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A Devon Childhood

Following on from yesterday’s post about my family’s move to Devon from Lancashire, I thought I’d continue with a post about my childhood in my parents’ newsagent’s shop, even at the risk of boring you witless!

Many people consider only children (such as myself) must be lonely children, lacking siblings to play with.   I can say quite categorically that I was delightfully happy as an only child, I had plenty of friends who would come to tea or with whom I would spend Saturdays drawing and painting;  a very good friend and I would spend hours drawing and painting, always fine ladies in historical costumes, or we would play endless games of Monopoly.  Furthermore, my cousin from Lancashire (two years my junior) would come to stay in the summer for several weeks and we had a lovely time together, screaming with laughter at the silliest of things, as children do.

In the photo above you will see that from an early age I had a fascination with cosmetics.  My dressing table was covered with little pots of cream and bottles of scent, flasks of talcum powder and my dressing table set of brush, mirror and comb.  I later had a much nicer dressing table set in which floral petit point had been encased in a sort of Perspex and edged with gilded metal of some kind, it was really quite beautiful.  In the photo above I was about seven or eight years old, already experimenting with my mother’s lipstick. I am wearing my summer school uniform dress, a brown and white gingham check, not the most attractive of garments, but this was 1952 and rationing was still in force. I expect the uniform was based on what materials were available for making uniform garments.

I always liked clothes, even from an early age, and I was fortunate insofar as an aunt was a tailor, not merely a dressmaker.  She made me several outfits, one of which I’m wearing above, which was in a light grey woollen material, and with it I’m wearing a beret which my father insisted it should be worn thus (on the side of the head) and not pulled on like a pancake, which seems to be the way berets are worn today, with the welt showing.  I think I was about eight in this photograph.

Although my parents were always busy in their shop, I was never bored.  There were always customers to chat to, plus my Grandfather and Uncle came to live with us in the mid-1950s, so I had four adults to talk to when not at school.  Living with four adults certainly makes a child grow up quickly, but I enjoyed our conversations and I will say this for my family … they always considered my contributions to the convesations, I was not ignored as being a mere child.

In the summertime – and summers then did seem warmer and sunnier and longer – my mother would often take me to the beach.  Dad would look after the shop for a couple of hours and after our lunch Mum would pack up a basket with some tomato sandwiches, a flask of tea and perhaps some fruit cake or biscuits, and we would head off to Oddicombe Beach, the nearest beach to our shop.  It was a long walk down the cliffs to the beach, and an even longer walk back up the steep twisting road, but if it was really hot and we were very tired we would come back up on the Cliff Railway.

Here I am, returning with Mum from such a trip to the beach.  My dress was seersucker in shades of pink.  I think Mum’s dress – I’ve forgotten the colour but I think the belt and bag were red, as were her sandals – would look quite fashionable today.  Dad was always ready with his camera to snap us at times like this.

And here I am on one of the local beaches, although I’m not sure which one, and I’ve no idea what I was doing!  Playing some game or other, making up a pattern or a seaside garden with shells and pebbles or even a pebble meal using sticks as knife and fork!  But I was certainly very engrossed in whatever it was!

When I was 13 I started at the local girls’ grammar school.  I had failed my 11+ examination because I had recently changed schools and my education had been severely disrupted.  But there was a second chance in those days, and aged 12 I sat the examination again and this time I passed.  Although it was a grammar school and such things as needlework and cookery (referred to on the curriculum then as Domestic Science, it sounded better that way!) were considered not quite the subjects for a grammar school, the early years, i.e. the first, second and third years, took these subjects and they were most useful. I enjoyed cookery, but I can’t say I enjoyed needlework, but I learned how to use a sewing machine, how to cut out a pattern, and how to make simple dresses. Here I am wearing one I made in a bright yellow sailcloth cotton. The pink belt is one that actually belonged to another dress, but I liked it with the bright yellow, so wore it with this dress as well.  Here, I’m about fourteen, heading towards fifteen I think.  This pathway has now disappeared with rockfalls to the sea below, but it was a favourite walk around the cliffs of a summer’s evening with our Corgi dog.

