Worth less than coal sacks

Judge’s Comments – Runner-up

I love the idea of a workhouse inmate being brave enough to write a letter about her terrible experiences, and I appreciated the unique approach. I very much liked the image of the girl being ‘raided from head to foot’ when she entered the institution – it produces a very clear image of ruffians rifling through the child’s pockets and taking everything personal that she has left. Well done!

Worth less than coal sacks

By Cecilia Axon

October 28th 1851
Honourable Sirs

I am addressing you to complain of the inhumanity of the treatment in the workhouse. I am your humble servant Cecilia Axon and have suffered at the neglectful hands of Mr Reed, master of the workhouse, along with my fellow inmates.

I have been ordered to pick oakum for the past three months and my fingers have been rubbed raw so I cannot work. I was forced into the workhouse when I was nine years old. The brutality is unbearable – people are worked to death. Many of them are like walking skeletons with black shadows beneath their bloodshot eyes and no flesh on their bones.

My mother died when I was three giving birth to my younger brother, and my father is now in a debtor’s prison. Most people would rather starve than go into the workhouse but many like me have no choice. When I entered the destitute and detested building I was raided from head to foot. Mr Reed’s assistants took from me a small locket from my mother and a piece of bread and cheese. They say it is too keep it safe and will give it back when I leave but nothing ever returns.

On one of my first days picking oakum I was a boy being beaten for simply not working hard enough and that boy being much younger and smaller than me so the master had no right to do this. Another day a young woman was put in a windowless room in the cellar with no bed and only straw to sleep on.

This is not the only reason I am writing to you today. The thin bowls of watery gruel and harsh daily beating are nothing compared to this. I have discovered that the boys and girls are disappearing. The children here are worth less than coal sacks but they still matter I implore you to investigate this further and I will try to do the same.

God grant we poor creatures may soon be rid of Mr Reed.

I remain your most humble servant.

Cecilia Axon.

P.S. Since writing this letter my father has died. I fear my future will forever be overshadowed by this dreadful workhouse. Now I am not only a pauper but an orphan. I pray I will not be the next to disappear. Mr Reed has vowed never to leave a pauper without a beating or two so I hope to get away from here.

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