Let’s take a closer look at this picture shall we? What occasion could it possibly be and where and when was it taken? And what did it signify then and what does it say to us today.
OK – let’s start with the date. Around 1910 I’d say and the occasion is probably the christening of the little girl in her mother’s arms. The smaller of the two boys is about 2 and the older is 4. The woman is 27 and is pregnant once more. They are dressed in their Sunday Best and are probably standing at the back door of the Hare of the Dog pub in Franchise Street, Aston, Birmingham. Behind them is the run of back- to-back housing that ran the length of Franchise Street but which has long been demolished. The pub is still to be found there – now at the entrance to Birmingham City University. You can just see the alleyway/ginnel between two houses that leads to the courtyard where this family lived. Communal toilets (not flushing) and communal washroom for some 12 houses. One downstairs room and small kitchen. Two rooms upstairs. And that was it.
By 1916 there would be five children and two adults living in that back-to-back. The father of the family in the photo – one wonders just why he isn’t in the group picture – is invalided out of the army and is probably doing some part-time work while looking after the children. The mother has started work in Kynoch’s munition factory at Witton which is just a short walk away from Franchise Street.
All of this is a long, long way from the woman’s childhood home and experiences. In 1891, barely 20 years before, she was living with her parents in a cottage in the small village of Luddington outside Stratford-on-Avon. The cottage was tied to the Ragley Hall Estate and her father and a couple of her brothers (there were six children in all in a two-up, two-down cottage) were labourers on the farm estate. Sometime between 1891 and 1911, like many other rural workers, they moved from the country into the denizens of back street Birmingham which offered solid work opportunities in the many factories that had blossomed in the urban spread. The family is totally absent from the 1901 census but she re-appears in the 1911 census, now married and with children (as in the picture at the top).
Her husband, it is said, can be a little handy with his fists (his children in the picture lack the vivaciousness and smiles that one would expect from a modern-day child) but in 1915 he leaves his lathe- turner position in a local factory and joins the army. His sojourn within the ranks is just 62 days as he is deemed unfit for military duty – scoliosis (curvature of the back) is given on one form and acute piles on another. One wonders what his standing now was within the local community whose menfolk had successfully been inducted into the army and were on the way to the Front. Can one speculate that after 1916 – and the birth of the final child – the wife felt it necessary to “keep face” within the close-knit community by going to work at the local munitions factory? Her own parents had moved in just up the street so one supposes that they took turns in looking after the very young children.
Well, what is the point of this missive you may well ask? It was stimulated by a post here about a week or so ago – Stay Puft‘s “There‘s More than One Way to Destroy a Country“ – which speculated on what a person living in 1916 would make of life in the UK in 2016 if he/she had been time-travelled forward. It set me thinking about what life was like for ordinary people in 1916 and what it is for us now a century on. As a writer I am anxious to get the “history” right as background material and there is no doubt in my mind that life in 1916 was absolute shite. Even if one discounts the war raging at the time – a little difficult to do I admit – the life of 95% of the British population was pretty brutal and damnably short. For those born in the last two decades of the 19th century there was an 80% chance of NOT reaching your 60th birthday. One may pine for a country that reflected a population that was at ease with itself and with its surroundings but the reality of life for those who walked these streets a century ago was far – very far – from easy. I would even hazard a guess that they, in turn, looked back with some nostalgia on the early 19th century rural life of their own grandparents.
Before I finish let me just fill you in a little bit more of the history of the woman and children in that 1910 picture.
The little boy with what could be a wooden plane in his hand is named Horace. Just two years after the photo was taken he died from scarlet fever – aged 5.
The babe in arms, Hilda, was to die in 1919 from diptheria – aged 10.
Lucy May – the woman in the picture – went on to have three more children before she also died in 1919, probably poisoned by the chemicals at the munitions factory. The death certificate states “respiratory failure”. She was 36 and she was the grandmother I never met. Hilda and Horace were the aunt and uncle I never met.
The father, Alfred, not in the picture and most likely just through the door of that pub with a beer in his hand, lived on for a short while longer but died aged 46 and was the grandfather I never met.
In this day and age when many, many families have grandchildren and great grandchildren we have a lot for which to be thankful. There are many tribulations that threaten our future and we must fight to ensure that we maintain the standard of living that has been hard fought for through the effort of those earlier generations. We owe it to all the Lucy Mays of this world who never grew old and who had the bad luck to be born poor and at the wrong time and whose life was effectively mapped out by powers way beyond their control and comprehension.