I had always considered myself a lucky girl; the eldest of a pack, I survived childhood relatively unscathed. I was blessed with fair looks, but more importantly, good health. Growing up in Bedern far from guaranteed that.
Of Ma’s children, five died before they reached one; a situation no doubt helped by the open sewers that ran past our door, but nevertheless, with three rooms – one up, two down – we were far more fortunate than most. More often than not, there was food on the table, and a warm bedmate to fall asleep next to, and if that mate was riddled with fleas you soon learned to scratch in your sleep.
It had been four years since I left home to join the household at 29 Lawrence Street, and with a pound a month going into Ma’s pocket, things had changed for the better. Three to a bed, instead of four, and warm blankets for all, not to mention the day old bread Ma was able to get. My sisters – Eliza, Hannah and Ellen – had my cast-off dresses, not that I was growing much by that point but I still found a way to pass them down.
That day, as I struggled along Walmgate and across town, I thanked God for small mercies. It was very kind of Lucy to give me that pound, which undoubtedly came from her own pocket, but it only gave me a month.
A month to do what exactly? The shame of my situation overwhelmed me: to be trudging home after four years in service with nothing to show for it but the dress on my back, a small bundle of clothes and a babe in my belly; even then I thought longingly of the books I had been forced to leave behind. They might have been no use to me now but I would have cherished them, even with their reminder of Samuel’s betrayal.
Despite knowing my numbers and letters, as well as having a fair hand, without a reference and sent home in disgrace – and make no mistake about it, despite Mrs Tuke’s dislike of scandal, I knew everyone would know what had happened – I was unemployable. If I were lucky, they’d think it was the footman who I’d let have his way; no one would dream I’d reached so high or thrown myself so low as at the master of the house; far more dangerous to cross social boundaries than simply be branded a slut.
I had read enough by then to know that rightly the rain should have been pouring down on my head at this low point in my life, but it was a glorious day with the bloody sun shining brightly and a bluer sky that no-one could have wished for.
It meant that the streets were full and while I wasn’t known about that part of town, as soon as I reached Bedern, I knew the sly glances and knowing looks would appear. It wasn’t my day off, and it wasn’t even the weekend, instead 11 o’clock on a Wednesday. There was only one reason I’d be there; it either meant a death in the family, and even then, most masters or mistresses would make you wait until the weekend, or I was in disgrace. The neighbours would have known if there’d been a death.
I wanted to drop my head and keep my eyes on the cobbles but I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me slink home. Although I didn’t catch anyone’s gaze, I stared dead ahead, my head upright and my back straight. Picked up some hoity toity ways, they’d be saying. Not for long.
I hesitated to knock on the door of our house; I’d never knocked before but somehow felt the need to announce myself; I couldn’t just walk in like nothing was the matter. I hadn’t yet plucked up the courage when the door swung open abruptly and Ma stood there.
“What are you doing here, girl?” she said. She took the bundle from my arms, looked to the left and right espying the neighbours and stepping back said, “You’d better come in.”
The door closed behind us and I was temporarily blinded in the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, I made out the scarred kitchen table, which already had the vast copper tub on the top full of linen while Eliza stood on a stool with a wooden paddle in hand and swirled the water.
“Alice!” she cried, with delight.
“You keep what you’re doing,” said Ma, and her tone saw my sister shrivel. “Now what’s all this about?” she said to me. There was no disguising the matter, and she was a shrewd woman. She already knew, but she was silently begging me to tell her different. I’d never seen her beg, silent or otherwise. If I had had any courage at all, I’d have forced a lie from between my lips, said I was there for a visit, stayed an hour or two, then picked up my bundle, walked out the door and never looked back.
“I’ve been let go, Ma.”
“Let go? What for?” For an answer, I placed my hands over my stomach. “You stupid girl!” A sharp ringing slap across my left cheek. “Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you what they’re all after? And I suppose you’ve got no reference either?” Another blow to my left ear, which caused me to lose my balance and stumble back against the table. “One of the bloody footmen, was it? You little slut,” and I heard Eliza gasp at her language; language that Ma would never have countenanced from anyone; language that would have caused your mouth to be literally rinsed with soap.
“You’re no good to anyone, are you? Who’s going to want you now? Eh? No one will have you. And you can’t stay here. There’s barely enough food to keep mind and body together here as it is.” In response, I handed over the pound coin that I had been tightly grasping in my palm. “A pound? A bleeding pound? How far do you think that’s going to go?”
Her bark always was worse than her bite, I had expected a reaction like this and I knew I deserved it and all, but that didn’t mean that hot salty tears didn’t spring up in my eyes. I tried to blink them away. Crying was not looked upon kindly in that house; especially not tears of self-pity.
I saw Ma had spotted them and I braced myself for another clip around the ear, but it never came. Instead, I was pulled from against the table and into her arms.
