I’ve been reading Emma Jane’s wonderful posts (here and here) describing the intense scene that she, HH and I played last the weekend. She was Eliza – a workhouse girl, stripped and positioned over the punishment horse, for a caning and strapping that was as intense as could be. I’ve been wondering since what would have happened to Eliza afterwards…
A few days later, a visitor had called at the workhouse. A former schoolmaster, now retired, he lived alone and needed a maid to help around the house. Did the workhouse have a girl he could take on?
Eliza’s whipping had given the Master cause for concern about her future conduct: would she become more rebellious, having been so soundly flogged? So he had her fetched to his study, with orders to be on her best behaviour, and presented to the gentleman – who liked her, and agreed to take her in return for a most generous donation to the workhouse’s coffers. He returned to collect her the following morning, finding the girl freshly scrubbed and in a clean dress – and quite, quite delighted to escape with him to her new home.
There, she proved keen to impress. Shy at first – scared of him, even, though he knew not why – she worked diligently, seemingly relieved and grateful to be away from workhouse life. Yet when he asked her about her time there, tears came quickly to her eyes, and he backed off from his questioning.
Maids in those days, as she well knew, were far from unused to punishments for even minor misdemeanours. The cane was commonplace, yet this gentleman merely encouraged and offered advice when things weren’t done to his satisfaction. Until, that is, young Eliza dropped and broke a decanter full of port – having been particularly told to be careful with it just moments before.
She trembled like a leaf as she stood before him, terrified of what was to come. And, indeed, he confirmed her worst fears: “You leave me with no choice but to punish you, Eliza.”
Yet he did not reach for the cane, instead telling her to lift her skirt and bend over his knee, and spanking her hard on the bare. She sobbed bitterly throughout – at the thought of having let her kind employer down, and at the memories of her previous chastisement.
The pattern continued: kindness, thoughtfulness from her new master – who’d happily let her curl up next to his chair at the end of her day’s duties, whilst he read in is library – combined with the shame of occasional sharp spankings when she had let herself down.
And then, one day, a knock came at the front door, and she opened it to find the Master of the workhouse waiting outside and demanding to be let in. She let him into the drawing room, and listened at the door, trying to hear what the two gentlemen inside were discussing. Moments later, she was summoned in to hear the accusation: the annual audit of the workhouse’s property had revealed that a silver locket had gone missing. They’d searched high and low, to no avail. And since it had been donated by Eliza’s mother, to help pay for her keep, the Master had no doubt that his former ward was to blame.
“Is this true?” her new employer asked.
She hesitated, perhaps for a moment too long, avoiding his eyes and denying it weakly.
The Master spoke up. “This, sir, is clearly a case of theft. I think we should call a constable. Have her room searched. It’ll be a public birching for you, young lady, and then a spell in the House of Correction.”
But her new protector persuaded him to back down. “I’ll check her rooms. I’m sure it’s unfounded – that there’s been a mistake. But I shall write to you and let you know if I find anything. Good day, sir. Eliza, please show the gentleman out.”
But when the girl returned, she found him in serious mood. “I shall give you five minutes, young lady. If you do have the item that he mentioned, you shall bring it to me by then and we can then deal with the matter. If you don’t produce it, then I shall search your room as I promised to do. And if I then find the piece in question, I shall indeed call for the constable.”
She was tearful when she returned, carrying the locket with her. “It had a picture of my mother, sir. It just didn’t seem right that they should keep it. They were so cruel to me and… I know I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t leave it there…”
He made her follow him into his study. To stand, facing the wall, as he wrote a letter to the Master, reading aloud as he went: “No sign of the item… donation enclosed of ten guineas towards your good work.”
“Now,” he told her, “you are to take this letter to the Workhouse tomorrow and hand it to the Master. But in the meantime, you leave me no choice but to punish you. Severely.” He took from his desk a long, leather strap, and stood up before her. “Hold out your hands, palms upwards, one resting on the other. And look up: I want to see your eyes, to make sure it’s having an effect.”
This, he explained, was the punishment that had proved most effective on girls in his schoolmastering days. She would take six hard strokes on each hand, and she would count them.
Count them she did, even if the numbers were scarcely audible through her tears and her pain. He lifted the strap high – back, over his shoulder – and cracked it down with such force. Even the first two on each hand were too much – but, as he explained as he punished her, the choice of a birching and imprisonment would be far, far worse.
When it was over, he hugged her tight, and sent her to her room. With the locket: “hide it safely, girl, and never speak of it again.” And with that, our story of young Eliza draws to a close…