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WE now come to a sad episode in our history - and yet one in
which there is perhaps less romance and more truth than in any scene yet
We have already warned our reader that he will have to
accompany us amidst appalling scenes of vice and wretchedness :- we are now
about to introduce him to one of destitution and suffering - of powerful
struggle and unavailing toil - whose details are so very sad, that we have been
able to find no better heading for our chapter than miserrima, or
"very miserable things."
The reader will remember that we have brought our narrative,
in preceding chapters, up to the end of 1838 :- we must now go back for a period
of two years, in order to commence the harrowing details of our present episode.
In one of the low dark rooms of a gloomy house in a court
leading out of Golden Lane, St. Luke's, a young girl of seventeen sate at work.
It was about nine o'clock in the evening; and a single candle lighted the
miserable chamber, which was almost completely denuded of furniture. The cold
wind of December whistled through the ill-closed casement and the broken panes,
over which thin paper had been pasted to repel the biting chill. A small deal
table, two common chairs, and a mattress were all the articles of furniture
which this wretched room contained. A door at the end opposite the window opened
into another and smaller chamber: and this latter one was furnished with
nothing, save an old mattress. There were no blankets - no coverlids in either
room. The occupants had no other covering at night than their own clothes ;- and
those clothes - God knows they were thin, worn, and scanty enough!
Not a spark of fire burned in the grate ;- and yet that front
room in which the young girl was seated was as cold as the nave of a vast
cathedral in the depth of winter.
The reader has perhaps experienced that icy chill which seems
to strike to the very marrow of the bones, when entering a huge stone edifice :-
the cold which prevailed in that room, and in which the young creature was at
work with her needle, was more intense - more penetrating - more bitter - more
frost-like than even that icy chill!
Miserable and cheerless was that chamber: the dull light of
the candle only served to render its nakedness the more apparent, without
relieving it of my of its gloom. And as the cold draught from the wretched
casement caused the flame of that candle to flicker and oscillate, the poor girl
was compelled to seat herself between the window and the table, to protect her
light from the wind. Thus, the chilling December blast blew upon the back of the
young sempstress, whose clothing was so thin and scant :- so very scant!
The sempstress was, as we have before said, about seventeen
years of age. She was very beautiful; and her features, although pale with want,
and wan with care end long vigils, were pleasing and agreeable. The cast of her
countenance was purely Grecian - the shape of her head eminently classical - and
her form was of a perfect and symmetrical mould. Although clothed in the most
scanty and wretched manner, she was singularly neat and clean in her appearance;
and her air and demeanour were far above her humble occupation and her
She had, indeed, seen better days! Reared in the lap of
luxury by fond, but too indulgent parents, her education had been of a high
order; and thus her qualifications were rather calculated to embellish her in
prosperity than to prove of use to her in adversity. She had lost her mother at
the age of twelve; and her father - kind and fond, and proud of his only child -
had sought to make her shine in that sphere which she had then appeared destined
a to adorn. But misfortunes came upon them like a thunderbolt: and when poverty
- grim poverty - stared them in the face - this poor girl had no resource, save
her needle! Now and then her father earned a trifle in the City, by making out
accounts or copying deeds ;- but sorrow and ill-health had almost entirely
incapacitated him from labour or occupation of any kind ;- and his young and
affectionate daughter was compelled to toil from sunrise until a late hour in
the night to earn even a pittance.
One after another, all their little comforts, in the shape of
furniture and clothing, disappeared; and after vainly endeavouring to maintain a
humble lodging in a cheap but respectable neighbourhood, poverty compelled them
to take refuge in that dark, narrow, filthy court leading out of Golden Lane.
Such was the sad fate of Mr. Munroe and his daughter Ellen.
At the time when we introduce the latter to our readers, her
father was absent in the City. He had a little Occupation in a counting-house,
which was to last three days, which kept him hard at work from nine in the
morning till eleven at night, and for which he was to to receive a pittance so
small we dare not mention its amount! This is how it was:- an official assignee
belonging to the Bankruptcy Court had some heavy accounts to make up by a
certain day: he was consequently compelled to employ an accountant to aid him;
the accountant employed a petty scrivener to make out the balance-sheet; and the
petty scrivener employed Monroe to ease him of a portion of the toil. It is
therefore plain that Monroe was not to receive much for his three days' labour.
And so Ellen was compelled to toil and work, and work and
toil - to rise early and go to bed late - so late that she had scarcely fallen
asleep, worn out a with fatigue, when it appeared time to get up again; - and
thus the roses forsook her cheeks - and her health suffered - and her head ached
- and her eyes grew dim-and her limbs were stiff with the chill!
