The Widow Maker - Jean Mead 'Joe Standish - Boyhood 1823'
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Guest Articles
Back to Welsh Literature page >
The historical trilogy is set in the quarry lands of North Wales amidst the Snowdonia Mountains, ancient castles, opulent Penrhyn Castle, grand mansions and the straggling cottages of a mountain community in the mid 19th century.
Following a pit disaster in Manchester, Joe Standish takes his wife Emily and tiny son Tommy to live in North Wales where he settles to the hard and dangerous existence as a quarryman.
Home life for Emily and Joe is happy but for the small problem of Tommys wilfulness. As the boy grows, his cleverness come to the fore, and he catches the attention of the quarry owner, Bertram Bellamy, who offers to educate the boy with his own son.
Growing into manhood, Tommys life is split between his working class family living in a simple cottage and the immensely rich benefactor in the grand mansion, Plas Mawr.
Unaware of the destructive force hidden behind Tommys charm and charisma, Bertram Bellamy accepts and encourages him shaping the destiny and eventual destruction of the Bellamy family.
Gaining wealth, Tommy is accepted into the hierarchy of the landowners. These are rich men who disregard the fact that his warped personality casts a dark shadow over the immense Garddryn Quarry and the men that toil there, including his father, Joe Standish.
Opposing his son, Joe is determined to create a union for quarrymen, making enemies of the influential quarry masters. The workers suffer bitter battles, lock-outs, strikes, starvation, and emigration before eventually Joe succeeds.
Writing the historical trilogy The Widow Makers I got to know Joe Standish very well. The following short story is how I imagine he may have been in boyhood long before the infamous Galloway pit, the immense Garddryn Quarry, and his desire to see a union for quarrymen, shaped him.
Joe Standish - Boyhood 1823 Jean Mead
The mattress that ten-year-old Joe Standish was lying on was ancient, and whichever way he turned, knobbly lumps pressed into him and he woke.
Waking now, he wanted to turn over onto his side, but young Jacks bony knees were in the way. For a moment, his mind blank, he listened to the three boys in the bed breathing evenly in sleep. He touched Jacks ankle and the lad moved. Joe turned cautiously; there wasnt room to move any other way.
In the distant past the bed had been the place his grandfather had come to get away from household aggravations. When he died of old age, it had become Joes own sanctuary. Until the toddler, Harry, was old enough to leave their parents room and graduate to the bed. There followed a couple of years of bedwetting. Joe liked to think hed borne the inconvenience stoically, but it wasnt true.
Before Harrys bedwetting was over, George left the parental bedroom and came to share the bed too, sleeping head to toe with Harry. The overcrowding didnt matter to Harry; his young legs didnt reach Georges plump toes.
Jacks arrival created a problem; a restless child, inclined to fall out of bed, he was shoved towards the centre, and his feet, now he was taller, more often than not ended up in Joes back.
A new baby in the household was almost an annual event. Surprisingly, Joe remained innocent to the matrimonial particulars. Maisy and Dorothy, known as catholic twins as they were born in the same year, followed the boys, and they slept on a make-shift mattress at the foot of their parents old brass bed.
It wasnt unusual for Joe to be awake during the night; there were enough disturbances within the bedroom to interrupt his sleep, and disorder outdoors was commonplace. The house was a small two-up-two-down, the wall between the bedrooms paper thin. Most nights his father would rise during the night to pee in the chamber pot. The other noises, the loud passing of wind, usually brought a giggle from the boys, if they chanced to be awake. Joe often wondered how his mother slept through it all.
Out on the street, hobnail boots clinked on the cobbles.
There wasnt a cranny of Gower Street that Joe wasnt familiar with, and in his minds eye he followed the path of the lone walker as the man passed the old rotting brickwork of the bakery, and then the row of rickety front doors of the one-up-one-down mucky houses of Waterloo Terrace. The footsteps fell silent here, and Joe supposed the man had gone into a house, but a moment later the footfalls resumed. The sound of a dry cough told Joe that the man had stopped to light his pipe before moving on. For some reason he slowed as he came to the ale house, known locally as Dirty Annes. At Tanners Yard, the watery light of the corner gas lamp lit his way, and then he was back in the sloe-black darkness. At the end of the street he took the five wooden steps down to the tow path, his boots clunking hollowly on the ancient timbers. Then his footfalls fell silent as he stepped onto the mud path bordering the filthy canal.
