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Flora Thompson's immortal trilogy, containing “Lark Rise”, “Over to Candleford” and “Candleford Green”, is a heartwarming portrayal of country life at the close of the 19th century. This story of three closely related Oxfordshire communities—a hamlet, the nearby village and a small market town—is based on the author's experiences during childhood and youth. It chronicles May Day celebrations and forgotten children’s games, the daily lives of farmworkers and craftsmen, friends and relations—all painted with a gaiety and freshness of observation that make this trilogy an evocative and sensitive memorial to Victorian rural England.
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LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.
All around, from every quarter, the stiff, clayey soil of the arable fields crept up; bare, brown and windswept for eight months out of the twelve. Spring brought a flush of green wheat and there were violets under the hedges and pussy-willows out beside the brook at the bottom of the “Hundred Acres;” but only for a few weeks in later summer had the landscape real beauty. Then the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold.
To a child it seemed that it must always have been so; but the ploughing and sowing and reaping were recent innovations. Old men could remember when the Rise, covered with juniper bushes, stood in the midst of a furzy heath—common land, which had come under the plough after the passing of the Inclosure Acts. Some of the ancients still occupied cottages on land which had been ceded to their fathers as “squatters’ rights,” and probably all the small plots upon which the houses stood had originally been so ceded. In the eighteen-eighties the hamlet consisted of about thirty cottages and an inn, not built in rows, but dotted down anywhere within a more or less circular group. A deeply rutted cart track surrounded the whole, and separate houses or groups of houses were connected by a network of pathways. Going from one part of the hamlet to another was called “going round the Rise,” and the plural of “house” was not “houses,” but “housen”. The only shop was a small general one kept in the back kitchen of the inn. The church and school were in the mother village, a mile and a half away.
A road flattened the circle at one point. It had been cut when the heath was enclosed, for convenience in fieldwork and to connect the main Oxford road with the mother village and a series of other villages beyond. From the hamlet it led on the one hand to church and school, and on the other to the main road, or the turnpike, as it was still called, and so to the market town where the Saturday shopping was done. It brought little traffic past the hamlet. An occasional farm wagon, piled with sacks or square-cut bundles of hay; a farmer on horseback or in his gig; the baker’s little old white-tilted van; a string of blanketed hunters with grooms, exercising in the early morning; and a carriage with gentry out paying calls in the afternoon were about the sum of it. No motors, no buses, and only one of the old penny-farthing high bicycles at rare intervals. People still rushed to their cottage doors to see one of the latter come past.
A few of the houses had thatched roofs, whitewashed outer walls and diamond-paned windows, but the majority were just stone or brick boxes with blue-slated roofs. The older houses were relics of pre-enclosure days and were still occupied by descendants of the original squatters, themselves at that time elderly people. One old couple owned a donkey and cart, which they used to carry their vegetables, eggs, and honey to the market town and sometimes hired out at sixpence a day to their neighbours. One house was occupied by a retired farm bailiff, who was reported to have “well feathered his own nest” during his years of stewardship. Another aged man owned and worked upon about an acre of land. These, the innkeeper, and one other man, a stonemason who walked the three miles to and from his work in the town every day, were the only ones not employed as agricultural labourers.
Some of the cottages had two bedrooms, others only one, in which case it had to be divided by a screen or curtain to accommodate parents and children. Often the big boys of a family slept downstairs, or were put out to sleep in the second bedroom of an elderly couple whose own children were out in the world. Except at holiday times, there were no big girls to provide for, as they were all out in service. Still, it was often a tight fit, for children swarmed, eight, ten, or even more in some families, and although they were seldom all at home together, the eldest often being married before the youngest was born, beds and shakedowns were often so closely packed that the inmates had to climb over one bed to get into another.
But Lark Rise must not be thought of as a slum set down in the country. The inhabitants lived an open-air life; the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and doors and windows stood wide open when the weather permitted. When the wind cut across the flat land to the east, or came roaring down from the north, doors and windows had to be closed; but then, as the hamlet people said, they got more than enough fresh air through the keyhole.
There were two epidemics of measles during the decade, and two men had accidents in the harvest field and were taken to hospital; but, for years together, the doctor was only seen there when one of the ancients was dying of old age, or some difficult first confinement baffled the skill of the old woman who, as she said, saw the beginning and end of everybody. There was no cripple or mental defective in the hamlet, and, except for a few months when a poor woman was dying of cancer, no invalid. Though food was rough and teeth were neglected, indigestion was unknown, while nervous troubles, there as elsewhere, had yet to be invented: The very word “nerve” was used in a different sense to the modern one. „My word! An’ ’aven’t she got a nerve!” they would say of any one who expected more than was reasonable.
In nearly all the cottages there was but one room downstairs, and many of these were poor and bare, with only a table and a few chairs and stools for furniture and a superannuated potato-sack thrown down by way of hearthrug. Other rooms were bright and cosy, with dressers of crockery, cushioned chairs, pictures on the walls and brightly coloured hand-made rag rugs on the floor. In these there would be pots of geraniums, fuchsias, and old-fashioned, sweet-smelling musk on the windowsills. In the older cottages there were grandfathers’ clocks, gate-legged tables, and rows of pewter, relics of a time when life was easier for country folk.
The interiors varied, according to the number of mouths to be fed and the thrift and skill of the housewife, or the lack of those qualities; but the income in all was precisely the same, for ten shillings a week was the standard wage of the farm labourer at that time in that district.
