Thirty years ago today a woman died in a Lancashire hospital after a short illness. She was sixty-six years old, a widow with five children, all girls, and twelve grandchildren. She had lived in or near her birthplace almost all her life and to all outward appearances had led a very ordinary, quiet life. Yet those outward appearances masked a woman of intelligence, talent and deep determination, who achieved a great deal against considerable odds. Her name was Annie, she was my mother, and in another three days I will have outlived her.
My mother was born in the middle of the First World War in the cotton town of Darwen in Lancashire. Her father, a builder’s labourer before and after the war, was serving in the army supply corps, and her mother had worked in a cotton mill before her marriage. She was their first child, and after the death of their second baby, Jack, remained an only child.
Her childhood was overshadowed by her mother’s ill-health. Money was very short and though Annie won a scholarship to the local grammar school, she was unable to take it up, because the family income wouldn’t stretch to cover both doctor’s fees and all the extra costs of secondary schooling. So she stayed on at her elementary school, where she shone at art and design, winning awards in local art examinations, until she reached the then school-leaving age of fourteen.
It was 1930 and Britain’s economy was sinking into the Great Depression. Unemployment in the industrial north was rising fast and the only job my mother could find was daily domestic service. It almost broke my grandparents’ hearts to see their beautiful, clever and artistic daughter going out charring, as it was known, but Annie’s determination and capacity for hard work meant that she did not remain in this kind of employment indefinitely.
|The young woman|
As well as art, she had always had a flair for arithmetic and soon began to go to night-school classes after work to study book-keeping. My knowledge of dates here is sketchy, but certainly, before she was out of her teens, she was working as a book-keeper at the local branch of Burton’s the tailors and later was employed by Unilever, the big soap manufacturer, at their factory at Port Sunlight.
Not content with this achievement, Annie continue to educate herself, taking night-school classes in art and design until she was qualified to find work in the textile industry in her home town as a fabric designer. When, in 1941, she married my father Arnold, a painter and decorator, she was actually earning more than he was, an amazing achievement for a working-class woman at that period.
|The wartime bride|
My parents met at a dance in November 1940. What Arnold was wearing I have no idea, but I know exactly what Annie was dressed in and it is no wonder she caught my father’s eye. Tall and slender, and a skilled seamstress who made all her own clothes, she must have been striking in a full-length dance frock of dark-brown net, with a wide flounce round the hem, over a petticoat of flame-coloured taffeta. The reason I am so sure of this is that, as children, my next sister and I spent many happy hours dressing up in this same frock.
When they met, my father was a widower, with a three-year-old daughter. Within a short time they were planning an April wedding, but unfortunately my father became ill and the wedding had to be postponed until June. By then wartime rationing was biting severely and the wedding cake was only a single layer, carefully disguised under a three-tier cardboard shell, though my mother still managed to collect enough clothing coupons for the traditional white wedding gown.
|Annie and Arnold on honeymoon|
After a weekend’s honeymoon at Garstang, my parents set up home in Darwen until my father was called up for military service in 1943 and joined the navy. When he was posted to a base on the east coast of Scotland my mother moved up there with my elder sister, so that Arnold’s short and infrequent leaves could be spent with his wife and daughter, rather than on the train to and from distant Lancashire.
It was not until the year after the war ended that my mother gave birth to her first child – me - followed eighteen months later by my next sister. The others arrived at longer intervals, in 1951 and 1957, the last being the only one to be born in hospital. Call the Midwife really did reflect the primacy of home births in the after-war period.
After her marriage Annie was a stay at home wife, caring for her children, home and husband as women have traditionally done. Her workload was made heavier by the fact that I was a sickly child, often ill and needing nursing. So it was only when I was older and stronger and her youngest daughter had reached school age, that she took the post of dinner lady at the village primary school, serving and clearing up after the mid-day meal.
|The catering manager|
Before long she began to train as a school cook and when qualified ran the kitchen in the same school. Later she applied for and gained the post of head cook and manager of the kitchen in the big secondary school in the neighbouring town, which my sisters and I all attended over a period of some twenty years.
Here she was in her element, using her book-keeping training and organisational skills to plan menus, order supplies and keep accounts for a large and busy catering service. Sadly, before she could retire and enjoy more leisure time with him, my father, who was nine years older than Annie, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died within a year.
|One of the last photos of my parents together|
Two years later my mother finally retired and settled down to enjoy her little house and her much-loved garden, gardening being another of her many talents. She was still very fit and well and we all looked forward to seeing her enjoy a long and active retirement, but it was not to be. After only two years of retirement, out of the blue she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and just ten days later she died.
Thirty years is a long time, almost half my life, but my memories of my mother are still clear and strong and happy. She and my father gave unwavering support to their daughters’ education and their encouragement of our talents was life-changing. Neither of our parents was fortunate enough to have had secondary education, yet four of their five daughters went to university and the fifth trained as a nurse.
I often think of my mother and, knowing what she achieved through her own efforts from such a difficult beginning, wonder what she might have become, if she had been given the same opportunities as my sisters and me. I think the same of my father, but that is for another post.