A 1950's English Childhood Chapter 2: Pork Pies and Sugar Pigs
My childhood was spent in a small market town in the English East Midlands during the 1950s . Life is those days was very different from the childhood that kids in the affluent West nowadays enjoy. Britain was still in a period of post-war economic recovery. Life then was simpler, uncomplicated by consumerism and technology. I've gathered together a few short vignettes of my memories. Here's a sample...
Man in the Kitchen
When my father was a young boy, one of the many money-making initiatives that his mother devised was to secure for him a place as a part-time butcher's boy for Mr Harvey, whose shop was at the top of the street where they lived. Mr Harvey, as well as slicing off the top of Dad's finger in a sausage machine that was a Health and Safety Hazard (did the concept exist in 1937?), taught my father to make pork pies. Soon after this, Dad escaped to the Royal Navy and probably didn't give pork pie another thought for the next twenty years; until 1957 in fact. My grandmother kept pigs on an allotment garden and Dad decided to use some of the meat that was produced to make pork pies. My sister and I watched in fascination as he set about his project: Make Pork Pies for Christmas. He mixed the hot water crust pastry, chopped the fatty cuts of pork into small pieces, was profligate with pepper, produced so much mixture that every remotely suitable kitchen receptacle was brought into use, including cake tins that measured eight inches in diameter. At the end of an absorbing Saturday three very large pork pies and several smaller ones resided on the larder shelves. It would be impossible for us to eat all of them so some were to be doled out as Christmas gifts.
The ceremony of sampling the first of Dad's hand-crafted delicacies took place a couple of days later. We gathered around the dining room table to watch the dissection. A sharp carving knife made no impact on the pastry. Finally exhausted by his efforts, Dad charged off to his shed and emerged wielding a chisel which he used to batter his way to the meat inside the unyielding crust. We all stood around silently, gazing in dismay at the carnage. I watched from the corner of my eye as Mum cast around in her mind for something positive to say. She wasn't normally lost for words and didn't let me down. After a brief pause, during which she seemed to be attempting to eat her bottom lip, she offered "Well, perhaps we can eat the meat".
The pork pies were consigned to the dustbin but Dad’s culinary ambitions had been kindled. Our childhood was punctuated with various entertaining episodes in the kitchen, including attempts at bottling tomatoes, salting beans, and a lengthy period when each Saturday evening he concocted an unusual curry which included apples and sultanas.
Then came a phase of wine-making which involved us all. We cycling into the surrounding countryside on autumn afternoons to fill wicker baskets to the brim with blackberries gathered from the hedgerows. We preferred our blackberries in Mum's pies but Dad was fired up to transform them into wine. I don’t recall that anyone ever tasted the vintage. It was despatched to the floor in the larder, where it joined the potato and rhubarb wines and gathered dust until mother finally grew exasperated, ejected the lot, and reclaimed her territory.
The Works Christmas Party
For several years I reluctantly allowed my father to lift me on to the child’s seat attached to the crossbar of his bike and pedal us to the Children’s Christmas Party that had been arranged to take place in the canteen of the ball bearing factory where he worked. Here I was abandoned among a throng of noisy children. The factory was the largest employer in the town so the party was attended by a lot a children. It was an overwhelming, bewildering, event for a shy child. We were given food that most of the children were too excited or, in my case at least, too nervous to eat; we watched Laurel and Hardy performing incomprehensible antics on a big screen, and were entertained by a magician. Towards the end of the party balloons were released from a net attached to the ceiling and one or two lucky children went home with one of the few that had not been burst by the more boisterous bigger boys. Finally, we were released clutching a small toy presented by a pretend Father Christmas, a sugar pig, and an orange .The feeling of relief on arriving home unscathed by the experience was beyond enormous.
The Goose Is Cooked
The benefits of Christmas were almost outweighed by the downside of the celebrations: goose. On Christmas morning my grandmother, who we were required to address as Nanny, routinely ladled off large quantities of molten fat produced by the sizzling bird and consigned it in bowls to the cellar.
At the first hint of a chest infection during the following months, the goose grease re-emerged.
‘That child is wheezy’, Nanny would pronounce, accusingly. ‘Fetch the goose grease from the cellar!’
Up it came, to be slapped on to the offending child, rubbed in, covered by a piece of flannel cloth and then by a liberty bodice. I, my sister, and three little cousins watched in horror and dread.
‘Stop breathing, in case you’re wheezy too’, I whispered. ’She might hear’.
