I was trained by the Church Army in London as a Rescue Worker. Today they're welfare workers, but the welfare of 1932 was in its cradle - it was just budding. We were recognised then and called rescue workers; it's a horrible name.
You see in every city there were girls who come up from the country and round about and they don't really want a job; they don't know what they want. They know a little about prostitution but perhaps not very much. But they found quite a good hunting ground at Exeter in 1932. There was nothing done for them, no special shelters. In London they had special shelters where the girls could go.
My friend and I saw an advertisement in the paper that they wanted two friends, two fully trained women, to run a small shelter in the Mint, Exeter. It was a small house called St. Elizabeth House in the Mint itself, on the corner. It's still there today, not as a home - it's a private house now. And we were to take eight girls. It had a private committee. Private committees today, 1978, are quite gone - it's all got a touch of the state in it. Anyhow we had this private committee of about four ladies and the chaplain to the home. St. Olave's Home was connected with us, the same committee, but there were two separate houses. St. Olave's Home was run by the Deaconess, only for maternity cases.
When we got there, there was no-one in at all; it had all gone to pieces. So we wondered how we could start getting the girls. You can't just go out and say, "Come in dear." So I went to the C.I.D. at the police station. They were very good and they will work with us and help us tremendously. And I said could they in confidence give us the names of about six or eight girls that I might casually look up. And I got the addresses and the names on condition of course that it was quite confidential. And I went to all these houses and issued invitations to a party. Not one came - not one.
We made jellies and all sorts of things. Jellies today are nothing. Jellies in my day you only had at Easter or Birthdays, the poor people. Now it struck me: it says in the Bible someone raised a feast and he went out into the highways and brought them in. So I went out into Bartholomew Street where the home is and I waited for school to come out. And when school came out I got hold of a lot of children and I said, "Where do you live, dear?" And when they lived in one of the streets on my list I'd say, "Oh, do you know so and so?" And they'd say, "Oh, that's my sister." And perhaps that was the very one I wanted. So I said, "Have you got a sister, and have you got a sister?" And I got several of them and I said, "Run home and ask mother if you can come to a party at four o'clock today with Sister Wren. And if mother wants to know who Sister Wren is, tell her to ask Father Long at the church". I thought that would put a touch of respect on it.
Well the children tore in; we were full, many more than eight. Fortunately we had enough food. And they came and had a jolly time. So to the children whom I'd found out lived at the addresses of the eight that I wanted, I said, "Will you tell your big sister what a nice time you had and ask her if she'll come and see me, because I want to meet her. 'Cos you're very nice and I'd like to meet your sister." About four came, about three days after. They actually came. Then the next thing was how to get them in. They were very nice young girls - they hadn't got a job, didn't want a job and they didn't know what they wanted. And the mothers didn't care which was worse and the fathers cared perhaps less or there wasn't a father. But anyhow we started with about three girls.
For some, if the case was suitable we had a different arrangement: the idea was when they came, that is if they were really prostitutes, that they'd be willing to go to a long stay home for two years before starting out again. They came to us at 15, 16 and they would be 18 when they started out again. With mother's permission and father's permission of course, but it would take too long to go into the details of all that. I won't say a lot came but in the course of the year we had about 20 girls like that, so that was worth it. They went to a home at Bovey Tracey, a convent. And we used to take the girls, one by one, if they wanted. They had to go willingly, of their own free will.
And when we used to take the girls to this long stay home, my heart used to be rather tender. Two years in a convent.... They knew they were going, they went willingly, but they didn't know till they got there what it was going to be like.
So I used to go to a station two miles before you get to Bovey..... There was a wood which you went right through to the Convent - a two mile walk. And I'd say to my friend, matron, who took charge inside the home - I used to do all the outside work - I'd say to her "Will you cut me a nice lot of sandwiches and bits of cake, any you can spare." And we'd get out at this station and they used to sing their heads off going through the woods. I knew they wouldn't get another chance of shouting and pushing and scratching or have a little fight or anything. We used to be very human going through the woods to the house. And I had tea with the Mother Superior and said goodbye to the girls and that was that. I used to keep in touch with her of course.
