Authors: Jenny Telfer Chaplin
True, Kate herself had not lost a relative or even a close
friend in the Daphne Disaster, but the traumatic experience did have one
immediate impact on her own life.
That very night, she went into premature labour. As the
midwife cleaned up the baby and handed her into Kate’s waiting arms, she smiled
and said: “Looks like ye’ve got a real wee beauty here, Kate. She’s perfect in
every way. So, therr’s nae need for ye tae go countin’ her fingers and toes.
Like a wee heavenly angel, so she is.”
Kate gave a weak smile, a sigh of relief and with a wavering
right hand, she caressed the baby’s downy cheek.
“Thank God for that, Mistress Shaw. Aye. At least there’s
one happy household in Glasgow this night. Not like all those other poor souls,
crazed with grief. I just cannot get out of my thoughts the sight o’ yon poor
“There, there noo, Kate. Try no’ tae upset yersel’.”
“But if ye’d seen her, Mistress Shaw. Little more than a wee
lassie herself. And there she is now ... lost her man, left with a babe-in-arms
and another wean well on the way. Poor demented soul that she is. I just wonder
how in God’s name she’s goin’ to manage. And apart from her sorrow ... not even
a breadwinner. God help her.”
As a very sleepy and exhausted Kate, holding tight to her
precious baby, snuggled down in her bed, she yet again thanked God for his
blessings bestowed on her own family.
She and Pearce gazed down in love and wonder at the sleeping
miracle of their lovely wee Isabella. For Kate and her suddenly enlarged
family, the third of July, 1883, had ended on a positive note. But in the
annals of Scottish history, it was a black day for all too many working-class
folk in Glasgow.
Pearce’s drinking in his off-work hours grew steadily worse,
but he was never an uproarious, happy drunk like some of the others in their
street. He became morose, silently brooding on the mistakes of his past, his
reduced circumstances, and above all the death of Angela, ever ready to lash
out at any who crossed him. The children quickly learned to stay out of his way
when he came home drunk on a Friday evening, even his favourite Andrew sheltered
with Big Betty until Kate knocked quietly at her single-end door with the news
that Dadda was safely asleep in bed.
His drinking seriously cut into money available even for the
necessities of life and Kate was reduced to searching his pockets, after he
fell into a drunken stupor, for whatever coin she could find and hiding it
Thus the summer and autumn of 1883 passed. In the winter,
diphtheria was rampant in the city and Kate worried herself sick every time one
of the children developed a cough. The traditional sugar-coated butter balls to
soothe the dry throat of the patient meant no butter or sugar for anyone except
Pearce. By February, Kate was beginning to relax. The epidemic was reported as
declining, then Andrew started coughing.
Big Betty shook her head sadly at his fever and the
development of the diphtheria rash, and in days Andrew was dead.
“How could you be so stupid and so careless?” Pearce ranted
at Kate after Andrew’s funeral. “Sugar-coated butter balls. Whoever heard of
treating diphtheria like that? Ignorant bog Irish peasants like your Big Betty?
You should have had the doctor.”
“With what, Pearce?” Kate shouted back. “With your drinking
there’s barely enough to keep food on the table. What was I supposed to pay the
doctor with? A doctor won’t come to a house like this where he knows there’s no
Pearce towered over Kate, then abruptly turned away and
strode to the door.
“That’s right. Go and drink yourself senseless. Just as you
did the night your favourite son died. Lying in a drunken stupor while Andrew
breathed his last.”
He turned, his face ashen, and looked at Kate, but she felt
he looked right through her.
“Christ.” He turned away and the door slammed behind him
with enough force to shake the whole building.
Pearce didn’t return that night and Kate wondered if he was
lying drunk in some gutter.
Next evening, at the time he usually returned from his work
at the Fruit Market, Pearce walked in. He was red-eyed and tired looking, but
there was no hint of alcohol on his breath. The children promptly fled the
house, taking Hannah with them.
“Is there food in this house?”
