Chapter 1: Jenny's Story Part 1
The harsh reality for children of Victorian London is that if they were poor they had to work to help support the family. And there were few appealing employment options available to these unfortunate souls. Boys often worked as chimney sweeps, in a factory, or any number of hard labor jobs along with the men; girls were often match girls or chamber maids if they were lucky enough to find an employer. Even "honest" work was dangerous for girls; and it was especially dangerous if those girls didn't have a family to look after them or care for them. Men would take advantage any way they could, and most assaults and rapes went unreported and unchallenged. Runaway and orphaned girls had only unsavory and dangerous work options; typically either prostitution or petty theft. Jenny had no intention of letting men grope and assault her; she would find another way to survive. Most households would not hire runaways even as chamber maids, and that's just what Jenny Flint was considered even though she didn't run away, she had been unceremoniously kicked out onto the street when she was only fourteen.
She spent the first few days and nights on the streets huddled, starving, and shivering as the seasons changed from winter to spring. She begged and pleaded with passersby for a scrap of food but no one was willing to help. She found herself drinking rainwater and eating whatever was thrown out by the shops and restaurants. She was getting ill, not from the lack of food and water, but from the food and water she was eating. Desperate, she stole her first piece of food from the market on her fourth day on her own. It was the best thing she'd ever eaten, even though it was only a loaf of bread. But it wasn't dirty or moldy and she didn't fish it out of the garbage.
Within a month, she had gotten proficient at stealing enough food to survive either from shops, market venders, or abandoned plates in pubs. Although, the latter got her banned from pub after pub when they caught her snooping around tables and filling her pockets. But she did what she had to do feed herself and keep herself alive. Within a couple of months she realized that food wasn't the only thing she needed to survive. The heavy onslaught of spring rains reminded her she needed to find regular shelter and she needed at least a change of clothes so she wasn't soaked to the bone all the time. Sopping wet and about to catch her death of cold, Jenny sat huddled in a doorway in some back alley in the market district trying her best to avoid the rain. She was weak and desperate for food and was hoping for a handout as she was in no shape to sneak and run.
"'ello there," a young girl about Jenny's age said. "You look like you could use a dry place to stay."
Jenny looked up at the girl with her big brown eyes, but she couldn't muster any words.
"A'right then," the girl said, "I'm Emma. Emma Dunn, if it pleases you, and I know a thing or two about bein' on the streets and being' cold an 'ungry. If you can keep up, I can get you some food and a dry place to stay tonight."
Jenny nodded that she understood and slowly stood up. Coughing, she nodded again to let the girl know she was ready. The stranger took off at a good clip and it was all Jenny could do to keep up. They headed south towards the Thames and the warehouse district. Jenny followed as the girl took odd twists and turns through the streets and alleys and was just on the verge of losing her when Emma stopped short and pointed to a burned out hull of a warehouse.
"That place burned down a while ago," she said. "They never bothered to fix it up, so some of us use it for shelter in the bad weather or just when we need to hide away for a while. Unless there's a lot of us there, the bobbies don't bother us much. But you have to be careful 'cause ever now and again it'll get raided for workers. And you don't want the work they're offerin'." She looked at Jenny, who had yet to say a word. "Come on then. Let's get you inside."
The warehouse was black with soot and burned wood. There were bricks and rusted iron rods scattered about and the building looked about as unsafe as any Jenny had ever seen. Most of the roof was gone, but there was a corner still intact and that's where a few kids were huddled around a small fire.
Emma stopped before they were too close to the others and turned to Jenny. "Now you gotta tell me your name so I'll know how to introduce you. And don't let any of the boys get to you. They like to pick on new kids, but they're 'amrless."
Jenny was shivering but managed to muster up enough strength to tell Emma her name. "Jenny." She said weakly, "Jenny Flint."
"Pleased to meet you Jenny Flint." Emma beamed. "I can tell you 'aven't been out 'ere too long, then. Am I right?"
"It's a'right, we've all been new," Emma said as they started toward the group and the fire. "You're with me now. I'll teach you a few things."
