A Light In The Darkness

~

“Stop that!  Remember what I’ve promised you.”

Ten year old Robert blinked back the tears and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.  “I will.”

“And don’t let the young uns forget it neither.”

“I’ll try, but you know what it’s like here.”  David did.  Matron rarely allowed older boys to spend time with their little brothers and sisters.

“Well, you’ll just have to do your best.”

The children stood in a forlorn group on the cold flagstones of the gatehouse, the heavy burden of parting almost upon them.  The Board of Guardians thought it high time for twelve year old David to be hired out and start to repay his debt to the parish. Minnie and Albert were clutching the hands of the big brother who had done his best to take charge when both their parents were stricken with influenza.  Mr Pyner had died three days after being taken ill and his wife a week later.  Buried as paupers, they were at least spared the sight of their children being led away from the familiar cobbled alleys and towering warehouses and into the local workhouse.

That had been two years ago and only David and Robert could really remember the cramped, comfortless flat where all four had been born.  The Thompsons lived downstairs and both fathers worked on the London docks.  They unloaded all kinds of food from the great merchant ships, but their own diet and that of their families consisted mainly of bread with a thin scraping of margarine and sugary tea.  Puny and pale faced, their children were also poorly dressed to face the biting wind blowing off the great river.  The lucky ones had broken, ill fitting shoes, but many went barefoot all year round.  At least workhouse children were well shod, thought David, although nothing could make up for the harsh regime within its walls and the loss of their own parents.  Fed, clothed and housed they might be, even given an elementary education, but no affection was shown by the staff even to the smallest inmates.  If only kindly Mrs Thompson, who had said goodbye with tears in her eyes, could have afforded to take them all in, but she already had seven mouths to feed!

“Time to set off, Pyner!”

“Trust me.  I’ll be back soon to get you all out of here.”  Minnie turned up her tearstained face for a final kiss and he was gone.

Easier said than done, he thought, as the heavy gates closed behind him, but he just had to come up with a plan before Robert reached his age.  Orphans dependent on the parish had no say in the type of work found for them.  While girls generally went into domestic service, a boy not apprenticed to a trade or hired out as a labourer might easily be sent to sea and never heard of again.

At least that would not be David’s fate.  The Master had responded to an appeal for strong lads to work in the coalmines of the West Riding of Yorkshire, which seemed unimaginably far away to a child who had never ventured north of the Thames before.  With nothing but the clothes they stood up in and a newspaper parcel of bread and cheese each, David and six other boys were marched off to catch their train.  The Master was to accompany them to the little town of Brighouse, from where their new employers would arrange for them to be collected.

~

The nervous boys covered their ears as a majestic engine let off steam with a deafening blast and came to a standstill before them.  Its driver and fireman climbed out of the cabin, wiping their brows to cool themselves off from the heat of the fire that had fuelled their journey.

“And where do you think all that coal came from?” boomed the Master.  Most of his charges were too much in awe of him to reply, but David answered quietly,

“From Yorkshire, Sir?”

“Quite so, Pyner.  Black gold!  Coal has helped to make the British Empire what it is today and you’ll soon be privileged to play your part in that, eh?”  David gave him a watery smile.  The high death rate amongst mine workers was no secret and he dreaded his first shift underground.

Under different circumstances, the train ride would have been a treat.  The Master allowed the boys to take it in turns to lean out of the window and watch the engine puffing away as it rounded each bend.  It did not bother David that the steam blowing back towards him was very dirty and got into his eyes.  He was entranced by the ever changing landscape and his first sight of green fields and sparkling rivers.

It was growing dark by the time they changed trains in Leeds.  On arrival in Brighouse, the Master bade them a brusque farewell and strode off to find his overnight lodgings.  Their last link with the past gone, the boys huddled together for warmth as the cart sent to collect them rattled along mile after mile of unlit country roads.

David awoke as a rock like fist grasped his shoulder.  The cart had stopped on a narrow dirt track lined with small dwellings.

“Tha’s ‘ome, lad,” said a gruff voice.  “By, tha looks starved to death!”  Blinking, David looked up at his new master, whose other fist was clutching a lantern.

“I’ll not kid thee,” said Mr Sutcliffe Cawthra.  “Th’all ‘ave ter work ‘ard and tha’ll feel me belt across thi backside if thee gives me any lip, but there’ll allus be a fire and an’ot meal wi t’missis and me and us bonny bairns ter come ‘ome ter.”  David scarcely understood a word of the broad northern speech, but a sudden gleam of hope shone in his eyes as the burly miner cuffed him gently on the shoulder and winked.   This jovial man would surely understand that it was David’s duty to rescue his sister and brothers.

This is the first chapter of a children's story inspired by some of my own family's history.