A childhood remembered by Marjorie Adkins.
She was born in Barrow in 1921. Her father ran the local Coop. She and her husband Eric were pupils at Humphrey Perkins School; they were Head Boy and Head Girl. When he was called up theyot engaged and were married in four days at Barrow church. They were both teachers in the area and Marjorie was Head at Mountsorrel. They were both very involved in community affairs, Marjorie ran the Town Guild and was involved with the almshouses. They lived at the top of Pawdy Lane.
There were six roads leading from the village. All of them, in my childhood dreams, led to faraway places. The road going South had few houses, but it boasted a factory where silken hosiery was made out of gossamer threads. In the days of black woollen everyday stockings and light brown lisle ones for Sundays, it was pure fantasy to reconcile silk stockings with village legs. Such luxuries were for the rich, for the daughters of the industrialists who occupied the large houses in the village, and who owned cars which took them to their factories in a nearby town.
It was much easier to live with the idea of pinafores and hessian wash day aprons for women, and the heavy cord and leather trousers worn by the men who trudged along the dark streets at ungodly hours. Their heavy boots announced to the village that the day had already begun for those who barely scraped a living at the local cement works, heaving loads of concrete slabs and pipes, granite cobble and edging stones, hoping that their strength would last the day.
No one grumbled about the length of the working day, or if they did it was only in the quiet of their own homes. Jobs were precious, and it was accepted that wages were low, and there was very little leisure time in which to spend money anyway. Wives packed dinners into wicker baskets with lids and handles on, and at midday children would scurry home from school and race along to the works where the men were tired and hungry after such an early start. The work was heavy, and the men were thankful to rest, but there was always a cheery greeting for the children, and a penny at the end of the week for their trouble.
A penny could buy lots of things then. A sweet shop in the main street was a veritable treasure trove for children with a penny to spend. There were so many sweets to buy for a farthing, it was almost impossible to make a choice. Sometimes, if I was going to stay overnight with a friend for a very special occasion, we would have a midnight feast, and imagine having a choice of eight sweets for 2d liquorice sticks and strands, sherbert dabs , aniseed balls, Kali suckers, dolly mixtures, gobstoppers, lollipops, toffees, nougat, peppermints. So many sweet bottles filled up the shop window, and yet there was room for a notice - handwritten by the dear old lady who owned the shop - “ If you don't see what you want, ask for it. ” She always looked as if she had been freshly scrubbed. Her cheeks shone and her hair was silky and smooth and surely as fine as the white gossamer threads in the hosiery factory. A few white hairs always escaped from the big tortoiseshell comb that seemed to penetrate her head, and they curled in wisps in front of her ears. She had a few white hairs on her top lip and some very long ones under her chin. . . I wanted to tell her, but I thought she must know they were there.
I was quite fascinated by these hairs, but it was her ears that really intrigued me. They were old, wrinkled, clean but very dull, as if they had lost all their life, and the heavy gold earrings pulled down the ancient lobes to show the holes pierced long since. Somehow the gold highlighted the inevitability of growing old. I was not totally preoccupied with her ears, for her nails demanded some attention. They were scrubbed clean too and were allowed to grow very long at the end of fat, shiny, bright red fingers which in the winter looked sore and cold and chapped, changing from red to purple. Sometimes there were cracks in the fingers which had shiny, strong - smelling ointment rubbed on, and I always hoped that she would be very careful when she got my sweets out of the bottle! I would have loved to put my hand down there amongst all those sticky, sugar covered boiled sweets, and then give them a lick and go back for more!
There were also dozens of boxes containing marbles, whips and tops, hoops, skipping ropes and clay bubble pipes. And in the darkness at the back of the shop was an incredible mixture of things: brushes, buckets, floor cloths, dusters, polish, matches, candles, candlesticks, wood shovels. They were not all for sale, I am sure... They were handy in case she had a spare moment in which to light her fire or take a candle and match to light her gas mantle when it began to get dark.
Sometimes she had to light the way to fetch jars of sweets from the storehouse at the back of the shop. There was not always room to house all the jars in the window or on the counter, and the shelves were crammed already. I always listened to the popping noise of the gas and had visions of the dim light revealing an Aladdin's cave. I wondered how many sweets she every day, and whether she dipped into the jars of the sugary ones. She was not married so there were no children living with her, so I wondered many times why she decided to sell sweets. Perhaps she was like the Hansel and Gretel witch who wanted to entice children, but of course I knew she was nothing of the kind. She was gentle and sedate, and always wore a beautiful silver brooch with an amethyst in the middle to fasten her high-necked blouse. It was a very sad day when she became ill and the door was closed, and the blind pulled down over the window. I wondered who ate all the sweets They were all spirited away under our very noses, because we stood outside the shop for hours, and when the blind went up the window was empty, and a notice said 'Closed. Perhaps Abanazer had been into Aladdin's cave after all. Perhaps we should never again hear the tinkling of the doorbell opening up a way to a children's paradise.
To the East of the village the road led to a small market town ten miles away, but since so few people had any form of transport, only the farmers went there on market day. A mile or so out of the village the road narrowed to little more than a cart track, on either side of which were one or two smallholdings which eked out a living supporting large families on poor acreage. Horses and carts supplied the transport, and a farmer's wife wishing to sell her eggs and butter in the village arrived with pony and trap, to collect her own shopping and to exchange a word or two with her customers
Two larger farms flourished with their dairy cattle and poultry. Their houses, barns, cowsheds and vehicles all helped to persuade the villagers that they were "Making a bob or two! I remember repeating these words of wisdom to a friend one Sunday morning when we took our usual walk after Sunday School. The infants were considered too much of a risk to stay in church for the duration of the sermon, so we had time to enjoy our walk. My friend asked me what I meant, and I was only able to tell her that my father had told me so it must be true.
As the road narrowed, we always had instructions to go no further on our own. An impressive range of buildings stood solidly back from the road, but near enough to hear the baying of the hounds and the deep throaty voice of the huntsman. The kennels housed the local hunt and there was always an air of expectancy in the village on the days when the huntsman would lead hounds and followers on their way to a meet.
