Warm memories of Christmas past

WHILE we are all enjoying the Christmas break I am looking back on what life was like at Christmas time for a child in the harsh economic times of the 1930s and dark days of the Second World War.

David Kindred

WHILE we are all enjoying the Christmas break I am looking back on what life was like at Christmas time for a child in the harsh economic times of the 1930s and dark days of the Second World War.

Last week in Kindred Spirits, Margaret Sherman of Foxhall Road, Ipswich, started her story of her childhood Christmases making us realise just how good things really are now for most people.

Margaret (nee Olley) was born in Ipswich in 1937. Her twin brother died at birth and she was then an only child.

Her parents Elsie and John Olley had little money, but managed to buy a small house on Foxhall Road, Ipswich, with an outside lavatory and 'coal hole' in the back garden.

Her father, who was working as a building labourer, developed a brain tumour. After a life-saving operation he was left partly paralysed and had difficulty speaking and suffered fits.

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It was eight years before he could do light work and her mother took on cleaning jobs to make ends meet as there was no social security.

THE thrill of a first trip to the cinema and a present of a “shop bought” nightdress were highlights of Christmas for Margaret in 1943.

Margaret said: “My school, Britannia Primary, Ipswich, had broken up for the Christmas holidays in 1943 and my friend Tommy and I spent most of our time running errands for the neighbours, who insisted that we got paid unlike the Christmas before.

“As Christmas was only a few days away my mum didn't mind. We also helped Tommy's dad chop up kindling wood to sell door to door. A cart we had came in very useful. Tommy's dad had fitted it with a new set of pram wheels which made it go faster and was easier for me to push than the previous Christmas. It was a very cold December and it snowed a lot. I had snowball fights with friends Donald and John Preston, which were great fun and sometimes got out of hand. On one occasion a very large snowball hit their mum Ada Johnson on the back of her head and we all ran for cover as quickly as we could with the shouts of “bloody kids!” echoing in our ears.

“The money that Tommy and I had earned, running errands and selling the kindling wood, we decided to spend on buying Christmas presents. An older friend said she would take us into town to do our shopping and we were very excited about this as it was our first big shopping trip.

“We bought presents for everyone and when we got home Tommy's mum said that as we had both worked hard she would take us to the cinema to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Christmas Eve. Tommy and I had never been to the cinema before and we couldn't wait for Christmas Eve to come. I enjoyed the film very much indeed, but the witch frightened me and I couldn't get to sleep that night and eventually finished up in mum and dad's bed!

“While we were all at the cinema something awful happened. The chickens we kept in the garden for a supply of eggs had stopped laying and dad decided to kill one of them for our Christmas dinner. Tommy's dad offered to do this task and, unfortunately, killed the wrong one! “Subsequently, my pet Brownie ended up on our Christmas table, complete with all the trimmings. I was heartbroken and dad was distraught. I couldn't eat a thing and cried my heart out. Dad, upset at seeing my distress, decided that he and mum would make amends.

“One morning, several days later, he came into my bedroom with a cardboard box. 'I am so very sorry, Ginny' he said as he gave me the box and went out of the room. I took the lid off the box and inside was a little puppy. He was black with brown marks over both his eyes, just like two brown eyebrows. He jumped out of the box and started to lick my hand. It was love at first sight and I named him Rex and from that day onwards we became inseparable. All was forgiven.

“When Tommy and I went out with the cart selling wood Rex would jump in and come with us. All the neighbours thought this was very funny; we certainly were a comical threesome. Mum always packed us up jam sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade and sometimes we were gone the whole day, but she insisted that our older and more responsible friend came along as well to keep an eye on us.

“The first Christmas after the Second World War in 1945 my neighbour Mrs Brown had exiting news. She was to have a visitor, her grandson Alfie was coming from London. This news caused great excitement in the street. We had never met anybody from London before! Mum laughed and said he would not be any different from the rest of us. We thought he spoke funny. Mum said it was his Cockney accent.

“That Christmas my pillow case of presents had a bit more in it along with one of dad's socks containing the traditional orange and apple and nuts. Dad still left a drink and mince pie for Father Christmas. I hadn't the heart to tell him that I did not believe in Father Christmas any more!

“We went to friends for Christmas dinner and mum lent a hand with the cooking. My dad got a friend to kill one of our chickens for the meal. I tucked into the meal as I was not attached to them like the one killed a couple of Christmases before.

“In September 1946, during the half term holidays, I asked mum if I could help her with her cleaning jobs to earn some money for Christmas presents. She thought this was a good idea and took me along to meet a widow who lived on her own in a big detached house. She was by all accounts quite well off, but had a reputation of being quite mean.

“She was a large woman with a big bosom and always dressed in black clothes with rows of pearls and beads and rarely smiled, but she took to mum and me instantly. Her son, an officer in the RAF, was due home off leave soon and she wanted everything clean and tidy. Her son had married a German girl. She was not happy about having a German as a daughter-in-law. When she arrived she received her with icy politeness. Her name was Gerda and when I met her I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was tiny with long curly hair and the bluest of blue eyes. She was only 16 and seemed more at ease in the company of me and my friend Marjorie than with 'grown-ups'.

“Gerda's mother-in-law always acted very coldly towards her as did most of the neighbours. Dad said the war was not Gerda's fault and some people were 'bloody ignorant'. It was the first time I had heard my dad swear!

“Mum was busy with Christmas preparations, but still found time to teach Gerda how to make traditional sausage rolls and mince pies. Between them they finished a bottle of sherry; I tried some, but found it quite disgusting. Dad came home with a chicken a neighbour had given him for them to pluck and draw and they were quite merry. They just fell about laughing.

“On Christmas Eve mum, dad and I were sitting round the fire making toast and listening to carols on the wireless. Our wireless had seen better days and would only work if it was propped up on a book. It also crackled a lot, but dad would bang it on the top. This would usually do the trick. Dad's health was improving and mum looked very pretty sitting in the firelight as the firelight had given her a rosy glow. Dad said it was probably the sherry she had drunk earlier and got up to give her a kiss. They looked at each other and smiled and I knew they wanted to be alone. I kissed them both goodnight and went quietly to bed.

“On Christmas morning I was surprised to find that my pillowcase contained a large present from an aunt and uncle wrapped in pink shiny paper. I could not believe my eyes when I opened it. It was a pink frilly nightdress with lots of lace round the neck and hem.

“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I put it on and danced around the bedroom. It was the most frivolous present I had ever had and it was shop bought too! I kept it on all Christmas Day; dad said I looked like a princess. I felt like one too. Mum and dad bought me a manicure set and some posh soap, mum said the manicure set might stop me biting my nails.”

- Do you have a nostalgic story to share? Or can you tell us more about any of the photographs featured this week? Write with your memories to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star or e-mail info@kindred-spirit.co.uk