A Rye Childhood


By Noel C. A. Care

The non human member of the family was a large tabby cat. Although the cat was large its tail was very short. It has, apparently been caught in the front door when it had slammed closed. Although it looked a little ridiculous it did not seem to worry her. She had a habit of lying close to the ground by the step and jumping out at any dog that wandered in the lane. They always seemed to run off without risking confrontation. Every so often she would produce kittens. When they were small I used to pick them up and play with them. Often holding my hands in front of them so that they jumped out. I used to see which one could jump the furthest. These kittens would gradually vanish to be replaced later by some more.

Another favourite pastime was cigarette cards. Most of us collected these, as our father smoked, and we tried to make up the sets as they came out. I remember, and still have, a set of Fire Engines and Cricketers. To complete these we would exchange with other boys who had one we wanted for one he wanted. Spare cards were used for playing games. These all involved holding them by the edge and flinging them. The winner in all of these games took all of the cards. We had three main ways of playing although occasionally someone would try to think of something new.

One was simply for each boy to fling one card, the one that went the furthest took all the others. Far more complicated was “Knocking Down”. One card was placed upright against a wall. The object was to knock it down with our cards, from an agreed distance, each boy going in turn. The boy knocking it down took all the cards. It was surprising how long this took, particularly if there was a wind. The third way was to try and cover another card by more than half. Again he who succeeded took all the cards. Although all of these games involved taking other boys cards we nearly always ended up with about the same amount.

The girls seemed to spend a lot of time skipping to various rhymes and playing hopscotch. They would also play with balls usually by throwing them against a wall and catching them. They could sometimes use two balls having one in the air all the time. Those that could do this, at about six or seven were thought very clever. When some feat out of the usual was performed, one would hear in a sing song voice “Clever Clogs, Clever Clogs, Who’s a little Clever Clogs usually by someone who could not do it.

On a light evening, children particularly the smaller, could be found sitting on the doorstep blowing bubbles. Not with the compound that can be purchased today, but real soap and water and an old clay pipe. It was possible to buy the pipes, but these were brown, and bought with a small tablet of soap. I was lucky as I had an old clay pipe that had been broken part way down the stem. The soap mixture was made into a bowl and picked up in the pipe. Bubbles were blown by controlling the amount of air you blew out although frequently instead of the large bubble intended there was a gurgle and a mass of small bubbles dribbling down the pipe, into a bowl and on to your jersey. This earned another telling off.

The soap was usually a small piece cut off the bar of Sunlight mother used to do the washing. We were always warned against the carbolic used for cleaning the floors. We were told, if this was used, it would make us ill if we sucked instead of blew. I must admit, the soap we used tasted horrible if it got in your mouth by mistake, but we soon learned not to suck.

In the dark evenings of winter we would play table games such as Ludo, Snakes and Ladders or Tiddly Winks. Other favourites were simple card games such as Snap and Happy Families. As I grew older my father taught me other card games.

I also had a Basic Meccano set with which I used to make all kinds of wonderful things, although I often had trouble with the small nuts and bolts. Frequently spending a lot of time looking for those I had dropped as it was quite dark under the table and sideboard. I also enjoyed doing Jig Saw Puzzles. These always had to be on a tray, as they could not remain on the table or we would have no where to eat.

When not playing games my sisters often played with their dolls, dressing and undressing them, putting them in their cots and taking to them, as if they were real children. Occasionally they would go to the scullery and bath them. They would also go into the kitchen and do, what they called Cooking although I do not think anyone ate the results, not even them.

We always had books to read, although, when I was very small, I remember having stories and nursery rhymes read to me. We were encouraged to read and I could manage small books before I went to school.

We also had colouring books with either paint or crayons. My sisters always seemed to keep in the lines but I never could. After going to bed we were allowed a ten minute read before settling down to sleep, although reading by flicking candlelight was rather difficult. It was much easier downstairs, by the light of the oil lamp.

We listened to the radio or Wireless as it was called then, powered by battery and accumulators, which had to be frequently recharged. I did not understand much of what was said, but I liked to listen to the music and singing I remember my two favourite songs were “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Tiptoe through the Tulips”. There was also a lot of what my parents called, “Semi-serious Music” which I generally enjoyed.

Sometimes, on a summer evening the whole family would go for a walk up Rye Hill. At the top my father would go into the “Plough” and return with lemonade for us. He would then disappear again for a short while.

Suitably refreshed, we would walk home, often stopping to listen to the birds singing or watch the farm animals. We would always keep our eyes open to spot any rabbits, which were a particular favourite with us.

Occasionally on Sundays, which was the only day father was home all day, if the weather was fine, we would go farther afield. Sometimes we would take sandwiches and have a picnic. In the spring we would pick primroses and often go along the lanes around Romney Marsh and see the lambs. In autumn we would collect blackberries for puddings pies and jam.

Other times we would go to the woods and collect nice, ripe, sweet chestnuts. There were also the horse chestnuts which needed to be found and kept, ready for use when conker seasons came around.

Father also had a large allotment, to which he would often go before starting work, and when he had finished in the evenings, particularly during Spring and early Summer, when the ground had to be prepared and seeds planted. I often went with him in the evenings and on Sunday mornings and was amazed at the amount of produce he grew.

The autumn, when most of the crops needed gathering for the winter, was also busy, especially when the potatoes needed digging. I came in handy then, as I picked them up nearly as fast as he dug them. He would then place them in a sack which he put across the crossbar and pushed the bike home. He frequently had four or five sacks before they were all dug.