The hounds were big and tough and strong, and controlled in a wonderful way by the huntsman and whipper-in. The horses were such arrogant creatures and frightened small children if they came too near. The hunt-servants in their hunting pink were no mere mortals I was sure I gazed at them in wonder, perched up high on their steaming horses. If the hounds strayed the huntsman would yell out their names - Dancer, Dexter, Garnet. we knew most of their names, and we also knew that they would not be allowed to hurt us.
As the hunt passed through the village out came the buckets and shovels, for nothing of this passing parade could be wasted. Manure was a very valuable item in a village where vegetables grew bigger year by year. Cart loads were dumped on the streets and a good healthy smell pervaded the area for hours. All members of the family helped to barrow in the brown gold onto the rose garden, flower beds, but mainly onto the vegetable plots. Gardeners discussed the wisdom or folly of feeding various manures, and I remember wondering how one assessed whether it was hot or cold or perhaps just right. There was certainly a ritual connected with the manuring of onions. The prize-winners at the local working men's club bore witness to the fact that the secret of large onions was in, firstly, feeding with good quality manure and, secondly, hanging them up in the outside lavatory for weeks on end until they had dried out.
Outside toilets at the bottom of the garden were not the most comfortable of places at the best of times, but in cold and frosty weather they were unbearable, particularly if the light ran out of paraffin and the night sky offered the only light. Visiting other people 's outdoor toilets always provided interesting information about their personal preferences. Newspaper cut into 8" squares were far more acceptable than newspaper carelessly torn into irregular shapes, some totally useless, particularly if it was night and the lamp had failed. The cut squares in which a hole had been pierced and string threaded through was the very last word in sophistication, and as a very small child I well remember asking this to be done at home. However, to explore the subject thoroughly, and as a last word on it the best time was immediately after Christmas when tissue paper had been removed from the presents and joy of joy was hanging there to provide sheer bliss at the end of the day! Before January was out the newspaper was back. Now I am frequently reminded of those days when my hands are black with printers’ ink!
The road leading Northwards was lined with small terraced cottages, one or two shops, fields and allotments. Three of the village's thirteen public: houses were here. One was known locally as the Trap because the men leaving the local lime kilns were disposed to leave their wages there on ' the way home.
The village wake or fair churned up one of the small fields and Wake Saturday and Sunday were days to remember. Families gathered, watching children squealing on the roundabouts. Big lads bounced paper balls full of sawdust and attached to a long rubber cord, until the balls burst, scattering sawdust over the little girls who had been hounded by the boys. Flashing lights on stalls announced which numbers had won a prize, and my proudest possession for many years was a red and black scooter which was passed over the counter to me by a kind soul who had bought me a ticket.
I scootered to and from school for several years and thought that I had surely reached a stage of advanced scootering when I could go all the way home in the gutter without touching the edge of the path! I hated a boy who begged a ride on my scooter and left a big splodge of cow manure all over the paintwork. He did not even say that he was sorry. He just put his thumb to his nose and waggled his fingers.
The next morning, as we sat in the classroom, he turned around in his desk, grinned at me and said, “Cow Muck”. What made matters even worse was that he had a pomegranate at lunchtime, and he did not offer me one tiny piece of it. Usually he would stick a pin in and pass it over with one seed sticking to it, but not this time. I see him nowadays riding along in his Mercedes, and as he gives me a royal wave, I have my own thoughts.
Such animosity caused by a cow's parting gift! Of course, it was quite usual for cows to be walking in the middle of the road, and indeed on the footpath, as they were taken from the milking parlour and back to the fields. Dead cows, pigs and sheep were as much a part of our life as living ones. Our local butcher slaughtered his own animals, and boys and girls alike would race out of school on the days we could hear the pigs squealing. No one appeared to be at all squeamish about the activities in the slaughterhouse, and if we saw one animal trying to escape, we would wave our arms and shout as loud as the drovers. We were always late home for dinner on slaughtering day, and I can recall no qualms at eating a luscious beef stew full of dumplings that filled a lot of hungry mouths and made the meat go around.
My mother told me that she and her brothers and sisters would race home from school at midday, covering four or five miles and working up a huge appetite which my grandmother would satisfy with huge suet puddings — jam roly poly, plum duff or treacle. Pudding was always the first course, and then hopefully the edge would have been taken off the appetite. This always seemed entirely reasonable to my mother, who was taught to use everything and waste nothing. She used to say that every part of the pig could be used except its squeal, although I could never be persuaded to eat chitterlings after I had discovered their origin from my friend the butcher!
A few yards from the slaughterhouse was Rectory Farm, a gracious old building with two old ladies living there, running the farm with the help of one or two farm hands. They made butter and cream, and their brown eggs were the best in the village. I suppose they were very old ladies, but they were always immaculate in their long sateen dresses, pleated, frilled and embroidered. They wore high stiff collars buttoned up high underneath the chin, smart buttoned boots, and hair piled on top of their heads into a very tight bun, held in place with hairpins that were so long I was convinced that they went in one side and almost out the other !
Their fields were wonderful playgrounds, with apple, pear, plum and walnut trees. The newly picked walnuts were wonderful juicy, crunchy, fleshy and so sweet. Our fingers were always stained brown when we had been playing in the walnut field- We were also allowed to throw twigs up at the Sweet Chestnuts, and to sample the huge
Czar plums, purple and majestic and spurting juice at every bite.
It was with a feeling of dismay that I heard of the demolition of the old farm with its interior oak panel ling and its pitched pine staircase and its secret passages. No more would we run through the yard to see the baby calves or to help milk the cows. No more would we be able to help at harvest time and carry out the big harvest hamper to the workers in the fields. Big fruit pies, meat pies, pork pies, home baked loaves with thick butter and cheese and pickles of all colours there was always a feast inside a harvest basket!
