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JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY This story is
from the collection of essays on story-telling, Tales
within Tales: Apuleius through Time , ed. Constance S.
Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: AMS Press, 2000),
Rose in the Orphanage Infirmary
A search has been made in the records of the Greenwich Board of Guardians, now in my custody here. I have pleasure in giving you the following information:- Name - Rose M. Harris Born - April or August, 1911 (exact date and place not stated) Admitted to Greenwich Infirmary, aged 2, 10 September, 1913 Transferred finally to Greenwich Institution, 1 September, 1914 Transferred to Sidcup Home, 26 July, 1915 Discharged to Service, 24 July, 1928. Father - George T. Harris, of 23 Giffin Street in 1914 Mother - Rose Harris Brother - George, born 1905 As I understand that you cannot obtain a birth certificate I suggest that you keep this letter carefully to use in the future as evidence of your age and identity for official purposes such as employment, pension, etc. Yours faithfully, for Clerk of the Council
Years later, I went back to see the children who then lived in Mulberry Cottage and the tree was gone. I was told that a foster mother, who had only stayed for six months, had had it cut down. To her the leaves had been too much clearing up. I felt I had lost a dear friend of my childhood.
As I remember . . . I was wearing a red velvet dress, and holding tight to a lady's hand. I was four years old and this day is very clear in my mind. I was about to enter the Poor Law Institution run by Greenwich and Deptford Board of Guardians .
Rose and her mother at the Orphanage
We came to some very large iron gates. The lady rang the bell and a man came out to unlock the gates and let us in. Bang went the gates behind us. We were taken into a room known as the gate-house. A woman in a nurse's uniform came in. She asked the lady to leave. I started to scream and scream. I didn't want her to go. I was so frightened and then was very sick. I was told later that the lady had been my mother - I never saw her again from that day to this. And on that awful day I started my life in the Poor Law Institution.
We lived in Cottages, fifteen children (all girls) to a cottage. We didn't see the boys in the Home as boys and girls were kept apart.
There was a school in the home
grounds behind the big iron gates that locked out the rest
of the world. The girls and boys had separate playgrounds,
well fenced round so neither could meet, but there were
small peep-holes cut in the fence just big enough to see a
face through. One day - just by chance - I heard a boy call
my name: "Rose, Rose, come to the fence. I am your brother.
My name is George." That was the first time I ever knew I
had a brother. I saw him many times through the hole in the
fence, but only on Christmas Day were we allowed to meet and
have tea together.
I attended kindergarten school at the end of Giffen Street and Water Street. I remember the large wooden rocking horse in class, also the slate and pencils. When King George V and Queen Mary came to the throne, we were all given a tea party and each received a cup and saucer with pictures of the King and Queen. I remember the breaking of cups dropped in the playground by the young children gathered there, plonk, bang, crash.
We had a nice flower garden and Mom liked Sweet Peas, her favorite flowers. We lived at Coldwater Street, Deptford, in one large room. Its contents, one bed to sleep Mom and Dad and you, the baby Rose. I slept at the foot of the bed between two pairs of feet, Mom and Dad's. On account of no money, because our Dad visited the pubs and would come home drunk.
He drove a team of heavy-built horses. One morning, at almost daylight, he drove up to the house with a huge load of hay. I remember the small lamp beside his legs before he got off the wagon. It was a dark morning. I was seven years old. I admired the splendid team of horses in their harnesses.
Their father's horse-drawn wagon
Mom yelled, 'Georgie, go and bring in the chair.' She put large sheets of cardboard in the frame of the broken window. In my memory I can picture her yet, stretching to place the cardboard to keep out the wind and rain.
We had scant food. I remember Mom carrying a large paper bag of rotten oranges. She cut away the rot and fed the family with another bag of little pieces of broken biscuits for us to eat.
Many days I walked the streets of Deptford and Giffen Street where we again lived. I would be hungry and looking for the odd apple core in the gutter. Once in a while, I would sit near the door of a pub and men would fill me up sponge cakes from a jar of them on the counter. I remember being so hungry, I hooked a bunch of bananas, the police chasing me. My pants were badly in need of sewing up, so I would hold the rips together to keep out the wind.
Finally, Mom took you, Rose, two years old, and myself, eight years old, on the top of a bus. Mom fed us hard-boiled eggs and bread while on the ride to the Greenwich Poorhouse. There we were separated. Mom was a ward maid in Greenwich Hospital where you were, Rose, for two years. In the next few days I was sent to Sidcup Homes. Three years passed and I recognized you, playing in the Girls' Playground. By that time you were five years old, and when I called to you through a hole in the fence you did not know me. So I asked you where you was located in the Homes and told you I was your brother. I kept track of you the rest of my life.
