An Account of Life at the Burnedge Care Home, Rochdale, in the 1940's.
by Donald Hoult
To provide background I will explain that my parents were not married, but lived as man and wife for at least ten years, during which period they produced four children. Mother was still married to another man, but that marriage failed and from it she had another child; my half brother who, of course, I regard as full brother.
Towards the end of 1942 she had twins prematurely and had had a bad pregnancy. The twins never came out of hospital and survived for 6 weeks and 3 months respectively. Mother was very ill and in the earlier stages of lung cancer and went to her mother's home in Rochdale, taking at least my sister and brother with her.
We had arrived in close-by Milnrow, having been bombed out twice in London, where I and my sister were born. We lived in what was probably the best that could be found, a very small and dilapidated cottage in Milnrow. We went to Moorhouse School in Milnrow which, I imagine, must have been more day-care than proper schooling.
Burnedge View, Kingsway, Rochdale.
I don't know when I entered here and cannot even remember entering; which is odd because I do have some clear memories of our cottage. Since this is the case, I tend to believe that I entered care earlier rather than later; perhaps at the time of the twins' births. This would make it about late 1942. Nobody has ever told me and absolutely no record on me has ever been produced.
Burnedge View was (still is) a not particularly large red brick Victorian house with three floors and cellars and stood back from the busy road by about 30 feet and raised above that road by some 7 or 8 feet. There was a very small, uncultivated garden to the front, which contained three tiers of steps, each tier with three treads, which led up to the front door.
Facing the front of the house there was a quite narrow strip of grassed area to the right, into which descended an iron fire escape which descended from the top floor where the sickroom was placed. This strip ended at the larger back garden, about 30 feet by 50 feet and roughly grassed. At the bottom on the left was a brick-built shed. To the left from this same aspect, there was a short asphalted drive leading to a small Coach House, within which there was — for some reason — an iron bollard. It also contained a wooden rocking horse; the only outside toy around.
To me, at that time, it was huge and, yet, had only two dormitories for we children. In all, the house probably contained about twenty children; maybe there were fewer than I recall.
From the tiled floor Entrance Hall one could look up and see the stairs winding all around all the way to the top floor. The stairs were quite wide and steep, with a baluster rail studded with 'vinegar bottle tops'. They were not carpeted and I should remember that detail for I scrubbed them often enough.
We ate in a 20 by 15 feet dining room cum living kitchen off which was a door into the kitchen proper which had an electric cooker. We ate communally at a long, plain wooden table whilst seated on benches. We ate a lot of stews and thick soups. I remember, particularly, eating dried eggs which I adored, and vegetables — especially boiled swede, which I detested; I still loathe it with indescribable intensity — and daily cod-liver oil on bread. I cannot recall meat of any kind.
We all had tasks in relation to meals. Mine was to soften the National Margarine (like rock and which melted into oil if I was careless) at the big, black Victorian kitchen range which was coal fired and upon which some cooking was done. We removed crumbs etc. from the table and washed it, as well as washing dishes in turn. Everything had to be kept neat, clean and tidy and as much as possible was done by the children.
Deserving of its own paragraph is the sweetie store which was behind another door from this dining area, and in which — in long individual rows of jars — was each child's sweet ration; four pear drops in jars big enough to hold fifty. There were definite times for sucking sweets — no gobbling them up in one go. It was a case of having a good suck on one and then putting the remains back in the jar for another go later. I got very little of mine; my little sister (after her arrival which was much later than mine) had them as a bribe from me in order to make her eat her cod-liver oil on bread. She hated this stuff and screamed blue heaven whenever it came around.
Sleeping was also communal; the boys and small children in one L shaped room on the next floor up from the Hall, just past the half-landing which held the bath and the only lavatory. The big girls' room was opposite that of the boys and was smaller. It held five beds, each occupied.
Even toilet visits were communal in a sense. Awakened each night for the purpose, a long queue — wearily — along the corridor, down the half-dozen stairs and outside the toilet to 'perform' whilst the door was left open. I was always last after my sister — small, sleepy head slumped forward on my shoulder as I knelt before her to hold her upright — managed to 'tinkle' The recollection is vivid, the dragging out of bed and the reluctant trip along the corridor to join the back of the queue often a battle against my own fatigue. It had to be done. Wetting the bed was a punishable offence.
We made our own small iron framed beds and dressed ourselves and each other and must have achieved an adequate standard, or Miss Mack would have had something to say. Prayers, too, were communal. Each night we knelt beside our beds mumbling and sharing our "God bless etc." We shared our thoughts and needs and privacies without embarrassment; even the big boys did this.
