Picture of Isobel and Joseph
by Margaret Yip
I was born in the middle of Clement Attlee’s term as prime minister in 1949. I was the fourth child born to my parents. My mother, Isobal, had been in service before marriage, and my father, Henry, was a miner. After my birth, they went on to have five more children, all born before 1960.
Henry was born and bred in the small village of Frizington, Cumbria. He was brought up with six siblings: three brothers and three sisters. They all lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house, with an outside loo and washhouse, which my grandparents bought for £200.
They were non-drinkers and non-smokers because they followed the Pentecost religion. My father was employed at the William Pit on the west coast during the war. William Pit suffered a huge disaster in 1947, when over 100 people were killed due to an explosion.
After the Second World war, in 1946, my parents moved to Derby, where one of my dad’s sisters already lived, to seek a better life. Housing was in short supply. My mother, with two young children (and another on the way), lodged with a woman called Sally and her husband Les, while my dad traipsed the roads looking for work.
After a few weeks, my dad had not found a job, so my mother had no choice but to enter the workhouse. History says workhouses ended in 1930, but my mother insisted that she was admitted to a workhouse in 1946. I was born in 1949.
My father continued to tramp about every day, looking for employment. After a few months, my mother had had enough and managed to get a message to him. She declared that he didn’t come and take them from the workhouse, she would return to Cumbria to live with her sister, Tizzy. He came and signed us out of the workhouse.
In a deserted wooden shack Henry had found on his travels up on Breadsall Moor, Derbyshire, we took shelter while he continued to look for work. He was successful after a few weeks, finding employment with The British Ceylonese; a chemical factory in Spondon, which is still operating today.
My father didn’t own any sort of vehicle and there was no public transport either, so l have no idea how he or my mother managed day-to-day living: travelling, shopping, visiting the public baths and attending Pentecostal church. My father, on his day off, wrote letters to newspapers, politicians and even the Prime Minister to inform them of the homeless situation and to petition them for more social housing for the people who needed it, like us.
My father wrote letters to petition for more social housing
In the 3 – 4 decades after the war, 4 to 5 million new social houses were built, and in the end my parents were successful in obtaining a three-bedroom house in Spondon, with an inside bathroom and a huge garden. This address is on my birth certificate, so I think my father’s letters must have borne fruit pretty quickly. In the next few years, my parents changed houses when my father changed jobs.
But my father’s job at the British Ceylonese factory ended when he contracted a skin disease. Even though by this time we had the marvellous NHS, my parents seldom used it. Henry treated his dermatitis himself by sprinkling potash into the bath water to stop the severe itching. Then he covering the affected areas with homemade ointment and wrapped them in crepe bandages. I can only remember seeing a doctor once as a child. The result was my tonsils being removed. All nine of us children were treated with home remedies.
While they used the NHS sparingly, my parents did take full advantage of welfare state ‘freebies‘ such as cod liver oil, malt extract, orange juice, and national dried milk. I can’t remember a day as a young child when I missed any of these benefits! We even had free school meals in the school holidays and 2 weeks’ holiday by the seaside. We were given two new outfits, and two pairs of new shoes every year, when my dad was too ill to work.
During the fifties, we continued as members of the Pentecostal church. We attended bible study on Wednesday evenings as well as Sunday school and evening services. The congregation was made up of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, Jamaican, African, and Ceylonese members. I remember fondly the colourful outfits, turbans, and beautiful hats that the ladies wore. Their husbands sported smart suits, silk scarves and polished shoes.
Most of the Pentecostal congregation were brilliant gospel singers, and there was always lots of clapping and joyful piano and guitar music. We were taught to embrace all cultures, creeds, and races through these church services, and all the members socialised outside of the meetings, either visiting each other’s houses or seeing each other at the many conventions.
My elder sister’s first boyfriend was actually a gentleman she met in the church from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Both my parents welcomed him with open arms.
l remember strolling through the Arboretum park with them both after church one Sunday when two men spat at them. There were lots of stares and whispers. At this time in Derby, there was quite a lot of racism, and boarding houses had discriminatory notices in their front windows.
My parents said we should pray for racists and pity their ignorance
I also remember that shops would sometimes refuse to serve Bala, my sister’s boyfriend, when he went to buy us sweets if we were out for a walk. When we told the story at home, my parents said we should pray for those who had treated him this way and pity their ignorance.
We were settled very comfortably in our home now, which was furnished with very solid, posh furniture that we had bought mostly from jumble sales. After the war, people wanted new light modern furniture. So, solid sideboards, tables, chairs, wardrobes, and beds could be bought for next to nothing.
During the fifties, l don’t believe a week went by that my father didn’t return home without a couple of men or more, that he hoped to help.
“Isobal,” he would say to my mother. “Make these men a hot dinner. They are traipsing about looking for work and are sorely in need of it.”
One night he arrived home late with an old lady whom he had met at Derby bus station. She was visiting relatives and had missed her last connection. She slept in a bed with me and my sister and had porridge with us for breakfast before she went on her way the next morning.
Looking back, we had the most marvellous childhood. Church outings, lots of freedom, walks, camp making, gardening, and riding homemade ‘bogeys’. Swearing and bad behaviour were not tolerated in school or at home. Pastor Phillips and his church in Whiston remained the mainstay in our lives, leading us to a visit to Derby to see the evangelist Billy Graham in 1961.
I discovered a new kind of prejudice
Little did l know, this visit would see the end of my family living in Derby. We were suddenly obliged to make our return to the north because of intolerant attitudes toward my 17-year-old, older sister who got pregnant out of wedlock.
I discovered a new kind of prejudice: Cruelly, the church l had been christened in and that spent all my formative years in as a member, decided that my elder sister was to be expelled. They decided that the rest of the family could remain .
“It is her sin. She has to be banished.” The church leaders said.
My parents were so ashamed and disappointed that we returned hastily to the north. Shortly after our return and after we were being settled into a house my uncle owned, l came home from school one day to find two priests from the church across the road. They were enjoying my mother’s tea and cake.
One of the fathers asked my mother to which church we belonged. She replied, “Pentecost“. He then asked me,
“How many brothers and sisters do you have? ,”
l answered: “Eight.”
He turned to the other priest and said: “All these children, and not one a Catholic. What a sin! They will all perish in hell.” The priests’ poisonous comments affected me greatly. I have never forgotten them.
In 1965, when l was 15, my dad became ill. The doctors said it was schizophrenia. He refused treatment. l came home from school one day to disaster. My dad had taken everything out of the house. Everything! He made a huge bonfire in the back garden and burned it all; all the photos and mementos, too. He burnt everything, put his coat on and disappeared. I saw him only once 3 years later. He died, aged 75.
We lead happy lives, now
Time has passed. I am a mother and a grandmother. I and my family have enjoyed 60 years of genuine friendships and lead happy lives. But I want to celebrate my mother and father and remember how they struggled and remember the hardships and injustices they faced at a time when there was no NHS and no social housing. I want to remember the damage that was done to my family by religious intolerance.
Now 60 years on, prejudice, racism and hate is once again spiralling out of control and the church is far too silent about it. But there is hope. People like me, following the example of my parents, are speaking out and we are using new platforms like Ars Notoria to do so. We all have to stand up for humanity and confront prejudice and injustice..
My hope for the future is that people always speak out, stand up and be counted. Say enough is enough and stop prejudice. Defend the NHS and social housing and the benefits we deserve and fought for. We don’t want history repeating. As Martin Luther king said,
” It is not the words of our enemies we will remember, but the silence of our friends.”
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.
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