I remember, at Sidcup, just for looking at a plum tree, being held down by several men, between the legs of one of them, and caned on the but. I can't eat plums. They bring back the memory of that cruel punishment. Another punishment, if I whispered in bed, was to be made to go downstairs and stand in my nightshirt and bare feet, hands high over my head, on the cold tile floor.
I don't want anyone to think that my early life had no highlights and that I always felt let down. There were happy times, when we children made our own fun. Also folks not connected with the running of the Poor Law Institution would give us presents and parties at Christmas, which stand out well in my memory. The nurses in the Infirmary were very kind and so were the teachers at the school. I well remember the teachers would bring in their stale cake and cut it into small pieces so each of us could have a little. Some of the children were visited on a Saturday afternoon by relatives and friends from two o'clock until four o'clock, but none ever came to see me. I cannot remember this worrying me too much. Though I looked forward to it as some of the children had sweets to share.
The Home was situated in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent, not that any of us, at that time appreciated it. It was a vast area, of countryside with trees, fields, lawns, gardens.
All our cottages were named after trees in alphabetical order. They went like this: Acacia, Almond, Cedar, Chestnut, Elder, Elm, Hawthorn, Hazel, Laburnum, Laurel, Lilac, Maple, Mulberry, Myrtle, Olive, Palm, Pine, Poplar, Rowan, Sycamore. Each cottage had its appropriate tree on the lawn near the cottage. Those were the girls' cottages with fifteen girls in each, all ages from four years to sixteen years. The boys' houses were known as blocks which were much larger and held many more boys in each block. They were also named after trees. There were five of them: the Oaks, the Limes, the Firs, the Beeches and Ash.
The main building, where the master of the Home lived was called the Hollies, but we didn't go near there if we could help it. Of course there was a house where matron lived, too, and an Infirmary. There was a watertower with a large clock at the top. The laundry was there. There was a bakery where all the bread was made, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a school. So it was almost self-contained, though there was no church so most services would be held in the School Hall. Sometimes we went to the church in the town where some of the boys sang in the choir.
The vegetables were grown in the grounds. We would see the horses and the ploughmen at work in the fields. As soon as the foster mother saw the horses around she would send us out with a bucket and shovel to go round the grounds to collect the horse manure for her garden. We hated that job.
Root vegetables were mostly grown. We seemed to live on swedes, carrots, turnips, beetroot and potatoes. On Saturday we sometimes had cabbage with a hot meal. We had cold mutton on Sunday as no cooking was done on Sunday. I can't ever remember having salad, apart from when there was a glut of lettuce grown. We would have that on Sunday, with our cold meat and beetroot. Two or three of us would be sent to the outhouse on Saturday to wash the lettuce ready for Sunday. If anyone had passed the outhouse at that time they would have thought we were rabbits. Lettuce is lovely when you are hungry.
A horse and cart brought milk round daily in large urns to each cottage. We would have to take out enamel jugs to be filled. In the summer time all milk was put on the stove to boil and the foster mother would leave it to get cold, then take the cream off the top. We never saw where that went. We always had fish on Fridays and Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Oh, that awful boiled cod, how we hated it!
Horses and carts were used for all deliveries of food rations to each cottage. The only car I ever saw at that time belonged to the doctor who came in when needed and twice a week on routine.
We were all vaccinated as I suppose all children were at that time. We had four pricks at the top of the left arm and they came up like four large scars. Very painful. The arm was wrapped up with lots of lint and bandage. We cried a lot with the pain, until the scabs started to form, which were as large as our one pence piece. Then we had to be careful the scabs were not knocked off before they were ready. We were all left with four large scars which we take to the grave. I'm pleased my daughter did not have to suffer so, when she was vaccinated.
We loved the Harvest Festivals which were held in the School Hall. The Harvest hymns were well known by us all. We would sing at the top of our voices, "We plough the fields and scatter, The good seed on the land, But it is fed and watered, By God's Almighty Hand," and "All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all." It would lift our hearts to heaven.
All around us (but out of reach) were large vegetables, wonderful roses, apples, pears, Michaelmas daisies, in large jars. Everything had been grown in the Home and it would be given to the hospitals in the town. At that time there was a Cottage Hospital and Queen Mary's Hospital. There wasn't a Health Service those days and to us it seemed the right place for it to go.
Rose in the Orphanage Infirmary
When I was eight years old I caught mumps and was put in the Infirmary. One evening I was told to look out of the window and wave goodbye to my brother as he was being sent to Canada. He was fifteen years old. I didn't know what this meant, but I waved goodbye. I didn't know I wouldn't see him again for fourteen years. Twenty-four other boys were going as well. They were promised the Good Life. What they didn't say about this Promised Land was that task-masters would work him to a standstill, and that he'd have to combat the raw tyranny of the seasons, the loneliness of the long evenings in a strange house in a strange land with no friends, beyond the reach of any kind of love or affection. He would on many a night cry himself to sleep. He was put on a farm owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Dickie. They put him to work from four o'clock in the morning until sunset. He has told me since that he had to do the family wash, clean the house and work on the farm, wages being next to nothing. He eventually earned the respect of his employers, had a family and bought a home.
