I'm a twit too

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


It was February 1959 and Kath was eighteen years old, and free at last, of the Nuns! She looked out to the ocean  ready to face her future in the Mother Country - with a Mother she had never met. 

Would she tell her who her father was? Why did she put her in an orphanage for all those years? She considered that they might not get on with each other, but her curiosity was strong.

Kath didn't dare to hope too much in finally having a normal, loving family to belong to, because on their first meeting off the ship at Southhampton, Kathleen senior was tense.

This first impression may have been because of the stress of her Mother having her Polish mother-in-law staying with them for three months, and a little three year old to keep an eye on. It was bound to be awkward, but Kathleen junior was happy to be at the start of a new adventure, and her step-father had a huge smile and welcomed her home.

The Hubert Road terrace house was cramped. She shared a room with her step-father's mother who didn't speak much English.
It felt too strange to call her Mother by any name.

I'm assuming  both women would have realised that a relationship would take time to develop. My Grandmother said she was going to take her daughters on the train to meet her brother Herbert in Scotland and sister Marion in London... However, she also warned my Mum not to ask questions about the past, because she wouldn't answer them!

Mum was keen to get  a job to buy more warm clothes, boots, hats, gloves and scarves so when Bruno and her Mother asked what she would like for her 19th birthday, Mum quickly suggested a sewing machine so she could run up her own clothes. They agreed to go halves.

In the first week of her arrival her Mother had beat her to it - getting a job! She hadn't even said she was looking for one. Now she was a Birmingham City Council employee as the cash and ticket lady at the Stirchley Public Baths. Nan would spend the rest of her working life there.

Having a half-sister was delightful, but being expected to baby-sit, and do household chores for her board was not what Kath wanted. She'd spent a life-time cleaning and looking after kids, and it
didn't help that her Mother had the habit of running her finger along the mantle piece or sideboard to check for dust....just like the nuns!
Cnr Hubert and Exeter Rd, Selly Oak (photobydjnorton)
Had Mrs. Kathleen Frackowiak, nee Clarke brought her illegitimate child back for her own convenience, to use her as a housemaid and Nanny? Kath wasn't going to be bossed about anymore, so she started to look for a job herself, with Juliana in the push-chair, all rugged up, down to Selly Oak village where there were a lot of shops that might be wanting someone.
Mum was trained early to be an all round domestic by  the Nuns - even five year olds could get on their hands and knees, scrubbing and polishing.  The laundry, the ironing and cooking were huge affairs in the institutions, taking up so much time that going to school wasn't a priority. Basic literacy skills would see the children into their menial labouring jobs they were expected to fill in the future.

In Australia they were mostly self-sufficient with a Dawn wake-up call to milk cows in the shivering cold, wet grass on bare feet, mist and mountains all around. The girls even had to clean used bricks for building the school and chapel. They killed chooks and de-feathered them, and nursed sick kids. Mum could put her hand to anything.
Being Roman Catholics meant certain rituals had to be fulfilled including keeping a vigil if a nun had died, all through the spooky night, around the coffin, then maintaining the cemetery where the priests and nuns were buried(kids were buried outside of the sanctified area).
At 12 they sent the girls out to farms on large properties in the middle of nowhere. Working as unpaid labour the girls were sent to assist the mothers with the chores and children. 

Back in Birmingham, Mum would be wistful hanging out the washing on another grey dank day. She said in Australia the hot wind would blow everything dry in an hour, not like here where the laundry was a constant process day in- day out - hanging sheets, towels and clothes, getting them in before it rained, clothes horse at the fireside, and into the airing cupboard.
The wash and spin machine in the kitchen was cumbersome and didn't have much capacity so Dads heavy brickie's overalls went first and the rest she soaked and washed and squeezed  in the bath, on her knees, leaning over. 
At least we had a bathroom now. Our house in Exeter Rd like most of late nineteenth century workers houses didn't have an indoor bathroom and toilet. Finally in 1971 Dad built an extension at the end of the tiny kitchen.

