London, July 1862
As the carriage moved towards her next interview, Millicent considered the next candidate. She needed an aeronautical engineer. The success of this exhibition depended on the availability of airships. That a cabinet’s maker’s daughter could not find employment was appalling, typical and to her advantage. The location was near Old Street. Liam parked at Old and Curtain Street. With no place to park, Liam said he would head to Hoxton Rd. and rest there.
Millicent headed south on Curtain Road to Willow. The sign above the door said “Woodson and sons – fine carpentry”. Millicent looked amused and walked through the door to be greeted by a lad of sixteen. Gangly and all elbows and knees. Height clearly ran in his family as he had reached Millicent’s six feet . He had a dark complexion and had long , slightly curly hair pulled in a ponytail. He wore a white shirt and a velvet vest of plain color: smartly dressed but not too opulent. Millicent guessed his parents were not going to spend a lot on tailoring clothes he might grow out of in three months.
“Good afternoon ma’am. How can I help you?”
“At the moment I would like to know a bit about your wardrobes. I may need one soon.”
“We have a sample over here. This one has a fine inlay of Mahogany, Teak, Kauri, and Balsa that shows a alpine landscape. We use no nails or screws in the fashion of the old craftsmen. Open it if you will”
The door easily drew open showing an interior with a rack and places for shoes.
“It has excellent balance. It seems a bit spare for the interior,” Millicent said.
“We want you to have enough room for your hanging items. However, close the door and I will show you another feature. “
She closed the door. The young and smart salesman then pressed three areas on the left side inlay and, with his other hand, pulled open a hidden compartment with small velvet lined shelves.
“Oh marvelous. I never would have known,” Millicent looked surprised and she was. There was no sign of the hidden compartment on the left. The three point switch was ingenious and executed well.
“That’s the point ma’am.” The lad said somewhat condescendingly. Still he would learn over time. “This feature is useful for valuables to be hidden. We might recommend some paste items be kept in the regular interior to reduce close scrutiny. But if you’ll look at the inlay, you’ll see we’ve carefully hidden the hinge line.”
“That is excellent work. Not typical of your neighbors, if I may make so bold. Is this custom or standard built?”
“These are custom built”
“And what would a standard wardrobe look like?” He looked a bit disappointed, but headed over to the adjoining wall. A substantial piece of black oak took up at least six square feet of floor space.
“While not the quality of the previous wardrobe, we used the finest wood and workmanship.”
“I can see that. What are the prices for these items?”
“The standard is three pounds. The custom wardrobe would be about ten pounds depending on the features and inlay work”
Millicent paused as if considering the two wardrobes.
“Are those hidden compartments your own design?”
“Absolutely. Our in house designer came up with this feature on …his own. You’ll find it nowhere else.”
Millicent said abruptly, “I would very much like to meet the designer.” The lad looked nonplussed. “Umm… he doesn’t normally see customers.”
“Oh I find that hard to believe. Such genius must make an incredible sales tool.”
“He is rather reclusive.”
“I have some specific requests and I would like to see if that is possible. Surely talking to the designer would be necessary.” About this time, a man in his late forties stepped back into the show room.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked.
“Ah… you must be the senior Woodson. Your son has been doing an admirable job selling the cabinets. I have a small request before I order some wardrobes,” Millicent said.
“Some? And that request?”
“I haven’t been entirely forthright. Here is my card. I act as a procurer of specialty items for select clientele, “ she said presenting her card.
“An impressive title. I’ve not heard of you,” the older man sounded unimpressed, but still looking at the card.
“I do most of my business through a professor at the university. He passed your daughter’s name onto me in connection with an opportunity. In the meantime, your son has introduced me to your fine craftwork. I can use some custom work. I asked to see the designer of your marvelous secret compartment. I am presuming it was your daughter,” she replied pleasantly.
“In addition to being forward, you seem rather sure,” the senior Woodson said.
