Wednesday, 10 May 2017

An early 20th Century childhood

Mum was the chubby one to the right of my Grandma

While sorting out some files on my computer recently, I found one about my late mother’s early 20th century childhood. Just right for Passionate about the Past, I thought. For the record, my mother was born in April 1911 just two days after the 1911 census was taken. What follows are her words, edited by me.

            My father, William Morris, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915 when I was four years old. The only memory I have of him is seeing him walking down the street in his uniform. I was standing in our doorway, holding Aunty Mary Ellen’s hand at the time, and I had to ask her who the strange man was.

            Aunty Mary Ellen was my mother’s sister and she lived with us most of the time, sleeping on a sofa because there was nowhere else for her to sleep. She had a crippled leg and couldn’t work. Some of the time, she had to go in to the workhouse at Fishpool (Bolton) and she died there in 1931. I loved my Aunty Mary Ellen, she was always cheerful and I can see her now sitting in the rocking chair, her cheeks rosy from the heat of the fire, singing one of her silly little ditties.

            I got into trouble once at a tea party for singing one of Aunty Mary Ellen’s songs about a young woman who pretended to be a soldier in order to stay with her sweetheart. It was the phrase ‘her lily white breast’ that earned me a telling off from the good ladies of the Co-operative Guild.

            There were six of us, three boys and three girls. The boys slept in the back bedroom of our two-up, two-down house in Wright Street, while us three girls slept in the front bedroom with our mother. She had one bed, we three the other. Our Mary, being the eldest, slept at the top, while me and our Annie had to make do with the bottom bit. There wasn’t much room in the bedroom but somehow we managed to make a swing between the two beds with an old piece of blanket.

            With my mother being a widow, we were very poor and I remember being sent to the butcher’s for ‘6 pennorth o’bits’ We only ever had half an egg each, with a whole one as a treat at Easter. I remember, too, drinking tea out of jam jars and standing round the kitchen table because we didn’t have enough chairs.

            Clothes were always ‘hand-me-downs’ or bought second or third hand. Shoes came from Mrs Cooper, who kept a stock of assorted sizes. You had to rummage through until you found a matching pair that fitted reasonably well. I was a bit luckier than my two sisters. My mother used to clean at a big house in Rivington and the housekeeper there had a daughter about the same age as me. Her cast-offs were always given to my mother and they would only fit me. This way I once inherited a pair of kid gloves that I refused to take off, even in bed.

            When I was 11, I passed a scholarship for orphans of the war and went to Rivington and Blackrod Grammar School. How my mother managed the uniform, I don’t know. At one point I had to have a navy swimming costume. My mother managed to get hold of a grey one and dyed it navy. Unfortunately, the first time I went into the water, the dye ran and streaked all down my legs. At the school, being a Catholic at a Protestant school, I was excused from Religious Education lessons and had to sit them out in the cloakroom.

            There was a gang of us girls used to meet on the corner of our street. If it was cold, we used to stand against the wall of a baker’s shop near the Tram Shed, which stayed warm because of the ovens.

            We used to walk for miles with only a bottle of water to keep us going. We’d go down Bob’s Brow, a hill in Crown Lane leading to fields, a stream which we’d paddle in and even a waterfall. Once, a man flashed his willie at us but we just laughed at him, we never thought of it being dangerous. From Bob’s Brow, you could walk right through to Blackrod.

            Going ‘Up Rivi’ was one of our favourite walks, especially on a Sunday afternoon. Often we walked through to Belmont or all round the Lakes, coming out by the Millstone, then along the banking by the reservoir to home.

            When I was 13, my mother fell off a chair while cleaning windows and shortly afterwards fell seriously ill with pneumonia. The priest from St Mary’s was called to administer the last rites to my mother but he refused to do so. He said would only do that if ‘that girl’ (pointing to me) left ‘that Protestant School’. My mother, ill as she was, argued with him and forbade me to leave, but as she grew weaker and I came under more pressure from the priest, I said I would leave so that she could have the last rites.

            After she died, the authorities wanted to split us up and put us in an orphanage but by then our John was 19 and our Mary nearly 19 (John was born in January 1905 while Mary was born in December 1905) so they insisted that they would bring us up. I was 13, Annie 15, George 11 and our Bob only 6. How they did it, I don’t know, but they did and I’m here to tell the tale, the only one left now.

The areas mentioned are in and around Horwich, near Bolton, Lancashire and are featured in my novel A Suitable Young Man, about life in the 1950s. For details of how to obtain, click on the link to the side.