I didn't see my brother again while I was in the house, though I had many letters and at Christmas he would send me one of his hard earned dollars.
What stands out most in my mind at this time was always being so hungry and cold. Food was very meagre, two thin slices of bread and treacle for breakfast and tea. I can see the mutton stew now on the plate at dinner time, swimming in fat, and lumps of swede floating around in it. We were so hungry we would eat it and be very sick afterwards. I spent my school life watching the hall clock, waiting for it to point to twelve o'clock dinner time. When we said grace, I would have one eye open in case the girl next to me pinched my one and only potato. When the house mother had her breakfast she had fried bacon, and we would stand behind her to see which one of us could get the bacon rind from her plate first. We took it in turns after a while. We children only had fried bacon on Christmas Day and an egg on Easter Sunday.
All through the year we strip-washed in cold water in very cold rooms. I can see the ice-covered windows now. There was one room with a coal fire in the winter, but we were never allowed by the fire. One morning stands out in my mind still. One of the girls, my age - we were friends - was very sick, and as we were sick very often the foster-mother didn't take any notice. That night she was very bad and the next day she died of meningitis. It took me a long while getting over that.
Religion played a big part in our lives. A text from a religious calendar had to be learned every morning before breakfast. The Sunday Collect had to be learned by heart before breakfast every Sunday. I still know most of them. And God help us if we didn't know what prayer-book Sunday it was. I would get muddled, and still do, with Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, but it had to be right.
We had to learn not only the Collect, but also the Epistle and Gospel during the day, answering questions on them in the evening. I found them very hard to remember. There had been so much going on in the day. On Sundays we had to keep so clean and tidy and so holy and silent out of fear of the foster mother and punishment.
We would have a morning service in the school hall taken by a very old clergyman, whom some of the boys at the other side of the hall would make fun of and then get punished for it. It wasn't a very bright service and the sermon seemed very long. I never could understand it. I was hoping all the time he would hurry up and end so we could go back to dinner which would be cold mutton and dry bread as there was no cooking on Sunday.
In the afternoon we would be taken in twos behind each other to the local church. We felt the lowest of the low, sitting on one side of the church with all outside people, as we called them, sitting on the other side of the church in their grand clothes. We always felt their children held their noses far too high in the air when they looked at us.
Scorn for the Orphans
Matron would walk up and down the pews to look for good girls whom she would give a penny or a halfpenny to put in the collection bag. When she came to or near me I would sit up straight and look holy in hopes she wouldn't pass me by. Then the Sunday came - my heart leaped - she gave me a penny to put in the bag.
I hoped the outside people were seeing that I was rich enough to give a whole penny to the church, which I thought must have been very poor to want of children who never saw a penny, which they had held in their hand for such a short time. It couldn't be for the clergyman. He was big and fat and very well fed.
My hopes were dashed to the ground on the following Monday morning at school. The teacher was talking about giving and said that when Matron gave us our money to put in the church collection, God knew it was not from us, as we didn't have it. Oh, how pleased God must have been with Matron. After tea, which sometimes we had with some very burnt seed cake, being Sunday, we had another service where whoever was called had to answer questions on the Epistle and Gospel which could be a dreaded nightmare. I remember it still. Best part of Sunday for us was later in the evening when we had hymn singing and, not being allowed to talk, we all let rip. My favourite was: "The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended."
We worked very hard, rising at quarter to six in the morning. Before going to school we would have to polish and scrub floors, and blacklead the coal-stove. After our dinner we cleaned cutlery and pots and pans, which had to be bright and shining. Evenings we would have to sit on forms, darn our stockings, patch our clothes and knit our own black stockings when we could darn our old ones no more.
Black-leading the coal-stove
In between school times we spent many hours on our knees not necessarily praying, though we had to do a great deal of that, but scrubbing and polishing and gardening. So very early in life I learned to pray the Kitchen Prayer:
I wasn't ill very often, but I did have to go every morning to the Infirmary to have my ears cleaned as they discharged all the time. I wasn't alone; nearly all of us had to go to Outpatient for something or other. It was always full, the room we waited in. I sometimes wondered if it was such a room where the roof would open, as in Jesus' time. and a bed would come through the roof. But, of course, it never did.
As I got older I suffered from very large, painful boils on my chin, under the arms, between the legs, and on my bottom so I couldn't sit down. At one time when I was really suffering badly, and the foster mother got really nasty with me to make me work. She came with a stick to get me out of bed as her room had a small window looking out on my bed and she saw I wasn't up. I moved as quickly as I could to get away from her, and I couldn't stop crying, I was in such pain.