“You stupid girl,” she said again, but softer this time. “What are we going to do with you?”
“I don’t know, Ma.” I said. “I’m so sorry.” And as the whole bloody mess sank in, tightly wrapped in her arms, I allowed the tears to run down my cheeks and let go for the first time.
The whole family rallied around me, well, except my pa, but we all knew it was Ma that really ran the house, even though he drank as much of the money as he could. The problem was, Ma was right: no one did want me.
Without a reference, and at my age, and with a bairn on the way, I couldn’t get work in another house as a maid. I helped with the laundry, but in four years, not only had I lost the art of some techniques I had never thought to lose, my hands, hardened as they were by housework, were still red, raw and bleeding by the end of every day.
Since leaving, Eliza, despite her slightness, had proven herself to be a more than able assistant and Ma had built up her customers. Now, the entire two ground rooms of our house were entirely taken over by laundering.
Long before first light, Pa, James and William, our two eldest boys, men now really, were out labouring, Eliza was down in the kitchen setting the water to boil with Hannah and Ellen to help while the youngest – Joseph and Maria – were sent on errands.
The kitchen became the washing house, and the great copper pans were placed on the wooden table near the light of the window; all the girls used stools to reach into them and it needed all three of them to carry a full tub to the front door and empty the foul water into the drains.
Some of the bigger fancier laundries had drains inside the house but Bedern wouldn’t see the like for many years still. As it was, Ma’s skills were still sought after and she prided herself in taking in the soiled linens of many wealthy merchants, if not actual gentry.
Next door, the only other ground floor room was used for bleaching, ironing, drying and mangling. A table, as different from the battered one in the kitchen as was possible, sat near the window, furiously scrubbed clean at the start of each day and night, and there was an ironing board in one corner, with a mangle and various clothes horses in the other.
Since teaching Eliza to read and write, a washing book now lay on the end of the table with every article of clothing carefully entered into its correct column and assigned to its owner.
Ellen was in charge of separating the white linen, collars, sheets and body linens into one heap, the fine muslins into another, coloured cotton and linen into a third, woollens into a fourth, and finally, greasy items into a fifth. Any stains were identified; ink treated with salts of sorel, grease with yellow soap, wine with sal ammonia.
The heavily soiled items were soaked in a lime solution that cracked my palms and drew blood, while the sheets and linen were simply soaked overnight in soda water, but it was the second day’s work where the real toil began.
Soaked linens were rinsed, rubbed and wrung, the water emptied and fresh tubs refilled, before being soaped and rubbed once more. By rubbing the linens against each other rather than your hands you saved some of your skin, but not a great deal.
After the first wash, came the second with soaping, rubbing, rinsing and wringing, after which they were boiled once more with soda, rinsed again in hot and then cold water before finally being hung to dry by which point every muscle in my body ached. I was no use to anyone with bleeding palms. Takes a lot of work, skill, and luck to get blood out of fabric.
Seeing my fatigue, Eliza kindly put me to work on the coloured muslins and cottons instead while the two younger girls, Hannah and Ellen rubbed away with gusto. Once linen bandages had been tied around my sore hands, I was trusted with the silk handkerchiefs as well, soaking them for hours until the light began to fade and the tubs were rinsed and cleaned, the floors scrubbed and the kitchen returned to its family function.
All day long, Ma worked in the other room with Eliza to help; between the two of them, vast sheets were passed between rollers coming out smooth and crisp on the other side; flat irons were heated in the grate and starch boiled. It was this, and not the actual washing, that ensured Ma’s reputation for a single rough wringing could rend a tear in a delicate fabric; an unnoticed smear on the ironing table render a whole day’s work wasted; or a singed corner destroy a costly silk. Although a lowly profession, there was as much skill demonstrated on a daily basis there as I ever saw in the Tukes, and Eliza, in taking responsibility, had become a woman. I wondered if her monster still visited.
Helping out as best I could, it was soon clear that while not precisely a hindrance, there wasn’t even work to justify my being there. I was no good as a labourer, and it was not even thought of seriously. I could see how carefully Ma managed the little money we had and I knew that I was putting a big strain on everyone, and that was with the pound that I brought with me; add to that a baby in a few months and no income, I didn’t see how we could manage.
There was the workhouse on Marygate, of course, but you’d not have me going there. Not after the stories I’d heard from Samuel, and the stories we all heard around here anyway. To go to the workhouse is to die; it’s as simple as that. Luckily, Ma wouldn’t have had it either. Then there was the charitable poor fund that our church had, but there was barely enough to feed a family of mice and we were considered too well off to qualify anyway, especially when I only had myself to blame for my situation.
For the first time in my life, I understood why girls turned to the streets. That was not an option; Ma would die of the shame. Besides, few men wanted to have a pregnant girl. They already had that at home.
