Copyright 2017, Hawkshadow Publishing Company, Inc.
London, February 8, 1851
It was not unusual for her to be left alone while her parents begged in the streets of London’s metropolis. This cloudless, frigid morning she was told to wait at a large building at Waterloo and Bishop’s Roads. She obediently crouched upon the step of a doorway, far from the main entrance. Her parents normally returned within a few hours. This time, they did not come back.
In the late afternoon, a porter came out of the door to sweep the stoop. She was so startled by his sudden appearance that she wet herself. Supposing that the child had been abandoned, he brought her inside the building, Bethnal Green Workhouse, and ushered her to the governor’s office. The governor had the porter summon the workhouse chaplain and a police officer. The matron, his wife, saw to it that the little girl had a bowl of chicken broth.
The girl was questioned, but her vocabulary was profoundly limited. Her name had been lost in the fogs of early childhood. She could not describe her parents except to say that Daddy was tall and thin and Mum was fat. Queries about what her parents had worn that day were futile; she lacked the knowledge to describe colors or patterns. She did not know her birth date, the town or neighborhood in which she had grown up, or whether she had siblings or other relatives. When the policeman asked where she lived currently, she said that she and her parents slept out of doors or in places where, in her words, “Nobody lived anymore.” All she could recall of any value was that she was four-years-old.
“Were your parents wed?” the chaplain asked.
She did not know the word and thought it best to shake her head no.
He asked her if she knew her religious affiliation and if she had been baptized. She did not understand what he asked and, again, shook her head. The adults looked to one another with weary resignation.
“The child is simple,” adduced the chaplain. “Best put her in the hospital block with the mentally deficient.”
The matron, a thin, fortyish woman with light brown hair, leaned over and studied the slip of a girl for a moment. “Oh, no! The mite is but the child of uneducated and impoverished parents. She’s just chilled to the bone and frightened. She’s in there, I’ll wager.”
Relinquishing care of offspring to workhouses was as common among London’s desperately poor as it was for the governor to assign names to those so forsaken. He consulted his orphan and foundling name catalog. The girl was registered as Lauren Birkacre, given an artificial birth date of January first, 1847, and London as her birthplace. The chaplain sent her newly minted birth certificate to the Civil Registrar’s Office.
While conversations swirled around her, Lauren understood enough to feel hurt and disoriented. Perhaps her parents had wanted to be rid of her because she had inadvertently done something bad. Maybe they had met with tragedy. Maybe they had not been her parents at all. She would never know.
Workhouse induction was methodical, but quick. A female tender conducted Lauren to a washroom where her clothes were stripped off and her hair hacked short with dull scissors. She became anxious when another tender bundled off with her only clothing: a green cotton dress, worn-out shoes, a pair of pantalets, and a frayed brown coat. She was quickly bathed in a tin tub of tepid water and her scalp scrubbed with caustic soap to get rid of nits. The tender wrapped her in thin toweling and rattled off the many workhouse rules, few of which Lauren comprehended. A workhouse doctor came in to examine her. He pronounced her anemic and underweight, free of head lice, but fit to enter the workhouse population. He then scratched her forearm with a two-pronged steel needle to inoculate her against smallpox. The site of the vaccination later became domed and inflamed with a red rash, but she had no other side effects and did not contract even a mild form of the disease. As the tender led her to an adjoining room she caught a glimpse of herself in a streaky mirror. With her hair shorn off, she looked like a boy. She let loose convulsive sobs. The tender ignored her tears.
Next, she was dressed in a workhouse uniform: cotton drawers; long pantalets; an undershirt; a pair of black stockings; black lace-up shoes; an off-white smock to be worn over a coarse blue and white striped dress; and a day cap. All the clothing was used and stained. A gray wool jacket, a night dress, a toothbrush, and a tin of baking soda were placed in her arms. Except for the governor and matron, she noticed that everyone in the workhouse wore some type of uniform.
Lauren was led to a first-floor dormitory where ward upon ward housed girls aged three to seven. Her assigned bed was rusty, the straw-stuffed mattress and pillow lumpy, and the blankets threadbare, but it was the best sleeping place that she could remember. No one shared beds, however, the tender told her. The doctor had prohibited the practice to slow the spread of sickness and he had also ensured that all beds were metal-framed to discourage bedbugs. Lauren was told to heed the bell and rise at five, wash, brush her teeth, make her bed, sweep the room and hallways of the ward, and help empty chamber pots into a cesspit in an adjoining courtyard. After that, she must proceed to the women’s dining hall for breakfast at six-thirty. Lunch was at noon and dinner at six, sharp. Bedtime was eight o’clock for everyone. She wondered how she would know when to do what. She could not tell time. She initially thought that she was housed in an orphanage, a word she had learned from one of the tenders. Soon, she grasped the differences between the two institutions and also that of a foundling and an orphan.
