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U3A Writing: At Home In Birkenhead

…There was an alleyway access to the back yard, which we called 'the entry' but others called 'the jigger'. My mum decreed that this word was 'common'! I remember once having some (forbidden) chewing gum and hiding it on the window-sill of another house in the entry. I had to reach above my head but to my mother it was clearly visible from her back kitchen window. Sometimes we were given the embarrassing (to us) job of counting how many sacks the coalman had emptied into the coal-place next to the outside loo. The last job on wash day was to use the last of the water to swill the yard and scrub it with a stiff brush….

Elizabeth Robison recalls her childhood home in Birkenhead. For more of Liz’s entertaining words please click on A Potter’s Moll in the menu on this page.

There was a small nucleus of houses that were central to our childhood and known either by the street name or the house number. Thus '123' was our grandparents' house where we lived until 1949, '24' was the house of my mother's sister who had married my father's brother, then there were 'Lingdale' and 'Borrowdale'. Our house was known as '42'. Most of our family and social life focussed on these five houses.

Housing was in short supply on Merseyside after World War Two and my parents felt lucky to secure no 42 Grange Mount. Mum had been told by a fortune teller that she would be able to spit from where she was living to her new house, and it was almost true ¾ '123' was one short street away from '42'.
One of my earliest memories is of riding around the four empty downstairs rooms on my tricycle before we moved in. But it's surprising how patchy memory is and many of mine about the house are an amalgamation of impressions over the next few decades.

It was a late Edwardian brick built double fronted house in the middle of a terrace of three with the proverbial pocket handkerchief lawns at the front and a yard and outside loo at the back. There was an alleyway access to the back yard, which we called 'the entry' but others called 'the jigger'. My mum decreed that this word was 'common'! I remember once having some (forbidden) chewing gum and hiding it on the window-sill of another house in the entry. I had to reach above my head but to my mother it was clearly visible from her back kitchen window. Sometimes we were given the embarrassing (to us) job of counting how many sacks the coalman had emptied into the coal-place next to the outside loo. The last job on wash day was to use the last of the water to swill the yard and scrub it with a stiff brush.

The rooms on either side of the front door were designated 'the front room' and 'the dining room', though to my knowledge no one ever dined there. It had new (modern) furniture - sideboard, table and four chairs in light oak. The tiled fireplace had ornaments in strange shades of pink and green but seldom if ever was there a fire in that room. A particular delight of mine was to be allowed to 'tidy' the sideboard. At my grandfather's house I was allowed to 'root' in a little many drawered cabinet, but I sensed that 'tidying' would be more acceptable to Mum.

The sideboard contained seldom-used treasures like an EPNS tea set, silver cruet set, boxes of satin or velvet lined cutlery ¾ I liked the seemingly luxurious boxes even more than the contents ¾ various bits of assorted china and placemats. My younger sister, Margo, says that she misheard the name of the room as the 'dying room' which puzzled her. Ironically my grandfather and later my father did die in that room - a bed having been 'brought down' as they did in those days.
In the front room a collection of cut glass (mainly wedding presents, I think) was housed in a glass display cabinet. 'Display' is the operative word: hardly anything was ever used except perhaps a trifle dish on high days and holidays. This leads me to the tale of the Great Display Cabinet Disaster. The baby's pram was kept in the front room, (Silver Cross, naturally). One day the door was left open (strictly against the rules), and the toddler, Margo, pushed the pram forwards so that the handles shattered the glass doors and all the glass shelves collapsed. Pandemonium! 'Go and get Nain', (grandmother), I was commanded, so I ran down the street. She said that she would come when she had finished the washing. When I reported this, out of breath from running down then back up the street, Mum wailed, 'Did you tell her I'm crying?'

The front room was also used at weekends and holidays for family get togethers. Fire would be carried on a shovel from the kitchen to get the new fire going (awful acrid smell), and aunts and uncles would turn up for games (Town, Country, River) and singsongs. Uncle Eddie could play any tune on the piano by ear, and he would be accompanied by singers and recorders, castanets, maracas, etc.

