Chapter 1: The Grey-Eyed Girl
Well I lasted one day before reading some more of this book – but I did finish one of the other books I was reading first and posted a book review of it, so that wasn’t too bad. I’ve convinced myself anyway, so I can now continue reading this book as well.
The first chapter begins the story of Agnes McMillan Roberts, a convict sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) from Glasgow in Scotland.
This first chapter paints a terrible picture of conditions for the poorer families of Glasgow in the 1820s. The early years were tough years for Agnes and her childhood was cut short by the abandonment of her parents – first her father, then her mother (who basically stopped being one). In the place of family, Agnes aged 12 found support in a ‘street gang’ of young girls and this led ultimately to her arrest for burglary. Her partner in crime and life was 13-year-old Janet Houston, who took the younger Agnes under her wing.
Fighting to survive the elements in a filthy city, petty crime was one of very few options open to Agnes and she took it. She was to pay the penalty for being a survivor, a penalty that she was required to pay because society failed to care for the less fortunate of her day. Her small gang of young girls were arrested at the scene of their crime and quickly sentenced.
Agnes and Janet were sentenced to 18 months forced labor at a woolen mill, working 15 hour days, 7 days a week. They were basically slaves, child slaves and poorly treated ones at that. Life at the mill was 18 months of torture, a slave labor that no child should have to endure. Yet this was the life that beckoned for thousands of children across Britain during the so-called Industrial Revolution. Child exploitation and exploitation of the poor were signs of the times.
Reading this chapter you can’t but feel for Agnes and her friend Janet. Abandoned by society, with no hope for survival except by embracing a world of what you could call the underbelly of 1820s Glasgow. To survive they turned to a life of petty crime. Sure they were by definition criminals, but it is difficult to feel anything but pity and compassion toward these young girls given the circumstances in which they lived. From out of the frying pan and into the fire though was the result, in what is just a terribly sad childhood for these young girls.
This first chapter leaves you asking yourself just who were the real criminals in all of this? Are the parents the real criminals? Are the upper class to blame for this? Is it the government’s fault? Is it society as a whole? 1820s Glasgow certainly makes me glad to be living in 21st century Australia.
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