Chapter 20 - The Sailors Mission Orphanage
The next day the boys were accepted into the Sailors Mission Orphanage. They had been brought up as men by their father from a young age, so when they knew of their fate, they did not shed a tear in front of their mother. They did not castigate their father, for his bad luck. Instead, they put a brave face on it and accepted their lot as the young men they had been raised to be. They told their mother they would stick together and look out for each other. That it was good, that they were big enough to look after themselves and it was the best news, they could have had that she had found accommodation for her and Ted.
Most of the boys were orphans there, most having lost their father at sea. Several had lost both parents; the first would be the father drowned at sea and the second would be the mother’s plague of that era starvation, exhaustion and influenza. To say that visiting this institution was encouraged, would be incorrect. Once you had attended the Church Board’s review and had signed your children into their care, you were regarded by the middle-class members of this body as a case not worthy, even to see your children again.
They would now control that child’s destiny until the point in time when it would leave their care. This was usually at fourteen, where in the girl’s orphanage a suitable occupation would be found for their aptitudes, this would usually result in being apprenticed to a seamstress for an apprenticeship. These could last anything up to seven years, at which point the child might release themselves from this servitude.
The other area where girls were in demand was in the households of the middle and upper classes. The girls always were a source of good dependable cheap labour and all these jobs would give the girls living in accommodation and a chance to serve and observe their superiors.
For the boys, a more clear-cut decision was made. There would be few employers willing to provide live in accommodation for a boy. Boys could be especially awkward and would need a strong hand and there were enough boys with fathers to fill the vacancies for the good trades, even the coal mines had a surplus of willing baby-faced volunteers. The only suitable or available path for mission boys was the army or the navy. After the strict discipline and confines of the mission, the boys were perfectly suited to this lifestyle. You could say they had been actively prepared for it by their institutionalisation from such a young age. Indeed, most would genuinely come to see each establishment body as they moved through their lives as their true family.
As the orphanage gate closed behind them the boys knew now that they were on their own. Whatever happened from this point, was down to them. Their escort took them to the admin office. They sat, they stood when told, but above all when others are in command they waited. First, they waited for all the paperwork to be in order, then they waited to be given an identifer as they were told by the administrator.
‘An identifeir gives order, without them we would have anarchy, we wouldn’t know one boy from another!’ This first task performed a man dressed in a blue uniform was introduced to them. The uniform was similar to an officer’s uniform, as warn by men in the service of the Merchant Navy,
’This is Mr …” the name was mumbled so that the boys looked at each other but thought better than to ask it to be repeated.
‘You will address him and all officers and staff as Sir, do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes Sir.’ They answered in unison. This was fortunate as they still had no idea of the officer’s name.
‘Your names are?’ The new officer enquired in a rather sharp manner.
‘Matt Burns Sir.’
‘Luke Burns Sir,’ came the answer.
The unnamed officer looked at the administrator ‘Are there any other cadets with the names Burns here at the moment, to my knowledge there are none?’ The administrator pondered for a moment and then made a supplementary record in his ledger, as he finished, he raised his head and first pointed at Matt.
‘You are the oldest. While you are here you will be known as Burns A.’ He then pointed at Luke ‘and you will be known as Burns B’.
The boys looked at each other Luke was about to speak, but Matt frowned indicating that now was not the right time, Matt new what Luke’s question was. It perhaps was similar to his, if they were the only two boys with the name Burns, why could they not be known as Burns M and Burns L? After all, no other boys would currently by using these letters!
The unnamed officer spoke. ‘A most excellent arrangement and one which will avoid any unnecessary confusion’.
The administrator who the remark had been directed to nodded in agreement as if by this act, the fabric of the establishment would remain intact. The unnamed officer now turned his attention again towards the boys.
‘Now whenever you are required to present yourself to an officer, you will also use the initial given to you to distinguish who is who, is that clear?’
‘Yes Sir’ again came the answer in unison.
