To each class shall be assigned that ward or separate building and yard which may be best fitted for the reception of such class, and each class of paupers shall remain therein, without communication with those of any other class.
Consolidated General Order (1847)
Matron put down her pen.
“Now here’s what’s what. It’s too late to do much with you lot today, so you go along with Jane. She’ll take you to the receiving ward and show you where you’re to sleep. You wait there—quietly, mind you—till you hear the supper bell. Then you get yourselves to the dining hall. We serve supper at six o’clock—those that are late, don’t eat. You eat what you’re given and you be thankful for it. I’m sure it’s more than most of you have had in many a day. We say our prayers before and after we eat—do you all know about saying your prayers?”
Vic and I and one other girl raised our hands.
“Well, the rest of you’ll learn soon enough. You’re here to learn how to become respectable citizens and that means saying your prayers and saying please and thank you and obeying the rules. If you don’t obey the rules, you’ll answer to me. When supper’s over you go back to your dormitory and stay there. Lights go out at eight o’clock and you go straight to sleep without any fuss. Do you understand?”
We nodded and Matron continued. “Tomorrow you can make yourself useful in the kitchen. I don’t expect any of you know much about cooking but Cook can always use a hand peeling potatoes and washing up. There’s no work on Sunday—you go to chapel in the morning and at night—and on Monday the doctor will take a look at you and if he says you’re fit, you’ll be sent to the Union School at Ashford. That’s all. And for Heaven’s sake, girl, leave your hair alone or I’ll cut it off myself!”
She was talking to me—I let go my hair and put my hands behind my back so’s I wouldn’t be tempted.
“All right, Jane, take them away.”
A scrap of a girl with pale cheeks and sad dark eyes put up her hand. “Miss?”
“I am not a Miss. I’m the Matron of this House and you will address me as Matron or Ma’am.”
“What is it?”
“When will we see our Ma?”
“Those of you who have parents here will have one hour to visit on Sunday. The rest of the time you won’t try to see them or speak with them. If you do, and I find out—and I will find out, won’t I, Jane?—you’ll be sorry you were born. Do you understand? All right, now. Away you go.”
We turned and followed Jane out the door into the hallway. You could see she liked being the boss of us. And she didn’t seem so scared of Vic anymore. Well, she didn’t need to be, did she, now we all looked alike? Yer one of us now, you could tell that’s what she was thinking. It made her soft and that was a mistake. It’s wrong to get soft around Vic.
We went up a set of stairs and along another hall to a door marked GIRLS DORMITORY. Jane stepped back to let us pass through first. The room was long and narrow with a stove at the far end next to a door marked PRIVY. All along the wall, on both sides, there were iron bedsteads and every one of them had a bolster and a grey striped blanket with the words PROPERTY OF PADDINGTON UNION written on the side. There were windows all along one wall but they were only there to let the light in, you’d have to stand on someone’s shoulders to see out and even then you’d only get a bit of sooty sky to look at. On the back wall in great big letters it said, SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN AND FORBID THEM NOT, FOR SUCH IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
I knew about this. We learned it in Sunday School and I knew “suffer the little children” didn’t really mean the children should suffer. I knew because I asked Miss Gillycott who teaches the infants and she said it was an old-fashioned word meaning to let or permit something and no, it was not God’s plan to let the children suffer. But they do suffer don’t they? Vic said, and teacher said yes, unfortunately some of them do but it doesn’t make God happy to see that. So why doesn’t He do something about it? Vic asked. Miss Gillycott said that was a theological question and perhaps when she was older she’d come up with an answer but for now we must just accept that God knows what He is doing.
Papa always says you must use a new word three times and then you will know it forever. I tried it out at home by asking Mama to suffer me to have another biscuit and suffer me to take Teddy out in the wagon. Mama finally said if I wanted to suffer that could certainly be arranged so I stopped. But it’s an interesting word and I keep it tucked it away just in case.
