The Girl from the Workhouse by Lynn Johnson, published by Amazon
Imagine you’re a young girl aged eleven, Ginnie Jones by name. It’s 1911 in the Staffordshire Potteries. Your father works hard in Chamberlain’s pottery, but life is okay. You live in a tiny terraced house with your parents and your big sister Mabel. And today is your birthday. Even better, though you can’t read, you’re going to be awarded a book prize at Sunday School.
Now imagine all that taken away, suddenly and brutally. Father goes blind, the family loses its home, and you’re sent alone to live in Haddon Workhouse, a vast cold place full of other displaced and deserted children. You don’t get enough to eat, and there’s no competent healthcare if you fall ill. Even your Sunday School prize book is lost, sold to the pawn shop.
This is working class life in the industrial Midlands, shortly before the Great War. This is the life of Ginnie Jones.
Lynn Johnson, herself a native of Stoke-on-Trent, has taken her inspiration from her grandmother’s experiences to meticulously recreate a young girl’s life of poverty, loneliness, and illiteracy. She gives us a clear-eyed vision of the long-lost England of a century ago, seen through Ginnie’s eyes as she struggles to keep the people she loves, and make something better of her life.
Lovers of historical sagas will really enjoy this book; and the good news is that its linked sequel will be following later in 2020. The book is rich in carefully researched dialect and detail, especially about life in a workhouse, and the tough but gradually changing conditions for young female workers in the Potteries. We meet Ginnie’s few beloved friends, smile as she shares her life with Clara, Mary, Constance and Sam, and mourn with her when she loses so many of the people she loves. We see her struggle and win against prejudice, ignorance and social barriers.
One of the strengths of the book is the characterisation. They are complex and vividly drawn, their plausibility enhanced by the author’s knowledgeable use of local dialect. Lynn Johnson has rounded out her characters so that all of them, despite weaknesses and faults, arouse our sympathy – Mabel and her laziness, Frank the predatory manipulator, the rough workers at the pottery where Ginnie works. The reader can readily see all these people through Ginnie’s eyes (I confess to a soft spot for George, despite his early bullying at school and work, and his later deceit and clumsy attempts to woo Ginnie).
I particularly enjoyed the structure of the novel. Lynn Johnson has created a shuttling timeline back and forth to interweave Ginnie’s years in the workhouse with her later war-time and working life. She uses Ginnie’s few treasures, her “tranklements”, to bookend the contrasting chapters. Everyone Ginnie loves has left a tiny gift in her life: from the red ribbon her father gave her when his sight was failing; to the yellow “shottie” or marble she wins from her great love Sam when she first meets him at the workhouse; to the doll Sam makes for her when her time at the workhouse ends.
Unlike other sagas set in the Edwardian/WW1 period, this novel is careful to keep the focus on the women: Ginnie and her female friends and family. The War is touched on, but mostly as it affects the women left behind to run the country. The author’s build-up of detail really give us a glimpse of being a working class girl of the era, and a rich sense of how quickly social attitudes were altering. Even the changing relationship with George, one-time bully and later would-be suitor, is set against the backdrop of Ginnie’s efforts to better herself in what is still largely a man’s world.
There are a few glitches in the text which more careful editing might have picked up, but the warmth of the writing and Lynn Johnson’s careful attention to research and detail shine throughout. The upcoming sequel, focussing on Ginnie’s middle-class suffragette friend Connie, promises to be just as enticing a read.