From Gunpowder to Charles Dickens
These reminiscences were written by my grandmother over 40 years
ago. They provide valuable insight to life at the end of the nineteenth
century and beyond, of particular interest to those familiar with the
Medway Towns. But, more than this, they also hold great personal
significance as a vivid picture of the early life of someone fondly
OLD ROCHESTER AND LONDON
Now I am Seventy
To use my Mother's words. I was born on a warm October day, in the year
1890, being the first child of a family of eight. My home was a very
small cottage on Martins Court, Rochester, which has long since been
demolished to make room for more hygienic houses. I was christened
Lilian Elizabeth. As a child I remember how I used to stand at the top
of the Court listening to the church bells, but always with my mother
wearing her white apron, in the pocket she always carried a box of
matches, not for cigarettes as that vice was unknown in my
Our home was lit be paraffin lamps and candles, but how careful we were
of these lamps which always stood in the centre of the kitchen table. I
never remember ant fire accident.
As the years passed, I was joined by seven brothers and sisters. That
meant our removal to another house, but even then, we only had two
small bedrooms, no bathroom, one water tap to supply about half a dozen
houses, and two toilets to share with our neighbours.
My Father was a labourer, hard working, honest, and brought his
children up to follow in his footsteps. Having few comforts, how
delighted we were when Sunday came around. That meant a new laid egg
for breakfast. And to hang our black stockings up on Christmas Eve,
with the knowledge that on Christmas morn we would find oranges,
apples, nuts and always a bright new penny, which seemed to us a
fortune, was always exciting.
I attended Troy Town School. Miss Lucy Weaver being the Head Mistress
of the girls, and Mr March the Head Master of the boys. When we were
absent from school we all went in fear of whom we called "Old Blackie",
the school-board man, who was sent to our homes to know the reason four
our absence from school.
I spent many happy days in the Vines at Rochester. What fun my brothers
and sisters, and myself had, playing hide and seek around those huge
trees, which were called "The Seven Sisters". I remember also, sitting
on a seat there, waiting for my Mother, I, having been ill, Mother has
been summoned to the Guildhall to explain my absence from school.
I'll always remember that incident, as, not being able to walk far, I
had walked slowly ahead to wait for my Mother, before proceeding with
her to the Board. On arrival I found myself a little frightened at the
sight of the old Gents around the table. How glad I was to be standing
with my Mother. At any rate, one old lad looked at me, then said. "If
she's well enough to walk here, she's well enough to walk to school".
Another of the Gents replied. "Don't be so foolish man, the child looks
ill". Needless to say, I was excused School until I recovered.
How well I remember King Edward's jubilee, when as a special treat, all
Medway children were marched to the Castle Gardens to receive a mug and
a new penny, and as there were six of us of school age in our family,
we had six new pennies between us, and how those pennies changed
When Mother needed, perhaps a loaf, tea, or sugar, we used to take our
treasured pennies to the little shop near-by to collect our goods, with
the request that the shopkeeper put the pennies aside, and Mother would
send a sixpence on pay day, to once again retrieve our fortune. How
many times that happened I cannot say, but eventually they all went for
good, as did many such things, such as the familiar soud of the old
street vendors shouting. "Oysters! Oysters! Fried Fish O! Pug for the
Fire Grate! etc."
Out childish games were tumbling wooden hoops around the streets. My
brothers had iron hoops with skids. It was such fun, as there was very
little traffic and how we used to run.
Another little episode I must relate. One day my Mother was cleaning
fish, and I stood watching her. Perhaps I was having some cheek, but
before I knew what was happening, I felt the full force of that wet
fish in my face. I cries, and bolted out of the kitchen door, never to
go home again. I ran through the Vines, and then into Castle Gardens.
OH! how I ran. Meeting a little boy, he looked at me and said. "Whot
yer Ginger, whot yer crying for?". Quickly I replied, "I'm running away
from home", but it was beginning to get dark, and I was cold and
hungry, so I wended my footsteps towards home.
Arriving at the end of our street, I saw a group of neighbours looking
worried, and they seemed to be advising my Mother what steps she should
take to find me. I do believe she was crying as she took me hand and
led me home.
That night I had the best Irish stew that I ever can remember, but I've
oft-times wondered. "What did I do when I received that hearty smack in
the face with a wet fish.
My Father worked at the Rochester Gas Works, and every mid-day I ran
from school to home to collect his dinner, to take to his Work's, which
I carried in a basin tied up in a red handkerchief. My daily run, was
down Delce Lance, through Rochester High Street, down on to the common,
past the Cattle Market, and turning off to run around Gas House
Needless to say, I was hot and tired, on arrival at the very hot
factory, but Father always shared his dinner with me although the
contents were almost cold.
