Until I went to school aged five, I called my mother Mama. Her birth name was Lila Elizabeth Havard, after a Fairy Queen her mother had seen in a play! ‘Mama’ was my God-mother, Aunt Doris,’ suggestion as she had grandiose ideas as to my up-bringing and saw me as a little lady of breeding who would doubtless learn to play the piano beautifully, knit Fair-Isle sweaters, blind-folded, embroider as if to the manor born, and POSSIBLY end up marrying someone higher up the ladder (and I don’t mean a window-cleaner.) As it transpired, while I may have mastered Chopsticks, and The Bluebells of Scotland, sewed a fairly neat hem, and even made a peg-bag, and a few cushion covers, etc., I’m afraid I disappointed in all other areas. And, because a strange, deranged little man with a moustache wanted to dominate the world and promote a “Master Race,” I didn’t attend the Convent School my aunt had mapped out for me. Meanwhile, I enrolled at the local, Dagenham village school, before being whisked away to live on a Welsh mountain when war was declared in the September of 1939. Then, realising I just belonged to the hoi polloi, I thereafter called my mother mum.
The Mansfields (my paternal relatives), needed to “set the scene,” thought they were a cut above. There was Royal Doulton china and crystal cut-glass in the display cabinet and a framed picture of Churchill on the wall to prove it!! The ladies of the family also bought glossy periodicals which “the toffs” purchased; and shopped in the very best West End stores whenever possible. Oh, and both Dad’s sisters owned FUR COATS, and wore Perfume by COTY… But I mustn’t give the wrong impression as, with the (later) exception of one of their number, they were consistently kind, caring, charitable and generous. But quickly back to mum…
So, what was she like, my pretty, loving mum? Imagine a blue-skied and sunshiny day, with a soft breeze blowing and birds wheeling in the sky… That was my mum. She epitomized Spring and was blessed with a sunny, happy personality. (On later reading Laurie Lee’s book “Cider with Rosie,” mum put me in mind of his quirky mother as their sense of fun were similar!) She was a perfect foil for Dad’s no-nonsense: a spade is a spade, sterner make-up, although he had an earthy sense of humour, was as reliable as the clichéd Rock of Gibraltar and loved her to bits… Around five feet two inches, with a slender figure, mum belied an inner strength which repeatedly revealed itself.
Born in 1906, she lived to experience the Great Depression in South Wales and helped look after her two younger sisters. Grandad said she had ‘Dark brown hair like fine-spun sugar…’ A brick-layer and later, shop-keeper, he may have been, but he was a gentleman and charmed the ladies. Mum had left school at fourteen and worked selling ribbons and cottons in the market and in her parents’ greengrocer’s shop/and on a pony and trap serving customers living in the mountains. Too soon, everything was ‘on the slate, please, mun’ because of The Great Depression, and money was fast running out. Aged seventeen, mum begged to go to London to work but Grandma was convinced it was worse than Gomorrah. ‘Duw duw, you could be murdered, or worse.’ she cried. But, when feeding her family became critical, Grandma relented. Mum pointed her “winkle-pickers” in the East End of London’s direction and worked as a Nanny for the two children of talented Jewish tailors in Stepney.
Soon Lila was not only a Nanny, but taught how to cook Jewish dishes and do intricate beading work. Linking up with her best friend, Edna, the pair went dancing on their one day off and, as she said ‘The streets weren’t really paved with gold,’ as promised… but the lights were brighter and you could have ‘six-penny-worth of fun’ and watch American pictures too. She saved hard and soon had the requisite ten pounds to add to her mother’s hard-saved purse. Her family: Mam, Dad and three siblings, caught the train to Dagenham Dock station with packed suitcases and little else and were given a new Council house in Becontree, which her enamoured mother announced, was ‘Like a miniature Buckingham Palace!’ Mum said that was pushing it a bit… But it had a new roof which didn’t leak and a bathroom downstairs, three bedrooms up, and a proper garden at the back. ‘Not like that old slum in Dowlais,’ Grandma was heard to say.
Leaving the Soloman’s employ with regret, Mum then became a cinema usherette, also working part-time in the building’s café with her sister Peggy. She found life fun as she loved to dance and, being pretty, caught the eye of many a would-be suitor. One in particular pursued her and they became engaged, but he spent too much time on his motor-bike and Mum wasn’t cut out to play second fiddle to a bike! The move couldn’t have been luckier for another dancer and natty dresser (first in his crowd to wear plus-fours, it is said… ) called Charles (Charlie) who quickly stepped into the breach. He and Lila won a few prizes for their prowess on the dance floor – including “The Black Bottom’”- of the Cross Keys public house in old Dagenham and were soon seriously courting.