Now there are rows and rows of houses in those fields, and motor bikes roaring through the streets. "Not what it used to be," the old ones say. Not what it used to be.
The Rectory Farm faced the Old Rectory, which in turn was next to the church, the church in which I was christened, confirmed and married, and to which I in turn brought my own son to be christened. I remember going to Church on Sunday mornings in the winter wearing a thick woollen coat, hat and a pair of fur-backed gloves. I always kept them on my hands inside the Church and stroked the fur. If I had walked through the rain the fur was wet and sleek, but when I prayed and put my face into the wet fur, I coughed and choked for the smell was quite awful!
Our vicar looked so old and wrinkled, I thought he must be ready to die at any minute, but he lived on through my infancy and was there to initiate me into the realms of confirmation. The most striking thing about those classes was the arrival of a most enormous cat, who would insist on pressing against my leg and then jumping on to my knee. I could never pick a cat up, not even to this day. Dogs are so solid, but cats' bodies seem to slither away, and you are left holding masses of skin. This particular cat was called Samson, and he had a seeming aversion to a very tall, skinny lady who always seemed to be at the vicarage doing housework. Her dentures were much too large for her mouth, and she had great difficulty in controlling them. Either they slipped about and chattered, or they produced a highly sibilant 'S' which greatly amused small children, especially when she came into the study to rescue Samson, calling his name a dozen times. The vicar's son treated us with the same contempt as did the cat. He was away at boarding school and not very sociable with the common herd, and on our collecting the Church keys for our Brownie meeting, he was heard to say, "Tell those little beetles to go away!"
The vicar's wife did her best to educate us and no doubt him, in all social graces, and told us never to live by looking forward but always to live for the day. At the time I was desperately looking forward to a Sunday School outing to a nearby beauty spot. I was going to wear a new ruby red crepe de chine dress made by my mother, which had been sent away especially to have a picot edge professionally machined round the collar, and I could see nothing beyond this dress, and I have to admit that I thought she was quite mad. Of course, I now know what she meant!
The vicar continued his ministry in the village until it was considered wise for him to move to a smaller parish. In his last year, when I was applying for teaching posts, he wrote me a very friendly, fatherly reference beginning, "I knew Marjorie as the Parish Vicar for many years...." I expect he remembered too when he visited the village school where I was student teaching. The headmistress was absent and I was in charge of her class. At the end of the day prayers were duly said. I began, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord." At that moment in walked the vicar, and I felt quiet. justified in instructing the children to put their hands down from their praying position! I expect the vicar wondered what happened to other unfinished lessons in the hands of an apprentice!
One road led from the centre of the village down the hill to the river where a footpath went one way to the next village and the other way along the riverbank. There were punts for hire, and gentlemen and their lady friends wiled away sunny hours boating along the river, enjoying the sight of lady smocks and marsh-marigolds smick smocks and mayblobs we called them. Butterflies and dragonflies flew in and out of the reeds and rushes, and cows escaped through broken down fences onto the bank, leaving big splodges on the path as they went.
A mile or so further along punters had to be aware of the weir which gurgled and splashed over large boulders and delighted children who dared to paddle across. The Lock House was occupied by a family who were well respected in the village. Quite often they were cut off from us when the river became so high, swirling so dangerously that it wasn't safe to bring a boat out.
One winter the river froze along its length, and for those of us who had never seen such a wonderful sight it was beyond our wildest dreams to watch skaters sweeping up and down the river, sometimes eight or more in a line being pulled along by a strong leader. There was great alarm one day when the ice cracked, and a little Jack Russell terrier fell into the black water below. The dog's owner stripped off his jacket, trousers and boots and he was in the water, under the ice, before anyone realised what he was doing. Both man and dog are long since dead, but both lived on to a ripe old age despite their experience under the ice.
On either side of the footpath leading to the next village, fields provided wonderful playgrounds for us, especially at conker time when the magnificent row of Horse Chestnuts yielded up their treasures. Then the school playgrounds resounded with the cries of children all claiming that they had King Conker. The chestnuts were glossy and hard and snuggled inside their prickly green cases amongst the numerous cow pats. They were so beautiful it seemed a shame to shatter them and reveal their creamy white flesh, but they were not to lie there for long, for whole families came to collect them, filling up huge wicker baskets , and carrying them proudly back home to be sorted, polished, admired, rolled, arranged in groups, and generally being the centre of everyone 's attention especially grandfather who could remember all the best conker years .
The river could be approached from ' another direction, but the path was narrow and very muddy and slippery. This was due to the fact that horses pulled barges along the canal and the bank was constantly worn away. At the far end of this path was an old mill where the gypsum from the village works was ground to powder. The weir beyond the mill was fast and frightening and would carry a child away, so we could only sit and watch the fishermen on the bank. The frothy bubbles at the bottom of the weir were real bubbles then, not detergent bubbles, and they glistened and rippled and spat as they disappeared down the canal. There was never enough time to stand and stare. It always seemed that the adults were saying it was time to go home, but the weir was always there, and we took its smell home in our noses.
The mill house was a forbidding old building with a cellar running under the entire house. As my friend lived there with her parents and grandparents the cellar was often our playground, even though it was dank and dark and very mysterious and had slippery stone steps leading down to it. There were far nicer places to play in but we chose to be frightened, and we had to be persuaded to enter the real world when it was dinner time, After dinner we were allowed to explore the bedrooms and I shall never forget the large oak dressing table, black with age, brass handles polished with loving care . A large carved mahogany box stood on the dressing table and dared us to open it. We knew that it was Grannies Box, and had been forbidden to play with it, but were unable to pass by. Inside were face powders, enormous swans down powder puffs, rouge and lipsticks, bottles of perfume, enamel led snuff boxes, lacquered boxes containing jewellery, hair slides, combs and pins There were velvet pincushions, and tiny manicure sets. Scissors with decorative finger holes fascinated me and many times my dark, straight fringe suffered when I could no longer resist the temptation!