When they got there they had a choice of learning how to be a cook or a housekeeper, all sorts of things. And they made three of everything. They were allowed a box of clothes when they came away at the end of the two years: and they had three of everything; three red flannel petticoats, three pairs of drawers; three chemises. Then you were given a good job, chiefly service. I used to place a lot of girls in service. You don't hear of it now.
And I used to say to a girl, "Now, what do you really want to do?" "I want to go into service, I want to do some cooking." And we'd advertise in the Express and Echo. And I would go round to see the lady of the house. That was a very difficult job because when I saw her I used to ask her for a reference. She would rise in indignation: "What do you mean?" "You have asked me what I know about the girl; I have told you and I've asked you to keep confidence." Because they can do a great deal of harm with chit chat and it doesn't give the girl a chance. A girl goes wrong once, it isn't to say she's a bad girl. They used to be very indignant and then to add to the indignation I used to say, "May I see the room that she's going to sleep in?"
"Why do you want to see it?"
I'd explain that we have the girls under our care; we are responsible for placing them, and anyway, work without caring isn't work.
And the bedrooms I've been up into... You'd go up a nice carpeted staircase and then another carpeted staircase, then no carpet, just any old bit of oil cloth and perhaps a dirty, shabby room with a broken chair and a broken basin. Oh the bedrooms I've seen, I've said, "No, no, no, I'm sorry but it's not good enough."
They'd say, "Not good enough? Not good enough?"
It wasn't easy that sort of thing, I can assure you. I'd never let the girls go unless they would be comfortable.
There is a very funny story attached to one girl that went to this particular home at Bovey. She was dismissed after about six months and she came back to us. When she came back she wouldn't tell anybody why. We were great friends, she and myself, and I said, "If I give you my word, really I promise you I will not tell anyone: I would like to know, what _did you do?" So she said, "Nothing dreadful."
I said, "Why don't you tell me?"
"Well," she said, "it's all so unfair." That's what kept her back. The psychology of the whole thing is difficult but she really didn't want people to know. So at last she told me and this was why: they used to have a service in chapel and she sat in the front row. The sister who took the service wasn't very young and she had a lot of hair growing on her chin. She gave out for her text from St. John's and she kept holding these hairs and she said, "All these are mine and more shall be added." Of course it was more than the girl could stand: "All these are mine and more shall be added."
The girl said, "I literally shrieked - it was so funny." If she hadn't stroked them it wouldn't have been so bad, but she kept stroking these wretched hairs. Anyway we got her another job and that was alright.
We used to keep in touch with the girls who had left. They used to write to we used and we used to write to them. Now and again we got a girl who wasn't good There was one occasion we had a girl who left. Now I didn't have the way of jewellery but I had (a) really nice gold chain. I was dusting by odd little places and I thought, "My chain's gone." We'd never lost anything, whoever they took from, they didn't take it from us. This particular girl didn't have any money to turn round on and she saw it, and it was perhaps much for her. I didn't connect it with the girl. We thought I'd been careless, dropped it or something. You can't always blame people.
Well it so happened that I went to a house to find out about another girl and the woman was wearing my chain. So I said to her, "Would you think it very personal of me? Did you have that chain as a present? Has it got a history?"
Well, she said, "it hasn't. A poor girl came one night when it was very wet, and she said she hadn't any money and nowhere to sleep and if I gave her bed and breakfast she'd give me this chain. I saw it was gold so thought it was worthwhile and I took it."
I said "Well, it's mine."
"What do you mean, it's yours?"
I told her who I was and all about it and she was such a nice woman and she gave it back. I wouldn't have dreamt of asking her for it - I hadn't any right. It was valuable, sentimentally, to me. "Oh I do think that's nice of you." I said.
We've got to be very human, otherwise you're not good as a worker. If you weren't nice to the girls, they wouldn't stay. You had to first keep your word, if they lose trust in you ... You see they look upon you as something a bit different and it's a lot to live up to - terrific lot: watching you like an eagle, watching you, hoping you'll tell a lie so they can look at you say, "There, now what about you?"
My friend was a very human creature, she really was. At Elizabeth House you will see there is a long garden in the front - no back at all. And we used to have breakfast, dinner and tea in the summer, all out in the garden. They could throw the plum stones on the floor and relax. They were very happy times and my friend and I gave them as much freedom as we could possibly give. They never went out alone, though.
