A Life of Service to Others (2009)

Location : Suffolk & Norfolk

If we go back to when you were at your last school – can you start from there as to what helped you to make a decision about your future?

In those days when you were 11 you went to the top school and I used to have to cycle.

And how far was that?

Two and a half mile.

On your own?

With my brothers and sisters.

And you went to school in Suffolk?

Yes, at Leiston.

And did you have to take any exams or get a certificate when the time came to leave school?

I did. I was 15 when I left school. I started in 1921 when I was 5 and I was 15 when I left.

And what was your first job?

Well, my father was a gardener in a big house so I went as a tweeny maid.

Can you tell me something about what a tweeny maid is?

A tweeny maid, she helps wherever occasion arises. I used to help in the kitchen, help in the dining room, help upstairs.

So you were learning the trade of a proper maid?

Yes, actually that's what I was in the end, a parlour maid.

So how big a house was this that employed you?

A big house – 15 staff.

The gentleman who owned the house, what was his profession?

He didn't work, he was a Sir.

So he was a landowner was he?

Oh yes.

And your father's work in the garden, was that to maintain a beautiful parkland garden with vegetables or what?

He was a general gardener. He did the lawns and he did the flowers and the vegetables and the fruit.

You've said before we started that your mother was a cook. Was she a cook at the same place?

No. My mother when she started work was a cook at the Dulwich Priory with the monks.

But when you children came along was she at home?

Yes.

And did you live on the site of the big house where your father worked?

Yes, we had a gardener's house.

Can you remember what your first wage packet was as a tweeny maid?

8/3d a week.

And how many days a week did you have to work to earn that?

Seven. Yes, every day of the week. We got a Sunday afternoon off sometimes. We got one day off a week, not always the same day.

What time of the day did you start work?

Half past six. I was up at half past six, and was lucky if I got to bed at 10.

And what was your first job?

My first job was to get up and clean the fireplaces in the dining room and the drawing room. And they were cleaned with black lead.

Did you have a uniform?

Yes. In the morning I had a blue striped dress and a white apron, and then we used to have a sackcloth apron over the top to keep it clean. Then in the afternoon I had a green dress, coffee coloured caps and aprons. Very smart they were.

Why did you have to change the uniform?

I had to go in the dining room to serve the lunch.

Was that lunch for the Sir and lady?

Yes, and the guests.

And were they big lunches?

Oh yes.

Can you tell me something about what would be served?

Well, sirloin of beef was one, and game, game pies. Whole salmon trimmed with cucumber. Lovely salmon on a big dish with cucumber round and tomatoes across the top. It was lovely.

And then did they have a dessert?

Oh, yes. The Sir, he had an apple pie every day. Whatever was served for dessert, he had apple pie!

And were the apples grown at the Hall?

Yes.

And how many people would serve this lunch each day?

Three. Three parlour maids.

And then you would clear table, would you?

Yes, and wash up and clean the silver.

That would be your job as well?

Oh yes, I was helping everywhere.

And then what happened as the afternoon drew on, what duties would you have then?

Well, there would be all the washing up to do from the lunch, and cleaning the silver and putting that away in a big silver safe. The big silver safe was like walking into a big cupboard lined with green baize, with shelves in. And there was a lot of silver in there.

And did they then have an evening meal, or afternoon tea?

They had afternoon tea at half past three and then they had an evening meal about 8.

And were you still on duty?

Oh yes.

So at 15 you were on duty right through . . .?

All through the day, yes.

What was the difference between the two main meals would you say?

The lunch was what they called the heavy meal and it was a light meal in the evening. It was more salads and things like that, or casseroles. Often vegetarian dishes.

So you served that. And then did you have to clear up?

Yes.

And who would say that you were finished for the day?

I would! I'd say "I'm finished now. I'm going to bed. Good night".

And then you would return to your parents' cottage?

No I wouldn't. We lived in. The three parlour maids had a bedroom on one end of the house. We had our own bathroom.

So you had a proper bathroom?

Oh yes. Three of us shared the bathroom.

And were you in the days when Sunday the staff were expected to . . . ?

Go to church. Yes.

Did you have to go with the Sir and lady?

No, we went to church on our own, but we were expected to go.

And was there a place that you sat in the church?

Yes, specially for the staff.

And then you came back. Did you then do the lunch?

Well, then it was lunchtime, yes. And then if you were lucky enough to have your day off that day you went off at 2 o'clock. If not you'd serve tea and dinner again at night.

