‘Thrashing the Holy Linens’ is from a sequence of poems, each written in the imagined voices of my female ancestors. As well as drawing on basic family history research – birth, marriage and death certificates from the GRO and census returns – I also undertook a considerable amount of reading, to recreate in detail the working class world of mid to late 19th century England.
The absence of photographs and original documents for most of my ancestors ultimately proved liberating. Bessie’s unusual married name, however, made her somewhat easier to track. My cousin had also visited Bessie’s childhood village, obtaining a copy of her original marriage certificate from the parish registers; she is the only woman for whom I have a signature. A Lincolnshire website yielded an article from the 1890 Hull Daily Mail reporting her husband’s death. Where facts existed, notably names, dates and causes of death, occupations and places, they were often resonant and sometimes poignant; I made use of them. Women’s occupations were generally not considered worth recording, so the laundry work is an invention.
Bessie’s ‘escape’ from the farms of Lincolnshire to the terraces of Hull probably shortened her life. I slowly developed a personality for Bessie, and she became as real to me as a living woman.
Thrashing the Holy Linens
When Henry Trought turned up, I was twenty and unwed,
ripe enough to throw off Elizabeth and Betsy.
His blue uniform had a gold braid. Henry, a station porter.
No mud-caked boots. Too swift and smooth for a plough
he was, promised to get me up and moving, on
the rails, away from the farm, Ma and Pa, all the Wrights.
After our Sunday strolls, and me dawdling on his platform,
it was time for a wedding. No fuss. All through the service
I held my thumb free when Henry clasped my hand,
to warn him he’d never raise his hand to me.
Besides, I had sturdy arms from the fields, hacking swedes.
In the marriage register I signed myself as Bessey.
The trouble I had spelling it out.
How was I to guess I’d ride on a train just once?
Northwards to his home town, Hull. To Rose Terrace –
not a petal in sight – the same brown-damp rooms as before,
except with docks and drunks, the fish-and-piss stink.
Off in his cap to find work, my whistling husband.
I already knew we’d be tossed up and down in the world.
In six years we built a staircase of boys!
Five bellies to fill, five grubby faces, but they were ours.
Like their father, they obeyed. (My hands were rough.)
On Sundays I cooked bacon scraps or ox cheek, in one pot.
By Thursday it was bread and treacle. I sometimes
went without. We kept off poor relief; I saw to that,
set myself up as a laundress. It was as backbreaking
as thistle picking or forking out witch grass, but indoors.
I took in washing from the vicarage. On Blue Monday
I’d be thrashing the holy linens with the dolly,
rubbing soap and soda through, dissolving the blue dye
so they’d not turn yellow. Wash and rinse twice; boil, rinse –
the rector’s vestments rained from our ceiling all week.
His sermons never seeped into me: far too black and white.
Neighbours and idlers used to sneer Sweaty Bessie!
Not in my hearing though. They wouldn’t dare.
That steam kept me and my sons clean on the inside.
I believed, then, we could survive without prayers.
Last born, first gone. Sarah Ann. Our only daughter.
I bestowed on her the old names from my mother,
my grandmother. She bloomed ten months, no years.
Never saw autumn; she was my orchard, more
than all the flushed reds and dark golds, the aroma
of apples and pears. One word on paper: diarrhoea.
I had to let her sail away in a tiny boat to another
country. She tasted the harvest and the purest water.
No surprise when the typhoid arrived. A bitter winter
didn’t stamp it out. My boys weren’t sickly chaps,
just listless. ‘Influenza’ I thought. Fresh air
was ordered by the doctor – as if I could catch it in a sack!
My sons were writhing with the sweats. Swollen bellies,
pink spots clustering on their chests. The long sleep,
not yet death. I sponged their brows, whispering,
wishing. Oh, the vigil! Forced to sit still, I witnessed
the mould growing, walls dripping their brown tears.
Freddie and George were taken from us, two days apart.
It was the smell of Hull that killed them. I went missing
in all that quiet. Lunging into the tub, I treated the rector
to my own preaching, shook him, even swore at him.
The Troughts were no longer the right shape: three gaps.
Scabs to pick at. Heart-rot. Henry drank and drank.
As a girl I’d driven the crabbiest bullocks
out to the field and home again. But now, when he
blundered in at dawn, I’d slump my face in the pillow.
One November after midnight, Henry oversaw
the cargo of the SS Urbino. He slipped, fell
into the river. Gasps and shrieks. A light was lowered
over the edge of Alexandra Dock – only his hat afloat.
It was hours before the grappling irons dragged him out.
Despite the ale, he wasn’t a bad soul; no fists.
Dr Redhead pronounced his life extinct,
so our Harry read to me from the Hull Daily Mail.
I was both heavy and empty. Head of the family,
three sons left. How to keep us all out of the workhouse?
I took in another docker. Rumours spread he was more
than a boarder. Mr Turner was a broad shoulder
to shore me up a while. He paid for his extras, his laundry.
Love? No, never.
All along the typhoid was in hiding. Harry, my pride,
my eldest. A school teacher. He died. There was no word
for a mother who’d lost her strongest son. He’d towered
above his father.
A washing dolly was churning inside me; rose-spots
were gathering on my breast. When they lifted me at last
into the sanatorium, I sighed at the taste of a delicious mist.
And I smiled.
Bessie Trought, 1850–1895