Christmas of 1850. This year we knew. My husband, Edward, had been failing since the winter of last year, and the spring did not bring him any relief. The doctors at Prescott Street had little to say, when Edward finally went to see them about the pain in his belly. Cancer, they told him, and Edward told me, his eyes still filled with light from the river. We neither of us knew what that meant. No one we talked to knew what it was.
Summer, so hot and close, was bad for him. He took to staying in Wells Street with his sister Sarah. Not so many steps and some air from the canal. I was afraid for the season to come, afraid to hear the great bells begin to call.
I used to love this time of year. The great church at Spitalfields was filled with candles and the doors would be open all day, so the light from within spilled onto the steps and down into the grave yard. The market in the square became a place of song as those who called their wares added extra words and melody, and those listening, even if not wishing to buy, drew close to hear. We worked the stalls, and at Christmas we showed each other our wares, acting as if we could buy this length of ribbon, that scrap of velvet, new leather for a belt or a hat band. We pretended, to make each other laugh, trying on hats, wrapping a new scarf around our heads, taking up fine-knit gloves and drawing them on for the admiration of our neighbours. None of us had the money to purchase. It was like theatre, all of us pretending to make choices we knew we didn’t have. And laughing at our foolishness. When a Commercial Road gentleman came through, we hurried to our places by our tables or stalls, covering our smiles with our hands, as if we hadn’t, moments before, been dancing about, wearing the very shawl he might now be considering for his house maid.
If it snowed, and often it did, the filth was covered with new snow like so much lace. Snow falling in the streets was like apple blossoms in the spring, decorating heads, caps, the shoulders of jackets, the lifted face of a child. The first time our William saw snow, he was in my arms, wrapped in my shawl, and he struggled to free his bare arm and raise it up to catch the flakes. Snow was one of his first words. Born in the spring, he was bonny in his first winter, his cheeks red from health and his eyes clear. I remember him laughing as the flakes touched his hands and then his arm and face. Near ten years ago, that were. I wonder if he remembers.
The service at Christmas would have us packed in by eleven, called by the bells. They rang with extra volume on Christmas Eve and Day, and I tilted my head to catch the sound. With my friends around the market stalls, we cried out which of the big churches we were hearing. It seemed they were in a contest to make us come.
My Edward and I would catch up the boys and go to the great church at Spitalfields. We tried to get in early and even if not we’d find a place, usually standing, the boys like rugs around our feet. The priests walked past us, and if we were lucky and near the centre, I saw their finery. They wore wide ribbons of gold and silver on the edges of their gowns, even at the bottom, where you could see the dirt from the street marking the fabric. White lace at their cuffs and around their necks, silken hats, skin soft and white. The choir would wear red cloaks of fine wool. Such a red. The organ played and I felt it in my belly. When a babe happened to be on his way, I swear I felt the little one roll and kick to the music.
After the service, our older boys—Edward and Henry—bolted off to some mischief in the street. When William was not yet six, he went off on his own too, creeping close to the organ of the church at Spitalfields. The first time he saw music written on paper was at the church. He brought me part of a page, given him by the man who pumped the bellows. My Edward went back to his work on the river most Christmas days, and I took up my spot at the stalls, offering to let someone else go to another service, hoping for one more sale before the day was done.
At day’s end, I remember walking through the streets, looking into the decorated windows of the shops and hearing the barrow boys calling out their wares. No matter how, Edward always had something special to bring to the boys: a chestnut fallen from a barrow, an apple rolled off a cart, a small, hardly broken loaf forgotten at the back of the big ovens at Charlton. Our little family—two, then three, then four, then for a brief time five boys—all sat in our room, talking, describing the sights we saw on our separate ways to home. Edward always told his story last, standing among us, using different voices and making big movements with his arms to go with the story. He could make his face take on the looks of the people he’d met. And he’d make us laugh, that man. We sat tight together, warmed, laughing, each one of us holding something small that meant we were not forgotten. Edward always found something for me, even when there was truly nothing to be had.