The twins and I walked around the corner at Dusk with rolled up towels to Tiverton Road Public Baths for our Sunday night bath until Dad was finished. I don't know why they hadn't done an extension, when it was Nan and Grandads house. They had two boys and two girls growing up needing a bigger wash than a tin bath in front of the fire!
People get used to ways of doing things I suppose, and  selling the house to Kath and Brian with the twins coming along, moving themselves around the corner to a house in Dawlish Rd that already had an indoor bathroom suited everyone. Families were useful like that, helping each other get on in life.

My other Nan, Mum's Mum was working there and run the water for my bath. I didn't know her that well. She wasn't like a real Nan, but I was getting used to the fact that she would pop up into our lives now and again then disappear as fast. 
I walked in from school one afternoon, and there was a strange lady sitting next to mum at the white laminated oval table. I stared trying to figure out who it was, then I remembered the black and white kodak photos in the box under the sideboard which showed me as a toddler playing with pekinese dogs in the garden of her house.
"Do you know who this is?" said Mum.

I'm glad I guessed right. Now she checking the water, asking how Mum was. I would say good, tell her what Mum's latest job was,  cleaning at St.Edwards Grammar School or Canteen cook in a factory. Whenever I told Mum I'd seen Nan Frackowiak she'd grunt, said something like, "She used to get off the bus at the bottom of the road and walk straight past our house, to go and see her friend in Hubert Rd. after they moved out of Selly Oak to Edgebaston. No time to pop in and see her daughter."

I liked it when Mum worked an evening job at Cadbury's.  Instead of  going to the Ex-Serviceman's Club, he stayed to look after the three of us. Moulded into the front of his bear hugging body which was freshly washed of cement and plaster, Dad would finish his tea, lie on the couch watching T.V. in the dark. Twins in bed. Peace and quiet. Always let me stay up, but as soon as the gate opened I was up the apples and pears!

Julie age 6 Tiverton Rd. Infant School
croched dress by Kath 1969
Mum cut all our hair, then she saved,  and invested in her own stand-up hairdryer so she could do friends and neighbours perms and trims for some extra pocket money.  She crochet a lot of our clothes; real 70's ponchos and outfits that matched with caps - especially with school photos coming up! Her best friend Ann also shared Mum's creative urge and they often shared ideas and learned new crafts together.

My sisters are just like our Mum; Hard workers, great resilience and efficiency - never had a problem finding a job. I could never keep up the pace that was expected. Unfortunatly it wasn't about choosing a vocation in our family. Al and Deb were pressured to go to work  from the age of 14. Al went with mum to work in the factory when we emigrated to Australia in 1978.
Deb got a job in an upholstery factory, getting up every morning at 4.30am to get there for 6am. I worked with mum one time and did after-school and holiday jobs but I started to crack after 2 weeks and nobody could understand why...

Whereas it is common for parents to sacrifice their time and money to ensure their children get a higher education, my dad was absent, and by then Mum had re-married and they were spending their money on their own fun, and urging us to pay our way - by leaving school.

You would think they were the working poor because they didn't have money for our school books and we had sleeping bags. Drinking and gambling seemed to be the only thing I could see they were spending their money on. 
The furniture and car was on hire-purchase. Their drinking was becoming excessive with a roller-coaster of arguments and joviality. but if  I left the lounge room away from the T.V. to read my Shakespeare text, my step-father claimed I was a snob and reading shit! Who did I think I was, the queen of bloody Sheba!

I couldn't live and study under those conditions. I read my Introduction to Legal Studies which said I could leave home at 16 if I wasn't in any moral danger.
My parents were the bad influence!  I boarded at a friends house around the corner and it was just what I needed; a room of my own where I started to write poetry and finding that senior year subjects were stimulating, or what Joseph Campbell described as following your bliss. 
I had moved out and Mum and Derek had moved from another rental into one in a bayside suburb. I felt bad about the twins having to put up with them. The last thing I had said to Mum after another psychologically bruising episode with Derek was why didn't she leave him - and we could find a flat together. 
We were sat on the couch. She looked at me and said us girls would be grown up soon and making a life of our own, and she would be left lonely. That was when I knew it was I who had to save myself, because Mum had chosen him over us.