All being completed in the administration office the unnamed officer now became their chaperone. There next port of call was to the room which acted as the infirmary for the orphanage, here they were told to sit on two chairs outside in the hall while they waited for a junior doctor from Dr Broad’s surgery to attend and give them a physical examination.
The unnamed officer went inside the small infirmary and talking could be heard. The other voice was that of a woman, within the course of a minute the unnamed officer and the unidentified voice came out of the infirmary. The voice belonged to a woman in her late forties a dark-haired woman with a good figure for her age, a figure which had lost the crispness of its youth. Nethertheless, it had been looked after and had not reached old cliché of middle age spread which seems to denote any form of abuse which is age related. She wore the uniform of a Matron and her poise well suited the uniform, she approached Luke, first who was nearest to the infirmary door.
‘I am Matron Crease, you will address me as Ma’am or Matron either is suitable, and you will give me the same courtesy as any officer while on board and you are?’
Luke hesitated for a second, many things new were happening today, then he remembered and answered.
‘Burns B Sir, I Mean Ma’am’.
She looked thoughtfully for a moment. ‘And the B, is that for Bartholomew, Brian or perhaps Bertie?’
‘I don’t know what it’s for Ma’am - the officer gave it to me, and my brother is now called Burns A, cos he’s older than me’.
She smiled, ‘I see - well that’s good for when you are on ship, but here I need to know your real name for the doctor’s record.’
‘It’s Luke Ma’am’.
‘Well Luke I want you to bend your head forward slightly, I need to do a few checks before you come into my infirmary.’
He obliged, she took out a fine-toothed comb which she used to part and check his scalp with.
‘Good nothing there we need to worry about, and now for your brother, and you are?’
‘Matt Burns Ma’am’.
‘Well Matt Burns, head forward.’
He duly obliged and within a couple of minutes she also pronounced to him, that there was nothing to worry about.
‘Now, I want you boys to remain here until the Doctor calls for you.’ They nodded.
The unnamed officer and the Matron now went back into the infirmary ‘I was just going to put the spirit lamp on, would you like a cup of tea?’
It seemed that the unnamed officer would. The boys were left alone in the passageway, they whispered to each other while they waited, furtively looking around to make sure that the walls were not leaning in to overhear them.
The Doctor duly arrived, like most now passing them as if they were ghosts. They could hear Matron fawning to him inside, he was a young doctor and evidently the Matron had taken a shine to him. They could hear most that was said as the office must have been directly behind them.
They were to be seen by the doctor before the other boys confined in the infirmary, so that the unnamed officer could get about his duties. There were no other boys for the Doctor to see, as Matron had dealt with all the boys who had turned up on sick parade that morning. The major injury being one boy who had slipped down the stairs and had a bad sprain which she had bandaged. The boys sat and craned their neck to pick up any of the conversation that they could, the time ticked round, it seemed to drag its heels, waiting for others always seems to have that effect.
At long last the door opened and the unnamed office called first.
‘Burns A, you’ll see the doctor now’ and once Burns A had returned to his chair in the hall the same command was issued to Burns B.
The checks were mainly superficial and involved a standard medical, ensuring everything was in order. As per the Matrons check for uninvited guests in the hair, this check paid particular attention to the boys backs with a stethoscope ensuring that nothing communicable such as tuberculosis was present. The checks were quick and rough a more thorough exam would have been undertaken of any cattle at the farmer’s market.
Both were pronounced fit and Burns B now resumed his seat outside while the doctor completed and signed the necessary forms with the Matron and the unnamed officer. It was essential for him to ensure all was completed as his visit was not a charitable one, his surgery had been picked for its value, and both parties signed each other’s dockets, this was account work.
The boys sitting outside had no inkling of this, Luke fidgeted on the chair, he hadn’t quite got his shirt back in as well as usual, he had redressed in a hurry, and was now wrestling with it to an extent trying to straighten it by pushing it down his trousers, but the more he tried the more self-conscious he became. He was just on the point of success when the door opened and the unnamed officer came out. He stared at Luke for a second, who stopped adjusting his dress.
