12.4 Children

A Fictitious Comedy About Industrial Life in Broomhall in the 1850s

Malcolm Lisle

This story was inspired by a walk around an interesting historical part of Broomhall with a pocket camera.  In the mid nineteenth century  Broomhall was a sprawling, rapidly growing industrial area full of cutlery and metalwork factories surrounded by tightly packed back to back houses.  In this story an unemployed man called Walter travels back in time, believing that he is returning to a golden age when everybody had a job for life.  The truth is far more complicated and Walter finds that getting a job in nineteenth century Sheffield is not as easy as he thinks.  While the city may be full of factories and new businesses, that wealth does not always trickle down and the working class live in real poverty.  This story is completely fictitious and describes living conditions in the 1850s.  It bears no resemblance to any person living in Broomhall today or the present occupants or proprieters of any property in Broomhall.

(Walter standing in the Time Traveller’s shop.)

Walter :-  I want to go back in time.

Time Agent :-  When to?

Walter :-  The 19th century.

Time Agent :-  Not many people want to go then.  I get lots of people wanting to go back to the last time England had a drought so they can have a dry walking holiday in the Lake District, or they go back to the 1930s to buy chocolate.  You get much better chocolate in the 1930s.  Last week I had someone who wanted to go back to the 1980s so he could buy a decent cassette recorder.  What part of the 19th century do you want to go to?

Walter :-  The middle of the industrial revolution, when all the factories were being built in Sheffield.

Time Agent :-  What are you going to do in the mid nineteenth century?

Walter :-  I want to get a job.  I’m unemployed.  I’ll be able to get a job then.

Time Agent :-  People in nineteenth century Sheffield worked a ninety hour a week and had an average life expectancy of 27.

Walter :-  Nothing could be worse than having no job at all.  I’m bored out of my mind.  I’d do anything.  I’d go down a mine with a pick axe and a Davy lamp.  I’d hammer iron in an iron works.

Time Agent :-  If I send you back before 1930 it’s a one way trip.  This shop has only been open since 1930.  Not many people know it’s here.  Not many people believe in time travel.

Walter :-  I don’t want to come back.

Time Agent :-  I charge £1 for every year that you go back in time.  I’m sending you 160 years back, so I want £160.  You’ll need some money to take back with you.  (Picks up a pocket watch.)  £120 for the watch.  It isn’t gold, it’s gold plated.  You can sell it in a pawnbroker’s or jeweller’s shop.

Walter :-  Did they know what gold plating was then?

Time Agent :-  I don’t know.

Walter :-  I’ve just had a month’s benefit paid all at once.  I won’t be needing it now.  I’ll come back this afternoon with a big suitcase and £280.

Time Agent :-  I want it in cash.


(Walter returns to the shop with a big suitcase.  He hands over the money to the Time Agent.)

Walter :-  Is that the time machine?  It’s got huge coils, hasn’t it?  They’re glowing a really strange colour.

Time Agent :-  They’re charging up.  Stand underneath the coils.  (Walter stands under the coils with the suitcase still in his hands.)  I’m going to throw the switch and the magnetic field will collapse.  This will create a time vortex and you will go back in time.

Walter :-  Go ahead.  Throw the switch.  This is exciting.

Shopkeeper :-  Good afternoon, Sir.  That’s strange.  I didn’t hear you open the door.

Walter :-  Is this the Time Agent’s shop?

Shopkeeper :-  This is a grocer’s shop, Sir.

Walter :-  Oh, I get it.  I must have gone back.

Shopkeeper :-  Gone back, Sir?

Walter :-  Come back here.  Never mind.  Can you tell me where I might find a jeweller’s and pawnbroker’s shop?

Shopkeeper :-  There’s one at the end of the street and just around the corner, Sir.


(Walter enters the jeweller’s and pawnbroker’s shop.)

Walter :-  How much would you give me for this gold watch?

Jeweller :-  Let’s have a look at it for you.  (The jeweller holds the watch and examines it through a magnifying glass.)  Oh, I’m sorry Sir.  This isn’t a very good quality gold watch.

Walter :-  Well, it’s either gold or it isn’t.

Jeweller :-  It depends on the purity of the gold, and this is something badly made, if I might say so.  This is not good at all.  It is cheap and mass produced.  It must have been made abroad.  I doubt it was made in this country.  I’ll give you half a crown for it.

Walter :-  You could sell it for more than half a crown.  I bet you could sell it for a whole guinea.  A pocket watch is worth a fortune, even if it isn’t very good gold.

