Now back at the cottage our life with the Bennets and Morriss’ went on.
We had a huge walnut tree, it really belonged to Captain Bentley but it was our patch for the tap, which supplied all the water for the four houses, so in a way it was for all of us to share. We used to get in first when they were still in the green husks we would knock them down with old sticks or bricks, whatever we could get hold of but after the first frost they would fall in brown husks (saved our hands from the awful yellow stains). We used to gather them up in our aprons and take off the hairs, we would put some of them in a stone jar then dig a big hole in the ground and dig them up for Christmas. They used to keep really lovely. Mum didn’t get them all, we would hide some away in the garden until mum was out of sight. Ivy used to go indoors and get mum’s flat iron to break the shells, some were too hard for our teeth. A man used to come to thrash the tree to get the nuts, (the ones we had left) for Captain Bentley, mind you when he was high up in tree we used to run out and pick them up from a big sheet he put on the ground to catch them as they fell. He would shout ‘get off you little buggers’, but we knew he couldn’t reach us. We all used to laugh our heads off.
Betty was the name of Bentley’s cook, she would often pop over to see mum and bring leftovers from their meals. So that is how I was named Betty because mum was grateful for all the help she gave her. We used to play in the stables that belonged to them, we would chalk all the walls white and then scrounge some odd bits of nets and curtains and then we would put on a play for our mum’s to come and see. We would cadge a halfpenny to go up to Longfield to the shop. He would let us have a small bag of cocktail and lemon crystals. I think it was all the old sugar from the bottom of the sweet jars but it kept us happy. We would put it in the biggest washstand jug we could find and add water so we could give it out at the interval of our play to our audience and to ourselves. Mind you most of our families would come. We would find a large plank of wood and set it on house bricks for them to sit on. Fan Bennet would bring her own chair without a back because she was so fat. We would all have a jolly good sing song and laugh.
In May we would all say ‘lets’ make Lena May Queen’, we would put net curtains all over and a crown of thorns, I mean may, then fill her train up with may and tie some round her wrists and feet. She ‘arf’ look lovely, we told her. She would keep moaning ‘it’s prickling me’ we used to say ‘shut up and start walking’ we would make her walk right round the block then sing as loudly as we could ‘here we go gathering nuts in May’ and stamp our feet, lifting our legs as high as they would go. I never could understand Lena, after all it was an honour to be chosen to be queen. I never even minded! Mind you if it was bath night we had soda in the water so that used to help all her scratches and thorns.
When we bathed it was a long tin bath with handles each end. We would boil the copper, have a hand full of soda and a bar of soap with a lump of old towel for a flannel. The eldest got in first and so on down the line, me being the last. I used to say to Lena ‘don’t you dare piddle in it, (I am sure she did). We would wash our hair in it with a bar of lifebuoy soap. When we came out our face would be bright red, you would be afraid to smile, it felt like your face would crack, the soda was very strong and dried it out. We used to be right in front of the open fire. Mum used to put a house brick in the oven and wrap it in an old cloth to put in our bed to warm. It nearly broke your toes if you caught them on it. We would have a candle holder to give us light in the bedroom. We were supposed to blow it out and get into bed but we used to leave it on and make shadows on the wall then the others had to guess what they were. We would all get a clout the next day for not blowing it out. Mum knew by the length of it how much we had burned.
Then Lena was very naughty, she pricked ‘L.K.’ on mum’s prize aspidistra plant that had pride of place in the sitting room on a round table and we were never even allowed in there apart from Christmas. Poor Lena she said she didn’t do it but WHO ELSE would have done it?
When it was bonfire night we would all make a huge fire, some of our better off friends would come and bring jumping jacks. Mum would let us put large potatoes in the bottom of the fire, it was really great fun. We would make a big old guy and our mums’ would be with us. We all used to go to Longfield Hill Sunday School, mum would give us a ha’penny for collection but there was an old lady who used to sell us a sugar bag of red gooseberries for ha’penny so ‘sorry god’, ‘our need is greater than yours’. We had to go to Sunday School because we used to get a text to take home so mum would know. We were never allowed to play on Sundays we had our ‘best’ clothes on all day, mind you our shoes still had holes in the soles, we used to put cardboard in them. It was lovely when it rained hard! We would turn our stockings round so the holes didn’t show. We had navy blue knickers with fleece lining, nice and warm. We would hang them on the brass knobs of the bed at night to give them an airing. In the morning I would smell them to see which was mine, because mine didn’t smell!
