Authors: Margaret Powell
Tags: #Memoir, #Britain, #Society
To Leigh (Reggie) Crutchley
with gratitude and affection
in 1907 in Hove, the second child of a family of seven. My earliest recollection is that other children seemed to be better off than we were. But our parents cared so much for us. One particular thing that I always remember was that every Sunday morning my father used to bring us a comic and a bag of sweets. You used to be able to get a comic for a halfpenny plain and a penny coloured. Sometimes now when I look back at it, I wonder how he managed to do it when he was out of work and there was no money at all coming in.
My father was a painter and decorator. Sort of general odd-job man. He could do almost anything: repair roofs, or do a bit of plastering; but painting and paper-hanging were his main work. Yet in the neighbourhood where we lived, there was hardly any work in the winter. People didn’t want their houses done up then; they couldn’t be painted outside and they didn’t want the bother of having it all done up inside. So the winters were the hardest times.
My mother used to go out charring from about eight in the morning till six in the evening for two shillings a day. Sometimes she used to bring home little treasures: a basin of dripping, half a loaf of bread, a little bit of butter or a bowl of soup. She used to hate accepting anything. She hated charity. But we were so glad of them that, when she came home and we saw that she was carrying something, we used to make a dive to see what she’d got.
It seems funny today, I suppose, that there was this hatred of charity, but when my parents brought us up there was no unemployment money. Anything you got was a charity.
I remember my mother, when we only had one pair of shoes each and they all needed mending, she went down to the council to try to get more for us. She had to answer every question under the sun and she was made to feel that there was something distasteful about her because she hadn’t got enough money to live on.
It was very different getting somewhere to live in those days. You just walked through the streets, and there were notices up, ‘Rooms to let’.
When we were extra hard up, we only had one room or two rooms in somebody else’s house. But when Dad was working, we would go around looking for half a house. We never had a house to ourselves. Not many people could afford a house in those days, not to themselves. As for buying a house, why, such things were never even dreamed of!
I know I used to wonder why, when things were so hard, Mum kept having babies, and I remember how angry she used to get when a couple of elderly spinsters at a house where she worked kept telling her not to have any more children, that she couldn’t afford to keep them. I remember saying to my mother, ‘Why do you have so many children? Is it hard to have children?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no. It’s as easy as falling off a log.’
You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children. You could have babies forever-more. Nobody bothered about doctors. You had a midwife who came for almost next to nothing. The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days. They didn’t dare. It was enough to live for the present.
But, apart from that, people didn’t think about regulating families. The whole idea was to have families, a relic of Victorian times perhaps. The more children you had, in some ways, the more you were looked upon as fulfilling your duties as a Christian citizen. Not that the Church played much part in my mother’s and father’s lives. I don’t think they had much time for it or, perhaps it’s truer to say, they had time but no inclination. Some of us weren’t even christened. I wasn’t, and never have been. But we all had to go to Sunday School, not because my parents were religious, but because it kept us out of the way.
Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking because there was not much privacy in working-class families. When you lived in two or three rooms, you had to have some of the children in the same room with you. If you had any sense of decency, and my parents did because I never, during the whole time of my childhood, knew that they ever made love, you waited till they were fast asleep or out of the way. The fact is I never even saw them kissing each other because my father was a rather austere man outwardly, and I was amazed when only lately my mother told me what a passionate man he really was. So, you see, it was only when the children were out of the way that they could really let themselves go.
So, Sunday afternoon, after a mighty big dinner (and everybody tried to have a big dinner on Sunday), was the time spent lying on the bed, making love and having a good old doze. Because, as my Mum said later, if you make love, you might as well do it in comfort. When you’re getting middle-aged, there isn’t much fun in having it in odd corners. So that’s why Sunday School was so popular then. I don’t know about now.
My brother and I began proper school together. They let you start at the age of four in those days. My mother sent me there as well because she had another baby coming along and she thought that would be two of us out of the way.
We had to come home for dinner. There were no such things as school meals and school milk. You took a piece of bread and butter with you, wrapped in a piece of paper, and gave it to the teacher to mind, because many of us children were so hungry that we used to nibble it during the course of the morning when we should have been doing whatever we did have to do. It was then doled out to us at eleven o’clock.
