Friday, November 1, 2013

From Rags to Raikes

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“Wretched urchin. Move for your betters!”

Sam pulled his cap down far enough to hide his eyes as he stepped into the gutter to let the elegantly dressed gentleman pass by. He didn’t want the man to see his disgust.

I ain’t no urchin. I’ll wager I works mor’an you do.

The boy-man clutched his lunch bucket with a tighter grip. He was coming into Covenant Garden Market. Even a poor boy like him was a target for the snatchers. The tightly packed crowds made it impossible to tell whether a strange hand was in his pocket or if he was just being jostled by the mob filling the streets. Sam noted that there was a copper on the corner looking to catch a hapless soul in the act of relieving some innocent of his wallet or watch fob while he was stopped to watch the Punch and Judy show. Justice in 18th century England was harsh. Newgate Prison was an ever-present reality. Sam knew children who had been transported to the colonies for stealing a loaf of bread. He’d hung around in the gallery of the courthouse and heard the ominous words:

“The law is, that thou shalt return from hence, to the place where thou camest, and from thence to the place of execution, where thou shalt hang by the neck till the body be dead! dead! dead! and the Lord have mercy upon thy soul”.

Sam’s father had been the condemned.

He sidestepped around a mercer’s sign swaying drunkenly above him as the famous London winds picked up.

Fallin’ soon that’un is.

He dismissed an errant though. The gentleman who had just shoved him aside would be well served to have the rotten wood fall on his head the next time he ventured here. The market was ripe with diverse smells fighting for supremacy. Fresh bread battled rotting fruit. The fragrance of violets occupying the flower stalls competed with the pungent offal covering the cobblestones.

A carriage rattled by, its wheels spattering passers-by with something brown, wet, and unpleasant. A washerwoman shook her fist at it, railing at its occupants as she rubbed in vain at the spots on the sheets she was delivering to a client.

It was getting late. The vendors were packing up their wares. Sam’s mother was waiting at home. He hoped for some black bread and a bit of soup. The meagre wage he earned at the factory barely put food on the table.

Six days a week, 12 hours a day, Sam worked. The market, so noisy to the rich folk from St James, seemed quiet to him even at the height of its busiest day. The pounding and clanging of the machines in the yarn factory would literally deafen him someday. Every bone rattled in its socket, every nerve jumped to the beat, making awful music on his mind as he laboured for enough to keep him and his mother alive.

Sam entered a narrow alley. He walked, his body hugging the crumbling walls, watching his step so as not to fall into the rancidity of the gutters. The unwitting walked in the middle, often getting the contents of someone’s chamber pot dumped on them from an upper level window for their trouble. He headed toward a narrow staircase at the end of the street. Wearily, he climbed it, greeting neighbours as he went. He reached the third floor. At his push, the door opened into a small room, lit only by a stub of a candle on a wooden table. The smell of turnip and potato greeted him. There was soup tonight. The end of a loaf sat beside his plate and the kettle whistled on the hob.

He shared his day with his mother.

“Be you goin’ tomorry, Sam?”

Sam barely knew the name of Robert Raikes. He only knew that some rich toff thought that educating the poor and teaching them moral values would help keep them out of jail. History would dub this philanthropist and publisher, the father of the modern Sunday School. Each Sunday morning Sam went to Mrs. Peachtree’s house, one of “Raikes’ Ragged Schools”, where he learned to read and write with the Bible as his textbook. In the afternoon, after reading his lesson, he went to church. He learned more about the God his mother often named, but whose nature and purposes were so foreign to a boy from the slums of London.

Sam remembered his father.

“Sure, Ma, I be goin’”.

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