She was but one of over one thousand inmates of all ages and from all walks of life. Women, men, boys, and girls were segregated in the enormous compound, a practice she did not understand. She did, however, realize why the infants, the sick, the aged, and the insane were housed in other wards.
She also comprehended that her abandonment was not unique. She harbored some hope that her parents might guess that she had been taken into the workhouse and would soon liberate her. Weeks passed. Neither had come. She did not spend much time wondering about why the couple deserted her. Whoever they might have been, she would always think of them as her parents.
The male and female dining halls were separate and the door between well-guarded. The chaplain led grace, a practice unfamiliar to Lauren. Meals were of plain fare, lacked flavor, and shared out disproportionately: children were served less because they were smaller. The girls were in the presence of women inmates at mealtimes, but ordered to keep to their own tables. Some women were prostitutes and the chaplain did not want the young girls corrupted. Talking between inmates at meals was permitted, but hushed. Flavorless hasty pudding or pea soup, a few pieces of bacon or bread, and water or tea were served for breakfast. Lunch was broth thickened with rice, oats, or barley, a pork sandwich now and then, various cheeses, and tea. Dinner was unvaryingly boiled beef or mutton, bread and butter, some form of potatoes, vegetables, and small beer, a tipple of ale weakened with water. Milk was scarce and fruits scarcer. Fish, usually sprats, was served once a month and no sweets were served—ever. One meal that no one cared for was an over-peppered slurry of vegetables, oats, and offal. Lauren became adept at using her spoon to pick out insects from her food.
A few days after her arrival, the well-meaning matron had spoken with her. “The Poor Law is very specific regarding abandoned or orphaned youths. To protect you from the rigors of life alone on the streets, you can’t leave until you’re sixteen. You’ll receive an elementary education and be sent out to work when you’re eight. You’ll probably live here all your days, so make the best of it.”
Lauren listened to a voice within her: she was alive, under shelter, and away from the people who fed her food scavenged from trash bins. Life in Bethnal Green Workhouse was viewed as an advantage versus an inconvenience, but she would find a way out one day. Her recollections, thus far, had been of wandering London’s streets with the couple, sleeping in alleyways or abandoned structures, and always feeling chilled and hungry. Whether her parents intended for her to die of exposure that February day, or thought of her as excess baggage would not shape her.
All able-bodied inmates over four-years-old were assigned chores. From seven until noon, Monday through Saturday, Lauren and the other young girls attended to numerous and draining chores in the washhouse and the brewery. After lunch, they tended swine in the piggery, scrubbed floors, washed windows (some six feet from the floor and reached by ladders), cleaned and stocked fireplaces, and mended workhouse uniforms. In spring, summer, and fall they cultivated a large garden. In addition, the execrable task of hanging fresh flypaper, soaked in castor oil and coated in wax, had been delegated solely to the girls. Every few days, they had to climb up on chairs or ladders to remove and replace the flimsy, bug-encrusted paper strips. Ward superintendents were generally kind, but a few were overburdened and quick-tempered. Lauren herself cringed to see unruly girls hit with a rod upon the backside or across the forehead.
Entire families were maintained in the workhouse, but lived apart from one another. Once a month adults could apply for permission to visit with family members, but the visiting room was, more often than not, vacant in favor of maintaining the rigid work schedule. Visitors, however, could come and go at most all hours. Lauren once asked the matron whether her parents lived in the workhouse and if she might visit with them. She was told that they were not there.
Upwards of three hundred youngsters, aged five to thirteen, were required to attend the workhouse’s ragged school. Classes were held in the afternoons three hours a day, six days a week. The grim, windowless schoolroom was doors away from the mortuary, or the dead room, as the children dubbed it. Wheeled wooden screens and blackboards segregated students by age and ability, but did nothing to muffle noise as a half dozen instructors were forced to talk over one another as they endeavored to teach. The workhouse budget was tight. There were no individual desks; the children sat on benches before long tables. Neither were there enough books, slates, or copybooks, so children had to share. Consequently, the majority of students learned little. Schooling was the only time that girls and boys were together for any length of time. The boys, most of who labored in the institution’s coal-sheds, coughed often and loudly and their skin was stained by coal dust. Many of Lauren’s fellow pupils were fidgety and misbehaved in her class of over fifty, but she was not among them. Although instruction principally involved memorization and recitation, she treasured those hours of freedom from the drudgery of her work day. She learned useful things: reading, writing, basic arithmetic, history, and how to tell time. Her vocabulary and comprehension developed rapidly and she discovered a particular aptitude for mathematics. Refusing to submerge her intellect, as many other classmates had done deliberately, she strove to earn the highest marks.
