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Catherine of Liverpool
A Victorian Workhouse Tale
By Kathleen Boyle Posted in Fiction 18 min read
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Catherine of Liverpool

by Kathleen Boyle


Part 1

Chapter 6

A Family Divided

Mary bustled around the shop arranging freshly baked, warm bread and spiced buns ready for opening time in five minutes. Her shop was the most popular bakers in the area, and Mary prided herself the best window display in the town.

Jimmy, her grandson, had just finished the night-shift, leaving the store room packed with enough bread, cakes and pastries for the day. The queue was already forming outside as early shoppers arrived to claim the freshest goods. Saturday was the big day for fancy cakes, which would grace the table at Sunday tea-time, and the colourful display looked a treat. Before long Kate, Mary’s daughter, would arrive to help behind the counter but, as Mary raised the window blind that morning, she was unprepared for what she saw. Through the green, mottled glass appeared the distorted face of her son John.

Mary gave him a much needed motherly hug, although she sensed his return was not a joyful one. No words were spoken except to establish that John needed sleep. Mary sent him upstairs to the apprentice quarters, where there was a bed, and carried on the business of the day, wondering all the while, what dreadful events had brought him home in this sad state.

As the door closed, Catherine watched Aunt Lizzie’s tired, grey countenance, hoping even then for a change of heart. They had reached the other side and were now workhouse inmates.

‘William and Alfred Cattell, follow me.’

A young girl stood in the shadows, not much older than Catherine, but wizened and haggard beyond her years. The boys were quiet now.

The girl set off along the dark corridor which tapered into the distance like the throat of a huge monster. Sensing Alfie’s fear Catherine held his hand.

‘C’mon Alfie. You’ll be alright; I’m here to look after you,’ Catherine whispered.

The girl stopped and turned abruptly. ‘No, not you. You ‘ave to wait.’

Catherine felt her throat tighten. ‘Wait for what?’ ‘Someone else‘ll fetch you. You’ll be in the women’s

block.’ The girl’s abruptness provided no comfort for Catherine, whose devastation was now complete.

‘But these are my little brothers! I ‘ave to stay with them. I look after them. My mammy said I ‘ave to.’

‘Sorry luv, boys and girls separate. C’mon yous two,’ The heartless girl sneered.

Alfie’s hand tightened around Catherine’s. ‘Not without Cathy,’ he wailed.

‘Listen to me lad!’ the girl bullied, poking Alfie’s chest. ‘Yer in the workhouse now an’ whether you like it or not, you an’ yer sister say goodbye now!’

Terror gripped Catherine as the thin rope of a girl, forced Alfie from her and dragged him along the dismal corridor howling, while Billy struggled to break free. Two older women emerged from a door at the end of the corridor and engulfed the children, leaving Catherine alone.

Lizzie went home and wept until her eyes swelled. ‘What’s the point Lizzie?’

Her husband Denis had been prepared for this, but he was a practical man and saw no good come of fretting over things that can’t be helped.

‘You weren’t there Den. You didn’t see their faces as I walked away. Poor Cathy’ll be all alone in there. She’ll never forgive me. Poor, lovely Cathy.’

‘There was no other way Liz! I couldn’t see my own children starve and my wife destroyed. We’ve done our best Lizzie. Your father’s ill and your mother needs rest. Since Ann Marie died everything’s all fallen apart. The children are better off there; they’ll be fed and clothed. That’s an end to it Lizzie. Now look to your own children.’

Lizzie wiped her eyes. She knew he was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. The only solution would be for John to return safely and do his duty, but after two years the likelihood of that happening seemed remote.

Chapter 7

The Choir

Seagulls swooped beneath the slate grey sky, stark, white wings captured by a stray sunbeam. Alfie watched them fly above the workhouse and knew they were bound for the Pier Head, taking his thoughts with them. He tried to picture the scene that had once been so familiar; white sails, webs of ropes and pulleys, ships with curious names that Catherine would read to him; The Spice Queen, The Dawn Rose, The Molly Baggins. The three would play at spotting boats and just as the swallows would fly away for winter and return in the early spring, so the boats would come and go with surprising regularity. Billy would always know when one was due back and worry if it was late.