Looking at the hamlet from a distance, one house would have been seen, a little apart, and turning its back on its neighbours, as though about to run away into the fields. It was a small grey stone cottage with a thatched roof, a green-painted door and a plum tree trained up the wall to the eaves. This was called the “end house” and was the home of the stonemason and his family. At the beginning of the decade there were two children: Laura, aged three, and Edmund, a year and a half younger. In some respects these children, while small, were more fortunate than their neighbours. Their father earned a little more money than the labourers. Their mother had been a children’s nurse and they were well looked after. They were taught good manners and taken for walks, milk was bought for them, and they were bathed regularly on Saturday nights and, after “Gentle Jesus” was said, were tucked up in bed with a peppermint or clove ball to suck. They had tidier clothes, too, for their mother had taste and skill with her needle and better-off relations sent them parcels of outgrown clothes. The other children used to tease the little girl about the lace on her drawers and led her such a life that she once took them off and hid them in a haystack.
Their mother at that time used to say that she dreaded the day when they would have to go to school; children got so wild and rude and tore their clothes to shreds going the mile and a half backwards and forwards. But when the time came for them to go she was glad, for, after a break of five years, more babies had begun to arrive, and, by the end of the ‘eighties, there were six children at the end house.
As they grew, the two elder children would ask questions of anybody and everybody willing or unwilling to answer them. Who planted the buttercups? Why did God let the wheat get blighted? Who lived in this house before we did, and what were their children’s names? What’s the sea like? Is it bigger than Cottisloe Pond? Why can’t we go to Heaven in the donkey-cart? Is it farther than Banbury? And so on, taking their bearings in that small corner of the world they had somehow got into.
This asking of questions teased their mother and made them unpopular with the neighbours. “Little children should be seen and not heard,” they were told at home. Out of doors it would more often be “Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies.” One old woman once handed the little girl a leaf from a pot-plant on her window-sill. “What’s it called?” was the inevitable question. “Tis called mind your own business,” was the reply, “an’ I think I’d better give a slip of it to your mother to plant in a pot for you.” But no such reproofs could cure them of the habit, although they soon learned who and who not to question.
In this way they learned the little that was known of the past of the hamlet and of places beyond. They had no need to ask the names of the birds, flowers, and trees they saw every day, for they had already learned these unconsciously, and neither could remember a time when they did not know an oak from an ash, wheat from barley, or a Jenny wren from a blue-tit. Of what was going on around them, not much was hidden, for the gossips talked freely before children, evidently considering them not meant to hear as well as not to be heard, and, as every house was open to them and their own home was open to most people, there was not much that escaped their sharp ears.
The first charge on the labourers’ ten shillings was house rent. Most of the cottages belonged to small tradesmen in the market town and the weekly rents ranged from one shilling to half a crown. Some labourers in other villages worked on farms or estates where they had their cottages rent free; but the hamlet people did not envy them, for “Stands to reason,” they said, “they’ve allus got to do just what they be told, or out they goes, neck and crop, bag and baggage.” A shilling, or even two shillings a week, they felt, was not too much to pay for the freedom to live and vote as they liked and to go to church or chapel or neither as they preferred.
Every house had a good vegetable garden and there were allotments for all; but only three of the thirty cottages had their own water supply. The less fortunate tenants obtained their water from a well on a vacant plot on the outskirts of the hamlet, from which the cottage had disappeared. There was no public well or pump. They just had to get their water where and how they could; the landlords did not undertake to supply water.
Against the wall of every well-kept cottage stood a tarred or green-painted water butt to catch and store the rain-water from the roof. This saved many journeys to the well with buckets, as it could be used for cleaning and washing clothes and for watering small, precious things in the garden. It was also valued for toilet purposes and the women would hoard the last drops for themselves and their children to wash in. Rain-water was supposed to be good for the complexion, and, though they had no money to spend upon beautifying themselves, they were not too far gone in poverty to neglect such means as they had to that end.
For drinking water, and for cleaning water, too, when the water butts failed, the women went to the well in all weathers, drawing up the buckets with a windlass and carting them home suspended from their shoulders by a yoke. Those were weary journeys “round the Rise” for water, and many were the rests and endless was the gossip, as they stood at corners in their big white aprons and crossover shawls.
A few of the younger, more recently married women who had been in good service and had not yet given up the attempt to hold themselves a little aloof would get their husbands to fill the big red store crock with water at night. But this was said by others to be “a sin and a shame,” for, after his hard day’s work, a man wanted his rest, not to do “’ooman’s work.” Later on in the decade it became the fashion for the men to fetch water at night, and then, of course, it was quite right that they should do so and a woman who “dragged her guts out” fetching more than an occasional load from the well was looked upon as a traitor to her sex.
In dry summers, when the hamlet wells failed, water had to be fetched from a pump at some farm buildings half a mile distant. Those who had wells in their gardens would not give away a spot, as they feared if they did theirs, too, would run dry, so they fastened down the lids with padlocks and disregarded all hints.
The only sanitary arrangement known in the hamlet was housed either in a little beehive-shaped building at the bottom of the garden or in a corner of the wood and tool-shed known as “the hovel.” It was not even an earth closet; but merely a deep pit with a seat set over it, the half-yearly emptying of which caused every door and window in the vicinity to be sealed. Unfortunately, there was no means of sealing the chimneys!
These “privies” were as good an index as any to the characters of their owners. Some were horrible holes; others were fairly decent, while some, and these not a few, were kept well cleared, with the seat scrubbed to snow-whiteness and the brick floor raddled.
One old woman even went so far as to nail up a text as a finishing touch, “Thou God seest me”—most embarrassing to a Victorian child who had been taught that no one must even see her approach the door.
In other such places health and sanitary maxims were scrawled with lead pencil or yellow chalk on the whitewashed walls. Most of them embodied sound sense and some were expressed in sound verse, but few were so worded as to be printable. One short and pithy maxim may pass: “Eat well, work well, sleep well, and — well once a day.”