Some of the beds were already taken but there were enough left over for us new girls. There were little tables next to each bed and every table had a drawer to put things in. I never had a table of my own before so I thought there might be some good things about being in this place if I was to have my own furniture.
Jane opened one of the drawers to show us what was in it: a long-cloth nightgown, two small grey flannels, one for washing and one for drying, and a thin little scrap of soap. She also told us about getting ready for bed and the way some of the girls looked you could see they didn’t ever change into different clothes to sleep in. Jane said you were to take off everything but your chemise, then you put on the nightgown, and you placed your cap, your apron, your stockings and your petticoat in the drawer, “folded neat and tidy, mind.” After you had a wash you hung your wet flannel on a hook in the wall. There was another hook to hang your dress and you put your boots at the foot of the bed, toes pointing out.
Pointing-out toes is important. Jane said that when Miss Humphrey, the Assistant Matron, made her rounds at night, there’d be trouble for any girl who went to bed and forgot to turn her boots with the points out.
“You can sleep where you want long as nobody has it already. They leave a light on in the hallway and you can see it through the crack. But if you think you’re gonna cry, better take one down by the privy. If they hear you cryin’ in the night, you’ll get a whack. And if you’re sick knock on the door for a granny.”
“For my Granny?”
Jane gave me a look but how was I to know what she meant? She said the grannies were the old ladies who were too old to scrub floor or do any work. “They have to do somethin’,” she said, “so they look after us and the babies in the nursery. Most of ’em don’t last too long in here. I speck they come here to die.”
Is that what will happen to Gran? Will she have to come here to die? Gran hates the Workhouse . . . she hates that everyone knows we’re in here. Where Gran lives, everybody knows everyone’s business. If you try to keep things to yourself people will say you’re getting above yourself, they’ll say you fancy you’re better than everybody else. Especially if you do something like buy a cottage piano or move to a better house. One of Gran’s neighbours’ boys got a scholarship to Harrow and the family had to move away for the shame of it. Nobody would speak to them and the greengrocer stopped giving them credit. “Don’t see as you need it now,” he said, “seeing as you’ve moved so far up in the world.”
I wanted to know if Vic and me could share a bed. I never slept alone in my life. How could you stay warm at night? Who would tickle you and make you not afraid of the dark?
“Can if you want. They don’t care, long as you’re quiet. I never had no bed ’fore I come here—I slept on a sack with Charley.”
A tall girl with ginger eyebrows and lots of freckles asked who Charley was and Jane said it was her dog. “He weren’t really my dog, but he come to me at night and kept me warm.”
“Did you bring Charley with you when you came in?”
“No, you can’t bring no dogs here.”
Vic saw her chance. “That’s too bad. What happened to him, do you think?”
I opened my mouth to say something but Vic gave me a look so I didn’t.
Jane frowned as she tried to think. “Dunno. I miss him though.”
“You know what I think happened to Charley?”
She didn’t know, you could tell. She didn’t know about Vic and her way of figuring out what could hurt you. She was going to find out.
“I think your pa killed Charley and ate him. That’s what I think. Isn’t that what Irish people do?”
Two of the girls started to laugh. I didn’t. I hate when Vic says things like that. Jane looked like she’d been hit. She didn’t say anything and after a moment she hobbled over to her bed and was quiet for a long time.
“Why do you do that?”
“You know—be mean to people for no reason.”
“Oh, shut up, stupid. I’m sick of talking to you.”
Now she was the one being stupid because she hadn’t hardly said one word to me all day.
A tall pale-faced lady stuck her head in the room to see if we were settled. “There’s three hours till supper and I expect you to behave yourselves till then. No fighting and no shouting, do you hear me? Do not give me a reason to come in here.”
When she left Vic asked who she was and one of the ones who’d been in before said that was Miss Humphrey the assistant Matron and she was a Holy Terror. This kept us quiet for a while but pretty soon people started talking and it was like when Mama was lying-in with Teddy and me and Vic went to stay with our Hatcher cousins in Kilburn. There are five of them if you don’t count Jim who’s twelve now and too big for games and sharing secrets. Aunt Mary is fat and cheerful and there’s always lots of noise and excitement. She never gets mad if someone drops a plate or breaks something by accident.
