Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Nellie A Milliner’s Apprentice


What Polly had heard, listening silently, with “Wemock’s Orlando” held close in her small arms, was quite true. Nelly Sanderson had determined to be a lady, and though uncertain as yet as to how it was to be brought about, felt that it must come. This she had made up her mind to when not much older than Polly, and the desire had grown with her. It was perfectly plain from the difference between her and Jim that Nature had meant her for something better than to stitch shirt-bodies endlessly. At twelve she had begun to do this, portions of two or three previous years having been spent in a Board School. Then her time for work and contribution to the family support had come. She was only a “feller,” and took her weekly bundle of work from a woman, who, in turn, had it from another woman, who took it from a master-sweater, who dealt directly with the great city houses; and between them all, Nelly’s wage was kept at the lowest point. But she did her work well, and was quick to a marvel; and her hope for the future carried her on through the monotonous days, broken only by her mother’s scolding and Jim’s insolence.

Jim was the typical East End loafer,–a bullet head, closely cropped; dull round eyes, and fat nose, also rounded; a thick neck, and fat cheeks, in which were plainly to be seen the overdoses of beer and spirits he had drunk since he was ten or twelve years old.

His mother had tried to keep him respectable. She had been a lady’s maid; but that portion of her life was buried in mystery. It was only known she had come to Norwood Street when Nelly was a baby, and that very shortly Judkins, a young omnibus conductor, had fallen in love with her; and they had married, and taken rooms, and lived very comfortably till Jim was three or four years old. But the taste for liquor was too strong; and long days in fog and rain, chilled to the marrow under the swollen gray clouds of the London winter, were some excuse for the rush to the “public” at the end of each trip. The day’s wages at last were all swallowed, and the wife, like a good proportion of workmen’s wives, found herself chief bread-winner, and tried first one trade and then another, till Nelly’s quick fingers grew serviceable.

Nelly was pretty,–more than pretty. Even Jim had moments of admiration; and the Buildings, in which several of her admirers lived, had seen unending fights as to who had the best right to take her out on Sundays. Her waving red-brown hair, her great eyes matching it in tint to a shade, her long black lashes and delicate brows, the low white forehead and clear pale cheeks,–anybody could see that these were far and away beyond any girl in the Buildings. The lips were too full, and the nose no particular shape; but the quick-moving, slender figure, like her mother’s, and the delicate hands, which Nelly hated to soil, and kept as carefully as possible,–all these were indications over which the women, in conclave over tea and shrimps, shook their heads.

“‘Er father was a gentleman, that’s plain to see. She’ll go the same way her mother did. I’d not ‘ave one of my hown boys take up with her, not for no money.”

This seemed the general verdict in the Buildings; and though Nelly sewed steadily all day and every day, the women still held to it, the men hotly contesting it, and family quarrels over the subject confirming the impression. Nelly worked on, however, unmoved by criticism or approval, spending all that could be saved from the housekeeping on the most stylish clothes to be found in Petticoat Lane market, and denying herself even in these for the sake of a little hoard, which accumulated, oh! so slowly since it had been broken into, once for a new feather for her little hat, once for a day’s pleasuring at Greenwich; and Nelly resolved firmly it should never happen again.

One ambition filled her. This hateful East End must be left somehow. Somehow she must get to be the lady which she felt sure she ought to be. There were hints of this sometimes in her mother’s talk; but it was plain that there was nobody to help her to this but herself. Already Jim drank more than his share. He was going the way of his father, dead years before in a drunken frolic; and the income made from the little shop her mother had opened, to teach him how to make a living, covered expenses, and not much more. Whatever was done for Nelly must be done by herself.

The way had opened, or begun to open, at Greenwich. A tall, delicate girl, who proved to be a milliner’s apprentice, had taken a fancy to her, and given her her first real knowledge of the delights of West End life. She had nearly ended her apprenticeship, and would soon be a regular hand; and Nelly listened entranced to the description of marvellous hats and bonnets, and the people who tried them on, and looked disgustingly at her own.

“You’ve got a touch, I know,” the new friend said approvingly. “You’d get on. Isn’t there anybody to pay the premium for you?”

Nelly shook her head sorrowfully. “They couldn’t do without me,” she said. “There’s mother and Jim, that won’t try to earn anything, and I stitch now twelve hours a day. I’m off shirts, and on trousers. Trousers pay better. I’ve made eighteen shillings a week sometimes, but you must keep at it steady ahead for that.”

“It’s a pity,” her companion said reflectively. “You’d learn quick. In three months you’d be an improver, and begin to earn, and then there’s no knowing where you’d stop. You might get to be owner.”

Nelly turned suddenly. She had felt for some time that some one was listening to them. They were on the boat, sitting on the central seat, back to back with a row of merry-makers; but this was some one different.

“I beg your pardon,” he said; and Nelly flushed with pleasure at a tone no one had ever used before. “I have heard a little you were saying. I am interested in this question of wages, and very anxious to know more about it. I wish you would tell me what you know about this stitching.”

He had come round to their side–a tall blond man of thirty, dressed in light gray, and a note-book in his hand. He was so serious and gentle that it was impossible to take offence, and very soon Nelly was telling him all she knew of prices in cheap clothing of every sort, and how the workers lived. She hated it all,–the grime and sordidness, the drunken men and screaming children; and her eyes flashed as she talked of it, and a flush came to her cheeks.

“You ought to have something better,” the young man said presently, his eyes fixed upon her. “We must try to find something better.”

Nelly’s companion smiled significantly, but he did not notice it. Evidently he was unlike most of the gentlemen she had seen in the West End. Yet he certainly was a gentleman. He took them to a small restaurant when Nelly had answered all his questions, and they dined sumptuously, or so it seemed to them, and he sat by them and told stories, and entertained them generally all the way home.