I remember too, the saucy apprentice boys, who worked at the Barge
Builders, who used to pop their heads out of the windows as I passed,
and started singing. "And the golden hair was hanging down her
On Fridays, that being pay day, Father always gave me a golden
sovereign to take home to Mother, that being her weekly wage to feed
and clothe her little family. Somehow she always managed to buy herself
a half a pint of porter for her supper, which cost her about sixpence a
I really did disgrace myself one Sunday. I sat in the little Chapel
listening intently to the Vicar, so much so, that at the end of the
Sermon, he looked down on me and said. "Now, I'm sure you would like to
come into the Vestry and give your heart to Jesus". Quickly I replied.
"Oh no, I've got to hurry home to get Mother's supper beer".
I related my story on arriving home, and was sent up to bed in
disgrace, for as Mother said. "Showing her up in a place of Worship was
more than she could abide".
In my young days, the only means of "Washing Days" was boiling the
clothes in the old brick copper, where one could dispose of all the old
rubbish to keep the fire going to boil the clothes. Sometimes the fire
refused to burn, as a result , I was sent to the oil shop to buy a
halfpenny worth of gunpowder, which Mother made into a big parcel,
pushed into the copper fire, then stood with the head of the broom
against the copper door. I suppose, to keep the door from flying off.
At anyrate, I could never understand that trick of Mother's, but it
certainly cleared the chimney, but why it never blew the pot off the
chimney, still puzzles me.
Now for a few memories of how we were able to buy a quarter of a pound
of sweets for a penny, chocolates too, one penny for a large bar.
Apples two-pence a gallon. Lovely Chelsea buns, one dozen for sixpence.
So I could go on, but have touched on a few items. Now as I look at my
dear Grandchildren, I think and wonder. What the future has in store
I left school at the age of thirteen to take a post as mothers help, at
the Eagle Tavern, Rochester, for one shilling and sixpence per week,
where I would clean all the family's shoes, and do many other tedious
jobs. By the time I was fifteen I was sent to live with my Granparents,
as they were both failing in health. I then became a Grandmother's
They were a strange couple, especially where food was concerned.
Grandmother's favourite dish was, peas pudding, every day without fail.
I was supposed to lift the pudding out of the cloth, beat it with
butter, pepper and salt it, but I'm ashamed to say, that buttered part
of the pudding somehow nearly always found its way into my mouth. Gosh!
it was good. After all I was very young, and Grandmother was very
stout, methinks, she didn't need any more nourishment, moreover, she
always had her whisky every day for tea, and Grandfather had his rum
I spent every evening reading to Grandmother from a weekly magazine
called the "Red Letter". The serial running was 'Maria Martin' from the
Red Barn. Many a time, I would stop reading to look up and find her
head nodding. I would say. "Well! I'm not reading anymore, because you
are not listening, you were asleep". Her reply was always. "I'll tell
you the last bit you read", funnily enough she always could.
As a child I always had a sense of humour, and when I saw tears rolling
down her cheeks, as she listened about 'William Corder', the wicked
villain of the story, I thought. "What a silly old girl she is."
Now of Grandfather, he was very interesting to listen to, having been a
chorister at Rochester Cathedral when a lad. He often spoke of the
anthems he sang. He had many different jobs in his lifetime; at one
time being the town carter. He worked very hard, but always found time
to visit his favourite drinking house.
I remember him walking slowly up Free School Lane, to cross the road at
the top, to enjoy his tot of rum, or perhaps more than one, at the
Eagle Tavern, where in those days, no woman was allowed to enter.
Unfortunately, he had a nose like a large strawberry, and was known to
many as "Old Strawberry Conk". Needless to say, the poor soul was very
sensitive of his disfigurement, so you will understand how he felt when
I played a trick on him.
He always wore a large panama hat, which he pulled down over his face
to shield it. One day I pinned a paper rosette on the top of his fat,
and I had forgotten the incident, until Granfather walked into the
kitchen with a beautiful bunch of roses.
I exclaimed, "Oh! what a lovely bunch of flowers". He replied in anger.
"I'll give you lovely flowers you little b.......", and adding. "Aren't
I sight enough without you making me look worse".
He had walked into Rochester High Street before he has noticed the
rosette, then, only when he had doffed his hat to a lady who had kindly
called his attention to the decoration.
I asked for his forgiveness, but I did not get my behind spanked. He
would look at me and say. "Ah! my girl, you are like a young bear, you
have all your troubles to come". That saying I could not understand,
but as the years passed, with all the many changes, my puzzled mind
began to take shape, and now I realise the truth of his words.