‘Follow me, we are going to the quartermasters for your kit and bedding.’ They fell in behind him leaving the infirmary area, they made their way outside. They walked halfway round the inner square of the main area to a large green wooden door with the sign above it “Quartermaster”. The purpose of their visit was twofold, the first being to examine and confiscate any contraband that the boys might have and secondly to issue them with their bedding and clothing and other sundry items that they would require.
On entering the unnamed officer accompanying who had not seen so far fit to introduce himself spoke to the quartermaster:
‘Mr Wigg, I have two new cadets requiring your services.’ Mr Wigg was a man no more than five feet four inches in height. Although small in stature he had a stocky strong build that showed he had in earlier times worked the sea. His black hair had receded to a bald pate which amongst the boys had earned him his nickname of “wiggy”. Mr Wigg looked up from the work he was carrying out on his desk.
‘Very good Mr Thomas - Alf, Bert, come here.’ Finally, they had a name to attach to their escort. Matt and Luke looked at each other, Luke raised his eyebrows in triumph, without speaking the inclination was clear to Matt; finally, they knew his name!
Mr Wigg stood up having summoned the two cadets whose task it was to assist him in the stores. As he reached the counter Alf, opened several ledgers, one of which, would be to receipt any confiscated items; another ledger would hold what had been assigned to each boy.
It was Alf’s Job to act as the clerk this morning. Bert stood ready by the shelves waiting for his first instruction.
Mr Wigg now looked at the boys. Each had a small rough canvas haversack, the type workmen use, that they had brought their few possessions in.
‘Your names are?’ he enquired fixing his gaze on Luke.
‘Burns B, Sir.’ Stated Luke.
He then flicked his gaze to Matthew. ‘And Yours?’
‘Burns A, Sir.’ stated Matthew.
‘Enter it in the ledger as so Alf.’ Alf carefully dipped the nib of the ink pen in the well and scratched in their names into the ledger.
‘Well Burns A and Burns B, I need you to empty your haversacks on the counter for me and after you’ve done that please be so good as to empty the contents of your pockets.’
No explanation was given and none sought the boys complied. Mr Wigg quickly looked through, there was no money or other contraband, just a few pieces of clothing, some carbolic soap wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper and a small sepia picture taken at a photographic studio perhaps ten years previous of their parents. Jane sat down and Albert stood by her with his hand resting on the back of the straight-backed chair, both in their Sunday finery, minus hats. Albert was sporting his watch and double chain there was an aspidistra on a stand, to the other side of Jane, thus balancing the photo and giving the atmosphere of it being taken in a front parlour. There was a rule at the Seamans Mission that family photographs were not encouraged to be on display, but the Mr Wigg was not of this view.
‘That’s fine, now put your things away - sharpish now boys! We’ve got a lot to do.’ They complied without a word, Mr Wigg knew and could see that the next few days for the boys were going to be a whirlwind of new experiences and it would be in these next few days that the boys’ character for their stay would be established. He therefore tried to go a little bit easy, it would be up to the House Officer the boys would be assigned, to get the boys into shape.
Mr Wigg now looked at Bert. ‘Two sets of bedding Bert.’
Bert who had been leaning on the shelving in the bedding racks sprang into action, first one and then the second grey horsehair Mattresses were pulled from the shelving and deposited on the long counter. The mattresses so slim that they would barely cover the metal frame of the bed. Next came the white linen sheets from a pile two being placed on each Mattress then one pillow slip on each, followed by a hard pillow for each, and topped off by two blankets for each, indeed, this second blanket was seen by most as a luxury, As this was going on Alf was entering all into his journal.
‘Now boys.’ Mr Wigg started. ‘Roll it all up in your Mattresses. Mr Thomas will show you the way to your quarters, once you’ve dropped that load off come back and we’ll get your uniforms sorted out.’
The boys rolled up the Mattresses securing the bedding within, the Mattresses were thin and did not offer any resistance. The test of course was how best to carry the items, for a fully grown man this would not have been an issue but for the boys their arms were just not long enough, and on the first attempt Luke’s sprang completely open depositing its contents half on the floor and half on the counter. Mr Thomas now interjected.
