Working Lives

An unspoiled childhood by the River Yare (1940s-2018)

Location: Norwich

Julia describes her post-war childhood and family life down Griffin Lane, by the River Yare, in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich.

Life on a houseboat

Mum and Dad got married at Thorpe St Andrew’s church and their first home was on a houseboat. I remember Mum saying she steered the motorboat, towing the houseboat behind.

My sister, brother and I were born at the Stork Nursing Home, on Yarmouth Road, Thorpe St Andrew. My brother and sister were both taken back from the nursing home to live on the houseboat, my sister only weighing 3lb 10oz. No incubators, or anything like that. Mum had to knit dolls clothes for her when she got home, as the baby clothes she had knitted were too big, but they would come in later, of course -nothing was wasted.

When he was a toddler, my brother would put things out through the portholes. Mum would look out first thing in the morning and see things on the bottom of the river; socks, shoes, whatever; they’d all been tipped out. So Dad had to fix down things, like the clock, so they wouldn’t go out as well.

Towing the houseboat

The Second World War

The Second World War came along and Dad volunteered to go into the Merchant Navy, because he loved boats, and he knew he’d probably go into the Army if he didn’t volunteer for the Navy.

He was stationed at Lowestoft. He used to ask the chaps to cover for him sometimes when he was stationed there and he used to get on the train at Lowestoft to go to Norwich, he’d jump off just before Whitlingham Station and walk across the marshes home to see Mum and my brother and sister. Then going back, he would jump on the steam train just after Whitlingham and go back to Lowestoft. Dad served out in Basra, and was there made an officer.

Everywhere had to be blacked out, because the planes used to follow the glistening river up and bomb Norwich. So it was most important that everything was blacked out.

My aunt and uncle lived on the houseboat next door to mum. My mum would invite auntie round for a cup of tea in the evening. Well, there were tealeaves and teapot, etc, no teabags in those days, so mum always tipped the teapot out of the porthole into the river. She did this one night and said to my aunt ‘Oh, I think I’ve just tipped it over a swan!’ As everywhere was in blackout Mum couldn’t see the swan!

Mum used to have to carry the two tin pails during the War, because Dad wasn’t there. From the houseboat you had to walk up the cinder path with two empty tin pails and go to the pump at the top of the cinder path, pump the water up, fill the pails up and walk back down to the houseboat.

The houseboat

During the war, Mum worked at Jarrold’s, in the bookbinding department. One day an office worker came through to her and said ‘You can go home, Vera, your husband is coming home from the War’. Mum said she rushed home, prettied herself up and sat waiting ages on the houseboat. When Dad came through the door of the houseboat, she said ‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried?’ and Dad said he had been to call in to see his mum, who lived in Tower Hill. So words broke out… First meeting after so many years apart and. Mum always said that it took a while to get to know each other again because they’d been parted for so long. So, you know, you had to get used to everything. The War years made husbands and wives feel like strangers at first.

The first summer dad was home, it was boiling hot and Mum had to light a fire for my father and wrap wool blankets round his shoulders, because he was so cold. In Basra it was so stifling hot that he felt cold when he got back here, even in a heatwave. When they were out in Basra they used to have to take salt tablets, because they sweated the salt out their bodies in the intense heat.


Mum and Daddy were very happy living on the boat. Dad sadly had his leg cut off by an accident on the way to a holiday. It happened on Necton Bend. Dad was on his motorbike and mum, my brother and sister in the sidecar. Dad did rehab and everything, he was given a heavy wooden leg to wear. It was strapped on. They still stayed on the houseboat and he just about coped with his false leg. He worked as a mechanic at the top of the lane with his wooden leg.

Then I came along. By now Mum and Dad, my sister and brother, had moved into a little wooden hut with a tin roof at the top of the cinder path. The corrugated roof was painted red, and the walls were painted green on the outside, and inside it was lovely and cosy, all painted cream.

I was born at the Stork Nursing Home and brought back to the little wooden house, but tragically Mum lost my Dad when I was a few days old. So it was ‘sink or swim’, as my mum said. Mum was a swimmer and had a make do and mend mentality that’s engrained in me as well. It was going to be a struggle, but Mum was very sensible and she could manage. Because Dad served in the War, Mum used to get a postal order from the British Legion every Christmas to help us. Mum was determined, a hard worker, and carried on and brought us up in a loving, caring home, even though she struggled to make ends meet. One of her sayings was ‘there’s always someone worse off than yourself’, which is quite true.

