The slums of the city came to life at night as prostitutes lined the street corners hoping to make a dollar or two to feed their young families. World War 1 had devastated many young families leaving penniless widows and hungry young children behind. Elizabeth was left with four young children, Harry her oldest was bed ridden since contracting polio the previous year. He required a lot of attention and medicine to help him cope with several infections. It was 1916 when Mathew answered the call to fight for KING AND COUNTRY. He enlisted with the 4th Battalion Canadian Infantry and would set sail that spring. Elizabeth begged her husband not to go but he felt it was his duty and insisted he would arrive home safe and sound. The factory where Mathew had been employed for several years promised his job would be waiting for him when he returned. The manager was Mathew’s brother an annoying braggart who stood only 5 feet tall and just as wide. His small stature and extreme obesity would save him from entering a War that would eventually injure or kill thousands of soldiers from Canada and the United Kingdom. Mathew would be just one of many that never made it home.
Elizabeth received the ill-fated telegram on September 28th 1916. Mathew had died of his wounds while serving his country, he was 29 years old. Mathew would be interned in Somme France with many more soldiers that died in The Battle of The Somme. The devastating news was given daily too many other families in Toronto. When Elizabeth received the telegram she refused to open it and kept it in her night stand for several weeks before reading the words I regret to inform you. Sammy, Elizabeth’s 5 year old son took the news the hardest. When Mathew came home after work he would sit on the end of Harry’s bed with Sammy on his knee and tell them hilarious stories of his childhood. He was very accident prone and Sammy loved the story about when he got his head stuck in a lavatory. Sammy would laugh so hard tears would roll down his cheeks. He was a lovely child with a freckled face, blue eyes and auburn hair. He looked just like his mom. He also had her kind nature and often nursed injured animals back to health. One time Elizabeth found a half dead mouse in his shirt pocket that had been wrapped up in her best silk scarf. The tiny creature had been poisoned yet Sammy insisted on trying to save him. The two young girls Rebecca and Sandy were barely out of diapers when their father died. Elizabeth and Mathew never expected twins but when the mid wife delivered Sandy she instantly noticed Rebecca’s tiny head. Both girls were very small when they were born and only Rebecca had developed normally. The mid wife suggested Sandy wouldn’t live very long but to everyone’s surprise she not only lived she thrived. A cleft lip and palate were repaired when she was just a few months old and she wore a brace for her club foot. Elizabeth loved her just the way she was and wasn’t bothered that she took much longer to learn how to walk and form sentences.
It had now been two years since the War ended and Elizabeth was frantically looking for ways to make extra money. The pay packet she had been receiving had stopped months ago and now she resorted to selling her body to feed her children. Elizabeth had relied heavily on Mathew’s income. She did earn a small income from her skills as a seamstress but that wasn’t nearly enough to keep a roof over their heads never mind feeding four hungry children.
The extremely humid evening made the smell from the local fish market worse than usual. The children had been asleep for about an hour when Elizabeth slipped out of the rooming house unnoticed. The flat she lived in with Mathew had to be given up once her widow’s pension stopped coming. The only place she could afford was at Sherborn and Gerard, a place considered by many to be the slums of Toronto. She had one small room above the Chester Arms a pub witch had a terrible reputation. At night she could hear the bar fights and one time a young sailor bled to death in the pubs stairway after fighting with one of the locals. The neighbours believed the pub owner was paying a constable under the table to keep his place from being shut down. The only window in her apartment looked onto an alley and Elizabeth kept the curtains closed because the prostitutes would perform sex acts day and night just below it. She now became one of them. Without the extra income her children would surely be placed into the system.