Mum used to keep her kilner jars of pickled onions and fruit on a big shelf up the stairs, we would dare Ivy to get a jar down and get us some pickles, which she did. We would push the jar right to the back when we had finished, if mum found out we all had a good clout. Mum didn’t go out much she would sit and sew by lamplight. One time when she did go out, Ivy got the hot curling tongs out, they were long handles and two blade things, she would put them in the red hot fire then get them put, try them on a piece of paper (which nearly always caught alight) then she would curl mine and Lena’s hair. It would smoke and go all ginger with being burnt, when she finished our hair was so frizzy we couldn’t wear a hat. She used to say ‘you look just like Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth’. We really felt like princesses, we kept touching it but it really did pong! Mum nearly went made when she saw us – we really did look beautiful! Ivy was so very kind, she didn’t even want us to do hers!
We used to pick two sticks from the hedge and take all the skin off to make knitting needles out of them. Mum would give us a ball of twine to knit her some dish cloths. It wasn’t half a job, it wasn’t half a job you couldn’t get the twine over the knots on the sticks but it used to keep our hands busy. Mum would never let us just sit idle, she said the devil made work for idle hands.
Jobs to do
We all had our special jobs to do every day. One of mine was to take a jug of water upstairs and a bucket to empty the ‘poes’ (that was one of the names for chamber pots of jerries). I hated it they would be so full, I had a job to lift then, you can imagine our room with six girls, three in each bed. I very often spilt them but it was only lino on the floor, so I would wipe it up before mum knew. The water and the cloth was to rinse them out and wipe them dry. Mum would come and see if I had done a good job. Well none of us were ever allowed in my mum’s bedroom. After school we were given more jobs to do before we could go outside to play.
Sometimes mum would give us bread and jam sandwiches and a bottle of cold tea to go for a picnic. We used to go down to Broadditch pond, we called it Braddidge. Anyway as soon as we got there we would eat our food and down our tea, then off came our clothes, except for the knickers and in the pond we would go. There were cows in it with us. We had a wonderful time. Mum would have killed us if she knew. She told us there was a big whirlpool in there and once in that one would never come out but all the time the cows were in there we felt safe. After a while it would feel cold so we would put our dresses back on, wring our knickers out and hang them on the fence to dry, then back off home. Mum would say you’ve had your share of bread today so we didn’t get any more for tea. We used to have bread with tea poured over it for breakfast, tea leaves as well. Mum would give Dandy our dog the same except he didn’t get any sugar on his. We just thought everyone lived like we did. Mind you we were not really hungry, just thought we were.
When it was haymaking time we had a huge field just by our house, when the farmer cut it we had a great time in it, they just used to toss it in those days and pick it up loose so he never seemed to mind, or didn’t see us playing with it. Roy Morris would help make a house out of it, we would make a big high mound of it and pretend it was our bed. We would lie in the sun, the sky was blue not a cloud to be seen, we would just lay holding hands, listening to the sky larks. He said I will marry you when I’m grown up, I quite believed him.
At night we had the most gorgeous sounding nightingale, it had the most lovely voice never heard anything like it, it would come every night. Did you know that God made all the other birds very pretty but the poor nightingale if very dull and grey to look at, so God said to him I will give you the best voice of all the other birds to make up for not giving you pretty colours and he sure did.
We used to go looking for bird’s nests, only to look at them, mum told us if you touch a robin’s nest the next day all your hair will drop out. What happens? When I go to school there is a girl there called Dolly Hollands with a woolly hat on which she never took off, so one of the girls pulled it off. WELL, she had most certainly touched a robin’s eggs. She was a bald as a bladder of lard. I never spoke to her, ever. If Ivy found a nest all the chicks would be opening their mouths, so Ivy would spit in their mouths, she would say ‘the poor things are thirsty’.
We would go into the fields on our way home and pinch a cauliflower and sit and eat it, the taste was just like a walnut.
My brother Fred very often found a nest of chicken eggs. Most people had them running loose those days. He would go where the farmer was cooking potatoes in an old copper for his pigs then he would put the eggs in one of his socks and put them in the boiling water. They were lovely, best meal of the day. We would peel some spuds to have with them.
He found an old bike so he stuffed the tyres with old hay he thought he looked a right toff riding this rusty old thing. Later in years he had a motor bike, a Norton it was called.
I had a teddy bear, Gert and Ack bought it for me when I was two. When I was old enough I called him ‘David Angus’. I kept him and passed him on to my own children. When he was bent over he had a big deep growl, real ‘dark brown growl’ we used to call it. Lena had a doll it was double jointed she called it Lu Lu silly looking thing, glad it wasn’t mine. She did let me play with it sometimes. Ivy wasn’t interested she was always getting into bother. She would do anything that we dared her to do she jumped out of the bedroom window and broke her arm three times. She was really good fun.
We used to walk on treacle tins tied with string, with our hands and see who could walk the furthest without falling off.
