I was watching The Great British Sewing Bee the other evening and they were having a special fifties edition which meant the contestants had to use the sewing machines of the day as well as make a dress fashionable at the time. I can honestly say I can’t remember the style of the garment that was the first challenge but I put it down to the likelihood of it being popular at the start of the fifties when I hadn’t even reached my teens and was not fascinated by fashion.
My interest came later with waspie belts, net underskirts, crochet tops and tartan trews which were purchased from various shops in Liverpool. I was never much of a one for sewing, although for the first two years at Grove Street girls only grammar school sewing was on the curriculum. I made a pair of pyjamas, a skirt and an apron all by hand and never touched a sewing machine until years later when I was married. I did like embroidery and I became a great knitter when my boyfriend was at night school in Colquitt Street three evenings a week doing his City & Guilds for Printing. Knitting helped pass the time whilst watching programmes such as Emergency Ward 10 and Dixon of Dock Green on Mam and Dad’s black and white telly.
On the other hand, my sister’s first job was as a sewing machinist, not that I ever remember her sewing much at home but maybe that was because it was too much like work. When the subject of the Sewing Bee came up the other day at a family gathering in the Jubilee Arms, she admitted to never watching it. I was stunned as I find it similar to people watching when on holiday, great entertainment. My sister-in-law who is a brilliant dressmaker as well as maker of fantastic wedding cakes, said she enjoyed it as much as I did.
Knowing something about the fashions of different eras is part of my job as a novelist. Last night I couldn’t prevent my mind from drifting to those evenings when window-shopping in Liverpool city centre was such a pleasure during the fifties and sixties. Many a courting couple saving up to get married would pass the time, gazing in dress shops and furniture shops, book shops and photography shops, not to mention having a gander at what was showing at the six cinemas all within walking distance for that Saturday night out at the pictures.
One of my favourite dress shops was Nanette’s on London Road which in spring always displayed a wedding dress, as well as a couple of bridesmaid frocks in their window. Although I didn’t buy my wedding gown from there, I did purchase two frocks for my trousseau. Do brides bother with a trousseau these days? One frock was made from midnight blue chiffon and had three quarter sleeves ending in frills and there was also a frill around the scooped neckline. I could never have made that myself in a month of Sundays. The material was so sheer and would slip all over the place when it came to sewing it -
just like the material in the third challenge in the fifties Sewing Bee.
Other shops popular with the female sex were Du Barry’s, Etam’s, Dorothy Perkins, as well as the posher dress shops along Bold Street where you went if you had a few bob so I can't remember their names. Then there were the departmental stores, such as T J Hughes, C&A Modes, Lewis’s, Littlewood’s, Henderson’s, Blackler’s, Marks & Spencer, Owen-Owen, the Bon Marche and George Henry Lees -
the later two shops were to amalgamate and when they moved more recently to Liverpool One became John Lewis.
I did do some sewing, of course. As the saying goes A stitch in time saves nine and I would sew up a hem when my heel caught it and I could sew on a button and my mother did teach me how to darn, using one of those wooden mushroom shaped thingies. When I did eventually buy a second-hand Singer sewing machine and tried my hand at dressmaking, my favourite shop for materials was George Henry Lees. It was a magical place taking up part of the basement, it was filled with such variety and colour it was like wandering into Aladdin’s cave. As for their haberdashery department with its buttons, cottons, zips, hooks and eyes and lengths of bice binding and fancy edgings that was a fascinating place as well and I loved wandering through it.
For men there were several shops trying to attract their trade, such as Jackson’s and Burton’s who offered made-to-measure suits as well as the ready made sort, shirts, jumpers, overcoats and the like. My husband’s wedding suit was made-to-measure in black mohair from Burton’s. The jacket was lined in scarlet satin and it looked the gear. He wore it with winkle picker shoes and a dazzling white shirt and a beautifully knotted tie. No one I knew in those days would have dreamed of wearing a morning suit with a topper as so many do today.
I can’t finish without mentioned catalogues, we might not have had the internet and credit cards but we could peruse pictures of the latest fashions and purchase clothes for so much a week. Neither were there any charity shops. Most likely because most of us possessed fewer clothes and only got rid of them when they were suitable for the ragman.
How times change! So thank you Great British Sewing Bee for bringing back so many happy memories.
