Authors: Jenny Telfer Chaplin
When the lady’s maid to the unmarried daughter of the house
took ill Kate was unexpectedly elevated to the dizzy heights of lady’s maid.
“I really don’t know what those duties are,” she stammered.
“Nonsense, girl, just do what I tell you and you’ll be fine.
If I’m not pleased you’ll hear all about it,” was the reply.
And Kate had heard about it. She’d endured scoldings,
deserved and undeserved, but she’d survived. Mistress Martha like her mother
was obviously intrigued by Kate’s background. Unlike her mother, however, she
pursued her interest and in long sessions of Kate brushing her mistress’s hair
she heard of Kate’s mother’s death in childbirth when Kate was twelve and of
the death of her father, a weaver and lay Baptist preacher when Kate was
“Oh, that’s why you don’t go to Mass with the others,” she
said, and with that Mistress Martha dropped the subject, her curiosity
In the early spring of 1877, Kate had heard from her
mistress that her older brother, Pearce, was to return to Ireland and Laggan
House. The other servants, when the housekeeper and butler were out of earshot,
eagerly filled in the details.
Pearce had been dispatched to the Colonies some six or seven
years before in disgrace. Gambling debts he couldn’t meet, some said, but
others hinted a darker secrets ... a maid seduced and great with child drowning
herself in the river and her brothers vowing vengeance.
Kate had laughed. If the latter story was true, why was he
“The girl’s brothers sailed to America last autumn,” the
upstairs maid whispered.
Pearce had arrived, a splendid figure of a man. He had
scandalised the housekeeper and cook to their audible disapproval in the
servants hall by lounging in his sister’s room while Kate brushed Mistress
“These manners might be all very well in the colonies,” they
agreed, “but here in Ireland ...?”
At first, Kate was disconcerted by Pearce’s stare, but
became used to it.
One afternoon off, she met him on the street of the small
town near to Laggan House. He doffed his hat to her, just as if she were a
lady, and invited her to have afternoon tea with him in the one small teashop
the town main street boasted. Embarrassed, she stammered out a refusal, then
flattered by his insistence she agreed. In the course of their conversation,
she told him that in her limited free time she retreated to a secluded gazebo
Much to her surprise, he began to meet her there and soon
they became lovers. In the house, he was cool, formal, and polite, but in their
arbour, he was ardent.
When she told him she was pregnant, he was stunned, then
furious. Kate could still see his face when she had shouted back: “I didn’t do
it by myself, did I?”
At his question of which of the menservants was the happy
father she slapped his face and would have fled had he not caught and held her.
They ended by making love and Pearce saying that all would work out and he
would take care of everything.
Kate’s reverie was interrupted by a man about Pearce’s age
bursting into the morning room.
“Pearce, you dog. How romantic, eloping with your bride. I’d
never have expected it of you.”
He and Pearce embraced.
“We got your telegram yesterday. My mother has been planning
events and calls for you non-stop ever since. But why so early? We thought
you’d leave your card at a more civilised hour. Your aunt won’t be presentable
for at least another hour ... if then. Which hotel are you staying at?”
He stopped for breath and Pearce finally managed to speak.
“There is a slight problem, Calum. Purely a temporary
financial embarrassment.” Pearce coughed. “I wondered if we could stay here.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, I suppose that would be possible.” He
glanced at Kate. “Your lady’s maid would need to share a room with one of our
servants. Oh dear. Your lady hasn’t been waiting outside in a cab all this
Pearce coughed again. “Calum, this is my wife. Kate, this is
my cousin Calum with whom I shared many boyish adventures.”
Calum flushed and made a sort of half bow to Kate.
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Without waiting for any response from
Kate, he rushed on: “Pearce, this is not quite what Mama envisaged.”
His face cleared. “I see now. This is one of your jokes,
that’s it. Come now, this would not do for Mama. She would not see the humour
of it. Come, let’s collect your bride before Mama appears.”
“Calum, this is my wife.” The flat tone admitted no
“Oh ...” for once, Calum was speechless.
