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Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing
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Copyright © Holly Green, 2017
Cover photography by Head Design; background © Alamy

Holly Green has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental

First published in the UK in 2017 by Ebury Press

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781785035685



Workhouse Orphans


Mist lies thick over the Mersey and, beyond the crowded buildings, the first faint lightening of the sky shows the dawn to be near. It is very cold. The streets are empty, save for one heavily cloaked figure, who walks with an uneven stride to the doors of the great building that squats menacingly at the top of Brownlow Hill. He carries in his arms a shawl-wrapped bundle, holding it close to his chest within the folds of his cloak. The doors of the workhouse are closed and no light burns in the window of the porter’s lodge. The man hesitates, looking down at the burden he carries and then back over his shoulder towards the river. From out of the mist a ship’s whistle sounds a warning.

‘It will be light soon. Then someone is bound to open the gates. You won’t be left alone long.’

His voice is choked with tears. He stoops and lays the bundle tenderly on the flagstones in front of the gate.

‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I don’t know what else to do. I have to go. You will be cared for – and I shall come back to find you when I can.’

He kisses the small face, looks up for a moment at the grim outline of the building, then turns and hobbles away as fast as he can towards the river.

It is cold and she is hungry. She begins to cry. For a long time nobody comes. She wants her mother, wants to be picked up and held and comforted. She cries louder. There is movement and light falls on her; then unfamiliar hands pick her up. She is carried, passed into other hands; strange faces peer down at her.

‘Left outside like a parcel. Might have been there all night for all I know! Who could do such a thing?’

‘Plenty have done worse. Let’s have a look at her.’

She is unwrapped by brisk, ungentle hands.

‘Well, it’s a girl. Pretty little thing. How old would you say?’

‘Not a newborn, that’s for sure. A year, maybe a bit more.’

‘Anything left with her, to show who left her here? No note or anything?’

‘Nothing at all, except this rag doll.’

Raggy! She reaches out, feeing for the familiar shape. It is not there. She begins to cry again.

‘Oh, shut your noise! I can’t be doing with it.’ The voice, like the hands, is harsh.

‘Here, give her this. Maybe that will quiet her.’

The rag doll is thrust into her grasp. She holds it tight. It smells of home, and Mother.

Time passes. She is dumped in a chair and a spoon is pushed into her mouth. The food tastes strange and she spits it out. The spoon is pushed in again, more forcefully. She screams in anger and distress.

‘Do without then, see if I care!’

She continues to scream. She is picked up and shaken roughly. Then, suddenly, other arms go round her, holding her gently, rocking her and a soft voice begins to sing:

‘Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green.

When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen …’

She goes quiet. The arms that hold her are thin, the shoulder against which she lays her head is bony; not like her mother’s, but she feels safe here. She looks up into a narrow, pale face and a lock of hair falls across her cheek. Her mother’s hair was golden. This is more like the colour of polished wood. Voices go on over her head.

‘I shall call her Angel. Don’t you think she looks like a little angel?’

That is not her name. Her name is Amy. She tries to tell them, but it comes out as ‘May-me’.

‘She’s trying to say my name! It’s May. Say May.’

‘May-me! May-me!’

‘There’s a clever girl!’

Days pass. Sometimes the girl called May is there, sometimes she is not. She is always gentle. She helps her to eat, changes her, plays with her. But when she is not there the woman with the hard hands takes over. She does not like that. She screams in protest. The nights are worst. Alone in the dark, listening to the cries of other children nearby, she clutches her rag doll and cannot help crying; and then she is picked up and shaken and dumped down again.

One night is different. May takes her with her, up some stairs, into a room where other faces peer down at her. There is a lot of chatter. ‘What have you got there, May? Who is she? Do they know in the nursery you’ve got her? Why have you brought her up here?’ Then she is laid in a bed and May lies beside her and cuddles her close. She shuts her eyes and sleeps.

She wakes to shouts of alarm and a strange, frightening smell. Someone shouts ‘Fire!’ She is grabbed out of the bed and thrust into unfamiliar arms. There is noise and confusion. She cries for May, but May does not come. Then she is back in the nursery.

More days pass, but still May does not come. One day, a new face peers down at her. This one is framed in dark hair. The eyes are bright, but not gentle like May’s.

‘This one! I want this one.’

‘Are you sure, ma’am? She’s over a year old. I thought you were looking for a baby.’

‘I don’t care about her age. Just look at that golden hair and those blue eyes. She will be a beauty when she grows up. What is her name?’

‘Angela, ma’am. She was baptised Angela.’

‘Angela? That’s rather a common name. Perhaps Angelina would be more suitable. Yes, Angelina will do very well. I’ll take her.’

About the Author

Holly Green writes historical sagas about love and war, and her books are inspired by the stories she heard from her parents when she was a child. Her father was a professional singer with a fine baritone voice and her mother was a dancer, but they had to give up their professions at the outbreak of World War II.

Holly is from Liverpool and is a trained actress and teacher – her claim to fame being that she gave Daniel Craig his first acting experience! She is married with two sons, and two delightful grandchildren.

