Many men simply become Guardians as a stepping-stone to the Town Council; they wish to gain confidence in speaking, and use the Board room as a practising ground . . . They are often ignorant and indifferent, and stand for other reasons than their knowledge of or interest in the poor.
Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress (1909)
I couldn’t stop thinking about the pies. Meat pies. I saw them come out of the oven. I wanted to tell Vic but then I thought no let it be a surprise. Would they bring the potatoes first? Or the pie? Or altogether on one big plate with splashes of gravy spooned over to make it all one lovely delicious mush? It was hard to sit still and keep my hands in my lap waiting for them to say the Blessing waiting for the grannies to wheel out the trollies waiting for dinner to finally arrive.
At first I thought it was a mistake. They handed the plates down the table but instead of meat pie and potatoes we got a piece of bread and a mug of tea and a small tin basin of soup. Thin watery brown stuff smothered in a layer of grease. A few bits of carrot poking their heads out of the slop and a small hunk of gristle hiding at the bottom of the bowl.
And it was cold. It might or might not have been hot when it was first taken from the kitchen stove and ladled into bowls but by the time it got to us it was stone cold.
But then I had a thought. When Mama was a domestic the family she worked for had more than one course at dinner. First they had the soup and then the fish and then they had the main dish. Mama said this was called service à la Russe and it was new because before then you got everything on the table at once but nowadays it’s how all the quality eat. With a footman to bring each course and take away the empty plates.
So maybe it was like that here. They were going to bring the potatoes and pie after we ate all the soup. There were no footmen so it might take a long time—the grannies moved very slowly—but it would be worth it. I ate my bread and drank my tea and waited.
Vic sat next to me trying to swallow the soup. She didn’t know about the potatoes and pie and I couldn’t tell her as we weren’t allowed to talk. Emily sat on her other side and poked her to watch: Like this she said without speaking. She took a bite of bread and held it in her mouth and then she took a sip of soup and let it mix with the bread and then she swallowed it as quick as she could.
Skinny Minnie was on my other side. She gulped the soup down in about two minutes and then looked at me and my bowl that was full and her eyes were asking if I didn’t want it could she have it? I nodded and slid my bowl towards her and she pushed hers over to me. You aren’t supposed to trade food but nobody saw and pretty soon that bowl was empty too. Maybe she was used to food like this. Or maybe she was just too hungry to care. It seemed like forever but finally the grannies came and collected our bowls and stacked them onto the trollies and wheeled them out of the room. The soup course was finished.
Miss Humphrey stood up. She rang a bell for quiet though she didn’t need to because now that no one was eating it was like being in church when you’re waiting for the minister to speak.
“I have an announcement to make. You will be pleased to know we have visitors today. Important visitors. The Guardians of the Paddington Union have come to see how well you are all doing. They’ve been having their dinner just as we have and now they’ve asked to see the children who helped to prepare it. They want to thank you in person. It’s a great compliment and I know you will do your best to make Cook proud of you. Those of you who were in the kitchen this morning will please come to the front of the room and follow me to the Boardroom.”
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to miss the pie. Would they save it for us? We did all that work in the kitchen it would be unfair to give the rest of our dinner to someone else. It might be cold by the time I got it but I wouldn’t care. Pie is pie and even if it’s cold it’s delicious.
Miss Humphrey led us down a short corridor to the main entrance hall and through a door that said BOARD OF GUARDIANS. It wasn’t until we were all inside and lined up in a row against the wall that we saw this terrible thing: the great men in their cutaway coats and their chokers were eating our dinner. My dinner. Boiled potatoes and meat and onion pie and beer. It looked like they were just finishing. They were in a very good mood.
“Ah, the children have arrived.”
A great bushy-haired gentleman stood up and bowed to Miss Humphrey. His napkin was tucked into his collar to protect his shirt and it came down only partway over his stomach which was fat like the rest of him. He raised his glass to us and said, “Gentlemen, the children!” and the others stood too and held up their glasses and said, “The children!” and the room was stifling hot from the fire in the hearth. At one end of the room Queen Victoria frowned at us from an enormous golden frame and across from her they’d hung a picture of her husband. It was all grand like being in church but for the smell of food and it being so hot and I started to feel a bit sick like I did that time I fainted at the fun fair right in front of the carousel. Vic said I did it for attention but I didn’t.
