The Story of Sarah and Gertie

Inspired by the story of Sarah Lawton and Gertrude Bigwood

This is the dad
working five months away
from his family, keeping
starvation at bay

This is the mum
taking work when it comes
boiling laundry and toiling
for pitiful sums

This is the girl
who she sends out to cadge:
aged eleven and begging
for bread-ends in rags

This is her friend
with a father who’s dead
and a mother who chars
so her children are fed

This is the lodger
who writes out the sign
for the girls to implore
for a scrap or a dime

This is the shop
where the girls go to fetch
pairs of worn-out old boots
that might keep out the wet

This is the shopman
who says to the lass
she could do him a favour
in exchange for some cash

If she comes out the back
and she lifts up her dress
and she does what he tells her
and tells no-one else

This is the penny
the little girl makes
which she takes to a shop
and buys lollies and cakes

This is the constable
busting the child
and her friend, then he questions
then charges are filed

This is the station
and this is the cell
and this is the court
where the girls had to tell

What the bootshop man did
how he did it and when
to a gallery of grown-ups
and a jury of men

This is the judge
who condemned the molester
but then charged his victims
with being neglected

This is the dock
where the little girls cried
where their mothers bore witness
where the victims were tried

And convicted and sentenced
by those who accused them
to several years more
than the man who abused them

This is a tale
from the history books
in which girls were exploited
but treated as crooks

The girl was named Sarah
her friend was called Gertie
their parents were desperate
their living was dirty

This is the system
that pressganged the dad
to abandon the mum
who sent out the girl
to cadge with her friend
with the sign by the lodger
then went to the shop
and was raped by the man
who was jailed by the court
which convicted the girls
who wept on the stand
and who by twenty-one
each was a partnerless
impoverished mum

Museum exhibits
and newspaper prints
could be so many girls
in the century since

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