December 1874. A freezing winter night of gas-lit alleyways, stone stairs, swirling smog and the distant sound of ships’ horns on the river.
Quietly slipping out of Greenwich Theatre stage door, young Polly Richards is in a pickle. As she heads home to her digs in Ashburnham Grove she knows she’s not going to be able to work again for a good few months. There aren’t too many roles for heavily pregnant ingenues on the Victorian stage, especially when the father happens to be the playboy son of the theatre manager – who’s engaged to someone else…
She’s not told anyone. Not the father, not his mother, certainly no one in the cast. This is her problem and she’s going to deal with it. She’ll hole up in Greenwich for the confinement, and with a bit of luck she’ll be able to rejoin the company, wherever they are, when it’s all over.
She’s been to Norway Court down at Wood Wharf to find a potential foster mother – she seems alright – a fish-porter’s wife – poor, respectable. She might have ten children in a four-roomed cottage, but there’s a fringed cloth on the table and plants in the parlour. Yes, she’ll do.
It’s not going to be like last time. Lord knows she tried – after touring the provinces in a ballet skirt with roses in her hair she did try to get respectable. Captain Richards, he was, a skipper on a merchant ship. Married her and everything. How could it be her fault that he died of some obscure malady at sea, leaving her penniless – and pregnant.
As soon as her daughter was born she’d gone back to the only work she knew – on the stage. She’s not daft She knows she’s no looker, neither tall nor slim – not even wildly talented, but she’s cheery and personable and she’s changed her name from dreary Mary Jane Blair to dashing Marie Richards, even though no one will call her that. To them she’ll always be happy, sweet ‘Polly’. It’s her sunny nature attracted the celebrated impressario Alice Marriott to her when they lodged next door to each other in Liverpool.
Alice had taken on Polly as a dresser and she gradually became in complete charge of the famous tragedienne’s entire wardrobe, an eye-popping collection of costumes that ranged from glamorous gowns as Lady Macbeth to the full doublet-and-hose for when Miss Marriott gave her notorious female Hamlet.
The critics were divided on that one. H. CHace Newton made ‘no hesitation in saying that this brilliant actress’s presentation of the part gradulally came out as one one of the very best I have ever seen”. Others were less charitable: “It would be untrue to assert that the Hamlet of Miss Marriott carried much sense of illusion,” wrote one critic, “but her rich, rolling voice and beautiful elocution almost compensated for the spectacle of a well-developed Dane in a black cloak and trunks.” To be honest the Victorian gents probably just came for a gawk at her legs, but it was a crowd pleaser and Alice would have made quite a nest-egg if her husband hadn’t been so keen on property speculation. He was good at the buying up the property bit; bad at selling it at any kind of profit.
They were good days. Polly got on instantly with Miss Marriott’s daughters, Grace and Adeline, and the three became inseperable. Less happily she also got on instantly with Alice Marriott’s son Richard – good-looking, charming and utterly irresponsible.
Richard was engaged to a pretty young actress from Dundee, but it didn’t stop him dallying with young Polly’s affections and, just as Alice was giving public blessing to Richard and pretty young Jenny from Dundee, Polly was sneaking out of the back door, pregnant and heart-broken, to work at Greenwich for as long as she could until she just got too big. Why would she ruin Jenny’s big day? It was hardly her fault…
Polly’s not even told her daughter, Joey, though she feels terrible about it. She’s already abandoned her once, to an orphanage, where she had to wear a sailor suit and eat gruel. One of the first things Miss Marriott did for Polly was bring Joey back. Now she’s had to leave her again – but what else was she to do? She’s got nothing, no one. Joey’s better off with with the theatre folk.
So here she is, in cheap lodgings in the Ashburnham Triangle. She’s been playing a few rep shows which seem to have been chosen for their painfully ironic titles – Let Us Never Despair, Sunshine Through the Clouds and The Double Marriage – but now, a few days before Christmas, she’s as big as the turkey.
She’s got it all worked out. She’ll take the child to a Catholic priest for baptism, and enter a name into the Parish registry that no one will be able to trace. She can’t resist, if it’s a boy, giving him his father’s name – Richard Horation EDGAR but she’ll make up a surname. The father will be ‘Walter WALLACE, comedian.’
The next day little Millie Freeman, the fish-porter’s girl will be sent to number 7, Ashburnham Grove, where Polly will have wrapped young Edgar in a white shawl and a basket cradle. Millie will carry him back to the little courtyard behind Bridge Street and Polly? Polly will pack her bags and go to join the rest of the company in Huddersfield. She won’t see her son for thirty years, and when she does he’ll disown her.