Monday, 12 February 2018

My Mother - In Memoriam, Part 1

A few days ago my mother passed away. She was 89, and for a while had been steadily deteriorating following the all-too-common "old lady fall". That's not how any of us want to remember her, though.

My mother was an extraordinary woman, who starting from poverty and with little education, managed to make her way successfully in the man's world of business as a fearsome organiser and manager. She was also a wife and mother, who raised three children - her own two sons as well as our father's daughter by his first marriage - with love and devotion.

Shortly before her fall, she was persuaded to write a few pages about her early life. They stop rather abruptly, most likely because she wrote them in a single session and that is where the evening ran out. But it happens to be shortly before she met my father, in 1949 or so, so it makes a natural break.

I've written my own memories of her here.

Here is what she wrote.

My history
I must have come as a terrible surprise to my mother, as she'd already had two caesarean births and, in the year 1928, to have a third child by this method was decidedly chancy! However, obviously I arrived and we both survived, even though I understand my poor old Mum was decidedly the worse for wear. The two previous children, were my brother, who was twelve years older than me and my sister, three years older than me.
From what I was told, my mother must have suffered from what is now known as a 'clicky hip', but at that time she was told it was the result of tripping up a kerb when she was about two or three years old, and, having been confined to bed for a number of years, ended up with one leg considerably shorter than the other - and was what we could now call disabled, but was then called crippled. She eventually wore a high boot to make it possible to walk although, when I was younger, I can remember her walking in normal boots but on the toes of the shorter leg. Despite this, she lived what was then a normal life. Nowadays it would be considered the heights of deprivation. I only realized what the real problem was when my first granddaughter was born with a 'clicky hip', that is a dislocated hip, and I was asked if there was any history of it in the family which, of course, I denied and it was only after further cogitation that I realized it was the true diagnosis of my mother's problem. My granddaughter was treated as a baby and lives a normal healthy life, but my poor Mum was born before it was discovered it could be treated.
I believe we were then living in a small flat in a shared house when I was born, but when I was little, we moved to the sixth floor of a tenement block in the slums of the Borough of Southwark, just south of London Bridge and the City of London. We lived on the sixth floor, because it was cheaper. My mother used to take in other peoples' washing, which had to be washed, boiled in a copper, mangled (i.e. put through a wringer) dried and ironed, and she did this just to supplement the very poor wage that my Dad brought home. She even had to carry the washing up and down all those stairs (99 of them!). Just think, no washing machine, no dryer, no vacuum cleaner not even an electric iron; no labour saving aids at all. In addition to that, there were coal fires to heat the flat. Imagine the coalman having to deliver up all those stairs!

