By late November, the Harris’s house looked just as Lucy had pictured it. It was modern, bright and homely. The coal shed was full, the lavatory next to it as neat as could be, despite doubling as a garage for George’s bicycle and a handful of gardening tools. Thomas’s pram had to stay permanently parked in the narrow hallway by the front door, where everyone was always colliding with it but there was no room for it out the back. The very thought of the precious pram being wedged in next to the WC filled Lucy with horror and besides, it was too much for her, at five months pregnant, to ease it down the passage at the end of the run of houses and around to the back gate.
As yet, there had been little time to attend to the garden but George and Lucy were full of plans. The garden was bordered on both sides by low walls and a brick path had been laid, running from the back gate up to the house. The two feet between one of the walls and the path made a natural border for growing flowers but the rest of the garden was a blank canvas. A small area behind the WC and the coal shed and leading to the back door was bricked but apart from this, the garden was a mixture of bare earth and builders’ rubble. The couple read the ‘Gardening Notes’ column in the Coventry Herald, saving any cuttings that gave them ideas, growing tips and seasonal advice. The plan was to have a small lawn for the children to play on, flowers in the two long borders and fruit bushes and vegetables at the end of the garden furthest from the house. One sunny August afternoon in 1909, weeks before the move, the couple had walked out to the Allesley and Coundon Horticultural Society’s summer show, with Thomas in the pram, where they admired the displays of potted and cut flowers, particularly the sweet peas, stocks and dahlias. They loved the roses and George made a mental note to put up some trellising so that they could have a climbing variety or two, such as Crimson or Tea Rambler. The afternoon was a welcome respite from all the anxieties surrounding the impending move and they treated themselves to a pot of tea and a slice of cake while they listened to the Bedworth Town Band and watched a display of Morris dancing. As they came away to go home to feed Thomas, Lucy rather envied the young people staying on for an evening’s dancing, the girls in their pastel-coloured frocks resembling the shades of the sweet peas she so loved. But with a baby and in the first stage of her second pregnancy, she felt with a pang that her dancing days were over.
Lucy’s pregnancy with Thomas had been straightforward and easy. The only time she had needed to see the midwife was at delivery and she had not seen a doctor at all. Lucy’s mum made sure that her daughter stayed in bed for two weeks after the birth so that she could rest and make sure that her milk became established. She was so well looked after that her sisters were mightily relieved when she finally made an appearance downstairs and started to pick up some of the many duties that had fallen to them at the end of their working days, including boiling nappies and washing linens. And so when Lucy realized that she was expecting again (admittedly a little sooner than she’d hoped), everyone assumed that things would go as smoothly the second time around. This time, however, Lucy was tired right from the start, she was sick for weeks, her back hurt and her feet swelled. Her mother worried that she was not gaining enough weight and asked her neighbour, Mrs Jackson, to come in and take a look at her daughter. Mary Jackson was the midwife who had delivered Thomas, and before him, Lucy and her sisters. She was widely respected within the community and trusted as a very safe pair of hands by local doctors. She had never received any formal training but when the Central Midwives’ Board was established as a result of the Midwives’ Act of 1902, Mrs Jackson’s registration as a Coventry midwife was accepted and approved as a result of her years of bona fide practice and because of her reputation for wisdom and efficiency. She was used to seeing the effects of successive pregnancies on women and when she came to visit Lucy, she saw a young wife and mother worn out by constant sickness and the anxieties of trying to be a perfect housewife in her new home. In December, much to Lucy’s initial dismay, Mrs Jackson ordered her home to her mother’s house in Spon End for the remainder of the pregnancy.
Lucy was horrified. They had only just moved to Kensington Road, she had only just started to feel confident in her new surroundings, carefully packing up George’s lunch each day and making sure his meal was waiting for him each evening when he returned home from work. Lucy had pored over the ‘Home Hints’ and household columns in the local press, seeking to improve on her knowledge of even the most basic of tasks. Her mother laughed when Lucy, having read an article on how to make a good cuppa, set off to ask her local grocer which tea was best suited to the local water. ‘He’ll see you coming,’ she warned her daughter who, undaunted, learned off by heart the Coventry Herald’s advice, even though she’d been brewing tea since she was a girl:
The water should be fresh and freshly boiled. The tea pot should be washed out with boiling water. Then the tea should be put in. if China Tea is used there will be required about one tea-spoonful to each breakfast cup. If Indian tea half that quantity will suffice. Having covered the tea with the requisite quantity of water, it should be allowed to stand for three of four minutes for fine Assams, such as Pekoe and Broke Pekoe, about five minutes for Pekoe Souchong and Souchong. The tea should be poured off the leaves immediately the proper time has elapsed. In this way the flavour of the tea is all extracted, whilst the tannin is nearly all left behind in the leaves. A good method is to use an infuser, which will permit of the steeped leaves being withdrawn directly the tea is properly made. In India a silver ball, pierced with holes to permit of the percolation of the water, is largely used to hold the tea while the boiling water is acting upon it. If these precautions are carried out the resulting beverage will be of the most delicious character, and will contain nothing to harm the most delicate nerves.