Kate said: “I’m very pleased to meet you, Calum.”
Calum visibly winced at her accent.
“Oh, dear. Oh dear. No, Mama will not be pleased.”
“And what’s wrong with my speech? If I may ask?” Kate said.
“Be quiet, Kate,” Pearce said. “Calum meant no offence.”
“I will not be quiet. It’s not bog Irish. My father was a
“Oh dear. No, Mama will not be pleased. Not at all. She
isn’t even Anglican, Pearce?”
“I’m right here. Ask me. No, I’m not Anglican or Catholic.
“Good Lord, Pearce. Perhaps I’d better go and prepare Mama.
I don’t know what she’ll say.”
Calum bustled out of the room closing the door behind him.
“This is not going as I had hoped.” Pearce frowned. “This is
not the Calum I grew up with. He has changed much in six years.”
“Or you have, Pearce, working for a living in Canada.”
“Nonsense, Kate, I am the man I always was. When my aunt comes down leave
everything to me. I’ll speak for us.” Kate’s reply was lost as the door opened
and an elderly lady erupted into the room.
“What’s all this nonsense Calum is jabbering about? You’ve
run off with some kitchen maid? I won’t have it. I tell you, I won’t have it.”
“I’m not a kitchen maid.”
“I didn’t ask you to speak, girl.”
“I’ll speak when I want to.”
The aunt looked open mouthed at Kate. Pearce snorted, threw
his hands in the air, and turned his back. “My father was a lay Baptist
The aunt gazed wide-eyed at Kate, her lips clamped shut in a
“I was good enough for Pearce to bed and get with child and
marry two days since.”
“Well.” The aunt glared at Pearce. “What minister did you
convince to marry you to this baggage?”
“No priest or minister, lady. We spoke our vows at the
Registry Office in Belfast.”
“Pearce, I am grievously disappointed in you. That you
should descend to this. Take that heretic hussy out of my house at once. At
once, do you hear?” The aunt turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the
door behind her.
“Phew.” Calum sighed. “I knew Mama would not like it. I said
so didn’t I?”
“Come, Kate. I’ll not stay where I’m not welcome.” Pearce
picked up his bags then hesitated. “I don’t suppose, Calum, you could see your
way to float me a small loan? Purely temporary, I assure you. Just till I’m
settled here and made my arrangements from Ireland.”
Calum opened his purse and peered into it. “Four guineas,
Pearce. Would that help?”
‘Four guineas.’ Kate thought, More money than I’ve ever seen
in one sum before; more than half cook’s yearly pay at Laggan House. We’re
“Thanks, Calum. I’ll get this back to you soon.” Without
summoning the maid or the butler, Calum saw them to the door himself.
Standing on the step, again clutching her bundles, Kate
heard the final clunk of the door closing behind them.
“Come, Kate. We’ll get a tram and find a rooming house for a
day or so.”
This time it was a relatively short ride to what Pearce told
her was the centre of town. There he placed his two bags close to a shop
“Kate, set your bundle beside my luggage and sit there with
them while I find a policeman.”
“A policeman? What do we need a policeman for?”
“He’ll know where there might be a convenient rooming
Pearce strode off leaving Kate to sit looking glumly around
her. To her horror, she hadn’t been waiting long before a policeman appeared.
“What are you doing here, lass? No loitering. Pick up your
bundles and move on.”
“I’m waiting for my husband.”
“Oh, Irish are you? Why don’t you people stay where you
belong and not come here to beg? Now, move on.”
Kate was about to argue, but Pearce came round the corner
striding confidently towards them.
“Is there some problem, officer?”
His cultured accent and appearance obviously impressed the
constable who touched the fingers of his right hand to his helmet.
“No, sir, no trouble at all. I’m just telling this person to
“That person is my wife. She is waiting for me.”
“Oh.” The constable looked from Pearce to Kate and back
again. From his expression, his opinion of Pearce fell considerably.
“Now, my man,” Pearce ignored the officer’s frown, “can you
direct us to a decent rooming house?”
