It’s just after ten in the evening and I’ve just popped into the Angel and Crown on Whitechapel High Street to have a quick chat with Ellen O’Casey the popular supper room singer of the establishment.
I know you’re due on stage soon, Ellen, but would you mind if I had a quick chat?
Well, my friend Kitty’s doing her turn at the moments, so we should be all right. But I can’t be too long or Danny’ll be after us.
I know you came here from Ireland when you were quite young, but can you remember anything about your homeland?
I can remember things like the rough stone walls of the cottage we lived in and lying in bed listening to the mice scurrying about but one day dose stick in my mind.
It must have been spring because I can still see the swallows in my mind’s eye as I think of it. A rare day it was, with the sun warming you and the smell the dew still fresh on the grass. Pa piled us all into the old rickety cart and took us all to the county fair.
We were so excited me and my brother Pat and Mike hadn’t slept all night with the thought of it. Me and Pat argued all the way like a couple of cats in a sack, and if Ma threatened to make us walk once, she did it a dozen times.
When we got to Wexford, sure, I’d never seen so many people. I didn’t think there were that many in the world let alone Ireland. There were dancers and travellers in their brightly painted wagons and the men distilled potchine in kettles and tin baths or what ever was at hand.
The fiddles were playing while young girls whirled in their new clothes laughing and smiling. The fellas in their rough working clothes and heavy boots danced like feather in the breeze and catching their lasses as they passed.
Ha! Pat and Mike sneaked off and drank some homebrew and were as sick as dogs but instead of a whacking, Pa laughed and bundled us all back in the cart to take us home
I don’t remember getting into bed that night but I’ll never forget it. It was less than a month later we all piled into the cart again and left our old home forever and came here. But that day sometime comes back to me in that moment between sleeping and waking and I can smell the new spring grass once again.
It must be difficult for you as a widow to keep a roof over yours and your family’s head?
It’s almost impossible and without my Ma I’d have been in the poor house long before now. We both up before dawn to fetch water from the pump at the bottom of the street. Then I go and collect the washing from the big houses while Ma heats the copper. All morning we scrub our knuckles raw on the washing board before drying and ironing it and then taking it all back at the end of the day.
At night we sit by candlelight and sew collars from Miller factor. We get thrupence for two dozen. It barely keeps us, what with the rent and food being so dear. That’s why I have to sing in this place and sometimes down at the White Swan or Paddy’s Goose, Danny’s other pub. And if you think it’s grim in here, you should see that hole down on the Highway.
I understand you’ve been alone for almost ten years so I’m a bit surprised you’ve not remarried?
That’s a bit of a question and I’m not saying now, that I haven’t had the odd offer or two but there’s been no man who’s taken my fancy enough for me to want to make it permanent. But I wouldn’t say no to the right man. But he’d have to be the right one because I’ve been married to the wrong one before and don’t want to repeat the experience.
This area of East London is notorious for crime and violence aren’t you frightened of living here alone?
For the most part I’m safe enough in Knockfurgus, the part of the dock where I live and most of us Irish are settled. It’s in walking distance of the riverside where there’s work to be had when the ships are in. Our street can be a bit rough, I grant you, but we all look out for each other. We share what little we have and that’s not much. There’s none of us who would let a child go hungry even if we had to skip supper ourselves.
It’s the drink that makes it hard on a woman. I mean, no one would argue that a man entitled to a drink at the end of the day, to clear the dust from his throat but some, well; they don’t know when to stop and its his wife and children who feel the force of it, as often as not.
As to the danger. The Italian and Irish gangs are after each other not us so when they are cutting each other up in the streets and alleyway we shut ourselves in. Our house is very small, two room on top of each other really, but there is only me, Ma and Josie so we’re snug enough. Some houses have three or four family living in and then there can be trouble.
Of course, I’m often scared out of me life when I have to walk home after singing here. But I keep to the main roads and go as fast as me legs will carry me. Sometime the beat officer will walk away with me and I can relax then. But I have to work here so there’s no point wailing about it.
I notice that a number of women in the same situation as yourself often… well, how can I put this delicately?…take to the street.
It’s true. If you peek though curtains you can see them sitting at the back of the room now. They are easy to spot with their bright dresses and red lips. Sad souls. And I for one, don’t condemn them for what they do. I mean, most of them have a child or two to feed and sometimes it the streets or the workhouse. And it can look easier that scrubbing sheets all day but there’s always a man lurking around who takes their money, not to mention the danger of being found by the peelers in the gutter with you throat cut. And if you live long enough you’ve got the pox ward at the hospital to look forward to.
It seems an easy way but when I see what poor Kitty has to do to keep Danny sweet I think I’m better off on my own. Although, if I were honest with you now, I do miss the arms of a strong man around me when I snuggle under the blankets .