And so she worked and toiled, and toiled and worked.
We said it was about nine o'clock in the evening.
Ellen's fingers were almost paralysed with cold and labour;
and yet the work which she had in her hands must be done that night; else no
supper then - and no breakfast on the morrow; for on the shelf
[-168-] in that cheerless chamber there was
not a morsel of bread!
And for sixteen hours had that poor girl fasted already; for
she had eaten a crust at five in the morning, when she had risen from her hard
cold couch in the back chamber. She had left the larger portion of the bread
that then remained, for her father; and she had assured him that she had a few
halfpence to purchase more for herself - but she had therein deceived him!
Ah! how noble and generous was that deception ;- and how often - how very often
did that poor girl practise it!
Ellen had risen at five that morning to embroider a silk
shawl with eighty flowers. She had calculated upon finishing it by eight in the
evening; but although she had worked, and worked, and worked hour after hour,
without ceasing, save for a moment, at long intervals to rest her aching head
and stretch her cramped fingers, eight had struck - and nine had struck also -
and still the blossoms were not all embroidered.
It was a quarter to ten when the last stitch was put into the
But then the poor creature could not rest :- not to her was
it allowed to repose after that severe day of toil! She was hungry - she was
faint - her stomach was sick for want of food; and at eleven her father
would come home, hungry, faint, and sick at stomach also!
Rising from her chair - every limb stiff, cramped, and aching
with cold and weariness - the poor creature put on her modest straw bonnet with
a faded riband, and her thin wretched shawl, to take home her work.
Her employer dwelt upon Finsbury Pavement; and as it was now
late, the poor girl was compelled to hasten as fast as her aching limbs would
The shop to which she repaired was brilliant with lamps and
gas-lights. Articles of great variety and large value were piled in the windows,
on the counters, on the shelves. Upwards of twenty young men were busily
employed in serving the customers. The proprietor of that establishment was at
that moment entertaining a party of friends up stairs, at a champagne supper!
The young girl walked timidly into the vast magazine of
fashions, and, with downcast eyes, advanced towards an elderly woman who was
sitting at a counter at the farther end of the shop. To this female did she
present the shawl.
"A pretty time of night to come!" murmured the
shopwoman. "This ought to have been done by three or four o'clock."
"I have worked since five this morning, without
ceasing," answered Ellen; "and I could not finish it before."
"Ah! I see," exclaimed the shopwoman, turning the
shawl over, and examining it critically; "there are fifty or sixty flowers,
"Eighty," said Ellen; "I was ordered to
embroider that number."
"Well, Miss - and is there so much difference between
sixty and eighty?"
"Difference, ma'am!" ejaculated the young girl, the
tears starting into her eyes; "the difference is more than four hours'
"Very likely, very likely, Miss. And how much do you
expect for this?"
"I must leave it entirely to you, ma'am."
The poor girl spoke deferentially to this cold-hearted woman,
in order to make her generous. Oh! poverty renders even the innocence of
seventeen selfish, mundane, and calculating!
"Oh! you leave it to me, do you?" said the woman,
turning the shawl over and over, and scrutinising it in all points; but she
could not discover a single fault in Ellen's work. "You leave it to me?
Well, it isn't so badly done - very tolerably for a girl of your age and
inexperience! I presume," she added, thrusting her hand into the till under
the counter, and drawing forth sixpence, "I presume that this is
"Madam," said Ellen, bursting into tears, "I
have worked nearly seventeen hours at that shawl "
She could say no more: her voice was lost in sobs.
"Come, come," cried the shopwoman harshly, - "no
whimpering here! Take up your money, if you like it - and if you don't, leave
it. Only decide one way or another, and make haste!"
Ellen took up the sixpence, wiped her eyes, and hastily
turned to leave the shop.
"Do you not want any more work?" demanded the shopwoman
The fact was that the poor girl worked well, and did not
"shirk" labour; and the woman knew that it was the interest of her master to
retain that young creature's services.
Those words, "Do you not want any more work?" reminded
Ellen that she and her father must live - that they could not starve! She
accordingly turned towards that uncouth female once more, and received another
shawl, to embroider in the same manner, and at the same price!
Eighty blossoms for sixpence!
Sixteen hours' work for sixpence!!
A farthing and a half per hour!!!
The young girl returned to the dirty court in Golden Lane,
after purchasing some food, coarse and cheap, on her way home.