About the Book

Will she ever be reunited with her real father?

Angelina was abandoned on the doorsteps of Brownlow Workhouse when she was just a baby – her only possession the rag doll she held in her arms.

Nicknamed ‘Angel’ for her golden curls, she is adopted by Mr and Mrs McBride. At first Angel is so happy to have found a caring family to save her from the drudgery of the workhouse. But her new parents are not the benevolent guardians they first appear.

Angel has lost all hope when she discovers that a man has visited the workhouse, looking for the baby girl he was forced to give up. A girl who isn’t an orphan after all…


‘I won’t! I won’t! Take it away. I don’t like it. I hate you!’ The pretty face was scarlet with fury, the golden curls dishevelled and matted from the struggle.

‘Angelina, please!’ The governess’s voice was harsh with desperation. ‘Just try it. You’ve had nothing to eat all day, and your mama has ordered that you are to be given nothing until you drink your medicine. It’s for your own good. The doctor says it will strengthen you, so that you do not have so many stomach upsets. Now, be a good girl. Drink it up.’

‘But I don’t like it. It makes me feel sick.’

‘That’s nonsense. It isn’t nasty. I’ll try a sip to show you. There! See? It’s quite nice really.’

‘You drink it then. If I drink it, I shall be sick.’

‘That will not help, will it? You are the one who needs it. Now, come along. You are not a baby any more. You are eight years old, old enough to understand reason. Stop being so disobedient. Drink!’

She grasped the squirming child by the back of the neck and held the cup to her lips. For a moment they remained obstinately shut. Then they opened and the draught was swallowed.

‘There you are! You see … oh, you little beast!’ Angelina had twisted her head and vomited over the governess’s skirt. ‘You little horror! You did that deliberately.’

‘I told you what would happen! I said if you made me drink it I should be sick.’

‘What is going on here? What is all this noise about?’

Marguerite McBride stood in the doorway. The governess scrambled to her feet, trying to wipe the vomit off her skirt with a pocket handkerchief. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, if we disturbed you. I was just trying to persuade Angelina to drink the medicine the doctor prescribed.’

‘And she is still refusing?’

‘She swallowed it and then brought it all up again, all over me.’

‘Angelina, come here!’ The child moved unwillingly towards her mother. ‘I have had enough of this. You are a naughty, disobedient little girl and disobedience has to be punished. Kneel down at the end of your bed.’

‘No, Mama! Please! I couldn’t help being sick.’

‘Do as you are told at once! Or it will be the worse for you. Miss Garvey, the rod, if you please.’

‘Ma’am, are you sure? Is this really necessary?

‘Have you never heard the maxim, “spare the rod and spoil the child”? Give it to me.’

The governess handed her a thin cane. She pointed to the bed, and Angelina, after a last mute gaze of appeal, went and knelt at the foot. Her mother stooped and lifted her skirts, then raised her arm and administered four stinging blows with the cane. Angelina endured them in silence.

‘Get up.’ She got to her feet. ‘Now go to your room and stay there. Your supper will be brought to you on a tray, together with a fresh dose of the medicine. I shall come too. If you take the medicine and keep it down you may eat your supper. Otherwise it will be removed and you will continue to go hungry. Go!’

Alone in her room Angelina buried her face in the pillow. She did not weep. Crying did not help. It did not explain what was happening to her. Once, it seemed a long time ago, her mother had treated her differently. She had spent hours combing her hair and dressing her in pretty clothes. She had taken her with her to visit friends and they had all said what a lovely child she was and had asked her to sing for them. She thought her mother had loved her then. She never cuddled and kissed her, as she had seen other mothers do with their children, but she had been kind.

Then something had changed; something had happened, which she could never quite remember. They had been in a shop, and there had been a young woman who called her ‘Angel’ and her mother had been angry and sent her to wait outside. Since then, life had been different. Miss Garvey had arrived and all Angelina’s time had been spent in the schoolroom. There were no more visits and no more pretty dresses, and if she did not do exactly as she was told she was punished.

Sometimes, just before she fell asleep or as she was waking up, images came into her head. She could not tell if they were dreams or memories. The face of the young woman who had called her Angel came back to her, though when she was fully awake she could not recall it. With it came a sensation of comfort, of being held and cared for; and sometimes, from even longer ago, came the flickering image of another face and long, golden hair, which fell around her and shut off the outside world.

Angelina got off the bed, wincing at the pain in her bruised and swollen buttocks, and went to a cupboard. It was full of toys – soft woolly lambs and puppies, beautiful dolls with porcelain faces and rich clothes – but she ignored them all. At the bottom of the cupboard was a box filled with a jumble of old toys and torn doll’s dresses. She rummaged through it until, hidden at the bottom, she found what she was looking for – a rag doll, grubby and stained. She took it back to her bed and lay down, holding it against her cheek. It had a faint smell, which she could not name but which brought closer than ever that memory of being held in loving arms. Softly, she began to sing:

‘Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green.

When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.’

