A personal tale of the 20th Century


Written by my mother who died in 1978.  She had a sign in the hall of our house with the wood cut away to form the words: “Today is the Tomorrow We Worried About Yesterday – and all is well.” That epitomized her approach to life.

My mother’s journal, written in longhand and dated April 1974

Dedicated to my family, who I’ve loved, and hoping my grandchildren will understand a little of the life I’ve led.


I was born on February 5th 1908 at Grassmere Road, Lightwater, Surrey (England) and christened Vera Kathleen.

My mother, Helen Susan Barns, was born in Wales. I don’t know the birthplace but they moved to Oxford where her mother owned a shop.

My father, Charles Henry White, was born at Woodley (Berkshire, England) into a large family of thirteen and he was one of twins.

I never saw my granny on my mother’s side but I have vivid memories of my father’s family as they all lived at Woodley, right near the aerodrome. As each one married, it was called “White’s Village”.

I was the youngest of five children. I had three sisters and one brother. My eldest sister was named Beatrice, the next one, my brother, was Charles, then my sister Winnie and the next Elsie.

My parents were very poor but honest hard-working people. My father left school at the age of eleven and was apprenticed to interior decorating, which he continued to do until he died.

My parents moved from Surrey to 49 Amity Road, Reading (Berkshire, England) when I was two years old. It was only a small terraced house with a small front room, dining room, a scullery which is now called a kitchen, an outside toilet and three bedrooms. We never had bathrooms.

I was three when I started at Newtown School where I stayed until I left at fourteen.

But first I must try to remember the outstanding parts of my life before leaving school. I’ll try to recall the things that interested me while I was young and may interest my grandchildren as a lot of old customs have died out.

My mother was very strict but very clean and worked hard, staying up till midnight making our clothes on a sewing machine, and washing our underclothes which were all white calico and made that very hard work. There were no washing machines, only two tin baths and a scrubbing board. No washing powder, only soda, a piece of soap, a knob of blue and starch. It took all day to do the washing and then everything had to be scrubbed. We had an old copper for boiling the clothes and we burned wood and coal underneath. So after washing you had to take all the ashes out and whiten the copper with a pummy stone.  There were no bright clothes and I stand in shops today and stare at all the beautiful colours of the underclothes.

I had to wear black stockings and button-up black boots. You had a little crotchet hook to do the buttons up.

Being the youngest, all my clothes were handed down to me from my sisters as money was very tight.

We never had gas or electric fires. We had a big black kitchen range. You cooked on top of it and had an oven for baking. Everything was home-made and tasted so much better than food does today. But it was hard work as we used black lead to clean and polish the grate. The brass pokers also had to be polished.

We started off with oil lamps on the table for lighting but later had gas. Even on the bikes you had what was called betascetylene – like a grey powder for a light. There were no batteries.

As I grew older, I had to help with jobs around the house. We each had our own tasks to do before and after school. I had to run errands before school and always seemed to be late. We had a big bell on top of the school which was rung at 8.50am and 1.50 in the afternoon. I had three school friends and I still write to two of them.

On a Saturday night my mother and father would go to the market to buy cheap fish, fruit and vegetables. The market had wooden stalls and lamps were used for light. That was where the car park is now, just past St Laurence’s Church. While my parents were at the market, my sister Beatrice had to bath us in the old tin bath in the scullery where there was a little fireplace, but we had fun and we were a happy, affectionate family. My brother would play all sorts of tricks on us to frighten us but we were all in bed when our parents came home.

On Sunday morning we were given a boiled sweet as we had no pocket money and a sweet was a treat. We had to put our best clothes on and go to church, come home for Sunday lunch and then go to Sunday School, back home for tea and then church again in the evening.

I never had any toys or birthday parties. We didn’t know what a birthday cake looked like. Even at Christmas we bought strips of coloured paper and glue to make our own paper chains. We also made paper dresses.  We never had a Christmas tree. We did have good food although Christmas Eve meant very hard work. Dad always kept chicken. He’d kill a cockerel and then Mum would pluck all the feathers and clean the bird. While she was doing that, Beatrice and Winnie would have to make all the stuffing, rubbing stale bread and chopping onions and sage that Dad grew. We all helped make the Christmas pudding, taking stones out of raisins and cleaning currants, making mincemeat and pastry. While all this was going on, a big piece of ham would be cooking because, although money was short, food was very cheap.

