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A Cornish Waif's Story

Chapter I — A Workhouse Child

My recollections of the Union are made up of incidents that stand out clearly in my mind. There are two occasions that I particularly remember. When I have suffered for some childish crime, I have never been able to remember my crime, but I certainly remember the punishments. Once the Master came up quietly behind me as I sat at table and gave me a box on the ear which sent me spinning backwards off the form on to the floor.

I can strongly recall another occasion when I had been locked out in the yard by myself. There was a wonderful sunset; the red sky seemed to me to be part of home and my grand-mother's cottage. Great heaving sobs shook my body as the tears rolled down my cheeks. With my fist stuck into my open mouth — "Ma!" I kept calling between each sob. I was, I remember, facing the direction of the cottage. I am now several years the wrong side of sixty, yet even now a sky like the one I beheld that evening will take me back to that scene.

One very happy incident I remember that ended in childish tragedy.

The children at the Union were to be taken for a day to the nearest seaside. We were going in brakes, and on that one occasion we were to be dressed in flowery frocks. How thrilled I was with the flowers on my dress, how I loved the excitement of the ride in the brake! Somehow I came in possession of a penny, and I have never forgotten the thrill it gave me as I looked at the different stalls on the beach while clutching my precious coin, to think that I was in the position to purchase some of the delectable goods spread out to tempt the holiday-maker, for in my ignorance there was no limit to what a penny would buy. No housewife even in these difficult days, could spend more thought and care on the spending of a pound than I did on the spending of that penny as I went from stall to stall.

A stout red-cheeked woman dressed in a sunbonnet and clean white apron held out a rosy apple towards me invitingly. I decided this should be my first purchase. I took the apple and at once got my teeth into its luscious flesh as I offered the woman my precious penny and waited expectantly for the change. The woman took no further notice of me, however, so I finished my apple in silence, then sucking my finger thoughtfully I approached the stall-holder and asked her very politely if I might now have my change please. What that female said about kids in general and workhouse bastards in particular I cannot remember. I do remember that she terrified me. Not only was my capital gone, but the smiling world had turned into a very ugly place.

My last memory of the Union is a mixture of excitement and pain. The Master tapped on the window for me as we were at play. On entering the house I was informed that my mother had come to fetch me out. I nearly tripped over myself in my excitement as I was led to the room where my mother was waiting. My face fell as I beheld the young woman I had grown to know slightly as my big sister Maud, for I had expected to see my grandmother whom I had always known as "Ma". I brightened up, however, on being assured that I was going home to "Ma". My mother started to put a pair of boots on to my feet. They were at least two sizes too small. "Push your foot in," she urged impatiently. I tried and tried but no, I could not get my foot in.

"Kick your toe up against the wall," said Maud, now exasperated. I kicked and kicked, and at last I managed to get those boots on. All the pleasure and excitement of going home to see "Ma" was completely over-shadowed by the excruciating torture of that walk. When at last we reached Church Town I managed to run to the cottage door where a beloved figure in a clean white apron was shielding her eyes from the sun as she gazed expectantly along the road. Another moment and I was in her arms. Soon I was sitting on my grandfather's knee nestling my head in his' jacket, while he puffed contentedly at the familiar clay pipe and remarked in between each puff on my increase in weight since last I sat there. As was his habit he felt my face, then my shoulders, then the size of my feet, to find out how much I had grown, for my beloved grandfather had been robbed of his sight many years before and had never seen any of his children, or their children.

A Cornish Waif's Story by Emma Smith (a pseudonym) was publsihed in 1954 when the author was in her sixties. The workhouse she describes was at Redruth.

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