Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

Mollie Caird's reminiscences of her childhood

Alphabetic index of poems

Thematic index of poems



Contact and links

In 1983 Mollie Caird's mother took part in an oral history project by completing a questionnaire about her childhood at the end of the C19 and beginning of the C20. Mollie decided to record her own reminiscences using her mother's as a template. The actual questions are not now known and have been replaced by headings derived from the content of the responses, but the yes/no answers have been retained. The annotations in square brackets [thus] are editorial.


1.  My father [Ezra Benjamin Newport, 1882-1965], a schoolteacher, was born in Sherborne, Dorset, son of a bookseller and newsagent. Both my paternal grandparents came of Dorset farming families, but there was a vague family idea that the Newports had originated in South Wales. My mother’s [Emily Lillian Overington, 1894-1984] origins are described in her own c.v. which you have [not included here].


2.  I was born in a nursing home in Redhill, Surrey [5 December 1922]. My brother [John Ernest Newport, 1921-1978 - "Jack"] and only sibling (18 months older than I) was born at home with doctor and midwife. It was the day of the “monthly nurse” who settled into the house before the birth and stayed for several weeks after. My mother regretted not following this routine for my birth as well, as the nursing home she chose in good faith turned out to be seriously inadequate, and closed down under a cloud the following year.


3.  I learnt to read and write and do simple arithmetic at home before going to school at the age of six. My brother and I went to North Bank, a small private preparatory school for children of 5-10 owned and run by a single woman, Miss Rayner, with one full-time assistant. The reception class (which I was never in) was taught in separate room by Miss White, the assistant, who had a very thin nose and her hair done in “snails” over her ears. Everyone else was in the big schoolroom, taught by Miss Rayner. I suppose there were about thirty of us. Subjects of general interest – history, geography, scripture, nature study, were in separate groups, working on our own, with Miss R. moving among us to correct, exhort, explain. We loved North Bank. The atmosphere was relaxed but busy. I don’t remember Miss R ever having disciplinary problems except with her own naughty nephew. Her school had a great reputation in the borough for sending well-grounded children on to the grammar schools. I think she was just a natural teacher who made everything interesting to the children. She had on her desk a black (ebony, I suppose?) ruler which was a supposed weapon of chastisement, but was really more of a fetish object. I don’t remember her ever actually rapping anyone’s knuckles with it, but it was sometimes mentioned, or lifted warningly.

We did simple gymnastics and country dancing. Our drawing, painting, acting etc. were linked with the “serious” lessons – e.g. we would paint catkins or autumn leaves, dramatize history stories, make plasticine models of bronze-age villages or African kraals. Miss Millard came one afternoon a week for handwork, but all I remember of that is interminable raffia mats.

There was a good playground where we had sessions of supervised team and singing games as well as free playtime at break. We were sometimes taken, crocodile, for nature walks, and also, in summer, to play cricket in a nearby in pasture where the first task was always to reconnoitre for a pitch free of cowpats.

On Empire Day we always marched round the playground and garden waving small union jacks and singing a patriotic hymn or song, saluting a large union flag as we passed it. Miss R. was old-fashioned about the importance of the red bits on the globe. Indeed, we even continued to celebrate Empire Day at the girls’ County School for a few years after I went there. There was some sort of ceremony at a protracted morning assembly. In my first year there I was made (as the youngest girl in the school) to recite “O where are you going to, all you big steamers?” [Kipling] to the entire school – a terrifying experience.

I was nine when I went on to the Girls’ County (High) School, and won a free place there when I was old enough to sit the scholarship exam at eleven. I was very happy at the County School, except during maths lessons, which I hated, because usually out of my depth. Most of the teachers were kind – even, to their credit, the maths teachers. English and biology were my favourite subjects. The curriculum and school activities were no doubt just the same as at any girls’ high school of similar size (300-350 pupils) in the 1930s.


4.  I don’t think I was “made” to do any specific chores – just expected to lend a hand when Mummie was busy. I regularly dried dishes, dusted, shelled peas. Dusting was boring. We “helped” our mother at cooking and baking from an early age and loved it, because she treated it as an instructive game. When I was a bit older I enjoyed sharing the baking spree on wet Saturday mornings. I was also expected to help, as soon as I was old enough, with the mending. In the days before synthetic fibres the mending basket was an ever-present tyranny in the evenings of the women without servants. [illegible sentence] I wasn’t expected to stay in on fine Saturdays. Daddy didn’t do anything in the house except filling coal-scuttles, cleaning shoes, simple domestic repairs and taking up the stair-carpets at spring cleaning. His contribution was his allotment – he grew all our vegetables. All the family took part willingly in the annual rituals of Christmas pudding and marmalade making.

The domestic routine was very regular, if not rigid. Strict routine was the only way to get the work done in the pre-mechanized days. I believe there was a daily mother’s help (a young girl) when we were very tiny, but thereafter no domestic help except at spring-cleaning, when Miss Whitmore came every day for about a fortnight. This was a horrendous upheaval: the sweep in the rooms where we had fires, the carpets collected by Mr. Gear, with a long overcoat and a handcart, to be beaten on the Common – every inch of the house scrubbed and polished. We loved the chaos of it when we were little, liked it less when we were older and were expected to do our share of washing paintwork, cleaning pictures, etc.

