This story has everything in it, tears of joy and tears of sadness! – Amazon Reviewer https://tinyurl.com/yb8dnjm3
#Victorian #Workhouse #Sagafiction #QuercusBooks
This story has everything in it, tears of joy and tears of sadness! – Amazon Reviewer https://tinyurl.com/yb8dnjm3
#Victorian #Workhouse #Sagafiction #QuercusBooks
I wrote The Workhouse Waif after reading old newspaper reports of the goings on at the local workhouse in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. It’s a place that’s always fascinated me as I was actually born there on a Christmas time at the end of 1960. By then, it had become a hospital serving much of the community. In those days, they kept women in confinement for a couple of weeks, and so my mother has fond memories of the nurses dressed in those old-fashioned starch uniforms and navy capes, coming onto the maternity wing as they held lanterns to sing Christmas carols to the new and expectant mums.
Only a hundred years previously, things were very different at the St. Tydfil’s Union Workhouse. Those who were lucky enough to be able to manage without being interned there might have struggled outside of it to make ends meet, but they often feared that dark foreboding place with its high walls and strict regime, so much so they’d rather go without then go within.
A Christmas dinner back then, according to newspaper reports I’ve read as research for my book, was the best meal of the year when the inmates were treated to a roast beef dinner with plum pudding! The rest of the year though, their meals were very meagre, often consisting of a thin watery gruel for breakfast, bread and cheese or a thin soup with very little, poor quality meat the rest of the time.
Inmates were expected to attend daily prayers at the workhouse chapel and the walls of the workhouse were adorned with biblical quotes. They were forced into hard labour as after all it was thought that Idle hands made the devil’s work! And as a consequence, women often worked in the laundry, scrubbed floors, worked in the kitchen, etc, while the men bone-crushed, oakum picked or smashed rocks. It was back-breaking work on very poor food rations.
The worst thing for most families who were forced to live at the workhouse, often through no fault of their own, was that they were split up once inside and rarely saw one another afterwards.
What surprised me when I first wrote The Workhouse Waif and self-published it, was that Kindle sales shot up for it within a couple of weeks and it actually reached the number one spot for Victorian Historical Romance during November 2016. Sales remained steady, then in September of 2017, I received a message from someone I didn’t recognise to my Facebook author page. I couldn’t believe my eyes as to what I was reading. Instead of a SPAM message like I thought it was, it was the commissioning editor of Quercus Books who said she’d downloaded my book and had absolutely loved the story! She wanted to know if I was interested in a traditional publishing contract! Was I? I didn’t need asking twice. Quercus is a division of Hachette UK, one of the biggest publishing companies in the United Kingdom. I was floating on air to know that my story of little Megan Hopkins, the eleven-year-old orphan from my hometown, had travelled so far!
It was a story that came to me after reading old news reports about life at the Merthyr workhouse and I have a genuine love of local history, so it all seemed to flow nicely and the story appeared to write itself – I’ve always been the sort of writer who lets my characters dictate the plot! It works for me, so why not? I’m often surprised at the things they get up to!
And the coincidence of being of my being born in the old workhouse itself didn’t end there, as years later I worked there as a young student nurse and I’ve also attended meetings at the place when I worked for two charitable organisations. Maybe somehow the stories from the inmates came to me as their vibrations still existed somewhere within the confines of the old building. Sadly, the building has now been demolished and I hope, with the help of my story, people will appreciate what people in my home town and other towns up and down the country had endure once they set foot through the door.
I am astonished and humbled at the attention my book has received. The Workhouse Waif forms part of a series of standalone books to be published by Quercus over the next year or so: The Workhouse Waif [which has been recently published], The Matchgirl, A Daughter’s Promise and The Cobbler’s Wife.
Merthyr Tydfil, 1867
In her shabby dress, pinafore and scuffed leather hobnail boots eleven-year-old Megan Hopkins skipped down the road. The thick material of the dress scratched at her skin, but for once, it was the furthest thing from her mind. Matron had entrusted her to go shopping in the marketplace as the Board of Guardians was due to meet later that day. She rarely ventured into Merthyr town and she was excited. She swung her wicker basket back and forth as she skipped, humming softly to herself. Completely in her own world, she stopped to tie up her bootlace, and as she crouched to the floor, the most beautiful, melodious voice she had ever heard drifted to her consciousness. She stood there for a while to listen to the song and wondered where it was coming from, and who it might be. It sounded like it was coming from the Temperance Hall.
