My Story: Extracts from the autobiography
of Esther May Flowers Edwards
The beginning is always a good place to start a story, so that is where I shall begin. My father, William Flowers was a cabinet maker and picture framer and at the beginning of the century, he had a shop in the High Street Arcade, Swansea, and a flat above it. When war broke out in 1914, he had to leave his business to go and fight. My mother, Ruth Flowers nee Harwood, decided that she would like to live in the Mumbles and duly found him a shop in Dumfries Place, where he could take up his business again when the war ended. She would also be near to her sister, Jessie Statler, who was a war widow with small children to look after.
My mother was a dainty little thing, with beautiful auburn hair, which I used to brush for her. She was always dressed nicely in a white blouse, black skirt and her favourite heliotrope hat, which was her pride and joy. Her sister was a little more robust. I was one of five children— besides me, there were Elsie, Jack, Cliff and Jessie.
My mother worked for a living as an adviser. She used to help the Ladies of the big houses organise their parties. She was also a Sunday-school teacher and took us to ‘Band of Hope’ in the middle of the week, where we had nice texts with pictures, which was posh! We weren’t forced to go — we wanted to go.
We were dressed prettily too, with pantaloons down to the ankle and a long dress down to the ground, with three petticoats underneath. We did not wear coats, we had long cloaks with a slit each side for our arms and in winter, we’d have a fur muff to put our hands in. We wore long button-up boots, to the knee with dozens of buttons to do up. We used a button-hook and it took a long time to do this. In the summer we wore sand-shoes (plimsolls) which were 1/11d a pair and those lasted us all summer. When they started to make white ones, we had to buy blanco to whiten them every day. We were always well dressed and plenty of it too! Three petticoats, liberty bodice, chemise, but we never had coats.
For breakfast we used to have bread and jam, or bread and dripping and sometimes bread and butter with sugar sprinkled on it. For supper we would have sop — bread and butter with hot milk poured over it and sugar — and sometimes for a treat, cocoa. We didn’t have half enough vitamins in those days! I don’t know why I am so well! Every so often we would be given a dose of senna; I hated that! It tasted dreadful; but we had a spoon of jam after it, to take the taste away.
We used to do the washing in the tin bath that we also used to bathe in — a scrubbing board, Sunlight soap and a blue bag and plenty of starch too. There was a line out the back where we’d hang the clothes. I did all this myself from the age of twelve, after my mother died. There was also cooking, cleaning and ironing. ‘Please can I have a dip of your blue bag?’ was a common request in those days! We had a boiler fixed into the fire-grate where we used to boil the whites. We would fill it with water and boil the tablecloths and afterwards, the underclothes. We never had a meal without a tablecloth, it just was not done!
I started school when I was five years old. We lived at Southend but the school was in Newton about a mile away. My mother took me the first day and I met Miss Baner, the Headmistress, a formidable creature. When my mother left, I started to cry, but she soon put a stop to that saying ‘Stop crying, you big baby, or I’ll put you in a shawl and nurse you!’ Not much sympathy there! ‘Sit down there with the others,’ she ordered, and I settled down quite well then. I had to walk home on my own even though I was only five. As we grew older, we learned reading, writing and arithmetic. The boys had geometry and the girls had sewing, knitting and housewifery. We were separated at play time too: the boys had their own yard and the girls used to climb into the boys’ yard and get up to all sorts of shenanigans!
There was this lovely little man called Dappy Rowlands. We called him ‘Dappy’ as he was a dapper young man, well dressed; he lived in the Uplands and he had a motor bike. As I was going into class one day, he came to me with a note and a rosebud. ‘Give that to Miss Webb,’ he said. She was in a class lower than mine. When I gave it to her, her eyes lit up. ‘Tell him yes,’ she said. I acted as Cupid that day. He was over the moon too. It was lovely!
Sometimes we used to make the trip home more interesting by finding a different route each time. There used to be an arch in Oystermouth, leading to the railway and sometimes we would go home that way picking pieces of coal on the way to give to Auntie Jessie, as she only had ten shillings to live on and five children to keep on her war pension. One day when I was about six, we decided to have a ride home from school and got on the train, climbing into the end carriage and hiding under the seats. Unfortunately, the Guard saw us and shouted, ‘Come on, out of it!’ But he was laughing; he was very amused as we thought he couldn’t see us, as small children do. ‘Come on, stand up!’ he said, and we got off. We didn’t try it again.
We used to play hopscotch in the middle of the road for hours and skipping, whip and top and marbles too. Imagine trying to do that today! We used to play for hours safe and uninterrupted, except when horse drawn cabs came along, perhaps driven by Abse Peachey, one of our well known residents.