The rented house we lived in till I was seven was a housewife’s nightmare. It was gas-lit, there were cavernous basement kitchens with brick and stone floors, and no water at all on the upper ground floor where our dining and drawing rooms were. In spite of this we had most of our meals in the dining room. I suppose the awkwardness of having to carry all the food and dishes up and downstairs was less unpleasant then eating in the damp dismal basement. My poor mother always had dreadful chilblains all winter. The house my parents bought in 1930, though not particularly well equipped by today’s standards, was a paradise of comfort and convenience compared with Hardwick Villa.

All washing was done at home except for sheets (Miss Whitmore again) and Daddy’s collars, which were taken to and fetched from the laundry weekly until stiff collars went out of fashion.

5.  Yes, my parents were very affectionate, both to each other and to us. Apart from Choir practice and Choral Society, I don’t think they spent any time together outside the home without us children. Presumably they were unusually quietly at home together in the evening after we were in bed. We were a very tight-knit family foursome. Yes, they played with us. I remember my Mother teaching me “I spy” as soon as I knew the phonetic sounds of the alphabet, and my dogging her footsteps round the house insisting on playing it while she did her housework and cooking, mystified that she tired of this fascinating occupation faster than I did. My father, a born teacher, never ceased showing and explaining interesting things on our walks. He was also, when in the mood, a great buffoon: his funny faces, hats, voices, walks delighted us.

6.  No. The only money my mother earned was an occasional guinea or two for a singing engagement.

7.  Every Christmas we all went to stay with my maternal grandparents, who were by now living in Horsmonden, a Kent village where my grandfather managed the grocery side of the general store. My childless uncle and aunt-in-law were usually there for Christmas too. Somehow we all packed into the little 3-bedroom cottage. My brother and I slept one each end of a single bed in an alcove in our grandparents’ room.

There was no electricity in the village, and the oil-lamps downstairs and candles upstairs were part of the romance of Christmas to me.

My father always took us out to gather holly from the hedgerows, and we decorated the house with this and with home-made paper-chains. The ritual stirrings of puddings and cakes had taken place weeks before, and we took these with us, packed in a wooden box marked WITH CARE in red ink by my father, and carefully watched by us all in and out of the guard’s van on each of the three trains we had to go on; we had to change at Tonbridge and Paddock Wood, and a porter had to convey the precious box across the line. We had Christmas pudding every day for about a week, as we had to do equal justice to Grandma’s pudding, Auntie Elsie’s pudding and Mummie’s pudding.

As well as pudding, we had roast beef and three vegetables on Christmas Day, mince pies and Christmas cake. There were always plenty of dates, figs, nuts, oranges, crystallized fruits and other goodies between meals.

Although Jack and I were the only children in the party we had a wonderful time. My uncle and aunt both enjoyed children, and played with us as much as our parents did. There was usually some new card game or board game among our presents which we had to master, and rope some of the grownups into foursomes. Otherwise the whole party played round games: hearts, sevens, donkey, old maid etc. As soon as we were old enough we were taught old-fashioned auction bridge, which the grownups continued playing for hours after we were in bed.

My brother and I hung up pillow-cases on Christmas Eve into which Father Christmas supposedly put our presents – an odd ritual, as the parcels were all clearly marked with their donors’ names. I suppose the idea was to keep us occupied as long as possible before the rest of the family were awakened by my grandfather singing Christians Awake to the accompaniment of his English concertina. I was generally pleased with my Christmas present, which included toys, books, painting, stencil and transfer sets, and usually some item of clothing or equipment a little more frivolous than the everyday. A couple of great-aunts were inclined to send worthy presents – embroidered hankies or pastel-coloured deckle-edged children’s note-paper. The only use for this paper was writing thankyou letters on it, and I vividly remember my mutinous mood when I was sat down to this unpopular task on the day after Boxing Day.

We got our Christmas exercise by long country walks with our father; picking holly, playing Poohsticks (not yet so-called) at the Medway bridge, sliding on the ice, fetching the milk (in enamelled cans with lid) from the Misses Mercer’s dairy.

On frosty nights we looked at the moon and planets through Grandad’s four-inch telescope. Indoors, for a treat, there were his microscope and stereoscope.

8.  My parents didn’t have much leisure. Music was, I suppose their only real leisure activity. Besides the Church choir and local Choral Society, my mother sang in a S.A.T.B. quartet which won prizes in the local festival and had quite a lot of engagements in those largely pre-radio and pre-gramophone days. She also did some solo work. My father played viola in a local orchestra. A great deal of my father’s spare time was spent cultivating his allotment, from which he supplied all our vegetables and also gave a lot away.

