Poor principality

28th February 1997 at 00:00
GROWING UP IN WALES, 1895-1939 Edited by Jeffrey Grenfell-Hill Gomer Press Pounds 7.95

To mark St David's Day, Gillian Clarke reviews a new oral history of Welsh childhood

This book is a collection of confessional monologues, the stories of ordinary people told in their own words. It provides a contribution to our understanding of the domestic and social lives of those who grew up before 1939, fascinating to anyone curious about the private lives of our recent forebears. Most of them were poor or modestly hard-up during years of upheaval the like of which Britain had never known before.

Glanmor Williams, former Professor of History at the University of Wales, Swansea, describes Jeffrey Grenfell-Hill as "an unusually good and interested listener". Although these are Welsh voices - Dr Grenfell-Hill mentions the Celtic readiness to talk - their stories would illuminate any corner of Britain, exemplifying life anywhere as industrialisation came and went. In little more than a generation, hungry rural populations were ripped from the land in search of work, were used, sent to war, then cast onto the dole. They were 44 years that changed the world.

There are 13 autobiographical accounts from people born between 1888 and 1920, arranged in chronological order, and in his 36-page introductory chapter the author brings in many other recorded interviews thematically, following the rites of passage from birth to death. Most of the words are those of his interviewees, linked by authorial paragraphs and the conclusions to which his research has led.

Some, like the account of the riot at Aberdare Hall, the women-students hall of residence at Cardiff University, given by Bessie Higgs, born in 1911, prove how strong women could be with a little education and even modest financial resources. On the other hand, how the poor suffered! Mina lost her only child in 1918. A breech birth, the doctors broke the baby's arm and neck during delivery. She was never shown the baby's grave. Undertakers often secretly put the body of a still-born baby in the coffin of an adult due for burial. "It was the undertaker's secret."

Samuel Edmunds of Rhondda is a lively story-teller, all the better for showing no sign of editorial tidying up. "Dad had his hand off in the mines with the tram. There was no compensation as such in those days, but he did get twenty-five pounds for his hand." "Water had to be brought in in jacks for drinking, we went up to the spout, off the road, it was a spring lovely mountain water, beautiful it was, a treat."

At 12 Edmunds worked as a grocer's boy. On Saturdays he worked from eight in the morning until midnight. "Friday was a big faggot day, with peas." "Men got paid on Saturday, so women had to wait for their money. The men went home with their money, they'd bath and clean up then go out for beer and the women to the shops 'til half the night." "If you went to church they always thought you was a Tory. If you went to the Baptist you were Liberal. Labour was hardly out then."

All accounts describe children's games, and legendary Sunday school trips to Porthcawl and Barry Island, May Day, the Whitsun processions. Stick and Cati, a pavement game with sticks, is often mentioned. Other pranks included tying front and back door knobs together so that people had to be released by neighbours who lived next-door-but-one, or tilting a full bucket of water against a back door so that water flooded in as the door was opened.

Gomer prints handsome books, but the designer's decision to cram three photographs onto the front and three on the back of this otherwise shapely volume makes it look cluttered and parochial and belies the good read that it is.

* Improving schools in Merthyr Tydfil, page 20

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