Those happy times ended suddenly when the mill closed down at the time I knew little of financial worries the family had to leave the mill house and it was a long time before it was occupied again. I knew that for us there would never again be 'cellar games' bedroom visits, dressing up sessions, fishing and boating. And the smell that musty, frothy, muddy smell of the water.
My friend came to live next door to me in a terraced house in the village. We were good friends, playing together every day, knocking on the wall under the stairs to signal that we were ready to play. We climbed tall trees in the garden, played whip and top in the street, and rode our fairy cycles along quiet roads free from traffic.
Then came the day when we were 4 years old, and it was time to start school. There was no question of whether places were available, or whether class sizes were too big — at 4 you started school!
The Infants Board School was in the same road as the cemetery. On Sunday’s whole families went walking to the cemetery, to take flowers, to tidy up graves or just to contemplate. (There were three places to walk I recall, up to the cemetery, across 'the slabs or round the street.)
The Infants School was a friendly building with a large, heavy wooden door which closed with a big heavy thud. The classroom to the left of the entrance passage housed the headmistress and her class (yes, a head teacher also had his or her own class!), and there were three other classrooms. All classrooms had enormous black tortoise stoves, which belched out suffocating, foul smelling clouds if the coke they gobbled up was wet. The caretaker responsible for lighting the stoves and for filling up huge hods for each one was a very plump and very dear old lady, who had a purple face and very swollen ankles. I remember her kind voice and the compassion she showed for children who slipped over on an icy playground when there was only an equally icy tap to wash them under. There were no luxuries in the school cloakroom! I learned many years later that the purple face reflected the condition of her heart but being widowed and with a large family to support, this dear old soul arrived at 6 am. every day to make our school warm and comfortable for us.
The first day at school was so exciting I suppose it is for any child of any generation. There was chalk, damp sponges to clean the blackboards, bits of rag, crayons and dark brown paper, and, best of all, scissors! They were not very sharp, but sharp enough to try out on each other’s clothes! Hand knitted jumpers soon showed gaping holes and we would be classed as the new generation of wreckers!
Playtime was a mixed blessing. Whatever the weather outside, everyone filed out to the cloakroom and put on our outdoor clothes. We played skipping, rolling hoops, Tricky Wolf, Crusts and Crumbs. The toilets were at the end of the playground and were not the most delightful of places to visit, especially in the winter. For weeks at a time they would be frozen, and teachers would heat up kettles of water in an effort to thaw them out. I well remember rows of little girls sitting on tiny toilets, knickers round their ankles, carrying out a conversation with another row of girls, all desperately waiting to be enthroned. There were six toilets for girls. The boys had just two, together with a urinal surrounded by walls on three sides sufficiently high to hide any activity but presenting them with a challenge to wee over the top! The headmistress on playground patrol was not amused!
Despite these misdemeanours days at school were full and meaning full. By time the children were seven years old and ready to become juniors, they could read, write on lined paper, recite all the times tables, recite poetry, weave and score well in weekly spelling tests. Girls were taught to knit, crochet and sew, while boys did raffia weaving and basketry. P.E. was always done in the playground, whatever the weather. In winter it was bitterly cold, and children huddled round the coke stoves at the end of the lesson trying to get some relief from hot aches in blue fingers and aching toes. Children cried with cold, noses streamed, and handkerchiefs tied to jumpers with safety pins were in abundance. Teachers would fill up the coke stoves causing even more suffocating smells, and the lesson would start again.
During the morning the school nurse might arrive and examine all heads. There were notes passed out, and although only whispers passed between Mums and Headmistress, everyone knew who had 'nits! There were even worse hazards in the classroom. One child who always had a camphor bell stitched into his vest could never find a dancing partner, and even worse was the one with mutton fat rubbed into his chest! The school dentist arrived once a year, and the dreaded forms were handed out to be taken home. Woe betide anyone who didn't take advantage of the treatment offered private treatment was frowned upon then. I know of one headmistress who hauled out to the front any child who had 'no' on the dental form.
On April 28th, my mother's birthday, and two months before I was six years old, I had my first piano lesson. I walked to an old lady's home, (I now know that she must have been at least forty!) and she very firmly introduced me to scales and sharps and flats. A new piano arrived at home and cluttered up the living room but took pride of place. One hour's practice had to be done every afternoon after school, and the reward for my perseverance was to play in a chapel concert with several other pupils. The audience was duly appreciative, and I shall never forget playing' Sleigh Ride' complete with bells stitched onto elastic bands worn around my wrists.
Having reached a certain standard, it was suggested that I progress to a music master who would enter me for examinations. I still have misgivings when I think of him. He really was old, with pince-nez on the end of his nose, big black shadows under his eyes, and always a black suit with very greasy marks on the lapels. I never saw him smile. I never heard a cheerful word. It was all so solemn and so frightening and I made every excuse to miss my lesson. He would stand behind me and I was never sure quite where he was, but I knew he 'd be scowling. Perhaps he had constant indigestion, or just hated listening to wrong notes! However, under his tuition I entered into the realms of Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn, and when I left him to go to college, I suppose we knew each other pretty well and a wan smile flickered over his tired old face,
I was always grateful to my parents for persevering with me and my piano lessons, even though I must have been very difficult. Sitting in a classroom in junior school and being invited to play the piano for a singing lesson is approbation beyond one's wildest dreams To be invited to accompany a local baritone at a musical evening in the village is an even greater accolade, and it added another dimension to my whole life. Even so there were times when I couldn't go out to play, couldn't meet my friends at the chippie' or down at Pingle brook, just because I was 'playing the piano. On the other hand, I would always make up for lost time when I did join them.
We would challenge each other to jump over the brook, daring to try where it was wide and the bank was slippery, until sure enough, clean white ankle socks and new sandals were under water and covered in muddy slime. Then, surreptitiously, an outside tap had to be visited to remove the worst before going home. We played leapfrog and hopscotch, rode two on a bike or three on a scooter. We skipped six at a time in a large rope across the road, singing and chanting as we went. We did acrobatics against the wall of the house and walked on our hands in the road. Having once accepted a challenge to hop all the way down the entry and into the house, I slipped on a mat that had been put on a polished floor. Result a broken leg, which set and plastered on the dining room table by the village doctor with no fuss at all! Six weeks in bed followed, and I was only persuaded to put my foot on the ground and walk by the same doctor who gave me half a crown for trying, and another one for succeeding!