Elizabeth was always surprised when men paid attention to her and when Mathew asked for her hand in marriage she was shocked. Mathew had been known to date many women in Finchley and when he asked Elizabeth out she initially said no. She was afraid he would make a fool of her. She never believed she was attractive in any way. Her classmates made fun of her freckled face for years and even her own mother tried to remove them by bleaching her face. She did not see herself as Mathew did. She would look in the mirror and not see how beautiful her big blue eyes were or how lovely her wavy auburn hair was, all she saw was the freckles. Mathew eventually managed to convince her that his intentions were pure and Elizabeth agreed to go on a dinner date. It didn’t take long for her to fall deeply in love with him. They married in a small ceremony surrounded by a few friends and immediate family. Shortly after they moved in with his parents, it was cramped in their tiny 2 bed home and the couple slept in the living room. Money was tight after his father lost his job at the refinery. Ten months later Harry was born and the house grew smaller. It was at this time that Mathew received a letter from his older brother who was living in Canada. Thomas loved his new life and often bragged about how much money he made as the shop foreman. He offered Mathew a job and told him he would find a flat for his family. Finchley England was the only place they knew and although reluctant to make the move they agreed they needed a new start. Mathew’s father Richard Clarke wanted them out too, he could no longer afford to feed and house them. They set sail in June of 1909 and settled into a lovely flat at Yonge and Bloor.
The factory where Mathew worked was only a five minute walk from home. By 1914 their family grew, first Sammy then Rebecca and Sandy. Elizabeth felt content and Mathew was a wonderful husband and father. When he died it broke her heart. Turning to prostitution was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. She prayed for absolution and prayed that Mathew would forgive her and that her soul would someday meet his.
The first time Elizabeth sold her body for money she went home and scrubbed herself with lye soap until her body was red and raw. She had made two dollars that night enough to feed her children for a week. Feeling disgusted with herself she took in as much mending as she could. It would take her almost a month before she was forced to go back on the streets. By July of 1919 Elizabeth had become hardened to her way of life and she knew the survival of her children depended on it. She waited in her usual spot just a half block from the rooming house. Two women glared at her as they passed by. Elizabeth was used to the stares she knew her low cut dress and heavy make-up made her stand out. Her face painted with red rouge and bright red lipstick made her appear seductive. A horse and buggy stopped beside her and she locked eyes with a young man she had never seen before. He was not one of her usual customers, he was well dressed and clean shaven. He smiled and gestured for her to come into the buggy. Just as she was about to step up a constable walked towards them and told the man to move along. The man tipped his hat and scurried away. Elizabeth afraid of being arrested backed into the alley behind her building. She was startled when she saw Joe the local shoe salesman. He was leaning up against the wall smoking a pipe. He asked her how much for oral sex and she responded 50 cents. He through the coins at her and unzipped his pants. Joe had been married for years and had a wife ten years his junior. Elizabeth often wondered why he came to her for sex with such a lovely young girl waiting for him at home. Joe usually wanted intercourse but tonight he was in a hurry. Elizabeth didn’t like him much but never let on and performed like she loved doing it. Oral sex was her least favorite thing to do and she would gag sometimes causing the men to purposely push their penis further inside her mouth. Elizabeth finished and quickly left the alley and Joe behind. She carried some water with mint leaves in a jar in to rinse her mouth before looking for other customers. By the time she got home it was 3am. After checking on Harry and Sammy she climbed into bed with Sandy and Rebecca and soon fell fast asleep.
The next morning a neighbour woke her with a bag of her children’s clothing that needed mending. The children were hungry and eager for breakfast. She made the leftover porridge and sliced banana on top to make it look more then what it was. She had earned one dollar and seventy five cents and with the extra dollar she would be paid from mending she planned on going to the farmers market in the afternoon. For now the children were satisfied with their meal except Harry who complained of feeling unwell. She worried when she noticed his breathing was becoming more laboured.
Harry suddenly turned blue and Elizabeth quickly ran outside looking for a Constable. Young Harry was rushed in The Hospital for Sick Children and died shortly after; his condition had been deteriorating for several months. Elizabeth fell to the floor when she heard the news her cries could be heard throughout the hospital. Constable Tiller tried to comfort her. She was inconsolable.
