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Authors: Margaret Dickinson

Pauper's Gold

BOOK: Pauper's Gold
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Margaret Dickinson
Pauper’s Gold

























































May, 1854

‘We’ll get rid of her. That girl’s been nothing but trouble since she came in here.’ Cedric Goodbody belied his name for there was nothing
‘good’ about the man. He was thin and wiry with a rat-like face. His grey eyes, sharp and piercing, missed nothing. His frown deepened. ‘If I’d known what I know now,
I’d never have admitted her. Her or her mother. The woman had the gall to refuse to pick oakum, on the grounds that she’s a silk worker and the rough work might injure her

He drummed his fingers impatiently on the desk in front of him. The room around him was cluttered with files and ledgers. Papers were strewn over the surface of his desk and piled in untidy
heaps on the floor. He was sitting in the only chair in the room. Any visitor – even his wife, Matilda – was obliged to stand. Hands folded in front of her, she was facing him now
across his desk. She was no better than her husband. Thin and gaunt with a waspish tongue, she took a malicious delight in the misfortunes of others. Together – as master and matron –
they ran the Macclesfield workhouse just within the rules laid down by the Board of Guardians, and outside them if they were sure they would not be found out.

‘The girl’s got spirit,’ Matilda admitted grudgingly. ‘I’ll give her that. Nothing seems to depress her for long.’

‘Can’t you try punishing her? I’m sure you can find a reason,’ Cedric growled. ‘She’s too pretty for her own good. That long, blonde hair and those bright
blue eyes—’

‘My word, Cedric, I’ve never known you to be so observant.’ Matilda pursed her mouth.

Cedric ignored her sarcasm. ‘But it’s her singing all the time that gets on my nerves. I can’t abide cheerful inmates. In all my years running workhouses, I’ve never
known an inmate to

Matilda shrugged. ‘There’s no stopping her even when she’s locked in the punishment room on bread and water.’

Cedric smiled cruelly. ‘Well, I’ve an idea that’ll put a stop to it. Critchlow’s sent word he wants four more paupers. She can be one of them.’

Matilda raised her eyebrows. ‘Is he
managing to keep that system going? I thought all the cotton mills’d given up having pauper apprentices.’

‘Most of them have. With all the new laws about the employment of children, it was becoming uneconomic. But not for the Critchlows. Tucked away in that Derbyshire dale, they don’t
get many visits from the authorities. They just ignore any law that doesn’t suit them. I’m just thankful they have carried it on. They’ve always been fair in their dealings with
me.’ He cast her a shrewd glance. He’d never actually told his wife about the money he received from the Critchlows in exchange for a steady supply of strong, healthy orphans to work
long hours in their cotton mill. But he was sure she had guessed.

It seemed she had, for, ‘You want to mind the Board don’t find out,’ was her tart reply.

‘They won’t as long as you don’t tell ’em.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘There’s only you ’n’ me know about it. So watch that tongue of yours,

‘But I thought Nathaniel Critchlow—’

‘Oh, Nathaniel!’ Cedric was scathing. ‘I don’t deal with him any more. He’s getting past it. Going soft in his old age. No, it’s Edmund – his son
– I need to keep in with.’

‘Well, you’ll be sending him a barrel of trouble with that girl. Besides, I don’t reckon the mother’ll let you send young Hannah all the way into Derbyshire.’
Matilda smirked. ‘Whatever fine tales you tell her about how wonderfully her daughter will be looked after and taught a trade that’ll be the making of her.’

‘The mother’ll have nothing to do with it. If I say the girl goes . . .’ Cedric banged his clenched fist on the desk and papers fluttered to the floor, ‘then she goes.
She’s young and strong. Just the sort Critchlow wants.’ He ran his tongue around his thin lips, greedily anticipating another generous payment.

‘Maybe,’ Matilda murmured. ‘But she’s not biddable. She’s a mite too much to say for herself.’

‘Edmund Critchlow’s got his methods of taming the wilful ones. He’s got a punishment room just like us.’

Matilda sniffed. ‘Well then, young Hannah will likely be spending most of her time there.’

The subject of their conversation was at that moment working in the laundry. Little light penetrated the filthy windows, and the huge room was filled with steam and the sharp smell of
disinfectant. Three other girls and two older women besides Hannah toiled over the wash tubs. Their hands were wrinkled from the hot water, their faces red and their clothes drenched with sweat.
Hannah was hanging dripping clothes onto the slats of a wooden rack, which she then hoisted to the ceiling for the clothes to dry. Above the noise of the sloshing water, Hannah’s voice
trilled pure and clear. ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds . . .’

‘Ah, bless ’er,’ one of the women at the tubs murmured. ‘That was me mother’s favourite. Eh, but it brings back the memories.’

Rebecca, Hannah’s mother, looked up worriedly. ‘I’m sorry if it upsets you. I’ll tell her to stop—’

‘Don’t you dare. You let your little girl sing,’ Alice answered. ‘I might shed a tear or two, but me memories’re happy ones. I’ll tell you summat, Rebecca.
She brightens our days with her sunny smile and her merry singing. Come on,’ she raised her voice. ‘Let’s all sing. Let’s show ’em . . .’ And in a raucous,
tuneless voice she joined in the words of the hymn.

