Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Childhood 1928-1939

I began life at 59 May Street in West Kensington, London. This house was midway down the street, at one end of a block of terraced houses. There was a passageway down the side of our house. The back garden could be reached by a wooden door adjoining the house, where it faced the street. This wooden door was shut by means of a latch, but had no lock. There was a small front garden, in which there grew chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies.

Wartime and many subsequent moves means that I have preserved very few family documents.

click for There is however one faded sepia-coloured photograph of a woman with a baby and a dog standing in a small garden near a wooden kitchen chair.

The year was 1928 and I was the baby. The dog was called Roma or Roamer. It died before I had any recollections about life.

I remember being told many times that I was brought up on "Cow and Gate" milk. Some of my earliest memories are about medicines. My chest was regularly rubbed with camphorated oil. I can recall the smell, which I enjoyed.

But I did not relish the taste of "Syrup of Figs". A weekly dose of this aperient was considered necessary by my mother until the age of about eleven.

Another preserved photo also shows the dog Roma in the corner of the small, walled back garden of the house. with my paternal grandmother.

I remember her as an old lady, living in the downstairs front room for a time. She liked to wear shamrock on St. Patrick's Day as she was an Irish Catholic. When I knew her she lived on the Lloyd George Pension of ten shillings per week. Out of this she bought an orange occasionally for me, her only grand-daughter.

I believed she liked an occasional tot of gin, but as far as I know, never smoked, unlike my father, who smoked mainly Players Weights, small cigarettes.

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Another sepia photo shows me in a white party frock, obviously my best clothes, standing in front of a dining room chair. My aunt May told me it was taken when I was four years of age. Possibly by my grandfather. I do not remember him very well, but was told that he played the banjo. I have also got a painting by him, of a sweetshop, in Sheepcote Road, London, quite far from where we lived. He worked in the building trade, and probably knew all parts of London. I was told that he had "brittle legs" and during his life , broke a leg several times; when off work, owing to such an accident, he painted in water-colours, in order to occupy his time. He worked as foreman for an old -established firm, and presumably, as foreman, his job was safe.

In time my father was apprenticed to the same trade. In time he also became foreman, and then changed jobs quite frequently, usually retaining a foreman's position. My father did not inherit grandfather's brittle legs, fortunately; as during the inter-war years, a time of economic depression, his job would certainly not have been safe. As it was, during the ninety-thirties, my mother was often deeply worried, when he was "off work". Sometimes, he had given up his job of his own accord, and at these times, my mother became particularly angry with him. I did not know why he was in and out of work so often, apart from the fact that interior decorating, papering and painting, in which my father specialised, was an erratic job. When one house was finished, there was never any certainty of a new start.

My father was ambitious, and very interested in engineering, to which he had been introduced, while attached to the big guns such as "Big Bertha" in the first world war. He would have preferred this trade to the building trade. But during the ninety-thirties, it was impossible for a working man to change trades. Among his papers, I found a sheet of headed notepaper, giving his name and address, John Martin, 59 May Street, West Kensington, London, W.14 and the designation "Builder and Decorator"; so presumably, he may have tried to set up in business on his own account, but nothing ever materialised from this. However, by 1938, the great depression was coming to a close. The upper classes, certainly, were continuing to have extensive interior decorations. At this time, my father got a job with "Harrod's" , and our family situation financially improved. He later told me that he was continuously employed decorating the "gentry's" houses, including for example, the author, Rebecca West. His best friend was Ted Gardiner, who drank a lot. My mother did not like him for that reason. My baptismal certificate shows Ted Gardiner as Godfather, so he was a Catholic, like so many in the building trade in those days. Many were Irish or descended from a previous wave of Irish immigrants.

One of my passions was collecting cigarette cards. By 1939 when I was eleven I had a box of about 2000, which in a gesture of generosity, I gave to my cousin, Leonard.


My mother filled up a bath with boiling water which she had carried upstairs to the back room used as sitting room and playroom, in which I passed much of my preschool days. I could see the steam rising from it. She went downstairs to the cold water tap in the "scullery" downstairs. This room adjoined the "kitchen" in which we took breakfast. But I think the scullery in the early 1930's was our only source of water.

Before she left the room she told me to be careful. I was kneeling on a chair next to the bath and gently rocking to and fro. However, I thought I was a clever girl and wanted to rock back and forth as far as I could without falling over. Suddenly there was a splash and I remembered no more until I woke up in the local hospital, my right arm swathed in bandages, which I believe were impregnated with some brown-coloured ointment. My head was also bandaged.