The local prostitutes collected enough money to buy a casket for young Harry and some extra food for the remaining three children and their mother. The ladies did their best to comfort Elizabeth in her time of need. The day of the funeral Mathew’s Brother Thomas arrived and gave Elizabeth twenty dollars in an envelope. The money would be used to get a headstone with an inscription. He didn’t stay for the funeral. Little Harry was a mirror image of his father. Dark hair and big brown eyes that made his mother’s heart melt each time he looked at her. Mathew was very close to Harry and when he wasn’t as ill he would take him to work with him and show him all the machinery. He would spend the entire day and enjoyed every minute of it. Harry loved to run and play with his siblings and when he became bed ridden he lost his will for life. Harry rarely spoke or even smiled and Elizabeth would spend hours sitting with him to ease the boredom of his long days in bed. She often told him stories about his father and how much he loved him. The only thing that made Harry smile was when his mother sang to him, his favorite song was In the Shade of The old Apple Tree by Henry Burr. Harry insisted she sing it every night before he fell asleep.
Losing Harry left such emptiness inside Elizabeth that no one or nothing could fill. The cemetery where he was laid to rest offered her some comfort as she would sit beside his grave and sang his favorite song. Tears would roll down her cheeks as she pictured his big brown eyes gazing up at her. Elizabeth went as often as she could. The younger siblings would leave crayons and paper for him to draw on and sometimes they would save their pennies and buy some sweets for him. The money left over from the burial allowed Elizabeth time to grieve. She rarely ventured out doors except for groceries or a visit to the cemetery. By December of the same year the money from the collection and left over from the burial had run out and Elizabeth had no recourse but to return to the streets.
When Eileen saw Elizabeth or Lizzy as she called her she ran to her nearly knocking her to the ground with her forceful hug. Eileen was a young Irish girl who grew up on the streets. Her mother was a drug addict and used to bring her tricks into their home often kicking Eileen out of her bed to serve them. Eileen like Elizabeth had few friends and no family she made her living selling herself and did very well. It was Eileen that first suggested prostitution to Elizabeth. She told her “just be good at pretending and make the men feel like they are special”. Eileen had gotten pregnant by one of her customers. Within 3 months she lost the child to a miscarriage after another beat her into unconsciousness. Nothing stopped her as she was back on the streets within a week.
Tonight the street was filled with people from all walks of life. Most were either coming or going to Christmas parties. Eileen moved back to her spot under the street lamp two blocks from Elizabeth and stood shivering in the cold. Elizabeth tried to concentrate on why she was there and soon got the attention of an older gentleman walking by. He suggested they get a room in the nearby Ulster Inn and she agreed. It was far too cold to do anything outdoors. He told Elizabeth his name was Alex Hamm and said his wife didn’t understand his needs. She had heard this story so many times it made her laugh but she didn’t let on to Alex. He wanted more than sex he wanted her to bathe him first paying special attention to his penis. This was new to Elizabeth but she went along with it and he offered an extra dollar for her trouble. She bent over and he tucked two dollars into her cleavage. The bath disgusted her as he pushed her head towards his penis and then proceeded to ejaculate. This was not what she agreed on and after he was done she asked for another 50 cents. He took a dollar out of his wallet and tucked it inside her cleavage squeezing each breast before removing his hand. As he left he said that she should enjoy the room because he paid for an entire night.
Back on the streets she was approached by a man walking with a cane who asked if she would perform on a cripple. Before long she took him back to the room where they could be warm. Jake was younger than most of her customers and a little shyer. She soon settled on a price and got on top of him satisfying his urges very quickly. Jake had also been stricken with polio but recovered except for some numbness in his left leg. Before he left he asked if she would see him again and she agreed. The night was coming to an end and Elizabeth had made five dollars, enough to feed her children and buy a few trinkets to put into their Christmas stockings. Just as she was about to go home she noticed the same man she had seen months earlier that had asked her to come into his carriage. He noticed her walking towards him and quickly stopped to talk to her. It was almost 4 am and she wanted to go home but agreed to give him a half hour of her time. She offered to take him to the room that was still available and he agreed. There was an awkward silence as they entered the shabby hotel room. Elizabeth got right to the point and told the gentleman what she would and wouldn’t do. She also told him her prices. He stared at her and asked why her eyes looked so sad. Elizabeth never discussed her personal life with her customers and quickly changed the subject. He asked how much she would charge to have a conversation. Elizabeth became suspicious and asked why he was there. He took five dollars out of his wallet and handed it to her. This was the most money she had ever made at one time and quickly tucked the money into her cleavage. During the next half hour he told her his name was John and that he was married to a woman named Carolyn. He said his parents insisted he marry her because her father was a wealthy land owner. Carolyn was a spoiled only child and she demanded his attention even when he was at work at his father’s mining company. He told her he lived in Northern Ontario and was the President of his father’s company. He said he often escaped Carolyn’s grip by telling her he had to travel to the mines to check on the workers. She believed he was hundreds of miles away in Kirkland Lake.