Downstairs in the drawing room, Miss Garvey was facing her employer.

‘You are telling me that you wish to give notice?’

‘Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry if it is not convenient, but I cannot remain here under the circumstances.’

‘What circumstances?’

‘I cannot stand by and watch a child being mistreated.’

‘Mistreated! How dare you? Are you accusing me of mistreating Angelina?’

‘I feel that you are altogether too harsh on her. She is only eight years old.’

‘Old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, to understand the necessity for obedience.’

‘There are better ways of inculcating that virtue.’

‘So now you set yourself up as better able to judge how my daughter should be brought up, do you? Well, the sooner you leave this house the better.’

‘On that point I agree with you. But I am prepared to work out my notice.’

‘You will not! You will pack your bags and be gone by tomorrow morning. And you need not expect a reference from me!’

When her supper was brought to her room, Angelina still refused to drink the medicine. She went to bed hungry. Next morning the maid brought up a tray on which there was a boiled egg, some delicate slices of bread and butter, a dish of honey and a glass of milk. Marguerite arrived at the same time, with the medicine in a cup.

‘Well? Are you hungry enough to see sense? Drink this and you can eat.’

Angelina looked from the cup to the tray. Her stomach rumbled. She reached for the cup. The smell of the contents turned her stomach but she took a sip, and then another. Somehow she managed to keep it down. Her mother smiled triumphantly.

‘So, I hope you have learned your lesson. We will have no more scenes like the one we had yesterday.’

‘No, Mama.’

‘Very good. Eat your breakfast. I want to see you in the schoolroom in half an hour. Miss Garvey has decided that she cannot endure your bad behaviour any longer and has given in her notice. For the time being I shall teach you myself.’

As soon as the door closed behind her, Angelina pulled the chamber pot out from under the bed and vomited up the medicine. Then she set to on the boiled egg.

A week passed, during which Marguerite took charge of Angelina’s lessons in a haphazard fashion. She soon tired of the atmosphere of the schoolroom and left her to read and copy out passages from improving books or memorise verses from the Bible. Then, one afternoon, Angelina was summoned to the drawing room. A small woman in a grey dress was with her mother.

‘This is my daughter, Angelina. Angelina, this is your new governess, Miss Drake.’

Angelina curtsied, as she had been taught. ‘How do you do, ma’am?’

Miss Drake looked her over critically. ‘So this is the young lady who is to learn proper respect for authority?’

‘Yes,’ Marguerite said, with a regretful sigh, ‘I fear her last governess was far too lax. She needs a firm hand.’

‘Have no worries about that,’ Miss Drake said. ‘I have handled some rebellious spirits in my time. The young are like horses. They have to be broken in.’

‘I am sure we shall see eye to eye in that respect,’ Marguerite replied. ‘But I make one proviso. If there is to be any corporal punishment, you will refer it to me. I do not regard it as fitting that an employee should chastise the child of her employer.’

Miss Drake looked at Angelina with narrowed eyes. ‘Have no fear, ma’am. I do not think we shall need to resort to anything so crude as beating.’

Marguerite rang for the parlourmaid and instructed her to take Miss Drake upstairs and show her where she would sleep. ‘You can wait in the schoolroom, Angelina, until Miss Drake is ready to begin your lessons.’

It was some time before Miss Drake appeared and Angelina fidgeted restlessly, first sitting, then wandering round the room. She had a fluttering sensation in her stomach as she wondered what she could expect from this new governess. The expression on her face when she said ‘I do not think we shall need to resort to anything as crude as beating’ had frightened her.

Eventually the door opened and the small woman came in.

‘What are you doing over there? Sit down at once!’

Angelina scurried to her place at the table and sat.

‘I expected to find you usefully employed, not wandering like an imbecile. Have you no sewing to do, no books to read?’

Angelina shook her head dumbly.

‘Speak up when you are spoken to!’

‘I … I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t know what you would like me to start on.’

‘You should not need to wait for me to tell you what to do. You should always have work in hand. Well, I shall make sure that in future you will not have time to sit around in idleness. Now, let us see how far your education has progressed. What is seven times eight?’

Taken by surprise, Angelina struggled to respond. She had been made to recite her tables over and over but she still needed to repeat them to her herself before arriving at the correct answer.

‘Come along, come along!’ Miss Drake took up a ruler and rapped it on the table, making Angelina jump.

‘Please, fifty-six,’ she gasped.

‘At last! I was beginning to think I was dealing with a half-wit. Nine times four!’

The questions kept coming; tables, mental arithmetic, then, ‘What is the capital of Poland?’

‘Please, ma’am, I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know? How long was your previous governess with you?’

‘Please, two years, I think …’

‘Two years? You seem to have learnt very little in that time.’ The governess delved in a bag she had brought in with her and took out a book. ‘Read the first paragraph of this.’

It was a book she had never seen before and some of the words were unfamiliar. It took her some time to struggle through the paragraph.