Here, above, I am with our dog on Babbacombe Downs one summer evening, c1958, wearing a  yellow skirt and a patterned top in shades of green and gold.   The evening sunshine was in my eyes … yes, summer evenings were long and pleasant in those dim and distant days.

As I grew older my parents would take me with them to various social events. They were members of the local Conservative Club, the Sailing Club (although they didn’t sail) and the Golf Club, and above you will see me (holding a glass of Babycham as well as my father’s pint of beer while he takes the photo) with my mother (on the right) in a lovely midnight blue tulle dress. My own dress was very pretty – a pity you can’t see it, for it was pale sea green tulle with little bootlace straps.  This was taken at the Golf Club Ball when I was fourteen.   I had had ballroom dancing lessons by this age, and could manage the waltz, quickstep and slow foxtrot.  The cha cha cha hadn’t yet become a fashionable dance for such occasions.  Such accomplishments were de rigeur in the 1950s.

One day, when I was fifteen, I arrived home from school and found this pretty blue and white hound’s tooth dress laid out on my bed. Mum had bought it for me in the local ‘gown’ shop (a lovely shop where there might be just one lovely item on display in the window; it would’ve been considered ‘common’ to stuff the window with all kinds of garments!)  I was delighted with it and I wore it for many years, even including when I was first married.  I loved shirtwaister dresses, they were so easy to wear and yet so very feminine.  Although they aren’t distinct I was already wearing ‘heels’ and this pair were dark holly green leather.

I was now approaching adulthood, and it wasn’t long before I was dating and eventually meeting my future husband.  But my childhood in our shop was most enjoyable with customers to talk to, a bedroom that I didn’t have to share with a sibling, books, comics, newspapers and magazines to read, paints and paper to amuse me, and endless supply of things such as Basildon Bond writing paper, coloured inks (green was popular at the time), friends to invite to tea, a nearby beach to enjoy, and seaside and country walks to take with our dog.  Our shop wasn’t grand, it was rather ordinary, and my childhood was by no means exceptional.  But it was filled with fun and laughter even though my parents worked very hard and were often tired.  I look back on my childhood as a very happy time in my life.

Until next time.

 

About Margaret Powling

Margaret Powling
Margaret’s main interests are her husband and family, her friends, her home, her garden, writing, literature, architecture, décor, social history, photography, historic houses and gardens, and towns, villages and the countryside. She writes about the things she enjoys: flowers, scent, fine soap, monthly style magazines, and other such small indulgences, such as afternoon tea or simply enjoying her summerhouse with a book. She invites you to enjoy this virtual visit to South Devon, England.

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18 comments

  1. Again, those photos are gorgeous and thank you so much for sharing them with us.

    I particularly enjoyed your descriptions of each garment, outfit and accessory. I have an Aunty who has a similar talent for remembering each special outfit which is very useful on those rere occasions where you unearth an old family photo and are unable to name the date / place. I once described a group family photo to her over the phone and had barely started my description when she quizzed me about the colour of the ribbon in her hair and that was it – she recalled the event (her older brother’s wedding) and went on to tell me of two other occasions she had worn the same outfit with different coloured accessories. If only I could find a quiz show for her we could win a fortune !!

    Your clothes were beautiful. I enjoy watching classic movies and seeing photos of the era when people actually dressed. We are all so casual now and a throwaway society where clothes are relatively cheap. In many circles it is NOT the done thing to wear the same outfit twice, which is crazy when you think about it. I’m not yet capable of the ten-item wardrobe method by Jennifer L. Scott in ‘The Daily Connoisseur’ blog but believe if a garment / outfit looks good on you and you like it then wear it as often as you like. I, too, am an only child and loved wearing hand-me-downs as a child and teen. I doubt many clothes would last long enough to be handed down, these days, as so much is cheaply made. I must declare, however, that I’m guilty of buying tshirts for $5 in the larger chain stores when my existing collection loses its fresh whiteness (or black).

