“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 his Memoir)
Sunday, 21 May 2017
The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1900-1905 Uprooted 2: new beginnings in London – the wrong accent, the wrong clothes – not to mention poverty and hunger…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… What’s described as the first major air raid on England saw a squadron of German Gothas bomb Folkestone and Dover, killing 92, injuring 192, most of them civilians and the majority caught out shopping on Tontine Street, Folkestone (May 25).
Another attack on an arguably non-military target, by coincidence the SS Dover Castle, a hospital ship sunk by torpedoes en route from Malta to Gibraltar (May 26), proved so controversial it ended up subject to a war crimes prosecution after the war – interestingly the skipper was acquitted, essentially, because he was obeying orders. Another strange thing about the Dover Castle story is the diversity of casualty figures from various sources – they range from six dead to maybe 600, depending on whether the ship was loaded with wounded or had only crew aboard (consensus seems to favour the low numbers).
On land, after the bloody disappointments of April, the Allies advanced usefully on the Western Front with the British taking a section of the Siegfried line from Bullecourt to east of Arras (May 21; the northern end of the Hindenburg Line), and the French, now under Pétain, taking and holding Moronvilliers Ridge (21) and repulsing a German attack at Craonne plateau (23).
Italian advances towards Trieste in the 10th Battle Of the Isonzo continued with an artillery bombardment on the Carso Plateau (May 23) leading on to taking San Giovanni (27; now in Slovenia).
And out on another limb of the war, the Anzac Mounted Brigade and Camel Corps raided and destroyed 14 miles of the Hejaz railway, which ran from Damascus to Medina in Ottoman Empire territory (May 22).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran [Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016] had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until he was 19. He did so, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training/marking time – and in Sam’s case dicing with meningitis and other battle-fatigue enhanced ailments – until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more… But for now the blog continues with themed childhood and teens material from the Memoir under the title The Making Of FootSoldierSam – because my father didn’t write enough about his year “off” in England to cover 1917 in weekly chunks (I can hardly blame him; writing in the 1970 he wasn’t really thinking about blog requirements)]
Last week, the Uprooted 1 themed excerpts covered three-year-old Sam’s 1901/2 move from Manchester to London and from comfortable wealth to poverty via the “ruin” of his father’s family firm.
I left them in a cheap hotel in the Minories (near the Tower Of London), mother and four children in two beds – father still away somewhere looking for work. Well, after a few days they moved to a place he’d found and mother approved, a rented three-bedroom house – the address crops up in a baptism record: 24 Vale Side, Eade Road, Tottenham.
Their father says he’s got some work representing a German firm, but they haven’t paid him yet. Mother starts to sell items of china and furniture she’d optimistically had sent down from Manchester. Sam notes: ‘For a time, at any rate, they were able to live, not well, but adequately’. Now mother continues the process of getting their lives in some kind of order despite straitened circumstances. One of the first considerations, getting the kids to school. (NB: my father wrote the early chapters in the third person, calling himself “the boy” and then “Tommy”):
‘At the first opportunity, mother took them to a school. The older brother and sister had, of course, been sent to school in Manchester, but under slightly better circumstances because the parents had been able to pay for their education. In London they attended an ordinary council school – quite a good school, but utterly strange to the boy…
Within a few days, as the other children grew bolder, whenever Miss Tasket or another teacher called on him to answer a question his accent started to attract adverse attention because it was so different from what all the Cockney kids around him were used to. The trouble really started when, for some reason, he had to say “photograph”. With his Mancunian vowels, it came out “phawtawgraph”, with a short, hard “a” in the final syllable. They all laughed – many, it seemed to him, with that mean, harsh, forced laugh children produce when they want to wound one of their fellows. “It’s ‘phoetoegraaph’!” one of them yelled and in a trice the whole class was chanting “Phoetoegraaph! Phoetoegraaph! Phoetoegraaph!” until Miss Tasket exerted her rather languid authority and quietened them, though saying only that the noise must stop without explaining that their mockery was wrong and cruel.
Over the following days, similar derisive eruptions occurred when he’d say “coom” – “Cum! Cum! Cum!” – or “glass” with that short “a” — “Glarss! Glarss! Glarss!” The boy cringed with shame and embarrassment.