Miss Drake sighed deeply. ‘I see we have a long way to go – but I am not deterred. We shall make up for lost time.’ She looked at Angelina. ‘Sit up, girl! Have you never been taught not to slump?’ She moved round behind the chair and took hold of Angelina’s shoulders, pulling them back painfully. ‘There! That is correct posture, and correct posture is essential in a young lady. That is another thing which has obviously been sadly neglected.’ She set a pen and inkstand in front of Angelina and turned a page on the book. ‘Copy that, in your best handwriting.’

Angelina began to write, but Miss Drake kept a grip on her shoulders, forcing her to sit bolt upright. The unnatural position made it difficult to control the pen and inevitably she made a blot. Miss Drake reached down and grabbed her hand. ‘That was careless! You will learn to be more careful, or this is what happens.’ She took hold of Angelina’s little finger and bent it back so that she yelped with pain. ‘Now, begin again, and take more care this time.’

Angelina burst into tears and her tears created fresh blots. Miss Drake whisked away the paper and set a clean sheet in front of her. ‘Begin again. There will be no tea until you have achieved a clean copy.’

It took four attempts, and, by the time she had finished and was allowed to have the milk and biscuits that had been brought up for her, Angelina’s hands were shaking.

It was customary after tea for her to be taken down to the drawing room to spend half an hour with her mother and her father, when he returned from his business. She did not know what that ‘business’ was, except that it had something to do with tea. She was never sure what to expect at this time. Her mother had never played with her or made a fuss of her and lately she had become even more distant, but sometimes her father would sweep her up into his arms, if he was in a good mood, and tickle her or rub her face with his moustache to make her squirm and giggle. Occasionally he even allowed her to sit on his lap. He was the only person who showed her any affection and she tried hard to please him, but there were days when he came home grim-faced and irritable and she had learned then to do nothing to attract his attention.

On this particular evening he seemed pleased to see her and picked her up in his arms.

‘Well, well,’ he said. ‘So how are you getting on with your new governess?’

Angelina drooped her head. ‘I don’t like her. She’s not kind.’

‘Not kind, eh?’ He looked over her head at his wife.

‘Take no notice,’ she replied. ‘Angelina has been spoiled. Miss Garvey was much too lax with her. Now she is being made to buckle down and she doesn’t like it.’

‘Is that it?’ He set Angelina down. ‘Well, hard work never hurt anyone. You’ll get used to it. You’ll never grow up to be a credit to us if you don’t do as you are told.’

Next day, Miss Drake set out the routine that Angelina was to follow from then on. The first hour of the morning would be devoted to arithmetic and practising her handwriting; the next hour would be divided between the study of history and geography, and the last would be devoted to ‘deportment’, a mysterious subject on which Miss Drake placed a great deal of emphasis. After luncheon Angelina would sew, while Miss Drake took her afternoon rest. Then, weather permitting, they would go for a walk, returning in time for tea. Angelina hoped that the walk might take them into Princes Park. She had happy memories of being taken there by her nursemaid, before the advent of Miss Garvey. Something had happened there, something she could not quite remember, but the park had suddenly been placed out of bounds and her walks had been confined to the local streets.

Overnight, Angelina had made a resolution. She would try to do as Miss Drake asked. After all, she did want to be a credit to her parents. Perhaps, if she worked really hard, her mother would love her again.

She tried hard to keep to it, but there was little encouragement. The governess barked mental arithmetic questions at her and rapped the table angrily if she was slow to answer. She was given long lists to learn by heart; the kings and queens of England; the capital cities of all the countries in Europe; verses from the Bible. She could remember them perfectly when she was alone, but under the basilisk stare of Miss Drake they vanished from her mind like a flock of birds scared by a cat. The constant refrain of ‘sit up, don’t slouch’ only served to make things worse. Very often Miss Drake came to stand behind her, pulling her shoulders back, making it harder than ever to concentrate. The lessons in deportment were even worse. She was made to walk around the room with a book balanced on her head while Miss Drake snapped instructions. ‘Chin up! Shoulders back! Pull your stomach in!’ If the book slipped she had to stand on a stool facing the corner of the room until her legs ached and she began to feel dizzy. Then, one morning, the governess came into the room carrying a leather strap.

‘You have got to get out of this bad habit of slouching. You do not seem to be able to correct it yourself so we shall have to resort to other methods. Stand up. Put your arms behind your back.’

Trembling, Angelina obeyed. The governess seized hold of her upper arms and pulled them back until her elbows were almost touching. Then she passed the strap around them and fastened it tightly. Angelina cried out in pain and struggled to free herself, but her efforts only made it worse.

‘Be still!’ Miss Drake ordered. ‘If you learn to sit correctly it will not hurt. Now, sit down and we will begin our lessons.’

‘I can’t!’ Angelina protested. ‘I can’t breathe properly. It hurts!’

‘This position expands the chest. Of course you can breathe. Sit down and stop making a fuss.’

‘Please,’ Angelina begged, ‘when can I have it off?’

‘When we stop for luncheon. Then, if I judge you have worked to my satisfaction, you may have it off for the afternoon. But if you start to slump again, it will go back on.’

