Child of the Thirties


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A Unique Piece of Social History
By Sheila Brook


ISBN: 978-1-904697-41-1
Published: 2005
Pages: 274
Key Themes: sectioning, history, childhood, pre-war, war-time

“This book is a must for everyone who lived through the pre-war and war years. I found it so fascinating and accurate in every detial, and had great difficulty in putting it down even to eat: Those of us who grew up with loving parents and siblings will realise how lucky we were not to experience the lonely little girl Sheila must have been at times, and how important friends were to her. I was one of those friends and feature in the school photo in the book, and even though we lost touch in our busy middle years I feel so proud that Sheila has written this poignant story of her early life. Whether you know her or not I defy anyone not to be touched by it.

Mrs. Joan Buckland

“Sheila’s book is a moving account and a powerful piece of social history. It should act as a reminder of mental health care in the past, and the impact that mental ill-health can have on friends and family” – Paul Farmer, Chief Executive MIND


About the Author

Sheila Brook was born in 1931, and spent long periods living in other people’s homes occurred during the first eight years of her life, owing to her mother’s recurrent episodes of mental illness. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War her mother was again admitted to a Psychiatric Hospital and Sheila did not see her again for over twenty years. Her father employed a housekeeper and Sheila was able to return once again to her own home in Kenton, Middlesex, now part of Greater London.

On leaving School at fourteen in 1945 Sheila had a little further education, which included what was then called ‘commercial’ training (shorthand, typing and bookkeeping). She then became Secretary to an Almoner at a private, pre-NHS Clinic in London before becoming Secretary to a Harley Street Consultant.

She left work when she married in 1952. She and her husband spent the first eleven years of their marriage living with her father in Sheila’s childhood home, looking after her father, husband, and, in the course of time, two children. In 1963 she moved to Hertfordshire with her family, and when her sons grew older she studied and passed the required examinations that enabled her to go to Teacher Training College.

In 1971 she began teaching in a local Primary School, and soon enjoyed the responsibility for Girls’ games, coaching the Netball Teams for the inter-school matches and annual Netball Rally, activities that she had been unable to enjoy herself during her education, due to the restrictions of the war years. Severe, long-standing, facial neuralgia forced her to take early retirement after some years of teaching, and the satisfaction she had in her chosen career made this hard to bear. She felt that she had made a positive contribution to her pupils’ futures, which had been curtailed because of the constant neuralgic pain.

Sheila has always enjoyed an active life, and played tennis until she turned seventy. She attends a weekly Keep Fit class and also a Medau movement session. She spent many years singing in a Senior Ladies Choir, and enjoyed Folk Dancing until very recently. She is an avid reader when time permits, loves her garden, but now has a lesser love for the work it requires. Her marriage continued for almost fifty-five years, until her husband died from cancer in the Spring of 2007. Eight months later Sheila herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had surgery in January 2008. Her other hobby of doing jigsaw puzzles has not been indulged for some time. Life is too busy, and she is in constant pain.
Sheila Gaylor wrote her book in her maiden name of Brook as a tribute to her late parents. As she wrote her story she appreciated how much anxiety and sorrow her father had suffered, and how her mother’s mental illness had deprived her of her home, her family and her freedom.

Book Extract

We experienced very severe winters in the early nineteen forties with dense, ‘pea-soup’ fogs, when you could scarcely see a hand in front of you, hard frosts, heavy falls of snow. The house never seemed to be thoroughly heated; the hall and bedrooms were always chilly. Carpet was quite thin and lino was a cold surface – especially to one’s feet when stepping out of bed in the morning. Cold houses often meant frozen or burst pipes and there was real hardship if the coal shed became empty.

As I walked to school on wintry mornings I sometimes saw rows of icicles hanging down from the gutters or a mound of ice bulging from the top of a drainpipe. An icy tongue of frozen water drooped from the base of a down-pipe. A burst pipe was possible if a sudden thaw occurred. Occasionally the water froze in our galvanised iron cold-water tank in the loft. Loft insulation was not common in those days, pipes were not lagged and loft floors or roof timbers were not protected from the weather – but if ever it was needed, insulation was required then. If no water ran when the cold tap was turned on in the morning, or the toilet cistern didn’t refill after flushing, we knew we were in trouble. We would have to let the kitchen boiler go out. We couldn’t flush the toilet or use any water until either the frozen system had thawed, or the plumber had been called in to mend a burst pipe. Plumbers were not ‘central-heating consultants in those days, but ‘burst pipe repairers’ who were kept very busy in winter months.

