Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Mother's stories ........

My mother, Alice Mabel Coates, was born in 1908 in Walthamstow, London, one of ten children. I loved to hear her stories. Her father, Arthur Edward Bowes, was a large imposing man who forged his own destiny. Ran away to sea at the age of 13. Married Louisa, from Lyons, France. They started a baker's shop which failed when soft-hearted Louisa gave away bread to poor people. Later Arthur Bowes became manager of a large pickle factory near Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, with about fifty staff. I never knew my grandfather, nor any other grandparent. Mum told me over and over about her life in her young days. She sadly missed her mother who died of consumption (T.B.) Alice was only 7 years old and she was brought up by her elder sisters, Rose and Jessie. Rose never married; she was left a cripple with a humped back after a road accident. They had a younger sister who died when she was very young; six older brothers completed the family. Jessie got Alice a job with her in a laundry, a large warehouse where women washed, boiled, scrubbed, starched, dried and ironed all kinds of cotton clothing and household linen sent in by people who could afford to pay for this service in the days before washing-machines. Household linen, shirts, dresses, aprons and underwear, all were returned within days hand-washed, starched and immaculately ironed. Large coppers full of suds, tubs for rinsing and starching, big wooden mangles turned by hand, clothes pegged on lines to dry, long folding tables, ironing tables, irons heated on fires, all in a constantly steamy atmosphere made the girls prone to rheumatism, colds and neuralgia. Work was not too plentiful then, and they were grateful. Mum had always dreamed of becoming a shorthand typist, but the cost of a Pitman's course was out of reach. She never lost the art of folding sheets, nor the habit of ironing every fold of every item. Pawn shops enjoyed a brisk trade, particularly midweek. It was quite common for women to pawn their wedding rings at "Uncle's" on Tuesday to buy food for the family's dinner, then redeem it on pay-day. Mum told me how, on one occasion her mother pawned her son John's best suit on a weekday, planning to put it back in the wardrobe for the weekend when he would need it. He found out and was very angry. He hit his mother, knocking her down the stairs. Years later, when Uncle John was working in the "Daily Express" newspaper printing works in Fleet Street an accident with the guillotine cut off his right arm just below the elbow. Mum felt justice had been done. It was the arm he had raised in anger to his mother.

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