Chapter Two: Pretty Penny

Before she was Pretty Penny she was Abigail, born in London, England in June of 1823 to Frances and Herbert Chalk. She was raised in the slums, a wistful child wandering barefoot through the soot and grime. Her father was a drunkard who occasionally worked for a living at odd jobs, but mostly borrowed money, which he had a habit of not returning.

Herbert was also a thief. He was caught picking the pocket of an unforgiving and businessman and sent to jail. He continued to be a swindler even in prison, and was stabbed by another inmate. He died of his injury a week later.

Not long afterwards Frances became ill with fever and died only a few days later. A neighbour took care of Penny for a short time, but she hadn't the means to feed another mouth, and so brought the child to the Blagden Union Workhouse, located nearby. Penny was six years old.

She was constantly reminded by Mrs. Parrish, the matron in the children's ward, how useless her mother was, what a drunken criminal her father was, and what a wicked child she must be to have ended up in prison herself.

The workhouse was divided into several sections, where the young were separated from the polluting association of their parents, if they had any; and men and women were separated from each other, so they couldn't produce any more children with which to burden society.

The children's ward was long and narrow and low, with poor ventilation. During her stay, Penny didn't have the pleasure of feeling even a single ray of sunlight on her cheek. The children were rarely allowed to leave the room, and had no toys.

When she turned seven she was moved from the children's ward to the girl's ward, where the conditions were even worse, and the 100 girls slept two or three to a bed, sometimes four. They had no books, were given little play time, and were beaten mercilessly for the slightest infraction of the rules, or for not doing their chores. One girl, about 9 years old, who was talking after the lights were out, was stripped in front of everyone by Mr. Palgrave, the master of Blagden, and flogged with a switch until she passed out, bleeding. She wasn't the only one to be sent to the surgeon after such a vicious punishment.

It was cold in Blagden, with its stone floors and brick walls. Mr. Palgrave and the custodians took from the stores of coal meant for the various wards and heated their own rooms.

Everyone, even the youngest child, knew they were pocketing funds. The meals were scant, inadequate, and bore no resemblance to the suggested menu posted by health officials. A teacher was hired to instruct the girls in reading, writing, arithmetic, and Christian studies, but she was let go before long. They were expected to learn to be useful, industrious, and virtuous, but they saw little of it in their custodians.

The girls had a daily regimen of getting up, making their beds, praying, cleaning their shoes, and washing. They learned knitting and sewing and other domestic employment, and worked in the kitchen to feed all of Blagden.

They were usually fed gruel, with milk or tea, sometimes bread or a bit of cheese – a scrap of meat, if they were lucky. Their portions were only enough to sustain them, to keep them alive. Sickness was rampant in that awful place, and death not uncommon, especially when the girls were already in a weakened state. No matter the cause, illness was always declared on a death certificate.

Christmas Day was better, though not because of good will. A modest but pleasant dinner was prepared for the children, and the staff were on their best behaviour, but only because the Board of Governors was visiting for inspections. Penny enjoyed the holiday feast regardless of the deception, because she knew such a meal would not come again until the next Christmas.

Still only seven years old, Penny was sold to a businessman named Mr. Crockett, along with a group of other girls and boys, to work in his textile factory up north. She signed the contract herself by dipping her finger in ink and marking an “X”. She might have signed her own name, but the children took so long remembering their letters that a mark was sufficient, as it sped up the process. Mr. Crockett now owned her until she was 21.

They were to be made apprentices, be fed roast beef and plum pudding every day, have plenty of leisure time to frolic in the country hills, perhaps even ride their masters' horses! They would be transformed into ladies and gentlemen, who would return home one day with pockets full of money.

Penny was housed in a barn not far from the factory with many other children, and woken as early as four in the morning to toil as one of the young “scavengers”, crawling under the machines to gather up the loose cotton, always while they were in operation. She kept as flat, as close to the floor, as possible, to avoid the spinners and wheels. Penny saw a four-year-old girl get her arm mangled in the machines, and a boy lost a finger. She heard of far worse accidents. It was no wonder: Penny and the other children were barely awake half the time. They had to be dragged to the factory before dawn, and worked until nightfall. If the children were sleepy their heads were ducked in the cistern. The heat was unbearable, like a furnace, and cotton dust filled the air. The children earned two pennies a day, but much of it was taken from them for room and board. Sometimes they were fined and beaten for being late.

They had a lunch break of milk and porridge, or oatcakes with molasses, always covered in dust and cotton fibre, which had to be blown off or picked off; and they ate standing up, as they had to get back to work straight away. For supper they were given boiled bacon, mostly fat, and a boiled potato so hot the girls received them in their filthy aprons, the boys in their tattered shirt tails, as there were no plates or utensils, and they took their meagre allowance and devoured it in the corner.