When I was still quite little a Church tennis club was inaugurated, my parents were founder members, and we spent most fine summer Saturday afternoons there. The club was in semi-rural surroundings on the outskirts of Redhill, and while our parents played tennis my brother and I and one or two other children played in the lovely adjoining hay meadow, trespassed in the moon-landscape of the nearby fuller's earth quarries, searched for lost balls, fetched water for tea from the nearest cottage (I think from a well – but maybe I’m romanticizing – perhaps it was only a stand-pipe). Sometimes we “helped” with chores like mowing, line-marking, creosoting the pavilion, net-mending – all play to us. The pavilion had chemical loos behind curtains in the two changing rooms, and the tea-kettle was boiled on a primus stove. When we were older we joined the club in our own right. Its membership wasn’t confined to Church adherents, and several of our school friends belonged to it.

9.  [The tenure of the family's house] Rented till 1930, then owned (see elsewhere).

10.  [Moving house] Only once, from the rented house to owner-occupied, for the obvious reason that it was advantageous for my parents to start buying a house as soon as they could afford to.

During the whole time we lived at Hardwick Villa, Meadvale, and for the first few years after we moved to Smoke Lane, we had lodgers, who had their own two rooms and shared our kitchen and bathroom. I best remember “Auntie Daisy”, a widow with a schoolboy son much older than us; then, after we moved, a series of elderly single ladies of varied eccentricity. One of them, Miss Hogben, had a hearing aid in the form of a long speaking-tube which she carried around coiled up in a basket like a sleeping cobra, to be sprung suddenly on shop assistants and bus conductors.

11.  My father was on the Burnham Scale for certified teachers at its inception. I don’t know what his annual salary was, but you could find out from the N.U.T. I doubt if it was over £200 in the early 1920s. He had some increments for his war service. Before the war he had been an uncertified teacher, and used his ex-serviceman’s grant to go to College from 1918 to 1920. He earned a few extra pounds a year by refereeing football league games on winter Saturdays. Although I imagine he did this mainly for the money, I think he got fun out of it. He had played a lot of amateur league football before he was married, and enjoyed coaching boys and refereeing. He was also school choirmaster and deputy head, for which I imagine he got a little addition to his basic salary.

My parents were always very economical and careful about putting money by for a rainy day. Apart from the mortgage, nothing was paid in instalments. My father was almost obsessive about never owing a penny; I doubt if an unpaid bill ever lay in our house for as long as twenty-four hours.

12.  We had plenty of good plain food. My father’s home-grown vegetables were the back-bone of our diet. My mother never had to buy a single vegetable until, at the age of about 70, my father couldn’t dig any more because of an arthritic hip. We had porridge, then eggs etc. for breakfast, meat and several vegetables for midday dinner followed by pudding or pie, cheese or egg or cold meat at high tea with salad, and a bedtime snack with cocoa when were old enough to stay up later. Fresh fruit and milk were important items in our diet.

Chicken was then vastly more expensive than red meats, and so was very rare and considered “special” by everyone. I remember my first experience of roast chicken as a very tiny child, being asked to guess what this extraordinary creature on the table was. I hazarded “donkey” – I think the legs sticking up put me in mind of long ears. My own favourite foods tended to be the most ordinary. My mother tried to give us high nourishment at low cost; consequently fresh herrings and pig’s liver were both often served, and I adored both. I have a distinct impression that I could dismantle a herring efficiently while still in my high chair – but perhaps I exaggerate. I certainly remember being in my high-chair, of the treat of being given a spoonful of grapefruit juice from the mother’s breakfast grapefruit, and of being put outside the dining room door, chair and all, in disgrace when I threw a tantrum at a meal (cause of tantrum not remembered).

I loved supposedly mundane food: suet roly-poly with golden syrup, spotted dick with brown sugar, chocolate blancmange, creamy macaroni milk pudding (called “worms” by my brother and me). We had fruit pies all the year round, as my mother bottled fruit on quite a big scale. All cakes were home-made, and the box that took our Christmas puddings to Horsmonden came back in the three guards’ vans packed with pounds and pounds of my grandmother’s home-made jam. My mother made chutney and pickles, partly for home consumption, partly for sale at Church bazaars. Chocolate and ice-cream were both rare enough to be great treats.

13.  Yes, we were a very close-knit family unit. We were on friendly but not intimate terms with our neighbours.

14.  Yes, we had birthday parties. My brother’s party, in late May, was often a picnic: I remember individual fruit jellies being made in waxed cartons to take to the Common, where we played French cricket or rounders, and grandmother’s footsteps, and perhaps had a treasure hunt. My party, in early December, was more like a Christmas party, at which we played the familiar indoor children’s party games, and had balloons and crackers and presents distributed from a cotton-wool snowman.

Relations, and sometimes friends from a distance, came to stay, but I don’t think my parents did much evening entertaining, except when the quartet rehearsed at our house. Family tea-parties were the usual form of entertaining in our circles. We very commonly had someone to tea or went out to tea on Sunday afternoons.


15.  I remember my father reading Alice in Wonderland to us when we were very small. I think the first books I read myself were book our parents had already read to us – I would then pick my way through the familiar story, pestering my brother to tell me the more difficult words. I remember a particularly well-illustrated Mother Goose, a simplified Peter Pan with illustrations by Mabel Lucy Attwell, Alice, Helen’s Babies, the Just-So Stories, various “shown to the children” nature books, Cicely Barker’s Flower Fairies, and Edmund Dulac’s Red Cross fairy tale picture book. Dulac’s magical painting of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, luminous in the pumpkin patch, raised feelings of almost religious awe and delight in me. We acquired When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six and the Pooh books as they were published (I’m an exact contemporary of Christopher Robin Milne). We had a fair collection of English classics at home.