Our garden was very pretty. Mum made a big archway with laburnum and had lilac and orange blossom, roses and just about everything, it used to smell lovely.
We all seemed to be so happy being poor made no difference. Having no money saved a lot for mum in one way. There was no worry about getting presents, Easter eggs and all that we just didn’t think about it.
Well no one can go through life being happy all the time, so it seems. My mum used to say ‘life is what you make it’. I said to her one day (thinking I was clever) ‘how can you say that when all the awful things have happened to you’. She said it’s how you deal with it and that’s up to you. So ‘life is what you make it’.
Well one day something did happen. We came home from school all happy and singing and Gert was at our house. First thing we said to her, ‘where is our mum’. She looked us straight in the eye and said ‘your mum has run away’. That was the first time we didn’t want our bread and jam for tea. We were never allowed to say anything to Gert, so off to bed we go to cry ourselves to sleep. I kept thinking Ivy will think of something. Gert was horrible to us, she hated looking after us, mind you since I have grown up, I suppose she had only been married a short time with a new baby, not many would have taken too kindly to taking us on. One blessing Fred was still living with us. We missed mum giving us a hug and kiss goodnight. Gert most certainly wasn’t going to. I used to lie in bed thinking mum wood be hiding in a wood. We all thought she didn’t love us anymore. We would talk, the three of us in bed, trying to think why and where was she. Gert would never let us talk about her. We used to kneel by our bed, we always thought God would hear us better if we were kneeling. Gert made us work very hard, not that it hurt us. This went on for about two years but we still said our prayers every night. Gert had another baby boy, she used to say to me put Freddie in the pram and take him outside to get him to sleep. I hated rocking that pram. Then I had a bright idea, if I put him in the sun, he would have to shut his eyes so that’s what I did. Gert used to say ‘is he asleep’. ‘Yes Gert his eyes are shut’ and I would hope he would keep his mouth shut as well, poor Freddie.
One day Lena and I heard Gert talking to her husband Ack saying she was fed up with Ivy and thinking of having her put in a ‘home’. Well we could not even think about it, so that night we waited for brother Fred to come home. We waited at the corner of our road so that Gert didn’t see us. It seemed forever waiting. At last Fred came along, all pleased to see us there to greet him. We both burst into tears and told him what we had heard. We knew Gert would kill us if she found out but Fred told us not to worry he would sort it all out. ‘Ivy will NOT go anywhere, you girls must always stay as one family, I will see you do’ he said. He told us to stop crying and gave us some biscuits from his lunch box, which was a big treat, we never ever saw biscuits. He went into the house and we stayed down the garden until Fred called us in. When we saw Ivy we told her all about it, she said ‘don’t worry, I don’t care, Gert doesn’t love us anyway’. We thought she was very brave. Anyway Gert went back to her own house and Vi came to look after us.
Well as soon as Vi came she was very kind to us, we could talk about our mum. She told us mum did still love us but she had to go away but very soon if we prayed to God he would send mum back to us. Vi would listen to us pray and she would say ‘Gentle Jesus’ prayer with us, it made life seem much happier. Vi was the first to buy us an Easter egg. I can see mine now, I couldn’t bear to eat it for days, I just used to lick it. It had lovely blue violets all iced on it and was so very pretty. I loved Vi to bits for it. Nev, Vi’s husband had lived in Ceylon and his mother used to send him parcels. They would have banana leaves all wrapped round them, ‘Arf citing’. Not that they had much in for us. Anyway after a while I was nine, Vi called us together and said, wait for it ‘how would you like to go and live with your mum’. Well we couldn’t sit still. Gert came back on the day of our going. Mum wanted some of the furniture we were packed in the back of this old van. It had a great big tarpaulin over the top, not that we cared, it was such an adventure. We had our hair cut very short because we had ‘fleas’. We had coats down to our feet with holes in the bottoms. We must have looked like three waifs and strays but it was so exciting. We seemed to be in the van for ever. I thought it must be the other side of the earth. We did say a big thank you to God, we even blew him some kisses.
As long last we came to mum’s house. She came to the van to help us off but she didn’t seem to want us as she kept crying. She gave us some food and then she tried to get rid of the ‘fleas’. It was so lovely to see her again. I was really scared she might go off again. Then she said I’ve got a new dad for you all. Well we didn’t want a new dad. We didn’t know what happened to our own dad. We just looked after each other. Ivy said he will never be my dad and for sure I will never, never call him dad.
Mum was very cross with her. Now I didn’t want to call him dad but I didn’t want mum to run away again, so Lena and I didn’t say anything. When we went to bed, we said we won’t call him anything, so we would just say ‘he’. Mum said to me ‘when you say God Bless to me at night, you should really say ‘God bless to your dad’, so after that I never again said God bless mum, it was better than having to say it to him.