And how would you spend your free time?

In the house the parlour maids had a little sitting room of their own, and we would read or sew. We could do what we liked in our own time.

Did you go out? Was there any socialising, dancing, anything like that?

I did go out, yes. I did a lot of walking and I had a boyfriend with a bicycle, so we used to go around, go to dances, yes. And talking of dances there used to be the staff ball. Our big house would hold a ball and they'd invite all the staff from the other big houses, and then the other houses would do the same and invite us. And then the owners would wait on them.

And did you have a special outfit for …?

My own dance dress, yes. I've still got it. Green with black stripes.

What made you keep it?

I've kept all . . . I've got all my uniform.

That must be a very interesting collection.

I have got a very interesting collection! I've got all my caps and aprons, the white ones, the blue ones and the coffee coloured afternoon ones.

So you took a great pride in .. ..

I did take a pride in … and I'm a hoarder!

For historic reasons that's a wonderful thing to have done.

I've got some wonderful things. I've got two nightdresses were made of parachute silk during the War.

Well, we'll come on to that. These dances that you did was that a way of the various servants meeting other people?

Yes. And keeping in contact. Finding out what's going on. They were very nice for me. I enjoyed them.

Did you have radios or any outside information?

No, we didn't.

So the music for the dancing . . .?

Was piano and a drum.

And how long did it take you to progress from tweeny to parlour maid?

Well, I didn't stay there too long. I got another job. What was I there . . ..? About two and a half years and then I got a job as a parlour maid.

So you stepped up. And did the wage increase?

Yes, I got 12/6d. But I didn't stay there very long either because the lady of the house, she was a . . . I mustn't say anything too much!

She wasn't respectful of the staff?

She was not. Everything was locked up and everything was dished out. You had so much butter and so much sugar and …. everything was dished out.

You didn't have the freedom like you did in the previous House. So then what did you do?

Well then I went to work just temporary for a little while, and then I got married.

And how did you meet your husband?

Well, I met my husband from going to dances. Actually I met him one night going to the cinema. I walked three miles from my home to the cinema, and that's how we met. And we saw Scott of the Antarctic, so you can tell how long ago that was!

So you did your courting and eventually got married. And what was your husband's occupation?

A bricklayer.

And so were you then having to find your own place to live?

Yes, oh yes, we had to find a house to live in.

So in those days did you buy the house?

No we rented the house, for 10/6d a week.

And was your husband self-employed?

No, he worked for a company.

And did you continue to work at that time?

Not for a little while, but I did after the children. I had a family.

How many children did you have?

I had seven.

And during that time you were at home, very busy looking after them.

Yes. And then the War came, you see, so that made a difference.

What was life like looking after seven children?

Hard work!

What was the hardest bit would you say?

I really don't know. I would say probably washing, but I love washing.

You liked washing. Did you have the old copper tub or the stone tub?

No, the old copper one with the fire underneath, and hanging things outside on the line.

Did they go through a mangle?

No, I didn't have a mangle. I had to wring them and hang them on the line.

And then iron them?

Oh yes. Iron them with box irons.

What's a box iron?

A box iron is a metal contraption in the shape of an iron, which is hollow, and then you have a solid lump the same shape as the iron that you put in the fire and heat red hot, and then put inside the box iron and it heats, you see.

So you couldn't iron very delicate things with a very hot iron, then?

Oh no.

What were the clothes made of in the main, what materials?

Linens, I suppose.

You said you went back to work. When did you decide that you needed to go back to work?

Well, actually it was the beginning of the War, and they were asking for home helps, like the care assistants, but they were home helps in that day. And I said I would go back to work if I could take my small daughter with me, which I did.

And what were your duties?

Everything that the mother would possibly do.

So what age group were you helping?

Every age. The older people and mothers and children. You just went into somebody's house and did what they would normally do.

Was that a part-time job?

No, that was a weekly job.

And you set off what time of the day?

Early – 9 o'clock.

And did you cycle round?

Yes.

So did you go from one house to the next?

Well if I did 2 hours at one house, I did, but mostly I used to go for the whole day. I used to go to a mother who'd just had a baby, and she'd got probably two more children.

So husbands were away I suppose at the War?

Husbands were away.

And these people applied for help?

That's right. And you went as a home help, but they didn't pay the home help.

No. Who were your employers?

Well, the Social Services.