This produce was needed in the winter, when weather stopped work, and there was no income. In those days men could only apply for the meagre unemployment money after they had been our of work for three consecutive days, not including a Sunday. This meant that, when weather stopped them for a day or two, they received nothing.

It was mainly due to his allotment that, even in the worst of weather, we never went hungry. He also grew flowers, mainly Daffodils and Sweet Williams, which he used to sell to provide the money for his seed.

He also did odd jobs, such as chopping wood or bringing coal from the cellar to a higher level and in winter clearing snow, for the better off people in Watchbell Street to provide additional income, which was always welcome.

My eldest sister reminds me that she also had a number of household duties, as they were called, although my young sister seemed to escape them. These usually consisted of helping mother with dusting and cooking.

On one occasion, when mother was in hospital she took over most of the work and managed to cook a meal for us all every day after she came home from school.

One of the more unusual duties that she did, and I was barred from taking part, was cutting up of salt. The poorer element of the community did not purchase salt in boxes marked Sifta or Saxa but in solid cube shaped blocks, wrapped in white paper marked Cooking Salt. This had to be reduced to the same constituency as the table salt used by the more refined sector and was kept in a large earthenware jar.

This was done by placing the salt on a large white cloth on the table and cutting it into slices with a strong knife. This was then covered with another cloth and rolled with a rolling pin. Gradually it would all be crushed to size and in the jar ready to use.

Christmas Time

An extra special family event in our year was, of course, Christmas. With both my younger sister and I being born on Christmas Day, there were two birthdays to celebrate as well as Christmas.

On Christmas Eve three stockings were hung from the mantelpiece, over the fireplace, by dad, as we were not allowed too near the fire although it was protected by a metal guard. Then three small excited children were sent to bed with the age old admonishment “If you don’t hurry up and go to sleep he won’t come”.

I did try keeping awake to hear him, but never succeeded, although, as if by magic the stockings were found in the morning full of presents and treats. They contained small toys and games, as well as sweets. In the bottom there was always some nuts, an apple, a penny and a very special treat, an orange. This was always the most prized thing as it was the only time we ever had one.

We also had gifts from our parents and relatives. These were always kept separate, so that Father Christmas and the kindness of other people were not confused. My sister and I also had Birthday presents, to ensure our birthday was not forgotten. These were opened just before dinner, after the excitement of Father Christmas had lessened.

Dinner was always special, sometimes, even chicken, with of course a lot of vegetables. This was always followed by Christmas pudding which contained silver threepenny pieces, commonly called “Joeys”, and in our house, little china dolls, I am even now reminded, that when I was three, on Boxing Day, when rice pudding was desert I said in all earnestness “Look our for the dolls girls”. Alas there were none.

After dinner was always the time for opening the Christmas presents from other people. There was always excitement and guessing as to what was in the parcels, with usually a vast amount of pressing and prodding before we opened them. Occasionally we were right, although contents of boxes you did not see was always difficult. One favourite, which I usually received was what was described as “A Junior Smoker”, this was a box showing people smoking on the lid and cigarettes, cigars and pipes inside. All, of course sweets. The cigarettes were some kind of white candy with red ends, the cigars were chocolate, and the pipes were chocolate stems, liquorice bowls with hundreds and thousands for the tobacco and smoke.

Tea time was also special, with jelly and blancmange, and if we were very lucky a fruit salad. As a special treat we had bread with both butter and jam, instead of one or the other. There was always some special cakes of course a Christmas Cake with ornaments on the top. These usually showed Father Christmas doing something fashionable at the time, along with snowmen or fairies. The one thing missing was birthday cake as it was felt Christmas was the more important.

After tea we would either play games or get down to really playing with new toys, usually sitting on the floor by the fire, which always seemed more bright at Christmas. It was, of course, lit early in the day at this time.

We also had sweets, which were kept in a bowl on the table and there were chestnuts roasted on the fire. These were those we had collected on our walks in the autumn.

There was a large bowl of nuts and apples and lemonade to drink during the evening and we were even allowed to stay up late. Usually, three very tired children took their candles and went to bed.

At infant school, during the last few days before Christmas, we would be told the nativity story, with some of the children acting the parts, and would sing carols. At the boys school we had something far more ominous.

Examinations and a school report to take home to your parents. Luckily mine were reasonably good so it did not spoil the holiday.

Just before Christmas a horse drawn cart went round the streets of the town, carrying Father Christmas. It stopped at various places, one of which was the top of our lane and gifts were given to children of the neighbourhood. Once I received a set of Pyramid Bricks of which I was very proud, and for an earlier year had a big spinning musical top.

Christmas was also a time of parties, and one was always given by the lady and gentleman who owned a large house on the corner of Traders Passage. There were always about twenty children, in a room dominated by a huge Christmas tree from which we all received a gift. We always had a lovely tea and played a number of games such as blind mans buff, pass the parcel and musical chairs to music from a piano.

Our friends parties were on a much smaller scale, usually consisting of eight or nine children. The games we played were very much the same as we played at the party at the big house. The music was provided by a gramophone, which constantly needed winding. Being a smaller number we also played guessing games and quizzes, or spelling bees supervised by an adult. The prizes were usually sweets as none of our friends parents were able to afford large presents.

Our own party was held early in January and celebrated Christmas and three birthdays, as my elder sister was born on the Twenty second of January. In all Christmas was a happy time and lasted for quite a while with all the various activities. And of course, there was no school, although that came round sooner than any of us wished.

To Be Continued…..