At once, and desperately, he tried to change the way he spoke. With his first, momentary, new friend – a forgotten name – he spent an afternoon’s play, as it might have been, under a table; he couldn’t remember where, but he had a clear picture of it, the thick table legs, the dark shadows, the other lad’s Cockney quack, exasperated yet persistent and somehow kind as he repeated time after time “T’ain’t plànt, it’s plarnt! Plarnt!” and ”T’ain’t bàth, it’s barth! Barth!” The boy copied him diligently and found he had a good ear. Impelled by raw fear of ridicule, within a couple of weeks – if he measured his words carefully – he could speak with a fairly anonymous middling English accent which, at least, did not provoke mass mockery. At which, mercifully, the other children forgot about him and he returned to the obscurity he craved.’
Sam recalls that, months on, with his father still unpaid, his mother started wearing a nurse’s uniform. She’d become some kind of auxiliary to earn a little money. But she had to do it at home too, getting the children through scarlet fever. And she must have stopped work for a while at least when her fifth child, Alf, was born in 1903. Certainly bitter about “coming down in the world”, she carried on taking steps to ensure their survival in this new life.
‘Mother saw that living must become very frugal. She devised a system of apportioning food. Bread, for instance. For breakfast, slices were cut and the cheapest sort of margarine spread on them. She gave each child five half slices of bread for breakfast. Dinner comprised the cheaper sort of meat and potatoes, some greens. Five more pieces of bread at teatime. Jam vanished from the table, except that it might appear once a week. Sometimes not. Beyond that, nothing available for the children. And this had to go on for several years.
So, when one day our boy saw a lad younger than himself sitting on the ground tearing up paper and eating bits of it, he asked him, “Why are you eating paper?” “Because I’m hungry,” said the boy. Our lad thought, “Perhaps it would help if I could do the same”. He tore up some paper and chewed it, but, oh, it tasted horrible. He never resorted to that again and he didn’t hear what became of the little boy who had been eating quite a lot of it.’
Not carrying any grief about their social decline, Sam actually started to enjoy life when they had to move across the road to rent a floor of another house from the upholsterer who lived there with his cheery family. Too good to last, though…
‘In fact, from the boy’s point of view, life in general had started to go fairly smoothly. But suddenly a jolt. Father appeared one day and said, “You must say goodbye to your mother for the moment and come along with me. We’re off to a different home.”
So they set off and walked the quarter of a mile to the end of the road on which they were living – the unbuilt part with fields on either side – and came to the main road where they boarded a horse tram and climbed to the upper deck. For the children, an exciting journey followed. New buildings, new sights. It lasted nearly an hour. Twice the ponies pulling the tram had to be taken out of the shafts and fresh ones installed. It was the custom to change them quite frequently.
The journey finished in what seemed to be a very far away place, a developed suburb eight miles to the north of Central London**. Streets of small houses. They walked along until father turned off and led them to a front door at one end of a terraced row. The house was completely empty. At that point, father said, ”I shall have to leave you here for a time. I have to see to something. You amuse yourselves.”
So now we have three children in an empty house, no food, no warmth, but still the excitement of the new surroundings kept them occupied for some time.
They went to the bedroom at the back and looked out over a small garden. They saw a group of children playing a few doors away and called out to them. By way of response, a boy swung his arm back and threw a stone which hit Tommy on the forehead. A howl of pain, down came the window. Above the pain, fear of the new place and what these children might do. A swelling came up. His brother applied a wet hankie, but the loneliness and anxiety, that wasn’t so easily got rid of.
Father didn’t reappear and the children felt hungry. No food in the house and no money. They started searching the garden – overgrown with weeds and dumped rubbish. They did discover something that might have been eatable. A piece of bread, green with mould. The boy nibbled at this, but it tasted too horrible.
As darkness fell, the children huddled together in the corner of a room. After what seemed like many hours, a bang on the front door. They rushed down and it was father, in the road behind him a small, horse-drawn van. The driver and father began to unload bedding and a few bits of furniture. Beds were set up: a double bed, a smaller bed, and a cot. Mattresses, sheets, two blankets per bed and a cotton cover, pillows. So, a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in. But no food still. Cold, sad, nevertheless grateful for their father’s presence, they tucked themselves in, quite warm, and went to sleep.
The next day they got dressed and father said, “Well, I must go up to where we lived before. Mother is staying on there for a while to continue with her nursing work and make some money to keep us going until I can work myself. I must see her and get a bit of money to buy some food and bring it to you.”