Lucy wanted to do things her way. There was more amusement for her mother – an accomplished cook – when her daughter began to seek out products that she’d seen being advertised, in the hope that their use would guarantee the perfect results. Despite, however, buying ‘Paisley Flour – the sure raising powder’ her first attempts at scones ended in tears when they failed to rise. George ate them regardless, pronouncing them to be excellent. He was happy and proud to try any of his wife’s experiments as long as they were not too costly or – worst of all – wasteful. Both of them agreed that cooking with Bisto (named for its ability to Brown, Season & Thicken In One) – introduced in 1908 and advertised from 1910 – was a tasty addition to stews, turning the cheapest cuts of meat into hearty meals:
So when Lucy realized she would have to return home until her baby was born, she fretted over how George would manage without her. In fact, there turned out to be little to worry about. She and Thomas went back to Spon End, where she rested as much as she could. There was no more shopping, no more heavy laundry and minimal cooking. George ate in the factory canteen at lunchtimes and called in each evening to see his wife and child, sitting at the kitchen table with them to have a cheese or cold meat sandwich, a mug of tea and a piece of fruit cake. On Sundays he came round for lunch and then he and Lucy’s dad walked round to the Kensington Road house to work on any jobs that needed doing so that the house was perfect for Lucy’s return in the spring, with the new baby. They dug over the garden in readiness for grass seed and the fruit and vegetable patches and George enjoyed it so much he began to think that an allotment would be a good idea, not just to keep his family in fresh produce but to give him the chance for some healthy exercise and – if he was honest – some time to be on his own, away from the stresses of family life. There were several allotment associations in Coventry and at one, the Coventry mayor told those present how great an interest the Council took in these. All men needed a hobby, he said and surely gardening was a much better option than drinking beer. George rather wondered if he might combine the two, treating himself to the odd bottle at the end of a summer’s evening gardening. He put his name down at a meeting of the local association in The Royal Oak on Earlsdon Street.
Lucy relaxed in the presence of her mother and as the sickness eased, the tiredness lifted a little. Resting with her legs up each afternoon kept the puffiness down, having an afternoon nap at the same time as Thomas was better for her than her previous habit of using her son’s sleep time to race through her house, doing as much housework as she could. Her mind was eased by the fact that one of her sisters – with bad grace, it must be said – was sent up to the Kensington Road house twice a week after work to sweep the floors and dust away the incessant coal dust (while Lucy and Thomas were away, George only lit a fire for the kitchen range on the coldest of winter evenings. It was not the worst of winters; temperatures in Coventry were recorded as falling below freezing on roughly a third of days between January and March 1910. Even so, minus 1 degrees Celsius was the lowest temperature recorded that winter and for this George was grateful, allowing him to keep the coal house well stocked and save money for the coming winter, when there would be two babies to keep warm).
Florence Eliza Harris was born on March 16th 1910. The labour, straightforward and relatively quick, was attended by the trusty Mrs Jackson. This time the doctor was called in to examine Lucy and to check the baby who was smaller than Thomas had been at birth. Both were pronounced healthy although Lucy was prescribed a few more weeks rest before she could go home to Kensington Road and resume her life as a housewife. Florence was one of 2,674 Coventry births in 1910 and although there were as yet no baby clinics in the city, the Sanitary Committee had chosen at the start of that year to appoint a second health visitor. Amongst the duties of these women were visits to mothers and babies. During the course of 1910, they made 1750 visits, giving feeding and baby care advice. As both women were also qualified Sanitary Inspectors, they made sure that whenever they visited a new mother, they assessed the condition of her housing; were the walls and ceilings clean? Were the areas in which food was stored sufficiently ventilated? Was there evidence of damp? Was the accommodation overcrowded? There was little doubt that the little Spon End house, with Lucy, Thomas and the new baby living there, was bursting at the seams but nothing that she saw gave the health visitor any cause for concern. Not only was the house scrubbed and polished but it was clear that Lucy was in very good hands, benefiting from her mum’s experience and common sensical approach to all that life threw at her. And of course, there was a new and spacious house in Kensington Road waiting to welcome back the little family.
