Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson


‘The Box’

A familiar sight at Lark Rise was that of a young girl — any young girl between ten and thirteen — pushing one of the two perambulators in the hamlet round the Rise with a smallish-sized, oak clothes box with black handles lashed to the seat. Those not already informed who met her would read the signs and inquire: ‘How is your mother’— or your sister or your aunt —‘getting on?’ and she, well-primed, would answer demurely, ‘As well as can be expected under the circumstances, thank you, Mrs. So-and-So.’

She had been to the Rectory for THE BOX, which appeared almost simultaneously with every new baby, and a gruelling time she would have had pushing her load the mile and a half and, at the same time, keeping it from slipping from its narrow perch. But, very soon, such small drawbacks would be forgotten in the pleasure of seeing it unpacked. It contained half a dozen of everything — tiny shirts, swathes, long flannel barrows, nighties, and napkins, made, kept in repair, and lent for every confinement by the clergyman’s daughter. In addition to the loaned clothes, it would contain, as a gift, packets of tea and sugar and a tin of patent groats for making gruel.

The box was a popular institution. Any farm labourer’s wife, whether she attended church or not, was made welcome to the loan of it. It appeared in most of the cottages at regular intervals and seemed to the children as much a feature of family life as the new babies. It was so constantly in demand that it had to have an understudy, known as ‘the second-best box’, altogether inferior, which fell to the lot of those careless matrons who had neglected to bespeak the loan the moment they ‘knew their luck again’.

The boxes were supposed to be returned at the end of a month with the clothes freshly laundered; but, if no one else required them, an extension could be had, and many mothers were allowed to keep their box until, at six or seven weeks old, the baby was big enough to be put into short clothes; so saving them the cost of preparing a layette other than the one set of clothes got ready for the infant’s arrival. Even that might be borrowed. The stock at the end house was several times called for in what, by a polite fiction, passed as an emergency. Other women had their own baby clothes, beautifully sewn and laundered; but there was scarcely one who did not require the clothes in the box to supplement them. For some reason or other, the box was never allowed to go out until the baby had arrived.

The little garments on loan were all good quality and nicely trimmed with embroidery and hand tucking. The clergyman’s daughter also kept two christening robes to lend to the mothers, and made a new frock, as a gift, for every baby’s ‘shortening’. Summer or winter, these little frocks were made of flowered print, blue for the boys and pink for the girls, and every one of the tiny, strong stitches in them were done by her own hands. She got little credit for this. The mothers, like the children, looked upon the small garments, both loaned and given, as a provision of Nature. Indeed, they were rather inclined to criticize. One woman ripped off the deep flounce of old Buckinghamshire lace from the second-best christening robe and substituted a frill of coarse, machine-made embroidery, saying she was not going to take her child to church ‘trigged out’ in that old-fashioned trash. As she had not troubled to unpick the stitches, the lace was torn beyond repair, and the gown ever after was decidedly second-best, for the best one was the old Rectory family christening robe and made of the finest lawn, tucked and inserted all over with real Valenciennes.

When the hamlet babies arrived, they found good clothes awaiting them, and the best of all nourishment — Nature’s own. The mothers did not fare so well. It was the fashion at that time to keep maternity patients on low diet for the first three days, and the hamlet women found no difficulty in following this régime; water gruel, dry toast, and weak tea was their menu. When the time came for more nourishing diet, the parson’s daughter made for every patient one large sago pudding, followed up by a jug of veal broth. After these were consumed they returned to their ordinary food, with a half-pint of stout a day for those who could afford it. No milk was taken, and yet their own milk supply was abundant. Once, when a bottle-fed baby was brought on a visit to the hamlet, its bottle was held up as a curiosity. It had a long, thin rubber tube for the baby to suck through which must have been impossible to clean.