We lived down the lane, surrounded by dykes and the River Yare. We had no fear of the water. Mum used to say if the swans came up out of the water I was not to go near them, as their wings could break my arms. I remember them hissing when they were out. I also remember their lovely cygnets, soft and downy. They glided through the water so serenely, putting their heads down in the weeds looking for food.

The greengrocer, Dick Short, used to come down on a Friday, or a Saturday I think it was. He used to deliver the greengroceries. He had children, but they were a bit older than us, so he used to bring clothes down which his children had worn and shoes for Mum, so that helped a lot. As time went by, Mum used to be able to treat herself to half a pound of monkey nuts – peanuts with shells on, they were called monkey nuts then.

Mum used to go to jumble sales and pick out woollies, woollen jumpers, cardigans and things. She used to bring them home, unpick them, skein them up on the back of one of the chairs and wash the wool, pull it taught to get all the wrinkles out of the skeins. Then I used to hold both hands up, she’d put the skein over both my hands and she’d ball the wool up again ready to be re-knitted for jumpers for us. When our slippers had holes in, she said she used to embroider wool daisies to cover the holes up. She was very make do and mend.

Our house had an outside toilet and we had newspaper squares to use until Mum was able to get Izal, which was like greaseproof paper. We had no hot water. When I used to go on the outside toilet, which was at the back of the house, I’d call Mummy and say ‘I’ve finished, I’ve finished’ and she said ‘Alright, won’t be a minute’. I used to wait, and she’d get me off the toilet and she said ‘Oh you’ve got a red ring on your bottom’. Once a week Mum would dig a hole in the garden up one end and bury the contents of the loo, because the toilet wasn’t plumbed in.

We had running cold water, but Mum used to pump the water out through the painted green pump round the back of our little house. That used to be lovely soft water. But we had electricity and a coal fire. We had a tin bath and bathed once a week. We all used the same water and we used to have a bath in front of the paraffin heater. I remember Mum getting the water out with an old saucepan, tipping the bath up on end nearly to get it emptied and the water was tipped down the kitchen sink. I didn’t like having my hair washed, because I used to have to put my head over the sink and Mum said ‘We’ll have to wash your hair Julia’. My hair was long, and in those days you didn’t have conditioners to get the knots out. I used to hide behind the wooden armchair in the kitchen if a hair wash was mentioned. So I wasn’t particularly popular, because I used to play up, but Mum understood.

Mum did her big wash – sheets – in our wash house that had an old copper boiler. She used bluebags. She used to boil the white cotton sheets and then rinse them. When she rinsed them, she used to let me put them through the mangle. She used to turn the handle and she used to warn me never get my fingers too close to the mangle. Because of the steam train line at the back of our house, the sheets used to get covered in smoke smuts, so she had to clean and wash them all again.

When a train came past, I used to wave to the train driver and he’d toot back. At the back there was a guardsman, and I used to wave to him and he used to wave back, a bit like The Railway Children really. I loved it.

Julia as a child

Games and entertainment

My brother used to go and put snails up on the line, like brothers do, and opposite the little house there were reeds and I used to make little rabbit runs through them and dens. I remember there was a rope across the dyke, with a stick on the bottom and we used to sit on this stick and push yourself up so you nearly went across the dyke and back again; no lifejackets or anything, but we did respect the river. We then played hopscotch down the cinder path, which was lovely. We used to get black socks though and shoes from it. Beside the cinder path there were the old tar pots, these were rusty and not used anymore. So we got sticks and we wound the black tar on the end of these sticks and pretended they were lollipops and then because the water was rusty, we used to pretend that was orange juice.

There was a winch in front of our house and a big boatshed where they built the boats. John Fox used to winch up the boats when they had to come out. We used to see John with a bandage on his nose and plaster going across. Mum used to say ‘What have you done, John?’  He’d broken his nose, because the winch handle used to swing back, and if you weren’t careful, it would smack you one. Another time he was walking about in a plaster cast because he’d broken his arm on the winch – they were dangerous things.

John had a lovely wooden motorboat. I can see it now and he’d say ‘Do you want a ride in the motorboat?’. We used to go. I used to row as well. I used to take my friend rowing. No lifejacket, nothing. My brother made canoes. He made his own canoe and used to take it on the river and somersault it round near Postwick bend going towards Postwick Grove.