‘The sea can be like a terrible monster,’ he would say to Alfie, as they lay in bed. ‘It can gobble you up and take you to its dark, deep depths. Never to be seen again.’

Alfie would lie awake, afraid the sea would find him. But Billie wasn’t disturbed by such possibilities, and would sleep soundly dreaming about his future life on the waves.

Alfie had lost his boisterous, mischievous ways. The workhouse routine allowed no time for play and life had become a serious affair. For days he had been unable to eat. He thought about Catherine, worried and lonely.

Days passed and wearied him. He and Billy had tried to find a way to see Catherine, but the rules of separation were strict and virtually impossible to penetrate. One night in a fitful sleep he saw his mother, beside him on the bed, as he remembered her when she was well. She waved to him and smiled gently, so vivid he thought he might touch her and

reached out his hand, but she faded and he awoke in the cold, hard bed, but he recalled the dream the next day and smiled at the memory as he swept the workshop floor.

From time to time the choirmaster would scour the workhouse for children who might be included in the choir and during one of these scourings, it was discovered Alfie had a good singing voice. Consequently he was enlisted and from then on, his life changed for the better. The workhouse choirboys had special treatment; they were frequently  on show to visitors and needed to look clean and healthy. It would never do for one of the little ‘angels’ to collapse from starvation.

That he could sing had come as a surprise to Alfie and his new found talent offered some respite from his sadness. Mr. Hare, the choirmaster, although demanding, was a kind old man who had a gentle way about him. He sensed that young Alfie, the new boy, was bewildered by his circumstances and tried his best to elicit some cheer from the child.

‘Smile, Alfie  Cattell,’ he would sing, to the  tune  of whatever hymn they were currently practising. ‘Have mercy on us, oh Great Lord, and make small Alfie smile.’

The other boys found this hilarious, but no smiles were extracted from Alfie.

‘He misses his sister Sir,’ announced one of the older boys, a friend of Billy, who had asked him to keep an eye on Alfie.

‘She’s his big sister and he misses her.’

Chapter 8

The Dublin Sisters

Weeks had passed since Catherine was torn from her brothers, and she remained unresponsive to those around her. So withdrawn was she that even the most hardened women of the workhouse softened in an effort to revive her  heavy spirits.

‘The poor girl! She’s like the walking dead. I don’t expect she’ll be with us long so I don’t,’ said Bernadette.

‘I think you’re right Bernie,’ Colleen declared.

‘I think we’ve to do something to help her,’ Bernadette pronounced decisively.

Bernadette and Colleen shared a bed with Catherine, together with two other women. The workhouse had been built to accommodate three thousand people, but now held twice that number, and it was necessary for inmates to share beds, and some were forced to sleep in the corridors.

The young girls often found it embarrassing to be crowded together with women of all ages, many of whom had been ladies of the night and were now too old and weary to make a living on the streets. Some were foul-mouthed and half-crazed. Catherine was afraid of them.

Colleen and Bernadette were sisters whose mother had fallen victim to the famine of 1878, which had cruelly visited the population of Ireland. They had come over on the boat from Dublin with their father, hoping for a better life. Their father, Paddy was a strong labourer and knew there was plenty of work to be found in the thriving city of Liverpool, but only days after their arrival he fell ill with fever and became too weak to earn the money needed to care for himself and his daughters. Distressed and desperate, he and the girls had been taken into the workhouse until he regained strength, but the meagre workhouse food rations made this a slow process. However, in spite of their predicament, Colleen and Bernie did not regard the situation as hopeless, merely temporary, and at least they were grateful to be together.

‘Think what it must be like to be thrown into this place alone Colleen, like poor wee Catherine. No wonder she’s hardly said a word since she came,’ Bernadette lamented.

