The White Slaves of England

This is a short story written originally for a writing competition for Warwick University. The competition was between groups of 'talented creative writers' from three different schools. We were challenged to write a story using historical information; 'turning fact into fiction'. This is the piece that I devised that actually won the competition so I thought I would share it with you and see what you think.

It is the story of Lottie Dartmoor, an orphan from St Pancras workhouse, London. The

21 August 1799, I lost all ounce of hope that day. Up until then I was just Lottie Dartmoor, hard done by yet optimistic. Even when I was in the St Pancras workhouse, I always had the hope that things were going to get better. So, as you can imagine, being taken away from the workhouse to work at the cotton mill I felt like the luckiest girl in England. They told us that when we arrived we would be transformed into young ladies and gentlemen. That we would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding and would have plenty of cash in our pockets. I could scarcely believe my luck. That is, until we arrived. 

 For someone like me, who has lived in absolute poverty for all my life, to go from living and working in a workhouse to somewhere even worse, you can't really keep hope. To be promised so much and be given so little is sure to destroy the stock of even the most buoyant of us. The workhouse was quite preferable to here.  At least in the workhouse we had a cloth laid on the tables, at least we had knives and forks and plates. Here we had to go up and hold out our aprons-or shirts if you were a boy- into which we were given the boiled potatoes or porridge or a black sort of bread allotted for our supper. Not a hint of roast beef or a whiff of plum pudding to be found. We girls were instructed in the ‘art’ of lacemaking.  This was done by winding fine threads around a set pattern of pins stuck into a special cushion afterwards, to stop the threads getting all tangled up, the threads were wound around special bobbins that hung around the cushion. That's how we made the lace, lace to go on parasols and dresses and fans, finery that would most likely never be available to people such as ourselves. We were piled into dormitories and were working dusk until dawn, fourteen hours a day, six days a week. I do believe myself fortunate to be a female in a working sense though; the boys were stocking weaving with horrible machinery. 

 So here I was; a parish apprentice along with 79 others. Once Lowdam was closed in 1802 we were transferred to Litton Mill in Derbyshire. On the inside everything was the same, right down to the bleak atmosphere. I was stuck in that place until my 21st birthday in 1813, a week from now. I could hardly wait, I was so tired of the colour grey and the ever-lingering smell of stale sweat. Then my apprenticeship will be over and never again will I have to toil for hours for a tiny allowance.

 "Lottie. Lottie! What's the matter with you! Mistress Everingsham shall be around to check our progress soon enough and you have scarcely done anything!" The voice of my friend Martha pulled me from my reverie. I glanced around and sure enough there was the iron-haired crone-like overseer, advancing up the line towards me. She found a deep satisfaction in pointing out how lazy and vulgar I was, today was no exception.

"Oh, dear. We are a slow one today aren't we Lottie?" She asked with an almost-convincing smile plastered on her face. I tightened my grip on my cushion as I attempted to excuse myself, slurring like a drunkard. Her fake smile disappeared. "Yes? What is it girl? Spit it out!" She snapped.

"Well mistress..." I began cautiously "I just thought that since my apprenticeship is to be completed soon that I could perhaps just lower my pace a little, for my hands are ever so blistered...?" My voice grew quieter and quieter as I spoke and by the end of my sentence it was barely above a whisper. The mistress smiled again, this time it was a smile of pure, malicious pleasure. She raised her hand and slapped me across the face, harder than she ever had before.  I fell to the ground, clutching my cheek, the force of the impact caused my head wrap to fall off and my long, dirty, matted red tresses fell about my shoulders and into my face. My countenance felt very hot. All sounds in the room ceased as I hit the ground, the soft chatting and the sounds of pins puncturing the cushions, skin brushing against fabric. Then came a dark chuckling. I stared at the floor, my vision obscured by salty liquid.

 "You truly are the most disagreeable wretch I have ever had the misfortune to come in contact with." Everingsham sneered, sounding positively disgusted. "No, you may not lower your pace. Until seven days from now you are a Parish apprentice, just like all the other girls here. You will work to the best of your ability and no less. Disobedience will not be tolerated. It hasn't been for the last thirteen years and it will not be now." I looked up and she turned her back to me. "As for the rest of you...I don't expect you to stop unless you would like the same treatment as Miss Dartmoor!" With this, the other apprentices continued working with rapid desperation.  Mistress returned to her post by the door to scrutinize the work of some of the other apprentices who were all looking positively petrified at the prospect of having such a woman near them.

 Martha helped me to my feet and handed me my work, my cheek still stinging. She took my hands in hers and regarded me with pity.

"For heaven's sake, will you never learn? You are my elder Lottie and yet, you seem to be wanting for me to care for you as a big sister would. One more week my dear friend then you will be able to leave. Please, I implore you, see reason and behave yourself!" She dropped my hands, gave me a stern look and then we both proceeded with our work. I was quite incapable of speaking it seemed, silenced with rage. Rage towards myself, towards Miss Everingsham, towards the whole of England.

 The heavy wooden doors swung shut, seven days later. I caught sight of myself in a puddle. My face was wasted, pale and prematurely lined, red hair hanging lank and lifeless. Despite my rather undesirable appearance, I smiled at the prison I had called home for so long. I had worked for fourteen years and although my faith, hope and optimism were long gone by now I prided myself in the fact that I had won. That despite considering ending my life and the despair with it many, many times, I did not let them beat me. I brushed my hand on the gaol door, caressing the rotting wood with grim satisfaction, tracing the smiling cherubic face engraved into the brass door handle, I spat at it. As the spittle ran down and dripped onto the ground I turned on my heel, chin held high in the air and departed. No longer a cowering little girl but as a free woman.

The End

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