Jeweller :-  As it looks like a solid reliable pocket watch I suppose I could sell it for twelve shillings, nothing more.

Walter :-  You could sell it for more than that.

Jeweller :-  Twelve shillings sixpence Sir, that really is my final offer.

Walter :-  Twelve and six, that’s fine.


(Walter enters the landlord’s shop.)

Walter :-  I’m interested in the advert you have in the window for accommodation.

Landlord :-  Which accommodation is that, Sir?

Walter :-  The quarter room in Thomas Street for six pence a week.  What exactly is a quarter room?

Landlord :-  The room has four corners, Sir.  You would be sleeping in your own corner of the room.

Walter :-  Is it a big room?  Would I be able to get a bed in there?

Landlord :-  I doubt the corner of the room is big enough for a bed, Sir.  I would provide you with a mat on the floor and a pillow on which to lay your head.

Walter :-  Does the house have a bathroom?

Landlord :-  What’s a bathroom, Sir?

Walter :-  Sorry, a flush toilet?

Landlord :-  The property has just had a new ash pit latrine built behind it.  You pull the chain, and a huge pile of clay comes down into the toilet to relieve the smell.  The sleeping mat, the cushion and the very latest ash pit latrine are all included in the six pence a week rent.

Walter :-  Will there only be four people living in the room or will there be more?

Landlord :-  It’s a very large room, Sir.  It covers the whole of the first floor.  The kitchen is downstairs, and there are rooms above it on the first and second floors.  I rent half of this room to a family with eight children, a quarter of it to an Irish woman, and I will be renting the remaining quarter of the room to you, Sir.

Walter :-  That’s good.  Here’s sixpence.  Can I go there this afternoon?


(Walter arrives at the house.)

Martha :-  Hello.  I’m Martha.  I’m from Ireland.

Walter :-  I thought I recognised the accent.

Martha :-  How’s that, do you travel a lot?

Walter :-  I just watch television, I mean, I’ve met lots of Irish people.

Martha :-  There’s a lot of us in England now, since the potato famine.

Rachel :-  What’s the potato famine?

Martha :-  This is Rachel.  Rachel is nine years old.

Walter :-  Hello Rachel.

Martha :-  The potatoes had a disease called potato blight and they all turned horrid so we couldn’t eat them.  We all starved.

Rachel :-  Why didn’t you just eat bread?

Martha :-  We didn’t have any bread.  They wouldn’t let us grow wheat.  We had to buy it from England.

Rachel :-  Why didn’t you buy it from England?

Martha :-  We didn’t have any money.

Rachel :-  If the potatoes had all turned horrid so you couldn’t eat them and you didn’t have any money and they wouldn’t let you grow any wheat to make bread, I don’t think that’s very fair.

Martha :-  I don’t think that’s very fair.

Sarah :-  Rachel, run down the street to the butcher’s shop and see if Mr. Sheridan has any bones so we can have some bone broth.  Here’s threpence.  Get me a bag of flour from the grocer’s as well.

Walter :-  Are we going to have an evening meal?

Martha :- We will but very late, after nine o’ clock.  When the children and their father come in from work.  It takes Sarah all day to bake bread.

Walter :-  I’ll go and find a café.


(Walter sitting in a coffee shop.)

Walter :-  Scones with jam and cream and a pot of tea, please.  (Holds out an old fashioned ten pence piece.)

Assistant :-  Excuse me Sir, have you got anything smaller?

Walter :-  It’s a two shilling piece.  It’s only worth ten pence.

Assistant :-  I’m sorry Sir, the scones and tea are tuppence hapenny.  If you gave me a two shilling piece that’s twenty four pence Sir, not ten pence, I’d have to give you an enormous amount of change.

Walter :-  If I give you sixpence is that all right?  (Holds out the sixpence.)

Assistant :-  Sixpence would be fine, Sir.  Here’s threppence hapenny change.


(Walter back at the house.  It’s nine o’ clock.  Sarah’s children and husband return from the factory.)

Sarah :-  Soup everybody?  I bet you’re all hungry after such a long day.

Walter :-  Don’t they have breakfast?

Martha :-  They don’t have time for it.  They start at five o’ clock.

Walter :-  Don’t they have a lunch break?

Martha :-  What’s a lunch break?

Walter :-  Can we have some soup as well?

Martha :-  Yes, but let the children go first.

Walter :-  Do you have to pay for it?