This fatherly figure lived in a large stone house in the centre of the village. He was very small and could hardly be seen over the steering wheel of his very large car. I suppose he was on duty 24 hours a day. He brought all the village children into the world, coped with all their infectious diseases when they were young and their marital problems as they grew older, visited the sick as and when required and generally lived a life achieving the impossible. One village nurse supported him and worked as many hours, attending to the new-born, the sick and the dying. She made it her business to supply baby clothes to a new mother too poor to supply her own, she made sure there was always food in the cupboard even though drink was the priority in some houses, and she cycled any hour of day or night to answer an urgent call. She knew old wives' remedies and sometimes suggested them in addition to or instead of the doctor's prescription. The village had a tremendous respect for them both.
Infant school days were over, junior school ended at eleven, and secondary school offered new horizons. Having reached early teens, you were expected to be a candidate for confirmation. The vicar prepared those who were ready to be confirmed, and they were duly presented to the Bishop. Having been confirmed, the first Communion would take place. Mothers, and some fathers, accompanied the newly confirmed children, and in silence and with some apprehension, the pews at the very back of the church were entered. Wondering why we did not make our way to the front of the church where we normally worshipped, information was given that there was a generally accepted hierarchy, which had always existed and always would and don't argue. The exalted positions seemed to include industrialists, retired army officers, and people from the 'big houses, and feeling very holy and being very naive I could not see why we had to be in the back pew.
Consequently, on the very first occasion I was able to attend Communion on my own, it goes without saying that I made my way to the No. 1 pew. Glances, stares, whispers, deep downright shock I could sense it all, and I thought that at any moment I would be taken to the ducking stool at the very least! I knelt at the Communion rail near enough to industrialist No. 1 to hear him rattling the money in his pocket as he waited his turn, and on my way back from the altar I looked humbly down to the carpet and therefore missed all the injured glances . I felt that I had stated my case, and by Sunday afternoon I knew I had! Certainly, my Mother knew, and I was not acclaimed a heroine. By Monday my teacher knew, and there followed a lengthy debate on village politics!
The verger at the village church was a bent old man who collected 'National Deposit' Friendly Society contributions, a form of insurance I suppose, but certainly only a penny or two a week. He always collected at our house on Mondays, and he always arrived at tea time, and Monday tea was always bread and beef dripping (There was always a sediment of gravy and meat juices at the bottom of the dripping dish, and dripping tea t was the highlight of the week. Better than jam or potted meat. There was always something to go with the bread and butter but not, of course, always something to follow. Cakes were for the weekend jam sponges, ginger parkin or a fruit, cake.) The verger cum-collector always timed his visits immaculately. The same conversation followed every week... "Are you staying for tea Mr. X? " I don't mind if I do Mrs. S Whereupon he would remove his mittens to reveal hands that had been collecting money all afternoon and were really in no fit state to be handling our precious bread and dripping, I did wish that he did not always arrive at teatime.
His first wife was a delicate little lady who produced two children and died young. His second wife was an enormous woman with huge feet complete with bunions, large clumsy hands and a desire to know everyone else's business. She was renowned for visiting the doctor's surgery at least twice a week, until the poor man was at his wit's end. She suffered from everything, the root cause being chronic constipation, on which subject most people in the village were well informed. The local pharmacist was as exasperated as the doctor, when one complaint about the efficiency of his medicine followed another. Eventually the two heads conspired together to think up a panacea for all ills. The prescription contained enough cathartic substances to move mountains, and it did the trick, so much so that the lady was heard to give credit to both doctor and pharmacist and announced that she was going back for another bottle! The whole village heard of her improved state and were "thankful that her poor husband might get some peace at last.
Along with the beef and dripping was usually a conversation about who was dying, who had died, the type of coffin, the size of the mourning party, and the amount of money left, if any, to the family. A man wearing a black suit, a high, stiff white collar, black gloves and a very tall top hat arrived on the day of a funeral with his two black horses and fine enamelled open carriage to take away the coffin. The mourners either followed in another carriage or, more often, walked behind to the church or chapel. The open ground had been dug and prepared by the local sexton. After the burial the mourners went home to hear the will read and to eat the ham and salmon sandwiches. There was always much weeping and wailing from members of the family, and then, more often than not, much quarrelling about the disposal of the property.
My great grandmother, who lived in the nearby town, lived to be 93, and consequently saw many of her contemporaries buried, and indeed some of her children. She always arrived in her long, black, full-skirted dress with embroidery on the bodice, there were dozens of black beads stitched on by hand, and ribbons threaded through several layers of black frills around the neck. Her black lace cape was edged with bunches of imitation parma violets, and her poke bonnet was trimmed in a similar fashion.
She could well remember her work as a young girl in a local sock factory and was always highly amused telling her tale that her machine clanked along and sang "Chickery-bum, chickery-bum! Towards the end of her days, her memory began to fail, and she drove her daughters nearly demented with frequent enquiries about the whereabouts of her handbag. "It's on your knee mother. it's on your chair, mother... you've just had it mother! Many times, a policeman would arrive to say that a dear old lady was in the police station having been found on a train looking for her handbag. She was always able to give them her address and to demand a cup of tea,. and she was always able to give her daughters the slip the next time!
She had produced ten children and worshipped at the local chapel every Sunday after having two bottles of Guinness with her lunch. Her brood was left in the hands of the older children, and the older boy kept control by inserting the poker into the fire, retrieving it when it was red hot, and then threatening any recalcitrant with fire and brimstone! My younger great-aunts recalled that they were terrified, but never dared to report the matter to their parents.