Once, Penny was caught talking to another girl, and she was beaten all over with a stick until she bled. The overseers were ferocious brutes. But few children dared run away. The punishment was severe, and afterwards the offender was placed in irons, and went to and from work in chains; girls had their hair cut off with a knife; others were sent to prison for breach of contract. Despite the risk, Penny ran away.

Having just turned eight, she was back in London, roaming the streets in the most deplorable condition, destitute of shoes or stockings, in tattered rags, a forsaken gutter child who slept with other naked waifs in filthy alleys, sometimes huddled together for warmth. Often she slept in doorways, alone, hungry, scared of what might be lurking in the fog. What scraps of food couldn't be got by begging, she stole, or found discarded.

She accosted the well-to-do in market squares and was beaten by canes and parasols, slapped and pushed to the ground, spat upon and insulted. Once a merchant caught her stealing an apple and beat her senseless.

Penny was one of the lucky ones. She'd seen other children as young as she being exploited by thieves and murderers: boys employed as pick-pockets, girls as prostitutes. There was no beauty to see in the slums, only the things she'd known all her life: rags, hunger, violence, crime, disease, illness, death and woe, all of it permeated by a foul smell.

Somehow Penny persevered long enough to be rescued from her dire situation in the spring when she was arrested for vagrancy and the courts sent her to a reformatory, the Raikes Asylum for Girls. There she was given into the care of Mrs. Godwin, a grey-haired woman with a face of stone. She was stripped of her rags and washed, and given a black dress with an apron, and shoes and stockings. She slept in a cot with one or two others.

The reformatory was filled with orphans like Penny, or girls whose parents could no longer support them, while others were homeless young felons who were lucky enough to be sent there by the courts, rather than to jail.

Penny was taught to read and write, though she wasn't there long enough to get more than a cursory education. She learned some of the basics of cooking, washing, sewing, and other household chores.

One day it was announced that thirty of the girls would be taking a trip to “the Canadas”, where they would work on farms. Mrs. Godwin had already tested this new idea of hers with a few other girls, financed largely by donations from her fellow parishioners and a few wealthy benefactors sympathetic to her cause.

Penny had no idea where Canada was, only that you had to take a boat to get there. The arrangements had already been made by Mrs. Godwin: Miss Enid would take the children to Liverpool, and travel by ship to Quebec, and eventually to an “orphanage” they'd set near Kingston, in Upper Canada.

Promises were made of an idyllic life, where the farmers would care for them like their own children, feed them, clothe them, school them; in return for passage across the ocean and their room and board they would work on a farm, learn a trade, and be given some sort of recompense upon turning eighteen, at which point they were expected to fend for themselves.

When the ship left Liverpool there were three hundred passengers aboard, and the girls were kept in the steerage the entire trip, with many other destitute emigrants. Miss Enid had her own cabin on an upper deck. The voyage was a living hell that lasted one and a half months. To keep costs down on luggage, the girls had brought only bedding and a change of clothes, which they had little opportunity of washing.

Fresh water was hard to come by, and the excellent meals they were promised by the captain never came, though at first they were given rations of biscuits, flour, oatmeal, rice, raisins, sugar, salt, and tea. Before long they were lucky to get even biscuits, which at least helped with the sea sickness. There were two tiers of berths, and still it was crowded, with people sleeping shoulder to shoulder, barely able to turn. The boredom was maddening. They were never allowed to come up on deck, and the filth kept piling up.

Then it got worse. There was an outbreak of cholera, and a lady and four children died. Their bodies were tossed overboard. A man died, not of cholera, but they threw him overboard just in case.

This was the summer of 1832, and Penny spent her ninth birthday in the crowded, reeking steerage.

The ship finally reached its destination, but they were quarantined on a little island, with other ships flying blue flags, and dead bodies were stacked along the shore like sacks of wheat, waiting to be burned or buried.

“That would be Grosse Isle,” said Le Loup.

Penny and the other girls were inspected for the disease. A medical officer made them stick their tongues out, asked them if they felt all right, then sent them to the sheds on the other side of the island, away from the afflicted. They had no beds, only piles of straw to sleep on, and they waited two days to be processed. Some perished, even in the sheds.

The girls and Miss Enid made it to Quebec City, where many thousands were dead or dying. Penny remembered the hideous faces of the sick, with their blue pallor and sunken cheeks, dragging themselves through the mud, and bodies being thrown onto carts.

“I heard all about it,” Le Loup broke in again. “It's the one good thing about living in the woods: there are no epidemics here.”

Penny wasn't sure how she'd arrived at Kingston, only that it was by boat. She quite literally had no idea where in the world she was. Le Loup was from Quebec, had taken the route many times, and could fill in the gaps for her. He dug out a map.

“See, you would have taken a steamboat up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal – right here. From there a Durham boat to Prescott, then a steamboat again to Kingston. Up here along this little river is Donkin, and we live right about here.”

Penny felt good about the words “we live”. It made her feel that she had a home, that perhaps Le Loup would take care of her. She was leaning against his shoulder, looking at the map where he pointed.

