An Only Child

Written by Michael Henry |
Published on:


 Northern England.      November 1901 

“Five o’clock and a foggy morn”, the disembodied voice of the lamplighter floated up from the rain soaked cobbled street below. “Five o’clock and a foggy morn," echoed the voice of the knocker-up as he tapped at the bedroom window of number 11, Quarry Road with his long stick. It was a grimy red brick terrace house like thousands of others in this poor industrial northern town. He waited until he saw the lace curtain stir and the face of Mrs. McCarrick behind the rain-spattered window pane.

It was a typically miserable November day and the yellow glow from the gas lamp in the street offered little promise of any improvement for the next few hours or even days. Harriet McCarrick shook her snoring husband by the shoulder, “Matthew, it’s time,” was all she said and he knew what she meant. Time to face another day of wielding a pickax hundreds of feet below the ground in the local coal pit. Ten hours of hard slog but it was what put bread on the table and a few coppers in his pocket for a pint of bitter and a twist of tobacco. He stretched under the blankets and prepared his body for the shock of cold air when he forced himself to quit the warm bed.

Harriet shuffled out of the bedroom and across the tiny landing to check on Mary in the back room. The child had been a worry of late with a sickly look and high fever for the past few days. She’d also complained of stomach ache and headache and had a racking cough. The mother hadn’t thought much of it at first but, as the girl’s condition deteriorated, she became more and more concerned. After all, this was their only child and was especially precious as it had been a difficult birth and the doctors had told Matthew and Harriet that it was unlikely they would have any more children.

“How’s my little angel today?” said Harriet as she smoothed an unruly lock of blond hair from the fourteen year old’s face. Mary screwed up her nose and didn’t say anything. Harriet noticed that the child’s hair was damp with sweat which did nothing to ease her concern. “Mam, I should be at work. How can I buy you and dad a Christmas present if I’m not earning any wages”?

“Don’t you go worryin’ your head about that, young lady. If you’re poorly like you are, you’ve got to get better first and not worry about anything else. Anyway, I’ve told ‘em at t’mill that you will be back as soon as you’re fit. That card room can manage without you for a few more days. Now you stay there and keep warm while I go down and get your dad his breakfast.”

“But I’m feeling too warm, mam”, said the girl throwing off the blankets. Harriet turned and grabbed the blankets to recover the girl’s chest. Her flannelette nightie was open at the neck and Harriet was horrified to see small red spots covering her daughter’s chest.

“Have you been feeling itchy”? she asked the girl, trying not to show her alarm. “No, why”? “Well, it looks like you’ve got a bit of a rash. I’ll have to see about getting the doctor to have a look at you. Now stay put and I’ll bring you a cup of tea as soon as your dad leaves for t’ pit.”      

Harriet descended the creaking stairs and entered the kitchen where Matthew had already restoked the fire that had been slumbering in the cast iron grate overnight. He stood splashing water in his face at the huge square sink in the corner and she nudged him aside to fill the big heavy kettle which she placed on the hob and swung it over the fire. She put three good scoops of tea into the teapot and placed it on the hearth to warm. “We’ve run out of oats so it’s just toast for breakfast” she said matter-of-factly. Matthew grunted and said “Well an extra shive of bread will help, I suppose.” The wife went to the pantry and took a loaf from the bin which she proceeded to attack with a formidable looking breadknife. Sawing off half a dozen thick slices, she grabbed a long wire fork that hung from a nail over the mantelpiece and impaled the first one then sat on her footstool to toast the bread before the glowing embers.

“Mary’s not getting any better” she told her husband, the firelight dancing on her face. “We’re going to have to get a doctor.”

Silence. Then, “And how much is that going to cost”?

“I don’t care!” she said with more than a little anger in her voice. “The girl’s sick and she needs proper attention. I don’t even know what’s wrong with her but I’ll be damned if I’ll let her get any worse.”

“Okay, okay, you do whatever is best” said Matthew as he poured boiling water into the teapot. The toast was stacked on a white enamel plate and Harriet carried it to the kitchen table where she proceeded to spread it thickly with butter and black treacle.

“I have a bit put aside for Christmas, I’ll use that if I have to,” she said, thinking of the coins and small notes hidden away in an empty jam jar at the back of the pantry.

Nothing more was said as they sat and drank the steaming hot tea and ate the thick slices of toast.

