Recollections of a Victorian Childhood

I never met my great-grandmother. She died twenty-four years before I was born and yet I can’t help but feel an affinity with her, a bond built by our love of words.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to publish the letters my great-grandmother left behind. Alice’s life was not without excitement and her words give great insight into society at the turn of the twentieth century.

This series can be found under the category, A Life in Letters.

All content written by Alice Grant (née Brinkworth), 1887 – 1961.

I was born in the year of Queen Victoria’s first jubilee, in a row of whitewashed cottages on the coast of Co.Down in Ireland. The sea came up to our garden wall and at one end stood a flagstaff on which everyday the white ensign was flown.

These were no ordinary houses, but Her Majesty’s Coast Guard Station. The station crew were active members of the Royal Navy, on alternate years each man went away for a month’s manoeuvres with the fleet or a fortnight’s drill.

Every three months we had a visit from the Divisional Officer, once a year came an inspection from the District Captain and every third year came the Admiral. Such a whitewashing and preparation before the visit and on the great day, we children stood by Mother. We really believed he remembered us, because he would remark on how we had grown. I sometimes think now that quite a few places would be better for an Admiral’s inspection occasionally.

There was a time limit of five years for a stay at one station, in case a man became too friendly with the local people and so condoned smuggling. If a man married a local girl, he was at once removed. If we wished to have a visitor stay with us, a form had to be sent to the District Captain for permission.

I was six weeks old at my first move, indeed we were awaiting removal when I was born. The midwife was an old woman over eighty. Mother says that she would miss her sometimes and then find she had gone outside to smoke a clay pipe.

At home, floor cloths were called deck cloths and nothing was thrown out, it went overboard.

On our wall was always a picture of Mr Gladstone. This was an act of faith for my father. He had been warned by his friends that if Gladstone stayed he would never be promoted to higher rank, but Gladstone stayed and promotion came.

Gladstone – what a man to be nurtured on. I still cannot go to vote at an election without the ghost of that old Liberal standing by. What did Gladstone say in 1921? Well, the old lady who said he declared that jam was a good substitute for butter, lost her faith in him after she fried her fish in jam.

My father’s maxim was, ‘Do your duty. If you die you will be buried with full naval honours. If you refuse, you will be lashed to the grating.’

Leah & Alice Grant (2)In all our moves to new places there was Mother and where Mother was, was home. We never felt strangers in a strange land. She would arrange the new home and fix the beds and cook our meals and take us to our new school.

At one place we would be the little English children, when we moved over the water we were the little Irish children, yet still we were the same children.

I never remember saying, ‘What shall I do now?’ or ‘What shall I play with?’

One thing I did detest was the feel of the long woolen hand-knit stockings we used to wear. I protested so much and for so long that Mother said she would knit no more for me, I would have to wear shop stockings – evidently a disgrace in my mother’s eyes, but a welcome change for me.

I was six when I went to my first school. We were then at Helen’s Bay on Belfast Lough and had nearly three miles to walk to school. My first memory was standing up and being made to roll my tongue to get the right sound for the letter ‘R’. One thing I remember about those Irish country schools was that every child had to learn several verses of poetry every night at home. Now that I am old, if I am awake in the middle watches of the night, I try to remember those old poems and each brings back a picture to me; ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, ‘Lament of the Irish Emigrant’. When I was younger I used to plan my meals for days ahead if I had a sleepless night, but now I have gone back to poetry.

It was at Helen’s Bay that we got our cat, even she had a story. One day, he was walking through a Glasgow street, seeing a pretty kitten on a doorstep, picked it up and putting it in his pocket took it to his ship, the ‘Grace’. Afterwards, when lying at Carrickfergus, a storm arose and the ship was abandoned, but later on she drifted across the Lough into the rocks on our side. My father was first aboard her to search for survivors, but only the kitten was there, so home she came to us. Next day, the captain arrived and agreed to our keeping the kitten so we called her Grace.

Grace shared our lives and moves for many years.

Our church life was very varied. My parents were Nonconformists so naturally we went to chapel. If there was no chapel we went to church. I guess we went to most denominations in our time.

It was when we were stationed at Strangford that we had my best remembered move. I was just seven and Father had applied to be sent to a station in England. One morning the message came to move by sailing cutter, the ‘Margaret’, to the Isle of Man. Not quite England, but halfway.

Into the first box to be packed went our school books and then we waited. Everyday for six weeks we watched the Lough for the coming of the Margaret. After certain times of the tide we knew she would not come that day so out came the cooking utensils and crockery. Once more Mother went into action and fed us and made up beds, until at last she came like a white bird skimming the water.

