To Laura, as a child, the hamlet once appeared as a fortress. She was coming home alone from school one wild, grey, March afternoon, and, looking up from her battling against the wind, got a swift new impression of the cluster of stark walls and slated roofs on the Rise, with rooks tumbling and clouds hurrying overhead, smoke beating down from the chimneys, and clothes on clothes-lines straining away in the wind.
‘It’s a fort! It’s a fort!’ she cried, and she went on up the road, singing in her flat, tuneless little voice the Salvation Army hymn of the day, ‘Hold the fort, for I am coming’.
There was a deeper likeness than that of her childish vision. The hamlet was indeed in a state of siege, and its chief assailant was Want. Yet, like other citizens during a long, but not too desperate siege, its inhabitants had become accustomed to their hard conditions and were able to snatch at any small passing pleasure and even at times to turn their very straits to laughter.
To go from the homes of the older people to those of the besieged generation was to step into another chapter of the hamlet’s history. All the graces and simple luxuries of the older style of living had disappeared. They were poor people’s houses rich only in children, strong, healthy children, who, in a few years, would be ready to take their part in the work of the world and to provide good, healthy blood for the regeneration of city populations; but, in the meantime, their parents had to give their all in order to feed and clothe them.
In their houses the good, solid, hand-made furniture of their forefathers had given place to the cheap and ugly products of the early machine age. A deal table, the top ribbed and softened by much scrubbing; four or five windsor chairs with the varnish blistered and flaking; a side table for the family photographs and ornaments, and a few stools for fireside seats, together with the beds upstairs, made up the collection spoken of by its owners as ‘our few sticks of furniture’.
If the father had a special chair in which to rest after his day’s work was done, it would be but a rather larger replica of the hard windsors with wooden arms added. The clock, if any, was a cheap, foreign timepiece, standing on the mantelshelf — one which could seldom be relied upon to keep correct time for twelve hours together. Those who had no clock depended upon the husband’s watch for getting up in the morning. The watch then went to work with him, an arrangement which must have been a great inconvenience to most wives; but was a boon to the gossips, who could then knock at a neighbour’s door and ask the time when they felt inclined for a chat.
The few poor crocks were not good enough to keep on show and were hidden away in the pantry between mealtimes. Pewter plates and dishes as ornaments had gone. There were still plenty of them to be found, kicked about around gardens and pigsties. Sometimes a travelling tinker would spy one of these and beg or buy it for a few coppers, to melt down and use in his trade. Other casual callers at the cottages would buy a set of handwrought, brass drop-handles from an inherited chest of drawers for sixpence; or a corner cupboard, or a gate-legged table which had become slightly infirm, for half a crown. Other such articles of furniture were put out of doors and spoilt by the weather, for the newer generation did not value such things; it preferred the products of its own day, and, gradually, the hamlet was being stripped of such relics.
As ornaments for their mantelpieces and side tables the women liked gaudy glass vases, pottery images of animals, shell-covered boxes and plush photograph frames. The most valued ornaments of all were the white china mugs inscribed in gilt lettering ‘A Present for a Good Child’, or ‘A Present from Brighton’, or some other sea-side place. Those who had daughters in service to bring them would accumulate quite a collection of these, which were hung by the handles in rows from the edge of a shelf, and were a source of great pride in the owner and of envy in the neighbours.
Those who could find the necessary cash covered their walls with wall-paper in big, sprawling, brightly coloured flower designs. Those who could not, used whitewash or pasted up newspaper sheets. On the wall space near the hearth hung the flitch or flitches of bacon, and every house had a few pictures, mostly coloured ones given by grocers as almanacks and framed at home. These had to be in pairs, and lovers’ meetings lovers’ partings, brides in their wedding gowns, widows standing by newly made graves, children begging in the snow or playing with puppies or kittens in nurseries were the favourite subjects.
Yet, even out of these unpromising materials, in a room which was kitchen, living-room, nursery, and wash-house combined, some women would contrive to make a pleasant, attractive-looking home. A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours, and a few geraniums on the window-sill would cost nothing, but make a great difference to the general effect. Others despised these finishing touches. What was the good of breaking your back pegging rugs for the children to mess up when an old sack thrown down would serve the same purpose, they said. As to flowers in pots, they didn’t hold with the nasty, messy things. But they did, at least, believe in cleaning up their houses once a day, for public opinion demanded that of them. There were plenty of bare, comfortless homes in the hamlet, but there was not one really dirty one.
Every morning, as soon as the men had been packed off to work, the older children to school, the smaller ones to play, and the baby had been bathed and put to sleep in its cradle, rugs and mats were carried out of doors and banged against walls, fireplaces were ‘ridded up’, and tables and floors were scrubbed. In wet weather, before scrubbing, the stone floor had often to be scraped with an old knife-blade to loosen the trodden-in mud; for, although there was a scraper for shoes beside every doorstep, some of the stiff, clayey mud would stick to the insteps and uppers of boots and be brought indoors.
