Chapter 17 - Mother and Friends

The letters I received from Mother towards the end of my incarceration in boarding school were full of new names of people which were evidence that her circle of friends was expanding.  There was someone called Doctor Knight, a lady doctor who it seems was living in our house.  When I got home I found that this strange elderly woman who looked like Queen Victoria very much gone to seed, could not find lodgings to suit her. For one thing she kept poultry and wanted somewhere to keep them.  So Mother had taken her in and the poultry were kept in our back yard. Father had come across her at an infants’ clinic.  She was quite unsuited to the work.  She hated children anyway and her dress, which was like that of an old clothes woman, was the despair of her colleagues.  When she found Father had a laboratory she was delighted and offered to help him but she really wanted to perform post mortems on poultry.  Father had to keep an eye on her activities.  She once broke a test tube containing typhoid bacilli, wiped the mess up with a floor cloth and then proceeded to make some sandwiches for their lunch without washing her hands.  She was full of fleas as were her poultry and at night down in the cellar she brewed a mixture of fishes’ heads and other ingredients used by witches for her poultry mash.  The smell from this rose up into the house and penetrated every keyhole.  It was appalling.  I remember her sitting on the bottom stair in the hall while we were having a musical evening.  The guests, all very respectable people, were astonished on taking leave to see this apparition, with an enormous cock of most handsome appearance perched on her lap.  She was stroking it and looking into its face with an ecstatic smile I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.

Mother also became interested in a maternity home for unmarried mothers.  She took in as maids two of these girls with their babies and took the responsibility of showing them how to look after their children.  She delighted in having babies about now that her children were past that stage.

Father had recently purchased a Steinway grand piano.   For years it had been the one possession he would treat himself to one day.  Steinways sent their own tuner round the country attending to their instruments.  This gentleman was fully attired in frock coat and top hat and had the manners of a duke.  On coming out of the piano room he caught sight of one of the maids with her baby in her arms.  He turned to Mother 'Like the Doctor' he remarked flatteringly.  Mother was absolutely delighted with this choice morsel and told it from time to time to select company.

Not content with all the extra work involved by these additions to the family she took upon herself the task of sending food parcels to our relatives in Germany.  The Red Cross had some organization by which they were sent via Switzerland.  The making up of these parcels would have daunted some women.  Every item had to be listed in duplicate on special forms.  Only certain kinds of food were allowed and only food made in England, I believe.  The weight of each item had to be put down and the whole lot had to weigh only a certain amount with the wrappings.  These in themselves were the work of a full day as she sewed the contents up in linen, stitching round every overlap and stitching on every label.  Finally the parcels were carried round to the post office in perambulators. Some unselfish person in Germany somehow heard of Mother’s kindness and asked if she could possibly send some food to a friend of hers who was expecting a baby.  It was feared that if the mother was not better fed that the baby would certainly not live and the mother’s life might be in danger.  Parcels were duly despatched and the letter of thanks seemed quite out of proportion to the miserable contents of these parcels.  The little girl was born and all was well and the parcels continued to flow.  The letters continued for the rest of Mother’s life; the little girl was her godchild and grew up in full knowledge of the debt and also wrote regularly.

She also heard the cry of a large family in Salzburg who wanted a goat so as to be able to have milk to keep them going.  The father was a village organist and he wrote most wonderful letters beginning something like 'Worthy Lady Doctor Eurich.' They too received Mother’s parcels. Later she kept up a correspondence with a prisoner in Maidstone jail.  He had been found guilty of murder but as it was conclusively proved by Father as an expert witness that he was an epileptic he was sentenced to imprisonment instead of paying the death penalty.

She became perturbed concerning anyone in need, so when she read that the herring industry was going through a bad time, we had herrings for almost every meal for weeks.  She read a great deal about the coal miners and their hardships and her concern for them blossomed into a holiday for two young men, Leonard and Albert, whose racy talk at the dinner table after their first shyness had worn off, kept us on our toes for many a day.  Their 'Good-night, folks' as they went to bed passed into family usage.  Mother was very fond of them and wrote to them for some time after their stay with us.  The fact that one of them when packing his bag included a number of our blankets with his wardrobe in no way diminished her good will towards them.  She encouraged the clever one to study plumbing at evening school so that he could do another job when mines were standing men off.