On her first visit, the health visitor gave Lucy a leaflet about feeding her baby. In the early twentieth century health officials advocated breast feeding as the safest and healthiest start for babies. Feeds every two hours during the day and every four hours at night were recommended for the first three months and then the intervals between feeds could be lengthened. The leaflet distributed to new mothers made it clear that routine was very important and that the baby should not be put on the breast purely for comfort or to keep her quiet. Six months of breast feeding was deemed to be best for baby but the advice was that after nine months, it should be stopped entirely. The milk was deemed to be of insufficient quality for baby by then and if continued might induce weakness in the mother, making her susceptible to illness.
Lucy understood the benefits of breast feeding. An old school friend had lost her baby to diarrhoea a few years previously, during a hot summer in which it was harder than usual to keep foodstuffs and baby milk cool and free from bacteria. Lucy wanted to feed Florence herself for as long as she could, as she had done with Thomas, but it wasn’t easy to ignore her mother, who was always telling her that breast feeding for more than just a few weeks would exhaust her and that she should aim to give the baby a bottle after the first three months. Against all the professional advice, Lucy’s mum believed – as her mum had done before her – that the natural way wasn’t necessarily the ‘nice’ way and she told her blushing daughter more than once that she was sure her husband would prefer it if she stopped feeding sooner rather than later. By the time Lucy was back home, in the early summer of 1910, Florence was being fed with cow’s milk. The suggested formula for a three-month old baby was three tablespoons of milk, three tablespoons of water, a half teaspoon of demerara sugar and one to two teaspoons of fresh cream. As the baby got older, the advice was to gradually lessen the quantity of water and increase the milk so that at six months, each feed consisted of nine tablespoons of milk. Lucy followed the hygiene advice on the feeding leaflet to the letter. As soon as the milk was bought (from the dairy and grocers on the corner of Kensington Road and Henley (now Beaudesert) Road, Lucy decanted it into a jug which she then placed in a pan of cold water, changing the water regularly throughout the day to keep the milk as cold as possible. The required amount of milk was then boiled ahead of each feed and placed in a boat shaped feeding bottle which had an opening at each end, onto which the rubber teat was placed.
After each feed, Lucy did as the health visitor advised and bathed the inside of Florence’s mouth with a small piece of clean linen rag dipped in warm water. She then washed the bottle in water to which she added a small amount of washing soda, making sure to put the rubber teat in a separate bowl of clear, clean water. It was a time-consuming regime but it gave Lucy peace of mind to know that she was doing everything that she could to keep her daughter safe. She was mightily relieved that the summer brought no prolonged periods of intense heat and she knew how fortunate she was to be able to keep food relatively cool and well covered in her kitchen cupboards.
Once Lucy was back home and settled into a routine with Thomas and the new baby, she was finally ready to take on the challenges of full time housewifery. For several months she still tended to walk to Spon End to the shops that she knew and – more importantly to her – where she was known to the shop keepers. She had heard too many tales of young wives being short-changed by shop owners who thought they could take advantage of inexperienced young wives, selling them damaged or poor quality goods, underweight measures and out of date food. By the winter, however, the prospect of yet another cold, wet walk down Hearsall Lane to Spon End, encouraged her first forays into Earlsdon to discover what it had to offer. By the spring of 1911 she was well into her stride.
In 1911 George was earning just over 32 shillings a week. This was a decent wage, only a few shillings lower than those being earned by the men who had served apprenticeships, and considerably more than those paid to unskilled general labourers. At the Humber, George had impressed with his technical ability to manage new machinery and he was typical of the many men who, although graded as semi-skilled workers, could turn their hands to almost anything in the fast paced and ever- changing vehicle industry. His weekly wage meant that Lucy could buy non-perishable foods (tea, sugar, flour, oats, dried fruit, jam, rice and pulses) laundry products and toiletries in weekly quantities, which was much cheaper than shopping daily for them and it also meant that for the rest of the week, the pram got loaded up only with those items that were harder to store and keep fresh, such as vegetables, pies, sausages, bacon, cheese and butter. The family was luckier than many but nonetheless money was tight, with prices rising faster than wages during their first years at Kensington Road (Board of Trade figures showed that in the 15 years before 1911, wages had risen by 12 per cent and food prices by 18 per cent).
