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Liverpool in the thirties
on 14 October 2001
Some of the happiest memories of my childhood feature the ferries that criss-crossed the Mersey between Liverpool and Birkenhead. It was a great treat when my grandparents took me down to the Woodside landing stage. We would buy our tickets and walk down the floating gangway to wait for the Mountwood or the Woodchurch to ferry us to Liverpool. The boats were impregnated with the stench of stale cigarette smoke, beer and cheap whisky, and unsanitary lavatories, but the ten minutes it took to sail between Birkenhead and Liverpool passed all too quickly. I have read "Twopence to Cross the Mersey" countless times since its publication but the stark fact that Helen Forrester's family were so poor that the least expensive means of travelling this short distance in order to reach the Wirral seaside town of Hoylake where the author had been born and where her grandmother still lived never fails to give me a jolt. Read "Twopence to Cross the Mersey" and you will share my sense of shock from the first page to the last.
Helen Forrester introduces herself as a plain-as-a-pikestaff twelve year-old, the eldest of seven children. The degree of poverty in which the Forrester family live is impossible to describe without revealing key elements of the storyline. Suffice to say that the Forresters were not only poor in the sense that the majority of Liverpool's working-class were poor in the Depression of the early nineteen-thirties. The middle-class family from south-west England that arrived at Lime Street Station in the hope of recovering from bankruptcy were submerged into an underclass of malnourished, ragged, and unwashed individuals wholly dependent on the support of the Liverpool Public Assistance Committee, known to Helen's younger siblings as 'Mr Parish'.
The author's account of life within a family that spoke with 'ollies in their mouths' is often heart-rending, occasionally funny, and always thought provoking. Helen's parents had enjoyed a high standard of living before 'Father' had been declared bankrupt but their lifestyle had been maintained only by permanent debt. Neither 'Father' nor 'Mother' had the vaguest idea how to manage a household within a given budget, even a generous budget, so the few shillings issued by 'Mr Parish' left them helpless. The author provides many examples of their poorest Liverpudlian neighbours stretching meagre incomes far enough to provide food on the table, a fire in the grate, warm garments knitted from remnants of old woollen jumpers, and household essentials like soap. In contrast, the Forresters do not know how to begin to cope with a Liverpool they had known only as 'The Second City of the Empire'. It comes as an appalling revelation to 'Father' that a man of thirty-eight would be unlikely to find employment. He listens with childlike wonder and an excess of optimism to Helen's suggestion that he scan the pages of "The Liverpool Echo" for the sort of job advertisements he and 'Mother' had once placed when seeking a new cook or housemaid. As we follow the Forresters from one set of bug-ridden rented rooms to another, we realise that the swamp of poverty in which they have sunk is swirling in a vicious circle from which there is little hope of escape. Every member of the Forrester family suffers be it in terms of physical ill health, mental instability, or both. But it is Helen as the eldest child of the family, and a daughter of the dutiful middle-classes, who is sucked in deepest and comes close to drowning.
It is Helen Forrester's determination to write an honest account of her first two years in Liverpool that preserves "Twopence to Cross the Mersey" from being bland social commentary rather than autobiography. The author insists that despite the horrific effects of poverty, some shreds of humanity survive, even thrive, and spread minute spores of hope across this desperate city. We read of the kindness of a young policeman who buys a daily bottle of milk for Baby Edward, of 'The Old Gentleman', an elderly Arab, who encourages Helen's love of books, of Mrs Hicks who makes all nine Forresters a Christmas gift, and of countless others. Their presence warms the narrative but never detracts from Helen Forrester's raw account of life in a city that permitted its people to go unfed, unwashed, uneducated, a city in which the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church looked away while continuing to build a cathedral apiece.
Despite her abysmal circumstances, Helen never entirely abandons hope of education, training, and a profession. I defy you to put this book down until you reach the end and discover how, after two years in the Liverpudlian slums, Helen manages to clamber onto the first rung of a slippery ladder towards a better life.
"Twopence to Cross the Mersey" is at once an absorbing autobiography and an important primary source for anyone studying the history of Liverpool, or the British economy in the nineteen-thirties. Readers who are intrigued by the will wish to follow the progress of Helen Forrester's family in three sequels: "Minerva's Stepchild" (published in paperback as "Liverpool Miss"), "By the Waters of Liverpool", and "Lime Street at Two". One day, perhaps, Helen will join the crowds waiting for the ferry at Liverpool's Pier Head landing stage, clutching two precious pennies that would take her across the Mersey to Birkenhead....