This is an excellent book about the social bigotry of Victorian times.
Rachel Wicks has taken me into a world of bigotry, cruelty and abuse. Life inside the London Workhouse was difficult and incredibly harsh but it was nothing compared to the household of her new husband, Emerson Blackburn. This is a story of one woman's strength and conviction to do what she feels is right. She is loyal, kind and even forgiving but most of all Rachel Wicks is a woman of selfless determination. This novel pulled me in instantly and held me there through each and every page. I was swept away repeatedly with emotionally highs and lows. I felt I walked at her side, feeling every cruel ordeal she went through. I found it difficult to put it down. I look forward to reading more from this author.
By Goodreads reader, Emily G.
London, November 27, 1847
Anxiously biting her lip, Rachel Wicks watched her friend Mary Batterby standing at the workhouse window. Mary strained to catch sight of her husband Robert through the warped pane of glass. Rachel heard the workhouse men outside, hammering away at piles of rocks and sidled up to Mary and placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Tears blurred Rachel’s vision. “Mary, come away,” she whispered in a soft, gentle voice.
At first, Mary ignored her. Rachel repeated her plea, more urgently.
With great reluctance, Mary pulled herself away from the window. “He’s out there tonight,” Mary said.
Rachel nodded. “I know.” She reached up to smooth back a stray lock of brown hair from Mary’s face. “But if Mrs. Brooks caught you standing at that window you’ll be sent to the basement and he’d never want that.” Rachel quickly glanced toward the kitchen door to make sure the head cook of the workhouse had not returned. Satisfied that she had not, Rachel looked back at her friend.
“I miss him so much,” Mary whispered, her voice cracking with emotion. “I long to touch him and speak to him.”
Rachel nodded again. “I know and he misses you, I’m sure of it, but you must find a way to stay strong Mary. The day will come when you will walk away from here at his side and never have to worry about returning ever again.”
Mary blinked away more tears. “I pray you’re right, Rachel. I really do. It’s been so long already.”
Rachel heard the sound of heavy footsteps suddenly spill into the kitchen but she did not have to look to see just whose footsteps they were. “You’d best return to your work, Mary. I think she’s returning.”
Mary used the heel of her hand to brush aside her tears. “I don’t know why I bother. I will cry for hours tonight.”
“One day, things will be better for us, you’ll see,” Rachel said, her voice cracking at her foolish impossible hope. Mary’s smile in response didn’t fool Rachel. “Come away, quickly.”
Mary stepped back to the tabletop where she was cutting vegetables for the soup that was being prepared for the hundreds of inmates in the workhouse. Rachel looked about at the other women working in the large kitchen. No one seemed to take much notice of Mary’s pain. They all had too much pain of their own to contend with. Mary sniffed and picked up her knife to continue her own chore.
“Wicks, what are you doing there?” The booming voice of Mrs. Helen Brooks filled the room.
Rachel was careful not to glance in Mary’s direction, hoping she could avoid drawing attention to her tearful friend. She quickly walked toward the head cook. She stopped just in front of the older woman, with her eyes cast down. The staff did not like the inmates to look directly in their eyes. It suggested they were not intimidated and that would be intolerable.
“Well?” Mrs. Brooks snapped at her. “You’re not assigned in here today.”
Rachel shook her head. “I was sent by Mr. Morris. He requested a cup of tea. He says his office is too cold again today. He wishes to warm up.”
“You were talking to Batterby, weren’t you?” Mrs. Brooks shot back angrily. “You know that’s against the rules.”
Rachel quickly nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Brooks, but I was only asking for the tea since you were not here.”
“Inmates don’t give out tea. That’s for me to decide, not Batterby.”
Yes, Mrs. Brooks,” Rachel meekly replied, knowing no other response would do.
Mrs. Brooks shook her head. “Won’t you women ever learn?” She wiped her hands on the grease-stained apron that covered her ample waist. “I’m tired of the women I’m asked to work with. In my opinion, you’d be as lazy as a cow in the field if I turned my back on any of you for more than a minute.” She sighed, as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders. “I have to oversee hundreds of meals every day and have no time for women sneaking around breaking the rules.”