To avoid bringing in more during the day, the women wore pattens over their shoes to go to the well or the pigsty. The patten consisted of a wooden sole with a leather toepiece, raised about two inches from the ground on an iron ring. Clack! Clack! Clack! over the stones, and Slush! Slush! Slush! through the mud went the patten rings. You could not keep your movements secret if you wore pattens to keep yourself dry shod.
A pair of pattens only cost tenpence and lasted for years. But the patten was doomed. Vicarage ladies and farmers’ wives no longer wore them to go to and fro between their dairies and poultry yards, and newly married cottagers no longer provided themselves with a pair. ‘Too proud to wear pattens’ was already becoming a proverb at the beginning of the decade, and by the end of it they had practically disappeared.
The morning cleaning proceeded to the accompaniment of neighbourly greetings and shouting across garden and fences, for the first sound of the banging of mats was a signal for others to bring out theirs, and it would be ‘Have ‘ee heard this?’ and ‘What d’ye think of that?’ until industrious housewives declared that they would take to banging their mats overnight, for they never knew if it was going to take them two minutes or two hours.
Nicknames were not used among the women, and only the aged were spoken of by their Christian names, Old Sally or Old Queenie or sometimes Dame — Dame Mercer or Dame Morris. The other married women were Mrs. This or Mrs. That, even with those who had known them from their cradles. Old men were called Master, not Mister. Younger men were known by their nicknames or their Christian names, excepting a few who were more than usually respected. Children were carefully taught to address all as Mr. or Mrs.
Cleaning began at about the same time in every house, but the time of finishing varied. Some housewives would have everything spick-and-span and themselves ‘tidied up’ by noon; others would still be at it at teatime. ‘A slut’s work’s never done’ was a saying among the good housewives.
It puzzled Laura that, although everybody cleaned up every day, some houses looked what they called there ‘a pictur’ and others a muddle. She remarked on this to her mother.
‘Come here,’ was the answer. ‘See this grate I’m cleaning? Looks done, doesn’t it? But you wait.’
Up and down and round and round and between the bars went the brush; then: ‘Now look. Looks different, doesn’t it?’ It did. It had been passably polished before; now it was resplendent. ‘There!’ said her mother. ‘That’s the secret; just that bit of extra elbow-grease after some folks would consider a thing done.’
But that final polish, the giving of which came naturally to Laura’s mother, could not have been possible to all. Pregnancy and nursing and continual money worries must have worn down the strength and energy of many. Taking these drawbacks into account, together with the inconvenience and overcrowding of the cottages, the general standard of cleanliness was marvellous.
There was one postal delivery a day, and towards ten o’clock, the heads of the women beating their mats would be turned towards the allotment path to watch for ‘Old Postie’. Some days there were two, or even three, letters for Lark Rise; quite as often there were none; but there were few women who did not gaze longingly. This longing for letters was called ‘yearning’ (pronounced ‘yarnin”); ‘No, I beant expectin’ nothin’, but I be so yarnin” one woman would say to another as they watched the old postman dawdle over the stile and between the allotment plots. On wet days he carried an old green gig umbrella with whalebone ribs, and, beneath its immense circumference he seemed to make no more progress than an overgrown mushroom. But at last he would reach and usually pass the spot where the watchers were standing.
‘No, I ain’t got nothin’ for you, Mrs. Parish,’ he would call. ‘Your young Annie wrote to you only last week. She’s got summat else to do besides sittin’ down on her arse writing home all the time.’ Or, waving his arm for some woman to meet him, for he did not intend to go a step further than he was obliged: ‘One for you, Mrs. Knowles, and, my! ain’t it a thin-roed ’un! Not much time to write to her mother these days. I took a good fat ’un from her to young Chad Gubbins.’
So he went on, always leaving a sting behind, a gloomy, grumpy old man who seemed to resent having to serve such humble people. He had been a postman forty years and had walked an incredible number of miles in all weathers, so perhaps the resulting flat feet and rheumaticky limbs were to blame; but the whole hamlet rejoiced when at last he was pensioned off and a smart, obliging young postman took his place on the Lark Rise round.
Delighted as the women were with the letters from their daughters, it was the occasional parcels of clothing they sent that caused the greatest excitement. As soon as a parcel was taken indoors, neighbours who had seen Old Postie arrive with it would drop in, as though by accident, and stay to admire, or sometimes to criticise, the contents.
All except the aged women, who wore what they had been accustomed to wearing and were satisfied, were very particular about their clothes. Anything did for everyday wear, as long as it was clean and whole and could be covered with a decent white apron; it was the ‘Sunday best’ that had to be just so. ‘Better be out of the world than out of the fashion’ was one of their sayings. To be appreciated, the hat or coat contained in the parcel had to be in the fashion, and the hamlet had a fashion of its own, a year or two behind outside standards, and strictly limited as to style and colour.
