Editions: Strawberry Girl, British Workman no 80

The Strawberry Girl on the front page of the British Workman no 80, 8 August 1861


transcribed and annotated by Natasha Head and Morgan Farnham

Whilst searching through different issues of the British Workman, we came across a small section with the heading ‘Mental Diseases’ and instantly decided this would be an interesting route to explore. Prior to further research, we had very little knowledge on how connected mental health and work were in the 19th century. Today’s popular culture led us to believe that any mental health issues would have led to incarceration in a mental institution at this time; however, it seemed that we were wrong. ‘The Strawberry Girl’ was on the same page as the ‘Mental Diseases’ article and suggested how tight the thematic control was over the whole journal, as it exemplifies what the article suggests.

It seems from the various sources we encountered that work was considered the most important cure for mental ailments. In response to this emphasis, we decided to construct our own satirical short story based around this idea, named ‘The Marvellous Cure for Mr Parker’.

Click through here to our commentary on ‘The Strawberry Girl’ (which contains a copy of the article on how to cure “Mental Diseases”).


“STRAW-BER-RIES! Straw-ber-ies! Who will buy? Who will buy?”

    The musical voice of Nellie trilled the words so sweetly, and her appearance was so clean and neat, that she soon found customers at the commencement of the strawberry season.[1]

    “Come in, my girl. What is your price?”

    “Tenpence a basket, miss.”[2]

    Nellie stepped into a spacious hall of a fashionable house in M—- street, where a young lady stood in her morning dress, with flowers in her hand, just gathered from the conservatory.

    “Well, they are worth that – so fresh and ripe. Give me half-a-dozen baskets.”

    As the lady dropped the five shillings,[3] as she supposed, into Nellie’s purse, the smile with which it was received penetrated like a sunbeam into her heart.

    “You seem very happy,” said Miss Minnie Hamilton; for that was the young lady’s name. “Do you earn your living by selling strawberries?”

    “Yes, miss. In the summer I sell berries, and in the winter I go to school part of the day, and help mother the rest of the day.”

    “And what makes you so happy? Can you tell me the secret?”

    “Mother says that we ought to be bright and happy, because we have so much to be thankful for.”

    Minnie Hamilton looked at the strawberry girl with amazement. With all the wealth and luxury of her home, she was often discontented and unhappy. How a poor girl who had to work for her living could be happier than she was puzzled her.

    “How does your mother support herself?” she asked.

    “She takes in sewing, miss. Sometimes she sews half the night through.”

    “Then what in the world has she to be so very thankful for?” exclaimed Miss Hamilton

    Nellie smiled again sweetly, as she answered:

    “Some people, as good as we are, have no home, and have nothing to eat. But mother and I have a little to live in. She sings at her work all day long, because, she says, God is so good to us. We have bread and potatoes every day, and on Sundays we have meat. Don’t you think, miss, that is something to be thankful for?”

    A deeper tint glowed upon Minnie’s cheek. “Yes, yes,” she answered nervously; and then followed a pause, during which she stored away in her heart, like hidden treasure, the lesson which Nellie had taught her, and which was to be re-perused often in after years when discontent[4] caused her to murmur at some little cloud, real or imaginary, that hung over her destiny. “You are far happier that I: may God forgive me!”

    Minnie Hamilton was an only daughter, petted an idolized by her parents. Indulgence[5] has injured, though it had not spoiled her. So fully had every wish of her heart been gratified from her birth, that she regarded it as a kind of privilege peculiar to her condition, to murmur if the slightest shadow came between her and the fulfilment of her most extravagant desires. Poor Minnie! poor, although abounding in riches. “One thing thou lackest,” one thing, which wealth cannot purchase—the joy of a contented heart.

    Yet Minnie had noble qualities: generosity and active benevolence, with strong moral and religious principles[6]. One shadow, the shadow of discontent, clouded them all.

    Nellie had put her little purse into the pocket of her apron; and now she issued into the street again and recommenced her strawberry song, till she was summoned by another customer, who purchased largely. As she was about adding the payment she received to her little store, she discovered a small rent in the purse, and sitting down she emptied the money into her apron to examine it. As she did so, she discovered a sovereign,[7] which had evidently been given her by mistake by the first purchaser.