Eager to show off his new girl-friend to his family, Charles invited her to tea, much to the delight of his father, also Charles: a well-heeled Freemason, who had a penchant for pretty faces… The females in the family, however, on being introduced to an uneducated girl “from the Welsh valleys” almost had them reaching for their smelling salts… but Lila was polite, friendly and possessed a winning smile and they gradually accepted the inevitable. Charles was smitten, but found it difficult to ‘write my own life script’ as he later discovered. The happy pair were married in a – horror of horrors – Registry office, while the Mansfields were staunch Catholics, a fact the Father of the local church found difficult to comprehend and led to harsh words being exchanged. Although to keep the Mansfields’ happy, when I arrived on the scene, I was Christened by a Canon, no less. (Dad said ‘She should have been fired from one!’ when I decapitated his row of red, soldier-erect tulips, aged two.) After the birth of my second brother, the Priest visited our house and tried to persuade Mum to marry “in the church,” but went beyond the pale when he suggested all three of us children were illegitimate, and was quickly shown the door.
Like most working-class women then, mum was familiar with the Monday-wash-boiler, the scrubbing board and the outside mangle. Although we had indoor plumbing, we had no central heating until the mid/late 50’s – and only had a gas-fire for warmth on in the bedroom if we were very ill (once with measles). The stove in our tiny kitchen was much cosseted, as was the rare fire in the lounge fireplace. And the telephone, also installed in the 50’s, was almost revered, as was the “new-fangled” TV set.
Meanwhile, mum – by then a trained hairdresser – crimped and cut hair to help expenses go further, cooked delicious meals for the five of us and was everything a good mum should be. Then – wouldn’t you know – the lunatic little man mentioned above, started strutting his stuff and war, an incomprehensible state to us children, was declared. When rationing was introduced, Mum made all sorts of filling dishes, using more potatoes and vegetables from our garden, bread and fruit puddings and ‘apples in blankets’ (pastry) to fill our corners…she also made sure we had concentrated orange juice, cod-liver oil (ugh!) and Virol to keep us healthy, as – in due course – did dear aunt Sal. If any of us children received a B or C for our school-work, she’d give us a hug, sympathize and say ‘Never mind, you’ll get an A next time…’ while dad was the opposite of impressed…
Dad, having been an Air Force Cadet at the end of World War I and in love with aeroplanes, re-joined the Air Force and was one of the first wave of airmen to be called up for duty. After hastily digging a huge hole in our pristine, green lawn, he erected an outdoor air-raid shelter, as instructed, and then accompanied us three children and mum to South Wales. We were to stay in the relative safety of her cousin Sarah Jones’– Aunt Sal to us – tall, thin house, set into the side of Mountain Hare, just above Merthyr Tydfil. It didn’t have all ‘mod cons’. like ours, but I was enchanted with gaslight and candlelight… not so with the outside “lav,” with squares of the Merthyr Express on which to wipe one’s bottom!
Mum stayed on awhile, but dad had to join his unit in France. Having entrusted brother Bryan to the loving care of another aunt in Ebbw Vale, as Aunt Sal couldn’t cope with three children due to a badly ulcerated leg, mum left to stay with her mother and do “war work.” As mentioned above, Mum wasn’t very tall and quite slender, and we were surprised when next we saw her, as she had developed muscles…after working on a moving assembly belt of Army lorries at Ford’s Motors. She later moved to another company, where she was taught welding and became even stronger. Fortunately, during the first part of the war, it was fairly quiet, so we were transported back and forth a few times, especially as dad was given leave from France before things hotted up. Thereafter, Dagenham, and more specifically: our house became a dangerous place to live in as it was near the River Thames; Ford’s Motor works, churning out war machines; a huge drug factory and a railway – all likely targets for the German planes. A land-mine fell at the end of our street and demolished many houses and killed several people, but our house was only marginally damaged. In all, we were evacuated three times: to Merthyr, Neath and – with my secondary school, to Derbyshire. Towards the end of the war, dad was stationed near enough to visit our home and mum gave birth to my third brother, Royce (despite being warned about the aphrodisiac quality of eels to which he was partial). As mum was unwell, the doctor advised her to stay somewhere quieter, and the most generous family, who lived in Neath, Wales – and had two children of their own – took the five of us in, as aunt Sal was ill. You can imagine our sheer joy when peace was declared and we were all able to return to our own home: shaken and stirred but still intact, and dad was, at last, demobbed.