He often spoke of Charles Dickens, telling me that he was present when
the household effects of Dickens were auctioned. In fact, Grandfather
erected a tent on the lawn of Dickens' house at the time of the
There were a lot of ornaments etc. from the sale scattered around our
old home, but being young, I thought nothing of them. I did have one
ornament that was called "Babes in the Wood", but I gave it away
thinking it too old fashioned.
We also had the last piece of furniture that came from Dickens. It was
the table that the auctioneer had used to dispose of the goods. I also
remember seeing the catalogue of sale, but I believe, eventually, it
found its home in the Rochester Museum.
Grandfather was a staunch Tory, and at each election he used to
decorate the Conservative Club at Star Hill. That also called for extra
work for my Father, after he had finished his day's work at the Gas
Decorations consisted of fairy lamps hanging on wooden structures in
the shape of crowns, stars etc. Into each lamp was put, what we called,
"Night Light Candles", which were lit by wax tapers. Of course, should
it rain. Well! out went the lights, and a few swear words were heard
from the artists. After all, it did mean hours of toil and patience.
How different from the electric aids of to-day.
At the age of seventeen, I left my Grandparents, and went to London as
a House Parlour Maid. Never having been to London before, I had written
to my Employer, stating how I would be dressed, as she had made
arrangements to meet me at London Bridge, to escort me to my new home,
in Hornsey Rise, in the north of the City.
If I didn't look like a country bumpkin, I certainly felt one. With my
little brown fur toque, tight fitting dress, and my hair rolled up into
a bun at the back of my head.
At any rate, after a journey by tube etc., and the continual chatter of
my intended employer, and listening to her speaking of her cook, we
arrived at our destination.
I never forgot the kitchen, which consisted of one large kitchen table,
an old gas stove, which was never in use. Two huge boxes, one for the
dog called Scamp, and the other for the cat, which being a lady cat,
kept the neighbourhood well supplied with night prowlers.
I must speak of the parrot, which lived in the breakfast room.
Everytime I went into the room, he would let forth a squeal, and call,
Smith!, Smith!, that being the name I was known by.
The family, cook, gardener and myself, always went into the breakfast
room for Morning Prayers, which were taken by the Master of the house.
We were all kneeling one morning, when old "Polly Parrot" said, "Amen
Smith". I laughed and could not stop. Being in disgrace, the ritual was
held up until I controlled myself. Oh! but what a farce it all seemed
to me, as I was to learn, after a short time.
To return to the vast kitchen, a large range was the only means of
cooking, which had to be lit very early in the morning to supply the
bath water, and all the cooking. If the cook wanted an early cup of
tea, I used to hold the kettle over an open gas jet hanging from the
ceiling, until it boiled. There is no need to relate, that my arms were
aching by the time our cup of tea was ready.
Tea, coffee, sugar, jam etc. was always kept locked up, and we were
supposed to ask for more when ours were empty. I seem to hear the
Mistress's footsteps descending the kitchen stairs, with her keys
rattling, ready to unlock the food cupboard.
We were allowed to walk around the garden, only on a Sunday morning,
and if we could lift a fallen apple from the ground, could we be blamed
for stealing from the tree.
After the family had gone to church, we were busy doing the family
wash. For this humiliation I was paid one pound per month, with one
half day a week off, and one Sunday every second week.
Our bedrooms were on the top floor, and there were sixty and seventy
stairs leading to these from the kitchen. There were no easy aids to
the household chores. It was all knee drill, and the work was hard and
My day began at 6.30 a.m., and ended about 10.30 p.m., although
sometimes, if visitors had been invited, it was nearer midnight before
I climbed the wooden hill to bed, but many a time I could not go to
sleep, and used to lie and listen to the trains hooting and whistling,
and I just imagined I was travelling home, but it was at the end of
twelve months before my wish was granted.
I was given one week's leave, because the cook had told my Mistress
that I looked as though I needed a rest. Cook's name was Ann, much
older than myself. She understood, and helped me a lot. Many a time she
would call me into the kitchen, and give me some little snack that she
had managed to find in the larder.
How I loathed that kitchen, with its two wooden tables which had to be
scrubbed white, the old saucepan lids which hung over the marble shelf
above the kitchen range, and the iron bars over the windows as burglar
proofing. It was so cheerless and cold.
How different were the apartments upstairs, with their carpeted rooms
and easy chairs, but even they, had no radio or music. There was a
grand piano in the drawing room, used only as an ornament. I was
supposed to polish the d******* thing, until it was possible to see
I am now seventy-eight years of age, and having started this, I should
endeavour to add a little of my married life with my husband and my
grand family, which consisted of five sons and three daughters. We were
fortunate enough to celebrate our Golden Wedding six years ago. My dear
family had arranged everything for us on that wonderful day.
T'was a day to be remembered always, in fact, I really felt like
Cinderella going to the Ball.