Staincross, South Yorkshire, England, 1924 – 1929
When I think of my early childhood, what comes to mind most is the sheer busyness of everyday life. Everyone in my family, including myself, had a full day of work. It was contented, happy work, but work nonetheless. My father, Charles Rickson, had three jobs. Six days a week, he did a twelve-hour shift at the local coal mine, the Wooley Pit. It took him three quarters of an hour to walk to and from the pit. To this day, I can still close my eyes and envision his hands. They were giant-sized and strong— cracked and stained black.
He and my mom, Mary Jane, were caretakers of St. John’s Parish Church. He was tasked with stoking the fires, digging the graves and helping with the heavy work. Lastly, Dad was employed by the farmer beside us, Mr. Webster. Among other things, Dad picked potatoes, carrots, turnips, and fruit. Mr. Weber would pay him with fresh meat, milk, fruits and vegetables.
Mom worked just as hard. She spent most of her day as the church caretaker. On top of all the cleaning and catering, Mom had to ring the bell for every service as well as weddings, christenings and funerals. When she was done at the church, she’d return home to do the daily house work.
All our washing was done by hand. Clothes were soaked, whites were boiled, then rubbed on a scrubbing board. My sister and I helped hanging out the clothes. We didn’t have hot water pouring out of a tap. Water had to be boiled in a set pot over a fire grate, which was built into the corner of our kitchen. The fire under the grate was always lit.
All the cooking was done by hand. Mom baked breads, cakes, pies and pastries. And don’t forget, this was ten years before the invention of the refrigerator. Everything was kept in an ice box.
We lived in two-bedroom house with a kitchen and living-room. I shared a bed with my sister, Sally, in the same bedroom as my parents. My brother, Joe, slept in the other bedroom. When I was young, my uncles Fred and Hubert and my Aunty Alice also lived with us. Where they slept I’ve no idea.
We had no bathroom. Toilets were in the out-house. Baths were taken in a large zinc tub in the kitchen. Many hours a week were spent filling and emptying the set pot. I filled it every night before bed.
Aunty Alice was the first to leave. She married a shop owner who had a grocery and flower store. Aunty Alice had a knack for money and quickly expanded the business. She hired my brother as a green grocer. He travelled by horse and cart throughout the county, selling fresh and prepared foods to rural areas. When I was a baby, Joe often carried me along with him in his travels. He took care of me while everyone else was at work. He sat me in a banana box, plopped me into the cart and off we went on our voyages throughout the English Moors.
I was still very young when Alice gave me my first job. I remember helping prepare fruits for jam, jellies and marmalades and vegetables for chutney, piccalilli, and pickled onions. I could keep some of it for my family, and the rest was sold on the cart.
I started school when I was four and a half, but this didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have to work anymore. When I was five years old, Mom recruited me to help at the church. I was tasked with dusting the chairs, putting out the prayer books, shaking the mats and sweeping. As I got older, I cleaned the brass and silver, swept the Sunday School and set it up for classes on Sunday. Dances were held in the Sunday School and some of them were catered by mother and Sally.
They baked all kinds of cakes, pastries and pies. We worked every waking hour and yet we were never sorry for ourselves. We even thought of ourselves as lucky, blessed with a good life. Of course, work was a way of life. I even took it for granted. I was never hungry and always clean and well dressed. Most of our entertainment centred around the church, garden parties, dances, card parties, day trips, concerts and even operettas. We once did Madam Butterfly. Sally was the Princess, Joe was the Lord High Executioner.
My dad chose my sixth birthday to take me hunting for the first time. He called it hunting, but more accurately it was poaching. We were shooting pheasant on the King’s land, near Cawthorne Hall. “Are you sure this is all right, Dad?”
“No one ever comes here, darling. It’s perfectly safe.” We trounced through the forest and he was right as always. There was not soul for miles around us.
Dad let me shoot that day. Of course, I had shot a shotgun before, but never at a live target. I hit the pheasant on my first try. Dad was thrilled. “You’re a natural shot, kiddo.” he said. As far as I knew, he had never taken Sally, or even Joe, out hunting with him. So, I felt very special.
Trudging back home, Dad announced that he had another present for my birthday.
Unbeknownst to me Dad had temporarily taken a fourth job to get me a very special gift. He had been working for our local doctor for several months. For payment, the doctor had given Dad his old piano, because he had bought a new one.
“But I don’t know how to play music,” I said. In truth, I had no desire to do so. I was busy enough with school and chores.
“Your cousin Francis will teach you. I have agreed to pay him a penny a lesson, once a week.” Dad looked pleased with himself, so I agreed to learn the piano. But it wasn’t fair. None of my older siblings had to learn music.
I would later discover that I had a knack for the piano and a keen ear for music, or at least Cousin Francis said I did. Regardless, I hated playing the piano but Dad was so proud of me and I loved to play for him.
When we returned home, the second-hand piano was in the living room. It should have been a festive event, but Mom took one look at Dad’s illegal bounty and there was hell to pay. She had quite a bad temper, but that day was the worst I had ever seen her.
At the time I was terrified, but now in hindsight it was a particularly amusing tirade. Mom was tiny, four foot eight and Dad was a lofty six foot two. He towered over her like Goliath standing over David. She yelled at him and carried on forever. “And you had to take Nellie with you too? You could have both been hung. What kind of birthday would that have been?”
To Dad’s credit, he didn’t say a word. He stayed cool and calm. When she was done he leaned over and kissed her. “Done now?” I will always remember my sixth birthday.
In contrast, my eighth birthday was nowhere near as eventful. I had been sowing the seeds of my intentions for months. My school grades were impeccable, I worked hard cleaning the church and helping Mom with the chores. On top of all of this, my piano playing was improving steadily. I had been doing my side of the bargain and I had made my wish very clear. All I wanted for my birthday was a bicycle.
Don’t get me wrong, I was never unsatisfied with all that I already had. Every year Sally would help Mrs. Shephard, who lived at Staincross Hall, with her spring cleaning. Luckily for me, Mrs. Shepard had two older daughters, so Sally brought home all their cast offs, including toys and clothing. Sadly, my sister never seemed to return home with the one thing I truly wanted, a bicycle.
The only mode of transportation for children my age was a bicycle. All my friends had one. I was certain that my beloved parents would have found a way to get me one, but I had been mistaken. Instead of a bicycle for my birthday, my parents got me a job.
By my ninth birthday, I had saved up about a third of its cost. At this rate, I might have been old enough to drive an automobile before I ever got my bike.