As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we are excited to kick off our ‘A Poem or Prose Piece a Day’ series on the blog with ‘Picking Oakum’, written by our Creative Writing Showcase host Carolyn Jess-Cooke.

In ‘Picking Oakum’, Carolyn gives voice to Josephine Butler, the renowned Victorian feminist, as she remembers a key moment in her life, the death of her daughter Eva. Remembered for her commitment to defend the rights of prostitutes, Josephine Butler lost her child in an accident. This episode is famously described as having played a key part in Butler’s desire to become a social activist.

I expect to find a pride of lions inside, or perhaps wolves,

but the hollow eyes watching

me belong to women

Carolyn Jess-Cooke, photograph by Kath Warren, courtesy of the Scottish Writers’ Centre

Picking Oakum

First published in The Compass Magazine 

From ‘The House Of Rest’

A History of Josephine Butler, feminist and social reformer, 1828-1906


The matron shoves me into one of the ramshackle huts

outwith the workhouse and locks me in,

her hands trembling as she rattles the keys at the heavy door.


I expect to find a pride of lions inside, or perhaps wolves,

but the hollow eyes watching

me belong to women – filthy, yes, filmed in soot and lice


and sadness, but women nonetheless, a dozen clasped

by the foul shed with only two windows,

a leaky roof, and reams of old rope coiled on the floor


like black serpents. My hands are clasped, I know not

where to sit, but at last I make do with the spot

on the floor that’s haloed by thin noon-light, fanning out


my dress and sitting lower than my audience – this causes

murmurs, which I ignore. Now, I say,

as brightly as I can muster, who will show me what to do?


An old woman gestures, a loop of rope already in both

hands. You pick it, ma’am. Take all the fibres apart.

Like this, see? She pulls the strands, adds them to the cloud


by her feet. The women stir when I mimic the action,

observing that my hands were not made

for this sort of work, that I’d best not ruin my fingers or I’ll


be sneered at by friends. Not friends at all if they mock me, I joke,

and gradually the mood of the room

and the strangeness of the task is lightened by laughter. This


is how they cope, I think, for there is sisterhood

in this terrible prison, palpable as the

wet brick walls and scattering rats. What brought you here, then?


a pregnant girl asks, and I say that I want to help them

in any way I can, even if only to assist

in reaching their daily four-pounds of oakum required


by the matron. But then my mind floods with Eva, each

woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs

of shade, and the true purpose of my visit unfolds: if born


under a different star my daughter might have found her way

into this shed, into these lives, these pathways,

these tendrils of too-used rope. I tell them about her,


and I say that I undo this rope because I cannot undo her death,

as I will undo all injustices that are within my reach.

And we are all crying and silent, and I pick the umbilical shape


in my lap

as though this black rope might lead me

back to her, as though I’ll find her at the end.


Carolyn Jess-Cooke is a poet and novelist published in 23 languages. Her third novel is published in 2017 by HarperCollins and is being adapted for a TV series, and she is currently working on a poetry sequence on the life of 19th-century social reformer Josephine Butler.


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