“The trim inlay follows a specific geometric pattern. The center inlay on the side is of a rather fanciful airship. Adding a compartment with all the hardware would add considerably to the weight of the door, yet your son swung it open effortlessly indicating superior engineering and craftsmanship and a certain lightness not normally associated with wood. I believe the person who designed this had extensive training in engineering. I don’t know for certain, but I am fairly certain that it was your daughter. Am I mistaken?”
The dark skinned older man had sandy black hair that was tightly curled. He stood a good inch taller than Millicent. He had not been expecting to deal with a customer as he had a leather apron on and sawdust clung to the apron. His shirt sleeves were rolled up in a working fashion. He had the presence of a man who liked to be in control and had just lost his grip. In short, he looked annoyed.
Millicent continued, “While the inlay design might have been hers, I suspect you were responsible for the detail and execution of that design. “
He looked at the card again and then replied, “What need of you with Eleanor? She is busy with her work. I will not have her interrupted for extraneous matters.”
“I am thinking of ordering five of those custom cabinets. Six – I want one for myself. But I have questions for their designer.”
The father heard language he could relate to – profit. The idea of such a large client was intriguing.
“I pass through here every couple of years and will likely have more furniture needs in large quantities,” she added helpfully.
“I have not seen your money,” he sounded skeptical.
“If you and your staff,” she nodded to the boy, “will write up a contract for six custom wardrobes with custom inlays, I can talk to your daughter and ask a few questions. After I finish those questions, we can discuss terms more cogently and I will write you a cheque for a deposit on the materials,” she said decisively and pulled the book of notes out.
“You are an odd one. Follow me.” She followed the senior Woodson into the other room. The room had two other workmen who looked up as they passed by. This was clearly where the custom work was done. They went through a door onto the factory floor where manufacturing was truly taking place. The factory was a modern example of industrialization of the era. Each station had some task attended to by one or two workers. Young boys and girls moved between stations bring materials or water. There were windows, but they were caked with sawdust. The sickly sweet smell of finish seemed to permeate into everything. Looking upward, she saw an extensive fire suppression system – very modern for the era.
In time they climbed a set of stairs to an office that overlooked the factory floor. A tallish woman in practical skirt and hobnail boots was leaning over some diagrams. She was dark in skin like the rest of her family showing her African origins. Her hair was also tied in the back. However, her hair was much more curly and formed almost a halo around her head. She wore a leather apron and had a set of gloves draped from the strings of the tied apron. Above her were delicate models of wood and paper of airships. One model seemed to only have wings and a propeller for propulsion.
“Eleanor. This woman is here to see you about something from the University. I will leave her with you for a bit. She is planning on ordering a number of wardrobes with the hidden compartment.” The large man left and Millicent proceeded to wander around the room.
“It must be a substantial contract if Father himself brought you here to talk to me,” said the tall, ebony woman.
“Six cabinets plus more orders in the future if things work out. Have you tested any of these models?” responded Millicent.
“That is sizable order. I see how you managed to run the gauntlet… Not successfully. It is difficult if not impossible to find gas sealed fabric at 1/10 scale,” the tall woman replied as if she were volleying.
“That is so difficult with the materials you have at hand,” Millicent said with a smile and looked around the room.
“You have other materials?” Eleanor asked curious and skeptical.
“What about this one?” point to the trefoil plane with a propeller.
“That one has been much more successful. I’ve had it glide for as far as 100 feet. You avoided the question. I find that curious. Do you have other materials?” Eleanor persisted.
“You’re right. I did avoid the question,” Millicent said and tapped a finger on her chin. “I like that – observant. At a 1/10 scale, that is about 1000 feet. Impressive. What does Pater have you working on now?”
“Father has me working on latches and hinges. He doesn’t trust my instincts with furniture. Or rather he trusts his more…I’ve answered three of your questions and you have not answered not one of mine,“ said Eleanor with some protest.
“True and hardly fair. Ask a different question and I may answer,” Millicent said apologetically.