On the ground-floor of a house in the same court dwelt an old
woman - one of
those old women who are the moral sewers of great towns - the sinks towards which
flow all thee impurities of the human passions. One of those abominable hags
was she who dishonour the sanctity of old age. She had hideous wrinkles upon
her face; and as she stretched out her huge, dry, and bony hand, and tapped the
young girl upon the shoulder, as the latter hurried past her door, the very
touch seemed to chill the maiden even through her clothes.
Ellen turned abruptly round, and shuddered - she scarcely knew
why - when she
found herself confronting that old hag by the dim lustre of the lights which
shone through the windows in the narrow court.
That old woman, who was the widow of crime, assumed as
pleasant an aspect as her horrible countenance would allow her to put on, and
addressed the timid maiden in a strain which the latter scarcely comprehended.
All that Ellen could understand was that the old woman suspected how hardly she
toiled and how badly she was paid, and offered to point out a more pleasant and
profitable mode of earning money.
Without precisely knowing why, Ellen shrank from the contact
of that hideous old hag, and trembled at the words which issued from the crone's mouth.
"You do not answer me," said the wretch. "Well,
well; when you have no bread to eat - no work - no money to pay your rent - and
nothing but the workhouse before you, you will think better of it and come to
Thus saying, the old hag turned abruptly into her own den,
the door of which she banged violently.
With her heart fluttering like a little bird in its
cage, poor Ellen hastened to her own miserable abode.
She placed the food upon the table, but would not touch it
until her father should return. She longed for a spark of fire, for she was so
cold and so wretched - and even in warm weather misery makes one shiver! But that
room was as cold as an icehouse - and the unhappiness of that poor girl was a
burden almost too heavy for her to bear.
She sate down, and thought. Oh! how poignant is meditation
in such a condition as hers. Her prospects were utterly black and hopeless.
When she and her father had first taken those lodgings, she
had obtained work from a "middle-woman." This middle-woman was one who
contracted with great drapery and upholstery firms to do their needle-work at
certain low rates. The middle-woman had to live, and was therefore compelled
to make a decent profit upon the work. So she gave it out to poor creatures like
Ellen Monroe, and got it done for next to nothing.
Thus for some weeks had Ellen made shirts - with the collars,
wristband., and fronts all well stitched - for four-pence the shirt.
And it took her twelve hours, without intermission to make a
shirt and it cost her a penny for needles, and thread, and candle.
She therefore had three-pence for herself!
Twelve hours' unwearied toil for three-pence!!
One farthing an hour!!!
Sometimes she had made dissecting-trousers, which were sold to the medical
students at the hospitals; and for those she was paid two-pence half-penny
It occupied her eight hours to make one pair of those trousers!
At length the middle-woman had recommended her to the
establishment on Finsbury Pavement; and there she was told that she might have
plenty of work, and be well paid.
At the rate of a farthing and a half per hour!!
Oh! it was a mockery - a hideous mockery, to give that young creature gay
flowers and blossoms to work - she, who was working her own winding-sheet!
She sate, shivering with the cold, awaiting her father's return. Ever and
anon the words of that old crone who had addressed
her in the court, rang in her ears. What could she mean? How could she - stern in
her own wretchedness herself and [-170-] perhaps stern to the wretchedness of
others - how could that old hag possess
the means of teaching her a pleasant and profitable mode of earning money? The
soul of Ellen was purity itself - although she dwelt in that low, obscene,
filthy, and disreputable neighbourhood. She seemed like a solitary lily in the
midst of a black morass swarming with reptiles!
The words of the old woman were therefore unintelligible to that fair young
creature of seventeen and yet she intuitively reproached herself for pondering upon them. Oh! mysterious influence of an all-wise and all-seeing
Providence, that thus furnishes warnings against dangers yet unseen!
She tried to avert her thoughts from the contemplation of her own
misery, and of the tempting offer made to her by the wrinkled harridan in the
adjoining house; and so she busied herself with thinking of the condition of the
other lodgers in the same tenement which she and her father inhabited. She then
perceived that there were others in the world - as wretched and as badly off as
herself; but, in contradiction to the detestable maxim of Rochefoucauld - sge
found no consolation in this conviction.
