Chapter 1 - A new beginning
The noise of the tram was all around her as it rattled along the iron tracks, banging and crackling over-head at each junction as the electric pick-up bounced against the overhead- wires. It was a sound that she had become well used to in the last few years. Yes, it was around the turn of the century when they had electrified the trams; what a mess they had made of the beautiful streets, with those big ugly poles for the electric. Well, at least now they were more reliable.
She cast her mind back to when she was a child and all they had known was the horse drawn trams. She and her own mother had been delayed several times when a horse had just dropped dead in its trappings. Nothing could run, until the knacker’s yard turned up and dragged the poor unfortunate creature on to their cart. Yes, electric was more reliable, things were really changing in this new age they were calling Edwardian. A voice roused her from her thoughts.
‘Missus... Missus, this is your stop, unless you’ve moved house?’ The tram shuddered to a halt, as the conductor alighted gracefully twirling at the same time, so that he was facing the passengers to aid any who wished to step down. It was true, these street stops with their cobbles were sometimes quite difficult to alight from, especially with a long dress and slim boots, you could easily catch it in the hem and make a fall quite likely.
The condition of the streets, with refuse and horse detritus didn’t really aid in any shape or form either. So Jane, ensuring all the groceries she had purchased were in order, moved to the exit. The conductor held his arm aloft, so that she might use it as a continuation of the handrail. As she stepped to the street she nodded slightly to the conductor, in thanks for his assistance.
She had used this tram for several years and although they knew each other from these trips, there politeness to each other was one of strangers performing a function. He had, many years ago, talked to her quite unreservedly. It must have been five years previously in 1901, on the occasion of the old Queens’ death. She remembered it very well, he was quite shocked as were most that day.
As the tram pulled off, she crossed the road and proceeded into Kimberley Street, the home they had purchased some five years before. A new century and a new beginning, as her husband – Albert - had remarked, when they had seen it freshly completed by the builders. It meant, they could leave the small old cottage that they had rented, when they were first married. They had many happy memories there, but also their share of worries. There was to be; no more damp, no more silver fish and definitely no more snails and slugs crawling through the downstairs floorboards. She had given birth to her first two children Matthew, the eldest then Luke, in that slum and it was only by the grace of God that she hadn’t lost Luke to the damp.
Since moving to Kimberley Street, she had given birth to two more children; Alice her only daughter and her husband’s little girl and Ted her youngest. Everything, she had ever hoped for could be summed up by the contents of this house and its occupants. She felt an intense feeling of pleasure, as it came into view. It was silly to feel this way about a house, but it was more an extension of who she now was.
It was the end of summer and as she walked further up the street the sun hid behind the rooftops, she could feel the coolness of the salt air against her face, as the northerly breeze brushed past her. Stopping, she stooped to unlatch the black wrought iron gate, and pushed it open. It was an ornate gate which yawned as it opened with the sound of the metal hinges rubbing. The garden was very small with a lawn the size of a postage stamp and a hydrangea bush planted under the bay window, a present she had been given shortly after they had moved in. Turning she closed and latched the gate behind her glancing quickly around, before walking the three steps to the porch. Checking her boots, for street detriment, she gave them a precautionary scrape on the boot scraper fixed in the lower wall of the porch, just in case.
After ensuring everything was in order, Jane felt inside the palm of her left glove, to retrieve her front door key. It was precautionary, but she had heard such tales of robbery in the streets, that she always liked to keep her key where she could feel it. If, on those days when she had to take a bank note out with her, this was also where she kept it; safe and secure. Bank notes were far too valuable to lose, if you lost one of those, then the housekeeping money was gone and you wouldn’t eat for a week, not until the next pay day. The other option - if such a disaster befell you - would be to pay a visit to Blacklock’s and go around the back to his pawn shop, with whatever you had that was worth a few shillings to pledge. His window made you realise that everything had a price, indeed it was more a sea of despair than a shop window.
Thank goodness then, that she had a good situation through her husband. A beautiful family and a lovely home. Finally, teasing the key out of her glove, she unlocked the door, picking up her basket she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her. To the right was a hall stand, on which she placed the basket and began to remove her kid skin gloves and coat, this was finished in what was described as a faux mink collar. It was still the result of some poor unfortunate animal’s demise, probably a fox, but most certainly not mink and finally her hat. This required the removal of two hat pins. One would have been enough, but it was always good to be careful. They were rather elegant finishing touches, with their mother of pearl tops, they really did finish off the effect of the hat with its exotic feathers splayed out.
Having hung the coat and placed each of the other items carefully on the hall stand, she looked at herself in the hall stand mirror; adjusting her hair, moving one or two hair grips, and using her hands to plump up her hair. Her hair was dark and black pulled up into a bun on the top of her head. Her eyes were green and sparkled, she required little make up, as her youth and vigour radiated out. It would be fair to call her a pretty woman, with very feminine features, enhanced substantially by the bone corset she wore, which gave her the waspish waist that so many craved.