Saturday 7 February 2015
One of the things I love about being a novelist is discovering snippets of information about the places and times my stories are set. I remember publisher, Judy Piatkus, saying something along the lines that I have to create a world that readers enjoy escaping into. It is only by researching and using one’s imagination and feelings that bring the characters and a particular era alive. A MOTHER’S DUTY is a book I really enjoyed writing because it not only involved a storyline that was close to my heart but it was set in the Thirties and into the beginning of WW2 when so much was happening in Liverpool and the world in general.
Writing about one place in particular means that coming up with fresh storylines demands quite a bit of thinking about. Those involved in publishing and writing often advise Newbies to write about what they know. I always used to say and if you think you don’t know anything then find out as much as you can about what interests you. I write family sagas, so naturally I write mainly about situations involving families. For this book I wanted a mother with sons to be at the centre of the story. But I wanted their situation to be slightly different to the norm, so I decided that the mother, Kitty, would be the proprietor of a hotel. Where? Where else but Mount Pleasant which is not far from Lime Street railway station. I knew a fair amount about being a mother of sons but scarcely anything about running a hotel. So I plucked up my courage, took a walk along that thoroughfare, which before the arrival of the railway was called Martindale Hill and was set in countryside and I chose a place I liked the look of and rang the bell.
I was fortunate enough to be welcomed inside when I explained to the son of the proprietor my mission and flourished one of my books as my credential. Although his mother was too busy at the time to discuss the subject with me, we arranged a time convenient to both of us when we could meet. The information she gave me was invaluable in stirring my imagination and making not only my fictitious hotel real to me but also my character, Kitty. For instance I had never given much thought to how important the Grand National was to hoteliers and guest houses in my hometown. The same with Liverpool theatres, not only did people come into the city from Wales, Lancashire and from across the Irish Sea to see shows but the theatricals needed digs. Just as did travelling salesmen and those stopping off in Liverpool before taking ship to the U.S.A. Ireland, as well as Canada and other parts of the British Empire.
To help me visualise Mount Pleasant in the Thirties, I visited the Central Library and perused copies of Kelly’s Street Directories and so was able to pepper the Mount with a wigmaker, the YMCA, a dentist, and some nuns from the Convent of Notre Dame. Not far away was Georgian built Rodney Street with its doctors’ houses, as well as the workhouse on Brownlow Hill. Earlier that decade the maternity hospital on Oxford Street had been opened by a royal personage at a time when most mothers still had their babies at home.
Kitty is a widow so she pretty well has her hands full with running the hotel after her mother dies and then her brother-in-law decides to quit. She is left also doing her best to bring up her sons to be respectable and responsible. What she needs is a strong man to help her as well as to love while her sons are growing up.
Enter John McLeod wearing a kilt and carrying a violin case at a needy moment. He’s a bit of a wanderer without a steady job, who had been a medical orderly in the Great War. I provided him with a violin because I remembered how after WW2 there were those musicians who entertained the cinema and theatre queues and my mother told me it was the same in the Thirties. I also provided him with a monkey who also helped entertain the crowds. The monkey was on hire from a pet shop across the city near Netherfield Road. I had that information from my mother-in-law. It was a place she remembered well and loved, just as Kitty’s third son, Ben, did. It was my mother-in-law who told me the story about the white mice.
The reading of Liverpool Echos of the times, provided me with news about crime waves and protection rackets so there are moments of violence in the book. Some of the characters also travel further afield. I had the information about motorbikes and the incident with the pig in Wales from my dear Uncle Bill, who sadly is now deceased. For that about Oxford during the earlier part of WW2, I owe my son Iain who was a student there a few years back and was happy to return and do the research.
Most Liverpudlians of my generation know that Lewis’s and Blackler’s were almost destroyed during the Blitz but I never knew that there was a magnificent domed Customs House overlooking Canning Dock that was set alight with fire bombs during the May blitz until I began my research. It is there that Kitty’s eldest son, Mick, works before being called up and joining the navy. Sadly like many an erstwhile beautiful building in Liverpool, it was the city leaders who later completely destroyed the old Customs House. http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/the-custom-house.html
I could go on and on but for my readers in the South of England, I must add something I found out for myself on a visit to Brighton with my nephew, erstwhile professional football player, Garry Nelson, who inherited his love for the beautiful game from his Everton supporter grandfather and dad. I never knew that the lovely Oriental pavilion there built on the orders of George IV was to provide shelter and care for wounded Indian soldiers during the Great War. It is in Brighton that big John McLeod met his first wife.
And finally for those who have read FLOWERS ON THE MERSEY and remember Daniel and Rebekah, and the Quaker maid Hannah, they make a reappearance in A MOTHER’S DUTY which will be available in paperback and e-book the 26th February 2015.