Marjorie Broad (93)
I was born in 1924, one of 10 children. We lived in Thorne, Yorkshire – then just a village. My father had a wallpaper shop and decorating business, and pulled his own cart to jobs. He was successful up until the bad recession of the 1930s when folk could not afford to decorate, and even local doctors and dentists failed to pay their bills.
Our village school also took pupils from the nearby mining village of Moorends; they often came to school shoeless, even in winter – difficult to imagine these days. I recall there was a “Poor Law” official who, if you applied for help, would come to the house and assess your request. But you’d have had to sell your furniture to raise funds first, only being allowed to retain the beds.
My two oldest brothers left home at 14, travelling south to work for J Sainsbury at various shops. All the lads lived above the shops with a housekeeper; I remember my brother telling me that if they dropped and broke a jar of jam, they’d have to pick the bits of glass out, and then the jam was used on their bread. (A while ago, I wrote to Lord Sainsbury telling him of these memories, and he wrote back to say he had read out my letter at a family dinner.)
In 1934, having lost his business in the recession, my father moved the rest of the family south to Edgware in Middlesex. My sisters and I were bullied at school for our strange accents, but my parents didn’t complain to the school; they just told us to get on with it. In 1938 I passed the matriculation exam – but my parents wouldn’t allow me to take my rightful place at grammar school, and insisted I go out and find a job.
I was bitter about this for many years, but as I got older I realised it was the shortage of money that made their decision for them. There was no assistance in those days and I feel this is happening again now: children from poorer families aren’t always able to go on to further education.
My best friend’s father was from Tyneside and was on the Jarrow march in 1936. He and fellow walkers existed on hand-outs as they passed through towns and villages en route to London. I believe he was about 55; his feet never recovered and he had difficulty walking for the rest of his life.
In 1939, we all sat and listened to the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, ending his address with the words: “And consequently, this country is now at war with Germany.” At 15, I could not understand why my mother was crying – to me, it all seemed very exciting.
But the following September, on a Sunday afternoon, our house was demolished by a bomb from a German plane; my mother and one of my brothers were injured by the broken glass. Next day, all my work colleagues brought in at least one item of clothing for me from their own wardrobes. I ended up with more clothes than I’d had before!
Terry Richardson (aged 83)
I remember a wet, windy, wintry day in 1938. My dad, who was engaged in the building trade, was out of work again. We lived in a council house in Worthing, Sussex; the rent was due but there was no money to pay it.
My dad had to seek some alternative source of income so, along with many other unemployed local men, he took to going on the beach in the Worthing area to pick up winkles from the rockpools that revealed themselves when the tide receded for three hours or so. To get to the beach, which was about three miles away, my dad had to ride his old bike against the wind and rain.
When we returned home from school that afternoon, I remember the galvanised bathtub, previously used for our weekly baths, was half-filled with winkles and cooking over a low gas. The next day my brother and I sold the cooked winkles around the neighbourhood in packets made from used newspapers. I don’t remember how much for – or if, indeed, we made the rent money.
Daisy Bennison (83)
One day, I remember Mum coming home from the welfare office – we could see how upset she was. We were told a welfare officer would be coming to assess our needs. In those days they could tell you to sell household items if they thought they were not essential.
The only non-essential furniture in our house was Mum’s piano. One night, the piano was wheeled to my aunt’s house, which was in the next street to us. Aunt Mary said she would keep it there until after the welfare person had been – so at least Mum would be able to keep her beloved piano.
Marion Monahan (88)
The housing conditions in central Scotland where I grew up were dire. The outside toilet we shared with a dozen or so families was frozen for most of the winter. My father had a job as a fitter in a brewery, but we were still five in one bedroom – I was 14, my brother 13 and my sister seven before we had enough points to be rented a two-bedroom council flat, in 1942.
I only weighed six stone by the time I went up to St Andrews University. My father grew us vegetables and fruit in a railway allotment, but I remember always being hungry as a child. I used to visit my maternal grandmother after school a lot, because she’d always tell my aunt to “gie the bairn a jeelie piece”. I would wolf down that bread and jam in seconds.
Life in the slums changed dramatically in 1939. The young men went off to war and some never returned. But now there was no unemployment, and married women got jobs. Young women joined the services or made munitions, while school children worked in their holidays picking potatoes or in shops and offices. Food rationing and home economics on the radio meant our diet improved immensely; fresh fish from Aberdeen came into the station every morning to supplement the meat ration.
