At 6.15am on the 1 April 1916 a baby girl was born to Arthur and Charlotte Arnold in a terraced house in New Street.
She was the ninth of fourteen children. Arthur was 21 and Charlotte 17 when they married, so they were very young when they started their family. The new baby was baptised Edith Vera.
In those days it was rare for all babies born into a large family to survive for very long, but Mrs Arnold Was an excellent mother so the children were well cared for and much loved and, unusually, they all survived. The first of the family to die was a brother who died of TB when he was 21.
Their house was only two rooms up and two down, so space was at a premium. By today's standards they were not well off so there was very little money available, but Vera's mother was a very good manager. In summer they had bread and milk for breakfast, which they called 'sop', and in winter they had porridge. Other meals were beef pudding, pigs fry and they had a rabbit each week. On Saturday the fish man came and they all looked forward to eating bloaters.
As they got older each child had to help with the chores and Vera was no exception. She used to take a big can to get the milk each day from Connington's, which was the house behind where the 'One-Stop-Shop' is now. The bread shop was nearby on the corner of St Ann's Lane. The children loved to see the bread coming hot and fresh from the ovens. One of her brothers had the job of going to get his father's beer on Saturday evening. When children collected beer for their fathers the publican would put a seal over the top of the bottle, but Vera's brother used to remove it and take a furtive sip before putting the seal back on again. I imagine her father guessed but nothing was ever said.
In the summer the washing-up had to be done outside on a table because there was no proper kitchen as such or a bathroom. They had baths by the fire, in a tub of water heated on the fire. Washing was done with the aid of a big copper and all the family had to collect rubbish during the week to burn under it on wash day. The ironing was done with flat irons heated in the fire. There was a coal burning range for doing all the cooking.
At Christmas their stockings were filled with useful things because toys were too expensive. As a family they paid one penny a week for the whole year to the sweet shop, which bought them a box of sweets at Christmas. The shop was where Stanjays is now.
There was not the selection of toys that there is today. Children amused themselves indoors with card games such as snap and whist. They also played board games such as Ludo. Outside, as there were no cars about, they played hopscotch in the street and they became experts with a whip and top, long skipping ropes and hoops. In the park, Vera enjoyed many a picnic of jam sandwiches and a bottle of water.
As the children grew in number and size the house became more and more cramped, as you can imagine. When six children were old enough to be at school, the family moved to St Ann's Lane, where they had three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, bathroom, gas cooker and immersion heater. It was here that the family had their first washing machine with a wringer attached. Vera said this was a sort of luxury they had never before experienced. (I too remember those days; my mother rubbing her hands raw on the rubbing board and spending the whole morning washing. I used to turn the handle of the Wringer sometimes for the pillow cases. We always had cold meat and potatoes for lunch on that day. In the winter the washing froze into board-like structures that dangled woodenly on the line.)
All the children went to Sunday-school at the old St Ann's School, which was situated where Woodley Court is now. Vera walked everywhere she needed to go and cycled when she was older. The family did not go on holiday but they sometimes went for day trips with the Sunday-school.
At the age of four Vera went to St Ann's School, which catered for girls only except for the infant classes which were mixed. When they were old enough the boys went to the Queen Elizabeth School. They did their work in books and as well as the usual subjects they learned needlework and played netball. Cookery was taught once a week at the old grammar school in Huntingdon and at these lessons the girls were also taught basic housekeeping skills such as cleaning, washing, ironing and hygiene.
In the summer the children went swimming in the river, opposite the back of Island Hall where there were changing rooms and steps down into the water. Vera says that the water was clear when they arrived but full of mud and other things by the time they had finished.
School started at 9am until 12 noon and continued from 1.45 until 4pm. There was a break of one and three quarter hours at midday, but as there were no school dinners in those days the children had to go home for lunch. There was a playtime morning and afternoon. Children took it in turns to ring the bell, which hung in a small tower on the building. As luck would have it, Vera was ringing it when the old chain could do no more. It snapped suddenly and the bell detached itself from its moorings and fell to the ground. Fortunately no children were near where it fell. Vera was, of course, summoned to the head mistress' sanctum, where she was told that she had obviously pulled too hard. Poor Vera, it was no use arguing!!
