The Workhouse Waif
Eleven-year-old Megan Hopkins skipped down the road in her shabby dress and pinafore and scuffed leather hobnail boots. Her thick dress scratched her firm young skin, but for once, today, it was the furthest thing from her mind. Matron Langley from Saint Tydfil’s Workhouse had entrusted her to go shopping to the market place in Merthyr town as the Board of Guardians was due to meet later that day. She swung her wicker basket back and forth as she skipped away, humming to herself, and stopped to tie up her boot lace, when the most beautiful, melodious sound she had ever heard in her life, wafted towards her. She completed the task in hand, then stood to listen to the song. It was drifting from The Temperance Hall and lifted her spirits.
She stood staring at the placard which read, “Appearing tonight, Miss Kathleen O’Hara, the voice of an angel…”
As she stood mesmerised at the scene, a young woman with the bottom of her dress tucked into the top of her bloomers and cloth mop cap askew on her head, sloshed a bucket of dirty water onto the pavement in front of Megan.
The woman glared at her. “What cha 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.
Startled, Megan drew her woollen shawl tightly around her shoulders and made off for the outdoor market. That young woman didn’t appear to appreciate good music. If she, herself, worked at the Temperance Hall as a cleaner, she’d have a high old time watching the rehearsals, maybe if she had the chance she’d try singing on the stage herself. Then she’d be a star on top billing, too.
Megan had been living at the workhouse since the age of seven. The Hopkins family had fallen on hard times when her father was killed in a pit accident. Her widowed mother and Megan’s five siblings had entered the workhouse back then. She remembered their happy little home before that in the neighbouring village of Troedyrhiw. Their house had been small and living there had been noisy but lively; her young brothers, bursting back and forth playing choo choo trains, her sisters cradling their wooden dolls, her elder brother Tom, trying to help his mother by chopping up stick for firewood. It had been a happy home.
Both her parents had been hard workers. Her dad, Neville Hopkins, would return from work, his face slick and grimy with coal dust, his broad shoulders held erect. He was strong and he was fit and he could carry a sack of coal for miles, reputed to be the strongest man in Troedyrhiw. Her Mam had been so proud of him. He’d smile as he lowered his head to duck beneath the wooden door frame of the low-ceilinged living room as he entered, fresh from the coal face. His teeth shone pearly white and his eyes glittered like gold. She’d been able to see the man beneath the coal dust. He’d often drop his metal snap tin on the table with a clatter and hoist one or another child up onto his shoulders. Then her Mam would fill a tin bath with hot water from the multitude of pans she boiled on the stove.
Outside in the backyard, he’d scrub the coal dust from his skin, but his back was rarely touched as people believed it weakened the man, but the rest of him was scrubbed shiny-clean. Then they’d sit down to an evening meal of either lamb cawl or beef pie and potatoes, often 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 was gruel for breakfast, bread and cheese or a thin watery soup the rest of the time, and the occasional meal which was supposedly meat and potatoes, but rations were meagre and sometimes the meat too full of fat and gristle. Often she went to bed her stomach still growling with hunger.
When the family had first arrived at the workhouse, Megan had been dismayed to discover that they were all 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 her brother Tom with boys of the same age, whilst 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 from the fact the little ones were all together.
Tom had recently been boarded out to a family in Twynyrodyn. The Evans family were good to him by all accounts, and he was expected to work in a shop they owned. Tom delivered goods to people on a bicycle he’d been taught to ride by Mr Evans. Twyn Hill was breakneck steep, so he cycled down it with extreme care, but had to push the bike back up huffing and puffing away, which was hard going for him sometimes, but he was young and fit and when able do it, he brought back some ha’penny sugar twists or Bentley’s Chocolate drops for Megan and their brothers and sisters, but he had to be discrete. If caught, he might be severely punished for his efforts.
She stopped off at a stall in the town to purchase two large loaves of crusty bread, a pat of cheese, and jar of pickles. Cook was busy baking a selection of cakes and roasting a goose, nothing was too good for the Board of Guardians. They dined like kings and queens whilst the workhouse inmates ate very meagre meals.
“Oi! Stop that boy at once!” Startled, Megan turned to see a young lad scarpering off in the direction of St. Tydfil’s Parish Church, his arms full of apples, the remainder scattered at her feet. She dropped her basket on the ground and flew after him, her arms and legs taking on lives of their own, as her heart felt as though it 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…