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The Grey-Eyed Girl

Bloody Christmas, Bloody Hell

The lush coastal hinterland offered a perfect day for Christmas 1869. The temperature was a lovely seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. At the head of the table, Grandpa William rose from his seat, cleared his throat, and recited a prayer from the Bible. It was time to carve the traditional mutton and ham. Every December, the red flowers of the native Christmas bush came into bloom just in time for the holiday and filled the vases in the center of the handmade cedar table. On the sideboard, buttery cakes stacked with kiwifruit sat next to the cooling mince pie.

Grandmum Agnes hurried to the kitchen and took a plum pudding out of the wood-fired oven. She brought it straight to the table and, to the delight of the three-generation clan, set it aflame with brandy. Everyone knew what was coming next. A small silver sixpence had been surreptitiously placed inside. Whoever found it on his or her plate would enjoy good luck for the coming year.

Agnes McMillan Roberts already considered herself a lucky woman and counted her good fortune every single day. Just a year earlier, the British government had overturned the Transportation Act, a social engineering experiment that had exiled 162,000 women, men, and children from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Thirty-three years ago, at age fifteen, Agnes had been shipped from Glasgow to Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania), the small island off the southern coast of Australia. It had proven to be both a curse and a blessing.

After the Christmas feast, Agnes moved to her favorite spot. Sitting on the sprawling porch, she looked out on her seven children and seven grandchildren, who came to visit Lismore every summer. Situated between the sea and the subtropical rain forest known as the “Big Scrub,” Lismore, Australia, had been founded by a Scotsman who had honeymooned on an island of the same name in Agnes’s home country. The family matriarch had grown accustomed to seasons turned upside down from the land of lochs and northern lights where she was born forty-nine years ago. Although she still maintained a hint of the Scottish brogue, her secret past lay securely cloistered in the confidence of her husband, William, and her longtime childhood friend, Janet Houston.

As her grandchildren played hide-and-seek along the banks of the Richmond River, Agnes chuckled at the skinny legs that peeked out from their short pants. She reached for a cup of hot India tea, freshly brewed to wash down the midday feast. Wisps of silver hair blew gently in the seasonable breeze, framing grey eyes the color of steel and a gaze that seemed to go on forever. The same rare color of the eyes of Athena, the Greek warrior goddess known for her strength and wisdom, Agnes’s eyes mirrored these traits. Her Scottish eyes had witnessed the births and deaths of people and nations. Today they sparkled in December’s summer sun.

The content matron, just over five feet tall, rocked back in her chair and considered how far she had traveled. Neither her children nor her grandchildren knew anything about Grandmum’s early Christmases, including the one thirty-seven years before that changed the course of her life and made theirs possible. She started to hum. It was an old melody, one her mother had taught her, one she had sung on the streets of Glasgow so many years ago.

002

It was December 27, 1832. The gas lamps glowed in icy orbs that ran in crooked rows throughout the sleepy town. Even by Scotland’s standards, the weather was horrid. Gale-force winds from the west pelted heavy downpours onto the small faces that bobbed in and out from the protective doorways in the wynds by the Green. It had been raining for days and days. Temperatures hovered just above freezing. “Bloody Christmas, bloody hell,” muttered the street people.

In a dense alleyway along the River Clyde, twelve-year-old Agnes McMillan shivered and huddled close to her friend Janet. Her breath billowed white and frosty, and she pulled what was left of a scarf over her nose. The two girls had eaten nothing for days but “Irish apricots” and had a taste for something other than potatoes. Some nights, even in the wettest winter months, they slept in a doorway, other nights in an outhouse. Pilfering a slice of bread from a street vendor was commonplace, but that didn’t pay for lodging. For homeless waifs like Agnes and Janet, sleeping in a bed, typically with several others, was a luxury they could seldom afford.

At this time of year, there were only seven hours of daylight, and nightfall arrived by four in the afternoon. Under the cover of Glasgow’s darkest recesses, the fated duo hatched a plan to celebrate the holidays with clean clothes and fresh lamb. Theft had become their lifeline. Four friends from the streets were in on the plan, and together they targeted a gabled mansion in the rich part of town, where for several days not a single candle had flickered. The owner, a widow named Elizabeth Barbour, had likely traveled from her Fife Place home for holiday merry-making at a country estate.1 After all, it was bloody Christmas.

As the clocks marked midnight, every ounce of Agnes’s cunning centered on the task at hand. It was time to accomplish something more than mere survival in Scotland’s toughest town. Since her father had disappeared and her mother had basically abandoned her, Agnes had managed to get by and make a few coins singing ballads near the Glasgow Green. Although she could neither read nor write, she’d remembered the songs her mother taught her and put together a repertoire for impromptu street performances. At twelve, the lithe lassie with a bit of a voice often attracted a small crowd of passersby, but the day had been too miserable to sing.

Friend and protector Janet Houston had taken the ever-hopeful ballad singer under her wing because she knew firsthand what it took to survive in Glasgow’s unforgiving alleys. Both Janet’s mother and father had passed away. The thirteen-year-old sometimes slept at her aunt Gibson’s flat, but that was not always an option; Janet also relied on a network of small-time neighborhood thieves who managed to steal enough to pay for food and shelter. They often banded together to pilfer food from street vendors, but tonight they gathered around the Glasgow Green to gamble on the higher stakes of a house break.

Creeping along the ghostly edges of the tightly built stone structures, the co-conspirators made their way through the wynds, the winding passages that would deliver them to the city’s upscale West End. The girls approached the mansion’s iron gate and gave a quick glance up and down the lane. This was the moment when they would make their move. The neatly swept neighborhood seemed nearly deserted. Looking skyward toward the graceful lancet windows, Agnes paced nervously and pulled her wet shawl tighter. This had to be easier work than picking the pockets of a “groggified” pedestrian or pilfering meat from a sharp-eyed butcher. It seemed simple enough. Breaking a rear kitchen window provided the typical point of entry for small-time burglars. A quick smash of the pane and they’d be in, out, and gone. The scraggly housebreakers held their breath as the sound of shattering glass settled into the night. They waited for a moment, ears tuned, hearts pounding, ready to flee at the first sound of a footstep.