Angelina endured the torment for four days, but when Miss Drake advanced on her with the strap on the fifth morning she pushed her away so violently that she staggered back and almost fell. In the moment it took for her to recover, Angelina ran out of the room and down the stairs. Her mother was in the hall, talking to another lady, and Angelina threw herself at her feet, clutching her skirts and sobbing.

‘Please, Mama, don’t let Miss Drake put the strap on my arms! Please! It hurts so much.’

Her mother looked over her head at the governess, who had followed her down the stairs.

‘What is all this?’

‘It is merely a form of restraint recommended for correcting bad habits of posture. Angelina has been allowed to slouch, so she finds it uncomfortable, but it will have its effect eventually.’

‘Show me.’

‘No! No, please! Don’t let her do it!’ Angelina wept, but she was pulled to her feet, her arms were twisted behind her and the strap was fastened.

‘You see?’ Miss Drake said, turning her to face her mother. ‘You see how much her posture is improved? You know how important it is for a young lady to carry herself correctly.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ Marguerite responded. ‘Stop making a fuss, Angelina. It is for your own good.’

As a punishment for this act of rebellion, she was forced to wear the strap for the rest of the day, with the threat that if there was any repeat she would be made to sleep in it at night as well.

From that day on, Angelina’s only thought was of how to get rid of this tyrant who had been given charge over her.

Her only respite was the hour after luncheon when Miss Drake took her afternoon nap and she was supposed to get on with some sewing. Miss Drake’s bedroom opened directly off the schoolroom, as did Angelina’s, and she always left the door ajar, so that she would hear if Angelina ‘got up to any mischief’. But Angelina soon realised that very quickly after retiring her governess began to snore softly. Before that happened, she always heard the clink of a glass and the sound of liquid being poured, and later, when Miss Drake bent over her to fasten her coat for their walk, she smelt an odour which was somehow familiar, although she could not at first think why. One evening her father came home looking weary, and, instead of going straight into the drawing room, he went to the dining room. When he came out she smelt the same odour that she had noticed on Miss Drake’s breath. After that Angelina made a habit of waiting to greet him in the hall when he arrived home, with a curtsy and a demure ‘Good evening, Papa.’ That seemed to please him. One day, when he came in looking tired, she followed him into the dining room and saw him go to the sideboard, on which stood two cut-glass decanters contained in a curious cage-like construction, which made it impossible to remove them. She watched as her father delved into a waistcoat pocket and produced a tiny key. This he inserted into a lock; there was a click, a bar swung back and he picked up one of the decanters and poured a measure of the liquid it contained into a glass.

‘Please, Papa,’ she ventured, ‘what is that you are drinking?’

‘This?’ He took a mouthful and swallowed and smacked his lips. ‘This is a very special medicine for grown-up gentlemen, to help them to relax after a hard day.’

‘A sort of tonic, like that medicine I had to drink?’

‘Perhaps, a bit like that.’

‘And what is that thing called?’ She pointed to the cage.

‘That is a tantalus. Do you know why?’


‘There is a very old story about a man called Tantalus who displeased the gods, so they condemned him to a terrible fate. He had to stand up to his neck in water, but if he tried to drink, the water flowed away from him. Over his head was a branch loaded with fruit, but if he tried to pick any of it the wind blew it out of reach. That is where we get our word “tantalize” from. It means that you can see something you want but you can never quite get hold of it.’

‘Oh, I see.’ She thought about it. ‘Why did you say “gods”. There is only one God, isn’t there?’

‘We know that now, but in the old days people believed there were many. They were heathens, who had not been taught the truth.’

‘So what happened to Tantalus was like being sent to hell.’

‘Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.’

Angelina considered, frowning. There was still something she did not understand. ‘But why do you keep your special medicine locked up? You are not like Tantalus, because you have the key so you can have it whenever you like.’

‘So I can. The point is other people can’t, unless I let them.’

‘Other people? Do you mean Mama?’

‘No, no. Your mama would never touch this. But sometimes servants might take a fancy to try it.’

‘But Jane and Betty are girls. You said it was only for grown-up gentlemen.’

‘Precisely. That is why they must not be tempted to try it.’

‘What would happen if they did?’

‘It would be a matter for instant dismissal. Now, come along. Let’s join your mama. She will wonder why I am such a long time in here.’

When they entered the drawing room, Marguerite looked up crossly from her sewing. ‘There you are at last. How many have you had?’

‘Oh, come on, Maggie,’ he said, with an edge of annoyance, ‘a man’s entitled to a drink after a long day.’

‘Don’t call me Maggie!’

Her father’s voice took on a satirical note. ‘Oh, pardon me, your highness! For a moment I thought I was addressing the simple Irish girl I wed ten years back. I forgot she’d metamorphosed into a great lady.’

Angelina listened to this exchange with only half her mind. She was working something out. Miss Drake drank the same kind of medicine every afternoon, even though it was only supposed to be for gentlemen. She was tempted to tell her father that, but some instinct made her keep it to herself for the time being.