‘Not a word’ agreed Coleen, ‘and not a thing we can do about it.’

The girls were picking oakum, fingers cut and sore from the loathed, laborious chore which involved pulling old ropes apart. The resultant fibres were put to use in various ways, one of which, ironically, was the stuffing of pillows for the inmates with their callused fingers, to sleep on.

‘Sure it’s her brothers she’s fretting over, especially Alfie, the wee one. If she could only see him I’m sure she’d pick up a bit. It would do her the world of good,’ Bernadette mused.

‘I’m thinking we should have a wee word with the matron, you know Bernie. The girl will fret herself into the grave if we don’t do something.’

Resolute, the sisters went about their task with a vigour seldom seen amongst workhouse inmates. Their hearts warmed in that cold, cheerless place, by the decision to help Catherine.

Matron dealt with numbers, not individuals; how many mouths to feed? How many beds were needed? How many plates? How much food? A new little girl became the needer of another pinafore, plate, bed, nightgown, dress. How could she care about loneliness, heartbreak or pain? Such was her mindset, when the two sisters approached with their request. They were not to know about the layers of numbers and needs which separated the matron from the rest of mankind.

The two ‘needers’ approached, smiling. This was unusual, matron was unaccustomed to smiles, and responded with a quizzical glare. Bernadette’s courage faltered, but Colleen squeezed her hand.

‘Matron, we’ve come to tell you about a wee girl in our dormitory, Catherine Cattell,’ Bernadette ventured.

Matron’s glare intensified. The girls stood  close together, fragile reeds poised to withstand the tumult of her anger. Colleen squeezed Bernie’s hand till it hurt.

‘Cathy shares a bed with us.’ ‘How many in the bed?’

‘Five matron,’ Bernie replied counting on her fingers. ‘Then there’s room for another,’ matron was victorious.

She reached for the notepad attached to string around her waist and made a note.

‘Cathy hasn’t eaten for two weeks and she cries all the time matron.’

‘Which dormitory are you occupying?’ ‘Number ten.’

Bernadette began to feel hopeful. Matron was taking notes and showing an interest in Catherine.

‘Are there any more beds in there with less than six occupants?’

‘I don’t know matron.’ Bernie began to despair. ‘We need another count.’

‘Cathy could be dying matron. We think she’s very ill,’ Colleen added in desperation.

‘What’s her name again?’ Matron asked wearily. ‘Catherine Cattell.’ Colleen’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Cattell? Ah yes, two brothers occupying a bed in the

male quarters. Three Cattells in all.’

‘That’s right matron. She misses her little brothers so she does. We thought if she could see them she might…’

‘Chapel.’

‘Matron?’ Colleen brightened.

‘Take her to the Chapel. I believe there’s a Cattell in the choir.’ She dismissed the girls and hurried to find the janitor. A bed count was needed.

The girls left matron to her calculations, elated by the result of their audacious quest, and holding hands, they skipped back to the dormitory.

‘Alfie’s in the choir Cathy!’ they chorused brightening the sombre chamber with their excitement.

On hearing his name Catherine gasped as if breathing for the first time. A sharp and sudden intake of stale workhouse air which served to render the first stirrings of a revival from the lonely half-life she had endured since the separation.

‘The choir?’ Catherine quizzed.

It seemed an odd word to hear in their present circumstances. The notion of a workhouse choir was one which Catherine would never have considered, were it not for the fact that Alfie’s name was now attached to it.

‘I didn’t know Alfie could sing,’ she murmured.

‘Well he can, and we’re going to hear him tonight, so we are,’ Colleen chirped.

It was dark when the girls reached the chapel, chores complete and supper over. Colleen and Bernie glowed with excitement at their new friend’s revival. Catherine had rallied at the thought of seeing her little brother again, and it occurred to her that she must not let Alfie witness her weakened state. It would help him if he knew she was strong and, although her appetite had not returned, she forced herself to eat the food she had of late, so vehemently rejected.