The older, more street-savvy Janet reached through the jagged glass. She lifted the bolt and unlatched the door. Ever so carefully she leaned her shoulder into the heavy ash frame and cracked it open, sending the smoky smell of mutton into the damp night air. The well-stocked larder was bolted shut to prevent the maids from stealing. Hunger, all too familiar, would need to wait. Out of the wind in the still of the mansion, fully charged with adrenaline, the girls set to work. Gold watches, silver spoons, silk scarves, and fashionable gloves were the prime targets for young thieves. There was no time to ponder how much the wealthy could afford to lose. The gang of six quickly snatched up items they could hide inside their shawls and sell unquestioned at the pawnshop. They had ten minutes, at most, to complete the heist.

Mission completed, the nervous trespassers darted through the swinging back gate, confident that this was going to be a holiday they would enjoy. They were wrong, terribly wrong. Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, and the rest of the troop charged straight into the grasp of a waiting constable, who knew all too well what the sound of breaking glass meant. They must have been novices. Experienced thieves took the time to learn the regular route for police patrols and took advantage of a force too lean to keep up with the rising tide of Glasgow crime.

Flushed and gasping for air, Agnes “lied with a latchet,” the Scottish term for telling a big fib. She did her best to talk her way out of being trapped with the others, but there was no escape. According to Glasgow court records, the grey-eyed waif told the officer that her name was Agnes Reddie, perhaps out of shame, or out of naïve desire that a different name would protect her from wearing the chains that rattled in his pocket. This was the first arrest for the pink-cheeked street urchin, but she had already faced off against bad tidings more times than she could count. She would confront this latest predicament with Janet at her side.

Goosedubbs Street

Agnes McMillan was born to an age of extremes in social class, politics, and physical environment. The years leading to her parents’ marriage had been tangled in one national disaster after another. As Mary Henderson and Michael McMillan moved into adulthood, climate, political upheaval, and geography conspired against their future.

The year 1815 opened with the promise of peace when Britain ended its three-year war with America on February 18. Any euphoria, however, was short-lived. That March, Napoleon returned to power and terrorized Europe yet again. Michael McMillan, like thousands of young Scots, was conscripted under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Seventh Coalition. Thankfully, by June the coalition had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Unfortunately, as one war ended, a battle of a different sort exploded.

On a remote Indonesian island called Sumbawa, the jungle grew silent and the ground began to shudder as Mt. Tambora spewed its molten heart into the atmosphere. Though it occurred five years before Agnes’s birth, the most powerful eruption in ten thousand years, and the largest ever recorded, changed the world’s climate and magnified the struggle her parents would face to put bread on the table. The massive surge of volcanic ash circling the globe could be neither stopped nor controlled. When Michael McMillan returned to Glasgow from the Belgium battlefields in 1816, brown snow fell throughout Europe. It was “the year without a summer.” Birds fell frozen from the sky. Crops failed all across the British Isles, and families went to bed hungry night after night. “Bread or blood” became their battle cry as food riots broke out, protesting the skyrocketing price of wheat.

Amid this chaos and uncertainty, Mary Henderson fell in love with Michael McMillan. Many young women, including Mary, married after the return of the soldiers, prompting a baby boom. This population explosion was ill-timed to coincide with an implosion of the British economy, but Michael was lucky and found a steady job working for the railroad.

Scottish citizens were part of Great Britain’s kingdom, joined by the Act of Union in 1707 and subject to the laws of Parliament. Mary and Michael McMillan would certainly have despaired over their daughter’s future had they known how people like themselves were described in a report to Parliament on administration of the Poor Laws in Scotland: “The people who dwell in those quarters of the city are sunk to the lowest possible state of personal degradation in whom no elevated idea can be expected to arise, and who regard themselves, from the hopelessness of their condition, as doomed to a life of wretchedness and crime. . . . They nightly issue to disseminate disease and to pour upon the town every species of abomination and crime.”2 Agnes’s parents were likely spared this prediction because nearly all the poor were illiterate.

Agnes was born on September 11, 1820, in a tenement flat on Goosedubbs Street, a narrow lane in the center of Glasgow’s worst slum. It was a gruesome affair, assisted by a midwife who would not have washed her hands nor cleaned the dingy muslin in which Agnes was wrapped. A woman’s strength in surviving childbirth bode well for a baby born in the pre-Victorian era. Twenty percent of mothers died in labor.

In stark contrast to most new citizens, the future Queen Victoria was birthed with the assistance of a female obstetrician and several attending doctors. Baby Victoria entered the world “as plump as a partridge”3 the year before Agnes was born and held the honor of being the first member of the royal family vaccinated against smallpox.

As a parent, Mary McMillan carried the additional responsibilities of a factory laborer and was expected to be on her feet for fourteen-hour shifts throughout her pregnancy. A woman who worked in a mill since childhood commonly paid the price of a narrow and deformed pelvis, which made labor difficult and increased infant mortality. This deformity was caused by the stress of standing without movement coupled with malnutrition. As Mary stumbled toward what she hoped would be a better future, the only work available endangered her health and the life of her unborn child.

Like her co-workers, Mary McMillan returned to work two weeks after giving birth, fearful of losing a prized job. Some mothers were allowed to bring their infants to the mill, tied in a sling and quieted with a pacifier made from a dirty rag soaked in milk and water. Agnes may have been cared for by an elderly neighbor or by a youngster unable to find employment. Reliable child care was rare and unaffordable for most parents, but the poor looked out for one another and invited their young neighbors in for porridge or bread whenever they had an extra morsel to share.