Miss Humphrey told them to please sit down and finish their dinner. They sat but the bushy-haired man kept standing. He gave a little cough and then he said he was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak on such a happy occasion. He thanked us for all the hard work we’d done that morning and said we were learning to be good little workers and one day we’d have our own kitchens in our own houses and we’d look back at this day when we first helped out here in the workhouse and be very grateful to the good people who brought us into the kitchen and showed us how to cook. If he was a child in this place he would do his very best to be good and helpful and prepare himself to go out in the world and make himself a good, useful, upstanding citizen.
“In fact,” he said, “looking at you all standing so nicely in such a straight line, hands and faces clean and dressed so neatly, it makes me think perhaps there’s no better place for a child to be in this country than right here in the Paddington Union workhouse. Because isn’t this better than being out on the street? Isn’t it better to have a clean dry bed and a roof over your head than living in rough conditions with nothing to eat and no hope of a better future?”
Here he paused and we saw that he was waiting for us to say something so we all nodded and mumbled, “Yes, sir.” He smiled and took a drink from his beer mug and we thought he was done but he wasn’t. If we learnt nothing else in the time we were here, he said, he hoped we would learn only this: that England created these charitable houses for the sake of the children. You children, he said, are the future of this country and you young girls, especially, for you will be the wives and mothers and grandmothers of the young men who will lead us to greatness.
The other gentlemen seemed to think this was a very good speech. Some of them said, “Hear, hear,” and they all thumped the table in approval. As for the bushy-haired man, he was sweating and mopping his forehead with his napkin. He took another great gulp from his mug and then he said he would forever be thankful to Miss Humphrey and to the other Guardians and to God Himself for this opportunity to come to a place of sanctuary and see the good work being done.
He sat down. Miss Humphrey whispered to us that we should thank him and so we said, “Ta, Mister.” She made us say it again properly: “Thank you, sir.”
Now it was done and we could go. Outside the Boardroom Miss Humphrey sent us back to the dormitory where the other girls were waiting for us. They clustered around wanting to know what had happened.
“What did they give you? Was it somethin’ to eat?”
Emily shook her head. “We weren’t given anything. Only a man talking at us and saying it was good what we done in the kitchen. Like we had a choice.”
I asked Vic about dinner. “Were there other courses?”
No, just the soup. Nothing else.
“I didn’t eat it,” I said. “I thought there’d be more.”
“Well, there wasn’t,” Vic said. “You’ll know for next time.”
“Was it very awful?”
Vic looked around to make sure no one was looking. Then she stuck out her tongue and made a face. “Terrible. I never tasted anything so awful in my life. I thought I was going to be sick.”
I had to laugh the way she said it. “How did you eat it if it was so bad?”
“I dared myself to eat it. And I did.”
Vic will do almost anything on a dare. When we were little we made mud-pies one time and Vic dared me to eat them. They looked lovely but when I took a bite it was disgusting and I spit it out. Then I dared Vic to eat one and she ate the whole thing. That’s Vic for you.
Once the Fenwick boys dared her to pick a flower from Old Lady Driscoll’s front garden and she did. It was a purple geranium with leaves shaped like hearts. The old lady caught her at it and told Mama about it. As soon as Vic walked in the house that night Mama gave her a slap. “I didn’t raise my daughter to be a thief.”
When Vic said Old Lady Driscoll had plenty of flowers and she should share them with people who had none she got another slap for giving cheek and was sent to bed without supper. The next day Vic had to go back to the old lady’s house and apologize. She offered to help weed the garden to make up but Old Lady Driscoll said she’d rather not have her around in case she took a notion to steal a flower again.
I felt shy about asking but I had to. “Are we friends again, Vicky?”
“Maybe,” Vic said. “We’ll see.”
