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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....
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on 29 October 2017
Was really looking forward to reading this having just returned from my first visit to Liverpool. I'm not sure quite why but this failed to hut the mark for me.

Dreary, depressing, and without any clear story unfolding. If someone writes their autobiography I would expect one decent length volume instead of less than 300 pages to be followed by two more volumes.

I also found it strange that it was written under a pseudonym and not her real name.

I've read many books about the hard times in the North of England and this has been the least enjoyable. I learned nothing about this author from this first in the trilogy apart from the fact that her parents were selfish and she was hungry, cold, miserable and missed school to look after her younger siblings. Thus could have been condensed into one chapter. Perhaps one decent length volume may have been more informative - I doubt I'll purchase the other two.
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VINE VOICEon 10 September 2015
This book is fascinating and horrific in equal measure. It records the experiences of the author as she went from being the daughter of Middle class wealthy parents to living in abject poverty after her father went bankrupt.

In the years that followed the author experienced starvation, cold and lack of appropriate clothing. There was no welfare state as we know it now and children could and did starve.

A good reminder of what life could be like when everything falls apart. Read this and give thanks to our Welfare State. All the authors siblings suffered lifelong problems as a result of the poverty in their childhood.
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on 23 March 2013
I don't really know why I didn't read this book when it was first published in the 1970s, I think the cover illustration used then might have put me off, but when my daughter was talking about it recently I decided to give it a try and found it fascinating and hghly readable. How the trials and tribulations of Helen and her family make you count your blessings! While enduring the sordid and humiliating conditions of the Liverpool slums in the Depression of the 1930s, young Helen is trying to make a success of her life, despite physical and emotional neglect on the part of her feckless parents. In such hard times it was the many small kindnesses of both neighbours and strangers which were often all that kept body and soul together, and this is the most heartening aspect of what might otherwise be a very depressing read. This edition contains the first two volumes of the autobiography and the first few chapters of the third, which I look forward to reading soon.
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on 27 May 2014
I found this book really hard to put down! Although it was a very poignant story of extreme hardship and suffering, it was told with humour. The imagery was excellent, painting a vivid picture of Liverpool during the depression. What I found hard to swallow was the selfish behaviour of the parents, and the callousness of the well off grandmother, living a short ferry ride away who turned her back on her seven helpless grandchildren. Perhaps the extreme hardships suffered by the author helped to turn her into the great writer she obviously is. I can't wait to read the next part of her autobiography.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 December 2012
I read the four books in Helen Forrester's auto-biographical series some time ago and was really pleased to see them released on Kindle. Helen Forrester writes in such a wonderful way that brings to life the things that she went through and the life that she and her family led in the depression of the 1930s. It is a facinating, moving and compelling story. While the abject poverty can be quite sad to read about, there is still plenty of humour and some lovely moments of real compassion.

I was born and grew up in Liverpool and it's fascinating for me to read about some of the key locations and streets of Liverpool in the 1930s. However, you don't need any link or knowledge of Liverpool to appreciate and enjoy Helen Forrester's autobiographical books.

Once you've read Twopence to Cross the Mersey, you will have to carry on and read the next three books in the series!
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on 5 May 2015
I was directed to this book by a BBC Radio 4 programme so I had a good idea of what it is about. My mother was born in 1920 into a large family that struggled to make ends meet, so her stories gave me some insight, but I was still shocked by the effects of grinding poverty as described by Helen Forrester. This sounds like it might be a depressing read but I didn't find it so. In todays society where I like many other people take so much for granted, I was reminded how lucky I have been and how much opportunity there is for "ordinary" folk now. I found Helen's story inspiring and I look forward to reading more of it soon.
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on 22 February 2015
I love to find books that educate and entertain. Set in Liverpool less than a hundred yrs ago the shocking, truthful read of how a family had to manage after financial troubles turned a family away from the comforts of a 'good' life.With little welfare and incompetent parents the heroine has bring up her brothers and sisters and work. Sacrificing school and clothes and food even into adulthood. Very few strangers help the family and the parents will not ask their own kin through shame. A great read, shocking and heart breaking
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on 23 August 2010
In this recession/ credit crunch era it is interesting to read this book which reveals how the extreme poverty in 1930s Liverpool is beyond anything we are likely to find in the UK 2010. I found the story of deprivation and suffering both fascinating and moving. Descriptions of small acts of genuine kindness brought tears to my eyes. Helen's feckless middle-class parents conspicuously fail to cope with the poverty which unexpectedly descends upon them and I actually struggled with the notion of the parents buying cigarettes for themselves whilst their young children suffered from cold and malnutrition. My only disappointment with the book was that it didn't tell me all I wanted to know about what the future held for the individuals concerned - I understand that there are sequels, but a short epilogue would have been nice as I don't currently have the other books.
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on 30 May 2016
Came across this author and this book whilst on a visit to the museum of Liverpool,,there was a display in the museum about the author and her life story. I read this book in two days,couldnt put it down.Wil now order the rest of the books in this series.....It really is a good book to read,and really portrays the poverty of Liverpool,and knowing it was a true story makes it more real.
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