When I got to the Infirmary Outpatient, I was in such a state, the nurse said I was to see the doctor (who had come in that day). The doctor said I was to stay in the Infirmary. Oh, what bliss. The nurses were so kind and gentle with my boils. At that time the only treatment was very hot fomentation to bring the core out. It took a long time to get better. I was in the Infirmary four weeks, but to me it was heaven. The nurses gave us nice things to eat, such as pat-a-cake biscuits, and cocoa with sugar in it for supper, unheard of in Mulberry Cottage. The nurses would kiss and cuddle us when they tucked us in to sleep at night. I don't ever remember feeling more safe than at that time.
The children told me the foster mother had come out of her room the next morning to see if I was up. She told them she would get me on my return. But as fate would have it, she was moved and I didn't come in contact with her again.
Sports Day was held once a year. It was a big show day when we had to look our best for the outside visitors and relatives, to let them see how happy we all were and how lucky we were to be in such a Home. This was one of the days (like Christmas) when the girls were allowed to put their hair in crakes. This means you take a very small piece of hair at a time and curl it round a piece of rag and tied it round in a knot. Next morning (after a very sleepless night) you would take the rags off and there you were with crisp curls and there would be someone to comb out those tangles while you tried to fight back the tears.
Right from my very first day I think I was told I wasn't pretty. In fact, very ugly and this worried me a lot. I wouldn't face anyone, and trying to look pretty was very much against the rules. If you were caught looking in a mirror it was more than your life was worth. Being vain was one of the deadly sins. After a few Sports Days I found I wasn't ugly. The boys were looking at me with the come hither look. Of course that was all they were allowed anyway. But it made me feel better. As the ugly duckling would say, "I'm a swan."
Leading up to Sports Day we would work very hard cleaning in every corner so on the day it looked as if we didn't work. It just appeared that way, for we were all so clean and tidy. No cooking was done so we didn't have to blacklead the cooking range. We were all given a lump of bread pudding for our dinner. I remember it well, with lumps of suet in it. We found it wasn't very good in the swimming races. It pulled you to the bottom of the water, but you were hungry so you ate it. It might be all you would get that day. Prizes for good work over the year were given out on Sports Day by the Board of Guardians. The prizes were mostly books but you felt very lucky if you were one of the chosen few. Swimming was one of my great outlets. How it worked was we would go swimming in our school time as a lesson. I learned to swim faster than anyone, but when it came to practice for swimming galas it meant asking the foster mother if she would let you off working duty for an hour in the evening. A great fear would come over me as I stood outside of her room trying to pluck up courage to knock on her door and ask, "Please, may I go swimming?" The other girls used to say, "Go on. She can't kill you." (I wondered.) "She can only say `No.'" Well, the first time I got my answer, "Swimming, swimming, certainly not." After that, the teacher wrote her a note, and told her I was a good swimmer and what an honour it would be for Mulberry Cottage if I came out top on Sports Day. Which, of course, I did. All the swimming team did so well, someone thought up the great idea that we could compete with the outside schools. This made us really practise very hard and we were all very excited and having a lot of fun, because somehow in the water you feel free. Then the bombshell for me. The order came through. No one could enter in any of the swimming competitions without a Birth Certificate. Of course, I wasn't the only one to be disappointed, but I was the top swimmer and the blow was hard to take.
Every evening, winter or summer, we would have to stay in one room to mend and patch all our clothing, knit all our black stockings when necessary. This was after we had done cleaning, scrubbing, polishing. To go out in the open air and play games was unheard of. If we had no mending or knitting to do, we were put on making mats with strips of material. They were called rag mats and mats with coloured wools. Knitting always had to be near at hand, at meal time if you had finished your meal before the others the foster mother would say, "Where is your knitting. Don't sit there idle. Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do."
So there wasn't much time for fun or reading books. Though on Sundays Matron had what she called a library and if we were brave anough to say we had time to read a book (Sundays only) some did venture to the holy of holies but I can't ever remember doing so.
At night time in the winter months, while we were knitting, sewing, mending, sometime the foster mother would read a book aloud to us, Charles Dickens mostly. I cried buckets for little Nell. How could they treat her so. Once a week the foster mother would inspect our darning and sewing. If the darns in our stockings were not up to her standards she would cut it out and make a much larger hole for us to end. Once she cut the whole foot from my sock and told me to reknit it up before morning. I needed the stocking to wear for school next day. Unbeknownst to anyone I sat up nearly all night sitting on the windowsill getting the light from the road outside, refooting my stocking. I didn't dare appear at breakfast without it. She was ready for me, "I didn't think you could get it done."
