Nora Lumb – Childhood Memories – 1912 onwards.
When memory first stirs in a young child quite trivial things are stored in the mind while other events remain in total oblivion. I can distinctly remember when I was about two years old sitting with my mother, father, older sister and brother in a train en route for a holiday in Bournemouth. The Great War was about to begin and no doubt the grim affairs and negotiations leading up to it were hastening to their inevitable climax. Great events indeed but not likely to worry a small child and my memory recalls a package falling from the luggage rack and in its fall breaking off the head of a wax doll I was nursing. I can still see the Marie biscuit in the plump hand of a fellow traveller being held out to me as a comfort for the shock sustained. On returning home after the holiday, as it was not possible to have the wax doll repaired, I could therefore only view it with sorrow as it lay decapitated in the drawer.
Memory brings to mind that holiday again when my sister and brother dug a large hole in the sand into which I fell headlong. As they were supposed to be looking after me while my parents were enjoying the Nigger Minstrel show taking place in a fenced enclosure on the beach, the responsibility must have been too much for them after my sudden descent into the hole: I was handed over the fence into the hands of my parents and watched with a certain amount of terror the blackened faces and antics of the Minstrels.
Another thing which always terrified me was my father’s Magic Lantern. A children’s’ party at our terrace home in Sunderland was always an occasion for father to give a Magic Lantern show and even the most boisterous children seemed to subside into delighted viewing. One series of slides which showed men’s heads in fancy bonnets and hats proved hilarious to all the others and absolute horror to me.
My mother was the fourth eldest of thirteen children. Her eldest brother and two elder sisters were children of former marriages of my grandparents whose partners had died. When my grandparents met and married my mother was the first child of the new union. She was followed by five brothers and then four sisters. One of the boys died in childhood, a sorrowful memory for my mother
who one would have thought had more than enough with the remaining and ever increasing family. Of the other four boys one went to sea and died of heat stroke in India. Another sorrow for my mother who had been tempted to go to a fair on a Good Friday which proved to be the day on which uncle Bob had died and mother felt it was God’s judgement on her for being frivolous on such a day. It always seemed to me rather unjust that uncle Bob had to be punished for mothers sin.
Another boy went to Australia for health reasons and also for lack of work in this country. He married there and had three children and had a happy married life but how desolate it must have been leaving England and all he knew with little prospect of ever returning home – as he always called England – even for a visit. My father saw him off at Liverpool in January 1908. A heavy snowstorm added to the gloom and low spirits and he remained homesick all his life. Each of the two remaining brothers married, one settling in Darlington for his work at the railway works and the other setting up home quite near our house. His son Frank shared a great deal in our childhood activities.
My Grandparents and the four young aunties also lived near to us and their house was a second home. Grandda bearded and with his pipe, smoking cap and a spittoon within firing range, was a patriarchal figure. In the corner of a drawer in an old-fashioned press he kept a tin of sweets for the delight of his grandchildren and he loved to read nursery rhymes out of a book which had seen better days. He was a Robbie Burns addict, probably from his early years near the Boarder and although he enjoyed reading aloud he spared us the incomprehensible Scottish dialect and stuck to the poems and dialect we understood. During the Great war Grandda endured a painful terminal illness and even though food was beginning to be in short supply, mother would make little custards and other delicacies to tempt his appetite then give them to me to carry the short distance to Grandda. I would sit by his bed and how gentle he was. Sometimes one of my uncles on leave from France would be there by the bed-side and the talk would be of the war and life at the front.
As the war progressed more hospitals were needed and the Church Hall of the Church we attended was fitted out as a hospital for less
serious cases and convalescents and my aunties took up duties as auxiliary nurses in addition to their other work. Sunday teatime at our house was often enlivened by my aunties and their soldier friends from the hospital and the World War songs were always in my ears, so much so that I managed to pick out the tunes on the piano with one finger and convinced the family that a musical prodigy was in their midst. My aunties took me to the Church Hall hospital, sat me at the piano and in one corner and ordered me to entrain the troops. At the tender age of four years, nerves didn’t enter into it so I obliged with enthusiasm and then reaped the happy reward of going to each ned in turn and being given a sweet here and a silver three penny bit there and generally enjoyed a profitable time.
