“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from War: The Somme, Part Five of this memoir)
Sunday, 19 October 2014
Fusilier Sam gives his soldier’s pay to mother – and young boy Sam learns biology from the rear end of a horse
A hundred years ago today… the Battle of Ypres began. The first Battle of Ypres, that is. Four more followed. Over 34 days, this one saw the French (85,000 casualties), the British (56,000), and the Belgian (22,000) Armies repel the German (46,000) Army’s final attempt to “race to the sea” and take Boulogne and Calais. At the same time, fighting continued along the rapidly entrenching Western Front at Armentieres, the Yser and Messines (near which, in late October, a German soldier called Adolph Hitler won the Iron Cross for rescuing a comrade under fire – history, eh?). Elsewhere, this being World War already, the Russians fought the Germans near Warsaw, the British Indian Expeditionary Force sailed from Bombay to defend Mesopotamia (now Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran), and assorted skirmishing continued in Africa and the Pacific.
Meanwhile, in the north London suburb of Edmonton, my father Sam Sutcliffe’s family considered the consequences of two boys, Sam and older brother Ted, who’d been working for a couple of years both joining up under-age (16 and 18). Father Charles and mother Lily had three other children, Ciss (19), Alf (11), Edie (2) – both Frank (12) and John (1) had died in 1912. They decided they had to put their long struggle with poverty on a war footing.
During the weeks when their 2/1st City Of London Royal Fusiliers Battalion did nothing but march and squarebash around London, of course, the two lads got soldier’s pay – two shillings a day, including subsistence while living at home – but they all knew that was a “temporary bonus”. As Sam recalled and wrote (cue weekly explanation to new readers that my father wrote the early chapters of his Memoir in the third person, thinly disguising himself as “Tommy Norcliffe”):
“Around this time, mother and sons held a little family council. They discussed the war. Victory for the Allies, as our lot were already being called, did not appear imminent with news from the Front anything but cheerful. Fears of shortages had grown. So they decided to buy extra food of a sort which would keep well: certain tinned goods, flour, dried beans, even some potatoes for the medium term.
To this end, the brothers contributed all their money apart from what they needed for fares and light meals around midday. Over a few weeks, the family built up a food store which the brothers hoped would help sustain their parents and the younger children for a period after the Battalion moved from London (as they knew it must).”
Imagining this scene, the hard-pressed family struggling as ever to work their way through amid great events, made me think about my father growing up and the small world of the neighbourhood he’d described in the Part One of Nobody Of Any Importance which don’t chronologically accord with this blog’s parallel line to the weekly centenaries of global events and Sam’s individual experiences. So, some of his verbal pictures of Edmonton life in the early 1900s. They’ll make this piece unusually long for a blog, but I hope it’s worth the price of admission...
Here’s a thing: looking back we need to envision a London full of animals, more so in a suburb like Edmonton, then on the expanding edge of the city where it met the countryside. Sam/Tommy describes a biologically educational childhood walk from the terraced house the “Norcliffes” rented:
“Down the road, round a corner, round another corner, and they came to a busy main road, the traffic all horse-drawn — horses everywhere, horses pulling small carts, great wagons. Milkmen used them, bakers used them delivering house to house. But the boy took a particular interest in horse-drawn trams. He had never seen anything like them. The horses weren’t big really — large ponies you’d call them. Two of them pulled each tram along on its rails, the driver seated at the front, the reins in one hand, a light whip in the other. A conductor on the back collected the fares. The lower deck was glazed, the upper deck open to the sky.
Strange that coming to live in this busy town brought him into contact with animals; not nature in the raw, but nature anyway. Manure constantly cluttered the roads. A deal of urine lay around. The boy and thousands of children like him watched the normal processes of what you might call intake and output and very soon clearly understood what was going on.
These tram drivers, for instance, would be observed closely by the children, especially when they came to a terminus. Our boy would stand there and, if there happened to be a fairly long wait between arrival and departure, watch the driver put the bag of corn or chaff under the horse’s nose, pass the strap over its head, and adjust it so that the animal could eat comfortably. He’d see the horse’s jaws champing away. Every now and then it would blow hard when the dust got in its nostrils. To see a bucket of water placed in front of one of these ponies, that was worth watching. In went the horse’s mouth, a sucking and pumping operation followed, the speed at which the water vanished from the bucket unbelievable.
That was the front end of the animal. The rear held his interest equally. Some horses, he noticed, had one opening just under the tail and some had two. One can’t say that the reasons for this were clear to him at first. He knew that if the tail went up and the animal was of the type which had one opening, dollops of manure would issue forth, landing on the road with a series of thuds and what, to him, was quite a pleasant smell. If the animal had two of these openings, if he saw the lower one moving he knew that a jet of water would presently shoot out. It was advisable to step back because, although the water had no bad odour, if one arrived home with shoes and socks soaked with the stuff there would certainly be trouble from mother.
It soon became obvious to him that the animal with only one of these openings must have an outlet elsewhere for the water. On the first occasion it became apparent to him, he watched, with wide-eyed amazement, the emergence from immediately in front of the horse’s hind legs a big, long thing from which poured forth a stream of liquid splashing into the road and flowing away along the gutter.
So that explained how the two types of animal urinated and he thought no more about it. But sometimes a horse some distance away would put up his head and neigh loudly, perhaps start to jump about, even lash out with his hind legs, his hooves cracking against the bodywork of the tram or cart. The boy didn’t quite understand the reason for this behaviour, although he realised it was connected with some other animal in the vicinity. But it wasn’t for him to know that the noisy, frisky animal was disturbed by one of the opposite sex.
It wasn’t just horses. One could see cattle driven along a busy road to market, a flock of sheep... Animals everywhere.”