Once a week the foster mother would have a half day off and we always thought she might take a train to London. We felt like birds of the air just not to haver her around. We did our work just the same but we could talk, laugh and have fun. At 9:30 p.m. one of us would sit high on the window sill in the dormitory to listen for the train to tell us when she was at the station, and sure enough a few minutes later she would be coming round the corner towards the cottage where, of course, we would all be in bed fast asleep.
Once a month was what was called the Guardians' Day. When all the Board of Guardians would spend the day at the Homes, having meetings in the mornings in the big house called the Hollies where the head man of the Homes lived, a very big, frightening man, he terrified us all, and we would try to keep well away from him.
My brother to this day feels cowed down by his violence he did to him in those days. Many more boys over the years must have carried their fear of him to the grave. He was in charge of the boys. Matron was in charge of the girls. We saw very little of her, making sure we kept our distance. The Guardians would have a very grand dinner put on for them at the Hollies, and when I was older (with other girls) we had to wait on table and clear away plates, which would have food left on them, much more food than we ever had, and we would get the plates in the kitchen and fight over the remains of the food. I remember on such an occasion, the food being much richer than we ever had, that I was sick all night, and the foster mother (who knew we ate the leftovers) said, "Serve you right for being such a pig." After this meal (which took about two hours) the Guardians would make their way round to inspect the cottages and as they entered we would have to stand at attention, and if you were spoken to, you had to drop a curtsey, with "Yes, Sir," or "Ma'm." One day when they got around to Mulberry Cottage, we were having tea and as they entered we all stood, and waited for them to tell us when to sit down which they would say, "You may sit down now, girls, and get on with your meal." Which on this occasion was plum jam on our ration of bread. One of the guardians had their young daughter with them who looked at our bread and said something like, "How revolting. It looks like Ronie" (which was a cleaner we polished the floors with.) It put me right off plum jam for ever.
When the Guardians Day was over I think we all sighed a sigh of relief. 'Till next time for both children and staff.
School was quite a happy place, as long as we behaved ourselves and we tried. Being caned would upset us for the rest of the day, apart from having a very sore hand. As I got older I felt so ashamed in front of the whole class, it was so degrading. When I first went to school we had slates and slate pencils for writing adding up and taking away sums and then going in a higher class we used paper and pencil, followed by pen and ink and what a mess on my work that was, 'till we got used to it.
Summer and winter we went into the play ground to do drill. In the winter some of us would cry with the cold. So the teacher would let us put on our cloaks in twos and hold each other round the back. She called it playing two horses and we would run round the playground.
I didn't learn a lot at school. The classes were so large the teacher didn't seem to notice if you were not taking in what was going on. We didn't have school reports, nobody was that interested.
I was very quick on mental arithmetic, which has held me in good stead in my working life. But as for reading aloud and spelling I sadly miss out. I never did have good handwriting. I should have gone to evening classes when I left the Homes but I was put in Domestic Service which only gave one half day off a week so that wasn't possible. Anyway I spent that half day off most of the time in bed I would get so tired working from early morning till late at night.
School holidays were not what we looked forward to, it was a time the foster mother said was for spring cleaning and in the summer the month's holiday seemed endless. I seemed to spend so much time on punishment doing extra work or being put on my own to do the very dirty jobs. One summer holiday we did have a surprise. Some kind people paid for us to go to the seaside for a day. We went by train. Not being used to traveling I was sick all the way. But I was all right when we got there (Dovercourt, the seaside). We had lots of fun playing on the beach and paddling in the sea. Christmas holidays were shorter and being it got dark early, the working hours were less. We would help make Christmas Puddings, we'd stone the raisins, chop the suet. We would have to sing while stoning the raisin so we couldn't eat any, not that we would dare.
One day that stands out at school was Armistice Day. For the first four years I was in the Institution the First World War was on. I don't remember much about it. We all seemed to be fighting our own private battles to keep alive. At school the older girls were calling out, "The war is over!" and they were very happy about it. I wondered what difference it would make for us. Would everything be nice? But everything was the same. Every one had to attend the Armistice Service in the school hall and stand at attention through the service. Some of the lady teachers cried all the time, because their menfolk wouldn't be home from the war. Then a long list of old boys from the Home was read out as killed or missing. Come to think of them now, what a poor life they had. Then some of the brothers and sisters cried. That was a sad day for all with the boys' band playing on their trumpet the last part and in that great hall you could have heard a pin drop.
We were told to leave the hall in silence and think on our brave boys who had not come back from the war. I'm afraid it wasn't until World War II that I knew what this was all about. All I wanted to do was to put my arm around my friend who was six years old and crying so much. Her big brother still had not come home. In my childlike way I suppose I was saying he still might come back and see her and I hoped he would.
