‘From nowhere, Special Constables arrived…
An Easter Day in London
Early in 1907, a month after my seventh birthday, our new coalman asked my mother, Matilda Morton, to walk out with him. She was no beauty. Drudgery had worn that out of her and given her a hardness totally in keeping with the battle she waged to keep our family afloat. Washing, ironing, and folding, day in day out, a penny here, penny hap’ney there. But it all added up, and she kept going through thick and thin, for poverty stalked us, waiting for any mishap.
Throughout the winter, the widower John Sutcliff flattered Mum. He was persistent. Twice, I heard him ask her out after sliding a bag of clunky black coal noisily into the bunker in the backyard. On one occasion, Mum, with her arms deep in the copper wringing out the washing, her black hair awry beneath her plain brown headscarf, told him, ‘Be off with you John Sutcliff, can’t you see I’m busy.’
One night, lying in bed, I heard Gran and Mum talking downstairs.
‘You know Tilly, I think the coalman likes you,’ said Gran.
‘Well, I have no intention of getting involved with any man at the moment,’ said Mum. ‘And anyway, I haven’t got the energy to go prancing about with a new man. I work such long hours to provide for the family. I don’t have time for going out.’
‘Well, Tilly, Edward has been dead nearly four years now. You have to think of yourself sometimes. You need to get out and meet people.’
‘Where can I go to meet anyone?’
‘You know that coalman looks a nice man, and he speaks very well. Go on, give him a try.’
‘Um…I suppose you’re right. Perhaps it won’t do any harm.’
Mum accepted the coal man’s invitation to walk out. She and our family would love to come out for the day on Easter Sunday, she told him on the following Wednesday. I was so excited.
Mum ensured that my brother and two sisters dressed in their Sunday best for his visit. Well before he arrived at nine, she had checked our dresses and Jack’s sailor’s outfit. I had a new, but secondhand, dress for the occasion. I twirled and danced in the long plaid dress with white frills around collar and hem. By the look of joy on their faces, my sisters were happy to see me skip around the house in anticipation of the coalman’s visit.
‘Where are we going, Mum?’ I asked.
‘We are going for a walk along the Thames. I have prepared us all a picnic. But you must be careful; there are cars, carts, and omnibuses in the streets. And there will be lots of people along the Embankment. I don’t want you running off now, you hear,’ Mum said wagging her finger at me. ‘You stay close by me at all times.’
The coalman announced his arrival with a single loud rap at our front door. I ran to open it and before me stood a transformed person: no shiny black cap angled on his head, no dirty black jerkin tightly tied around his torso with a wide leather belt, no trousers tied with string at the knee, no scuffed black boots, and no sweaty, coal-dust stained face. I saw a fine upstanding man with a clean face and neatly clipped black moustache and a wide smile. His brown eyes seemed to see right through me.
‘Good morning, young lady,’ he said in his fine elocution. ‘Is your mother in?’
In my excitement, and ignoring the two children standing behind him, I called out, ‘It’s the coalman, Mum. He’s here.’
‘It’s Mr. Sutcliff, Dot. Now you go along and get that smudge off your face; check your dress and call Lizzie and Hilda,’ said Mum, bustling along the narrow passageway carrying a large wicker basket, in which she usually placed washing, but this morning was filled with our picnic and an earthenware jug.
‘Good morning, Mrs. Morton,’ he said, ‘may I present Annie and Billy?’ He pulled the collar of the older boy who stepped forward and mumbled, ‘Morning.’
Straightaway, Annie, made me feel at ease. She said, ‘I have brought this for you, Dorothy.’ She held a dolly out to me.
I looked at its golden hair, pale face with beady glass eyes and green gingham dress. ‘It’s lovely.’ I snatched it to my chest.
‘Say thank you,’ Mum reminded me.
I thanked my new friend with her ginger hair and freckles while self-consciously looking down at my feet embarrassed that I had nothing for her. I hugged my new dolly close by my bosom. ‘I’m seven,’ I blurted out, with a mixture of nervousness and pride.
‘And I’m nine,’ said Annie as if we were playing cards, and she had just upped the stakes. She added, ‘I like your dress.’
I was so excited that like a burst water pipe I spurted information about myself and our family on her. ‘Mum has a large shed in our back garden. She washes and presses clothes for rich people. She calls it the Pineapple Laundry. And now I help her fold sheets and press handkerchiefs.’
Annie smiled, I could feel we would be good friends. ‘We learnt at school the other day all about the pineapple. It is a symbol of wealth and power in England, and in the East, it symbolises warmth, welcome, friendship and hospitality,’ she said.