And teach her a few things, she did! Over the next few weeks Emma taught Jenny a lot about living on the streets. She had been here since she was twelve when her parents could no longer afford to feed all their kids. She was the oldest, so she was sent out to find a job that paid more than what she was making as a match girl. When her dad suggested that she turn to prostitution, she left her family behind and never looked back. She hadn't seen them for over two years.
"Lesson one," Emma started, "there's no use beggin'. Won't do you any good, you're too old. No matter how desperate you are, no matter how hungry you are, no matter nothin' the good people of London will just tell you to piss off, or worse. Beggin' only works when you're young and cute, once you're our age you don't get nothin' for free."
"I kinda figured that out m'self," Jenny admitted. "One night I was so hungry I begged and begged for a crust of bread and not only did no one offer me anything to eat, several men offered me something else to put in my mouth."
Emma laughed. "Oh you'll get lots of that!" she said. "Honestly, it ain't too bad if the guy is young enough and handsome enough. Sometimes all they want is for you to handle their root and ballocks."
"No thank you!" Jenny said firmly.
"Blokes are easy marks," Emma told her. "You wink and smile and flirt with 'em and you can get all kinds of things. You can get a meal, maybe a pretty dress, and if you're really lucky, a place to stay for the night. And you don't have to really like the guy. You just have to pretend you do. The more they believe you really like them, the better they are to you."
"I don't think I'd be too good at that," Jenny said.
"What?" Emma asked, "Pretending to like a guy you don't really like?"
"Pretending to like any guy," Jenny said. "I'm not too keen on boys."
"You've never been sweet on a boy?"
"No." Jenny shyly looked down and shook her head.
"No worries, Jenny," Emma said. "Let's talk about where to get a free meal."
Emma took Jenny around pointing out which shops would put out their scraps and stale bread for the poor and which ones would throw it in the gutter and laugh as starving children watched and begged for a morsel. "The bakery over there will give out two day old stale bread to the poor. But they'll give it to a mother or children before they'll give it to girls like us. But they aren't hateful about it, they just think mothers and children need it more."
They journeyed on and Emma continued her lesson. "The butcher over there will pay you a half farthing a day to run deliveries around town. And if you're really lucky, the kitchen maid will give you something to eat when you drop off the meat. It's a really good job, if you can manage it; but the butcher only has so many deliveries a day ya know. So he don't need a lot of help. But there are other venders who need deliveries run. It don't pay much, but anythin's better than nothin'."
They walked a little further, and into a better part of London. They stood outside a confectionary, surely they didn't throw anything away, Jenny thought. "Of course the best way to get the best things," Emma said, "is to steal 'em right from the shop."
"That's what I been doing," Jenny confessed. "Mostly loaves of bread and apples and the like."
"Well you can get a lot of things, a lot better things, if you know where to look." Emma said. "Let's go get you some sweets."
Jenny was very apprehensive. "But I only steal what I need to get by," Jenny said.
"Startin' today, you steal what you want, Jenny Flint" Emma took Jenny by the hand and led her into the shop. Within minutes Emma's pockets were stuffed with lemon squares, biscuits, and toffee. Jenny was too scared to take anything by the time the clerk spotted them and shooed them out like cats. But when she was sharing the spoils she was starting to see the benefits of Emma's lesson.
Over the next few months, Emma taught Jenny how to pick pockets, steal from shops, and swindle tourists. Jenny was a natural. She was quick, charming, intelligent, and articulate if she put her mind to it. They became fast friends and virtually inseparable. The only time they were apart was when Emma would meet a boy and play him for whatever she could get. Jenny never followed this lesson. She concentrated on stealing and swindling and never had the desire to play men the way Emma did.
