I only have one photograph of myself before the age of ten, the one tie that binds me to the life I was born into, the life that I left behind all those years ago. If I close my eyes I am that six year old in the photograph again standing at the top of our street with my sisters, overlooking the industrial panorama.
The photograph was taken in the summer of 1937. I can tell that it’s the summer because we all have white ribbons in our hair. It was always that way, white ribbons in the summer and blue in the winter. I’m wearing the navy blue dress that was my favourite of my two everyday dresses. I can still feel that rough cotton against my skin, I know every stitch, every repair, every mark where the hem was continuously let down to accommodate for my growing.
I was born Charlotte Louise Andrews in Liverpool in March 1930, the fourth child of my parents although the two eldest boys had died as babies. Mam and da never spoke of them, and I never asked. Rebecca had been their first to survive, she was fourteen months older than me. Elizabeth, Harriet, Bridget and George all followed after me. Life was hard for us, da worked in one of the big factories making parts for ships; mam had been in service but had stopped when she married da. Money was tight surviving on da’s meagre wages, I remember being hungry most of the time. But that must have been nothing compared with mam who so often went without so that we could at least eat something.
Da never really had time for us girls, to him we were a mere inconvenience. George was a different story entirely. Da would take George out of a Sunday, in training for ‘how to be a man’ I suppose. Mind, it wasn’t all that often that da took George out, usually when mam stopped his drink and cigs money because we needed it for something more important. He didn’t like that but it was just as well he had George to distract him. He was never violent my da, or if he was it was never in front of us. He was awful to mama however, always belittling her, telling her how useless she was. I remember being three years old and screaming at da to stop making mam cry. He stared at me as though I was something that had just crawled out from under a stone before walking out of the room. It didn’t happen often, only when he’d been drinking. He drank a lot, but so did his mates, that was just the way it was.
From around my third birthday mam encouraged me to spend as much time out of the house as was possible. Rebecca and I would spend endless days running around the cobbled streets with the other children. We had all our secret places and all our games. Our games were our escape, pretending to be princes and princesses, lords and ladies, dukes, knights, damsels, maidens. We had our imaginations and they would take us anywhere from the gutters to the stars. We were never told not to dream.
Sundays we’d always put on our Sunday best and go to Sunday school and church. I had a white frock for Sundays; the first one I remember had puff sleeves and a pink sash to match my Sunday hair ribbons. I wasn’t a particularly attractive child but mam tried her best to make me feel special and beautiful. I had lank dark hair which insisted on sticking out instead of hanging straight and I was painfully thin with a sallow complexion and hollow cheeks. My redeeming feature was my eyes, a brilliant shade of blue inherited from da.
After church on Sundays we’d go and have lunch at nan’s and I loved going there. She lived in the next street with mam’s younger sister, Aunt Carol, who had never married. Granda had died in the Great War, he was killed fighting on the Somme in 1916. Mam never talked about him but nan would tell me stories for hours on end. Mark my words Janet, she’d say to mam, your Charlotte will turn out just like her granda. It always felt funny to hear her say that. I knew granda had died a hero defending his country. I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to go to war, it’d be nice to be a hero I often thought but all the same I was never quite sure what nan meant, and I would never get to find out either.
When George was born mam said there were to be no more babies, it was 1935 and I was five years old and quite disappointed by this edict. George was a sickly baby who cried all the time, the only escape I had from him would be to go outside and play. Rebecca looked after me and I in turn looked after Elizabeth. George was born in December so the days were short, some days it never really got light. I hated those days, stuck indoors listening to George’s seemingly endless cries. Money was even shorter than normal then and affording coal for the fire was hard. We were only allowed it lit when da was in; the rest of the time mam would wrap us in blankets in the kitchen.
Rebecca had started school in the January of 1934, long before George was born. I remember mam had bought her a new frock and coat for Christmas. I can picture her in it even now parading it on Christmas morning. The coat was green with brown buttons down the front, the dress blue with a white pinafore over the top of it. Rebecca looked so happy and proud in it with her eyes shining as she twisted and turned this was and that to try and see herself from all angles. I wanted to go to school with her that first day as she walked off with the other children from our street. I stood on the doorstep hopping impatiently from one foot to the other asking mam if I could go as well. She just laughed, next year Charlotte, next year, she said.
At that age a year was a lifetime, I drove mam with my incessant questioning about going to school. I’d make Rebecca show me what she’d learned in school, it became a new game – she the teacher, I the pupil. She couldn’t understand my wanting to learn and yearning to go to school. Rebecca wasn’t all that good at lessons and I soon realised that she wasn’t teaching me anything. As winter drew to a close and the days grew longer my thoughts were more easily distracted by my outdoor games. Somehow someone had managed to scrounge a piece of chalk. We would chalk a hopscotch grid and play for hours on end. The rain would come and wash it away but we’d always start again as soon as it dried out. It took more than a bit of rain to distract us, we were tougher than that.
