This is part three of my grandmother’s audio tape, recorded in the 1970s. Bertha Louise Roberts was born in 1897 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. Last week she was describing her church, and some of her church memories are continued here. She also begins to describe her life after school, and what it was like to go to work at age 13 as an undernurse at the vicarage. Parts of this story remind me of the old PBS show “Upstairs Downstairs”, which was a portrayal of servants in the same Edwardian time period in England.
“A few weeks before Christmas a few of us would get together, neighborhood children, and we would go out Christmas caroling. We'd go to the different houses, the small group of us, and sing the carols and when we got through singing them we would always say this ditty: "A little bit of spice cake, little bit of cheese, a glass of cold water and a penny if you please. If you haven't a penny, a ha'penny will do. If you haven't got a ha'penny God Bless You!" Well, some of the people would have us go in the house and give us some goodies and pennies. And we thought that was a lot of fun. We didn't have too much snow in those days, but it rained a lot there and of course it was very damp. And I can remember when I was a child we didn't wear overshoes or anything like that. But I would get chilblains, and then when I would get in the house and get near the fire these chilblains would start itching.
We lived in that house until I was about thirteen and then we moved to a larger house at the top of the hill. We thought that was something because the house I was born in we had to share our toilet with the next-door neighbor and further along the street. It was a short street, there were about eight houses, but each two houses shared a toilet. So when we went to the bigger house we had a little yard and the house went through to the next street. We had a toilet of our own and it (the house) was a little bigger and it was at the top of a steep street. I remember there was a factory nearby and the girls (it would get quite icy) and they would come running into the wall. We were at the top of the street and of course to go down that street it was kind of slippery.
At the church we also had a Girls Friendly Society. This was very nice. We could go and we had gymnasium and different things, different competitions, and I know they had a competition with all the different Girl Friendly Societies in Leeds. We would have a competition once a year on drilling and poetry and different things. I remember one year I got an award for reciting "Old Young Lockenbar." (sic?)
When I was thirteen I left school. The education stopped there unless you got a scholarship and you had to be brilliant to get a scholarship. So I thought I would like to be a children's nurse. So I was taken into this vicarage for another big church in Leeds and there were four children. There was a nurse, a nanny, dressed in a nanny's uniform. And there was twins. There was an older boy, the oldest boy, and then these twin boys, one of them had one leg shorter than the other. And I had to take him on the moor with the nurse. The nurse would have the baby in the pram. I would get up very early in the morning and have a lot of work to do. In fact, I really didn't know how to do too much housework because I was the baby of the family and really had never done too much. And it was difficult for me to get the fire started and lots of other things that I had to learn to do the right way.
The day nursery was a huge room and I had my work, a little pantry where I had to do certain things each morning. Such as clean the windows in the day nursery and the night nursery one morning and of course always see that the fire was lit and do quite a lot before the children got up in the morning. And then I helped bathe the children and I would... I didn't do any cooking or anything. I would go down to get the food and bring it up. But I had to clean the silver mugs that the children had. And things like that.
And then get ready to go on the moor with the nurse. The nurse and the cook didn't get along with each other and it made it difficult for me. I would go down and chop great big hunks of coal and cook didn't give me the newspapers that I needed for the fire and we didn't have any nice things sent up to us. We got the food but we didn't have any cakes or anything nice sent up so us. I was really very homesick and I would run all the way home, and my mother would say "If you're not happy, Bertha, you don't have to stay there." But I just felt that I had to. I was allowed to go home on Sunday afternoons so I could go to Sunday school and I would have supper with my family and then my father would take me back because the vicarage was in a very isolated part of the city. And I always had a lot of newspapers and a cake that Mother had made for me. Then I had half a day once a month that I could go home.
There was quite a class distinction over there and the vicar's wife was really very snobbish. I was just a little servant girl and there was lots of things I couldn't do. I wasn't allowed to do…. And lots of times they would have parties for the children and some of the children were probably just as old as I was. But if we played games I had to go outside of the nursery and then go back in again. I had to be the last one to go in. It gave me sort of an inferiority complex but finally I had big rosy cheeks and the nurse was very nice to me. But after she left I wasn't too happy there so I came home again.
I didn't know what to do really and my sister was working at dressmaking. Now when you go for a trade you go for a whole year and you don't get any pay and Mother thought I should go and learn to be a dressmaker. My sister was very good at it but I didn't really care for it. I wasn't cut out for that kind of work. But I went, and I never told anyone that I didn't like it. We worked for two maiden ladies and they were very strict. And we'd work long hours and I remember we'd have afternoon tea just long enough to run all the way home just long enough to have a piece of cake and a cup of tea and then run back again. We'd work until half past seven at night. And if we….… if I got up to sweep the floor before half past seven there was black lips given to me.”