My son, Duncan and his partner Jaine flew over from Malaysia. For the last three months they have been sailing the South China Sea. I thought they'd be going straight back. Imagine how I felt when Duncan told me they had penned the yacht, and weren't going back until sometime in September. Mum was the one meant to be given a present.
Unfortunately my daughter's visit was far too brief-- she arrived late Friday and headed back to Sydney with Daz, (husband) and Molly Edith (granddaughter) on Suday morning. All her grandchildren are close to their nana, but she and Emma share a special bond. You see I left school when I was fifteen without any formal qualifications. When I was in my early thirties I was inspired to better myself. My mother looked after Emma for three years, enabling me to qualify as an English teacher. We all got very teary.
Of course as the family's resident writer, the task of making the speech fell to me. I tried to do justice to the life of a remarkable woman: this is what I wrote--I think there's a book in there somewhere.
"A hundred years ago in 1913, World War 1 hadn’t started, George V was on the throne of England, Al Capone was expelled from school, King O'Malley hammered in the first survey peg to mark commencement of work on the construction of Canberra, and Edith Hamer was born in Brookfield Street, Tonge Bridge, Bolton. Mum, there is no mention of you on the timeline of events that happened in 1913—I think all of us here agree that it’s a glaring omission—because the truth is we don’t give a toss about any of those big-wigs, but we’d love to know what you’ve been through. So I hope you won’t be too embarrassed, if I spend a few minutes recounting your amazing life-story.
To understand what Mum has gone through, her life needs to be viewed in its historical context. I’ll start with her mother—Frances Kemp nee Haslam had three young children, and was pregnant when her husband, only 33 years of age died. Times were grim for widows and children. There were no welfare benefits Frances went back to work at the mill and her brothers Jim, John and Cornelius each took one of her children.
A short while later, she met and married widower, Levi Hamer. Though he had a grown up family, he told Frances to get her children back. Edith Hamer was the only child of their marriage, born when her mother was 44 years of age. As the youngest child, she was indulged and doted on by the whole family.
Bolton was a cotton town. The Great War of 1914 halted the supply of raw cotton. The British government encouraged its colonies to build mills to spin and weave cotton—a big error of judgment. After the war, Lancashire never regained its markets. Mass unemployment resulted and not only in the cotton mills. All commercial enterprises suffered. Levi who had worked with horses all his life lost his job delivering beer to the public houses in a dray pulled by a pair of shire horses.
Around this time the dole was introduced ten shillings a week for a married man with a family. Levi supplemented this pittance by casual work on funerals. He was one of the few men in Bolton who could handle the team of six black horses that pulled the hearse on posh funerals. In keeping with the status of the deceased Levi wore a top hat. He had to pass the dole office on route to the cemetery. He made sure the brim of his hat was pulled well down.
Mum was lucky. She kept her job at Vantona—one of the few mills still operating—even so, she was put on short time, averaging about two days a week. The rest of the week, she was compelled to attend compulsory sewing classes to qualify for the dole. Girls from better-off families made garments for themselves. Mum’s family didn’t have thewherewithall to provide her with sewing materials so she was set the task of stitching the teacher’s underwear. In an era when working class people were stick thin, the sewing instructor was a big fat woman. Mum spent hours embroidering butterflies all over her enormous woollen knickers, known back then as “bloomers”.
Although the 1930s was a time of great hardship, Mum and her friends still found ways to have fun. Having fun didn't cost much. Everything was homemade – the food, the games, the music. Neighbours got together to play cards, and to talk. Church socials and local dances gave young people a chance to enjoy themselves and to go on dates. Ask Mum about her life, and she will tell you that she never felt bored because she and her friends made their own entertainment.
Her social life revolved around St Chad’s the Anglican Church. With her lovely soprano voice Mum was picked to sing a solo. It must have gratified the parson to see so many young men in the congregation. Of course he was fooling himself if he thought they’d come for the sermon. They were there to gaze their fill at the prettiest young woman in Tonge Bridge.