The teachers, of both sexes and ordinarily inmates, were relatively patient. She gradually perceived, however, that many were significantly underqualified. Further, instructors came and went with almost clockwork regularity. In Lauren’s first three years of schooling, two teachers in her division died of dysentery and one was found to be lunatic and confined to the asylum ward. Experienced teachers had sometimes been hired from outside the institution, but the wages so low as to land them in the workhouse.
Bethnal Green Workhouse was administered by the Parish Guardians of St. Matthew church, therefore attendance of divine Sunday service was compulsory. Able-bodied inmates who did not attend would be denied dinner. The workhouse chapel was the only place that healthy inmates could be together, but men, women, boys, and girls were seated in separate sections. Family members and friends could visit afterwards, but only briefly.
Lauren had vague recollections of ostentatious buildings inside which, her parents had told her, someone named God was worshipped. She eventually figured out who God was, but felt uncomfortable to learn that everyone was watched constantly by the Supreme Being. The concept of sinfulness and eternal damnation puzzled her. Punishment had begun oversoon, she thought, for both the sinful and the righteous who resided in the workhouse. During children’s religious instruction after services, her retention of religious facts pleased the chaplain. Memorization kept her mind active. On Sunday afternoons, if the weather was fair, groups of children were chaperoned on a brief walk outside the walls. When this precious liberty was granted, Lauren always sought a patch of sunlight during the regimented stroll.
Doors between the various wards were secured by paid inmates, but their trustworthiness was often in question. Rumors went that, for a shilling, certain guards allowed people to sneak in and out of the wards at night. Wives visited husbands and parents slipped into the wards to check on their children. Some women that visited their husbands, or other men, became pregnant. Once the pregnancy was obvious, they were shuttled off to the parish’s charitable hospital to await the birth. Most women returned to the workhouse with the full knowledge that their infants would be taken from their care at two years of age and placed in the infant’s ward. There, the most vulnerable of inmates were minded by an overwhelmed staff. The infants were not dandled. Many died from malnutrition and other illnesses.
There were harsh penalties for infraction of the long list of rules posted on the walls throughout the institution. Punishments were meted out for drunkenness, cussing, gambling, card playing, pretense of sickness, uncleanliness, entering other wards without a pass, disobedience, and other misbehaviors. Offending adults were placed in solitary confinement—in refractory rooms—for as long as twenty-four hours and fed only bread and water. Ungovernable children were denied one meal per day or assigned more hours of work. For major infractions, such as thievery and grievous assaults that resulted in injury, adults and youngsters would be brought before a magistrate, routinely convicted, and imprisoned. Lauren hewed to every rule. She did not want her name enshrined in the governor’s punishment book.
Bethnal Green Workhouse was a vast building with housing blocks built around walled courtyards set up for various types of labor. The women’s open courtyard held a small corn mill and stalls for sack-making. Older, sedentary women picked oakum for caulking boats, which was sold to shipbuilders at a profit to the workhouse. The men’s yard, a huge space with a half-dome roof, was where stone breaking, crushing bones for fertilizer, gypsum-crushing, smithing, wood-chopping, and coal shoveling took place.
The workhouse population swelled significantly in winter. Whole families asked to be taken in, to save on coal expenses, and a fair number of the homeless sheltered there regularly. All were housed in the casuals building reserved for those who stayed on a short-term basis.
Adults could leave the workhouse whenever they wished, provided their institutionalized family members left with them. Some came out worse than how they went in and often ended up in the parish hospital. Many would later return to the workhouse because they could not find work.
By seven years of age, staunch adherence to the rules and perfect grades earned Lauren a place in the kitchen and bakery. Those positions were coveted by all: those who prepared the food could grab more to eat. Soon after, she was singled out by the matron to acclimate young girls new to workhouse life. Her knowledge of the building’s layout proved advantageous when, in the course of a year, two small fires had broken out. She ably gathered her charges and led them to safety outside the institution and kept them from wandering away. It was soon determined that both blazes had been set by a boy who had stolen matches. He and his family were later put out and barred from returning.
