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Village Art & Literature

What Norah did next

Posted on May 21 2013 at 11:34:27 0 comments

Norah May

We had a great response when we published an extract from Norah May, the memoirs of a woman born in 1905 in Alvechurch – so, as promised, here is the next installment.

There wasn’t room for us at Punch’s Castle, so Mother took me across Swan Street to Aunt Nance in Bug Row.

Everybody called it that, it was a row of six small houses owned by the Gaunts and, as the Finches worked for them, there was always a good chance of getting one.

Aunt Nance wasn’t married either and had a lad called Dick; he cut all his teeth at once and became epileptic and eventually had to go away to a special school.

I was too young to remember any of that, or the move to a little house in Rowney Green, just Mother and me.

Our mother mustn’t have learned much from having me, or maybe she was just vulnerable, because fifteen months after I was born she had our Win in January 1907.

Where I was dark with brown eyes, she was a blue-eyed blonde, pretty as a picture, and it was only after many years when our hair had turned grey that we bore any resemblance to each other.

So, there’s Mother with two babies and not knowing where to turn to look after us; she had to earn some money from somewhere and I reckon our Win’s father was more forthcoming than mine.

It was Granny Finch who came up with a solution; she would take one of us, thus easing the burden on our mother. They chose our Win, “Because she is the prettiest”, leaving Mother and me together.

When it was time for me to go to school, Mother got a house in Redditch because there was plenty of work there and she could go while I was at school and a neighbour could keep an eye on me afterwards until she came home.

It was a miserable little place in a square behind a pawnshop, and I shall always remember seeing the women bringing bundles to pledge on a Monday and fetching them back on a Friday.

Times were hard then, but we managed when there was just us two.

I think I must have been about six when our Wal was born on May 12, 1912; he was a poor, weak little thing, and you felt you wanted to love him.

All his life he was the same! A (sort of) pathetic figure who even at 70 brought out all my motherly instincts every time I saw him.

Wal was only tiny when our mother brought home Bert Hartells, an army reservist working for the builders of the new Redditch Indicator offices.

He cared for our mother, and accepted Wal and me as family; he was the nearest thing to a father I ever knew.

The only trouble was he was a fret worker; he would work half the week and fret the rest, so we certainly weren’t any better off.

Mother was sure that she could not conceive while she was breast-feeding, but she soon found out what a fallacy that was… she fell pregnant with our Jack!

It was nice to be like the other children at school and have a dad, but when they found I had lice, I felt I could have done without Bert.

He cut off all my hair in an attempt to get rid of them and washed and scrubbed at what bit I had left, saying we might be poor but we could still be clean.

I went to school the next day with my little tam-o-shanter falling over my eyes, only to have it snatched off by one of the teachers who exclaimed, “Ah, that’s much better!” I took some stick from my classmates after that.

Our Jack was born on June 17, 1913, and with his birth things were harder than ever. Bert was still fretting, and I’ve often thought since that if the bugger had worked a bit harder it might have been a whole different story.

I remember when Jack was only a few weeks old, our mother was in bed and both babies were crying. Bert sat on the bed and lifted Jack up to be fed.

Mother tried to feed him and had no milk to give; they looked at each other, put their arms round one another and sobbed uncontrollably, the baby between them.

Without another word Bert got up and went out, coming back much later with some food for all of us. I never know where it came from, but I think he made the long walk to his mother’s and she helped him out.

It was Bert’s mother, Granny Hartells, who found the house for us at Studley, and we managed to hire a horse and cart to take our few sticks of furniture to the new place.

Our mother and I got the stuff on the cart with a bit of help from the driver and we set off, our mother sitting at the front with Jack in her arms, and me with my legs dangling over the side and carrying Wal.

We were a ragged crew and although I was only seven, I was mortified when some lads ran alongside the cart, shouting and tickling my feet through the holes in my shoes.

