave there’ll be Consequences.”
I know about Consequences. We played it at Aunt Mary’s last Christmas. You take a piece of paper and write a boy’s name at the top of it and fold it over and pass it to the person next to you. Then you write a girl’s name under the folded-over part of the paper you’re handed and fold that over and pass it on. And then you have to write things like where they met and what they wore and what the world said and when you read it out in the end it’s so funny you can’t stop laughing.
Afterwards when we were back home we wanted to play it again but Mama said she had no time for parlour games and anyway you need more than three people to play.
“What about Papa?” Vic said.
“What about him?”
“If Papa plays that’ll be four of us and that’s enough, isn’t it?”
“If your father ever sits down and plays anything with us I’ll eat my hat.”
She didn’t though. It would have been fun to see it but she didn’t do it. And we never did get to play Consequences.
Matron sat in the middle of the room behind a great huge desk writing in a book. Besides the desk and Matron’s chair and the fireplace the only other furniture in the room was a large globe like the kind they have in school in the upper classes and a chiming wall clock with purple grapes painted on its face. There were six other girls already there lined up scraggly like looking down at their feet waiting. Nobody spoke. I tried not to fidget. When I’m nervous I play with my hair twirling it round my fingers. I shift back and forth from one foot to the other and Mama says it makes her Positively Buggy. Stop it she says or I’ll give you a slap. I can’t help it. I’m not doing it to upset her but when I feel like that I can’t stay still.
After a while Matron put down her pen and looked at us. “Well I’d call that an improvement wouldn’t you?”
I wouldn’t but I didn’t like to say so. I was almost smothering in that heavy frock and the boots were too small and hurt my feet. But Vic was worse. With her long red hair cut off she looked like a tinker. Like one of the skinny little boys Mama chases away from the step every morning when she goes out to sweep. I couldn’t imagine what Mama would say when she saw us. Mama loves Vic’s hair—she calls it her Crowning Glory and says it’s the most attractive thing about her. Actually she says it’s the only attractive thing about her. And now it was gone.
“This here,” Matron said, pointing at the book in front of her, “is the record book of the Paddington Union Workhouse. Shall I tell you what’s in it? Very well. Pay attention now. I’ve been writing down what I know of you so far—and what I know of you isn’t much. Which of you are the Taylor girls?”
Vic and me we put up our hands.
Matron looked down at the page and began reading very fast out loud: “Annie Elizabeth Taylor age twenty-nine married domestic servant hasn’t worked since marriage. Applied for parish relief on the eighth of December one thousand eight hundred and seventy-nine. Reason for application Desertion. Outdoor relief refused. She and her three children Victoria Mary age seven Edith Anne age five and Edward Morgan Infant ordered to appear at the Harrow Road Workhouse within 10 days. Did so at two o’clock this twenty-sixth day of December. Mother to be put to work in Laundry. Girls waiting to see Medical Examiner before being sent to Ashford. Infant to stay with mother till weaned.”
It seemed a terrible thing to have Matron read this out loud in front of everybody, everyone hearing about Papa leaving us and all. Vic stared straight ahead so as not to seem shamed. I looked up at the clock.
Hickory dickory dock the mouse ran up the clock.
“What mouse Gran? Where is it? I want to see it.”
“Hush child the mouse is gone he won’t hurt you.”
“But I like mice. I want to see it.”
“Go to sleep now go to sleep.”
Matron stopped reading and looked down at us like she was seeing inside our heads. “What else should I know?”
We said nothing.
“Desertion. You girls know what that means? It means your pa ran out on you. Where’d he go? Do you know that? Do you know where he is?”
“He went to Africa—” Vic poked me in the side and I stopped.
“Africa? Oh well now he’s gone to live with the picaninnies has he? Isn’t that something? Maybe he’ll come back home with a little black picaninny baby—would you like that? A little Zulu baby to play with?”
A couple of the other girls laughed but Matron stopped them with a look. She turned to Vic. “All right what else? What else should I know? You were all dressed in mourning—why was that? Who died?”
“Nobody,” Vic said and pinched me to be quiet. She didn’t need to pinch me did she? Like as if I would talk about it if I didn’t have to.
But it was too late. Matron saw the pinch. She stood up and came out from behind the desk and stood over Vic like a great dark windmill. “There are two kinds of people in this world my girl. There’s the people outside the workhouse and the people inside. You—and all the rest of you—you’re in. Do you hear me? So let me tell you what happens to people inside when they lie. We put them in the refractory down in the cellar. Jane. What do the people here call that place?”
“They call it the Hole Ma’am.”
“That’s right. They call it the Hole. And we leave them there in the dark with nothing to do but think about their sins. And when they come out of that hole—if they come out—they don’t tell lies any more. So what do you want to tell me?”
“There was—there was William,” Vic said.
“I see.” Matron went back to sit behind the desk. She picked up her pen, dipped it into the inkwell, and waited. “And who was William?”
Vic said it so softly you could only just hear her. Matron made her say it again.
“And what happened to your brother?”
I was twisting my hair round my fingers, twisting and twisting till my head was hurting. I wanted to rock back and forth I wanted to bang my head against the wall like I do when Mama and Papa are fighting and I don’t want to hear. I didn’t want to hear this I didn’t want to hear about William.
Why? Why did Vic have to say it? Why did we have to talk about it? If I was in bed I could bang and bang my head and it would be all right. William lying on the kitchen table cold and white and turned to stone. I wouldn’t have to think about it.
“How old was he when he died?”
You could hardly hear her. It was like the words were being pulled from inside her, like they’d been hiding there in a pouch waiting for the Matron’s sharp tongue to slit it open and drag them out.
“And when did this happen?”
“Guy Fawkes. Bonfire Night.”
“What—this November? Last month?”
Vic nodded. Last month. Long ago but only last month.