“That's where we live?”


She recalled the terrible boat ride to Prescott. The group caught one right away when they arrived in Montreal by steamboat, so they didn't have to wait. Four Frenchmen rowed day and night like machines, sometimes singing. It was cold and dewy on the water when the sun fell, and the girls slept in their dirty blankets, out in the open, amongst the cargo. She thought they would die in the endless rapids, where the men poled their way along, and through the shallows they dragged the boat with tremendous effort, while the passengers walked along the shore for miles.

Penny wasn't sure, but the journey must have taken a week, and they slept in the woods beneath the stars. Once, a kindly farmer allowed them to sleep in his barn.

In Prescott they were kept in storage on the steamboat until it was ready to leave for Kingston. Once they'd arrived at Kingston, they had to walk several miles away from town to the orphanage, an abandoned one-room shack. Waiting for them there was Mrs. Fuller, the matron, and Miss Minnie, a teacher. There was also a stable boy who ran errands with the horse and wagon, and chopped wood.

Miss Enid and the girls were half-starved and smelled awful, so the first thing they did was bathe and wash their clothes, while Miss Minnie prepared a much-welcomed dinner. There were only eight beds for the girls to share, and one extra mattress on the floor. Penny, tired of elbows striking her face, slept on a bundle of linen in the corner. Anyway, it was only a temporary shelter; soon the girls would be placed on farms.

The girls were sold one by one. Penny was sold to Mr. Jowett, and Miss Enid accompanied her on the long journey north to Donkin, where the farmer came to pick her up. He was a cruel taskmaster, and Penny worked long hours without a day's rest. There was another girl there, Ophelia, a few years older, an orphaned relative of the farmer's wife, who was given room and board but was otherwise treated poorly.

“The girl you were with in the alley?” asked Le Loup.

Penny nodded.

She did many jobs on the farm, from working the fields, to making hay, to cleaning the stable. The farmer beat Penny with a rope, needing little provocation to do so. She was fed poorly, and made to sleep in the barn. Miss Enid had promised to check up on the condition of all the girls before she returned home, but Penny never saw her again, and had no idea if the others had fared any better or worse. She wondered if Mrs. Godwin continued with this project of exiling England's orphans, or if a lack of profits caused her to give up on the scheme.

Just as no one had informed Penny about the black flies and mosquitoes in Canada, they hadn't told her about the iron winters. She had just one blanket, and would bury herself in the hayloft and shiver through the night.

Mr. Jowett was inhuman, showed no signs of mercy, not even on Christmas. It was thanks to Ophelia that Penny got more than her meagre rations that day. The farmer's niece brought her some pork ribs, concealed in her coat pocket.

Penny had grown desperate. Hungry, cold, bruised, she ran away from the farm one morning just after the New Year of 1833, and Ophelia needed little convincing to tag along. They pushed through the woods, with no idea of where they were going. They knew only that they were headed in a southward direction, and if they should end up in the bellies of wolves, that could only be better than the farm. By a stroke of luck they came to a road – or what passed for a road in the backwoods of Upper Canada – and ran into some men on their way to Donkin, who gave them a lift in their sleigh.

The people of the sometimes bustling town of Donkin had their own problems, especially in the dead of winter and on the frontiers of civilisation. Half of them were a wild, lawless bunch, and took little notice of beggars, and showed little compassion when they did. Once Penny was set on by a dog, who tore off her shoes when she fell in the snow. She managed to get away, but in her bare feet, and what little clothing she had was even more tattered than before.

She and Ophelia met an orphan boy, who had discovered a place to sleep in a woodshed behind a building. The shed was kept under lock and key, but a loose board at the side allowed the children access, and inside they covered themselves in a ragged canvas and other bits of discarded material to keep warm. Penny knew nothing about the boy, except that he was Irish and his only guardian drowned. The three children managed to survive the next few weeks by begging or stealing.

And then along came Le Loup.

The trapper held Penny in his arms, she staring into the flames, he into the shadowy corners of the cabin. And in that dark realm he beheld all the monsters of the girl's past, still reaching for her. He admired her courage, her will to prevail over the abuses heaped upon her by a cruel world.

“No one can hurt you now,” he said. “Le Loup will protect you.”

But something about Penny always chilled his soul. No matter how cold, how hungry, how tired or scared she might be, she never complained. He realised now it was because she'd known only utter misfortune all her life, had no reason to imagine there was any other form of existence. Here she was in a log cabin, surrounded by ice and snow in a savage land, an entire world away from home, and yet to this poor girl it was a palace!

It was getting late. “You look sleepy,” said Le Loup. “It's time for bed.” Penny lay down and Le Loup covered her up with blankets and furs. She looked at his features in the firelight, then rolled over and fell asleep.

Le Loup drank a cup of whiskey and went to his cot. He stared at the rafters above him. He wanted to kill everyone – thousands! – who'd done wrong to the girl.

(End Chapter 2)


Make a free website with Yola