She endured the regulated and monotonous routines, but the din of bells that signaled the start and end of sleep, meals, work, and school attendance grated on her nerves. There were few clocks in the workhouse.
To cope with the disproportion of orphans and foundlings to adults, and to rid the parish books of the expenses, the governor frequently arranged apprenticeships for those aged eight to sixteen. Most children were willing to be bound, but did not possess the maturity to realize that few legitimate apprenticeships existed. These children left the workhouse by the cartload. None ever returned. A woman in the kitchen once told Lauren that young ones were sold, for five pounds apiece, and sent to all corners of England to live and work at mills, factories, mines, and farms. Some, she said, had even been shunted off as far away as Canada as field hands for the vast farms and livestock ranches there. She also warned Lauren to remain obedient or she might, as had many other young girls, be sent into domestic service with no pay and unable to leave her master or mistress’s service.
“No one can leave, ever?” Lauren asked.
“Correct, lamb. It’s slavery, of a sort.”
“What does slavery mean?”
Lauren believed that the children sent away had misbehaved, so she renewed her efforts to obey every rule, lest she, too, be enslaved. She trusted in Providence, a concept she had learned at Sunday school, to guide her fate. The prospect of working outside the institution did appeal to her. She would not cave in to predestination, however. She would stay in the workhouse only as long as necessary.
She did not go out of her way to make friends. Parented children would leave with their families, and ofttimes soon returned, and many parentless children had been sent away to parts unknown. There were no toys, an hour of play in the yard on Sunday afternoons, usually jackstraws, tag, or bandy—provided they could fashion a curved stick and find a rock large enough for this field-hockey-like game. On rare occasions she and her contemporaries would enjoy a story hour. The Children of the New Forest and Grandmamma’s Pockets were among her favorites.
Days before her eighth birthday, Lauren was moved to a second-floor dormitory of girls who ranged in age from eight to sixteen. It was a wild place. There were frequent bouts between the girls of pinching, spitting, biting, arm-twisting, and many suffered spells of violent tantrums. Insubordination and violence toward the staff was also common. Female minders did their best to quell the chaos, and used policeman’s rattles to summon help when needed. When goaded, hit, or ganged up on by the older girls, Lauren would run away and hide behind a tender’s skirts. In retaliation, her tormentors would slam her hands in doors or shove her down stairs. One girl, clearly deranged, menaced her with a knife stolen from the dining hall and stabbed her in the left thigh. The wound festered and Lauren suffered with fever for a week. Late one night another girl, with no provocation, tried to strangle her and, at breakfast the next morning, dumped a pot of scalding tea over her head. Workhouse rules forbade corporal discipline of young children, but those over thirteen could receive birching, the thwack of a birch switch, be denied meals, or both. After repeated punishments, most troublemakers learned to leave her alone, but ridiculed her for always naming her tormentors. She had perfected a stoic façade, but was not unaffected. The water closet, the only privacy afforded for inmates, was where she could cry. She longed for her seventeenth birthday when she would be transferred to an adult ward. Adolescent mischief would not be tolerated amongst the adult women.
Lauren had followed one significant practice instilled in her by her mother, which was to wash her hands frequently. This habit had helped her stave off any number of diseases that recurrently swept the workhouse: diphtheria, influenza, whooping cough, and consumption, to name but a few. It did not, however, save her from contracting measles a few months after moving to the new dormitory.
While recuperating in the juvenile’s isolation ward, she saw the doctor and attendants remain close by the gravely ill. She thought it very considerate of them to provide such attentive care. A strange noise woke her very late one night. A few beds away lay a little boy suffering with diphtheria. The doctor leaned over the child. She noticed the boy’s legs kicking spasmodically and gradually stop. Minutes later, the doctor and an attendant carried the body to the dead room. Several nights later, Lauren woke to see the doctor walk away from the bed of a child who had died of whooping cough. He carried the casing from the boy’s pillow. It was streaked with blood.
On January second, 1855, the day after her eighth birthday, a tender told Lauren that she was to be sent out to work. She did not know that she was too young; the legal working age in Britain was nine-years-old, a law regularly violated by most workhouse governors. At six-forty-five that morning, with her ticket-of-leave clutched in her hands, the minder conducted her to Gillenkirk Cordwainery, a footwear-making factory. There, she was told, she would labor for five hours a day alongside more than two hundred other workers, some of them children from her own workhouse. The woman did not hold Lauren’s hand and walked very fast along the streets. She was expected to keep up.