We lived on a cobbled street lined with two rows of two up, two down terraced houses. The only traffic we ever saw was the milk float or the grocer’s boy on his bike, doing deliveries. Downstairs in our house was the kitchen where mam reigned supreme and the front room which was da’s domain except on Friday evenings after we’d had tea and our bath. Upstairs was the bedroom I shared at first with Rebecca, and then Elizabeth, Harriet and Bridget as well. Rebecca and I had to share a bed and for a while Elizabeth shared as well until Harriet was moved out of mam and da’s room.
The week before my fifth birthday in 1935 mam took me to the draper’s shop to buy material to make my school frock. It was the first time I’d ever been to the drapers and I thought it was the most wonderful place in the whole world. There were rolls and rolls of materials in different colours and patterns. Mam spent a long time looking at the materials. She never asked my opinion on what I’d like but I was aware that it would have to be something cheap. Mam eventually settled on a dark blue colour which the young lady behind the counter said went well with my eyes.
The day after my fifth birthday was my first at school and I was so excited I could hardly sleep the night before. I drove Rebecca mad asking her a hundred questions after we’d gone to bed. I could see my new frock on the back on the chair and knew that my new red coat was downstairs. I’d never looked forward to anything so much in my whole life.
Mam waved Rebecca and I off from the doorstep the following morning with Elizabeth, Harriet and Bridget gathered around her skirt. I remember Harriet shouting ‘bye bye Sharlie’ as Rebecca and I walked down the road hand in hand. I’d been Sharlie as long as Harriet had been talking. She’d had problems with saying Charlotte and had taken it upon herself to call me Sharlie and it had just stuck with the rest of the family. Rebecca and I walked to school with a group of children who lived on our street and the surrounding ones. The school was a fifteen minute walk from our house but I was so impatient to get there that it seemed to take forever.
At school we were divided, girls and boys and then separated by age; I found myself in class one where I would stay until I was eight, and then class two where I would stay until eleven. At eleven we would have to go to a different school but I would never make it there, not that I knew that at the time. Our class teacher was called Miss Hathersage, she was quite young, a bit younger than mam. She had reddish hair which she wore up in a bun and very green eyes behind glasses which she wore on a chain around her neck. She was quite short and very thin and usually wore a red dress. I sat between two girls from my street, Ruth Baker and Joan Mather. School began at 8.30 and went on until 10 when we would go outside to play in the school yard for half an hour, then more lessons until midday. In class we were divided into three smaller groups according to age and Miss Hathersage would take it in turns to teach us whilst the other groups got on with their work. That first morning was spent copying my letters and learning to recognise them. I was hooked from the start, I loved it.
At break I soon realised the importance of age at school when Rebecca said I wasn’t to talk to her at school. I went over to Ruth and a couple of other girls I knew; Ruth said that her elder sister had told her the same thing. The school was just a stone’s throw form the factory where da worked. I remember looking over to it and wondering which window he worked behind and whether he could see us at school from it.
For lunch Rebecca and I would go home, there I talked mam to death about everything I’d learned that morning. Rebecca just looked bored and fiddled with her food but mam tried to take an interest even though she couldn’t understand my enthusiasm. We met da as we were walking back to school, he was coming home for his lunch. He caught me up in his arms and asked how school was going. I wanted to tell him everything there and then but Rebecca was scowling so ferociously and we were getting behind the others.
Moments like that with da were rare and so I cherished them all the more. That evening I was allowed into the front room where I sat on his knee and told him all about school. I remember he looked so sad as I told him and I wondered why. I found out much later that da had been clever at school but had never been allowed the chances that I would eventually have and he resented having been forced out of school and to the factory. It was one evening, one look on da’s face and it changed everything. He may have been difficult at times but we had connected then and I knew that we would be able to work through anything.
Over the next weeks and months I grew to love school more and more as my knowledge continued to grow. I was quick and keen to learn picking things up easily. Rebecca resented the fact that I was doing so well. She’d never really cared for her lessons and was always trying to persuade me to do badly so she didn’t look so bad. I tried that once but Miss Hathersage was so fierce that I knew I couldn’t do it again. On the other hand it did spur Rebecca on to trying a little harder if only for a short while.
George arrived just before Christmas in 1935; we girls had been sent to nan’s the fortnight before he was born and only went home at the end of January 1936. At first it was hard at nan’s; it always was. We’d been sent to nan’s each time there had been a new baby due only this time it seemed so much harder. Nan was like mam, she didn’t understand my enthusiasm for school and would only hear our Bible lessons. I missed my Friday evenings with da, sitting on his knee in the front room and going over my lessons with him.
