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Headington history: Reminiscences

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Edith Currill (Mrs Musselle) (1915–2000)


The seven Currill children
The Currill children:George Frederick (1912–1998); Daisy Mary (b. 1914);
Edith Olive (1915–2000);
Mollie Irene (b.1917); Ernest Harold (1920–2002);
Kathleen Florence (b. 1923); Florence Gwendoline (b.1924)

My first memory! How clearly I remember it – lying in the pram and seeing the white handles go up and down, up and down. Then horror!! I was made to walk with my elder brother and sister. How clearly I still remember the feeling of hurt and utter rejection at that squirming and red-faced bundle in my pram! My very own pram! – I was just two years old at the time. I was born on 17 June 1915 at 279 Iffley Road at my grandmother’s house, although my parents were living at Mount Pleasant on the London Road. We were a large family with seven living children. My elder brother’s twin had died at five months old. We had a happy childhood and we had wonderful parents.

George & Florence Currill

 

Left: my father, George Frank Currill (1887–1951) and my mother, Florence Ellen Currill, née White (1888–1954).

 

My father was a master tailor. I can see him now sitting cross-legged as they did of old, watching the treadle of the machine going up and down. One day, I thought I would have a ride on it and I still remember the smacking I got.

He was a staunch supporter of the Labour and Co-operative movements, and for many years he was a loyal union member, eventually becoming President of the Oxford branch of the Mental Hospital Workers’ Union. During the 1940s he was elected as a Labour member on the Oxford City Council.

We had a large rambling house which my grandfather had built at 301 London Road [then numbered 137], Headington and it had a small shop attached to it. During my childhood my mother opened it as a grocery shop. We had a very large garden with every sort of fruit tree in it, including some gooseberry bushes. We kept chickens, ducks and bantams and, once, a goat: I was terrified of it. One day when my sister and I came home from school, the goat had got loose and it tried to butt us, so we ran to our Granny’s house. The goat ran all the way to Carfax, with my Dad trying to catch it on his bike. Then he had to bring it back, the return journey being a distance of about six miles.

The loo was outside, down the end of the garden, but it was kept spotless and emptied every so often: when we knew Dad was having a “burial service” all the children scattered. The loo was a two-seater, with the smaller-sized one for children. In Headington Quarry, the honey-cart used to go round and empty the loos, but we were on the outskirts of Headington and so we were outside of that service. The outhouse was beautiful in the summer with the lilac bushes and the roses surrounding it. But the winter, oh dear! rustlings and moanings as the wind blew through the trees. How we hated the dark – there were no street lights! Before we left the house in 1928, Mum had gas put in when the service reached us. The lighting was better but, oh, those awful fragile mantles: a slip of the match and a hole appeared. I’m sure they almost broke if you looked at them!

I used to love Christmas, when our shop was decorated with Christmas stockings hanging from the ceiling. The selection boxes were so different from today: a really good one at five shillings had sections containing all different sweets. I can still remember the sugared almonds! A real luxury. But then, in the 1920s and 1930s, who could afford 5s?  We would pay into the “club” and hoped to be able to afford a one-shilling one. It took months, as we only got a halfpenny, sometimes a penny, a week.

As I got older I delivered the weekly newspaper to the few houses around us. For that I received 3d, a real fortune. Sometimes I looked after two little girls down the lane, and I remember pushing them out in the pram and getting a penny for it.

We lived opposite the workhouse on the London Road, and quite often we had tramps lying in the ditch opposite us waiting to go into the workhouse. The winters seemed much colder than they are today, and the workhouse was cold and bleak. When I went to sing carols, I noticed the stone floors and walls, and the austerity of it remains in my memory to this day. In those days the sexes were separated in the workhouse. The warden told us that the vagrants slept with their arms over a line. In the morning the line was let down and if they were not awake they fell to the ground, which is where the saying “I could sleep on a clothes line” came from. The vagrants were different from the inmates, as they generally only stayed a night. After they had done their stint of work to pay for their board and lodging, they were free to go. If they had children, it took them longer to “work off” their board. The children were sent to the local school. Now that I am older, I realise how cruel we other children were to them: we would not play or have anything to do with them. The little girls wore pink cotton dresses and emerald green socks. Their hair was cut short like boys and they always looked thin and blue with cold.