‘When you roll it up tight, lean forward and wedge it under your chin... Now pick it up.’ With a final effort both boys managed to secure their parcels in a rather haphazard way.
‘Come on now, follow me.’
They trudged after Mr Thomas, he stopped once or twice to readjust the loads of our two land crabs, they eventually made their way into the main dormitory building and up a flight of steps into the long room laid out as a barrack; he moved along to two beds and pointed at each of them
‘Burns A... there, Burns B there, drop your bedding and let’s go.’
They obeyed releasing their coiled springs onto the grey iron bed frames and followed Mr Thomas back to the stores. He was taller than them, and now took quite large strides, which nearly necessitated in them running to keep up with him, he bounded down the staircase two steps at a time his hand giving him stability on the oak banister rail. He hurled the door open at the bottom enabling him to exit and Luke and Matt to react similarly and push it open they trailed him on his heels and within a couple of minutes were back at the Quartermasters.
‘Bye that was quick Mr Thomas,’ stated the quartermaster as they walked in.
‘Now, who will be first,’ stated Mr Wigg looking at the boys, before either could respond he looked directly at Luke.
’What is your shoe size?
‘Four Sir’ was Luke’s response.
‘Is that small, large or just right on you?’ Mr Wigg asked. The question was not a trick one, but nethertheless Luke felt compelled to look down at his feet and, moving his feet inside his boots he suddenly felt self-conscious that all were staring at him. It had only been a couple of seconds, but to Luke it felt that an eternity had passed, his cheeks reddened as he spluttered out the words:
‘Just right Sir.’
‘You’re sure now, it’s better to have them slightly bigger, you can always grow into them?’
‘No sir, four is just right and has some growing room in them.’
‘Good - then four it will be.’ The decision having been made the call was placed to Bob back in his position languishing against the shelving.
‘Let’s be having a four large Bob.’ Within seconds Bob, was pulling a complete wardrobe from the shelving based on Luke’s shoe size. Everything was based on that one measurement: socks, trousers, smock, a pair of boots, a pair of plimsoles, underwear, vests, shirts, belt, cutlery one of each knife, fork and spoon, an enamelled tin plate and Matching mug, a towel and toothbrush. When all was placed on the counter, the final item given was a sailor’s kit bag in grey blue canvas with brass eyelets at the top and a cord running through that allowed it all to be closed up and a good strap allowing it to be swung over the shoulder.
All items and quantities had been ticked off by Alf, in the ledgers as they had been laid on the counter. Luke was now instructed by Mr Wigg.
‘Now sign the ledger to say that you have been issued your equipment.’ Alf turned round the ledger and handed the ink pen to Luke.
‘I’ve already blotted the nib - so don’t be messing my ledger up, sign there.’ He pointed to a line at the bottom of the column and stood ready with a small piece of blotting paper in case Luke was to firm with the nib and too much ink was deposited on the page. Nothing untoward happened and Luke handed back the pen at which point Mr Wigg stated.
‘Now, put your things in your kitbag and we’ll start sorting your brother out... And just you boys remember, when you come to leave here, you’ll need to return everything you’ve signed for, if you lose it, we take some of the money that you work for while you’re here, so you keep an eye on your thing and don’t lend your things to any of the others. Do I make myself clear?’
Both boys answered in the affirmative, the penny had dropped, they wouldn’t need to be told twice. it appeared that some of the boys they were to share this chapter of their lives with might be unscrupulous and possible might take advantage of new boys!
Mr Wigg now turned his attention to Matt, the same question as to shoe size emanated from Mr Wigg’s lips. The answer this time though was assured and prompt with sufficient information as to not require questioning from Mr Wigg and so the command for the collection of Matt’s new wardrobe was given to Bert and within several minutes the counter was again filled and the new wardrobe signed for. It was now Mr Thomas’s who from his dormant position spoke.
‘Right boys, get your kit bags on your shoulders and let’s get back to the accommodation, it’ll soon be time for lunch.’