    I think my favourite photo is you in your coat and beret. The look on your face suggests you know you look special 🙂

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      I was very fortunate insofar as there weren’t the cheap clothes outlets in the 1950s. You either made your own clothes from materials and patterns you bought (and my mother, for all her talents, wasn’t a seamstress – she could knit and emobroider, but she wasn’t a dressmaker) or you bought them from a shop, and the shops that my mother frequented were at the ‘better’ end of the garments spectrum: Rockhey’s was our favourite department store in Torquay, where she had an account, and Jaeger (the company that, I think, has at last gone into liquidation.) Even my navy blue school winter coat for the grammar school came from Jaeger, not the school outfitter. I also had a lovely dark chocolate brown soft wool suit from Jaeger, pencil slim skirt and a boxy jacket, and when my mother bought it for me, the assistant brought to her a lovely little pink silk scarf, just a small one to tie around the neck. The colour was perfect with the chocolate brown. I’d not wear that colour again, but aged about 14, it looked lovely – I had brown hair then!
      I was again fortunate in being an only child my clothes were always new as there was no one my mother knew who could supply me with hand-me-downs. I hadn’t realized then that the clothes I wore were better than many of my peers, it’s only when I was older that I appreciated this and it made me realize that it’s better to have fewer items but better quality, and well cut clothes in good materials will always look better than the latest fashionable garment that is badly made. Not that my yellow dress was well made!

  2. simpleliving31.blogspot.co.uk

    You were very smartly turned out, your mum was very glamorous, I can see her in you.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Thank you, Marlene, for such lovely compliments! Mum always tried her best to look neat and tidy, money was hard to come by in those days, my parents both worked very hard, but they always tried to buy the best they could afford and this was instilled in me: by cheap, buy twice. Yes, I do look like my mother, especially now I’m ancient!

  3. Eloise. (thisissixty.blog)

    I have enjoyed this lovely post. You clearly had a very happy childhood, Margaret. I can see that the little girl with the mirror is you – very much as you look today.
    I love the photo of your stylish mother when you are walking back from the beach. As you say. Her style would not look out of place nowadays. My mum had a basket just like the one you are holding.
    It’s sad that needlework is off the curriculum in schools now. I received a sewing machine for my 14th birthday and, putting into practice my school lessons, made myself lots of clothes through my teens. The local market had a stall which sold off cuts of fabrics which I used to regularly buy. Although I only knitted for my sons, when my daughter was a baby. I made dresses and dungarees for her. Home dressmaking is a dying skill as it seems to be no longer taught. What a shame.
    Certainly as I have got older, quality over quantity has been my mantra with clothes and shoes. I have items which are not just years, but decades old.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Yes, I did have a lovely childhood, Eloise. Of course, there were illnesses and arguments and so forth, but no more than any child would have (apart from the double pneumonia that almost did for me and that is why we moved to Devon, I was really very ill indeed, almost died, and spent just under 9 weeks in hospital and a convalescent home to get over the pneumonia), but overall, a lovely time with lots of fun. Oh, that’s lovely – me still looking like a seven year old, ha ha! I wish! Also, as I grew up quickly in a household with four adults and me, I was into makeup and nylons and high heels long before my peers, but my parents never said, “No you can’t wear lipstick” or “No you can’t have some high heels”, they allowed me to have these things as they knew I was no longer a child. But when my peers were in short socks and Clarks sandals and wash-free-of-make-up skin, I felt like their much-older almost-adult sister. It wasn’t that I was spoilt, only I knew the kinds of things I really wanted, such as instead of a chubby umbrella, I wanted one like the models I had seen in magazines posing with, an umbrella with a spike, all beautifully slim and furled! And I had one, a lovely bronze shot-silk one, it was wonderful (until I left it on my bed and sat on it and it snapped in two!)
      Yes, home dressmaking is a dying skill. Instead of all these food programmes on TV, showing people how to sew properly, how to cut out from a pattern, how to sew facings, to set in sleeves, to put in a zip, would be most useful. Of course, the sad thing is that there are few shops now with materials by the yard or meter to buy, only perhaps furnishing depts. in some of the remaining department stores. Yes some of my things are decades old, too. Indeed, I’ve just had to kiss goodbye to some leather shoes I loved and I know that they were very old because I used to wear them to work and I gave up the day job in 1992!

