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.