First World War/Gallery: The streets went silent when the telegram boy appeared....and then the crying began
13:50 17 February 2014
Life was terrible on the battlefields of the Western Front, of course it was, but it was also hard for the families back in England. Nellie Page’s experiences remind us of the shadow cast by The Great War
Little Nellie Brooks remembers the day the telegram came. Her father had been killed by a sniper’s bullet in Belgium. She’d last seen him when he slipped away from an army holding camp at Felixstowe. Edgar had walked along the railway track to Ipswich, determined to see his family once more before leaving for France.
Then, in the summer of 1916, he was gone forever. His family back in Ipswich was, not surprisingly, distraught.
“I was only four and was unable to understand fully, but my sister Lizzie was 10 and so remembered father much more and was very upset for a long time,” Nellie recalled.
“She had written to him in the trenches and her letter and his reply were found on his body and were sent to mother with the mud of the trenches still on them.
“Later, mother also received a letter from one of father’s comrades who enclosed some flowers from father’s grave and said that he was going to ask a Belgium girl he knew to look after the grave.
“A short time afterwards, mother received a drawing of father’s memorial and grave from the Belgium girl, called Albertine Cuevelier, and they corresponded for a number of years afterwards.”
The family lived in a poor neighbourhood of Ipswich called The Mount, close to the town centre. Long gone, it was in the area occupied today by buildings such as the police station and the Wolsey Theatre.
Following her father’s death at Ypres in August, 1915, Nellie’s mother became the breadwinner and her widowed granny looked after the children. There was Lizzie, 10; Edgar junior, seven; Nellie; Elsie, 18 months – “named after my grandfather’s barge – an unfortunate choice of names as Elsie was small and often unwell” – and four-year-old Alice, who had been adopted by grandma.
“Mother worked long hours – always having more than one job at a time, often as many as three.”
The little terrace house (two up and two down) at 9 Mount Street was crowded, “but we were better off than some who were bringing up larger families in the same size houses”.
Its front door opened onto the pavement. Behind the house was a concrete yard and an outhouse with a fire copper, sink and cold tap – shared between two houses – and a wooden box-type flush privy.
“There was just enough room left for a short linen-line and a rabbit hutch.”
Nellie Page, as she became, was nearly 92 when she wrote down her memories. They were published in our sister paper, the Ipswich Star, and we print them here as a valuable and compelling insight into domestic life during The Great War and the effect on families in England.
This is her story
At the outbreak of the First World War, my father and his brothers and many friends joined the army. They were all sent to Felixstowe to await embarkation to France.
My father, his brother and two friends decided that they had to go home to see their families once more before leaving. They walked along the railway track to Ipswich. When they reached the Cornhill they were arrested by a policeman and instead of coming home they were put in the cells at the Ipswich police station for the night. Mother sent my sister Lizzie to the cells with food.
The next morning my father and his comrades were sent to Felixstowe and on to France. We were never to see him again. He was killed at Ypres on August 6, 1915. I was four years old.
One of my earliest memories was the day the telegram came to say he had been killed in action. It seemed that everyone was crying; I didn’t understand and I was so afraid.
After that there were many such telegrams received about my uncles on both sides of the family, and friends and neighbours. The streets went silent when the telegram boy appeared. Women and children waited to see which door he went to and then the crying began.
After my father was killed, money was very short. It was suggested by the authorities that my mother should put her children into a children’s home; in due course the girls would be found jobs in domestic service and Edgar would probably be sent to Australia.
Mother wouldn’t hear of it. She told them that my father didn’t die to have his children taken away. It was therefore decided that my granny would look after the children and mother would go to work, and of course the children would have to pull their weight as well. Somehow we would manage.
Although this time was full of sadness, frantic arrangements were being made about the future. The mourning period had to be observed and mother went to Smith’s Albion House shop and bought Edgar a grey suit and black armband, a length of grey cloth and black binding for dresses for Lizzie and me, and a wide black sash for Elsie, who was only about 18 months old.