In the attics were Irish families, whose
children ran all day, half naked, about the court and lane, paddling with their poor
cold bare feet in the puddle or the snow, and apparently thriving in dirt,
hunger, and privation. Ellen and her father occupied the two rooms on the
second floor. On the first floor, In the front room, lived two families - an
elderly man and woman, with their grown-up sons and daughters; and with one of
those sons were a wife and young children. Eleven souls thus herded together, without shame, in a room eighteen feet wide! These eleven human beings,
dwelling in so swine-like a manner, existed upon twenty-five shillings a week,
the joint earnings of all of them who were able to work. In the back chamber on
the same floor was a tailor, with a paralytic wife and a complete tribe of
children. This poor wretch worked for a celebrated Clothing Mart, and sometimes toiled for
twenty hours a-day - never less than
seventeen, Sunday included - to earn - what?
Eight shillings a week.
He made mackintoshes at the rate of one shilling and three-pence
each; and he could make one each day. But then he had to find
needles and thread; and the cost of these, together with candles, amounted to
nine-pence a week.
He thus had eight shillings remaining for himself, after working like a
slave, without recreation or rest, even upon the sabbath, seventeen hours
A week contains a hundred and sixty-eight hours. And he worked a hundred and
nineteen hours each week!
And earned eight shillings!!
A decimal more than three farthings an hour!!!
On the ground floor of the house the tenants were no better off. In the front
room dwelt a poor costermonger, or hawker of fruit, who earned upon an average
seven shillings a week, out of which he was compelled to pay one shilling to
treat the policeman upon the beat where he took his stand. His wife did a little
washing, and perhaps earned eighteen-pence. And that was all this poor couple
with four children had to subsist upon. The back room on the ground floor was occupied by the landlady of the house. She paid twelve
shillings a week for rent and taxes, and let the various rooms for an aggregate of twenty-one shillings. She thus had nine shillings
to live upon, supposing
that every one of her lodgers paid her - which was never the case.
Poor Ellen, in reflecting in this manner upon the condition of her neighbours, found herself
surrounded on all sides by
misery. Misery was above - misery below : misery was on the right and on the left.. Misery was the genius
of that dwelling, and of every other in that court. Misery was the cold and
speechless companion of the young girl as she sate in that icy chamber : misery
spread her meal, and made her bed, and was her chambermaid at morning and at
Eleven o'clock struck by St. Luke's church; and Mr. Monroe returned to his
wretched abode. It had begun to rain shortly after Ellen had returned home; and
the old man was wet to the skin.
"Oh! my dear father!" exclaimed the poor girl, - "you
are wet, and there is not a morsel of fire in the grate."
"And I have no money, dearest," returned the heart-broken father,
pressing his thin lips upon the forehead of his daughter. "But I am not
cold, Nell - I am not cold!"
Without uttering a word, Ellen hastened out of the room, and
begged a few sticks from one lodger, and a little coal from another. It would
shame the affluent great, did they know how ready are the miserable - miserable
poor to assist each other!
With her delicate taper fingers - with those little white hinds which seemed
never made to do menial service, the young girl laid the fire; and when she saw the flame blazing cheerfully up the chimney, she turned towards the old
man - and smiled!
She would not for worlds have begged any thing for herself -
but for her father - oh! she would have I submitted to any degradation!
And then for a moment a gleam of something like happiness stole upon that
hitherto mournful scene, I as the father and daughter partook of their frugal -
very frugal and sparing meal together.
As soon as it was concluded, Ellen rose, kissed her parent affectionately,
wished him "good night," and retired into her own miserable, cold, and naked
She extinguished her candle in a few moments, to induce her father to believe
that she had sought repose; but when she knew that the old man was asleep, she
lighted the candle once more, and seated herself upon the old mattress, to
embroider a few blossoms upon the silk which had been confided to her at the
establishment in Finsbury.
From the neighbouring houses the sounds of boisterous revelry fell upon her
ears. She was too young and inexperienced to know that this mirth emanated
from persons perhaps as miserable as herself, and that they were only drowning
care in liquor, instead of encountering their miseries face to face. The din of
that hilarity and those shouts of laughter, therefore made her sad.
Presently that noise grew fainter and fainter; and at length it altogether
ceased. The clock of St. Luke's church struck one; and all was then silent
A lovely moon rode high in the heavens; the rain had ceased, and the night
was beautiful - but bitter, bitter cold.
Wearied with toil, the young maiden threw down her work, and, opening the
casement, looked forth from her wretched chamber. The gentle breeze, though
bearing on its wing the chill of ice, refreshed her; and as she gazed upwards to
the moon, she wondered within herself whether the spirit of her departed
mother was permitted to look down upon her from the empyrean palaces on high.
Tears - large tears trickled down her cheeks; and she was too much overcome by
her feelings even to pray.