    “I will go right back with it,” thought Nellie.

    She waited, however, to rearrange her baskets; and while doing so, the Tempter came, with evil thoughts, to test her strength of principle.

    “Why go back with it?” said the wicked voice: “perhaps the lady meant to give it.”

    “But I do not know that,” said the tender conscience of Nellie.

    “Well, you can do good with it,” said the voice, appealing artfully to her filial love: you can purchase something for your mother. She works hard enough for all she has; and this will buy her a neat dress to wear to church.”

    Suddenly the smile died away on Nellie’s lip; her step grew less light. There was a weight at her heart. It was the burden of a guilty thought. She has parleyed with Evil, and its shadow was on her path. It had dimmed the happiness of her heart.

    Now, happily for Nellie, Conscience, “that voice of God in the soul,” came powerfully to her aid.[8] It recalled vividly the previous Sabbath evening, when her mother sat with her at the window, just as the sun was sinking, and after their scanty supper had been disposed of.

    “Nellie,” she said, as she laid her head upon her knee, and smoothed back her dark hair, “you could not go to Sunday-school to-day, because you had no shoes to wear. Perhaps we can earn a pair before another Sabbath; but I will teach you the commandments.[9] Then Nellie repeated them after her. All were vivid now to her memory; but especially, and as if written in letters of fire, stood forth the eighth:

“Thou shalt not steal!”

Nellie’s heart sank within her. Had she listened, and obeyed that evil voice, what might she have become—a breaker of God’s holy Commandment! Nellie waited not a moment; but terrified at her own thoughts, she rushed back, lest that evil voice should speak again, and rested not till she reached the home of Minnie Hamilton.

    “You made a mistake, miss. You gave me this,” holding up the sovereign, “for a shilling.”

    “Did I? Well, it was a mistake. I am near-sighted; but you are honest, and shall have it as a reward.”

    “No, miss, thank you; I’d rather have the shilling.”

    “You would?”

    “Yes, miss, if ye please.”

    “What a singular girl. Tell me why you would rather?”

    “Because—because—it would remind me.”—Nellie burst into tears and covered her face with her hands.

    “Of what? tell me.”

    “How I was tempted to break the eighth commandment, miss..”

    “And to keep the sovereign, do you mean?”

    “Yes, miss.”

    “But you resisted the temptation, as God gave you strength. Now tell me your name: I must remember it.”

    “Nellie Townsend.”

    “There is no sin, Nellie, in being tempted. The sin consists in yielding to temptation. Now that you have resisted, you will find yourself strengthened in might to overcome evil. Only resist the first promptings to do wrong, resist them, and all will be well. Nellie, you were not aware of it, but to-day you taught me a lesson of contentment,[10] which I will not easily forget: and you shall have the happiness of knowing that you have been a minister of good to me. And you must let me reward you. You must keep that sovereign to remind you of what has occurred to-day, and you have no reason to be ashamed of it. Now tell me what was the temptation? What did you most desire to do with it?”

    Nellie hesitated, and then said: “Last Sunday, other had no dress to go to church. That would more than buy one. I only thought of it for a moment.”

    Millie Hamilton turned aside without speaking. When she looked again there was a moisture on the eyelids which had not often been there before.

    “Does your mother require anything else? Does she not want a bonnet, too?”

    “Yes, miss; but I shall earn that by my berries. Mother’s sewing has nearly paid the rent this month.”

    “Nellie, you and I must be friends. Go and sell the remainder of your strawberries, and call on your way home.”

    That evening, Nellie was tripping home with her empty basket; but in it lay a new straw bonnet, and a package which she was directed not to open till her return. Nellie’s mother was looking anxiously for her when she arrived, but what was her astonishment and gratitude when she heard her story, with a full confession of the temptation, not a word of which she withheld.

    When the package was opened, it was found to contain a nice calico dress for each, with a bank-note fastened within. Upon a slip of paper were written these words:

    “For Mrs. Townsend, as an acknowledgment for a benefit received from her daughter, whom she has reared to be an example of truth and honesty.”