Those bitterly cold winters have not occurred in recent years. Their absence seems to be more than just a swing of the pendulum of changing weather patterns, but a possible indication of global warming. Yet we are better prepared for cold weather in this millennium than in the last, but seemingly ill equipped to cope with the new weather patterns of rainstorms, tornadoes and widespread flooding. I wouldn’t like to return to those harsh cold days of my childhood. We had many rainy days but there was not the fear of our home being inundated with water, local flooding of our roads because of blocked drains, or the greater risk of flooding on a large scale in some areas of the country. Large housing estates were not built on flood plains then.

Our solid fuel boiler provided some warmth in the kitchen during the day. We couldn’t spare the fuel to heat a lot of water and the kitchen boiler was too small to heat sufficient for a family to bathe every day, so we could only have one bath each week, with only had a little water in the bath. The public was informed that the King had ordered that nobody was allowed to have more than 5 inches of water in his or her bath at Buckingham Palace, and we patriotically followed the example given by the Royal Family. Friday night was both my bath night and hair-washing night. We used ordinary soap to wash our hair and there were no ‘pampering’ toiletries, ‘smellies’, conditioner or hair spray.

We needed warm clothing in the winter season and most schoolchildren wore black, lined, gabardine raincoats made of good strong ‘Utility’ material, with the ‘Utility’ symbol of two three-quarter circles beside the number ‘41’ printed on a label inside the garment. This signified the year l94l when the ‘Utility’ clothes rationing system was brought into effect, limiting the amount of material used in a skirt or dress and restricting the size of lapels on coats and suit jackets. It was intended to guarantee a certain quality and good value in the austerity item to which it was affixed and the manufacturer only received permission by the Government to use this ‘Utility’ label if his goods were made to a satisfactory standard. Everyone had a clothes ration book containing sixty-six coupons that had to provide all the clothes for one person for a year.

I wonder what happened to our outgrown clothes? There were no charity shops to take them to. Outgrown clothes would be passed down to younger brothers or sisters, but I had no brothers or sisters and I don’t remember having any of Rose’s outgrown clothes. I didn’t know about Jumble Sales either – perhaps they were held at Church halls. We didn’t have Jumble Sales at our small, rented, part-time Church.

Worn blouse or shirt collars were often unpicked, turned and carefully stitched back on again and worn for a little longer. A garment was only discarded, or the sound fabric used for some other purpose, when the material began to fray. Moths were a serious threat to woollen clothes and spare blankets stored away in the summer months. The moths were busy laying their eggs in our cupboards and drawers, and the grubs grew fat by munching holes in our winter woollies. We used to chase any moths in the summer months whenever we saw them flying around indoors, and tried to squash them before they settled in our jumpers or blankets and laid their destructive eggs. Man-made fibres that strengthen fabrics and make ironing easier don’t attract moths, but these had not yet been developed. One rarely sees a household moth nowadays. Like many of our garden birds, they have become an endangered species due to lack of suitable food – in this case, wool.

I had two grey school blouses at Junior School and two white ones when I moved on to my Senior School and wore one each week. Men’s’ business shirts had separate collars and a clean collar could be attached each morning to the neckband of the shirt with a collar stud, removing the necessity of putting on a clean shirt each day. It greatly reduced the amount of washing that had to be done! My father wore the same shirt for a week. He used to roll up his shirtsleeves beneath the sleeves of the jacket of his navy-blue three-piece suit, so that the cuffs were not exposed to any dirt or dust when he leant across the counter at the shop. The restrictions and shortages, as well as the difficulties of washing and drying clothes, precluded the frequent changes of any clothing. Everyone had to ‘make do and mend’ and keep as clean as possible, but although we may have looked a bit drab, most people took care of their appearance and dressed as smartly and neatly as possible. Nobody had a wide range of clothes, unless they had contact with the ‘spivs’ and consequent access to the illegal ‘black market’. Old pictures of the times, together with my recollections, indicate that people took the trouble to look well dressed. It was almost part of the war effort not to look shabby.


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