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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM SYD McGINLEY!
Boxing Day 1852, Milton Frenshaw, Dorset. The Cottage of Peter Jolliffe.
George Hendon paused at the threshold of the Jolliffe’s cottage with his hand on the door latch. The bundle of hazel rods shifted on his back, and the risk of them tumbling loose right as he arrived impelled his thumb down faster than he planned and the door swung in.
“Uncle George!” crowed young Jasper from his spot by the fire. “My Christmas wooden top do spin for as long as Uncle Peter makes a spar!”
George gave a tight smile, and stepped in before Thomasine could scold him for letting in the cold. She’d find fault wherever she could, but neither George nor Peter could find it in them to rebuke her. Peter’s sister had enough to complain about since her husband had died when Jasper was still barely crawling. Along with her husband, she’d lost her right to live in the tenant cottage, and, in the three years since, the buttony trade had failed. Saying machine, Birmingham, or Great Exhibition around Thomasine guaranteed a burned dinner.
“He is not your Uncle,” snapped Thomasine.
George sighed and set his bundle of coppiced wood by the fire. She was in a fine taking. Peter had explained, laughingly at the time, that her objection to “Uncle George” was because she hoped George would become “Pa” to Jasper. George had laughed too, but since then it had become a worm in his belly. Thomasine was Peter’s little sister and George had loved her for years. As a sister. The idea of hurting her ate at him. And the notion that he’d never have Peter? That consumed him.
Jasper was well used to his mother’s outbursts and contentedly set his top to spinning again. It was a crude enough thing, but George had carved it so it was well-balanced, if rough looking. It and a handful of bulls-eyes mints had been all the boy had received for his last Christmas in England. It was a mercy, agreed Peter and George, that the child knew of no better times and was young enough to think Quebec was but a day’s travel away.
Thomasine still hoped George would join them as her husband, but he had a steady estate job and he was not on the landowners’ list of those to be relocated. George stubbornly insisted that he couldn’t support a family on his eight shillings a week, and Peter agreed. It was barely enough for a labouring man. The Jolliffes scratched along on the few cards of buttons that Thomasine could still sell, Peter’s thatching, and the food George brought to the cottage on the pretext of having Thomasine cook his dinner. With no roofs to thatch in winter, Peter had little enough money for the cold months. He spent the winter making bundles of hazel spars for his thatching master and being paid but pennies for them.
Peter winked at George and slid along the settle. “Come and get warm by me, George. You can pass me the hazel as I need it.”
George grunted, and sat beside Peter. The length of their thighs pressed, casually, against each other as they shared the bench. George’s belly clenched. In the New Year his man would be gone. Much as he loved Thomasine, why did she have to take Peter? She’d find a new husband in Canada. She was a fine woman.
George handed Peter a hazel rod, and watched Peter’s chapped hands wield the billhook and shape the thatching spar. It took less than a minute for the rod to be split into four lengthwise, excess wood to be whittled off, and each end to be given a three-sided point. George yearned to stroke the knobs of Peter’s wrists as they slid in and out of his frayed cuffs.
Peter chuckled. “Young Jasper’s top spinning is not as long as he do think it be. I’m as fast as any machine.” He gave an exaggerated look to see if his machine-hating sister was in earshot.
George’s smile was only on his lips. He scratched at the bark of the hazel rod with his nail.
“Stay,” he whispered.
“No,” said Peter, his voice low enough under the wood splitting that only George could hear. “I don’t want him to grow up like this. Bad times are coming again. Do you want him to see riots like we did? No child should see that.” Peter flipped his billhook to shave some wood. “The landowners want us gone. They’ve not forgotten that we’re of rebellious stock for all they disguise it as a kindness. “
George snorted. Thomasine never let it be forgotten that their second cousin had been transported for swearing an illegal oath and that the Tolpuddle Friendly Society had met in another distant cousin’s house. The girl would be a Luddite given half a chance.
“We’ll take their offer of passage. We’ll not cut off our noses.” Peter hesitated. “And George, Jasper’ll be heartbroken when he understands you’ll never wed his ma so it’s best for us to go.”
George peeled a strip of bark free and tossed it in the fire. It spat and curled. “Why must you leave as well? She’s not your wife, just a sister.”
Peter gave the billhook a sharp rap on the end of a rod to start the split, and looked down his nose at George.
“You don’t mean that George. And you could make her your wife. You’d be with me then.”
“Aye, and she’d be in my bed. She’s my sister too, not a wife. And I’d not dishonor her by marrying her to get you. She deserves more.” George gave a coal-black look back at Peter. “I’d have to place her first, and it would grieve my heart to leave you aside.”