When Jim first came to our house for Christmas in 1972, he was amazed at this jolly cacophony. Mum, Margo and I were singing a Victorian parlour song, ‘Angus Macdonald’, very melodramatic (Oh hark, there’s a call, there’s a stir in the glen; the calling of pibrochs, the marching of men!) Jim was given a jar of dried peas to shake, and Dad had a squeaky toy under his foot. “We’ll have to play louder, Jim,” Dad said, “we can still hear them!” Aunty Eunice could sometimes be prevailed upon to play her party piece on the piano – ‘Melody d’Amour’ ¾ which involved much bending back and forth over the keys and crossing of hands.

I (and Margo for a while) had piano lessons in the front room, so it was also used for practice – not often in Margo’s case, and I remember her begging Mum to tell the teacher she was ill. I have an old piano book where she has drawn ten lines which are to be crossed out as she practises the piece ten times. Underneath in her childish hand is written ¾ ‘Practice time is not a nice time!’

On occasions grandfather and Uncle Rob would sit in and hum along to my practising. The latter bought a piece of music for me to learn because he thought it was so fine ¾ ‘Let the great big world keep turning, never mind now I’ve found you….’ by Leroy Anderson. (That had some hand-crossing too, as I recall.)

The kitchen at the back was our living room, the hub of the house with a fire more or less always (back boiler, hot water). This was flanked by a small pantry and the back kitchen where all the cooking and washing occurred. The floors were tiled, which meant any dropped crockery broke automatically. I can remember Dad would always say, “Are you alright?” if he heard a crash.

There was a rack with a pulley for drying clothes ¾ my grandfather’s long johns would brush your head as you walked by. Mum used to stand the vacuum cleaner beside the gas stove ¾ only ages later did I realise it was because Glyn, my brother, was scared of the noise the vacuum cleaner made, so it served as a deterrent to stop him fiddling with the gas taps.
In the pantry Dad kept little hanks of saved string on a hook and folded tissue paper and brown paper behind the bread bin. At Christmas the turkey (or the bird) lay in state there for a couple of days before Christmas Day, and any visitor would be invited to inspect it: “Would you like to look at the bird?”
In the kitchen a huge table could seat six, seven, eight or more. A sofa and armchair completed the furnishings.

Grandfather would read his Welsh paper ‘Y Tyst’ on Sunday lunchtimes as roast lamb smells mingled with mint sauce and his St Bruno Flake tobacco. On other occasions the chair was occupied by a family friend known as Polly Flapjack (because of an unwise millinery choice in the past). She was in service in Port Sunlight, and sometimes spent her day off with us.
Homework was done around that table, crosswords puzzled over, the radio listened to, ironing done on an old blanket. Visiting friends and neighbours would prop their elbows on the table while dunking ginger biscuits in tea. Children played house underneath it.

One particular neighbour who we called Aunty Irene (a good clean Catholic, according to Mum) was a frequent visitor to our kitchen. She was a great Mrs Malaprop and when ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) became all the rage, she referred to it darkly as: ‘Do it alone’.

The DIY craze caught on with a vengeance in our house, and one by one all the original features of the inside of the house were ‘modernised’. The stained glass vestibule door went, as did the encaustic tiles on the hall floor, the wooden front door gave way to a glass panelled one, the banisters were panelled in, as were all the interior doors. I can remember being sent down the road to the DIY shop, as the ironmonger’s had become known, for two (more) pounds of panel pins.
I’m sure I could write another whole chapter about the upstairs ¾ bathroom, four bedrooms, large landing, but that’s for another time.

I’ll finish off by mentioning a small but sacred space to my brother and me ¾ ‘under the stairs’. Access was by way of a beaded curtain and there was a very low wattage light bulb. The space housed the gas meter (and smelled of gas) and hooks for coats. It was also our sanctuary on wet days to peruse a set of encyclopaedias and a 20 volume Official History of the First World War. We spent hours pouring over photos and sepia prints depicting the various battles and pages of photos of the dead and wounded. When I asked Mum later what happened to them, she said she’d probably put them out for the bin man. Sacrilege!

That’s 42 Grange Mount. Whether you came in through the front door or the back there was always a warm welcome and the kettle was always on.

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