At the start of the 1930s, my father’s family was living in slum squalor in Tooley Street, by London Bridge. He lived in one room with his parents and twin sisters. A younger set of twins had died when he was two – a fact he didn’t discover until my nan died in 1978. The eldest sister was sent to live with her grandparents in Kent, to relieve pressure on the family.
Grandad was a daily-paid docker, turning up at the docks first thing every morning in the hope of securing work. I used to think that sounded shocking. Today, we call it a zero-hours contract.
He was active in the union, and I have a photo of him, his brother, their father and my aunts carrying the Transport and General Workers’ Union banner at a rally. No idea where that came from, they had no spare money.
Grandad grew his own veg in the garden at home; by the time war started, he had also buried several years’ supply of illicit gin in earthenware jars under the potato patch. The phrase “I’m going to dig up some tatties” was neighbourhood code for “party at ours”.
All was good until the V1 and V2 rockets arrived, and debris from one landed in the front hedge. “Good job it didn’t land out the back,” Grandad told me years later (he lived to be 95). “If it had hit the potato patch, the ’ole street would have gorn orf!”
The tenancy of the house my grandparents moved into in 1931 stayed in the family until my mother’s death in 2000, by which time it was returned to Merton council. When right-to-buy came in under Thatcher, I asked Grandad if he was going to buy it, as he could have done so for a pittance. His reply was prophetic:
“No, because we were given this house when we were in a bind, and a wonderful home it has been. All these neighbours buying their houses, boasting about how much they will be worth, concreting over their front gardens, changing doors and windows, they are so greedy. What will happen when all the houses are sold, and your children have nowhere to go if they are in need, like Nan and I were? It’s wrong, and I won’t have a part in it.” He could have bought the house for less than £5,000, and similar properties today are selling for around £400k. My political hero!
My father, Stanley Marwood Johnson, was brought up near Manchester in an unhappy family; his father beat him with an iron bar. When he was 18, a final argument saw him thrown out of the house, ending any hope of going to university.
He played football in the Lancashire Combination League, and once scored 120 goals in a 40-game season – whereupon he was signed by Liverpool FC in, I think, 1929. He played in their reserves but was paid only 30 shillings a week and could not manage on that, so had to stop.
Thereafter he picked up whatever job he could – sometimes as a waiter, sometimes as an odd-job man. Times were desperate and all that mattered was getting any job at all.
As a result of the “Geddes axe”, police salaries were cut and the Birkenhead force went on strike. All the strikers were dismissed and their jobs readvertised. Feeling extremely guilty about being a blackleg, my father and a host of others applied. He was picked but found the atmosphere dreadful.
Eventually, he left to become a shipyard worker at Cammell Laird, and gradually learnt a good deal about ships’ engines. By then, he was courting my mother, cycling the 140 miles from Birkenhead to Gloucester, and the same back, to spend weekends with her.
In August 1939, he found himself looking around the Bristol docks when a ship’s captain invited him aboard, then mentioned he needed to recruit a few engineers. My father naively thought this a wonderful opening, and was recruited on the spot. He was in the mid-Atlantic when war was declared.
Years later, I got him to talk about his experiences of the war (he seldom did). He described the tremendous tension in the Liverpool Port Office as men waited for the clerk of the port to pin on the noticeboard the names of the ships for the Atlantic convoy and the Murmansk convoy. On the former, losses averaged one in three, on the latter one in two, so everyone dreaded Murmansk – a trip my father made four times.
I said: “Dad, I would have refused. You were a family man with three young kids, being asked to play Russian roulette for years on end. I’d have told them: ‘Give me a gun and I’ll go and fight, but this is inhuman.’”
My mother interjected that they had all been too patriotic to think like that. But my father said no, the men in that port office were not patriotic; they were a tough and cynical lot. Later, he’d often asked himself why none of them had refused. The reason, he said, was they’d all learnt bitterly that you should never, ever refuse a job – because your card would get marked by the bosses, and you would never work again.
My father told me: “Every one of us there had been intimidated and cowed by the reality or the fear of long-term unemployment. The fact is, you couldn’t have fought that war if people hadn’t all first been cowed by the Depression in the 1930s.”
My parents were not from wealthy families, but they were well educated. In later life they recalled that, growing up, they considered the poor and lower-working classes were utterly different from them – practically a different species.
Aged 24, my mother went to see the Jarrow marchers at Covent Garden. When she saw students throwing cabbages at them, she laughed. Years later, she told me she had never ceased to feel guilty for that laugh. It was, I think, a moment that began a change in her view of others.
My mother was forced to leave school in Leeds in the 1930s to go out to work at 14. Two stories she told me about that time have stuck with me.