My father subscribed to a journal called Pictorial Education, which consisted of large loose-leaf sepia photographs of places, people, animals, famous paintings etc. for use in the classroom by geography, history and English teachers. We had access to these before and after he took them to school, and they gave me hours of happiness. An aborigine father and son with boomerangs, the Boyhood of Raleigh, cocoa beans drying in the sun, Arabs with dromedaries, Dante and Beatrice and many others are imprinted indelibly on my retina.

We weren’t allowed comics, which I think my parents considered trashy – consequently we devoured them avidly in other children’s homes. For a while they bought us a worthy journal called the Children’s Newspaper instead. I think my brother read this right through, but I read only the nature notes and Enid Blyton’s column – I was probably too young for it (5 or 6) during the time it came into the house.

When we were older we had access to school and County libraries. My mother often came to the library with us. She got out novels for herself, biographies for my father, but I don’t think either of them had time to read much when we were young. For years my favourite reading was animal stories: Kipling’s Jungle Books, Ernst Thompson Seton, Henry Williamson, etc.


16.  We had a fortnight’s seaside holiday every summer, at Worthing when we were very small (because there were my mother’s relations to take refuge with if it rained), then at various south coast resorts. We did all the usual things children do at the seaside. Our earliest swimming lessons were with Daddy in the sea. As a teacher my father had long holidays, which meant that we went away more than most families.

We usually had a week or two at my maternal grandparents after the seaside holiday, and we always had a week or so there at both Christmas and Easter. The Kent countryside (cherry orchards, hop gardens, lanes lined with primroses) was quite different from the chalk downs and sandy heaths of our part of Surrey, and we enjoyed our holidays there – primrosing at Easter; mushrooming, blackberrying and looking on at the hop-picking and oasts in early September. Every second or third summer we spent part of the holiday at Sherborne to visit my paternal grandmother and uncles and aunts.

Other summer delights were all-day picnic parties on the North Downs with a family of friends whose children were roughly the same age as us. Neither family had a car and we leant to walk considerable distances from a very early age. Commuter-belt Surrey was wonderfully unspoilt then. The Downs were studded with typical chalkland flora: milkweeds, wild thyme, centaury, five or six species of orchids – and we would encounter very few other people on our walks.

Before we moved to our house opposite North Bank School our three-quarter mile walk to school took us across a cornfield and up through a steep larch wood. Within easy walking distance of both our old and new homes were an oakwood full of bluebells, coppices with anemones, acres and acres of rough common, a fascinating brickfield still in production, a farm with pigs which we fed on acorns collected en route.


17.  I adored my brother, and when we were small he organized most of our games. I remember the dining room chairs being lined up into ships, trains etc., which we sailed or drove, Jack always being the captain and I the crew. The walled garden round our first house was semiwild, with fruit trees and bushes and an old stable and other out-buildings, so these was plenty of scope for imaginative play there. I remember a much-loved toy wheelbarrow, a skipping-rope, some steel wire balls that bounced exceptionally high off the bricks of the yard, and an unusual tricycle scooter with a wide platform for both feet. Most children’s scooters had only two wheels and were narrow, and I still remember being uncertain whether ours should be a source of pride or embarrassment. On the Common we played with bats and balls, and particularly loved rolling small balls into the holes on the municipal golf course on weekday mornings when there were no golfers about.

I was a passionate animal lover, and in the garden communed a great deal with worms, beetles, snails, spiders etc. when I was very small, and was constantly frustrated when these little creatures perished with over-loving or ran away, according to their kind. One year we introduced quantities of frogspawn into our rainwater tank, and a desperate rescue operation had to be mounted when all the tadpoles turned into frogs at once and couldn’t get over the rim of the tank.

As soon as we were old enough to ride them we had little bicycles (then called fairy cycles), and rode them on the Common and to the allotment with my father. My brother’s fairy cycle was new, mine was second-hand, but this didn’t matter, as mine was BLUE whereas his was ONLY BLACK. After we grew out of the fairy cycles we didn’t have bikes again until we were in our teens – I suppose because my parents couldn’t afford all the intermediate sizes.

Indoors we played various board games: snakes and ladders, halma, draughts, ludo. I remember Sorry, when it first came out, being considered a great improvement on ludo. We had jigsaw puzzles (lovely wooden ones in those days) and large cardboard letters which we traced round when first learning our alphabet. There was an excellent construction toy called Tinkertoy, which consisted of wooden rods and slotted wheels; nearly all young children of our generation had this. We also had something called Weenibrix; the units were tiny metal bricks and tiles which were exasperatingly fiddling, though not quite as fiddling as Meccano, which my brother had. One drawback of all construction toys, as I remember, was that the book of instructions had glorious pictures of models which one could make with set 6B, whereas one’s own set was 1A, with limited possibilities. We had, and added to over several years, a model farm; the animals were realistic, of painted metal. NOTHING was made of plastic in those days of course, and the softish metal legs of the sheep and cows broke and bent very easily; all children’s farms had a lot of crippled animals propped up against barns and fences. Later on my brother had a clockwork Hornby train.