Elizabeth was drawn into his story and began trusting him. John had a reassuring voice and manner. Elizabeth noticed his watch it was after 6am. She scrambled to collect her things and told John she had to go. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before handing her another five dollars. Over-come by his kindness she hugged him tightly. He walked her to her door and asked if he could see her again. She smiled and said it would be her pleasure. No time was mentioned but he said he would be coming back in January. Elizabeth ran up the stairs and into her room. The children were still fast asleep as she gathered her night’s wages and tucked them into the empty vinegar jar. She lay beside Jessica and tried to fall asleep but couldn’t.
The next morning was December 23rd and any happiness she had felt quickly vanished as she thought of her first Christmas without Harry. Elizabeth had stitched the children’s names into their stockings and all but Harry’s hung on the bed posts. Later that day she took the children to the cemetery and they played hide and seek as she talked to her son. Elizabeth told him how sorry she was for not being able to make him better and how much she missed him. She said that Father Christmas would be sure to bring him everything he wanted now that he was in heaven with his father. Tears filled her eyes as she kissed his head stone and said her goodbyes. Jessica and Sandy were too young to realize what really happened to their big brother and Sammy never wanted to talk about it. Sammy was a child that had a much older soul then most children his age. He loved with all his heart and he truly cared about his two little sisters. As they walked home from the cemetery Sammy asked once again if they could stop for ice cream something they rarely did. When Elizabeth said yes the children screeched with joy. They had so little and it was wonderful to see them happy.
Later that day she asked Eileen to look after them for an hour so she could go out to buy them each a small toy and some candy for their stockings. She went to Eaton’s and walked through the entire store it wasn’t until she came across a sign that advertised everything for fifty percent off. The store clerk noticed her worn out shoes and hand bag and told her she might be better off at the five and dime. Elizabeth paid no attention to her comment and continued to look around searching for individual gifts that would put a smile on her children’s faces. She soon found two baby dolls one with blond hair like Rebecca’s and the other with auburn hair like Sandy’s. Each doll was marked down to seventy five cents and with the model train she found for Sammy her total would be less than three dollars leaving enough money for candies and a decent size goose. She would make a special Christmas dinner for her children using Eileen’s new stove. The clerk glared at Elizabeth the entire time she was in the store and seemed surprised when Elizabeth handed her a five dollar bill to pay for her items. After the butchers she headed to the candy store and bought the children enough candy to fill their stockings.
By the time they got to mass on Christmas Eve most of the seats had been filled and the children had to sit in the aisle. It was a beautiful service and Elizabeth felt spiritually uplifted as she walked home. Early the next morning she was up filling the stockings when she heard a faint knock on her door, it was only 6am. “Who is it she asked”? “Constable Tiller he replied and she quickly opened the door. Henry Tiller had met Elizabeth once when he attended to her son Harry and took her to the hospital that fateful day. She glanced at her face in the mirror and looked away as her freckles seemed more prominent than usual. “Constable Tiller what a pleasant surprise is there something l can do for you”? He reached behind him and handed her a bag filled with toys for the children. How lovely she thought that he should think of her family on Christmas morning. She insisted he come in for a cup of coffee. The old wood stove made the room feel warm and cozy as the pot of coffee simmered on top. He spoke softly so he wouldn’t wake up the children and told her how terrible he felt when Harry passed away. Elizabeth stopped him from talking about Harry it was all still too painful. Constable Tiller was a plain looking man. His hair had already begun to thin and his belly hung over his belt. He stood about five feet 7 inches which was the same height as Elizabeth. He had a pleasant smile with straight white teeth but his nose was a tad too big for his face. His personality was that of a gentleman and he longed for children of his own. He told Elizabeth his wife had died five years earlier from consumption and he never remarried. He was about to go on duty at 7am and before he left Elizabeth she insisted he come for Christmas dinner. He accepted and said he would be back at 6.