The tender assured the proprietor, Ned Gillenkirk, that Lauren was a model inmate. The garret master, who coordinated production, found her acceptable because she had fine-boned hands suitable for intricate tasks. On her way out the tender told Lauren that she, and the other children from Bethnal Green Workhouse who labored there, was expected to be back in time for lunch and to attend school. She should follow her fellow inmates back to the workhouse. If she was late, she would have no meal. Lauren had never been so far from the workhouse and worried that she might become separated from the others. On the way however, she had taken careful note of the route and landmarks along Bethnal Green Road. That day, at twelve fifteen, she and the others were readmitted upon surrender of their tickets-of-leave.
Lauren’s unfortunate circumstances were known by her adult coworkers, none of them workhouse inmates. Although she was regarded as one of the deserving poor, that did not save her from ridicule. Outwardly, she appeared shame-proof. She held back the tears and would only let them flow on her walk back to the workhouse. That first Saturday, she was paid four shillings for a week’s work. Her elation soured when the governor seized half of her pay to defray expenses for her keep, he explained.
One day on her way back to the workhouse, she left the group and chanced missing lunch to stop at a book pedlar’s stall. She bought a small dictionary for a penny. It was old, stained, and had no cover, but it was better than finding a gold guinea in a gutter. She was permitted to have personal items, but feared the book might be stolen, so she rolled it up and concealed it in the hollow post of her bedstead. Since the high dormitory windows were curtainless, a chink of moonlight was easy to come by. She read and reread her treasured dictionary. Thereafter, she left for Gillenkirk’s earlier than necessary by herself, but not to ensure that she was on time for work, as the matron believed. It was to spend time in a large square near the shoe factory. Few ever noticed the little girl sitting on the edge of an unused fountain filled with red and yellow flowers. The shops that bordered the area opened early and attracted people she found worthy of study. Merchants came to buy silk, furniture, wallpaper, books, paper, tobacco, matches, shoes, and dozens of other items produced at Bethnal Green’s factories and workshops. The merchants were not aristocrats in any sense, but, to her, they spoke well and carried themselves with confidence. To knock off her rough edges, she wanted to lose the social stigma that came with her thick Cockney accent, acquired among East Londoners. Pronouncing the word ‘day’ like the word ‘die,’ leaving off the ‘er’ at the end of words, and pruning syllables would forever brand her as under-class. She began to emulate the parlance of her betters’ crisp speech and broad vowels. This self-improvement prompted her to augment the ragged school’s patchy education by becoming a regular customer at the book stall.
She felt a little let down to find factory work as monotonous as that at the workhouse. Hour upon hour, she sat on a long bench, alongside other workhouse children, to tie knots at the end of seams, lace shoes, and polish leather. Her fingers became sore and calloused, but she managed to keep up. Years passed. Although she soon became a sizer, sorting shoes according to size, the owner had never offered her, or any of the girls, an apprenticeship. She was, therefore, not bound to her employer until age twenty-one. That meant that, in order to remain at the workhouse, she had to stay at the factory. Her ambition was to be promoted to the cooler downstairs closing room where leather was skived, even though that brought no raise in pay. Skiving, cutting the leather and reducing the thickness of upper soles so that they could be fitted together and stitched, was the most demanding task for the women. At age eleven, she was the youngest to ever be assigned there. For this, she was shunned by the Bethnal Green children who subsequently refused to walk with her to and from the factory. The women, however, noticed her time-saving movements and strove to mimic her.
Aside from Sundays, the only days off she and the others had were Christmas Day and October twenty-fifth upon St. Crispin’s Day, the patron saint of shoemakers. Shoemaking may have been unvaried work, but she counted herself lucky to not be employed at a nearby cotton manufactory where many other child inmates labored. While minding the machines, all had suffered injuries and were afflicted with a cough from airborne fibers. An orphaned boy from her own workhouse had died after falling into a carding machine.
That same year, alone on her way back to the workhouse, a man grabbed her off the street and tried to carry her off. She fought back so fiercely and screamed so loudly that he let her go. Henceforward, she became unremittingly guarded and watchful of her own personal safety.