Rachel glanced about the large kitchen at the faces of the women. All wore uniforms of simple blue and white striped frocks with white aprons and white poke bonnets. They were all thin and pale from the meager diet and the constant lack of sunlight. Rachel understood that for the average person on the outside of the workhouse, what only mattered to them was the fact the inmates had a roof over their heads and food to eat every day. What else could any of them expect for the situations they were in? Rachel knew Mrs. Brooks considered that it was too good by half.
Mrs. Brooks sniffed at Rachel. “Does Mr. Morris think I’ve nothing better to do than to make him a cup of tea?”
Rachel knew better than to answer. She had learned that Mrs. Brooks never wanted the workers to comment on such things.
“I should by rights refuse him,” Mrs. Brooks went on as she stalked passed Rachel. “Tea is not something to hand out to just anyone. Tea costs money, or doesn’t he think of that?”
Rachel followed the cook to the fireplace where the kettle stood. The large woman picked up a rag before reaching for the kettle. She looked about for a cup and finally snapped her fingers at Rachel to make her go fetch one. “Why didn’t he come for it himself? Why did he send you?”
“Mr. Morris is busy signing Mrs. Webb in again,” Rachel replied quietly as she fetched a clean tin cup from a nearby table.
Mrs. Brooks shook her head. “Signed herself and those brats of hers out again this morning, didn’t she?” She snorted her disgust. “No doubt she wanted to spend the day with them but what she really did was keep them from having a midday meal. What selfishness! Can she not wait until visitations take place, when all families have their monthly visit? She’d have a full hour with them then.”
Rachel offered the cup to the cook. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“I’ve no doubt she’s making quite the commotion in the receiving office. She always does.” Mrs. Brooks snatched the cup from Rachel and poured out a small measure of liquid. “No doubt he’ll forget to thank me for sending him this. He always does. But he’ll report me to Mrs. Clarence if I don’t. He’s an ungrateful wretch.” She handed the tin cup to Rachel. “Don’t spill it or I’ll never hear an end to it.”
“Yes, Mrs. Brooks.” Rachel turned to leave, stealing one last glance in Mary’s direction. Her friend was leaning over her work without looking up. Rachel could clearly see the tears still in her eyes.
“Well, hurry up,” Mrs. Brooks snapped in her ear, startling her to the point where she almost spilt some of the tea. “I told you to be careful, you stupid girl.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brooks.” Rachel hurried to leave the kitchen but she could never be fast enough to escape hearing Mrs. Brooks shouting after her. “Every miserable female in this place is sorry. Just smarten up!”
Rachel quickly made her way down the hall, past the workhouse bakery and out into the main corridor. She moved quickly to get the tea to Mr. Morris since the building had very little heating outside of the kitchen, bakery and laundry. She feared she’d make another staff member angry with her if she delivered cold tea.
When she arrived outside the receiving office door, she heard the sound of children weeping along with their mother. Mr. Morris was actively lecturing Mrs. Webb on the folly of her actions.
“I really must ask the Vicar, Mr. Hedley, about you, Mrs. Webb. He must speak to you concerning this strange need to always leave with the children in the morning only to return at night. It simply would not do for you to continue. Ah, my tea, at last.” Morris suddenly noticed Rachel standing at the door with his tea. He waved her to move forward so he could take the cup from her.
He took a quick sip. The warmth of the liquid was clearly welcome.
Rachel knew better than simply just leave. She must wait for his instructions. She glanced down at Mrs. Webb and her three children, two girls and a boy. They huddled together, weeping at the prospect of being separated again. Her heart broke at the sight of them. She could not help but think of her own mother and the agony she must have gone through to sign herself and Rachel into Pots Landing fifteen years ago. Rachel found she had to look away before her own emotions threatened to overtake her.
Morris did not seem to notice the distress the family was in. “Ah, I’m feeling my recovery already,” he sighed contently. He then turned to Rachel. “Take the children back to their ward. They still may have time to have their evening meal before they go to bed. See to it they have their uniforms returned and store their clothing again.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rachel curtsied and then gently pried the smallest child away from her mother. “Come along, children.” Rachel spoke softly not to upset them further. Suddenly, Mrs. Webb raised her eyes and for a moment the two women stared at one another. Rachel felt the emotional pain emanating from the older woman. She hated being the one to separate the lady from her children. Finally, Rachel managed to coax the children away. With tears in all of their eyes, the family parted.
