My father was a Barnardo’s boy. In 1926, aged seven, he was put into the Liverpool Home for Destitute Children and Orphans because his war-widow mother, Agnes, was too poor to keep him. I’d grown up knowing he was brought up in an “orphanage” but took it as read that both his parents were dead. I discovered the circumstances of Dad’s admission only recently when I was trying to find out how Agnes died. (Her husband, I knew, had been killed in World War 1.) I never dreamed of a time when “living on the parish” could mean a committee might decide a child would be better off being separated from his mother and siblings and brought up in an institution, for the sake of saving a few shillings a week in parish “relief”.
Helen Forrester was born less than eight months after my father and only 12 miles away from his family home in Liverpool, but it might have been a different planet. She was born in Hoylake, a seaside town on the other side of the Mersey, the child of middle-class, socialite parents, and grew up in prosperous southern market-towns. While my father and his four siblings were often unable to attend school because they didn’t have any shoes, Helen and her six siblings had a body of servants – cook, housemaid, various domestics.
Aged 12 Helen’s comfortable life is swept away courtesy of the Great Depression of the 1930s when “dividends dried up” and her spendthrift father goes bankrupt. Her father spends the last of their cash buying train tickets to his birthplace, Liverpool, where he intends to find employment. But Depression-hit Liverpool is not the “bustling, wealthy city” her father remembers and for the next few years the family are forced to survive on parish relief and the kindness of strangers. Twopence to Cross the Mersey is Forrester’s memoir of those years, the first in a series of four.
I first came across Twopence to Cross the Mersey aged thirteen or fourteen when my mother borrowed a copy from Dovecot library. Mum wasn’t impressed. She insisted Forrester was exaggerating, that 1930s Liverpool wasn’t as bad as all that. Knowing now what happened to my father, I wouldn’t necessarily go along with Mum’s assessment.
It’s not as if Mum’s family weren’t poor, too. My maternal Granddad was a docker and had to present himself for work every day with no guarantee he’d be given any – a zero hours contract, in effect, but without the safety net of unemployment benefits, which didn’t exist at the time. Possibly it’s simply that Mum never knew or expected a different life – she would leave school at fourteen, help run the house, care for her younger siblings – whereas Helen had an expectation of how life would pan out, then the rug was pulled from under her.
This expectation drives the memoir. It endows Helen with a determination to rise above her circumstances. It also makes the narrative irritating in parts. Forrester is resentful and self-pitying: she weeps and rages. She makes much of having “nothing in common” with the people around her and speaking “clearest English” with no Liverpool accent. When a teacher asks her whether she wants to train for any particular occupation she replies “I would like to be able to help the hungry, unemployed people round me”. It’s the kind of thing I imagine someone serving on a parish committee might say: the type of committee that put my father into care. (I accept she’s little more than a child herself, but it still grates.)
Overall, I’m conflicted about how I feel about Twopence to Cross the Mersey. The memoir provides some insight into the reality of being poor in Britain before the Welfare State existed – a reminder (if we needed one) of why it came into being and why it matters. However Forrester’s innate sense of superiority, of otherness, does tend to make her seem like a tourist in the slums. (Anyone remember Michael Portillo trying to live for a week on welfare benefits for a TV documentary?) As Jarvis Cocker sings, everybody hates a tourist.
Rating: ** Worth reading
Eight years after Mum dismissed Twopence to Cross the Mersey, Forrester was guest speaker at my graduation ceremony. I expected her to look “literary” or “arty”, wafting to the lectern in something floaty and bohemian, but she wore sensible shoes, sensible skirt, sensible jumper, sensible handbag that she held sensibly in both hands. She reminded me of, well, Mum…
In Hoylake, just around the corner from where I live, there is a house bearing a Blue Plaque dedicated to Helen Forrester. It marks where her grandmother lived, “the safe refuge…by the sea” where Helen spent the happiest days of her childhood.