The three held hands as they approached the chapel, Bernie and Colleen, strikingly pretty with their flaming red hair and green eyes, were not cowed by their situation and Catherine, small and fragile, her pale face ghostly white in contrast walked between them gaining strength with every step.

In the cold winter darkness the candlelit chapel windows winked serenely as they approached and heard the slither of a song begin to penetrate the bleakness. The sisters felt Catherine’s grip tighten around their hands as they entered the chapel.

Mr. Hare stood before the little group of choristers, pleased with their efforts in the damp, draughty chapel as they sang The Holly and the Ivy in preparation for the Christmas concert due to happen in two weeks time on Christmas Eve, when numerous city officials would gather, as well as many of the inmates. It was a bittersweet event which often tore at the emotions of the paupers, many of whom had enjoyed past Christmas’ in better circumstances, and Mr. Hare was aware of the fact that the voices of his scraggy urchins had the power to melt the hardest of hearts.

In the half-light he pondered the boys’ faces which, in the harsh light of day, carried scars of the hard knocks life had

thrown at them, but were almost angelic as they sang their favourite carol and then, as they reached the last verse, he became aware of an odd, stirring amongst them as they began to nudge each other and look beyond him into the shadowy enclaves of the chapel. As he studied their faces for clues, he noticed something very strange in the ranks. There on the front row, he saw that sad little Alfie was smiling!

The three girls sat together on a wooden bench, which offered no degree of physical comfort, but the sight of her little brother looking well and smiling, gave Catherine all the comfort she needed. Mr. Hare did not prevent Alfie running to her at the end of practice and the two hugged so hard it hurt.

‘Now Cathy, to be sure you can stop worrying about wee Alfie. He’s in fine fettle,’ Bernie sang, imitating the choristers, as they made their way back to the dormitory hand in hand.

They laughed at her effort to hold a tuneful note.

‘I’ll never, ever forget what you two did for us,’ Catherine gushed, her face alight with joy and her voice reflecting the passion she felt for the girls and their kindness.

‘Ah go on wit’ya Cathy. We only did what’s right. You’d have done the same for us, so you would.’ Colleen put her arm around Catherine’s shoulders and the three workhouse inmates skipped back to the freezing dormitory as if they were residing in a palace.

Alfie ran back to the boys’ quarters, grinning from ear to ear to tell Billy the news. He found him with his gang of friends, talking about the ships at the Pier Head and impressing them with his knowledge of all things nautical. His stories served to distract them from the misery of their plight and also planted the seed of desire for a life at sea in many of their shipwrecked lives.

‘I saw Cathy!’ Alfie bellowed, much to the annoyance of the gathering. They glared at him. He was flushed with excitement and looked different from the boy who left them two hours earlier.

‘Cathy who?’ Georgie Gibbs queried, reluctant to switch his thoughts from a life at sea with Billy, to the matter of a girl he didn’t even know.

‘My sister,’ said Billy, trying to hide his elation from the boys who he knew admired him. Losing control of his emotions

would seem unmanly, but being responsible for Alfie since they had been left in the workhouse had forced him to grow up sooner than he would have chosen. He was sensitive enough to know how badly Alfie was suffering, and although he had tried many ways to cheer him up, he knew that only Catherine could manage that, or better still, their father.

Billy left his friends and went to Alfie.

‘She came to choir practice,’ Alfie confided, calmer now. ‘You  mean  she’s  in  the  choir  too!’  Billy  responded,

genuinely astonished by the thought.

‘No! She came to watch me and she was with two girls, not alone.’ Alfie’s words tumbled out, putting an end to his prolonged sorrow.

Billy was so relieved to hear this that in spite of his friends watching, he gave his little brother a hug and ruffled his hair in celebration. The other boys, for a brief moment, dropped the manly facades, nodding and smiling at each other, extracting fragments of long lost joy from their friends’ happiness.

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historical fiction historical romance victorian


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