Nan was much stricter than mam and we had more chores with her. Nan was an even worse stickler for cleanliness and would examine everything Rebecca and I did extremely closely. She was a bit softer on Elizabeth; Harriet and Bridget were exempt from chores as they were too little. Nan taught us to sew properly in that time, she’s make Rebecca, Elizabeth and I practice for hours on end. We invariably ended up with stabbed and bloody fingers as we tried to live up to nan’s high standards.
We were allowed to go home on Christmas day after church to visit mam and baby George. Mam looked tired with huge dark circles under her eyes, sunken in her pale face. Rebecca was allowed to hold George for a few moments but mam told me I was too young. Mam didn’t talk much so we had to instead to avoid silence. Harriet cried when it was time to go but I knew that I couldn’t, especially as mam called Rebecca and I her ‘brave big girls’. I was determined to live up to that. I wanted mam to be proud of me.
George was ill a lot in the first few months and every time he was ill we were sent to nan’s. It got easier going to nan’s as time went by. We knew how to keep her happy and knew we had to do as we were told. Between us we shared the same cold passing it between ourselves during the winter of 1936. We were never allowed to miss a day of school, Rebecca minded but I didn’t. Miss Hathersage allowed me to work with the six and seven year olds even though I wasn’t quite six. She told nan that I could do great things if I had the chance. Nan said that no grandchild of hers was going to be a teacher’s pet and that there was more to life than learning. Besides, nan always said, there was no point teaching girls.
When school finished that July for the summer holidays Miss Hathersage cane to see mam and da. She told them that I had a lot of potential and that when I was older I should be allowed to try for a scholarship to a decent school. Mam said it was a daft idea but the look of pride on da’s face said so much. It was the first time I’d ever seen him look that way and I knew that was the way I wanted to keep him. I wanted a scholarship to a proper school more than anything even though I didn’t understand the enormity of it all, but mam was so resistant to the idea that it looked as though it could only be a dream.
One day that August a motor car appeared around our streets. I’d never seen one before and I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified by it. It just seemed so unnatural and the noises it made chilled me to the bone. Rebecca, Elizabeth, Harriet and I were playing outside waiting for mam to call us in for dinner; Bridget and George were playing in the rough patch of land beside our end terrace where mam could see them if she sat on the doorstep.
Two men got down from the motor car and started unloading an array of unusual looking equipment. They were photographers and I was fascinated by what they had brought with them but I was too shy to approach them. Three year old Harriet on the other hand had no such qualms and then men were clearly enchanted with her. I remember even then that she was strikingly beautiful with long straight blonde hair and enormous saucer like blue eyes. She really was out of place in our family, the only one of us to inherit da’s fair hair, and the only really attractive one. The men patiently explained everything to Harriet but I could see that she wasn’t really understanding so I went over to fetch her back before mam came out.
They looked at me funny as though they were trying to reconcile this angelic looking child with the odd looking one which was me. They turned their backs a moment and muttered between themselves occasionally pointing at Rebecca and Elizabeth. Then they turned back to us and said they’d like to take a picture of the four of us. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea but Harriet was so enraptured by it all that it was hard to say no. I don’t even need to look at that photograph now to know what it shows. I stand on the left holding Elizabeth’s arm as if to show her something. Harriet is on the right looking animated and trying to see what I am pointing at. Rebecca stands a little way back, separate from us all. We stand at the top of the narrow cobbled hill that was our street overlooking the rooftops and factories of Liverpool. It would be many years before I eventually got to see that picture.
Mam wasn’t really interested when we tried to tell her about the photographers. She heard a few days later that they were from a shop in the centre of Liverpool and were photographing industrial areas for a magazine article. Mam said she didn’t see the point since we’d never get to read it anyway but I often wondered about it.
Rebecca, Elizabeth and I returned to school in September after a long summer of endless days out of doors. They returned somewhat grudgingly, I returned full of eager anticipation for another year’s learning. I’d practiced my sums and my letters whenever I’d had the chance over the summer. Da had continued to hear my lessons after work on a Friday and he’d let me read bits of his newspapers aloud to him.
The winter of 1936-7 was bitterly cold and we had the fire lit almost constantly. Da allowed us to spend evenings in the front room with him. He’d laid off the drink since George had arrived and the atmosphere at home was lighter. He was often frustrated with Rebecca because she wasn’t too good at her lessons; really Rebecca and da frustrated each other. Rebecca didn’t understand why lessons were so important, she didn’t see that da wanted us to do better in life than he had, to have the chances that he had been denied.