I realise that I haven't mentioned my father, but I suppose that's because he impinged very little on my early life. Remember, it was at the time when fathers were only expected to bring home a wage and all the other family necessities were the responsibility of the mother. In fact, my Dad was born in Glemsford in Suffolk and was very much a countryman. He came to London because of the difficulty of earning a living wage in the country, but I have no idea what he then took in the way of work. Nor do I know how he and my mother met, or when they were married. However, he was in the army during the first World War, 1914-1918 and, in 1916, my brother was born. Very little was paid to the wife and family by the army and it must have been very hard-going for my Mum. My Dad was wounded while in France fighting the Germans; he was hit by a sniper, but it wasn't sufficiently bad for him to be discharged. The discharge only happened at the end of the War and, as far as I know, he then went to work for John Gardner, a wholesale caterer, as a 'handyman'. He was still working there when he retired, at the age of 70, and he died from a heart attack the following year.
My sister was born in 1925 and during childhood we were never good friends, I suppose primarily because of the three years difference in age. However, later in life, we became much closer.
During my childhood, my sister and I were regular churchgoers and it was a high church, i.e. we had what was almost a Catholic service. The church was called All-Hallows, and the vicar from there used to visit my mother regularly. Because I was such a sickly child at one time he suggested to my mother that I would benefit from a visit to a country home run by Church authorities which he could arrange, and we eagerly accepted (bear in mind that I'd never had a holiday in my life). Then it was declared that it was obligatory that I should have a smallpox vaccination before going, so this was done, but then it turned
septic, and I was treated to hot fomentations for about six weeks, and I never got to the country. This was one of the big disappointments of young life. I also recollect having diphtheria when I was four years old - I was sent to an isolation hospital, Hither Green, and did not see any of my family until I was discharged four weeks later. By the time I left, I'd become accustomed to living in a large space (hospital ward) and my mother was very disappointed when, on arriving home, I said how small everything seemed.
One joy of my early life was Sundays. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, my brother would take my sister and me for walks; usually along the banks of the Thames, which were so close to us. At the time of my childhood, there was a beach by the Tower of London, and occasionally we went there, but usually we walked along the south bank. I can still vividly recall the smell of the brewery which was there and, in fact, when I went to live near Romford later in life, the smell when they were brewing at the brewery there reminded me of my childhood. One of the other joys of Sundays was to visit my father where he worked as a Sunday watchman (no security guards then) at the headquarters of John Gardner. We used to take a full Sunday dinner plate, wrapped in towels to keep it warm, so that he didn't miss out. While we were there, we could sometimes get into the cab of a lorry, and pretend to be driving it. But the biggest joy of all was to visit the bakery, which was packed with trays full of every sort of cake imaginable, certainly not the sort of cakes we had in our everyday lives. Then there was the charcuterie, with the smell of all sorts of meats. It was an adventure for us, and whose turn it was to take my Dad's dinner was highly contested - either my brother or my sister and I together.

