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Elsie

 

Every day at four o’clock Elsie Mill, slowly and with great effort, made her way to the locked door of the residential unit and waited to be let out. She said her husband, who everyone but Elsie knew had died twenty years before, was due back from work and that he would be expecting his tea. Knowing Elsie was rightly deemed to be at risk if she went out alone, people came and went, being careful to block her escape until the door automatically locked behind them. Late into the evening Elsie stood at the door feeling bewildered and powerless. One day a nurse told me how they prevented her obstructing the entrance. Once Elsie was in position one of the staff would call from the office saying that her sister was on the phone. Using her two sticks Elsie would then take ten minutes to walk the length of the short corridor, which was enough time to tell her that her sister had hung up. She would then walk slowly back to the door. Ten minutes later they would do it again. Repeatedly tricking a frail old woman and then hoping she would forget seemed so contrary to care, so mocking and so wrong that the next time I found her at the door I told her the truth. I said she must have loved her husband very much since he had passed away years before and that if she wanted to we could go to her room and look through her photographs and she could tell me about him. At first she said I was mistaken and that I was confusing her with someone else. Then, as I gently repeated what I had said, she visibly relaxed and said I was right, “Then he’s not outside, is he?” I talked over what had happened with the senior member of staff on duty and suggested that, with sensitivity, we could try telling her the truth. There was some complaint about staff having enough to do but she agreed to ‘give it a go.’ The next day I arrived to find a message written in block capitals on the dining room blackboard used for menus, TELL MRS MILL HER HUSBAND IS STILL DEAD. Elsie began her life story with the memorable phrase, “I never thought I was popular enough to write my biography.” 

 

I’m so pleased to do this… I never thought I was popular enough to write a biography.

I was born in Shropshire… on a smallholding… a farm… a farm called Dongary… with chickens, geese, ducks and cows… and pigs… just big enough to keep my dad going… he was only a part-time farmer… he was really a miner… at Black Park Mine… I remember meeting my father on his way back from the mine. He’d go on his bicycle to the mine and we’d go and meet him on the way and one of us would get a ride back on the handlebars.

I lost my mother quite young… she died in childbirth… giving birth to my youngest brother… Ronald… she went to hospital to have the baby and never came back… my father was lost without her. My mother’s name was Minnie May Mundle… we’d say, “Minnie May Mundle slept in a bundle”. She was a lady… who as a child didn’t have mother or father… she was brought up in a children’s home… she was a very practical lady… if she said she wanted something done and it wasn’t done properly you’d certainly be told off… she stood for no nonsense. I can only just remember her… just that she did a lot of cooking and that she had dark hair... she was a tiny woman.

My mother was ill for a long time ago… life was hard for her… she tried to look after us all… and she went through a bad time… and the one thing I really remember is how much she loved to go to church… every Sunday evening and never missed… but mostly on her own walking all the way from the farm… or sometimes she would take all the children… There was Gladys, the eldest, Doris, then me, then Minnie, then Tom, then Stan, then Ronald… quite a big family really, and quite a small farm… I had to share a big cast-iron bed with my sister.

My father’s names was Tom… Tomas Henry Davis… Gladys looked after us after mother had died but she married young… and Gladys died young too… so we had someone else as well… a nanny… someone to go to if you were in trouble… and Gladys we’d go to if we wanted to know something… she was the cleverest… she felt responsible for us… she was very kind. We had a dog as well… a black and white border collie that I was very fond of… a sheep dog.

I wasn’t at all a good girl for church… I didn’t go very often… though I do remember Sunday School… learning the Bible stories… I was brought up a Protestant… living on the border of Wales… we used to say we had one step in England and one in Wales… I remember my Gran… standing there in her white apron… I remember having to get her cows in… the long walk to a field… my grandfather used to take them in the morning and the children had to go and collect them at the end of the day… she had a special black and brown cow called Beauty. Gran was a good cook… I loved her pancakes… always giving us little bits of something to eat… and she made her own cheese… and I remember making butter in a churn… turning the wooden handle and it would go squash… squash… squash… it’s not nearly as hard as people say... it took some time… then you have to get it all together and squash all the water out… we had two churns… a big one and a little one… the smaller one was made of glass… after all the work you’d get about half a pound of butter… and I definitely remember picking the potatoes and even sowing them. We used to have sitting hens… sitting on eggs… I always loved picking up the eggs and I liked the little chicks. Oswestry was the nearest big town and we used to sell the eggs there.

