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In my latest work in progress I am dwelling way back in the past again as I did in Remnants of Dreams, now engrossed in a world far removed from today. This story is based on the life of one of my four sisters so begins in North London in the early 1930s when the rag and bone man roamed the dingy streets with his even dingier cart pulled by his poor old overworked and tired pony. He traded in mostly old clothes, for the folk back then would have little other that their cast-offs to trade with for a small amount of cash to tide them over until the end of the week when the man of the house came home with his pay-packet. Unfortunately, most women were not as lucky as our mother, and the weekly wage would have been depleted in a lot of cases by the husband paying a visit to the local public house on his way home from work. For some obscure reason the rag and bone man also gave out goldfish in exchange for rags, another thing that featured in this sister’s young life.
It is most likely that those of you reading this who were born after, let’s say the 50s, have no idea what a rag-and bone man was, so you can find out more here:
This pic is of Upper Street, Islington, circa 1914/16. My family lived nearby in the early days. The sister of my story was married in a chapel along this street.
Another thing that featured in my sister’s early life, was her wellies (Wellington boots). The pair she owned were inherited, as most things were, probably from one of our brothers. She cherished her wellies for the short time she had them before they disappeared, likely to the pawnshop. The old pawnbroker with his big three brass balls hanging outside his premises played a large part in most of the everyday lives of all the families struggling in those early days to make ends meet and put a meal on the table for their mostly large families. There was no such thing as family planning advice. The sister of my story was the seventh and I was the tenth and last. Things were getting a lot better by the time I came along so I was the pampered baby. Children started school aged three. There were no such thing as crèches, kindergartens or pre-school. My older sisters and brothers began working aged fourteen. If a mother was forced to go out to work for some reason either her mother or a neighbour cared for her baby.
My eldest sister would take the younger children off in the pram and they would wander the streets and visit the local park, and at times be away from home all day without fear. The only rule our mother passed to them, and also to me, was not to take sweets from strangers. Children played games out on the street, often until darkness fell in winter and their stomachs began to rumble or until their mothers called them in.
Can you imagine a life with no electricity, so therefore no washing machine, microwave, or swish oven. Somehow our mother managed to produce a meal every day for her ever-expanding family on a crotchety old gas stove. She would wash the girls’ dresses, and also their socks, each night so that they had a clean frock to wear to school the next day. Washing was done in the kitchen sink using a washboard, before being put through the mangle. The tin tub that was brought out weekly for the bathing was used at other times to soak bed linen. In winter when it was too cold and wet for the washing to be hung out on the line it was dried in front of the fire in the living room. Once the children were older they visited the local baths, a huge steamy place where you waited your turn and one of the cheerful ladies working there would clean off the scum left by the previous bather.
Our father was a gasman, which meant he went from house to house to check on the gas meters which had to be fed with coins or you had no gas to heat the water for cooking or washing. He worked six days a week and had one week off a year. The bedrooms would get so cold in winter that they piled every available coat and blanket on the bed, which was usually shared by three or four of them. On mornings deep in winter, icicles would decorate the insides of the windows, as there was no such thing as central heating.
All these stories passed down to me were filled with the laughter shared and tinged with such a feeling of thankfulness that we had wonderful parents. Despite their poverty, they never thought of themselves as being deprived, as everyone was in the same boat back then and just got by. Between you and me, I believe we were better off. There was no social media, few glossy magazines, no phones, or TVs, so no such thing as cyber bullying. The world news was garnered from the newspapers, or newsreels shown at the cinema. No one owned a car so therefore there was little traffic on the roads except the buses or the milkman, coalman, baker or as above the rag and bone man. So there was no such thing as road rage, the scourge of our time as everyone loses their patience in the traffic hogging our roads each day.
Most families helped each other and knew their neighbours and their problems. Our mother brought up her large family, who all turned out to be pretty good citizens, without advice from some woman on the TV telling her how she should teach her children manners or how to behave. We learned our manners and respect for our elders from our parents’ example.
Perhaps we all looked back through rose tinted glasses but who cares, I feel blessed that I have such memories—and blessed that I had a family and parents who taught me the importance of books.
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