The first is that Leeds city council had a charitable scheme called “boots for the bairns”, which gave stout shoes to children to enable them to walk to school. She remembers about a third of her schoolmates in Armley wearing such shoes and being subject to ridicule, as they were a sign of poverty in an age when poverty was still a sign of personal and moral failing.
The second was when, in her final year of school, she spoke out in a discussion on the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, in which it was fairly clear that most of the teachers heartily approved of Hitler’s actions. Having argued that it was morally wrong to mistreat innocent people because of the perceived faults of others, she overheard the teachers as she left saying: “I never knew Joyce Pinkney was Jewish. She always looks so clean.”
My mother was an Anglican, but such was the low-level, middle-class antisemitism of the age, it was assumed that anyone who opposed Hitler must be Jewish. This is the world we are speedily returning to: hatred of all foreigners and ridicule of the poor. I am only glad that my mother is no longer alive to see it.
Tony Griffiths (aged 85)
I can never remember hearing anything about the economic troubles of the 30s. What a charmed and wonderful childhood I had in north Shropshire: fresh vegetables straight from my dad’s garden. “Go outside and dig up some potatoes for supper,” my mother would say – and, boy, did they taste good. Nothing like the supermarket stuff we eat these days.
But the best of all was Market Drayton baths. Yes, we had a public swimming pool, unheated and murky at first – but still going strong today. Miss Onions left £500 in her will to build the pool. She did not like the idea of the locals bathing in the River Tern and changing behind bushes – anything could be going on!
Rain or shine, we lived down at the baths, under the watchful eye of Mr Bickley, the superintendent. First in was best: we’d get up early and throw pebbles at Mr Bickley’s bedroom window until he woke up and threw out the keys. Then it was into the baths pell mell, change, along the springboard, a big bounce and then, for a brief moment, see your arching body reflected in the still cold water. Ah, the wonderful biting cold – I can still feel it!
Diving to the bottom, fishing in the muddy murk for pennies thrown in by the Yanks. Days of joy, days of innocence. Wonderful.
As with so many other people, there was a lot of sadness in my parents’ families in the 1930s. My mother’s family lived in the East End of London. Her parents were deaf and mute; my mum was the youngest of four siblings and all were hearing children.
Life was very tough, work was difficult to get – especially if you had no hearing and could not speak. Mum’s father used to have to climb up inside the factory chimneys to clean them. Many a time the local children used to chase my mother, shouting: “Let’s get Dummy’s kid.” It was a great stigma in those days.
Laura Waugh (96)
My mother, Laura, who is registered blind, was born in 1920, the youngest of six girls, and grew up in Birkenhead. When she became 14, her parents could not afford to pay for her to continue in school/training, as they had done for four of her sisters, so she went to work instead. Her other sister stayed at home – it was common for one sister to stay and help in the house.
In the previous decade, there had been queues along the street when vacancies were advertised, but from 1935 to 1939, Mum had no difficulty finding work, latterly in a shipping office. There was no training, she had to learn on the job.
In her free time she went to tea dances, ballroom dancing, and did lots of walking (there were very few cars around, but lots of bikes). She and her friends listened to the radio a lot – Radio Luxembourg started in 1933: “We shouldn’t have listened really!”
She particularly remembers the building and opening – by George V in 1934 – of the Queensway tunnel under the Mersey. It had been dug by hand; there was little protection for the builders, and many died.
The king and queen went through in a car, then Mum and her family walked through (as I did, through the Kingsway tunnel, decades later). But her mother was terrified, convinced she would drown, and wouldn’t go back through – so they had to get the boat back.
Mum says she was only aware of Edward and Mrs Simpson through the newspapers, and was very sad when he abdicated. She hated Mrs Simpson because she thought she had inveigled Edward, as he was very weak. George (his brother and successor) was nice enough, but “we knew he didn’t want to be king”.
Lawrence Renaudon Smith
My grandfather was the general manager of the largest wholesale fruiterers in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1930s. One evening in 1936, he returned home from work very upset. At dinner, he told the family, which included my mother (15 at the time) that when he had made his regular telephone call to their tomato suppliers in Almeria, Spain, to make the order, instead of the usual person answering, someone had spoken in Spanish and after some delay, another person spoke to him in very broken English.
This person explained that a civil war had just started, and the owner of the business, who usually spoke with my grandfather, had been on one side and some other family members on the other side had killed him. Whatever was going to happen, he was told, no tomatoes would be shipped to Britain for a long time.
My grandfather did not know much about foreign politics and was in a state of shock. Even though he had fought in the first world war, he couldn’t imagine a civil war where members of the same family were on different sides and were killing each other. He was absolutely horrified.
