Historical Notes: Black stockings filled with goodies

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The Independent Culture
MY MOTHER was born in 1892 in the front downstairs bedroom of an ancient thatched cottage in which many generations of agricultural families must have been born, lived out their lives and died. The cottage (which is no longer there) was in the centre of the Bedfordshire village of Blunham. Opposite stood - and still stands - the ancient church, surrounded by green grass and old tombstones. Along one side of its enclosing wall was the lane which led, under an avenue of lime trees, to the banks of the Ivel.

It was a setting that could not have changed much since Bunyan had applied on behalf of a villager he knew for a licence to preach there in the 17th century. The villager was named John Wright and Bunyan had earlier spent time with him in Bedford jail.

My mother's parents were not natives of Blunham, or even Bedfordshire. The couple had met and married in London where she was a nursery maid and he a platelayer on the railways. Their union produced 11 children, of whom my mother was the last but one. By the time she was born in the Blunham cottage her older brothers and sisters had already left home, which not only eased the sleeping arrangements (there was only one upstairs bedroom), but of course meant fewer mouths to feed.

It was partly for this reason, but also because her father had regular and secure employment on the railways, that my mother could look back on what was for the times a relatively affluent childhood. Not sufficiently affluent, however, to be above joining in the gleaning with the other villagers after the harvest. In my mother's earliest years, some of the flour from the gleaning was used to make bread for the family, which was baked twice a week in the "second oven" of the village bakery. The kitchen range installed between the inglenooks of the oakbeamed fireplace was used for weekday dinners: boiled steak and kidney pudding with mashed potatoes and "greens", pork and onion suet roll, "duck-a-nothing" (baked chopped pork, rice and herbs) or "Bedfordshire clangers". And always a pudding - baked rice, or more often bread and butter pudding or boiled treacle pudding - to follow.

It was a heavy diet in which little food came from outside the village, although as the century drew to a close some new foods - such as tinned salmon, treacle and Quaker Oats - appeared. Bananas were a rare treat brought by the brothers from London; lemons were "never seen in the house", and oranges were a once-a-year Christmas luxury.

One Christmas held a particularly vivid memory for my mother. From an early age she had suffered from bad earache, and on Christmas Eve she was crying bitterly with the pain. It was late and her mother brought her downstairs, for her sisters Bertha and Florrie were trying to sleep in the children's bedroom upstairs. Everything was quiet until there was the noise of a cart rumbling by in the dark outside. "Listen!" said my grandmother to her sobbing daughter, "I do believe that could be Father Christmas!" Magically, this must have charmed away the pain, for the next my mother knew was waking in the morning to find her black stocking hanging at the end of the bed, filled with the orange, nuts, sweets and small presents smuggled into the cottage by the older children in preceding weeks.

Sadly, not everyone in those days could hope for black stockings filled with goodies. Poverty was as commonly the lot of agricultural labourers in Bedfordshire as in most other rural areas. My mother remembered that when the new potatoes came in from her father's allotment her mother would cook a large potful to put out on her doorstep for the less fortunate village children. In the winter she would fill her baking tins with jacket potatoes. From other accounts, it seems that this sort of help was not at all uncommon.

Phyllis Willmott is the author of `From Rural East Anglia to Suburban London' (Institute of Community Studies, pounds 9.50)