Sister started a thorough exploration of the house. The two boys followed her around. She found a sink with one cold-water tap from which they all had a drink. A boiler made of brick and cement with a big metal container for water and a fireplace underneath it. For lighting, gas jets in the back room, the living room, the front room and the passage; upstairs just one, in the largest of the three bedrooms. The boy took stock of the furnishings father had brought along. No floor coverings anywhere. The front room contained a cabinet and a pair of steps, the living room three chairs and one wooden table, the scullery a few pots and pans. Upstairs the three beds. On the landing a large chest covered with hide — a mystery to the children for many a year.
Hungry, fearful, miserable, the children huddled together in one of the beds until, after some hours, father returned. He brought some cheap meat, potatoes and carrots. Although no cook, no handyman at all, he put all these things into a saucepan, boiled them up and shared them out so the children had their first meal. Not a very good one, not a very palatable one, but at least it filled them and warmed them and, with night coming along, they went to bed and forgot all their troubles in sleep.
In the morning, father set off again, but soon returned. He’d had a few coppers left and bought some bread. He showed it to the children, a loaf with a small upper deck and a large lower deck, which could be pulled apart. Not only this, but another piece of bread too. He told them the baker had weighed the loaf and found it not quite up to the two pounds it should have been for tuppence ha’penny. According to custom, he added a piece off another loaf as makeweight. Father cut slices off and handed them round. The children devoured them ravenously before he departed yet again.
They had to amuse themselves for hours around the house and in the rough garden until, towards evening, father turned up, this time with not only bread, meat and vegetables — meat was 2d a pound and the vegetables “a pennorth of pot herbs” — but a real luxury: a cake. One of the people mother worked with had given it to her. They tucked into what they considered a really satisfying meal.
But it was a bleak experience in a bleak house.
While doing what business he could for the German firm – hoping for a lump sum in final payment – father looked for more permanent work. This again entailed a vast amount of walking right across London. He had to arrange to finish up each evening at their previous home and get from their mother money or provisions, anything available to keep the children and himself going.
The boy gradually built up a picture of the area. But he was concerned immediately with four walls, a small railed-in garden, and the terrors which lay beyond.’
** Edmonton, probably at the address shown in the 1911 census, 26, Lowden Road, Edmonton (now N9).
Soon after this alarming house move (1903/4), their father at last got a steady job, albeit low-paid and with train fares from Edmonton to Liverpool Street to be paid.
‘That week when Dad received his first pay packet was long remembered because on the Sunday, very unusually, their mother lit a coal fire in the grate of the kitchen range and they baked rather more potatoes than usual and boiled a small number of haricot beans (hard when bought, they had to be soaked for 24 hours or so before cooking). For this occasion dishes they hadn’t used for some time were set out on the table. One for the potatoes, another for the beans, and a larger one for the joint. Mother placed it at the end of the table where father sat. He carved it most carefully, small portions for the children, of course, but the taste of that meat in addition to the beans and the potatoes was a treat.’
In Edmonton, my father moved up to the junior mixed school (probably in Eldon Road, 1905, when he was seven). The teachers placed him in the top stream – and he started to feel self-conscious about his home-made clothes.
‘Finding himself among that top group, Tommy wondered why. He was clean, which was something to a teacher in charge of perhaps 40 small boys but, looking around, he saw that most of them were better dressed than him.
He wore completely home-made clothes. For the first time since they moved to London he had the luxury of a vest, a woollen vest. To make it, mother had cut down an old men’s vest. A cotton shirt over that, a white celluloid collar – quite deep and easily washed under the tap, it cost thruppence farthing, no more than that, and no laundry… In addition a sort of jacket; blue, thick, wool cloth, strong and warm – because Tommy’s family’s next-door neighbour had a son in the Navy. He came home once and gave Tommy’s mother a complete uniform, a flannel vest, jacket and baggy trousers, in good condition although he’d worn it for some while. Quite a lot of cloth there for her to work on and produce a jacket and knee-length trousers. Of course, the cut wasn’t marvellous. The most obvious thing about it was that it was home-made.’
All the best – FSS
Next week: The Making Of Foot Solider Sam, 1901-1904 Uprooted 3 – London, the expanding city: animals everywhere!
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.