A world of difference
15 May 2007

Eyewitness logo - illustration by Swava Harasymowicz

Maureen Forrest compares the England of today with that of her childhood

My lifetime has coincided with most of the twentieth century, and the England of today is a very different country from the England of my childhood – geographically of course, but perhaps even more significantly in social terms. I was born in 1911 in Manchester, where my parents moved to from Northern Ireland. Churches had huge influence on all aspects of life in those days, and it was only through the church that you got to meet people and become part of the community. It was quite usual not to have any contact with others in your local area simply because you went to different churches. On Sundays when I was young, everyone would parade up and down the main road in their best clothes. My father even wore a top hat, though it was somewhat out of fashion by then.

in the 1930s, it was still quite difficult to become accepted in a new area without following certain social rules

Even later, in the 1930s, it was still quite difficult to become accepted in a new area without following certain social rules. When I moved to Bristol with my husband, I had to have calling cards printed: it was seen as the proper way to introduce yourself to neighbours and the wives of your husband’s colleagues. It seemed old-fashioned even then, and I didn’t use them for long.

It was World War II that really changed life in England in so many ways, particularly for women and for those worst affected by the terrible poverty in Manchester and the cotton towns of the 1920s and 30s. When I was growing up, it was common for children to run around barefoot in the street – however filthy – because there wasn’t enough money to buy shoes.

My father had been a farmer in Ireland and was quite well off, but my mother’s brothers persuaded him to invest in a laundry they’d set up in Manchester, and they swindled him out of everything he put into it. So money was very tight.

My parents had six children altogether: five girls, before they finally got their longed-for son. I was particularly resented as the fifth girl, and my mother would remark quite openly to visitors that it was ‘such a pity she’s the healthy one’, rather than my brother, who was delicate. I found it incredibly unfair that he was so revered, simply for being male, though my older sisters thought it was perfectly normal: ‘but he’s mother’s only son’, they said. When our father died, he hadn’t made a will, and his estate was therefore divided between his surviving family. The house went automatically to the male heir under English law. Society was constructed around the notion that men were superior, and you were expected simply to accept it without question.

My mother thought it was a waste of time and money to educate girls; their purpose was to find a husband and have children. Anything else was a failure. It was a common view for the time, but fortunately for me, the head teacher of my elementary school put me in for a scholarship to Manchester High School. I had to beg my mother to let me go, but in the end she did. Without my teacher’s intervention, my life would have been totally different.

My mother thought it was a waste of time and money to educate girls

From school, I managed to go on to university, and then got a job as a teacher. But I had to give it up when I got married: only single women could teach, as otherwise it was viewed as taking a job away from a man. I knew it was inevitable, but I was still shocked to find myself spending my days at home in our flat with a small child all day: housekeeping was so boring compared with work. And it was frustrating not to be financially independent any more: I had to use my husband’s money even to buy him a birthday present.

For me, the other big change to England during the twentieth century and beyond has been in the loosening of social constraints. When I was young, we were made to feel shame constantly. My mother overheard me once, explaining to a friend that I couldn’t come out to play as it was raining and I didn’t own a raincoat. She thrashed me after for not coming up with an excuse to hide the truth. But she would beat me at other times for telling lies if they weren’t ones that suited her.

I remember one day, she and one of my sisters were having tea when visitors called unexpectedly. She threw everything into the kitchen – cups smashed, tea and cake strewn all over the floor – because she instinctively felt that whatever she or we did, it wasn’t as good as what other people did, and so had to be hidden. I couldn’t understand it then, and I still can’t today.

Maureen Forrest is a former history teacher, and housewife.

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