Today’s Christmas carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. This is a Christmas carol that was originally written as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander. The carol was first published in 1848 in her hymnbook, ‘Hymns for Little Children’. A year later, the English organist Henry John Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music. Alexander's husband was the Anglican clergyman William Alexander, and upon his consecration, she became a bishop’s wife in 1867. She is also remembered for her hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.
I was born the oldest child of seven, and the Forde family migrated from Ireland to West Yorkshire, England in the mid-1940s for a better life. My father was a miner and my mother spent from dawn until midnight daily looking after the household and mothering seven offspring. My dad was as hard as nails and once his mind was made up, it stayed made up. While dad was the head of the household, my mother, like most mothers at the time, was the heart of the home. Without her daily household management, nothing would have ever happened, got done or stayed done.
My mother had several annoying faults but possessed far more graces of character in her single person than one might find in four or five goodly people. She was in the main honest but might over-egg and stretch the facts whenever recalling her upbringing as the oldest child of seven.
A story she would recount regularly to her children whenever one of us complained about doing this or that chore for their siblings was her first task of the day as a young girl growing up in Ireland. Mum would frequently remind us about the obligatory 4-mile each-way walk to McDuff’s Farm every morning at 5:30 am before school started to fetch a pail of milk. In later years, we did discover from her brother Johnnie, that while it was true to say that it was my mum’s task (as the oldest child) to fetch milk from McDuff’s Farm each morning before going to school, she had stretched the truth somewhat. Uncle Johnnie told us that McDuff’s Farm was about a half-mile away from where they lived at the most and not four miles! He also said that mum’s daily journey involved carrying a small jug of milk and not a pail, and added that mum usually had to be dragged out of bed at 7:30 am on a morning to do the chore and that the only time she’d ever been awake at 5:30 am was when her sisters Nora and Nellie, with whom she slept (three sisters shared the same bed), both wet the bed at each side of her during the same night and she woke up in a puddle.
Mum was generous to the core, she was kind, forgiving, loving and compassionate. Being a strong-willed woman of Irish pedigree, she could hold her own in an argument but never held a grudge over from one day to another.
Without a doubt, the most amazing ability she displayed during my growing years from child to adult, was her husbandry of household management? Mrs Beaton or indeed any Chancellor of the Exchequer since the ‘Second World War’ years would have bowed down to her when it came to her art at ‘creative accounting.’ Mum had the ability to make my father’s £10 per week wage produce £20 per week’s provisions, plus services such as rent, gas and electricity. Dad might have considered himself the breadwinner, but it was mum who was the bread provider
Like all mothers and wives then, mum had the hardest task of the marital couple. Whereas it was dad’s job to go out to work to earn £10 a week for the family, it fell to my mum to take his unopened wage packet of £10 every Friday night and after holding it in her magic fingers, it would buy us £20 worth of food to eat until next week’s wage, plus necessary household items.
Like all poorer families of the time, every wife and mother on our estate paid for the food they ate this week out of their husband’s wage the following week. It was standard practice to miss weekly rent. Every mother kept constant favour with the local grocer, and the grocer kept account of one’s weekly food obtained on tick. When our grocer died, twenty years after the Forde family first migrated to West Yorkshire, Harry Hodgson (the grocer) held accounts of families on the estate that went back to the ‘Second World War’ years and outstanding debts owed for years back.
Most families would use jumble sales for clothes purchases, sixty years before anybody ever saw a charity shop on the Highstreet and would buy necessities like children’s footwear out of a Littlewood’s catalogue. While people today may regard exorbitant interest-rates charged by pay-day loan companies, a modern phenomenon, they were never acquainted with hire purchase and catalogue interest rates!
I frequently recall it being standard practice for all mums on the estate to raid the gas metre of a few shillings to carry her over until her husband’s next payday. Whilst all maternal metre-raiders were technically ‘stealing’ from the gas board whenever they illegally opened the metre and took out a few shillings from it, they never considered borrowing their monthly-metre dividend in advance as being anything to involve the law with. This practice (which could command a custodial sentence today) was common then and the matter would be later sorted out with the gas man when he came to read and empty the metre and adjust the dividend due to the householder.
I was still a child at the birth of the ‘never-never’ period of goods purchased. The only way one could buy a new cooker or washer was by means of this new method called ‘hire purchase’; where one would buy something today and pay for it tomorrow, or in many cases, years later or never at all!
It is the task of the oldest child born in all Irish families to be partly responsible for every younger child. Hence, while parents were responsible for all their children; because there was always too much to do to keep a house running and never enough time to do it in, responsibility would be delegated to the one below in descending order of family position.
Being a member of a large family, was like being in the Army. Everything had to work like regimented clockwork, or it didn’t work at all! During my father’s absence, it would fall to the oldest child (myself) to assume command. I would have primary responsibility for all my younger siblings while my mother did essential work like washing, cleaning, scrubbing floors, ironing, darning, making meals and making babies! I would delegate responsibility to my next sibling down the line to primarily look after the sibling next down from themselves. All would be determined by the family pecking order. The aim of the firstborn was never to be left holding the baby, while always remaining the one held responsible should the baby choke or hurt themselves because the next to youngest sibling had been negligent in their allocated family task! This was how/why many younger siblings invariably came to perceive their older sisters and brothers as ‘big bullies’.
From the age of 8 years, I would go out carol singing on my own every December evening after the first week in December arrived. I would never carol sing on the estate where we lived and would walk miles (‘actual miles’ and not my mother’s milk carrying miles of her youth). I would carol sing from the Pack Horse all the way down the Moor towards Cleckheaton (two miles). This was the rich area where all the wealthy mill owners, solicitors and gentry lived. The monies I’d earn from carol singing, would then be given straight to my mum and she would save it towards Christmas presents for my younger siblings.
I often tell my brothers and sisters today that ‘I was their Santa Clause’, not my father, and if it hadn’t been for my annual carol singing, they wouldn’t have even had an orange in their Christmas stockings. Please note that whatever our main Christmas present was, it would always fit in an ordinary-sized sock we wore. That is why young lads kept wearing their longer socks until they stopped believing in Santa Clause, as they would hold more presents than the ankle socks.
None of my younger siblings believes me today when I tell them this true story about their early childhood Christmases. They consider that it’s just another one of my mum’s stories of spilt milk on her 8-mile round trip before school attendance!
I always sang three carols at every house I visited. I never hurried them or missed out a verse and they were never mumbled. The door of the visited house being sung at would never be knocked until I’d completed the third carol. While I sang many different carols, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was always one of the standard ones.
Sheila and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Love and peace Bill xxx