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Take a trip back in time with Ethel

PUBLISHED: 12:26 26 January 2012

Ethel Eva George.

Ethel Eva George.

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Let's turn the clock back almost a century and visit rough and tumble Norwich with the remarkable Ethel George

Family and friends from Norwich and around the world gathered last week to celebrate the life of Ethel George – a woman with a wonderful way of telling a tale.

While most memories disappear when people die, her story of what it was like growing up in the Norwich of almost a century ago is now part of local history.

A few years ago Carole and Michael Blackwell spent some time listening to Ethel talking about her early life and then produced a book called The Seventeenth Child.

They had fitted a hands-free microphone around her neck, asked her to shut her eyes, imagine herself back in her childhood, and then recount all she “saw” and remembered.

The result is one of the best, first-person, local history books around which opens the lid on life in a rough and tumble city.

The book turned Ethel into a local celebrity and it was a privilege to meet her when it first came out in 2006. Now it has been reprinted and is back in Jarrolds.

Following her death, at the age of 97, I would like to pay my own tribute to dear Ethel by opening the pages of her book and taking a peep at life between 1914 and 1934.

She was the seventeenth and last child of Eleanor and Albert Edwards – a man with a habit of knocking his wife about until she hit him back.

Ethel grew up in Cavalry Street, near Steward & Patteson’s big Pockthorpe Brewery and the military barracks – one of the poorest parts of Norwich.

The family picture was taken in 1913, the year before Ethel, the 17th child, arrived.

My home

Streets were very different in my day. They were narrow and the paths tiny. If you went up the city you might see one car, but there weren’t that many. Of course you had to be careful of the horses.

The milkman, the baker, the coal man, anyone who came round with anything, had to have a horse and cart. There there were the heavy brewery horses.

They used to send round a wagon with water to clean our streets. Two horses and a cart and this great big round tumble thing.

The drain cleaner come round regular. The dustbin men used to come in a cart with two horses. Then there were the men who used to empty the toilet bins. Someone told me they had three eyes but I never saw them ‘cause they come in the middle of the night.

Home life

In my day, men were the head of the house and what they said went. Father had everything done for him. He was waited on hand and foot. When he was at home, none of the boys didn’t get out of line. But mostly he weren’t there.

Each day we always had a good meal – liver, pea soup, hoof of pork, cockles and mussels on Friday and from time to time a bloater or a crab from Howards fish shop.

Friday night was bath night. We had a huge bath that mother hung on the coal shed door. We were like little lobsters when we come out.

I can’t remember even seeing a tooth brush when I was little. When we wanted to clean our teeth we used to go to the chimney and put our finger up to get some soot. It was all grit but it used to clean our teeth as white as snow.

School days

I went to school at St Saviour’s. You’d go out of your house in the morning and there’d be loads of children walking to school. Some with boots, some with shoddy shoes, and some of the poor little things from Barrack Street, with no shoes at all,

I was never picked for nothing at school. One time, the teacher was looking for a really good voice to sing at St Andrew’s Hall. I remember singing Lead Us To That Lonely Shore.

She got in front of the class and said: “Well there is one person here what’s got a beautiful voice, and that’s Ethel Edwards. But she’s not going to St Andrew’s because she’s not good.”

She humiliated me in front of the class. They did that in them days.

The Seventeenth Child by Ethel George with Carole and Michael Blackwell is published by Larks Press and is on sale in Jarrolds. You can also order online at www.connaughtbooks.com

Tomorrow: Stepping out into Norwich of the Roaring Twenties. Life in the factories and finding love – on Prince of Wales Road.

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