Wednesday, 25 November 2009

In Living Memory

Looking across the Towy Valley with Dryslwyn Castle atop the outcrop in the centre.

The alternative title to this was "Doing Without" as this post is about that as well. "Doing Without" is deeply unfashionable in this day and age, but it's a lesson I learned in my childhood and sadly our eldest daughter is having to learn the hard way now, as she doesn't have a job yet - though she did get an interview last week and I have every finger crossed.

My late mother-in-law was born in 1909. Her father was killed in WW1 when she was only 6, the eldest of 4 children. Her mother struggled to make ends meet even before she was widowed. The final insult was the shilling the Army invoiced her for the blanket they used to bury her husband in. "Pan haggety" was a frequent meal - potatoes fried in a little bacon fat. Eggs came from the elderly neighbour across the way who kept hens in her back yard until they started laying soft-shell eggs and she had no money to get more hens. She baby-sat the young ones too, whilst Alice's mother worked 12 hour shifts at the local laundry. Once the old lady's varicose veins burst, spraying the walls with blood, but the Doctor refused to come out to treat her unless there was half a crown paid up front . . . She went without, and they tied old sheets round her legs to staunch the blood.

When money was really tight, it was "kettle broth" for supper. A few pieces of stale bread would be crumbled in a bowl and then boiling water poured over, with a pinch of salt and pepper for flavour. Fruit was a luxury that was rarely seen, apart from the obligatory tangerine at Christmas. Alice's most wonderful Christmas present was a tuppenny exercise book to write in . . .

In the days before Christmas one year, I fell into conversation with the old lady behind me in the checkout queue at Tesco's. She was telling me that she had grown up in the row of houses which used to be where the bus station was now - Blue Street. Her mother had kept a shop, but they weren't ever allowed any "goodies" from the stock for sale. One Christmas there were a few oranges left over and they had their first oranges as a Christmas treat.

Another day, another queue. This time the old post office down by the school my children attended. Again, it was close to Christmas. "Christmas!" exclaimed the old chap behind me, "Christmas! Why, it's Christmas every day for people now, with their two cars a family, and their central heating and their holidays abroad. When my dad was growing up there were families they never even had the money to rent anywhere. They would walk from farm to farm, begging for work. All they asked for was a bed in the hay barn at night, and some fat bacon to eat in return for a day's work. All they had were the clothes the stood up in, and a bit of old sacking to keep the weather off." It is hard to imagine such poverty.

Some of my Ag. Lab. ancestors were buried "on the parish", with just a small wooden cross to mark their last resting place. The final years of their life were spent sharing a room with a lodger (who paid the rent), and they would have a "outdoor relief" which saved them from a bed in the Workhouse and was a cheaper option anyway. They worked into their 70s and even 80s if their strength and their "rheumatics" allowed. All Ag. Labs. had rheumatism - it went with the outdoor life in all weathers.

We had a few years when we first moved here when every arriving bill was a nightmare, and when we really lived hand-to-mouth, but we managed, and at least we had a roof over our heads - even if it was a rather leaky one - and we still ate three meals a day - though sometimes the main meal got a bit repetitive and all the "treats" were baked at home! We didn't start buying Christmas presents until we had the Christmas money from various relatives and added it to the frugal amount we could spare, but Christmas Day was always a happy one and we managed on better than kettle broth . . .


  1. hullo BB,

    Thought provoking, as usual. Had lots of ag lab/gillies/ploughmen etc in my tree too..


  2. Stimulating to read what my husband and I were discussing only this morning. As for the view of that castle which I cannot spell from memory - I sat under its spell only a couple of months ago (would have climbed up the hill but had contracted bronchitis whilst working in the Towy valley and could barely breathe). Are the floods receding? Some are still visible in the water meadows in your photo.

