We had no fridge, let alone a freezer, washing machine or phone. Nor a car. Meat was kept in a gauze-covered cupboard and milk had to be boiled in the summer. Drinking water was provided at meals, except when friends came round in summer when you might get diluted juice. At school there was free mid-morning milk (you HAD to drink it). In winter you put the small bottles on the radiators to unfreeze the milk, making it taste awful.
There were no meals out, no Chinese, Indian or Italian restaurants; fish and chips were occasional luxuries. Many families grew their own vegetables. Winter weeding was cold and hateful but I learned to identify all the weed species as tiny seedlings! We helped our Mum pick and bottle summer fruits from the garden and in the wild. Shelves of fruit-filled bottles made weekend pies. The art of jam- and marmalade-making was imbibed while still knee high to a duck. Although food was not so varied as today, there were yummy home-made puddings with every dinner (which was in the middle of the day at home and school). There was never any choice for school dinner: you ate it. My grandfather’s favourite proverb was ‘Enough is as good as a feast’. Which reminds me: we had chicken once a year on Christmas Day.
In winter, most houses were ‘warmed’ by one coal fire, so bedroom windows were often frozen-over, inside and out. Always feeling cold meant you had chilblains on feet and hands, which hurt . There were no tights to wear: girls wore long socks or stockings when older. Boys wore ‘short shorts’, winter and summer, until they reached sixteen.
For a family day out, our Mum made sandwiches, then we all walked to the bus stop and took two buses to reach Weston-super-Mare, the Wildfowl Trust or Clifton Suspension Bridge. We loved those trips. Going out with friends for the day or evening also required walking and buses. To reach school, we walked or cycled, whatever the weather.
It did not feel like ‘Austerity’ of course, but like normal life: friends all lived in the same way.
Austerity left me with the ability to eat whatever is put in front of me whether I like it or not. I learned to find something to do if bored, like baking or reading my parents’ ‘grown-up’ books. A book given as a birthday present was read voraciously and passed on. Without knowing it, dark winter hours spent with stamps and stamp albums filled our heads with the names and whereabouts of strange-sounding countries like St Pierre and Michelon, Cochinchina and Tanganyika.
I learned to find my way to new addresses, to music exams in strange buildings, to athletics matches and later, to interviews; I had to work out which buses or trains I should get, to reach my destination on time. Austerity made me and my friends resourceful.
In the summer we had fun with balls, skipping ropes, tennis or French cricket in our’s or friends’ gardens. After the age of eleven, we went out cycling, exploring up to fifteen miles away in a day. We mended and cleaned our own bikes. In winter we played board and card games, painted and loved Children’s Hour on the ‘wireless’. We sometimes moaned that we were bored!
To our Mum this was not austerity. She and her parents lived through two world wars, so what is now looked back on as ‘Austerity’ was for them better times after severe shortages and rationed food. She told us,
“I remember Dad going off to the War. I stood at the gate and waved him goodbye until he disappeared down the hill at the end of the road. Although I was less than four years old, I knew I would not see him for a long time. . . The thing I remember about my time at St Leonard’s Road School [Poplar] was having a tin mug of milk every morning, which I took sixpence [6d] a week on Mondays to pay for it. Only two of us in that class had parents with enough money to pay this sixpence a week. This was when I first became aware of extreme poverty as many of the children, including some of my cousins, wore ragged clothes, and often went bare-foot, even in winter. This upset me very much. . . The only traffic in our road was the daily horse-drawn milk float and the occasional coal-cart, also horse-drawn. Rent collectors and suchlike all came on foot. There was also the weekly muffin-man who walked along the road with a large tray of muffins on his head and ringing a hand-bell. People who could afford came rushing out with sheets of newspaper or plates to buy muffins – – – 7 for sixpence”.
[Muffins in England are made of batter and eaten with butter, similar to crumpets . They are NOT sweet cakes!]