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Authors: Beryl Matthews

The Forgotten Family

BOOK: The Forgotten Family
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The Forgotten Family

B
ERYL
M
ATTHEWS

Chapter One

Whitechapel, London, July 1890

The tangle of children in the middle of the road was shouting, screaming and laughing. Queenie bounced about on the pavement, making as much noise as her many brothers and sisters. With a gurgle of delight, she launched herself into the middle of them.

‘Get off, Queenie,’ they shouted.

She kicked and fought with all her might. Although she was the youngest of ten, and tiny compared to the rest of them, she was a force to be reckoned with. There was nothing she liked more than a good scrap.

The fight broke up, leaving her giggling on the road with her favourite brother, pounding away with her little fists to show how much she loved him.

‘Pack it in!’ Harry roared as he tried to fend her off. ‘I’ve had enough.’

‘You’re a coward, ’Arry.’ She jumped on him for good measure, refusing to let him get up.

Grabbing his sister round the waist, he surged to his feet, tossing her over his shoulder. At twelve years old, he was growing into a strapping lad, and a two-and-a-half-year-old girl couldn’t do him much harm, as long as he kept out of the way of her flailing hands and feet.

‘Watch her, Harry.’ The eldest boy, Ted, was doubled over, out of breath. ‘She’ll catch you where it hurts if you’re not careful.’

Harry grinned, looking down at his sister’s bare feet as they thrashed about. ‘I think she should have been a boy.’

They were all sitting on the curb; Harry had dumped his burden down and now sat beside her. The entire Bonner brood were in a row – dirty, ragged, and happy, oblivious to the filth and squalor they lived in. Only the eldest had shoes, underclothes were unheard of and, anyway, as it was summer, no one worried about things like that.

‘Queenie,’ a familiar voice called.

Ted gave her a push. ‘Mum’s shouting for you, urchin.’

Scrambling to her feet, she ran into the small slum house. It only had two rooms up and two rooms down, with a wash house at the end of the yard, shared by four families. There were beds everywhere, and Queenie shared one with her sisters; two of them sleeping at the top and two at the bottom. There were only four girls in the family, the rest were boys, and Queenie preferred them. They were more fun.

‘Look at the mess you’re in.’ Her mother swore as she stripped off the filthy frock, and dumped Queenie in the old tin bath full of water.

Squealing in protest, she tried to climb out, but this only earned her a sharp clip around the ear.

‘Ouch!’ With a growl of rage, she lashed out, but her mother was too strong for her, holding her in the water with ease. And to add to the torture, even her hair was washed.

‘Why you cleaning up Queenie, Mum?’ Harry wandered in. ‘She’ll be filthy again in five minutes.’

‘Oh no she won’t.’ She tipped a jug of water on her daughter’s hair, making her shut her eyes tight and splutter. ‘Look at that. Get the dirt off her and she’s got nice fair hair, and, with her bright blue eyes, she don’t look half bad.’

Harry stood watching, his smirk changing to a frown when he saw a clean frock being slipped over his sister’s head. It had even been ironed! ‘What you doing this for?’

‘Tell him, Fred,’ Hilda ordered her husband. ‘And you’d better tell the rest of them, as well. Don’t want no trouble later.’

Queenie was glad she was out of the water and dry again. She didn’t care for water. As her mother tried to get the tangles out of her hair, she watched her dad talking to Harry. She set her mouth in a firm line, trying not to yell as her hair was pulled so much it hurt.

Suddenly, Harry turned, his face like thunder. ‘You can’t do this!’

‘Shut your mouth,’ their mother shouted. ‘It’s none of your bleeding business. We can do what we like. They’re paying good money, and we need it.’

‘If it’s money you want I’ll pack up school and get a job. You can’t do what you’re planning. It’s cruel. She’s one of us.’

‘You try skipping out of school and you’ll get the
thrashing of your life. You’re never gonna get out of this hellhole without proper learning. You can’t do nothing about it. It’s all settled.’ She glared at her husband, wanting support, but he was keeping quiet.

Harry looked fit to explode and it frightened Queenie. He was always laughing and happy. She’d never seen him angry before. She ran over to him, throwing her arms around his waist and gazing up. ‘What you angry for, ’Arry?’

Swinging her up into his arms, he hugged her tightly, then put her down and stormed out of the house.

She went to follow him, but was caught by her mother and dragged back. ‘You’ll stay here, my girl. You got people coming to see you soon, and I want you clean.’

