Yesterday I went to visit my 92-year-old father in his nursing home. His mind is bright and his sense of humour contagious.
His father was in his early 40s when he died of cancer. This left my gran with 11 surviving children. A boy Joseph and a girl Edna, who were born either side of my dad, died in early childhood. My gran had frugality thrust upon her. She rolled her sleeves up and got on with it.
I grew up listening to many stories of my dad’s family neighbors and friends. way of life.
My dad’s family were very religious.
On Monday they worshipped at the Quakers Fellowship soup kitchen. On Tuesday they had home prayers, stew and home made bread to sop it up with.
Every week they were Catholic, Methodist, Salvation Army and very occasionally Plymouth brethren in daily rotation.
The boys in the group could only watch through the window of the hall where Jewish refugees met to eat together. Dad’s friend often got in but that was due to an accident in infancy. Looking back my dad reflected that it was probably too high a price to pay for chicken soup and dumplings.
Families supplemented their pantries with home-grown fruit and vegetables. Eggs from a few chickens. Some families had allotments for extra food.
Farmers used gangs of pickers to harvest their crops. Legend has it that auntie Eva, the sister above dad in the siblings line, was the “fastest picker in town”. Eva had her gang organised each with their own job.
Big Lad, who was born with the cord around his neck, was the carrier. He took full sacks – two at a time – to be weighed and marked for Eva’s gang.
Eva’s two best friends were first pickers. The three of them worked side by side up through the rows of potatoes. My dad and two of his mates followed each girl collecting any missed potatoes. Big lad’s cousin, who was deaf, would take these sacks to be weighed and counted. Deaf lad also kept an accurate running total of Eva’s gang.
People may have been poor and had to be frugal in order to live their best life but they used their power and loyalty well.
Every year farmers would send out messages to the best gangs of the previous years. One year Eva got details from the farmer close to their home on pay and which fields he was offering.
Word got round as fast as a Trump Tweet that Eva was not going to pick for this farmer. She’d asked for more and he’d refused. He believed Eva’s penniless gang needed him more than he needed them. Big mistake!
A few other farmers, further away, offered more. Eva accepted one of these offers. Other gangs heard this and began to follow suit. Gangs cleared crops field by field so were free to move from farm to farm.
Some gangs were available to the original farmer, but it’s not rocket science to work out his fields weren’t cleared quickly enough and potatoes began to rot. This sort of farm husbandry resulted in loss of any government subsidiaries, which caused unhealthy fits in farmers’ daily lives.
Eva’s gang received a message to renegotiate terms, they were happy to return to the original farm. Several gangs followed on as well.
There are many stories of how families survived on low incomes to my antecedents. It was simply a way of life. As dad said “what you don’t have you don’t miss”.
To people today these stories are no longer history but the cruel realities of family life. We have experienced better times and we do miss what we had. Frugality thrust upon us will become our way of life.
- By ‘The Auld Git’ of Armley