“There you go,” she’ll say. “Save me washing a dish!”
Sometimes I wish Aunt Mary was our mother instead of Mama but then I feel bad because that is being disloyal. And besides, I’d have Uncle Joe for a Pa instead of Papa. I like Uncle Joe but he has asthma and is always wheezing and having trouble breathing. He smokes a special kind of cigarette to help his lungs and the smell of it turns your stomach. Aunt Mary doesn’t seem to mind. She puts up with the smell in her usual good-natured way, only asking him not to smoke in the parlour and to suck on a peppermint drop before coming to bed.
I climbed onto a bed near the door and folded my hands in my lap. This is how you sit when you are on your Best Behavior. I know because when Gran takes us to visit her friend in the Incurables Hospital she always says, “Now be on your Best Behavior, girls. Sit nicely with your hands in your lap and don’t shame me.” It can be hard to sit this way for very long and sometimes I fall asleep when Gran and her friend are talking, but I try to stay awake and sit nicely so not to bring shame on Gran’s head.
Vic doesn’t care about sitting nicely. She doesn’t see why girls should have to sit with their hands folded and never spit or swear when boys can do what they like. She told Mama she wished she’d been born a boy. She was hoping to make Mama angry but for once Mama agreed with her. She said when she was a girl she always wished she was a boy, they had such an easier time of it and didn’t have to do housework and take care of babies. Mama hardly ever agreed with anything we said so it was sort of shocking to hear it.
Vic wanted to know if she still felt like that and Mama said yes, actually, she did. When it comes down to it, she said, women have a pretty rough time of it, all things considered. Even princesses? I asked. Mama said from what she saw of Queen Victoria’s daughters they didn’t seem to be getting any more enjoyment out of life than the next person. I said I didn’t mean those princesses. I meant real ones, like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
“Oh, real princesses,” Mama said. “Well, I don’t know about them. You don’t hear much about them once the story’s ended, do you?”
“Yes, but it says they live happy ever after, doesn’t it?”
“Ever after’s a long time, Edie. Most people never get there.”
That’s Mama for you. Just when you think you know what she’s talking about she says something that makes no sense.
“Who can make the most noise?”
Vic started clumping up and down the narrow space between the beds, making as much noise as she possibly could in her horrible, too-big boots. Soon the ginger eyebrows girl joined her and they tried to see who could stomp the loudest.
A spider came out of a crack in the ceiling and crawled along the wall near where I was sitting. I watched it for a while and gave it a name: I called it Bertha which is the loveliest name I know. I wanted to make it feel better about being a spider. Some people aren’t fond of spiders but they’re so much better than rats. Park Road people stuff rags into the cracks under their doors at night to keep the rats out. Mama does it, too—they give her the terrors, she says it’s from being taken to a rat pit when she was only six. She saw ten dogs kill over a hundred rats in under an hour and the smell of it made her sick. She threw up and her uncle gave her a sweet and said not to tell Gran but she told anyway and her uncle wasn’t allowed to take her places after that.
Where was Ma right now? Was she sitting on a bed somewhere, waiting for something to happen? She would have Teddy with her—sweet little Teddy, such a smiley baby. I wished more than anything to have him there with me. Would I ever see him again? Would they take him from Ma and give him up to the gypsies? Or worse, smother him in his sleep and sell him to medical students? Both these things happen in workhouses all the time, everybody knows that. And with Pa not there to protect us who’s to say what might happen? Oh, when is Pa coming back? I don’t care about the diamonds anymore—my shilling is gone, too. Ma found it and made me give it up.
“Here am I with nothing to give the butcher on account and you with enough money to put food on the table for three days!”
