Oral History

Dulcie Newton Remembers the life and times in the 1920s

Written approx 2001

Emma Bliss née Benjamin Newton
Emma Bliss née Benjamin Newton

How small the world was in the days of early childhood. The parish boundary circled us like a membrane through which we broke only on notable occasions. Home, school and church were the focal points of our existence and we happily trotted along the familiar paths with family and friends around us.

From our living room window the spire of Burbage church was anchored on the horizon and we watched rising smoke from the trains as they disappeared and then emerged from Burbage wood. On clear bright days, the Daventry radio poles were drawn like thin drawn lines at the limit of our vision and beyond that all was vague and strange.

Yet all the first flashes of consciousness penetrated when I was well out of at my Earl Shilton Grandmothers. There, at two years old, I was cosseted with all my Aunts, when my sickly baby sister was born.

Between black leaded hobs, the fire glowed hotly, with flames that reached for the chimney, shadowing the walls. I was aware of the softly popping gas mantles and at bedtime my Grandmother carried a candle that sent huge black shapes moving over the ceiling, but in the mornings I awoke, squashed warmly between two of my Aunts.

At home again there was electric light but I hated the blackness of the bedroom when the switch put out the bulb.

"Look," said my mother, one morning, "Jack frost came in the night. " With my sister, I was struggling with buttons on several layers of underclothes and we went to the window rubbing and blowing warm breath at the solid, white crust until through a peep hole we glimpsed the cold morning garden.

Downstairs, my Dad was on his knees lighting the fire and wispy, grey smoke struggled from the black coal but in spite of sitting with our feet on the brass fender, no warmth reached our toes for a long while.

On Mondays there was an extra source of warmth in the house when a fire was lit under the kitchen copper for washday. Soft water was pumped from a deep well in the yard outside and hard piped water needed to be thawed out in frosty weather. The kitchen floor became a tight obstacle course round the dolly tub, bowls for blueing and starching and the big wooden mangle. It was a day for dinner that needed little preparation.

At four years old my school days began when a "big girl" called to take me to the babies class at the Church school in the High Street. There, among a crowd of mums and children, someone put a teddy bear into my arms and I stood, isolated, wandering what to do with it.

Constance Maud Powers married George Bliss
Constance Maud Powers married George Bliss

Around the walls of this room was an encircling fixed wooden seat and when we eventually settled and the mothers had gone, a shelf secured by iron bars, was lowered over our heads, forming a desk top - and keeping us in our places. Here we were given slates covered in sand to trace out A B C with our fingers and bowls of coloured beads to thread on a long string. How many of us licked the end of our string, I shiver to think, but our education had begun and we had started to write and count.

The "babies" teacher was kind and did not shout at us, but we were soon to be disillusioned when in big children's classes, loops of letters that went too high or low from the printed line brought personal disgrace and the black board pointer was really a cane.

As May day approached one year, excitement grew as we held the ribbons and learned to weave a pattern round the Maypole. A girl chosen for her pretty looks and curly hair, (not me!) was to be May Queen, sit on the Teacher's high chair and wear a crown of flowers taken by the children. My mother picked some velvety, purple pansies from the garden which I proudly presented. "Put them down there," I was told, "I'll try and squash them in at the back." Somehow I felt rather squashed myself.

A day came when desks had been pushed aside and a big chair and an ominous drill appeared. The school dentist and his nurse had arrived. Our class was led out to the adjoining cloak room, where everyone shrank into the furthest corner and it was a case of the strongest going to the wall, while the vulnerable ones at the front were exposed to the nurses beckoning finger. After any treatment we were consoled with a bag of sweets!

All the lanes of the village had stiles and gates giving access to fields, where we walked and played at will and in safety. My favorite haunts led past the allotments where my Grandfather pushed his heavy wooden wheel barrow and where I sometimes picked green gooseberries and tender little peas - watching out for the grubs. Then over the stile into Brocky Farm fields to play in the white and purple clover, climbing vetch and birds-foot trefoil and tall chimney sweep grasses. Jam jars at home became full of buttercups and daises, but the prize was to find violets under the hedges. I use to take a pin to make daisy chains, for my finger nails were never long enough to split the slender stems. Advancing cattle were the one hazard to keep a wary eye open for.

There was a unique occasion, when as a very junior member of the Girl's Friendly Society, I took part in an operetta. My dress was silver gauze and there was a silver star on my forehead. The powder puff was a soft scratch on my nose and I trod the boards to face bright foot lights. The joy of being a fairy with the GFS!

Summer time brought the Sunday School treats, parading in a new dress with drum beats, flowers and banners, always singing "Summer suns are glowing," regardless of the weather.

The wake fair brought a school holiday with the yearly treat of roundabouts and brandy snap, when my Dad hurled wooden balls at the coconut shy, vowing that the coconuts were stuck on their stands.

Technology moved on and the earphones of a crystal set were placed over my head to listen to the "music" of distant crackling, like hearing the distant hiss of the sea in a cockle shell. Then came a wireless pole at the end of the garden and accumulators needed charging, but I had discovered my Mother's set of the Children's Encyclopaedia and reading became the "in" thing for me.

Without noticing time had passed and I was due to move to the Council School and the days of early childhood were over.