On the other side of the bed, Harry coughed, muttering as he turned over. The bed creaked on rusting springs, and then settled again.
Expecting young George to wake, Joe held his breath. When the silence lengthened, he exhaled slowly.
Without the distraction of the night stroller, his pale blue eyes fastened on the darkness and childish fear rose up in him. The blackness hid ghosts, malevolent spirits ready to grasp a foot or arm caught straying from the protective blanket. Tensing every muscle, arms ramrod straight by his side, he stayed clear of the edge of the mattress.
Harry turned to face the wall, filching more than his fair share of the grey blanket. Joe felt the cold air instantly, and he was certain a ghost was close by, because everyone, including his mother, knew that spirits carry the chill of the grave with them.
Although terrified of what he might see, he flashed his eyes to the left. And there, without doubt, there was a shadow darker than the surrounding blackness. To his dismay he heard the hem of a skirt brush the bare floorboards. Terrified the dead woman would show herself, he closed his eyes tightly, and silently recited the Lords Prayer, his lips moving rapidly as he skimmed the words.
Arriving at Deliver us from evil, an image of the infamous Galloway Pit jumped into his mind and he was staring into the darkness of the deep pit, blacker than hell. It made his skin prickle thinking about it, for soon, too soon, he would be seeing it for real if his father had his way and sent him to work there on his eleventh birthday.
Scolding himself for wasting time worrying about the Galloway, instead of exorcising the ghost, he raced through the last two lines of the prayer, then started at the beginning again, for the room was still icily cold. He could actually feel the chill pricking at his skin. Though he knew the prayer by heart, he stumbled once or twice in the recitation, as he was thinking about his eleventh birthday, actually counting the days, as he rushed through the words.
Harry moved again. Joe took his chance and grabbed the edge of the blanket, clutching the frayed corner in his fist as he turned over.
Instantly he felt warmer, so his prayer had worked, he had successfully banished the roaming ghost from the house. He hoped very much it had gone next door to number 32 to harass the old crony, Mrs Devlin, the bane of his life, tittle-tattling everything he did to his father.
With his mind focused on the senior Standish, he wondered what chance there was that his father would change his mind about sending him down into bowels of the Galloway. However he mentally put the question to himself, he came up with the same answer, none! And whats more, hed get a stinging clip around the ear for asking.
Only last Saturday the ol man got into a dither and clouted him across the ear, shouting Thoull work if thee wish to carry on eatin an liven in the style thees become accustomed. Work or knuckle pie for thee lad, suit thesen.
So definitely, no chance!
Closing his eyes again, he heard the tiny click of his lids, like the tick of a clock, and he opened them, and closed them again, checking to see if they clicked every time.
It was impossible to stop thinking about the Galloway; pictures of the dreadful place kept jumping into his mind. Everyone living hereabouts knew that men were entombed in the infinite darkness, the Galloway their shared grave for years and years. He often thought about the trapped men, how they must have tried to claw their way out. Going mad. Slowly dying.
Worrying about it tired him out, and he slept.
Coming down the narrow stairs, opening the door at the bottom, Joe came into the kitchen-cum-parlour and found his mother standing at the table, flour up to her elbows, kneading bread on the scrubbed wood.
Behind her, sunlight penetrated the thin layer of coal dust on the outside pane of the kitchen window. She looked hot, hair escaping the green and blue scarf wrapped around her head. The fire in the range was burning fiercely, bringing the bread oven up to temperature ready for the mornings baking.
Lifting her hand, white with flour, she brushed hair off her damp forehead. Mornin Joe. Teas in the pot.
Yawning, Joe stretched up to the high mantle and took down a clean mug.
She watched him pour stewed tea into it. Did you sleep well?
