Annie Muir was a cheerful and lively lass, always ready with a quip and a leg-pull. But there were trials in her life which could have knocked that vivacity out of her
In 1912, her father – a qualified Cycle Maker – died in the Workhouse Infirmary in Stafford. Annie was five years old. She had a sister and two brothers, all of them toddlers. Her mother moved the little family back to Wolverhampton after her husband’s death. There seemed only poverty left for them.
Somehow, Annie’s Mom struggled by. They lived at 4, Fox’s Lane, near Five Ways Island – a very much altered area since early last century. It was a two-up, two-down terraced house and needed modernisation even then! The earthen closet was “up the yard”, and the yard was tiny. There was no garden and the kids played in the ‘oss road.
Mabel Muir brought her kids up to understand the value of working for a living. A scant living it was, too: no minimum-wage in those days! You worked for what you could get and were glad of it.
Annie could have got herself a good education. She had the brain and the wit. But not the money. Then, very few working-class folk could get beyond a basic education.
In Old Hall Street, there were two schools. Annie went to the Secondary School, just across from the so-called “Backward School” – our terminology has come a long way since then.
One day, after she’d missed school through illness, the Schools Inspector came to find out why.
“Annie Muir. She hasn’t been to Old Hall Street Backward School for . . .”
That was as far as he got. Mother Mabel Muir lifted her broom and chased him away. “None of my kids is backward, you bugger!” she yelled after him.
Annie left school and worked in one and another of the many little factories around Wolverhampton, all of which have disappeared now. At one such factory, she helped out as a general dogsbody in the stores.
“We used to have to climb up and down a ladder to get things off the higher shelves,” she told me. “In those days, us girls wore baggy bloomers with a split down the middle for when we wanted to go for a pee.
“The boss was a bit of a one for the girls. He would come into the stores and say ‘Annie Muir, just go up those ladders and see if there’s such-and-such a thing on the top shelf’. I knew what he was after doing, what with me wearing those bloomers.
“But I had to do what he said to keep my job. So up I went, and I suppose he saw what he wanted to see.”
Still in her teens, Annie got a job delivering telegrams for the Post Office. “Can you ride a bike?” she was asked when applying.
“’Course I can!” said she, badly needing the work.
On the first day, never having been on a bike in her life, she struggled along standing on a pedal and scooting. Then she decided it was “neck or nothing” and got astride the bike in Queen’s Square to go down Darlington Street into Chapel Ash.
Now, in those days there were tram-lines down that hill. Straight off, she got her wheels stuck in one of the lines and didn’t have the presence of mind to apply the brakes.
“Look out! Look out!” she yelled to all and sundry as the bike gathered speed down the hill. “Look out – I’m a-coming!”
And Annie stayed on that freewheeling bike all the way down to Chapel Ash where, with no elegance at all, she went a right purler into a shop wall. She survived – the bike didn’t!
In the 1920’s, she saved pennies to buy cheap clothing – and became a Flapper, going to the dances in The Central Arcade off Dudley Street.
Then, jobs in the Black Country became hard to find. The Slump caused workplaces to lay off their workers. But young Annie had initiative. While other folk were out-of-work, she wangled an assisted-passage trip to Australia!
Down Under, where employment was more abundant in the mid-1920s, she took work skivvying. Whilst being Jill-of-all-Trades on a sheep-station, she met the love of her life, a fellow immigrant to Australia, George Stevenson.
George had been brought up to be a farm labourer in what was then rural Surrey. He had arrived in Australia with his mother and step-father, his Dad having died in the Great War.
Annie’s regular letters home were full of this young man’s virtues! They were married in the small parish-church at Sherwood, which is now a suburb of Brisbane.
Soon, Annie was expecting a baby. Alas, her tiny girl died a few hours after her birth. Little Margaret was buried in the local churchyard.
Then The Slump from which Annie and George had tried to escape hit Australia. Work, especially for immigrants, became scarcer. They decided to return to England. But they had very little money for the trip.
Slowly, oh, so slowly, they saved up until they had the fare for just one of them to return home. With indescribable sadness, they said goodbye at the harbour and Annie sailed away to restart a life in Wolverhampton where her family would help and support her. She would work her fingers to the bone to put together the cash for her beloved husband to join her.
It took seven years to save that fare.
He sailed back in 1937. One wonders how George managed the transition from farm-boy to working in Goodyear’s Tyre Factory. Annie and he had a hard, almost penniless struggle to put any sort of home together. Their furniture was second, third, or even fourth-hand, bought from the junk and pawn-shops which flourished everywhere in the Black Country at that time.
Six months before the outbreak of the Second World War, they were blessed with the healthy child they’d always wanted. And I am so proud of those two people, their toughness and tenacity – and their sheer courage through all that adversity. They were my Mom and Dad.
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