A Rye Childhood

 By Noel C. A. Care

This personal account of life and times in the town of Rye, East Sussex, is written some seventy five years later, from memories which are still as bright now as the day they occurred.

It was a cold Christmas Day in 1922 when I came screaming into this world in Watchbell Cottage, Rye. I have been reminded many times since, that my eldest sister, being all of two years and eleven months old, was not at all impressed with not having another sister. Her response on being told she had a baby brother was, “Chuck him in the Channel”, luckily, they did not.

The cottage, reputedly on the site of the original Watch keepers cottage, was to be my home for nearly nine years. It was situated in a Tarmac lane, parallel to the lower end of Watchbell Street. At the bottom end of this short lane, before it joined the top of Traders Passage, were three Almshouses. These were occupied by elderly couples, whose names I never knew and seldom saw. If we met, a polite greeting was all that ever passed between us. I heard later, these cottages were destroyed during the war. At the same time the cottage was damaged and on repair, the door was moved to the side. The doorstep can still be seen in its original position.

My memory of this cottage during my early childhood is clear. The front door, always a dark green, led directly, via a step, from the street into the living room. A thick curtain inside kept out the draught. A window in the front faced the lane. As you went in, the left hand wall contained the fireplace, which was kept clean and blackened. In front of the fireplace was a small piece of carpet, otherwise all the floors were covered with lino.

In the centre of the room was a large table where my mother, father, two sisters and I shared our meals. On this green cloth-covered table, stood a large oil lamp with a gleaming brass base and body and tall glass chimney which provided the lighting for the living room. Candles were used for light throughout the house, as we had neither electricity or gas.

Against the wall, opposite the fireplace, was a sideboard. This had a lace covering on which stood a wind up gramophone and later, a wireless. A bowl, other small ornaments, and framed photographs added to the decor. One of these photographs was of my father taken during the First World War.

In the cupboards were the records for the gramophone, our games and toys along with other small oddments. The drawers contained the cutlery for our meals, table cloths and other items of linen.

In the small area beneath this dresser and the floor, everything we dropped found its way. Counters from games, screws from Meccano, pieces of puzzle. How they all managed to get there we never knew.

Going through a door at the rear of the living room you came to the kitchen, from which stairs led to the bedrooms. The kitchen was dominated by a large stove, commonly called a “Kitchener”, which was cleaned and blackened every day. This consisted of a large range, with a fire, lit every day, on one side and the oven along side of it. The top was always hot and kettles and saucepans were kept on this for hot water and cooking. There were two round plates which could be removed to hurry these along.

The fire could be regulated by what father used to call a “Damper”, although how this worked was beyond me. On cold days this gave the house a nice warm feeling, for the fire in the living room was not lit until late afternoon except on Sunday.

On entering the kitchen a brown door leading to the small scullery faced you. Next to this stood a tall, green painted, dresser with cupboards underneath. These contained the various pots, pans and necessities for cooking, whilst the shelves of the dresser contained the plates and cups which we used. These were mainly white, although not a matching service, as is usual today. I found later, from various boys at school, we were well stocked. If they broke anything their parents could not afford to replace it. They had enamel plates and mugs for their meals and drinking as these did not break, although, I noticed when they took them on our rare treats, there were a lot of chips around the edges.

Beneath the window was a sink, dark brown on the outside, but white inside, with only a cold water tap. In the space beneath this there were kept a bucket and small bowls. The large kettle, always kept warming on the cooker provided the hot water. A white table stood in the centre of the kitchen on which my mother prepared the food, made puddings, pies and cakes along with the many other jobs of a busy house wife. Two wooden chairs completed the furniture of the small kitchen.

The scullery was tiny, containing some cupboards in which were kept polishes, dusters and other small oddments for which no other home could be found. A built-in copper in a corner came half way along the walls on each side. On washing day this was lit with a small fire at the bottom. To keep this going any rubbish that would burn was used, along with wood, broken from boxes from the greengrocer or collected on country walks. The cottage used to smell of soapsuds and there was a general damp feel all round.

Washing was a much harder task in those far off days, as it was nearly all performed by hand. A large zinc bath, normally found hanging in the yard, would be filled with hot water from the copper and the clothes pummelled and rubbed with soap using what was called elbow grease. A term that I did not understand for some while until it was explained it meant hard work.