The boys picked up their kit bags by the strap and swung them round to get them up on their shoulders, the momentum carried them slightly round and Luke’s ended up back on the floor, but a second heave had it on his shoulder. You could see now by the shape of the kit bags how they had earned the nickname of sausage bags. The bags were long and cylindrical. They now followed Mr Thomas back to the accommodation.
The bags banged against the back of the boys calve’s as they hurried after Mr Thomas, giving them a curious gait as they walked. There were few words exchanged between them Mr Thomas, remarking on rules and pointing at areas of general interest which the boys had to remember. They again climbed the stairs to the accommodation.
It was just before lunch and several of the boys had returned from school to collect their cutlery, they had not been back since they had left that morning and as a result their knife, fork and spoon, plate and mug were all still placed in a regimental fashion on top of their bedding which was folded and stacked in a bedding block. Each bed had the exact same arrangement, the dimensions and layout of each was identical down to the millimetre; with the blankets and sheets forming a curious sandwich effect and the pillowcase on top acting as a strange tablecloth to display the eating utensils. On seeing Mr Thomas entering the dormitory, the first boy to observe him, who in this case was also the oldest boy, or as he was termed the senior rating stood to attention and bellowed to the rest of the room.
‘Officer on Deck.’ All of the boys without exception stopped immediately whatever activity they had undertook and stood to attention.
‘Thank you Jackson, please carry on.’
‘Aye Aye Sir. Stand easy.’ The room adopted its pre-lunch activities with the boys readying themselves, the horseplay that usually took place at this time was muted due to the presence of Mr Thomas. The boys had now reached the beds assigned to them and had placed their kit bags down Mr Thomas, called down the room.
‘Jackson - come here please.’ Jackson hurried to Mr Thomas and stood to attention.
‘These are two new cadets for you. Burns A and Burns B, take them under your wing for a few days until they find their feet.’
‘Aye Aye Sir.’ Came the response from Jackson, who glanced quickly as he said it at Matt and Luke.
’Permission for myself and two ratings to leave the room Sir please? Came a request from down at the door to the dormitory. It was customary that when an officer - as all the staff were known - was present that you had to request their permission to either enter or leave a room. Mr Thomas looked down the room for a second, to identify the voice.
‘Please do cadets.’ The boys exited and from outside the door you could hear the larks resume as they pushed and jostled each other down the stairs on their way to the galley for lunch. Mr Thomas now turned his attention back to Jackson.
‘You are excused lessons this afternoon. Instead, you are to get these cadets sorted out and tell them what is expected of them. The quartermaster has kitted them out, make sure that they try everything on and get it exchanged this afternoon if needed. Now get yourselves to lunch, and I’ll come and see you at evening parade.’
‘Aye Aye Sir.’ Came the standard response from Jackson.′ It was now that Mr Thomas turned to Matt and Luke.
‘I’m leaving you with Jackson. He is the senior rating in this dormitory and if he gives you an order you obey it as if I were giving it to you; do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes Sir,’ came the respective answers. Their first lesson now came from Mr Thomas.
‘You are in a naval establishment now. We do not say yes - yes does not exist. It’s Aye, Aye Sir, is that clear?’
‘Yes, sorry, I mean Aye Aye Sir.’
‘Aye Aye Sir,’ came the respective answers.
‘I’ll be around at evening parade.’ He strode down to the door, as he neared it Jackson called those remaining in the room to attention and Mr Thomas as customary returned the compliment.
‘Carry on Jackson.’
The numbers of the boys in the room was diminishing fast, Jackson looked at them leaving.
‘Get your scoff things and let’s get off to galley before there’s nowt left.’ They emptied their kit bags on the beds retrieving the cutlery and enamel plate and mug.
‘Leave your stuff there, it’ll be fine.’ They followed Jackson down the room, he collected his things and they exited and made their way to the galley. It wasn’t a sumptuous affair but after the running around they had done that morning, it was well received and the drink of choice for lunch was water in tin jugs two or three placed on each bench table, it was cold and quenched the thirst, and when a jug ran out, the junior boy at the table was sent to the tap to replenish it.
