In mid-Victorian Liverpool, two young children, May Lavender and her brother Gus are orphaned by the death of their mother. They are sent to the Workhouse, a cruel, cold place, where they are separated. Beaten by the teachers, starved and over worked, they manage to make friends and learn the skills they need to survive.
Finally escaping, May and Gus embark on difficult lives, always aware they are tainted by their past. May becomes a servant, and barely escapes an horrific fate to work in a department store, while Gus runs away to sea and becomes involved in the American Civil War.
Workhouse Orphans is a very enjoyable read. Holly Green has obviously done meticulous research for this book, and it shows in the level of detail. She clearly knows the history of Liverpool well, including the docks and the streets. I was fascinated by the scenes on the ships, and in the shops, and by the descriptions of Victorian Liverpool.
The lives of the two children, and their friends, manage to reflect the roles of the poor in Victorian England – abused, used, discarded and reliant on luck and friendship to see them through. Having said that, this isn’t a bleak book. May and Gus are likeable characters, and manage to navigate their way through the many dangers they meet. It’s the other characters who tend to fall victim to the darker side of Victorian life – prostitution and abuse are everywhere. Holly Green doesn’t shy away from the ugly scenes, but she also shows us the strength and companionship these people had.
The characters are well-drawn, including the minor ones, and the places – not just Liverpool, but all over the world – are vividly drawn. I knew nothing about Liverpool before reading this and now I want to visit.
I found Workhouse Orphans an absolutely compelling read that will appeal to those who like sagas of the poor and dispossessed making their way in the Victorian world.
Michelle Birkby is the author of The House at Baker Street, the first in a series written from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, that follows Mrs Hudson and Dr Watson’s wife, Mary, as they team up together to do some detective work of their own. The second in the series, The Women of Baker Street, is out now. Read about Michelle’s Desert Island Books here.