Jenny and Emma had created quite an act. Jenny would cause a distraction, usually either pretending to faint or yelling for help and while onlookers were distracted Emma would sneak through the crowd or behind the individuals and pick what she could from their pockets. This act gradually morphed into Jenny doing all sorts of theatrics to entertain or otherwise occupy onlookers. She even learned how to juggle and memorized some poetry, anything to captivate the audience. Emma began to tell Jenny she missed her true calling as an actress. Jenny would just blush and hold onto Emma's arm as they walked around London deciding how to spend their hard earned coin.
It was late summer going on fall and Jenny and Emma were bored and looking for an adventure. "Fancy a show?" Emma asked as they walked past the Elysium Musical Theatre.
"Sure," Jenny smiled. "But I don' think they'll let the likes of you an' me in there. Those people are dressed fancier than the Pope on Sunday!"
"You just watch and learn Jenny Flint," Emma teased and smiled at her friend. She grabbed Jenny's hand and led her around behind the theatre to the alleyway entrance. A quick glance inside and they were running backstage darting in and out of costume racks and set props. Finally Emma saw who she was looking for.
"Oi, Ian," she called in a hushed tone.
A tall, small framed, red headed young man looked around at the call of his name. "Emma!" He rushed over and scooped her up in a hug. "Long time, Love,"
"I've been otherwise preoccupied for the theatre, darling," Emma said in a mocked high society tone. They all laughed. "Oh," she said in her normal voice. "This is my friend Jenny."
"'ello Jenny," Ian nodded his head slightly. "'aven't seen you around before."
"She's new to the life," Emma said. She turned her attention to Jenny. "Ian 'ere was living in the burned out warehouse when I first found that place. Now 'eh's Mr. Bigshot with a proper job here at the theatre." She said "theatre" in her high society voice.
"Are you an actor then?" Jenny asked.
"Oh blimey no," Ian laughed. "I'm a stagehand."
"Wut's a stage'and?"
"Well, we move props and set pieces onto the stage and set 'em up," he started. "And we have to put 'em just right so the actors 'hit their mark'. They get real particular. We're the guys who change the scenes between acts and then pack it all up if it's a traveling show."
"Sounds like hard work," Jenny smiled.
"Nah," Ian flexed his nonexistent muscles, "not for a strappin' young lad like meself."
"That's enough flirtin' you two," Emma said. Jenny turned as red as Ian's hair. "Kind sir, please show us ladies to our seats." Emma said in her mocking high society voice.
"Certainly darling," he joked back and offered them each an arm to hold onto.
Ian took them to a rope ladder that lead to a suspended walkway above the stage. Jenny looked up and looked at Emma then to Ian. "We' goin' up there?"
"Best seat in the house, m'lady," Ian said. "You can see everything from up there. Even some stuff behind the scenes. But you have to be quiet. No laughing or talking." He put on a stern face and Jenny couldn't tell if he was serious or joking.
"Well that does it, Jenny can't go up," Emma said giving Jenny a grin.
"Shut your gob," Jenny lashed back. "I can be quiet if I want."
The girls headed up the ladder after Ian. "There's nothing going on up here tonight. The show is pretty straight forward. But usually this is where I'd be to lower props and what not."
"Like wut?" Jenny asked.
"You know, like if there was a scene where the moon was in the sky I may have to lower down a big full moon or somethin' like that."
"Oh," Jenny said.
"But, like I said, nothin' like that tonight. So you birds should be safe, even if it is the catwalk!"
Jenny laughed. She liked Ian.
The girls got situated and dangled their feet off the catwalk and talked waiting for the show to start.
"You like Ian, then?" Emma asked bluntly.
"Sure," Jenny said. "'es' a nice enough bloke."
"Maybe you could ask 'im out for a walk along the park or something," Emma suggested.
"You mean like a date?" Jenny scrunched up her nose.
"Yeah," Emma said. "It's ok for a girl to ask a boy out on a walk. No shame in that."
"I don't like 'im like that!" Jenny exclaimed.
"Why not?" Emma demanded. "You never go out with any boys. You're almost fifteen now. Don't you think it's about time you took an interest in boys?"
"Oi! You sound like me mum," Jenny said and hung her head.