From an early age, “weans,” as children were called, often spent their days alone inside a one-room flat while their parents worked. Toddlers were given “pap” to eat, a watery paste made from bread and water. Some mothers used laudanum, a cheap and readily available derivative of opium, to drug their children during the day. An ounce cost the same as a pint of beer and suppressed hunger as it fueled an addiction. Others silenced crying babies with Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of opium, sassafras, brandy, caraway seeds, and treacle. Gin was another widely used comforter, an all-purpose soother from cradle to grave, as cheap as beer and sold on every street corner to young and old alike. Not until the twentieth century was the purchase of alcohol limited to adults. Liquor often provided the main source of calories for entire families, and it was safer to drink than the tainted water from the river.

Peeking out onto Goosedubbs Street as a five-year-old on her own, Agnes saw a world of cobblestone and brick, full of misery and manure. Coal particles stung her eyes at every blink. Each sip of water she drank from the brackish public well carried the risk of dysentery or typhoid fever. She and everyone else who lived near the mills coughed out pieces of black grit breathed in from Glasgow’s raging industrial fires. Neighbors overhead tossed their garbage out the window onto the walkway. Most had witnessed some unfortunate soul drop dead in the street or on the job. The grey-eyed five-year-old had already proven to be lucky, since half the Scottish children born in 1820 had already been laid in the ground by their parents. In the slums, dunghills and raw sewage blanketed the crowded space with a sticky black glaze. This was Agnes’s playground and schoolyard.

Children dashed around the wynds playing tag, hide-and-seek, and peever—the Scottish version of hopscotch. Boys picked up sticks to bat whatever they could hit in the air. An old barrel hoop started a contest for who could spin it the farthest. Street waste offered an abundance of possibilities for games and entertainment. Clever mothers sewed dolls from scraps of cloth. Discarded shoe heels, hammered with nails resembling eyes and a mouth, formed the perfect face for the doll. Pieces of rope were snatched up for skipping along the bank of the River Clyde. Nothing went unused, and nearly everything was used again and again with renewed purpose.

Among the laboring class, a child’s role included the duty of earning a living. By age seven, Agnes would have been expected to contribute to the McMillan household income. Every penny mattered. Children her age, and younger, worked full time as chimney sweeps or factory workers, hired for the ability to reach small crevices and machine parts. Weans sometimes earned more than their parents because of the market value attached to their small size. Mine owners employed five- and six-year-olds to crawl through muddy scum deep inside the shafts and scurry back with a heavy load tied over their shoulders.

Hunger and hopelessness incited families to commit unthinkable acts. Some parents relied on punishment to make their children earn money or commit a crime, whatever it took to keep the family afloat. Five-year-olds were forced to stitch gloves until the midnight hour. Six-year-olds were booted into the streets and ordered to steal a pocketbook or grab a loaf of bread. Small bodies with fast legs made good criminals. Other parents made valiant attempts to protect their sons and daughters from miscreant street influences, sometimes hiding their clothing so they could not venture outside.

Most Glasgow families lived in poverty. Even with two incomes, subsistence wages were not enough to lift a family out of destitution. Absent the availability of homegrown meat or vegetables, the average city dweller spent at least 60 percent of earnings on food, some spending up to 90 percent. Members of the laboring class, like the McMillans, lived on oatmeal for breakfast and potatoes for dinner. Bread, beer, and lard rounded out their diet. Luxury items like milk, butter, cheese, or a piece of pork were rarely purchased. The largest meal portions were reserved for Michael McMillan, the primary breadwinner, especially when he could afford meat. When food ran short, mothers and children were expected to go without and sacrifice for the survival of the household.

A Glasgow father spent very little time in the home. When his shift ended late into the evening, he generally headed straight for the flash house to “swallow a hare” at the pub. Workmates in tow, he drank heartily into the wee hours. Glasgow taverns, one for every fourteen people, guaranteed escape from the bleakness of a one-room flat. “Drunken statistics” published in the Scotsman revealed that Glasgow residents drank more than five times the amount of their London counterparts because of worse housing and less assistance for Scotland’s poor. Like their parents, the young took solace under alcohol’s haze, as described by a fourteen-year-old stonecutter: “Usquebaugh (whiskey) was simply happiness doled out by the glass and sold by the gill.”4

The comfort of the bottle expanded Glasgow’s generation of abandoned children. Police commissions investigating the cause of juvenile delinquency in the early nineteenth century linked alcoholic parents to criminal children. “It is likely that drunkenness was often the result of indigence rather than simply bacchanalian pleasures. Many families of juvenile delinquents seem to have been engaged in a fight between destitution and respectability in the struggle to keep their heads above water from day to day.”5

Among the poor and middle class, it was a woman’s duty to try to protect the family from the lure of the bottle, to ensure that a man’s paycheck wasn’t spent entirely at the pub. On payday, she would wait, children in hand, along the rail tracks or outside the factory exit. Money spent on prostitutes was another problem. Marriage in the Regency era was a loose concept at best, fidelity an uncommon one. As unemployment rose, so, too, did wife beating. If a woman found the courage to take her mate to court, he claimed that she had been drinking, fully aware that drunken wives could be gaoled by their husbands’ testimony. Desertion was commonplace among men. Without warning, many ran away from the Glasgow tenements in search of better employment or an easier life.

These were the stresses that robbed childhoods from the thousands of Scottish children who ended up on the street or in a factory. Agnes McMillan was no different. Her father abandoned the family early in her life. She never learned why he left, but there are many possible explanations. Railway men worked fifteen-hour shifts, seven days a week, with only one holiday a year. Michael McMillan’s job of coal porter entailed lugging a wheelbarrow back and forth, loading and unloading mound upon mound of dusty fuel. So pitiful was the pay for this backbreaking work that many resorted to larceny. Men Michael’s age often surrendered to arrest, alcoholism, or the grave. The average life expectancy for a Glasgow native was just under thirty-one years.

Nearly 30 percent of Glasgow households were headed by a woman. Some were widows and others abandoned wives like Mary. Many Scottish lasses had never married because of the availability of jobs in the mills coupled with a shortage of men. If a woman lost her job or her mate, her options for employment were severely more limited than a man’s. If the sole breadwinner didn’t work, she ended up on Glasgow’s streets. There were no alternatives, no safety nets. If a woman was poor, it was considered her fault. If her children went hungry, it was blamed on her flawed character.