  4. Loved both posts about your childhood. I am of a similar age ( turned 70 this year) and was also an only child. I went to a grammar school which concentrated on academic subjects but like you we had Domestic Science and I was able to learn the basics on a sewing machine, practising at home making skirts and dresses on Mum’s Singer. Clothes in those days were either hand made or, if purchased, good quality and made to last. I remember my parents having few clothes but always nice quality. My father died when I was 11 but his suits were always ‘made to measure’. As a child a lot of my dresses were made for me by my godmother who was an excellent seamstress and often finished with ‘smocking’. As teenagers and beyond we were always smartly dressed, we wore gloves even in the summer and our handbag always matched our shoes. I am not really a fan of today’s very casual and sometimes distressed look, makes me distressed looking at it! Hopefully designers will realise how elegant the 50’s were and bring back some of those wonderful styles. I love that you and other bloggers like Fiona (How to be Chic) and Jennifer (The Daily Conniseur) are living an elegant and stylish life and encouraging others to do the same. X

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Oh yes, I remember that mantra, Dot: handbag must match shoes, gloves must match hat. And we wore white gloves in summer in the 1950s.
      Like you, I’m not really a fan of today’s very casual look, and as for jeans that are already slashed and seemingly falling apart (and being sold at an exorbitant price, no doubt) this isn’t fashion, it’s just plain silly.
      I’m so glad you enjoy my blog. I’m certainly not elegant like Fiona and Jennifer L Scott, but I make the excuse – a very lame one – that I’m older enough to be their mother! I will be 73 next month. I think it’s best to dress in what we are most comfortable in; for some that might be casual clothes, for others more formal clothes. My husband is happier with a nice shirt and sports jacket than he is in jeans, and he’s never worn a T-shirt in his life. But I’m delighted you have enjoyed my posts on my childhood.

  5. Loved these posts about your childhood, Margaret! So interesting and fun to read. You had wonderful clothes. Hope you’ll keep sharing about your younger years!

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Thank you, Bess. Yes, I had some lovely clothe when I was young, but the nicest clothes I had were when I first met my husband. On our first date I wore a grey and white hound’s tooth check pencil skirt with a pale blue jumper and over that I had a 3/4 length Jaeger coat, a wrap style with belt you just tied, and it was so lovely. It had been a full length one my mother had, but she had it made into 3/4 length for me, and with the grey/white skirt under it, it looked lovely, especially with my high heeled gunmetal leather court shoes. And my first really grown up cocktail dress, as these were worn in the early 1960s, was a Frank Usher model dress, it was a Grecian style with a drape over just one shoulder and it was so structured that it would almost stand up on its own, dresses were really tailored in those days! I loved it, and wore it with long black elbow length gloves and had my hair and make up very like Liza Minelli in Cabaret. I also had scarlet satin high heeled pumps to wear with this black outfit, and they had a diamante strap across the vamp, really very stylish indeed. How I have changed, I’m a little dumpling now, but I’m delighted you enjoyed these posts!

      • Beautiful descriptions of your elegant clothing! And women of a certain age (myself included, soon to be 65) have earned the right, and gained the wisdom, to be little dumplings! :O) Besides, you look very stylish still.

