Recollections of a Victorian Childhood, Part 3

Part 3 is the penultimate installment of my great-grandmother’s letter, Recollections of a Victorian Childhood. If you’ve enjoyed a glimpse into life during the late nineteenth century, keep your eyes peeled for Alice’s second letter – a post-war account of her illegal stay in the United States – to be published on Bellyful Of Art later in the year.

All content written by Alice Grant (née Brinkworth), 1887 – 1961.

Grant Family (1 of 1)
Alice’s son (my grandfather) and his family, c.1960.

All our belongings were stowed away and we went on board to wait for the early morning tide. I remember lying in a small bunk and for once feeling utterly lost and crying to go back home. Next day we sailed down the Lough and across the Irish Sea.

Her white sails may have glistened in the sun, but not for me. I lay seasick all day, until evening we came to harbour. How lovely it looked, my dear old Ellan Vannan, with its green hills by the sea. This station was an oasis in our lives, full of delight. We found good schools and a chapel – Primitive Methodist this time. We entered in all their activities, Band of Hope and other meetings, Sunday school outings, concerts and tea meetings. We found the same customs as in Ireland, we ducked for apples at Halloween and rolled eggs on Easter Monday. My brother joined the Church Lads’ Brigade and Father was the drill instructor and my sister and I went shopping with Mother.

We really learned how to shop and pick and choose. There were no stores with shelves of ready-packed goods. All was there for you to see. You walked round, tasted all the butters, you tasted the various makes of cheese and you sampled the biscuits from the open tins, then you bought what you considered best. Sometimes now, when my butcher goes behind the counter, puts something on the scale and calls out the price, I often say, “Do you mind, but I would like to see what I am buying.”

When your groceries were delivered there was always a packet of sweets for the children. At Christmas you had a cake or a box of biscuits given you and our butcher always gave us a duck. This must sound like a fairy tale, but it is true.

Winter brought many anxious moments. Father was in charge of the life-saving apparatus or Rocket Brigade. He held a warrant authorising him to commandeer any horses needed to draw the machine. Sometimes a message would come, “Gale warning, hoist North Cone”, then the men would stay in the look-out and, perhaps at night, we at home would hear the gunfire calling the crew and Mother would make up the fire and sit up all night.

Perhaps Father would be miles away round the coast, trying to get a line by rocket across the ship in distress. Sometimes, in spite of all their efforts, the men who had been clinging to the masts would fall exhausted into the sea, drowned, so close to safety, but sometimes we woke up in the morning to find some shipwrecked mariners being fed, warmed and tended by Mother.

Our last station at the turn of the century was right out on the coast of the west of Ireland. We could see the mountains of Donegal to the north and the mountains of Connemara to the south. We were so exposed to rough winds in from the Atlantic that no tree grew for miles, even the thorn bushes had a cant to leeward. Yet we rarely had frost and the primroses grew down to the water’s edge.

Once a fortnight, the admiralty arranged for the nearest vicar, six miles away, to come and hold a service for us. He came on horseback, his gun slung over his shoulder ready for a shot at bird or rabbit. A white ensign was spread over a table in the watch room and we had our service.

  • Next time: Recollections of a Victorian Childhood, Part 4

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