[-171-] While she was thus endeavouring to divert her thoughts from
the appalling miseries of earth to the transcendant glories of heaven, she was
diverted from her mournful reverie by the sound of a window opening in a
neighbouring house; and in a few moments violent sobs fell upon her ears. Those
sobs, evidently coming from a female bosom, were so acute, so heart-rending, so
full of anguish, that Ellen was herself overcome with grief. At length those indications of extreme woe ceased gradually,
and then these words;- "Oh my God! what will become of my starving babes!" fell upon Ellen's ears. She
was about to inquire into the cause of that profound affliction, when the
voice of a man was heard. to exclaim gruffly, "Come - let's have no more of
this gammon: we must all go to the workus in the morning - that's all!" And then
the window was closed violently.
The workhouse! That word sounded like a fearful knell upon Ellen's ears. Oh!
for hours and hours together had that poor girl meditated upon the condition
of her father and herself, until she had traced, in imagination, their
melancholy career up to the very door of the workhouse. And there she had
stopped: she dared think no more - or she would have gone mad, raving mad! For she
had heard of the horrors of those asylums for the poor; and she knew that she
should be separated from her father on the day when their stern destinies
should drive them to that much-dreaded refuge. And to part from him - from the
parent whom she loved so tenderly, and who loved her so well ;- no - death were far preferable!
The workhouse! How was it that the idea of this fearful home
- more dreaded
than the prison, less formidable than the grave - had taken so strong a hold upon
the poor girl's mind? Because the former tenant of the miserable room which now
was hers had passed thence to the workhouse: but ere she went away, she left
behind her a record of her feelings in anticipation of that removal to the
Impelled by an influence which she could not control - that
species of impulse which urges the timid one to gaze upon the corpse of the
dead, even while shuddering at the aspect of death - Ellen closed the window, and
read for the hundredth time the following lines, which were pencilled in a neat hand upon
the whitewashed wall of the naked chamber:-
HAD A TENDER MOTHER ONCE.
I HAD a
tender mother once.
eyes so sad and mild
Beamed tearfully yet kindly on
little orphan child.
father's care I never knew;
in that mother dear.
centred every thing to love,
cherish, and revere!
loved her with that fervent love
daughters only know;
often o'er my little head
bitter tears would flow.
she knew that death approached
To snatch her from my side;
on one gloomy winter day
tender mother died.
laid her in the pauper's ground,
hurried o'er the prayer
nearly broke my heart to think
they should place her there.
And now It seems I see her still
her snowy shroud;
in the dark and silent night
spirit weeps aloud.
know not how the years have passed
my poor mother died;
But I too have an orphan girl,
That grows up by my side.
God! thou know'st I do not crave
To eat the bread of sloth:
labour hard both day and night,
earn enough for both!
though I starve myself for her,
hunger wastes her form:-
My God! and must that darling child
feed the loathsome worm?
'Tis vain - for I can work no more -
My eyes with toil are dim;
My fingers seem all
And stiff is every limb!
now there is but one resource;
pauper's dreaded doom!
hasten to the workhouse, and
There find a living tomb.
I know that they will separate
My darling child from me;
though twill break our hearts, yet both
Must bow to that decree!
our tears must fail apart.
flow, together more;
from to-day our prayers may not
mingled as before!
O God! is this the Christian creed,
So merciful and mild?
daughter from the mother snatched,
The mother from her child!
Ah! we shall ne'er be blessed again
death has closed our eyes.
we meet in the pauper's ground
my poor mother lies.-
Though sad this chamber, it is bright
To what must be our doom;
The portal of the workhouse is
The entrance of the tomb!
Ellen read these lines till her eyes were dim with tears. She
then retired to her wretched couch; and she slept through sheer fatigue. But
dreams of hunger and of cold filled up her slumbers ;-and yet those dreams were
light beside the waking pangs which realised the visions!
The young maiden slept for three hours, and then arose
unrefreshed, and paler than she was on the preceding day. It was dark: the moon
had gone down; and some time would yet elapse ere the dawn. Ellen washed herself
in water upon which the ice floated; and the cold piercing breeze of the morning
whistled through the window upon her fair and delicate form.
As soon as she was dressed, she lighted her candle and crept
gently into her father's room. The old man slept soundly. Ellen flung his
clothes over her arm, took his boots up in her hand, and stole noiselessly back
to her own chamber. She then brushed those garments, and cleaned those boots,
all bespattered with thick mud as they were; and this task - so hard for her
delicate and diminutive hands - she performed with the most heart-felt
As soon as this occupation was finished she sate down once more to work.
Thus that poor girl knew no rest!
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