In bed that night she turned the information over and over in her mind and by morning she had a plan.

The following evening she waited until her father had had his usual drink and was settled in his armchair. She climbed onto his lap and begged, ‘Tickle me, Papa.’

‘Really, Angelina!’ her mother exclaimed. ‘Don’t bother your father when he’s tired after a long day.’

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ he said with a laugh. ‘It’s all a bit of fun, isn’t it, kitten?’

‘You spoil her. No good will come of it, mark my words.’

He took no notice and began to tickle Angelina’s ribs. His fingers were too strong to tickle her properly, but she pretended to giggle and wriggle with pleasure and in the process managed to slip her fingers into the pocket of his waistcoat. The key was there. Carefully she extracted it and slipped it into the pocket of her pinafore.

Next morning she endured the pain of having her arms strapped behind her without complaint. When luncheon was over she waited on tenterhooks for Miss Drake to take her usual drink and fall asleep. As soon as she could hear from her gentle snores that the governess was unconscious she crept into her bedroom.

Her heart was thumping so hard that she felt the noise of it must wake her, but she did not stir.

A little flask was on the floor beside her. With a hand that shook, Angelina picked it up and tiptoed out of the room. She undid the stopper and sniffed. If it was not exactly the same as the stuff her father drank, it was very similar.

She crept to the door of the schoolroom, opened it and listened. The house was silent. She knew that at this time of day her mother would be visiting friends, and the servants would be eating their midday meal in the kitchen.

On silent feet she padded down the stairs. The hall was deserted. Carefully, she opened the door of the dining room and looked in. It, too, was empty. She had to pull a chair up to the sideboard to reach. Then she took the tiny key from her pocket and inserted it in the lock, as she had seen her father do, and pushed aside the bar that lay across the top of the decanters. She took up the one her father had used. It was much heavier than she had expected and it nearly slipped through her fingers. She steadied herself and took the small flask from her other pocket and carefully poured the liquid from the decanter into it. It soon filled up, and when she looked at the decanter the level did not seem to have gone down perceptibly. That would not do! She looked round the room. A large evergreen plant stood on the windowsill. She climbed down off the chair, cradling the decanter, and poured a good measure of its contents into the pot. That was better. Her father was bound to notice the difference now.

She climbed back onto the chair and replaced the decanter and locked the arm in position. Then for the first time it occurred to her to wonder what to do with the key. The chances of getting it back into her father’s pocket without him noticing were small. In the end, she dropped the key onto the floor in front of the sideboard. Then she replaced the chair, slipped out of the room and ran soft-footed back up the stairs. As she entered the schoolroom her heart was thudding so hard that it made her feel dizzy. If Miss Drake had wakened and found her gone she dreaded to think what her punishment might be; but the room was empty and the governess’s breathing was as regular as when she’d left. Holding her breath, she crept back into the room and replaced the flask where she had found it.

When Miss Drake came into the schoolroom, Angelina was stitching industriously at her sampler.

It was time for their walk. It was almost winter, and a cold wind was blowing up from the Mersey, but Miss Drake was not deterred. She marched Angelina briskly along the road and into Princes Park. Angelina had been pleased the first time she had taken her there. She remembered sunny afternoons playing with other children, while their nursemaids sat and gossiped. This was very different. In an unvarying routine, they circumnavigated the lake while Miss Drake drilled into her into the names of the various trees and shrubs they passed, her remarks interspersed with regular commands to stand up straight, pull her shoulders back and walk ‘like a lady’. If they encountered any other children with their nurses or governesses, polite greetings were exchanged, but then Angelina was hurried on without any chance to talk. Normally, she would have tried to prolong the walk, anything to be away from the schoolroom, but today she was eager to get home, afraid that they might not be there when her father returned.

She need not have worried. There was time to change her dress and have her face washed and her hair brushed, so that she was ‘presentable’.

In the drawing room her mother was sewing, as usual, and Angelina sat rigidly upright, answering her random questions about what she had learned that day, being careful not to fidget because that might result in being sent back upstairs. Her father was later than usual, but at last she heard his key in the lock and ran into the hall to greet him.

Jane, the parlourmaid, was there, taking his hat and coat, and before Angelina could speak she said, ‘Beg pardon, sir, but I found this on the floor of the dining room when I went to set the table for dinner.’

Angelina’s heart jumped in her chest as she saw the maid was holding out the key to the tantalus.

‘Good gracious!’ her father exclaimed, his hand going to his waistcoat pocket. ‘I must have dropped it last night. How careless of me. Thank you, Jane.’

The maid bobbed a curtsy and retired, carrying his hat and coat. Angelina curtsied in her turn. ‘Good evening, Papa.’

He patted her on the head. ‘Good evening, kitten.’ He yawned and turned towards the door to the drawing room. This was not part of the plan.

Angelina said, ‘You look tired, Papa. Why don’t you have a glass of your special medicine?’

He smiled at her. ‘Do you know, I think that is just what I need.’