My father was a railway clerk and we lived in a small terrace house. Two bedrooms upstairs, one bedroom, a living room referred to as “the kitchen” and a sitting room downstairs. The house stretched out from the kitchen to accommodate a scullery , a wash-house, an outside lavatory and a coalhouse. These and a concrete yard were enclosed by a high brick wall. A patch of garden and a rain-water barrel – Sunderland water being very hard – occupied one side of the yard. In the kitchen living room there was a large range. The fire in the middle set between a boiler at one side and an oven at the other. Every morning this range was black-leaded and the brass tap on the boiler and the brass oven door were polished . A steel fender and fire irons in the sitting room required a weekly polish. Another daily chore which my sister and I took over when we were old enough was the polishing of all the brass fittings at the front door, brass step, name plate bearing my father’s name C. H. Walker, bell pull and gate knob.
Washing day was a weekly occasion which was daunting to say the least. Occasionally mother procured the help of a washer woman who would join her in the exhausting task and depart after having mid-day dinner with us. Wash day was began filling the copper in the washhouse and lighting the fire beneath. The dolly tub and huge mangle were in full use and the blue mottled soap used for all household chores not only released dirt from the clothes but helped to bring skin off the hands as well.
Mother was a good sewer and embroiderer and another handicraft always on the go was making clipping rugs. The better parts of material from old clothes and scrapes left from sewing were cut into strips and prodded into a hessian base. We children helped with this and quite enjoyed the cutting up and watching the rug gradually taking shape. At Grandma’s house handiwork was a permanent activity. Crochet, knitting, embroidery and patchwork. Grandma’s patchwork was beautiful and the scrapes of lovely brocades and silks she used were a joy to me and so much more glamorous than the sturdy material of our clipping rugs.
Not having a bathroom, on weekly bath night a hip bath was brought into the scullery and filled with hot water from the fireside boiler. One wonders why with all their gruelling work housewives and mothers did not give up the eternal task of keeping house and family clean, but as if this was not enough, not only was the house Spring cleaned but thoroughly cleaned through again at Christmas. Maybe the unending battle to keep clean against great odds was too much for some because in most public gatherings fleas were an unwelcome but inevitable hazard.
Pocket money was far from the “Saturday penny” doled out each week was spent at the corner shop on such things as liquorice sticks, bull’s eyes, sherbert bags or toffee apples. We were also allowed one comic a week. Mine, I recall, was “The Rainbow” and great was the delight if there was the added bonus of a free gift such as a balloon inside. Father bought Arthur Mee’s Children Encyclopaedia in magazine form for us and he enjoyed it as much as we did. Both parents were fond of reading – mother having an enthusiasm for Dickens. Her education had come to an abrupt end when she was twelve years old as she was needed at home to help her own mother with the increasing family but this did not stop her love of reading which she enjoyed all her life. This by example had its effect on us and all three of us read from an early age.
Money was not abundant and mother had difficulties at times making the family budget balance but we never went short although food was plain and clothes usually home-made. During the post war depression father always had work and great was the pity for the
out of work war veterans who sang in the streets or played mouth organs in the hope of gathering a few pence from people not a great deal better off than themselves.
Shortly after the war started my sister, brother and myself developed Diphtheria . No preventive injections in those days and infectious diseases were nursed at home. There was a rubbish tip fairly near our home where among other discarded things, paper stripped from bedrooms after children had recovered from infectious illnesses was thrown quite openly. This tip with a burn running through it was a magnet for children and my six-year old brother and his friends often defied warnings and came home from school via the tip and found it a place full of attractions and full of germs. He contracted diphtheria and kindly passed it on to my nine year old sister and myself. Fortunately for us anti-toxin was a recent discovery and certainly saved our lives. I cannot recall how it was administrated but absolute stillness of the patient was essential and as I was too young to understand, I was tied down in my cot and this and the sick room are vivid memories. Whenever infectious disease struck a household the outer doors or walls of the house were clearly marked with a large D or SF depending on whether the affliction was diphtheria or scarlet fever and as I caught scarlet fever after recovering from diphtheria our house must have been reminiscent of the plague.
I started school when I was four years old. It was a large elementary school and in the Baby class the children had sand trays which were shaken to provide a smooth thin surface of sand and the alphabet was then copied by tracing each letter with a finger in the sand. Fashion prescribed long buttoned or laced up boots and small fingers had to learn how to cope. In the next class sand trays were replaced by slates and squeaky slate pencils and as one progressed up the school slates gave was to real paper. To encourage copper-plate writing, the paper had two blue horizontal lines with red upper and lower lines to give the exact proportions of the letters. Every morning immediately after prayers in the large school hall, each class returned to its own room and an assault was made on the three Rs,
accompanied by sighs and groans denoting difficulties in coping or sheer lack of ability. Arithmetic tables were learned assiduously and great pride was shown as each one was conquered and especially by those who could repeat them all without hesitation.