The only cash outlay in an ordinary confinement was half a crown, the fee of the old woman who, as she said, saw the beginning and end of everybody. She was, of course, not a certified midwife; but she was a decent, intelligent old body, clean in her person and methods and very kind. For the half-crown she officiated at the birth and came every morning for ten days to bath the baby and make the mother comfortable. She also tried hard to keep the patient in bed for the ten days; but with little success. Some mothers refused to stay there because they knew they were needed downstairs; others because they felt so strong and fit they saw no reason to lie there. Some women actually got up on the third day, and, as far as could be seen at the time, suffered no ill effects.

Complications at birth were rare; but in the two or three cases where they did occur during her practice, old Mrs. Quinton had sufficient skill to recognize the symptoms and send post haste for the doctor. No mother lost her life in childbed during the decade.

In these more enlightened days the mere mention of the old, untrained village midwife raises a vision of some dirty, drink-sodden old hag without skill or conscience. But not all of them were Sairey Gamps. The great majority were clean, knowledgeable old women who took a pride in their office. Nor had many of them been entirely without instruction. The country doctor of that day valued a good midwife in an outlying village and did not begrudge time and trouble in training her. Such a one would save him many a six or eight mile drive over bad roads at night, and, if a summons did come, he would know that his presence was necessary.

The trained district nurses, when they came a few years later, were a great blessing in country districts; but the old midwife also had her good points, for which she now receives no credit. She was no superior person coming into the house to strain its resources to the utmost and shame the patient by forced confessions that she did not possess this or that; but a neighbour, poor like herself, who could make do with what there was, or, if not, knew where to send to borrow it. This Mrs. Quinton possessed quite a stock of the things she knew she would not find in every house, and might often be met with a baby’s little round bath in her hand, or a clothes-horse, for airing, slung over her arm.

Other days, other ways; and, although they have now been greatly improved upon, the old country midwives did at least succeed in bringing into the world many generations of our forefathers, or where should we be now?

The general health of the hamlet was excellent. The healthy, open-air life and the abundance of coarse but wholesome food must have been largely responsible for that; but lack of imagination may also have played a part. Such people at that time did not look for or expect illness, and there were not as many patent medicine advertisements then as now to teach them to search for symptoms of minor ailments in themselves. Beecham’s and Holloway’s Pills were already familiar to all newspaper readers, and a booklet advertising Mother Siegel’s Syrup arrived by post at every house once a year. But only Beecham’s Pills were patronized, and those only by a few; the majority relied upon an occasional dose of Epsom salts to cure all ills. One old man, then nearly eighty, had for years drunk a teacupful of frothing soapsuds every Sunday morning. ‘Them cleans the outers,’ he would say, ‘an’ stands to reason they must clean th’ innards, too.’ His dose did not appear to do him any harm; but he made no converts.

Although only babies and very small children had baths, the hamlet folks were cleanly in their persons. The women would lock their cottage doors for a whole afternoon once a week to have what they called ‘a good clean up’. This consisted of stripping to the waist and washing downward; then stepping into a footbath and washing upward. ‘Well, I feels all the better for that; some woman would say complacently. ‘I’ve washed up as far as possible and down as far as possible,’ and the ribald would inquire what poor ‘possible’ had done that that should not be included.

Toothbrushes were not in general use; few could afford to buy such luxuries; but the women took a pride in their strong white teeth and cleaned them with a scrap of clean, wet rag dipped in salt. Some of the men used soot as a tooth-powder.

After a confinement, if the eldest girl was too young and there was no other relative available, the housework, cooking, and washing would be shared among the neighbours, who would be repaid in kind when they themselves were in like case.

Babies, especially young babies, were adored by their parents and loved and petted and often spoilt by the whole family until another arrived; then, as they used to say, its ‘nose was put out of joint’; all the adoration was centred on the newcomer, and the exbaby was fortunate if it had a still devoted elder sister to stand by it.

