It’s hard for anyone to believe now that back at the beginning of the 1970s there were still villages in England like the one where I grew up until I was between thirteen and fourteen years old. There were a few farm workers’ cottages, and when I sit at Council meetings now and hear phrases like bringing houses up to ‘decent living standards’, I can’t help smiling.
These young folk don’t know what was considered adequate for labourers in my childhood. No running water, no heating other than the fire in the living room in a black grate that served as the cooker as well, water running down the walls when it rained, because the roof leaked. Bathrooms and inside toilets were known about only by those who worked at the ‘Big House’ and then only because they carried hot water or scrubbed floors there.
Only the doctor and the vicar had cars and few could afford bus fares to go to the County Town or had the courage to try. The village school consisted of two rooms, one for the under elevens and the other for those between eleven and sixteen, although in reality most of the kids left unofficially long before they were sixteen because they were needed to work, either on the land or at the ‘Big House’. Even in the 1970s.
When I hear youngsters now saying they are ‘bored of work’ or moving jobs for the fifth time in five years I wonder how they would have liked our lives – boys working the land or labouring around the house and grounds, or the girls working their way up, if they were lucky, from kitchen maid to parlour maid, or skivvying for the doctor or the vicar.
So how did I end my teenage years in a town, with made-up roads, cars, buses, street lights, living in a house with a room of my own, with heating, lighting, a bathroom and an indoor toilet? Of course it was a great chance for a lad. I had a lot to catch up at school, but I did it. I had a lot of wonderful opportunities, but was it worth it? I see so often people still arguing about whether social workers should have removed a child from its home sooner or later, or not at all.
What do I think? Well it’s hard to say.
When I was thirteen, my mother died having my baby sister, who also died in the process. She had had no proper medical attention throughout her pregnancy, although she was quite old to be having a child in those days. Of course at thirteen I was in total ignorance of what should, or should not happen. I knew how the animals gave birth, but they never went to doctors or clinics. All I know was that she got to look very old and I had to do more of the chores around the place, until in the end she simply did not have the energy to get through the long labour.
Soon after my mother and sister died, my father had an accident out in the fields, when the tractor skidded on a muddy bank and he jumped off, only to have it keel over and crush him. He was brought home on some planks of wood they had torn from the fencing. Of course, the village doctor was quite out of his depth, but fortunately for father it didn’t last long. The sight of him clamping his teeth together to stop the screams of agony was something that haunted my dreams for several years.
So my Gran took me in. The lady from the Big House called one day soon after, to offer me a job as a boot boy. Both my mother and father had worked for her in their young days, when she had come to the village as a new bride and I suppose she had some good memories of them. Of course I went. It was not done to say ‘No’ to the lady from the House even then and I knew my mother and father had been happy working for her. When I said ‘Yes,’ she smiled and patted my arm. She said, ‘I’m so glad. You belong with us really.’
The only thing that made it awkward was that I really needed to be at home looking after Gran’s chores, but I was supposed to ‘live in’ at the House. I managed for a while, but trekking backwards and forwards every day got very tiring, especially in the winter, when I had to wade through huge drifts of snow. There was no road clearing out where we were. Just hard going and wet clothes and boots, with no efficient way to get them dry before the next day started all over again.
I never found out who told Social Services about me, but one day when I was at home with a bad cold, and Gran was in bed, with what turned out to be pneumonia, some strangers turned up. They asked questions, like how much money we had, and when did I last go to school. Gran got taken off to the hospital and might as well have gone to the moon.
Then a cart came from the big house and the housekeeper packed up a lot of stuff and locked it in a trunk, which got put on board. Next she looked at my clothes. That didn’t take long I can tell you. She packed my things in a suitcase, which she had brought and told me to collect up anything else I wanted. So I picked up some books which my mother had been given when she had been at the Big House.
I had no toys which children these days would recognise. For one thing there was no time and no money to go shopping in town and for another there were always important things to do about the place even for little kiddies – bringing in wood, fetching water, helping to hang out the washing, running to help fetch it in if it rained. No TV, no Game Boys, no Play Stations, but no feeling bored and certainly no low self-esteem.
All day long my role as an important member of the family was reinforced. But of course I only learned about that later. At the time I was just happy to be doing things with my mother or father and too busy to be lonely, because my parents kept to themselves and I seldom saw anyone else, although there were other kids my age or near enough and I enjoyed their company when I went to school.
Finally, there was no reason not to live in at the House. My things were put in the little room set aside for me at the top of the house. While I was looking around and straining to see out of the window, which was too high for me, one of the maids called me. She said I had to go downstairs to see the ‘Missus’. I still thought of her as ‘the Lady’, but all the staff called her Missus and she didn’t seem to mind.
Anyway, I was welcomed, yes, welcomed, and smiled at a lot and twinkled at by her lovely grey-coloured eyes. She said she hoped I would be happy there. Happy! Already I thought I was in Heaven. A warm dry place to sleep, no fire to tend and I could smell something delicious cooking, and I had not had to do a thing about it.
If only Gran could be here too. I plucked up courage to ask how she was. The Missus said I was being taken to town the next day to be ‘kitted out’ and that we would also call at the hospital. She said Cook would put together a basket of tit-bits for me to take to my Gran.
As I left that lovely room I saw a picture on the wall of a handsome young man, posing beside a fine horse. I was shoo-ed past it by a maid and taken downstairs to a huge kitchen. I expected to be given some jobs, but instead I got a huge meal with a lot of other people who I found out worked in the house or out on the estate.
It was so warm, and for once my stomach was full, and for the first time I could remember I had no chores to worry about, so unsurprisingly my head fell forward and I drifted off to sleep, right there at the table. After a short-ish nap I started to wake up, but before I opened my eyes I heard that some of the other staff were talking, so I stayed still and listened.
To be continued next month…..