“I shall go down the river next Sunday,” he said low to Nelly as they landed. “Do you like to row? If you do, come to Chelsea to the Bridge, and we will try it from there.”

This was the beginning, and for many weeks it meant simply that he pleased his æsthetic sense, as well as convinced himself that he was doing a good and righteous deed in making life brighter for an East End toiler. He had given her the premium, and Nelly, without any actual lie, had convinced her mother that the West End milliner was willing to take her for only two months of time given, and then begin wages. She brought out her own little fund, swollen by several shillings taken from one of the sovereigns given her, and proved that there was enough here to keep them till she began to earn wages again; and Mrs. Judkins allowed herself at last to be persuaded, feeling that a chance had come for the girl which must not be allowed to pass.

So Nelly’s apprenticeship began. There was less rose-color than she had imagined. The hours were long, longer sometimes than her stitching had been, and many of the girls looked at her jealously. But Maria, her first friend, remained her friend. The two sat side by side, and Nelly caught the knack by instinct almost, and even in the first week or two caught a smile from Madame, who paused to consider the twist of a bow, quite Parisian in its effect, and said to herself that here was a hand who would prove valuable.

Nelly went home triumphant that night, and even her mother’s sour face relaxed. She had taken up trouser-stitching again, forcing Jim to mind the shop, and saying to herself that the family fortunes were going to mend, and that Nelly would do it. Sundays were always free. Nobody questioned the girl. The young men in the Buildings and the street gave up pursuit. Plainly Nelly was not for them, but had found her proper place in the West End. They bowed sarcastically, and said, “‘Ow’s your Royal ‘Ighness?” when they met; but Nelly hardly heeded them. The long wish had taken shape at last,–she was going to be a lady.

Summer ended. There was no more boating, but there were still long walks and excursions. The apprenticeship was over, and Nelly was now a regular hand, and farther advanced than many who had worked a year or two. She made good wages, often a pound a week. Her dress was all that such a shop demanded; her manner quieter every day.

“She’s a lady, that’s plain,” Maria said; and Madame agreed with her, and took the girl more and more into favor. Nelly had a little room of her own now, next to Maria. She seldom went home, save to take money to her mother, and she never stayed long.

“It’s best not,” Mrs. Judkins said. “You’re bound for something better, and you’ll get it. This isn’t your place. You’re a bit pale, Nelly. It’s the hours and the close room, I suppose?”

“Yes; it’s the hours,” Nelly said. “When there’s a press, we’re often kept on till nine or ten; but it’s a good place.”

She lingered to-day till Jim came in. Jim grew worse and worse, and she hurried away as she saw him swaggering toward the door; but there were tears in her eyes as she turned away. She passed her friend of the summer in Regent Street, and looked back for a moment. He had nodded, but was talking busily with a tall man, who eyed Nelly sharply. She had found that he lived in Chelsea, and was a literary man of some sort,–she hardly knew what,–and that his name was Stanley; beyond this she knew nothing. Some day he would make her a lady,–but when? There was need of haste. No one knew how great need.

Another month or two, the winter well upon them, and there came a day when Madame, who, as Nelly entered the workroom, had stopped for a moment and looked at her, first in surprise, then in furious anger, burst out upon her in words that scorched the ears to hear. No girl like that need sit down among decent girls. March, and never show her shameful face again.

Nelly rose silently, and took down her hat and shawl, and as silently went out, Madame’s shrill voice still sounding. What should she do? The end was near. She could not go home. She must find Herbert, and tell him; but he would not be at home before night. She knew his number now, and how to find him. He must make it all right. She went into Hyde Park and walked about, and when she grew too cold, into a cocoa-room, and so the day wore away; and at five she took a Chelsea omnibus, and leaned back in the corner thinking what to say. The place was easily found, and she knocked, with her heart beating heavily, and her voice trembling as a maid opened the door and looked at her a moment.

“Come this way,” she said, certain it must be a lady,–a visitor from the country, perhaps; and Nelly followed her into a back drawing-room, where a lady sat with a baby on her lap, and two or three children about her. A little boy ran forward, then stood still, his frightened, surprised eyes on Nelly’s eyes, which were fixed upon him in terror.

“Whose is he?–whose?” she stammered.

“He is Herbert Stanley, junior,” the lady said with a smile. “I’m Mrs. Stanley. Good Heaven! what is it?”

Nelly had stood for a moment, her hands reaching out blindly, the card with its name and number still in them.

“I must go,” she said. “I must look for the real Herbert. This is another.” She fell as the words ended, still holding the card tight; and when they had revived her, only shook her head as questions were asked. The boy stood looking at her with his father’s eyes. There could be no doubt. Nelly rose and looked around; then, with no word to tell who she might be, went out into the night. She crossed the street, and stood hesitating; and as she stood a figure came swiftly down the street on the other side, and ran up the steps of the house she had left. There was no doubt any more; and with a long, bitter cry Nelly fled toward the river. There was no pause. She knew the way well, and if she had not, instinct would have led her, and did lead, through narrow alleys and turnings till the embankment was reached. No stop, even then. A policeman saw the flying figure, and a man who tried to hinder her heard the words, “I shall never be a lady now,” but that was all; and when he saw her face again the river had done its work, and the story was plain, though for its inner pages only the man who was her murderer has the key.

Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
MyLadyWeb’s primary goal is improving the financial condition of women (including myself) and men by providing such free and low cost tools as reliable domains and hosting, self-installing websites, turnkey websites, brandable ebooks, SEO tools, PLR and unique articles and so on and so on and so on…. So why in the world would I post women’s history on a blog dedicated to helping people build and maintain a low-cost business online? Well, because I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Founder of The LadyWeb Family Of Informational & Educational Websites
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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