The children were surprised by all the gifts that Father Christmas had left for them and the girls loved their new dolls. Elizabeth kept busy trying to stop herself from crying and ruining the children’s Christmas. Constable Tiller was back at the door a little after six pm. He brought Elizabeth a basket of fruit and a box of chocolates. The evening was pleasant as she and Henry talked about their families and played with the children. Henry was a natural as he helped Sammy put his model train together and read the girls a story from one of the books he had given them. Elizabeth tidied up as he entertained the kids. The children were exhausted and soon fell asleep still clinging onto their toys. Henry thanked Elizabeth for making his Christmas one of the best he’s ever had and asked her if she would like to go out to dinner with him in the New Year. Elizabeth agreed and they set a date. Elizabeth wasn’t physically attracted to Henry but she felt comfortable around him.
The noise from the streets on New Year’s Eve kept Elizabeth up most of the night. Thankfully she had tucked enough money away to keep her home for several weeks. Eileen came over the next morning she had been up all night making money off the partiers. Eileen told Lizzy that she had enough to buy herself new shoes and a winter coat. Elizabeth was happy for her good fortune, she knew had hard it was out there. Eileen lifted up her dress to show her the rolled up cash tucked inside her stocking. Elizabeth was shocked when she saw a twenty dollar bill sticking out.
Eileen said she had done something she had never done before to earn that amount. It was a group of men that had been drinking in the Ulster Arms bar that propositioned her. They wanted group sex and offered her twenty dollars for her time. At first she was scared and worried they would hurt her and take her earnings but then she realized how drunk they were and figured they didn’t have the strength between them. The three rented a room for two hours and within five minutes one of them passed out on the floor. Now with only two she insisted they pay her first. Twenty dollars was left on the night stand and then they began. Elizabeth noticed a trickle of blood on her thigh and stocking when she lifted up her dress to show her the money and asked if one of them hurt her. Eileen smiled and said “it’s all part of the job”. Eileen called her vagina her tunnel of love and said the tunnel needed a rest because both men were busy down there. Elizabeth knew what she was referring to and told her a warm bath with lavender oil might help. Eileen and Lizzy were very close and talked about everything openly. The two women had other friends but most didn’t understand their life style. Eileen was loud, overbearing at times and certainly not shy about her body. She helped Lizzy come out of her shell and supplied her with make- up and perfume to attract men. Eileen hated the name Elizabeth and insisted on calling her Lizzy. She said her mother’s name was Elizabeth and hated her so much she couldn’t say the name out loud. Before her death in 1915 she would bring her customer’s home and insist Eileen watched. According to Eileen her mother wanted the extra money they offered to have a child in the room with them. Eileen’s mother would perform disgusting sex acts in front of her then laugh when she became upset and wanted to leave. Eileen turned to prostitution when she was 14 just to get away from her. She said the final straw was when one of her customers offered an extra dollar if she would allow her daughter to perform oral sex on him and her mother agreed forcing her head in his lap. She said the whole episode made her sick to her stomach and she ran away that night and never returned even when her mother overdosed and died.
Elizabeth had never experienced anything so awful and although she felt unattractive from being teased as a child it was nothing compared to how traumatic Eileen’s childhood had been. Elizabeth worried about her she was always taking risks and had been beaten and robbed many times. She wondered if she had a death wish. Eileen’s overbearing personality also landed her in jail on at least three occasions and it was Elizabeth that would bail her out. Eileen had a large amount of money set aside in her room and told Elizabeth to use it if she was in need. It was this money that she bailed Eileen out with. Rebecca loved Eileen because she would paint her nails and do her hair for her. Rebecca was angelic looking with fine features and big green eyes. Her sister Sandy was much smaller and very shy. Her eyes were brown like her fathers but they were further apart than they should be. Elizabeth protected her from the comments other children made behind her back. She had felt the sting of ridicule many years ago and knew exactly how it felt. Eileen was a part of the family and would spend much of her off time with them. Elizabeth was happy to have her for a friend although in many ways they were worlds apart.