‘Really? What school do you go to?’
‘Carterton School,’ she said.
Jack and Billy had a similar age difference and both dressed like young sailors with white piping around the edges of their thick navy shirts below unbuttoned cloth jackets. Their removable wide white collars held a bow tie in place that made it look as though their heads, both neatly groomed, had been placed on top of their outfits like ice cream balls on cornets. They prowled around each other like tiger cubs uncertain of when to strike until Billy, the older boy, said, ‘Do you play football?’
Jack replied he could kick a ball as hard as anyone, and soon they were both chattering away. Thankful for someone other than a girl with whom to play, Jack was telling Billy about his exploits. He described climbing the big oak tree on Salter’s field, judging by his hand actions. With animated movements and exaggerated claims, I could tell he was doing his utmost to impress Billy.
Billy looked at Jack with a knowing air, full of a confidence gained by his one or two years advantage in age. From time to time, Billy nodded his head approvingly. He said something, and Jack laughed out loud.
‘I think the children will get on with each other,’ Mr. Sutcliff said.
‘I’m glad,’ said Mum as we strolled down towards the river.
Through an ever-widening gap, I saw the Thames’ waters full and high. London’s grey river stretched wide and long before me. The river flowed silently upstream on a rising tide. A riverboat bedecked with pennants and a low smoking funnel sailed by leaving a wake to wash against the walls of the river’s embankment. I faced into the wind and took deep breaths only to notice the disappointing hint of sewage.
‘Look, Dorothy, there’s the Albert Bridge,’ called out Annie. Her frilly edged check blouse peeped out below a dark blue jacket almost buttoned up to the neck. Her wide white skirt billowed in the wind. ‘We live close to there and I see omnibuses on it every day,’ said Annie.
‘Oh, how lucky,’ I said as I looked downriver and saw the metal ropes draped in a gentle curve from tower to tower across the bridge. ‘You live near that?’
‘Yes, and Dad says it is the prettiest bridge across the Thames,’ said Annie.
She seemed so assured, so knowing, I was really pleased that she liked me.
Mum was deep in earnest conversation with Mr. Sutcliff. They didn’t hold hands, but their bodies were close enough to allow it. Billy and Jack skipped down the road chasing a stray dog while Lizzie and Hilda tutted at the tiresome behaviour of the boys.
We strolled along the river towards the Albert Bridge. A double-decked omnibus with its outside spiral staircase at the back hooted at the stray dog which Jack and Billy had chased earlier.
Mum called out, ‘Jack, come here, at once.’
Mr. Sutcliff shouted, ‘Billy, behave yourself.’
Billy looked abashed and stopped in his tracks; the smile disappeared from his face.
We reached the gardens of the Royal Hospital at noon. A burst of sunlight emphasised the whiteness of the splendid building. I admired it, without realising its beauty lay in Wren’s simple, symmetric design. On either side of the main portico were four thick white columns standing like soldiers standing to attention protecting the building, and they gave it a most imposing air.
We walked across the grass towards a small grove of trees. By the footpath stood a street vendor. His stall was crowded with streamers, ropes, floppy dolls, and other knick-knacks along with shiny apples and oranges piled in small pyramids. ‘Look at those lovely streamers. I’d love a streamer,’ I said with glee.
‘So would I. Pleeeeease Daddy,’ said Annie tugging at her father’s jacket.
‘Oh, go on then. Choose your streamer,’ said Mr. Sutcliff with the benevolent smile of a favourite uncle. ‘You too, Dot. Let’s make it a good day.’
‘Oh thank you, Dad,’ said Annie. She reached up and kissed his cheek.
Annie and I choose multi-coloured streamers. We ran around the grass twirling our newly acquired toys waving their long tails upwards and then swooping them downwards and all the while howling like dervishes. I felt that I gave her as much amusement as she gave me.
Mr. Sutcliff and Mum exchanged glances frequently and smiled a lot. Mum seemed happier than I ever remembered.
‘An ideal spot for a picnic,’ Mum announced. She spread a blanket and took out the sandwiches bound in a large white cloth. ‘Dot, Annie, come here and have some lunch now.’
Our faces filled with smiles, we drew our streamers in and ran to the picnic blanket.
Mr. Sutcliff helped by passing the jug of water around. The long walk had made me thirsty. I sat and took a good swig. Some water dribbled down the outside of my mouth and, self-consciously, I wiped it with all the discretion a seven-year-old could muster. I passed the jug to Annie.
‘Sandwich?’ Mum offered the white bundle to every person, in turn, starting with Mr. Sutcliff and we ate our sandwiches.
‘These are tasty, Mrs. Morton,’ said Mr. Sutcliff.