On the wall of the “little house” at Laura’s home pictures cut from the newspapers were pasted. These were changed when the walls were whitewashed and in succession they were “The Bombardment of Alexandria”, all clouds of smoke, flying fragments, and flashes of explosives; “Glasgow’s Mournful Disaster: Plunges for Life from the Daphne,” and “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” with the end of the train dangling from the broken bridge over a boiling sea. It was before the day of Press photography and the artists were able to give their imagination full play. Later, the place of honour in the “little house” was occupied by “Our Political Leaders”, two rows of portraits on one print; Mr. Gladstone, with hawk-like countenance and flashing eyes, in the middle of the top row, and kind, sleepy-Looking Lord Salisbury in the other. Laura loved that picture because Lord Randolph Churchill was there. She thought he must be the most handsome man in the world.
At the back or side of each cottage was a lean-to pigsty and the house refuse was thrown on a nearby pile called “the muck’ll”. This was so situated that the oozings from the sty could drain into it; the manure was also thrown there when the sty was cleared, and the whole formed a nasty, smelly eyesore to have within a few feet of the windows. “The wind’s in the so-and-so,” some woman indoors would say, “I can smell th’ muck’ll,” and she would often be reminded of the saying, “Pigs for health,” or told that the smell was a healthy one.
It was in a sense a healthy smell for them; for a good pig fattening in the sty promised a good winter. During its lifetime the pig was an important member of the family, and its health and condition were regularly reported in letters to children away from home, together with news of their brothers and sisters. Men callers on Sunday afternoons came, not to see the family, but the pig, and would lounge with its owner against the pigsty door for an hour, scratching piggy’s back and praising his points or turning up their own noses in criticism. Ten to fifteen shillings was the price paid for a pigling when weaned, and they all delighted in getting a bargain. Some men swore by the “dilling,” as the smallest of a litter was called, saying it was little and good, and would soon catch up; others preferred to give a few shillings more for a larger young pig.
The family pig was everybody’s pride and everybody’s business. Mother spent hours boiling up the “little taturs” to mash and mix with the pot-liquor, in which food had been cooked, to feed to the pig for its evening meal and help out the expensive barley meal. The children, on their way home from school, would fill their arms with sow thistle, dandelion, and choice long grass, or roam along the hedgerows on wet evenings collecting snails in a pail for the pig’s supper. These piggy crunched up with great relish. “Feyther,” over and above farming out the sty, bedding down, doctoring, and so on, would even go without his nightly half-pint when, towards the end, the barley-meal bill mounted until “it fair frightened anybody.”
Sometimes, when the weekly income would not run to a sufficient quantity of fattening food, an arrangement would be made with the baker or miller that he should give credit now, and when the pig was killed receive a portion of the meat in payment. More often than not one-half the pig-meat would be mortgaged in this way, and it was no uncommon thing to hear a woman say, “Us be going to kill half a pig, please God, come Friday,” leaving the uninitiated to conclude that the other half would still run about in the sty.
Some of the families killed two separate half pigs a year; others one, or even two, whole ones, and the meat provided them with bacon for the winter or longer. Fresh meat was a luxury only seen in a few of the cottages on Sunday, when six-pennyworth of pieces would be bought to make a meat pudding. If a small joint came their way as a Saturday night bargain, those without oven grates would roast it by suspending it on a string before the fire, with one of the children in attendance as turnspit. Or a “Pot-roast” would be made by placing the meat with a little lard or other fat in an iron saucepan and keeping it well shaken over the fire. But, after all, as they said, there was nothing to beat a “toad.” For this the meat was enclosed whole in a suet crust and well boiled, a method which preserved all the delicious juices of the meat and provided a good pudding into the bargain. When some superior person tried to give them a hint, the women used to say, “You tell us how to get the victuals; we can cook it all right when we’ve got it;” and they could.
When the pig was fattened—and the fatter the better—the date of execution had to be decided upon. It had to take place some time during the first two quarters of the moon; for, if the pig was killed when the moon was waning the bacon would shrink in cooking, and they wanted it to “plimp up.” The next thing was to engage the travelling pork butcher, or pig-sticker, and, as he was a thatcher by day, he always had to kill after dark, the scene being lighted with lanterns and the fire of burning straw which at a later stage of the proceedings was to singe the bristles off the victim.
The killing was a noisy, bloody business, in the course of which the animal was hoisted to a rough bench that it might bleed thoroughly and so preserve the quality of the meat. The job was often bungled, the pig sometimes getting away and having to be chased; but country people of that day had little sympathy for the sufferings of animals, and men, women, and children would gather round to see the sight.
After the carcass had been singed, the pig-sticker would pull off the detachable, gristly, outer coverings of the toes, known locally as “the shoes,” and fling them among the children, who scrambled for, then sucked and gnawed them, straight from the filth of the sty and blackened by fire as they were.
The whole scene, with its mud and blood, flaring lights and dark shadows, was as savage as anything to be seen in an African jungle. The children at the end house would steal out of bed to the window. “Look! Look! It’s hell, and those are the devils,” Edmund would whisper, pointing to the men tossing the burning straw with their pitchforks; but Laura felt sick and would creep back into bed and cry: she was sorry for the pig.
But, hidden from the children, there was another aspect of the pig-killing. Months of hard work and self-denial were brought on that night to a successful conclusion. It was a time to rejoice, and rejoice they did, with beer flowing freely and the first delicious dish of pig’s fry sizzling in the frying-pan.
The next day, when the carcass had been cut up, joints of pork were distributed to those neighbours who had sent similar ones at their own pig-killing. Small plates of fry and other oddments were sent to others as a pure compliment, and no one who happened to be ill or down on his luck at these occasions was ever forgotten.
Then the housewife “got down to it,” as she said. Hams and sides of bacon were salted, to be taken out of the brine later and hung on the wall near the fireplace to dry. Lard was dried out, hogs’ puddings were made, and the chitterlings were cleaned and turned three days in succession under running water, according to ancient ritual. It was a busy time, but a happy one, with the larder full and something over to give away, and all the pride and importance of owning such riches.
