“You have been brought before me again, Mrs Beedham!” The magistrate looked at my mother
over his spectacles. She must have considered him an idiot if she thought that a flash of her ample
cleavage and of her fine eyes would win her any favour. He took the monocle from his breast
“Theft of a handkerchief, soliciting, affray, the attempted theft of a lady’s purse.”
Her lips twisted at the corner into a little smile, which she quickly straightened, but she looked
almost pleased with herself as the charges were read out. I could picture her clear as day, proudly
emptying her stolen trinkets out onto our mattress, all shiny and gleaming in the dipping glow of the
rush-lights, as a child might present a parent with a painting or piece of needlework. My mother’s
eye was as keen as a magpie’s for anything sparkly; she could pick out at ease the glint of a cufflink
or a hairpin in the dullest of crowds and would glide her way after it, completely unseen. Later, she
would stand back to admire the baubles and bits of finery with her hands on her hips and a look of
satisfaction in her eyes, then quickly her face would fall as if she had suddenly noticed they were
tarnished or broken and she would snatch them back and wrap them away in her cloth.
Hers was the first case of the day; the beak had seen her at least three times before. Needless to
say, my mother was well acquainted with the good magistrates of Holborn; such was her fondness
for relieving wealthy ladies and gentlemen of their belongings; handkerchiefs, pocket watches and
so on. The magistrate thumbed through a pile of papers on his desk, a history of her sordid
misdemeanours, seemingly oblivious to the swelling underclass packing his courtroom, with their
poor diction and their sticky fingers. The public gallery was full of them: undesirables and
reprobates, sweating, scratching. There were women employed at their needlework, old men
dozing, and a girl with some younger children who spread a muslin cloth upon her lap, then
proceeded to break up a meat pie and divide it between them. And of course there was me, Laetitia
Beedham, the accused’s daughter who had weaved my way through the tangle of legs and crouched
behind a man who I imagined might have been a farmer, or gamekeeper. He stood solidly in front
of me, cleaning the dirt from underneath his fingernails with a blade.
“Oh, don’t hang me, sir, I beg of you!”
The court seemed suddenly excited by her outburst. It was all entertainment to them; the law
after all is only theatre; it did not matter much if one was hanged or not, it was all part of the drama.
“I only did it for my daughter, who was sick and in need of medicine. My husband’s dead, sir,
what is a woman to do?”
I felt a blush burning from my collarbone to my temples, and someone laughed and shouted,
“She is a liar, sir! The girl is the bastard child of two thieves!”
There were gasps and then the magistrate, with his grey brows knitted together and an air of
concern upon his countenance, asked, “Where is she now?”
My mother caught my eye for the briefest of moments. “I don’t know,” she sighed, dabbing her
cheek with a cotton handkerchief. “We’re all alone and friendless in the world. She’s begging, most
probably, on the streets of Holborn, unless someone’s cruelly snatched her and is taking advantage
of her as we speak.” She fell into sobs and covered her face though still managing to peep through
her fingers at the exasperated gentleman. “I can’t bear to think of what callousness may have
befallen her now she has not the protection of her mother! London’s nothing more than a cess pit,
simmering with the most ruthless, the most merciless…the…the…”
“See that the girl is rounded up,” said the magistrate to the constable, who quickly jumped to
attention, “and repair them to the Florence Street Workhouse so that they might be fed and clothed
and instructed in the ways of Christian honesty.” His words hit me like a fist in my chest and I
began forging a path back through the jostling crowd, whose whoops and cries had me quite
The whole building resonated with a tremendous holler: “Stop that girl!” Then another, and
another until the echoes melded together and swelled out in riotous harmony. “A shilling to the man
who takes her!”
A woman snatched at my dress. “Come here, you little wretch,” but I wriggled free from her,
seeing the door before me and the yellow light from the world outside. Then just as I thought I
could make a dash for it, the constable swiped his stick against the back of my knees, taking my
legs right from under me. A loud “huzzah” went up from the crowd and I lay on the floor with my
cheek pressed against the constable’s boot. “Vipers,” my mother called them. She would have more
respect for them had they been paid; everybody had to earn a living, after all. These men did it for
the love of it; they were dazzled by the power they had over others, that was all she could think.
