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.