‘No need to be so formal. Call me Tilly, Mr. Sutcliff.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. Please call me, John.’
As we cleared away, putting the blanket back in the wicker basket, Annie announced. ‘I’m tired. I can’t walk another step.’
Billy said, ‘She’s a sissy girl.’
‘Be quiet, Billy,’ said Mr. Sutcliff. ‘It has been a long walk. We’ll take an omnibus to Hyde Park and stroll with the nobs. We all look so fine in our Sunday clothes today.’
‘What a good idea,’ said Mum.
We clambered on the omnibus and squeezed down the narrow gap between the slatted seats which faced each other by the entrance downstairs. Mum and Mr. Sutcliff sat on the furthest bench, Jack and my two sisters on another and Annie, Billy and I bunched up on a third. The conductor tore off eight tickets in exchange for thruppence from Mr. Sutcliff and rang the bell.
The bus rumbled down the road with the chatter and earnest conversation of the passengers in their hats and fine clothes. I looked at stern-faced men with their black moustaches and mutton chop whiskers alongside women with narrow noses and reddened lips. Everything fascinated me as we rode along Oxford Street and its grand shops. Spellbound, I gazed at the large shop window displays which passed so quickly as the bus drove on. I stared in amazement at the bustle of the busy streets. From my position, I could only see hats: top hats, feathered hats, large brimmed hats, and narrow-brimmed hats. Everyone was hatted that day.
‘Speakers’ Corner,’ called the conductor and we all dismounted.
‘This will be fun,’ said Mr. Sutcliff. ‘Lots of hot air and religious fervour.’
‘Less of your religious fervour, John,’ admonished Mum.
Mr. Sutcliff said nothing more. I think his moustache twitched; it was already clear who was wearing the trousers.
We descended and wandered into the thickening crowd. ‘Stay close by me and hold Annie’s hand,’ Mum warned.
I had never seen so many people in one place. Groups of people clustered around speakers on boxes. Their strident voices harangued their audiences. I heard ‘Praise the Lord!’ and ‘Repent’, in the jostling crowd. Scared, I clutched my mother’s calloused, water-worn hand hard against the smoothness of my tiny fingers. I glimpsed men with their arms raised and Bibles in their hands. In the middle of a much bigger crowd, a woman in a tightly waisted long grey dress devoid of colour and trimmings stood and spoke is a higher pitched voice. She wore a wide-brimmed hat tied onto her head by a white scarf and from beneath it poked a black feather. Mum pulled me towards her cultured, and yet more piercing, voice. Before the woman was a large poster. Surrounded mainly by women, most in dull black clothes – all the finery, I had glimpsed from the omnibus had gone – I saw dour, serious looking faces. I was curious. Jack was beside me. ‘What’s written on the board, Jack?’
‘Votes for women,’ he said.
I didn’t understand and said nothing. We didn’t move; Mum was transfixed.
‘Come on Dad, this is boring,’ said Billy.
‘We’re not staying here listening to this tosh,’ said Mr. Sutcliff.
‘No, wait a moment, John, I want to hear what she says,’ said Mum.
‘Come on. We’ve a long walk home and I’ve no more money for a bus,’ Mr. Sutcliff pestered.
But Mum didn’t move for a minute or so. I caught snatches of the speaker’s rhetoric ‘… Why are we inferior, do we not work just as men?’
Inferior? I caught another string of words thrown out like fishing bait cast on the waters: ‘Do we not suffer just as men? Yet no man wants to acknowledge our status.’
Mum edged closer to the speaker. She pulled me deeper into the crowd, across the muddy ground tufted with grass. Now, I could see nothing in the forest of thick grey coats and black dresses. I heard male heckling cries of: ‘Go home and look after the bairns,’ and ‘Traitor!’ But the speaker continued, ‘You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams, and kicks and makes everybody feel nasty and unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first.’
‘Come on, Tilly,’ said Mr. Sutcliff.
‘Just a minute,’ said Mum.
‘That is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else…’ the woman continued. Then a big broad shoulder man stepped right onto my foot. I squealed in agony and started to cry.
‘Are you all right, Dot?’ said Mr. Sutcliff. ‘Come on Tilly. We’ve a way to go to get back home and it looks like rain. I’ve no more money, and Dot is crying.’
‘Oh, OK. Children, hold hands. We are going.’
But something happened that day, Mum seemed a little changed, not only as a result of Mr. Sutcliff’s attentions but also by the glint in that speaker’s eye and the fervour in her voice.
‘Votes for women, now that would be something,’ she said to no one in particular on the way home, but I heard her.