Not too bad, he said, ignoring the ghost of the night, and the hours hed worried about the Galloway and his birthday.
He took a sip of the tepid tea, and the bitterness of the tannin coated his tongue.
The privy door slammed and a moment later his father came into the room, tugging his black braces over his shoulders.
The scowl, now permanent, was on his face, the coal dust from the previous days shift still in the creases. His hair, prematurely grey, was lank with dirt, and stubble the colour of salt and pepper was sprouting from his chin. As it was Saturday, and hed be going to sup ale at Dirty Annes at noon, hed shave and bath beside the fire, or soak in the tin bath in the yard as it was warm out.
His red-veined eyes shot to Joe standing near the range, pretending to drink from the mug.
Finish that tea, our Joe, and get yoursen down to the six-hole midden at the end of Rotherman Street. The midden men are coming to shovel out. Thou can earn a penny for a mornings work. Thee can give Mother the penny. Itll go towards this weeks keep.
Martha Standish glanced up from kneading the dough, but she didnt contradict or question her husband; she had more sense.
Dont give me those sorts of looks, Wife, he roared.
Martha quickly dropped her eyes.
Ill get down there straight away, Joe answered meekly. It paid to be submissive with the old man in this mood.
Still belligerent, Standish Senior gave his wife a sidelong glance, and grunted.
Her eyes nervously skittered away from him. Picking up the dough, she thumped it down on the board.
Glad to be outdoors, though dreading the task ahead, Joe ran down the street, and banged on the door of the corner house. The upstairs window opened and Franks head, rust-red hair uncombed, appeared.
Hello, Joe, the boy shouted down cheerfully.
Tilting his head up to his friend, Joe laughed. Dont tell me thees still abed, Frank?
Not bloody likely. Me Mam would ave me guts for garters, if I were.
His bony elbow knocked the edge of the window, pushing it out over the sill. Grabbing it before it hit the old red brickwork and broke the pane, Frank pulled it back. Ill come down, he said, his head disappearing.
Joe stood on the cobbles, kicking the heel of his boot on the stone doorstep, listening to Franks excuses through the rickety front door, to why the coal couldnt be fetched till later.
Joe didnt need to wonder what his own fathers reaction would be if hed told him he was going off with Frank, so couldnt go and clean out the six-hole midden on Rotherman Street.
The door opened and Frank appeared, a grin spread across his freckled face. Two slabs of bread and dripping were in his hand, he passed one to Joe, and bit into the other. With his mouthful, he said Where we going? The cut?
Joe chewed and swallowed. Cant till later. Me Pa said Ive got to go and help clear the six-holer on Rotherman Street.
Frank wrinkled his nose. Itll stink like buggery.
Bound to, Joe said philosophically.
It was in Franks nature to see the bright side and he said cheerfully, Not to worry. Ill help. Well be finished in no time. Then we can go and take a dip in the cut.
Joe grinned. Well need to.
Finishing the bread, the lads ran down to the corner of the street.
On Rotherman Street they passed the horse and cart carrying the four midden-men, and caught a whiff of its trade.
Frank arrived at the midden a few seconds before Joe. Out of breath and panting, Joe drew alongside.
Frank pointed to the three closed doors. Theres folk in there.
Shall we knock on em? Say the midden men are coming?
Frank grinned. Ive got a better idea.
Close by, rubbish had been burning recently, and amongst the tangled and scorched metal, embers glowed in the grey ash. Stooping to the littered ground, Frank picked up a stick of wood and poked it into the hot cinders. As it caught fire, his eyes shone with mischief.
Joe knew immediately what Frank intended. Thee wouldnt dare, he laughed nervously, eager to be a part of the practical joke, but afraid of the possible consequences. Franks eyes flashed devilment. Watch me, he said, already running towards the back of the midden. Joe leapt after him, following him down the six broken steps that led underground. Hemmed in by a black metal railing, they stood shoulder to shoulder at the rotten door.
Grinning nervously, Joe raised the snapped latch.