Can you remember what sort of rate of pay you got?

I can't really remember. Not a lot.

You enjoyed the work?

I did enjoy the work, because I've always loved working with people.

And how long did you work as a home help?

Well, actually till I was 70. I carried on until I retired.

Now tell me some of the changes that happened in the home help service. Did it change much in your time?

Not really, because you just did what a mother would normally do.

So it was mainly a domestic role?

Yes. And if you went and you wanted some water and there weren't any hot water you had to fill the copper, and if there wasn't any coal you had to forage round and find some wood to light the fire.

Did it involve any personal care in those days? Did you have to bath anybody or wash them?

Yes. Oh I've bathed people, yes, and washed them.

So that was starting to come in, the duties of the home carer?

Oh yes.

Did you have a uniform?

I had an overall, a white overall, yes.

How did you keep in contact with the other home carers in the area, or the boss?

We didn't, no.

So how did you get your information and the names of the people who needed your help?

Someone would call and ask if you would go.

They'd physically call round to your house?

Yes. Ask if you were prepared to go to a certain person, and if you said no they would give you somebody else.

And you enjoyed all of that work?

I enjoyed doing it, yes. I worked for all sorts of people.

Now I understand that you received an M.B.E. Can you tell me how that came about? What was it for?

Well, I moved from Suffolk into Norfolk, to Harleston, and I did a lot of charity work.

What sort of charities?

Helping with people with learning difficulties, and the elderly. I used to organise coach trips for the elderly, one a month, and once a year I used to organise a holiday for them for a week.

So you were a pillar of the community.

Yes.

Who put you forward for the award?

I don't really . . . I think it was a Janet Blackburn, I think, but I'm not really sure. Somebody in Harleston.

And what happened next? How did you receive the award?

I went to London, and Prince Charles . . .

Look at the wonderful hat! Thora is showing me a lovely photograph of her looking very smart, holding up her M.B.E., and Prince Charles had given it to her. And that was in 2005. Not so long ago. How did you get up to London?

Hired a taxi.

From Harleston all the way to London?!

Yes.

Were you accompanied by anybody?

My son.

And then did you go straight to the palace?

Straight to the palace, yes.

And how was the day? What happened?

We walked up the big stairs up to the picture gallery and when we were in the picture gallery we had to wait until we were called to go and receive our . .. .

And how old were you then?

Well, I'm 93 now, and that's 4 years ago, so 89.

And had you been still doing that work in the community right up till then?

Yes, right up till then.

That's remarkable. And you're now living here at (a residential home) . ..

Yes, because I had a stroke, so I had to come in, but I worked right till I did come in here. I used to go out night-sitting.

Can you describe what night-sitting is for people?

I used to go to people at night at about 9 to half past 9, if anybody was going to be alone, and sit with them. And you had some very funny patients sometimes. One old lady always used to say the house was on fire!

And you weren't nervous?

No. One lady always said would I read the Bible to her. I spent hours at nights reading the Bible.

They must miss you in Harleston!

Yes, they do, although I say it. I saw a friend of mine yesterday. I went to see her and she said "Oh dear, hope you're going to get well because we want to start going out again"

So you've enjoyed your working life?

I've enjoyed my life. Full stop. I enjoyed my school life, and I had a wonderful life before school.

It's been a life of service, hasn't it, to others?

Yes.

And you've benefited.

I have. I've got many friends, and I always say to myself "Wherever I went in Harleston if I knocked on the door I would get asked in."

Is there anything else you want to add?

The War years were marvellous years for me.

Why particularly?

Well, I had a lot of fun in the Wartime.

In what way?

Well, because I wasn't working actually all the time during the War. I did some crazy things.

Where was your husband?

In the Airforce.

So he was away flying and you were having some fun times!

Yes, I was!

Was this before the children arrived?

Yes.

So you were able to go out with girlfriends?

Oh yes.

So did you feel that the actual dangers of the War were not in your area?

No, not really.

You didn't get bombed?

No

And living in the countryside were you well fed?

Yes. We had our rations. But my father, being a gardener, we had plenty of vegetables and plenty of fruit. We also had chickens and we also kept a pig.

So you would say that was a good time for you?

Well it was for me, but I'm not saying that for everybody.

And your husband came through the War?

Yes.

And came back to doing bricklaying?

Yes, but he died last year.

I'm so sorry. But you've had a very long life and marriage.

Yes ….. and I have started to write my life story.

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