Martha :-  Just give them tuppence at the end of the week.

Tom :-  Oh look, little Florence has fallen asleep again with her bread in her mouth.  It’s cute the way she does that.  Wake up, Florence.  (Sarah passes Walter some soup and bread cake.)

Walter :-  Thank you.  This bread is more like cake.  It’s good but it’s not really like bread.

Tom :-  We can’t afford the proper flour.  You have to pay import duty on Canadian flour.  British flour can be used to make a loaf of bread but if you cut it into slices it just falls apart, so she makes the bread like a cake.

Sarah :-  Good bread, you can cut it into slices and put butter on it but it costs a fortune.

Walter :-  I’m not complaining.  I like your bread.  Mmm, this bone broth is tasty.  This spoon is rusty.  I’ll have to buy you some new spoons.  Rust can harbour germs.

Sarah :-  What are germs?


(The next day.  Walter walks into a factory.)

Walter :-  I’m looking for a job.

Boss :-  I can’t take on any more people, I haven’t got enough orders.

Walter :-  But these are the days of full employment.

Boss :-  Look Son, just because there’s been a few factories built in Broomhall doesn’t mean it’s going to usher in a golden age of prosperity, where everybody has plenty of work.  Have you ever run a company?  If there’s a war, you can’t export.  Then all the soldiers come back from the front and wonder why they can’t have their old jobs back.  As if I could keep a job open for four or five years.  If I buy a new machine that makes the job easier and quicker I don’t need as many people.

Walter :-  But that’s not supposed to happen in the nineteenth century.

Boss :-  You’re young and idealistic.  You’re talking like one of those trouble makers who calls everybody out on strike.  Just remember who creates the wealth in this country.  It’s not as easy as you think.


(Walter back at the house.)

Walter :-  I went to the factory to get a job and they wouldn’t have me.

Martha :-  You need to persevere.  I went to 30 different factories before I got a job.  Now I help Sarah look after the children.

Walter :-  I’ll just have to get on my bike and look for work, then.

Sarah :-  What’s a bike?

Walter :-  Maybe I should go to Newcastle and become a miner.

Sarah :-  How are you going to get to Newcastle?

Walter :-  Get the train.

Sarah :-  A train all the way from here to Newcastle?


(The next day.  Walter in another factory.)

Manager :-  I need a very skilled metal worker.

Walter :-  I’m good with my hands.  I can fix old cars, I mean, I’m good at mending things.

Manager :-  I’d like you to work a week in hand.

Walter :-  What’s a week in hand?

Manager :-  You’re joking.  Everybody knows that.  I want you to work a week in hand.

Walter :-  Have you given me the job or not?

Manager :-  Yes.  But you won’t get paid until the end of two weeks.

Walter :-  Two week’s wages, then?

Manager :-  No.  One week’s wages.

Walter :-  Why?

Manager :-  I want you to work a week without being paid, to see if you’re any good.  A week in hand.

Walter :-  I see.  Yes, that’s fine.  I accept.


(Walter back at the house.)

Walter :-  I’ve got a job.

Sarah :-  That’s excellent news.

Walter :-  It’s not much money, only five shillings a week.

Martha :-  Five shillings a week?  Most people in Broomhall only make two shillings a week, and I didn’t even earn that much.

Sarah :-  Could I show you some photographs of my children?

Walter :-  They’re all on metal plates.  Very interesting.  They’re very nice children.  Ooh, that one doesn’t look too well.

Martha :-  That’s a photograph of William taken after he died.  That’s a cute little coffin, isn’t it?

Walter :-  Don’t you have any photographs of William taken while he was alive?

Martha :-  No.  He only lived to be four.  We didn’t have time.  Sarah had twelve children and four of them died.

Walter :-  I’m sorry.  That must be awful.

Sarah :-  It is but at least I’ve still got a large family left.

Walter :-  Is religion a comfort to you?

Sarah :-  It is sometimes.  I don’t go to church very often.  I can’t afford to buy a pew.  It’s standing room only, if you don’t have a family pew.

Walter :-  I’m going to be getting my own flat soon, so I’ve bought you some food to say thank you for looking after me.  (Hands Sarah some food.)

Sarah :-  Oh, proper bread and half a pound of butter and half a pound of cheese.  Just wait until the children see this.  They’ll think it’s Christmas.

See a gallery of Malcolm Lisle ‘out and about’ pictures here:

This page was added by Malcolm Lisle on 27/11/2014.

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