by Christine Henderson
I’ve often wondered why I was brought to this humble dwelling. It’s very different from what I’ve been used to. There isn’t even a carpet on the floor! You’d think in the year 1820 even a little cottage like this would have a rug to cover the boards of this draughty room. And the stairs, so narrow and twisted, I don’t know how the man managed to get me up here. They are nothing like the grand staircase in my old home.
Now I have to live here in this tiny bedroom, with its plain walls, and its plaster ceiling with the reeds showing through in places. But I do have a child sleeping in me again, though she’s a little scrap of a thing, looks under-nourished to me, compared with the children who were cared for in my previous nursery. The old woman who brought me here has taken a four-year-old girl from the workhouse to be her servant. She even had to pay a few coppers to get her. Of course the child is too young to do much useful work at the moment, but she scrubs the floors, and runs errands, and fetches potatoes from the cellar for the old woman. Sometimes she sorts out the pieces of coloured cloth that her mistress uses, to make the peg rugs she sells to some of the better-off neighbours. Even to me, it was a shock that a child so young could be bought by the old woman, but by taking her from the workhouse and teaching her the skills of a good domestic servant, she will ensure that the child will be able to support herself in the future.
You may be wondering how a beautiful mahogany cot like me came to be in this cottage. Many years ago, I was made by a skilled craftsman to go in the nursery of a large town house, owned by a wealthy gentleman. There was a nanny employed there, but I helped look after the children too. With my protection they could sleep in comfort and not be in danger. My carefully turned and polished bars were narrow enough for little hands to clutch at, but my sides were too high for even the most adventurous child to climb over.
Eventually, all the children who had slept in me grew up and moved away, and I was consigned to the attic. No one seemed to want me, but many years later, when the nanny had become an old woman, she inherited this little cottage on Castle Hill, and her old employer said she could take me with her as a memento of her time in charge of the nursery at the big house.
So here I am, in this small bedroom, which doesn’t even have any wallpaper on the walls, and a window so tiny that if the cat sits on the ledge I can barely see out! Sometimes I think of my spacious old nursery, the graceful windows edged with pretty lace curtains, and its soft carpet, the fire glowing in the grate, protected by a shiny brass fireguard. There were toys for the children, a beautiful rocking horse with a real leather saddle and bridle, a positive regiment of toy soldiers, and the girls had such pretty dolls. Here the only toy that little Mary Ann can play with is an ugly brown crib, and the doll in it is made of painted wood. She seems to like it though, and it comforts her at night when she sometimes cries for her mother, who she had to leave behind in the workhouse.
At first I was inspired to research a few of the residents of Castle Hill through nineteenth century census reports because I have found out a lot of interesting details about my own family in this way. Then a visit to the Cottage Museum gave me an insight into how some of these people would have lived. When I find myself near the Castle now, I like to picture the men, women and children I have written about as they would have appeared, going about their lives in the nineteenth century.