On the following Sunday came the official “pig feast,” when fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, married children and grandchildren who lived within walking distance arrived to dinner.
If the house had no oven, permission was obtained from an old couple in one of the thatched cottages to heat up the big bread-baking oven in their wash-house. This was like a large cupboard with an iron door, lined with brick and going far back into the wall. Faggots of wood were lighted inside and the door was closed upon them until the oven was well heated. Then the ashes were swept out and baking-tins with joints of pork, potatoes, batter puddings, pork pies, and sometimes a cake or two, were popped inside and left to bake without further attention.
Meanwhile, at home, three or four different kinds of vegetables would be cooked, and always a meat pudding, made in a basin. No feast and few Sunday dinners were considered complete without that item, which was eaten alone, without vegetables, when a joint was to follow. On ordinary days the pudding would be a roly-poly containing fruit, currants, or jam; but it still appeared as a first course, the idea being that it took the edge off the appetite. At the pig feast there would be no sweet pudding, for that could be had any day, and who wanted sweet things when there was plenty of meat to be had!
But this glorious plenty only came once or at most twice a year, and there were all the other days to provide for. How was it done on ten shillings a week? Well, for one thing, food was much cheaper than it is today. Then, in addition to the bacon, all vegetables, including potatoes, were home-grown and grown in abundance. The men took great pride in their gardens and allotments and there was always competition amongst them as to who should have the earliest and choicest of each kind. Fat green peas, broad beans as big as a halfpenny, cauliflowers a child could make an armchair of, runner beans and cabbage and kale, all in their seasons went into the pot with the roly-poly and slip of bacon.
Then they ate plenty of green food, all home-grown and freshly pulled; lettuce and radishes and young onions with pearly heads and leaves like fine grass. A few slices of bread and home-made lard, flavoured with rosemary, and plenty of green food ‘went down good’ as they used to say.
Bread had to be bought, and that was a heavy item, with so many growing children to be fed; but flour for the daily pudding and an occasional plain cake could be laid in for the winter without any cash outlay. After the harvest had been carried from the fields, the women and children swarmed over the stubble picking up the ears of wheat the horse-rake had missed. Gleaning, or “leazing,” as it was called locally.
Up and down and over and over the stubble they hurried, backs bent, eyes on the ground, one hand outstretched to pick up the ears, the other resting on the small of the back with the “handful.” When this had been completed, it was bound round with a wisp of straw and erected with others in a double rank, like the harvesters erected their sheaves in shocks, beside the leazer’s water-can and dinner-basket. It was hard work, from as soon as possible after daybreak until nightfall, with only two short breaks for refreshment; but the single ears mounted, and a woman with four or five strong, well-disciplined children would carry a good load home on her head every night. And they enjoyed doing it, for it was pleasant in the fields under the pale blue August sky, with the clover springing green in the stubble and the hedges bright with hips and haws and feathery with traveller’s joy. When the rest-hour came, the children would wander off down the hedgerows gathering crab-apples or sloes, or searching for mushrooms, while the mothers reclined and suckled their babes and drank their cold tea and gossiped or dozed until it was time to be at it again.
At the end of the fortnight or three weeks that the leazing lasted, the corn would be thrashed out at home and sent to the miller, who paid himself for grinding by taking toll of the flour. Great was the excitement in a good year when the flour came home—one bushel, two bushels, or even more in large, industrious families. The mealy-white sack with its contents was often kept for a time on show on a chair in the living-room and it was a common thing for a passer-by to be invited to “step inside an” see our little bit o’ leazings’. They liked to have the product of their labour before their own eyes and to let others admire it, just as the artist likes to show his picture and the composer to hear his opus played. “Them’s better’n any o’ yer oil-paintin’s,” a man would say, pointing to the flitches on his wall, and the women felt the same about the leazings.
Here, then, were the three chief ingredients of the one hot meal a day, bacon from the flitch, vegetables from the garden, and flour for the roly-poly. This meal, called “tea,” was taken in the evening, when the men were home from the fields and the children from school, for neither could get home at midday.
About four o’clock, smoke would go up from the chimneys, as the fire was made up and the big iron boiler, or the three-legged pot, was slung on the hook of the chimney-chain. Everything was cooked in the one utensil; the square of bacon, amounting to little more than a taste each; cabbage, or other green vegetables in one net, potatoes in another, and the roly-poly swathed in a cloth. It sounds a haphazard method in these days of gas and electric cookers; but it answered its purpose, for, by carefully timing the putting in of each item and keeping the simmering of the pot well regulated, each item was kept intact and an appetising meal was produced. The water in which the food had been cooked, the potato parings, and other vegetable trimmings were the pig’s share.
When the men came home from work they would find the table spread with a clean whitey-brown cloth, upon which would be knives and two-pronged steel forks with buckhorn handles. The vegetables would then be turned out into big round yellow crockery dishes and the bacon cut into dice, with much the largest cube upon Feyther’s plate, and the whole family would sit down to the chief meal of the day. True, it was seldom that all could find places at the central table; but some of the smaller children could sit upon stools with the seat of a chair for a table, or on the doorstep with their plates on their laps.
Good manners prevailed. The children were given their share of the food, there was no picking and choosing, and they were expected to eat it in silence. “Please” and “Thank you” were permitted, but nothing more. Father and Mother might talk if they wanted to; but usually they were content to concentrate upon their enjoyment of the meal. Father might shovel green peas into his mouth with his knife, Mother might drink her tea from her saucer, and some of the children might lick their plates when the food was devoured; but who could eat peas with a two-pronged fork, or wait for tea to cool after the heat and flurry of cooking, and licking the plates passed as a graceful compliment to Mother’s good dinner. “Thank God for my good dinner. Thank Father and Mother. Amen” was the grace used in one family, and it certainly had the merit of giving credit where credit was due.