“Very well. Why do you want to see me?”
“Excellent question. I have an opportunity. I have a client who will contract your services in design, especially around those” Millicent pointed to the models. “And scale testing them will not be a problem.”
“Sounds marvelous,” Eleanor sounded quite skeptical. “What haven’t you told me?”
Millicent continued, “I will answer that question eventually. You should be designing airships. I gather the Europeans and Americans that dominate the market, but can’t abide an African, an African woman no less, directing their design programs. With me you will design amazing things and your only limitation will be your imagination. And that doesn’t seem to be terribly limited” she said pointing the models. “Do you really want to be consigned to latches and hinges? Do you like being Woodson’s other son?”
“You play nice until you don’t ,” said Eleanor. “You manage to get past the family barrier. You offer a job to someone everyone else has ignored. You even offer some fantastic ability to test the impossible. If this job is so wonderful, why has no one taken it before?”
Millicent paused for a moment and thought directness would serve her best after this verbal back and forth. “If I had come in Spring, my job would still be yours. Your classmates might eventually match your ideas with time and experience. But, if you have the chance, you will exceed them still. I want the person who builds these in her idle time. I want the person who was a force for change in this factory. You ask what I haven’t told you? The contract is not to be taken lightly. The work location is impossibly remote and utterly exotic. You leave here for at least ten years. You get no contact with anyone while you’re gone. You will be paid handsomely, but you will be leaving everything you know.”
Eleanor whistled low. “That is quite a clause. Why should I leave this slice of paradise for your terms?”
“I suspect you have forced more change here in the last two years than it had in the previous twenty. The sprinkler system looks new. The custom designs are yours although it seems your Father and brothers have found their roots. The assembly lines are efficient if ruthlessly so. Is that you?”
“Yes. Father wasn’t happy, but Tom and Wallace and I could see it could be done better. The old craftsman way doesn’t scale and the number of gentry willing to buy is getting smaller. The middle market is where the growth is. As for the floor, I know the hours are long. But we have a physician every Friday and grant holidays every two months. “
“And the children?”
Eleanor looked pained. ”None younger than twelve. For most of those not having this job would be worse. I got schooled because my Da’ said so. Those young ‘uns – their parents didn’t say so. We pay ‘em and they learn a trade.”
“At least you have a conscience. I can live with a conscious decision and all of its rationalizations. Times will change practices. One hopes your factory will embrace those changes.” Millicent looked at the models and toyed with one a bit,
Millicent looked at the models and toyed with one a bit, “You could test these models at scale if you worked for me. Have I intrigued you?”
“How could I not be? However, remember that gauntlet you ran? That works both ways. Father, Tom and Wallace would never approve,” Eleanor said with an air of resignation.
Millicent turned and eyed her levelly. “My contract will be with you, not them. By the laws of this country, you reached your majority at least two years ago. If you are interested, as far as I am concerned, they have no say in the matter. Any authority they exercise, you will have granted.”
“I can’t leave this building without their say so. And for a good portion of that, they will accompany me,” Eleanor said quietly.
“Then you and I must reach accord if I am to spirit you away. I can get you out should you choose, but my terms are quite irrevocable. Tomorrow, I shall return for the details to be discussed. I will try to meet with you at that time. If they insist on being present, I will ask if the features I asked for are possible. If you say yes, then my people will watch for a moment when we can extract you. “
Eleanor considered Millicent for moment. She looked around the room at the hanging models. “You say that scale testing of these will be possible?”
“That and more, but do not take my conditions lightly. They are quite binding.”
“I shall think on it and you shall have an answer tomorrow,” Eleanor said. She took a ship off its hook and admired it.
“Excellent,” Millicent said. She looked over Eleanor’s shoulder. “I do hope you’ll say yes. I find your work exciting.“
Millicent left the raised office and headed down the stairs. Another one of the sons was at the base of the stairs. He, too, was tall and dark. His hair had been straightened a bit and combed back. He was wearing a working outfit similar to his Father’s.