My land-lady was going through emotional trauma herself and asked me to find somewhere else. I was at a loss, with $16.00 a week for working in a department store Friday evenings. I was determined to do Year 12 High School Certificate so started to investigate after school jobs in the local factories so I had more money to rent a room with. 
I was floundering until I saw the sign for the local State Member of Parliament Race Matthews. I reasoned that even though I couldn't vote and I'd only been in the country a year it was a matter of principle that he try and help me complete school. 
Tapping in to his local resources I came to lodge with a Christian couple, one a  social worker, the other a teacher, assuring me they wouldn't talk about their religion. 
There was no Youth Allowance under the Liberal Government and a token pittance of $22.00 a fortnight to support my keep! When I turned 17years I lost my job, so until I found another, Helen and Rob paid my bus fares to school!

Any thought that I could go to teachers college like my Auntie Juliana was out of my reach and know-how. I was born a working class girl from Selly Oak. I could have no lofty ambitions. Dad thought the most I could expect was to get a job as a secretary...like Barbara! 
It was a terrible shock for my father to learn that Kath and Derek were not supporting us properly with the good wages they had bragged about. 
In my precarious state one expensive phone call from Melbourne to Dad in England for some financial support was disapointing - he was having troubles with his business. There was an Insurance cheque coming soon, meanwhile I was to see this as building my character...

Tiverton Rd school motto was "Knowledge is Power" but it helps if you have a mentor. All during my childhood the Birmingham University tower clock could be seen from my bedroom window. I could tell the time and admire its slim-line red brick but nobody told me what a University really was, or how I could work towards going there and why. 
It was a world renowned University and all I knew was the giant clock kept me mesmerised at times as I stared out of my window wondering what the future held.   
My daughters would grow up with conversations around the dinner table that tertiary studies were a natural progression in the journey of  life learning. They would know that their parents would support them in whatever way they could to set them up as independent women.

My mother Kath and her mother Kathleen were both wards of Church and State; they had a parent alive, but they didn't know. They learned to read and write and do their numbers to get them by and were told that they wouldn't need anything more, because all they were good for was menial labour.

When I started to visit my mother and step-father again I found out what irked them about me still being at school at 17. They were at the local pub when I said I had quit another casual factory job and had decided  I was not going to work in a factory ever again - they took it personally - did I think I was better than them?! 

Mum's mum obviously had invested a higher vision for Juliana by encouraging and supporting her to go onto teacher training college - the next step up on the British class ladder. For her on occasion daughter who she had gone to the trouble of  bringing back to Birmingham from the other side of the world there was only annoyance that the 18 year old had a mind of her own and was wanting to go out all the time!

Young Kath walked in to Woolworths off the Bristol Rd. and got her first job in England. She would have to toughen up though, as in her first week a salesgirl found her passed out on the storeroom floor. She was suffering from Hyperthermia! When she told her mother she asked quite pointedly, if she was pregnant!

Perhaps Grandmother suspected my mum would make the same mistake she made, of being an attractive young woman recently arrived in the big city of Birmingham, vulnerable to being flattered and seduced only to find herself pregnant and abandoned. 
Perhaps as a 20year old Kathleen was swept off her feet at the Palais de Dance in Monument Rd near her lodgings: the handsome man in uniform didn't want to die a virgin and promised he'd come back to Ladywood. Or was it her married boss at munitions taking advantage? If she ever confessed to her priest about the circumstances of  the conception of my mother she would not find the peace within to ever open her heart and forgive herself, for what was essentially the fault of the Catholic Church non-teachings.
On her death-bed our Grandmother asked for my sister who had returned to Birmingham, but instead of releasing secrets, of telling the truth on her mind, she resorted to the habit of  pinpointing the faults of our mother!

