Memories of a
by Harriet Maria Edgar, nee Downs
HARRIET MARIA EDGAR was born in 1894, the eldest daughter of a butcher in Chester Road, Hulme, Manchester, so her first years were spent in the reign of Queen Victoria. She died in 1967, leaving among her papers some fascinating stories of life in a slum district of Manchester at the end of the nineteenth century. She lived only a few minutes’ walk from the Manchester Ship Canal, the Bridgewater Canal, and the first passenger railway station ever built anywhere in the world – the Manchester terminus of George Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Her son has now collated and edited her stories, and published them in a book, MEMORIES OF A MANCHESTER CHILDHOOD.
LIFE IN THE SLUMS
The book tells, for example, how people lived in cramped slum houses, in streets called after the mansions and the titled relatives of the aristocratic family which built them; how you could track the midden-men (coming each week to empty the tub of human ordure under the lavatory seat) by the approach of the smell and the vast column of flies above the midden cart; how a family of two adults and eight children with two bedrooms employed a live-in servant, and where she slept; how sick people (living in back-to-back houses) were cheered up by being brought down to sleep on a sofa on the ground floor, because the stairs were too narrow for a coffin; how for some people a meal from the cookshop was a feast – twopennyworth of meat, a pennyworth of potatoes and a pennyworth of peas (sometimes poor people had just meat and gravy for father, while the children dipped their bread in the gravy); how you could make stew from half a pound of “fourpenny pieces” of meat, a pennyworth of potatoes, and a halfpennyworth of “pot-herbs” – a carrot, an onion, a turnip, and a cabbage leaf.
From the age of five Harriet acted as secretary for her grandma, who lent money. She wrote letters and read them for her grandma’s neighbours and clients – nearly all of whom were illiterate. Poor people borrowed a shilling from one weekend to the next, and were “only” charged a penny interest – an annual rate of about 430 per cent; some money-lenders charged twopence or threepence for a week’s loan of a shilling. Of course, illiterate people could not have bank accounts, so the money-lender had to send cash by cutting a five-pound note in two, and getting a child to take the two halves separately; the recipients stuck the two halves together with stamp edging.
IMPACT OF NATIONAL EVENTS
Harriet watched, from her bedroom window, the nocturnal processions down Chester Road which marked the relief of Ladysmith, the triumph of Mafeking, and the death of the old Queen. Old people still talked of the deaths at the Peterloo Massacre, and the suffering during the American Civil War – which cut off the supplies of cotton to the Lancashire mills, leaving the operatives without work. Meanwhile people looked on proudly at the prompt-to-the-minute horse-drawn mail-coach to Chester, and laughed at the early horseless carriages.
THE BUTCHER’S SHOP
Harriet’s father was Walter Downs, who was a butcher at 76, Chester Road. At least four generations of his family had kept butcher’s shops. (There are still Downs butchers in the north of England now.) At the age of five, Harriet was “picking bones” in the shop, and she first boned a shoulder piece of beef before she was eight. Soldiers from Hulme barracks were shoo’d away by Harriet’s father when they stood at the window and watched this small girl at work – but Harriet and her sisters were taken out of bed to cheer the same soldiers when they were marching off to the Boer War.
Liza, a cripple, walked five miles each day to and from work for fifty years, and in the end took a few shillings a week pension from the local hospital so they could cut up her feet when she died (which she soon did) . . . Old women in the workhouse were seated in order of entry, and had to wait for the older inhabitants to die in order to move nearer the fire . . . During election campaigns voters took free drinks from each candidate, and sometimes were too drunk to vote for anyone on polling day . . . But down the road at Old Trafford there was football and cricket.
EDUCATION AND THE ARTS
Girls wore voluminous clothing, seven or eight layers of heavy (and infrequently washed) material; it was very smelly on a hot day in school. Four classes at the infants’ school shared the same room, and the children learned (or failed to learn) by constant monotonous repetition. Fleas and lice were regular companions for many. Yet there was another side to life – the child Harriet saw many of the popular plays, and many of the great actors of the time. One of her relatives was a Professor of Music, and a member of the Halle Orchestra; and Adolf Brodsky, who had given the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (and who introduced Tchaikovsky to Brahms) held her on his knee.
How to get hold of a copy of this book:
MEMORIES OF A MANCHESTER CHILDHOOD covers Chester Road, its shops and street life, children’s games, the local theatres, musicians, and schools, the odd characters Harriet knew as a child, including her own relatives, and the butchering trade. There are seven chapters, four pages of illustrations, and some 45,000 words; it is A5 size, with perfect binding, and costs £10 (free post and packing).
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