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An Oxford Childhood
Pride of the Morning
By Phyl Surman
The History PressCopyright © 2013 The Estate of Phyl Surman
All rights reserved.
In 1920, development along the eastern side of Iffley Road in east Oxford ceased with three long, straight streets: Percy Street, Charles Street and Howard Street. From Howard Street, halfway along its western side, Catherine Street branched out extending to Magdalen Road, cutting through Percy and Charles Streets on its way, so that they were each divided into two unequal lengths, the shorter of which were known as 'Little Percy Street' and 'Little Charles Street'.
Several theories have been put forward as to why these three streets were so named, the most likely of which appears to be that, in the 1860s to 1870s, a William Howard was living with his family on the Iffley Road and, being an estate agent, it is conceivable that he may have been involved in the development of this area. The census of 1871 shows that he had six children, the youngest of whom, then aged five years, was named Percy; none of the other five was called Charles, but there may have been another son of that name who died in infancy. Alternatively, there may have been some other reason why the name Charles should have been chosen. By 1871, Percy, Charles and Howard streets were all laid out and building was in progress. Percy Street had six houses, two of them uninhabited; Charles Street had twenty-six houses, one unoccupied; and Howard Street, nine houses, of which five were empty. At the time of which I write the three streets were completely built up and, beyond, allotments and fields stretched away to Iffley Turn. To locals this area was known as 'Robin Hood', and was zealously guarded by the younger element of the community who met any threat of invasion of their territory by rival gangs with cries of 'Up Robin Hood!' As to why our neighbourhood was so called, correspondence in the Oxford Mail dated 9 September 1976 suggests that the name resulted from the existence in Magdalen Road of a public house of that title, but earlier correspondence in the newspaper quotes from the parish magazine of July 1915:
At that time [the early fifties] and for years before an encampment of gipsies had settled on the site of what was later 'Robin Hood Terrace' and, as is usual, they had great difficulty in removing them. It was from this that the district derived the name of 'Robin Hood'.
I was also intrigued by the following statement in the Cowley St John parish magazine dated January 1920: 'Father Jacob has taken charge of "London over the Border", i.e., the part of the parish the other side of Iffley Road.' This was the first and only reference I came across to what was presumably a local name for the area lying to the west of the main road to Iffley.
Our house was situated about halfway down Howard Street, which, though straight, displayed no monotony in the buildings lining its footpaths. Some were terraced, a few three storeys high, others, like ours, semi-detached with a side entrance, but all boasted a small front garden about ten feet deep enclosed in most cases by railings and a privet hedge. Entrance to our house was by means of a side door; glass panelled, stained and grained to a high polish it surmounted two steps, one of stone, scrubbed daily, and another of brass, polished daily. This door opened into a small hall, the consequent rush of air causing small rectangles of coloured glass suspended from the ceiling to tinkle a musical welcome. Directly opposite the main entrance lay the door to the front room, to the left, the door to the living room and, far left, the staircase leading to the three bedrooms.
The front room enlarged by a bay window was used only for parties, visitors, or sometimes on Sundays. The windows were hung with white lace curtains and two heavy green curtains suspended from wooden rings on a pole and looped back to either side of the bay in which stood, the pride of most households, a bamboo stand holding a monster aspidistra plant. The furniture in this room consisted of a horsehair sofa, one end of which curled up high, as a pillow, while along its back ran a small wooden balustrade; there were four matching chairs and the wallpaper was deep red. In this room stood an upright mahogany piano with two brass candlesticks hinged to its satin-backed fretwork facing; this instrument, much used and loved by my brother Norman, held little interest for me; the truth was that I found the practice sessions boring and consequently made laborious progress.
The fireplace was of black marble with red tiles, and the hearth was surrounded by a brass fender on which reposed brass fire-irons. The doors, skirting and other woodwork were painted dark brown, it being then considered that dark colours were more practical.
Most of the woodwork in the living room was painted dark green, the doors panelled and low-handled in brass. The mantelshelf was draped with green material edged with bobbles, and on the shelf stood a large mirror flanked by two tall, narrow mirrors reflecting a framework of small shelves holding ornaments. A plain deal table stood in the centre of the room covered with a bobble-edged cloth to match the mantelshelf, and on the floor lay a rag rug made by my mother from strips of thick material threaded into hessian with a wooden peg. For some weeks before attempting such a task she would ask around our friends and relations for cast-off coats or thick curtains which might be cut up for this purpose, so that when the completed rug finally lay before the hearth, we children would sit on it and, selecting a strip, amuse ourselves by recounting the history of its source:
'That's Uncle Ern's post office coat.'