During our absence, we soon discovered, Mum had re-decorated several rooms herself. There was a shortage of wallpaper, so she had “stippled” the walls with a design in a contrasting colour and I spent many odd times imagining all sorts of animals and magical “objects” floating up to the ceilings… It seemed, Mum was able to tackle most things, and a great advocate of “make do and mend.” She was always darning socks, turning shirt collars and bedsheets, and aware of the hard times, often said “That will do…” if an item of clothing had a vestige of life left. A keen dancer herself, she encouraged me when I reached my teens and joined the youth club. Mum and her father both won prizes for dancing and she played a mean piano. I recall her pounding the ivories in our Welsh centre during her visits. “Amapola,” “The Seigfried Line” and various popular tunes and songs were requested during her time with us, and she urged me to take ballet and tap lessons, which I adored.
As far as “lessons subtly-learned” while under my parents roof were concerned, Mum in particular emphasized that I should ‘show willing and be helpful to others’ as she did…and, while sex was never actually discussed, whenever I went out with a boy, she always told me to ‘be good now!’ which I interpreted as ‘keep your legs together,’ which I dutifully did, much to their annoyance. Every week, Mum and I went to the local cinema to see the latest British or American film and lapped up all the glamour and fantasy and she loved reading “Nell’s Books on Wheels” delivered locally every week She was particularly fond of romances and favoured medical tales. Mum had a knack of bringing sunshine into the house with some of her embroidered tales of people she worked with and even when it rained for a few days, managed to lift our spirits. Fortunately, both my parents were able to enjoy several holidays abroad as we children grew older, and still managed to impress on the dance floor!
As time wore on, and after I married, mum took advanced cooking courses and learned “Silver Service Waitressing,”securing an excellent post in the directors’ canteen of a large company nearby: May & Bakers, and worked there for several years. When she retired, she hated it, so arranged wedding functions and 2lst birthday celebrations and the like, with the able assistance of one of my sisters-in-law, Doreen; and made beautiful, iced celebration cakes. She also did flower arranging and made bridal bouquets, buttonholes and the like… (and even won prizes for her arrangements at the local Town Show.)
When my parents celebrated their Golden Wedding, as my husband and I were then running a hotel, we were able to entertain them with family and friends, for a fun weekend. It was so good to be able to make a fuss of them for a change! Sadly, as dad approached eighty, his lungs started letting him down – he was a heavy smoker when young and in the war, apart from working for so many years on the river. But he made it to eighty-three. Mum was, naturally, at first desolate at his passing, as were we. But we sold her house for her and bought her another, smaller one, just around the corner to ours.
Her hands were rarely still thereafter. She made delicious petit fours and boxed them up as gifts at Christmas time, still made large and small assorted cakes, and embroidered many pictures which my husband framed for her. She also knitted toys, covered coat-hangers and sewed lavender bags. We were able to take mum and a friend on two continental holidays – which she loved, and we spent many happy hours together. She so enjoyed being in the company of our three sons and her other grandchildren, was alert and keenly interested in them and what was happening in the outside world. She only went on one “Old people’s outing” as she termed them (aged eighty) but said: ‘I shan’t go with them again…Some of them clicked their teeth and talked about their operations all the time’
It was tragically ironic that mum – apart from a worn heart – and comparatively healthy for her age, was struck by an unlicensed car a few inches from a kerb, while out visiting a relative, suffered a broken hip and lapsed into an unconscious state for six, long weeks before dying. It was the most cruel blow of my life and I was bereft, but I still carry her treasured memory in my heart, as I will until I fall of my own perch. Mum loved all us four children unconditionally and, despite our faults, thought us “the bee’s knees…” and, as we thought she was too, you can’t ask for more than that. Can you?
If you’d like to read more about Joy’s life during Wold War II, order her book: “My Gentle War” which went to No.1 on Amazon Kindle in the Social history and memoir category.
© Copyright Joy Lennick 2019
Plane photo by Paul Jespers on Unsplash