• Mon. May 20th, 2024

Grandmother reveals life growing up in Oxford in the early 20th century


Aug 21, 2022

Many people regret not questioning their elderly relatives about their early lives.

Greg Coles was different – he sat down with his grandmother, Ada Collins, in 1973 and jotted down her memories of growing up and living in Oxford.

Ada was born Ada Barrett in the family home near the old gasworks in St Ebbe’s in 1894, the ninth of 11 children, two of whom died in childhood. She was the eldest daughter.

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She was christened at Holy Trinity Church in Blackfriars Road, but the family suffered a blow in 1902 when their father, a foreman on the gasworks railway, died, leaving their mother to bring up nine children.

Ada told her grandson she liked school – lessons were held from 9am to noon and from 2 to 4pm. However, she admitted telling her mother frequently that she had toothache to avoid going to classes.

She started school at five and left at 13. Pocket money was a penny a week which she spent on ‘hanky-pankies’ – toffee tarts. Getting a job at that age proved difficult. She and two friends applied to sew buttons at a tailors or work at sweet factories without success.

Then a friend of her Sunday School teacher wanted someone to look after her children, so Ada took the job at 1s 6d (7½p) a week. After six months, her pay rose to 2s (10p) a week.

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Cowley at that time was a small village, with East Oxford stopping where Donnington Bridge Road is today – between them were fields.

Those were the days of open-top horse-drawn trams in Oxford – Ada’s brother-in-law was one of the city’s first tram drivers. Horses were changed at Magdalen Bridge.

Ada recalled how you could jump on as the tram passed – “there wasn’t much traffic about in those days”. What happened if it rained? “You just had to get wet or go inside”.

A popular annual event was St Giles Fair. “The stalls were more interesting than today. There was no bingo and everywhere you walked, you could hear the old fairground organs.”

Easter marked the start of summer and all the girls wore summer frocks. Another important festival was May morning, with morris dancing, punting on the river and picking buttercups.

Every girl wore a long dress. “It was disgraceful to show one’s ankles let alone the top of one’s thighs!”

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Later, she worked for six years as a cook for a family in Woodstock Road – “they cooked Christmas puddings in copper pots they did their dirty washing in!”

Ada then married husband Albert, whom she first met under the Carfax Tower clock. He worked at Exeter and St John’s colleges and Elliston and Cavell, the department store that became Debenhams. So were families happier then than in 1973?

“We were more contented with the simple things in life. As kids, we played for hours with dolls, making clothes for them. In the street, we played hoops, marbles and skipping.

“We walked with friends in the countryside picking flowers and went on Sunday School outings.”

Grandson Greg, who lives at Kingston Bagpuize, interviewed his grandmother and wrote a nine-page essay on her memories as part of his studies.

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This story was written by Andy Ffrench, he joined the team more than 20 years ago and now covers community news across Oxfordshire.

Get in touch with him by emailing: Andy.ffrench@newsquest.co.uk

Follow him on Twitter @OxMailAndyF