The daughter’s or other kinswoman’s clothes were sure to be appreciated, for they had usually already been seen and admired when the girl was at home for her holiday, and had indeed helped to set the standard of what was worn. The garments bestowed by the mistresses were unfamiliar and often somewhat in advance of the hamlet vogue, and so were often rejected for personal wear as ‘a bit queer’ and cut down for the children; though the mothers often wished a year or two later when that particular fashion arrived that they had kept them for themselves. Then they had colour prejudices. A red frock! Only a fast hussy would wear red. Or green — sure to bring any wearer bad luck! There was a positive taboo on green in the hamlet; nobody would wear it until it had been home-dyed navy or brown. Yellow ranked with red as immodest; but there was not much yellow worn anywhere in the ‘eighties. On the whole, they preferred dark or neutral colours; but there was one exception; blue had nothing against it. Marine and sky blue were the favourite shades, both very bright and crude.
Much prettier were the colours of the servant girls’ print morning dresses — lilac, or pink, or buff, sprigged with white — which were cut down for the little girls to wear on May Day and for churchgoing throughout the summer.
To the mothers the cut was even more important than the colour. If sleeves were worn wide they liked them to be very wide; if narrow, skin tight. Skirts in those days did not vary in length; they were made to touch the ground. But they were sometimes trimmed with frills or flounces or bunched up at the back, and the women would spend days altering this trimming to make it just right, or turning gathers into pleats or pleats into gathers.
The hamlet’s fashion lag was the salvation of its wardrobes, for a style became ‘all the go’ there just as the outer world was discarding it, and good, little-worn specimens came that way by means of the parcels. The Sunday garment at the beginning of the decade was the tippet, a little shoulder cape of black silk or satin with a long, dangling fringe. All the women and some of the girls had these, and they were worn proudly to church or Sunday school with a posy of roses or geraniums pinned in front.
Hats were of the chimney-pot variety, a tall cylinder of straw, with a very narrow brim and a spray of artificial flowers trained up the front. Later in the decade, the shape changed to wide brims and squashed crowns. The chimney-pot hat had had its day, and the women declared they would not be seen going to the privy in one.
Then there were the bustles, at first looked upon with horror, and no wonder! but after a year or two the most popular fashion ever known in the hamlet and the one which lasted longest. They cost nothing, as they could be made at home from any piece of old cloth rolled up into a cushion and worn under any frock. Soon all the women, excepting the aged, and all the girls, excepting the tiniest, were peacocking in their bustles, and they wore them so long that Edmund was old enough in the day of their decline to say that he had seen the last bustle on earth going round the Rise on a woman with a bucket of pig-wash.
This devotion to fashion gave a spice to life and helped to make bearable the underlying poverty. But the poverty was there; one might have a velvet tippet and no shoes worth mentioning; or a smart frock, but no coat; and the same applied to the children’s clothes and the sheets and towels and cups and saucepans. There was never enough of anything, except food.
Monday was washing-day, and then the place fairly hummed with activity. ‘What d’ye think of the weather?’ ‘Shall we get ’em dry?’ were the questions shouted across gardens, or asked as the women met going to and from the well for water. There was no gossiping at corners that morning. It was before the days of patent soaps and washing powders, and much hard rubbing was involved. There were no washing coppers, and the clothes had to be boiled in the big cooking pots over the fire. Often these inadequate vessels would boil over and fill the house with ashes and steam. The small children would hang round their mothers’ skirts and hinder them, and tempers grew short and nerves frayed long before the clothes, well blued, were hung on the lines or spread on the hedges. In wet weather they had to be dried indoors, and no one who has not experienced it can imagine the misery of living for several days with a firmament of drying clothes on lines overhead.
After their meagre midday meal, the women allowed themselves a little leisure. In summer, some of them would take out their sewing and do it in company with others in the shade of one of the houses. Others would sew or read indoors, or carry their babies out in the garden for an airing. A few who had no very young children liked to have what they called ‘a bit of a lay down’ on the bed. With their doors locked and window-blinds drawn, they, at least, escaped the gossips, who began to get busy at this hour.
One of the most dreaded of these was Mrs. Mullins, a thin, pale, elderly woman who wore her iron-grey hair thrust into a black chenille net at the back of her head and wore a little black shawl over her shoulders, summer and winter alike. She was one of the most common sights of the hamlet, going round the Rise in her pattens, with her door-key dangling from her fingers.
That door-key was looked upon as a bad sign, for she only locked her door when she intended to be away some time. ‘Where’s she a prowlin’ off to?’ one woman would ask another as they rested with their water-buckets at a corner. ‘God knows, an’ He won’t tell us,’ was likely to be the reply. ‘But, thanks be, she won’t be a goin’ to our place now she’s seen me here.’
