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How it Was in 1914

Our Dad delivered milk, pushing a laden barrow round the local streets.


In March 1914 I couldn’t have cared less about the Kaiser or the Great War, something far more important was happening in my life – I was about to take my first steps into the grown up world of work. Not a full time job mind you, but it was work, not just helping out, and I would be paid every Friday.

I had known for some time that as soon as my older brother reached his fourteenth birthday and would leave school I would be expected to step into his shoes on the milk round. Our Dad delivered milk, pushing a laden barrow round the local streets and it was accepted that the oldest child still at school became his paid assistant. So there I was, 11 years and 9 months old, ready to accept the responsibility and privileges I had inherited,

It wasn’t hard to get up at 5.45 on that first morning, although that novelty soon wore off. I dressed quickly in my warmest clothes pulling the elastic garters over my woollen stockings with stiff fingers and grateful for the warmth of wool next to my skin in the morning chill. I think the comb just about touched my hair before I hurried downstairs to splash my face with cold water and gulp down a bowl of hot bread and milk that Mother had prepared. Then I was ready to go.

6.15am and only Dad and me on the street. My job was to deliver to the eight customers across the Common and as we went our separate ways I could hear the familiar noise of the churns on the barrow growing fainter and fainter. Soon there was only the sound of my own feet and the chink chink of the four cans I carried in each hand. Down the street, turn right, second left and I was on to the Common. It was an eerie feeling, as though I was the only person in the whole world. I couldn’t see the far side, just the little clouds of my own breath in the pre-dawn light. I could almost feel the stillness around me. No clip-clop of horses pulling creaking wagons. No clank of trams along the High Street. Not even the cheery whistle of the Paperboy. Only the scrunch of my feet on the night- frosted grass, the gentle bumping of the metal cans and the soft slopping of the milk inside. Then, far away, I heard the first bird give a tentative cheep.

By the time I reached pavement again the dawn chorus was in full swing. Although I never learned to distinguish between them, the singing of the birds has always given me a sense of comfort since that first morning.

At last I reached my first customer, up the steps, leave a can on the top one (“don’t make too much noise and be careful not to spill the others”), then down again on to the next house. It was only as I eased the cans off my fingers that I realized how deeply the thin metal handles had dug in. Still, never mind, with each delivery the load got lighter. At the very last house, as I ran up the steps, the door opened and there was an old lady waiting. She never failed to greet me and I looked forward each morning to her sweet smile.

With empty hands I ran as fast as I could back across the Common, and yes, I was in time to meet up with Dad. I couldn’t remember being on my own with him before and felt immensely important when we stopped at the corner cafĂ© and he bought me a small sweet cheesecake. But I had to get back home, to wash in hot water from the big jug, brush my hair properly and tie it back then to sit down with the younger ones for a breakfast of porridge with plenty of sugar before we went to school.

On Friday evening Dad solemnly handed me my one shilling wages. Sixpence was immediately put on one side for my piano lesson. Fivepence halfpenny I gave to Mother to save for me and I had a halfpenny to spend on myself. No millionaire could have agonised more over the spending of his money. In the end I bought a half pennyworth of Sharp’s Toffee broken into small pieces and it lasted me nearly until my next pay day.

I followed that routine through the changing seasons, seven mornings a week, fifty-two weeks of the year until my own fourteenth birthday when my younger sister took over.

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