This is what Mama says when she’s planning to say no but needs something to get us to behave. She never likes to promise anything because it’s giving us False Hopes. That’s what she tells Papa when he says he’ll take us somewhere like the circus in Argyll Street if we’re good and don’t make trouble. You’re giving them False Hopes she says. I don’t see what’s wrong with hoping as even False Hopes might come true. But Mama doesn’t see it that way.
With dinner over there was now the whole long afternoon to get through before supper. I should have eaten the soup. Would I’ve eaten it if I didn’t think they were giving us another course? False Hopes again. If Mama never told us about waiting on table for quality folk I wouldn’t have been thinking about potatoes and pie and maybe I would have made myself swallow the soup. Gran says beggars can’t be choosers which means you take what’s given you and be thankful for it. Were we beggars now? Would we be out on the street like the blind man on the corner who has no coat but a dirty shirt and his trousers are stiff and shiny with grease? He stands with his cap in his hand looking up at the sky so you see mostly the whites of his eyes. When I pass him I shut my eyes for a minute and try to imagine what it’s like not seeing anything no matter how hard you look.
There are beggars everywhere you look in London, even if you try not to look. Some are cripples or missing a leg or an arm. Sometimes the women have babies or little children with them and sometimes the men have a poor raggedy dog and you feel for the dog more than the man because it didn’t ask to be brought out into the street every day and stand there rain or shine. The older boys run after the gentlefolk when they see them: “Please sir, give us a ha’penny to get a bit of bread.” And sometimes they get a copper and sometimes they don’t, but one up on Edgeware Road makes a good living by tumbling. He does it near the crossing and when he’s not tumbling he’s sweeping the road and making pictures out of the dirt. So he’s not a regular beggar because he does something for the money.
People are always complaining about beggars. Uncle Arthur calls them cadgers. He says the streets should be cleared of them and they should be arrested. Most of them are only pretending he says and have stacks of money stashed away. But how can you pretend to have only one leg? Or a hand that’s only a stump? Ronnie Fenwick’s older brother says a man and his wife in Holborn were too lazy to work so they sent their children out to beg. The children had no luck and when they came home with no money their parents beat them and said they must go out and steal instead. But the daughter was a good girl and wouldn’t do it so the wife had an idea to make her better at begging. “There’s nothin’ like a blind child to excite compassion,” she said.
She covered the daughter’s eyes with cockle-shells and in each shell there was a beetle. She tied a bandage ’round the shells so they couldn’t come off and the shells kept the girl’s eyes open so she couldn’t close them. The beetles ate into her eyes and after a few days when the wife took off the bandage the little girl was blind. Ronnie’s brother told this story so well and even did the voice of the wife and afterwards I wished he hadn’t told us. Vic said she didn’t believe it but Ronnie said it was true because his brother wouldn’t lie. He said the man and his wife went to jail for what they did but still it was a terrible story and their daughter was still blind for ever and ever. Now I always look at the begging children to see if one of them is the blind girl but Vic says don’t be stupid it happened a long time ago. If it even happened, she says. Which it didn’t.
Papa says nobody living in a modern industrial country like England should ever have to beg or go hungry. He says a nation that can’t properly house and feed its people has no right to be called civilized. Mama laughs and says why doesn’t he go out and join the Fenians if he hates England so much and Papa says it’s because he loves his country is why he criticizes it. They never agree on anything.
I wanted to ask Vic if we were still running away after what happened last night. But Vic was gone off with Emily. They were sitting together on Emily’s bed and their arms were round each other and they were sharing secrets.
Sunday came and all I could think about was that we were going to see Mama and she’d have Teddy with her. I missed him so much and he’d be missing me too because he knows me now and always smiles when I hold him and reaches out to grasp my curls in his pretty little fists. After William died and Papa left and Vic was out of the house all day Mama put me in charge of him. She let me wrap him up in a shawl and take him out to show him to the neighbours.
