My family of 10 would have made light work of lockdown in the 50s

Familiar past-time for Norfolk youngsters in the 1950s – watching the herd  trooped in for milking

Familiar past-time for Norfolk youngsters in the 1950s – watching the herd trooped in for milking - Credit: Archant

I felt no need of a roadmap to get me out of trouble as an emerging Norfolk nuisance during an era of austerity, fresh air and freedom.

It was over the fields and as far away as possible from instant punishment for the odd adventurous streak designed to brighten up the character-building 1950s.

A fair number of that generation for whom ration books and hand-me-down clothes came well before rock and roll and flower power can be forgiven for making comparisons between a rigid post-war examination and current marathon of recovery facing youngsters trapped in lockdown.

With speculating time on my hands, I can’t help wondering how families might have coped with a coronavirus pandemic had it been unleashed 70 or so years ago. My own rural household experiences from that era can provide a few useful pointers.

While a brood of 10 children plus parents squeezed into a farm cottage was hardly representative of mid-Norfolk village existence in the 1950s, big families were by no means uncommon. There were two or three others of similar size in our parish alone.


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Ours came roughly in three instalments with me loitering somewhere on middle ground looking up to the big ‘uns and down on little ‘uns needing a bottle feed and rocking to sleep. Volunteering for such tender chores nurtured much-needed snatches of kitchen peace.

Home schooling benefited considerably as big sisters helped teach me to read and write before life in a proper classroom and how to add up or take away by playing shops with cardboard boxes donated by delivery men.

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Big brothers joined in building farmyard worlds out of the toybox they’d created, possibly out of fast-evaporating hopes I might join them and father as a proud son of the Norfolk soil. Younger siblings giggled or dozed through my range of silly stories or nearly-naughty rhymes.

Sharing shone through most sessions, even when sharper competitive edges came into play for I Spy, Ludo, Snap, Bagatelle, Blow-football, Hunt-the-Thimble and Who Can Keep a Straight Face Longest When Uncle Willie Slurps His Sunday Tea?

Calling the midwife, district nurse or doctor meant regular trips to the big red phone box outside our village shop and post office. Mini-epidemics of measles, mumps, scarlet fever and whooping cough often prompted instant generosity in passing on to other family members.

With the nit nurse, dentist and school medical teams loyal visitors to our classrooms, we soon got used to funny-smelling stuff in our hair, opening wide to expose neglected teeth and coughing loudly for the serious man with a very cold stethoscope.

Another important chap in a white coat denied he’d come to take me away just before the 11-plus exam. He asked if I 
knew what the Three Rs were. I regret to this day not proffering an answer suggested to me by a puckish old boy on the farm – Rickets, Ringworm and Rigor-mortis.

Read More: Keith Skipper - Writers from a century ago knew what Norfolk was all about

Yes, it was spartan going much of the time without electricity, bathroom or indoor toilet. Toasting cheese on a fork or nursing the latest infant in front of a blazing log fire became winter luxuries to warm you on the way to a chilly bedroom.

Yes, tempers flared, factions formed, blame mounted, tears flowed and promised treats got lost in a domestic maelstrom. There was neither time nor space for full and fair investigations into verbal and physical jousts. Be quiet and take your medicine.

Yes, tackling grammar school homework next to a hissing Tilley lamp while bedtime ablutions for agitated youngers multiplied and Dad peeled spuds for tomorrow on the same table did make it hard to get to grips with Archimedes and Pythagoras.

For all that, our packed indoors community found enough common purpose and survival spirit to come through without paying heed to social distancing, the rule of six or any other restrictions built on boring cliches like “light at end of the tunnel” and “common sense of the great British public”.

We fought together. That didn’t stop me seeking special Norfolk places close to home where I could find good reason to work out for myself what living here, staying here and protecting here really meant.

Honestly, these high ideals were just as important to me as avoiding a ding o’the lug, being banished to bed early or having meagre sweet rations cut off completely just because I wanted to develop a proper sense of humour.

John Kett - Norfolk's most successful dialect poet

John Kett - Norfolk's most successful dialect poet - Credit: Submitted

Skip's Aside: 

Warmest thanks for a bumper crop of calls and letters following my recent spotlight on dialect-relishing mawthers Aunt Agatha and Ida Fenn.

Plenty of other Norfolk tongue experts were saluted in dispatches with John Kett, the county’s most successful dialect poet, demanding another cheerful bout of special attention at top of the vernacular class.

He died aged 93 in 2010. A former village headmaster warmly encouraged by fellow dialect champions Dick Bagnall-Oakeley (another uplifting schoolmaster) and Eric Fowler (Jonathan Mardle of the EDP), he tied up rhythm, intonation and turn of phrase in ways never seen or heard before.

Four volumes of Norfolk delights underlined clear success in lifting his subject matter well above the country yokel and “bit of a larf” level. Tha’s a Rum’ un, Bor, Tha’s a Rum ‘un, Tew, Wotcher Bor! and A Year Go By netted total sales of about 30,000 – remarkable figures for such poetic offerings.

“Norfolk has a limited vocabulary and our vowel sounds always present problems. But I aimed at something more serious than the usual harvest horkey humour” said the teacher who delighted reflective readers and animated audiences for over half a century.

On hearing of his graduation to The Great Mardling Classroom in the Sky just over a decade ago, my thoughts turned immediately to when we shared a proud local milestone about 30 years earlier.

BBC Radio Norfolk’s first full day of broadcasting on Friday, September 12, 1980, saw me in harness with Rob Bonnet to present the Lunchtime Programme.  

I lined up John Kett as a trailblazing authentic Norfolk voice to give our initial output the right kind of flavour. He filled that bill admirably with homespun verses and amusing reflections on his years as a local village schoolmaster. 

John stressed it was never intended that his dialect verses should be browsed over in silence. “They should be read aloud in good company- Norfolk company”.

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