'That was mum's old dressing gown, and look, that piece of red was your old gaiters!'
In the centre of the ceiling was suspended a gas jet with a voracious appetite for mantles; I was constantly being sent round to a nearby shop for replacements for they were easily shattered. The fireplace was an 'oven and sham', black-leaded and surrounded by a steel fender and fire-irons which were covered with newspaper on bath nights so that as we dried off before the fire there was no fear of splashing and staining these objects.
Hardly a house in this area had the luxury of a bathroom, but my father, who was a very practical man, had fitted a bath into the kitchen with a wooden cover which served as a table. Water for baths was heated in a corner copper under which a fire was lit, and when the water was hot it was bucketed across the kitchen and poured into the bath. Sheets and linens were all home laundered and boiled in the copper for there were then few organised laundries, though some women had wash-houses built in their gardens and took in washing, either from neighbours or from the Oxford colleges, to augment their income. Later, these brick coppers which took up so much space in the kitchen were removed and replaced by gas or electric boilers, but there were no airing facilities in winter, so that it was common in many homes to find the living-room criss-crossed with string on which washing or airing seemed almost permanently hung, for the weekly wash was a mammoth task. My mother was very much against this practice and our things were aired on a large wooden clothes-horse which she placed in the warm living-room last thing at night.
The oven and sham ranges in the living-room also began to lose favour about this time, being replaced by open coal grates with tiled surrounds and wooden mantelpieces, and cooking was then performed on kitchen ranges, though these too were soon replaced by gas stoves and later still, electric ovens. Despite the obvious advantages of these ovens, being easier to clean and control, my mother still favoured the coal range. Opening its oven door, she would hold her hand inside to test the heat and somehow she knew just when to put in her sandwiches and pies, and baking-day in our house was always warm and golden. On the front of most ranges was a grid iron on which flat irons were heated, usually two; one was heated while the other was in use, so that no time was lost. The iron handles were, of course, hot, and for this purpose, by the side of the range hung a padded iron or kettle-holder. These holders were the first things that we were taught to make in the sewing class at school.
Utensils were made of tinned metal or enamel and kitchen buckets, baths etc. usually of galvanised metal, though enamelled hip-baths were still in use. Saucepans were of iron and very heavy, but when the new stoves came into being, lighter models of enamel or aluminium pans were used. Behind the kitchen door stood a large wooden mangle with cupboards beneath and further cupboard space was provided under the stairs.
The upstairs rooms were lit by gas, but here, no mantle, just a hinged bracket ending with a bare half circle of flame which could be turned down to a small blue glimmer once we were in bed. My bedroom had a brass bedstead with mattress of flock filling, hard and lumpy, but with experience I learned to fit my body quite comfortably into its undulations. There was a dressing-table covered with a lace duchesse set, a wardrobe and a marble-topped wash-hand stand, complete with jug, basin and soap-dish, and on the wall over the fireplace hung a large coloured picture of The Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt. My father, who usually rose first in the morning, would bring warm water upstairs for us but he would get washed and shaved in the kitchen.
This, then, was my home around 1920, kept clean and in good repair by my hardworking parents. They had little money when they married in 1913, but had managed to buy this house for £250, most of which they borrowed and were still repaying. Sublimely unaware of financial problems, I regarded this house as security, my refuge, to which, at the losing end of a battle with other children, I could retire to continue a shouted argument through the keyhole of its strong front door. I also had complete faith in my parents. In my childish estimation there was nothing they could not do or provide and this feeling was obviously shared by my brother, for he recalls taking home six of his school friends one day calmly announcing to my surprised mother that they had 'come to tea'. Father could be relied upon to repair bicycle punctures and mend broken toys and he knew the best places to fish for minnows or to seek out the yellow king-cup; and oh, the comfort of my mother who was always there and understood how to deal with cut knees and sums which would not add up! To my parents I turned for reassurance when angry or upset, or for practical advice; I accepted their caring presence as a normal part of my existence, never thinking there could come a time when I might be deprived of their support, so that when, in later years, they inevitably became old, ill and uncertain, it was with a feeling of shock that I realized that they too were mortal.
The front gate step of this house was my favourite resting-place where I might sit (despite its coldness to my bottom and the sinister warning from Norman that I should 'catch the quack') happily meditating and watching the world go by. It was while so engaged one autumn morning, pensively munching an apple, that I remembered uneasily the unpleasant task I had allocated for that day. In the evening there was to be a 'pig-killing', so this morning I must say 'Good-bye' to Blackie and Whitey.
