Monday, 17 November 2014

Armistice Day

A World War One National Kitchen

This is another chapter from my aunt's memoirs where she describes Armistice Day as she saw it from the back streets of Derby in 1918 when she was ten years old.

November 11th 1918
It was a raw November morning, just like any other day. Little did we think as we scrambled out of bed, hurtled downstairs to wash and dress in front of the kitchen fire, that it was going to be one of the most important days of our lives.

Dressed, we sat down to a dish of porridge followed by dry toast. The porridge was sweetened with treacle which we held above the bowl on a spoon, and dribbling it made patterns on the creamy surface.

The treacle was different from both the Golden Syrup we buy today and the tinned thick black stuff. It was, being neither one nor the other, an in-between of the two. Golden brown, runny, certainly not sickly. We’d take an empty jam jar to our corner grocer’s shop and a pound jar was filled from a barrel for fourpence halfpenny.

I loved to watch the treacle sluggishly flow when the tap was turned on. Mr Scott the grocer always caught the last little drop on his finger as he turned off the tap, and licking it would smack his lips. How lucky he was, I wished I were a shop lady!

Off to school and at mid-morning out as usual into the playground. We were puzzled as to why the teacher hadn’t come outside to ring the bell signalling the end of our break when a girl said to me,

‘Look, Sir Thomas Roe’s flag is flying.’

I looked up and there on the big house across the way, the Union Jack fluttered high on its pole. There wasn’t much breeze but enough to move it gently.

We became aware just then that all the teachers had trooped outside, headed by the headmistress. We all stood and stared and though there was hardly any need, she put her hand up for silence. In a voice which trembled slightly she announced,

‘Children, I have to tell you the good, the wonderful news. The war is over. An armistice has been signed. You can all go home and tell your mothers and you need not come back to school this afternoon.’

An excited buzz started. She raised her hand again, telling us that we must first say the Lord’s Prayer and then sing the National Anthem. So we stood, first humbly with heads bent, then poured our hearts out in ‘God Save the King’.

We scampered into school for hats and coats and our feet barely touched the ground on our way home. Mam was in the scullery stirring a large pan of soup when my sisters and I burst in.

‘Well,’ she said after the news had sunk in, ‘as it’s a special day I will treat you to a dinner at the National Kitchen.’

We could hardly believe our ears! Lizzie, one of the girls from next door joined us and we set off, feeling as if we were on our way to Buckingham Palace. The National Kitchen was attached to a factory not far away and I should imagine served also as a canteen for the workers, though I didn’t know that then. It was a big, bare place and we must have been early as very few people were inside.

We had to go to a counter to collect our dinner, the cost of the meal with pudding to follow being sixpence each. There was beef, potatoes and peas, spotted dick and thin custard. The beef was eatable but it was a good thing we had strong teeth. The potatoes, plain boiled, were a bit watery, the gravy thin and anaemic, the peas like bullets, practically uneatable. There was a sudden burst of laughter from my elder sister and Lizzie.

‘What are they laughing at?’ I whispered to my younger sister. I was overawed at eating in a public place.

‘I don’t know,’ she whispered back, ‘but I heard Lizzie say something about the peas and a good blow-off would almost certainly shoot the cat.’

It took a few minutes to sink in and when it did, my face went scarlet. Furtively I looked over my shoulder. Was anyone near enough to have heard?

The spotted dick was nowhere near as good as Mam’s and after getting a jug of celery soup for her (we’d taken a large jug as Mam suffered with her stomach, but they only half filled it for sixpence) we walked back home. It was the first time I had ever eaten ‘out’ and I have never forgotten such a momentous occasion but I certainly didn’t think much of it at the time.

As the days passed, the lamplighter came back – the biggest joy of all. One night in bed my sister suddenly burst out laughing and when I asked her to tell the joke, she spluttered,

‘I was just remembering Lizzie and those peas.’

‘Oh yes,’ I answered innocently, ‘how did the poor cat get on?’ With that we both guffawed and Mam put her head round the bedroom door with a stern warning about being fit for school in the morning.


James Higham said...

Certainly brings it to life.

Demetrius said...

Aarrrgggh, porridge with real treacle, spotted dick, I am drooling. In WW2 the communal food places were British Restaurants located anywhere with a kitchen, such as church halls. Some them were quite good and they made a huge difference to many households.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, there is nothing like a first hand account.

Demetrius - I like spotted dick, often have it if it's on the menu although it is never as good as home made.

Sam Vega said...

"We’d take an empty jam jar to our corner grocer’s shop and a pound jar was filled from a barrel for fourpence halfpenny."

That's proper recycling, that is.

FrankC said...

No Sam. That's reusing, a small step better than recycling.

A K Haart said...

Sam and Frank - yes and they only threw out what was broken and beyond repair.

It's what we should do with governments I suppose.