Monday, May 30, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - The Tale of a Barrow


If the West End knows not the East End, save as philanthropy and Mr. Walter Besant have compelled it, much less does it know Leather Lane, a remnant of old London, now given over chiefly to Italians, and thus a little more picturesquely dirty than in its primal state of pure English grime. The eager business man hurrying down “that part of Holborn christened High,” is as little aware of the neighborhood of Leather Lane and what it stands for, as the New Yorker on Broadway is of Mulberry Street and the Great Bend. For either or both, entrance is entrance into a world quite unknown to decorous respectability, and, if one looks aright, as full of wonders and discoveries as other unknown countries under our feet. Out of Leather Lane, with its ancient houses swarming with inhabitants and in all stages of decay and foulness, open other lanes as unsavory, through which the costers drive their barrows, chaffering with dishevelled women, who bear a black eye or other token that the British husband has been exercising his rights, and who find bargaining for a bunch of turnips or a head of cabbage an exhilarating change.

 There were many costers and many barrows, but among them all hardly one so popular as “old Widgeon,” who had been in the business forty years; and as he had chosen to remain a bachelor, an absolutely unheard-of state of things, he was an object of deepest interest to every woman in Leather Lane and its purlieus. It was always possible that he might change his mind; and from the oldest inhabitant down to the child just beginning to ask questions, there was always a sense of expectation where Widgeon was concerned. He, in the meantime, did his day’s work contentedly, had a quick eye for all trouble, and in such cases was sure to give overweight, or even to let the heavy penny or two fall accidentally into the purchase. His donkey had something the same expression of patient good-humored receptivity. The children climbed over the barrow and even on the donkey’s back, and though Widgeon made great feint of driving them off with a very stubby whip, they knew well that it would always just miss them, and returned day after day undismayed. He “did for himself” in a garret in a dark little house, up a darker court; and here it was popularly supposed he had hidden the gains of all these forty years. They might be there or in the donkey’s stable, but they were somewhere, and then came the question, who would have them when he died?

To these speculations Nan listened silently, in the pauses of the machines on which her mother and three other women stitched trousers. Nothing was expected of her but to mind the baby, to see that the fire kept in, just smouldering, and that there was always hot water enough for the tea. On the days when they all stitched she fared well enough; but when she had carried home the work, and received the money, there was a day, sometimes two or three, in which gin ruled, and the women first shouted and sang songs, and at last lay about the floor in every stage of drunkenness. Gradually chances for work slipped away; the machines were given up, and the partnership of workers dissolved, and at twelve, Nan and the baby were beggars and the mother in prison for aggravated assault on a neighbor. She died there, and thus settled one problem, and now came the other, how was Nan to live?

 Old Widgeon answered this question. They had always been good friends from the day he had seen her standing, holding the baby, crippled and hopelessly deformed from its birth. His barrow was almost empty, and the donkey pointing his long ears toward the stable.

 ”Get in,” he said, “an’ I’ll give you a bit of a ride,” and Nan, speechless with joy, climbed in and was driven to the stable, and once there, watched the unharnessing and received some stray oranges as she finally turned away. From that day old Widgeon became her patron saint. She had shot up into a tall girl, shrinking from those about her, and absorbed chiefly in the crooked little figure, still “the baby;” but tall as she might be, she was barely twelve, and how should she hire a machine and pay room rent and live?

 Widgeon settled all that.

 You know how to stitch away at them trousers?” he had said, and Nan nodded.

 ”Then I’ll see you through the first week or two,” he said; “but, mind! don’t you whisper it, or I’ll ‘ave hevery distressed female in the court down on me, and there’s enough hof ‘em now.”

 Nan nodded again, but he saw the tears in her eyes, and regarded words as quite unnecessary. The sweater asked no questions when she came for a bundle of work, nor did she tell him that she alone was now responsible. She had learned to stitch. Skill came with practice, and she might as well have such slight advantage as arose from being her mother’s messenger.

 So Nan’s independent life began, and so it went on. She grew no taller, but did grow older, her silent gravity making her seem older still. It was hard work. She had never liked tea, and she loathed the sight and smell of either beer or spirits, old experience having made them hateful. Thus she had none of the nervous stimulant which keeps up the ordinary worker, and with small knowledge of any cookery but boiling potatoes and turnips, and frying bacon or sprats, fared worse than her companions. But she had learned to live on very little. She stitched steadily all day and every day, gaining more and more skill, but never able to earn more than fourteen shillings a week. Prices went down steadily. At fourteen shillings she could live, and had managed even not only to pay Widgeon but to pick up some “bits of things.” She was like her father, the old people in the alley said. He had been a silent, decent, hard-working man, who died broken-hearted at the turn his wife took for drink. Nan had his patience and his faithfulness; and Johnny, who crawled about the room, and could light a fire and do some odds and ends of house-keeping, was like her, and saved her much time as he grew older, but hardly any bigger. He had even learned to fry sprats, and to sing, in a high, cracked, little voice, a song known throughout the alley:–

 ”Oh, ’tis my delight of a Friday night, When sprats they isn’t dear, To fry a couple o’ dozen or so Upon a fire clear.”

