I thought that today I would start with a Song, Dear Reader, as this post will feature an extract from the scribblings mum was writing for me and my sister Juju before she died. It’s about her mother, Eileen… my Nanny Packer…
Extract from ‘A Family History for Ruth and Julia (Gawd ‘Elp Us!**)’, a.k.a. ‘The Ma Papers’ by Judith Eileen Newton (formerly Shewan, née Packer)
Now comes the hard part, my immediate family. Do I write nicely or do I write warts and all?
What can I say about Eileen? My Mum was a lovely lady even though I had loads of ups and downs with her. She was funny and intelligent and very obstinate. In a way I feel that she was held down all her life, and had quite a big chip on her shoulder because of it. She was the second eldest daughter and because Mary, the eldest, was living with her Grandmother (referred to as Grammum), a lot was put on Eileen’s shoulders work-wise; she felt that she had been a skivvy all her life.
She always believed she was plain and Ann, who was born only ten months after her, was the pretty one, getting more attention than her. She remembers that she was bony and never smiled, and that Ann was cuddly and fluffy, using her charms to get out of doing things.
Nanny Alger kept having children so the brunt of the work fell onto Eileen. She gave birth to fourteen children but Eileen remembers her mother as always being pregnant. There were several miscarriages and often Eileen was sent off to the chemist with a note, a shilling and a cup. She would bring back some liquid for her mother to take. Although she never knew what it was, I think it was a substance called ‘slippery elm‘, which was an age old remedy for unwanted pregnancies (it was still around when I was fertile I never had to take it because the pill was out but it might still be around now).
I just watched an episode of ‘Rome‘ and I believe that was what was used on a poor lady so it probably used for hundreds of years.
Eileen left school at 14 years old and went to work at Peek Freans. Apparently the factory came to the school to see all the girls and took them all on to work at the factory, which was in Drummond Road. Then they sacked all the 18 year olds because they had to pay adult rates at 18, replacing them with 14 year olds. People say ‘the good old days’ but imagine having no security or education, and knowing that you were like cattle rather than individuals.
Incidentally they had no secondary schools or further education in those days unless you had money. You started school at 5, if your parents were that way inclined, and left at 14. The boys, if they were lucky, were taken on as apprentices and parents had to sign papers called indentures (no, Julia, nothing to do with teeth lol). They had to work for the employers for 5 years and then they had an exam to prove that they were qualified in their skills, before being sent into the big wide world to ply their trade. A carpenter or electrician or tailor would take a new boy on every year. Those boys and their parents considered themselves lucky if they were indentured. And you can see how women were kept down – the only choice was factory work, maids, or waitressing. Remember it was not that long after women’s suffrage.
Because of the area they lived in was right on the docks, lots of the boys’ dads were dockers or stevedores, and they had to have a ticket to work. It was always a foregone conclusion that the a boy would get a job in the docks if his father worked there, as it was usually kept in the family. Funnily enough none of Granddad Alger’s sons wanted to work in the docks.
God I do digress
Eileen for some reason was not put on the production line but in the kitchen of the staff canteen. I think it was because of Aunt Mary, who already worked there – she pulled strings through her husband and got Eileen an easier job (I would rather be on the production line any day). I think it was because Mary thought they would get more to eat if Eileen was in the kitchen because food a home was not plentiful; adequate but certainly not plentiful.
Can you imagine living in a house that was straining at the seams and just Granddad Alger Working? You had a breakfast and an evening meal. No crisps, no chocolate bars, no fizzy drinks. Life was barren, but fortunately Eileen would buy 6 penny worth of broken biscuits, the only luxury.
Eileen had no choice: Nanny Alger was dependent on her wages and that’s how life was in those days. She carried on for a couple of years and then one day she prepared prunes and custard for afters, and instead of prunes she opened a tin of pickled walnuts and served them up with custard. She got the sack. She was coming up to 18 anyway, so got herself a job with J Lyons and Co as a waitress. In those days Joe Lyons had a tea shop in every high street, and he also had posh tea shops in the West End called Corner Houses. The high street shops were very reasonable.
Ordinary people used them all the time if they had the money, but the Corner Houses were special for high days and holidays. You could walk through the ground floor and posh sales assistants would sell you special handmade chocolates, beautiful gateaux and deli like smoke salmon and such. Even when I was a teenager they were still around but they were self service places by then.
The waitresses were called ‘Nippies‘ because they gave fast and quick service (take that how you will), and Eileen was fast, so was quickly promoted to Gold Star Waitress. She was sent all over the country, wherever she was needed. She even went on a course in Jersey somewhere. She was born in 1910 and in those days manpower was cheap and service was expected at all times. She even served at the Ideal Home Exhibition when Edward the 8th came for the opening.
There was not a lot to do in those days for leisure except going to the pictures, parading up and down looking good, and the odd, rare dance. Eileen was really into fashion and always had her clothes made in the East End, but she said she always got the rough boy and Ann got the handsome one. The pictures of her show her looking very smart and she was good looking, but she never smiled and it makes her look standoffish.
Funny but I always had the same problem, people in the street would say to me, “cheer up it might never happen!” when I was perfectly happy and not aware I looked miserable. Julia is the same – we have just got miserable faces, I suppose. Ruth on the other hand lives in a world of her own and is totally oblivious to anybody even calling out…
*Ah, so he was knot King then, Clicky?*