Their budget looked broadly like this;
Wage: 32 shillings
9 shillings to Mr Bird for house payment
8 pence a week to the Workers’ Union, George’s trade union subscription (this would, if needed, give strike pay, sickness and out of work benefits and a contribution towards funeral costs)
1 shilling to the Hospital Provident Fund to help with the costs of seeing a doctor and any medicines required (when Thomas had a series of chest infections later that year, the couple was very relieved to have this insurance)
3 shillings (where possible) into the Coventry Building Society to replenish the rainy day fund
2 shillings kept by George for the odd pint of beer, plus plants and seeds for the garden
This left around 19 shillings a week for food, fuel and clothing. Lucy’s mum thought it strange that Lucy knew exactly how much George earned each week, as her husband had always kept an undisclosed amount of his wage packet for himself and handed over the rest for housekeeping. George was only too happy to trust Lucy to feed and clothe the family and all he expected was that she would manage efficiently and learn to be a careful manager. She was determined to do precisely that.
By the time the Harris’s were well and truly settled, there were several shops in Kensington Road. The only ones that Lucy went to regularly were the dairy run by Mr Cleaver at number 102, (milk contamination was regularly reported in the local press and so Lucy would only buy milk from the trusted Mr Cleaver) the newsagent and tobacconist at the bottom of the road (13b, where, just once a week, George picked up a packet of ten Lambert & Butler Waverley cigarettes for 3d, the Coventry Herald every Friday for 1d and the Midland Daily Telegraph on his way home from work each evening for a halfpenny ), the Post Office (55) and Bales the Chemist at the junction with Albany Road. Mr Bale grew used to the sight of Lucy in his shop, visiting not just to buy soap and liquorice (which she swore by to keep the children ‘regular’) but to ask for advice about the children’s many minor ailments. His advice, as opposed to the doctor’s, was free, even if it did sometimes result in Lucy spending precious pennies on some rather questionable concoctions, such as Bales’ Blood Mixture, advertised as a ‘spring medicine’.
On very rare occasions, Lucy bought sausages or a pie from the London Central Meat Company at 104 Kensington Road, a butcher’s with several shops in the city, but on the whole she favoured Coventry Market for meat. One of her favourite times of the week was going to the Market Hall on a Saturday evening when it stayed open until 11pm. Saturday was pay day for most people and a chance to go shopping with a full purse. Once the children were in bed, Lucy left George in charge and met her mum at the bottom of Albany Road where they walked to the market together. Both women kept a close eye on the prices of products in the local paper, noting what was in short supply (and therefore more expensive), what was plentiful and where the bargains might be. Lucy’s main purchases on her Saturday night excursions were butter (in 1912 this sold for around 1 shilling and 2 pence although Lucy, always with an eye for the new, was later converted to Lipton’s Margarine, ‘made with nuts and cream, equal to butter and half the price’), new-laid eggs at a shilling for nine, and – most important of all – the Sunday joint. At the butcher’s stall, she still stuck close to her mum, who knew exactly what she was looking for – the right amount of fat, the right colour, smell and general appearance of the meat. The later the visit to the stall, the better was the chance of a knock down price, although this was risky if all the best cuts had been sold. But it was worth paying a little more to trust the butcher and to know that the joint would be the basis for meals on Sunday (roast), Monday (cold cuts with potatoes), Tuesday (minced, using economical recipes found in magazines and newspapers), and the bones used for stock or soup. When prices were too high (such as in September 1911 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease closed live markets and led to meat shortages), Lucy would choose chicken, which ranged in price from 2/6 to 4 shillings, depending on the size, but these were never big enough to last for as many meals as beef or lamb. Rabbit was another option but for this Lucy tended to visit Mr Fletcher’s butcher’s in Earlsdon Street as he very often had a fresh supply of rabbit hanging on hooks from the shop ceiling. The preparation of rabbit, bought unskinned for around a shilling, made Lucy feel queasy when she first started cooking, but after a while, her only thoughts were on the pie that she was making and which was a firm family favourite.
