Photo of Isobal with her son, Joseph
By Margaret Yip
I left school in 1964 at the age of 15. It was a Friday. I needed a job. By Monday, I had an interview which took place in my home. The wife of a housemaster at a private boys’ school in St. Bees needed a general assistant. After a short interview, she told my mum she was willing to give me a trial. I was to start the next morning at 7am.
She said: “I have an Italian cook and two general assistants who are sisters. They will show you the ropes when you arrive”.
Most mornings I would leave home at 6 am . The school was about 3 miles away. There was not a lot of money for my bus fare, so I often walked there.
I became friends with the two sisters, who were in their thirties. One of them confided in me that she had a son who was born out-of-wedlock. She told me someone had written the word ‘bastard’ on his birth certificate. When I asked my mum about this, she was shocked. She had never heard of such a thing. How could someone write that on a child’s birth certificate?
I remember vividly the day I was sent to the meeting room to serve tea and cakes. The head master, house masters, house head boys, and the matron were all present. The head boy began by saying that he was not happy with the way the skivvies were cleaning his room.
I remember clattering a plate, but none of them paid any attention to me. Later that night, I told my mum what the boy said. She thought and then answered,
“Look for something else, lass!”
My mum had been in service from age 14 until she married. She said she had thought that sort of language and attitude stopped after the war.
I did leave a few weeks later and went into hotel work. I was trained in silver service, as a chambermaid, or a general assistant. It was all hard work, long hours and low paid. I could work for 70 hours a week for £3.10 shilling. I paid 3 shillings and 8 pence national insurance and kept 3 pounds and 4p. I gave mum the 3 pounds.
My dad had left the family home about a year before I left school. I discussed the circumstances in the previous extract of ‘Isobal and Henry’. As a result, my mum was dependent on National Assistance to support her and three younger children. I do not think she received more than £5 per week. Everything had to be paid for from this small sum, including the rent. Often, we had no gas or electricity at home and so we cooked and heated water on the coal fire.
Not many on our estate were well-off. Men laboured in the coal or iron ore mines. Wives stayed at home. One family in our street had 22 children, and they all lived together in a three-bedroom house. Our next-door neighbour, Stan was a small man, but a big character. He got ill well before retirement. He couldn’t work – could barely walk. His mates used to call for him on a Saturday to take him to the bookies, or for a pint.
His method of transport to the bookies was a coach built Silver Cross pram coloured as black as the ace of spades inside. They would sit him in the large pram and he would cling to the sides as they pushed him helter-skelter down the road, laughing their heads off. Everyone on the estate used the same pram to fetch a few shillings’ worth of coal from the coal yard when money was short.
One of our neighbours was a disabled man called Acky. He would walk for miles with the pram to the nearest beach and gather sea coal. It earned him money and, and it was cheaper than real coal, though sea coal does not burn as well.
In 1965, I met the man I would marry. I found a job at a Chinese restaurant in Whitehaven as a general assistant. I would start at 11 am and work until 2:30 pm. Then I would go back home. Then come back to the restaurant again at 5:30 pm and work there until 11 pm – later on busy nights.
I did not waste money on bus fares going home on my split shifts. I would sit in the dining room, or in Whitehaven harbour, and read books from the library. I had one day off. My wage was £8 per week; more than double what I had been earning at the hotel.
“Look for something else, lass!”
My days off were spent at home, helping mum. If she had money for gas, we would fill the copper boiler and wash all day, putting clothes through the mangle before pegging them out. We used the left-over hot water to scrub the steps and swill the paths. Other days we scrubbed all the floorboards with bleach and Ajax until they were white. We cleaned windows with vinegar and polished them with newspapers. All our neighbours kept a clean house, tidy gardens, and all the pavements were swept outside the gates.
My mum was pleased with my higher wage. She was not a good manager of money, though being in service, she had had very little of it to manage. Before he his breakdown and disappearance, my dad, Henry, had dealt with the finances.
My mum was sad without dad, but knew that his mental illness meant she could not live with him. She turned to drink. Cider. She insisted it was not alcohol. After a year or so, she got ill from stomach ulcers. She always had a poor appetite; always fed us all before she herself had anything to eat.
Just after starting my new job, we heard that my two younger brothers would be coming home. What had happened was this. After my dad left – during a school holiday – they were walking in Cleator Moor when it began to rain heavily. A man they knew gave them a large coat to keep dry. He said he did not want it back. The next day they sold it for £1.10 shilling and gave the money to mum. The police came knocking!