To attend choir practice Mum had to walk past the boot and shoe repairers at number 2 Belvoir St. Belvoir is French for beautiful view. Herbert Massey who worked there alongside his father, Samuel thought the glimpse he got of Mum tripping by dressed to the nines was a sight for sore eyes. He was waiting for her when she came out of church. He asked her if she’d like to go for a walk. He courted Mum for six years.
It wasn’t a case of commitment phobia. They simply couldn’t afford to marry. You see, Herbert’s father caught a bad cold and died unexpectedly. His wife, Elizabeth took over the shop and employed her son to work in it. With a young daughter to provide for, and most customers so poor they couldn’t afford new irons on their clogs or leather on their boots, she couldn’t afford to pay him much.
Things weren’t any easier at the Hamer’s. Mum took a weekend job at the Palatine Dairy, a popular milk bar in Bolton Market. It was the money she saved up from her part-time job that paid for the wedding. Edith and Herbert were married on 23rd of March 1940. England was at War with Germany. Conscription into the armed forces was hanging over Dad’s head, and every other man aged 18 -41. Optimistically hoping the conflict would be over before Dad was called-up, the newly weds honeymooned in Douglas on the Isle of Man.
They began their married life at 4 Greenhaulgh Street, Top o’th Brow, a rural neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bolton. It was a brand new house —Levi knew someone high up on the council. He called in favours, and the young couple jumped to the top of the waiting list.
Born on the 20th of July, Mum’s star sign is cancer. Cancer is the home-lover of the zodiac and Mum excels at all aspects of home craft—from painting and decorating, making her own curtains and cushions to baking her legendary apple pies. Furnishing their first home provided Mum with an outlet for her artistic talents—her interested in home décor continues to this day— she has impeccable taste. I have no doubt that if she had been born in a different time she could have carved out a career in interior design.
Their honeymoon was short-lived--before the year was out, Dad received his call-up papers. It snowed heavily on the day, he was due to leave. Bolton copped something like twelve inches of snow. There are certain duties that invariably fall to men—killing spiders, opening stuck jar lids, unclogging toilets and shovelling snow. Snow shoveling isn’t fun. It’s a back-breaking, work conducted in freezing conditions. After Dad cleared a path for his heavily pregnant wife; he did the same for his mother. He then caught the train to Blackpool, and enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers.
It was six years before he was eventually demobbed from the army. During that time he saw service as a gunner manning the “25 pounders” in France, Belgium and Germany. Roughly 400,000 British soldiers died during the Second World War. Dad survived the battle field but he was exposed to ambiasis the bacterium that causes ulcerative colitis.
Diagnosed with the life threatening condition, he was eventually sent to Childwall Military Hospital at Birkenhead near Liverpool on the river Mersey. By this time, Mum had two young children, and she was pregnant. Imagine how she felt when she was told that it was unlikely that her husband would survive, and if he did, he’d never work again.
No matter what life throws at Mum, she battles on with stoic determination. Refusing to accept the doctor’s prognosis, she made the long trip by bus, train and ferry to visit Dad every week. Seeing his wife was the best medicine you could give Dad—although he was to suffer bouts of colitis all his life, after six months, he was discharged from hospital. Finally my parents were able to resume a normal married life.
Times were tough for a few years but my parents scraped the money together and bought the business from Dad’s mother, not the property itself. Grandma Massey still owned that, and continued to live in the house behind the shop, until a few months before her death when she moved to London to live with her daughter, Alice.
Now that the shop was theirs, Mum found a new outlet for her creativity. In no time she’d modernized the antiquated premises, and not only internally. A plate glass window was installed facing Bury Road, the main thoroughfare. Mum took tremendous pride in her window displays, themed according to the season. But her efforts weren’t only confined to the artistic—she came up with two initiatives that were largely responsible for increasing the businesses profitability.