Cadbury workers 1950's (Independent)
Kath's successful application for a full-time job at Cadbury, Bournville  in 1960 meant excellent pay and working conditions. The first thing she did was get her teeth fixed at the company's on site medical and dental service after years of neglect. At the orphanage if anybody needed dental work, the nuns pulled their teeth out, without anaesthetic... so where there was gaps, she had new ones fitted.
It wasn't long before she had joined the ten-pin-bowl ladies team, swimming in the indoor pool and establishing  friendships. This was what being young and attractive was all about and being invited to parties and dancing. It was in mid 1960 at a party in Bourneville village that Brian and Kath met.
He happened to live near her in Exeter Rd. In fact he was born there! He was handsome. They flirted and he wanted to pick her up in his car and go out somewhere, for a drink, with him and his mates - show her the best of Selly Oak.

6 months of courting and regular arguments with her mother Kath was eager to free herself of the woman. When Brian proposed marriage, for some bizarre and obscure reason, her mother would not sign the marriage license because she was under 21 years of age! She wanted to know if she was pregnant! 

Why do you keep asking me that - You think I'm like you?

Bruno tried to get his wife to be reasonable. He was a likeable young man, from a good home, was a hard worker - but  his wife  had a bee in her bonnet and an irrational need to control everything. She had the power to prevent her daughter getting married, only for another month, yet would make her wait!

Who do you think you are? I had enough bleeding cruelty in the orphanage!
You are an ungrateful girl - after everything we've done for you?
I don't owe you anything!
Ungrateful - we paid for you to come back to England - given you a nice home to live in - bought you a sewing machine! And I am your parent till you are 21! I have to protect you!
Where were you when the nuns were beating us with their belts, where were you when we were put on the ship to Australia. It's too late for you to be a parent. I'm not good enough for you so I'm going. I don't need you, and I'll pay you back your half for the sewing machine.

That was it. Kath gathered some things and went with her fiance to his home. There was no problem in her being put up in the front room until they got married. Kath and Brian's mum got on well. Elsie worked as a ward cleaner at the Queen Elizabeth hospital and it was no effort to peel the spuds and bring in the washing when she wasn't at work herself.

I know these lines off by heart because my own mother unleashed them onto me defending her drunken husband, when I said I had to leave home. Ungrateful - how much we've sacrificed for you - after all we've done for you!  You're only 16!
I'd looked it up in my 5th form legal studies book and as long as I had a stable, moral home to live I wouldn't get in trouble, so I'd lined up a room in a school friends house, around the corner. All I wanted was Peace and quiet to do my homework and no-more drunken arguments, and hassles about emptying the rubbish bin or not cooking the dinner right when they came in from the factory.

My sisters and I had emigrated with Mum and Derek to Australia in January 1978. Derek was hired by an old boss of his from a screw factory in the Black Country with 6months rent-free and the highest wages they had ever had in their life.
Dad,  had signed over the full title of 26 Exeter Rd. to mum so they had enough to buy a house for us kids to settle in a new country - have a good start, better than they might achieve in Birmingham. Dad reckoned we were working-class girls - in a run-down Selly Oak that didn't offer the same as in his day. Jobs were getting scarce - so he was letting us go to Australia  for the best, plus daughters belong to their mother.

The one big disappointment in getting married the first time was her boss, George Cadbury had the view that when women got married they would naturally have a baby and so should be at home to be with baby and keep house and husband. A little leaving ceremony  for women was instituted with a gift of a Bible and a carnation for their new role in life.

Now Mum understood why there were so many middle-aged spinsters working in her section. They were nearly like the nuns, being Brides of Christ, but those women had committed to a life under the benevolent employment of the Cadbury brothers!

Her cynical outspoken views would make her husband wince, but he understood it was a result of the tough time she had growing up and not having a loving Mum and Dad.

Birmingham Registry Office July 1961
Marriage of Brian Higgins and Kathleen Clarke

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your story -- it's not that I can identify, because I can't. The only thing that is relevant to me is that I recently found out my grandmother was raised by nuns from at least the age of 6. Her mother was supporting herself as a prostitute after her husband died. It makes me wonder if her life was difficult in that institution. I do not know. Some of the facts -- like kids not qualifying for burial in sacred ground makes me so sad. Thanks for sharing this story.


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