We used to play families. Mum used to have a little bonfire every week and burn the rubbish, but we used to go out near where the ashes were and we’d play families.  Stones were potatoes, grass was bacon, daisies were fried eggs, cow parsley was cauliflower. There used to be perhaps an empty salad cream bottle. so we’d put that on the pretend table as well and we’d play for hours like that.

Halfway up the long stretch of the lane, there was a big old weeping willow tree and we’d climb up it and hide up in the middle of it. If we saw someone walking past we’d say ‘boo’ and make them jump.

Opposite our little house there was a meadow just a few feet away and I remember going over there and plucking buttercups and Mum holding one under my chin and saying ‘Do you like butter?’ and she said ‘yes, you do’, because the yellow would show under my chin. She also used to say ‘Don’t pick dandelions Julia, because they’ll make you wet the bed’.

Mum would play Ludo with us and we just made our own entertainment, you know. I used to go on the swing over at Auntie Ethel’s. I used to swing on the swing to my heart’s content singing I’m Singing In The Rain.

The barges went up the river with the coal on and I’d wave and the men would wave back. There were also cargo ships going up the river. Huge great things they were and they’d wave and I’d wave back. We just made our own enjoyment really. We used our imagination and, you know, it was a nice simple life, although we weren’t well off. We were poor; quite poor, but we had a lovely childhood.

We were left on our own a lot.  When I was four-and-a-half, Mum was told by the government that she had to work – she had previously claimed benefits (because she couldn’t leave three children until we were all at school age). She worked locally and my brother used to take me to school – Hillside Avenue Infants and Junior School.

When Mum had started work, after a long while she rented a black and white television off Snelling’s. We thought we were in heaven. The first advert I remember was for Trill budgerigar food. When they showed it again I thought ‘this is not right, they’ve already shown this’. I thought you had a different advert every single time the adverts came on. Every so often there’d be lines going across the television. We couldn’t work it out, but Mum realised what it was. It was the diesel trains going along the railway close behind us. The steam trains have gone, sadly.

Food and health

Mum managed with the food. For breakfast she used to do us a bacon pancake for the three of us. That was one rasher of bacon chopped into small pieces, one egg, some milk, water and flour. Just for us three, Mum didn’t have any. We never went without food, but there was never any spare food. It was never wasted and if we didn’t like it, we went without and we knew that. We weren’t picky over anything, we just ate what we were given. Boiled potatoes and, you know, just everyday food.

We were very slim, but we were healthy. I can’t remember having any time off school. I think I remember having measles once. Mum took me down the doctor’s, because I had a rash behind my ears. Doctor Hilton asked my mum if I had been eating strawberries. So mum said well yes, but not a lot. Anyway, the outcome was that I had measles. I stayed away from school until I was better and then I went back again.

We walked to school even when it was freezing cold, ice and snow. I remember we had mittens, knitted by Mum, and we were allowed to go out and play snowball fights. The mittens used to shrink through getting wet and all go matted. Then the teacher let us put them on the big fireguard surrounding the tortoise stove in the classroom to dry.

I used to love the school milk. The winters were so cold that the milk tops used to rise, like toadstools, and the bluetits used to peck at the cream. We had our school milk and teachers didn’t have any nonsense; we did as we were told, and we knew if we didn’t we were in trouble. We respected our teachers.

Christmas celebrations

Christmastime was nice. Mum had a Christmas tree in the garden. She used to dig it up every year and after Christmas she’d replant it again and that grew every single year. A Christmas tree with roots on, which you don’t get nowadays very often.

I’d wake up Christmas morning, walk into our little living room, and there was a Christmas tree all lit up in lights and everything. I remember opening the presents. I had a tin of toffees and a selection box and a  jumper from my godmother that was always tight round the neck. Christmas was simple, you know. I think mum had a Christmas pudding baked by my auntie Hilda. Auntie used to bake lots of Christmas puddings and cakes, so she’d bring that down for mum and we’d just have a nice Christmas. We sat round the fire (this was before we had a television) and we were just happy.

Mum always bought a coconut at Christmas and she had a metal meat skewer and she used to get this skewer and punch three holes in the bottom of the coconut, put it under a glass and the lucky one would get the coconut milk. Then she’d put the coconut on its side and smack it with a hammer, to halve it, and she’d cut the coconut up for us and we’d have pieces of coconut. We also had chicken at Christmastime. We never had chicken any other time through the year. It was lovely.