Vic kept hers. It wasn’t fair but it never is when it comes to Vic. Anyway, I didn’t blow on her because Vic would pay me back if I did and if it’s between having Ma or my sister mad at me I choose Ma.
After a while Vic and Ginger-hair got tired of clumping about and decided to test out the beds by bouncing on them one after another. Three of the other girls joined in and it was ever so noisy. I thought for sure the granny would come in and give them what for.
“You shouldn’t be doing that. You’ll get in trouble.”
I said it in my Best Behaviour voice but they paid no mind and just kept bouncing. My stomach growled. I’m always hungry these days. Vic calls me a pig for always thinking about food but when food is so lovely how can you not think about it? Back when Pa was working we had rice pudding with raisins and hot rolls with raspberry jam and grilled sausages and mushy peas and ginger beer. On special occasions we had plum duff with dollops of treacle for Afters which is what Papa calls pudding. Just thinking about all that food made my insides rumble and roar. Would they have sausages here? If I asked for Afters would they sell me to the man who buries people like they did to Oliver Twist? I decided to wait and see what the others did. If the other girls asked and didn’t get sold then it would be all right.
Vic got tired of bed-jumping. “Let’s have a singing contest,” she said. “I’ll go first.” She stood on a bed and sang the coster song Papa taught her. Mama hates it.
“I’m the chickaleary cove with my one, two, three/Vitechapel was the willage I was born in,/For to get me on the op, or on my tibby drop,/You must get up wery early in the morning.”
That’s the chorus—it’s all Vic could remember and she repeated it three times for good measure. When she was done she made a funny bow like they do at the panto and we all clapped.
Ginger-hair said she’d go next. Vic wasn’t done showing off but she shrugged and said, “All right, Carrots, go ahead.”
That was Vic trying to start a fight. We knew the girl’s name now and it was Emily but anyway she didn’t seem to care. She climbed on the bed and pulled her cap down low on her forehead and made a funny face. With one hand on her heart she began:
“I’m a broken-hearted milkman in grief I’m arrayed/Through keeping of the company of a young servant maid./Who lived on board and wages, the house to keep clean,/In a gentleman’s family near Paddington Green.”
She paused and took a deep breath and we all joined in on the chorus:
“She—was—as—beautiful as a butterfly and proud as a Queen,/Was pretty little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green!”
We started to clap but she wasn’t finished. Turns out she knew the whole song word for word. And she acted it out too all the way through to the end:
“In six months she married, this hard-hearted girl,/But it was not a Wi-count, and it was not a Nearl./It was not a Baronite, but a shade or two wuss/It was a bow-legged conductor of a tuppenny bus!”
We all clapped and stamped our feet and a couple of girls whistled just like boys. We wanted to know how did she do it? Where did she learn to sing like that?
So then she told us and it was ever so exciting. Her ma and pa are performers. They’re called the Dancing Duttons and they travel all over singing and dancing and telling jokes. Her ma plays the piano and her father does magic tricks. Emily and her brothers have been all ’round the country, she said they never lived anywhere more than two or three months. But then her mother went away and the family broke up. Emily’s older brothers stayed with their father and she and her youngest brother were sent to live with an aunt.
“She didn’t want us. Leastways, she didn’t want me. So here I am! And Papa will come and get me once he’s back on his feet.”
I wanted to ask about her mother—did she run away with a lover like Mrs. Fenwick? That’s one of those rude questions Mama’s always getting after me for asking. But how are you to know anything if you don’t ask?
“Not everything needs knowing,” Mama says. “Some things are none of your business.”
“What is my business?” I ask her.
“Oh, leave me alone,” she says. “Stop pestering me, will you? Can’t I have a minute’s peace without you wanting to know everything?”
This is unfair and also not true. I don’t want to know everything only the interesting things. And you can’t ever tell with Mama when you’re being a bother. Sometimes she welcomes questions and sometimes she gives you a rap on the head with her thimble. Vic says it’s best to act like you’re always going to get the thimble and never ask about anything.