The Artist's Mother (1940)
Richard’s mother Guen, painted later during WWII

To these activities Mother added the task of making dresses for my sisters and shirts and pyjamas for me.  She practised a most rigid economy although Father’s income and reputation were increasing.  Her own childhood had been shadowed by hardship through the early death of her father and like Jane Austin’s Fanny, she was educated in a wealthy home not her own, where she had slights from servants and governess.  I don’t know if it was this experience that developed the austere side of her nature that was otherwise cheerful and generous.  Although she spent time embroidering the girls’ dresses she had some notion that it was wrong for them to think about their appearance.  She insisted that they wore black woollen stockings above the knees, which meant all the complications of suspenders and the like.  They also had to wear boy’s boots, which led to the crowning humiliation of my youngest sister when we were confirmed.  I remember how all the other girls at the service were dressed in white and wore dainty shoes.  When it came to my sister’s turn to kneel before the Bishop the noise of her steel tipped boots with the tags sticking out at an angle behind was like a cart horse being let loose in the church.

Although they were regular tomboys they had great difficulty in persuading Mother when the fashionable bob came in to allow them to have their hair cut, even though it must have been obvious that it would save labour and be more convenient than plaits and bows and slides.  

It was also the tradition that clothes should be handed down from one sister to another.  This calculation became upset by my eldest sister being the smallest and the younger the tallest which, after the discomfort of trying to force the youngest into the cast offs of my second sister for a while, had to be recognized as impossible even if allowances had been made with tucks and hems to let out when the time came.

Mother tried to get me to do a bit of boot mending and I think I convinced her that the economy would never do by making her own boots the subject of my first effort in this new craft.  However, she surprised me very much on my fifteenth birthday by saying that she was going to pay me ten shillings a week pocket money.  This after four pence a week was unbelievable.  But she pointed out that now I was looking after the boiler for the central heating, cleaning boots and doing other odd jobs, such as keeping the front garden tidy, it was my due; and as I needed money for painting as well as supporting my pets I would certainly require it.  But there was one snag.  I had to keep accounts!  Perhaps a last valiant attempt to teach me arithmetic!  It was also about this time that she began to take me to meetings of the Labour Party on Sunday afternoons.

Father and Mother both became members of the Society of Friends and it was noticeable that a number of more interesting people began to call on us.  They were very different from the ladies I remember before the war who came to Mother’s 'At Homes'.  They used to have large hats and veils which they lifted up slightly to blow their noses or sip cups of tea.  We were kept out of the way most of the time I am glad to say, though I sometimes had to go down and hand food round.

These newcomers were very different.  They asked sensible questions and even came upstairs to have a look at something we were making.  They did not flinch with terror when my sisters walked into the room with a couple of mice clinging to their clothes and even experienced one being put in their hands as long as we kept hold of its tail.  Also some distinguished men, Socialists and Quakers, sometimes came in for an evening or stayed for a night.  They too asked if they might go up to see us in bed.  We had been packed off to be out of the way of course, but it must have been abundantly clear from the 'strange noises overhead' that there were children about.  Was it Pethwick Lawrence who became involved in a pillow fight?  I am not sure but certainly someone did.  And there were young men doing alternative service as conscientious objectors who came up for musical evenings.  One of them had played the organ at a large Labour gathering in St. George’s Hall.  I confided in him my plans for building an organ in the house; how the big bass pipes would be down in the cellar and other parts scattered about the house.  Many years later when he became a distinguished music critic he invited me to go to concerts in London with him.

After the war came the great general election.  Mother took me to all the meetings for we knew some of the candidates personally.  Fred Jowett, who later became first Minister for Works in a Labour Government was one of them.  They all failed to get in but the meeting held after the results were published was one of the most cheerful and humorous political meetings I have ever attended.  But the climax was reached when some of our new friends came for an evening and played charades.  During one of the scenes acted, a defeated candidate delivered an electioneering speech in which a plan for vote catching was put forward. This involved a pipeline to all working class homes which distributed water for one hour in the morning, was then cut off and gas followed it for two or three hours so that housewives could get their cooking and washing done; then beer was turned on for the remainder of the day.  That was the last gathering at our house that I remember before Mother’s health broke down.