Emma could see a single tear fall from Jenny's cheek to her skirt. "Jenny wut's wrong?"
Jenny sat for a long minute wringing her hands and summoning the courage to speak. "I don't like boys, Emma," Jenny was sobbing now. Several tears streamed down her face. "I like girls." It felt good to say out loud. But she was suddenly terrified. What would Emma think? What would she do? Would she still want to be her friend?
Emma put her hand on Jenny's back and tenderly patted it. "That's a'right Jenny. Don' cry. Nothing to be sad about." Emma continued to try and comfort Jenny. "Is that why you got kicked out of your mum's house then? Cause you like girls?"
Jenny looked at Emma with swollen red eyes. She was beyond excited that Emma was still sitting there. But not just sitting there. She was touching her, comforting her. She wasn't disgusted or telling her how she was going to go to Hell. "You mean you'll still be my friend?"
Emma laughed. "Of course, silly. I figured you didn't like boys. You never look at 'em or talk about 'em. And so wut? What's it matter? Doesn't if you ask me." She smiled at Jenny. "So, is that why you got kicked out?"
"Yes." Jenny wiped her eyes and stopped her crying. She smiled at Emma and felt better than she had in months. "I didn' even do anythin'. My mum caught me and a girl 'olding 'ands. But nothing had 'appened and she told me to either like boys or leave. Wut choice did I 'ave? I can't stop liking girls. I jus' do. And I can't jus' start liking boys, I jus' don't. It was either leave then or pretend for a while and get kicked out later anyway. So I left."
"Parents are right shite!" Emma smiled at Jenny. "That settles it. I'm never 'aving kids."
"Me neither!" Jenny said. Then they both laughed out loud.
Ian ran across the stage and looked up at the two girls. "Oi! Shhhhhh!" he said putting his finger up to his mouth. "Show's about to start. You wanna get kicked out?" he said in a hushed tone.
Emma put her hand to her mouth and pantomimed a key locking a pad lock. Ian shot her a look and went on about his work.
The play soon started and the girls laughed along with the audience at the antics of the actors. Only once did they laugh out of turn when an actor tripped and fell over during a costume change back stage. It earned them a scowl from the actor, Ian, and who they guessed was the stage manager. They clammed up before they got escorted out.
It was a year now that Jenny had been on her own. She had survived a summer, her fifteenth birthday, and one winter on the streets. The winter was the worst. Street life was hard but she had learned how to make the best of it. She spent any money she earned or stole on places to stay so that she never had to rely on anyone for shelter. Usually this meant renting floor space in a flat with a dozen or more other homeless children. Occasionally she could get a room for a week or so with only a few other people, she much preferred this. Food was easy for her to get between the handouts from a few good shop owners and lifting things off carts in the market. She had a real knack for petty theft but she was never too greedy with what she took. And she always did what she could to help others; even some days not eating so that a young child or a new mother could eat.
She and Emma snuck into the theatre at least once a month with the help of Ian and took their place on the catwalk. They even got to help on one occasion when the other stagehand didn't show. That was very exciting. And they got paid!
In April Emma shared some news with Jwnny that made her both extremely happy and extremely sad. "Oi, Jenny," Emma called to her best friend. Jenny came running up to meet her, she hadn't seen her in days. "I've wonderful news, Jenny."
"Go on then," Jenny said. "Wut's this about?"
"You remember Peter, the boy I've been seein'?" It was a rhetorical question. "He's asked me to marry 'im and move to Liverpool."
"Liverpool?" Jenny was surprised, to say the least. "But that's so far away. I'll never see you again."
"Nonsense," Emma said. "Peter 'as a really good job lined up there and I'm sure we'll come back 'ere to visit. His mum still lives 'ere."
"What kind of job?" Jenny wasn't sure this sounded like a good idea. "Who's he gonna be workin' for?"
"Construction's all he told me," Emma said. "Said he got word that Liverpool was growing faster than it could house all the people moving in. Said they were 'iring any and all able bodies to build all the new apartment buildings and 'ouses needed for all the folks moving that way."
