Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
A hundred years ago the young Tom Hamilton worked at Brown’s Laundry “across Caldew Bridge . . . for nights and Saturdays”. He’d go to Ridley’s the Chemists in English Street and struggle back with two bags of starch weighing twenty-eight pounds. He would wheel away barrow loads of hot ashes from the boiler and shovel coals “through a space for the fireman”. The rest of his work was a little less challenging. He had to collect the linen sheets as they emerged freshly pressed from the heated calander and sort the starched collars and the folded shirts in the garret of the laundry.
William Farish a hundred years earlier was “put to the bobbin wheel before I was eight, and to the loom before my tenth year was attained”.
Such schooling as there was, was closely disciplined. In 1830 the Cockermouth Infants marched to Kirkgate for their examination by Mr Wilderspin. They responded with military precision to the blasts from his whistle. They sang hymns and demonstrated their understanding of everything from religion to geometry. “They next sung the alphabet, the pence table, and some other tables which had been set to music”. “The children then were regaled with a bun each and the examination concluded.”
Millicent Edwards’s school at St John’s in Carlisle at the end of the nineteenth century was ruled with a rod of iron by “a very small plump person, who sat at a desk backing on to the heating pipes”. But there were good times when the children prepared a concert with singing and dancing and recitations. The older girls dressed up as gypsies and played tambourines and the smaller boys wore sailor suits and hats and sang “Hearts of Oak”.
Robert Anderson, the Carlisle poet, “always crept to school, trembling, like a culprit, going to receive punishment”. Under old Mrs Addison, he “waded through the ‘Reading Made Easy’, and ‘Dyche’s Spelling Book’. He left school before he was ten to work for a calico printer, but he had learnt enough to take pleasure in reading poetry as a young apprentice.
During a frosty winter, the boys in Wigton’s Friends’ School were allowed to stay up late “and, in a large barrel on wheels, bring water from the swimming bath, load after load of which was poured down the Front” to make a vast slide. “The whole school, including the girls, would “keep the pot boiling from the top of the Front to the bottom, often ending in a heap of struggling arm and legs when someone came to grief. “
Life may have had its fun and games, but children often faced great hardships. The Green children of Grasmere were cut off for days in their isolated cottage by the snowstorm in which their parents perished. Mary Ann Dixon, who was twelve at the time, made a perilous journey on foot from Newcastle to Wigton in the depth of winter. William Farish knew starvation in Carlisle. “I well remember the ‘love-feast’ that ended that period of semi-fast, and the happiness with which my father filled my little hand with the first crust.”
Dr June Barnes, whom many will remember from the years when she taught at Trinity School, has shaped a lively collection of stories, anecdotes and memoirs which shows the lives of children in the old Lake Counties.
The Terrors, Pains and Early Miseries is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street. Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.