Christmas had just passed when Sarah came to tell me that Edward was at his end. I remember the look on William’s face when she told us. We were sitting on the floor in our room, on the bit of rug William had found in the yard, playing with Benjamin. The wee boy was late in learning to walk, nearly two, and he was tottering from my knee to William’s lap. He would pitch forward, giggling, and William would right him and turn him to face me. Arms up, a big smile on his face, he would step toward me, while William, who was learning his numbers, counted. As he made the fourth of five steps, Benjamin would start laughing, knowing he was about to collapse into my arms. It was a fine game.
Sometimes I believe that were the last good time we had in that place. When the streets seemed to be gaining on us, I remembered Benjamin stepping back and forth, his laughter, his body as he landed in my arms, William’s cheery counting.
Sarah came to the doorway, pushed aside the scrap of curtain, and looked at me. She did not need to say anything. I knew.
“William,” I started to say, but my boy knew without my telling. He pulled Benjamin into his lap and put his arms around him. William’s wrists, so thin, were hardly covered by the old jacket he wore, and still he wrapped his arms and legs around Benjamin to keep him warm. Above his little brother’s laughing face, his own face was solemn, his eyes not quite filled with tears, knowing how impatient I was at weeping. He looked up as if to stop me, or stop what was going to happen, and his smile, coming from such love for me, near undid me.
Benjamin, I thought, would not remember my Edward, his father, a man so deep in sickness he barely noticed when Benjamin came squalling into the world. Benjamin would not remember the stories and songs his father had. Would William?
Sarah walked quickly, her shawl over her head against the snow and cold. I followed, my eyes on the heels of her shoes, kicking up the fabric of her skirt. The mud and muck made her skirt’s hem stiff, and its rise and fall drew me away from what was happening. Edward had not worked for more than a year, and because he was sick we were on the parish roles. What would happen now that he was gone? Would they take us into the poorhouse? Would Eddie and Henry, our two fine almost-grown boys, try to make their own way as—what? Street runners? Worse?
I was ashamed to be worrying about this, watching the movement of Sarah’s dirty hem, instead of preparing myself. I was afraid of what I would see and do and feel. We all knew, had known since the spring, that Edward could not beat this pain in his belly. We knew what the doctor at Prescott Street did not tell us. The wasting away of his bonny frame was so hard for me that I could hardly look at him.
Sarah was braver. She sat with him, talked to him, told him stories of their childhood in the village, made him laugh when he could laugh. Cleaned him when he were sick, and worse.
I heard his breathing even before I climbed the few steps from the stoop and went in. He sounded as if he were running. He wasn’t, though. He was lying on the floor, covered by one of Sarah’s big shawls, his fine hands, now thin and faded, entwined in the edges of the shawl where the wool had given way.
His eyes were open, and when I stepped toward him he looked at me.
“Edward?” I said, because his eyes had not been open to see me for weeks.
Sarah touched my back, and I heard her mutter, “He doesn’t know.”
But she didn’t need to tell me. I saw that his eyes were not looking on me but away. At what? What did he see now, so close to his end? What I had taken to be panting was his gasping for air.
“Do you think he hurts?” I asked Sarah, who was kneeling beside him and holding his hand.
“Not any longer,” she said.
She had the heart I did not. I loved that man with all I possessed, but I didn’t have the heart to kneel and touch what his body had become. I didn’t want to remember him this way. Didn’t want to look at his skin sagging over his arms, as if the bones were shrinking. I remembered the night we made Benjamin, Edward’s arms holding me, his laughter as he shushed me, so as not to wake the boys sleeping so near. His fine face in the shadows above me, the joy in his eyes. I wanted to remember all that and not this poor creature.
“Edward?” I said again, as if my voice would bring him back to me, one last time.
His breathing paused. I stood away from him, my foot reaching toward the place where I thought his foot might be. Then the rattling breath began again, and I looked about the room for something to give him. The breathing was awful to hear. I pulled my shawl over my head, over my hair, down my face, to cover my eyes. Covered, I listened to the breathing. One. Two. Three. Then I waited for the next, knowing it would not come. I tore off the shawl and whimpered “no,” as if my command would bring one more sound from him, for he could not be going from me, leaving me.
I saw him dancing down the street, his body sweet and fair in the dusk, his face lifted up to the magic of the lights on the old bridge. Off you go, my man, I thought, and I took his fourth breath for him and it became my first, my first without my man at my side, the father of my boys, my armour against the dark.