He went into the dining room and Angelina waited, scarcely daring to breathe. A moment later he came out with a face like thunder and bawled, ‘Jane! Here, at once!’

His wife came out of the sitting room. ‘Connor! Whatever is wrong? Why are you shouting?’

‘Someone has been at my whisky.’

‘Nonsense. How could they have been? You keep it locked.’

‘But yesterday I must have dropped the key and now the decanter is half empty. Jane!’

The parlourmaid reappeared at the run. ‘Sir?’

‘When did you find this key?’

‘Just now, sir, when I set the table, like I told you.’

‘Did you notice that the decanter of whisky was half empty?’

‘No, sir. I didn’t look.’

‘Have you taken some?’

‘Me, sir? No, sir!’

‘Come here.’

She went closer and he took hold of her arm and bent his head close to hers.

‘Hmm. No smell of it on your breath. Where’s Betty?’

‘She’s in bed, sir, with an attack of the croup. She’s not moved all day. I’ve been doing her work for her.’

‘Fetch cook.’

‘Oh, really, Connor,’ his wife exclaimed. ‘Do you want us to lose our cook? If you accuse her she will give notice, I guarantee it. I’m sure she would never dream of taking your whisky.’

‘Then who has? It didn’t just vanish into thin air.’

‘You probably drank it yourself and you’ve forgotten.’

‘Do you think I’m so far gone? If I’d drunk that much I’d have been incapable of standing on my own two feet.’

Angelina decided that the moment had come for which she had been waiting.

‘Papa, if you need some more medicine, I think Miss Drake has some. She keeps it in a little bottle in her room.’

Her father went up the stairs two at a time and Angelina hurried after him, ignoring her mother’s instruction to stay where she was. Miss Drake was sitting at the table in the schoolroom, about to start her dinner. She jumped to her feet as her employer entered.

‘Mr McBride! What can I do for you?’ Then seeing Angelina behind him, said, ‘What has the child been saying? If she has been complaining …’

‘This has nothing to do with Angelina. I am told you have a flask of some alcoholic beverage in your room.’

Miss Drake’s eyes went from him to Angelina and then to the door of her room. ‘A little tonic wine, that is all, to fortify me against the rigours of my profession.’

‘Bring it to me, if you please.’

For a moment Angelina thought she was going to refuse, then she turned away and went into her room. She returned carrying the flask and looking alarmed.

‘This … this is not as it was when last I … someone has tampered with it.’

Mr McBride held out his hand. ‘Give it to me.’

She handed him the flask and he removed the stopper and sniffed. ‘Tonic wine, you say?’

‘Yes, that is all.’

McBride lifted the flask to his lips and took a draft. ‘You are a liar. This is fine Scotch whisky, which was taken from my decanter sometime today.’

‘No! How can it be? I have not touched your decanter. Do you not keep it locked away?’

‘I do, but last night I must have dropped the key and you must have found it. How much of this stuff do you drink?’

‘Very little. Only when I feel the need.’

‘She has some every afternoon, after luncheon,’ Angelina said. ‘Then she goes to sleep.’

Miss Drake turned on her. ‘Why you … You are responsible for this, you little …’

Mrs McBride had made her way upstairs by this time. She pushed past her husband. ‘How dare you accuse my daughter? You have wormed your way into this household under false pretences. You are a liar and a thief. You will leave this house first thing tomorrow morning.’ She looked round at her daughter. ‘Angelina, you had better sleep in my room tonight, away from the influence of this … this woman.’

Angelina curtsied submissively. ‘Very well, Mama.’


James Breckenridge stood on the quayside and strained his eyes to follow the progress of the SS Royal Standard as she stood out into the Mersey, and turned her bows towards the open sea. She was not as beautiful as the sailing clippers that thronged the harbour, with her tall funnels belching smoke instead of the graceful spread of white sails, but that was not important. What mattered to her passengers was that they would have a speedier and safer journey to Australia. What mattered to James was that she was carrying away, faster than any other ship, the person who, he had realised too late, meant more to him than anyone else in the world. To add to his distress, he had just made a promise he knew he could not keep.

He turned away with a sigh and began to plod heavily towards the solicitor’s office where he was an articled clerk. As he walked he castigated himself for a being fool and a snob. What did it matter that May had been brought up in the workhouse? It was true that she had only told him that a few days earlier, when he had asked her to marry him. Until then he had believed that she came from a respectable family, which had fallen on hard times so that, on the death of her mother, she had been forced to take a position as a milliner’s apprentice. Like a fool, he had tried to persuade her to stick to that story after they were married; but she had, quite rightly he saw now, refused to live a lie.

He took out of his pocket the letter he had received that morning. It had arrived just in time for him to rush to the dockside to see the ship sail, but not soon enough to persuade May to disembark. Could the extraordinary story she had told there be true? According to the letter, the father she had always assumed to have drowned at sea had in fact been transported to Australia for some trivial offence, had served his sentence and had then turned prospector and struck gold. Her brother, Gus, was already in Melbourne and the two had met by pure chance. Now, her father had sent money to pay her passage out to join them. It all seemed to be too much of a coincidence. Was it possible that May had made up the story, to give her a reason for leaving him? He would never have thought her capable of such a deception. On the other hand, she had maintained a false story about her upbringing for years, until she had confessed the truth a few days earlier. But, he reminded himself, he had seen her on the deck reserved for First Class passengers as the ship left. There was no way she could have afforded that if her father had not sent money for the ticket. So perhaps it was true.