“None that will welcome Irish such as her. But you might
find a place the other side of the Tron in the east end of my beat. A woman
there has taken over some single-ends in her tenement by paying the rents of
those that couldn’t pay then evicting them.”
He gave Pearce directions and stood watching as they picked
up their belongings and started off.
At the address, Pearce asked an urchin playing in the street
for Mrs Ross. She answered their knock on the door and seeing Pearce first, she
smiled ingratiatingly, wiped her hands on her filthy, sack-cloth apron, and
said in a broad Glasgow accent: “Whit kin Ah dae fur ye, sur?”
Kate pushed forward. “We need a place to stay.”
Mrs Ross glared, then the opportunity for profit reasserted
“Ah dae hae a grand wee single-end, fine an cosy, fully
furnished an only hauf-a-croon a week. Ye’ll no find awthing better than that.
There’s many a homeless body in the streets that would kill for such a place.”
Pearce wrinkled his nose at the woman’s sour body odour and
rank breath, but Kate said: “We should at least take a look.”
In their walk, she had seen many tramps wandering aimlessly.
They surveyed the single-end: A cell-like room with a tiny
curtained scullery to one side with a dripping goose neck tap on a black iron
sink; above the sink a barred, curtain-less, dirty window; on the other side of
the room a wall recess held a double bed covered with a filthy looking cover of
little crocheted squares, doubtless someone’s pride at one time, but now little
more than a moth eaten rag; a damp, dank smell pervaded the air and wallpaper
peeled in patches.
Kate glanced at Pearce. His face was a picture of arrogant
disgust. Before he could speak, she tugged his sleeve and whispered: “Let’s
take it, dear. It’s some place to sleep for now. I’m completely done in.”
Their prospective landlady scowled.
“There’s many in Glasgow won’t let ony Irish within spittin
distance o their homes. Turn away from this and ye’ll see naethin but No Irish
Need Apply’ signs.”
Pearce grudgingly agreed, paid the landlady her half-crown
in advance, and sat in the only chair, staring around.
Kate was only too well aware that Pearce had never lived in
such squalor, with a communal lavatory on the stair-head, and surrounded by
poverty stricken neighbours.
Kate soon got to know her immediate neighbours, but
disclosed nothing of her circumstances beyond the fact that she and Pearce had
emigrated from Ireland to Glasgow in search of work.
Naturally the neighbours were consumed by curiosity about
the oddly assorted pair: Kate practical and obviously not gentry; Pearce, who
even in his oldest clothes stood out like a sore thumb, a gentleman born, with
the assurance and arrogance of a man of substance.
The single-end yielded to Kate’s scouring with lye and
carbolic. The table, scraped clean and scrubbed, showed a white pine surface;
curtains purchased at the Barrows graced the now-clean window; the ragged
bedcover thrown out and replaced by sheets and blankets again bargained for by
Kate at the Barrows.
Once a week Kate trundled her washing in a borrowed pram to
the local steamie.
Pearce searched for work. Up at dawn, dressed in moleskin
trousers, old tweed jacket, long white scarf, and with a flat bunnet jammed on
top of his mop of curly, dark hair, he trudged off to scour the East End and
the City Centre for work – any sort of work.
Soon, from bitter experience, he learned which firms to
avoid – firms where No Irish Need Apply’ was posted and reinforced verbally. At
the beginning he did get some jobs in construction, but it was soon all too
clear that not only was he unused to such labour, it was quite beyond his
capabilities. Also, although he was a ‘Paddy’, he was no Irish navvy. His
supercilious manner alienated employers and fellow employees alike.
One morning, deep in despair, he set out yet again from the
shelter of the close leaving behind him even at this early hour the sounds,
sights, and smells of the tenement ... A baby’s screaming; the clatter of
dishes; the yells of a couple already at each other’s throats in the confined
cell of their home; the rustle of rats from the odorous back court middens; and
over all the gushing of water from the stinking, communal water-closets on each
The small hoard of sovereigns had dwindled and all they had
left were two of the four Calum had given them. He just had to find work. Kate
was due almost any day and there were sure to be added expenses over that.