Once a month my great grandfather came to our village to preach at the chapel. Sunday dinner was enjoyed, during which time he would leave his tailcoat in the front room, his top hat on a chair, and his scarf hanging round his hat. When the meal was over, I always excused myself and went into the room that was only used on high days and holidays. There was a gilt mirror over the fireplace. The shelf had two blue and black china horses and a vase containing hat pins and spills for the fire. I would drag a chair to the mirror and put the top hat on my head until it fell over my face and I could smell the greasy ribbon. There followed several moments of inner giggles and great apprehension wondering whether the adults would be coming in to experience the luxury of the moquette covered three-piece suite a recent acquisition and my mother's pride and joy. By the time the adults did arrive the hat and scarf were back in place and I was sitting like an angel. We all "went to the evening service to hear my great— grandfather preach, and I would be profoundly moved to think that I had actually been wearing the top hat that belonged to this superior being! And even more so when, at the end of a certain pronouncement, a member of the congregation would resonantly utter "Praise the Lord" or "Hallelujah ah!
Normally the service would end with his favourite hymn, 'Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone. Years later, could my great-grandfather have guided me to that front pew? I was certainly in the lion's den that morning. Years later, my great aunt, nearing death and also age 93 like her mother, was asked by her local rector in Norfolk for her favourite hymn for her funeral service. She had already announced that she didn't want a funeral service, and that she certainly didn't want any relations there, and that there was to be no 'homily of hypocrisy' as she put it. She had attended many funerals in her ' time and was having none of it. The rector, young and amiable, and wanting to please an old lady at the end of her life, announced that his favourite hymn was Count Your Blessings, 'and could that be included? "Young man! came the reply, "There will be no service, and if I had to choose a hymn it would be 'Dare to be a Daniel! In due course it all went ahead very privately in accordance with her wishes and much to the amazement of the other parishioners. She had been a very forceful lady throughout her life, with very definite views and morals, and found it increasingly difficult to accept modern standards. She lost her only daughter to a tortuous cancer and never regained her faith afterwards. "Oh well," she would say, "either there is or there isn’t, and I shall soon know. If there is then good, if there isn't then it doesn't matter! A philosophy that hurts no one and helped her through her last years.
I wear her wedding ring now, and I can't help feeling that there is something of her obdurate character in me. We were good friends, could laugh at the same things and could agree to disagree with no acrimony.
She played whist in the evening with two retired schoolteachers who were both anxious to please her and to enjoy the evening. Being rather overzealous in their efforts please, she resented their efforts, and would always find a just reason to chastise them either by resorting to a conversation about politics or by flinging her cards down and announcing that she did not have her fair share of trumps anyway! (and expression which greatly amused my young daughter if she was present, and usually got her told off for giggling!) Neither visitor would dare to retaliate, and usually passed the time poking a large lump of coal on the fire until peace was restored. And they would return the following evening, knowing full well that there was another explosion in store! "I hate clutter," she said, if they draped their coats on the back of a chair, and like naughty children they would hang them up! Both ladies were unmarried, a fact which, according to my aunt, accounted for their peculiar ideas! I sympathised with them, but in a funny sort of way they seemed to enjoy their beatings! On of them even wrote her a poem, which just about sums her up. No enthusiasm was shown on receiving the poem, as it smacked of emotion, but it must have been appreciated because it was followed in due course by another one!....
Ethel 's poem, written in the 1970's, 'That's the Question.'
What would you like from my garden?
You asked me that morning in June.
You stood by your gate in the sunshine,
And all the world was a tune.
What would I like? There were roses,
Great poppies and peonies too,
Fine lilies, syringa and lilac,
Tall lupins and lavender blue.
But let me the Rosemary cherish,
Remembrance of moments of fun
When after some years of long silence,
The one-handed clock had begun.
To tick and to chime of a sudden,
It seemed for no reason at all,
Except to remind of its presence,
So pretty and rare on the wall.
Two boys on their bicycle mounted,
To steal apples from trees overhead,
Twas, only a tap from your window,
A flick of your finger - they fled!
We've shared many moments of laughter,
We have talked - you have widened my view!
So what would I like from your garden?
The answer is this - why, just you!
A low grey cobbled wall, its stones
By honeysuckle decked.
With violets by the gatepost white,
The drive by pansies flecked.
A row of fruitful apple trees
That tempts those young marauders,
Smooth lawns and narrow grassy paths
Between the flowery borders.
And many a lily, stately, white,
The open gate discloses,
And overall, to heart's delight
The sight and scent of roses.
Now thrush and blackbird singing sweet,
Their constant vigil keep,
while master hedgehog even walks
From out the compost heap.
Dear garden, with its runner beans,
And lettuce, onions, peas,
Its strawberry bed and guardian pines,
And heather, yes, all these.
With many a sweet surprise and charm
And quiet beauty too,
And thoughtful care, dear owner sure
A picture tis of you.
An old man who looked like an ancient pixie helped with the garden. He came once a week to mow the grassy paths, and then at odd times to suit himself, he removed weeds and any other object that happened to be lying around. One elderly lady referred to him as fingers, as things seemed to vanish from her shed when he'd been around. When asked about their disappearance, the innocence on his wrinkled old face was like that of a newly ripe plum just picked from the orchard. Beautiful Crown Imperials and yellow lilies disappeared from gardens, to show their magnificent heads in his garden the following season. Everyone knew that the empty sack he carried folded under his arm on his way to work would be carrying home his spoils at the end of the day. To add insult to injury, he would wait at the door for his money, and with a childlike naivety, would ask if he could possibly have a cutting of something special. Of he would go with his cutting in one hand and his sack in the other! I once dared to ask him about the Crown Imperials and why they hadn't flowered that year... "They 're ' ard things to grow," he said, without a flicker of an eyelid.
War had been declared. Instead of starting at teacher training college in September, term was delayed until late October, as the campus had been occupied by the armed forces, and other accommodation had to be found. Eventually it was announced that boarding houses and hotels had been taken over in Scarborough, and students arrived with high hopes of starting their course. Air raids interfered with studies, and male students apprehensively waited to be called up.