Poverty was treated as a crime, conveniently alleviating the conscience of the upper classes. Poorhouses were designed to be as miserable as possible to discourage use by people who needed help most. When Agnes was born, local counties couldn’t handle the swelling number of women, men, and children who were without food, a place to sleep, or prospects for employment. The few admitted to a workhouse were called “inmates” and were required to wear uniforms. Each inmate performed hard labor. Men worked breaking stones with axes. Women and children pulled apart old hemp rope that would be reused on ships, tearing their flesh as they teased dirt and tar from the rough fibers. In The Borough, British poet George Crabbe described this “pauper-palace”6:

Those gates and locks, and all those signs of power: 

It is a prison, with a milder name, 

Which few inhabit without dread or shame.

If Mary McMillan had lost her job and been forced into a poorhouse, the overseer would have separated her from Agnes. He would have shorn Agnes’s hair to three inches, thereby reinforcing her beggar rank and discouraging a return to “poor relief.” Mother and child would have gone to sleep hungry. Food rations, deemed “an efficient test of poverty,” were half the amount served in prisons, just enough to keep the worker inmates on their feet.7 In gaol, hard labor was generally not required, so, in effect, poverty was punished more harshly than stealing. The workhouse was a death sentence for 23 percent of those who entered, a mortality rate more than double that for the homeless.

The End of Eden

For a time, Mary McMillan was able to provide for Agnes by laboring at the nearby woolen manufactory, as the mill was called. The work was stifling and dangerous, but because she was paid based on her productivity, she trudged on. There was no ventilation, nor privies, nor provisions for water. Agnes’s mother considered herself fortunate to have a job, but toxic tedium and twelve years on her feet had finally ground her down. In theory, the Industrial Revolution offered women the potential for economic freedom. In reality, most earned between one-third and one-half of what a man brought home.

No matter how Mary scrimped and saved, she was always behind. With wages on the order of four shillings per week, there was little chance to make ends meet. Her basic expenses required at least five shillings, exceeding her earnings in spite of working overtime. In neighborhoods like Goosedubbs Street, weekly rent cost one shilling, sixpence; oatmeal and flour, one shilling, ten pence; potatoes, five pence for a large sack; candles and fuel, one shilling, two pence.

Facing the numbing struggle to make it through the next day, Mary McMillan found optimism beyond her grasp. Whether it was despair, drink, or a different reason, Mary ultimately gave up on motherhood. Unable to cope with work and parenting, she often left Agnes to fend for herself. By age twelve, Agnes was left entirely to her own resources. Her mother still allowed her to sleep at the flat, but Agnes spent many a night wandering the wynds. Luckily, she made friends easily, thanks to “a spirited demeanor,” as described by her descendants. Deserted by her family and consigned to wretchedness by her government’s grim prediction in Parliament’s Poor Laws report, the Goosedubbs Street girl found protection in what would be called a street gang today.

Janet Houston, a year older, adopted the abandoned little songstress. Agnes’s alliance with a surrogate big sister provided a sense of belonging and a semblance of a family, at least for a while. Agnes sang to whoever would listen, and Janet collected coins from passersby. Together the best friends looked out for each other as they managed a lean existence along the River Clyde. Life on the dingy streets was certainly hard, yet these two independent souls had decided that sleeping in an alleyway was preferable to the workhouse or the factory. Now, however, the sunken-cheeked twelve-year-old was under arrest, chains shackled to her wrists. As the iron door closed, leaving her and Janet in the damp silence of the holding cell, Agnes cursed her bad luck. She knew what justice meant for the poor. Bloody Christmas, bloody hell.

If a society is judged on how it treats children and the downtrodden, the British Empire failed on all fronts during Agnes’s lifetime. Voices of reason were few and rare, even among leading intellectuals. Francis Hutcheson, one of the founders of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, suggested that benevolence arose from the instinctive human commitment toward “the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” Man’s morality, he believed, would inspire “a determination to be pleased with the happiness of others and to be uneasy at their misery.”8

Enlightened optimism like Hutcheson’s faded in favor of luminaries voicing more cynical views about the future of humanity. In his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus argued that in accordance with the laws of nature, famine and starvation would weed out the poor, thus alleviating the strain of population growth on modern civilization. He recommended that the underprivileged be prevented from marrying and having children.9 A father of three, he felt exempt from this proclamation because of his wealth. Following his logic, Agnes McMillan should not have been born.

A controversial celebrity of his time, Malthus advocated against the Poor Laws and any assistance that might help sustain the struggling. This was the brand of popular thinking that permitted the abuses of power under the Transportation Act, including shipping twenty-five thousand girls and women to the other side of the world, Agnes and Janet among them.

Throughout the British Isles, madness and hypocrisy permeated politics and everyday life. In 1820, a child who stole clothing could be banished and worked to death in Australia, but George IV, a known bigamist and suspected murderer, would be crowned king. King George IV humiliated Queen Caroline when he continued his relationship with a commoner to whom he’d been secretly married years earlier. Her Highness, too, engaged in scandalous behavior, including dressing in see-through gowns during alleged affairs with her servants. Her death in 1821 was widely attributed to poisoning by His Majesty.

The Industrial Revolution heightened society’s imbalances. It fattened the prosperous and starved the weak, widening the chasm between classes and creating an incubator for juvenile criminals like Agnes and Janet. In earlier decades, parish schools in rural villages welcomed children during the slower farming cycles and fostered a relatively high literacy rate. Had Agnes been born into an agrarian family, hard labor would still have been her fate, but she would have eaten better food, grown up in healthier surroundings, and perhaps learned to read. Though farm hands labored long and hard, there were changes in pace and a variety in chores, unlike the perpetual monotony that poisoned the factory floor. Farm children were valued by their parents, if for no other reason than their ability to work the fields. This bond helped keep rural families intact.