Of course, there was always pennyroyal, tansy or savin. I had never thought I’d have considered them; babies may be a burden on your resources, but I’d always thought they were a gift from God. I’d been terrified that Samuel would suggest that course of action, but instead he’d had me sent from his house in disgrace. Now, what had once seemed abhorrent to me was beginning to appeal.
I’d heard drinking a simple herb mixture was not like the stuff that went on in a dark dank room somewhere; there was no one shoving a metal rod inside you; no one holding you down while you bit on a piece of wood and cried out for the pain to stop. But I’d be a fool to think there was no risk. Girls had bled to death after taking tansy; we’d all heard the tales. And they might be herbs, but there was nothing natural about it.
That night, after a week at home, I lay in my old bed next to Eliza and pulling the blanket over our heads, we got some semblance of privacy.
“What happened Alice?” she said.
“He told her.”
“Who? Your Samuel?”
“He’s not my Samuel. He never was.” The betrayal cut deeper and tasted more bitter with every hour. “I was his plaything. I amused him and I was a fool to think it was anything more.”
“But the books; he gave you all those lovely books.”
“They’re nothing to him. He has a whole room filled with them. Fat lot of good they’re going to do me now anyway.”
“I can’t believe it of him, Alice. After all you’ve told me. After he taught you to read and write.”
“I don’t know what to say to you. I told him about the baby, he said he’d sort it out, and the next morning I was on my arse in the road.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“About the baby?” She nodded, and I put my hands on my tummy. She followed suit. “You won’t feel anything yet. It’s far too soon for it to quicken. I’m only a few months gone by my reckoning. Need another couple before that happens.” Still, she kept her hands in place, and looked at me. I hadn’t said a word to her but I swore she knew.
“You can’t do it, you know, Alice.”
“I know I can’t.”
“You know, despite everything, it’s still his.”
“Yes; it’s still his. Samuel Tuke’s bastard child.”
“Promise you won’t?”
“I promise,” and thoughts of tansy and pennyroyal disappeared. I wouldn’t have known where to get them anyway. Besides, if you got caught, it was the rope; a life for a life.
“So what are you going to do?” she persisted.
“I don’t know, Eliza. What can I do?”
She had no solutions to offer me, but said, “Let’s pray. God will send us an answer.”
“I’m not sure God wants to hear from me at the moment.”
“Tush,” she chided, and chastened, I folded my hands together as she did, and shut my eyes.
It was sleep, rather than an answer, that came to me.
Of all the people, it’s Pa who found the answer, as usual, in his cups. And if I’d known that was what God had meant, I’d have prayed a damn sight harder.
“Thomas Smith asked about you today,” he slurred over our evening meal of meagre stew of vegetables and meat, the only meat being the long lingering remains from a ham bone boiled every night for the last month.
I looked up, “About me, Pa?”
“Yes, girl. He’d heard tell you were back in Bedern.” I said nothing to this and concentrated on the watery contents of my cracked bowl. “He fancies you, you know.” A blush I couldn’t stop came to my cheeks.
Thomas Smith was 50, if he was a day. The local shoemaker, there was no denying he was good at his trade; while those surrounding him starved, he’d managed to grow a fat belly; but working with leather left him stinking of the dog shit it was soaked in, and no woman would have him.
Not only for the smell, mind, quick with his hands, walk past him in an alley, you’d be lucky to escape with only ruffled skirts, and more than once, when I was younger and fetching Pa’s ale for his supper, he’d tried to slip his fat slimy tongue in my mouth as his fingers roamed below my waist.
The last time, abandoning the ale for my dignity and risking a slap at home, I had spat full in his face, lifted a knee into his groin and sprinted away. Working at the Tukes, I’d never given him a second thought but this was not the first time his name had been brought up by Pa.
“I told him you were getting heavy with a bastard child, and were nowt but a burden to your family, and if he still doesn’t fancy you!” He looked around the table in amazement.
“What do you mean, he still fancies her, John?” Ma asked.
“Exactly what it sounds like. He’ll have her, bastard and all. I told him I’d give him her answer later tonight, but there’s no question of her refusing now, is there?”
“Ma!” I said. “You can’t marry me off to that pig. I can’t.”
“You don’t have any choice in the matter. The deal’s as good as done,” he said. “He’ll let me off that money I owe him into the bargain.” I turned desperately from one parent to the other, hoping that Ma would intervene; that one of them would see sense.
“I won’t let you,” I said.
“You’ll do whatever I tell you to, madam. You come back here, bringing shame on the family and expect to stay here? No money, no prospects.”
“He’s right,” said Ma so quietly I had to strain to hear her.
“I said, ‘he’s right’. We can’t support you here for much longer, Alice. You knew something was going to have to change, and he’s not a bad man.”
