Local historian Julian Watson rediscovered a much amended and incomplete photocopy of Maude Ehrenstein’s memoir of her childhood in Ladywell.
This memoir was a contribution to the Labour Party’s National Contest for Archives and won third prize.
Maude (1894-1989) lived with her parents Alfred and Grace Pease and Marion her sister at 112 Embleton Road. The family is listed on both the 1901 and 1911 census returns.
By 1939 she was living at 185a Widmore Road, Bromley sharing the flat with the Ehrenstein family who were Austrian Jews.
Maude and Carl Ehrenstein were married in 1940. Carl was a gifted translator and writer, who had moved with his mother from Vienna to London.
Maude and Carl later moved to Whitstable where Carl died in 1971 and Maude in 1989.
In the first part of the memoir, posted by Julian on Ladywell Live in 2020, Maude recounts how she was shocked by the poverty and malnutrition she saw in Lewisham’s ‘Botany Bay’, an area close to Cornmill Gardens and the Glassmill Leisure Centre.
Here Maude recalls life at her first school:
When I was young, anyone could set up a school. You were not asked what your qualifications were or what sort of premises you had. All you needed was a bit of initiative and a liking for children.
A very pleasant woman of about 50 called on some of the larger houses in the neighbourhood of Embleton Road and explained that she was about to set up a junior school.
Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, she claimed to teach domestic economy, geography, history, and the Holy Scriptures. Piano teaching, ballroom [dancing] at 10s 6d per term of 12 lessons for each subject were extra.
The fees were 1/- shilling per week per child but a family with more than one child got a reduction.
And so it came about that one Monday morning in early September my sister and I trotted off to school. It was about a five-minute trot from our home in Embleton Road.
As the elder, I had charge of 1s 6d [£5.86 approx] which was the week’s fee. I was consumed with anxiety, not so much about the prospect of school as the fear of losing or being robbed of the little fortune entrusted to me.
Our school was held on the ground floor of a white cottage, the ground floor consisting of a tiny front parlour, a kitchen, a scullery and an outside lavatory and coalhouse combined.
The pupils’ entrance was by the back door into the scullery which communicated with the kitchen, a warm friendly room with the midday dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast porridge cooking slowly on the kitchen range.
[The main entrance was] by the front door straight into the parlour and from the parlour into the kitchen and straight into the scullery where the ‘copper’ dwelt.
A kettle simmered peacefully on the hob and on the rag mat before the fire a tabby cat blinked and stretched at our entrance.
Our teacher sat on an old basket chair by the side of the fire and crocheted a white woolen shawl for a baby. Much later I was to learn that this was a secondary way of making a little money.
There were three of us to begin with. I led from the start and during my four happy years at that school I was never seriously challenged.
The register was called and we were instructed to answer, ‘Present.’ Then three little brown books were handed round and I was asked to start reading.
The story concerned a pious signalman who was training his son in ‘unthinking obedience’ – one of the Victorian virtues. There had been some difficulty at first, apparently, but parental wisdom was justified on one particular occasion.
The boy was crossing the lines to the signal box carrying his father’s dinner tied up in a red handkerchief when his father shouted, ‘Lie down at once!’ The boy unthinkingly obeyed and an express train roared over him but left him unharmed. Had he hesitated a moment, he would inevitably have been destroyed.
My turn came round again with the tale of a man who landed a marvellous job as the manager of a bank because its owner, watching him out of the window, saw him stooping down to pick up a pin.
‘If this man takes so much trouble over an article of such little value,’ he reasoned, ‘what enormous care he would take over my thousands.’
We ‘did’ sums and geography (lists of largest towns, longest rivers, highest mountains; General Knowledge (out of Mrs Richmal Magnall’s ‘Questions and Answers’) History (Little Arthur’s History of England by Charles Dickens).
We did a good deal of sewing, knitting and crochet; also embroidery, macramé and patchwork; music on an extremely upright piano with a pleated red silk front (very grand!) whose ivory keys were so worn that one’s fingers continually slipped off.
I never knew, and I doubt if the teacher did either, why we had to play scales, but penny coins were balanced on the back of our hands to ensure that we exercised our fingers only and made no forearm or hand movement.
A man called Tobias Matthay changed all that. He introduced a system by which you could use what movements you liked as long as the resulting tone was what was required. This was my only failure. Then there was ballroom dancing. I was good at that too.
At the age of eight, as I had worked through my teacher’s stock of textbooks, I was promoted to a ‘Handbook of Domestic Economy.’ The disloyal thought had occurred to me from time to time that what was being taught had little connection with the facts of my life, but in 1900 we did not question authority.
Nor could I have realised that, in the Second World War (the first not having been dreamt of), that it would have been very useful to have remembered the chapter on the ‘Management of the Midden,’ to be able to construct three different types of earth closet and to build a hygienic sty and rear a pig in the back garden.
It broke my heart to leave the school, as I did at the age of nine. Never again would I sew a gusset in a chemise or chant the multiplication table to the bubbling of the kettle.”
Housework and Washday Blues
I must tell you another memory that made a great impression. You must remember that every middle class household had at least one servant and sometimes two.
If you had one maid only, it was customary to have a washerwoman for the laundry. In those days everything was done at home: sheets, blankets, towels, underclothing, dresses – the lot.
What with oil lamps to be cleaned and refilled (over an hours work each day in a small house, and much longer in a big house), grates to be cleared and black- leaded, hearthstones to be washed and whitened, carpets to be swept with dustpan and brush, steel knives to be cleaned, floors to be scrubbed, the one maid had more than enough to do.
Maude had a strong and detailed memory of ‘Washday’ at 112 Embleton Road, which I share from my rural upbringing in West Sussex.
She writes: ‘Those of you who are old enough will remember the miseries of that day – the lighting of the copper [boiler], the soaking of the things, the boiling, the rinsing, the blueing [using a blue bag as a bleach], and the starching, separate waters for the woollens and the coloureds, the mangling, hanging out in the garden, gathering in, folding, the cleaning of the copper and the hearthstoning or scrubbing of the scullery [which adjoined the kitchen]. “
She recounts more horrors: rainy days when the washing had to be dried indoors, often taking days to dry, or even worse, if the clothes line snapped and the washing fell on the ground it all might have to be washed again.
The washerwoman, Mrs Williams, who did all this got 2s 6d a day [roughly £10 today] and her food. Mrs Williams was very poor and lived in what Maude described as, “a slum cottage.”