We loved Happy Families, and also played a great deal with ordinary playing cards. Our mother taught us beggar-your-neighbour, bezique and various simple patience games. In fact she taught me to add with playing cards and the game of elevens, and to this day I visualise all numbers up to ten grouped as they are on playing cards.

When I was very small I would play for hours on the dining room carpet with a box of coloured beads. I not only made pattens with them, but enacted dramas in which they were characters. I didn’t much like dolls and neglected Nancy (a baby doll in long clothes with a china head) and Betty (a little girl doll in a brown knitted dress, also with a china head and real hair). The only doll I remember loving was a black piccananny doll called Topsy, but unfortunately she got chewed up by our cat when he got inadvertently shut in the house while we were away. I wept over Topsy’s demise, but I surely couldn’t have loved her that much or I would have taken her away on holiday with me? I preferred to all of them a lumpy stuffed camel called Joey.

After we moved to Smoke Lane and were deemed old enough to be let loose on our own I roared around the semi-rural neighbourhood with my brother and his friends, playing cowboys and Indians, pirates, Robin Hood. My brother’s friends would attempt to cast me as squaw, cook, Maid Marian etc., which would have entailed make-believe domesticity at the five-barred gate which was usually home base. Luckily Jack always supported my insistence on a more active role. As well as being the only girl, I was the youngest in the group, and have scars on my knees to this day from falling (or being pushed) over in some of these chases.

My mother took us regularly to the local swimming baths and taught us until we could swim. Thereafter we would go with our school friends. It cost 3d to go in, so in summer, once we were strong swimmers, we sometimes saved our pocket money and went to Earlswood Pond instead.

My only real hobby was nature study: for some years (between about 8 and 13) I spent long happy hours every spring with a like-minded school friend hunting for birds’ nests and, where possible, following the progress of the broods.

We were both taught piano, first by our mother, later by a professional teacher. I enjoyed this, especially playing duets with Jack, and went on enjoying it until, sometime in my middle teens, I realised that the only pieces worth playing would be for ever beyond the scope of my limited abilities. I secretly wrote, or tried to write, poetry. After the age of 10 school homework took a lot of time – alas, I was painfully conscientious.


18.  The first entertainment I remember was the annual concert of North Bank School where my brother was already a pupil, but I had not yet started. I remember the thrill of walking there with the family through the copse after dark and after my usual bedtime. There was a play with children dressed as elves and fairies, and I was entranced. Even earlier than this, when I was probably only a toddler, I remember the preliminaries to an entertainment at a Church garden fete, being conducted into the “wings” (i.e. behind shrubbery) to see children dressed as butterflies, rabbits and mice waiting to go on stage (an enclosed lawn). I clearly remember my wonderment at such ordinary-seeming bushes concealing such marvels. I don’t remember the entertainment itself: it may be that I was taken “backstage” because for some reason we weren’t able to stay to the play.

Church bazaars and fetes were important annual events. Our Church, being Congregational, was self-supporting, and fund-raising events were crucial to survival. Besides stalls selling handcrafts and produce there were quite elaborate sideshows and games of skill, mostly devised by my father’s headmaster. I remember, for instance, a procession of wooden ducks mounted on a circular moving table: one had to throw hoopla rings over their necks during their brief appearance as they emerged from their right-hand door and disappeared into the left. Presumably the turn-table was operated manually. Raffles were deemed to be unethical, but there was always a bran tub. There was always a unifying motif for these fairs (Swiss, Japanese, Autumn, etc.) which determined the decoration of stalls and the themes of musical items or playlets. One year (I suppose of financial crisis) the Church ran a major event a week-long Dickens Fair in the Town Hall, with nightly plays, pageants and concerts. I clearly remember my father dressed as Sam Weller in shiny top boots, check waistcoat and cockaded hat, meeting my brother and me off a bus in Redhill market square; a double memorable occasion, as it was our first bus journey without a grown-up.

The annual borough carnival, with a procession of decorated floats, was a thrilling event. We sometimes went to a fair or circus, or even up to London to the Zoo, but these were rare treats. My father, for some reason, hated taking us into crowds, so I imagine my mother had to fight for these outings. We almost never went to the cinema, but sometimes small scale Mickey Mouse or Charlie Chaplin films were shown at other children’s parties. On Guy Fawkes night we had a packet of sparklers and perhaps a rocket or two. Every few years Sir Jeremiah Colman, the industrial magnate who owned Gatton Park, would give a magnificent public fireworks display.

Street entertainers had pretty well disappeared by my childhood. Just occasionally we would see a street organ. And there was always Punch and Judy on the sands at the seaside. I remember the muffin man, with his big tray balanced on a pad on his cap, ringing his bell. In December shuffling old men in cracked boots would be dressed in Father Christmas outfits and given sandwich boards to carry in the main shopping centres. I was terrified of these creatures, who seemed the antithesis of the jolly and benevolent Santa Claus of song and story.

