This story covers the longest period so far in these history’s, in all a total of 44 years.
Gladys was born in 1918, the youngest of four living in Camden Town. Her father worked on the railway at Camden Goods Depot, a major railway and canal junction of the day. Her mother died in childbirth so Gladys never knew her.
With a sister two years older than her and a brother and another sister of four and six respectively her father realised he could not cope with them all so the two youngest girls were fostered out to his family in Chatter End near Farnham in Essex, just a few miles from Bishops Stortford. Gladys remembers he was a good father and visited her and her sister every week, regularly travelling from Camden by means unknown. She does recall that it involved a lot of walking.
The family they were fostered to lived in a double fronted thatched cottage with few facilities. They were known as Aunty and Uncle. In fact Emma was her real aunty but she was never ever called that by the girls; she was their father’s sister.
The toilet was at the bottom of the large garden and was not of the flush variety, the house was lit by paraffin lanterns and a candle in a dish holder to light you to bed. With no mains supply or well, the water was collected in buckets from a nearby farm pump and carried on a wooden yolk across the shoulders of her uncle. On the plus side was the garden with fruit trees and a vegetable plot. Add to these the pigs, chickens and ducks on the green weed covered pool and the family and the several other fostered children were pretty well self sufficient. The girls had pet rabbits which she believes were not part of the family menu.
The cooking was carried out on what seemed to Gladys as a small child to be an enormous black leaded, two oven range. One side was used for bread and the other for roasting, including the pork and chickens from the garden. A large pot was always on top and was used for stews or jam making with the plums from the garden. She claims that Aunty would count the plums on the tree as they ripened. Look but don’t touch!
Life in the cottage was apparently very controlled. Although she was not expected to carry out any tasks; “you are not a servant, your father pays me”, aunty told them. Their father was paying her to foster them “and foster them she would”.
The only play things she can recall were a whip and top and a doll. Her father would give them silver three-penny bits for presents.
Her aunty was very strict and table manners and etiquette imposed rigorously. She knew to sit up straight and which cutlery to use and to not even consider leaving the table without permission, and heaven forbid a mouthful before grace was said!
She was not allowed away from the cottage unaccompanied and looked forward to being collected by her cousin (called aunty), and taken just across the road to her shop.
The reason given for such close surveillance was the possibility of her hearing bad words if she was out alone. It certainly was not the traffic; bar the occasional horse and cart little else used the local roads.
Uncle was admonished when he spoke in his Essex farmer manner. “What be the time?” “Don’t let the children hear and copy that language” she would say. (Aunty had been to Grammar School of course!).
There were no games or other entertainments that she can recall. The nearest she came to inside recreation was sitting by the three manual organ singing whilst aunty pedalled the bellows and played hymns. I am of the opinion that this activity was not considered very recreational by the two girls.
There was always someone to look after her whilst aunty and uncle went off to Bishops Stortford Market on Thursdays and Saturdays in a horse drawn trap. She cannot remember if it was to buy or sell produce.
By listening to her memories I would sum up her childhood and teens as living in a house with good food and care, God in everything, but not a lot of real love. Her father’s weekend visits were the highlight of her week. They were always called Dorothea and Gladys, never Dot and Glad which they would have preferred and the way their father addressed them.
Gladys’s memories, considering they are from another era, are difficult to actually date but were explained in little bursts of recall around a central theme. One such theme is her aunt’s devotion to the church. St Mary the Virgin; which was her centre of the universe, and where she played the organ. Gladys was in the choir and could see her aunty watching her in the organ mirror to make sure she was singing. Or at least moving her lips. Her sister Dorothea was in later years at the back pumping the organ, so her inattention would have been self evident!
It was quite a long walk past the school and turning left along a narrow lane to attend morning and evening services, with another journey to Sunday school in the afternoon.
Gladys was confirmed by the Bishop at Colchester although she can’t remember him, only that she had a new dress, as opposed to a hand me down, the only one during that period that she can recall.
Pictures from the internet of the church and school and a modified cottage at Chatter End were recognised with a deal of pleasure.
The church school at Farnham is remembered for the Panama hat she hated to wear and the uniform of gym slip, black stockings and bloomers with a pocket and broderie anglais lace on the leg bottoms. She had been very sad when her sister started school two years before her but a bit of a tearaway when she eventually followed her. The recalled 2-3 mile walk (this distance seems a little exaggerated but it was a long time ago and her legs would have been a lot shorter in those days), in both directions did not slow her down as a five year old. The hours were 8.30 to 4.30 as far as she can recall.
The actual memories of her school days were not forthcoming, indeed why should they? Using a bead counting frame she had learned her arithmetic and could read and write well when she finished her education at age 14. What she read was again controlled by aunty. Newspapers were out but some comics were allowed.
Although she had been a bit too wild to consider what she would like to do it was now time to earn a living and the next 6 years she worked in a cake shop in Bishops Stortford. She loved the cakes and was in her words, “a bit large” during that period. She was given a New Hudson bike to travel to work. It must have felt like a magic carpet.
At age 20 she left Aunty and Uncle and started as a live-in Probationer Psychiatric Nurse at Leavesden Mental Hospital at the top of Horseshoe Lane, for a £1 a month.
