Alice Kelsall’s Blouse, July 1891

by Sue Seabridge

It was my fancy white blouse. I’d washed it, hung it on the line to dry in the splash of sunlight that fills the yard of an afternoon. I was going to wear it when I was out with my gentleman friend on Sunday. A whole day out together don’t happen often. Albert’s a butcher, see, he works all hours, but he does bring me a bit of kidney when he can. I fry it up in a knob of butter till it tastes soft as velvet.

And that blighter – Mashiter, he was called – had his dirty hands all over my blouse. It was Thursday, about five o’clock. I’d just made a cup of tea for Miss Alice Johnson. She’s the lady what lives next door. A proper lady, she is. She comes to my kitchen most days, through the back gate, looking all around to make sure no-one sees her. Back gate’s for servants, like me, or tradesmen, or my Albert when he’s bringing me a scrap of meat. Soon as I hear her lift the kitchen latch, I put kettle on range, take out her flowered cup and saucer, and by the time she’s sat herself in the armchair, tea’s brewing in the pot. ‘Kelly, you make an excellent cup of tea.’ She says that every time.

Kelly’s not my name. I’m Alice, same as her. That’s the only way we’re the same. Her hands are lovely and soft. My hands are red raw with washing and cleaning and stoking that bally range, ‘scuse my language. She wears fine dresses, petticoats that swish when she moves, and there’s a smell about her of lavender and fresh air. I’ve got me one good blouse and navy skirt for outings, and I mainly smell of meat or carbolic.

I don’t care for being called Kelly. I’m Alice Kelsall. But it’s not my place to tell her what I want to be called so I’ve put up with her nickname for me.

She doesn’t need to come to see me. She’s plenty of friends amongst the ladies of Lancaster, and there’s her charity work. And needlework so fine. Miss Alice has seven sisters. If I had seven sisters I’d never feel lonely. When she gets a letter from Bristol from her Jeanette, she reads it to me. Jeanette and Miss Alice are twins, and there’s a special bond between them, she says. She knows when Miss Jeanette is in pain, cos she feels it too. Funny that.

She lets me know what’s happening in her house, number 12 Castle Park. I nod and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to show I’m listening, but what with her Uncles being old men now there’s not a lot to tell. They’re well respected in Lancaster, Mr Christopher was a doctor and Mr Thomas a solicitor. Now they live very quiet.

I live at number 14 Castle Park, servant to Dr and Mrs Lamport. They keep me busy, but I’ve had worse positions. Dr Lamport, he’s out most of the day, doing his doctoring. Mrs Lamport’s expecting. Baby’s due in a month and Dr L fusses around her like no-one’s ever had a baby before. It’s their first and being a doctor, he knows all that could go wrong. She’s so pale you’d think there’s no blood in her. Moving around makes her press her lips together to hide the pain. I shudder to think what she’ll go through when that baby’s being born. Well, my blouse….

When I looked out the kitchen window and saw that man with his dirty hands on my clean blouse, I felt so angry I didn’t think to be afraid. I ran into the yard and pulled it out of his hands. Miss Alice says I was shouting ‘What’re you doing, that’s mine, that is.’ I can’t remember. My blood was up. I would have fought a lion to get my blouse back. I could smell the beer on him, and there was a clanking coming from the pockets of his coat. Once I’d got hold of my blouse, I ran back into the kitchen and shot the bolt across. I was trembling. I cried a few tears.

Miss Alice was very calm. ‘Where will I find a policeman?’ she said.

‘Kings Arms,’ I said, straight away. Albert told me that he passed the time of day with PC Kelsall most evenings about this time, when the constable called in the public bar to check all was well.

Miss Alice sat me down in the chair, went up the back stairs, and I heard the front door close behind her. That’s when I realised I’d done wrong telling her about the Kings Arms. Miss Alice was going to a public house. A lady like her shouldn’t be seen in a common place like that.

But, do you know, she went straight in, told PC Kelsall what had happened and they both set off down Meeting House Lane and caught up with the thief in Dallas Road. He was the worse for drink, she said, which wasn’t news to me as I’d had a whiff of him already. PC Kelsall gave him a shake and a trowel, fork, and nails scattered across the pavement. Why he wanted my blouse, I can’t think. He had some bottles of beer in his pockets, too. He said to PC Kelsall ‘Them’s mine’ but it’s my belief he’d thieved the drink as well as everything else.

Miss Alice came back after a while, told me how she and PC Kelsall apprehended the thief, handcuffed him, and PC Kelsall marched him back to the police station.

‘Well, Kelly,’ she said, looking as excited as I’ve ever seen her, ‘I shall be required to appear in court when he comes for trial. I shall enjoy the experience.’

And she did just that, although there was no mention in court of Miss Alice being in my kitchen that day, or of her going in the Kings Arms. It was said that I ‘communicated’ with Miss Alice. Her visits to my kitchen had to stay just between us. It wouldn’t do for a lady like her to sit with a servant of an afternoon. Even Mrs Lamport mustn’t find out about that, and Dr L, he’d have stopped it in a minute.

Mr Mashiter, the blouse thief, was sentenced to a month’s hard labour. A month? He’s lucky. My whole life’s hard labour.

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