Alice Beckham who lives two doors down has a baby brother too and we go out with the babies and play Families. We put them in the wagon her father built out of a soap crate and pull them up and down the street. Her father built it for Billy her older brother but one time he lost control and rode under a tram on the Bayswater Road. He wasn’t hurt only knocked out his front teeth but the wagon wasn’t good for racing after that so he let Alice have it. We take turns pulling it and sometimes we get all the way to the Red Lion on the High Street which is as far as we’re allowed to go and then we have to pull it all the way back so we take turns sitting in the wagon with the babies. It can take a very long time to get back to Park Road. Once it was after dark when we got back and Mama was Beside Her Self because she thought we were carried off by the Irish or run over by a tram like Billy and I got sent to bed with no dinner and so did Alice.
Jane says the women here can keep their babies with them as long as they’re on the titty which is a rude word but I don’t think she knows better. Vic says she’s common but she says everybody here is common excepting Emily and that’s why she and Emily are friends even though Emily is two years older and about a foot taller. On the titty means feeding the baby at your bosom but that might not be very long as Mama says it’s hard on a woman’s body and you don’t want to do it once they start cutting teeth. I don’t like to think about it to tell you the truth.
Jane has been here for a long time and she knows a lot about what they do with babies. She says they don’t sell them to gypsies or give them to medical students they just put them in the Infirmary till they’re old enough for the Infants Ward.
“Is it nice there? In the Infirmary?”
“It’s all right. I was in there once to give a message to someone and they were mostly sleeping but some I think were feeding them at the breast.”
I didn’t like to think of Teddy being somewhere without Mama or me or any family at all. Maybe once me and Vic get to Africa we can send for him, and he could come and live with Papa too.
Before we could see our ma we had to have Church in the dining hall which was much like Church with Gran but for girls on one side and boys on the other and no grown-ups. Me and Vic sat at the very front so we had to pay attention but it was very boring and when we stood up to sing lots of the children didn’t know the songs and there was no organ to fill in the gaps. A boy sitting across the way slept through it and he got a cuff on the way out and one of the girls who’d been here before said he’d be caned because of it. Ten on each hand, she said. That’s what you get for sleeping in Church.
After dinner Miss Humphrey gave Jane the names of the girls who had someone to visit and Jane called the names out and said to follow her to the Receiving Ward. Me and Vic were on the list and we felt special as the others had no one and had to stay in the ward and be still. Emily was one of the ones called, as her pa had come to see her, and she was excited to see him, but Skinny Minnie was in tears. They told her that her ma had left for the day—you can do that if you’re a grown-up you can check yourself out but then you have to check in again and go through everything all over again. Minnie was crying because it was the only time she ever saw her ma and now it would be a whole other week and maybe not then because she did it a lot, left to go to the pub for the day.
Vic was unhappy about the visit with Mama. “I don’t want to see her,” she said. “Papa left because of her and it’s her fault we’re here. Gran would’ve taken us in, I know she would’ve. She should never have brought us here.”
I reminded her we’d be seeing Teddy as well and that made it a little better for Vic though she told me not to be surprised if our brother had been sent away somewhere. “They do that, you know. They give their babies up to be nursed so they can go back to work.”
“Mama wouldn’t do that—ever. She’d never give Teddy away.”
“You don’t know that, do you? You don’t know what Mama would do now that Papa’s not here to stop her.”
Now I was in a fever to get to the Receiving Ward and find out if Teddy was given up or not. I was almost positive Vic was teasing just to be mean but Vic has a way of knowing all kinds of terrible things and she could be right about this one. We lined up and once Miss Humphrey was satisfied we were as clean and respectable-looking as could be expected she reminded us to be on our very best behaviour.
“No running or shouting or making a scene. Matron will be watching and I don’t want to hear that you’ve brought attention to yourselves. All right, Jane, you may take them away.”
Mama was sitting at the back of the room holding Teddy in her lap. I was so happy to see them I forgot about being on my best behaviour and ran to Mama and wrapped my arms around her. Teddy—lovely, lovely Teddy—he knew me right away and smiled and held out his hands. It was so wonderful that he was still there and knew me as always that I started to cry I couldn’t help it. Mama was embarrassed and tried to hush me.
