A working class household in early twentieth century Norwich


Found among the O’Donogue papers at Jot HQ is a long letter dated 3rd August 1977 from 1, Chalk Hill Road, Norwich by a certain Elsie Grint. We do not know the exact circumstances of the letter, but it seems likely that O’Donoghue placed a letter in a local paper asking if anyone who grew up in Norwich in the early years of the twentieth century could write to him with their Oak Street 1938reminiscences.

Elsie replied and her memories of that time are particularly detailed:

I lived at 109 Midland St ( off Heigham St) from 1917 to 1934…We lived at the end of a row of houses ( I think the rent was 10/- weekly) but we always paid 6d. extra because of the gable end & the very small piece of garden which ran alongside it. Our house had 2 small rooms downstairs & 2 upstairs, with a very tiny kitchen which held a copper & sink. A small ( & we had gas lighting before electricity was installed ) door in the living room opened onto the steep stairs to the 2 bedrooms. Another small door in the living room opened to the coal house under the stairs & the other door in this small room was the larder. All the houses were built like this & we had a small yard at the back, opening onto a passage which led to about 8 other houses, & in this yard was a toilet, which had a wooden seat from wall to wall ( very inconvenient if needed during the night).  

 I went to Heigham St School , which I think was demolished after the war & my first memories of the infant school was a sand tray, which we all had & made pictures in the sand with our fingers. We moved up to the junior school & then at the age of 11 years were separated—the boys to the boys school & the girls to the girls school until about 2 years later when we were moved to Wensum View School because of a new policy of education. If naughty we were made to stand in the corner for long periods & the cane was given if we were very naughty. Our heads were looked regularly for fleas & nits & we also visited the school dentist. Many poor children attended this school & did not have adequate footwear. Many wore odd shoes belonging to adults, which didn’t fit at all & school uniform was never thought of . Wensum View School sold berets for girls & caps for boys in around 1930 of the school colours , but they were not compulsory ( 2/- was a lot to pay for a school hat I was told). Next to Heigham St School was a large tannery which at times smelt awful. The owner had a large family & one of the daughters told me none were even allowed to speak at meat times.

I was one of 4 children & as my father was an engineer we were considered well off ( compared to the boot workers families who were always on slow time), but we could never afford a holiday , so my Mother wrote to the powers that be & said her children would like to be included in the free holidays that were arranged for many poor children. This was refused immediately, but we were given tickets for the “ Poor Children’s Treat “  organised every year. We met at Chapel Field Gardens, were given a bag of sweets & an apple & then we all got into wagonettes & were driven into the country & deposited in a field. I can’t remember what we did, but we did have tea & were welcomed here again by crowds of spectators & parents—I guess about 200 attended, but I don’t know who paid for it. We nedver went again. My mother said it was because we were too well dressed as she made all our clothes & also took in washing to make ends meet. My father only smoked 1 oz. of tobacco a week & mended all our shoes. It was a very bad time during the General Strike—my sister was born during this period & mother, who was very ill, recovered on a diet of bread & dripping. This was called the “ Engineers lock-out “ for some reason, but I was too young to remember anything about it. In Heigham St was a soup kitchen, where all the down & outs came for a meal. This was very clean & all the long tables had white covers. I always pestered my mother to buy this soup & sometimes on a Saturday she would let me buy a jug full, which cost 4d. Every Saturday cattle would be driven along to the cattle market & I was very afraid of these, but my brothers would join other boys & help hers these poor animals along.


The old “ Empire “ Cinema was in Oak St & most children went on Saturdays, entrance charge was 1d, but I understand a rabbit skin & several jam jars could gain an admittance. I remember 2 carnivals where the children dressed up & paraded round the streets. The prize always went to the child in a crepe paper outfit, which cost little but skill & thought. We had tea in the garden of the “ Crocodile “ public house & everyone sang. I remember how surprised I was to see normal adults kicking their legs high to “ Knees up Mother Brown “.


We had our name down for a Council house 17 years & it wasn’t until I was 17 & my brother 22, that we were offered one, because of only having 2 bedrooms. The Council always  could use the downstairs front room for sleeping, but my mother wouldn’t allow this. Our front room was left beautiful for Christmas & visitors only & sometimes on a Sunday we were allowed a fire there. We children played on the street as there was no traffic & I have a photograph of a group of children in “ Ely St “ taken about 1925 & we all look rather scruffy urchins. It would be interesting to the children now  about my age ( 60 years)


Hope you get all the information you require. I have posted your letter to my brother in Canada, so maybe you will be hearing from him…

*** Above photo  Georgian houses in Oak Street , not far from Ms Grint’s home in Midland Road. She mentions the street in her letter.   [R R] 

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