For other meals they depended largely on bread and butter, or, more often, bread and lard, eaten with any relish that happened to be at hand. Fresh butter was too costly for general use, but a pound was sometimes purchased in the summer, when it cost ten pence. Margarine, then called “butterine,” was already on the market, but was little used there, as most people preferred lard, especially when it was their own home-made lard flavoured with rosemary leaves. In summer there was always plenty of green food from the garden and home-made jam as long as it lasted, and sometimes an egg or two, where fowls were kept, or when eggs were plentiful and sold at twenty a shilling.
When bread and lard appeared alone, the men would spread mustard on their slices and the children would be given a scraping of black treacle or a sprinkling of brown sugar. Some children, who preferred it, would have “sop”—bread steeped in boiling water, then strained and sugar added.
Milk was a rare luxury, as it had to be fetched a mile and a half from the farmhouse. The cost was not great: a penny a jug or can, irrespective of size. It was, of course, skimmed milk, but hand-skimmed, not separated, and so still had some small proportion of cream left. A few families fetched it daily; but many did not bother about it. The women said they preferred their tea neat, and it did not seem to occur to them that the children needed milk. Many of them never tasted it from the time they were weaned until they went out in the world. Yet they were stout-limbed and rosy-cheeked and full of life and mischief.
The skimmed milk was supposed by the farmer to be sold at a penny a pint, that remaining unsold going to feed his own calves and pigs. But the dairymaid did not trouble to measure it; she just filled the proffered vessel and let it go as “a pen’orth.” Of course, the jugs and cans got larger and larger. One old woman increased the size of her vessels by degrees until she had the impudence to take a small, new, tin cooking boiler which was filled without question. The children at the end house wondered what she could do with so much milk, as she had only her husband and herself at home. “That’ll make you a nice big rice pudding, Queenie,” one of them said tentatively.
“Pudden! Lor’ bless ‘ee!” was Queenie’s reply. “I don’t ever make no rice puddens. That milk’s for my pig’s supper, an’, my! ain’t ’ee just about thrivin’ on it. Can’t hardly see out of his eyes, bless him!”
“Poverty’s no disgrace, but ‘tis a great inconvenience” was a common saying among the Lark Rise people; but that put the case too mildly, for their poverty was no less than a hampering drag upon them. Everybody had enough to eat and a shelter which, though it fell far short of modern requirements, satisfied them. Coal at a shilling a hundredweight and a pint of paraffin for lighting had to be squeezed out of the weekly wage; but for boots, clothes, illness, holidays, amusements, and household renewals there was no provision whatever. How did they manage?
Boots were often bought with the extra money the men earned in the harvest field. When that was paid, those lucky families which were not in arrears with their rent would have a new pair all round, from the father’s hobnailed dreadnoughts to little pink kid slippers for the baby. Then some careful housewives paid a few pence every week into the boot club run by a shopkeeper in the market town. This helped; but it was not sufficient, and how to get a pair of new boots for “our young Ern or Alf” was a problem which kept many a mother awake at night.
Girls needed boots, too, and good, stout, nailed ones for those rough and muddy roads; but they were not particular, any boots would do. At a confirmation class which Laura attended, the clergyman’s daughter, after weeks of careful preparation, asked her catechumens: “Now, are you sure you are all of you thoroughly prepared for tomorrow. Is there anything you would like to ask me?”
“Yes, miss,” piped up a voice in a corner, “me mother says have you got a pair of your old boots you could give me, for I haven’t got any fit to go in.”
Alice got her boots on that occasion; but there was not a confirmation every day. Still, boots were obtained somehow; nobody went barefoot, even though some of the toes might sometimes stick out beyond the toe of the boot.
To obtain clothes was an even more difficult matter. Mothers of families sometimes said in despair that they supposed they would have to black their own backsides and go naked. They never quite came to that; but it was difficult to keep decently covered, and that was a pity because they did dearly love what they called “anything a bit dressy.” This taste was not encouraged by the garments made by the girls in school from material given by the Rectory people—roomy chemises and wide-legged drawers made of unbleached calico, beautifully sewn, but without an inch of trimming; harsh, but strong flannel petticoats and worsted stockings that would almost stand up with no legs in them—although these were gratefully received and had their merits, for they wore for years and the calico improved with washing.
For outer garments they had to depend upon daughters, sisters, and aunts away in service, who all sent parcels, not only of their own clothes, but also of those they could beg from their mistresses. These were worn and altered and dyed and turned and ultimately patched and darned as long as the shreds hung together.
But, in spite of their poverty and the worry and anxiety attending it, they were not unhappy, and, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. “The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat,” they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasure upon the mass enjoyments of a new era. But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their “bit o’ leazings,” their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet.
Oxford was only nineteen miles distant. The children at the end house knew that, for, while they were small, they were often taken by their mother for a walk along the turnpike and would never pass the milestone until the inscription had been read to them: OXFORD XIX MILES.
They often wondered what Oxford was like and asked questions about it. One answer was that it was “a gert big town” where a man might earn as much as five and twenty shillings a week; but as he would have to pay “pretty near” half of it in house rent and have nowhere to keep a pig or to grow many vegetables, he’d be a fool to go there.
One girl who had actually been there on a visit said you could buy a long stick of pink-and-white rock for a penny and that one of her aunt’s young gentlemen lodgers had given her a whole shilling for cleaning his shoes. Their mother said it was called a city because a bishop lived there, and that a big fair was held there once a year, and that was all she seemed to know about it. They did not ask their father, although he had lived there as a child, when his parents had kept an hotel in the city (his relations spoke of it as an hotel, but his wife once called it a pot-house, so probably it was an ordinary public-house). They already had to be careful not to ask their father too many questions, and when their mother said, “Your father’s cross again,” they found it was better not to talk at all.