They worked silently, each in their own hurt pool of anger, and a gap of cold air snuck between their thighs.
Thomasine carried in a cloth-wrapped pudding and eased it into the simmering pot on the fire. George silently added some more kindling from the hazel trimmings.
“Go easy,” said Thomasine.
“Why worry?” said George. “You’ve but a week more here. Use up your supplies. Kindling will be no use to you on a ship.”
“Big boat,” said Jasper happily.
Thomasine huffed. “You’re a foolish man, George Hendon. Anything we leave can be sold. A bundle of kindling is a mite more towards your fare.”
Peter cursed as his bill hook slipped and took a nick from his knuckle.
“You are following us to Quebec, George,” said Thomasine. “I want an answer tomorrow. I’ll be walking to Bere Regis depot for my last button day, and when I get back you’ll tell me when I’m to be your wife. Now, not a word. I’ve a final gross to complete.”
She turned her attention to her buttony and refused to meet either man’s gaze.
George stared hard at little Jasper who was now playing with the wire rings Thomasine used as the base of the buttons. The lad hadn’t been listening, and George was grateful for that small mercy. He felt Peter’s thigh press back against his, and he smothered a moan. He couldn’t even think how to excuse himself early. Besides, it was his bacon in the pudding! The three adults were hollow-eyed with hunger and George wouldn’t let pride drive him from his dinner.
He could almost laugh at Peter being all slack-jawed at his sister’s temerity. She’d not just proposed to a man, she’d told him he was marrying her. She’d always been too plain spoken for her own safety – that was half of why Peter said he must go with her to Quebec – but this was outside of enough!
George was mutton. He couldn’t marry Thomasine. And he’d never see Peter again. Or wee Jasper.
Thomasine’s fingers flashed as she worked her threads. She deserved a good husband, not a half-hearted one. George felt a tug in his belly. It wasn’t as if she had no admirers. That Frampton by-blow from over Winterbourne way had asked for her hand. Thomasine had actually clouted his ear for his nerve in asking while she was still in mourning, but her real reason was that “He be a Frampton. We want none of his family.” Thomasine held long grudges against even a bastard son of the landowner who’d called London down upon the workers a generation back. George sighed. She’d never forgive him for refusing to be her husband.
They ate their boiled pudding and bacon in silence, and then Jasper recited his bedtime prayers and was tucked away for the night. Peter could work by firelight, but, while Thomasine was away from the room with Jasper, he lit a tallow candle. She fussed about the waste when she returned, but Peter calmly said she’d squint herself into a headache without it.
George frowned. She’d finished up her last dozen buttons before dinner. She’d no doubt meant it to be bitter, but she sounded wistful as she said “Well, that’s done and dusted” as she bundled the gross up. She was stitching away at something. Something colourful.
Peter shook his head. “George, I swear,” he began.
“Don’t you swear anything unless you’ll be ready to hang for it!” snapped Thomasine. “If our oaths be illegal, then they bind us all the more!”
“Be quiet, woman,” snapped Peter. “Enough of this. I’m not talking about any secret oath. I be just promising George that I knew nothing of your plans. Be satisfied that I’m leaving my home to protect you and Jasper. There’s no need to torment George, too.”
It was George’s turn to be slack-jawed. The Jolliffe siblings were buffeting him around today and no mistake.
To his horror, Thomasine was weeping. Tears were dripping on her stitches. He’d never seen her cry.
“Peter,” he said,” Thomasine means well.”
“You be quiet too,” said Peter. “George, I may be leaving you behind, but Thomasine is right. You will follow us.” He took a deep breath. “This oath is more illegal than the one that got the lads transported. And Thomasine, I call on you to witness it.”
Thomasine lifted her head, and wiped her nose. Curiosity had stopped her tears.
“George, I swear, you will have a life with me. A good life. In a new world. And with no harm to Thomasine and Jasper.”
Thomasine dropped her needle.
“What do you say George? Will you follow us? I will find no woman to take your place.”
“Aye,” whispered George. “But,”
“No buts,” said Peter. “And I may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” He grasped George’s shoulders and kissed his mouth hard. Their bristles scraped, and the salt taste of shared bacon was in George’s mouth. The heat of his man’s lungs filled his.
“Well,” said Thomasine. “About time. I was worried I’d have to marry the great lug.” She bit the end of her thread and inspected the card of red buttons she’d made. “Come here, George, and let me sew these on your weskit so you carry a reminder of us for the next year. Peter, I’ve a set for you too.”
