"Childhood - why, I remember it all as if it were only yesterday!"
Elderly people say this time and time again when they look back seventy or eighty years to the days when they were children. Even those who find it difficult to remember what they ate for lunch today have no difficulty whatsoever in recalling in minute detail what they did as children; it seems as though that part of the brain which stores memories from years back is often unaffected by the forgetfulness of old age, leaving early memories crystal clear.
This is one reason why childhood is such a rewarding topic to explore with the elderly; and using many interviews collected by Ambleside Oral History Group, "The Way We Were" will spend the next four weeks talking about childhood in Westmorland in the early years of this century,including a look at family life, hard times, and child labour as well as children's entertainments, games, toys and pastimes.
Interviews have revealed that children locally were, generally, healthy and robust. Although most of them caught the usual measles, scarlet fever or chickenpox, few were very badly affected. There were more serious outbreaks of diptheria from time to time, and polio not only crippled but killed too, but despite this, Westmorland was probably a healthier place for children to grow up in than a big town. Some families paid money they could ill afford to have regular visits from the local nurse, and if a child did fall gravely ill, poorer families were never short of gifts of food from neighbours and benevolent employers. However,hospital visiting only allowed parents to see a sick child just one Sunday afternoon a month, which caused great suffering and deprivation to unfortunate children such as polio victims who spent long periods of time in hospital.Memories of early illness and hospitals are often very sad ones.
Childhood in the past seventy years has changed beyond recognition, and three obvious reasons have emerged.
The first concerns the size of families. It was nothing unusual in the 1900s for parents to have six children, or even more. Children represented cheap labour in agricultural families, where self-sufficiency on the land meant that feeding them was never a serious problem. Nor was looking after them; grandmother was usually nearby if not living in the same house to help look after the eldest - and then the older children would look after the younger ones, leaving the mother to concentrate solely on the baby currently at the breast. Children were seldom lonely, and never short of playmates; and unless a parent died from illness, or perhaps a father was killed in the First World War, few marriages broke up, and relatively few women were left to cope alone without the support of a family.
Infant mortality at one time was so high that it was necessary to have several children just to replace those that failed to survive childhood. But by the 1900s, ordinary people understood basic hygiene and childcare, most babies survived and familes got bigger and bigger.
The second major difference in childhood in the 1900s related to the freedom with which even quite young children were able to roam the villages and countryside around their homes. Cars were few and far between in country areas until well after the First World War. Traffic was light and cars travelled relatively slowly, so that children had time to hear vehicles coming, and get out of the way. Added to this, there were far fewer strangers about that might have harmed children, and parents rarely worried about child abuse, assault or abduction:
"We ran free, we played everywhere as children, everywhere", one lady recalled. "Mother never worried where I was. She said people told her that she need never worry about me getting run over because I always got into the side of the road if I heard a car. Everybody knew me. I had a big teddy bear, and wherever I went, this teddy bear went with me. One morning Mother said someone had seen it on the wall. And it disappeared, with my shoes on, it was never found again. Mother thought that there was a young boy, younger than me that used to make me fight because he was always wanting my teddy bear. She thought they did something with it because there were always rows about this teddy. It had my little shoes on. And this was about the time they found me asleep up on the steps at The Mechanics' Institute, fast asleep. I suppose I'd run away somewhere and I'd got up these steps. There was a big party for the children whose fathers had been in the War, and I'd gone myself, and there I was with curls and an apron on. Somebody took my photograph. My mother didn't know where I was."
This freedom to play out of doors with no fear of the common dangers that haunt childhood now also meant that children needed, and had, far fewer toys because they spent comparatively little time indoors except in very bad weather. Youngsters knew a great deal about the wild life around them, and spent many happy carefree hours playing together on the fellsides, or climbing trees collecting birds eggs. What toys they had were crude and often home-made, and life out of doors, away from the grown-ups was, for boys and girls alike, the basis of many a carefree childhood.
But childhood in those days had its serious side, too. Children left school at 14 or sometimes earlier, and were expected to put in a full day's work for very little money from that time on. Many children ran errands or worked in their free time from as young as seven years old to contribute to the family budget, and they were widely exploited, working for next to nothing with little regard for their safety or welfare. Children living on farms were proud of the fact that they could usually help milk by the age of seven or eight, and milk deliveries and tasks like feeding the animals often had to be completed before and after a hard day at school. Fortunately, many youngsters greatly enjoyed their spare time work, and were delighted to earn a penny or two by whatever means they could devise:
"In those days there were no machines for milking - you sat on a milking stool, and of course, you got a flick in the eye with a cow's tail. So the farmer would say, "If you'll hold a cow's tail, I'll give you a penny." I don't think I got a penny for every single one, but I've made many a penny holding cows' tails, which to us was marvellous, all the things we could buy with a penny! I used to buy rock from an old man that used to come with a cart."