Berrow’s Worcester Journal attributes to itself the distinction of being the oldest surviving newspaper in the world. For over three centuries, its pages have the aired the local indignations of this largely agricultural corner of England, and proffered its goods for sale. On an early spring day in the 1960s, the Journal’s photographer was called to immortalise this Suffolk-cross ewe with her odds-defying, news-worthy, quintuple of healthy lambs, at a farm near Upton upon Severn, in the attractive, undulating farmland that skirts the Malvern Hills. He arranged an engaging composition : the concerned mother watchful, as the five little warm woolly bodies wriggle in the arms of the farmer’s three young sons.
Good news for a young visitor to the farm when a ewe had too many lambs to cope with – or, sadly, rarely, had expired in the process of producing the next generation of tasty midweek chops or Sunday roasts. Then there would be bottle feeding to be done: just another necessary chore for the farmer and his family, but a delight for a little girl to be allowed to hold the dripping plastic teat to the pliable, rubbery gums of an orphan lamb, and endeavour to remain standing, despite the surprisingly powerful, greedy butting of its dainty carcass against her bare legs.
Or – less bucolic a scene – if a lamb had died, it would have been stripped of its pelt, which would be laid over the back of an orphan, in an attempt to entice the bereaved ewe to take to a motherless child.
The boys in the photograph were my cousins.
Our mothers are sisters: themselves two of a brood of five, comprising four girls: Winnie; Rose-Marie; Irene; Kathleen; and, finally, a longed-for boy, Patrick – who were brought up in Bentley, near Walsall, during the difficult decades of the Depression and Wartime.
“Like peas in a pod,” as people still remark about Marie and Irene, when they are seen together, on their lengthy visits to each other in these, the years of their widowhood – either here in Staffordshire, or at the pretty little agricultural worker’s bungalow, in the shadow of British Camp at Little Malvern – constructed of concrete panels, and painted an intense pastel pink just like the render between the medieval timbers of their old farmhouse used to be.
That’s where Irene and Trevor retired to – him still lambing ewes each Spring in his adjacent fields, right up until the year before his death.
“Like peas in a pod.”…..I kept it in the back of my mind when I was a child that I could always, in the end, turn to Irene as an excellent substitute for my mother.
That was a comforting thought when, occasionally, I woke in the night at Bosty Lane, panicky breaths lifting the pink nylon eiderdown on my single bed, my strange brain brimming with an unspeakable childish fear that something would happen to take my parents away from me.
As a young woman, before her marriage, my Aunt Irene had a successful career as a store manageress for Dorothy Perkins. This was what took her to Worcester, where she met Uncle Trevor, and she has lived in rural Worcestershire ever since.
But like all her sisters, Irene’s first job at home in Walsall was in the leather industry. Of the others, Winnie went to Alfred Stanley and Sons on Wednesbury Road. My mom started at Frederick Hucker, where her best friend’s aunt, Florence Noble, was the forewoman overseeing the manufacture of dog collars, amongst other items. Tea making and running errands seemed tedious to Mom, who had been a reluctant school leaver, and she didn’t stay there very long. Kathleen, the youngest girl, later began at Wincer and Plant. Of the town’s reputed “100 Trades” that prospered between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was Walsall’s world-wide reputation as a centre of excellence in the manufacture of saddlery, bridlery, and all manner of fancy leather goods that dominated – and gave the Walsall Football Team its name – “The Saddlers.” Men, and many women all over the district were drawn to the industry. On my father’s side of the family, his eldest sister, Mary Horton, came to Walsall for her (shortlived) first job, when she left school in Walsall Wood. She wrote about it:
August came ( schools broke up last Friday before August Bank Holiday, the beginning of August ) Walsall Observer was full of jobs for under 16s. I got one at the leather goods factory Dance and Spiers glueing the insides of purses ready for the machinists. insides came back, ready for the outsides to be glued on… back to the machinists to be stitched, then back to us for bevelling. The Bevel was a hot iron used for making a dark brown or black line round the edge of the finished purse.
That was in 1927, the year in which Mom and Irene’s eldest sister Winnie was born. When Winnie herself started work – during the War – she too, quickly tired of life cooped up in a leather factory, and began a job with Co-Operative Dairies in Walsall. It was an early start, but she got lots of fresh air and variety, as she accompanied the horse-drawn milk float round Walsall, making deliveries. Not to her own family though – they had the “Midland Counties.”
Still not yet 15 years old, she became unwell somewhat suddenly, and in just three days, died of meningitis.
It was 1942. Penicillin, the first anti-biotic, which can save such patients now, had not come into general use. There was nothing to be done. The blow was emotional, and financial. A wage was lost, and funeral costs struggled to be found. It was a ridiculous fancy that my twelve year old mother might leave St Patrick’s and go on to Grammar School, even though she passed the exam.
It is March. There are lambs – Mom and Irene can still walk up the lane to where another shepherd is now lambing his flock in the sheds that Uncle Trevor used to use. Mom watched some seasonal hare-boxing in the field from the window of Irene’s spare bedroom on her recent visit. And there’s that welcome cliche of colour. Acidic blazes of yellow petals unfold in broad brushstrokes under the trees on the stream bank, and in the garden. A bright bunch of the cut daffodils against a headstone is arranged to mark that a beloved face can still be brought to mind. In Upton upon Severn’s “new” Victorian cemetery, with its Gothic twin chapels for Anglicans and “Dissenters”, by architect George Row Clarke, there were flowers for Trevor, but also for Irene and Trevor’s son, my cousin Nigel, thought about very often by us all in the 28 years since we lost him.
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