However, in 1941 I qualified as an infant’s teacher and started my first post in the school where I had first started school myself as a four-year-old. The interview was a very happy and parochial affair. The local village joiner was a school manager, and he invited me to meet two other managers and a clerk from the office. There was apparently no other candidate for the job. Indeed, it was difficult to find enough teachers, as the men had all been called up and the valances were many. The introduction to the managers consisted of handshakes, and a reminder from the joiner that they knew my family, they knew me and that I would be t alright with them' if I accepted the post! I had been slightly apprehensive as this was my first interview, but the post was obviously mine, and I accepted, ready to start in September.
The headmistress was a tall, very dignified lady who had lost her fiance in the First World War and had every sympathy for me when the love of my life joined the R. A, F. School occupied my thoughts all day, what was happening in the skies above us all night.
Classes were large and stocks were low. We became a profession of scroungers, scrounging paper from shopkeepers, from factories, in fact from anyone who had anything to offer. I smile at teachers today who complain that they do not have enough computers to go around. Our handicraft lessons consisted of make do and mend, create something out of nothing, and paint on inches of paper when feet were necessary.
Fathers were at the war, and many mothers were struggling to bring up young children on their own, many with the knowledge that their husbands were prisoners of war and had no idea if they would ever see them again.
Food was rationed, so that when school dinners were introduced most parents took advantage of it, although it was not always to the child's liking. Some children didn't like the yellow stuff, ' and some had never even had green salad. The meat came in large, deep containers delivered by a local farmer who had been contracted to do several villages. I took exception to it, it being whale meat, and could not pretend that it was palatable, even in front of the children. It had an inch of blubber floating on the top, which had to be strained off before serving.
Dinners were served on dual iron desks which had ink wells in the top right-hand corner. The desk lid had to be propped up to make it level enough to balance a plate on. The start of the afternoon session consisted of wiping up the gravy and custard, scraping out the unwanted meat and greens out of the ink well, and generally having sweet thoughts on school meals! A meeting of teachers was arranged at the County office, and the then Director of Education, a venerable old gentleman who had done much for the County, announced that the school dinner duty was voluntary! Just who he thought was going to look after the children was not discussed! At the end of dinner and registration the heavy dividing screen was pulled back and the two classrooms opened up for dancing. Being accused of eating sweets during a dancing lesson, one little girl looked most hurt. She had a mouthful of gristle that she had been trying to swallow since dinner time!
The outside toilets were still there in all their glory. Still they froze, and still we tried to thaw them out with buckets of hot water so that little bottoms would not have to sit on floating ice. At least we now had a boiler to provide hot water for washing and thawing out, although coke stoves still needs to be stoked up to warm the classrooms. If teachers were ill there was no replacement, no instant supply teacher, and it was not unusual for one teacher to be in charge of two or three classes, often close to a hundred children. If children became ill during the day, they were taken home on a bicycle pushed by the teacher. No such luxury as a car.
Sunday August 23rd. 1943.
On Friday my fiance heard that he was to be posted abroad, so he had a weekend leave. Saturday was a chaotic day, obtaining a special license to get married, and Sunday, the wedding that was to be so quiet, saw the church full of children and their mothers, and a guard of honour from the local Girls Training Corps. No time to get a wedding dress and all the trimmings of a wedding. The dress was of blue silk and had been worn many times before. The bouquet was of scabious and chrysanthemums made up hurriedly by the local nurseryman. The bridesmaid made a frantic dash to town to buy a dress, and the day came and went in a flash. A wartime wedding.. the bride back to work and the groom back to war they were worrying times when bombers flew overhead all night, and no-one knew which would be the crew that didn't return. As German bombers began to concentrate on Midland cities, the sirens would alert everyone that an attack was imminent. Families crouched together in tiny areas under the stairs, or underneath tables, somehow hoping for protection against a bomb.
Air raid shelters were built in the school playground in case of a daytime attack. They were cold and damp, and everyone hated them, but it was also a time that produced lots of laughter and fun. Gas masks were provided for the children, and we all had Gas Mask Drill' in the classrooms. Once they were on a very deep breath would produce a very rude noise, which of course intrigued most of the little boys. The eyepiece would get misted up and the whole thing had to be taken off to be cleared. We always prayed that an attack would not take place during demisting! A bag of sweets was always available to set faint hearts at rest, and air raid concerts became a way of life. One five-year-old lad always insisted on singing the first song. It became so monotonous, although we never let him know, but for years afterwards I squirmed if I heard 'Give me five minutes more!
Amidst all this there was always a lot of illness. There were several cases of impetigo, scabies was not unknown, and T. B. sufferers were removed to hospital. At this time the headmistress became ill and spent a long time in hospital. It was quite usual for one teacher to have the whole school together for an hour or so to give the other teachers a break. And it was on one of these occasions that the assembled company, listening to a talk about Easter time, were singing their Easter hymns. Suddenly, a voice from on high intoned, "That’s it Marjorie. You tell em! It was the local joiner/ manager who was replacing slates on the roof, looking down on us. The children, however, didn't know that, and from that moment on the behaviour was impeccable .1 think to this day that they thought the Almighty had spoken, and I said nothing to make them think otherwise! The lesson continued and the Jesus Christ is risen today had the Hallelujah ringing from the rafters! I thought it was a very pleasant image of God, even if he was in dungarees with his cap on! At the next managers meeting it came to my ears that full approbation had been accorded that R.I. lesson, and several Mums told me that children had arrived home open mouthed at the day's events!
There was another school manager who, when he arrived for his quarterly inspection, would invariably tell us that he had come to "Cross •the Ts and dot the Is as it were He enquired whether the children worked to capacity, heard them recite their poems, and went off in great good humour thinking he had put the world to rights ! Before he became the owner of a car, he arrived by bicycle, and always had a bicycle clip round one leg showing his very elegant spats! The teachers had a nickname for him you may be sure. always promised to look into extra salary for us doing two teachers jobs, but he clearly never looked in the right place. This man had been a pupil at the school years before, and as he passes me by nowadays, his arm resting out of the window of his great big Volvo, I have to smile to myself.