Rachel guided the children from the room and out into the hall; from here she still heard Mr. Morris lecturing Mrs. Webb on her choices. Feeling the children had been through enough, she hurried them quickly out of earshot.
The three Webb children silently walked along with her, holding each other’s hands as though letting go would bring about their very end. Rachel knew if one of the workhouse staff saw them holding hands they’d insist that they desist. Mr. Morris especially made it clear he disapproved of such a display since he felt it only encouraged them to hope for something that could not be. The two eldest children were very near the age to be moved to separate wards. The boy was nearly seven and he’d be sent to the boy’s ward within two months. The older girl was only ten months younger and she’d be removed to the girl’s ward by this time next year. The youngest child was only four and wouldn’t be allowed to live in the same ward with her sister for another three years. They’d only be allowed to be together again for one hour once a month on visitation days. More than once, Morris expressed the opinion that mothers like Mrs. Webb did their children no favors by encouraging them to cling to each other. It was simply too cruel.
Rachel moved the children to the main staircase to begin the long climb to the attic where the children’s ward was located. She’d have been content to let the children climb the stairs at their own pace but, when she heard the door to the Master’s office open, she knew she had to do something quickly as she didn’t want to be questioned by Mr. Clarence. She certainly did not want to be the one to explain why the Webb children were out of their ward. Within moments, she shooed the two older children up the first flight of stairs, while she carried the youngest. She managed to get them all around the corner before Mr. Clarence entered the hall with a young gentleman behind him.
After Rachel got the Webb children back to their ward, she headed for the infirmary.
* * * *
“There is no need to venture further into the building, Mr. Blackburn, sir.” George Clarence, the Master of Pots Landing Workhouse, spoke quickly and eagerly to the young man who followed him into the main hall. “I could simply send for those you wish to see, while you remain in my office away from the prying eyes of the inmates. I would wish to preserve your reputation.”
“There is little need for that, Mr. Clarence,” the gentleman answered as he glanced past him, looking at the plain beige walls of the main hall. “I don’t expect my reputation would suffer as I know none of the people residing here.”
Clarence’s cheek twitched at the remark. “Yes, of course.” He forced a smile onto his thin lips. “Yes, well then, let us begin.” He bowed his head as though it were required to show the proper respect to a gentleman of means.
The young Mr. Blackburn merely remained where he was, until Clarence showed him the way.
Clarence was most eager to please, rubbing his hands together before gesturing down the hall toward the end of the building where the kitchen, bakery and laundry were located. “You will see we have quite an impressive facility and no detail is too small in our efforts to make the inmates useful, productive individuals.” He had to jog slightly to keep up with the younger man’s stride. “Here we say, ‘God is our Lord, to whom we all serve and obey.’ That is our motto at Pots Landing. ‘To be idle is to sin,’ I always say.” Clarence was rapidly losing his breath as they neared the turn in the corridor.
“You will find here that we impress upon our inmates, the very best scruples and insist they obey the rules,” Clarence continued breathlessly, hoping to demonstrate to the gentleman his position within the facility. “You will be hard pressed to find an individual who is stubborn or backward in their manners. We would never allow it. Why, if an inmate were caught breaking any of the rules in any way, they are properly punished. In the rare instance when an inmate is deliberately breaking the rules, then they are kept for one night in complete darkness, within a cell located in the cellar. I confess, it is rather cold and damp down there but I have found it a very effective deterrent.”
Mr. Blackburn suddenly stopped in his tracks.
Clarence narrowly missed bumping into him.
“Oh?” Mr. Blackburn said.
“Well, I…” Clarence suddenly regretted mentioning any form of punishment to the gentleman. He had so wanted to impress him, but if he were suddenly cast in an improper light, then the arrangement they’d just discussed in his office might fall through. He had to pick his words carefully. “I do not mean to imply that we deal harshly with the inmates at all times,” he lied, nervously. “In truth, there are few occasions when a difficulty arises that must demand a more stern approach to find a resolution, but I assure you that we rarely have to resort to anything more than taking away a meal.” When he did not receive any response, he hastily added, “I assure you that most of our inmates are very obedient and follow every rule we lay down for them. You’ll not find any difficulty in making a decision here, Sir.”