Kate hastened to scrape together a meal from the scraps the
children had abandoned in their flight.
Pearce ate in silence.
“You can feed our children better than this –”
Kate was about to launch a retaliatory attack, but Pearce
pulled a pay-packet envelope out of his pocket and handed it to her.
“The men at work offered me drink this night – a sort of
wake for Andrew, I think, but I’ll drink no more. I found this on my desk at
closing. No-one would admit to it being his money – this is what we are sunk to
– use it for whatever you see needful.
After that, Pearce never came home with liquor on his
breath, but his brooding presence cast a pall over the house when he was home.
Daniel was beaten on any and every pretext, and avoided his father whenever he
Gradually, Pearce began to pay attention to Isabella, the
youngest child, and the atmosphere lightened somewhat.
On the first Saturday of November, Pearce pushed his chair
back from the table after the evening meal.
“This is our last Saturday here. We’re moving to a bigger
The announcement was greeted with a startled silence.
“It’s not too far from here – Garth Street – but it’s a
room-and-kitchen. I’ve made all the arrangements. The coalman will move our
bits and pieces on his cart.”
“But when will we move?” Kate frowned.
“Next week on Quarter Day, of course. The proper time to end
one lease and sign another with the factor.”
“You haven’t talked to me about this, Pearce.”
Pearce’s self-satisfied cheerfulness was beginning to
evaporate at this less than enthusiastic reception of his news.
“And why should I? I pay the rent. I bring in the pay-packet
that keeps this family fed and clothed.”
“I keep the house clean and snug for everyone. I should have
“Nonsense, woman. This is my business. I have calculated we
can afford the extra rent, and I have saved the money needed for the key money
and the flitting.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t drunk so much before, we could have
afforded a better house earlier– and Andrew need not have died –”
Pearce’s face suffused with blood. He leapt to his feet.
Before Kate could move, his open hand slapped her face turning it to one side.
The following backhand blow struck her nose and his ring opened a gash on her
Daniel jumped forward and got between Kate and Pearce.
“Leave Mammy alone, you bastard,” he shouted and kicked as
hard as he could at Pearce’s shin. The other children screamed.
Pearce looked in astonishment at Daniel for a moment before
grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and forcing him face down across the
“We’ll have none of that language in this house,” he
snarled, loosening his belt.
When the November Quarter Day of 1886 came around, right
reason or none, and strictly in accordance with Dadda’s wishes, the Kinnon
family prepared to move a few streets away to their new home. As yet, apart
from Dadda himself, not one of the family had even so much as caught a glimpse
of the new and bigger house.
Jenny and Andrew were both weeping as if their hearts would
break at having to leave not only all their little pals, but also the only home
they had ever known in their short lives. Little Isabella, not quite understanding,
wept in sympathy. Hannah, to whom one day was much like another, seemed
unmoved. Daniel, determined not to give his father the satisfaction of seeing
him cry, managed in the midst of all the excitement to keep a stiff upper lip.
That is until at the very last when the children were paraded out of the close
for the last time and there in the street, at the kerbside, they saw it. The
few worldly possessions which the Kinnons owned had already been piled
haphazardly on to one of Murphy’s coal lorries and even then, father was giving
final detailed delivery instructions to the carter.
That done, Murphy doffed his bunnet to Pearce, stirred his
great Clydesdale workhorse into action and they were off. The last Daniel saw
of the coal-lorry as it rounded the corner into the next street was the
sawn-off nursing chair wobbling precariously against the head of one of Mammy’s
best wally dugs, whose soulful face peered out from a lidless wooden box. As
the coal-cart disappeared from view, Mammy, with tears in her own eyes, bent
forward, tucked the crocheted knee-rug more firmly round Hannah, already seated
in her go-chair, and swallowing back her distress, forced a bleak smile on to
her scarred face as she said: “Now then my wee darlings the main thing is not to
worry ourselves about all this move. After all, you’ll not be all that far away
from your pals. And you, Daniel and Jenny, you’ll still be at the same school.