Take Sundays in a home: you must remember the shops didn't open Sunday and there was only one cinema at one time and that didn't open Sunday - deadly dull place, Sundays, especially in Exeter. The churches were very sanctimonious - they didn't have any dancing, things that you have today, nothing like that at all - it was very dull. We had to go to church once a day on Sunday, from a committee standpoint and also I suppose from the right standpoint. So every Sunday when it was fine we would go to Exwick Church and the sidesmen used to hate us going; I used to tramp in with eight girls, used to sit at the back and they would giggle now and again. I'd get them to kneel; I used to smile at them and whisper, "Quietly on your knees." They had to go and I had to take them - it was awful really. We used to go out before the sermon. I felt it wasn't fair to make them stay; the committee didn't agree with me quite; I won them round. I said, "Try and put yourself in the girls' place, a very academic sermon, it's more than you can expect the girls to take." And when we came out we went for miles and miles and miles, through Nadderwater, right over the hills, singing and dancing and just doing what they liked, really enjoying themselves, till they were thoroughly tired out. And we used to take a big bag of Spanish onions - the girls loved Spanish onions. My friend used to wash them nicely and put a little salt and odds and ends on: Spanish onions, cheese, big loaf, butter, sweets. We'd get back somewhere about half past two or three. And my friend would have a really lovely hot meal, meat pudding, trifle or jam or something, whatever we could afford, because we hadn't much money.
And because we didn't have much money we used to have what is called a pound day. You don't have a pound day today. A pound day is that you have some notices printed of things suggested: jam, biscuits, soap, flour, currants. And I used to take these printed notices to every shop in Exeter and look as pathetic as I could and ask them if they would give me just one thing. And a girl perhaps two girls would be outside with the pram - we got someone to give us an old pram. And I'd come out with a pound of flour or currants and we used to fill the pram up and go back. It used to help the cupboard tremendously
Then we used to have sing-songs in the evening and I used to take them to pictures, about once a month. That was a very difficult time because, to take them to the pictures you weren't sure whether they wouldn't want to go to the lavatory in between and you'd never see them again. But I was lucky - I didn't lose one girl in the pictures ever.
I lost one girl coming home from an exhibition We were coming along Cowley Road and there was a man in a lorry and he recognised one of the girls and he them a wolf whistle. She was off like a shot and up in that lorry and that was goodbye to her. The lorry was gone before you could say Jack Robinson. Course that made the others very restless; I was afraid I wouldn't get them home, but I did. I kept talking about the pudding we would have, made it look a little bit exciting - when we would next go to the pictures, sorts of things.
It was very difficult work to keep them willingly all the time. I really only lost one in seven years, so that wasn't too bad, but I mustn't blow my own trumpet.
We had more difficulty with other people in church than anywhere. We had a special pew because they didn't like to sit with the girls, ooh, no, not the holy ones.
We had a priest, a visiting priest, and he was very, very high church. These girls had never been to church, a lot of them. If they had they didn't know the difference between high and low church. In St. Olave's Church it's got a wonderful little pulpit which you sort of go round and go up. This man was going up to preach and as he came up the little winding place, his little black hat, beretta, came higher and higher, and one girl shrieked with laughter, "How much more?" And when he got to the top he took for his text, "Thou shalt see my face no more".
And the girl said, "I don't want to." Only she said it out loud. So of course two or three sort of looked and sniffed, like they would do. But she laughed so much, this one girl, I said, "Will you cough?"
She said, "What do you want me to cough for?"
And I said, "Cough. I'll tell you outside." So she set up a great cough. So I turned to the others and said, "She can't cough any more in here," so I took her outside coughing. I couldn't take her out just for laughing - the others wouldn't understand.
And the chaplain in the home used to have services in the little chapel. He was a dear old man, but he had a dewdrop - I've got one too now I'm old - and he used to be talking about God very earnestly; the girls were very good at listening. Presently you'd hear a whisper, "Watch out, wait for it, here it comes.'' And then woosh, the dew drop went.
The West Quarter was not only rough, it was ghastly. There was one very large old house where people used to huddle in one room. Today it would be made into flats. And there were about 20 rooms in this house. They had one tap for 20 people and one lavatory, outside. It was really dreadful: the bugs and the fleas and the lice. And the girls who used to come in ... I'd cut through three inches of hair, the whole of it heaving with lice. How they stood it I don't know. We had one girl come in once - she'd let herself go very badly; she was in very poor health and she had tousled brown hair. I said to her one day, "Let me wash your hair."