When I was twelve years old I knew all the ropes and how to keep out of trouble, what to do and what not to do. So I was quite surprised one morning after breakfast when the foster mother said to me, "Matron wants to see you after school this afternoon. So make sure you are clean and tidy." Now a command from matron invariably meant trouble or punishment. So all the girls looked at me with great pity, wondering what I had done wrong. Being that this was my very first command from Matron (I avoided her like the plague), I spent the day worrying about it.
So at 4:00 o'clock, with some of the girls hiding behind trees, I walked up the path to Matron's house, waited a while, then rang the bell. One of the older girls came to the door and said, "Oh yes, Matron is expecting you." I waved to the girls hiding behind the trees, went in and the door was shut. We went along a hall and the girl knocked on the door where Matron was. A voice said, "Come in." The girl said, "Rose Harris to see you, Madam." She said, "Thank you, Mary," and Mary went out and shut the door.
Then Matron turned to me. "Sit down, child. I have something very important to say to you. I have been approached by the Ladies' College at Eltham to have my permission if they could start a Girl Guide company in our Homes, and was wondering if you would be the leader and ask around, girls of your age, if this would be possible?" I didn't think I was hearing right. "They need twelve girls altogether to start the company. They are coming Tuesday week, all being well, and will you meet at 7:00-8:30 p.m. in the gymnasium?"
I was thinking, "Are we going to be allowed to enjoy ourselves? For one and a half hours in the evening with ladies from outside." She must have noticed the look of glee and surprise on my face, for she smiled and said, "That's all for now. Let me have the names as soon as possible." I went down the path almost in a dream. The girls came out of their hiding places, saying, "What have you done? What did she say?" I said, "Let's go round behind the work shops" ( where the boys did their boot mending and other jobs). As I unfolded the story their eyes opened wide and so did their mouths. The couldn't believe what I was saying.
They all started talking at once, "But Girl Guides do all sorts of exciting things, they hike and camp and they work at things they want to do." "So," I shouted out, "Well, who wants to join?" And of course everybody did. So I soon made up twelve girls of the right age. Girl Guiding opened up a really bright, interesting world for us. We had a lot more free time because everytime the College ladies wanted us to do something new they would ask Matron and she couldn't very well say, "No," so we found ourselves working for all kinds of badges and as time went on we were learning more and more about the outside world.
We would have speakers in to talk to us. One evening we had a sea captain to give us a talk on the stars and at the end of the evening he said, "I would like you to write down all I have been saying and bring it along with you next week." Which, of course, we all did.
About a month later, I was told I had to go to the Hollies to appear before the Board of Guardians. I was more grown up now and I didn't fear the Board of Guardians so much. I was told that my essay on the stars after the talk of Captain Squires had been voted the best by the Astronomer Royal (at that time, F.W. Dyson). That was in March of 1926.
I was given a leather bound book of the classic, Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmoor which I still have to this day. It's still wonderful and a joy to have.
When I first went to school until I was about eight years old, primary school years, we were never allowed to drink anything between meals, not that there was anything apart from water. It didn't matter how hot the day, or how thirsty we were, we had to wait until meal time, breafast and tea, when we had half a mug of milk and water, which wasn't allowed to be drunk 'till after we had eaten all our bread. As you can guess, even though we were hungry we found it difficult to do. Their excuse was to save us from wetting the beds. Now and again children did wet their beds, not because of the water they drank, but out of fear they might do it and the punishment they would get.
I remember the day when the foster mother went on holiday for a month and we had a relief foster mother and when one of the children was unwell and we all crowded around her to see what was wrong, the foster mother said to her, "When did you last have a drink?" and we all looked at her, and said, "We are not allowed drinks." And she said, "Of course you are. You can drink as much water as you like. Go and get some water for her." We all flew to the cold water taps and drank our fill. How lovely it was. And every playtime at school we would spend it drinking water. There were far fewer wet beds after that. I think our bodies needed that water.
There were no inside toilets for children, only one which was used by the foster mother. The toilets and washroom were about twenty yards from the cottage. There were two toilets where, of course, most of the time we would have to queue. The washroom and toilets were very cold in winter and almost always frozen up. The washroom was also where we prepared all the vegetables, potatoes and swedes in freezing cold water, which was more like a punishment job. I once had to clean six pairs of muddy boots in the washroom, on a very snowy afternoon. No heat in there whatsoever. I was crying with the cold and couldn't hold the boot brushes. My hands were numb with the cold. We all had chilblains on hands and feet. I had them on the back of my heels. They would crack and be very painful. We all shed tears in the cold weather.
The warmest place to be, of course, was bed, and sometimes it was hard to get up in the morning. The foster mother's bedroom was in between the dormitories, with windows. She would peer out on us. Oh dear, that face at the window!. In the winter time we would have a bit more time to get out of bed before she saw us. Her light would go on and one of us that might be awake would call, "Come on. She up. She be out in a minute," and we would all move very fast for we never knew what punishment she would think of next. Of course, a few of the children ran away. I would think how brave they were, and how did they do it? Everywhere was so fenced in and high gates locked but they still seemed to manage it. Some would get caught quite quickly and come back in tears. Others would make it; but we would never know what happened to them.