In the production of their large families the parents appeared reckless. One obvious method of birth control, culled from the Old Testament, was known in the hamlet and practised by one couple, which had managed to keep their family down to four. The wife told their secret to another woman, thinking to help her; but it only brought scorn down on her own head. ‘Did you ever! Fancy begrudging a little child a bit o’ food, the nasty greedy selfish hussy, her!’ was the general verdict. But, although they protested so volubly, and bore their own frequent confinements with courage and cheerfulness, they must have sometimes rebelled in secret, for there was great bitterness in the tone in which in another mood they would say: ‘The wife ought to have the first child and the husband the second, then there wouldn’t ever be any more.’

That showed how the land lay, as Laura’s mother said to her in later life. She herself lived to see the decline in the birth-rate, and, when she discussed it with her daughter in the early 1930s, laughed heartily at some of the explanations advanced by the learned, and said: ‘If they knew what it meant to carry and bear and bring up a child themselves, they wouldn’t expect the women to be in a hurry to have a second or third now they’ve got a say in the matter. Now, if they made it a bit easier for people, dividing it out a bit, so to speak, by taking over some of the money worry. It’s never seemed fair to my mind that the one who’s got to go through all a confinement means should have to scrape and pinch beforehand to save a bit as well. Then there’s the other child or children. What mother wants to rob those she’s already got by bringing in another to share what there’s too little of already?’

None of the unmarried hamlet girls had babies in the ‘eighties, although there must have been quite a crop of illegitimate births a few years earlier, for when the attendance register was called out at school the eldest children of several families answered to another surname than that borne by their brothers and sisters and by which they themselves were commonly known. These would be the children of couples who had married after the birth of their first child, a common happening at that time — and little thought of.

In the ‘eighties a young woman of thirty came from Birmingham to have her illegitimate baby at her sister’s home in the hamlet, and a widow who had already three legitimate children and afterwards married again managed to produce two children between her two marriages. These births passed without much comment; but when a young girl of sixteen whose home was out in the fields near the hamlet was known to be ‘in trouble’ public feeling was stirred.

One evening, a few weeks before the birth, Emily passed through the hamlet with her father on their way to interview the young man she had named as responsible for her condition. It was a sad little sight. Emily, who had so recently been romping with the other children, going slowly, unwillingly, and red-eyed from crying, her tell-tale figure enveloped in her mother’s plaid shawl, and her respectable, grey-headed father in his Sunday suit urging her to ‘Come on!’ as though longing to be through with a disagreeable business. Women came to their cottage gates and children left their play to watch them pass by, for every one knew or guessed their errand, and much sympathy was felt towards them on account of Emily’s youth and her parents’ respectability.

The interview turned out even more mortifying than the father could have expected, for Emily had named the young son of the house where she had been in service, and he not only repudiated the charge, but was able to prove that he had been away from home for some time before and after the crucial date. Yet, in spite of the evidence, the neighbours still believed Emily’s version of the story and treated her as a wronged heroine, to be petted and made much of. Perhaps they made too much of her, for what should have been an episode turned into a habit, and, although she never married, Emily had quite a good-sized family.

The hamlet women’s attitude towards the unmarried mother was contradictory. If one of them brought her baby on a visit to the hamlet they all went out of their way to pet and fuss over them. ‘The pretty dear!’ they would cry. ‘How ever can anybody say such a one as him ought not to be born. Ain’t he a beauty! Ain’t he a size! They always say, you know, that that sort of child is the finest. An’ don’t you go mindin’ what folks says about you, me dear. It’s only the good girls, like you, that has ’em; the others is too artful!’

But they did not want their own daughters to have babies before they were married. ‘I allus tells my gals,’ one woman would say confidentially to another, ‘that if they goes getting theirselves into trouble they’ll have to go to th’ work’us, for I won’t have ’em at home.’ And the other would agree, saying, ‘So I tells mine, an’ I allus think that’s why I’ve had no trouble with ’em.’