’Tisn’t as if we were going to another country, though God willing, ’tis fine I
would like to be returning to my own Emerald Isle. Ah, well. But mind now what
it is I’m telling you ... whatever the new place is like, and according to
Dadda, it’s a palace, but be that as it may, we’ll soon be able to see for
ourselves, anyway. But just remember one thing is certain and I want you all to
hold on to this thought: this is an adventure we’re having.”
When still there was no answering smile on the children’s
faces, Kate was on the point of trying further to boost their spirits when a
shout from Pearce caused them all to jump. Dadda had already gone striding
ahead, leaving Kate to cope as best she could with the weeping, distraught
children, a stubborn silent Daniel, and the ever-active yet un-coordinated
Hannah. By the time he had realised his wife and family were not close on his
heels, Pearce was almost at the corner of the street. He had turned round to
admonish them to move along a bit faster when he saw, to his annoyance, that
not only were they not close behind him, they had not even set one single step
on the load towards their new adventure and what Pearce himself personally
regarded as their heft up the social ladder.
At once his face darkened at the imagined slight and he
waved his stout walking-stick at the laggards in a beckoning motion. Of course,
it would have been easier and much more effective to have shouted his
instructions, in the manner adopted by most local people. However, as always,
Pearce Claude Kinnon thought himself well above the manners and morals of the
other tenement dwellers. It would never have done for anyone to observe, far
less hear Mr Kinnon acting in a coarse manner, devoid of all social graces. No,
he had his standards to keep up and it would take more than a few recalcitrant
children to make him change his inborn and, as he saw it, socially correct
habits of a lifetime.
Catching his meaning of the impatient beckoning with his
walking-stick, Kate at once gathered her brood around her, but not before she
had given them one last word of hope and encouragement for what they obviously
saw as a very uncertain future. Bending her face close to them, she looked into
two pairs of tearful eyes and the openly rebellious face of Daniel and said:
“Right, then, you lot. We had better get our skates on before your poor Dadda
bursts a blood vessel or else his walking stick bursts into flames with
impatience.” Here the children giggled. “Now, you lot, quick march.”
They set off to walk the few streets to their new and as
yet, unseen room-and-kitchen home. At that very moment, Dadda was hastening
round the corner of the street, so the now-biddable children, always
susceptible to Mammy’s gentle brand of coaxing, made every effort to catch up
on Dadda, as all the while their little legs went like castanets and the
clatter of their boots echoed off the cobbled street.
Once arrived outside the new tenement building, before which
Dadda, a frown of impatience on his face, was already standing, both Kate
herself and the children looked with interest at the once-blond, but now
blackened with soot and age, fabric of the tall building. To all intents and
purposes, it looked much the same not only as the building they had just
vacated, but also as a thousand other gaunt tenement structures which abounded
in the City of Glasgow.
As the family procession entered the close, already they
felt quite at home, for not only did the dank walls look the same as their old
close, the smell was exactly the same, being a mixture of cats’ pee, dogs’
shit, stale vomit, and the stench of human excrement issuing from the constantly
running lavatory on the half-landing.
With the habit born of years, and almost as an automatic
action, Kate and the children stopped outside the first door on the left as
they entered the close. Pearce, who had been giving final instructions to the
carter for the uplifting, disposal and proper placing of his few sticks of
furniture, now hurried into the close after his family. He gave a puzzled frown
when he saw them all huddled round the doorway just inside the close.
Fixing his wife with a beady eye, he asked: “Why on earth
are you all standing there, like orphans of the storm. This isn’t our old
close, you know. This isn’t the house I’ve chosen for you, you know.”
It was Kate’s turn to wear a puzzled look and after pulling
her Sunday-best shawl closer to her neck, she replied with a touch of asperity
in her voice: “Well, you might know exactly where we’re headed. But since
you’ve told us nothing, other than it’s a room-and-kitchen, how on earth can
you expect us to know which door it is that we’re looking for?”