What little pocket money she allowed herself had been spent on books at the pedlar’s stall. Periodically reprimanded by the governor for accumulating possessions, she found it ironic, a word she had learned in her dictionary that fit the circumstances, that no one tried to steal her books, but her money was fair game. She had sometimes been fleeced of her wages by packs of boys who preyed on laborers on their way home from work. A girl alone was easy prey. They would gang up on her and hold her upside down so that her money would fall from her pockets. Initially, the governor disbelieved her robbery accounts and ordered the matron to search her. The first time, Lauren was embarrassed that, after her pockets were turned out, the matron pulled down her pantalets. She slipped a finger into her rear end and into another opening between her legs that she did not know she had. The matron found nothing concealed there and admonished Lauren to hide the coins in her mouth. This had worked until the robbers discovered the trick and slapped her on the back to make her spit them out.
As she grew, she was able to fight off robbers or run faster than they. When she was twelve, she was given a petticoat from the workhouse’s clothing stores. Still fearful of robbery, she made the hem of the petticoat her bank. To reward her good behavior, primarily for steering clear of harlotry, the matron gave her a lock box in which she stored her books under her bed. The matron also allowed her to wash her own petticoat to safeguard its contents.
By her fourteenth birthday in 1861, Lauren’s education at the ragged school ended and she began a regimen of ten-hour workdays at Gillenkirk’s. Her pay increased to six shillings a week, but the starvation wages kept her trapped between the factory and the workhouse. A new governor had carried on his predecessor’s practice to take half of her meager earnings. He did, however, bestow a few privileges upon her and a dozen other well-behaved teen-aged girls. They had been allowed to grow their hair, provided it stayed free of head lice, and they could spend Sunday afternoons outside the workhouse unchaperoned.
With safety in numbers, Lauren and her companions explored London, but discovered that the neighboring wards of Spitalfields, Hoxton, Whitechapel, Stepney, Bermondsey, and Islington were no better than Bethnal Green. On several occasions they pooled their money to take omnibuses to the fashionable inner boroughs of Mayfair, Kensington, Chelsea, and others north of the Thames. Once, in Regents Park, they took great delight in riding a merry-go-round, a rarity in operation on a Sunday, for the better part of an afternoon. Lauren rode a bright yellow steed with a red velvet saddle. These visits to the respectable neighborhoods may have been brief, but all noticed how well the other half lived. Over time, however, many of the girls left the workhouse and the company dwindled to only four. The governor deemed it unsafe for so few girls to be abroad and put an end to the outings.
Lauren’s one and only moment of escaping the dreary workhouse came upon her sixteenth year in March, 1863. She was to join four other Bethnal Green Workhouse children at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, for mass with Queen Victoria. This annual honor for ragged school scholars had been instituted by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, and Chairman of the Ragged Schools Union. The occasion, however, had been long delayed. The Queen had rarely been in London since the death of her idolized husband Albert in 1861, so the event would include three years’ worth of graduates from area workhouses. The matron ensured that Lauren and the other Bethnal Green Workhouse honorees had been attired in cast-off clothes to improve their appearance for the day. All had been seated in the chapel’s balcony and admonished to behave. Many caught brief glimpses of the petite Queen as she took her seat opposite the elevated pulpit. Lauren had, unfortunately, been seated in a back row and never saw her.
After the service, all fifty-three honorees were herded into a reception room that adjoined the chapel. They were to await the Queen’s private secretary, General Charles Grey. His purpose was, on behalf of the Queen, to give the children two pounds sterling apiece as reward for their academic accomplishments. The churchwarden arranged the children in rows and instructed them to hold out his or her hand for Grey to proceed down the lines and place the pound notes upon their palms. Grey arrived in a stately manner in a dark gray suit with a bright white shirt, and, Lauren noticed, very well-made black leather shoes. He was of average height, somewhat portly, and had wavy graying hair, a mustache, and mutton-chop sideburns. He appeared visibly relieved that the children’s hands were as clean as they could be. When he came to Lauren, she was the only one who had not extended her hand.
“The Queen may keep the prize money,” she said, boldly, “if I could have her Royal permission to monitor classes at King’s College.” Her request elicited a wave of snickers from the other honorees and groans from the tenders.
Grey recoiled in utter astonishment. “Have you not learned enough at the ragged school?”
“With no disrespectfulness toward my instructors, no Sir Grey. It wasn’t enough to see me through.”
“See you through what? You have lofty ambitions! Colleges for women are scarcely necessary. A woman’s place is to see to the needs of her husband, family, and home.”
“A good mother is a well-educated mother, sir, should I ever marry. Meanwhile, I want to pursue an intellectual life, rather than one of toil.”
It was the first time Lauren had exhibited less-than-perfect behavior. The matron strode over, her face purple with embarrassment, ready to cuff Lauren.
Grey waved off the matron. “What is your name, girl?”