We were never bored like today’s children: the world was too exciting and there was so much to do. Our toys were free, the products of our own vivid imaginations. Pea-shooters were made from the hollow stems of reeds and cow parsley. The peas were “ashogs” (or hawthorn berries: haws are the correct name). Hoops we would beg from the grocer, who had them round his tubs of butter and margarine. Our hopscotch was a piece of slate or grass. We made bows and arrows, and dolls out of old socks stuffed with straw. In the winter, a large cardboard box would make a dolls’ house. The furniture we made from acorns, matchboxes, just about anything we could get hold of. A wooden box on old pram wheels made a marvellous racing car. We built houses from twigs and ferns. The “windmill man” was a great favourite: in exchange for a jam jar, you received a windmill of your choosing, made from different wallpaper patterns. Jam jars being at a premium in our house, I always had one hidden in the gooseberry bushes.

Our stockings at Christmas were only filled with small things: an orange, a few nuts, a sugar mouse, a few sweets etc., then our chief present and an Annual. Today’s children would be insulted, but we were thrilled! How my parents did it with seven children, I’ll never know. We were such a happy family. Houses were very cold, especially the bedrooms, but on very cold nights my Dad would put his “First War” overcoat on top of the blankets to keep us warm. (Although he had been in the Royal Flying Corps, they wore khaki like the Army.)

Our Christmas tree was fetched out every year, and the lights were real candles. The tree was only about three feet tall and was covered with sugar clocks and marzipan shapes – all small things. We also had tiger nuts and locust sticks. My elder brother was a choirboy so, during the weeks before Christmas, whenever he renewed the church candles he would bring home the unused bits. On Christmas morning, the boys would come into the girls’ room with the candles in a couple of jam jars so that we could all dive into our stockings and presents together. I used to love to feel all the bumps and lumps before opening – in fact I still do.

I don’t think my Mum really liked the gas cooker. Things didn’t seem to taste the same as in the shiny black range, but the gas cooker was nicer on a hot day, of course. Mum used to cut a large heap of bread and the first child home would sit by the fire and do the toasting. Then it was spread with lovely dripping that really was dripping: half the basin was lovely rich jelly. No food today comes up to it! In the summer each child had three slices. If you had jam on your slice of bread, then you didn’t have butter.

On Saturday, the cakes were taken to the baker, who would cook cakes for local people after taking out the bread. So off we would go every Saturday with three cakes – a large dough cake, a gingerbread in the meat tin, and a currant cake – with a slip of greaseproof on the top with our name on. People without ovens would have their Sunday joints cooked there too. The bread was lovely. Glorious shiny cottage loaves, coburg with the sharp points on top, or a long one. On the way home we picked at the crusty bits, as the loaves were not wrapped – very few things were, but we never heard of food poisoning: that was only after things were sealed and wrapped.

There weren’t many parties, and the highlight of the year was the Sunday School Christmas one. Today’s children wouldn’t like it – paste sandwiches and a currant bun! We had games, and when we went home we had an orange and an apple. The highlight of the party was the Christmas tree. I was very small when I went the first time, probably about four years old. The tree was huge, nearly to the ceiling, and I remember standing gazing up at it open-mouthed. It was covered with parcels, and amongst the many small ones, there were several large beautiful ones. I couldn’t take my eyes off a doll which was beautifully dressed, and when they called out the names my heart was in my throat hoping that I would get it. It was explained to me later by an older girl that the well-off people came and brought their children – “goodwill to all men”, I suppose – and they also brought their children’s presents. So all the big toys went to this very select group. I received a very thin paper book, but it was brightly coloured. I can’t remember learning to read, but I just read anything I could lay my hands on. The yearly Christmas present of an Annual was a must. If I was ever wanted, they would find me behind Dad’s large armchair or underneath the table reading. The table had a large chenille cloth on it with tassels and once underneath it was like being in a little tent.

