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U3A Writing: Sheep's Broth

Doreen Bryant recalls a bleak Christmas during the depression years - with sheep's broth for dinner.

Christmas is traditionally a happy and joyous time, but I remember one which was vastly different.

The year was 1934, in the depression, and my father had been out of work since 1926. Up to that time, following his being invalided out of the army in 1922, after suffering serious injuries at the battle of Ypres, he had been employed as a labourer on the construction of Chepstow racecourse. From then on be had no permanent work for the three years immediately prior to 1934, he had not done a 'stroke' as my mother was wont to say anyone who would listen. Her remarks more often than not fell on unsympathetic ears since it was evident even to us children, as we wended our way through the village to school seeing lines of unemployed men outside the labour exchange, that there were dozens of families in the same plight as ourselves.

Two weeks before, Christmas 1934, my father managed to get a wondrous and mysterious 'green card' which, as a child who did not really understand these things, seemed to open. the doors to prosperity and was as difficult to obtain as a flight to the moon. My mother never failed to ask my father on his return home from. his visits to the exchange where the unemployed had to sign-on. three times a week, if he had managed to get a green card, but the answer was almost always 'no' even. if he had been near the front of the queue and had managed to catch the eye of the all-powerful man who could issue these passports to a brighter future.

To a family of six on means-test of 26/- (1.30) a week - unemployment benefit was not so bad. It was the means-test which was so punishing with my father's army pension of 10/- (50p) a week having to be taken into account - the thought of him getting work - albeit for only a week - was too exciting. to contemplate! How mother planned for as - the feast we would have! She had, in her single days, been employed in domestic service (her last job being cook to the Bishop of Hereford) and knew how to do things right. In fact, had her catering expertise not been what it was, we would surely have starved, being far too proud to go on 'the Parish'. There would be presents for everyone, no one was forgotten in her generosity - why, she would even send a Christmas card to the housekeeper, to the millionaire barrister, one of whose cottages we rented for 7/6 (37p) a week.

The green card which my father had to present to the foreman of the local quarry as his entree to work on. the following Monday stayed on the mantelpiece as a constant reminder to us all of the good things in store. Monday came and Dad set off to work with such high hopes - perhaps the promised week's work would turn into two or even three, or permanent, who knew, anything was possible at Christmas-time. Dad worked hard on Monday and Tuesday, but on Wednesday it rained and the men were stood off. Thursday, Friday and Saturday it poured and drenched men waited anxiously in the hope the downpour would stop to enable them to take up picks and shovels again. It did not and my father had two days pay - no guaranteed working week in those days and as he was employed on the first day of the week there was no unemployment benefit either.

How deflated we were - still we had a good Christmas dinner I remember - a delicious sheep's broth as only my mother could make it, but no lovely presents, only each other in our continuing poverty.


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