My early school days don’t stand out much in my mind. It was when I got to the age of about seven that I, as it were, took my place in life. You see, with my mother going off early in the morning to do her charring and me being the eldest girl, I used to have to give the children their breakfast. Mind you, giving them their breakfast wasn’t a matter of cooking anything. We never had eggs or bacon, and things like cereals weren’t heard of. We had porridge in the winter, and just bread and margarine, and a scraping of jam, if Mum had any, in the summer. Three pieces were all we were allowed.
I always loved going to the baker and buying those round loaves with four corners on top. (I think they were called Coburg loaves.) We used to fight to get the corners because that counted as one piece of bread but it was far more filling than just a slice.
Then I would make the tea, very weak tea known as sweepings – the cheapest that there was – clear away and wash up, and then get ready for school.
The two youngest I took along to the day nursery. It cost sixpence a day each and for that the children got a midday meal as well. I took them just before school time and collected them the moment I came out of school in the afternoon.
At midday, I would run home, get the potatoes and the greens on, lay up the dinner and do everything I could so that when my mother rushed over from work, she just had to serve the dinner.
Generally it was stews because they were the most filling. Sometimes Mother would make a meat pudding. It’s funny now when I look back on it, this meat pudding. I would go along to the butcher’s and ask for sixpennyworth of ‘Block ornaments’. Hygiene was nothing like it is now and butchers used to have big wooden slabs outside the shop with all the meat displayed for the public and the flies. As they cut up the joints, they always had odd lumps of meat left which they scattered around. These were known as ‘Block ornaments’.
I used to get sixpennyworth of them and a pennyworth of suet. Then my mother would make the most marvellous meat pudding with it. That tasted far better than those I make now when I pay four or five shillings for the meat.
Directly she’d eaten her dinner, she’d have to rush back to work because she was only allowed half an hour. So I had to do the washing-up before I went back to school again. Right after I came out of school in the afternoon, I would collect the two children from the day nursery, take them back home, and then set to and clear up the place and make the beds.
I never used to feel that I was suffering in any sense from ill-usage. It was just the thing. When you were the eldest girl in a working-class family, it was expected of you.
Of course, Mum took over in the evenings. She came back about six and got us our tea which was the same as breakfast – bread and margarine.
Being a girl, I never went out at night and my parents were very strict about this. But I used to read a lot. We had a free library even then. We also managed to amuse ourselves.
My oldest brother used to give magic shows. He was really very good. Then somebody gave us a magic lantern with slides, of course not moving, and my brother would make up a story about them. We were never bored with an evening. There was always something to do.
Unlike so many people I’ve met, I didn’t really make any lasting friends in my school days. I suppose it’s easy to look back and say my mother and father weren’t sociable because we weren’t allowed to have friends in. Mum had enough children of her own. I never had birthday parties, of course; things like that were undreamt of.
I had two girls at school who were friends but you know what it’s like when you’re three together, someone is the odd one out and that was always me. I think these two girls came from homes where things were talked about, things like sex, because they used to have a sort of code between them which would make them screech with mirth, and I never understood a word. I remember when I was nearly thirteen years old, one of them, her name was Bertha, wouldn’t run around and play with us. And I asked ‘Why? Why can’t you run about?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I had a bicycle out yesterday and it hurt me, and I can’t do anything now.’ And they both went off into screams of mirth.
But, being a member of a family, I wasn’t worried and, you see, we had the town itself.
a wonderful place, especially for children, and particularly for children with no money. It wasn’t built up as it is now.
Take the seafront and the lawns. Each lawn is laid out for people with money now. There are clock golf, putting, tennis, bowls; but there’s nowhere for children at all. But then, every one of those lawns was free; there was nothing on them but grass and a shelter, and all around the lawns there were shrubs where you could have the most marvellous games of hide-and-seek. You could take your tea down there, spread it all over the clean grass. There were no park keepers to come and chivvy you.
And immediately behind the town was the country. We only had to walk a matter of minutes from where we lived and there was the country and the farms.