MARGARET POWELL was born in 1907 in Hove, and left school at the age of 13 to start working. At 14, she got a job in a hotel laundry room, and a year later went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to the position of cook, before marrying a milkman called Albert. In 1968 the first volume of her memoirs, Below Stairs, was published to instant success and turned her into a celebrity. She died in 1984.
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“Anyone who enjoyed Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs will relish this feisty memoir.”--Dame Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs
I WAS BORN in 1907 in Hove, the second child of a family of seven. My earliest recollection is that other children seemed to be better off than we were. But our parents cared so much for us. One particular thing that I always remember was that every Sunday morning my father used to bring us a comic and a bag of sweets. You used to be able to get a comic for a halfpenny plain and a penny coloured. Sometimes now when I look back at it, I wonder how he managed to do it when he was out of work and there was no money at all coming in.
My father was a painter and decorator. Sort of general odd-job man. He could do almost anything: repair roofs, or do a bit of plastering; but painting and paper-hanging were his main work. Yet in the neighbourhood where we lived, there was hardly any work in the winter. People didn’t want their houses done up then; they couldn’t be painted outside and they didn’t want the bother of having it all done up inside. So the winters were the hardest times.
My mother used to go out charring from about eight in the morning till six in the evening for two shillings a day. Sometimes she used to bring home little treasures: a basin of dripping, half a loaf of bread, a little bit of butter or a bowl of soup. She used to hate accepting anything. She hated charity. But we were so glad of them that, when she came home and we saw that she was carrying something, we used to make a dive to see what she’d got.
It seems funny today, I suppose, that there was this hatred of charity, but when my parents brought us up there was no unemployment money. Anything you got was a charity.
I remember my mother, when we only had one pair of shoes each and they all needed mending, she went down to the council to try to get more for us. She had to answer every question under the sun and she was made to feel that there was something distasteful about her because she hadn’t got enough money to live on.
It was very different getting somewhere to live in those days. You just walked through the streets, and there were notices up, ‘Rooms to let’. When we were extra hard up, we only had one room or two rooms in somebody else’s house. But when Dad was working, we would go around looking for half a house. We never had a house to ourselves. Not many people could afford a house in those days, not to themselves. As for buying a house, why, such things were never even dreamed of !
I know I used to wonder why, when things were so hard, Mum kept having babies, and I remember how angry she used to get when a couple of elderly spinsters at a house where she worked kept telling her not to have any more children, that she couldn’t afford to keep them. I remember saying to my mother, ‘Why do you have so many children? Is it hard to have children?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no. It’s as easy as falling off a log.’
You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children. The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days. They didn’t dare. It was enough to live for the present.
People didn’t think about regulating families. The whole idea was to have big families, a relic of Victorian times perhaps. The more children you had, in some ways, the more you were looked upon as fulfilling your duties as a Christian citizen. Not that the Church played much part in my mother’s and father’s lives. I don’t think they had much time for it or, perhaps it’s truer to say, they had time but no inclination. Some of us weren’t even christened. I wasn’t, and never have been. But we all had to go to Sunday School, not because my parents were religious, but because it kept us out of the way: Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking because there was not much privacy in working-class families. When you lived in two or three rooms, you had to have some of the children in the same room with you. If you had any sense of decency, and my parents did because I never, during the whole time of my childhood, knew that they ever made love, you waited till they were fast asleep or out of the way. The fact is I never even saw them kissing each other because my father was a rather austere man outwardly, and I was amazed when only lately my mother told me what a passionate man he really was. So, you see, it was only when the children were out of the way that they could really let themselves go. So, Sunday afternoon, after a mighty big dinner (and everybody tried to have a big dinner on Sunday), was the time spent lying on the bed, making love and having a good old doze. Because, as my Mum said later, if you make love, you might as well do it in comfort. So that’s why Sunday School was so popular then.
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My early school days don’t stand out much in my mind. My brother and I began proper school together. They let you start at the age of four in those days. My mother sent me there as well because she had another baby coming along and she thought that would be two of us out of the way.
We had to come home for dinner. There were no such things as school meals and school milk. You took a piece of bread and butter with you, wrapped in a piece of paper, and gave it to the teacher to mind, because many of us children were so hungry that we used to nibble it during the course of the morning when we should have been doing whatever we did have to do. It was then doled out to us at eleven o’clock.
I always enjoyed going to school because I did pretty well there. I never found any of it hard except things like art, knitting, and needlework. Singing was hopeless, too. None of those things were any good to me at all. The needlework was my biggest hate. We had to make such ugly garments; chemises and bloomers – as they were called then. Both made of calico. The chemises were wide with sort of cap sleeves and they reached down to the knees. The bloomers did up at the back with buttons and were also voluminous. Whoever bought these awful garments when they were finished I really don’t know. I should imagine they were given to the workhouse because I certainly never brought any home.
But the great thing about school in those days was that we had to learn. I don’t think you can beat learning; how to read and write, and how to do arithmetic. Those are the three things that anyone who has got to work for a living needs. We were forced to learn and I think children need to be forced. I don’t believe in this business of ‘if they don’t want to do it, it won’t do them any good’. Itwilldo them good. Our teacher used to come around and give us a mighty clump on the neck or box on the ears if she saw us wasting our time. Believe me, by the time we came out of school, we came out with something. We knew enough to get us through life. Not that any of us thought about what we were going to do. We all knew that when we left school we’d have to do something, but I don’t think we had any ambitions to do any particular type of work.
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It was when I got to the age of about seven that I, as it were, took my place in life. You see, with my mother going off early in the morning to do her charring and me being the eldest girl, I used to have to give the children their breakfast. Mind you, giving them their breakfast wasn’t a matter of cooking anything. We never had eggs or bacon, and things like cereals weren’t heard of. We had porridge in the winter, and just bread and margarine, and a scraping of jam, if Mum had any, in the summer. Three pieces were all we were allowed. Then I would make the tea, very weak tea known as sweepings – the cheapest that there was – clear away and wash up, and then get ready for school.
The two youngest I took along to the day nursery. It cost sixpence a day each and for that the children got a midday meal as well. I took them just before school time and collected them the moment I came out of school in the afternoon.
At midday, I would run home, get the potatoes and the greens on, lay up the dinner and do everything I could so that when my mother rushed over from work, she just had to serve the dinner.
Generally it was stews because they were the most filling. Sometimes Mother would make a meat pudding. It’s funny now when I look back on it, this meat pudding. I would go along to the butcher’s and ask for sixpennyworth of ‘Block ornaments’. Hygiene was nothing like it is now and butchers used to have big wooden slabs outside the shop with all the meat displayed for the public and the flies. As they cut up the joints, they always had odd lumps of meat left which they scattered around. These were known as ‘Block ornaments’. I used to get sixpennyworth of them and a pennyworth of suet. Then my mother would make the most marvellous meat pudding with it.
Directly after she’d eaten her dinner, she’d have to rush back to work because she was only allowed half an hour. So I had to do the washing-up before I went back to school again. Right after I came out of school in the afternoon, I would collect the two children from the day nursery, take them back home, and then set to and clear up the place and make the beds.
I never used to feel that I was suffering in any sense from ill-usage. It was just the thing. When you were the eldest girl in a working-class family, it was expected of you.
Of course, Mum took over in the evenings. She came back about six and got us our tea which was the same as breakfast – bread and margarine.
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Unlike so many people I’ve met, I didn’t really make any lasting friends in my school days. But, being a member of a family, I wasn’t worried and, you see, we had the town itself.
Copyright © 1968 by Margaret Powell and Leigh Crutchley