Photo: Broad Street, Five Ways, date unknown (credit: BirminghamLives Archive).
This edited extract from my nan’s hand-written notes provides an example of the hard work women had to endure almost a century ago in Birmingham. To understand its context more fully, you may first like to read part 1 of this series.
Some Memories of an 87 year old
by Emily Louise Robinson
My nan took in laundry from the big houses in Edgbaston and I had to deliver it using her large old dunkley pram. The chassis was fastened to the body with large leather straps and it was so high that the handle came almost level with my nose, but it was lovely and springy.
Enfield Hall was a large house in Islington Row near Five Ways where two old maiden ladies lived. They were very kind and saved me windfalls from the garden and gave me sixpence for delivering the laundry. Once, one of them found me a beautiful leather handbag. The edges were reinforced with brass which looked like gold and inside was a pretty little handkerchief. I was so excited and couldn’t get home quick enough to show my nan. When she saw it, she told me it was too nice to give to a child and it would be just the thing for herself when she went to the Why Not Inn on Saturday night. I was very upset, slapped the laundry money on the table and ran home to my mom. After telling Mom and having a little weep we decided it was old and I would not have been able to use it, so I went around and told Nan she could have it. Nan said “I don’t Know what all the fuss is about! By the way, I have a surprise for you.” She went to the well of the staircase and unhooked what looked like a long overcoat, “Come along and try this on!” It had no sleeves, just slits in the side to put my arms through and it almost touched my toes. Nan put it around my shoulders and, as she started to fasten it at the neck, a short brass chain dangled from it. Then I realized what it was. “I’m not wearing that!” I cried, “It’s a Copper’s Cape!” Nan said “So what, it’s just the ticket, it’ll keep you snug as a bug in a rug when you’re taking the laundry.” I must admit, I found it very warm and, with the mittens nan made me from old jumper sleeves, I was ready for the winter.
The following Saturday was a terrible day, and I was very thankful for the dreaded cape as I manoeuvred the big dunkley down Nan’s entry and into the road. We had a large fall of snow during the night and the going was very treacherous, but I enjoyed the snow and I was soon on my way. As I came to the railway station, a steam engine drew under the bridge and covered me and the big dunkley with steam and smoke as we passed over. Then I had to go down the hill which was quite a thrill swinging up and down on the handle of the dunkley. But the ground was wet and slushy and I could not stop and slithered sharply around the corner onto my bottom. The dunkley went over [spilling all the clean laundry] into the snow. My Gran’ll kill me, I thought! I did not know what to do, go back and face Nan or carry on to Mrs Bridgen. Gathering up the beautifully ironed linen, placing it back into the basket, I loaded up the pram again. Soaked in mud and slush, I decided on the latter.
I was feeling nervous and very sorry for myself, no time to chat or say hello to the friendly firemen that I passed each week as they were polishing the brass bells on their engines. My mind was on how to explain this to Mrs Bridgen. Approaching the building of a large house which had a small jewel case factory at the rear, I pulled the bell rope and heard it echoing up the old hall. The door opened and Mary the little maid gasped, “Whatever have you been up to!” I must have looked a bedraggled spectacle, my hair wet and covered in mud, “Come inside and I’ll fetch Mrs Bridgen.” I waited in a big room at the front of the house, large pictures adorned the walls, [including some of] very stern looking men who seemed to be regarding me with disapproval. I was shivering when Mr’s Bridgen ushered me into another room at the back of the house, where a fire lit up the room with its glow. She was a large woman and said “come along and sit down, what is this all about?” Her kind manner unleashed the tears I had been holding back. She handed me a clean hanky and I told her what had happened, and that I did not know how I would explain it to my nan and how sorry I was about the soiled linen. “Come along now and dry your eyes.” and she called to Mary to bring a flannel to wipe my face and hands and to put the kettle on for a nice hot cup of cocoa. When leaving she said, “now I will talk to your nan so no more crying” and putting two sixpenny pieces in my hand warned me to go carefully and no more accidents. When I got home, Gran gave me no time to speak “Whatever have you been up to, You’re filthy!” ” she cried. “I know Nan,” I replied “but I’ve had an accident.” Her face was like thunder, “You’ve not broken the dunkley!” “No,” I replied, “I’ve tipped all the laundry in the snow.” “What!” she cried, “I’ll lose all my work then what’ll I do. I suppose you were sliding again!” When I told her how sorry I was and how kind Mrs Bridgen had been, she calmed down a bit, “at least the dunkley was safe.”
After a cup of tea and a sandwich we were ready for the next delivery but Nan said “I’m coming with you this time”, which I was glad about as I felt rather tired, the snow had made it hard going. It was getting dark and the house in Selwyn Road, near Edgbaston Reservoir, looked rather eerie with the lights from the ice rink reflecting on the water. I remembered one night hearing someone making the most awful screams from a nearby house and it scared me to death. I almost turned back, but the thought of facing Nan urged me on. I was very glad Nan was with me this night. The next call was our last one and Nan was getting a bit grumpy. We came to a large house and Nan lifted the basket from the dunkley. It was quite dark and melting snow was dropping from the trees that surrounded the house. “You stay and hang on to the dunkley while I take the laundry” and she disappeared up a long drive at the side. It was very lonely and I sat on a little rockery wall to wait for Nan. She seemed a long time and I getting very nervous, everywhere was so quiet. My imagination began to take over and I wished Nan would hurry up. I got off the wall and stamped my feet and rubbed my hands to keep the circulation going. Looking back across the garden at the big house with wide double doors, a shaft of light came across the lawn as if someone had opened the door a little and then the light was gone and it was dark again. I got back on the little wall feeling rather frightened. I looked over my shoulder and the light was there again, but also the figure of a man was approaching with his stick upraised. I almost fell off the wall and was running up the drive screaming for my nan who was coming down with the dirty laundry. I told her somewhat incoherently about the man coming for me from the house, but she didn’t believe me as the house was back in darkness again. “Where’s the dunkley!” she screamed. I had released it when I ran after Nan. We both looked down the hill and the old dunkley was careering towards the main road with Nan and I trying to catch up with it! Before we reached it, it had crashed into a lamp post. Nan was in tears, whatever am I going to do with you she wept, “If the dunkley is smashed, I won’t be able to deliver the laundry.” We must have looked a comical sight, a tall old lady and a little girl in a copper’s cape pushing a pram bumping up and down on three wheels. I was very sorry for Nan, she worked so hard with the washing and ironing. I felt in my dress pocket and found my bag of humbugs and offered them to Nan and whispered “sorry Nan.” Looking down at me, her face softened, “It’s not your fault child. Come along, let’s get this contraption home and see what the damage is. Then we’ll have nice piece of toast and a cuppa.”
The photo below, taken many years later, shows an area close to where my nan and her family lived. It must have been a real contrast to the big houses where she delivered the laundry to.
© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.
- BirminghamLives – The Carl Chinn Archive (no date) Available at: http://lives.bgfl.org/carlchinn/index.cfm (Accessed: 18 April 2015)