Life in the Workhouse

How I wrote about a young girl’s life at the local workhouse. My thoughts and the writing process.

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.


COVER REVEAL: The Workhouse Waif

The Workhouse Waif
I’ve been itching to show you all the new cover for The Workhouse Waif. I’ve now been given permission to post it by my publisher, Quercus Books. I really love the feel of the new cover and the little girl representing Megan, is gorgeous. She reminds me very much of my own daughter at that age. She feels so familiar to me and in a way she is…I’ve been on a journey with her and I hope you’ll enjoy that journey too!
Will this little orphan girl find her happy ending?
After the death of her father in a mining accident, Megan and her family had no choice but to move to the local workhouse. Separated from her mother and five siblings, young Megan must learn how to stand on her own two feet.
But it’s on one of the days she’s sent out on errands that her fate changes. She meets a young boy who’s stealing apples from the local market, as well as a friendly well-to-do lady with the most melodious voice she’s ever heard. With her newfound friends, can she find a new life for herself?
A heartwarming saga, perfect for fans of Dilly Court, Katie Flynn and Nadine Dorries
Please note: this edition contains editorial revisions
It’s now possible to pre-order the Kindle edition of this book – a bargain at just 99p here, by clicking on the link below!
[Amazon hasn’t uploaded the new cover as of this posting but I’ve been assured it will show up pretty soon! It’s all in the pipeline and is already uploaded to the Quercus website.]

The Workhouse Waif [Excerpt]


The Workhouse Waif by Lynette Rees

Available here:

When Megan got to the High Street she made her way to the Vulcan Inn by the side door, it was heaving with men, most looked like colliers like her Dad and ironworkers too, no doubt blowing off steam after a night’s graft. Some were spilling out into the alleyway, pewter tankards in hand. Their chatter and laughter echoing out into the busy main street, she jostled her way past them. The pubs seemed to be open all hours in the town. She found the barmaid Griff had spoken of and asked her if Griff’s Uncle Berwyn was around, but she hadn’t seen him since the previous day. Dis-spirited and head down, she made her way out of the pub.

Just as she was leaving the alleyway, a tall man in a shabby long tail coat and battered top hat, grabbed her by the arm, so forcefully, she almost dropped the basket she was carrying. “Say, Miss, how old are you?”

“Almost twelve,” she said, trying to not allow the fear to seep through into her voice.

“Hmmm nice and young and good looking too. Want to make some money?” He twirled his thick black moustache. If he cleaned himself up and wore nice clothing, she guessed he might be considered quite handsome. Though there was something about him that warned her not to hang around.

She blinked several times. This sounded too good to be true that she could make some money, but wouldn’t it help her brothers and sisters? It could help them get out of the workhouse now her mother was no longer alive.


“If you go over to the washhouse in China and tell them Twm Sion Watkin sent you, they’ll give you a job.”

The mention of a washhouse immediately put Megan off, she’d had enough of the laundry at the workhouse the other day, and her inner voice seemed to warn her he was bad news. Someone most people feared.

“’ere leave that gal alone!” The barmaid, Florrie, had followed her outside.

The man shook his head and scuttled off down the alley.

Megan blinked at Florrie in surprise. “Who was he?”

“Let’s just say he’s not someone you’d like to know. He’s a pimp, cariad. You need to keep away from people like him.”

A pimp? So that’s what a pimp looked like. She remembered Mrs Woodley’s words. “So is he something to do with a prost a something?”


“Yes, that’s the word. But what exactly are they?”

“Or ‘nymph of the pave’ as we sometimes call them. Bad ladies who do wicked things for money. Now I’d get out of ‘ere if I was you, it’s not safe.” Florrie shook down her dress as if shaking off the man’s evil presence.

“But I need to find my friend Griff,” she protested, her chin jutting out with determination.

The barmaid’s face softened. “I know the lad well as he comes in here often enough to take his uncle home when he’s in a state.”

“Any idea where Griff could be right now?”

“He runs around with a lot of bad lads called the Rodneys. They’re a bunch of barefooted urchins, some people don’t like them as they think they’re a load of pickpockets. But they’re just starving half to death, bless ‘em. Some like Griff, got no mothers or fathers and have fallen into bad ways. Two of them are due to go to court and my guess is they’ll end up transported to Australia. It’s not right, those kids are blooming starving.”

“They’d be better off in the workhouse where I am,” Megan said softly, remembering Griff’s recent theft of apples.

“Maybe,” the barmaid said, “but it’s become a way of life for them. They know no other. China is a dangerous place for a young lady like yourself to be. Please don’t go looking for Griff’s house on your own, will you?” She gave Megan a stern glance. “I’ll take you there myself, if you like, I’m due to finish soon enough. I know where he lives as I had to help him get his uncle home once.”

Megan beamed. “That would be grand. I’ll just go and get my shopping from the marketplace and meet you back here.”

“No, I’ll come with you right away,” the barmaid said. “If you go walking through there with a basket full of goods, you’re liable to get jumped. Some are starving half to death.”

Megan took heed of the barmaid’s cautionary words. “Very well and thank you, Miss. I don’t have a lot of time to spare as I’ll be missed from the workhouse and the goods I need to purchase are for dinner time.”

“Don’t worry, it shan’t take us long. I’ll just pop back inside and tell the landlord I’m due to finish.”

She was as good as her word and a few minutes later they were stood outside a small, dilapidated, grimy house in a dark narrow alleyway. The houses seemed to be on top of one another and the stench made Megan want to heave.

“That’ll be the open canals of people’s waste,” the barmaid began, “they throw it all out into the street and it finds its way into the River Taff. People blamed it all for the cholera outbreaks that took so many lives…”

Megan had heard all about that and some at the workhouse had died, but luckily most had been segregated to the infirmary part where they were isolated from the other inmates. Else it could have been far worse.

“This is Griff’s house,” the barmaid said, then she tapped on the door.

After a lot of shouting from inside, the ramshackle wooden door with its peeling paint, swung open. Griff stood there, blinking. “Megan, is it really you?” he asked.

She nodded. “Of course it is. I don’t have long as I’ve been sent from the workhouse kitchen to pick up some shopping. Would you like to come with me and we can walk and talk along the way?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll just tell my uncle I’m going out then. All that shouting was him, he’s in a bad mood as he has no money to buy booze.” He looked at the barmaid who gave a knowing smile.

“Well, I’ll be off then,” she said, turning back in the direction from whence she arrived, leaving Megan and Griff staring at one another.

She heard him shouting to his uncle that he was going out for a while to hear some muffled shouts from inside the home. She was so glad she didn’t have to live with an uncle who was permanently drunk, and she got the impression that Griff was more than happy to leave that little scene behind.

October’s Author Newsletter is now out!



October’s Newsletter includes:
* Two Interviews for you: one with Regency author, Beth Elliott, the other with Sallyann Cole, who is the owner of the Sally’s Sneaky Peeks website and Facebook group. Sallyann asks me some interesting questions about my life as an author.
*Part Two of ‘Life in the Victorian Workhouse’
* An excerpt from my new novel, ‘The Workhouse Waif’
* A recipe for Pumpkin soup
* Another great song from my friend, Ron Ryan, who wrote hits for the Dave Clark Five. The song I’ve included is a particular favourite of mine, entitled, ‘Thoughts of You’.
* 22 Pictures of Real Ghosts That’ll Scare The Sh*t Out Of You!
Hope you enjoy!! 🙂 xx

Read full newsletter here!