The jacket had been stolen from the social club. They were summoned to court. The magistrate said they were out of control because there was no father at home. He ordered that they be sent to an approved school in Barnard Castle for 2 years. It was 80 miles away from home, too far, and too costly for my mum to visit them. Dr Richard Beeching, MP, had shut our local railway station down.
My brothers arrived home. My mum was so happy … though not for long. Jobs were found for them: one on the pit top, one on a farm. The farm was out in the country and my brother needed a bike. A neighbour kindly donated him a ramshackle one.
A few weeks later, dark was falling when the police came knocking at the door again. My brother was freewheeling down a hill after work, when the front mudguard came loose, jamming the front wheel of the old bike. He went over the handlebars and onto the road. He broke his jaw and was in Carlisle hospital for weeks.
The bad news kept coming. My mum fell ill and needed an emergency hysterectomy. It was a major operation in the 60s. When she was discharged, they warned her not to lift anything heavier than a teacup for six months. Hearing this, her younger brother, who lived in Middlesex, ordered her to come by coach to stay with him and his wife for two months.
She refused to go to them penniless, so we missed paying the rent while she was away. Other debts went unpaid, too. By then we were all going to school and work in shoes with stained cardboard inside cut from cereal boxes. The cardboard concealed the holes in the leather.
My mum’s departure left me and my brother in charge. We had to manage on our small wages: going to work, shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing and looking after the younger ones was hard. Our neighbours on one side offered to help with the youngest, and my brother and I accepted.
After 2 months away, mum wrote to us to say that she would be home in two days’ time. There was no money left! I went next door to borrow a loaf off Stan. My brother, who had stayed in every night while I was at work without going out with his friends to the pub, came in from the pit. He went down the back garden, put his hand through a neighbour’s fence and borrowed a lettuce and for the next two days we ate dry bread, lettuce sandwiches with a sprinkle of salt. I still say to this day, nearly 60 years on, that a dry bread lettuce sandwich is the best sandwich I have ever tasted.
With mum home and my brothers and I working, things became easier. I began going to the pictures on my day off with the boss of the restaurant. … Six months later we were married in a Whitehaven registry office. I was 16. Oddly, my old attendance officer was the registrar. It was a freezing February day in 1966.
One month later, my husband lost the restaurant. He had a gambling habit. He closed the Chinese restaurant and we moved to Southport. We rented a bedsit on Leyland Road and found jobs at another Chinese restaurant.
Southport in 1966 was a lovely, refined town with luxury stores and big hotels. I used to window shop and wonder who on Earth could afford to buy such expensive things.
I left the restaurant job after a few weeks and went back to hotel work. At the time, I was 6 weeks pregnant with my first child. Hotels, in the sixties, did not have ensuite bathrooms. The bathrooms were in the corridors, and there were lots of them.
On my first day, the housekeeper met me, her hair tied into a severe little bun. She dressed all in black and had a huge chatelaine at her waist. I thought of Mrs. Danvers. My first job, she said, was to clean the fire places out, re-set them, scrub the hearths, polish the tiles, and Brasso the fenders. My next job was to clean the many bathrooms. I was to polish the taps, clean the sinks, baths, bidets, and toilets, scrub every floor on my hands and knees – I was used to that – change all the towels, soaps, shampoos and toilet rolls.
Then I was to knock on her sitting-room door and she would inspect my work. I did as she said. By then it was lunchtime, and I was not allowed a break. For my next job, she took me to a huge foyer with at least 60 glass-topped tables surrounded by leather chairs. ‘Dust the chairs’, she said, ‘and polish all the tables. Set them up for afternoon tea.’ I looked at the grease smeared tables and asked where to go for some cleaning stuff.
“Cleaning stuff!” she hissed. ‘Cleaning stuff!?’. Elbow grease, girl! Elbow grease!’ She stomped off. As she did so, I stood and remembered my mum’s words.
‘Look for something else, lass’.
I headed for the stairs to collect my coat. As I was coming down, the woman was on her way up.
‘And where do you think you are going girl’. She spat.
I said nothing. I swept down past her on that carved staircase like a princess, and went out through the revolving doors and out onto Lord Street. By one o’clock, I had a new job in a fish and chip restaurant. There they gave me lunch every day as part of my wages. Bliss!
I turned 17 that April.
Margaret Yip is a mother of 5, grandmother of 7 and great grandmother of 2. She lives in a small village in Cumbria. She is for social and economic justice, social housing and the NHS and she opposes all forms of prejudice and hatred.