The reception class teacher was unqualified except through many years of experience. She began her teaching life as a monitor, and after several years became an uncertificated teacher. She only did her dinner duty once a week because a medical reason forced her to go home at lunchtime... She was quite unable to continue afternoon lessons unless she had partaken of two bottles of Guinness — she pronounced the word with reverence and with an emphasis on the last syllable. As a result of her midday tonic the register was marked with the usual diligence After registration, however, the soporific effect of the refreshment would become apparent, and gentle reminders had to be given by teachers popping in for no apparent reason that lessons had begun ! The headmistress would turn an indulgent ear away from all this palaver, and all was serene once again. Great excitement ensued when I announced that my husband was on leave and would be meeting me out "Of school that day. ' 'Give him my love, said the Reception teacher, "1 shan't come to see him, I haven't got my best corsets on! Corsets or not she lived on into her 90's, and always called my father a gentleman — a real gentleman, as he always asked what she was drinking if he happened to chance upon her in the local!
Morning assembly in an Infants school is an experience not to be forgotten. Children arrived late with various excuses such as mothers being on important 'war work, usually cleaning out the toilets at the munitions factory. Children overslept because they had visited the club the night before, always with a tale to tell about the various uncles who accompanied them, all of which was drunk in by the teachers of course! Then the hymns, All things Bright and Beautiful, All Teachers Great and Small... "or "Chariots of Broth."
A memory that never fails to amuse me is that of a class teacher several years later. Box pleated skirt, long, narrow laced up shoes, dark brown blouse tied with a bow high under the chin, greasy hair screwed up into a bun and held up by a large tortoiseshell comb, false teeth that didn't fit. A face that never smiled and eyes that glinted through gold—rimmed glasses as she prodded children in the back for no good reason, always threatening them with an absent headmistress. Imagine then, when asked for her choice of hymn for morning assembly, the announcement that made the staff go purple in the face with restrained laughter...
'If I was a beautiful twinkling star I'd shine on the darkest night.
I 'd see where the dreariest pathways are
And light them with all my might.
The sun or moon I cannot be
To make the whole world bright, I'd find some little cheerless spot
And shine with all my might.
All this followed with "No talking on the way back. don't let me hear a sound or woe betide you... What a bright little star!
My son arrived in 1945 and I joined the brigade of young Mums who gave me their opinions of schools and teachers from the other side of the fence. Clearly, they thought that unmarried teachers hadn't got a clue about child welfare, and I realised that there were far more things to learn than I had been taught at Teacher Training College. Babies didn't always sleep at night, and teachers who did not believe that five-year-old had been kept awake all night by a crying baby were initiated into the life of a young mother. One mother in the village obviously took exception to remarks made by the headmistress and arrived to give her a piece of her mind. The argument became very heated, the head was head—butted in the stomach and collapsed in the corridor. The victorious Mum retired with the parting shot, "And that ain't as bad as living with a man! She had produced a large family, had coped with an alcoholic husband, but always found film stars names for her children! The headmistress decided never to tangle with her again and tempered her remarks accordingly!
Once my son had started school, I did some supply teaching. It was in a town school in a two-storey building where a headmistress controlled the school on the ground floor, and a headmaster on the upper storey. There was such agitation between the two heads. Notes were forever passed between them and ultimately, they ignored each other completely... They married and retired to Cornwall!
Immediately after this I decided that I needed a change of direction, and I opened a centre for Downs Syndrome children in the local village hall. Six of the happiest years of my life followed. The children, aged between 5 and 25, were responsive, loving, appreciative and eager to please. They never showed any anger or displeasure and enjoyed each other's company so much it was a joy to meet them every morning. They danced and sang, sewed and knitted and liked nothing better than to sit and listen to stories.
Many years later I was attempting to tell the story of the Sleeping Beauty to an Infant class, and a five-year-old boy sighed "not a ruddy fairy story. By now television had impinged on most families, and for children well versed in every television programme this was pretty weak stuff! On the other hand, my grandchildren listen to all the old stories now, and still love them, so perhaps not all is lost.
There were more and more stories of broken homes, family quarrels teenagers leaving home. Parents were at a loss what to do with wayward children. ' 'I can't do a thing with him “was the common cry when a new child was registered. Sadly, if punishment was administered at school parental support was often not forthcoming. Here was the start of an era when it was fashionable to believe in freedom for children to do as they liked, so as not to impair their development. By this time I had become the Head of a local Infants School, and had unexpectedly had a belated second child, much to the amazement of the school managers , so I really had enough to deal with, without the frustrations of modern teaching theories. Spelling lessons were frowned upon, and it was considered very much old hat to correct misspelt words, in case their ideas were interrupted. Table squares replaced multiplication tables learned by heart, and very little was expected of children.
Fashions changed in the educational world. The integrated day appeared, with children choosing what they wanted to do throughout the day, with very little guidance allowed from the teacher. Mixed age groups provided teachers with yet more headaches, then mixed ability classes through all levels of school piled on the agony and persuaded many teachers that it was time to leave. Young children were suddenly very sophisticated. They stole plastic money from the maths equipment and used it to buy sweets from a machine at the local supermarket. Generations who always used to treat each other with affection and respect lost their trust, and the elderly folk of the village would look with suspicion upon the attentions of young children. It was not difficult to become disillusioned.
The story seems to end on a sad note, but it is really only half the tale. I have found pages and pages of notes that were never written up. They are the many funny, sad and moving stories of her time as Headmistress of Mountsorrel Infant School, stories that exasperated her at the time but which we laughed at for many years to come. Almost every day she would come home with some tall story to entertain us, and we always said, "Mum, you must write that down. Finally, on her own again and back in the village where her story began seventy years before she started to put pen to paper. Sadly, she never finished.
Last Updated. 26-February-2020 By admin