Factories, on the other hand, demanded labor every day of the week, every month of the year. As industry enhanced technology, it stunted education for the poor, and literacy declined. There were simply not enough hours in the day for children to learn to read and write. The lowest classes, following the lure of progress, traded a self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle for enslavement in an urban jungle. From 1780 to 1830, child labor grew exponentially, largely due to the end of a family-centered economy.

Well on its way to becoming one of the largest cities in Europe and already Scotland’s most congested, Glasgow had grown to a population of two hundred thousand. As daylight broke, low-lying smog erased the city’s color. Ashen figures wandered hopelessly through a black-and-white world. By Christmas 1832, Agnes’s hometown, unrivaled in squalor, was dirtier and more dangerous than any city in the empire.

This was a far cry from the pristine paradise enjoyed by Glasgow’s seventy thousand inhabitants just thirty years earlier. The city’s name came from the Gaelic Glaschu, or “clean green place.” English writer Daniel Defoe described eighteenth-century Glasgow as “one of the cleanliest, most beautiful and best cities in Great Britain.”10 Built along the River Clyde, this peaceful enclave was protected by steep rolling hills. Children played in the water, and men fished in the streams by tree-lined meadows. This was an urban oasis defined by nature’s beauty, resplendent in its orchards, cornfields, and terraced flower gardens.

Agnes and Janet never knew the green, open spaces of a more serene Glasgow. The tobacco and linen trade had set the Garden of Eden on fire. Seldom did the close companions see the magical northern lights, hidden under a murky haze that rarely lifted from their city’s sky. The lazy River Clyde was widened and violated to make room for noisy steam-powered ships bringing sugar and raw cotton to fuel Glasgow’s new industries. The fragrance of buds in bloom was replaced by the stench of the slum. A once-glistening metropolis had lost its luster by the time the Goosedubbs Street girls sat before the sheriff.

Glasgow residents lived on average twelve years less than their rural counterparts, a fact attributed to urban housing: “damp earthen, muddy floors, walls saturated with moisture . . . small closed windows admitting of no perflation [sic] of air, crowded apartments, thatched roofs saturated like a sponge with water.”11 The physical toll on the tenement dweller was devastatingly obvious. The rich were almost always taller than the poor by four inches or more.12 One-third of Glasgow’s children hobbled along with a disfiguring gait caused by malnutrition and rickets. 13 More were maimed by their work in factories or mines.

Laborers were pitted against one another for every job, every day. A person willing to work for less landed the job only until someone more desperate arrived at the factory door. Glasgow shipping companies imported starving Irish citizens who eagerly accepted cheap wages, thereby putting Scottish citizens out of work. To make matters worse, peasants from the highlands crowded the city in search of a better life that did not exist. In addition, the shift from hand to power looms destroyed a large cottage industry and left thousands of traditional weavers without employment and their families without food. Bleakness clung to the land like mold on an old loaf of bread.

The Glasgow wynds did not suffer fools. Like feral dogs, children on the streets learned to live according to their wits and a well-developed talent for exploiting opportunity. Alley dwellers worked their way up the street society according to a criminal hierarchy. Agnes and Janet would have started at the bottom, lifting an apple or two from a vendor cart. With small successes, the novice progressed to stealing items from stores and passersby. The proceeds could be bartered for money through any number of fences who lurked under the cover of candle shops, street stalls, and public houses. Many lodging-house owners offered thieves a bed for the night in return for an item that could be pawned easily. Other proprietors, fences themselves, encouraged crime as they made their boardinghouses a safe haven for gangs and a thriving underground economy from which they, too, profited.

Impoverished girls, Agnes and Janet included, faced three basic paths to survival: mill slave, thief, or “fallen woman.” An article in the Glasgow Courier appeared to sanction the third option. Accounts of fifteen-hour days and floggings by mill overseers led the Courier writer to this conclusion: “If the females when grown up are not ugly they may find relief in prostitution.”14

Even though she was only twelve, Agnes had been offered the job of trollop many times. Part tomboy, part rebel, Agnes rejected the “loose habits” that would have branded her a strumpet. Stealing carried the risk of gaol, but prostitution was legal. Still, she refused to sell her body, an all-too-common fate for abandoned children.

Street-smart Agnes and Janet often felt more at ease roaming the wynds, where they at least knew what to expect and where to hide. The boardinghouse might have offered the pair some relief from the worst of the Scottish weather. However, there was no safety in numbers in the rented rooms they could afford. “In the lower lodging houses, ten, twelve, and sometimes twenty persons, of both sexes and all ages, sleep promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness. These places are generally as regards dirt, damp, and decay, such as no person of common humanity would stable his horse in.”15

Glasgow’s slums devoured the innocent every hour of the day. Yet even alley life was not all gloom and doom. A piece of fresh bread tossed from a street vendor, an onlooker who applauded her singing, a penny pressed into her hand; Agnes was grateful for such moments of simple compassion.

And then there was laughter, considered indecent among the upper crust, a necessity among those missing life’s most basic comforts. From the bosom of misery, the ridiculous and sophomoric permeated everyday activities. Humor found gleeful abundance when a carriage driver stepped deep in horse droppings or a passing pedestrian looked up at a window just as garbage was dumped on his head. Even the dark comedy of a staggering drunk created a welcome catharsis with hearty guffaws and waves of falling-over giggles. An organ grinder with a monkey on his shoulder regularly carried a traveling circus to Agnes, Janet, and all the street urchins.

The pleasure palace of the poor was located in the smoke-filled pub, which could suddenly transform to a theater. Clowning, rowdy song, ribald humor, and parodies that poked fun at political figures took center stage as spectators, standing shoulder to shoulder, packed this den of amusement. Such bawdy acts later gave birth to vaudeville and the music hall. The pub’s enthusiastic audience, most arriving with empty stomachs and dirty clothes, cherished distraction in the wisecracking, dancing, and drunken choruses. The precocious twelve-year-old and her red-haired chum sometimes joined in the animated merriment. This was a precious penny well spent, whether earned, stolen, borrowed, or begged.