No talking was allowed at Lunch other than the requesting of objects such as the water jug and today it was Mr Thomas who strode round as the duty officer ensuring that all was ship shape. Once each boy had finished, they queued to wash their utensils in some bowls provided for the purpose before leaving. Each meal was known as scoff, as Jackson told them.
‘You scoff it down your neck quick and get out of the way, or they’ll find you a job to do!’ They returned to the dormitory where they were indoctrinated by Jackson into who was who, and what you could get away with, and who to watch. He showed then his bed space and his locker and soldier box and how to keep things hidden and how to lay out their equipment.
They tried on each item of clothing, they were fortunate in that the quartermaster’s idea of the standard boy size had worked in that these two were indeed standard boys. They looked at themselves in the new sailors uniforms in the long cheval mirror which stood at the door of the accommodation with its warning above it ‘Look before you leave’. Matt remarked that his trousers were a bit baggy and could do with some taking in. Jackson looked at him.
‘Would you like me to ring for your tailor now, Sir?’
Matt laughed, yes it was a bit too much to expect the only alteration that Jackson could assist in was to roll up some newspaper and insert in the band of Luke’s sailor’s hat, to stop it falling over his eyebrows. With all this done Matt and Luke sat on the end of their beds and as boys do had a general talk with Jackson about who was who and what was what. It transpired that Jacko as he now introduced himself had been an orphan for several years and had been there since the age of five. He was twelve now and in two years’ time he expected to leave on his birthday to be sent to the local line regiment as a drummer boy. Matt asked if he had any family, Jacko frowned his voice changed and Matt and Luke realised they had transgressed one of the unspoken rules.
‘That’s one of the things we don’t talk about in here, if you have don’t talk about them, some have and some don’t, thinking and talking about it don’t help anyone and might get you in trouble.’
He broke off for a second, they could see that this had caused him pain over the years and they did not wish to pursue his agony any further. Matt started to unpack his few personal things into his soldier box, he took the picture of his parents and slid it under his things, perhaps it would be best not to display it straight away. Within a few seconds though Jacko had regained his previous composure and continued.
‘We’ve got the rest of the afternoon free, let’s get down to the irons before the others get back otherwise we’ll end up queuing.’
Although the move to electric was under way in certain parts of the orphanage, the introduction of electric for items other than lighting had not been adopted. For one part, this was down to a long-standing arrangement with one of the local coal mining families who had a place on the Church Board.
Matt and Luke looked at each other, they had never had to use a flat iron before, their mother had always undertaken this role. They looked at each other, another new experience, today was going to be full of surprises!
‘You know how to use an iron, don’t you?’ Exclaimed Jacko.
‘We’ve never ironed anything in our lives. Our ma’ wouldn’t let us, in case we ended up scorching it, in case it was too hot off the stove’ replied Matt.
Jacko continued with a long sweeping bow as if he was a cavalier at the court of King Charles.
‘Well, your Lordship is going to have to learn today. You’ve got seven seas to press into your trousers before tomorrow morning, or the officer of the watch will have you on report, and you’ll get a dirty job, and as I’m meant to be teaching you the ropes, I’ll get one to.’
Both Matt and Luke agreed that this would not be an auspicious start but one question still puzzled Luke.
‘What have seven seas got to do with my pants?’ Matt had not chosen to ask but was equally curious and they both looked intently at Jacko.
’It’s the number of seas that there are in the world and the Royal Navy sails ’em all. And we’re master of ‘em all. So, you put seven creases in your bell bottoms one for each sea, that’s what it’s for, you see!’ They indeed did.
‘That a bloody silly idea, it’ll mean I’ll have to iron the trousers seven times,’ stated Luke.
’Well, it ain’t my rule and whoever’s bloody silly rule it is, if you don’t like it you take it up with ‘em, not me.’ Jacko had raised his voice. It was clear that explanation was not his forte. They perhaps would leave reasoning to another day.