What happened was that I had fallen into that bath of near boiling water and had been seriously scalded. It was lucky that my mother had treated me correctly afterwards, so that I sustained no serious injury. But I was badly frightened and cried when both my mother and father, who were standing by the bed, said "Good-bye". They were leaving me in hospital for the night.

Next day, I came home, but visited the hospital regularly during the next few weeks, to have my arm treated. The scald on my head was trivial. I feared hospitals, and the smell of disinfectant used extensively in the corridors used to send cold shivers down my spine. At Christmastime, I was taken back to the hospital for a children's party. All the children who had been treated during the year were invited, and given a present from the Christmas tree. Then I said, "Perhaps, hospitals aren't so bad, after all."

After this accident, I became more nervous of people, especially of adults, such as schoolteachers. I was particularly frightened of doctors, even of a routine school medical examination.

At the time of the scald, I don't think I had yet started school, but soon afterwards, my first day arrived. This was supposed to be February 25th, 1933, my fifth birthday, but I cried and made a fuss, so much that my mother relented, and agreed to let me have one more week at home. The law, apparently, in 1933 required attendance from the actual day of one's fifth birthday, so that new children were arriving in school continuously, in ones and twos, in the first infant's class. Accordingly, one Monday, near enough to March 6th 1933, my mother took me to school on my first day, as far as the classroom door. I cried. There were numbers or letters suspended on placards from the schoolroom ceiling and these seemed to be shaking about. My mother left me in the room. When I stopped crying, the teacher gave me a "sand tray". Like the other children, I had to draw letters in the sand, but on this first day, my finger was guided, by a strange adult's hand, who was that dragon, the schoolteacher.

I would not remember, at the age of 64, whether it was my left or right arm which had been scalded if I did not still bear the scar, which measures five inches in length; at its extremities is half an inch, and in the middle, one and a half inches. Fortunately the scar on my forehead is barely visible, a small circle of diameter one quarter of an inch.

I have always enjoyed taking measurements. We had a cheap alcohol thermometer, intended to take the temperature of the room. I used to place this as near to the open fire as possible, standing it upright on one side of the hearth. At the moment when the red-dyed liquid had almost expanded to reach the top of the scale, I snatched it away, content with my "experiment". I suppose I was about eight years old, when I did this once too often, and the thermometer was broken. I cried and cried in fear of my father's anger. But on this occasion he was in a good mood and said very little. Mother comforted my tears, and Dad said it indicated my interest in science and bought me a copy of the annual "Pears' Encyclopaedia". This was a book intended for adults, but I read it from cover to cover.

Of particular interest was the entry on "the atom", and though I understood it only vaguely, I followed the references to the electron and to the proton, and read a short account of Rutherford's experiments. Rutherford had split the atom in 1918 in a small-scale "sealing wax and string" experiment in a British University. I think the early editions of "Pears" gave his work prominence over the Curies, Bohr, Max Planck and other early physicists who were studying the structure of matter, because he was British. But most importantly Rutherford was in 1910 one of the first to propose that the atom consisted of a central "nucleus", positively charged and an outer circle of negatively charged electrons. Of course, in 1938 when I was ten years old, I could not have put this clearly, but in a vague way understood that the atom contained energy which could be released, as I then thought to benefit people, and even to demonstrate the wonderful mysteries of God, the Creator.

At the age of ten, my ideas about God were vague, for I had never attended Church or Sunday School. However, my father taught me to say simple prayers at night. He was a lapsed Catholic, but I well remember him saying when I wanted to stop saying "God bless Nana" after his mother had died in 1936, that I should go on praying for her, in addition to praying for all my friends and relations who were alive. This was his Catholic influence, for Catholics have always believed in the special importance of praying for the dead. But at this time I learnt little about religion, beyond the prayers in morning assembly at a State School, and the occasional instruction by my parents. My mother had been brought up in the Church of England, of which my maternal grandmother was a devout member. On holidays with her in the country, I was taken, protestingly to Church of England's "Morning Prayer" on Sundays, a long service with four hymns and two psalms. I always counted the time to the end of the service by means of the number of hymns which had been sung. At the service I noticed little else, and especially not the sermons of Rev. Madeley.

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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.