We enjoyed playing outside and knew when the old ‘puffing Billy’ steam train was coming along. It ran along the same track as the subsequent electric train was to do and was crowded with people from Swansea, either going to the beach or the pier. We made little ‘grottos’ at the side of the track — I don’t know where we got the name from! We built them up from the foundations, like real bricklayers, until we came to the top. We used shells, sand, gravel and flat shells in layers around the outside to make gardens around them and finally decorated them all over with seaweed. The train was coming from the Pier crowded with people sitting on the open-topped carriage and we’d call out ‘Patronize the grottoes, please, a ha’penny or a penny-O!,’ and down would come a shower of pennies, half of which got lost on the beach and in the sea. I don’t remember spending the money. I don’t know what we did with it! The grottoes took about an hour to make, gathering and making them; and we made a new one every day.
We went to the Pier and collected bottle tops from the discarded pop and beer bottles there, and we’d put about a dozen of these onto the railway line and when the train came along it flattened them to the size of a penny. We then put these into the chocolate machine and got five boys chocolate bars free! We did not do it again though, as we could imagine the man coming to empty this machine, finding it full of bottle tops and marching us straight off to jail!
We also played for hours on the beach and up on Mumbles Hill, sliding down on tins; or go to the Pier and sneak on the back way! We only did this about twice, as it was tuppence to go on and we knew we were doing wrong. We went on the lighthouse and saw one of the Eynons, who showed us how the lighthouse worked. Then he told us to go back, otherwise we would be stranded by the incoming tide. But it was quite safe; we never got into any danger. We used to go to the bays — Bracelet, Limeslade, Caswell, all day long with a bottle of water and a sandwich, but no money.
We only had thru’ppence a week, which we spent on going to the pictures usually on a Saturday. Tu’ppence to go in and a penny to spend! We watched Richard Bartholemew, Pola Negri, Pearl White and Charlie Chaplin on the big screen and John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. Wonderful actors they were. We had a theatrical family living near us, the Warners. Queenie Warner used to wear ‘bum freezer ‘ dresses that were so short you could see her knickers, and paint on her face. This was allowed, as they were actors. Queenie had a Roman nose but she was a striking looking girl. She had an uncle, a Mr. Foy, who was a violinist and played in the band that sat around the stage during theatrical performances. She saw us looking in the theatre one day and invited us in. They had a big house by the yacht club and a radio shop in Newton.
I used to enjoy the carnivals, which we had in June. It was quite a big carnival although there were only two lorries dressed up with flowers. Nevertheless, it was made up for in other ways. The Carnival Queen and the Fairy Queen rode on these and everyone else walked. Arthur my cousin was about six. His mother, Aunt Jessie, had got him a policeman’s outfit complete with a helmet, suit, whistle, truncheon and handcuffs. I was handcuffed to him, as I was the prisoner. We went to Southend and Limeslade and back, and one of the carnival organizers told me, ‘He would have had first prize if he’d had boots on.’ He had brown plimsolls, as it was summer, but he came second, which he deserved.
DicksladeBy Sue Bowers
In August, we always had the regatta. I was about twelve then. All the boats were decorated with streamers, ribbons, flags and flowers — it was a picture just to see the boats alone! There used to be races from pier to pier, with prizes for yachts and swimmers. Jack was a very good swimmer and he always swam in the races from Mumbles Pier to Swansea Pier and back again. He won a prize, a silver jam dish with a fluted lid and a spoon. It was always kept on the ‘what-not’ and never used for jam. The men used to have fun on the greasy pole, which was erected at Southend by the station. Girls, of course, were not allowed to climb it, only boys and young men. Whoever could climb to the top got a prize of £50 — a lot of money!
My father used to put posters up in our window, advertising the paddle steamers going to Ilfracombe and Tenby and we had a free pass. I could take a friend with me and often took my cousins Lily and Rosie. We were about eight years old and I was seasick all the way; but I enjoyed the fact that I was on this paddle steamer! We also had passes to go to the Pier as we had these posters in our window too. I used to go on my own there and watch the chorus girls dancing from the front row. One winked at me and I thought this was marvellous. Some men came on and asked ‘Can all these famous men (Lloyd George and Ramsey Mac) do the same as this poor old hen?’ i.e. lay an egg!
My father had a big billiard table in his shop and all the tools were on there, his vice, saw, chisels, everything laid out: all the instruments you could think of were there. I used to watch him make picture frames, cutting down the sides at an angle and fitting them together. He had a big bottle of gold leaf to finish off the frames. I could have done it myself, I watched so carefully! He’d put the picture in the frame and then cut out the mount with a huge scissors and tap in the brads and then paste the brown paper over that. I watched him make a cabinet, about three feet wide with fifteen little drawers in it and a desk. He put it in the shop marked at £5, which was a lot then. Mr. Thomas the grocer and his wife bought it straight away. Dad also made little Spanish galleons and skittle boards and sold them.
There was some poverty around us — dole queues and a soup kitchen, but we were all right as my father was a well-respected businessman. One night about twelve o’clock, there was a knock on the door and there stood a husband and wife and twelve children. ‘Can you put us up, we’ve been chucked out!’ ‘Well’, said my father, ‘ you can sleep on the floor in the shop.’ I used to have to climb over them all, covered in coats as they were, to get out to go to school. They borrowed all our pots and pans, we hardly had anything left. They lived quite well with us. I don’t know where they came from and they lived with us for about six months and then they went.