“What in heaven’s name would you want to study?”
“The principles of mathematics, English literature, geography, science, geology, and other subjects.”
“Why King’s College?”
“It’s a fine school and within walking distance of Bethnal Green. The dean would never refuse Her Majesty’s request since she holds the school’s charter.”
He stared at Lauren and took a moment to compose himself. “King’s is an all-male institution, as are other legitimate colleges. Queen’s College would suit you better.”
“Giving no offense, sir, Queen’s College is a girl’s finishing school.”
Uncertain of the Queen’s reaction to this starveling child’s request, and since he had helped organize the event, Grey doled out the rest of the money, omitting Lauren’s share. He whispered to the churchwarden that the Bethnal Green matron and children should remain. The other children shuffled out, many looking disapprovingly at Lauren for spoiling their special day. Grey took the matron aside and spoke to her. The matron glared at Lauren and thereupon conducted her group outdoors to board an omnibus. Once at the workhouse, the matron grasped Lauren by the arm and marched her to the governor’s office. When informed of what Lauren had done, he angrily ordered her confined to her dormitory. She restlessly waited for punition, likely a day of solitary confinement or a beating with a cane. By nightfall, and through the following day, however, no reprimand materialized.
On Tuesday evening, a porter ushered a royal courier, splendidly attired in a dark blue uniform and shiny black boots, to the governor’s office. The courier inquired as to Lauren’s whereabouts and informed that she was in the women’s dining hall. With an inquisitive glance at the official seals on a large envelope in the man’s arms, the governor assured him that he was authorized to accept the delivery. The messenger crisply informed the governor that he was to place the envelope in the hands of Miss Lauren Birkacre. In great consternation, and some embarrassment at the dingy state of the workhouse, the governor conducted the courier to the dining hall. He stepped in and called Lauren’s name. She was sure that punishment for refusing the Queen’s monetary gift and insulting her private secretary was about to commence. She joined the governor in the corridor.
There, the courier handed her the large parcel and asked that she open it in his presence. She did so. She held an official copy of a scholarship that requested the don of King’s College admit Miss Lauren Birkacre. Her eyes went to the bottom of the document with the Queen’s exuberant signature of “Victoria R” and her official seal. The governor peered over her shoulder as she read greedily.
The grant had several provisions. The college’s don would accept the Queen’s annual scholarship payment from her Privy Purse. Lauren may not reveal the name of her benefactress or the scholarship would be withdrawn. She was exempt from taking an admissions examination and disqualified from receiving marks or even a poll degree. She was to shift for her own room, board, and books. She may monitor any course of instruction for as long as she liked. Lastly, the don would provide a progress report to the Queen at the end of each term. Inside the envelope was a purple velvet pouch that contained a five pound note, a gift from the Monarch.
Lauren’s heart beat rapidly and she clutched the envelope to her chest. “Sir, please convey my profound thanks to Her Majesty.”
The messenger looked obligingly upon her and turned to address the governor. “The Sovereign’s benevolence and endowment is not a subject of general discussion. She would take a dim view of anyone ruining this young lady’s prospects. Miss Birkacre may only discuss the matter with you, governor, and the matron.”
“You’ll have no trouble from me or my wife,” the governor affirmed, visibly deflated that he could not brag that one of his inmates had been favored by Queen Victoria herself, “but my wife reported that three of our inmates heard her appeal to Sir Grey.”
“Say that nothing came of it,” the courier suggested.
“How will I explain her absences—her books and such?”
“Tell them that I’m working at a library,” Lauren said.
The courier acknowledged her solution with a slight nod.
Lauren was unaware that Queen Victoria saw little benefit in the higher education of women. In the face of mounting pressure to charter women’s colleges, the scholarship was little more than an experiment that, she believed, would prove her point. She was mildly curious, however, whether a girl so low on the social scale had acquired adequate education to persevere at university. It was also a test of Lauren’s discretion and whether she might reveal her patronage and would waste, perhaps, her only chance to better herself. The Crown held the Royal Charter for King’s College, and the Queen had the power to do as she liked with its administration. Richard William Jelf, the don, was outwardly eager about the effort, but inwardly certain that Lauren would fail.
The governor summoned a guardian to lead the messenger from the institution and then turned his attention to Lauren. “I want to see you in my office after dinner.”
“I suddenly have little appetite.”
“Then come along.” He stepped into the dining hall, spotted his wife, and waved her to the hallway. He spoke to her in a hasty whisper.
Moments later, Lauren stood before the governor’s large desk as he and his wife seated themselves.
