Excerpt of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
(Page 2 of 3)
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My early school days don't stand out much in my mind. My
brother and I began proper school together. They let you start
at the age of four in those days. My mother sent me there as
well because she had another baby coming along and she
thought that would be two of us out of the way.
We had to come home for dinner. There were no such things
as school meals and school milk. You took a piece of bread
and butter with you, wrapped in a piece of paper, and gave
it to the teacher to mind, because many of us children were so
hungry that we used to nibble it during the course of the
morning when we should have been doing what ever we did
have to do. It was then doled out to us at eleven o'clock.
I always enjoyed going to school because I did pretty well
there. I never found any of it hard except things like art,
knitting, and needlework. Singing was hopeless, too. None of
those things were any good to me at all. The needlework was
my biggest hate. We had to make such ugly garments; chemises
and bloomers - as they were called then. Both made of
calico. The chemises were wide with sort of cap sleeves and
they reached down to the knees. The bloomers did up at the
back with buttons and were also voluminous. Whoever bought
these awful garments when they were fi nished I really don't
know. I should imagine they were given to the work house
because I certainly never brought any home.
But the great thing about school in those days was that we
had to learn. I don't think you can beat learning; how to read
and write, and how to do arithmetic. Those are the three things
that anyone who has got to work for a living needs. We were
forced to learn and I think children need to be forced. I don't
believe in this business of 'if they don't want to do it, it won't
do them any good'. It will do them good. Our teacher used to
come around and give us a mighty clump on the neck or box
on the ears if she saw us wasting our time. Believe me, by the
time we came out of school, we came out with something. We
knew enough to get us through life. Not that any of us thought
about what we were going to do. We all knew that when we
left school we'd have to do something, but I don't think we
had any ambitions to do any particular type of work.
It was when I got to the age of about seven that I, as it were,
took my place in life. You see, with my mother going off early
in the morning to do her charring and me being the eldest
girl, I used to have to give the children their breakfast. Mind
you, giving them their breakfast wasn't a matter of cooking
anything. We never had eggs or bacon, and things like cereals
weren't heard of. We had porridge in the winter, and just
bread and margarine, and a scraping of jam, if Mum had any,
in the summer. Three pieces were all we were allowed. Then
I would make the tea, very weak tea known as sweepings -
the cheapest that there was - clear away and wash up, and
then get ready for school.
The two youngest I took along to the day nursery. It cost
sixpence a day each and for that the children got a midday
meal as well. I took them just before school time and collected
them the moment I came out of school in the afternoon.
At midday, I would run home, get the potatoes and the
greens on, lay up the dinner and do everything I could so that
when my mother rushed over from work, she just had to serve
Generally it was stews because they were the most filling.
Sometimes Mother would make a meat pudding. It's funny
now when I look back on it, this meat pudding. I would go
along to the butcher's and ask for sixpennyworth of 'Block
ornaments'. Hygiene was nothing like it is now and butchers
used to have big wooden slabs outside the shop with all the
meat displayed for the public and the flies. As they cut up the
joints, they always had odd lumps of meat left which they
scattered around. These were known as 'Block ornaments'. I
used to get sixpennyworth of them and a pennyworth of
suet. Then my mother would make the most marvellous meat
pudding with it.
Excerpted from Below Stairs
by Margaret Powell. Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Powell.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.