One hundred and sixteen years ago today, the following story broke in the Evening Express, and went on to grip the town for several weeks.
Six days previously, on Monday 30 September 1901, a fifteen-year-old girl had been found working as a boy in one of the Plymouth Ironworks’ collieries.
When interviewed, the girl, Edith Gertrude Phillips, said that she lived with her father, a pitman, her mother and five siblings at the Glynderis Engine House in Abercanaid, but was beaten and forced to do all the housework by her mother when her father was at work. On the previous Friday, her mother had ‘knocked her about the head, shoulders and back with her fists’ for not finishing the washing, so Edith decided to leave home. She dressed in some clothes belonging to her older brother, cut her hair, threw her own clothes into the Glamorganshire Canal, and walked to Dowlais Ironworks to look for a job.
Unable to secure employment in Dowlais, Edith then went to the South Pit of the Plymouth Colliery, and got a job with a collier named Matthew Thomas as his ‘boy’. She found lodgings at a house in Nightingale Street in Abercanaid, and it was there on Monday 30 September that she was discovered by P.C. Dove. The alarm had been raised about Edith’s disappearance by her father on the Friday evening, and following searches throughout the weekend, someone recognised the disguised Edith at her lodgings in Nightingale Street. Edith refused to go back to her parents, and in the ensuing arguments, collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was taken to Merthyr Infirmary.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children immediately started investigating the case, and Edith’s parents were questioned thoroughly. In the meantime, as news of the case leaked out, there was an outpouring of support for Edith, and dozens of people came forward with offers of support for her, some from as far afield as Surrey and Sussex. A committee was formed to start a fund to help Edith, and the met at the Richards Arms in Abercanaid, just a week after the news broke, and a public appeal was made for money to help her.
Despite the ongoing investigation by the N.S.P.C.C. and the countless offers from people to provide a good home to Edith, the Merthyr Board of Guardians, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the girl should be sent home to her parents upon her release from the Infirmary. Edith was indeed released and sent home to her parents on 31 October, but within hours, she was removed from the house by the N.S.P.C.C. and taken to the Salvation Army Home in Cardiff.
No more is mentioned in the newspapers about Edith until 8 February 1904, when the Evening Express reported that she had been living in Cardiff, but as the money raised to help her had run out, she had to leave her home. As she was in very poor health, she was unable to find work, so she had appealed to the Merthyr Board of Guardians to allow her to come back to Merthyr, and to enter the Workhouse. A doctor told the Board that Edith didn’t have long to live, so they agreed to allow her to return.
This is the last report about Edith in any of the newspapers, but thanks to the sterling work of Mike Donovan of the Merthyr Branch of the Glamorgan Family History Society, I have been able to discover that Edith didn’t actually die at the workhouse, she recovered and went on to work, in service, at a house in Penydarren, and died in 1963 at the age of 77.