She scuffed her toe over a hole in the oilcloth. ‘Don’t like being clean. I want to see ’Arry.’

‘You’ll do as you’re told.’ Her mother dumped her on one of the beds. ‘Stay there and don’t you dare move. I don’t want so much as a speck of dirt on you.’

Picking at the frayed edge of the blanket, Queenie kept her mouth shut. Her mum never usually took much notice of her, but today she’d washed her and changed her frock. She was very worried now. Harry was mad about something, and all the others had gone quiet, looking in at her from time to time, their faces serious.

‘You told them, then?’ her mother snapped when her father returned.

‘They know, and I’ve threatened to knock them all into next week if they cause any trouble.’

‘Fine bloody mess we’re in when we’ve got to do something like this.’

‘Stop moaning, woman. Do you want to end up in the bleedin’ workhouse? ’Cos that’s where we’re heading.’

Hilda’s hands were shaking. ‘You know I don’t. Now, isn’t it time they was here? They said ten o’clock this morning, didn’t they? You sure they’re coming?’

‘Course I am. The man what asked me gave me a guinea as soon as I told him you’d agreed. And didn’t he come and look at her himself?’

Seeing her mum and dad weren’t watching, Queenie slipped off the bed and crept towards the door, only to be caught by the scruff of the neck, and hauled back.

‘I told you to stay where you were,’ her mother shouted and gave her a fierce shake.

‘I wanna play with the others.’ Her bottom lip stuck out in defiance.

‘Well, you can’t.’

Queenie’s lip trembled, but she never cried. It never did any good.

The unusual sound of a carriage coming up their street made her dad rush to the door. ‘They’re here.’

‘’Bout bleedin’ time!’ Her mother scooped Queenie from the bed. ‘You behave yourself, you hear?’

The smart carriage and horses had caused quite a stir, bringing everyone out to have a look.

‘Cor, look at that.’ Queenie strained to get away from her mother’s grip. She’d never seen anything like it before, not up close anyway.

A man got out and told Queenie, ‘Stand by the door and let the lady see you.’

She was pushed forward, and she stared wide-eyed at
the woman inside. The lady was wearing a very large hat, and Queenie thought it must be heavy to have that on top of your head. She wouldn’t like it.

After a moment of studying her intently, the woman nodded to the man standing with her dad.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘She’ll do. Five pounds, we agreed.’

‘Five guineas.’ Her mother held onto her daughter tightly. ‘We won’t take less.’

After counting out the money and handing it to her dad, the stranger picked her up and put her in the carriage, getting in after her to control her struggles.

What was going on? She didn’t like this. Panic flooded through Queenie and she fought like a demon. ‘What you doing? I don’t want to go away. Let me go!’

‘Behave yourself, and don’t you cause the nice lady no trouble.’ Her mother leant in and glowered at her.

The carriage began to move and, in sheer terror, Queenie fought her way to the window, leaning through the opening and holding out her little hands. ‘Mum, stop them! ’Arry, stop them. Help me, help me …’

They were moving quickly now, and Queenie watched helplessly as her brothers and sisters waved. Harry was crying. Why was he crying?

The man spoke; his voice was deep and stern. ‘Sit still.’

‘I don’t wanna go with you.’ Her voice trembled. ‘Where we going?’

‘I told you to sit still.’

At the authoritative tone of the man’s voice, Queenie scrambled to the corner of the seat and huddled in a tight ball, confused and very frightened. They were
going very fast and leaving her family behind.

The man glared at her, then seeing she was quiet, turned to the woman who hadn’t uttered a word so far. ‘I think you’re crazy, Mary. Look at her.’

‘She’s beautiful.’ The woman smiled at Queenie, and the man snorted in disgust.

‘I should never have gone along with this crazy scheme of yours. Albert was making arrangements for you to adopt a baby.’

‘I know, but it is taking too long, and I’m tired of waiting.’

‘You can’t take a child out of the slums and expect her to adjust to life in our class. She’s probably never worn shoes, and all she has on is that old dress.’

When he reached out to lift up her dress, Queenie bit him, drawing blood. With a smothered curse, he pulled out a white cloth from his pocket and wrapped it around his hand. ‘She’s not even civilised.’

‘Would you be if you had been born into those conditions?’ Mary looked sad. ‘They have one child after another, and I can’t even have one. At least we can give her a better life. Thank you for finding her for me, Henry.’