’I’m sorry Jacko, I didn’t mean to get on your goat. It’s just I hadn’t ‘eard that one before,’ said Luke.
’Well that maybe, but you just remember, we don’t make the rules here, and if you want an easy time, you best do the rules as they give ‘em to you.’
Both Matt and Luke looked at each other. They knew that using the rules and the system to the best of their advantage would be the way forward and although Jacko was a good fellow, perhaps they shouldn’t stretch his patience too much on the first day; after all he was trying to help them.
It was Matt that now talked. ‘What do we need to iron Jacko?’ The conversation was back on track.
‘Anything flat really, that’s all the shirts: trousers and smocks also the sports shorts and vests.’ Under his instruction they now took all the items that they would require to press.
‘Wow - ’ exclaimed Matt ′ - that’s nearly everything in the locker!′
‘You’re right, that’s because if it’s in your locker it as to be clean and pressed. Anything dirty goes in your dirty bag - if it ain’t pressed and it’s in your locker – well then - when the officer of the day inspects the room on a morning - he’ll throw it out the window, and you’ll go on report!’
The boys looked in shock and horror, Jacko looked jubilant he had finally made them realise that they were a very small and insignificant part of this new world, his mastery was again reasserted.
‘Grab your kit and let’s be off down to the laundry.’ They obliged and made their way down the stairs and out into the courtyard, Jacko pointed to a green door in the corner of the quadrangle.
‘That’s the laundry room there, don’t say anything when we go in, we shouldn’t be there till later, so let’s just get about our business.’
The boys nodded and on entering they fell in behind Jacko. The room was large and there were many pipes running the length of it. These were fed by water fed from the central boiler and above theses pipes were drying cupboards which could be pulled in and out as they were on wheels, these drying cupboards had wooden slats, but the facings and trolleys were cast iron and the makers name from Birmingham was clearly visible the size was large enough for them to accommodate several sheets in the one cupboard.
At the far end of the building were what appeared to be a cooking range, with at least a dozen flat irons of various sizes, this was the back of the boiler which provided much of the heat for the complex through the steam pipes, the hot irons were a by-product of this ingenious affair. The whole room was finished in a white distemper, giving it, with its smell of Sunlight soap a rather sanitised appearance. There were several doors in the room and one of these appeared to access a small office, Jacko made straight for it and stuck his head round the door with his cheekiest grin.
‘Hello ma’, I’ve got a couple of new boys with me and Mr Thomas said I should get them sorted out before the rush starts. It’s OK for me to show ’em ‘ow to iron ain’t it?’ They all held their breath, the thought of being caught in the promised rush did not bear thinking about. There was a small pause then the hidden woman replied.
‘Do you know when I heard that door go I thought it was the King come round for tea, cause you can and make sure you don’t burn those irons, I’ve got white sheets to do in an hour, and you’ll have Mr Thomas after you if those irons are burnt when you leave.’
‘We wouldn’t do that - not to you ma’.′
‘Just you make sure you don’t my lad.’
They began to move down to the bottom of the room where several scrubbed pine trestles with boards laid across them were present. They noticed that Ma’ had come to the doorway briefly and watched their progress down the room. She was a tall heavy built woman with dark hair, in her middle fifties with a complexion which could have been from the Mediterranean. Her hair was pulled back, which kept it conveniently out of the way while she was working. She looked at them briefly, just to make sure she did not know them, then lost interest just as quickly, turned back into the main laundry shouting as she went.
‘You mark my words not a mark on those blinking irons, or there’ll be trouble when I get back.’
Jacko now pointed to two trestles with boards on near the range at the far end of the room they put down their loads at one end of each of the boards Jacko grabbed a tin bowl from a pile and filled it with water from one of the taps he placed this on the trestle, and then picked a white rag from a bundle in the corner of old sheets which had been ripped up he went back to the trestle and said to the boys.
‘I’ll show you how to do the first one and then you copy.’
