A penny for the gas

Photo:The 1919 May Queen

The 1919 May Queen

Photo of Alice Reynolds

Over Street, Brighton

Living in Over Street in the 1920s

By Alice Reynolds, former resident of North Laine

[Alice Reynolds lived in 11 Over Street from 1918 to 1934.  This extract from her memoirs - A Penny for the Gas - describes her family background and the time the family lived in Over Street.]

My Dad

My Dad was a very talented man. I was very fond of him, because he was so interesting; he was also a handsome, grumpy, frustrated man - altogether, a very complex character.  He was born in about 1874, in Hampshire, in a village called Buriton. He was one of eight children, although for a long time I thought he was an only child.   His father worked as a coachman, and his mother was a laundress.  Both worked on the same estate.  He had a sister named Florence, who was very pretty.  Sadly, she died young - as so many youngsters did in those days.  My dad reckoned I was like her in both looks and manner, and perhaps that is why we got on so well.

My grandparents

My Dad's father was called Gosden.  He died around 1884, but my Dad's mother, Grandma Downer, spent her last years with us.  I now realise she must have remarried after Grandad Gosden died, as I only ever knew her surname to be 'Downer'.  I remember her living with us, in the back bedroom.  She wore a bodice which had the most amazing buttons on it, in gold and enamel, featuring all different breeds of dogs.  She also had beautiful rings on her fingers.

Grandma Downer died at the age of 85, at daffodil time.  It was the first corpse I had ever seen.   My mum was indignant that my father had removed the rings from her fingers, but of course it would have been wrong to have buried them with her, especially as our family was so hard up.

Who was his father?

My father had trained in London to be a tailor - bespoke and practical - and there was also a rumour at the time of his birth that his father was not George Gosden senior, (who was a coachman to an aristocratic family), but that in fact he belonged to one of the "sirs" in the family.  At the time of my father's birth, his mother was a very handsome woman, who was also in charge of the laundry for the family.  If it is true, then presumably that is where the cash came from to pay for my father's apprenticeship in London.

He was tall and well-built and, as a young man, very handsome; as an old man, he never lost his hair and he had beautiful hands with well-shaped filbert nails - the only one of his offspring to inherit his hands was my sister, Sybil.

Life In Over Street

During the General Depression in 1926, there was a slump in the tailoring business and Dad - who was very versatile - turned to the antiques trade, mending clocks and watches.  He could also re-string dolls, which was fascinating to watch.  In those days, china dolls with movable heads, arms and legs were very popular.  These dolls had a circle of rubber inside, and the arms, legs and head would be hooked on to it.  Sometimes of course the arms and legs (and heads!) could become separated from the doll's body, so my father set up a "doll's hospital" to repair them.  He would replace the circle of rubber if it was broken and then use a button hook to reconnect the limbs and head, so that the doll would be as good as new.

Working with pianos

He could restore and clean pictures, French polish wood and tune pianos.  He had a good musical ear, and could play the piano - not by ear, but from the sheet music.  He was self-taught which shows he must have had a great musical aptitude.

The wobbliest banister

Our house had the wobbliest banister in the street, I think; Dad had sawn it in half, so that he could get pianos into the back kitchen, which he used as a workshop to repair, repolish and tune them.  When he had finished with a piano, he would advertise it in the Exchange and Mart and sell it.  When the piano was out of the house, he would then fix the two ends of the wobbly banister back together again, but there was still a lot of movement.

Rabbit for the pot

One of his hobbies was clay pigeon shooting.  He was an excellent shot, and had many silver spoons and trophies to prove it.  When Dad went up country to measure farmers for breeches or coats, he usually took his 12 bore with him and he always brought back something for the pot.  I was very fond of rabbit, although my Dad would knock these over with a catapult, thus saving cartridges.

Fishing from the Palace Pier

Sometimes we went fishing under the Palace Pier, where the sea sloshed through the grating.  It was my job to keep the seagulls off the tin of lugworms.

My dad once bought a vintage car.  It was a Renault, with a sloping bonnet and bucket seats, horn on the running board with the handbrake.  I enjoyed riding about with him in it, but of course eventually it was sold.

Moneywise, my Dad was as tight as the proverbial duck, but he probably had to hold on to a certain amount of money for buying stock for the business.  (Years later, when I ran my own antiques business, I soon learned the money I had was not all mine.  There had to be an amount set aside for stock, travelling expenses, car upkeep, petrol and running costs, and of course the rent for the room.  What was left was then mine, and sometimes it was very little, unless I had a lucky strike, when a meagre profit turned into a mega one!  What a stimulating, adventurous business it was.)

The May Queen

When I was little, we had to make our own amusement.  One year (1919) Mum had told the girls about the May Queen, a pageant which was held in the village on 1st May, as part of the Spring Fair, so that gave my sister Edie the idea to elect a May Queen in our family.

Although I was only three years old, I well remember the big discussion which took place in Nellie Goldring's front room.  Because I was so little, my nose was on a level with the kitchen table and soon there were masses of white crepe paper all over the top of the table.  The dresses were made, and my pram was decorated with paper flowers and ribbons and fans, and tinsel, left over from Christmas!

I don't think we collected any money - it was all done purely for entertainment.  My dad was very impressed and told us to go up to the Presbyterian Church in North Road, and he would take a photo of us.  So we all set off to North Street, and presently up came my father, armed with a camera, tripod and black cloth to put over his head, and of course the plates for the photographs.The attached picture was the result.  I was the May Queen, sitting in splendour in my pram.  On the extreme left was Ruby Rent, who lived opposite, then my sister Edie.  On the extreme right is Nellie Goldring, with her beautiful dark hair, and on her left, Doris Humphreys.

A penny for the gas

When I was younger, my sisters kept the home going financially.  I don't remember my mother receiving house-keeping money from my father, but I suppose she may have had some.  If so, it was supplemented by the girls, as she was often waiting for them to come in from work, to "get a couple of bob," to buy something for dinner.

My sisters were lounge waitresses at the Hotel Metropole - a large hotel on the sea front at Brighton.  The Metropole Lounge was very exclusive.  The management picked the girls who worked there for their appearance, deportment, nice hands and personality.  The wages were good, the tips were very good, as the clientele was classy.  However, the hours were long, and "staggered," so my sisters often grumbled when Mum asked them for money, but they always "coughed up" what was needed.

In those days, a penny would buy quite a lot - a steak, four blood oranges, a newspaper, or a lot of sweets or chocolate!  It was a very worthwhile coin, and it was no wonder that my father did not want to part with any.

Feeding the gas meter

We had a gas meter high up on the wall between the kitchen and the scullery, with a voracious appetite, and the time when Mum had to ask Dad for money was a time to cover your ears.  I used to sit on the stairs and listen to the exchange of words between my Mum and Dad:

"George, can you give me a penny for the gas?"

"A penny for the gas!" he would retort.  "What do you think I am?  Made of money?!!"

"Well George," my mother would say, "I'd like to make a cup of tea."

"Wait until the girls come in!" he would retort.

There would then ensue a violent row.  All shortcomings would be aired and things dragged up from way back when.  I used to wonder who would win.  He did.

He would say, "Where's my hat?" and stick it on his head, go out and slam the front door.  And all for "A penny for the gas!".

[An edited version of this article was first published in Best of British and Alice's return to Brighton in 2008 is described elsewhere on this website.]

This page was added on 09/12/2008.

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