The feeling I have was that she was a bird released from a cage, and flew a little erratically for a while. Living with other people must have been very strange after the tight control of the previous 20 years.
Passing her exams at the end of the first year she became a Registered Nurse doing a job that could not have been easy and quite unpleasant at times. There was no care in the community in those days and being committed was often a long term or permanent situation for some of the inmates.
Her duties included bed making, emptying bed pans and clearing night stools, feeding and bed bathing her patients, administering medications; some of which included injections. Her demonstration with an imaginary hypodermic device held in a clenched fist with her thumb poised on top followed by a smart downward movement, led me to believe that modern methods did not come a moment too soon! She told me that they gave her an orange to practice on. Jab it in quick she was told, it’s the fiddling about that hurts! That may have been true for the orange, but?
Observing a post-mortem was part of her training and breaking half way through for lunch seemed a little strange. A list of brain lobes and parts followed, which I have already forgotten.
12 hour shifts were difficult to take, specially the night shift. Part of the job included dodging the rounds of the Night Supervisor and occasionally the Matron. Tucking a lit cigarette under her cape in a corridor produced a horrible smell and a hole that was difficult to explain.
The uniform was quite a challenge in its self. It consisted of a triangular scarf like cotton hat that covered the hair and pointed down either side with a fixing at the lower neck. This was a two girl job.
Next came the dress with vertical navy and white stripes and the stiff white apron cinched with a belt and a large silver buckle. To top it was a very stiff stand up collar. Dropping her head was not an option. Black lisle stockings and flat shoes and a navy blue and red cape completed the ensemble.
A highlight of the day was a bath but it meant queuing with a lot of other girls. Some of them pulled all sorts of tricks to beat the line up. Being Irish and cute was a ploy that seemed to pay off for one girl she recalls.
It was whilst she was at the hospital that she met another nurse and they became real friends, attending dances at the Crown Hotel, (it was Calendars and now T.G.I. Friday’s) in St Albans Road. This was during WWII and she was; like the other nurses, on a rota for ARP duties. She remembers hearing the air raid siren sound in the dance hall when she should have been patrolling the hospital grounds and dashing up Horseshoe Lane with her silver dance shoes in her hands.
With only one late, midnight, pass a week she told the tale of dance floor decisions ‘to be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ when the last Waltz was announced at near the witching hour. If they could not charm the Gate Porter into letting them in; silver dance shoes in hand, then they climbed over the tall metal railings with spikes on top designed to keep the inmates in. She told me they lost their “double diamond” on several occasions. This is a term I did, and do not understand. It would seem it refers to the crotch of their pants. I trust it does not have any other very rude connotations.
The next obstacle was getting up to the first floor window of their room. Another nurse, who they knew pinched coal in her hat from the boiler house to light a fire in her cold bedroom was persuaded / blackmailed, to be ready with sheets tied together and to the iron bedstead. It must have been draughty without their double diamonds?
It was during this period that she met a fella who played the drums in the Johnny Windmill band. He was later to become her husband.
At the end of the war in 1946 her friend left to marry a Canadian Airman who took her back to Calgary. She did not want to stay at the hospital without her so was pleased to hear of a job at Harebreaks Day Nursery. She became a lodger in North Western Avenue across what in those days was a virtually deserted by-pass. She soon became Deputy Matron at the home which sounded good but did not pay a lot of money.
Her drummer boy friend returned from the Japanese prison camp in Singapore and back to his job at Croxley Mills. They were married at St Lawrence’s Church in Abbots Langley in 1948 and still with little money she lived with her mother-in-law for a year before eventually moving to Kingswood in the 1950’s. via rooms in Abbots Langley.
The picture is of her wedding in a second hand dress, “only worn once” was the sales spiel. Twice, after this picture.
Although this history goes on until 1962 Gladys claims that little happened other than enjoying life with her husband during the next ten years or so.
Her car was an A35 which she drove to Cecil Street Nursery every day but she would not want to drive today, her brain would not work quickly enough.
They would holiday in Cornwall or the Isle of Wight. Her husband would not go abroad, he had more than enough of foreigners during his time in Changi POW camp, he said.
They supported Wembley Monarchs Ice Hockey team and travelled to many away games. She was also a fan of Wembley Lions speedway. Bill Kitchen, Split Waterman and Tommy Price were some of the riders she recalls and she loved the crashes!
Gladys remembers the lunches after shopping in St Albans at The Pilgrims Rest half way up Hollywell Hill. “Lovely home cooking it was”.
She gardened, knitted and turned round her man’s collars and cuffs on her hand powered Singer sewing machine.
Her oft repeated phrase, “If I had a brain I would be dangerous” was shown to have no truth in it whatsoever. She showed an awareness not always found in people a lot younger than herself
A lady of a different era and world!
October 5, 2012
These are my interpretations of the events as I see them and I am not the spokesman for the KRA or anyone else. Please do not publish this effort in part or as a whole without permission.
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Gladys passed away aged 95 on the Monday the 31st March 2014 at Courtland Lodge where she had been for a short few months since leaving her house in Fern Way. She was cremated at West Herts on Wednesday the 9th April with around sixty neighbours and friends attending. Rest in Peace Gladys