These brief respites for fun were one of the anchors for Agnes’s exuberant spirit, creating some small consolation in a world where every step, every breath, every sip of water, carried the risk of catastrophe. Life was usually short and cheap. Any mistake Agnes made among the street people might be her last.

Some dangers weren’t visible, though they were no less treacherous for the ragamuffins of Goosedubbs Street. As she and Janet meandered through the wynds that fateful night in December 1832, the tough two-some had already avoided a cholera outbreak that killed ten thousand Scots earlier in the year. Scarlet fever, measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, and whooping cough ravaged thousands more.

From a haughty distance, the mighty rich blamed these epidemics on the struggling masses. They believed that the lower classes brought disease onto themselves because they failed to practice religion. Succumbing to typhoid fever was seen as a sign of God’s wrath, a fitting retribution for moral corruption. Local papers like the Scotsman declared that the wealthy caught diseases from “the ragged, the starved, and the degraded.”16 While the Church recommended humiliation and prayer to purge afflictions from the poverty stricken, the radical press began to focus on sanitation, or the lack thereof, as the primary cause for contagious illness.

Agnes proved sturdy enough to resist air- and waterborne disease. But now the grey-eyed girl could hear the heavy footsteps of the gaoler and the rattle of his keys. The holding cell swung open, and a gruff hand reached inside. As she was dragged off to face the sheriff for sentencing, Agnes knew that her life was about to change forever.

Mr. Green’s Mill

Across the British Empire, children age seven and older were subjected to the same punishment as adults but were exempted from the death penalty. The last hanging of a child took place in 1708, when a seven-year-old boy and his eleven-year-old sister were convicted of theft and sentenced to death. Agnes was considered an adult at age twelve, and in Scotland adults were hanged as late as 1963. Once accused, she had no right to counsel in court even if her neck was about to be strung up. Thankfully, the wayward waif escaped the gallows, though she couldn’t elude Glasgow’s mandate to crack down firmly on young offenders. Thomas Johnston, Scotland’s secretary of state in 1941, described justice during the times in which Agnes lived: “Theft was the great crime; a man guilty of culpable homicide got only half the sentence of the man who stole the 23s. [shillings] in silver.”17 Essentially, a person’s life was worth less than the cost of a teapot.

Organized police were a new concept in the early nineteenth century, allowing for arbitrary sentencing, widespread bribery, and wholesale corruption. When it came to standards of behavior, there was a fine line between the uniformed officer and the common criminal. The police generally came from the same tough neighborhoods as those they arrested. Many supplemented their income by extorting bribes from the shopkeepers they were paid to protect. Others were quick on the take for thieves willing to pay them for a reduced sentence. Local authorities wielded tremendous discretionary power over the punishment of girls like Agnes and Janet. Some simply gave a stern warning delivered with a thrashing to their backs. More than a few hid behind their officer’s badge to get away with the sexual abuse of girls whose word would not hold up before a jury.

For their bungled burglary at the mansion, Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston stood before the Glasgow sheriff, from the streets himself and now a hard-nosed bureaucrat. He certainly understood that the two dispirited petty thieves presented no possibility of paying a bribe. At least they could be parceled out to the mill for a few pence. Lawbreakers were sentenced according to the severity of their crime. A juryless police court could impose an imprisonment of up to sixty days, whereas the sheriff held jurisdiction for sentences ranging from three to eighteen months. Fortunately, the feisty pair had yet to land in circuit court, where immediate deportation to Van Diemen’s Land was guaranteed. Unfortunately, the local sheriff was not in a holiday mood nor was he feeling the least bit generous, considering that Agnes had lied about her name to the arresting officer. He sentenced the two to the maximum sentence he could enforce: eighteen months at Mr. Green’s woolen mill along the Kelvin Docks. The four neighbors who assisted with the house break-in also received a sentence of a year and a half.

Forced labor was considered a form of apprenticeship. When Agnes and Janet were sentenced, 43 percent of Scotland’s woolen mill workers were under age eighteen. Had the sheriff sentenced Agnes to gaol, she would have avoided hard labor yet faced the perils of imprisonment with violent felons, the untreated insane, and corrupt prison wardens.

A police officer hustled the best friends, now in irons, into a waiting black carriage along with the other children sentenced to the mill. In the cold early morning light, Agnes knew exactly where she was headed. Every street urchin had heard stories about all forms of punishment, real and imagined. She looked down at the chains around her wrists.

As the buggy neared the factory, the giant mill wheels came into view, the machinery that powered the mill’s innards by pulling energy from the flowing River Clyde. After having her irons removed, each apprentice was inspected and logged into the mill journal. An unsympathetic matron issued their coarse grey uniforms. Marched across the factory yard, the new arrivals were indistinguishable from the veteran workers save for the short-lived cleanliness of their ill-fitting shifts.

Despite the eighteen-month sentence before her, her lack of a home, and no parent to rely on, Agnes hadn’t lost Janet. Records don’t indicate whether the factory overseer separated the two or if they were assigned the same room, but they worked together on the factory floor. Most mill owners were also the landlords for the “bothies,” the buildings that warehoused child labor: “Doors were all locked, both with check and turnkey; they slept on the premises, which had iron-staunched windows and were guarded all night; they had no chance of escaping till the morning, when he (the manager) released them for their next day’s employment.”18 At least two workers and often a third shared the beds in the bothy.

The sheriff had warned Agnes and Janet not to be late for their labor assignments. Oversleeping and tardiness were severely punished. Some latecomers were hung by the wrists and flogged. Others were plunged half-naked into a well.

Clang, clang, clang: The wake-up sounded at four thirty A.M. sharp. The bell went on and on until each child climbed out of bed into the sleepy darkness. It was a requirement to be alert and on the floor for the five A.M. whistle call. The half-hour spent from dreaming to drudgery was barely enough time for the girls to throw on their uniforms and gulp down a scoop of gruel. Their next meal was in eight hours.