"I don't want it washed."
I said, "I believe it's going to be rather nice. Let's have a go."
Anyway I washed her hair and she had the most beautiful golden hair you ever saw. You wouldn't have known her. She had blue eyes and with better food and good sleeping, she came to life - she was a beautiful girl. And we had another girl who had a most lovely face, big blue eyes, red lips - she looked an angel and she'd lived with five men. Now our chaplain wanted to see me privately and he questioned me, "Sister, you don't think it's possible you've made a mistake about this girl? She's got such an angel face."
I said, "Rector, you don't understand".
We had one woman who was most interesting. She came to the door - she was a woman of about 40. We said we were very sorry we were really for girls - it was very difficult. She was very rough and raw and said she'd only come if we didn't ask any questions. So my friend and I talked it over and we said, "Stay tonight, but change places with us: you are the Sister and the Matron and you're running a home and you've got a committee and you have someone come and they say, 'Don't ask me any questions at all, anything about my life.' You can't do that sort of thing - you must know a little bit." Anyway to cut a long story short we put it before the committee. But this was the interesting part:
Now my friend was a very keen reader (we didn't have time to read as workers but she had been very keen - she had an academic mind, shall we say) and she found this woman liked talking about books. She got her off her guard and she forgot herself and spoke beautiful English, talking about the details from the books. After a little time of speaking softly and naturally she was so embarrassed and she didn't know how to face us again. All that rough talk was just a sham. She stayed on with us as a semiworker - she didn't want to move or go anywhere. What she had been we shall never know.
One day we were having a meal in the garden and a very grand lady came in, beautifully dressed, and she rushed into my arms. She said,"Oh, sister." said, "I'm sorry, but ..." I didn't know who this grand lady could be. And she was one of our old girls come back. She said, "Let's all go out. Let's go down to Dawlish, I'll pay everything - and have a really good time."
I don't know but you get a kind of instinct and I felt she hadn't got on all that much - beautiful dresses and jewels and everything and she had lots of money. I felt there wasn't something quite straight about it all. My friend - a purer creature than I am, I suppose the devil was with me - my friend believed every word. But it was too good to be true.
Anyway we quickly got ready - the household went, shut up house and went. When we got there there was a fair on. We were rather worried about that 'cos we thought we should lose some of them, but they were so happy and interested in her, it was alright. They went on the horses, had fortunes told, ice creams by the dozen, everything you could think of - they had a wonderful time and we all came back.
Then Frances said to me, "Will you come up to my hotel and have dinner with me." My friend said that would be alright. Some girls she was better with and some girls I was better with and Frances was my girl. I think that's why I saw through her. Anyhow we went up and had dinner and I said to her, "I'm not happy about it all."
"Ooh," she said, "that's alright. He's very good to me."
"Who's the 'he'?"
"Well," she said, "he's got pots and pots of money. He has to go abroad a lot and I've got a lovely flat in London and he only comes home about once in three months. I have a royal time."
I said, "I think I know what you mean."
"Mean?" she said.
But this was the glorious part of it: she made me vow I wouldn't tell matron and I said, "I give you my word." Frances went back to London that night and I went calmly home. Evelyn, my friend, said to me, "It's rather wonderful, isn't it. It's only once a while that we get a real result. Frances is something to be proud of." She was so proud of Frances.
Well committee day came and they said we must give special thanks for this girl and we all prayed and they had this marvellous prayer and gave thanks for this wonderful thing we'd done, all of us, and all their prayers had been answered. And there was Frances living on all this man's money. And we'd devoured all that she'd left - she left us all sorts of things and a donation for the home. The committee grabbed that directly, about £5.00. Then we kept in touch with her in London for a little while. Whether she went abroad I don't know. But that was our protegy and the prayers that went up for her!
© 2007 Jenny Lloyd
These memories are taken from the contributon by Miss Minnie Rand to the People Talking project that was created by Jenny Lloyd in 1976.
The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.
I have included all of the text from this memory, as it recalls a part of Exeter life that is largely forgotten.
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