She visited every cottage in turn, knocking at the door and asking the correct time, or for the loan of a few matches, or the gift of a pin — anything to make an opening. Some housewives only opened the door a crack, hoping to get rid of her, but she usually managed to cross the threshold, and, once within, would stand just inside the door, twisting her door-key and talking.
She talked no scandal. Had she done so, her visits might have been less unwelcome. She just babbled on, about the weather, or her sons’ last letters, or her pig, or something she had read in the Sunday newspaper. There was a saying in the hamlet: ‘Standing gossipers stay longest’, and Mrs. Mullins was a standing example of this. ‘Won’t you sit down, Mrs. Mullins?’ Laura’s mother would say if she happened herself to be seated. But it was always, ‘No, oh no, thankee. I mustn’t stop a minute’; but her minutes always mounted up to an hour or more, and at last her unwilling hostess would say, ‘Excuse me, I must just run round to the well,’ or ‘I’d nearly forgotten that I’d got to fetch a cabbage from the allotment,’ and, even then, the chances were that Mrs. Mullins would insist upon accompanying her, talking them both to a standstill every few yards.
Poor Mrs. Mullins! With her children all out in the world, her home must have seemed to her unbearably silent, and, having no resources of her own and a great longing to hear her own voice, she was forced out in search of company. Nobody wanted her, for she had nothing interesting to say, and yet talked too much to allow her listener a fair share of the conversation. She was that worst of all bores, a melancholy bore, and at the sight of her door-key and little black shawl the pleasantest of little gossiping groups would scatter.
Mrs. Andrews was an even greater talker; but, although most people objected to her visits on principle, they did not glance at the clock every two minutes while she was there or invent errands for themselves in order to get rid of her. Like Mrs. Mullins, she had got her family off hand and so had unlimited leisure; but, unlike her, she had always something of interest to relate. If nothing had happened in the hamlet since her last call, she was quite capable of inventing something. More often, she would take up some stray, unimportant fact, blow it up like a balloon, tie it neatly with circumstantial detail and present it to her listener, ready to be launched on the air of the hamlet. She would watch the clothesline of some expectant mother, and if no small garments appeared on it in what she considered due time, it would be: ‘There’s that Mrs. Wren, only a month from her time, and not a stitch put into a rag yet.’ If she saw a well-dressed stranger call at one of the cottages, she would know ‘for a fac” that he was the bailiff with a County Court summons, or that he had been to tell the parents that ‘their young Jim’, who was working up-country, had got into trouble with the police over some money. She ‘sized up’ every girl at home on holiday and thought that most of them looked pregnant. She took care to say ‘thought’ and ‘looked’ in those cases, because she knew that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred time would prove her suspicions to have been groundless.
Sometimes she would widen her field and tell of the doings in high society. She ‘knew for a fac” that the then Prince of Wales had given one of his ladies a necklace with pearls the size of pigeon’s eggs, and that the poor old Queen, with her crown on her head and tears streaming down her cheeks, had gone down on her knees to beg him to turn the whole lot of saucy hussies out of Windsor Castle. It was said in the hamlet that, when Mrs. Andrews spoke, you could see the lies coming out of her mouth like steam, and nobody believed a word she said, even when, occasionally, she spoke the truth. Yet most of the women enjoyed a chat with her. As they said, it ‘made a bit of a change’. Laura’s mother was too hard on her when she called her a pest, or interrupted one of her stories at a crucial point to ask, ‘Are you sure that is right, Mrs. Andrews?’ In a community without cinemas or wireless and with very little reading matter, she had her uses.
Borrowers were another nuisance. Most of the women borrowed at some time, and a few families lived entirely on borrowing the day before pay-day. There would come a shy, low-down, little knock at the door, and when it was opened, a child’s voice would say, ‘Oh, please Mrs. So-and-So, could you oblige me mother with a spoonful of tea [or a cup of sugar, or half a loaf] till me Dad gets his money?’ If the required article could not be spared at the first house, she would go from door to door repeating her request until she got what she wanted, for such were her instructions.
The borrowings were usually repaid, or there would soon have been nowhere to borrow from; but often an insufficient quantity or an inferior quality were returned, and the result was a smouldering resentment against the habitual borrowers. But no word of direct complaint was uttered. Had it been, the borrower might have taken offence, and the women wished above all things to be on good terms with their neighbours.