An annual treat for several years was being driven by our milkman friend Mr. Hawkins with his little boy Peter five or six miles in the milk cart to a village where he had the cart repaired and repainted and the mare shod. We had dinner with Peter’s Granny and came home in the evening. We were also occasionally allowed to go on part of the milk round with Mr. Hawkins. In those days a large churn was mounted in the middle of the cart, the milkman filled his pail from it, and housewives brought their jugs to the door to be filled from the pail with a quart or pint measure. I disgraced myself one day when I was very little by turning the churn tap on while Mr. Hawkins was at a house. The milk poured down the street and I was too petrified to attempt to turn the tap off. It was weeks before I ventured into the cart again: my brother’s censoriousness and the milkman’s forgiveness had a jointly debilitating effect on my self-esteem.

When Jack and I were old enough (13 or 14) I suppose) we would sometimes go to London for a day on our own in the school holidays. We caught the so-called “workman’s” train at about 7 a.m., spent the first part of the morning wandering about Billingsgate or Covent Garden, went at 10 to a museum or the National Gallery, picnicked in one of the parks, then queued for the 9d gallery at the Old Vic or Sadlers Wells Ballet. The whole day cost us no more than half a crown each of our meagre pocket money – pretty good, when you think we were seeing the youthful Thorndyke, Gielgud, Richardson, Wolfit, Helpmann.

19.  Tea parties, and picnics with other families, Church social occasional, tennis club – all described elsewhere.


20.  Our rented house, Hardwick Villa, was in a district called Meadvale which was really a village, cut off from Reigate by a steep hill and some private estates and from Redhill by Earlswood and Redhill Commons. The short main street of Meadvale had dairy, baker, butcher, grocery, fruiterer, Post Office, confectioner and tobacconist, newsagent – everything we needed within two minutes’ walk. My parents were good friends with the milkman and his wife and with another school-master and his wife down the road, but there wasn’t much dropping in and out of each other’s houses – I think everyone was too busy. The children of these two families and the local inn-keeper’s little boy were our occasional playmates until we moved, but at that age Jack and I mostly preferred to be just a twosome. The community was mixed working and middle class.

There was a local big house called The Mount where lived a man called Lawrence who was thought to be snobbish, nouveau riche, stuck up – a local joke, in fact. He was normally seen in a large limousine (a Rolls or Daimler, I suppose), but on one election day when even the humblest of the community were conveyed to the polls in cars by enthusiastic election agents, Mr. Lawrence rode up to the polling station on a white horse and had his groom run through a short cut to meet him and hold his horse while he dismounted and went and cast his vote.

I don’t think I thought very much about society; like most children, I just accepted it, regarded our family life-style as the norm and the lives of people much richer or much poorer than us as beyond our ken. Certainly when I was very young there were differences in the way working and middle class children were dressed. Working class boys still usually wore hob-nailed boots and coarse reefer or frieze jackets and trousers; they bowled iron hoops and whipped wooden tops. Middle class children wore sandals in summer, wellingtons and sou-westers in the rain, comfortable hand-knitted jerseys and knickers; we bowled wooden hoops and had humming tops. But I think these outward distinctions – at least in our part of the country – died out during the early 1930s. I do just remember my uncomfortable emotion, compounded equally of pity and disgust, at the sight of the little children from the local municipal orphanage walking two by two with clumsy navy-blue coats, hob-nailed boots, closely cropped heads and snotty noses: I believe they were kindly treated, but they looked alien and deprived.

I suppose class distinctions did affect me, although I was unaware of it. Society was divided into those who had midday dinner and those who had “late” (evening) dinner. We were midday dinner people; my father’s lunch hour was long enough for him to cycle home for a hot meal every day. My parents were teetotallers and so were most of our friends. I realize now, though I didn’t at the time, that my father, though generous and hospitable by nature, felt very uneasy about receiving hospitality more lavish than he could afford to give in return; this must have had the effect of limiting our friendships to people of our own socio-economic level. These were the depression years, of course, and most people were hard up. No doubt my parents, like many others, had a hard financial struggle, but they did not allow their anxieties to impinge on us children. No doubt it was partly their cleverness but partly also our own natural inclinations that made the dictum “the best things in life are free” perfectly satisfactory to us. We didn’t have many luxuries, but that made “treat” the more exciting. We were very much children of the Christopher Robin age; we weren’t rich, with a Nanny, like Christopher Robin, but the ethos of the Pooh books – adventurous imaginative outdoor play in beautiful rural surroundings – was very much our style. Naturally we didn’t know, and wouldn’t have understood if we did, that the unspoilt nature of the English countryside was largely the result of an agricultural depression.

21.  My maternal grandparents yes – see sections (7) [domesticity] and (16) [holidays]. My paternal grandmother, a widow and somewhat infirm, we saw less often. I think my father visited Sherborne every year, but we went as a family only every two or three years, tying the visit into a holiday on the Dorset coast. We enjoyed playing on Grandma’s harmonium.


