My grandma was a dancer. She had lovely hair and even lovelier legs. She met my grandfather, an airforce pilot, during one of his training drills during WW2. It was a fire safety drill. The airforce boys needed two volunteers to leap from the “burning building” into the safety net below. My grandma and her friend were passing by. No doubt encouraged by much inappropriate wolf-whistling, they decided that they were the girls for the job. So it was that Kath, the dancing daredevil, jumped from a burning building into the arms of Geoff, the dashing, sharp-nosed airforce pilot. They married quickly, as so many couples did in wartime.
Despite this wildly romantic beginning, the marriage ended in tragedy when in 1958, Geoff, never able to adjust to life as a worker bee after the glory and drama and intensity of life as a pilot, committed suicide in the family garage in Florida on Johannesburg’s West Rand. Kath never remarried. Years later, in 1980 when I was 3, Kath would jump from another building, not into the waiting arms of her beau this time though. She would meet the pavement in Parktown at quite a speed and in pieces.
My father adored his mother and I grew up with stories of kind, resilient, hard-working Kath who raised her son as a single parent. Money was tight but she always made a plan to give my father his pocket-money; even if it meant shoving cardboard into her work shoes to make them last longer. My father saved this hard-earned pocket-money to buy himself records, with a few tickies set aside for sweets. He listened to rock music, grew his hair long and wore glasses like Ringo Starr’s. But, he was always aware of what his mother had sacrificed for him to live his life of long-haired freedom.
As an only child (and an adored one at that), every time I whined about not having the latest Barbie or Flower Fairy Doll or the most luminous 1980s leggings, my father would haul out that ol’ “when I was young…” chestnut. I used to roll my eyes, sometimes cry a bit, stick out my bottom lip and moan about how unfair my life was.
Fast forward 30 years and I have my own two adored children. And blow me down if I don’t say to them at least once a week, “When I was young…”. They are as unmoved as I was. They still won’t eat the first supper I put in front of them even when I tell them that I was never allowed to refuse supper and treat home-cooking like ordering off a menu at a restaurant. There is no sympathy for my having grown up without both a mother and the internet.
And if the average week is full of demands and ‘I wants’, the school holidays are quite simply torture. The Easter holidays might even be the worst of them because there are cupboards full of chocolate. The children know it. They want chocolate for breakfast. And it’s their chocolate because the bunny gave it to them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful children. They are kind, thoughtful, eloquent and smart. They just don’t know how good they’ve got it. As I didn’t. As my dad didn’t. As his dad didn’t and so on ad infinitum. I think that however validly awful life was for the generation before, there’s always going to be some smart aleck with a protruding lower lip who wants chocolate for breakfast.
BUT, for the next school holidays, I’m going to be prepared. I will not give in to the R500 snacks at the movies. I am not going to buy a little knick-knack from the toy shop just to have a moment’s peace. I will not do these things because I am going to scar my children for life by telling them about Victorian child labour! If they’re not impressed by how the stock market crash of the mid-1980s affected my Barbie buying-power, they will be impressed by the Little Matchstick Girl. If you also need a few horror stories with which to encourage your children to count their blessings, behold…
Tin Mine Workers
The second to last family tree that I worked on featured a family from Cornwall. The family was involved in the copper and tin mining industries. In researching the tree, I came across a photograph of a young Victorian boy, sitting in the dark of the mine, all alone. He operated the lift that took the miners to and from the surface. He sat all day in the dark. He did have a candle attached to his mining helmet with clay, which I suppose he could have lit should the dark overwhelm. I imagine though that the mine owners did not offer an endless supply of these candles, so most of his 12 hour days underground would have been spent in a dark so impenetrable that it is difficult for me to imagine.
“I sit in the dark down in the pit for 12 hours a day. I only see daylight on Sundays when I don’t work down the pit. Once I fell asleep and a wagon ran over my leg”Boy aged 7
“I hate the dark, it scares me. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing, there is nothing else to do other than open and close the door.”Girl aged 8
And if the children survived the dark and the collapses and the explosions and the poisonous gasses, they could look forward to miner’s phthisis in their middle age.