George blinked. He couldn’t think. Peter Joliffee was holding him fast and Thomasine Jollifee was fussing at his jacket. The siblings had him where they wanted him.
“You knew?” he wheezed at Thomasine as her needle darted in and out attaching the bright red buttons.
“I’ve been shoving the two of you together for years,” she muttered as she began to whip stitch buttons on to Peter’s waistcoat. “I’m not green, just cabbage looking.”
George snorted. “I’d never dare say that. An’ I were the marrying kind, I’d…”
“Still run a mile from me,” said Thomasine. “Don’t speak out of yourself, George Hendon. You’re family now, and I stand for no oathbreakers in this house.”
“Then, in a year,” murmured George. “I’ll be in Canada coming up the path to be the first foot over your threshold for the New Year. I swear it. I’ll follow you. I’ll find you.”
Christmas always makes me think of Dickensian waifs as well as Victorian widows and orphans. I’m a cheerful wee Syd! Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Tolpuddle Martyrs – perhaps it’s just the hard economic times and the Occupy Protests – but the Dorset labourers who were transported to Australia for forming an agricultural union have always been local heroes to me. I grew up in Dorset, not far from Tolpuddle and Bere Regis. The industrial revolution was hard on Dorset as the area had few industries and depended on agricultural labor and piecework such as button-making. Farm labor was cheap and many families were in dire straits. Milton Frenshaw is a made up village, but its name is typical of a small Dorset village. Other than the invented family and village, the events and details mentioned are real.
As an émigré, I’ve also been long fascinated by those who left England – whether by choice or necessity. In the early 1850s, the government and landowners organized the relocation of hundreds of impoverished Dorset families to the colonies. One view sees that as a philanthropic act; another sees it as an expedient political move. No doubt the truth is somewhere in between. Most families were sent to either Perth or Quebec. Thomasine, no doubt, saw Perth as a choice still resonant of the penal transports. The famous painting The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown was a partial inspiration for this story.
It shows a married couple with Dover behind them, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be siblings. Thomasine and Peter would be less well off than these two though!
When Thomasine is angered about oaths, she is referring to the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797.
Originally intended to prevent mutiny aboard ships, the Act was used to send the Tolpuddle Friendly Society members to Australia. They were transported as convicts despite unions having become legal once the Combination Acts were repealed in 1824. The riots Peter mentioned took place in Dorset, and other places, in 1830 as farm labourers destroyed threshing machines and demanded higher wages. George’s eight shillings a week was just over half the estimated amount needed for food and shelter for a single man, but still more than the six shillings a week many family men were paid. The Frampton family that Thomasine despises were involved in putting down the riots and also in summoning the government to prosecute the Tolpuddle Martyrs under the Unlawful Oaths Act. You can see the Frampton name at the bottom of this caution poster.
When they were first starting out, my younger brothers both learned skills like George and Peter’s – one brother was an apprentice thatcher and spent winter down time making spars and the other trained as a woodsman. George has been maintaining a coppice – trees are trimmed so they sprout young branches from stumps. In this case, hazel branches are used to make sheep hurdles, woven fences, and roofing materials. When I attended girls’ school in Dorset, I was taught how to do buttony. I resented it greatly at the time, but now I appreciate knowing the old skill. It feels ironic as, even before the machines replaced Thomasine’s trade, she was already being undercut by workhouse and charity school labor. Like Thomasine, I’ve put some buttons on a weskit, made cards of them (as gifts rather than in gross amounts!), and recently I’ve been making many red ones to use as Christmas decorations
Traditionally, the buttons were not made with colours, so Thomasine’s red buttons were unusual. The small size used for shirt buttons is pretty fiddly, especially for clumsy and arthritic Syds, so making them larger – and gaudier– as ornaments or over-sized buttons is much more fun.
I made most of these with embroidery floss.
The red ones along the top and bottom are made with the saved cotton string from grocery bags.
I’m my grandpa’s descendant, no doubt about it. He couldn’t walk down the street without picking up “perfectly good bits of string” that some spendthrift had discarded.
It’s not hard to do buttony, and I’ve included links to a two tutorials.
My own photo-tutorial was risible, so these are much better!
Oh, the bulls-eyes mints that Jasper has are now more commonly known as HUMBUGS. Happy Christmas!
Syd McGinley is a grumpy writer of smut responsible for the Dr. Fell series as well as the adventures of Tarin in Twice Caught and Out of the Woods. Syd is an ex-pat Brit currently living in the mid-west of the USA.
Giveaway: any one of my e-books (www.sydmcginley.com) or a card of six handmade buttons in the color of your choice.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet - write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)
22. When does Wizzard wish it could be Christmas?