This is the second post about my nan’s childhood in Birmingham and the difficult conditions for many people who lived in this industrial city just after the First World War. I have once again made some small editorial changes to her original handwritten notes and added some photos which I hope help to present her work. The first post can be found here.
Some memories of an 87 year old.
Everyone began preparing for Christmas, but people were very poor. Most saved a few pence a week in Christmas clubs, others paid into diddle um clubs, holders absconding with the money when it was due to be paid out. My mom used to make up a lucky dip tub. Toys were put into little parcels made of coloured paper and placed in a tub filled with sawdust for the children to take a dip. She bought the various little toys at the Moor Street Warehouse and made a little profit which helped at Christmas time. People bought mottoes to brighten up their walls. They were like small glossy posters with verses such as “What is Home without a Mother” or “Happy Christmas and New Year.” They were gaily coloured with red holly, green leaves and mistletoe. Most people who could not afford a little tree bought two bowls or hoops that were placed one inside the other and then covered in Christmas coloured paper and hung from the ceiling. White icing fancies were tied onto them, little white mice and pigs were great favourites and glass baubles and chinese lanterns with little candles inside. They looked very pretty. Children made decorations to hang over pictures and others were strung across the ceilings, all only cost a few pence but were very effective. We hung our stockings over the old iron bedstead on Christmas Eve and were threatened that Father Christmas would pass over our chimney if we were not asleep, it was very hard to go to sleep that night. Christmas morning would be so exciting, one apple, one orange, a few nuts and two gold pennies that mom had saved when the new coins came out before Christmas. Our presents were a little sleeping doll for the girls and a little engine or mechanical toy for the boys. We never asked for more, we were very happy. Everyone had a drop of whisky in a cup of tea, this out of a small bottle saved for Christmas. We had a nice breakfast, bacon, egg and a few tomatoes fried to make a gravy to dip our bread in. Somehow our parents made it a lovely day.
Christmas over, the following days passed quickly, everyone hoping for a better new year. Everyone went up to the old St John’s Church on New Year’s Eve. Old and young, poor and rich and in all weathers. The front of the Church was lit up and the strains of organ music could be heard a long time before reaching the open doors. The congregation sang with great fervour. All prayed for deliverance from the terrible conditions that were rife after the 1914-18 war. At midnight, the church doors were thrown open and the bells pealed, hooters from factories and bulls as they were called, rang out. As the people left the church to go home, it was a very moving night. The night air was alive with the echos, “New Year in, New Year in, open the doors and let the New Year in.“ A young dark-haired man would walk around the table and through the house wishing them all a happy new year. He was called the first foot, no blonde person dared to cross the threshold until this ritual was over.
Winters were very bleak and because coal and coke was expensive, fires were backed up with peeling and slack to make them burn slowly. My mother one day told me a little about my father. I had only seen pictures of him. He was a tall blonde young man. She said he used to call me his little missus and if he had lived he would have liked to have taken me swimming with him on Sunday mornings. I think he hoped I would be a boy but was happy I was a little girl. When I came, Mom said he loved me very much and she sent him a little gold locket with her photograph one side and mine the other with a curl of blonde hair of mine and he carried it in battle. He was killed at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France. A friend of his from the Black Watch regiment came to comfort my mother with the news that my father would have known no pain as he was killed instantly shot between the eyes. Mom said she’d sent him a parcel with chocolate and a pork pie with egg, his favourite. This came back with his belongings and the locket was found on his body. My great-grandmother had me a necklace made with a sixpenny silver piece with a scroll over it engraved in memory of daddy. Among other things, a bracelet of silver threepenny pieces joined with safety chain and fastener, and little gold earings that gran bought when she took me to have my ears pierced. She said it was good for my eyes, they had some strange notions in those days. I never knew what became of them all. When the large buff envelope came to report the death of my father, my mother was very ill with pneumonia, this in those days was a killer. They could not give her the news. She said she knew as she saw my father at the foot of her sick-bed, his hand on the shoulder of mom’s friend and hearing him say take care of her Pem. People dreaded those long buff envelopes that came so frequently.
Feature image taken in October 2014 showing some of the fields near Neuve Chapelle.
© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.