As they entered the millworks the first time, Agnes and Janet were directed toward the overseer, also called an “overlooker.” Standing above the fray on a small platform, he ordered each girl to tie her hair in a bun and pull her sleeves above her elbows. Anything not tethered tightly was an accident waiting to happen. A strand of hair caught in machines scalped some girls on the job. There were no shutoff valves for a sleeve or a finger that caught in the looms. Each child was responsible for her own safety. If she hurt herself, the overseer blamed her stupidity.

The mill was a notorious breeding ground for abuse and perversion. If a child fell asleep on her feet, the overseer dipped her head into an iron vat filled with water. “Some adult operatives and overlookers did not look beyond themselves for tools of abuse. They kicked children, struck them with clenched fist, and yanked children’s hair and ears.”19

Disaster loomed ominously over the wide-eyed apprentices, imprisoned in a maze of spindles, tangled threads, swaying metal bars, and exposed wire teeth. Agnes, Janet, and the other young thieves stood before the spinning machines like flies examining a spider’s web. From every corner, gas lamps sputtered and hissed. The swinging rods crisscrossing the sunless tomb clanked noisy warnings. Strange sounds bombarded the new arrivals from every direction as they strained to hear the overseer. Stone walls reverberated and amplified the auditory assault: the whir of spinning bobbins, the slapping of the looms’ reeds, the hypnotic drone of leather belts and pulleys, the spastic flapping of the newly woven wool.

By the time Agnes and Janet were sent to Mr. Green’s, conditions of child labor had become so appalling that several government investigations were taking place. Evidence for an 1832 House of Commons Committee on the Factories Labour Regulation Bill described “one girl so bow-legg’d that you could put a chair between her legs.”20 Page after page of testimony described the fate for those conscripted as weans. A man about thirty years old “does not stand, with his deformity, above 4 feet 6 inches high, and had he grown to his proper height I think he would have been about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches. He has been in the mills since he was 5 years old, and he is reduced to that state that he slides along on a stool to do his work.”21

Another investigation, by a committee on the Employment of Children in Manufactories, interviewed adults about their experience as child workers. Robert Blincoe offered testimony that could not be challenged. He hobbled forward on his crooked legs, the deformity most common from youthful years spent in a mill. The committee asked Blincoe, now a father of three, if he would send his children to work in a factory. Without hesitation, he responded: “No; I would rather have them transported to Australia.”22 Robert had watched ten-year-old Mary Richards being torn to pieces when her apron caught on a shaft that turned a drawing frame, the device used to straighten fibers. “In an instant the poor girl was drawn by an irresistible force and dashed on the floor . . . the bones of her arms, legs, thighs . . . crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her round, and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works.”23

At the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, the same risks stalked Agnes. Seasoned mill laborers soon figured out that keeping pace with the frames and spindles meant staying alive. They developed rhythmic movements that mimicked the millworks; their motions turned mechanical, their gait robotic. Speech, too, took on a short staccato cadence to compete with the mill’s deafening cacophony.

Wool production was a labor-intensive business. It took ten girls to prepare the yarn for one weaver. Older lasses like thirteen-year-old Janet were assigned sorting, according to the wool’s texture. “Picking” the wool, the mill’s most unpleasant task, was primarily assigned to younger workers with smaller hands. Agnes was led past the looms and spinners and brought to the picking bin, where she would stand for the next eighteen months, fifteen hours at a time. Grabbing one piece of wool from the monumental stack before her, strand by strand, she pulled out fatty wool grease infused with dirt, animal skin, sweat, and sheep dung. Tearing the grime out of the bristly fibers, Agnes picked the matted wool clean with her fingers and a large needle. Her lack of experience punctured her skin as she clumsily pulled out thistles, thorns, and burs. Within the first hour, her hands began to cramp and to coil like talons around prey.

The factory was without ventilation. As the shift dragged on, the air grew heavier and thicker. Endless grey filth, never fully cleaned from the sheep’s wool, joined flying fibers, creating hazy smog that covered workers and gears in a grainy veneer. Agnes and Janet were quickly layered in sweat and dust from head to toe. With no place to wash, the children were coated with sticky particles that lodged in their eyelids and their hair for months at a time.

Amid the whir and clang of the machines, Agnes heard the distinctive sound of the overlooker tapping a wooden rod against his palm. The iron tip on the rod’s end threatened a rap on the head for those with rebellious dispositions. Rule breakers were flogged with the same straps that drove the pulleys. Failure to obey the overseer could bring a trip to the “throttle room,” where a girl was tied to a harness and forced to walk back and forth with weights on her back. The most severe punishment of all was reserved for lasses who spoke to the lads on the factory floor. The smallest flirtation took away what was considered a woman’s most prized possession: Her head was shaved bald. The rest of the girls would soon wear the crown of thieves with telltale short haircuts.

After eight hours on the floor, the new recruits felt their stomachs shrink and growl. The piercing sound of the supper bell arrived not a moment too soon. Agnes had only a half hour to shove hot boiled potatoes into her mouth and stand in line at the outhouse. Plunking down on the straw with Janet, this was her one chance to stretch her arms and set aside the stress of trying to keep up the pace. The workers “held up their . . . aprons that were saturated with grease and dirt, and having received their allowance, scampered off as hard as they could to their respective places, where, with a keen appetite, each apprentice devoured her allowance, and seemed anxiously to look about for more.”24

By twelve hours into the shift, Agnes and her co-workers were reduced to a zombie-like state. Speechless, detached, and numb, they prayed for the peal of the nine o’clock release bell. When it finally rang, sighs of relief followed the scuffling sound of several hundred bare feet. The exhausted twelve-year-old dragged her leaden legs down the mill’s path back to the sleep room, ears ringing, thankful for Janet at her side. Half deaf from the din of the mill, the girls soon became immune to the commotion caused by street brawls and hooligans just outside the bothy. Nightfall brought a fitful peace, silence being an experience foreign to a child of the factories and the streets. So, too, was clean air. With no ventilation in the room, Agnes and Janet breathed blackened air even during the five hours they slept.