All our belongings were stowed away and we went on board to wait for the early morning tide. I remember lying in a small bunk and for once feeling utterly lost and crying to go back home. Next day we sailed down the Lough and across the Irish Sea.

Her white sails may have glistened in the sun, but not for me. I lay seasick all day, until evening we came to harbour. How lovely it looked, my dear old Ellan Vannan, with its green hills by the sea. This station was an oasis in our lives, full of delight. We found good schools and a chapel – Primitive Methodist this time. We entered in all their activities, Band of Hope and other meetings, Sunday school outings, concerts and tea meetings. We found the same customs as in Ireland, we ducked for apples at Halloween and rolled eggs on Easter Monday. My brother joined the Church Lads’ Brigade and Father was the drill instructor and my sister and I went shopping with Mother.

We really learned how to shop and pick and choose. There were no stores with shelves of ready-packed goods. All was there for you to see. You walked round, tasted all the butters, you tasted the various makes of cheese and you sampled the biscuits from the open tins, then you bought what you considered best. Sometimes now, when my butcher goes behind the counter, puts something on the scale and calls out the price, I often say, “Do you mind, but I would like to see what I am buying.”

When your groceries were delivered there was always a packet of sweets for the children. At Christmas you had a cake or a box of biscuits given you and our butcher always gave us a duck. This must sound like a fairy tale, but it is true.

Sometimes now, when my butcher goes behind the counter, puts something on the scale and calls out the price, I often say, “Do you mind, but I would like to see what I am buying.”

Winter brought many anxious moments. Father was in charge of the life-saving apparatus or Rocket Brigade. He held a warrant authorising him to commandeer any horses needed to draw the machine. Sometimes a message would come, “Gale warning, hoist North Cone”, then the men would stay in the look-out and, perhaps at night, we at home would hear the gunfire calling the crew and Mother would make up the fire and sit up all night.

Perhaps Father would be miles away round the coast, trying to get a line by rocket across the ship in distress. Sometimes, in spite of all their efforts, the men who had been clinging to the masts would fall exhausted into the sea, drowned, so close to safety, but sometimes we woke up in the morning to find some shipwrecked mariners being fed, warmed and tended by Mother.

Our last station at the turn of the century was right out on the coast of the west of Ireland. We could see the mountains of Donegal to the north and the mountains of Connemara to the south. We were so exposed to rough winds in from the Atlantic that no tree grew for miles, even the thorn bushes had a cant to leeward. Yet we rarely had frost and the primroses grew down to the water’s edge.

Once a fortnight, the admiralty arranged for the nearest vicar, six miles away, to come and hold a service for us. He came on horseback, his gun slung over his shoulder ready for a shot at bird or rabbit. A white ensign was spread over a table in the watch room and we had our service.

Our groceries came once a month and with them meat from the butcher from town, fifteen miles away. But in the nearby hamlet we bought eggs, fourpence a dozen; milk, a penny a pint; chickens, sixpence each; ducks, one shilling; and a goose for half a crown. All these were carried home alive where Father killed them and Mother dressed them and the feathers were prepared and baked in the oven.

After all these years I still use a pillow filled by Mother with those feathers. On my journeys in later years this pillow always went with me inside a cushion cover. It has crossed the Atlantic several times, so if I ever found the way hard to my feet I was always sure of a soft spot to lay my head.

We would go down to the beach when fishing boats came in and could buy a whole cod for sixpence. Sometimes we would find the gift of a bucket full of crabs on our doorstep, the lobster men not having a market for crabs.

The accepted rule was that if a visitor had passed nine chimneys you should offer him a meal. This reminds me of another saying of Mother’s – if an unexpected caller came and you only had bread and butter to offer, put a clean white cloth on the table and get out your best china.

It was about this time we saw our first car. There was a clear view of the road for a mile before reaching the village and when it came in sight everyone disappeared, peeping through their windows till it had passed by. They thought it was the devil coming.

Mother used to stand by all the young wives of the crew. She was at all the births and daily bathed the new baby till the mother was about again.

I have always loved stories of pioneers, but it is only now, when drawing in the net of memory, that I realise what a pioneer my mother was in all those lonely places around the coast.

When she died and lay in the house awaiting burial, my father said, “I want you to cover her with the Union Jack. She has earned it.” And so we did.

  • Alice ends her letter with the first two stanzas of Crossing the Bar by Tennyson. I have not reproduced the poem, but you can find it in its entirety here.
  • You can read Alice’s second letter, The Ins and Outs of the United States, here.


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