I notice you get a fair few doctors from the London Hospital nearby take their supper here. In fact, that new medic, Doctor Munroe, is at one of the tables and keeps looking this way. Perhaps he’s someone you might consider giving up your widow’s weeds for?
Oh, go away with you! Whatever are you thinking? A man like that, you know, fierce handsome enough to tempt the angel themselves, isn’t for the likes of me.
There’s a lot of toffs who come down East slumming. I avoid them ‘cause all their after is a quick night’s fun for a few shilling and I’m not interested.
Mind, I’ll not have you thinking Doctor Munroe’s is one of those because he’s not. He’s a proper gentleman and not just because of the way he dresses and speaks.
But no. He’ll marry some pretty lady with money and who speak right. Not a pub singer with an ageing mother and gangling daughter. In a better world perhaps his smiles and kind eyes might become more but not in East London, not in 1832.
I hear also that although he’s only been here a month or two Doctor Munroe is already making his mark by introducing all sorts of health reforms, like a providing a proper water supply and sanitation to the slums. I also hear Mr Donovan, as chairman of the workhouse board isn’t too pleased with him looking into the workhouse accounts. Although, trying to improve the lot of the poor is very admirable Perhaps you should warn him he’s fishing in dangerous waters as far as Mr Donavan is concerned.
Ho! Doctor Munroe’s ruffled Danny’s feathers and no mistake. Good job too. Danny’s got his fat finger in every sticky pie around here. On the Parish Committee and the Board of Governors at the Workhouse. It a disgrace how he runs the neighbourhood. Letting the water pump break and you can smell the workhouse before you see it. I pity the poor souls forced to live in there.
I do admire Robert….I… I mean Doctor Munroe.
Ellen you’re blushing.
I’m not. It’s just a little warm in here that’s all. Anyway, it’s a brave thing that Doctor Munroe’s doing and his surgery in Chapman Street where he charges only what he has to. But your right, he need to be careful. Danny’s been top dog around here for years and he doesn’t stay there by being nice to people who cross him. For his own sake, I wish Doctor Munroe would watch out for himself. It would fair break my heart if anything should happen to him.
Know you work hard to pay for your daughter Josie to attend school but is it worth it seeing as how the only opening for a girl of her class is to enter service or marry a docker?
Josie as bright as a button and with her brains she could teach school or work in a shop. I don’t mind her going into service because she would learn things I could never teach her, but it would mean her going away as there are no big houses around here. But to do any of those things she need her letters and figuring. My Pa knew that which is why he taught us all to read and do arithmetic.
I don’t suppose I want any more for Josie than any mother. I want her to find a good man who’ll treat her right be he a docker or sailor or anything
She had a fella, Patrick Nolan. He’s the son of my friend Sarah and he’s a good lad. dependable and hard-working but I’ve told him I’ll be after him if he takes advantage. I don’t want Josie to make the same mistakes as meself so I’m keeping a close eye on them just to be sure.
You sound bitter when you talk of your husband. Was your marriage so bad?
Michel O’Casey had grand curly hair and a smile to warm you on a frosty day but he thought he could solve his problems at the bottom of a glass. I was only fourteen when I met him and too young to see him for what he really was.
I don’t know if cheated is the right word but I’m sad that me and Michael went sour so quickly. I realise now that a love like Ma and Pa’s only comes once in life time. I thought Michael was that love but it didn’t take me long to find out my mistake. I hope that someday such a love might happen to me. but I’m getting older now and so it might be too late.
Have you ever considered returning to Ireland? After all you must still have family there.
No. It’s worst there than when we left. People dying in empty field and eating grass to keep the hunger from their bellies. There’s no future for us there especially Josie.
Besides, most of our family are over here in Liverpool and Bristol and my brother, Pat’s in America. He’s doing grand, so he is, and we’re hoping to join him soon.
What do you think life will be like for you, Josie and your there?
I don’t think it’ll be easy but my brother Pat got his own business in New York. He told me in his last letter that he would be looking to buy himself a bit of farm land north of the city in the Bronx.
He also wrote that in the wild territory the government give away land just to have someone on it. Can you imagine that? He’s says he’d saddle up his ole mule and dash for it.
I’m not afraid of hard work either, so I’ll just do as I’ve done when I get there and do whatever I have to do to keep my family.
Whatever I do at least I won’t have to be dodging Danny’s straying hands while I earn a few coppers, but until then I’m afraid I’ll have to sing for all the O’Caseys’ suppers in the Angel and Crown.
Thank you so much for talking to me, Ellen. I hope you do get to America, if that’s what you decide you finally want. Now I see Mr Donovan glaring at us. He doesn’t look pleased, perhaps it’s time for you to sing now.
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