“There, now, it’s all right, Edie. Why are you making such a fuss? Be good now and don’t upset the baby.”
I made myself stop crying and stood back. I wanted to hold Teddy but was it allowed? I didn’t know. There are so many rules in this place, so much you can’t do that’s perfectly all right at home.
“May I kiss him, Mama?”
“May you? Of course you may. He’s your brother, why would you ask?”
I kissed him gently on the forehead and there was the sweet smell of him, his skin so soft and smooth and his wisps of fair hair peeping out from under his bonnet. He was getting a tooth in the front of his mouth and that made me sad because Mama wouldn’t feed him once he had teeth and then what Vic said would most likely come true: she would send him away and I wouldn’t see him again.
Vic wouldn’t come over. She stood inside the door and stared straight ahead, refusing to look at Mama even though I knew she too was longing to see Teddy. Finally Matron gave her a push and sent her over.
“You still have him, then.”
“Of course I still have him, why wouldn’t I? What has gotten into you girls?”
It was then that Mama noticed Vic’s hair. She made Vic take off her cap and when she saw how short and raggedy it was she was upset. And Vic gave her cheek and said now I’m as ugly as you are and Mama slapped her and Vic ran out of the room. Mama was sorry right away, you could see that, and wanted to make it up. But Matron wouldn’t let us follow her and there was nothing Mama could do.
We went back and sat down and Mama tried to make up for being angry. She asked me what we’d been doing and I thought about telling her about working in the kitchen and how the Guardians ate our dinner. And how I hated the heavy frock I had to wear and the shoes were so heavy and at night I missed William so much I wanted to bang my head against the wall again and again to go to sleep but I couldn’t because the grannies would hear and there’d be Consequences. And how everyone cried at night when it was dark and there was no one to comfort them or say it’ll be all right on the night, the way Gran always said, which made you feel better even if you weren’t really sure what it meant. And how Vic was made to stand with her face in the corner all night long and almost died.
Did Mama really want to hear all of this? She said she did but mostly she didn’t. She would most likely laugh about Skinny Minnie getting in trouble for taking potato peelings and she would be angry that I took a piece of potato without asking. Parents never take your side when you get in trouble. If the teacher gives you the switch for acting up in class, you get it again when you get home for upsetting the teacher. Or if any of the neighbours say you did something, you don’t get to tell your side of the story. Whatever happens is always your fault so in the end it’s better not to say.
What I did say was a mistake. It was right at the end, when Mama was getting ready to leave with Teddy and we were saying goodbye. She said she’d see me again the next Sunday and without thinking I said that me and Vic would be gone.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, Mama. I have to go now.”
But Mama wouldn’t let me get away with it and so in the end I had to tell. I didn’t give it all away only said we were going to leave the next day but I didn’t say where we were going.
“Edith, listen to me. You will do no such thing, do you hear me? They do terrible things to little girls who try to run away—you must not think of it, do you understand?”
“What? What do they do, Mama?”
“Never mind. You don’t want to know, but whatever they do I’ll do the same, only worse. Now you go directly back to your room and be good, you hear? And tell your sister to be good, too. I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about running away. You will not do such a thing. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Mama, I hear you.”
Then she kissed me and went away and Jane lined us up and led us out of the receiving room back to the dormitory. Vic was curled up on the bed, her face to the wall. At first, I thought she was asleep, but when she heard us come in, she sat up and turned around and you could see she’d been crying.
“What did you tell her?”
“Nothing. I didn’t tell her nothing.”
“You did so. You always tell. You told her about running away, didn’t you?”
And so I had to admit it. I thought Vic might slap me or yell at me or something but she just turned back to the wall.
“She made me promise. She said something bad would happen if we tried to run away and she made me promise not to go. But it’s all right because I had my fingers crossed behind my back so we can still go, can’t we?”
“You shouldn’t have told her.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But I didn’t say where we were going, I didn’t give it all away. And we can still go, can’t we?”
“Did you tell her they made me stand in the corner?”
I shook my head.
“Good. She wouldn’t have cared anyway. She hates me. And I hate her.”