Sarah was crying, saying her brother’s name, and the women from the street started coming in. They would see to us. I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard my own breathing, standing there with my shawl wrapped around the pain I felt. I nodded my head, to say what, I don’t know.
March 30, 1851
Edward Meredith, my dear man, was buried a few days into the new year. He was not even forty, the registrar told me. I watched Sarah sign for Edward’s burial with her mark, and then they wrote her name. The parish saw to his burial, because I had nothing. For near ten days I sat in the corner of our room on Charlton, suckling Benjamin, sending William out for water. I heard the shouts of the new year from the public house on the corner, and the men pissing against the wall of our building on their way home to their families. Where was my Edward?
The women of the street took care of us as best they could, but, truth be told, no one had enough to help for long. I was warned by these good women about the Poor Laws and the parish relief workers, who knew about my husband’s death and were waiting to take us all into the poorhouse. So, by mid-January, I was back at my stall and on the hunt for cast-off dresses. The people who had taken my Charles, not even four, into their home as servant, said they would keep him on, and so at four Charles became a servant at one of the big houses on Russell Square. His cousin Elizabeth, my Emily’s daughter, worked there too—she were but eight herself. When I had the time to think on them, I hoped that they were company for each other and that Elizabeth would look to him the way I had looked to Emily when she and I were girls together in the village.
The census takers were on the street again at the end of March, trying to collect the bits of paper they’d left with Mrs. Nainby the week before. She wasn’t the only one who hadn’t filled them out; many was the door knocked on with no answer but the breath of a ragged curtain to show we were inside, waiting.
Folk said the bits of paper would tell who lived where they weren’t supposed to, and the landlords down in the city would come for higher rents. When Mrs. Nainby handed in the papers, they’d know we were four families at 16 Upper Charlton Street, and I—with my four boys—living in two rooms. They’d make us move on. That’s what everyone on the street said, anyway.
I don’t have my letters, so I got my William to do the paper. The census taker—a youngster barely into his collar—had given just three pages because Mrs. Nainby said she only needed three. Mr. Waters wanted to fill mine out on account of he lived on the floor below and we were on the top, but William had the paper and the pencil, so he started by asking me if he should call me “Mamma” on the census.
“Millicent Meredith,” I told him. Nobody called me Millicent, but I knew the census takers would want our proper names.
I had to show William the paper from the hospital for the spelling, and I fretted that he would get the letters wrong. He’s a good boy, though, and he spelled out my name the way it looks when I see it.
He read out, “Relation to Head of Family.” The boys were sitting against the walls by the coal fire, looking first at me and then at the paper. Young Edward, so impatient with me, with his own fresh pain over his Da, looked down at his hands, pulling at the nicks and cracks of his skin.
We none of us knew who the head of our family was now. With Edward gone, was it me? Was it my fine grown boy Edward?
“Just write the names,” I told William, who was holding the paper on his knee.
The pencil had already poked through the paper to his trousers beneath, and the paper itself was marked by the dirt on William’s hand; I should have had him go down to the pump to wash before he started.
“Edward Meredith,” William wrote. “Henry Meredith. William Meredith.” He stopped printing and looked around. “Do I write ‘Charles Meredith?’” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I told him. I had said that often in the three months since Edward died.
“Mrs. Nainby says just who is here now, on this night.” William looked at me.
“No, then,” I said, trying to sound more certain. “Don’t write his name.”
Would his name be written where he lived now? Who would know if Charles was not on any list? If he was missed, would anyone care? I felt sick.
William continued. “Benjamin Meredith.” He spelled it out as he wrote.
When he was done he read the list again, and we sat looking at each other, hearing these unfamiliar names in the room.
Solemn, William squinted at the paper and read, “Condition.” He looked at me, at his big brothers, and then at Bennie, as if the little one might know what “Condition” meant, being not quite two and having only a few words.
“Just leave that,” I said, feeling the grip of worry in my belly. Maybe it meant how well we were. I didn’t know and had no wish to tell anyone, fearing they’d take the wee lad and maybe William.
“Age,” William muttered.
“Well, our Edward is fifteen, and—”
“Nearing sixteen. Put that. Sixteen,” said my oldest.
