(My grandparents are wearing dark clothes)
Both of my grandmothers lived in St. Helens, Lancashire. Marriage or possibly the need to go where work was available might have pulled their children further afield, but the old ladies stayed firmly rooted. Since neither of them had a phone, our regular visits were the only way to be sure all was well. But family visits were not all in one direction; my grandmothers thought nothing of planning a complex series of connecting bus and train journeys to visit their children – whatever the weather. They didn’t expect to be met at stations or bus stops and when their adult children eventually acquired cars, they certainly didn’t expect to be transported. The hardships they had known in life had forged two fiercely independent characters.
(Gran is on the left)
Both struggled to raise their children during the worst years of the Great Depression. My mother’s mother, Gran, was married to a nurseryman. There was very little gardening work for him in the industrial north-west and those who did not work had no means of feeding their families. For them, life was a daily experience of hunger and want. My mother and her three siblings would often be told to say a prayer for something to eat and the family sometimes relied on the Little sisters of Charity to bring them food. Years later, when their children were much older, my grandfather left the family and contact with him was completely broken.
My father was one of three children brought up in the same town by their mother (Nana). Their father had been killed in a terrible industrial accident when my father was five, leaving their mother with only a tiny widow’s pension to feed them all.
The poverty which my grandparents experienced took a long-term toll on their health. Lack of food doesn’t just mean that people are hungry. It weakens their immune system and leaves them open to dangerous infections. Just before the war, Gran almost lost her elder daughter. It was winter 1937 and my twelve-year-old mother complained that her throat felt sore. She was given various home remedies; she was one of four children, it was winter and everyone had coughs and colds. As time passed her temperature rose steadily and the discomfort increased. Then there was pain in one ear. She began to have difficulty swallowing and her breathing was laboured. The swelling in her throat was slowly closing her airway. Her parents, terrified that they might lose her, called for a doctor. Only in the most extreme cases did anyone seek medical assistance. Medical treatment cost money and my mother's family rarely had enough to pay for their food. The doctor diagnosed quinsy and, luckily for my mother, the abscess in her throat burst, her airway opened and she survived.
By 1942 the second world war was in its third gruelling year and the outcome was by no means certain. People in the UK needed hope that all this struggle and sacrifice would be worthwhile. Using the Beveridge Report as a blueprint, the coalition government drew up plans for the welfare state. Its aim was to obliterate the ‘five giant evils’ of want, squalor, idleness and ignorance and disease; to provide a healthier life than most people had ever known. As soon as possible after the war, the new Labour government set in motion plans to construct the National Health Service.
Once the service was launched all sorts of treatments were suddenly freely available. Neither of my parents’ families had ever been to a dentist except when a tooth had become so agonising that it needed to be extracted. Any other dental treatment was unaffordable for families which had barely enough to eat. The only exception I knew of was some experimental fillings my father was given when he joined the RAF. Unfortunately, several weeks later research became available which showed that this type of filling material would not stand up to the stresses of wartime flight. He was ordered to report to the dentist to have his new fillings drilled out and replaced with more suitable material. Needless to say, he never went back.
Both of my grandmothers made full use of their new entitlement by acquiring sets of false teeth to replace those they had lost to poor diet and lack of regular treatment. Somehow, the sets of gleaming tombstones they were presented with didn’t seem to match their mouths and transformed their faces strangely when they wore them. I don't think either lady found wearing them particularly comfortable. Their new teeth mostly lived in the large pockets of the crossover pinafores they wore at home. They were only quickly slipped into place when any visitors arrived. At night the teeth rested in glasses filled with water to which special fizzy tablets were added. Visitors to the bathroom found them grinning cheerily from the window ledge.
