I was about eight I think when I did my first paid work, not counting selling my grandmother’s cigarettes to her friends when they came e for a gossip for a penny each. That money went into my money box and there it stayed as I had absolutely nothing to spend it on. But when I was eight the opportunity arose for some real cash. I was staying in Llandew with my friends – my mother would send me there for the whole summer as she was working and the holidays in those days were looong, and I loved it there. I’ve written about it before just recently, prompted by the untimely death of Monika, the younger of the two little girls there.
Anyway, it was a long hot summer, of course, and harvest time was upon us. I am not a country girl at heart but somehow, I had to learn where my food came from. Potatoes until now came in paper bags from the North End Road market, to be bought for pennies by the pound.
In Wales they came in fields which had been dug up and then left exposed to the air and most awfully to worms. The farmer, Mr Price, needed all the help he could get to get them out of the ground and into great big sacks. Everyone from miles around was roped in to help- and I wanted to, too.
We started early in the morning. We had to collect a sack, take it to a ploughed row and fill it with potatoes. As fast as possible. I think I had to put mine into a bucket first, because after a few minutes I couldn’t move my sack. It was much bigger than me – I was a very slight eight-year-old.
I can remember to this day my horror at having to pick up a potato covered in earth worms and shake them off as I put it in the sack. Over and over again. Absolutely back breaking work though I remember the atmosphere on the field as being very friendly. My friends and the other workers would occasionally come by and put some of their pickings in my sack to help me, as I was very very slow. In all, I managed three days and earned eight shillings at a shilling a sack. Most adults I think managed between twenty and forty sacks a day, a considerable addition to most people’s income at the time. This must have been 61 or 62. I was so proud as the money was counted out for me every evening!
The best bit of the day, though, was coming back to the cottage and having a bath. This was a real luxury, as hot water was very expensive and so we were not indulged every day. But yes – after a day in the fields – bliss. So, for three days I was spoilt – and clean -but on the fourth day Babunia, grandmother, had to say no – I hadn’t worked so I didn’t deserve it. This was my first lesson in absolute fairness.
A few days later my mother came to Wales for the weekend to see me. We were all sitting at the long kitchen table that first evening and she asked what I’d been doing. So, I told her everything and described all my experiences. Including my shock at the farmer’s language which I quoted verbatim. Every couple of hours we had what was called bait – strong milky and sugary tea out of an urn. Tin mugs that had seen better days. And an irate farmer… I was never allowed to speak English at home, and especially not in Wales. So, I had to ask permission. “You bloody children! Get out of the bloody adults’ way! You can have your bloody bait later if there’s any bloody left.” And so on.
You can imagine the shock on the adults’ faces. Luckily for me they thought it highly amusing, especially as I delivered it in his authentic Welsh accent. It became my parents’ go to party piece for quite some time.
But I didn’t work for quite some time after that!