I passed the 11-plus exam and was entitled to go to Grammar School, but my family couldn't afford the necessary books or uniform, so it was decided I would continue at secondary school, but the Second World War intervened in Septemer 1939 just before I was due to start. I wasn't evacuated, but most of the schoolchildren went and London schools closed down for a while. Those of us who were left in London used to spend our time collecting shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns. When the schools re-opened we only had part-time because many teachers were still with the evacuees. Also, we couldn't use the whole school, as the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) had the ground floor for their use, The cookery room in the grounds of the school was used as a British Restaurant, which was another war-time organization, where you could get what were purported to be healthy and cheap meals. However, when they were short staffed, we girls were recruited to do jobs like peeling potatoes — it wasn't very educational. In fact, during my last few years at school, I received very little education, because (there being no school secretary at that time), the headmaster used me to collect registers, dinner money, etc and various other jobs. This would explain why my knowledge of history, geography and other subjects which are normally learned in secondary education as almost non-existent. However, as I shall explain later, I did continue learning after leaving school by going to evening classes after I'd finished work for the day.
At that time, the school leaving age was fourteen, and there was no question of continuing unless you were at grammar school. During the run-up to my birthday, we were given various options for interviews and one of them was for office work at the head office of Odeon Theatres, a company which owned a chain of cinemas, nation-wide. I was accepted and worked as a 'post-girl', which necessitated collecting post from various departments on five different floors, and mailing it either to the cinemas or to the film rental companies, and we had pigeon holes for all of them. However, I had been attending evening school for a shorthand, typing and English course and, because some of the girl employees were being called-up for the armed services, I was promoted to secretarial work at the age of fourteen years and nine months! I was working for a booking-clerk, i.e. we had to book the films for an area in the north-east of England and, although most of these depended on what was on the Odeon circuit, it involved booking short films to make up the programme time and, because the man I worked for was a bit idle, after I'd been working for him a few months, he left this to me — I must confess my preference was for cartoons. We had a supervisor who used to sit at the front of the office and she was very strict, with behaviour which wouldn't be tolerated in this day and age. She would call out things like "Miss Slater (that was me) you have too much lip-stick on today".
We had a good crowd of girls there and we used to go out together in the evenings, even though it was during the war and there were problems with bombs, etc., and we used to have some very good evenings together despite the fact that my mother insisted I should be home by 11.00pm. One of the problems was that, if there was an air raid warning in effect at the time I was travelling home, the part of the London underground which went under the river was closed down — so I used to get off at the north side of the river and run across one of the bridges until I reached the nearest station on the south side of the river; this despite the fact that anti-aircraft guns were firing and the shrapnel was falling all around me. This worried me far less than getting home late and my Mum telling me off.
There were, of course, many incidents during the war which stick in my memory. During the time I was still at school, my mother insisted that I accompany here to the tenement where we used to live, as they had a cellar which was purported to be bomb-proof. Unfortunately, one night while we were there, a land-mine was dropped at the other end of the tenements, and all the casualties were brought down to our shelter - so, after that, I wasn't made to go there any more. One of the worst sides of the shelter was that we slept six children on a mattress sideways on, and, when the nit-nurse visited our school, she discovered that I had lice in my hair. Oh, the shame of it! You can imagine how ruthlessly my mother got over this problem.
In the street outside our house there were so-called shelters built, but the only purpose they served was that, if a bomb dropped on the house, you wouldn't be buried in the debris. Nevertheless, once again I was made to go to one of them with my mother. The children in there were allowed to lay down, but there was no room for the mothers to sleep, so my Mum used to sit on a chair all night. One night she was knitting when a bomb was dropped very nearby, and a knitting needle went through the middle of her hand. However, that was the sum total of our families' injuries during the war.
One thing I haven't mentioned is my brother's problem. He was 22 years' old when war broke out, and for about six months had been treated by our doctor for a swelling in his knee and with hindsight, I realise that the doctor had been mistreating his problem.
Early in the war he was called up for the forces, and during his medical exam, it came to light that he was suffering from tuberculosis in his knee. The treatment for it at that time was to immobilise the affected limb, so he was sent to a sanatorium in Ascot, and his leg, from the hip down to his ankle was set in plaster, and he was bedridden for four or five years. After this time, it was proven that this 'treatment' was ineffective, so he was sent to St. Thomas's hospital in London to have his leg amputated. What a pity he hadn't been born later after penicillin was discovered.
After recovering from the operation, he was fitted with an artificial leg and, being very positive, he was determined to live as normal a life as possible. After working hard at this, he got a job in the Strand, mending Ronson lighters - then found himself a girl-friend, and they got married. Good luck to him, but all the travelling and the work proved to be too much for his body to cope with and, at the age of 33, he died from a heart attack.
Reverting to my own life, and when I was working for Odeon, one of the advantages of the job was that we had a free pass for any Odeon cinema for oneself and a friend, which we could use every week, and believe me we took advantage of it. Also, when the West End cinemas were in the last week of their run, we got free tickets for them also.
The second world war ended when I was in my seventeenth year, and, of course, there was great rejoicing. But, food and clothes rationing continued for many years after that and there was a great deal of disillusionment when soldiers were demobbed and realized that life was not as easy as they had thought while dreaming of coming home. There were many disappointments.
However, now seventeen years old, after working at Odeon for just over three years, and by then being a fully qualified secretary, I decided it was time to change to another job. The Company I chose (or which chose me) was called Rootes, who used to manufacture Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam-Talbot cars and Commer and Karrier commercial vehicles. I worked as secretary to the Advertising Manager. The office was on the mezzanine floor of a building in Piccadilly called Devonshire House, and our office overlooked Green Park, so it was a very pleasant situation. There were two types of girls working there in clerical and secretarial jobs — at one end were girls with a normal education and, at the other end, there were ‘debs', who thought they were the cats' whiskers and very much looked down on us. The two types never mixed at all. When I was washing my hands in the toilet room one day, I heard two of the debs discussing the fact that normal girls were not good workers, and I challenged them to try to type or shorthand quicker than me, but they didn't take me up on it.
During that time I met a boy called John Davis and eventually we became engaged to be married. Because his parents' marriage had broken down, he lived with his grandparents in quite a grand house in Putney, and their back garden overlooked the river. We were both really too young to settle down, and I broke off the engagement because of what happened one evening. We were at a boozy party and an argument broke out between John and one of his friends, which developed into a fight. John got hold of an empty bottle and smashed the neck of it to have a go at his friend. I knew then that, when he'd had too much to drink, he was liable to become violent and I was certainly not planning a marriage like that, having seen too much of it in "the buildings" when I was younger. 

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