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Life under the Poor Law

by Edith Booth

This story is about being brought up in care and under the poor law. Edith was born in Keighley (Yorkshire) at 55 Beck Street, my sister May was 4 years older than I was. We were taken into care. May had to go into a children's home and Edith had to go to a nursery because she was only 18 months old. The children's home was on Nashville Road, Keighley. 'I can't recall the first few years of my life, up until being about 4 years old. I remember the nursery quite well, the nurse that looked after me was called nurse Rhodes. She was a very kind young woman, she always dressed me up in nice pretty dresses, and was a very caring young person. There was Nurse Middlebrook and she looked after the children with the greatest of care. I can see her now in my minds eye, sat at the side of the fire with a sick baby on her knee. Then there was dumby Shackleton, She always made the fire, put all the babies on the potties and saw that us older children had their breakfast. Then we were washed and dressed and went to play. I played on dobbin he was a rocking horse, I loved him and spent many happy hours playing on him.

When I was 5 years old I was transferred over to the children's home where life really began for me. I became number 23. Our day began at 6 O'clock. We younger ones were looked after by one of the older girls. I was looked after by Florrie Butterfield. She dressed me and put me down in the day room. The workhouse bell always rang at quarter to seven every morning. I had to learn to put my boots on in the kitchen, and Mrs Benn had to keep her eye on the younger ones as well as cooking for the staff. We had our breakfast at 8 O'clock and Pat Jennings brought it to us from the workhouse, as all the meals we had were cooked down there By Mrs Macdonald. It was very plain food, you were rationed with Bread and Tea, and some morning we had porridge with milk, and no Tea.

Then we all got cleaned and tidied and were sent to school with a biscuit if you had been good. Mother used to stand at the kitchen table, and if you had kept your handkerchief you got three biscuits to go to school with. We had to go to school in twos. My sister May took me to the infants school, and I had to sit until our headmistress came to us. Her name was Miss ASquith and I was taken to Miss Tootles class after prayers. I had a lovely small desk, and counters, pictures all around the room, and a sand pit for us to play in. We would learn to count and have a paint and then home for our dinner.

Our hands were washed and hair was cleaned by Miss Spain, and | then stand in line in the day room, all the big girls had to stand at the back and you went in line according to how old you were, I was the youngest so the first. I was the youngest at this time, but I had no work to do yet only to do as I was told. At 12 O'clock the workhouse bell rang and our dinner was brought up again from the workhouse and after dinner at 1 o'clock we were cleaned again, and had to stand in the kitchen ready for school again and mother gave us a piece of fruit to go with. When we got to school we could play in the school yard until the bell rang. I went back to the babies' class and we were lay down for an hour for a sleep. After our rest, we could play in the sand pit and then home for tea. We were bathed, had our tea and in bed at 6 o'clock. I was in nurse Wildman's room, as all the young ones slept there with the gas light on.

As I turned 6 years old I was moved to Miss Briggs class and I was having trouble with my eyes and had to go to hospital to see what was wrong. I was then taken with Miss Spain to see a specialist, his name was Mr Hamilton and he found that I had lost the sight in my right eye. Now here I must give credit for the good care. They saved the sight in my left eye, I lost a great deal of schooling at this time.

I was then moved up into Miss Sykes class. My what a good solid teacher I had in her. Even to this day I still thank her, When I left her class after many trial and lost playtimes, I could both read and write, what good teachers I had. As I progressed through the infants I advanced in a lot of things, taught by Miss Briggs and Miss Midgely, and Miss Buscall Learned me how to Knit. I can see her now in front of the class on a Friday morning, saying "through, over, under, off", That was my last class in I the infants.

I recall many happy hours all credit to the good teachers, who gave their time to teach us. I moved up into the junior school and our teacher was Miss Becket. I then began to realise I was different to other children, I lived in a big house, and they lived in a small one, and we were called 'The cottage home kids", because we were all dressed alike, and at this time I had to start to do one or two types of work, after school and before tea time.

Put the news paper on the kitchen table, put fifty pairs of boots on the table, then get nugget black boot polish and brushes and put my rough apron on, there was two of us Gladys Holmes and I she put the polish on and I rubbed it off and put all the boots on the kitchen floor. Boys under the clock at one side and girls by the kitchen dresser and nurse Wildman inspected them tc see if they were clean. While we were doing the boots nurse Wildman was darning all the socks.