Lucy made her own bread and cakes but occasionally, she treated Thomas and Florence to a Chelsea bun (shared on the walk home) from Wright’s Model Bakery on Albany Road. If her parents were coming for Sunday tea, she would buy a slab of Wright’s Rich Sultana Cake (sold in slabs at sixpence a pound). Sometimes, on his cycle ride home from work, George would stop off at Atkinsons to pick up a pork pie; this was a treat for him and Lucy, when the children were asleep, eaten with pickles and raw onion. Fruit and vegetables came from various shops, including Crumps and also Moore’s, both on Earlsdon Street. As time went on and George cultivated much of the garden and then his allotment (which he got in 1912), there was a steady supply of seasonal produce, including leeks, parsnips and potatoes, peas and beans, raspberries and gooseberries. It was not long before Lucy added jam making to her ever growing list of skills. She collected recipes and added to them over the years. One of her earliest came from a women’s trade union newspaper she had once brought home from work, before she was married. Her father had been cross that she had brought what he regarded as subversive material into the house and so Lucy had showed him the pages of home hints, which calmed him down a little (though she never brought it home again and instead read it in the rest room at work).
Half-pound cold meat finely chopped, 3 ozs. Breadcrumbs, 2 ozs. Suet finely minced, little grated nutmeg, ¼ teaspoonful curry powder, ¼ teaspoonful herbs, a teaspoonfls browned breadcrumbs, 1 or 2 eggs, milk or stock, pepper and salt. Grease a basin with butter, cover surface with browned crumbs. Mix all other ingredients in order given above and cover with greased paper. Steam an hour. Serve with brown sauce.
Another favourite was ‘Savoury Pie‘, useful for the middle of the week when the joint had run out. Lucy always added a little bacon to it, fearing that George would complain if presented with a meal without some form of meat. A pound of tomatoes could be bought for between 6 and 8 pence a pound and Spanish onions for around 1 ½ d a pound. Lucy liked making this dish but was aware that these were expensive ingredients and she mostly made it in late summer when the tomatoes had ripened at the allotment.
Put 1 ½ ozs. Or dripping in saucepan and 1lb Spanish onions; let cook gently near fore but not near enough to burn, for 20 minutes. Then chop 1lb of tomatoes and lay on top and the 1lb of potatoes on top of the tomatoes. Put id on and let cook gently till the potatoes are cooked through.
The only commodity that the Harris’s had delivered was coal. The kitchen range ate a great amount of coal and the Harris’s tried to keep their coal shed stocked up, because it was much cheaper when bought in the largest quantities possible (Lucy saved a little every week for coal so that they could bulk buy). Deliveries were made by T and J Dewis, Coal Merchants on the Butts and Thomas looked forward to the delivery days when the cart arrived and the coal was shovelled into a wheelbarrow and trundled down the alley and in through the back gate. Lucy was never more thankful for the back gate and coal shed on coal delivery days, pitying those whose coal entered the house through a coal shute from which clouds of thick black coal dust would invariably rise and spread. It was bad enough keeping the range clean, with black lead polish, the worst job of the week (apart from laundry day).
That’s all from the Harris family for now. Maybe I will revisit them as their family grows, when Thomas and Florence starts school and to see how they deal with the tragedy of war.
A note from me
Firstly, thank you so much for reading. Researching and writing this short series on Kensington Road has been useful therapy for me following the death of my mum earlier this year. Mum was a big fan of my blog (that’s mums for you) and it always got us talking. One area of discussion would lead to even more unanswered questions and so the need for more research. And that curiosity – the need to find out more – is precisely why I write. For years I was so cautious about committing anything that I wrote to print, that much of it stayed on my computer until I deleted it out of frustration and annoyance at my lack of bravery. I am still learning that it doesn’t matter if I don’t know all the answers or if I get something wrong. The advantage of writing a blog is that it can be widely read and people can comment, make suggestions and fill in some of the blanks. Thank you to those who have got in touch already – I am extremely grateful for your input.
Thanks also to
British Newspaper Archive, largely Coventry Herald, Midland Daily Telegraph
David Fry and Albert Smith for photographs and also for their invaluable Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored (see Part One of this blog)
The Woman Worker for recipes
Coventry Archives for Annual Reports of Medical Officer of Health; Trade Directories; Coventry Municipal Handbooks
Recommended reading for more on domestic life and motherhood in early 20th century Britain
Margaret Llewelyn Davies Maternity: Letters from Working Women (1915, Virago edition 1978)
Cathy Hunt, Women’s Lives in Coventry, 1850-1950, 2018, Pen & Sword
Maud Pember Reeves Round About A Pound A Week (1913, Virago edition 1999))
Robert Roberts The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (1971, Penguin)