She was pleased to be home. Her attention switched, from herself to the house. She caught the reflection of the hall in the mirror and took a moment to look around her, admiring the house. Indeed, to be just turning thirty and her husband to be self-employed and so well thought of, that he not only had a bank account, but due to his prospects and collateral was given a mortgage to purchase this property was unthinkable. In fact, not more than one mile away at Cheap Side and in High Garth there were families with: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and maybe fourteen children living in squalor, some not even having two rooms. The only common asset in these tenements and hovels being the bugs and cockroaches they shared, which came for free.
She thanked God daily for her family’s fortune. Living in a house built only six years previously, at the turn of the century, with every modern appliance. Even the wash house in the back yard with its tall chimney, housed a small boiler, to heat the copper, this with its custom-made agitator and mangle was state of the art allowing Jane to have a laundry day whenever she chose.
However, time was pressing and day dreaming could wait, there were many chores to be performed before Matthew and Luke returned from Ladysmith Street Elementary School. Her next-door neighbour, Mrs Bivens was looking after her youngest, Alice and Ted, she was an elderly lady and an absolute godsend, but it was good to be prompt and not abuse her hospitality.
Their arrangement was a mutually beneficial one, Jane shopped for the heavier items for Mrs Bivens and in turn Mrs Bivens looked after the children. This allowed Jane, a little bit of time to herself, for which she was grateful and of course last but no means least, her husband Albert. He had left early, very early that morning. His partner Derek Beech had heard that a large ship would be steaming into port that day.
Derek had several friends, who he plied with drink, until they became really good friends. At that moment, he had a good friend in the telegraph office, who had let him know, they had received a telegram from Amsterdam stating that a ship had finished off-loading her cargo, but had a boiler issue, which would mean she would have to return to her home port immediately. They wanted an engineer to be waiting when she docked. The owners wanted a quick turnaround and the men would be glad of another voyage. The alternative, after they had spent their voyage money, was their wives seeking food at the Parish Relief, and their children waiting for a thrift ticket.
Albert and Derek knew what this news meant; they were the only Foy boatmen aware of this ship coming into port. This one ship was worth a month’s wages to each of them, if they brought it up the river and docked it. But there were always risks with their job, the main one was the other Foy boatmen. It was a race, the first one to grab the rope cast down from the ship, had the right to negotiate the price and bring the ship in.
She had heard them talking quietly that morning, it was well before dawn when Derek had arrived. Even in the safety of Albert’s house, such was the thought of capturing a ship like this that they kept their voices subdued. After all, it was tying up ships like this to sea and river buoys and ferrying their crews which made Foy boatmen some of the best paid men in their local communities. Better, than most bowler hatted mangers in the yards. Even if not many lived to see their retirement! They created their usual plan, they would go out early and let the others race for the small coastal traffic no one would be expecting this large ship.
They would then, push off to the three-mile sea buoy and wait there. She would be bound to head straight for that buoy and the safe channel it afforded. If it became dark, she did have a boiler issue after all, they would raise their lamp, when they could hear her and get her to heave too. No ship of that size would risk coming in without the aid of people in their trade and a pilot, especially not with the way the tides changed the sand banks in a couple of days. Their plans being set, they finished breakfast. Jane was always up ensuring that they had something hot and substantial before spending the day at sea.
They soon burned the energy off with the vigour of their work: porridge, toast and tea were the staples of breakfast. It was thus, at five o’clock on that morning the two men left the comfort of the kitchen. It was a dry morning Jane, had prepared Albert’s, bait to eat for that day. She had also made a tin of tea, it would be cold by the time he came to drink it, but at least it would have some taste to it.
She handed Derek his bait and tin for the day. It was something she had done since Albert and Derek had started working together, all three of them had grown up together, played in the street together, fought the world together, laughed and cried together. The only place they had ever been separated was at school, when the bell had been rung, each queued at their side of the building. The boys filing in through the doorway with ‘Boys’ carved in sandstone above it and ‘Girls’ at the opposite end. How Jane, had wished to be a boy all those years ago. In time, she had married Albert, no one was surprised. The friendship of all three though was one that would endure for life.
She picked up their hob nailed boots which she had been warming with their jackets on the cooker range and handed them to them. They were warm to the touch, they put them on, finally knotting and tightening their mufflers around their necks, they pushed the tails into their jackets, anything to keep out the cold. With their caps pushed up slightly as if they were going to a football Match, they tucked their wet weather sou’-westers under their arms, grabbed their ropes and tackle and bade farewell to Jane. She kissed Albert and as was his usual jokey self, Derek would point to his cheek, sometimes it was obliged with a peck as well, other days he got a little slap on the arm for his cheek. They went from the kitchen into the back yard and opening the high gate they joined the other men in the lane being cast down towards the quays and the shipyards like a vast torrent of flotsam and jetsam.