So, for some time, Oxford remained to them a dim blur of bishops (they had seen a picture of one with big white sleeves, sitting in a high-backed chair) and swings and shows and coconut shies (for they knew what a fair was like) and little girls sucking pink-and-white rock and polishing shoes. To imagine a place without pigsties and vegetable gardens was more difficult. With no bacon or cabbage, what could people have to eat?
But the Oxford road with the milestone they had known as long as they could remember. Round the Rise and up the narrow hamlet road they would go until they came to the turning, their mother pushing the baby carriage (’pram’ was a word of the future) with Edmund strapped in the high, slippery seat or, later, little May, who was born when Edmund was five, and Laura holding on at the side or darting hither and thither to pick flowers.
The baby carriage was made of black wickerwork, something like an old-fashioned bath-chair in shape, running on three wheels and pushed from behind. It wobbled and creaked and rattled over the stones, for rubber tyres were not yet invented and its springs, if springs it had, were of the most primitive kind. Yet it was one of the most cherished of the family possessions, for there was only one other baby carriage in the hamlet, the up-to-date new bassinet which the young wife at the inn had recently purchased. The other mothers carried their babies on one arm, tightly rolled in shawls, with only the face showing.
As soon as the turning was passed, the flat, brown fields were left behind and they were in a different world with a different atmosphere and even different flowers. Up and down went the white main road between wide grass margins, thick, berried hedgerows and overhanging trees. After the dark mire of the hamlet ways, even the milky-white road surface pleased them, and they would splash up the thin, pale mud, like uncooked batter, or drag their feet through the smooth white dust until their mother got cross and slapped them.
Although it was a main road, there was scarcely any traffic, for the market town lay in the opposite direction along it, the next village was five miles on, and with Oxford there was no road communication from that distant point in those days of horse-drawn vehicles. Today, past that same spot, a first-class, tar-sprayed road, thronged with motor traffic, runs between low, closely trimmed hedges. Last year a girl of eighteen was knocked down and killed by a passing car at that very turning: At that time it was deserted for hours together. Three miles away trains roared over a viaduct, carrying those who would, had they lived a few years before or later, have used the turnpike. People were saying that far too much money was being spent on keeping such roads in repair, for their day was over; they were only needed now for people going from village to village. Sometimes the children and their mother would meet a tradesman’s van, delivering goods from the market town at some country mansion, or the doctor’s tall gig, or the smart turn-out of a brewer’s traveller; but often they walked their mile along the turnpike and back without seeing anything on wheels.
The white tails of rabbits bobbed in and out of the hedgerows; stoats crossed the road in front of the children’s feet—swift, silent, stealthy creatures which made them shudder; there were squirrels in the oak-trees, and once they even saw a fox curled up asleep in the ditch beneath thick overhanging ivy. Bands of little blue butterflies flitted here and there or poised themselves with quivering wings on the long grass bents; bees hummed in the white clover blooms, and over all a deep silence brooded. It seemed as though the road had been made ages before, then forgotten.
The children were allowed to run freely on the grass verges, as wide as a small meadow in places. “Keep to the grinsard,” their mother would call. “Don’t go on the road. Keep to the grinsard!” and it was many years before Laura realized that that name for the grass verges, in general use there, was a worn survival of the old English “greensward.”
It was no hardship to her to be obliged to keep to the greensward, for flowers strange to the hamlet soil flourished there, eyebright and harebell, sunset-coloured patches of lady’s-glove, and succory with vivid blue flowers and stems like black wire.
In one little roadside dell mushrooms might sometimes be found, small button mushrooms with beaded moisture on their cold milk-white skins. The dell was the farthest point of their walk; after searching the long grass for mushrooms, in season and out of season—for they would not give up hope—they turned back and never reached the second milestone.
Once or twice when they reached the dell they got a greater thrill than even the discovery of a mushroom could give; for the gipsies were there, their painted caravan drawn up, their poor old skeleton horse turned loose to graze, and their fire with a cooking pot over it, as though the whole road belonged to them. With men making pegs, women combing their hair or making cabbage nets, and boys and girls and dogs sprawling around, the dell was full of dark, wild life, foreign to the hamlet children and fascinating, yet terrifying.
When they saw the gipsies they drew back behind their mother and the baby carriage, for there was a tradition that once, years before, a child from a neighbouring village had been stolen by them. Even the cold ashes where a gipsy’s fire had been sent little squiggles of fear down Laura’s spine, for how could she know that they were not still lurking near with designs upon her own person? Her mother laughed at her fears and said, “Surely to goodness they’ve got children enough of their own,” but Laura would not be reassured. She never really enjoyed the game the hamlet children played going home from school, when one of them went on before to hide and the others followed slowly, hand in hand, singing:
“I hope we shan’t meet any gipsies to-night
I hope we shan’t meet any gipsies to-night!”
And when the hiding-place was reached and the supposed gipsy sprung out and grabbed the nearest, she always shrieked, although she knew it was only a game.
But in those early days of the walks fear only gave spice to excitement, for Mother was there, Mother in her pretty maize-coloured gown with the rows and rows of narrow brown velvet sewn round the long skirt, which stuck out like a bell, and her second-best hat with the honeysuckle. She was still in her twenties and still very pretty, with her neat little figure, rose-leaf complexion and hair which was brown in some lights and golden in others. When her family grew larger and troubles crowded upon her and the rose-leaf complexion had faded and the last of the pre-marriage wardrobe had worn out, the walks were given up; but by that time Edmund and Laura were old enough to go where they liked, and, though they usually preferred to go farther afield on Saturdays and other school holidays, they would sometimes go to the turnpike to jump over and over the milestone and scramble about in the hedges for blackberries and crab-apples.