There wasn’t a boot and shoe repairer in Breightmet, a well-off district between Bolton and Bury. At Mum’s instigation, Dad started up a pick-up and delivery service, doubling his customer base. But Mum’s real coup and the enterprise where she came into her own, was retail. Why just repair shoes? Wouldn’t it make sense to sell them too, she suggested. Starting off small with just a few pounds, she scoured Bury Market for bargain-priced slippers, handbags and shoes. Attractively displayed in the front window, they were snapped up. Soon Mum was making twice weekly buying trips. However Cancerians are family orientated and the business always came second to her children. If Brian was playing in a soccer match, or Marilyn and I taking part in a verse speaking competition, Mum was always there on the front row, cheering us on.
After the Great Depression, and World War 2, the 50s was a prosperous decade. Dad bought his first new car, a Hillman Minx. Now instead of holidays in Cleveleys, a seaside village between Blackpool and Fleetwood, Mum and Dad took us off to Devon, Dorset and Cornwall. And every Sunday we were off to Blackpool, Southport, Morecombe or Ryll. By 21st century standards, it doesn’t sound adventurous, but back then it was unusual for working class people to own a car. Most people did not normally venture far from home except for an annual holiday when they travelled 60 miles to the coast on a steam train, or a charabanc, a coach used for trips to the seaside.
Just when everything was going smoothly—Brian was an apprentice turner and Marilyn and I had won scholarships to Hayward Grammar School, Grandma Massey passed away. Still grief struck, Dad learnt his mother had left her estate to his sister. Aunty Alice gave her brother first option to buy the premises. But he couldn’t afford the asking price.
His sister soon found a buyer, a boot and shoe repairer who thought himself lucky to get his hands on a home and an established business. You see, although Dad had bought the business, he rented the work space from his mother and he didn’t have a lease or a legal agreement.
Facing this disaster with stoic grit, Mum suggested we emigrate. The family arrived at Fremantle on January 31st 1960. In a little over a year, we’d moved into the house in Nollamara where she still lives, and Dad was his own boss again.
Dad owned and operated the boot and shoe repairer’s in Beaufort Street in Highgate until he retired aided by Mum. With her customary business acumen, she put up a sign in the garden and delivered flyers around the districts. Word spread quickly, and the home-agency took off. Yet again, Mum had come up with a practical way to grow the business.
Two years after we emigrated, my brother, Brian went back. He married Marion Johnson and made his home permanently in England. Through that marriage, Mum has great grandchildren in England and Norway: Daniel and Anna in Oslo; Leo and Ren in Hove; and Owen in York. Over the years, Mum and Dad saw Brian’s family grow up. Not content to rely on letters, they visited them in England twenty three times. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has seen more of the world than my parents. Mum has holidayed in New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Scotland and Ireland. Even now, it wouldn’t take much encouragement, and she’d be off on her travels again.
It’s true what they say about Cancerians making loving partners. About fifteen years ago Dad’s health deteriorated. When he was hospitalized, Mum who never passed her driving test visited him every day without fail, a journey that involved multiple bus changes. She didn’t just stay for an hour either; she spent the whole day with him.
Usually the fires of passion die down—well that wasn’t the case in their marriage—Dad was head over heels about Mum all his life. For instance when Mum broke her wrist and ended up in the same hospital, he tried to get his doctor to move her into his ward and the adjacent bed. For two people so wrapped up in each other, it has been hard for Mum without her constant companion. Gardening has helped. Mum has made sure that the roses Dad set such store by are still as lovely as ever.
Most people start slowing down around seventy. It’s only now that Mum has reached a hundred that time is catching up. But though Mum’s eyesight has deteriorated and she can’t walk all that well, she still lives independently, keeps up with current affairs, participates in her social clubs twice a week, and still finds time to shop and garden. "
Happy birthday, Mum and many more!