Elizabeth Wright William Powers
Elizabeth Wright (left/top), William Powers (right/bottom)

While I was quite young, probably seven or eight, I heard tell of Granddad Powers being a carpenter and Grandma Powers a Nursery Maid in the big Rectory House, which had been in the Titley family for several generations. There were several children ensconced on the Nursery floor of the rectory when Grandma was there and she referred to them as Miss Louisa, Miss Lily and Master Richard etc. It was Miss Louisa who opened the first village school in Barwell in the big brick-built laundry in the rectory grounds. The children who came paid one old penny a week and on arrival put their hats and jackets (if any) into a large wicker laundry basket, which is hoisted up to the ceiling. The children daren’t run home without these possessions until the laundry basket descended again.

I remember as a small child being taken by Grandma to visit the rectory and standing in the breakfast room. I had no idea what a breakfast room would look like but felt rather privileged at being there. There was seemingly a large lake surrounded by trees and shrubs at the end of the rectory grounds and as a member of the church school, now a brick built Victorian building with a bell in a tower, I went with my class on nature walks around the lake. Though I don’t think we were allowed to collect any wild or inanimate objects to put on the school windowsills. Our teachers all seemed to be very stern, loud voiced ladies all reinforced with a raised desk in front of us and with a thin, hooked cane lying across the groove in the lid of the desk.

The Sunday school children all had the privilege of sitting once a year, on the occasion of “The Treats,” on the rectory lawns, where the teachers would bring round large, bread baskets of sandwiches, Madeira and fruit cake and of course we all wore our best Sunday clothes – never worn on week days, unless it was something very special.

Elizabeth Powers née Wright William Powers
Elizabeth Powers née Wright (left/top), William Powers (right/bottom)

When I actually remember them, Granddad Powers had retired as Landlord of the Queen’s Head, which was one of the oldest buildings in Barwell, dating back to the 16th Century and Grandma was small, neat and grey / white haired. Her hair was long and twisted into a bun and her dresses always seemed black or dark.

There were times when she was sitting in front of the dressing-table mirror combing her long hair and I stood beside her putting the little wisps into a paper hair tidy.

There was another tale I was told of how we nearly had a another Grandma! Granddad had a sweetheart who lived in Earl Shilton - but on learning she would be living in a public house, declined to carry on with the relationship, so we had our real Grandma instead!

During some repair work at the Queen’s Head, a small doll was found in the brick work and is still either in the archives or a Museum in Leics.

Granddad also catered for the travellers who visited the local boot and shoe factories. These were thriving industries supplying the armies in both World Wars and the travellers came regularly to the village.

I heard of rounds of beef roasted in the ovens of the local co-op bakeries and great Yorkshire puddings, with my own mother sometimes helping to break all the eggs that went into them. Some of the travellers objected to Granddad’s economic ways and Called Out “a bit thicker Will” referring to the slices of beef.

One sophisticated individual asked for coffee and being brought a large cup, (it must have been a liquid camp and chicory variety) said, “I did not ask for soup, I asked for coffee!”

There always seems to have been one live-in maid at the Queen’s Head and one who for some reason became very disgruntled and vengeful. In her bedroom was a chest of drawers holding a linen cloth, with a heavy family Bible on top. She set fire to the four corners of the cloth, but the weight of the Bible prevented the fire catching hold. This Bible went to 58 Shilton Rd when Granddad retired, but Dr Cooke who attended Grandma in a long illness, noticed the book by the bedside and asked if he could have it.

There was a large studio picture of Lily and Elsie on the living room wall at no. 58 and I use to ask about them. “They would have been your Aunties” I was told. Fortunately Mother was born and was a cosseted child. When old enough she went to the school at Wigston Girl’s School in Leicester which involved complicated travelling. The first stage of the journey was to reach Elmsthorpe Station, (no longer a stopping place) two to three miles away. Sometimes she was taken on the pony and trap and others she cycled. She remembered vividly the agony of frost bitten fingers in the Winter time. Then came the train journey to Leicester and a walk to the school.

Constance Powers Margaret Bliss
Constance Powers (left/top), Margaret Bliss (right/bottom)

I have “Memories of Ancient Leicester” which was presented to her on leaving. One of the travellers who stopped off at the Queen’s Head, once heard Mother singing and told Grandma Powers she should have her voice trained, which she did.

Everyone spoke of her at this stage as being a really attractive girl with long auburn hair, (inherited by Pat, my sister and Ian, my nephew) and lovely singing voice. She sang in the GFS concerts in the church hall and also in the church itself. At a later date my Dad use to make us laugh, saying how the feather in Grandma’s hat use to tremble when Mother sang in Church.

One of my earliest memories is standing with Dad and Pat round the piano at 60 Shilton Rd, (we were next door to Granddad Powers) with Mother playing and she and Dad singing. Dad used to make a habit of singing a sad song to Pat and she always cried. I could get away with a few unshed ones because they always looked at Pat. “Now look what you’ve done,” Mother would say.

It was snowing the day your Mum was born in Leicester Nursing Home. Mother remembered being in bed and watching the snow flakes falling down.

Part One of this Transcript is: Thoughts and Memories from Dulcie Newton