‘That’s what brothers are for.’ He reached across and patted her hand. ‘I know how unhappy you’ve been not having children of your own, but I’m not sure this is a wise thing to do. We could have found you an unwanted baby.’

‘No, I wanted a child who had little chance of a good life so I could change that for her. They clearly didn’t want her, but I do.’

Henry pulled a face when he remembered how easily his
brother-in-law could erupt. ‘I don’t know what Albert is going to say when he sees her.’

‘We’ll have her nicely dressed before he comes home.’ She smiled at Queenie again. ‘Don’t be frightened, child. You’re quite safe with us. What is your name?’

‘Queenie.’ The woman looked quite nice when she smiled. Her mum never smiled.

‘Oh dear, we shall have to change that. I think we’ll call you Eleanor.’

Queenie began to shake. They were taking her away somewhere, and the woman was calling her a daft name. They were going to kill her! ‘I wanna go home,’ she shouted in terror. Her brothers and sisters had always surrounded her, and she wanted them here now.

‘That is where you are going, Eleanor. To your new home. You’ll have a room all to yourself, and a large garden to play in.’

But Queenie could not be comforted with promises. And the thought of having a whole room to herself wasn’t right. She had spent her short life crowded into the small house, surrounded by her brothers and sisters. Would she ever see them again? Loneliness gripped her, making her curl into a tighter ball whimpering. As soon as she got out of this thing she’d run away.

It was a long journey and they’d stopped a couple of times, but the man had made her stay in the coach, watching her carefully. Eventually, the carriage passed through high gates, and all Queenie could see was trees and green grass. Being used to concrete and grey roads, the colour was so bright it hurt her eyes.

‘Are you coming in, Henry?’ his sister asked, when they stopped outside the house.

‘No, thank you, Mary. I’ve done my part in finding you a child, now the rest is up to you. I would rather not be around when Albert returns.’

Mary laughed, a pleasant musical sound. ‘You make him sound like an ogre.’

‘I think I’ll stay out of his way for a while.’ Henry got back into the carriage, and handed Queenie out to a man wearing a green suit.

When the man put her down, she turned in a slow circle, looking for a way to escape. There wasn’t one. The gates were shut, and there was a high wall for as far as she could see. Bursting for a wee, she ran over to a tree, squatted down and relieved herself.

A large woman wearing a black dress and a white pinny, rushed over to her. ‘No, no, my girl, we have a proper place to do that.’

‘I couldn’t hold it no longer.’ Her bottom lip stuck out. They were lucky she hadn’t done it in the carriage.

The woman shook her head in dismay. ‘Dear me, Madam, we are going to have a difficult time with this one.’

‘She’s a spirited little thing, Nanny,’ Mary said happily. ‘But isn’t she pretty?’

Queenie stared at the woman who’d been called Nanny. She didn’t seem too pleased about her being here, so perhaps she’d help her escape. Standing on tiptoe, she tugged at the pinny. ‘I wanna go home. Will you open the gate for me?’

The only answer was another shake of the head.

‘Bring Eleanor in, Nanny. We must make her presentable before my husband comes home.’

‘Why she keep calling me that?’ Queenie protested, as Nanny swept her up into her arms. As they went through a great big door, panic swamped her and she struggled fiercely. ‘My name’s Queenie an’ I don’t wanna be here. I want ’Arry,’ she shouted. ‘He’ll come for me and set the coppers on you.’

‘What is she talking about, Nanny?’

‘The police, Madam.’ Nanny put her down.

‘Ah, I see.’ Mary looked at the small, glowering child, and fought back a chuckle of delight. ‘She bit Henry.’

Nanny kept a perfectly straight face. ‘She’s been brought up rough and used to defending herself, I expect. But she appears to be bright enough. Mature beyond her years.’

‘Indeed. They have to grow up quickly where she comes from.’

The cold on her feet caught Queenie’s attention, and she gazed down at the coloured tiles. They were very pretty. As frightened as she was, she couldn’t help gazing in wonder at her surroundings, then padded around inspecting everything. It was all very clean, and so much space! Her whole street could sleep in here. Spotting an open door, she shot through it. This room was even bigger. She’d never seen anything like it.

‘Eleanor.’

She wasn’t going to answer to that soppy name, so she continued her investigation. There were shelves all around the walls up to the ceiling, with coloured things in neat
rows. The woman in the pinny was beside her. She reached out and touched one. ‘What’s these?’

BOOK: The Forgotten Family
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