I was born in Dagenham in 1930. My family had moved there after the general strike in hopes of finding work. To say that we were poor would be putting it mildly.
I developed bronchial pneumonia at the age of six months which in turn affected my eyesight and because my parents were too poor to pay for doctors fees I was put in a Sisters of Mercy care home.
These Sisters of Mercy were not so merciful I have to say. My mother was a Catholic but my father was C of E and my mother let me go in good faith to this care home.
While in the care of this home I was mentally and physically abused by these so-called Sisters of Mercy.
I can remember from the age of four having to scrub a floor, which I could not see properly because I had a patch over my good eye. I was trying to see through one that was nearly blind and I was beaten across the back with a broom handle because I had missed some water that I had not wiped up.Or being rapped across the head or whatever part of the body was closest to hand for no apparent reason.
I remember one day being behind a nun who was particularly vicious towards the children. She possessed a very nasty streak in her and unfortunately I was following her in through a very heavy door which she deliberately let go of just as I put my hand on the wall to help myself up the step. The door swung to quickly and split my thumbnail in two.
I was told that if I cried I would be put in the broom cupboard all night. My thumb was wrapped in a cloth that was sodden with blood in no time, the cloth was changed the next morning but I had to make do all day until the evening to have it changed.
That thumbnail has never grown properly because it splits in two as soon as it gets to a decent length. I have also been locked in a broom cupboard for four hours at a time for some minor misdemeanour.
One visiting day I stood peering out of the big iron gates waiting for someone to come and visit me. I spotted my mother with a brown paper parcel under her arm. When we got into the dormitory she unwrapped it to reveal a beautiful china doll all dressed in pink satin.
I was ecstatic because it looked and reminded me of a princess from a story that at some time in my life someone had told me about. I nursed the doll and did not want to put it down, just in case it disappeared from my sight, what bit I had.
My joy was short lived because as soon as my mother went the Sister came and took the doll off me and put it on a high shelf.
A little girl called Molly Mason was SO enamoured with the doll’s satin shoes she climbed up on a chair to feel the silkiness of them. Unfortunately she must have lost her balance and as she fell she grabbed at the shelf and caught the doll’s foot. This resulted in the doll toppling on to the floor and smashing into smithereens.
I felt SO angry with her for doing that to my lovely doll but it soon turned to being very sorry for her when the Sister came in after hearing the noise and marching her out to evidently spend some time in the cupboard or a beating.
So many cruelties dealt out for no reason at all -under the cloak of religion.
When I had turned 6 years of age I was being sent home on a one week every month basis to get used to my family who I had never lived with.
It was on one of these weeks that my grandmother had died.
I did NOT know my maternal grandmother so at the time I was not unduly bothered about it because at six years of age everything was new and unfamiliar to me. Also with looking at everything through a bad eye because my good one was still covered up, it was taking some doing.
Therefore I was extremely nervous when my mother said, “I will take you to see your grandmother. She never hurt you when alive and she wont hurt you now she is dead” This statement to me even at the age I was seemed stupid because I could never remember ever seeing my grandmother.
Grandmother was lying upstairs after neighbours had been in and washed her and put her things right.
By that I found out many years later that every orifice had been plugged to stop leakage.
I could only assume that my sister and two brothers had been to see her already because I was being led up the stairs, very reluctantly on my part, by my mother.
As the bedroom door swung open I could discern, through my bad eye as we got nearer a big shape on a brass knobbed double bed.
My bad eye was working overtime trying to take all this in. As I was led closer I could see a massive woman with a scarf tied round her jaws and pennies on her eyes. Her arms were folded across her chest.
To meet my grandmother like this was a nightmare. I kept hoping I would wake up.
My mother said “Just touch her on the arm and say ‘Night Night God Bless’ before she goes to Jesus.”
Even at that tender age I could not see him liking a massive woman with her jaws tied up and with pennies on her eyes. I knew I didn’t.
As I reluctantly did as my mother told me my grandmother's arm shot from her chest and flopped over on to mine.
As her stone cold fingers rested on my arm I had a strong urge to fill my bloomers.
I learnt afterwards the air had come out of her body which caused the reflex movement.
I made a beeline for the door.
As I fell down the stairs and met my breath halfway down I could hear my mother saying “Oh Sweet Mother of Mercy she has passed her gift on to my baby.”
I wasn’t aware that she had passed anything on to me only the fact that I had to get to a lavatory as soon as possible.
I found out some time later that my grandmother was an original Gypsy. When she married my grandfather she was more or less cast off from her clan or whatever they were called.
Anyway I was brought out again from the home to attend the funeral. My mother had bought me a new black and white gingham dress and new black patent shoes for the funeral.
My grandmother had a laundaulette pulled by four black horses all sporting black feathered plumes. A laundaulette by the way is a glass four- wheeled carriage that carried the hearse after which the family followed on foot.
We all solemnly followed on behind with our heads bent, to the cemetery.
When we got back for the family gathering I was told I had been a good little girl for keeping my eyes down on the ground while following the coffin and I was given a penny. I WAS RICH. I had never had a penny in my life and I was going to buy the moon with it.
What I never owned up to was the fact that I had NEVER had a new pair of shiny shoes in my life before and I was SO proud of them I was keeping my head bent very low to see how they shone in the daylight.
Nothing to do with being reverent.
It was while the wake was in action that I was picking up bits of conversation ( which was confirmed in later years) that my great grandmother had been the last of the her line of gypsies and when she died her vardo ( gypsy caravan ) was burnt with all her lovely stuff in it as was their custom.
This event is firmly embedded in my mind and to top it all I still have the bill for the funeral, which in 1936 cost just £12.