Mother had to work long hours charring, sewing, washing, ironing and nursing. At one time she went to the post office at 4am to sort letters and spent the rest of the day “charring”. Once a week she collected white overalls etc from a large grocery shop in the town, brought them home, and, with the help of granny, washed them in the fire copper, dried and ironed them with a flat iron heated on the fire. Edgar and I would take the clean linen back to the shop.
Sometimes the cook in one of the houses where mother worked would send us a bowl of dripping. This was a welcome change from our margarine, which we called cart grease. Mother and granny were also called out in the event of births and deaths. Frequently a worried face would appear round the door. “Granny, can you come quickly?” If the call came during the night, mother went too to help with a birth or death, or to wash and lay out a body.
I was allowed to go to school at four and a half because mother was working. Normally, I would have attended Ranelagh Road school but it had been turned into a military hospital. The school was close to the railway station and wounded servicemen could be transported quickly from train to hospital. I therefore began school in the Presbyterian Church, Edgar went to St Mary at the Elms Church Hall and Lizzie went to London Road school. At school I was told to be proud that my father had died for his King and Country, and of course I was. Some children who were illegitimate would pretend that their fathers had been killed in the war as well, and who could blame them in those prejudiced times?
Before and after school, we children had many tasks. In order to help with the errands, Edgar went to the destructor (this was a rough piece of ground near the [river] Gipping where rubbish was deposited) and found a set of pram wheels, which he fixed to an orange box and made a cart.
Edgar and I were very close and I used to go with him to collect wood shavings from a joinery firm near the station for the copper and to collect coal which had fallen from the trucks along the dock. We did the shopping with the cart, ferrying greengrocery from the Corn Exchange, where country people came to sell their produce.
One market day, when we had the cart full of shavings, kindling and coal, we met a herd of pigs being driven to the market. They ran amok and a wheel came off the cart, the contents spilled all over the road and we were panic stricken. I tried to hold the cart steady while Edgar attempted a repair, but the pigs kept coming and we sat in the middle of the road with our upturned cart until the pigs had gone. We then had to set about mending the cart.
On another occasion, when the corporation men were digging up the road on the Cornhill, we used the cart to collect discarded tarred road blocks for the copper fire. This was a ticklish operation – Edgar and I waited around the corner and when the coast was clear we darted out, whipped a few blocks and made a very quick getaway.
Some of our neighbours tried to make ends meet in a variety of ways: Sewing Firmin’s coal sacks with tarred string, a job which left women’s hands sore and bleeding; selling rabbit skins and rags to a house in Lady Lane, where the front room had been converted to a store; somewhere else, a bounty was paid for rats’ tails. Perhaps one of the saddest sights in the effort to survive was the “Monday Morning Caravan”, when women would put bed linen and Sunday clothes into prams and take them to “Uncle John’s” pawn shop in Elm Street. They would hope to retrieve them by the weekend after pay day. On occasions, wedding rings, watches and photo frames were also pawned.
Nellie’s widowed mother took on many jobs to support her family.
Over the years she worked as a domestic near Christchurch Park, office cleaner at the corner of the Butter Market and Queen Street, letter sorter at 4am at the post office on the Cornhill, machinist at Frasers of Princes Street and Elm Street. During all this she helped granny with nursing in the neighbourhood. There was no payment – everyone on The Mount was poor and payment wasn’t expected. Mother said neighbours would be willing to repay any kindness when we needed help.
However, the local doctor was able to put mother in touch with families in other parts of the town able to pay for nursing, particularly at night, so from time to time she was able to earn money that way.
My brother Edgar had to clean all the boots, keep the yard clean, and sweep out the water closet and run errands for granny and neighbours. Lizzie was old enough to help with the washing, turning the mangle handle and ironing, including the laundry from Sunnicks.
By the time I was seven I was able to scrub the front doorstep and pavement immediately in front of our house, both of which had to be kept spick and span as a matter of pride. I had a huge scrub brush and lump of carbolic soap. Mother bought long blocks of soap, which were cut into smaller blocks.
Later 1 was allocated the table to scrub. Everything seemed to happen on this table – food preparation, eating, washing up and ironing, so it was essential that it was kept clean.
I also had to collect the gas mantles for lighting from the Gas Company in Carr Street, opposite Woolworth’s. I hated this job because the mantles were fragile, like cobwebs, and granny wasn’t best pleased when I arrived home with them broken.