Walking in the opposite direction to the marketplace she made her way over, and read the poster which was attached firmly to the front of the building: ‘Appearing tonight, Miss Kathleen O’Hara, the voice of an angel . . .’
She was quickly pulled out of her reverie as the sharp, cold sensation of water hit her. It was a young woman with a – now – empty bucket, from which she had sloshed a whole load of dirty water onto the pavement, and also onto Megan.
The bottom of the woman’s dress was tucked into the top of her bloomers and Megan wondered if she should tell her, but then the woman glared and said, ‘Whatcha doing there, get on with yer. Don’t want any waifs and strays around ’ere!’
Waifs and strays? That woman didn’t look too fine herself. Sarky, silly cuss.
Megan drew her woollen shawl tightly around her shoulders as if it would somehow afford protection and made off for the outdoor market. That young woman didn’t know how lucky she was, and clearly didn’t appreciate good music. If she, herself, worked at the Temperance Hall as a cleaner, she’d have a high old time watching the rehearsals and would never have such a sour face on her as hers. Maybe if she got the chance she’d try singing on the stage herself.
Megan had been living at the workhouse since the age of seven. Her family had fallen on hard times when her father was killed in a pit accident, and without any other options to help them get by, her widowed mother had brought her and her five siblings to the workhouse. She had vague memories of their happy little home – it was small but it was theirs – in the neighbouring village of Troedyrhiw, just on the banks of the River Taff. It had been noisy but lively: her younger brothers, bursting back and forth playing choo-choo trains, her sisters cradling their wooden dolls and her elder brother Tom trying to help their mother by chopping up sticks for firewood in the yard. It had been a happy home and she missed it dearly.
Both her parents had been hard workers. When her dad, Neville Hopkins, would return from work, his face was slick and grimy with coal dust, yet he held his broad shoulders erect. He was strong and fit and he could carry a sack of coal for miles – it was said he was the strongest man in the whole of Troedyrhiw. Her mam had been so proud of him, as had she, always boasting to the other kids in the neighbourhood about her strong and brave father. She always looked forward to him coming home from work, his smile as he lowered his head to duck beneath the wooden door frame and his pearly white teeth that stood out against his dust-specked face. He’d often drop his metal snap tin on the table with a clatter and hoist one or two of them up onto his shoulders. Then Mam would fill a tin bath with hot water she’d boiled from the multitude of pans on the stove.
Outside in the backyard, he’d scrub the coal dust from his skin. Then they’d sit down to an evening meal of either lamb cawl or beef pie and potatoes. Sometimes, if they had enough money, there’d be an apple pie and custard for afters or some of her mother’s Teisen Lap, which was a sort of sponge fruit cake. Megan’s mouth watered at the thought of such wholesome food. All she got at the workhouse these days was a grey tasteless gruel for breakfast, and bread and cheese or a thin watery soup the rest of the time. They’d be graced with the occasional meal which was supposedly meat and potatoes, but rations were meagre and oftentimes the meat full of fat and gristle. She would usually go to bed with her stomach still growling with hunger.
When the family had first arrived at the workhouse, Megan had been dismayed that the family was to be split up. Her mother had to go into the adult women’s quarters, Megan was sent to stay with girls aged seven to fifteen years old, and similarly, her brother Tom was to go with the boys of the same age. Their remaining siblings, Alfie, Harry, Lizzie and May, had been sent to the under-seven section. They rarely saw one another, but Megan took comfort in the fact that the little ones were all together. Alfie and Harry were non-identical twins, and like chalk and cheese, they were, Alfie being the most robust of the two. Lizzie had a mane of red curly hair and May was dark-haired like Megan; both of them were as shy as anything, and she often hoped that they weren’t finding the conditions of the workhouse too overwhelming.