22.  I did no paid work at all.

23.  Yes. Our minister and his wife and several Church families were close friends, but we also had friends outside our Church circle. The Church provided a good deal of social activity: games evenings, concerts, mock trials etc., all of which we enjoyed when we were old enough. Even we children were roped in to make our contribution to the Church bazaars described in (16) [holidays], and did handwork disguised as play. I remember knitting string dishcloths for sale, and crocheting round the edges of squares of net to make milk-jug covers, (everyone used these covers, weighted with glass beads, in the days before fridges), and being taught by some grownup to make costume jewelry “flowers” out of tiny beads and wire. Women nobly bought these monstrosities for the cause. The annual choir outing was a picnic at some beauty spot.

24.  My mother’s brother and his wife were important, and so was my father’s youngest sister. They all lived in London, so visits to and fro were easy. I had no first cousins on my mother’s side, and all the first cousins on my father’s side lived in Dorset, so we saw them only rarely, and they didn’t mean much to us. We were fond of our great-aunt Lizzie and our eccentric bachelor uncle George, both of whom lived with my paternal grandmother. My uncle George would put a humorous record on his wind-up gramophone for us, and accompany it with his violin. Two deaf aunts of my mother’s came to stay on average once a year (but not together). We were quite fond of them, but their deafness was a barrier. We had no telephone, and my mother did a good deal of letter-writing to keep in touch with the close relations.


25.  Yes, we went as a family to Redhill Congregational Church (now Christ Church U.R.C.) every Sunday morning, and one or other of my parents went again in the evening because of Choir. When we were very small my mother sang in the choir and my father sat with us in the congregation, taking us out before the sermon; we walked home over the Common and he gave us biscuits. As soon as we were old enough to be trusted to behave with decorum we sat in the choir – I with Mummie, Jack with Daddy. I assume the choirmaster valued both my parents’ voices and knew he could have them only on those terms. At first we were more or less choir mascots, but gradually became treated as full choir members. I never remember being reluctant to go to Church. The sermon and long prayers were very tedious to a little child, but I enjoyed the singing.

For a short time Jack and I went to afternoon Sunday School, but this experiment didn’t last, mainly because we lived so far from the Church that we would hardly have had our dinner before we had to set out again. After we gave up Sunday School my mother had a Bible story session with us on Sunday afternoons until we started day school.

No, I don’t think there was any class distinction in this Church. This was no doubt partly because the members were friendly and caring sort of people, but also because Congregationalism was a largely middle-class denomination, Liberal voters with a non-conformist conscience. There were two or three quite well-to-do families in the Church, and a few artisans, but most of the members were tradesmen, teachers, civil servants etc. Admittedly the Monday afternoon Mothers’ Meeting consisted almost exclusively of working class (mostly non-Church-going) women of the neighbourhood, unlike the Tuesday ladies’ Working Party, at which Church members and adherents sewed for the next bazaar. But all churches of all denominations had Mothers’ Meetings then; it was regarded as a social service to the community in which the church was situated, and it was a genuine service: the chance to get off your feet for an hour or two on washing day afternoon, have a cup of tea and chat with your friends and listen to something informative and perhaps even entertaining was well worth while in the days before telly and bingo.

Yes, we said prayers under our mother’s eye when we went to bed. My mother always sang lullabies to us, some of them religious, e.g. Jesus Tender Shepherd. On evenings when she was out and my father put us to bed he sang Widdicombe Fair, What Shall we do with a Drunken Sailor and Drake’s Drum, which we much preferred.

I think I would say that my parents were serious about religion without being solemn about it, and both had minds healthily critical of all forms of dogmatism. Their joining a Congregational Church (my father from a Baptist, my mother from an Anglican background) [In fact her father's parents had migrated from the Church of England to the Baptist Church and then to Congregationalism during his childhood and youth and, although from Church of England backgrounds, her mother's parents attended a Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion chapel when she was a child. Her mother converted to Anglicanism when she was in her teens.] was partly fortuitous, but it suited them intellectually and temperamentally, and they stayed in it for the rest of their lives. My father was a deacon for many years and for a time Church treasurer. When on holiday we always went to the Church of England, partly because of availability (the Kent village church and Sherborne Abbey) and partly because we were always away at Christmas and Easter and my mother thought that non-conformists had a rather dismal way of celebrating the great feasts of the Church. My lifelong love affair with Cranmer may partly be explained by my being introduced to the Book of Common Prayer in the exquisite surroundings of a medieval country church lavishly decorated for Christmas and Easter when I was in any case high with holiday excitement.

26.  We usually went for a family walk on Sunday afternoons, and probably more often than not went out to tea or had people to tea (see 14). Apart from the necessary getting and clearing away of meals and my father’s ritual polishing of all the family shoes, there was no work done on Sundays. Unlike many families, we had our big roast dinner of the week on Saturday – so my mother really did have a day off. On Sunday we had soup, cold meat and vegetables or salad, and fruit pie that had been baked on Saturday. I don’t think any games or amusements were banned on Sundays – certainly not indoor ones. But as we kept our best clothes on all day we didn’t run indiscriminately around outdoors with our friends on Sundays.


