It was Christmas Eve in the workhouse and the orphans climbed over each other to seek festive warmth from the extra lump - I should really say shard – on the mouldering fire. Around the walls was such spirit raising mottoes as: ‘Work will set you free’ or ‘We are the settled will of the orphans’ and ‘You can ask as much as you want but you’ll never be free’.
The walls were grey; blank with no windows to ensure those inside could not see what was going on in the real world. At the far end there was a large cauldron emitting a disgusting stench of corruption that the orphans knew was their Christmas Dinner – ‘Glasgow Labour Gruel’ was the orphans name for it. Even humble pie was too good for such as these.
Amongst the orphans there was a growing resentment as down the rough wood stairs the smell of Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings, drifted from the kitchen which supplied the workhouse’s rulers. The orphans knew much of this food would be wasted and thrown out to give the local dogs and Bank Street urchins’ better fare than they would ever be allowed.
Day by day they saw the fruits of their labour disappear up the stairs to be sold to others for massive profit but little benefit to them. The slogans around the walls were as shallow as the patronising head patting from the board of directors when they made their four yearly inspections telling the orphans how lucky they were to have a roof over their heads or spouting how they always have the orphans’ best interests at heart.
This Christmas there was a growing anger amongst the orphans. Word had come down that the roof was not safe over their heads as it appeared the Board of Directors had mortgaged the workhouse three or four times over to fund some Ponzi money making scam which had back fired and now the creditors were seeking repayment of the debts. The creditors were only interested in their money and protecting their own behinds. So if a whole shed full of orphans ended up on the street they were not to blame, it was the board of directors fault and they were duty bound to bail the mortgage lenders out. These money men suspended any concept of causality, responsibility or honesty when it was their own butts on the line. The old board had been replaced by concerned citizens but nothing had actually changed.
A small group of orphans discussed these matters and could not understand why, yet again, they would be forced into further poverty because of the stupidity of the directors. They knew that there was a good profit margin on the picked hemp and caulking that was sold on to the outside world so why not take over and use the profit to improve conditions in the workhouse rather than the pockets of the board of directors?
At first the majority of orphans were set against this idea and came up with excuses such as the orphans were too poor, too wee and too stupid to run the workhouse and they were certain the board of directors did act in their best interests. Yet as the dribble of information came down the stairs to them, more and more orphans became aware of the rank hypocrisy, indolence and criminality of the board. It was clear from snippets relayed by orphans who worked up stairs that the board members stuck most of the profit and donations meant for the orphans in their back pocket to fund their superannuated lifestyles and pay off the local media to keep silent about their misdemeanours.
The time was coming that any further inaction would lead to the orphans’ homelessness at the hands of the corrupt and bankrupt banks and mortgage holders; time to take action.
The leaders of this nascent attempt to seek control over the Workhouse’s finances drew straws to see who would trigger the attempted coupe. Wee Shuggie drew the short straw and the final tinkering with the agreed statement was undertaken.
The new Workhouse Board Secretary, Mr Moore, sensed something was not right as he descended into the workshop to give his first annual pep talk to the orphans. He could not put his finger on it; the orphans, for want of a better expression, seemed to have got a spine from some where. He carried out what he saw as his duty on behalf of the board serving the disgusting gruel to the orphans – it was, after all, Christmas.
He was about to launch into his post festive meal homily on how much better it was for the orphans to stay within the workhouse when, from the corner of his eye, he saw some movement. The scraping of one of the crudely made benches reached his ear and a small, skinny orphan with filthy face and hands, bogies dripping from his nose got up and came towards him. Mr Calman, the beadle, made to stop the orphan and beat him back into place but Secretary Moore signalled to let this orphan approach.
‘Well young man’ said Secretary Moore with false bonhomie, ‘What do you wish to ask me on this fine, festive day of our Lord.’
Shuggie wiped the snotters from his nose with a paper thin canvas sleeve and said;
‘See you pal, your headin’ fur a doin.’ So ye’s are. We’re aw fed up wi’ this jouket gruel and yer pauchlin aw the profits o’ oor herd work fir nae return. We ken yer bankrupt so we wid like tae mak a’ offer to take ooer the workhoose an’ run it oorsel’s. After aw, I doubt we can mak any wurse o’ a pig’s ear o’ it than you and at least it will be oor pig’s ear.’
‘Mr Calman, beat this scum to within an inch of his life!’