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Open Features: Our Lily

Judith Jacks tells of a young lady called Lily who liked hats.

Do keep a lookout for more of Judith’s engaging words in future editions of Open Writing.

In 1905, shortly after her fourteenth birthday, Lily was taken on as a milliner’s apprentice in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She had grown up a few miles further south in the busy port of West Hartlepool, the daughter of a ship’s riveter. A pale tongue-tied girl, she was the second youngest in a family of twelve children, each of whom had been born in a different shipyard town.

Once she had learned enough to read a prayer book, jot down a recipe and add up how much her Mam owed the rent man, nobody could see much point in her going to school. Also by then most of her brothers and sisters were married and whenever a new baby needed minding it was Lily they called upon.

Her little brother Joseph, a frail hunched boy in a wheelchair, needed her too. She and Mam would take turns sleeping with him so they could tend to him in the night. Often the next day she would be too tired to go to school. She fell so much behind that whenever she did turn up the teachers just gave her a rag and a bucket and told her to clean the blackboards.

‘If our Lily’s going to skivvy for somebody’, her father reasoned one evening as they all sat around the table, ‘she might as well get paid for it.’

‘Do you fancy working at one of them big houses up near the park?’ Her brother Theo was visiting on his way home from the shipyard. ‘They’re always on the lookout for kitchen lasses.’

Lily shook her head.

‘Or a bit further afield?’ her mother called out from the kitchen, ‘I bet our Maggie could find you something in Middlesbrough.’ She carried in a big brown teapot and set it on the table, looking down at her thoughtfully.

‘Er, not too far afield, I hope,’ said Theo hastily. His wife was expecting their fourth child and would need help soon. He nudged his sister’s arm. ‘Get on, our Lily, and set the cups out for Mam.’

‘Is there owt in particular you want to do?’ pressed her mother. ‘What sorts of things do you like?’

‘Hats,’ said Lily suddenly, her grey eyes lighting up. ‘I like hats.’

So hats it was. Mam reached up to the jar she kept on the mantelpiece and rattled it. Over the years she had scraped together enough money to start out most of her children in a trade of some kind. Lily would be the last; they all knew that Joseph would never be able to work.

‘I’ll make enquiries,’ she said.

* * * *

‘Madame Lenore’s Ladies Hats and Chapeaus’ was a tiny shop tucked under Newcastle railway bridge near the top of a long winding street known as The Side. There was a showroom on the ground floor, its window shrouded in dusty lilac net, with a few gilt-painted chairs for customers and a selection of hats strung on spindly black poles like exotic flowers. The shop was damp and during high tides in the Tyne there was also a faint stench of sewage. Each morning Madame Lenore would come into to the showroom and sniff. If there was anything that might put the ladies off she would dabble a few drops of Attar of Roses about the place to cover up the smell.

It was here that Theo brought Lily. They had travelled up the coast by train, her small suitcase on his knee, 10/6d from his mother’s jar in the pocket of his shiny brown suit. When they got out at Newcastle Station they stood for a moment arm-in-arm, baffled by the loudspeaker announcements and whirl of folk around them.

Theo hurried her over the road to the Cocoa House at the back of the station and sat watching her as she drank a cup of chocolate and polished off a toasted teacake. He shook his head when she offered him some.

‘You might’ve missed your dinner at the hat shop,’ he said. ‘Just eat up and don’t mind me.’ Before he handed her over to Madam Lenore he gave her a penny – ‘In case you ever need the lavvy when you’re out...’ – and a postage stamp, to write home.

* * * *

Lily and the other girls worked together in a large crowded room on the first floor of Madame Lenore’s. The bare windows looked out onto the brick supports of the railway bridge. They sat all day at tables littered with hat blocks and shapes, reels and bobbins, everything they would need for the making of ladies’ hats. There were glass-fronted boxes filled with feathers and frothy lace and wisps of veil. Shelves were piled with battered tins full of buttons, sequins, lacquered pins and diamante clips. The shop tried to keep a stock of every colour anyone might ask for – white for brides, black for widows, summer pastels and autumn golds – but if a customer brought in a piece of material they would like their hat to match, then Madam Lenore would skilfully mix up a dye to the exact shade needed.

One of Lily’s first jobs there was to dye a mound of feathers purple – or heliotrope as Madame Lenore called it - to trim a felt beret for the wife of the superintendent of Pilgrim Street police station. She was far too slow and the other girls got impatient with her. Afterwards her hands and nails were dyed heliotrope too and she was not allowed to touch anything light-coloured. She had to sit up a corner for the rest of the day winding unruly black elastic onto bobbins.

The girls slept in the attic. There were two rooms up there: one for Madame Lenore and the other, crowded with a selection of rickety beds, for the apprentice girls. Although Lily was used to sharing a bedroom, at first she could not sleep at all. She lay awake for hours listening to the strange sighs and snores of the girls, their whispers and high whinnying laughs. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of their sweat and their menstrual blood and dreaded the sound of their footsteps to the pittle-pot in the night. As the newest girl, it was her job each morning to carry the full pot carefully down two flights of stairs, through the showroom and the kitchen and out into the back yard where she tipped the slops down the drain.

After she had finished with this first task of the day, she would join the other girls for breakfast in the kitchen. Madame Lenore – whose real name was Nora Tukes – would sit at the head of the large scrubbed table, the girls ranged around her on benches and assorted stools. Bella Tukes, Madame Lenore’s mother, wearing a pinafore made from an old cut-down frock, did all the cooking.

Bella was a portly frizzy-haired woman who smelled of carbolic soap and took a dim view of anything other than eating at the table. Every mealtime as the girls sat silently, heads down, hands in laps, she would carefully set out a full row of cutlery: soup spoons, fish knives and forks, dessert spoons, butter knives.

‘I want to learn you how to lay a table proper,’ she would say, shooting a glance at her daughter, ‘so you can go into service if you don’t pass here as a milliner.’

One such morning, less than a month after she arrived, Lily was sitting eating her breakfast with the others when the kitchen door suddenly banged open and Mam barged in. Madame Lenore, who was just about to tuck into one of the kippers Bella had hauled out of a large kettle of boiling water, leaped to her feet.

‘What’s this?’ she shouted at the intruder.

‘No!’ countered Lily’s mother, ‘What’s this?’ She held up what was lying on her daughter’s plate. ‘A half a kipper, that’s what it is - and there’s no daughter of mine going to work all day on just half a kipper....’

Later, after a lot of shouting and Lily’s things being thrown back into her suitcase, she and Mam were bundled out onto The Side and the door of Madame Lenore’s slammed behind them.

‘Four shilling,’ said Mam, opening her hand and showing Lily the coins. ‘That was all she’d give me back, the bugger.’

As the train trundled back down along the coast to West Hartlepool, she explained why she’d come for her.

‘It was your letter about them purple feathers,’ Mam said, settling back in her seat. ‘I could tell you weren’t happy. Besides, our Theo’s missus isn’t back on her feet yet after the new bairn.’

Lily gazed out of the window at the choppy sea and at the long pale strand of beach running alongside the railway line towards home. She was trying to remember the order of the knives and forks for when she had to lay a table proper.

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