Life was tough for families living close to the Ipswich town centre during the First World War period. In 2003 Nellie Page recalled her childhood and she recalled how hard it was for families to survive when fathers and husbands were killed fighting the war. Nellie said “I was born at number nine Mount Street, Ipswich. I had an older brother and sister, Edgar and Elizabeth. A little girl called Alice, who had been adopted by my granny, also lived with us. Later we had a younger sister called Elsie Bertha who was named after my grandfather's barge. Elsie was small and often unwell.
“My parents and we children all lived with my widowed granny. The house like all the others in Mount Street was small, two up and two down with a concrete yard and an outhouse with a fire copper, sink and cold tap, shared between two houses, and a wooden box type flush privy. There was just enough room left for a short linen line and a rabbit hutch. The front door opened on to the pavement”.
“Mount Street was built on a hill and included Nelly Garnham’s sweet shop, which was a front room converted into a shop. Nelly had a parrot who used to shout “Shop” and as soon as anyone came in “Don’t touch”, Mr Sherman's cobbler shop - He used to put several nails in his mouth and spit them out one at a time as he nailed the sole to the upper. His aim had to be seen to be believed, Morley's fish yard where I was frequently in trouble for paddling in the coloured scaly water, which sometimes ran into the street and Roper's sweet shop, which was at the bottom of Mount Street, near the slaughterhouse.”
“Terrified cattle would be driven down Mount Street to the slaughterhouse. Somebody at the top of the street would shout “Cows” and women pulled their children inside and slammed their doors. Years later I realised that it was a cruel and appalling arrangement but as a child brought up in a harsh environment it was just part of the life we led”.
“The lamp lighter came every morning and evening on his bike and carrying a long pole to light the gas lamps in the street. Coal was delivered through the front door to a cupboard under the stairs in the back room; black dust filled the room and cleaning had to be done all over again. Drain men with horse and cart and long handled scoops were frequent visitors to the street; it was very exciting and we used to gather around the men hoping for lost coins and marbles in the smelly sludge”.
“At the outbreak of the First World War, my father and his brothers and many friends joined the army. They were all sent to Felixstowe to await embarkation to France. My father, his brother and two friends decided that they had to go home to see their families once more before leaving. They walked along the railway track to Ipswich. When they reached the Cornhill they were arrested by a policeman and instead of coming home they were put in the cells at the Ipswich police station for the night. Mother sent my sister Lizzie to the cells with food. The next morning my father and his comrades were sent to Felixstowe and on to France. We were never to see him again. He was killed at Ypres on the August 6, 1915. I was four years old. One of my earliest memories was the day the telegram came to say he had been killed in action. It seemed that everyone was crying, I didn't understand and I was so afraid. After that there were many such telegrams received about my uncles on both sides of the family and friends and neighbours. The streets went silent when the telegram boy appeared. Women and children waited to see which door he went to and then the crying began”.
“After my father was killed, money was very short. The authorities suggested that my mother should put her children into a children's home. In due course the girls would be found jobs in domestic service and Edgar would probably be sent to Australia. Mother wouldn’t hear of it, she told them that my father didn't die to have his children taken away. It was therefore decided that my granny would look after the children and mother would go to work, and of course the children would have to pull their weight as well. Somehow we would manage”
“Although this time was full of sadness and frantic arrangements were being made about the future. The mourning period had to be observed and mother went to Smith’s Albion House shop and bought Edgar a grey suit and black arm band. A length of grey cloth and black binding for dresses for Lizzie and me, and a wide black sash for Elsie who was only about 18 months old. Mrs Morley at the fish shop was a very competent dressmaker and she made our dresses. Mother wore all black and jet jewellery know as widow's weeds”.
“Mother had to work long hours charring, sewing, washing, ironing and nursing. At one time she went to the post office at 4 am to sort letters and spent the rest of the day “charring”. Once a week she collected white overalls etc. from a large grocery shop in the town, brought them home, and with the help of granny, washed them in the fire copper, dried, and ironed them with a flat iron heated on the fire. Edgar and I would take the clean linen back to the shop”. “Sometimes the cook in one of the houses where mother worked would send us a bowl of dripping. This was a welcome change from our margarine, which we called cart grease. I didn't taste butter until I went into service.
Mother and granny were also called out in the event of births and deaths. Frequently a worried face would appear round the door “Granny can you come quickly.” If the call came during the night, mother went too to help with a birth or death, or to wash and lay out a body”.
“I was allowed to go to school at four and a half because mother was working full time. Normally, I would have attended Ranelagh Road School but it had been turned into a military hospital. The school was close to the railway station and wounded servicemen could be transported quickly from train to hospital. I therefore began school in the Presbyterian Church, Edgar went to St. Mary at the Elms Church hall and Lizzie went to London Road School. At school I was told to be proud that my father had died for his King and Country, and of course I was. Some children who were illegitimate would pretend that their fathers had been killed in the war as well, and who could blame them in those prejudiced times”.
“Before and after school and at weekends we children had many tasks. In order to help with the errands, Edgar went to the destructor a rough piece of ground near the River Gipping where rubbish was deposited and found a set of pram wheels, which he fixed to an orange box and made a cart. Edgar and I were very close and I used to go with him to collect wood shavings from a joinery firm near the station for the copper and to collect coal, which had fallen from the trucks along the dock. We did the shopping with the cart ferrying greengrocery from the Corn Exchange where country people came to sell their produce”.
“One market day when we had the cart full of shavings, kindling and coal, we met a herd of pigs being driven to the market. They ran amok around us and a wheel came off the cart, the contents spilled all over the road and we were panic stricken. I tried to hold the cart steady while Edgar attempted a repair, but the pigs kept coming and we sat in the middle of the road with our upturned cart until the pigs had gone. We then had to set about mending the cart and clearing the road. On another occasion when the Corporation men were digging up the road on the Cornhill we used the cart to collect discarded tarred roadblocks for the copper fire. This was a ticklish operation. Edgar and I waited around the corner near the town gaol in St Helens Street with our cart and when the coast was clear we darted out, whipped a few blocks and made a very quick getaway.”
“Some of our friends and neighbours on the Mount tried to make ends meet in a variety of ways like sewing coal sacks with tarred string for local sack makers Firmin’s. A job, which left women’s hands sore and bleeding. Selling rabbit skins and rags, we got more more for white rags than coloured to a house in Lady Lane, where the front room had been converted to a store. Somewhere else a bounty was paid for rat’s tails”.
“Perhaps one of the saddest sights in the effort to survive was the “Monday Morning Caravan”, when women would put bed linen and Sunday clothes into prams and take them to “Uncle John's” pawn shop in Elm Street. They would hope to retrieve them by the weekend after payday. On occasions wedding rings, watches and photo frames were also pawned”.
“Life was tough on the Mount, but it was a community which helped one another, sorted out most of its differences from within and although there was often great sadness there was also laughter”.