He thought about the girl he had known for two years and fallen in love with. Circumstances had forced her to hide the shame of her childhood in the workhouse, but in everything else he knew her to be honest and without guile, in total contrast to the artificiality of so many of the young women of his own class. It was that openness which had first drawn him to her. She was brave and self-reliant and he appreciated that more than ever, now that he knew what her life had been like until they met. Educated just sufficiently in the workhouse to fit her for a life in service, she had been subjected to the deprivations of a job as a maid-of-all-work, at the beck and call of a cruel housekeeper. She had been lifted out of that servitude by her talent as an artist and designer, and had made use of every opportunity of improving herself until, finally, her true nature was revealed as an intelligent, lively, affectionate person, open to every new experience that was offered to her. It was that very openness which had drawn him to her. He knew his life had been easy in comparison. The son of a sea captain, who had, it was true, gone down with his ship when James was fifteen; but who had left him and his mother comfortably off and enabled him to receive a good education and then to acquire a position that would, once he had passed his final examinations, open up a respectable career as a solicitor.

That brought him to the nub of the matter. A solicitor was expected to have an equally respectable wife, from a respectable family: a wife who would be acceptable to the sort of society in which he moved. A girl brought up in the workhouse, however charming, would not meet with approval. That she had once worked as a milliner’s apprentice was bad enough, without that additional shame. His mother knew that, which was why she had made her disapproval of their relationship clear. May knew it too, and that was why she had fled to Australia.

There was something that stabbed at his conscience beneath all this, and he forced himself to face it. He had made a promise which he knew he could not keep. Standing on the dockside, shouting across the widening expanse of water, he had begged May to come back. It was impossible, of course. She had shouted back, ‘If you love me, get the next boat!’, and he had responded, ‘I will! I will!’

From James Breckenridge to May Lavender


October 27th 1867

My dearest May,

I hardly know how to begin this letter. This morning, as your ship was drawing away from the quay, you shouted to me that if I loved you I should get the next boat, and I, desperate at the thought of losing you, promised that I would. The receipt of this letter will be sufficient evidence that I have not kept my promise, since it will be carried on the ship I should have taken. If this comes as a blow to you, I can only offer my deepest and most heartfelt apologies; but I believe you will have realised by now that it was a promise I could not keep. We both know that my mother has only months, possibly weeks, to live. How could I leave her to suffer alone? I must stay at her side until the end, whenever that may come.

There is another consideration: my solicitor’s articles. I am bound to Mr Weaver until the end of next year. He might, possibly, let me go before that time, but then I should have wasted four years’ hard work. If I stay here until I have passed my final examination I shall be a qualified solicitor and able to set up in business anywhere. I am sure there must be openings for me in Melbourne, or wherever in Australia you have decided to settle. That way I shall be in a position to support a wife and family and offer them a respectable place in society. I know that now your father is, by all accounts, a wealthy man, you may feel that this is an irrelevant consideration; but to me it is not. If I were to come and ask for your hand in marriage as a penniless man with no qualifications, I might well be regarded as a ‘gold digger’, and with some justification. It is vital for me to be able to stand on my own feet, and not to depend on the support of my father-in-law, however freely offered. I am sure that, knowing me as you do, you will understand that.

Dearest May, a year is a long time and I cannot ask you to promise to wait for me. I am sure there are a great many young men who will be eager to court you, who may have talents and attributes that I lack. If you should fall in love with such a one, then it would be unfair and cruel of me to put you in a position of having to choose between breaking a promise to me and following your heart. I can only hope that the memory of the time we have spent together is as dear and as potent for you as it is for me, and that you will still be free when I arrive. I shall come, that I swear. Nothing will keep me here once my obligations have been discharged.

My darling, I think of you every day and dream of you every night. I shall miss our expeditions together and our long talks. I shall miss the way you look at me, with those beautiful eyes, and the touch of your hand in mine. The months ahead seem very lonely and dull. I wish letters did not take so long to travel across the oceans. I long to hear from you that you have arrived safely and found everything to your satisfaction. Write as soon as you can.

Remember me to your brother. I hope he is well and prospering.

With all my love,



Aboard the SS Royal Standard

October 27th 1867

My dear James,

This is the second letter I have written to you within the space of twenty-four hours. In the first I told you that I could see no future for us as a married couple and begged you to forget me. I had every intention of doing the same and making a new beginning in Australia. But then I saw you on the dockside, swearing your love to me and offering to marry me without any conditions, and I felt as if my heart was being torn out of my body. I was almost tempted to throw myself overboard in the hope that I might somehow get back to the shore and feel your arms around me again.