Mr Holloway, the school inspector, was kept busy making sure children attended school. Vera was not the only one to have a half day at home to help with the washing, which must have been a herculean task with such a big family. Drying the washing in winter does not bear thinking about.
One day Sir Alan Cobham landed in the water meadow in a small aeroplane. During world-war one aircraft were built in a workshop by the river in the water meadow, so it was an appropriate place for him to visit. All the children from both schools were there to meet him and he took a lot of them, two at a time, for a quick flight. Apparently there was a bowl under the seat in case of accidents!!! Vera, aged 11 or 12 at the time, was one of the lucky ones and she said they went around the field and over the town for 7 or 8 minutes. She said it was a wonderful experience, looking at the town from above and feeling the wind rushing through her hair. One of his landings was less than perfect, it seems, and Sir Alan ran over and smashed a bicycle. Alas, today health and safety rules and regulations would make that sort of adventure impossible.
Vera left school at the age of 14 and went into private service. She had a few temporary jobs and ended up at the house on Offord Hill, where she worked as cook, housekeeper and parlour maid. She learned a lot while in service as the family had lots of guests staying and they held a lot of parties. Once, when Vera was spring cleaning, she took down the net Curtains and washed them. Well, that was what her mother did and boy, did these curtains need washing!!! It was quite a challenge getting them down as they were pinned up with drawing pins, but Vera was looking forward to the transformation she knew that a good wash would achieve. She did not realise, however, that they were very old and so as she was swishing them through the hot soapy water and lifting them up, she noticed to her horror that they were all falling into holes. It was with great trepidation that Vera confessed what she had done. Her fears were unfounded though and the lady of the house merely said, "We don't wash net curtains we shake them!" and told her to pin them up again, holes and all. During her time in service Vera had a free afternoon every Thursday and every other Sunday. I don't think that small amount of free time would go down very well in this day and age.
From there Vera went to work for Farmer's Glory, packing gifts into the cereal packets. (I don't remember any gifts in ours when I was young but that could be because my mother removed them before putting the cereal on the table. I do remember the cereal though - I hated itl) The factory was situated where the Mill flats are now.
When she left Farmer's Glory Vera went to work bottling beer at the brewery in Huntingdon, where she stayed during, and after the War, for 27 years altogether. She remembers going down into the cellars with gas masks on during air raids. She said they had to keep the beer flowing for the troops. Eventually the brewery was moved to Ely so Vera went to work at Chivers. She was only there a short time as she had to leave to care for her mother, which she did for five years until her death in 1959 at the age of 78. Vera then started full time work again with the firm of Transart, first at Godmanchester, where the Baptist Church now is, and then at St Ives when the firm moved there. She remained with them for 21 years, retiring when she was 63 to look after her brother Alf, with whom she lived, which she did until he died in 2004.
Vera was confirmed in St Mary's church by the Reverend Kitchener when she was 14. She used to go to the 8 o'clock service on her free Sundays when she was in service. She has always been a faithful communicant at the church and has been verger there for 16 years since 1990. She has seen 15 vicars come and go and has supported them all. She used to ring bells and remembers ringing a quarter peal when Winston Churchill died, which took 35 minutes of non-stop ringing. She used to do church cleaning but now limits her other commitments to doing flowers on special occasions and being on the sides person rota. Her duties require her to attend all wedding and funerals. She has to open and close the church, put out the necessary equipment and make sure that the oil candles are kept full. She also has to prepare for some services. Considering that she was 90 on April 1 this is no mean achievement. She sometimes walks into Huntingdon to "do a bit of shopping," but, "I get a bus back," she says, rather guiltily.
I asked Vera if she thought Godmanchester was better now or in the past. She thought on the whole that it was better in the past, as there is very little for young people to do now. She said that when she was young there were no problems really as young people usually worked anyway and so their recreation time was very precious. They used to go to the cinema sometimes. There were two in Huntingdon, The Hippodrome, which was where Boots is now, and The Grand where Woolworths is now.
Things have certainly moved on since then. The pleasures of life seemed to have been simpler 80 years ago and although we have made huge leaps forward in many areas, and the quality of life has improved, are we any happier I wonder? It is certainly food for thought.