  3. I was thinking about this when I went shopping in our local supermarket today. An old lady was standing by the big fridge displaying umpteen varieties of cheese from across Britain and Europe. She told me that there was too much too choose from and she didn`t know where to start! I sympathised and said I was only going to get cheddar today. She did the same and seemed happy. In the village Co-op of my childhood there would have been JUST cheddar, and maybe Danish Blue if you were lucky.

    PS - I am also keeping fingers crossed for your daughter and the job interview.

  4. I read this story first time through earlier in the day--felt a bit choked up thinking of such hard lives--rather like a Catherine Cookson novel. I also thought of the years in the late 1860's and early 1870's in this country, soon after the conclusion of the War Between the States. I have copies of my g-g-grandfather Davis's service record and his application for pension--which was denied on grounds that he had symptoms of "advanced tuberculosis" when he enlisted at age 40. The brother-in-law of my g-g-grandfather Ross came home partially crippled from a wound to his hip and petioned for many years to obtain a tiny pension. I picture remnants of families living together for sake of economy, farm and garden chores done by those who could still work.
    Like you, I remember years of necessary frugality when our children were young--meals were not exciting, but were wholesome-- whatever I had been able to put up from the season's garden, utility grade apples bought by the bushel throughout the winter from a local "cold storage" plant, staple grains, dried fruits, cereals and such from a bulk foods coop. We kept wood fires for heat for many years, although we had electric or gas for cooking. A lot of hard work, but I don't suppose we are any the worse for it. Many of the frugal habits are still with us.

  5. It's hard to imagine not having a home of some sort and no change of clothes. It's tempting to remind our kids how good they have it, but they can't imagine it either. My inlaws came from Ireland, so they have seen their own parents hardship. Very interesting post.

  6. I too have alot of "Ag lab's" in my family tree, they had a hard life I know.
    I think far too much is spent on Christmas now, I like to make most of my presents as I think your time is worth more than any money. I am making a quilt for my Mum, and other bits for other people and my children will get something useful, not something that will lie on the bedroom floor unloved in a couple of months time!
    I will be working Christmas and Boxing day so things will be a little different for us!

  7. This post is an affirmation that money plays little or no part in happiness. I loved reading it - and by the way I still love pan haggerty -a fantastic way of using up bits from the fridge.

  8. Phewee! What a sobering thought! People nowadays think poverty is not having the latest flat screen TV! Going without is unheard of, like it's a given right to be provided with the best of things.

    Kettle broth is a little like the onion soup recipe in my good housekeeing book, 'take one onion and a pan of boiling water.' and that's it! Hard times indeed. Thank you for that great post. x

  9. I'm glad you all enjoyed it so much. Perhaps it's because I'm a Family Historian, and a Social Historian and I have an "Enquiring Mind", but I always want to know how it was for people in the past. The Victorian period in particular has always interested me, and I have a growing shelf of books about living in Victorian times. Whilst there was dreadful hardship, and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work, there were good times too. I shall have to write about those next.

    Meanwhile, like those poor people in Cumbria, you never know when disaster is going to hit, and It Pays to Keep a Store Cupboard!!!

  10. P.S. to WSC - you really weren't at all far from us (6 miles perhaps). If you ever want a cup of tea and a slice of cake in passing, give me a shout when you're down this way again.

  11. I, too, have been through some lean years... first as a kid and later as a young adult .. so lots of my frugal habits remain just like Morning's Minion.

    one of my "memorable" Christmas presents was a shovel. Yup... dear old Dad bought each of us 4 kids shovels the year he decided to dig out a basement under our old wartime house. We dug, and dug and dug... so no stranger to hard work later in life and still think that and piling wood held me in pretty good stead .... I was never out of work nor afraid to do anything to be able to eat.... although even at that... there were some weeks.... when there was not one thing in my horrible little chicken coop (which was my first house) the first few months on my own after paying my $30 a month rent... but, things picked up after a few paycheques. I worked hard to get a few cheques ahead.. and moved well forward. But, I can tell you I still keep two pantries stocked... It'll never be any different for me I'm sure... ... I rotate and use and still keep it full....just in case.......