Ellen Cooper (b. 1921-2000) Transcript

Mrs. E. Cooper, ‘The House Where I Grew Up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University. 2585 words.

The first page of Ellen Cooper’s memoir.

Transcribed by Bronagh Haughey, 2019.

Mrs. E. Cooper.

No 2 Cleves Court

Elm Way, Boreham, Chelmsford. CM3 3JS.



When I was very young with an even younger brother and sister, we seemed to live in other people’s houses, furnished rooms they were called, but that did not seem at all strange. Mum was always there. Dad was a somewhat shadowy figure in those day, out there somewhere, earning a crust (his expression) and we accepted that.

In one of those houses I can remember a sister being born, but the baby died soon afterward. My brother and sister had measles and I had St. Vitus’s Dance, but with care and compassion Mother made us well again, and needless to say we all survived.

 Another house we lived in, I remember, the lady downstairs had a kitchen range where she baked home- made bread, and often she gave us a roll or a bun. In the same house we had venetian blinds and it was always shady.

The one day my mother said we were going to move again, to a better place. So, putting my sister in the pram with my brother beside her, and me walking along beside him, we walked several streets and there it was. A whole house all to ourselves rented of course. It was wonderful.

It had a gas stove, gas lighting, one cold water tap, an outside toilet and no bathroom. But no matter, we had our own front door, with a tiny garden beside it, and bet still, a large back garden with a real clothes line. My brother had a bedroom to himself, and my sister and I shared a larger one, and Mum and Dad as even larger one. We were in seventh heaven.

I never noticed the lack of furniture or curtains at some of the windows, there was so much light and air. I did not notice the lack of stair carpet, and that some tile lino was missing. However, it all materialised as time went by how much it took I don’t remember, but it was a house


of our own with a kitchen rang, fire places in every room, downstairs, and upstairs in the bedrooms, cupboards in each room and even one under the stairs, and lo and behold a copper with fireplace underneath in the kitchen.

I wonder what Dad and Mum thought about it all. Furniture moved in from time to time; and there were vegetables and flowers growing in the garden. There was no carpet on the stairs and washing on the line even pictures on the wall. It was not a house anymore it was a home.

It was an attached house, with neighbours both sides, with children of our own age. One garden had a huge Oaktree and the other had a chicken run and chickens and a real live rabbit. I never noticed if the chickens and rabbits came and went, as a far as I see they were always there. The street was lined with trees and no cares in those day, we could play anywhere without getting hurt. The policeman came around quite often to see if we behaved ourselves and had a word with mothers of the neighbourhood, I felt very safe.

The front room was not furnished straight away, so we could play in it on rainy days. Sometimes Dad would go to Covent Garden market for our flowers and put them in buckets of water in the same room and then the room would be perfumed for day at a time with narcissus, daffodils, jonquils [forgot n and added in above] and violets. I always remember that room when spring comes around, and it fills me with nostalgia. 

At Christmas time Dad would blow up balloons by mouth and tie them to stick to sell in the High St, and he would also sell pretty birds on a stick that flew, not real ones of course, and sometimes, if we were lucky, he would give us one or the other just for treat, without wasting too much profit.


We had a lot of country in those days, also parks and the seaside. When we had a holiday from school, or weekends we were never at a loss for something to do, we were always out and about. We were brown as barriers, Dad said you did not need to go for a holiday elsewhere when you lived in Southend, and it suited us.

When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I went to Sunday School, and later on my sister went as well. We liked that very much, I sure we learned a lot. At Christmas we had a party and prize giving, and in the summer the teachers took the whole school on an outing to the London Zoo, and Mum was allowed to come with us, it was lovely trip. Also, I think Mum used to treasure those Sunday afternoons.

My dad was working on Sunday as well as weekdays he never worked for an employer, but for himself all the time he must have [worked. Word added in] for a pittance in those days, but we kept body and soul together, and we were happy together. In the evening sometimes, the five of us would play Ludo and Draughts. We tried hard to beat Dad at draughts but without much success, I think it was in the First World War he learned, and I believe Crown and Anchor was another game he taught us.

Dad would never chastise us, Mum was there for that. My worst punishment was to go to the hardware for a new cane, for we were not always well behaved. We use to hide under the table and suffer a few wacks, and we would say how sorry we were and would not it again.

Once, I remember, our mother going to London to see our aunt just for the day, we were so miserable until she came home again. Our mother was synonymous with home, however naughty we were, we loved her very much. Even Dad was with us, more, a less shadowy person, and as I grew up I could understand him much more.

The three of us went to a local school about ten minutes’ walk away. Because I was the eldest my job


was to take the others to school. It was the same in the evening, when we had Cubs, Brownies and Girl Guides. I did quite a lot of walking but did not think anything of it. At last we had a wireless, that was lots of fun, thought I did have to fetch an accumulator each week, but usually it was on Guides night, so it was not any trouble.

When I went to a secondary school they were old enough to go with their friends, and I made friends of my own age.

One day Dad came home with some wallpaper and with the aid of a neighbour, with us tow, actually finished the kitchen and dining room, it was lovely, so bright and clean. Then dad went to the neighbour’s house, without us I fear. I think they had enough children of their own, to do the same.

Now we had lots of books and we had library tickets also, Mum as well. We could choose our books. With our hobbies and the wireless, we had plenty to do, we were never at a lose end. Dad liked to read the paper and have a sleep, for he worked very hard. The lady next door gave me a treadle machine and I learned to make blouses and skirts for Mum and Lily and myself.