This was day one of Agnes’s 548-day sentence of wool picking. Her hands would never be the same.

While Agnes and Janet toiled in Mr. Green’s factory, young Princess Victoria was touring cotton mills throughout England in an effort to introduce the future monarch to her subjects and improve the Crown’s image. Like that of most Glasgow girls, Agnes’s coming of age reflected none of the leisure or revelry savored by the empire’s future queen. On September 11, 1833, Agnes turned thirteen. There would be no party. Birthdays were celebrated only among the upper crust.

There was little dignity in becoming a woman on the factory floor. The lower classes could barely afford a single layer of clothing and had no undergarments of any sort. Agnes’s entire wardrobe consisted of one coarse shift. When a lass became an adult with the onset of menstruation, everyone in the mill knew. A trail of public blood marked this rite of passage. Straw spread on the floor absorbed the fluids. Mercifully, one effect of malnutrition was that a girl’s cycle was lighter and shorter than those of the well fed, thus sparing her greater embarrassment.

As she crossed into adolescence, the grey-eyed girl met few adults who were able to rise above the despair and drudgery that overran the slums. On the days she sang on the streets, Agnes had been propositioned by smelly sailors, cursed by pawnbrokers who bristled at her bargaining, and scammed by the bitter crone who owned the boardinghouse. A few of the older women in the mill offered the new apprentices snippets of motherly advice, though they had walked no easy path themselves.

A factory owner held full rein over the daily life of his indentured “street vermin.” Under his authority, sexual abuse was tolerated and even encouraged. After all, he owned these young women for eighteen months or longer. It was not uncommon for owners to offer sons and friends their choice among the mill girls.

Nineteenth-century law provided protections for industry, while labor had none. Parliamentary legislation lavished loving care on its principal source of wealth in the hundreds of laws covering the wool trade, ranging from the correct clipping of sheep to the length and weight of the wool. As for child protection, there wasn’t any. Humanitarianism was in the thoughts of very few. In 1816, utopian socialist Robert Owen first proposed day care for working mothers, free medical care, and comprehensive education. In his mind, a humane government was necessary to temper technology’s rising cruelty, spawned by the Industrial Revolution. A mill owner himself, Owen tried to set an example by providing schools for his workers and allowing children to work no more than ten hours a day. He was considered idealistic for his time, and his forward thinking was widely ignored in an era when greed was the order of the day.

Owen prompted Sir Robert Peel, home secretary and later Britain’s prime minister, to form a Committee of Investigation into the textile factories. Heavily lobbied by the wool industry over fine wine and lavish dinners, the committee examined whether fifteen-hour days were harmful to girls like Agnes and Janet. When mill owners produced long lists of witnesses to testify on their behalf, Owens’s efforts produced exactly the opposite of his intentions. He wanted to expose the abuse of children and ignite social reform. Instead, expert witnesses like Dr. Holmes and Dr. Wilson used medical evidence, provided by the factory owners, to conclude that industrial exploitation brought children no harm.

The committee posed the following question to the physicians it had chosen as experts: “Suppose I were to ask you whether you thought it injurious to a child to be kept standing three and twenty hours out of the four and twenty, should you not think it must be necessarily injurious to the health?” Dr. Holmes replied: “If there were such an extravagant thing to take place and it should appear that the person was not injured by having stood three and twenty hours, I should then say it was not inconsistent with the health of the person so employed.” Dr. Wilson agreed with his colleague, adding that it is “not necessary for young children to have recreation.”25

One way or another, most people born poor ended up in a mill or a coal mine before age ten. Factory owners could buy a child for about five pounds from a workhouse or orphanage. Children signed with an X contracts that bound them to the factory owner until age twenty-one. A lad about the same age as Agnes described his feelings about working in a mill: “I think that if the devil had a particular enemy whom he wished to unmercifully torture the best thing for him to do would be . . . keep him as a child in a factory for the rest of his days.”26

Sir Robert Peel’s committee never heard the testimony that mattered most. Joseph Rayner Stephens, owner of the Ashton Chronicle, wrote it years later. He documented firsthand accounts of factory children who had labored during the same years as Agnes. Sarah Carpenter, a young adult in 1849, described to Stephens her experiences as a mill girl, including an account of a supervisor known to the children as Tom the Devil: “I have often seen him pull up the clothes of big girls, seventeen or eighteen years of age, and throw them across his knee, and then flog them with his hand in the sight of both men and boys. Everybody was frightened of him.”27 “Tom the Devil” had pummeled one girl into insanity and beaten two others to death. Another young mill slave by the name of Samuel Davy described the suffering he had witnessed: “Irons were used as with felons in gaols, and these were often fastened on young women, in the most indecent manner, by keeping them nearly in a state of nudity, in the depth of winter, for several days together.”28

The powerful in Parliament turned a blind eye toward these abuses because the textile trade helped feed their fortunes as it spurred the empire’s economy. Forced apprenticeship was ideal for the factory owner because the purchased children were paid substantially less than adults. Men earned about seven shillings a week, boys and girls just one or two. Juvenile thieves like Agnes and Janet were a bargain. They weren’t paid at all except for a small contribution to the local “parish,” the county government under the sheriff ’s jurisdiction.

By the summer of 1834, the child who had entered Mr. Green’s mill eighteen months before was now a woman of almost fourteen. In a blur of yesterdays and tomorrows that all looked the same, Agnes completed her sentence. With stupefying repetition, 548 days, 8,222 hours of picking wool, had somehow passed. Strand by strand, the fifteen-hour days toughened her hands and fingers. She’d had enough of Glasgow. Agnes and Janet launched a new plan the day the left the mill. They would save their coins for lodging in Kilmarnock, a lovely town where Agnes’s mother Mary had once lived.

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