“It is clear that you do not have the means to provide for yourself, madam,” the magistrate
continued. He banged his hammer against the gavel, and a stout looking man wearing a waistcoat
pulled me roughly to my feet. “You will regard this as a kindness, Mrs Beedham, in years to come;
do not let me see you here again. I shall not be so lenient next time.”
***We were taken after the final case of the afternoon was heard, on a waggon with ten others,
through the cobbled streets, past the ramshackle pie shop, the confectioners and the apothecary. The
air was filled with the stench from the sewers, and from discarded oranges and pears which lay
blackening on the ground. There were clamorous cries from market traders selling off the last of
their wares for the day and the hollow trotting of horses’ hooves upon the stones as they pulled
along carriages, in which ladies sat holding handkerchiefs to their faces. It was nearly dusk, and the
girls in their gaily coloured slammerkins had already begun to appear one by one, and gather in
small clusters which fell open like the petals of a primrose. One of them leaned forward to take a
closer look into our ambling waggon; her breasts swelling from beneath her stays like two round
dumplings. As she came closer I could see her face was scarred with pox.
“God bless you, mistress!” she called to my mother. The other girls at the roadside laughed and
whispered to each other behind their hands.
It was a sorry crowd of convicts on board our waggon: an elderly man with one eye, a couple of
young men who appeared half starved, and a woman with sores around her mouth and nose, dressed
in rags and cradling a boy in her lap.
“A shilling for his clothes,” my mother whispered.
The boy began gasping for breath. “What do you think I am, madam?” asked the woman. She
glared at my mother indignantly and began stroking the boy’s hair.
“Two shillings then!”
My mother rummaged around inside her dress and pulled out a small purse full of coins. She
threw it towards the woman and it skidded across the waggon floor. I could no longer hear the child
breathing; he had grown weak, slumped as he was against the woman’s knees. She looked first to
my mother, then to the money and then to the boy. My mother smiled to herself as the woman
snatched up the purse and began pulling at the boy’s breeches. He did not stir.
“Put these on, Laetitia!” my mother snapped, throwing his clothes towards me. What if he was
dead? What if I was putting on the clothes of a dead child? “Put them on!” she yelled.
Another larger, closed-top waggon with soft sides trundled alongside us as far as the bridge and
then bore right on its way to Newgate with the horses snorting and tossing their manes; I could just
about trace the outlines of its passengers, I thought, and make out the indistinct groans within, but
they were ghostly already, almost gone.
***It was upon our incarceration in that house of orphans then that my mother had the foresight to
disguise me as a boy, to protect me from the advances of the squire and the beadle and in fact
anyone else who might take a fancy to me. “The beadle here has a despicable reputation with young
girls,” she said, “and indeed older girls as well.” I was sure I did not quite understand her meaning;
I only knew there were bad men to be found everywhere, even in an institution such as this.
My mother herself had fallen for such a man, or at least that is what she told me whenever she
lamented over the circumstances of my birth. She had been a lady, so she said, although her
manners and morals were so coarse that I very much doubted it, and he had been their groundsman,
who was older and had nothing by way of looks to recommend him, just a cheek and a wit about
him which held her as if in chains, lovesick for him. Then all too soon, his curiosity being satisfied,
he cut her loose and turned his attentions back to his wife, who was also in their staff and unusually
handsome for a woman of her station. He left my mother heartbroken, which was in fact the least of
her worries as by now her belly had swollen so round that her corsets had to be loosened. My
mother was unable any longer to hide her foolishness and my grandfather promptly turned her out
of doors. Never had she imagined she would be brought so low, she said, and all for the love of a
very bad man, who, when she thought of him now, she could not help but see as some kind of fat,
ugly toad; vulgar, uncivil, and crude. A woman of a certain age and with a low threshold for
boredom, so my mother explained, might be very glad of a man who was corrupt and immoral,
indeed might set her sights on one and try every trick to ensnare him, but a girl of my situation
should elbow such a man in the cods and scream to high heaven should one of them ever accost her.
We entered the workhouse through a huge triumphal archway known locally as the Archway of
Tears. For a building so large and so crowded it seemed uncannily quiet; the hustle and bustle and
all those noises of the street just melted away, although I swear I could hear sighs and sobs ringing
out through those narrow corridors, but from the living or dead I knew not which.
