Leafing through a book a few days ago, I landed on the phrase ‘the hanging psalm’; it’s Psalm 51, intoned as a convict stood at the foot of the gallows, waiting to have the noose placed around his neck.
More than that, it was a wonderful title for a book.
And suddenly I had a story. How far it will go remains to be seen (of course). But for the moment, it’s roaring like a train. This is the beginning. I didn’t make up these facts. They’re from testimony to a commission, and they’re far more brutal than anything from my imagination.
What do you think?
They were grave men. Sober men, neat in their black coats, white stocks snowy at the neck. Important people, businessmen, landowners who believed that wealth and position meant they knew about life. Three of them together at the polished table, papers arranged in piles before them. The one in the middle spoke.
‘Your name is Simon Westow. Is that correct?’
He waited for a moment before he answered. Let them look at me. Let them see me.
‘How old are you?’
‘Thirty in July. If I was told the truth.’ He wasn’t about to call them sir. If they wanted his respect, let them bloody earn it.
‘You were in the workhouse, I believe?’ The man kept his voice even, reading from the sheet in front of him.
‘Went when I was four, after my mam and dad died.’ He could hear the scratch of a pen as the clerk in the corner took down his answers.
‘How did they treat you? When did they put you out to work?’
‘Are you really sure you want to know that?’
It made them stop. Just for a second. But he had their attention. The man behind the desk smiled.
‘That’s why we’re here. Our aim is to find out about child labour.’ A slight pause. ‘But you must know that. It was made perfectly clear to you.’
Oh yes, he thought. Perfectly.
‘They set us on at the mill when we were six, and let the manufactories do their worst.’
‘And what might their worst be? How often were you beaten?’
‘Regularly,’ Simon said. ‘Boys and girls alike.’
The man looked down and shuffled a few of his papers.
‘More than once the overseer made us take off our shirt, climb into one of the bins on the floor, and he’d hit us with his stick until we were bloody.’ He let his words remain calm as the images raced through his mind. The facts could speak loudly enough.
‘They’d tie a two-stone weight to our backs and make us work. Two of them for the bigger lads.’
‘I see.’ They looked a little uncomfortable now, all three of them shifting on their seats. Good.
‘There was one boy who could never work fast enough. He tried hard, but he couldn’t manage it. Every week the overseer hung him from a beam by his wrists and beaten with a strap on his back to try and teach him a lesson.’
‘Did he improve?’
‘He died. He was seven years old.’
‘I see.’ The men were staring now. The clerk had stopped his writing. The only sound in the room was the soft tick of the clock. But he hadn’t finished yet.
‘Once they took a vise, a pair of them, and screwed one to each of my ears. Then they had me work half the day with them in place.’
‘Why would they do that?’
‘For their own amusement. I still have the scars.’
But they wouldn’t want to see, he knew that. He’d leave this room and they’d try to forget everything he told them. Maybe it would come back in their dreams tonight. Every night. Exactly the way it had for him.
‘Don’t you want to know where it happened?’ Westow asked.
‘That’s not part of this inquiry. We’re here to discover, not blame people for things that happened in the past.’ His voice changed, becoming gentler, trying to appease. ‘How long did you work there?’
‘Until I was thirteen. Seven years.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Westow.’
He stood, back straight, and walked to the door. A final question stopped him.
‘What is your occupation now?’
He turned to stare at them. ‘I’m a thief taker.’