Christmas Day 1944 came around — a day of miracles and gifts. We each had a small bag of nuts and raisins beside our beds in the morning; and there was a box of wooden bricks between myself and three other boys. I think there was a doll's house shared by the girls. We had jam tarts and played 'The Farmer wants a Wife' in the big room downstairs and at the bit where he wants a dog I remembered Butch, our own dog and another very early memory.
We marched, relentlessly, throughout this time. Marching was the order of the day every day. A phalanx of highly disciplined, seasoned child soldiers drilled on the Parade Ground as we marched to school each day; Lower Place, a few hundred yards down the road. Here, we split up to attack in Platoon strength; the boys with one objective and the girls another. The day now over, we marched back to our orphan barracks to receive our just reward; a slice of bread with cod-liver oil poured onto it.
I can recall no other meal at this time of day and we ate no more until breakfast the following morning. The only excuse for refusing it was sickness — and even then it was poured down the unfortunate's throat like dosing a dog. I was never ill, but my sister was, often. On these occasions she would be incarcerated in the tiny, three bed sickroom. This room was like an upside down V, and was not more than 8 feet at highest point, and four at the lowest, and perhaps 10 feet long and 6 feet wide.
There was an occasion when I didn't march. I was now, I'm sure, regarded as a big boy; being only about four months or so from my 7th. Birthday. I was given the task of bringing greengroceries from a shop on Oldham Road, about half a mile away. It was cold, snow lay thickly on the ground, gleaming white and so, so tempting. It was a day made for the pleasure of a child and adventures in the Arctic.
The basket — one of those long wicker things — was full and heavy. I could barely lift it; certainly couldn't carry it. I pulled and pushed it and sledged on it all the way home; taking the longest route possible and doing so at leisure. I at last got it up the first two tiers of those steps, but the final three defeated me. Miss Mack — possessed of inhuman strength — had no difficulty in lifting it, but couldn't prevent the bottom falling off the basket. She screamed. I ran! She caught me behind the shed where I was cowering to avoid her wrath. She couldn't fit in there. However, she could — and did — use her 'broadsword' yardstick. The broadsword rose and fell, rose and fell. Later she mopped up my blood.
My shoes were very wet. I was told to dry them off, and did so by placing them into the oven of the black range. When they came out my feet would no longer fit them. No human foot is made to curl backwards to fit the U-shaped disaster those shoes had become. I was told to get some from the store cupboard, so up the stairs I went to this cupboard which stood beside the sickroom. The only shoes which would go on my feet were odd; one black and the other brown. I wore them everywhere. They lasted me throughout the rest of my stay in Burnedge View
I was quite familiar with the store cupboard, since it also contained trousers and other clothing and I went through these items at a rate of knots. That lovely three storey slide down the balusters was quite irresistible. With filched clothing stuffed down my trousers for protection and with private parts held high, it was enormous fun. Even with 'vinegar bottle tops'.
I mustn't give the impression of a Victorian workhouse. I'd rather point out that these establishments had been closed only for about 9/10 years and the staff had all probably worked in them. Habits die hard and new ways are slow to catch on. Although we were worked from very early ages it was no more, really, than we all wish to teach our own children today. We were learning to cope with a World which, for some of us, would become adult far earlier than is found today. Nonetheless, without our help the staff requirement would have been greater.
There were, for us, particular blessings. We were not segregated and not in the care of Barnardos nor Catholic Church, for which I am eternally grateful; we were not at risk of being swallowed by the horror of the Child Migrant Scheme. We were few in number, not in a 500-sized home as could be found in places such as Liverpool. And we retained — for some time; alas not more than a few months — our tiny 'sibling family'. So here in Burnedge View we had lost nowhere as much as thousands of other children. This was WW2 time with thousands of orphans made daily and our elders producing more children whilst 'unchurched' than one could imagine.
There were savage events within its portals, but these were not common to all within. They are part of my personal disaster and this is not part of this account. The overall view I have of the Home is one of reasonable content on many of the days. In fact — within that period of recall possible to any child — the days I spent in there were the halcyon days of my own childhood and that childhood, in a certain sense, was over as I left its portals.
Within its doors I retained my own identity and being. I'd have volunteered to be returned to its care, for my subsequent adoption was a miserable existence. The one thing an unadopted child retains is his/her own identity and access to information which enables him/her to reunite with family at an early age should that be the child's wish. Life as ONESELF continues. That of the child adopted well after the usage of name etc. is a mere pretence. Particularly if siblings are lost by adoption of oneself or them.
Donald Hoult was born Mills and called Lund by certain persons between 1943 and 1947. He is also recognised by 'birth' relatives as Field or Sanders.
© Donald Hoult, 2014
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