Laura’s mother detested the borrowing habit. She said that when she had first set up housekeeping she had made it her rule when a borrower came to the door to say, ‘Tell your mother I never borrow myself and I never lend. But here’s the tea. I don’t want it back again. Tell your mother she’s welcome to it.’ The plan did not work. The same borrower came again and again, until she had to say, ‘Tell your mother I must have it back this time.’ Again the plan did not work. Laura once heard her mother say to Queenie, ‘Here’s half a loaf, Queenie, if it’s any good to you. But I won’t deceive you about it; it’s one that Mrs. Knowles sent back that she’d borrowed from me, and I can’t fancy it myself, out of her house. If you don’t have it, it’ll have to go in the pig-tub.’
‘That’s all right, me dear,’ was Queenie’s smiling response. ‘It’ll do fine for our Tom’s tea. He won’t know where it’s been, an’ ‘ould’nt care if he did. All he cares about’s a full belly.’
However, there were other friends and neighbours to whom it was a pleasure to lend, or to give on the rare occasions when that was possible. They seldom asked directly for a loan, but would say, ‘My poor old tea-caddy’s empty,’ or ‘I ain’t got a mossel o’ bread till the baker comes.’ They spoke of this kind of approach as ‘a nint’ and said that if anybody liked to take it they could; if not, no harm was done, for they hadn’t demeaned themselves by asking.
As well as the noted gossips, there were in Lark Rise, as elsewhere, women who, by means of a dropped hint or a subtle suggestion, could poison another’s mind, and others who wished no harm to anybody, yet loved to discuss their neighbours’ affairs and were apt to babble confidences. But, though few of the women were averse to a little scandal at times, most of them grew restive when it passed a certain point. ‘Let’s give it a rest,’ they would say, or ‘Well, I think we’ve plucked enough feathers out of her wings for one day,’ and they would change the subject and talk about their children, or the rising prices, or the servant problem — from the maid’s standpoint.
Those of the younger set who were what they called ‘folks together’, meaning friendly, would sometimes meet in the afternoon in one of their cottages to sip strong, sweet, milkless tea and talk things over. These tea-drinkings were never premeditated. One neighbour would drop in, then another, and another would be beckoned to from the doorway or fetched in to settle some disputed point. Then some one would say, ‘How about a cup o’ tay?’ and they would all run home to fetch a spoonful, with a few leaves over to help make up the spoonful for the pot.
Those who assembled thus were those under forty. The older women did not care for little tea-parties, nor for light, pleasant chit-chat; there was more of the salt of the earth in their conversation and they were apt to express things in terms which the others, who had all been in good service, considered coarse and countrified.
As they settled around the room to enjoy their cup of tea, some would have babies at the breast or toddlers playing ‘bo-peep’ with their aprons, and others would have sewing or knitting in their hands. They were pleasant to look at, with their large clean white aprons and smoothly plaited hair, parted in the middle. The best clothes were kept folded away in their boxes from Sunday to Sunday, and a clean apron was full dress on week-days.
It was not a countryside noted for feminine good looks and there were plenty of wide mouths, high cheekbones, and snub noses among them; but they nearly all had the country-bred woman’s clear eyes, strong, white teeth and fresh colour. Their height was above that of the average working-class townswoman, and, when not obscured by pregnancy, their figures were straight and supple, though inclining to thickness.
This tea-drinking time was the women’s hour. Soon the children would be rushing in from school; then would come the men, with their loud voices and coarse jokes and corduroys reeking of earth and sweat. In the meantime, the wives and mothers were free to crook their little fingers genteely as they sipped from their teacups and talked about the, to them, latest fashion, or discussed the serial then running in the novelette they were reading.
Most of the younger women and some of the older ones were fond of what they called ‘a bit of a read’, and their mental fare consisted almost exclusively of the novelette. Several of the hamlet women took in one of these weekly, as published, for the price was but one penny, and these were handed round until the pages were thin and frayed with use. Copies of others found their way there from neighbouring villages, or from daughters in service, and there was always quite a library of them in circulation.
The novelette of the ‘eighties was a romantic love story, in which the poor governess always married the duke, or the lady of title the gamekeeper, who always turned out to be a duke or an earl in disguise. Midway through the story there had to be a description of a ball, at which the heroine in her simple white gown attracted all the men in the room; or the gamekeeper, commandeered to help serve, made love to the daughter of the house in the conservatory. The stories were often prettily written and as innocent as sugared milk and water; but, although they devoured them, the women looked upon novelette reading as a vice, to be hidden from their menfolk and only discussed with fellow devotees.
The novelettes were as carefully kept out of the children’s way as the advanced modern novel is, or should be, today; but children who wanted to read them knew where to find them, on the top shelf of the cupboard or under the bed, and managed to read them in secret. An ordinarily intelligent child of eight or nine found them cloying; but they did the women good, for, as they said, they took them out of themselves.