To those who knew the girls, the pity was that their own mothers should so misjudge their motives for keeping chaste; but there was little room; for their finer feelings in the hamlet mother’s life. All her strength, invention and understanding were absorbed in caring for her children’s bodies; their mental and spiritual qualities were outside her range. At the same time, if one of the girls had got into trouble, as they called it, the mother would almost certainly have had her home and cared for her. There was more than one home in the hamlet where the mother was bringing up a grandchild with her own younger children, the grandchild calling the grandmother ‘Mother’.

If, as sometimes happened, a girl had to be married in haste, she was thought none the worse of on that account. She had secured her man. All was well. ”Tis but Nature’ was the general verdict.

But though they were lenient with such slips, especially when not in their own families, anything in the way of what they called ‘loose living’ was detested by them. Only once in the history of the hamlet had a case of adultery been known to the general public, and, although that had occurred ten or twelve years before, it was still talked of in the ‘eighties. The guilty couple had been treated to ‘rough music’. Effigies of the pair had been made and carried aloft on poles by torchlight to the house of the woman, to the accompaniment of the banging of pots, pans, and coal-shovels, the screeching of tin whistles and mouth-organs, and cat-calls, hoots, and jeers. The man, who was a lodger at the woman’s house, disappeared before daybreak the next morning, and soon afterwards the woman and her husband followed him.

About the middle of the decade, the memory of that historic night was revived when an unmarried woman with four illegitimate children moved into a vacant house in the hamlet. Her coming raised a fury of indignation. Words hitherto only heard by the children when the Lessons were read in church were flung about freely: ‘harlot’ was one of the mildest. The more ardent moralists were for stoning her or driving her out of the place with rough music. The more moderate proposed getting her landlord to turn her out as a bad character. However, upon closer acquaintance, she turned out to be so clean, quiet, and well-spoken, that her sins, which she had apparently abandoned, were forgiven her, and one after another of the neighbours began ‘passing the time of day’ with her when they met. Then, as though willing to do anything in reason to conform to their standard, she got married to a man who had been navvying on a stretch of new railway line and then settled down to farm labour. So there were wedding bells instead of rough music and the family gradually merged into ordinary hamlet life.

It was the hamlet’s gain. One of the boys was musical, an aunt had bought him a good melodeon, and, every light evening, he played it for hours on the youths’ gathering ground in front of the ‘Wagon and Horses’.

Before his arrival there had been no musical instrument of any kind at Lark Rise, and, in those days before gramophones or wireless, any one who liked ‘a bit of a tune’ had to go to church to hear it, and then it would only be a hymn tune wheezed out by an ancient harmonium. Now they could have all the old favourites —‘Home, Sweet Home’, ‘Annie Laurie’, ‘Barbara Allen’, and ‘Silver Threads Among the Gold’— they had only to ask for what they fancied. Alf played well and had a marvellous ear. If the baker or any other caller hummed the tune of a new popular song in his hearing, Alf would be playing it that night on his melodeon.

Women stood at their cottage gates, men leaned out of the inn window, and children left their play and gathered around him to listen. Often he played dance tunes, and the youths would foot it with each other as partners, for there was seldom a grown-up girl at home and the little ones they despised. So the little girls, too, had to dance with each other. One stout old woman, who was said to have been gay in her time, would come out and give them hints, or she would take a turn herself, gliding around alone, her feet hidden by her long skirts, massively graceful.

Sometimes they would sing to the dance music, and the standers-by would join in:

I have a bonnet, trimmed with blue,

Why don’t you wear it? So I do.

When do you wear it? When I can,

When I go out with my young man.

My young man is gone to sea

With silver buckles on his knee,

With his blue coat and yellow hose,

And that’s the way the polka goes.

Or perhaps it would be:

Step and fetch her, step and fetch her,

Step and fetch her, pretty litle dear.

Do not tease her, try and please her,

Step and fetch her, pretty litle dear.

And so they would dance and sing through the long summer evenings, until dusk fell and the stars came out and they all went laughing and panting home, a community simple enough to be made happy by one little boy with a melodeon.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00