In the immediate post war years the head of Physical training and no doubt others in the educational field had the idea of asking each school in the area to train a team of dancers to preform at an Old English Fair to be held in the Victoria Hall. The schools rose to the occasion and groups of children in lovely colourful costume gave displays of folk dancing, a teachers choir sang North country songs and with a full complement of village maidens, a Maypole, a Jester and hobby horse the presentation was so successful that in the Summer it was repeated in a local park. A village green effort on the grand scale and very pretty too.
Entertainment was quite unsophisticated in my childhood. My father loved the early films of Charlie Chaplin and when one of these came to our local cinema, we were all taken on a Saturday afternoon. The invariable follow up was a return home and father making toffee. There seems to be no connections between the two activities but so it was.
Family parties were always a joy and with aunties, an uncle and cousins near us it was easy to arrange one. All these relations were so much part of everyday life and gave a wonderful sense of belonging and also a feeling of security. These parties were therefore a gathering of the clan and after the party meal had been eaten and everyone had gone into the sitting room, I loved to sit on the stairs which commanded a view of the kitchen. The sight of the best china and silver – wedding presents of my parents and carefully cherished – glinting in the lowered gas light, quite dazzled me with its opulence while from the sitting room came the sound of animated conversation and bursts of laughter all to a musical background of piano playing, if it could be called that. Auntie May was no virtuoso but what she lacked in technique she made up for in enthusiasm and who cared anyway. There was such a warmth about those moments and I loved it all.
Church life was at the heart of much of those days. My father had a keen interest in everything to do with the Church and it followed
that we all went to at least one service each Sunday and my brother Harry, being in the choir, had of necessity to attend all services. We children also went to Sunday School held, while the Church hall was being used as a hospital, in a corrugated iron building next to the church and referred to as the Tin Tabernacle or Tin Tab for short. There were, of course, the usual Church festivals when a children’s service would be held in the Church and very crowded it was. Whether or not our minds were improved by this I cannot say. There were other matters to divert our thoughts and I have a distinctive recollection of one little girl who invariably got more and much better clothes than I did, admiring her new patent leather shoes and after glancing at my somewhat scuffed footwear asking me in a smug voice how much my mother had paid for them and waiting impatiently to astound me by disclosing the superior price of her own. Harvest Festivals were cheerful affairs. The Church was decorated so much that wheat seemed to be growing out of the pews themselves and the Sunday school children took bunches of flowers to be given to sick people. These flowers were the product of allotment gardens and limp they looked after hot hands had clutched them before being give to the smiling vicar and curates at the alter rail. Strangely the predominant colour was purple and seemed appropriately ecclesiastical to me.
Apart from church and Sunday school, there were many other social activities. The Band of Hope was a once a week event run by a very energetic curate. The hall was always packed and I must have been very innocent child because I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by “Signing the Pledge”. Although my parents were not strictly teetotal, drink was too expensive to be indulged in at home, innocuous home-made ginger wine at Christmas being the nearest we got to debauchery. We Band of Hope children watched with interest the lantern slides showing the insidious beginning of alcoholism and the gradual descent into despair and poverty of the drunkards’ unhappy families. There was also much singing at these Band of Hope meetings and occasionally a concert would be arranged for the following week and children would be asked to volunteer to sing, dance or recite suitable poems. This naturally drew out the extroverts but no-one minded the showing off which took place. My aunties told me that in their young days they
had been asked to contribute a song at one of the Band of Hope concerts and as the platform was rather high and difficult to negotiate, two of my uncles who had started working at a local brewery decided to help their sisters. They therefore placed some crates so as to form steps up to the platform and the words on each crate exhorted the teetotal audience to “Drink more Beer”. Apparently this caused more hilarity than embarrassment.
There was also frequent Church bazaars. Sometimes one day events, sometimes four day grandiose affair if a special project was in view. These were wonderful occasions. Stalls set up, side rooms turned into tea rooms, canvas passageways linking the various church buildings and concerts going on all the time. Grand openings and it was hoped generous openers. Everyone gathered there and everyone had a marvellous time and felt it was well worth the previous months of preparations. Hard work for the grown-ups but as housewives did not go out to work they enjoyed all their sewing sessions, cake making and whist drive parties to make funds for the great event.