Born in 1937, my mother was the youngest of five girls living with her widowed mother in a two-up, two-down house in Merthyr Tydfil. They had one outside (cold) tap, a bath on the back of the door (which they used once a week), an outside privvy and absolutely no money.
She says she once stood behind a mother and daughter in a local shop, and they bought a cardigan for the child. My mother said: “Why are they buying a cardigan, Mam? She already has one on.”
Ruth Morley (83)
My parents’ marriage was short – my father died in 1942 – and I don’t think particularly happy. He worked as a fitter in the shipyards in Wallsend on Tyne; we used to walk down to take him his lunch. We’d stand at the big gates, and he and the other men would come and get the food from their wives. Their hours were long and I saw very little of him.
The first sign of the war was when my father dug a big hole in our back garden and installed an Anderson shelter; a metal arch with a wooden door. He covered the shelter with dirt and grew flowers on the top. I don’t remember us ever using it as a shelter, but I do recall it was frequently full of water – so it would have been a bit tricky to use.
Then came evacuation. We took the electric train into Newcastle and walked in a crocodile to platform 8. The day is still very vivid, but I don’t recall being upset or scared.
Another train took us to Brampton Junction, a few miles from Newcastle. On the train we were given a brown paper bag in which there was a bun, three “ring-a-ring-a roses” books and some pieces of cloth to sew. Presumably the boys got something different.
When we arrived, we were taken to the church hall. Lots of people chose children to take away; I was one of the last and was quite bothered as to why I was not being picked. An elderly couple eventually took me and a girl called Pat. We went in a car to their house: a lovely bungalow up on the hill above a place called How Mill.
Pat only stayed briefly and then, like many evacuees, went back to the city. People were really worried about their children, and many children were terrified, too. Later, I heard horror stories of what happened with some of them. I was lucky.
My mother had also been evacuated with the twins – but my father, of course, stayed working in Wallsend. He developed a duodenal ulcer but because there was the possibility of lots of troops needing beds, he was sent home from hospital. Maybe it was Dunkirk, I don’t know. Then his ulcer burst, and he died – there were no antibiotics then. How we take them for granted now.
My mother was born in the early 30s and before she died, wrote a memoir of her early memories living in Grantham in Lincolnshire – from which the following is an extract. At the time, she lived with her grandparents, Bill and Lizzie, and her mother, Nora …
Life became very hard during the Depression in the 30s, and Bill was out of work for 16 years. Lizzie was a trained Red Cross nurse and did various jobs, including “laying out the dead”. Washing and ironing were another source of income; she worked very hard washing for the officers at nearby RAF Spitalgate and tablecloths from the mess. The officers were very particular about their shirts: the collars had to be starched and the fronts had to bewithout the slightest sign of a crease.
The house was a three-bedroom end-of-terrace, considered rather spacious. There was no bathroom, so a large tin bath was kept in a cupboard. A bath was taken on a Friday or Saturday night in the living room, in front of the fire.
Grandma and Grandad had a wireless powered by an accumulator (like a car battery). It was filled with acid and charged every week. An aerial ran from the back of the wireless through a hole in the window frame up to the roof. News programmes were always listened to, and even in those days quiz shows were always popular. The adults would be up no later than 9.30pm, usually retiring after the nine o’clock news.
Sunday dinner was always a bit special; we all enjoyed a roast dinner, mainly spare rib of beef or half a leg of lamb. A Yorkshire pudding cooked in a large baking tin, lots of potatoes with seasonal vegetables and a rich gravy. During cooking, the fat would be used to baste the meat, and afterwards the fat would be strained into a basin and used as dripping. Beef or pork dripping was delicious on toasted bread.
When money was short, Grandma Lizzie would make a vegetable stew. She would get meat bones from the butcher and put them into a large pan with potatoes, carrots, swede, onions, parsnips, dried peas and butterbeans and cook them slowly. The stew would be thickened with some flour and maybe an Oxo cube or marmite, added for flavour.
Monday was wash day, which would start around 6am. A large copper container would be filled with water the previous night, first thing Monday morning a fire was lit underneath it. Dolly tubs and several tin baths were used for the various stages of the wash – it was very hard work. After the washing and several rinses, the clothes would be put through a mangle and hung out in the garden.
Early Tuesday morning, the big iron would begin – on the kitchen table. A blanket was folded several times and covered with a white sheet. Two or three flat-irons would be placed over a flame on the gas cooker until they were really hot. After several hours of ironing and many changes of iron, Grandma Lizzie would stop to get the midday meal ready.
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