The house at Studley was very similar to the Redditch one; there were several houses built around a square yard with their backs to the yard and we had a house in the corner again. We weren’t there very long, but I knew real hunger there.

We hadn’t got a cot for Jack or Wal so we had to put our Wal in an old pram; it had been piddled on and piddled on and was always smelly and damp and the covers had split so that some of the stuffing was coming out.

It’s small wonder the poor little devil never seemed well!

We had to rely on people’s generosity and jumble sales for clothes and bits for the house. I can never remember having any new shoes as a child, just having to wear anything that came my way. I’m sure that’s how I got my bunions.

Our Wal seemed to be a baby a long time – in fact Jack taught him to walk – so with two young babies our mother wasn’t able to do much work and we had swapped one poor situation for another.

I remember there were times when our mother would send me across the yard to Mrs Lessing: “Can you spare us a crust of bread for the baby?”

“And do you want one too?” 

“Yes, please!”

She would scrape a bit of something on a dry crust, and I ate it sweet as a nut.

When you are seven time doesn’t mean as much as it does later on, so I can’t say how long it was before we moved to Icknield Street, but it wasn’t very long.

The house there had been a farm, a big double-fronted place with a big room either side of the front door and a dairy at the back.

One room was a living room and the other more like a kitchen; it had a large black-lead fireplace, rusting when we moved in, a copper in one corner and a huge iron cooker. Luxury for one-and-six a week.

It was quite remote, surrounded by fields with a paddock attached. A stream ran through the fields between the house and the road, crossed by a single plank bridge.

The bank had been worn into steps, so to cross you went to the bank, down an earth step, across the plank, and up another step to the other bank. Icknield Street was little more than a cart track in those days.

I was sent to Alvechurch school, and our Wal went as well. It must have been a very forward-looking school for that time, because they had a class for Mothercraft or some such name, and they needed a baby to practice on, so Mother earned a few bob by lending him to the school.

When they brought him back he was carefully sewn into his clothes, even his little binder and nappy were sewn on – they were teaching the girls not to use pins at all for fear of hurting the child.

Bert Hartells was still with us, still working in his own way, and Granny Hartells would come and visit us, always bringing a bit of something with her for the boys. Of course, Jack was the apple of her eye.

She had an expression that always amused me, and I used to listen to the conversation waiting for her to say, “Odamassy, our Gin.” It was years before I found out what it meant.

The Alvechurch school was the one where I finished my schooldays, although I never got above standard one, and by having my midday meal with Granny Finch I was part of her family as well.

Of course our Win was there too, and sometimes I would take her home for the night. The only trouble was she didn’t want to get up for the long walk to school in the morning.

In winter it was even more difficult to get to school; the snow used to build up on my clogs until it was like walking on stilts, then one piece would drop off, almost twisting my ankle each time.

I was once sent to the headmaster for being late, and when I burst into tears and told him how far I had to come and about the snow building up on my clogs, he was amazed I had come at all.

I wouldn’t want you to think we were miserable all the time; for all we were poor, there were all sorts of things happening around us to lift our spirits a bit.

I used to play with my uncles and aunts at Punch’s Castle, usually in the forbidden old rooms when Granny Finch wasn’t there.

Our Nell had some tadpoles up there at one time and she had had a fall-out with our Ern, so she poured them over him from up above.

Then there was the time when our George lost Granny’s knickers. In those days if you possessed more than two pairs you were rich, it was a case of a pair on and a clean pair (after washday, of course).

George wanted to go swimming in the canal, so he “borrowed” Granny’s clean knickers. They were voluminous with elastic bottoms and as soon as he got in the water they filled up like a balloon and sank to the bottom, never to be seen again.

Granny searched and searched and kept asking if anybody knew anything about them, until George confessed and got a clout for his trouble.

I often wondered how Granny went on until she got some new knickers.

It’s in little things like that, that I think of my early childhood.

Look out for more extracts in a future issue of The Village. . .


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