It was no good me running away. Where would I go? I had no one to run to. When we were in our teens, sometimes on a Saturday afternoon near Christmas, we were allowed to go out of the houses to see the shops in the High Street. Now this was very queer for us to go outside those locked gates. Of course we had to keep together, but to us it was forbidden ground for so long it was almost impossible to know what to do with such freedom.
It was like breathing different air. We got to a grocer shop. We must have looked very hungry because the man came out and gave us all a penny bag of broken biscuits. We ate every crumb before we returned. We saw all the shops lit up for Christmas. We didn't have any money to spend, of course, but to breathe the High Street air did us all a power of good. I had never seen the High Street shops before. I expect, to the outsider, we looked proper waifs and strays, which, of course, was what we were.
I enjoyed that afternoon looking back. And yet we were brought up to work, not to enjoy life. That was a sin. If we were not working, we would be asked, "Why are you wasting your time?" It wasn't until I was in the Army, I had just finished my eight hour shift, someone shouted out, "Are you going to the dance? Enjoy yourself!" Yes, enjoy myself. For the first time I didn't feel guilty.
Sex was never mentioned. One would find out a bit about oneself when the frightful day came for the first menstrual. I thought I was dying. The foster mother just said, "Go and clean yourself up and wash your clothes," and she sent me to one of the older girls to tell me all about it. Or rather what she knew. She gave me some calico squares to fold up and wear with a bit of tape. "You have to change often and wash the squares straight away and don't leave anything where other girls will see them." I felt so unclean. She said, "Don't worry. It only lasts a week and comes once a month. It just means you have grown up now." I didn't want to grow up if this is what it meant. That was all I was told about sex. When I left the Homes to go into service, I was given twenty-four of these calico squares. I managed to wash them without the mistress seeing them but couldn't think of how I was going to get them dry, so I put them about the bedroom. My bedroom door was open when she passed the door and she was horrified. "What's all this?" she said. "I've got to dry them somewhere," I said. She just said, "Oh dear. I will give you extra money to buy what you need from the chemist." And she gave me the money, one shilling, and told me what to ask for. I was so grateful to be comfortable and not wear calico squares which rubbed so and made the skin raw. So, of course, what I knew about sex was very hush-hush.
We were all in the same boat. Neither teachers nor anyone in charge told us anything. My brother was sent to Canada (with many other boys) and I know they learned the hard way, as most of us must have done. It doesn't bear thinking about how many young people suffered by just not knowing the facts of life.
A few months before I left the Homes rumours were going round that there were going to be great changes in the way the Homes were run and sure enough when I returned for a visit to see some of my friends I had left I could hardly believe my eyes. The great iron gates had gone. The Homes had been taken over by the London County Council. What a change. The children were having beans on toast for tea. They said they were having lovely food. They could have as much as they wanted. They wore pretty clothes and for school they wore white blouses and skirts and panama hats, just like the outside schools. (That was the fashion those days. Oh, how I would have loved a Panama hat!)
Daily women were employed to do all the heavy work. The back gardens were dug up and made into playing areas. Bats and balls and skipping ropes appeared. Boys were now able to playfootball and the girls tennis. And they could go swimming when they wanted to. Now there were no gates to stop them they could go for walks outside. There were what we call open days, nice teas would be laid on for children's families and visitors.
That wasn't all. Brothers and sisters were living in the same cottages, like real families.
Alas, this change was too late for me, but for the children still left in the Homes it was a much brighter future.
I envy them.
Always happy to hear from you, nice that you and I are so active in Life. I shall do my best toward the History of George Harris.
Yes, on a Sunday afternoon, in the year 1921, when I was sixteen, Mr. Joe Steer stood on the auditorium platform in the School, all present, and said, "Who wants to go to Canada?"
In the previous year, him and Bonner caned me, eight whacks. I thought sure for me to go to Canada, to get away from cruelty. We boys sailed out of Liverpool harbour for the trip to Canada. While on board ship, we enjoyed lovely meals. Some of us got seasick, others skipped and picked up pennies thrown down on the deck by passengers. Guess they figured we needed them. We sure did for sweets.