The summer outing was another event. Once we were taken to Oxford and then up the river to Nuneham Courtenay. What excitement going through the locks! I remember being told that Sandford was the deepest. One boy put out his hand and it was crushed between the walls and the steamer, so he was taken off to hospital. When we arrived at Nuneham, we all got off and tea was laid in front of the big house. Then there were races and games before rejoining the steamer and going home. Another event was the Annual Fete [at the Manor House grounds] in Manor Road (now renamed Osler Road). My brothers and sisters and I badly wanted a cricket bat, so we decided to enter all the races. I was hopeless at running or jumping, so it was decided that I would go in for the potato race. One by one my brothers and sisters entered their races. No luck – no cricket bat! Then there was just my race, and the cricket bat was still there! My elder brother stood by each spud, as I was in the outside lane. Cheers, I won it. Flushed and breathless I went up to get my prize and choose the cricket bat. But no such luck; the bossy lady wouldn’t let me choose, and made me have a necklace. Tearfully I tried to explain we wanted the bat but no, everyone else could choose but I was a girl and had to take the necklace. I can’t remember what happened to it, I think I chucked it away.

Easter was another red-letter day. On Good Friday the baker would come round with his horse and van with hot cross buns. And they were really hot. All warm and sticky, not like today’s buns made months before. The butter would melt on them. Then came Easter Sunday, and we always had boiled eggs for breakfast. Our chocolate ones would be in an egg-cup or cup and saucer. Sundays were always a day apart throughout the year: every Sunday we children first went to morning service, then to Sunday school in the afternoon, and finally to evening service at night. It was so dark walking up the lanes in winter that my elder brother would light the way by putting a candle in a jam jar.

One Sunday I was told to take the young ones to Headington Quarry Church instead of our usual one. I had strict orders to listen to the wedding banns, as my Auntie Win’s name would be called out. When I got back home my Mum said, “Well, did you hear Auntie Win’s name?”. “Oh no” I said “there was a lot of women called Spinster but I didn’t hear hers”. I never lived that one down, but I was only about nine years old.

Our treat of the year was St Giles’ Fair in Oxford. It lasted two whole days and it was in the wide thoroughfare called St Giles. We took sandwiches and lemonade and always had to walk home because we had spent our bus fares. It was great fun, although our little legs almost gave out walking up Headington Hill. The lemonade was made from powder. We often spent our Saturday ½d on it, dipping our fingers in the cone of paper holding it and sucking it off till our fingers were yellow.

I spent quite a few of my holidays with a Great Aunt who lived down near the station. I spent hours in the garden watching the trains going along the bottom of the garden and waving to the people. It was such a great adventure to go by train in those days. This aunt lived quite near the marmalade factory. When money was scarce I used to take huge bundles of mint along for the factory to make mint sauce and I generally got paid 6d for it.

Every Sunday we went to tea at Grandmama’s (Alice Elizabeth Lambourne, nee Sims, 1867–1938) who was a very regal woman, and I was frightened to death of her. She lived in the large house in Iffley Road where I was born. I remember the large white stairs and, in particular, the bathroom. I didn’t know anyone else with a bathroom at the time: the bath was a large affair standing on little legs, and there was a toilet which flushed. I always thought she was a duchess!

Our Dad’s mother was Granny (Mary Ann Currill, nee Gurl, 1856–1928). She was lovely, and used to come and help bath us when she used to tell us stories. She owned five cottages, or at least our grandfather (George Henry Currill, 1858–1896) did. He died at the age of 38, and the houses were to be sold at Granny’s death. Two of the cottages were together with a large garden. My aunt (Dad’s only sister, Edith) lived in one, so she lived next door to Granny and they both got their water from a well. One day I was watching Granny draw up the water and there was a huge toad in the bucket. I would never drink water after that!