 There are many verses of this ditty, all ending with the chorus:– ”Oh, ’tis my delight of a Friday night!” and Johnny varied the facts ingeniously, and shouted “bacon,” or anything else that would fry, well pleased at his own ingenuity.

 He was ‘wanting.’ Nan might better put him away in some asylum,” the neighbors said; but Nan paid no attention. He was all she had, and he was much better worth working for than herself, and so she went on.

Old Widgeon had been spending the evening with them. Nan had stitched on as she must; for prices had gone down again, and she was earning but nine shillings a week. Widgeon seldom said much. He held Johnny on his knee, and now and then looked at Nan.

 ”It’s a dog’s life,” he said at last. “It’s far worse than a dog’s. You’d be better off going with a barrow, Nan. I’m a good mind to leave you mine, Nan. You’d get a bit of air, then, and you’d make–well, a good bit more than you do now.”

 Widgeon had checked himself suddenly. Nobody knew what the weekly gain might be, but people put it as high as three pounds; and this was fabulous wealth.

 ”I’ve thought of it,” Nan said. “I’ve thought of it ever since that day you rode me and Johnny in the barrow. Do you mind? The donkey knows me now, I think. He’s a wise one.”

 ”Ay, he’s a wise one,” the old man said. “Donkeys is wiser than folks think.” He put Johnny down suddenly, and sat looking at him strangely; but Nan did not see. The machine whirred on, but it stopped suddenly as Johnny cried out. Widgeon had slipped silently from his chair; his eyes were open, but he did not seem to see her, and he was breathing heavily. Nan ran into the passage and called an old neighbor, and the two together, using all their strength, managed to get him to the bed.

 ”It’s a stroke,” the woman said. “Lord love you, what’ll you do? He can’t stay here. He’d better be sent to ‘ospital.”

 ”I’ll be ‘anged first,” said old Widgeon, who had opened his eyes suddenly and looked at them both. “I was a bit queer, but I’m right enough now. Who talks about ‘ospitals?”

 He tried to move and his face changed.

 ”I’m a bit queer yet,” he said, “but it’ll pass; it’ll pass. Nan, you’ll not mind my being in your way for a night. There’s money in me pocket. Maybe there’s another room to be ‘ad.”

 ”There’s a bit of a one off me own that was me John’s, an’ him only gone yesterday,” said the woman eagerly; “an’ a bed an’ all, an’ openin’ right off of this. The door’s behind that press. It’s one with this, an’ the two belongs together, an’ for two an’ six a week without, an’ three an’ six with all that’s in it, it’s for anybody that wants it.”

 ”I’ll take it a week,” said old Widgeon, “but I’ll not want the use of it more than this night. I’m a bit queer now, but it’ll pass; it’ll pass.”

 The week went, but old Widgeon was still “a bit queer;” and the doctor, who was at last called in, said that he was likely to remain so. One side was paralyzed. It might lessen, but would never recover entirely. He would have to be looked out for. This was his daughter? She must understand that he needed care, and would not be able to work any more.

 Old Widgeon heard him in silence, and then turned his face to the wall, and for hours made no sign. When he spoke at last, it was in his usual tone.

 ”I thought to end my days in the free air,” he said, “but that ain’t to be. And I’m thinking the stroke’s come to do you a good turn, Nan. There’s the donkey and the barrow, and everybody knowing it as well as they know me. I’ll send you to my man in Covent Garden. He’s a fair ‘un. He don’t cheat. He’ll do well by you, an’ you shall drive the barrow and see what you make of it. We’ll be partners, Nan. You look out for me a bit, an’ I’ll teach you the business and ‘ave an heye to Johnny. What do you say? Will you try it? It’ll break me ‘art if that donkey and barrow goes to hanybody that’ll make light of ‘em hand habuse ‘em. There hain’t such another donkey and barrow in all London, and you’re one that knows it, Nan.”

 ”Yes, I know it,” Nan said. “You ought to know, if you think I could do it.”

 ”There’s nought that can’t be done if you sets your mind well to it,” said old Widgeon. “And now, Nan, ‘ere’s the key, and you get Billy just by the stable there to move my bits o’ things over here. That court’s no place for you, an’ there’s more light here. Billy’s a good ‘un. He’ll ‘elp you when you need it.”

 This is the story of the fresh-faced, serious young woman who drives a donkey-barrow through certain quiet streets in northwest London, and has a regular line of customers, who find her wares, straight from Covent Garden, exactly what she represents. Health and strength have come with the new work, and though it has its hardships, they are as nothing compared with the deadly, monotonous labor at the machine. Johnny, too, shares the benefit, and holds the reins or makes change, at least once or twice a week, while old Widgeon, a little more helpless, but otherwise the same, regards his “stroke” as a providential interposition on Nan’s behalf, and Nan herself as better than any daughter.

 ”I’ve all the good of a child, and none o’ the hups hand downs o’ the married state,” he chuckles; “hand so, whathever you think, I’m lucky to the hend.”

Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
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

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

No comments:

Post a Comment