Below are collected a few causes of death of children working underground in the mines. (Information from www.chiddingston.kent.sch.uk)
- A driver aged 12. Head crushed between tub top and a plank while riding on limmers.
- A trapper aged 13. Head crushed between cage and bunton while riding to bank.
- Tub Cleaner, aged 13. Fell down the shaft off a pumping engine.
- Boy aged 14, drowned.
- Boy, aged 7. Killed in an explosion.
- Trapper , aged 9. Killed in an explosion.
- Driver, aged 14. Crushed against wall by a horse.
- Screen Boy, aged 15. Head crushed between a tub and screen legs ; too little room.
Now, that should put a stop to the chocolate for breakfast debate.
The Little Match Girl
I have just once read the Hans Christian Anderson story of the little match girl to my son. I wept (as I always do); my son sat wide-eyed with horror all the way through to the not so happily ever after ending.
There were real matchstick sellers – young girls and boys selling matches in the streets but there were also “matchgirls” who worked in the match factories. Hours in the factory were long, the workers were not well-paid and there were severe health complications for those who handled phosphorous all day. How’s this for a description of a day’s work?
The hour for commencing work is 6.30 in summer and 8 in winter; work concludes at 6 p.m. Half-an-hour is allowed for breakfast and an hour for dinner. This long day of work is performed by young girls, who have to stand the whole of the time. A typical case is that of a girl of 16, a piece-worker; she earns 4s. a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who “earns good money, as much as 8s. or 9s. per week”. Out of the earnings 2s. is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where “you get coffee, and bread and butter, and jam, and marmalade, and lots of it”; now and then she goes to the Paragon, someone “stands treat, you know”, and that appeared to be the solitary bit of color in her life. The splendid salary of 4s. is subject to deductions in the shape of fines; if the feet are dirty, or the ground under the bench is left untidy, a fine of 3d. is inflicted; for putting “burnts” – matches that have caught fire during the work – on the bench 1s. has been forfeited, and one unhappy girl was once fined 2s. 6d for some unknown crime. If a girl leaves four or five matches on her bench when she goes for a fresh “frame” she is fined 3d., and in some departments a fine of 3d. is inflicted for talking. If a girl is late she is shut out for “half the day”, that is for the morning six hours, and 5d. is deducted out of her day’s 8d. One girl was fined 1s. for letting the web twist round a machine in the endeavor to save her fingers from being cut, and was sharply told to take care of the machine, “never mind your fingers”. Another, who carried out the instructions and lost a finger thereby, was left unsupported while she was helpless. The wage covers the duty of submitting to an occasional blow from a foreman; one, who appears to be a gentleman of variable temper, “clouts” them “when he is mad”.
As with the mining example, the long hours and tough working conditions were often the least of your worries. The matchsticks were initially made by dipping an end into white phosphorous (although after the 1888 matchgirls strike, more factories started using the more expensive red phosphorous) which was a known cause of Phossy Jaw. Phossy Jaw is a necrosis of the jaw caused by continued exposure to white phosphorous. Symptoms start with toothache and a swelling in the gums. As the condition deteriorates abscesses form on the jaw bone and the bones glow an eery white-green. Death could be averted by removing the affected bones but very often those who suffered from phossy jaw died a horrible, painful, disfiguring death.
So there we have it…one horror story for my boy child and one for the girl child. Upon reflection, I don’t think I can really tell them about phossy jaw and head-crushing. They may never sleep again and we have enough trouble with that in the first place. This is unfortunate, because despite the fact that today was back-to-school day, we are going on an overseas trip next week. All four of us in one hotel room for 8 days.
I wonder how many days in I will be yelling, “No! I will not buy you a banana-frond skirt/hat. We’re here for the experience, not the stuff. When I was young, I never got time off school for a holiday in the Seychelles! And I certainly never owned a banana-frond skirt. I wore the same stone-washed denim bubble skirt for 3 seasons!”
“WHEN I WAS YOUNG…”