In those days when you became old and infirm, there were no nursing homes, and you couldn’t go in hospital if you were not going to get better. So usually you lived with your children, and if they were unable to have you then it meant the hospital ward in the workhouse. This was dreadful, not only because it was so cold and bleak, but because of the stigma.  One day Granny had a stroke and became helpless. Initially my Aunt Edith initially looked after her, but after a while she found it too much for her, and she needed her brothers to share the burden. She had three brothers: the two elder brothers had four children each, and my Dad had seven. So one day she pushed Granny up to her oldest brother who lived next door to us and who had inherited the family shoe business. There were two shops – one selling new shoes, the other repairing shoes. He was quite comfortably placed, his children all going to private schools. He immediately pushed Granny across the road to the Workhouse and put her in. It must have been dreadful for her to be so unwanted, particularly as she wasn’t destitute and at her death the children would get a fair amount of money, especially for the 1920s. My Dad arrived home about 6pm and he was very angry. He had seven children, including a baby, but he went straight over to the workhouse and fetched her out. He converted a downstairs room into a bedsitting room for her, and she lived with us till she died.

The other brothers were not very friendly with us after that, and when Granny died in 1928 they wouldn’t let us buy our house but auctioned it with the others. Dad asked a friend to go to the auction and buy it for us, but we didn’t stay there, as there was too much bad feeling with our uncle next door. So Dad put the house up for sale and he got much more money than what he had paid for it, as it had a shop attached. We then moved to a brand new house (81 Bulan Road) with a bathroom and two indoor loos! It was smaller of course, but we thought it was really luxurious. Mum had a gas copper, so Dad no longer had to light the fire under the old one before going to work.

We still stayed on at St Andrew’s School (or the Field School, as it was known) after we moved. I wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t possible because I had to leave school at fourteen. There was no eleven plus then, and to get to the secondary school you either had to ask for a form or else the teacher recommended you. My teacher thought I would benefit from further education, and so I took a form home. However my brother was already at the grammar school, and with such a large family, my parents found finances very difficult and could not afford it. I remained at Bulan Road until I married in 1940 and until 1944 either stayed there, or with my eldest sister in York Road, or with my in-laws in Portsmouth.

The war wasn’t a pleasant time, even in Oxford. I married in January 1940 at St. Luke’s Church and my new husband (Eric Norman Musselle, 1916–1989), who had volunteered for the Navy, left to start training three days later. My allowance was 14/- a week. I used to go to bed early on Wednesday night, so I could get my allowance early next day. I paid 7/- for my room and 1/6 insurance, so I had 5/6 to live on each week. At the start of the war there was a boycott on service wives working, so a job was hard to get as the majority of men weren’t called up at that stage. Later on during the war I got a job in the Morris Cowley Car Works (Accounts Department). The factory had turned over to war production by then and I worked in the offices. I was a service wife but without children, and I think we had a pretty tough time. Directly the sirens went, I had to get up and patrol the dark streets with my tin hat on. When the bombing became worse, further orders came in and I had to go back to my place of work to fire-watch. It became a nerve-wracking time, working all day (sometimes till late), then going home to do a few chores, get a meal, wash and iron, then back to work to fire-watch, and then rushing home again – and I had to be back at my desk by 9am. I used to think it was very unfair because wives with children and those with husbands in a so-called “reserve” job didn’t have to do anything. The war could be a dreadful sight at night. Standing at the bedroom window at my mother’s or sister’s house in Headington, I could see the sky red with the fire of burning London 50 miles away.

Towards the end of the war, I was very lucky because a man I worked with was retiring to Bournemouth and he gave me first chance to buy his house at 5, Glebelands Road, Headington.

This material was kindly supplied by Mrs Barbara Dye,
the daughter of Mrs Edith Musselle (née Currill)

© Stephanie Jenkins

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