It was while they were still small they were walking there one day with a visiting aunt; Edmund and Laura, both in clean, white, starched clothes, holding on to a hand on either side. The children were a little shy, for they did not remember seeing this aunt before. She was married to a master builder in Yorkshire and only visited her brother and his family at long intervals. But they liked her, although Laura had already sensed that their mother did not. Jane was too dressy and ‘set up’ for her taste, she said. That morning, her luggage being still at the railway station, she was wearing the clothes she had travelled in, a long, pleated dove-coloured gown with an apron arrangement drawn round and up and puffed over a bustle at the back, and, on her head, a tiny toque made entirely of purple velvet pansies.
Swish, swish, swish, went her long skirt over the grass verges; but every time they crossed the road she would relinquish Laura’s hand to gather it up from the dust, thus revealing to the child’s delighted gaze a frilly purple petticoat. When she was grown up she would have a frock and petticoat just like those, she decided.
But Edmund was not interested in clothes. Being a polite little boy, he was trying to make conversation. He had already shown his aunt the spot where they had found the dead hedgehog and the bush where the thrush had built last spring and told her the distant rumble they heard was a train going over the viaduct, when they came to the milestone.
“Aunt Jenny,” he said, “what’s Oxford like?”
“Well, it’s all old buildings, churches and colleges where rich people’s sons go to school when they’re grown up.”
“What do they learn there?” demanded Laura.
“Oh, Latin and Greek and suchlike, I suppose.”
“Do they all go there?” asked Edmund seriously.
“Well, no. Some go to Cambridge; there are colleges there as well. Some go to one and some to the other,” said the aunt with a smile that meant ‘Whatever will these children want to know next?’
Four-year-old Edmund pondered a few moments, then said, “Which college shall I go to when I am grown up, Oxford or Cambridge?” and his expression of innocent good faith checked his aunt’s inclination to laugh.
“There won’t be any college for you, my poor little man,” she explained. “You’ll have to go to work as soon as you leave school; but if I could have my way, you should go to the very best college in Oxford,” and, for the rest of the walk she entertained them with stories of her mother’s family, the Wallingtons.
She said one of her uncles had written a book and she thought Edmund might turn out to be clever, like him. But when they told their mother what she had said she tossed her head and said she had never heard about any book, and what if he had, wasting his time. It was not as if he was like Shakespeare or Miss Braddon or anybody like that. And she hoped Edmund would not turn out to be clever. Brains were no good to a working man; they only made him discontented and saucy and lose his jobs. She’d seen it happen again and again.
Yet she had brains of her own and her education had been above the average in her station in life. She had been born and brought up in a cottage standing in the churchyard of a neighbouring village, “just like the little girl in We are Seven,” she used to tell her own children. At the time when she was a small girl in the churchyard cottage the incumbent of the parish had been an old man and with him had lived his still more aged sister. This lady, whose name was Miss Lowe, had become very fond of the pretty, fair-haired little girl at the churchyard cottage and had had her at the Rectory every day out of school hours. Little Emma had a sweet voice and she was supposed to go there for singing lessons; but she had learned other things, too, including old-world manners and to write a beautiful antique hand with delicate, open-looped pointed letters and long “s’s,” such as her instructress and other young ladies had been taught in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
Miss Lowe was then nearly eighty, and had long been dead when Laura, at two and a half years old, had been taken by her mother to see the by then very aged Rector. The visit was one of her earliest memories, which survived as an indistinct impression of twilight in a room with dark green walls and the branch of a tree against the outside of the window; and, more distinctly, a pair of trembling, veiny hands putting something smooth and cold and round into her own. The smooth cold roundness was accounted for afterwards. The old gentleman, it appeared, had given her a china mug which had been his sister’s in her nursery days. It had stood on the mantelpiece at the end house for years, a beautiful old piece with a design of heavy green foliage on a ground of translucent whiteness. Afterwards it got broken, which was strange in that careful home; but Laura carried the design in her mind’s eye for the rest of her life and would sometimes wonder if it accounted for her lifelong love of green and white in conjunction.
Their mother would often tell the children about the Rectory and her own home in the churchyard, and how the choir, in which her father played the violin, would bring their instruments and practise there in the evening. But she liked better to tell of that other rectory where she had been nurse to the children. The living was small and the Rector was poor, but three maids had been possible in those days, a cook-general, a young housemaid, and Nurse Emma. They must have been needed in that large, rambling old house, in which lived the Rector and his wife, their nine children, three maids, and often three or four young men pupils. They had all had such jolly, happy times she said; all of them, family and maids and pupils, singing glees and part songs in the drawing-room in the evening. But what thrilled Laura most was that she herself had had a narrow escape from never having been born at all. Some relatives of the family who had settled in New South Wales had come to England on a visit and nearly persuaded Nurse Emma to go back with them. Indeed, it was all settled when, one night, they began talking about snakes, which, according to their account, infested their Australian bungalow and garden. “Then,” said Emma, “I shan’t go, for I can’t bear the horrid creatures,” and she did not go, but got married instead and became the mother of Edmund and Laura. But it seems that the call was genuine, that Australia had something for, or required something of, her descendants; for of the next generation her own second son became a fruit-farmer in Queensland, and of the next a son of Laura’s is now an engineer in Brisbane.
The little Johnstones were always held up as an example to the end house children. They were always kind to each other and obedient to their elders, never grubby or rowdy or inconsiderate. Perhaps they deteriorated after Nurse Emma left, for Laura remembered being taken to see them before they left the neighbourhood for good, when one of the big boys pulled her hair and made faces at her and buried her doll beneath a tree in the orchard, with one of the cook’s aprons tied round his neck by way of a surplice.