At the time of the War hospital in the Church Hall, one of the doctors, recognising that for men recovering from war wounds, boredom was a matter to overcome, formed a small entertainment group from the more talented of his patients. As the convalescents were given blue hospital suits to wear the resultant group was called “The Blue Boys”. And this name stuck after the war to the small concert party which succeeded soldier entertainers. Every year an event called “The Tea and Concert” was held in the Church Hall and various ladies of the congregation offered to provide the goodies for serving tea at one of the many long trestle tables set up in the hall for the treat. So many people attended that several sittings took place and consequently an enormous amount of food had to be provided. There was a warm smell compounded of tea from the sizzling urns, hot sausage rolls and pies and above all the instant smell of sweet cakes. After the final sitting there was a rush to pack up what was left of the food, clear tables and finish the marathon washing up in the adjoining kitchen all to the accompaniment of a pianist who kept up a fairly subdued but pleasant background of music. Eric Coates was his favourite and his music always evokes the special smell and atmosphere of the tea and concert days.
In the evening everyone assembled again for the Blue Boys concert. Always a success and so delightful to see those usually known for sedateness in Church behaving in a completely uninhibited way.
We were I suppose lucky to live in a town by the sea. Industry there might be in Sunderland but the seaside from Rocker to Sea Lane as Seaburn was then called, and on to the pretty fishing village of Whitburn afforded unending delights. Whereas children inland who were fortunate enough to have an annual holiday by the sea depended so much on the foibles of the English weather, we on the other hand could take advantage of any fine days in the school holidays as well as Saturdays throughout the Summer months. Mother was not a keen seaside visitor so our picnics on the beach were not as frequent as I would have wished but often I would be invited to join other families and excitement was the order of the day. Living as we did to the West of the of our town it was necessary to travel by tram to get to the sea. At every stop groups of children armed with buckets and spades and mothers laden with picnic baskets boarded the tram and all who could clambered upstairs. Great was the joy if the tram was open topped but even if the top deck was closed in, the semi-circular ends fore and aft were open and children made a bee line for them. Through the town, over the bridge, down the long avenue of Victorian houses and then one could feel the excitement pulsing through the tram as it turned the corner past the harbour and along the sea front. Sparkling sea, lovely sands, gorgeous ozone smell, sheer exhilaration.
The tram disgorged about half its travellers at the Roker stop but those who felt that Sea Land was more exclusive stayed on the tram and watched the excited Roker throng descend the long slope from the prom to the sands as they themselves continued on their somewhat superior way to the beach further up the coast. Tent, and deck chairs were hired and after impossible contortions were set up on the beach. Shoes and stockings were off in no time and the sea received its fringe of ardent paddlers. Bathing costumes, as swim suits were called, were worn only by the few who wished to swim, the majority merely paddled and poled about in rock pools. Boys turned up their trouser legs and girls pushed their skirts into their lace edged knickers. It always seemed amazing to me that what would be regarded outrageous apparel in town didn’t matter at all on the beach. Appetites were enormous and after jugs of
steaming tea had been bought at the promenade booths, picnic baskets would be opened and the contents disappear with the greatest speed. No matter how careful one was somehow the sand crept into everything but who minded the gritty sandwiches? It was all part of the fun.
Father loved railways and he liked to take us on picnics into the woods bordering the steep banks of the Wear. This involved a short train journey on the Durham line and how pretty some of the little stations were. How nice to be in a train ambling along from one stop to another. No sense of hurry, only a pleasant anticipation of a day out in the country. Sometimes he took us into Durham city because he loved the cathedral and wanted us to appreciate it too. We would stay for Evensong and then wander about the cathedral to a running commentary from father. He also enjoyed boating but this presented a hazard and the time he fell into the river while endeavouring to land, against the wishes of the boat, provided a family joke for years.