And that left Tom, her older brother, who had been lucky enough to be boarded out from the workhouse to a family in Twynyrodyn. The Evans family were good to him by all accounts, and he was expected to work in the shop they owned. Tom delivered goods to customers using a pony-drawn cart, which he’d been taught to use by Mr Evans. They lived on Twyn Hill which was breakneck steep, so some nearby deliveries had to be made on foot, which was easy for Tom when he was walking downhill, but walking back was hard going for him sometimes. He was young and fit, yet still he came back red-faced, huffing and puffing. When he visited the workhouse, he brought Megan and her siblings ha’penny sugar twists or Bentley’s Chocolate Drops, but he had to be discreet as he would undoubtedly be punished if he were found out.
Megan stopped off at a stall in the town to buy two large loaves of crusty bread, a pat of cheese, and a jar of pickles, as requested by Matron Langley. Nothing was too good for the Board of Guardians – they dined like kings and queens whilst the workhouse inmates ate very meagre meals – and Cook was busy baking a selection of cakes and roasting a goose for them.
Megan loved the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, with all its vibrant colours and smells. She was in a world of her own until she turned and spotted a young lad of around her own age loitering near a fruit stall. His arms and legs were thin and gangly, and his tattered jacket and trousers had seen far better days. His flat cap was so big it almost covered his eyes. She wondered what he was up to as he was looking very suspicious; he didn’t look the sort who would have much money of his own to purchase anything. There was no adult with him either.
Curious, she moved in closer and eyed him closely. She watched open-mouthed as he slipped a shiny red apple into his jacket pocket, and then another and another. She couldn’t believe the cheek of the lad! She’d never dream of doing anything like that. It wasn’t the way she’d been brought up, to thieve off people. He turned and caught her eye and, wilfully, she gave him a hard stare and shook her head, before turning to the stallholder to catch his attention. As if realising he might be caught, the boy grabbed all the apples he could carry in his arms and elbowed her out of the way as he dashed off.
‘Oi! Stop that boy at once!’ the stallholder shouted to the group of people nearby.
Megan turned to watch the young lad scarpering off. He was headed in the direction of St Tydfil’s Parish Church, leaving a trail of dropped apples in his wake. Before she realised what she was doing, she dropped her basket on the ground and flew after him, her arms and legs taking on a life of their own. She ran so fast she felt as if her heart were about to burst out of her chest. Sensing the outrage of the baying crowd behind her, she knew she had to catch the boy before they caught him.
When she reached the boy she yanked at the back of the collar on his jacket and he fell backwards on top of her so they were both in a heap on the ground.
‘Gerroff!’ he shouted and made to get up.
‘I’m trying to help you!’ she said gruffly, cross because he’d misunderstood. She didn’t want him to get into trouble, and looking at his thin frame she had felt sorry for him. ‘Look, come this way with me, I know where we can hide.’
He nodded and helped her onto her feet. She let out a long breath as she steadied herself.
They were behind the Three Salmons Inn, and to the right of them there was a gap in the wrought-iron railings which led into the church grounds. There, they could both hide behind a large oak tree until the coast was clear.
They quickly crept over, and from the safety of the tree watched a crowd of people run past
Megan giggled and soon the lad was giggling too. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, wide-eyed and blinking in expectation.
‘Megan. Megan Hopkins. And yours?’
‘Griff. Griff Rhys Morgan.’ He wiped his runny nose on the back of his sleeve.
Megan rolled her eyes in disgust. ‘Yuck, mun. Doing that. You should use a handkerchief.’
‘Oooh, hark at you, quite the lady, aren’t you? I ain’t got one, have I?’
‘Haven’t got one,’ Megan corrected. ‘Why did you steal those apples?’
‘Cos, I’m blooming starving.’ As if suddenly remembering, he lifted one of the few he had left, shined it first on the knee of his well-worn trousers and took a bite.
‘You ought to be careful, though. I heard of one lad who stole some pies a lady had left on her windowsill to cool, and he ended up going before the judge and jury.’
‘Pah!’ Griff scoffed. ‘Won’t happen to me, I’m too quick for them all.’
Megan tossed back her curls. ‘Are you now? Well, I managed to catch you didn’t I?’
He frowned and nodded. ‘Suppose so . . .’
He inspected the apple as if examining it for worms.
‘In any case, that poor boy I told you about ended up in Australia.’
‘Australia?’ He gulped.
She nodded. ‘Yes, it’s miles and miles away. The furthest place you could ever get to. He was transported with all the other boys and girls who’d been up to mischief in the town. They can do you for the slightest thing, you know. One lad was sent there for nicking just one loaf of bread –’ she paused – ‘though I can see as how you’re hungry.’