And as an Edmonton boy, Sam had a front-row seat to watch London expanding around him – and find relics of earlier over-ambitious ventures:
“Despite their lack of money, the children found much to excite them in the neighbourhood, especially the terrific activity on the nearby main road out of London. Stacks of wooden blocks and pipes and tall, iron standards appeared, laying by the roadside. Work lasting several years began. Hordes of navvies with pick and shovel dug trenches and laid tramlines in a new road surface made with wooden blocks (replacing the granite chips which had previously done the job).
Following the roadworks led the children to explore further. Much open space lay beyond the new street they lived in; fields and market gardens, a farmhouse with a large barn and pigsty. Tommy liked all the natural smells. Temporarily, they lived at the very edge of the city.
They found brickfields...They watched as workers dug up clay and mixed it with water to form a thick mud they called ‘pug’, which they then moulded and baked. The manufacture all took place in the open air.
Then, among the tall grass of the fields around their school, they found kerbs and manhole covers laid at intervals along what had obviously been intended as a road. They learned that, during an earlier boom period encouraged by the extension of the suburban railway line, speculators put up street after street of cheap terrace houses. But the bubble burst and they abandoned the work at whatever point it had reached when the money ran out. You could still walk around streets they had completed, though ‘To Let’ notices stood outside many of the houses. Someone told Tommy the rents ranged from about 6/6 to 8/6 per week, low even for those times.”
To close, Sam/Tommy’s vibrant account of probably the most colourful part of any London district in the early 1900s, the market place:
“This market area was triangular: on the left side, from Tommy’s direction, a row of shops selling foodstuffs and every household requirement — fishmongers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, a pawnbroker. Facing them, across a wide, paved footpath, a group of stalls also selling food, mainly cabbages and other greens from the market gardens nearby.
At the base of the triangle ran a single-track railway with level-crossing gates. This railway bisected many living areas, an heirloom of early bad planning. Oddly, a short stretch of track in the market place had been built on tiles and underneath them flowed a wide stream... not always very sweet water either. Some people seemed to regard any stream near a town as the natural dumping ground for dead cats and other items for which they had no further use.
On the remaining side of the triangle (should you be getting lost: to Tommy’s right, that is, but in the far corner near the railway) stood an old coaching inn, untouched over several hundred years, with a cobbled yard at the side and, in the rear, an extensive stable. The innkeeper himself kept several horses, a few local people had one or two, and visiting circuses also made frequent use of the premises. In fact, the proprietor almost always wore riding breeches, red waistcoat, hacking coat and a bowler and did all his journeying around the neighbourhood on horseback. A very popular man.
A couple of doors along, father, sons and daughters ran an old-time family pharmacy – the shelves arrayed with bright blue and orange decanter-shaped containers. The premises served also as a large post office. Two of the sons had trained in dispensing medicines and their father oversaw everything, a venerable figure with his long, lean face, pointed beard and, invariably, a smoking cap (a sort of fez with a tassel on top).
While the pharmacy portrayed the respectable face of medicine, every market worthy of the name would have its resident quack, generally known as Doctor Brown. That name might cover a multitude of sins. Our Dr Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head – proper morning dress – his fair moustache waxed to two long points. He looked clean, every inch a doctor, and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment and a huge crowd would gather around him. According to their number, so the length of his story grew and, proportionately, the sales at the end of it. He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.
In the middle of the triangle was the old village green, as it had been before this small town became a botched urban district. Marked out by a low iron railing, it comprised a pond, a patch of grass, and a couple of may trees. On warm summer days the out-of-work and assorted idlers would sun themselves there, six or a dozen of them lying on their backs while, around them, the activity of the market went on...
As darkness fell, the shops around the marketplace lit up incandescent gas lamps, reasonably bright, none of the brilliance of electric lighting. The stallholders used paraffin flares... According to his wealth, each stallholder had one, two or three of these flares burning. This always attracted crowds on dark nights – the greatest numbers guaranteed on Friday nights when, as Tommy sometimes observed, the market’s character changed to a degree.
That was the night the workers drew their wages and a little more money than usual flowed into the tills of shopkeepers and stallholders who shouted their wares ever more vigorously to make themselves heard above the hubbub. Everybody with a few pennies to spend felt the pleasure and excitement of it. The publicans did well too, of course...
This played a part in generating another of the market’s thriving businesses, operated by gentlemen offering funds to those who, during a hectic weekend, got through their wages, perhaps leaving no money to buy even food for the family until the next week’s pay arrived. On the Monday morning the procession from the sidestreets would begin, a ragged band making for the pawnbroker’s shop (adjacent to that second pub). Father’s best Sunday suit, mother’s best Sunday costume, even the children’s boots and shoes would go over the counter. The pawnbroker advanced a shilling or two on them. The hope was – and, generally, it did happen – that these goods would be redeemed the following Friday night, ready to be worn at the weekend.
Some women carried huge bundles to the pawnbroker’s shop, undoubtedly including sheets and blankets, which would be missing from the family’s beds for the week – if ill fortune befell them in the meanwhile, how were the children to be kept warm? How were the old people to be kept warm? Short of clothing, short of bedding, short of food during the worst part of the week until the man’s wages, to some extent, redeemed them...
Even so, many did survive on the tiniest of incomes, like Tommy’s family, keeping at least an outward appearance of what was called respectability. They frequently suffered deprivations in their home. But even in those circumstances they could still find energy and time to do a little to help others, as with church work. But the toll on nerves, the irritation, the bitterness, the feeling of instability and fear of even worse overtaking them often blighted the lives of people who were doing their best to keep things going under difficult circumstances. And of course the children often suffered the lash of the tongue or the slap of the hand, not always deserved.”
All the best — FSS
Next week: After marching around in civvies for weeks Sam’s Battalion finally gets some uniforms...