After Emily nobody else wanted to take a turn. You could see Vic was unhappy about it. Well she would be wouldn’t she as she’s used to being the best at these things. So then she said why don’t we play Forfeits? This was so she could be the Judge but we had nothing to forfeit so Emily said we should play I Have a Basket. She explained it like this: “It’s a memory game. The first person says, I have a basket and the one next to her says what’s in it? Then the first person says something that starts with A and the next person says something that starts with B and you go around the room like that and you have to remember all the things in the basket. I’ll start: I have a basket.”
Obediently, the girl next to her said, “What’s in it?”
“I have apples in it. Now it’s your turn.”
“What do I do?”
“You say, I have a basket, and then she—what’s your name?”
She was looking at Vic who was still deciding if she was going to play or not. You could see she didn’t want to because it wasn’t her idea but if she didn’t play they’d think it was because she was afraid of losing.
“Vic,” she said.
“Right. So Vic says to you what’s in it, and you have to say apples and something that starts with B.”
“Apples and something that starts with B,” the girl said.
“No, think of something that starts with B.”
“You can’t have a basket in a basket. Think of something else.”
“Good. So now you say, I have a basket and it has apples and bugs in it.”
“But it doesn’t. It just has bugs.”
It took a long time to get everyone to understand the rules but they finally got to me and my letter was H. I couldn’t think of anything for H so I had to pass and Jane who was next to me said “Happle” and the others laughed and said apple begins with A not H and she got up and went back to her bed. Then I remembered Hat but it was too late and I had to wait till my turn came again and this time it was P and I said “Papa” but Emily said you couldn’t use people’s names so I was out because you were only allowed one pass. Vic stuck up for me and said if I was out and then she wasn’t going to play either and then nobody could think of anything for Q so that was the end of the game. I thought of the Queen but I was mad for them not letting me play so I just stayed on my bed and watched Bertha crawl along the ceiling.
Vic came and lay down beside me and it was like being back at home except for William not being between us. Thinking about William made me sad and being sad made me think about Papa being far away in Africa and how tomorrow was Saturday and Gran would make cocoa by the fire but we wouldn’t be there and it was too bad!
“Oh, don’t blub!” Vic said. “Don’t be such a baby!”
“I can’t help it.”
“Yes you can. You’re being an ass.”
“You shouldn’t swear. Gran says children shouldn’t use language.”
“I’m not a child. I’m almost eight and I hate this place and anyway I’m running away. So there.”
“You don’t dare! Mama won’t let you—”
“Mama’s not around to stop me is she? I can do what I like.”
It was too much—this place and Pa far away and Vic being nasty and planning to run away without me … even for Vic this was mean. I buried my face in the mattress and wept.
Vic nudged me in the small of my back. “If you stop crying I might let you come with me.”
I sat up and stared at her. Was she teasing? It’s hard to tell with Vic. “Really?”
“Maybe. If you stop being an ass.”
“I will. I promise.”
Vic looked around to see if anyone was listening. “If I take you with me, if we go together you have to not tell anybody. No one. Do you hear me?”
“Not even Mama?”
“Specially not Mama. She wouldn’t let us if she knew.”
I rolled out of bed, grabbed Vic’s hand and tried to pull her to her feet. “Let’s go now, Vicky. Please.”
“No, not now. It’s too late—it’s getting dark and we won’t find our way. We have to go when it’s light.”
“Tomorrow, then. Please, Vic, tomorrow! Can we go tomorrow?”
“Keep your voice down. I told you, it’s a secret.”
I put my mouth close to Vic’s ear and spoke in the softest whisper I could manage. “Can we go tomorrow?”
She thought about it. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. And then on Sunday we have to see Mama and Teddy. If we’re not here for that she’ll go looking for us and we’ll be in trouble. So we’ll stay till we see her.”
“And then we’ll go? Sunday?”
“Monday. We’ll go Monday morning, right after we eat. Before they can send us to Ashford. But you can’t say anything to Mama, promise? You can’t blab.”