Griff stared into space, digesting all Megan had just said. ‘I didn’t realise that could happen. I often run around with the Rodneys.’
‘Aye, they’re a bunch of boys who live in China where I lives, see. I stay there with me Uncle Berwyn. My parents died and he gave me board and lodgings. He’s been kind to me but he lost his job at the ironworks because of his drinking and he’s not been the same man since.’
‘Oh dear.’ Megan settled herself down on a granite tombstone, forgetting why she was there in the first place. Somehow she felt drawn to Griff and she didn’t know why.
He finished his apple and tossed the stump on a mossy verge, then promptly offered her one. Should she take it? They were stolen goods but she was hungry too. She took it from his outstretched hand, and he smiled at her. It was great to be free of the workhouse for a while, she thought as she chomped on the rosy red apple, tasting its sweet flavour. It tasted far better than anything she got in the workhouse. At night, she had dreams of eating with her family in the days when Mam had made sticky sponge puddings covered in strawberry jam, and her mouth watered at the mere memory of it. She drew on those happy memories whenever she felt sad or lonely.
‘So where do you live?’ Griff asked when they’d both finished eating, breaking into her thoughts.
‘At the workhouse. Been there a few years now. My dad died and my mam and brothers and sisters had to go there too.’
He gazed at her quizzically. ‘What’s it like in there? I often wonder.’
She thought for a moment because no one had ever asked her that question before, then said, honestly, ‘Well, the Master and Matron run a tight ship and they’re firm but fair. Kind enough to me, but some inmates there, I stay away from. Some scare me. I’ve heard them weeping and wailing during the night.’
Griff’s eyes widened. ‘I don’t think I’d like it in there myself.’ He shivered.
‘Well let’s hope you never have to go in there. There’s a Board of Guardians meeting this afternoon and—’
‘What’s wrong? Your face ’as turned white as a corpse.’
‘My basket! I was shopping for Matron and I dropped it when I ran after you!’ Now she was going to be in trouble; she’d spent most of the money Matron had given her and she had no basket to take back with her to the workhouse. That meant no bread or cheese or pickles. She was going to arrive empty-handed and that wouldn’t do at all. She’d be in trouble for sure, and that didn’t bode well, especially as one person at the workhouse in particular had it in for her.
Megan was becoming excited on the run up to Christmas day itself. It really thrilled her to see people coming into the tea room carrying gaily wrapped presents, their cheeks pinched and flushed from the frosty air. She’d hear them chatter about their plans for the festive season to one another and to her employer.
“Yes, Peggy, we’ll be spending Christmas with Alf’s folk in the country. They came to us last year, so it’s our turn to go there this year. It won’t be such hard work for me…”
“Oooh Peggy, I’ve bought my little Winifred this beautiful china doll, when I saw it in Edmonds’ Bazaar I knew she just had to have it. Won’t her face be a picture on the big day itself?”
“Could we order a couple of your miniature Christmas cakes to have with our tea, Peggy? They look ever so nice.”
Megan loved all the chatter, but at times her mind drifted back to the workhouse, though she knew that was the one day of the year the inmates looked forward to as the food was heaps better and they could see their relatives also interned at the workhouse. Usually, visits to one another were sparse. They were allowed a visit on a Sunday and sometimes for particular occasions like birthdays or if their relative were unwell. The workhouse divided families—that fact Megan knew all too well. Her family was still divided in a way but at least they got to meet occasionally at Mr and Mrs Evans’s home in Twynyrodyn, and she knew all were well cared for, including herself.
She was becoming increasingly concerned about Griff, he’d been practising hard at the Temperance Hall for a special show during Christmas week. He hadn’t called to the shop nor to Mrs Mathias’s house for the past two days.
She vowed to herself if he did not call tomorrow, she would seek him out herself, even though she hated setting foot in the China district of Merthyr. Mrs Mathias had warned her that young ladies had set foot in that place never to return home again. She said there were bad people there known as, ‘bullies’, who ran gangs of pickpockets and prostitutes. Megan still wasn’t sure what a prostitute was mind you. Though she had a fair idea that maybe the man who had accosted her that time was one of those bullies himself.