Mr. Blackburn narrowed his eyes, as if he studied Clarence’s face for deception. He seemed satisfied. “Only fear and insecurity, I think.”
“Beg pardon, Sir?”
“Nothing, Mr. Clarence. It’s best that we move along, now.”
Clarence bowed his head once more, with another forced smile. “Of course, this way, Mr. Blackburn.” He led him down the narrow corridor, where faint smells of fresh bread and cooking meat drifted toward them. Clarence continued, “I have given careful consideration as to the instructions which your man Mr. Poole related to me yesterday. I consulted with my wife and we feel there are three young women here who may satisfy you.” He smiled quickly, pleased with his own prattle. “Down the hall is the kitchen and here we have the entrance to our bakery.” They stopped at the door, which led into the bakery. Clarence reached around Blackburn to open the door for him. He again smiled up at the young man as he pushed the door open. “We try to be as self dependent as possible.”
* * * *
Instantly, the smell of freshly baked bread enveloped them completely. The sounds of pans being sorted and stacked greeted their entrance. Clarence had to raise his voice slightly to be heard. “As you see we have a very large workforce at our disposal to keep the facility working at its peak efficiency.”
Blackburn slowly scanned the large, dimly lit room. There were several women working at various stations.
The room was very warm. A little too warm to his mind, but he was determined to follow through with his plan and therefore was willing to put up with the uncomfortable heat and the obnoxious Clarence.
Blackburn took note that there were a variety of shapes and sizes in the workers. All were pale and all were thin, though how thin could not rightly be determined under such shapeless uniforms. He noticed another thing about the women: they were silent and kept their heads down over their work. None of them did more than glance up at the sound of their entrance, without actually raising their heads. He had no doubt they would be punished if they looked away from their work, even for a moment.
“As you can see, the inmates are not allowed to spend idle time chatting with one another. Silence is a virtue, would you not agree, Mr. Blackburn?”
When Blackburn made no reply, Clarence turned his attention toward the woman approaching them. “Ah, Mrs. Abel.” He smiled at Blackburn. “Mrs. Abel is our head baker.”
The middle-aged woman seemed annoyed. “Mr. Clarence, I was unaware we were to have visitors today.” She tried to brush the flour from her apron as she seemed to notice the fine attire of Blackburn. “I regret you find us trying to get a jump on tomorrow’s bread.”
Clarence shook his head. “This is not a formal visit, Mrs. Abel. This gentleman is not here to report any sort of infraction he may find.” He suddenly realized his remark may lead to a misunderstanding and so quickly added, “Not that there would be any to find, of course.”
“Certainly not in my bakery, Mr. Clarence,” Mrs. Abel replied with pride.
Clarence laughed nervously, his cheek twitching, clearly anxious to move the conversation along. “I understand Mary Landry is working in here today.”
“Yes, she’s just there.” Mrs. Abel pointed. A young woman leaned over a table, kneading a lump of dough. Strands of her brown hair stuck to her face due to perspiration.
Blackburn took careful note of her pale complexion and the red blotches that marred it. Her uniform hung from her thin shoulders, but it was not so large that he could see she had a straight figure. Her hands were red and raw; they seemed crusted in flour. Blackburn had seen enough. He looked at Clarence and shook his head.
Clarence’s tone could not hide his disappointment at Blackburn’s rejection: “Very good, Mrs. Abel. That will be all.”
“Did you wish to speak to her?” Mrs. Abel asked.
“No, not at all.” Clarence shook his head, gesturing for her to return to her work. “Thank you, Mrs. Abel. We have all we need.”
“As you like.” She turned and walked away and mumbled faintly, “I’ll never understand men.”
Blackburn’s patience was beginning to wane. He made for the door.
Once both men were in the corridor, Clarence quickly suggested they move along to the laundry. “I am certain you will find what you need there, Sir,” he promised.
“I hope so, Mr. Clarence.”