“She’ll be hopping mad . . .”
“She’s always hopping mad—it’s how she is.”
Running away without telling Mama seemed a terrifying thing to do. But being sent away to Ashford, wherever that was, was even more frightening. Especially if Vic wasn’t going with me. Whatever happened we had to stay together. If Vic was running away then I had to go with her.
I got back into bed beside her. “Are we running away to the circus?”
Last Christmas when Papa was still working he took Vic and me to Hengler’s Circus in Argyll Street. There were jugglers on horseback and tightrope dancers and a trained pony that could count to ten. The Princess of the Western Plains rode around and around without a saddle, shooting arrows into a haystack in the middle of the ring. The arrows were on fire and the ringmaster told everyone to stay back and pretty soon flames were ripping through the haystack and a loud bell started ringing and two clowns came running in with buckets of water to put it out and they kept tripping and spilling the water and the horse had to jump over them so as not to trample on them. We were all clapping and screaming and shouting, it was that exciting.
After that they brought in the lions and wild boars and I put my hands over my eyes until Papa said you can look now, they’re gone. Vic teased me but I didn’t care. If I looked I’d think about them at night and wouldn’t be able to sleep. Afterwards we played circus in the scullery courtyard, taking turns to balance on a sawhorse and pretend we were galloping around the ring. It looked easy when you were sitting in the side galleries watching the acrobats doing their tricks. Balancing upside-down on one hand, even jumping through a ring of fire. But just standing on the narrow wooden plank without falling off was hard at first. How much harder would it be if it were a real horse, running and bucking and jumping over gates?
Vic said it took practice. Which we could do if we had a real live horse. Granddad used to have one to help him deliver the milk but he died when I was little and Gran sold the horse to pay for the funeral. Vic said it didn’t matter anyway because Bluebell was a big heavy horse who just clip-clopped along pulling the milk float and you need a show pony for the circus. Still it would be something to say our granddad kept a horse. We wouldn’t have to tell anyone she was just an old nag who pulled a milk dray.
Anyway, Vic said if we kept practising and got good at it we could run away to the circus and be trick riders. Vic would wear her hair long and free down her back like the Indian Princess and she said I could be a clown and ride a smaller, tamer pony and not get hurt if I tumbled. But then Papa left and Vic stopped playing with me and we hadn’t practised in ever so long. So it seemed like a good thing when Vic said no, we wouldn’t run away to the circus.
“If I show you something you have to swear not to tell.”
I already promised but Vic said I had to swear so I swore. She reached into the pocket of her smock and brought out a small square of newspaper that had been folded and then folded again.
“Where did you get that?”
“I brought it with me. When we were getting washed I took it out of my dress and stuck it in my shoe. I found it in Papa’s wardrobe the day he left. Mama doesn’t know about it—I never showed her. Here, read it. But be quiet, don’t read it out loud.”
The Diamond Fields
The most direct route to Kimberley, the chief town in the Diamond Fields, is from Cape Town by rail throughout, distance 647 miles. An express train leaves Cape Town at 8.45 p.m. every Thursday, conveying 1st class passengers through to Kimberley, and arriving there on Saturday at 4.35 a.m. A return express train leaves Kimberley at 6.0 a.m. every Tuesday, arriving at Cape Town at 12.55 p.m. next day. An ordinary train each way daily conveys passengers of all classes. The Railway Fares from Cape Town to Kimberley are – 1st Class, £8 1s. 9d.; 2nd Class, £5 7s. 10d.; 3rd Class, £2 13s. 11d.; the free allowance of luggage each passenger being 100 lb., 50 lb., and 25 lb., respectively.
I read it through. I had to stop and ask Vic about some of the bigger words. Kimberley was underlined in ink—twice. Vic said it was in Africa and it’s where Papa went to find diamonds.
“We’re going there,” she said. “We’ll run away and find him and help him find diamonds. And when we come back we’ll be rich.”