“Well, I’m off,” he said eventually, pulling on the heavy greatcoat which hung behind the kitchen door. “I’ve done corned beef butties for your jack bit,” she said as she handed him the canvas shoulder bag containing his lunch. “And there’s the leftovers of Sunday’s apple pie.” A big grin lit her husband’s face. “By gum, yer a grand lass,” he chuckled, pecking her on the cheek as he slung the bag over his shoulder, gathered the overcoat about himself against the winter chill then opened the kitchen door and stepped out into the swirling fog.

After serving breakfast to the sickly child, Harriet tucked Mary up in bed with strict instructions not to budge. She emptied the chamber pot into the back yard lavatory and put it back under her bed. “That’s t’ only reason you’ll be needing to get out from under them blankets,” she said with a nod towards the bed. “Your aunty Kitty’ll be in to give you some dinner at about half past twelve and I’ll be home from t’ mill by six o’clock. I’m going to see about getting Doctor Murphy in to take a look at you.”

Doctor Murphy examined Mary the following day then sat her parents down to discuss her condition with them after they’d finished their evening meal. He was a distinguished looking man in his early sixties with silver hair and steel-rimmed glasses which he now pushed up onto his forehead. Harriet poured freshly brewed tea into the fine china cups, part of the posh tea service reserved for special visitors and a wedding present from Matthew’s parents. She placed the matching sugar bowl and milk jug within easy reach then watched nervously as Matthew fumbled clumsily with the sugar bowl lid.

“No milk or sugar for me, thanks,” said their guest.

“So, what’s t’ matter with our lass”? asked Harriet, twisting a tea towel in her hands.

“Sure, ‘tis hard to say on first examination but all her symptoms point to one thing and I’d be willing to bet my reputation on it,” said the good doctor in his soft Irish brogue. “I’m pretty sure she’s picked up the nasty bug that causes typhoid.”

“What! How could that happen?”

“It’s usually passed on from a carrier who, themselves, may not be presenting with symptoms,” explained the doctor. “It’s basically due to lack of hygiene and can come from infected water supply too. Mary is a very sick young lady and I’m afraid the worst is not over yet but with proper care, she should be fine.”

Harriet bowed her head and sobbed and Matthew reached over and held her hand, not knowing what to say.

The next few weeks saw Harriet at home lavishing care on her only child. It was hard for the family to make ends meet with their two wages not coming in but Matthew’s wages from the pit kept them in all the basics. It wasn’t long before the ladies from the Parish Committee got wind of their predicament and took up a collection after Mass one week. Harriet had spent all her Christmas savings on medical bills but Kitty and her husband managed to help out with a couple of pounds and that, alongwith the Parish Ladies’ contribution, ensured that their Christmas tide was not as miserable as Harriet had feared.

New Year 1902 arrived and Harriet reminisced that it was already a whole year since the passing of their beloved Queen Victoria. She pushed all thoughts of mortality aside and said a silent prayer of thanks that young Mary was improving week by week but it would be many months before she was able to return to work. The family missed the few shillings a week that Mary had been earning before she fell sick, not to mention Harriet’s wages, but Harriet knew that letting her only child return to working 12 hour shifts in the cotton mill would do nothing to improve her chances of making a full recovery.    

Finally, Doctor Murphy pronounced that she was out of danger and, as soon as her strength was back to normal, she could return to work. Mary was delighted that she could once again contribute to the family budget and Harriet returned to the mill before Wakes Week. By the time July came around and the mills were due to close for the annual summer holidays, Harriet had managed to save a few pounds from their meager joint income but it was enough for the family to take the train to Blackpool for a day by the seaside. Harriet believed that the fresh sea air would do Mary good and Matthew agreed wholeheartedly. After all, nothing was too good for an only child.



 Mary McCarrick made a full recovery and lived a long and healthy life. She eventually married a boy from the nearby village of Adlington who, like her father Matthew, was a hardworking miner. The match was frowned upon at first because the boy, Fred, was Anglican but they went ahead and married anyway producing three girls, Annie, Marion and Winnie. Mary died in 1980 just two years after Matthew, her husband of almost seventy years.

Besides their three daughters, the devoted couple left behind eight grandchildren.

I am one of those grandchildren: Marion was my mother and Mary McCarrick was my grandmother.

Copyright ©

Author: Michael Henry
Born in Ireland and raised in England, I have travelled widely both before and after my arrival in Australia which I have called home since 1966. I have a Certificate III in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I have also edited texts for published works. Now, with working life behind me, I'm looking to indulge in my passion and see what the future holds...
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