There had been a time when the hamlet readers had fed on stronger food, and Biblical words and imagery still coloured the speech of some of the older people. Though unread, every well-kept cottage had still its little row of books, neatly arranged on the side table with the lamp, the clothes brush and the family photographs. Some of these collections consisted solely of the family Bible and a prayer-book or two; others had a few extra volumes which had either belonged to parents or been bought with other oddments for a few pence at a sale —The Pilgrim’s Progress, Drelincourt on Death, Richardson’s Pamela, Anna Lee: The Maiden Wife and Mother, and old books of travel and sermons. Laura’s greatest find was a battered old copy of Belzoni’s Travels propping open somebody’s pantry window. When she asked for the loan of it, it was generously given to her, and she had the, to her, intense pleasure of exploring the burial chambers of the pyramids with her author.
Some of the imported books had their original owner’s book-plate, or an inscription in faded copper-plate handwriting inside the covers, while the family ones, in a ruder hand, would proclaim:
George Welby, his book:
Give me grace therein to look,
And not only to look, but to understand,
For learning is better than houses and land
When land is lost and money spent
Then learning is most excellent.
George Welby is my name,
England is my nation,
Lark Rise is my dwelling place
And Christ is my salvation.
When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
Take this book and think of me
And mind I’m not forgotten.
Another favourite inscription was the warning:
Steal not this book for fear of shame,
For in it doth stand the owner’s name,
And at the last day God will say
‘Where is that book you stole away?’
And if you say, ‘I cannot tell;
He’ll say, ‘Thou cursed, go to hell.’
All or any of these books were freely lent, for none of the owners wanted to read them. The women had their novelettes, and it took the men all their time to get through their Sunday newspapers, one of which came into almost every house, either by purchase or borrowing. The Weekly Despatch, Reynolds’s News, and Lloyd’s News were their favourites, though a few remained faithful to that fine old local newspaper, the Bicester Herald.
Laura’s father, as well as his Weekly Despatch, took the Carpenter and Builder, through which the children got their first introduction to Shakespeare, for there was a controversy in it as to Hamlet’s words, ‘I know a hawk from a handsaw’. It appeared that some scholar had suggested that it should read, ‘I know a hawk from a heron, pshaw!’ and the carpenters and builders were up in arms. Of course, the hawk was the mason’s and plasterer’s tool of that name, and the handsaw was just a handsaw. Although that line and a few extracts that she afterwards found in the school readers were all that Laura was to know of Shakespeare’s works for some time, she sided warmly with the carpenters and builders, and her mother, when appealed to, agreed, for she said ‘that heron, pshaw!’ certainly sounded a bit left-handed.
While the novelette readers, who represented the genteel section of the community, were enjoying their tea, there would be livelier gatherings at another of the cottages. The hostess, Caroline Arless, was at that time about forty-five, and a tall, fine, upstanding woman with flashing dark eyes, hair like crinkled black wire, and cheeks the colour of a ripe apricot. She was not a native of the hamlet, but had come there as a bride, and it was said that she had gipsy blood in her.
Although she was herself a grandmother, she still produced a child of her own every eighteen months or so, a proceeding regarded as bad form in the hamlet, for the saying ran, ‘When the young ‘uns begin, ‘tie time for the old ‘uns to finish.’ But Mrs. Arless recognized no rules, excepting those of Nature. She welcomed each new arrival, cared for it tenderly while it was helpless, swept it out of doors to play as soon as it could toddle, to school at three, and to work at ten or eleven. Some of the girls married at seventeen and the boys at nineteen or twenty.
Ways and means did not trouble her. Husband and sons at work ‘brassed up’ on Friday nights, and daughters in service sent home at least half of their wages. One night she would fry steak and onions for supper and make the hamlet’s mouth water; another night there would be nothing but bread and lard on her table. When she had money she spent it, and when she had none she got things on credit or went without. ‘I shall feather the foam,’ she used to say. ‘I have before an’ I shall again, and what’s the good of worrying.’ She always did manage to feather it, and usually to have a few coppers in her pocket as well, although she was known to be deeply in debt. When she received a postal order from one of her daughters she would say to any one who happened to be standing by when she opened the letter, ‘I beant goin’ to squander this bit o’ money in paying me debts.’
Her idea of wise spending was to call in a few neighbours of like mind, seat them round a roaring fire, and despatch one of her toddlers to the inn with the beer can. They none of them got drunk, or even fuddled, for there was not very much each, even when the can went round to the inn a second or a third time. But there was just enough to hearten them up and make them forget their troubles; and the talk and laughter and scraps of song which floated on the air from ‘that there Mrs. Arless’s house’ were shocking to the more sedate matrons. Nobody crooked their finger round the handle of a teacup or ‘talked genteel’ at Mrs. Arless’s gatherings, herself least of all. She was so charged with sex vitality that with her all subjects of conversation led to it — not in its filthy or furtive aspects, but as the one great central fact of life.