Our farm wasn’t big… only three fields… not nearly as big as our neighbour’s… the bottom field was a meadow kept for hay… it would grow… we’d cut it and make a stack… the other fields were for grazing... the side field was called the croft… that was left for the cows to graze… and the other one was kept fallow until May… and there was a small pond for the geese between two fields… the croft and the back field. We’d cut the hay out of the haystack with a scythe and take it up to the place where you put the hay in through a hole in the roof. Sometimes there wasn’t enough room in the barn for all the hay… I’d hide in there when we played hide and seek… we had three buildings but only one was used so we had to make stacks. I’d make the haystack with my father… we’d cut long strips of reeds from the river and bind them tight and layer them on top of the stack to stop the rain getting in. It’s not easy on a farm is it? But I couldn’t have chosen anywhere better to live.

My grandfather I can’t really remember but I can picture him sitting in his chair with his pipe… a stout man… not tall… with lots of brothers and sisters… when I think about it I’m glad I was brought up on a farm because there’s always something to do… and always something new… and it was my job to look after the chickens… and the ducks. I remember going round looking to see if there were any eggs… we all had our special jobs… and I remember the terrible noise made by the geese whenever anyone came near… we always knew… and the cockerel that woke us up every morning… and the lovely, huge garden with a swing my father put up… tied with a heavy chain between two trees… it was great fun… we’d swing and sing at the same time… singing nursery rhymes. I loved that swing and I think it was me that was on it most. The farm was in a beautiful place called Bronygarth… a rocky place… near the river Rye… it was too cold to swim but I remember paddling… in fact I never learnt to swim even though the river was at the bottom of my grandfather’s field… 

I had an aunty from Yorkshire… Aunty Martha… she looked after Ronald and she used to come and stay… she was very kind… she used to treat us to sweets and things… we’d sing the songs we learnt in school… and my father used to sing hymns… he was a good singer… and I enjoyed singing too… my whole family used to sing… and I believe that my cousin had a harp… and we had a gramophone that we’d wind up to learn the songs.

I went to quite a small school… it had a small room upstairs for the youngest children… the school was mostly for the farming children… and I remember my favourite teacher… Miss Dovett… she taught a bit of everything… but I wasn’t much good at anything… apart from the dances and reading… I enjoyed reading love stories. Mrs Dovett was a lady I always felt I could confide in… particularly after my mother died… she was about 50… she taught me embroidery… and I think Miss Dovett knew my mother… I think they were brought up in the same children’s home and they were more like sisters… we didn’t have school uniform… just what clothes we had… my mother used to make the clothes… she had a machine… I used to make the odd things… but not much… to me it was just a gadget. Minnie and I played with dolls and we made little dresses on the sewing machine… and little cradles out of boxes and stiff card... my doll was called Mandy.

My first job was working as a maid in a big lady’s house… I can’t have been much more than fifteen… I’m not sure but her name might have been Mrs Thorndyke… she was a lovely lady…  a famous actress in her time… tall with very white hair… she taught me how to wait at table and she bought me a uniform… a black dress with a white apron… the house was near Bronygarth… next door to the farm… I think it might have been called Brookside… a big white house next-door with a drive... she had a butler… Mr Hircombe… quite a stout man… and a gardener… Mr Clark… and she had two dogs… I was the maid… I kept the place clean and did the polishing… cleaning the family silver… she had a Rolls Royce… a dark-coloured Rolls Royce… with a chauffeur… although I mainly remember Mr Hircombe driving it… I had a ride in it once or twice… her name was Sybil Thorndyke.

I met Ted through my father… Ted worked at Black Park Mine and he’d cycle back with my father and sometimes help with cutting the hay… and sometimes he’d give me a ride on his handlebars as well… we married in Bronygarth… on the 26th of December 1940… me in a blue dress… white gloves and a special hat with lace crumpled on the top… but then I moved to London… to work in Mrs Thorndyke’s London house… still working as a maid… I’ve been here such a long time… this would be about the time of the war… I remember the bombing… and taking cover… being careful not to show any light from the windows… you could hear the planes coming… they seemed faster than the English planes… we were lucky we had an Anderson Shelter… but I was scared stiff… the bombing was very close to where I was living in Nunhill Road.

After the war I started working on London Underground… Ted used to commute through Paddington… he’d always stop to talk to me… I let the trains go by… I’d wave them off and go back to him… I wouldn’t see him everyday… just when he could get away… I remember him as a Corporal… in the army… he was a good-looking man… I’d sing to him and he played the mouth-organ… we were married nearly fifty years… Ted used to mend the children’s shoes… he’d buy the leather and cut it out… I don’t remember Ted’s family… I think his mother had died… Ted died years ago but I still miss him terribly.

I stayed on the overland at Baker Street, number six platform Baker Street… I was there such a long, long time that I became a fixture… people got so used to me they would always stop to talk.