"So what will you do?" Jenny asked.
"I suppose I'll take care of the 'ouse," she said. "I'll be a good lil 'ousewife." She straightened up and batted her eyelashes.
"'ousewife?" Jenny couldn't help but laugh. "You? No more thieving' an' runnin' the streets? All tied down and settled?"
"Sounds kinda borin' when you say it like that," Emma said lightly slapping at Jenny's hand. "But I reckon so." Emma looked lovingly at Jenny. "Jenny, I'm tired. I've been on my own since I was twelve. I'm tired of fightin' an' stealin' just to survive. Peter's a good guy. He's good to me, and I think we can make it work. I really do."
"Then I'm happy for you, Emma," Jenny smiled at her friend. "I really am. I'm jus' gonna miss you, that's all."
"I'll miss you too Jenny," Emma hugged onto Jenny with all her strength, "I'll miss you so much. But I'll come back and visit, I promise."
Jenny and Emma spent the rest of the day together and Emma left with Peter the next morning. She wouldn't come back to London for years.
Jenny went about her life as best she could, although she really missed her friend and almost constant companion. Within a month she sank into a depression. She stopped sneaking into shows (a favorite pastime of her and Emma's), traded her theatrical swindling for simple pickpocketing, and stopped stealing enough to make sure she was able to help out others. She did just what she had to do to keep herself fed and a roof over her head. Each day she passed by the opium dens deep within the worst of East End, but she hadn't sunk that low, yet. She did pick up the nasty habit of gin, but she tried to limit this to when she had a place to stay. She had seen what happened to young girls who passed out drunk on the streets.
She found company in the occasional "lost girl" but no one could replace Emma. Most of the girls that clung to Jenny did so because she was safe and she often had a place to sleep. But they didn't care about her. Emma had always cared. Sometimes she thought that Emma would have made a perfect wife for her, not Peter. But their relationship wasn't like that. Not at all. Besides, Jenny knew she'd never have a real relationship with a woman, which was ironic given that was exactly what her parents had kicked her out of the house for a year ago.
Curled up in the corner of an overcrowded flat, Jenny was half way through a bottle of gin when she started to reminisce. And it wasn't good. It was never good on the gin. Jenny's mom knew something was "off" with her little girl. She wasn't like the other girls who dreamed of a wedding and a prince charming or a courageous soldier; no, if anything Jenny was the one pretending to be prince charming! She hated dressing up for church much preferring to play in the streets with the boys. She liked what the boys liked, and her mother feared this would mean that she would also like girls when the time came for her to start courting. Her mother was so paranoid about this that starting at age 12 she actually encouraged Jenny to only play with boys. This pleased Jenny, as that is what she wanted to do anyway. She didn't understand that her mother was trying to encourage romantic feelings between her and her playmates.
Those feelings never came for Jenny, at least not for boys. Her mother was right and when she started to notice other kids, her eyes went to the girls. She never acted on those feelings until the spring of her fourteenth year. There was one girl she knew in the neighborhood who always smiled at her. She was like Jenny in a lot of ways, she'd rather play in the dirt with the boys than play dress up with the girls. They hit it off right away, but to Jenny's mother, they hit it off too well. She watched them like a hawk. Looking for any sign of "deviant behavior" as she called it. She wasn't going to let her daughter disgrace her. No sir. But when her mother found them one day holding hands, the simple, innocent act was misinterpreted by her mother who had been looking for any reason at all to chastise her daughter about the aberrant thoughts she just knew Jenny possessed. Jenny begged and tried to explain that they were just friends and there was nothing to the hand holding. The only truth to that was that nothing had happened, yet. But they both felt the mutual attraction.
After a proper scolding Jenny's mother marched the little girl home and that's the last Jenny ever saw of her. She was certain her parents either sent her away or threatened her to stay far away from Jenny. Jenny challenged her mother only to receive an ultimatum: swear off the deviant behavior or leave. Jenny left. Now Emma had left. Jenny was truly alone.