Upon arrival at Quebec, we disembarked and boarded a waiting train, our destination some three hundred miles inland. With our pennies we bought ice cream cones, 2 1/2 d. cheap those good old days. We arrived by train at Belleville, Ontario, stayed in a large house a couple of days or so, then called into a room for interview toa matron, who asked and told us where we go. Then on the train for a country place called Yonge Mills, a farming section, where an old lady with horse and buggy, or we say, carriage, a fast stepping horse. I asked her, "Whose horse?" She said it was Roy's horse. I thought she said a "royal" horse. The Canadian accent had me whipped until I caught on. We arrived after a two mile ride to the farm house. While dismounting I caught up in the huge wheel, too green to know how to alight from a buggy. The mistress from the front door called to her friend and sons, big men, "Oh no, he is too small." I guess the two slices of bread I got at Sidcup, not enough to satisfy the appetite, did not make me big like her sons. It turned out I had landed in Heaven, regards treatment though. Some boys met with hard going. Of course, one has to keep quiet and work with all the strength he possesses. On arrival at this farm I met men all working thrashing the grain and all seated later at the dinner table, me standing there in knee pants, celluloid collar, and ribbon red tie, the men all laughing at my clothing, I guessed. I felt silly.
After they cleared out, Ma (what we called her) set me up for lunch or dinner, meat and potatoes, which I ate, dessert was black current pie. The pie was too rich so I told her, "No thanks, Not used to rich pie. None like it at Sidcup."
After that lunch I was introduced to the Canadian way of life. It meant to be capable of knowing how to work. I was told to go and look around the farm yard to see the chickens and cornfields, then while seeing around, met these strong men, and decided to get acquainted, well you might say, "dig in" to where I was to work. The lady of the house thought well of me. I helped her turn the wheel on the washing machine, made myself useful, we chatted while she sat in her rocking chair. This way of living was so different after caged up with fifty boys in Limes. I mentioned Sidcup Homes and playing trumpet in the band, the next surprise was a new trumpet for me. After the day's work I would sit in the barn, play the waltz "Peggy O'Neil," "Peggy O'Neil is a girl who could steal any heart, anywhere, any time." And I'll put you wise, it was a beautiful tune. They were delighted.
I remember one morning finding a robin sitting on her nest and frozen stiff in the shed where we kept all the vehicles or carts, etc. The robin built her nest on an old cupboard. So I worked in the fields until I was real tired, but food and bed revived me for the next day, did milk cows, feed horses, etc., drove on the land to nearby store. They would allow me to drive the old horse and take the eggs to market and trade the eggs for needed groceries. She gave me a list to get groceries, so no cash deal, straight trade. They let me attend school for two years. In a Christmas concert put on by the pupils I was asked to act in the dialogue as a bashful beau. I had learnt the part and all cheered my talking to the lady who had two beaus trying to win her heart. The teacher phoned the next day, telling me how well I had recited my part. She said the concert would have been nothing if I had not attended. To sputter out something to say to make my sweetheart happy, I said, "Jerusha, I have got my potatoes dug and my pumpkins drawn in the barn," every once in a while. The crowd would grin and applaud to rock the ceiling down, at my proposal. I qualified to go on to further my schooling, but I had to say "Thank you," and decide to work.
I was one of the most fortunate Home boys. Many came to Canada and were terribly treated, and brutal at that. The Home authorities had an inspector travel around the different farms where these boys were placed. One day I noticed an auto coming up this country road and who was driving it was an elder Home boy, whom I recognized, so right away I figured may be they were coming to get me to work on some other farmer's place, so I hid in an old carriage house. The people I already knew and lived with were out in the yard, calling "George!" But I stayed quiet until they left the property. I hated to think I might have to change farms. When I explained they got a good laugh out of this.
Jack Whitepost I could not locate so as time went by I happened to be asking of his whereabouts and they told me. He was working in a huge city dairy. So I happened to know the names of a couple of dairies in Toronto, some two hundred miles from here. After writing and enquiring I found the huge dairy where Jack Whitepost worked. Also I found his home at 1:00 a.m.. The policeman told me where he lived. So first through the window, I could see the family was gathered around their television. I peeked in the window, saw Jack with his stretched left ear, which they pulled on while in Limes at Sidcup. There we had an ex-policeman, a brute. After knocking on his door, he appeared. "Well hello, Jack." But Jack did in a moment recognize me and placed his arms around my neck, speechless for a while. Then, "Well, George, how are you. Come on in." So from 1:00 to 6:00 we sat reminiscing, talking over our former lives. I told his wife, "His name is Jack Whitepost. They found him, a baby, near a white post." She looked and stared at me. Right away I felt like a farthing. She never knew his history. Now Jack is gone, age 81.
Must close. I have done my best to help an
intelligent sister. Bye, dear, George.
Rose waving her brother 'Goodbye'.
is from the collection of essays on story-telling, Tales
within Tales: Apuleius through Time , ed. Constance S.
Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: AMS Press, 2000),
pp. 157-164. To order, see 'Whole Earth Catalogue'. It has most recently
been published The Hollies:
A Home for Children, ed. Jad Adams and Gerry Coll
(London, 2005), pp. 75-95.
GO TO 'AN ENGLISH ROSE', PART II
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