After being twisted, to wring out the excess water they were placed in the boiling water in the replenished copper. After boiling, they were extracted and dumped back in the now empty bath or sink and covered with cold water. Then twirled around, lifted and put back in again to remove the soap. This happened several times.

The clothes would then be wrung again by hand and carried to the yard and put through a mangle. This was a contraption of two heavy wooden rollers turned by a large iron handle. This removed most of the rest of the water. Mangles were very heavy and were kept outside on a level, solid footing. They were also expensive and therefore kept under cover and carefully wiped dry after use.

The still wet clothes then were hung out to dry in the yard, if it was fine. If not, they had to be hung in any convenient spot. I am sure there were other tasks connected to washing clothes, but I have no real recollection of them although the words blue and starch have a vague feel.

The next day, when mother did the ironing, was much more pleasant, with a nice warm smell. Ironing was carried out on the kitchen table, covered by a thick cloth, with a flat iron. These irons were heated on the stove with two or three being placed there to ensure one was always hot. I remember often seeing mother holding one near her face, to see if it was hot enough to use.

My bedroom was a very small room to the right, at the top of the stairs, with only a tiny window to let in the light which a small, bright curtain did its best to keep out. It contained a single bed, with a rather hard mattress, and a chair, filling one side of the room. At the end of the bed stood a large cupboard from floor to ceiling containing my clothes, spare blankets and sheets. As there was no room for a door to open, this was covered by a large dark blue curtain.

Hanging over this was a picture of a man, who I later discovered was Edward VII, wearing a hat with yellow cockades, which, in my innocence, I thought were bananas. There was a very tiny table on which I stood my blue enamel candleholder which gave light for me to undress. In winter, with no heating, undressing, with feet on cold lino was a cold process and quickly carried out. Once in bed and under the blankets with my teddy, I soon became snug and warm, and very quickly fast asleep.

I have no clear recollection of the other bedrooms, in those days one did not go into them. Normally, when I was awake they would be unoccupied as both mother and father would be up before I was awake and I would be sleeping long before they went to bed.

In the small back yard, reached by going out the front door and through a tall gate, at the side, we kept the coke for the fire and the various small tools, baths etc. all families had. It also contained several rabbit hutches from which, as the rabbits grew, they regularly disappeared. Just as regularly, it seemed, baby rabbits appeared. It also contained that necessity of all housing, the toilet which backed on to the house. As you can imagine, this was bitterly cold in the winter. Often the water in the tank was frozen and a bucket of water had to be taken from the cottage and poured down the toilet to cleanse it.

During the winter the yard was the scene of much activity, particularly on a Saturday. I was often sent, with a small hand cart to the gas works for large coke. We had large as we could not afford the more expensive broken coke. This involved going down Traders Passage and Mermaid Street and pushing a laden cart back, up the steep cobbled hill.

On my way up I called at the Bakehouse and bought fresh rolls at seven for sixpence which we had for breakfast. I then had to break the coke into smaller pieces enabling it to be burnt on the kitchen range. This involved using a hammer on the large pieces, placed on a piece of wood. The coke had to be held with one hand whilst using the hammer with the other, or else the coke flew all over the place. Washing your hands afterwards, whilst removing small pieces of coke was a painful process. When this was done I was able to go to cub meeting.

My next little job, after cubs, was to go and pay the baker who usually rewarded me with a small bag of sweets, making it well worth my while. I usually arrived back home about the same time as my father returned from work, to which he had gone at six o’clock in the morning.

Our family consisted of father, mother, two sisters and myself, the youngest. One of my sisters was exactly two years older than me and the eldest only eleven months older than her.

Although we were not well off, particularly when the weather stopped my father from working, or there was no work, we had a happy if simple childhood. In those days men, in that type of employment, were paid by the hour and if they did not work, for any reason, they were not paid, which could make for times of adversity.

We always had our main meal in the evening, when father returned from work, the green table cover being replaced by a large white one. After this, if it was still daylight we could go out and play with our friends. In addition to the games we played in the school playground the boys would organise small games of cricket or football, frequently on the Town Salts.

To be continued next month.

From “Rye’s Own “ November 2005

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