After the Bournemouth holiday at the outbreak of war, long holidays away from home were rare but occasionally a week would be spent with some relations living in a pretty village in North Yorkshire. We had to go by train and in view of its being a grander occasion that a mere day out and also because of heavier luggage, a cab was ordered to convey us to the station. It was thrilling to hear the cab clattering up the front street and the horse skidding to a stop at our front door. Those cabs had a strange horsey smell but there was a sense of grandeur in being taken to the station in this way rather than in the customary tram. We were met at the nearest station to the village by a horse and trap followed by a delightful jog through beautiful country lanes. The village was so pretty and to a town child everything was a new experience. The village pump outside the inn door, the dark, warm interior of the blacksmiths shop both alas no longer there. The village shop selling just about everything, the unfamiliar sight of a herd of cows making their slow way along the village street and above all richness of the hedgerows. A riot of grasses, plants, flowers, fruits and the ever present greenery. Grass on which one could walk freely. No forbidding notices “Keep off the grass” as town children saw and obeyed in their local parks.
Back at home traffic being no problem, we town children could play safely in the streets and no special playground for children was
necessary. The seasons took their usual sequence of games. A sort of Hopscotch with bays challed out on the pavements, then tops and whips, then hoops, and all the time skipping ropes. Another favourite pastime which kept pushing its way forward in popularity was French knitting. For this four nails would be hammered in the end of a wooden bobbin and wool would be wound round the nails to form loops then replaced by another round of wool which was lifted over the nail loops by a piece of wire. Gradually the knitting would grow long enough to protrude through the hole in the centre of the bobbin and this was pulled vigorously to encourage the rope of knitting to look longer than it was.
Although we were by no means wealthy, rich indeed we were compared with so many others. Children barefoot and in rags were a common sight. Poverty dragging so many down to a life of ugliness and destitution. We had regular visits from a woman known as the “Pot woman”. She had, she told us many children and she had to make some money to help feed them. To this end she sold us cheap crockery carrying it in a large basket which she balanced on her head by means of a coiled up cloth. If a purchase was not forthcoming she would beg old clothes or food. No-one could have guessed her age. In the general greyness of poverty age loses its significance as the mere struggle to exist goes on.
To keep barefoot children off the streets on Winter nights some of the schools stayed open for what was called Play Circles. One of my aunties, a teacher, took me to one of these play circles one night and having found out that I had learned an excerpt from Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” announced it to the children that she had taken me along to recite to them. Not being a natural performer I was very alarmed but my audience was not one to criticise so I launched into the story of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. It could hardly have been more appropriate had I planned it. Maybe my aunty had.
In my early days we were I fear overburdened with clothes. Thick stuffy dresses, pinafores with shoulder frills, thick and thin petticoats and of course black stockings. My brother wore sailor suits when he was very small but as he grew older fashion decreed ordinary suits with knee length trousers and stiff jackets. Women had a strange sense of decorum in dress and having reached what they considered middle-age tended to wear sober colours while older women usually wore funeral black, the more traditional of them still keeping to the more
Victorian and Edwardian jet bejewelled black capes and bonnets tied under the chin for outdoors. Possibly this was due to the custom of wearing mourning for long after a bereavement and inevitability these occasions grew more frequent as the years passed and one period of mourning would be succeeded by another without a break. Funerals were attended by every mournful effect. When a death occurred, everyone in the streets joined in the solemnity and sorrow of the event. Blinds were drawn in every house and people went around in a state of twilight gloom out of respect for the bereaved. The horse-drawn hearse was bedecked with black plumes and not until the interment had taken place would blinds be raised and the streets returned to normal. Cremation not being the order of the day it was necessary to attend to the family grave. This actually gave a sense of being able to do something for the one who had died and provided an outlet for grief not experienced nowadays after the more usual cremation. On fine Sunday afternoons streams of people carrying bunches of flowers in the vases and lovingly placed them on the grave. The return home was cheerful in the knowledge that family tradition had been observed.
Looking back it seems that our family life was, apart from the usual upsets of minor ailments and setbacks which everyone has to face from time to time, fairly peaceful. Schooldays passed happily enough. The Infants school gave place to the Junior school and then the serious matter of trying to procure one of the ten free scholarships for the Grammar school. My brother was already at the Grammar school having obtained a scholarship but even had he failed, my parents would somehow have managed to pay for him to go there. They felt that a good education was very important for a boy but although loving parents they held the old-fashioned view that it was not so vital for a girl. As my one ambition was to go to the Grammar school, I knew that it meant a scholarship or nothing for me so life took on a more serious aspect. The school I attended had a good scholastic record and extra coaching was given in what was called the scholarship class. The incentive was there and we all worked hard and in no time the day of the exam arrived, followed by the inevitable anxious waiting. At last the results were published and happy day, I had won a place at the Grammar school – – and that is another story.