At bedtime we would hang up our Christmas stocking and the next morning we were delighted to open them and find an orange, apple, a few nuts and a sweet “mouse”.


We children were never allowed to read newspapers because they may tell us something we shouldn’t know. We were not told anything or allowed to overhear any conversations regarding marriage.

There were a lot of things that made life a bit more interesting, like going in a cart drawn by horses to a field for our Sunday School treat. We ran races and had a couple of buns and some lemonade. Another treat for us was a carriage ride some Bank Holidays to Maidenhead Thicket where we played hide and seek. Some Saturday evenings Mum and Dad would take us to the Palace of Variety, which was then by the side of the Odeon Theatre.

We never had television but did have an old gramophone you had to wind up with a handle. The records were only sixpence. Dad also had an accordion. He’d play and we’d sing. You just had to make your own fun. We were never allowed in the street to play. After tea we’d have to sit and sew and learn to knit.

There were very few cars about, although everyone had a bike.  The milkman brought the milk in big urns on a cart. You had to take a jug to the door for it to be poured.

There were push-along trucks painted bright colours from which ice cream was sold. You took a basin out and it was filled for two pennies (old pennies). A muffin man wearing a cap would come up the road, ringing a bell. They were a halfpenny each and you toasted them in front of a big fire for tea.

On May 1st, a big pole was fixed up in the school playground and had coloured ribbons hanging down. It was called the May Pole. We had to dance around this and sing.

Also Britain had an empire, which has now vanished, but on Empire Day, May 24th, girls wore white dresses as well as red, white and blue hair ribbons and carried a small Union Jack flag. After prayers in the assembly hall at school we sang Empire songs. One I liked was “Land of Hope and Glory”. Then we would have to march past a big flag and salute. There was a motto on the school hall wall which I have never forgotten: “What is worth doing is worth doing well.”

By the time I had reached the age of five, my mother had developed rheumatoid arthritis and had a job to get about.

I was only six years old when World War I started.


My father was called up for the war and served in the Fourth Royal Berks Regiment. My brother Charlie joined the Royal Navy.

My father came home from barracks about three times but afterwards was sent to France. The poor soldiers were in trenches in thick mud and had to march everywhere.

My mother read in the newspaper how my father had a narrow escape. He was opening a can of corned beef and a shell came over and blew the can right out of his hands, but he wasn’t hurt.

While my father was in France, I was taken into the Royal Berkshire Hospital with pneumonia, a serious illness then, and I was very unwell for a couple of weeks. I had recovered from that and was back at school when my brother arrived home as his ship HMS Cockran had been blown up in the Battle of Jutland, so he too had a lucky escape.

My sisters Beatrice and Winnie were working at Huntley & Palmers (biscuit factory). At home we were rationed with potatoes, butter and most foods but one treat we had was that everyone working at Huntley & Palmers was given a bag of broken biscuits and we waited for my sisters to come home then really enjoyed sorting the biscuits over. Beatrice had met a young man and was courting.







Mystery of the mysteries

Most of us read fiction and that often means a crime story. We want to be presented with a dramatic situation and empathize with a victim. Very quickly we want to meet the good guy (official detective, private investigator, lawyer or roving wild anti-hero) who’s going to sort it out. Next we require a villain who we can hate. The basic framework has been the same throughout history – it’s only the technology that has moved on.

So we read a book but we’ve placed some expectations on what the author is going to dish up.  Is it the same in all media? Well, mostly yes in the case of movies although some, like Tarantino, have certainly broken the mold.

Television is awash with crime stories and very often the dramas pick at one of those most frightening subjects of all — the abduction of a child. One of these was a serial called “Amber” which had Ireland on the edge of its seats waiting to find out what had happened to the eponymous little girl. The answer didn’t come. The script never revealed Amber’s fate and the tv station was buried in complaints from frustrated viewers.

So there’s something in us that wants surprise from our stories but also demands reassurance — we’ll get all the answers. Are we reading, or viewing, for entertainment or do we need fiction to do for us what we can’t be sure the real world will do, i.e. come right in the end? I’d love your views.

THANKS to everyone who’s commented on this post (please see). I think it adds to up to two things: Readers or viewers enter an unwritten contract with an author/screenplay writer and have expectations of a good story with certain elements. But they do also expect to be taken by surprise. The surprise must be acceptable, however. And to end a story without a surprise – as arguably “Amber” did – is a breach of the contract.