Yet no one could dislike Mrs. Arless, however much she might offend their taste and sense of fitness. She was so full of life and vigour and so overflowing with good nature that she would force anything she had upon any one she thought needed it, regardless of the fact that it was not and never would be paid for. She knew the inside of a County Court well, and made no secret of her knowledge, for a County Court summons was to her but an invitation to a day’s outing from which she would return victorious, having persuaded the judge that she was a model wife and mother who only got into debt because her family was so large and she herself was so generous. It was her creditor who retired discomfited.
Another woman who lived in the hamlet and yet stood somewhat aside from its ordinary life was Hannah Ashley. She was the daughter-in-law of the old Methodist who drove the breast plough, and she and her husband were also Methodists. She was a little brown mouse of a woman who took no part in the hamlet gossip or the hamlet disputes. Indeed, she was seldom seen on weekdays, for her cottage stood somewhat apart from the others and had its own well in the garden. But on Sunday evenings her house was used as a Methodist meeting place, and then all her week-day reserve was put aside and all who cared to come were made welcome. As she listened to the preacher, or joined in the hymns and prayers, she would look round on the tiny congregation, and those whose eyes met hers would see such a glow of love in them that they could never again think, much less say, ill of her, beyond ‘Well, she’s a Methody’, as though that explained and excused anything strange about her.
These younger Ashleys had one child, a son, about Edmund’s age, and the children at the end house sometimes played with him. When Laura called at his home for him one Saturday morning she saw a picture which stamped itself upon her mind for life. It was the hour when every other house in the hamlet was being turned inside out for the Saturday cleaning. The older children, home from school, were running in and out of their homes, or quarrelling over their games outside. Mothers were scolding and babies were crying during the process of being rolled in their shawls for an outing on the arm of an older sister. It was the kind of day Laura detested, for there was no corner indoors for her and her book, and outside she was in danger of being dragged into games that either pulled her to pieces or bored her.
Inside Freddy Ashley’s home all was peace and quiet and spotless purity. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the table and board floor were scrubbed to a pale straw colour, the beautifully polished grate glowed crimson, for the oven was being heated, and placed half-way over the table was a snowy cloth with paste-board and rolling-pin upon it. Freddy was helping his mother make biscuits, cutting the pastry she had rolled into shapes with a little tin cutter. Their two faces, both so plain and yet so pleasant, were close together above the pasteboard, and their two voices as they bade Laura come in and sit by the fire sounded like angels’ voices after the tumult outside.
It was a brief glimpse into a different world from the one she was accustomed to, but the picture remained with her as something quiet and pure and lovely. She thought that the home at Nazareth must have been something like Freddy’s.
The women never worked in the vegetable gardens or on the allotments, even when they had their children off hand and had plenty of spare time, for there was a strict division of labour and that was ‘men’s work’. Victorian ideas, too, had penetrated to some extent, and any work outside the home was considered unwomanly. But even that code permitted a woman to cultivate a flower garden, and most of the houses had at least a narrow border beside the pathway. As no money could be spared for seeds or plants, they had to depend upon roots and cuttings given by their neighbours, and there was little variety; but they grew all the sweet old-fashioned cottage garden flowers, pinks and sweet williams and love-ina-mist, wallflowers and forget-me-nots in spring and hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies in autumn. Then there were lavender and sweetbriar bushes, and southernwood, sometimes called ‘lad’s love’, but known there as ‘old man’.
Almost every garden had its rose bush; but there were no coloured roses amongst them. Only Old Sally had those; the other people had to be content with that meek, old-fashioned white rose with a pink flush at the heart known as the ‘maiden’s blush’. Laura used to wonder who had imported the first bush, for evidently slips of it had been handed round from house to house.
As well as their flower garden, the women cultivated a herb corner, stocked with thyme and parsley and sage for cooking, rosemary to flavour the home-made lard, lavender to scent the best clothes, and peppermint, pennyroyal, horehound, camomile, tansy, balm, and rue for physic. They made a good deal of camomile tea, which they drank freely to ward off colds, to soothe the nerves, and as a general tonic. A large jug of this was always prepared and stood ready for heating up after confinements. The horehound was used with honey in a preparation to be taken for sore throats and colds on the chest. Peppermint tea was made rather as a luxury than a medicine; it was brought out on special occasions and drunk from wine-glasses; and the women had a private use for the pennyroyal, though, judging from appearances, it was not very effective.
As well as the garden herbs, still in general use, some of the older women used wild ones, which they gathered in their seasons and dried. But the knowledge and use of these was dying out; most people depended upon their garden stock. Yarrow, or milleflower, was an exception; everybody still gathered that in large quantities to make ‘yarb beer’. Gallons of this were brewed and taken to work in their tea cans by the men and stood aside in the pantry for the mother and children to drink whenever thirsty. The finest yarrow grew beside the turnpike, and in dry weather the whole plant became so saturated with white dust that the beer, when brewed, had a milky tinge. If the children remarked on this they were told, ‘Us’ve all got to eat a peck o’ dust before we dies, an’ it’ll slip down easy in this good yarb beer.’
