Written From Newmarket Union

Since I cannot, dear sister, with you hold communion,
I'll give you a sketch of our life in the union.
But how to begin I don't know, I declare:
Let me see: well, the first is our grand bill of fare.
We've skilly for breakfast; at night bread and cheese,
And we eat it and then go to bed if you please.
Two days in the week we have puddings for dinner,
And two, we have broth, so like water but thinner;
Two, meat and potatoes, of this none to spare;
One day, bread and cheese - and this is our fare.

And now then my clothes I will try to portray;
They're made of coarse cloth and the colour is grey,
My jacket and waistcoat don't fit me at all;
My shirt is too short, or I am too tall;
My shoes are not pairs, though of course I have two,
They are down at heel and my stockings are blue...
A sort of Scotch bonnet we wear on our heads,
And I sleep in a room where there are just fourteen beds.
Some are sleeping, some are snoring, some talking, some playing,
Some fighting, some swearing, but very few praying.

Here are nine at a time who work on the mill;
We take it in turns so it never stands still:
A half hour each gang, so 'tis not very hard,
And when we are off we can walk in the yard...

I sometimes look up at the bit of blue sky
High over my head, with a tear in my eye.
Surrounded by walls that are too high to climb,
Confined like a felon without any crime,
Not a field nor a house nor a hedge I can see -
Not a plant, not a flower, nor a bush nor a tree...
But I'm getting, I find, too pathetic by half,
And my object was only to cause you to laugh;
So my love to yourself, your husband and daughter,
I'll drink to your health with a tin of cold water:
Of course, we've no wine, not porter, nor beer,
So you see that we all are teetotallers here.

James Reynolds Withers

Withers was an unsuccessful shoemaker from a village in Cambridgeshire. He and his family were inmates in Newmarket workhouse in 1846 from where the above verse letter to his sister was written in 1846. He later came to the attention of literary society and was fashionable for a while but died in poverty.

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