As Megan went about her business at the tea room that day, she noticed Peggy had a strange gleam in her eye and kept humming to herself. That was odd, she seemed so pleased with herself, but that was nice as she had worried so much about Eli of late. At the end of the working day, when it had grown dark and the last customers departed, wishing them both a ‘Merry Christmas’ as they left, Peggy locked the door and sat at one of the tables.
“Megan, please sit down, I have something to tell you…”
Purchase book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01M8JN9H4
Heartwarming Historical Fiction by Lynette Rees: perfect for fans of Dilly Court and Nadine Dorries.
Available from Amazon: https://lnkd.in/dP8qfCH
Eleven-year-old, Megan Hopkins, is an inmate at Merthyr Tydfil Union Workhouse. Megan’s family has fallen on hard times. Her hardworking collier father, was killed in a mining accident at Castle Pit Troedyrhiw, and her mother has six mouths to feed, besides her own, so they all find themselves interned at the local workhouse. One day, Megan has been asked by the matron to fetch some shopping as there’s a Board of Guardians meeting that afternoon, she is skipping past the Temperance Hall holding a wicker basket in her hand, when she’s stopped in her tracks by the most melodious voice she has ever heard in her life. It’s the voice of an angel, called, Kathleen O’Hara. Megan doesn’t realise it, but their paths are about to cross and maybe a little magic is about to occur…
The Winds of Fortune Series: 1. The Workhouse Waif 2. The Matchgirl’s Dilemma 3. The Harlot’s Promise [due for publication in 2018] 4. The Cobbler’s Wife [due for publication in 2018]
My historical fiction novel, The Matchgirl’s Dilemma, was published on Kindle yesterday. I plan to bring out the paperback edition within the next month or so. I am so excited about this book. I undertook a lot of research for it, which was quite harrowing in parts, to say the least. Those matchgirls were treated badly by their bosses at Bryant and May, and some even met their deaths by having encountered the dangerous white phosphorous employed at the factory that the government of the time refused to ban. When they were of no further use to the company, they were tossed away like spent matches, but those fierce flames forged ahead with the help of social activist, Annie Besant, to address their concerns about conditions at the factory. They brought about a revolution for the workers of this land, helping to form the trades unions we know of today.
A shiver coursed Lottie’s spine. She was just about to tell Oliver this was the woman she had met outside the factory, then thought better of it.
Annie Besant stood firm on the wooden podium, the red ribbon in her hair that was her trademark, fluttering in the summer breeze, her knuckles white, as she began, “The people have been silenced. I will be the advocate of this silence. I will speak for those who aren’t able to speak. I will be the Word of the People…”
There was a tremendous ripple of applause, and for the first time, Lottie noted there were a lot of women in the crowd and one or two she recognised from the factory.
“Go on, give it to them, Annie!” a man shouted from the back of the crowd.
“There is one factory in this area where the young girls and women are battered into silence. They aren’t allowed a voice, but I am. This is the same factory where they work long hours for little pay. They work with a chemical called phosphorous that is so dangerous it can eat away at your bone and believe me, there have been deaths!”
There was a huge collective gasp from the crowd and Lottie turned to look at Oliver who was staring intently ahead, his eyes fixated on Annie Besant, but his glare was hard and unflinching. It was obvious he was no fan of the woman or her politics.
“That’s terrible!” a woman shouted.
“These poor girls if they even drop a box of matches on the floor they’re forced to pay for it from their own money!” Annie Besant continued. “Those young girls and women can’t speak for themselves, so I propose that there is safety in numbers and that soon there will be a walk out at the Bryant and May factory!” she shouted as people cheered, some threw their hats in the air.
Oliver remained stone-faced. “I think it’s time we left before unrest breaks out,” he said firmly, and although Lottie yearned to stay, she guessed there might be truth in his words. In any case, her mother would be worried about her. He took her by the arm and guided her through the jostling crowd, who were listening with avid interest, but how she longed to stay behind and hear more of what Mrs Besant had to say on the matter.
“That woman is a trouble maker,” he said, once they were well away from the throng. “She was involved in that demonstration at Trafalgar Square last November when all that unrest broke out. Two thousand police and four hundred troops were brought in to halt the demonstration…”
If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt, you can read the full book here on Kindle!