I was never as frightened as I was then; we were taken in a state of bewilderment into a little
room which we were told to approach through a tangle of twisted corridors. The matron locked the
door behind us from a ring of brass keys which jangled from a chain at her belt, and seated herself
in the corner. The light seemed horribly stark in this room, dominated by a huge oaken table at
which sat two smartly dressed men who did not look up, but who talked in hushed voices and
muttered the name my mother had given me. “Nathaniel Beedham – nine.” They seemed ancient to
me but I suppose now they could have been no more than forty.
We were examined by the medical officer who in turns told me to open my mouth, raise my arms
above my head, then touch my toes. He looked in my ears. “He is fit,” he told the two gentlemen,
“but he has a severe infestation of head lice. His hair will have to be cut… Mrs Steele!” he called to
For a little girl of only nine this was the most distressing part of the whole process. My nostrils
flared and my eyes grew hot as I stifled tears. In accordance with her plan my mother had already
stripped me of my ribbons and unbraided my plaits. I stood silently crying as the matron rose from
her chair. She snipped the scissors, which were the size of shears, a couple of times in the air beside
my ear and told me to bend my head forward so that she might see my neck. Then she took a lock
of my hair between two determined fingers and smartly lopped it off. I looked towards my mother
who quickly turned her head away. But then her eyes wandered back towards me, as if she was
compelled somehow to look. My red curls fell to the ground and lay strewn there like streaks of
blood upon the stone floor, and my mother bit down against her bottom lip in a way that was most
urgent before at last she looked away.
I stood there stroking my newly shorn locks with tears streaming down my face and feeling truly
ugly. A boy indeed. And yet my mother did nothing in the way of comfort but stood in that tiny
admissions room looking blankly ahead of her while forms were filled in and regulations were read
out. I do not know what I expected, for she often told me that she wished she had kept her legs
crossed, then she would not have been lumbered so. But then a look would cross her face, for only
the briefest of moments, which seemed often to be dangerously close to one of remorse, then she
would roughly tell me to get out of her sight. She was a woman impossible to get close to; it was as
if her heart was completely shut up.
“Work is from seven am to six pm, Mrs Beedham, with an hour for lunch apart from Good
Friday and Christmas Day, when only the necessary household chores will be performed. There will
be an hour for recreation after evening prayers, which will include an interview with your son
should you wish it, with bed at eight.”
My mother nodded politely; it was obvious that she was not listening.
Interview. I rolled the word around in my head. What did that mean? Interview with your son
should you wish it.
Just at the point when I truly believed I could feel no more miserable, I was issued with my
uniform: durable breeches, striped cotton shirt, blue cloth cap and sturdy shoes, which were all
given to me by the matron, with her ring of jangling keys, tied up in a bundle with string.
“You’re quite the little man,” said my mother, smiling. She went to raise her hand and I thought
for a second she might caress my chin, then she turned her head away with her fingers hanging
limply at her side. She was provided with a woollen gown, calico shift, worsted stockings and
woven slippers; but still seemed to me to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Our own
clothes were taken away for disinfection. “They shall be returned to you, madam,” explained the
matron to my mother, “at such time as you leave us.”
We were separated, my mother and I in a most barbaric act; I was dragged screaming from her
skirts, seized with a fit of panic, a horrible notion that I might never see her again, but my mother
herself seemed to be trying almost to prise me from her.
“Pay no attention to him, Mrs Beedham,” said the matron brusquely. She set her lips and her jaw
settled squarely. “We find most of the children react like this in the first place, but they soon get
used to it. In fact, the crying stops mostly the minute they leave the room. There is a lot of
camaraderie among the young boys, not always to be encouraged, I might add,” she continued,
cutting a brief look at one of the gentlemen at the table, “but it prevents them from missing their
parents too much we usually find.” She was a sturdy woman, whiskery and stern-faced with thick
brown hair and a complexion as blotchy as white pudding. “Come along now, young sir. My
goodness, what a fuss! There is no room for hysteria here; I could always take a strap to you if you
I tried at the thought of that to catch my breath and I fancied I heard my mother whisper, “Take
care, Nathaniel,” but before I had even had chance to look at her I was gone from the room and the
door shut behind me with a hollow bang.
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