We all held our breath and hoped that Nanny wouldn’t attack us with the goose grease. A dose of toxic green medicine followed the basting of the helpless victim, washed down with a spoonful of sugar laced with eucalyptus oil. If we were lucky we escaped being basted but when Nanny was feeling particularly vigilant we could expect to be subjected to a prophylactic dose of medicine,
Uncertain if the final stage of Nanny’s medical intervention was further punishment or reward for endurance I was, on the other hand, certain, by the age of nine, that none of these vile concoctions produced any beneficial effect whatsoever. I suspected that the cause of their administration was pure spite because few in the household had seemed eager to eat the greasy bird. It seemed logical to suppose that Nanny cooked her goose simply to garner the fat. Now, as an adult, I realise that she was probably terrified that one or other of us would succumb to tuberculosis, which was widespread in those days and often fatal. Nanny’s husband and eldest daughter had died from it. Then,during my childhood, her younger daughter was confined to an isolation hospital for two years; leaving Nanny to attempt to keep her four offspring alive. With goose grease as the primary weapon in her arsenal.
During the nineteen-fifties, bicycles featured heavily in our small town. In fact, motor vehicles were such a rarity that I can recall a Sunday morning when my cousins and I stopped in our tracks on the way to Sunday school to watch a black car progress down one of the main roads into town.
At the moment that the car passed by we were standing outside a blacksmith's forge, one of our favourite places to linger. The frontage of the building was open to the street and we were able to watch from a safe distance. The blacksmith withdrew his red hot iron horseshoes from the fire with long tongues and hammered them into shape to the ring of metal on metal and the spectacle of red sparks flying into the air.
At four thirty every weekday afternoon throughout the nineteen-fifties the loud wail of an air raid siren flooded the town. The siren was a relic from the war years and had been adopted by Ransome and Marles, the biggest employer in the town. It signalled that it was the end of the working day and time for everyone to clock off. Soon after that a flock of bicycles streamed across the main crossroad in the town centre and dispersed in all directions. Dad was amongst the cyclists. As a small girl, I stood at our living room window on dark winter afternoons and watched the flickering light of his bicycle lamp turn the corner at the end of the street and draw nearer and nearer to home. When he had gone through the ritual of removing his hand knitted grey gloves, the muffler that often covered the lower half of his face, the metal bike clips that prevented his trousers from catching in the spokes of the wheels; and the final routine of clearing the mist from the round lens of his spectacles, it was teatime.
Once a week Dad and I travelled on his bike to the public library. I was tucked before him on a child’s seat clamped to the crossbar. I was forewarned that if anyone spoke in more than a hushed whisper in the library the wrath of the librarian would descend; so whilst Dad selected his books from the wooden shelves that towered over me I quietly browsed in the children’s corner, obedient to the large black sign that commanded SILENCE. It was here, at the age of four, that my love of books was first born and nurtured. Before I was five years old I had learned to read.
As I grew older I became too big for the child’s seat and was given my own bike, with stabilisers that were taken off when I had learned to balance. After that, I had the freedom of the open roads and lanes. Often on Sunday mornings Dad and I would go out into the countryside, sometimes just for a ride, sometimes to collect blackberries or the field fungi that are called blue stalks. We hardly ever saw another person during our outings, perhaps occasionally a farmer with whom Dad would chat briefly. The blue stalks were appreciated locally as a delicacy and Dad knew every field where they grew – always pastures where cows had been grazing. I was a fastidious little girl who disliked this aspect of our adventures since I had to tread a delicate path through the splotches of brown cowpats sprinkled amongst the daisies, clover and buttercups in the green meadows. Sometimes Dad collected so many blue stalks that he weighed them out on ancient kitchen scales and popped them into brown paper bags. Then they were packed into the green canvas Navy issue suitcase which bore his stencilled initials on the top and Mum took them on a twenty-mile bus trip to Nottingham, where they were sold to market traders and given as gifts to family.
Newark on Trent in the Post-War 1940s
This film was made when I was still a babe in arms. But life continued in this vein well into the 1950s. My home town was at the centre of an agricultural community and it felt to me as if my family was close to the land. My grandmother came from a family of small farmers. When I was a child she raised pigs on an allotment and cured the pork in her cellar. Later my father grew fruit and vegetables on the allotment in his spare time, supplying the family and selling the surplus to supplement the wages from his employment.
© 2016 Glenis Rix