The boys were familiar with the ancient midden; older boys had dared them to look into the filthy cesspit on several occasions. On this hot day, not emptied for almost a year, it reeked monstrously.
Unable to resist, they looked up to the occupied stalls. They were still giggling as Frank threw the burning stick in, for the briefest second their eyes were on the tiny flame as it arced down into the mess.
Urgently, Frank grabbed Joes shoulder and pulled him backward. They caught a glimpse of flame as it whooshed across the filthy cellar. Frank slammed the door closed. Laughing too uproariously to stand upright, they rolled about on the stone steps.
The three unfortunate occupants, a visiting vicar, a middle-aged shopkeeper, and an unknown male, dashed out of the privies in a state of undress, cursing the delinquents of the neighbourhood as they pulled their clothes together. Half decent, none had completely buttoned his flies; they rushed to the back of the midden to catch the culprits.
Hearing their approach, Frank and Joe took off. Going at full pelt they passed the horse and cart with the four midden-men on board. The driver knew Joe, and as their eyes met, Joe knew he was in serious trouble. Hed be lucky to get away with his skin intact when his father caught hold of him.
Out of habit the boys ran towards the cut to hide in the Gower Street tunnel. Leaving the roadway, they ran onto the steep embankment. Joe lost his footing on the long grass and tumbled down the bank. Frank caught his arm, and they both fell onto the tow path, landing inches away from the dank water. Getting up, they raced abreast, intent on reaching the stone archway ahead. Frank, a fast sprint runner, started to flag. Joe was more used to a long haul, so his breathing was less ragged, but both boys were panting as they ran beneath the archway and burst out laughing, the sound magnified and echoing beneath the stone vault.
It took a while to calm down, and then they sat shoulder to shoulder on the moist ground, chewing blades of grass. A sidelong glance would start them giggling again.
Hearing voices they were sure a search party had been sent to find them and they ran to hide behind a stone buttress.
Peeping out, Joe saw a narrow boat approaching, harnessed to it was a brown dray, its great hooves clomping on the mud-packed towpath.
Its only a barge coming down the cut, he whispered to Frank who was picking at the lichen growing on the clammy stone with his dirty fingernails.
The rigmarole of getting a boat through a tunnel wasnt new to them. Several times they had watched a woman walk a boat through, the soles of her feet on the slippery tunnel roof. Skirt in disarray, thighs on view. In truth the boys were more fascinated by the bare flesh than the craftsmanship of the manoeuvre.
Keeping pace with the barge they followed it to the far-end and watched the horse being put back into harness.
Climbing down from the cabin roof, the womans gypsy eyes raked them. Then she went down below, leaving a man at the tiller.
With nothing else to do, the two boys followed the barge until it came to the start of the warehouses. Then they turned back to the tunnel. For a short time they heard the clink of the horses bridle. Then it was quiet again but for flying insects and bees hovering on the wild flowers growing in the long swishing grass.
Eventually hunger took them towards home.
They were in trouble, and knew it, so they walked in virtual silence, anticipating the inevitable outcome.
Coming into the kitchen, Joe found his mother dozing in a chair. Carefully, he put the kettle to the hob to make a brew.
The kettle making contact with the hotplate woke her. Sitting upright, she looked at him strangely. Thee looks remarkably clean to say youve spent the day clearing the midden, our Joe.
Hating to lie to her, he dropped his eyes. I couldnt do it, Mam. There was some trouble there, and the midden-men said they wanted to sort that out before they started work.
Her grey eyes narrowed. And this trouble, would it have anything to do with thee and Frank?
I dont know what thees talking about, Mam, he fibbed guiltily.
Its mighty strange that thee and Frank should be missing for the best part of a day, and thee knows nowt about the trouble.
Standing rock still, he looked blank-faced.
She stood, reaching for the tea caddy. Some young louts warmed the parsons arse for him. Not only the parson, but Fred Thomas and another innocent chap nearly got their buttocks scorched.
Joes cheeks reddened. I know nothing about it, Mam.
No, it dont look like it, she said, sounding frighteningly serious.