Rebecca shook her head in wonderment and smiled softly, marvelling at the way her twelve-year-old daughter could spread even the smallest spark of joy in this cheerless place. There were few
occasions in the workhouse when the inmates felt like smiling – some had almost forgotten how. But since Rebecca and her daughter had arrived, there’d been more smiles and fond shaking
of heads than ever before, as they heard Hannah’s piping voice echoing through the vast building. She led the other youngsters in games in the women’s exercise yard and, for a few
minutes each day, she made them forget the drudgery and misery of their lives. With her blue eyes full of mischief and daring, the young girl had become the darling of all the inmates. For, though
the men and boys were strictly segregated from the women and girls, they could still hear her over the wall from their yard, could hear the sound of playful laughter.

The women in the laundry room were startled into silence by a loud banging and only Hannah was left singing at the top of her voice.

‘That’s enough, girl,’ the matron snapped, grasping Hannah’s arm in a painful grip. ‘The master wants to see you.’

‘Why?’ Hannah ceased her singing and dropped the rough blanket she was washing back into the tub. It splashed soapy suds onto the matron’s pristine apron. Matilda shook the
girl roughly. ‘Now look what you’ve done. My word, I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

Hannah’s eyes shone. ‘We’re leaving? Mam,’ she called, ‘we’re getting out. We—’

‘Not your mother, just you.’

Hannah’s eyes widened. ‘Oh no, I’m not going without me mam.’

‘You’ll do as you’re told.’

Drying her hands on a piece of rough cloth, Rebecca came towards them. ‘What is it, Matron?’ she asked in her soft, gentle voice.

Before Matilda could reply, Hannah said, ‘She says the master wants to see me. I’m leaving. Just me, not you. But I’m not going without you, Mam, I—’

The matron gave an exasperated sigh. ‘You’d better both come along to his office. He can deal with the pair of you.’

Moments later, mother and daughter stood before the master’s desk, but it was the young girl who fired the questions. ‘Has someone come for us? Is it me Uncle Bill?’

Cedric smiled cynically. ‘And which uncle might that be?’ He leered at Rebecca, standing quietly beside her daughter. ‘I expect you had a lot of them, didn’t

The older woman blushed and hung her head, but Hannah’s clear, innocent gaze darted between them. ‘No,’ she retorted. ‘I’ve only one uncle. He’s not me real

‘I bet he isn’t,’ Cedric muttered.

‘He lived next door to us. He and me Auntie Bessie—’

‘Hush, Hannah dear,’ Rebecca said softly, touching the girl’s arm. ‘Let the master tell us.’

Hannah pressed her lips together, but her blue eyes still sparkled with indignation.

Cedric shuffled some papers in front of him. ‘I’ve found the girl a position working in a cotton mill in Derbyshire. A lot of the youngsters go from here.’ He stared hard at
Rebecca, daring her to argue. ‘She’ll be well looked after, I assure you.’

Hannah spoke up again. ‘What about me mam? Is she coming an’ all?’

‘No, there’s no place for an older woman. At least, not ones with no experience.’ He glanced at Rebecca again. ‘You haven’t worked in a mill before, have

‘Only in a silk mill here.’

‘That’d be near enough, wouldn’t it?’ Hannah put in before the master could answer.

Cedric glowered. ‘No, it wouldn’t. Not the same thing at all.’

She opened her mouth to retort but Cedric held up his hand. ‘I don’t want to hear another word from you, girl. And if you take my advice, you’ll learn to curb that runaway
tongue of yours. It’ll get you into a lot of trouble where you’re going, if you’re not careful.’

For once, Rebecca dared to question the master. ‘I thought you said she’d be well treated?’

‘She will – if she behaves herself. Mr Critchlow, the owner of the mill, is a good master, but he expects loyalty and obedience from
his workers.’

Rebecca bit her lip. ‘I don’t want her to go. She’s too young to go all that way.’

‘You have no say in the matter.’ Cedric’s lip curled. ‘If you and your – er – offspring . . .’ he laid insulting emphasis on the word, implying so much
more, ‘allow yourselves to become a burden on the parish, you have to pay the price. You’re no longer free to decide your own future. You’ll do what the Board of Guardians tells
you. And they always take my recommendations.’

Again, Rebecca hung her head.

Cedric turned to Hannah. ‘You’re to be ready to leave tomorrow morning. You’ll be going on the carrier’s cart as far as Buxton and then he’ll arrange for you and
the others to be taken on to Wyedale Mill.’

It was an arrangement that had worked well for Cedric in the past. For a few coins the carrier would take the orphans part of the way and then pay a local carter to take them the few extra

‘Others?’ Hannah piped up again. ‘Who else is going?’

Cedric stood up, dismissing them curtly. ‘You’ll see in the morning. Just you mind you’re ready and waiting.’


It irritated Cedric Goodbody that he knew little more about Rebecca Francis and her daughter than he had on the day they’d knocked on the door of the workhouse and
begged admittance. Rebecca was a quiet, reserved young woman, well liked by the other inmates and staff yet not forthcoming about her life before that day.

It was shame that stilled Rebecca’s tongue. The humiliation of entering the workhouse lay heavily on her. Once, she too had laughed and sung – just like her lively, innocent daughter
did now – but then she’d made the mistake of falling in love and everything had changed.

Rebecca had been born in a street of garret houses, three storeys high, occupied by weavers. Her father, Matthew, had his workroom in the top storey, its long window giving him light to carry on
the trade of his father before him. Her mother, Grace, had worked in a silk mill. Though the family – like every other family around them – had suffered the ups and downs of the silk
trade, Rebecca’s young life had been a happy one. When her parents had married they’d lived with Matthew’s widowed mother, and when Rebecca was born one year later Grandma Francis
had looked after the infant whilst Grace returned to work in the mill.

BOOK: Pauper's Gold
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