Christmas 1931-A yuletide of hunger

An excerpt from my memoir 1923.

In 1931, I was eight years of age and my family was destitute. We lived doss house rough in a decrepit slum in Bradford. Originally we’d hailed from Barnsley but my dad had injured himself in the mines and so to live we upped sticks, like modern day migrants who look for a better future in a larger city. But it didn’t work for us and as there were no jobs for my dad we made due on poor relief that paid 10 shillings a week. Even though, I was a child I worked a beer barrow to help put food on our families table. But my child labour wasn’t enough to feed us. So my mum around the holiday season found herself a boyfriend who had work to take my father’s place in her bed and heart. My dad was then forced to move from our one rented room in the doss to the attic where my sister and I slept on a pissed stained flock mattress with him.

On Christmas morning, it was cold in the attic and a weak winter’s sun stretched its light through the garret and onto my sleeping face. I awoke with an overwhelming hunger which ate away at my belly. I felt ever so sad because I knew it was Christmas and realised that on this day like any other day there would be neither enough food, warmth or happiness for anyone in my family because we were poor. I jumped from the bed and began to cry that it was so unfair that Father Christmas didn’t give a damn about us and never stopped to bring presents to our attic bedroom. My dad rose from our bed and hugged me and then said, “Go into my trouser pocket, it’s not from Father Christmas and it’s not much but it is from thy dad.” With what little money my father had scrimped away from pawing his wedding ring to pay for our rent he’d kept some back to buy a few penny sweets for my sister and me to savour and at least feel like we hadn’t been forgotten.

My sister and I went downstairs, where my mum sat sullen and guilty beside her boyfriend. She said without emotion that there was nowt for breakfast and if we wanted a Christmas dinner, we had to go to mass because the St. Vincent De Paul Society was putting on a tea for indigent Catholics. So my sister Alberta dragged me across the silent but festive streets of Bradford to our church where we were met by other children in similar circumstances. Like us they were dressed in rags and their faces were thin from hunger or disease caused by poverty.

Following mass, we made our way to the meal for indigent children. The feast for Bradford’s poor was held in an open type gymnasium that was both damp and dark. Like at school meals, we lined up to be served our dinner and then sat down on hard benches before long Spartan tables. We were told by the nuns to pray, and so we, the poor, the destitute, the unloved and unlucky, gave thanks again to the ever-watchful Jesus. After we prayed we attack our meal like famished dogs. It was a stringy, anorexic Christmas goose that seemed to have drowned underneath watery gravy that looked like warmed over gutter water. But to us it was manna from heaven because we’d not enjoyed a warm meal or meat for many weeks. After our dinner, a Father Christmas appeared, with a tubercular cough, and presented to each child an orange specked with decay.

On our way home, I was mournful but content that my stomach was full because I knew that come Boxing Day, I’d be out scavenging for food in the rubbish bins behind restaurants. It hurt me like a cut into my skin, to see along the way, middle class homes where people I knew were inside, warm, well fed and enjoying their Christmas Day, unaware and unconcerned that despair was all around them.

When we returned to the doss, I found my dad upstairs in our dank attic chewing on a pipe starved of tobacco and reading a book of history. He looked up from his pages and smiled at me:

“Happy Christmas, lad, sorry there weren’t much for thee and thy sister. Next year, hey son, next year…”

But there was never a next year because by the first week of 1932 my mother was forced to cast my dad adrift. She asked him to leave the attic as it was upsetting her new boyfriend. Much later on in her life, my mother spoke the way a ship wreck survivor would talk about casting off a weak crew member that was jeopardising the survival of others, when she referred to my father. “Had no choice, it was him or us.”

Dad left us when I was eight years old and I never saw him alive again. Some years later, my dad died and he was buried in a paupers pit in Scholemoor Cemetery. His bones lie with thousands of other victims of the Great Depression who were too poor to afford their own funeral and headstone. I am 93 now but to this day I think about his last gift to me because it wasn’t the penny sweets. No. it was the hope that next year will always be brighter than the last and love can triumph over all impediments.