“Not a bad man! He smells to high heaven.”
“No one’s too good for the likes of you, Miss Free and Easy,” said Pa. “This is a good offer, the best you’ll ever get. You’ll take it, and you’ll be grateful.”
“But Pa, Ma; no!”
He stood up and leaned across the table, “Listen to me, it’s either Thomas Smith for you, or the streets. Which is it to be?”
I appealed to Ma, but Lord, even I knew that this sham of a proposal was better than anything else I was likely to get.
“What about the bairn?” I said.
“I told you, he’ll take you both on, and not question you about its father. Although, if it’s a boy, it’ll not be his heir but it’s not too late to acknowledge it as his child if you get the wedding done fast. A few months early and no one will talk much.”
“This is your only chance, love,” said Ma. “At the moment, you’re not showing and while there might be gossip about why you’re back, no one’s talking about bastards yet. You leave it much longer and everything will have changed. Think of the child. This way, it can have a respectable upbringing. It won’t be a bastard and you won’t be a whore.”
The words cut deep but there was truth in them. Forget the banns; wedded and bedded within a week and I’d be saved, although at what cost, I didn’t yet know. A shiver ran down my spine. Sold for a few of my father’s debts, but I couldn’t avoid my own culpability, much as I’d have liked to.
For the second time, that night was my last night in the family home; my last night with Eliza by my side. The darkness couldn’t fall fast enough. I understood Ma’s actions in supporting Pa, but I couldn’t face her just yet, and the other children didn’t fully understand or care.
“I don’t think I can bear being parted from you again,” I said to Eliza that night when we were snuggled under the covers, Hannah banished to squeeze in with Ellen and the little ones.
“Me neither, Alice; but we shall.”
“And Thomas Smith,” I couldn’t help another shiver escape.
“He’s not so bad.”
“Don’t lie to me; we both know the best that can be said for him is he’s no devil.”
We fell into silence as Eliza desperately tried to think of ways for my soon-to-be husband to appeal to me.
“He’s rich,” she said.
“Aye; richer than some.”
“And he’s agreed to look after the baby.”
My heart softened when I heard that; he couldn’t be a terrible man if he had agreed to take on another man’s child.
“And he’s… well, he’s not so old as some. And who knows, he might not even ask that of you.”
I had to laugh at that.
“He’s a bawdy man, Eliza, the whole of Bedern and beyond knows that; he’ll be wanting the same as any other man. He’d be getting a poor bargain if he didn’t.”
“You’ll not be far away.”
“You’re right there,” and I fell asleep consoled by the thought that Eliza and my family would only be a brisk five-minute walk away.
The following morning dawned brilliantly; another affront to my mood, and although I knew where Thomas Smith lived, Pa insisted on walking me there. I suspected he thought I might run off. There was no chance with him, almost sober for once, pressed tightly to my side, a small bundle of dresses and shifts, and a basket of all the goods Ma could spare slung on my other; she optimistically dubbed it my dowry.
In spite of everything, I think she was secretly rather pleased to be marrying off a daughter. Certainly my new position as the soon-to-be Mrs Smith should have been a safer bet than a mere housemaid, and while renowned for being a filthy bugger, Thomas Smith had made his mark on the town having moved out of Bedern and into a small house off Low Petergate. With just the two of us, well, three in a bit, there would be a luxury of space, and a shoemaker will always be in demand.
It was not a long walk and soon we turned right down an unnamed snickelway. Before us stood a tall three-storey house, still with its Tudor timber and whitewashed walls, even if the base was smeared with muck. I doubted much light got into the windows, which looked thick with grime. I imagined I’d soon be soaping them clean, and if they were any indication of the state of the rest of the place, I’d be kept busy for the next few weeks. I welcomed the thought of hard physical work; nothing clears your mind like it.
The front door swung backwards, and Thomas walked out. Clad in his work gear of a leather apron over brown breeches, filthy once-cream woollen stockings, and a straining white linen shirt that was covered in stains, he was not the man I yearned for, and certainly not the man of any woman’s dreams.
To keep the size he was, I reckoned he must have eaten all the food that passed every lip in our house every single day. His eyes were deep set, piggy and brown, his nose small and feminine, his weak chin hidden by a straggling ginger beard, which contained the remains of his breakfast, his balding head afflicted with the same thin feeble strands of red hair, the top of which only just reached above mine.
Our wedding was to take place that afternoon, with only Ma and Pa as witnesses. Eliza was to remain at home with the others and to keep the washing going.
“Mistress Alice,” said Thomas, with a mocking smile. “But not Mistress for long! Thank you for bringing her early, John. I wanted to get acquainted with my lovely bride-to-be.” Leaving my pa with no option other than to shake the hand proffered to him, he ushered me into the dark depths beyond and shut the door to the sunlight.