Religion played a big part in our lives. I suppose it was mother’s and granny’s way of coping with unending toil and extreme poverty. They attended St Peter’s Church and the mission in Little Gipping Street. On top of that they were White Ribboners.
I believe this was an organisation attached to the mission and its members pledged themselves to fight the demon drink wherever they found it. Most members were women. Magic lantern shows were held to highlight the evils of drink. On one occasion, when we were all off to the mission, a drunk lurched down Mount Street and pointed to mother’s white enamel badge fashioned in the form of a ribbon and jeered “Oh, we’re off to the mission, are we?”
Mother was tiny and, pulling herself up to her full height, pushed him violently. He fell into the gutter and as he lay there granny said “Serves you right – you’d better get up if you can.”
We then marched on as if nothing had happened. So much for trying to save his soul!
Sundays were sombre. No playing in the street and no purchases were made. Granny used to buy a large bag of “siftings” on Saturdays. These were the broken pieces of sweets and sugar left in the bottoms of sweet jars. The siftings were then divided into fourteen small bags to hand out to her grandchildren on Sunday mornings.
Sunday-best clothes and boots were taken from the large wooden chest in the front room and we were decked out for Sunday morning mission and Sunday afternoon school.
After tea we were allowed to go to a place of worship of limited choice. We chose the Salvation Army band on the Cornhill. Mother and granny had great respect for the work of the Salvation Army. We didn’t tell them we often purchased lemons and sucked them in front of the band. The poor brass players’ lips puckered up and they drew instead of blew, and confusion ensued.
Each Sunday night our clothes and boots were put back into the chest, not to see the light of day until the following Sunday.
If religious observance reigned supreme in our household it was a different story next door, where mother’s elder sister, Aunt Nell, lived. Aunt Nell had lost her husband and small son within a short time of each other and she found her solace in a daily jug of beer from the Standard pub (where the police station stands now). Mother and granny frequently tut-tutted when Aunt Nell came down Mount Street with her jug.
We children adored Aunt Nell – she was fun and she understood childish pranks. We could confide in her without fear of retribution.
On one occasion when we were making a noise outside Mr Lemon’s sweet shop, which was next door to Mr Sherman the cobbler at the top of Mount Street, Mr Lemon beckoned the local policeman to deal with us. The policeman came across and opened up his notepad to take names and addresses. This was bad news because he would report us to mother and granny.
Luckily Aunt Nell came down the road on her way to the Standard. “Chasing poor bloody kids again are you?” she asked the policeman. He explained the problem and he and Aunt Nell had a short discussion; he put away his notepad and they went off together in the direction of the pub. We heard nothing more of the incident.
Of course, Mr Lemon had every right to be angry. Children used to gather outside his shop and a favourite prank was to wait until he was having his dinner, then go into the shop – interrupting his meal – and ask for two pennyworth of what he didn’t sell wrapped up in brown paper.
But there was another side to Aunt Nell. She used to write the letters for those who were unable to deal with correspondence – a service which she apparently took over from my grandfather.
Aunt Nell was also quite artistic in that she was able to curl feathers and make them into exotic patterns. The feathers with which she adorned mother’s hats were black and plume like, but the feathers she fashioned for those with a more “liberal” lifestyle were highly coloured and flamboyant.
Talking of highly decorative hats reminds me of “Rosie”. I shall call her Rosie although I do remember her real name. Rosie plied her trade in the pubs on The Mount – the Standard, Black Horse, Black Bell, Elephant and Castle and probably more.
Although I was just a small child I remember her clearly. She was very pretty, with a painted face, large highly-decorated hat of feathers and flowers, and brightly coloured dress and smart leather boots.
I often saw Rosie with her different escorts – sometimes a man in military uniform and sometimes on Tuesdays (market day) with a farmer. She was always nice to children and if she saw me in the street she would give me a kiss and a halfpenny. I thought she was wonderful and it was heaven to be enveloped in her heavy perfume. The only perfume in our house was carbolic.
My childhood was a mixture of great sadness and rough humour, and always poverty, but it was rich in family and community support.