The eldest girl, Miss Lily, then about nineteen, walked miles of the way back home with them and returned alone in the twilight (so Victorian young ladies were not always as carefully guarded as they are now supposed to have been!). Laura remembered the low murmur of conversation behind her as she rode for a lift on the front of the baby carriage with her heels dangling over the front wheel. Both a Sir George and a Mr. Looker, it appeared, were paying Miss Lily particular attention at the time, and their rival advantages were under discussion. Every now and then Miss Lily would protest, “But, Emma, Sir George paid me particular attention. Many remarked upon it to Mamma.” And Emma would say, “But, Miss Lily, my dear, do you think he is serious?” Perhaps he was, for Miss Lily was a lovely girl; but it was as Mrs. Looker she became a kind of fairy godmother to the end house family. A Christmas parcel of books and toys came from her regularly, and although she never saw her old nurse again, they were still writing to each other in the nineteen-twenties.
Around the hamlet cottages played many little children, too young to go to school. Every morning they were bundled into a piece of old shawl crossed on the chest and tied in a hard knot at the back, a slice of food was thrust into their hands and they were told to “go play” while their mothers got on with the housework. In winter, their little limbs purple-mottled with cold, they would stamp around playing horses or engines. In summer they would make mud pies in the dust, moistening them from their own most intimate water supply. If they fell down or hurt themselves in any other way, they did not run indoors for comfort, for they knew that all they would get would be “Sarves ye right. You should’ve looked where you wer’ a-goin’!”
They were like little foals turned out to grass, and received about as much attention. They might, and often did, have running noses and chilblains on hands, feet and ear-tips; but they hardly ever were ill enough to have to stay indoors, and grew sturdy and strong, so the system must have suited them. “Makes ‘em hardy,” their mothers said, and hardy, indeed, they became, just as the men and women and older boys and girls of the hamlet were hardy, in body and spirit.
Sometimes Laura and Edmund would go out to play with the other children. Their father did not like this; he said they were little savages already. But their mother maintained that, as they would have to go to school soon, it was better for them to fall in at once with the hamlet ways. “Besides,” she would say, “why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing the matter with Lark Rise folks but poverty, and that’s no crime. If it was, we should likely be hung ourselves.”
So the children went out to play and often had happy times, outlining houses with scraps of broken crockery and furnishing them with moss and stones; or lying on their stomachs in the dust to peer down into the deep cracks dry weather always produced in that stiff, clayey soil; or making snow men or sliding on puddles in winter.
Other times were not so pleasant, for a quarrel would arise and kicks and blows would fly freely, and how hard those little two-year-old fists could hit out! To say that a child was as broad as it was long was considered a compliment by the hamlet mothers, and some of those toddlers in their knotted woollen wrappings were as near square as anything human can be. One little girl named Rosie Phillips fascinated Laura. She was plump and hard and as rosy-cheeked as an apple, with the deepest of dimples and hair like bronze wire. No matter how hard the other children bumped into her in the games, she stood four-square, as firm as a little rock. She was a very hard hitter and had little, pointed, white teeth that bit. The two tamer children always came out worst in these conflicts. Then they would make a dash on their long stalky legs for their own garden gate, followed by stones and cries of “Long-shanks! Cowardy, cowardy custards!”
During those early years at the end house plans were always being made and discussed. Edmund must be apprenticed to a good trade—a carpenter’s, perhaps—for if a man had a good trade in his hands he was always sure of a living. Laura might become a school teacher, or, if that proved impossible, a children’s nurse in a good family. But, first and foremost, the family must move from Lark Rise to a house in the market town. It had always been the parents’ intention to leave. When he met and married his wife the father was a stranger in the neighbourhood, working for a few months on the restoration of the church in a neighbouring parish and the end house had been taken as a temporary home. Then the children had come and other things had happened to delay the removal. They could not give notice until Michaelmas Day, or another baby was coming, or they must wait until the pig was killed or the allotment crops were brought in; there was always some obstacle, and at the end of seven years they were still at the end house and still talking almost daily about leaving it. Fifty years later the father had died there and the mother was living there alone.
When Laura approached school-going age the discussions became more urgent. Her father did not want the children to go to school with the hamlet children and for once her mother agreed with him. Not because, as he said, they ought to have a better education than they could get at Lark Rise; but because she feared they would tear their clothes and catch cold and get dirty heads going the mile and a half to and from the school in the mother village. So vacant cottages in the market town were inspected and often it seemed that the next week or the next month they would be leaving Lark Rise for ever; but, again, each time something would happen to prevent the removal, and, gradually, a new idea arose. To gain time, their father would teach the two eldest children to read and write, so that, if approached by the School Attendance Office, their mother could say they were leaving the hamlet shortly and, in the meantime, were being taught at home.
So their father brought home two copies of Mavor’s First Reader and taught them the alphabet; but just as Laura was beginning on words of one syllable, he was sent away to work on a distant job, only coming home at week-ends. Laura, left at the “C-a-t s-i-t-s on the m-a-t” stage, had then to carry her book round after her mother as she went about her housework, asking: “Please, Mother, what does h-o-u-s-e spell?” or “W-a-l-k, Mother, what is that?” Often when her mother was too busy or too irritated to attend to her, she would sit and gaze on a page that might as well have been printed in Hebrew for all she could make of it, frowning and poring over the print as though she would wring out the meaning by force of concentration.
After weeks of this, there came a day when, quite suddenly, as it seemed to her, the printed characters took on a meaning. There were still many words, even in the first pages of that simple primer, she could not decipher; but she could skip those and yet make sense of the whole. “I’m reading! I’m reading!” she cried aloud. “Oh, Mother! Oh, Edmund! I’m reading!”
There were not many books in the house, although in this respect the family was better off than its neighbours; for, in addition to “Father’s books”, mostly unreadable as yet, and Mother’s Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, there were a few children’s books which the Johnstones had turned out from their nursery when they left the neighbourhood. So, in time, she was able to read Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, The Daisy Chain, and Mrs. Molesworth’s Cuckoo Clock and Carrots.
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