Then we had to be bathed and dressed to have our tea. Wash up fifty pots and plates, put them away, and I had to put one of the babies to bed, her name was Chrissy Ainsworth, and Mother said I was very good with the little ones. So after a time I was given another little girl to look after, her name was Audrey Smith. As I grew older I was given more work to do, Still having to be in bed at 6 o'clock at night with all the blinds down summer and winter alike.

We had our visitors once a month, My Father who was in the workhouse came to visit me, and he had been in there some years. Some of them had their mothers come to visit them. I used to ask my father if I had a mother. He never seemed to say much so I didn't know what was wrong.

As I grew up I had to do more work, we all had to. Apart from doing the boots before tea, there were the boys and girls bathrooms and the bathroom taps to clean. After tea there was the babies to put to bed and we bigger girls had to stay up and polish the dinning room floor and the boys and girls passages. One of the girls Susan Brown put the polish on and Lily Holmes rubbed it off, I had to used a dummy with a bit of old blanket on the end and rub backwards and forwards until it shone. Then nurse Wildman would inspect it to see if it was done properly. Two of us were kept up to wash the staff's dishes up and to see to the babies. For doing this we were given spending money each Saturday afternoon.

Mother used to stand next to the kitchen table and sort everything out, at first I got a penny a week and as I grew older and had more work to do, like helping to make the boy beds and sweeping the floors and cleaning the boys and girls toilets, before breakfast I got more. Before school we had to change our house pumps for boots and put on a clean pinafore. Then we would wash-up the breakfast dishes, then got tidy ready for our three biscuits and off to school. As I moved on into the senior school my eyes became worse, I spent many weeks in hospital, and there were four of us in hospital two girls and two boys. It wasn't all bad for us, we made our own fun and after being dressed we could go out to play, but it was only to keep us out of the way while the beds were being made. I had to look after Elsie as her eyes were worse than mine, she was going blind all together.

I had no work to do in hospital. But when I was sent back to the children's home I had to get back in to the routine were I had left off. As I got older the work got harder, but at school my teachers seemed much kinder, I used to enjoy going to school on Mondays, it always seemed such a clean day. I used to help to pack all the washing up for Pat to take down to the laundry at the workhouse. It all came back clean on Thursday afternoon. Going back to Monday I thought it was a lovely day because on our way to school we would see all the clean washing hanging on the lines in the streets and we would see the farmer bringing his cows and sheep down Fell Lane with his staffing his hand and his faithful boarder collie at his feet and believe me it was a lovely sight to see.

As I got older I had more visitors coming to see me. My mother's sister Aunty Sarah would come. I asked her where my mother had gone, and all I was told was that she had gone a long way away. She asked Master Andrews down at the workhouse if they could start taking me out far days. He said yes, so my Grandfather would come for me, and Aunt Sarah looked after me. She was so warm and loving and she loved me a great deal. The days I went out I had to be back for eight o'clock at night. I asked her why I couldn't stay with her. She said that she loved me but she hadn't any room for me as she had children of her own. All they had to sleep in was one room as my uncle kept his prize birds in the attic.

I always remember her love and kindness to me as a child and often wished she had been my mother. How different my life would have been, with not having to do all the work when I should have been playing. I still pressed on trying to please everyone. In my last years at school I began to learn French with Miss Butterfield and singing and I was allowed to join the school choir, which was one of my greatest joys. Mr Smith one of the teachers would pay for me to go to the places where we went to sing, but the work still got harder. I left school at fourteen and I never knew how hard I was going to have to work.

We had a cleaning woman called Mrs Wordsworth, when I left school the cleaning lady was finished, she just did the odd day polishing the bedroom and doing the front doorstep. I was still helping Nurse Wildman over on the boys side, washing the dishes (50 plates), swept the dinning room at 9am Dummy the floors of the dinning room and the boys and girls passages, scrub the kitchen floor and the scullery floor. I had a cup of coffee and two biscuits, then start again. I had to fill an iron bucket with hot water and scrub 100 stairs on the boys side, come down change the water, scrub the hundred stairs on the girls side, then put 50 dinner plates on the kitchen range, and 50 pudding plates and then set three large dinner tables, and be washed and changed ready to help Miss Benn to serve dinner then I had my dinner.

After dinner I had to wash up all the pots and knives and forks and spoons Then again dummy the dinning room and tidy the boys and girls passages. One day a week in the afternoon I had to scrub the girls day room and another afternoon I had to do the boys day room. Another afternoon I had to clean all the windows in the dinning room and the day rooms, and if I had nothing to do scrub the cellar steps, I was 14 years old when I did a woman's work for 3d a week. For six solid months starting in August I couldn't tell anyone how I felt.