The children at the end house used to wonder how they would ever obtain their peck of dust, for their mother was fastidiously particular. Such things as lettuce and watercress she washed in three waters, instead of giving them the dip and shake considered sufficient by most other people. Watercress had almost to be washed away, because of the story of the man who had swallowed a tadpole which had grown to a full-sized frog in his stomach. There was an abundance of watercress to be had for the picking, and a good deal of it was eaten in the spring, before it got tough and people got tired of it. Perhaps they owed much of their good health to such food.
All kinds of home-made wines were brewed by all but the poorest. Sloes and blackberries and elderberries could be picked from the hedgerows, dandelions and coltsfoot and cowslips from the fields, and the garden provided rhubarb, currants and gooseberries and parsnips. Jam was made from garden and hedgerow fruit. This had to be made over an open fire and needed great care in the making; but the result was generally good — too good, the women said, for the jam disappeared too soon. Some notable housewives made jelly. Crab-apple jelly was a speciality at the end house. Crab-apple trees abounded in the hedgerows and the children knew just where to go for red crabs, red-and-yellow streaked crabs, or crabs which hung like ropes of green onions on the branches.
It seemed to Laura a miracle when a basket of these, with nothing but sugar and water added, turned into jelly as clear and bright as a ruby. She did not take into account the long stewing, tedious straining, and careful measuring, boiling up and clarifying that went to the filling of the row of glass jars which cast a glow of red light on the whitewash at the back of the pantry shelf.
A quickly made delicacy was cowslip tea. This was made by picking the golden pips from a handful of cowslips, pouring boiling water over them, and letting the tea stand a few minutes to infuse. It could then be drunk either with or without sugar as preferred.
Cowslip balls were made for the children. These were fashioned by taking a great fragrant handful of the flowers, tying the stalks tightly with string, and pulling down the blooms to cover the stems. The bunch was then almost round, and made the loveliest ball imaginable.
Some of the older people who kept bees made mead, known there as ‘metheglin’. It was a drink almost superstitiously esteemed, and the offer of a glass was regarded as a great compliment. Those who made it liked to make a little mystery of the process; but it was really very simple. Three pounds of honey were allowed to every gallon of spring water. This had to be running spring water, and was obtained from a place in the brook where the water bubbled up; never from the well. The honey and water were boiled together, and skimmed and strained and worked with a little yeast; then kept in a barrel for six months, when the metheglin was ready for bottling.
Old Sally said that some folks messed up their metheglin with lemons, bay leaves, and suchlike; but all she could say was that folks who’d add anything to honey didn’t deserve to have bees to work for them.
Old metheglin was supposed to be the most intoxicating drink on earth, and it was certainly potent, as a small girl once found when, staying up to welcome home a soldier uncle from Egypt, she was invited to take a sip from his glass and took a pull.
All the evening it had been ‘Yes, please, Uncle Reuben’, and ‘Very well, thank you, Uncle Reuben’ with her; but as she went upstairs to bed she astonished every one by calling pertly: ‘Uncle Reuby is a booby!’ It was the mead speaking, not her. There was a dash in her direction; but, fortunately for her, it was stayed by Sergeant Reuben draining his glass, smacking his lips, and declaring: ‘Well, I’ve tasted some liquors in my time; but this beats all!’ and under cover of the fresh uncorking and pouring out, she tumbled sleepily into bed with her white, starched finery still on her.
The hamlet people never invited each other to a meal; but when it was necessary to offer tea to an important caller, or to friends from a distance, the women had their resources. If, as often happened, there was no butter in the house, a child would be sent to the shop at the inn for a quarter of the best fresh, even if it had to ‘go down on the book’ until pay-day. Thin bread and butter, cut and arranged as in their old days in service, with a pot of homemade jam, which had been hidden away for such an occasion, and a dish of lettuce, fresh from the garden and garnished with little rosy radishes, made an attractive little meal, fit, as they said, to put before anybody.
In winter, salt butter would be sent for and toast would be made and eaten with celery. Toast was a favourite dish for family consumption. ‘I’ve made ’em a stack o’ toast as high as up to their knees’, a mother would say on a winter Sunday afternoon before her hungry brood came in from church. Another dish upon which they prided themselves was thin slices of cold, boiled streaky bacon on toast, a dish so delicious that it deserves to be more widely popular.
The few visitors from the outer world who came that way enjoyed such simple food, with a cup of tea; and a glass of homemade wine at their departure; and the women enjoyed entertaining them, and especially enjoyed the feeling that they, themselves, were equal to the occasion. ‘You don’t want to be poor and look poor, too,’ they would say; and ‘We’ve got our pride. Yes, we’ve got our pride.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00