“I will take you back. Father is working on the contract. My name is Tom.”
“Hello Tom. My name is Millicent. Did you attend University as well?”
“Oh yes. Father is quite insistent. Even Eleanor,” he said earnestly.
“Were you in school together?” she asked.
“Just my last year. I got my letters in economics and returned to manage the wood shop. I enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t really get totally involved in the University life like Eleanor. Living at home and going to school tends to keep one outside the social life. Eleanor was clearly more into the University life than me. Eleanor has a much better head for numbers than me. She seemed to absorb everything like a sponge. I never saw her quite so …engrossed.” He looked thoughtful as he considered the last statement.
“What is your job here?”
“I do some custom work. I also see to employee relations – distribute pay, screen hires, handle grievances – that sort of thing. Father had never had to deal with the numbers of employees we have now. We needed someone to manage those sorts of issues. “
“I must say it is very forward thinking on your part. A lot of your competitors don’t bother with such issues.”
“Thank you ma’am. Wallace, myself and Eleanor felt having a steady workforce means better quality and steadier production. Here we are.” As the two of them arrived at the office.
“Thank you Tom. I shall see you again soon, I expect.” Said Millicent.
“Until then” he said and bowed a little.
She walked through the wood working floor into the front room. There senior Woodson was writing the final touches on the contract. The elder Woodson looked up. “I have a contract for six custom wardrobes with hidden compartments and custom inlay on the doors”
“I want two drawers and a cubby for shoes in each.” Millicent said.
Woodson made some adjustments to a contract and handed it over for her to review.
“How much deposit?” she asked.
“Fifty percent will allow us to get the starting materials. “
Millicent pulled her cheque book out of her satchel and wrote out a cheque for 35 £.
“Is that enough?” she asked.
“That will get us started when it clears” Woodson replied.
“I want to meet with you and your daughter to discuss the inlay designs and the configurations.”
“She isn’t necessary. I assure you, I can collect the necessary information,” Woodson said smoothly.
“No offense Mr. Woodson, but in matters of customization, I find working directly with designers is best…don’t you?”
“This is highly irregular,” sounding annoyed again. But in frustration he said, “I will allow it this one time.”
Millicent sighed dramatically. “Then once will have to do. But you really ought to give her some reign. She has excellent instincts and talent. “
“Enough Miss Morgaine. I need no help raising my children or running my business. I will see you tomorrow at …10 in the morning. Eleanor will be present for the discussion. “
“Excellent Mr. Woodson. Good day and business. “
“Good Day Miss Morgaine. “
Millicent left the showroom and factory and headed north on Curtains. She saw O’Hannigan feeding his horse some oats.
She greeted him. “Well that was a bit more of a challenge than I expected.”
“How so?” he asked because it seemed required.
“The senior Mr. Woodson knows he has a gem and doesn’t want to lose it. However, she is not a gem – she is more akin to a butterfly about to emerge. If she is not free, that butterfly will be lost. She knows it. He doesn’t . “
“Sumat like the O’Malleys.” O’Hannigan observed.
Millicent patted the horse and stroked its neck absently.
“Similar, but not exact. Mr. O’Malley does know the gem that he has. John Jr. (don’t you dare tell him I called him that) will probably escape without my assistance. He is good and has more freedom. I am not so certain of Eleanor. Apparently the Woodsons have a peculiarly antique view of women and she is granted few privileges. Had Mr. Woodson not sent her to University, she would likely still be the docile girl he wants. But one you let the woman out, it’s hard to get her back in. Can you arrange a watcher for Eleanor and family? I need to know their patterns if this plays out as I expect. “
“I’ll need to go to Stepney to get one, but he is reliable.”
“You may be heading out there tomorrow, so perhaps you can arrange it then. “
“Aye ma’am. I expect it will be a schilling a day.”
“See to it and the sooner he is in place the better. Our final stop is in Belgravia.”