Reaching up to the mantle, she brought down two clean mugs. With her back to Joe, she hid her smile. Bout time somebody reminded the parson hes like ordinary folk, and uses a midden.
One by one the kids came in from the patch of scrubby land where they had been playing.
Harry, his face filthy, grinned. Did you hear about the ructions at the midden?
No, Joe lied again.
Harrys grin widened. Some lads threw a flame in. There was a hell of a bang.
Joe wanted to set the record straight, to tell Harry he was exaggerating, thered been no bang.
Harry was excited, his face alive with mischief. Old George Elson thought he saw two lads running away from it, but his eyes are bad, so cant name them. What a laugh! Wish Id been there. He laughed.
Martha Standish clipped the lads ear. Dont be getting any silly ideas, our Harry. If I catch you setting fire to the clergys backside, theell have me to answer to.
Ouch, that hurt, Ma, Harry said, holding the side of his head.
Joe was relieved to know he hadnt been recognised, but he still had to answer for the loss of the penny. Thered be ructions when the ol man found out.
In the end, nothing was said. When the penny was asked for, his mother covered for him. There was no doubt in Joes mind that his mother guessed his involvement in the scorching of the midden. Frank got away with it too. So now, a week or two later, they could laugh together about it, repeating incident by incident without beginning to bore of the repetitions.
On the eve of Joes birthday, he and Frank went down to the cut and sat beneath the Gower Street tunnel, talking. Going to work at the colliery seemed momentous, but no one at home had said anything. It was as though it was happening in another household, to another family.
Before dawn Joe rose from the bed, moving cautiously; he had no intention of waking his brothers and getting into the free-for-all that would inevitably develop over the newly made space.
Carrying his boots he tiptoed down the wooden stairs. His stomach was churning with nervousness, so to get to the privy quickly was a real necessity.
His mother was in the kitchen, swilling a few pots in a basin of cold water on the table.
Looking up she gave him a tired smile. Mornin Joe. Happy birthday,
That she didnt see the irony amazed him. How could this day, the start of his first shift in the colliery only an hour away, be anything but a day to mourn?
Slipping on his boots, laces untied, he went through the back door to the privy.
His father was up, eating bread spread with dripping, as Joe came back into the room.
Smiling, his mother handed Joe a chunk of bread of equal size. The first time hed been offered a portion the same as his fathers. He understood her reasoning; he was a man now, a worker, a miner at the pit. The thought did nothing for his mood of despondency and dread.
The only high spot of the day would be walking to and from the Galloway with his mate Frank, starting on the same shift. Though it wasnt Franks birthday. Lucky beggar, Joe said to himself.
Get a move on, our Joe, his father said sternly. Thee cant be late for the start of shift at the Galloway. And put a smile on thee face. Its thee bloody birthday after all.
Not everyday a chaps lucky enough to be eleven. Thees a man now, so start acting like one.
Yes, Pa. Joe looked at his newly polished boots.
He walked with two hundred workers and Frank, hobnails and clogs ringing on the cobbles as they made their way to the Gower Street entrance to the Galloway Colliery.
A hoard of dirty children were following, most in rags, only a few with food and water to last them through the next long hours below ground.
Frank was silent. Joe thought he was probably thinking what a fool hed been to volunteer for the pit, just to keep his mate company. The same mate that had done nothing but go on about how awful it would be to work in the dark, deep underground, where rock falls and collapsing pit props were a usual occurrence. Now, walking beside his best friend, Joe was sorry Frank wasnt fishing in the cut. If hed kept his mouth shut about his worries, Frank would be throwing a hook and line into the mucky water.
Joe and Frank were left at the pit managers office door. If Frank decided to stay, and by the look on his face this wasnt fully decided, Joe prayed they would be working together. Only Frank could talk him out of his fanciful imaginings and bring him down to earth. Without his mate, he might hear the voices of the buried colliers throughout the day.
Taking a look at the two boys, the manager sent them off in opposite directions; no point letting two lads, mates, work alongside, there was likely to be distractions and tomfoolery.
With his eyes, Joe said goodbye to Frank; to speak would bring on the tears that had threatened to fall for the past week.