They both nodded in agreement. Jacko now took the towel he had brought with him and laid this on the trestle, he then took the bell bottom trousers and laid them on top and picking up the water bowl he flicked water generally across them to moisten them and placed the white rag over it. He talked, explaining what he was doing as he went through the various actions, the boys chose not to interrupt but had seen the procedure carried out by their own mother every week so although they had never participated, they were aware of the complexities of the operation.
As soon as Jacko was satisfied with the straightness of the garment to be ironed, he went to the range where all the irons were kept. He picked up an old discoloured rag and wrapped it around the handle, picking it up he turned it over and spat on it, the flecks of spit sizzled for a second and then were gone.
‘Aye that’ll do, that’s hot enough, now we’ve got to get on before it cools and it’s no use.’
He moved quickly getting the best from the flat iron, always checking that he wasn’t burning the item, explaining about the creases.
‘Make sure you don’t get tram lines in your creases, you know two creases where there should be one, always follow the old crease.’ And so, he constantly checked the iron once the heat on one had been expelled, he returned it to the range to reheat and took another, the same process was followed many times.
‘You see if we had got here in the rush, we would have only had one iron each, and would have to wait until it reheated.’
The boys both agreed it was indeed fortuitous for them that Jacko was there to show them, after he had finished the first few items, he put Matt and Luke to work, watching them like a hawk.
’Your irons too cold, you’ll press from now to doomsday, nothing’ll ‘appen.’
‘Check your iron is clean before ironing anything white, rub it on the white rag.’
‘If it’s full of creases put the rag in the water and then wring it out in the bowl, now place it over the top.’
‘That goes under your smock, yo’ don’t have to iron it all only the bit they can see.′
An hour passed by which time all had been completed, the seven seas had been ironed into the bell bottoms and everything folded as per Jacko’s instructions.
‘You’ll have to make sure you’re quicker next time, or you’ll be here all night.’
They agreed and thanked Jacko once all was as they had found it, they returned with their freshly ironed bundles to their dormitory. They would have an hour or two to sort out their lockers. Jacko aided and explained many of the rules both of the orphanage and those created by the boys. This could quite easily be summed up in; new boys always got the worst jobs to do. Well at least for a period of time, as there were rotas which were pinned on the notice boards outside the dormitory which gave the dates and duties each boy was assigned.
‘You’ll be on the toilets tomorrow; everyone’s first job is there. They have to be done straight after breakfast, that’s where everybody starts. We all take our turn, there’ll be four of the other boys helping, they’ll tell you what to do.’
It wasn’t a task they were looking forward to or would relish, but as some of the other boys would also be helping and it was a rota, and they were new, well they had to expect it.
Ok you just give us a shout when we have to do things for a couple of days until we get used to it,′ said Matt.
‘No problems, I’ll do that.’
They spent the rest of the day lazing around and keeping out of the eyes of any of the staff.
‘Shouldn’t we go and see if we need to do anything else?’ Asked Luke.
‘Cor, your brother, we’re going to have to keep an eye on him. If we go and ask them, they’ll give us a job to do, or we’ll get stuck in lessons.’ Jacko now put on his best polite society voice, mimicking one of the local big wigs.
‘If a boy’s hands are idle, then there is mischief in those hands. Mark my words see a boy with empty hands, and he’ll grow into an indolent man. Fill those hands - I say, fill them to overflowing and he’ll thank you when he’s a man for the training you’ve given him.’ They all roared into laughter at the absurdness of it.
’And you know what, they all believe it... you are so right, indeed. Blimey, listening to them you think we would murder ‘em in their beds.’ It was so that another valuable rule had been imparted, never volunteer for anything!
The boys continued until the other boys returned from the afternoon lessons, there would be half an hour now until they all trooped down to the galley for dinner.
‘What happens after dinner?’ Asked Matt.
’After that we have the evening parade: where we have to clean our boots, do our washing, clean our instruments, go and do our ironing for tomorrow. Some of the others will have to go and do jobs, such as clean the pots and pans in the galley and the lucky ones will clean the offices. You don’t have to worry though; they’ll not notice you today.