In common with many householders my father kept chickens in a wire-netted run and two pigs in a sty at the bottom of our garden. Pig-sties were allowed only in gardens on the eastern side of Howard Street because they were backed by allotments and this meant that the sty was sufficiently far away from human habitation to comply with the law. The pigs were, in fact, the joint property of several neighbours who contributed to their feeding. Acorns, household scraps, small rejected 'tatties' were all boiled together in a big, black iron saucepan and greedily enjoyed by the animals, blissfully unaware that, at the end of the year, the donors of this gastronomic mess would come to assist at the killing and apportionment of the carcasses. Nothing was wasted. The pig skin or flare was melted down for lard; the blood drained from the carcass used to make black puddings; the innards boiled down for faggots, and chitterlings and trotters were dishes in their own right. The pig's head was often made into brawn and the hams and choice portions treated with saltpetre and stored away for winter eating. The necessity for this butchery had been gently explained to me by father: 'It's the way of the world I'm afraid, dear. We must kill animals to live.'
But I always hated the killings and so it was with heavy heart that I walked round to the back garden, hoping, perhaps, that a little explanatory chat might be of some consolation to the pigs. Our garden was of useful size and accommodated a pear tree, four apple trees, a damson tree and currant and gooseberry bushes, with a small lawn and flower garden near the house. Honeysuckle threaded itself on a trellis near the back door and the perfume from this on a still summer evening was exquisite. But the glories of the garden were lost upon me as, in this moment of sadness, I walked slowly past the chicken run; even they, I thought dismally, will meet a similar fate, yet they served us well and in addition to our own needs we often sold eggs to neighbours, preserving the surplus in a big crock of water-glass for winter use. These same chickens had been reared from the shell in a large flannel-lined box which was placed in a warm spot in the hearth; a yellow fluff-ruffled, cheeping mass among which one occasionally saw a small amber claw or bright beady eye and there they stayed until strong enough to face the world outside. I decided it would be kinder not to enlighten them and left them clucking and pecking to their hearts' content.
At the bottom of the garden leaned 'Dad's shed'; a construction of planks and corrugated iron held together by long nails which, when hammered home, went right through the planks, so forming a useful hook on the inside of the shed for coils of wire or bunches of keys. My mother always vowed that had it not been for the contents this structure would have collapsed and, indeed, it did appear that walls and roof were kept in place by the many biscuit tins and rows of shelving stacked internally. Tins full of rusty nuts and bolts, nails, odd door furniture, washers, screws, and on the shelves, tools, pieces of piping, tins of putty, bottles of methylated spirits and cans of paraffin were to be seen in glorious disarray. On the bench below the only window, a vice, soldering-irons, flux and miscellaneous tools were always in evidence, and beneath the bench, odd sheets of glass, tin, copper and pieces of lead. Yet this cluttered, crazy workshop housed the remedy for many a crisis of maintenance; whatever was needed was to be found in 'Dad's shed'. That is until, in later years, my tidy-minded brother took a hand and put the place in order. Tools were put into racks, tins and boxes neatly labelled, the bench cleared and rubbish thrown away, after which my father complained he could not find a thing!
To the right of the shed was a cycle shed and to the left, the object of my thoughts, the pig-sty. Perched up on the wooden fence around the sty and adopting what I considered to be a soothing tone, I attempted to explain to Blackie and Whitey that their sacrifice was all very necessary because Dad had said so. In my anxiety to get this message across I leaned too far over, lost my footing, and found myself hanging upside down, my face inches away from the bewhiskered, pink, snuffling nostrils of Whitey. The indignity of my position was quite outweighed by the alarming proximity of the pig and I was convinced that far from grieving over the threat of his own demise, Whitey was about to relish the last meal of the condemned! My piercing shrieks brought mother running from the kitchen and she, locating the sound, perceived two short fat legs protruding from navy-blue fleecy- lined boots above the sty door. Laughing, she uprighted me and together we left the pig to ruminate on the peculiarities of humans.
Later that night, when the darkness was pierced by the light of many lanterns and the quietness shattered by men's voices and the shrill screams of the pigs, I lay with my head under the bedclothes, fingers in ears, and wept for Blackie and Whitey.
Excerpted from An Oxford Childhood by Phyl Surman. Copyright © 2013 The Estate of Phyl Surman. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Our House,
2 The Neighbourhood,
3 Work and the Lack of It,
4 Learning and Living,
5 May Day,
6 The General Strike,
7 Holidays and Outings,
8 Come Out to Play,
9 Superstition and Beliefs,
10 Fine Feathers,
11 Shops and Traders,
12 St Alban the Martyr,
13 SS Mary and John,
14 The River Thames,
15 Fairs and Fireworks,
16 Around and About,
18 And We Shall Have Snow,
19 The Street Still Lives,