We were told to flatten out the Christmas wrapping paper and put it to one side. Mum would cut off the Sellotape and use the paper the next year to wrap the Christmas presents up in. I remember Christmas paper that went on for years. I do it sometimes now, you know, if there’s not a crinkle in it. You never lose that make do and mend, not when you’ve had a happy but poor childhood.

Life by the River Yare

When the floods came, the tides rose. We were lucky in a way because we didn’t get flooded, since we had the back garden, which wasn’t that wide, but was wide enough. Then you had a ditch, or the dyke. Then you had a railway bank and then you had steam trains on the top. So we were lucky we had all that and the dyke never rose to the height where it could come in our little house.

Auntie Ethel wasn’t so lucky. Every year she’d get flooded out. Her house was flat. She had two lawns at the front and then the River Yare, so she had nothing stopping the river coming in. Her hall and kitchen used to get flooded every year. You can imagine how fed up she got with it, but it was accepted. you know. One time I think May Gurney decided to build a bank and that stopped the flooding. It wasn’t high, but it was wide.

Of course, people used to come down; they all had boats and yachts down there. Peggy Carr, who was a dancing teacher, used to call in on the way to her yacht. She’d knock on the door and say ‘Oh hello Vera, please could I have a glass of your lovely spring water?’ Mum used to fill the glass up and Peggy would stand and drink the water.

Another person who used to come down, in his Jaguar, was Mr Parfitt. I don’t know what sort of boat he had, but he used to wave and say hello. I can see Mr Parfitt now going past.

I can’t remember the gentleman’s name, but he used to come down in a really old open-top car with a hood on the back pushed down. It was a coffee-coloured car with a wine-coloured stripe going through it. He would say hello and put his hand up. But they were the rich people, because they had boats, but they were all very nice. I remember they built a boat in the big boatshed next to where we lived. The hull was navy and the main part was pale blue. It was absolutely massive. It took a long while to build that boat. There used to be wood shavings about on the ground and everything. They named it the Aramajay.

The little place we lived in was cosy and warm and no damp whatsoever in it. Although we lived right near the dykes and the river, we never had any damp in that place. A coal fire, no central heating, but so warm.

When you went into the house there was like a big sort of hallway. Then when you went straight through there from the front door through to the backdoor, you went out the backdoor and there in front was the outdoor toilet. So you went in the front door and to the right was the kitchen and a table just beneath the front window. We sat at that and had our meals. If you went in the front door and you went to the left, that was our living room with a coal fire. If you went further down, through the other door, there was the hall and the bedrooms. Mum and Dad’s room faced out onto the front garden, which had a lovely dog rose bush. It was beautiful, beautiful. I’ll never forget it.

I remember playing on the lawn and Mum playing out there with me. We made daisy chains. It was just idyllic. Mum had loads of lupins all along the front of the house. As you went into the front door, up that little path, she had two lavender bushes either side, as well.

Daisy chains

It was an unspoilt childhood. Not much money, but we were happy and content. Mum left the door open all day long. We’d go off, you’d know what time tea was. She’d pack sandwiches up and we wouldn’t be seen; we’d be playing out and about, or we’d come home and have a sandwich and then we’d be off again.

There was no locking the door. All the doors were left open. Cats used to come down the lane. Mum used to get home from work and she’d say ‘Have you been feeding that cat again, Julia?’, because she’d see the saucer of milk outside. I’d say ‘No, mummy’. She’d say ‘If you have, we won’t be able to get rid of it’. Anyway, mum would soften and we’d have the cat. We had one black cat called Lucky. He went stray and we didn’t see him for ages and then one day he came back and he had sores all over him and everything. Well, Mum couldn’t afford a vet obviously and she told John Fox who it out to the wash house and did the necessary with a spade; but that’s what you did in those days. It was awful really because they drowned kittens; if kittens weren’t wanted they used to put them in a sack and drown them. That didn’t happen down where I lived, but that was common.

It was a different childhood, very happy. But we had to move out of the little house, because a rat had bitten in through the pantry and had gone after the cat’s food and milk. Mum got in contact with the council and we were re-housed. It broke our hearts, but we had to get used to it because, you know, rats are vermin, so that was that really.

Pictures supplied by Julia.

Julia Waters (b. 1951) talking to WISEArchive on 10th May 2018 in Holt.

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