“We have to be right,” I reminded him. We had heard the lecture from the census takers, heard all the worries on the street about getting it wrong.
Eddie shrugged and stood up, ready to bolt down the dark stairway to the street. He took hold of the curtain over the doorway and began swinging it.
“Henry is twelve. How old are you, William?”
My school boy gave me his gap-toothed smile that always made me smile in turn.
“And our Bennie is two.”
Edward continued opening the curtain and swooshing it closed, causing a wind in our room. He was snorting, anxious to be gone.
I don’t know how old I am exactly, so I guessed and told William to put thirty-three. I had been eighteen when I married Edward, and our first child came along quickly and he were fifteen now, so I must be close to thirty-three.
“Rank, Profession, or Occupation,” William recited, proud to be able to read those bigger words.
Occupation. Edward ran errands and did small jobs everywhere—a runner was what he was. And now Henry was taking it up as well. And I? I took the washing for the building out to the pumps and scrubbed it. Mostly I scavenged for second-hand clothes to sell on, but I was afraid I’d be caught because I didn’t have a license. Could I tell that? The gossips on the street said that if we didn’t have a trade or job, they’d come to put us in the poorhouse. Folks were writing down anything, and laughing at the made-up words.
“Edward is an errand boy. Henry is too.”
William printed for a bit, looking unhappy. I didn’t know how those words were spelled, or even if “errand boy” was an occupation.
“And you, you go to the church school, so you are a school child. School child.” I looked at his bent head, trying to recall another word for what he were.
William finished and looked up at me, his pencil held at an awkward angle, as if he were holding a knitting pin.
“Washing,” I said. “Washing clothes.”
We looked around the room, avoiding each other’s eyes. I felt so sad. No work, no nice things, no nothing. Not even an occupation. Where was my Edward?
“Where born,” William whispered.
I looked at the paper and saw he was at the bottom. This was the last, and then I’d take the boys to the street and maybe we would go to the place where they were raising a building to house the old king’s library. The boys liked to play in the yard with all the stones and such. Henry and Edward would take off to who knows where. Doing errands, I supposed.
“Lewisham, Kent,” I recited, although I could not remember ever being there. It was supposed to be a lovely village; my Mam had told me more than once. “And you lot—Lambeth.”
William scrunched down to write. Did he know how to write Lewisham? I certainly didn’t.
Then he held up the paper with his funny grin. Edward swung the curtain open, and we all took a breath. Done.
Mrs. Nainby took the paper from me, scowling at the mess it was, and frowned at the blanks. She took the pencil too, although William was hoping he could keep it, and wrote something in one of the squares. Then she made another series of swift marks and went away.
“What did she write?” I whispered to William.
“Widow,” he said. “Widow for you, and then son for Edward, and little swoops for the rest of us.”
MILLICENT is the story of Millicent Mesnard, who lived in London’s East End from 1836 to1862. She marries a man who works the river, first as a mud lark and then as a lighterman. He dies of cancer in 1850, leaving her the sole support of five boys, three of them under eight. She was not working for wages when her husband died.
Millicent is descended from displaced Huguenot silk weavers. She cannot read or write. She makes her living, precariously, in the second-hand clothing trade. Without a license, she is treading the boards of crime. Her son William is taken into St. Pancras Workhouse shortly after the 1851 census is conducted. Her son Charles lives as a four-year-old servant in a middle-class house not far from her one room on Charlton Street. She manages to keep her son Benjamin in spite of poverty, inadequate food and water, and epidemics of typhus, cholera, and typhoid.
In 1858 she marries a widower with five daughters, all of whom live independently. Millicent has a sixth child, a boy, in 1859. Her son Benjamin drowns in the Regent’s Canal when he is twelve years old, less than a year before Millicent dies of tuberculosis.
And yet this is a story of resilience. Of love and hope. Within these dire circumstances is a family thriving on their love for each other.
Wendy E. Burton lives and writes in British Columbia, Canada. She writes poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and novels. In 1996 she completed her third novel, which earned eighteen letters of rejection. Over the years, she has completed twenty short stories and four novels. Her novel Ivy’s Tree was published by Thistledown Press in Fall 2020.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020