Moments later, they stood in a vast room filled with silent women doing even harder labor than those in the bakery. Clarence squinted through the steam that seemed to rise from every corner of the room until he spotted someone. “Ah, there we have Sarah Mitchell. There, by the fire on your right.”
Blackburn turned. A young woman stood bent over a vast kettle of boiling water. She held a large wand that she used to stir the clothing inside the kettle. He had little difficulty making out her figure. Her breasts were well formed, as were her hips, but her hands were even redder than the last woman he’d seen. He took note of her face: a squared chin, long narrow nose and small eyes. Her black hair, though tied back, escaped the cloth binding due to its uneven, broken condition. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Clarence studying his face, waiting for his judgment. He wondered if the man could make out his clenched jaw and angered expression. He had not asked for much, but he suddenly realized he might have expected too much. Perhaps, he had made a mistake coming to a workhouse to find what he needed. He shook his head, sensing Clarence’s instant disappointment. They left the laundry in silence.
Blackburn felt compelled to speak the moment they exited the room. “Mr. Clarence, this is not the sort of person I had in mind. My man must have made that very clear to you.”
Clarence’s face betrayed panic, which was not surprising. He’d been promised a handsome sum of money to find a person meeting Blackburn’s expectations. From what he knew of the odious man, Blackburn believed that his wife would never let him forget it if he failed to fulfill Blackburn’s request.
“I understand your disappointment, Mr. Blackburn and I’m eager to find the person meeting your requirements, but even in a place such as this, that is a very specific set of needs.”
“If you cannot do as promised, I would wish you to tell me so at once,” Blackburn quickly responded. “I have little time to spare.”
“No, no.” The color drained from Clarence’s face and Blackburn wondered for a moment if the man was about to faint. “You need not lose faith just yet, Mr. Blackburn. I have one last young lady to show you.”
“I hope you have better results for me, Mr. Clarence.”
Clarence placed a hand over his cheek, as if to keep it from twitching with wild abandon. He let out a laugh, almost a cackle. “I assure you, I have saved the best for last. She performs many tasks for us, but we should find her up in the female infirmary. She’s an attendant there.”
Blackburn took a moment to consider his options. He had so much to gain and so much to lose. He could not afford to walk away. Reluctantly, he nodded, determined he would settle for someone in this workhouse, even if it meant taking one of the unsatisfactory women he’d just seen. He had no intention of letting Clarence know this however, since he wanted to ensure the man did his best to meet his needs.
Clarence quickly led Blackburn back through the halls to the main stairwell. As they ascended the stairs, he explained that the infirmary was located on the third floor. It was just so to prevent the sick and elderly from wandering away. Blackburn followed, saying nothing, leaving Clarence an apparent nervous wreck by the time they entered the infirmary.
Clarence quickly summoned an older woman working near the door. He quietly asked her to fetch the young woman they’d discussed before. While they waited, Blackburn let his gaze move down the long narrow room with two rows of beds on either side. As with the halls, the walls were devoid of all color and decoration, except for passages from the bible that promoted a proper work ethic in large looming letters. All the attendants worked silently but the women lying in the beds did not seem bound to the rule of silence. Blackburn listened to sounds of weeping and the occasional scream. He took a deep breath, trying to keep his mind focused on his task. He hoped that he would not be kept waiting long. He wanted get away and leave the suffering of the female patients behind him.
When he saw a lone figure walking up the aisle toward them, he took great care to observe every detail. She wore the same uniform as all the other female inmates, which truly did not allow him to see her figure. Her hair, which was pulled away from her face and pinned under a small cap, was a pleasing golden hue. She held her head up as if she had a grace about her, but her green eyes carried no hint of false pride. Her oval-shaped face was accentuated with high cheekbones. Her complexion was pale and he was sure she was too thin, but what he did see before him did not leave him dissatisfied. He nodded at Clarence. The man sighed heavily with relief.
The moment she stopped just in front of them, she gave a respectful curtsy and lowered her eyes. “You asked to see me, Mr. Clarence?”
Clarence’s lips finally seemed to reflect an honest smile. “Yes.” He looked at Blackburn and happily said, “Mr. Blackburn, I would like to introduce you to Rachel Wicks.”