“Your bold scheme has paid off, I see,” the matron began.
“If my gambit removes me from a directionless life, where is the harm?” Lauren defended. “This is a non-matriculant scholarship.”
“The fact remains that your conduct Sunday last embarrassed us all at this institution. On the very day our efforts were recognized by the Queen, you implied that they are inadequate. We don’t run a preparatory school here!” said the matron.
“In my excitement, I didn’t choose my words carefully enough and I apologize. I never meant to suggest that my schooling here was deficient, only lacking in variety.”
“Previous governors have held you in special regard and so do we. You’ve never mucked about, but I think you’re wanting too much.” The matron looked briefly to her husband and back to Lauren. “We commend you for your academic achievement and efforts for self-study. Be realistic, girl. You’ve not a feather to fly by. You’ll never move beyond your station.”
“I will not misemploy this unique opportunity,” Lauren said.
“Who do you think you are, Oliver Twist?” the governor huffed.
Lauren knew of Dickens’s novel about the workhouse boy who, upon asking for a second serving of gruel, set in motion life-changing events. It was for sale at every bookstore, but her literary interests had been primarily non-fiction in nature: math, geography, and science. “The worst outcome was that the Queen could’ve said no. She didn’t.”
The matron asked, “What if the answer had been no, Lauren?”
“I would’ve found a way to monitor classes at King’s or elsewhere,” she replied. “No offense, but I can’t live here the rest of my days. The shoe factory pay is too low. I’m good at mathematics. I’m planning to someday find employment at an accounting firm.”
“Those places don’t employ females.” The matron liked Lauren and did not want her life to be a failure, but she would have no one to protect her should she leave the workhouse permanently. “Perhaps content yourself to join the ragged school’s faculty? The position pays twelve pounds per annum.”
“I truly appreciate the offer. However, I’d like to make my living outside the walls rather than continue to be maintained by the parish.”
“College? For a girl? What a waste,” the governor scoffed with a shake of his head.
Lauren could not hide a smile. “I’m anxious to waste my time there.”
Lauren had been at the workhouse for twelve years, far longer than most inmates. Up to that day at the Chapel Royal, she had been a shining example of what a young lady could achieve within the system. He had no choice but to surrender his argument. “Very well. When do classes commence?”
“You bent, but did not break, the rules so I won’t force you from the workhouse. I’ve grave misgivings whether you can attend to college and to your work at the shoe factory.”
“I don’t intend to remain at Gillenkirk’s. If I have to, however, King’s College does offer night classes, sir,” she supplied.
“Wandering about London after dark?” the matron interjected. “Do you not have a care for your safety, and,” she half-whispered, “your virtue? Is it worth your life?”
“An education is worth everything to me, ma’am.”
The governor frowned. “So, you’ve already investigated King’s College?” Lauren nodded. “And you planned Sunday’s…scene?”
“No, sir. I had no idea that I’d meet the Queen’s secretary, but I seized the opportunity. I didn’t intend to embarrass anyone.”
“If the Monarch herself had handed out the money, would you have had the audacity to ask her directly?”
“Temper your boldness with humility, Lauren,” he said. “I’ll endeavor to find other employment for you, but a girl is hard to place. Would work as a hotel maid, domestic servant, telegraph clerk, governess, or piece-worker suit you?”
Although his offer was genuine, she knew that he would take his moiety if he arranged a job for her. “With all gratitude, please don’t trouble yourself. I’ll look perhaps beyond Bethnal Green.”
“That’s your prerogative,” he began, “but we can no longer house you if your employment is outside the borough.”
“Really, Lauren, what else are you fit to do besides make shoes?”
“I’ll find something, governor.” She stepped toward his large desk. “I’m grateful for your counsel and offers of help.”
The matron knew that Lauren possessed a restless mind. “Remember, my dear, that life outside these walls is cruel for a young woman with no family or friends. That said, infortune may have put you here, but you have made the best of it.”
Alternative employments for a girl were rare. Through a succession of governors, however, Lauren had been extremely lucky to have never been sold away. “I’ve always been aware that your staff has had to make many personal sacrifices to care for inmates. I’ve been well treated here.”
That night, Lauren sewed the Queen’s five-pound note into her petticoat and made a list of supplies to buy before the academic term began in September. For a young girl who had been raised in challenging circumstances, she recognized the worth of this sudden turnaround in fortune. Still, aware that she was to be the only female student ever at the school—and a charity case, she knew that she would be scarcely abided by the teaching staff and students.