Dental treatment wasn't the only thing that was suddenly available. Many of the children in my primary school class had grandparents who wore the new hearing aids. Hearing aids were made from horrible pink or brown plastic which their creators must have thought would blend in well with skin tones. Or perhaps these were just the cheapest colours to produce. A hearing aid came in two parts. There was a large earpiece whose curly wire ran down into a box. A hearing aid wasn't small or discreet and most users seemed to have very little understanding of how to tune their new machine. During one boy’s quavering solo performance of Silent Night at our nativity play, a grandmother hauled her hearing aid box from deep within her massive bra and frantically manhandled the controls so she could listen to what was going on. There was a loud high-pitched scream from the hearing aid box which went on until its shamefaced owner gave up and turned it off. The singer's name was Robin and I felt really bad for him. It was hard enough watching his face turn bright red as he sang the first time that but then he had to do it all over again by which time he was the colour of beetroot and looked as if his head might explode!
In common with many of the other grandparents I met, Gran was a smoker. It seemed strange to me to walk into a house that didn’t smell of smoke. I really liked the smell of the pipe tobacco some grandfathers smoked, though I was always curious to know why it seemed to turn their teeth a strange brown colour.
Neither of my grandmothers produced the hand-knitted cardigans or mittens or scarves that schoolfriends’ grandmothers did, but they could always be counted on to provide delicious food. Gran was the supreme provider of home-cooked fast food. When we visited Hillside Avenue I would sit near the fire, plaiting the bobbled fringe on her red tablecloth and rearranging her table mats with their Victorian hunting scenes whilst I waited for something she called ‘specials’; slices of potato part cooked, fried with butter, which she could somehow produce almost instantly. Gran’s other speciality was homemade soup – my supreme comfort food. When I stayed with Nana I would discover wonderful new foods like Heinz Sandwich Spread, Heinz tinned spaghetti, Bird’s Instant Whip, Little Miss Muffet junket and Co-op fruit jam with no bits in it. Somehow I could never persuade my parents of their deliciousness.
Gran had other very special talents. Like all other households, she made tea from tea leaves infused in boiling water in a teapot. But drinking the tea wasn’t the end of the enjoyment. Gran would tell you to swirl your nearly empty teacup around three times and turn it upside down on your saucer. After a few moments, she would pick up the cup, study the arrangement of tea leaves inside and tell your fortune. She had been taught in her teens by an American lady she was working for who somehow recognised that she had a gift. She was a very good fortune teller and people would come from many miles around for ‘a reading’. These were always provided free of charge – no matter how wealthy the client.
Nana was the great teller of tales. I learned from Nana that the red warning light on the gas cooling tower behind her prefab was actually the red eye of the cockalorum bird. Its mission was to perch high up and use its all-seeing eye to spy out naughty children, swoop down on its giant wings and carry them away. This watchful flying beast was only one of life’s many hazards. According to Nana, hats should be worn outside at night to avoid having your hair tangled by bats, moths should be swatted on sight because they ate holes in your clothes and children developed mouth ulcers from telling lies.
Before her marriage Nana had been in service to a wealthy family, you can see her (above) recorded in the 1911 census as Annie McNulty. The family she worked for had a young daughter whose poor health prevented her from joining in physical activities and social occasions and she was desperate for a companion. She took a liking to my grandmother who suddenly found herself promoted to a different life ‘above stairs’. Nana accompanied the family on days out in Southport and enjoyed seaside walks and afternoon teas with them. She left the family to marry an officer from the Australian navy.
By 1920 her baby son (my father) was recovering from tuberculosis. Nana and her husband were advised that he could best be helped by taking him to a warm, dry climate. She and her two children, Margaret Mary, aged 5 and my father, a one-year-old baby, were passengers on an outward bound voyage to Australia (Ticket 179 in the picture above). Whilst they were living out there a third child, Anne, was born. The return trip they made a few years later was less happy. Nana’s husband fell on to live electrical cables at work. He was very badly burned and somehow hung on to life but only for a few days. She lost the baby she was expecting but still had to care for her other three young children and make plans for the family’s future. She was faced with bringing up her children with no breadwinner during the worst of the great depression in the North West of England. She and her cousin Amy tried and failed, to earn money by opening a chip shop. My father remembers coming home from school and finding his Aunty Amy crying in the back room because there had been no customers that day – again.