Poor Auntie Jessie also had to struggle and someone had the bright idea of opening houses to make tea-shops for the visitors. Mr. Lynch who adopted Billie was a printer in Tucker’s the newsagent and he printed these posters ‘Wash and Brush Up 2d; Storing Bikes, 2d; Teas 6d to 9d, depending on cake’ and Aunt Jessie did very well at this and eventually moved back to Swansea. Her house was a little old inn; there was a front parlour and a shop, a small kitchen, and a long kitchen which used to be the bar, I expect. She used to borrow the billiard table from my father to do teas on, because she was doing so well.
Some of the people I remember include Captain Twomey, who lived in a big house between Southend and Oystermouth, surrounded by a wall, so we couldn’t see the house at the end of the drive, but we knew he lived there. He had a monkey and when he would go on a voyage on his yacht with his crew, he would put the monkey into a ‘castle’ built into the rock by the pier, which had an old-fashioned window with bars.
We bought him nuts and fed him and when he saw us coming he would put his hands out for the nuts. He had beautiful little hands and a lovely face and was the best looking monkey I have ever seen. I expect that’s why the Captain brought him home. We’d put the nuts into his hand and he’d peel them daintily and then put his hand out for more. We loved him!
The local hairdresser, Mr. Evans, dyed his hair blond once and when he went out onto the Promenade in the sun, it all turned green! They had a shop just past the Antelope. His daughter, Christine, was a friend of mine. I went to call for her, one November 5th, to come and see the fireworks. ‘I can’t’, she said,’ my dog’s just had pups!’ It was a Sealyham and she brought a pup out for me to see. He was like a Jack Russell terrier, being a crossbreed. He had short smooth hair, with a blond patch on his body and another on his ear.’ Can I have that one?’ I asked and her mother said, ‘Yes, it’s half a crown.’ I had half a crown, which Dad had given me for fireworks, so I had a dog. When I took him home, Dad said, ‘We don’t want a dog!’ — then, looking at me nursing him, said, ‘What are you going to call her?’ ‘Squibbs,’ I said. And Squibbs she was. My father loved that dog as much as I did. She only had one pup, Judy, which turned out three times as big as she was. Mrs. Parker from Albion House, who lived there after the Ridds, had her. She was well looked after there.
I had other friends, the Pelosis, who lived a couple of doors down and had a café the other side of the 'Ship and Castle'. There was Angelina, Lorenzo, who insisted on being called Laurence, Dominic, who was called Dom, Theresa and Luigi, who wanted to be called Lewis ‘to be more English’. We spent hours in their attic where all the things for the shop were stored. I had another friend called Mary Richards, the milkman’s daughter and I was always in her attic too. They had a big pram, which was hers.
There was Wren Harries’s which was a kind of dairy in the next block from us, then Todd’s the grocer where I’d buy the bacon, cheese and things. And there was the butcher’s shop, then Pope’s the grocer and the Gammons lived nearby. They were all lifeboatmen and oystermen, who had oyster beds, mussels, winkles and cockles and gathered seaweed to make laverbread. The boys used to come and box with Jack and Clifford in our shop. The three daughters made welshcakes and bakestones and one of them, Poppy, had to come round the houses with a huge clothes basket full of wares and would stop at every house. I always bought a pound of laverbread, a bakestone (a batch loaf / cake), a pint of cockles and welshcakes from her every Saturday. (I was the mother by then; my mother had died). You had full measure and she had to go home with an empty basket. She had to wash all the used cloths in the basket and put them on the beach at Southend to bleach in the sun. I also remember Nippo Passmore from Village Lane, a friend of Jack’s, who went to Canada after Jack went.
There was an organ grinder too — a hurdy-gurdy man with his little organ on wheels and a monkey perched on top of it holding out a tin cup, where we’d put a couple of coppers. He came round once a week. Then we had a knife sharpener, with a big oilstone wheel to sharpen your knives on. He used to sharpen our bread knife till it was like a razor. The rag-and-bone man came too on a Monday with his horse and cart. He had cups and saucers, goldfish in jam jars and balloons to give away. I had a goldfish and fed it on ants’ eggs. The coalman used to bring the coal on his horse and cart and put it in the coalhouse.
We saw no crime. We used to leave our doors open all the time, no one bothered with keys. You could go away for weeks and your house would be safe — we had nothing that anyone would want to steal! We did have a gramophone and when he was about ten, Cliff bought his first record with money he had earned doing a paper round. It was called Song of Songs and he played it over and over again.
All in all, I had wonderful times as a child, that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. It was always summer when I was small and we felt safe and comfortable anywhere we went. Life was not so fast then. We had time to look at plants and even to give them names. I remember Elsie and I looking at some strange ones and I named them ‘shiverybibs’ because they shivered in the wind.
When the weather is cold now and I’m on my own on a long winter’s night, I think back to those days — and it’s summer all over again in my heart.
Esther May Flowers Edwards,
March 1911-June 2001