It was at secondary school that I learned to draw amongst other things. It was a new school with cookery classes and dressmaking room, I was very happy there and worked hard, and there I won a scholarship for the Arts and Craft School at Southend. Mum was so proud of me and at great sacrifice to her self-allowed me to stay there until I was seventeen.

At the suggestion of the art mistress my name was changed to Ellen (my real name) instead of Nellie and I was very pleased, although I always called Pidge at home, (when I was born my mother called me her little Pidgeon) and it always stuck. All my family still call me Aunty Pidge.


I think the best was, in the summer, when I had two weeks extra school holiday and I had Mum all to myself. Then we would go to the pictures, or along the Cliffs parade and listen to the band or have a little picnic in Victoria Gardens. Sometimes, we would even visit Dad on the seafront. He had a camera on a tripod, and he managed to take snapshots of people on Holiday.

Being at the Art School was a lovely time of my life. I learned so much. When I left school Mr Blakney, the headmaster, got me some employment in a local workroom, where we did embroidery and made christening gowns, and children dresses and romper suits, all by hand for Treasure Cot, Bourne and Hollingworth and Liberty and many other London Shops. Now I was earning a wage, I do not remember how much, but it helped out at home and compensated a little for keeping me at school so long.

My mum used to live in Chatham and after eighteen years managed to take us all and visit our uncle and aunt and our cousins (they were older than us) That was a most happy occasion. My cousin Eva was soon to be married and wanted me to be a bridesmaid. Mum was glad to be with her relations again after so many years.

Eva bought for me a day dress in strawberry pink and a halo hat, they were fetching but alas, I never did wear for them for the wedding, War broke out and we could not to Chatham because of travelling restrictions, the wedding took place without us. The bridegroom went to sea soon after and thank goodness he came safety after the war.

We dug a large part of the garden to make way for a Anderson shelter and we used it for a while. But our mum got cross one night because she was in the bath


and the siren sounded, she said she would not get out of the bath for all the Hitlers, and we did not use the shelter again.

The first blow fell when our brother, now aged eighteen was called up for the army, in the Medical court. At first, he was sent to Ayreshire, and we went to see him off. We were so miserable. He did come home for a few times after that, but he eventually went to the Middle East, but he also came home to us in the end.

I now had a local job making soldiers and sailors uniform, and with Dad became an air raid warden. The fate struck again, my father had a stroke and was very ill, but Mum looked after him, she would not let him go to hospital.

Then I was called up, but because my father was so ill, I went into industry. I became a machinist in Waring and Gillows ‘London’ making kapon filled sleeping bags and gum muzzle covers.

From there I eventually became a wartime engineer and working in Wimbledon at Lines Bros. All this time I was living with my aunt May in Camden Town, and although she was good to me, I could not wait to get home at weekend. I now had a boyfriend and he would sometimes come home with me.

The house next to my home became a guard house for Sherwood foresters. I don’t know what the soldiers had done wrong, but they were very kind to my parents and sister, and I think my mother was fond of them. She said she was reminded of my brother who was overseas.

Because it was so hazardous at the time, in London, my aunt May and cousin Grace, with new little baby boy, come to Southend to live with us and I took lodging in Hounslow, but I got home every weekend. It was company for my sister and Mum and Dad


Perked up a bit because his sister was there. By the time my aunt May, Grace and the baby returned home he was much improved, but he could never work again. We took him out when the weather was fine and into the garden, with the Anderson still there.

My sister now went to work and I still was war work, so we managed. My sister had a boyfriend a soldier who was on search lights in Norfolk. He came often and my sister met him in the local church. His mother died during the war and when his father married, a much younger woman and they had daughter, we decided he could live with us, when he was home on leave. He was a personable young man, we all liked him very much.

At last the war was over and my brother come again, and Dad died, we were bereft but he at least saw his son again before he died.

My sister married her soldier boy, I was a bridesmaid at last. They lived with us for three years and had the dearest little boy, Mum thought the world of him.

When they had a house of their own they thought it was tremendous, but our home was lonely sometimes.

I had come home at last, no more war work and I soon got a job at the Ecko. No more going away for a weeks at a time. Mum and I were delighted.

Then my brother got married and went to live in Epping and Epping was farther away in those days but saw them from time to time.

Mum and I saw a lot of my sister and Bert, and two little children now, a boy Robert and a girl Carole they were lovely.

Then I met my John, and because his parents were going to the Isle of Wight to live, my home was his. Mum and John got on well together. He had been in the Middle East and Italy, and his was thin, but Mum fattened him up


in no time at all; and he was very grateful to her.

My sister knew that one day I would get married but I was reluctant to leave Mum on her own. So, we discussed with mum our dilemma, we told her our fears and worries, and what was best to do; to live in East Ham with John and me. John was a customer’s officer in Regent Canal Dock, near Stepney, or stay in Southchurch with Bert, Lily and the children. She chose the latter because she loved the grandchildren dearly, and Southend was her home. So everything was amicably settled and all that remained was to pack up our home.

Quite a few tears were shed, but a good deal of laughter too. We sold most of the furniture and other packing that needs to be done and gave the keys back to the owner. We had lived there for twenty-four years and I will always remember it with great affection and sorrow too. It was the house I grew up in.

I married my John when I was thirty-four, but that is a story of another home and another love.

Mrs. E C Cooper.  


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