Gran always worked as a cook. By the time her husband left the family she was head cook in charge of a works canteen and she continued this demanding work until well into her sixties. Both women were fiercely proud of their children and desperate for them to have a better life than they had known. They were not disappointed. Not only did Gran’s youngest child, my Uncle Bert, train to become a teacher but at an early age, he became a headmaster. His sister, Fran, qualified as a pharmacist and had her own shop over in Widnes. My father’s mother, Nana, always said that she had the three most beautiful children in St. Helens.
Here they are in 1926. Nance, the youngest became a nurse. Ciss, the eldest, trained as a beautician with Helena Rubenstein. My father stayed on at school and took his Higher School Certificate. After his war service, he suddenly found that he was eligible, under a new initiative, for a government-funded place at University. Nobody in either of my parent’s families had ever been to university. Nobody in my parent’s local area had been there either. This was something that people from wealthy families did. He graduated with a first-class degree in Physics. In 1954 he joined the British Rayon Research Association at a salary he could never have hoped for on leaving school. I can remember the pride in Nana’s voice when she said
‘Your father never soils his hands at his work’.
This apparent reference to soil made no sense at all to me, but then a lot of what adults said fell into that category.
It was 1961 and we were settled in our new home. I had passed my eleven plus exam, been a bridesmaid, everything seemed bright and hopeful. And then, without warning, Nana died. Pneumonia, the old man's friend, was the official cause but a lifetime of struggle had weakened her body’s ability to fight infection. Life had certainly improved for all my family with the arrival of the welfare state, but years of hardship could not be remedied.
Nana was the one who sent me sixpences for sweets folded in tissue paper in her letters. She wove the ordinary world around me into a series of hair-raising or entertaining tales. She was a stout, white-haired old lady in a pinny who gave me Heinz vegetable soup for lunch when I stayed with her. She had always been old. For my mother, she was the heart-sinking mother in law whose approval would never be forthcoming. For my father, she was the beloved mother he called for in terror when his parachute failed to open properly as he bailed out of his burning aeroplane over Hungary. It’s sad that we see only the aspect of a person that impacts our own lives. Nana was so much more than any of these interpretations. Nana was a strong and independent woman who, against appalling odds, managed to survive all that life threw at her. Somehow, she managed to raise three strong, confident children who would become my father and two aunts.
With her death, the prefab with its donkey-stone whitened steps suddenly vanished from my world. The memories are still strong; watching her pump the tilly lamp into life so that the chilly kitchen would be warmed, playing with the Pears soap she always had in her bathroom, holding it up to my eyes to turn the world golden; trying to work out what the pictures on her walls meant. One was a portrait of a man holding a lantern and knocking on a very overgrown door another showed a flower bed and a poem about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth’ Why did Nana think that when her own garden was a patch of scrubby grass behind her tiny prefab? What became of the little statues of a girl and the bottles of liquid all labelled ‘Lourdes’- and her rosaries?
The certainties of my world were crumbling. Nana’s death was just a part of the process. I had already noticed that keeping pace with my father when we walked was becoming easier. Only occasionally would his stride become the headlong rush I had always known. Something was terribly wrong. Like a small sharp stone rolling loose in a shoe, the question this awoke would disappear from my mind altogether until, without warning, it would stab its way back into my consciousness and leave me uneasy.
My father had survived tuberculosis as a child but had lived for years in smog-filled towns and cities. Coal warmed and powered the nation – our homes, our schools and our trains. Unfortunately, in the process, its residues blackened our cities and our lungs. Smoking upwards of twenty untipped cigarettes a day didn't help my father either. I can remember my parents telling me that when they were very hard up they would pick apart and re-roll the ends of previously smoked untipped cigarettes. I cannot imagine what the tar and nicotine content of those must have measured. I was 19 when he died.