    From this time, Nellie and her mother were under the patronage of the Hamilton family. Sewing was supplied, for which they received good pay, and Nellie was transferred to the Sunday-school Bible-class, where she was regarded as a pattern of truth and integrity for her associates.

    And shall not her example speak also to our readers, and remind them of that which the Bible teaches—to “resist evil,” and “to follow that which is good!”[11]

click through to our commentary on this story and to our satirical short story based our findings, set in the era of the New Woman and Dorian Gray.


[1] The issue of the British Workman that this appeared in as lead story was dated August 1861. That in effect meant that it was available to the public in July which is in the strawberry season. The story was topical after the approved manner of Victorian sermons (see Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, Volume IV: From Newman to Martineau, Princeton University Press, 2015: 288.

[2] Strawberries were luxury items. 10d (tenpence) was a good deal of money for a small “basket” or punnet  (as illustrated on the front-page illustration) when working men’s average weekly wage was a pound (note that a pound in predecimal currency comprised 20 shillings, and each shilling had 12 pennies. £1 there = 240d. The National Archives Currency Converter website suggest that in 1860 (the nearest date to when this story was published) 10d was the equivalent of £2.47 in 2017.

[3] Five shillings had the purchasing power of £14.78 in 2017, but, more crucially for working people, it was the whole of a day’s wage.

[4] “Discontent” is one of the bugbears of the British Workman. The second item on the first page of the very  first issue begins with the word: and it recurs many times in subsequent issues. It is always associated with mental lack of ease – precisely “dis-ease” or illness. In an agenda-setting article in  issue two it is called a “canker” – an ulcerous condition (“the Canker – Discontent by the late G. Mogridge, Esq)

[5] “Indulgence” is used in various ways in the British Workman. Sometimes it means forgiveness (“We must in all such cases solicit the indulgence of our friends” in “To Our Readers” ; at other time permission to allow animal brutality to dominate (see “Destruction of Young Birds”, a quotation from Howitt’s Book of the Season).  Here it means that Minnie has been spoiled – insufficiently disciplined.

[6] To instil ‘strong moral and religious principles’ was the main purpose of the British Workman’s existence. One of the “Columns For Wives And Mothers – Mothers That Are Wanted” opens with the following words: “It is a blessing and an advantage, utterly incalculable, to have for a mother a woman of sense, superiority, and goodness; with force of character; with talents and cleverness; of solid information; with tact, temper, patience, and skill fitted to train and mould the mind, to implant principles, and awaken a lofty and laudable ambition; and all this presided over and purified by religious faith, deep piety, and earnest devotion.”

[7] A sovereign was the term for a pound coin, a week’s wages for a working man.

[8] “Conscience” throughout the British Workman is explicitly separated from riches and economic need in general. A little paragraph on the last page of the 27th issue of the British Workman illustrates this perfectly: “Are you not surprised to find how independent of money peace of conscience is, and how much happiness can be condensed in the humblest home? A cottage will not hold the bulky furniture and sumptuous accommodations of a mansion, but if God be there, a cottage will hold as much happiness as might stock a palace. Lord Byron, in speaking of his life, said, I once attempted to enumerate the happy days I had lived, which might, according to the common use of language, be called happy. I could not make them count more than eleven, and I believe I have a very distinct remembrance of every one. I often ask myself whether between the present time and the day of my death, I shall be able to make up the round dozen.”

[9] Unsurprisingly, learning the Ten Commandments was regarded as essential for mental health. See for example, the verse dialogue, Ten Thousand Bright Guineas of Gold in issue number 5.

[10] “Contentment” is the desired alternative to “discontent” and is regarded as the sign of mental health. The British Workman justifies this by quoting the Bible in issue 2 (“Godliness with contentment is great gain,” 1 Tim. vi. 6.).

[11] The latter part of the quotation comes from Thessalonians 5:15, but the former is actually a misquotation of Matthew 5.39: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

click through to our commentary on this story and to our satirical short story based our findings, set in the era of the New Woman and Dorian Gray.