27.  The Doctor came if illness was at all serious. No siblings died, though my brother was very seriously ill with measles. Our medicines were doctor’s prescriptions. For several years my brother (who was less robust than I) took cod liver oil and Parrish’s Chemical Food, an iron tonic that he drank through a straw to prevent his teeth going black. In those days before antibiotics children’s illnesses could still be very dangerous – I remember grownups’ voices being lowered when cases of scarlet fever or diphtheria were mentioned within our hearing.

When I was about ten I spent three weeks in the local hospital with mastoiditis. The inflammation was dispersed by an inhalation treatment that was then something of a novelty – most children with this disease had to undergo an operation with appallingly painful after effects. Visitors, even parents, could visit children in hospital only two afternoons a week. This sounds barbarous now, but was the norm then. I was almost stone deaf during this illness, so it was a weary time.

Ordinary illnesses, though, were rather fun once the acute stage was past. My mother thought up special food treats and endless amusements to enliven convalescence in bed – it was like a holiday. One was expected to stay in bed a statutory number of days after the temperature was normal in those days, and then get back to ordinary life very gradually: up for so many hours the first day, more the second, etc. I suppose this was dictated by the fear of pneumonia – then a very real terror.

28.  When I was very young widows still wore deep mourning, often with a veil on the hat, for about a year after their bereavement. Some old ladies wore black for the rest of their lives. But old-fashioned mourning customs were fast dying out. Black or dark clothes were still worn to funerals until the second world war, I think; and until the mid-30s bereaved people, if not in black, wore a black arm-band or a lozenge of black cloth sewn on to the sleeve.


29.  My mother made my summer frocks and knitted us jerseys. When I was little my winter dresses and coats were made by one of the deaf great-aunts when she came to stay, and sometimes by a young friend and protégée of my parents. I vividly remember the agony of being made to stand still while fittings were taking place, and wondering why Auntie Lou was allowed to hold pins in her mouth whereas I wouldn’t be allowed to do such a thing for a moment. Once I was in school uniform my non-uniform wardrobe was very modest in size. It was still customary to appear in one’s new spring outfit – in the years one was lucky enough to have one – on Easter Day, and one’s new summer dress on Whit Sunday. We did not wear hand-me-downs.

Bathing costumes were cotton when we were very young; they were most unbecoming, hanging in limp folds when wet, and quickly fading in the sun. Woollen bathing suits came in with the discovery of a process to make shrink-proof wool. They were much more elegant, as they clung tightly to the body, but the coarse wool was very prickly. On chilly days on the beach little children had their clothes tucked into “paddlers” – baggy knickers of rubberized cotton with elasticated legs and bib fronts with crossover straps.

I just remember my mother’s panic in about 1928 or ’29 when the flapper fashion suddenly went out and she realised all her dresses were too short. She couldn’t afford an entire new wardrobe, so went out and bought material to make false hems or put contrasting bands of material on her summer frocks. Belts were hastily added to the long-waisted dresses.


30.  My father, who was twelve years older than my mother, had served in the first world war. I suppose this affected me in that my parents delayed starting a family until he had complete his war service and post-war University course, so he was forty by the time I was born. Although I remember plenty of private events from the age of two I don’t remember anything about the General Strike of 1926 – I suppose it didn’t impinge on me personally. I remember newspaper pictures of the little Princess Elizabeth, and the birth of Princess Margaret, and, much later, the romantic marriage of the Duke of Kent with the Greek Princess Marina. When I was about seven I was one of a group of children chosen to present white and gold satin purses to the Princess Royal when she opened a new wing of the local hospital. The death of George V, the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI I remember clearly, of course. All children in the borough received mugs on the latter occasion; my brother and I were old enough to think this ridiculous, and had developed sufficient artistic taste to think the mugs hideous as well as infra dig. I don’t know what became of these mugs – I suppose they are collectors’ items by now.

Although my parents and grandparents frequently talked and argued politics, most of it went over my head. The rise of the fascist dictatorships and the Spanish Civil War scarcely entered my consciousness. Our school curriculum was rigorously tied to the public examination syllabuses, and we had no class work on current events. I must have been about thirteen when one of our history mistresses, back from a holiday in Germany, described to us a Nazi rally addressed by Hitler that she had attended in Berlin: it was the first time it had dawned on me that Hitler was a sinister rather than a merely comic figure. I remember the intense anxiety and excitement of Munich in 1938. When the war broke out in 1939 I was hardly a “child”, (though still at school), so my reactions to it are scarcely relevant here.


31.  I left school at eighteen with an open scholarship in English to Oxford, which was exactly what I wanted – in fact it seemed almost too good to be true, though, heaven knows, I had worked hard enough for it. My intention to become a teacher was partly governed by teaching being the only profession I really knew anything about (no “careers” masters and mistresses then) and partly by the war-time government’s short-sighted ruling that only undergraduates promising to teach might do a full three-year degree course. Whatever happened, I wanted a proper degree. I daresay if I’d been a post-war school leaver I might have headed towards librarianship or publishing. My recurrent (even yet) wistful idea that if “I had my time over again” I might have been an ornithologist is a pure fantasy: my near-imbecility in mathematics would have precluded any sort of scientific training. Once engaged to be married, my husband’s career and a (preferably large) family became my only real ambitions.