With a list of instructions in his head, Joe left the managers office and made his way to the pit entrance. The colliers had gone down below, only a handful of women were left at the top. Seeing him approach they stopped talking and stared.
Before he got to the entrance he could smell the pit, coal dust wafting out of the cavernous mouth. Holding fiercely to his courage, he walked into the black cave. The true entrance was a massive hole in the ground. Standing as close to the edge as he dared, he looked down to the deep levels. His father said it took seven-hundred rungs of ladders to get to the lowest level. Giddy, he stepped back. Feeling sweat break out on the palms of his hands. Hed never make it to the bottom. His legs would give way and hed fall into the abyss, like a bird brought down by slingshot.
Get going, lad, a woman said pushing him gently forward. Joe stepped aside to allow her to pass.
Swinging onto the ladder, looking up at him, she said Is this the first time down?
Aye, he said, mouth so dry his tongue was clamped to the roof of his mouth.
She smiled, and her eyes lit with kindness. Follow me. Ill look out for thee.
Shivering with nervousness, he backed to the ladder and swung his right leg over the monstrous hole before putting his foot on the rung. Clamping his sweat-slick hands so tightly on the side bars the bones showed pale yellow through the skin. Convinced these were his last moments, he took his left foot off the black dusty ground and placed it alongside the other.
Thats the hardest part over with. The woman gently reassured him. Now just take it slowly.
Joe had no intention of doing it any other way.
Dont look down, she said quickly, seeing that he was about to.
Joe fixed his gaze on his hands; he would have liked to pray, but the ladder took all his concentration.
Two men came to the entrance and looked down. Got a bloody novice making his way down, one of them shouted.
Rattle the ladder, thatll make the sod move a bit faster, the other laughed.
Below Joes feet, the woman shouted up. Try anything like that and theell have me to answer to. Thee old bugger! But then I dont expect thee to look after other folks bairns, when thee cant look after tha own, John Forrester.
Away with tha nasty tongue, thas nothing but an ol whore, he shouted spitefully.
Aye, an if I am, its a bugger like thee that made me so.
As though unmoved by the banter, the woman said with a smile in her voice Only a few more steps to go.
They climbed off. Joes entire innards were shaking with nerves. From somewhere in her shawl, she brought out a stub of a candle and lit it from one burning in a niche in the wall. Without another word, she turned from him and went down the tunnel. The candle flame a misty light haloing her hair. Above him, the two men were on the ladder, starting to climb down. Joe quickly lit his own candle stub and started down the tunnel to find the team he was to work with. Every moment or two he turned his eyes to the pit props, looking for cracks and rotting wood.
The first man he came to had a store of coal around him. What kept thee, Joe Standish? Start loading the sacks.
Bending his back, Joe lifted a lump of heavy coal and dropped it into the black dusty bag. All around him, reverberating through the long tunnels, there was an incessant hammering of pick-axes and the crash of falling coal. Angry voices erupting constantly as the monstrous heat sweated the tempers out of the colliers.
Joe tasted coal dust on his lips, his scalp itched with sweat and muck. The collier he was working with took a moment to light his pipe, and Joe took the opportunity to stretch his aching back. A truck rumbled out of the darkness; as it neared the candlelight, Joe saw it was hauled by two small children. A little boy was attached to the shaft with chains, the metal swinging against his skinny flanks. Joe flinched, seeing the red graze marks around his childish middle where a rough belt bit into his tender belly. A small girl was behind the truck, shoving the weight with a bony little shoulder. Their tiny hands and knees were transformed into hooves with rough padding, protecting their precious skin from the sharp shale. They came towards him like small wheezing donkeys.
He felt ashamed, for here he was at eleven, almost a man, and hed made a fuss to Frank about working in the Galloway. For months hed thought of little else, whilst these tiny children were already down here, attached to trucks by chains.
With the sacks emptied into the truck, the little beasts of burden crawled back into the blackness.
Joe felt like crying.
Really evokative of a brutal past so many of our not so distant ancestors shared. Many thanks Jean.