        • Margaret Powling
          Margaret Powling

          I wish there were more stylish clothes around for those of us with a spare tyre, Bess. But I have to admit, it’d difficult making a dumpling look good. For example, women’s jackets rarely fit properly because they have breasts and jackets over breasts hang all wrong. This is why men look so good in suits, they don’t have bumps on the front! And women always tend to have their coat and jacket sleeves far too long. Why do manufacturers do this? Just take a look next time you watch programmes such as Escape to the Country where you will see women out of doors as they visit properties, and then look at their sleeves, with just their fingertips pointing out of the ends! Men, on the other hand, get it right. They have a few inches of cuff showing. OK, women don’t always have a shirt under a jacket, but they do wear their sleeves far too long, and often the jacket is too long too, ending at the widest part of the hips, drawing attention to their girth! But thank you for saying I still look stylish. I shall need to get a few new things for winter, I’ve not bought any clothes this summer. I only tend to buy clothes when I need them, not spur of the moment purchases because I feel like it, that’s not me. Books, on the other hand, are a quite different matter, ha ha!

  6. What a lovely post, thank you Margaret, and what a good memory for detail you have!

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Yes, when I think back to my childhood, it’s like rolling a newsreel film in my head, I can see it so clearly. I have always had a good memory, when husband asks about a place or an historic house we have visited and then he himself perhaps gets it all wrong, I will say, “No, that wasn’t at such-and-such a place, that was in such-and-such, don’t you remember? And we had afternoon tea in the courtyard outside, and I wore such-and-such …” and I’ll know he hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about! But my memory is reinforced because I’ve always been the one taking photographs. All my life I’ve taken photographs, when I go out today I always check that my compact camera is with me (I don’t have a smart phone.) Plus I have all the guide books from historic houses and gardens, and they reinforce memory, too.

  7. What a lovely post about your growing up years. It strikes me that young people tended to be more mature in those days. I am younger than you (60), but even in my childhood I remember teenagers seeming more mature than they do today. At the same time, there are a number of adults who aren’t so mature these days either! I can see you clearly in those pictures of your childhood. What a great memory you have for the details of your outfits.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      I always considered myself very fortunate to have parents who allowed me to have the kinds of clothes that many of my peers did not have, such as being able to wear stockings when they were still in ankle socks, and lovely dresses and costumes (as suits for women were referred to in this days), often from lovely shops such as Jaeger. There weren’t teenage fashions until the early 1960s, when girls grew to large for items in children’s departments, they simply were bought clothes from the women’s departments. I can remember so many of the lovely dresses I had. One in particular, when I was a child, had been made for me by my Aunt who, as I mentioned, was a tailor. It was in a lovely hyacinth blue georgette, a fabric one seldom sees today. It was buttoned to the waist, had a peter-pan collar, and short sleeves and a pretty gathered skirt. To wear underneath this see-through fabric, she had made a sheath slip in rose-pink satin, so that when that was worn with the hyacinth blue dress on top, the colour was magical. If you’ve ever seen a pentstemmon flower called Sour with its pretty under-dress as I can imagine. And yes, I do think we were more mature in those days. I certainly felt mature at 14/15.

  8. I so enjoyed this post Margaret, thank you for sharing.
    It echoed my childhood and brought back many memories.
    I did not live by the sea, but enjoyed a family holiday each year at the seaside. We always rented a beach hut at Bournemouth and my brother and I amused ourselves with the simplest of pleasures.
    I particularly appreciated your descriptions of your clothing which mirrored my experience, I too learned to sew at school and made some items of clothing. Although I did not realise it at the time, rationing must have had an impact on the supply of clothes.
    I do recall going into town and being thrilled at looking around Boots and Woolworths beauty counters, deciding what to spend my pocket money on.
    Your photos are beautiful, you must treasure them, the ones I have from my early childhood are all black and white, so your color ones are indeed special.
    Best wishes.
    Pam in TX..xx

    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, to have just a few colour photos from the 1950s is special, Pam, and thanks for your very kind comments. Most of my photos from those days, once I had been given my 35mm Agfa Silette camera, were as transparencies (slides) and they are somewhere in our loft and have been there since we moved to this house 32 years ago, so no doubt they will have perished by now. I didn’t go around Woolworths and Boots very much, my favourite place for cosmetics was the beauty counter in my mother’s (and my) favourite department store, Rockhey’s in Torquay, long gone I’m afraid. But the other rather lovely department store, Williams & Cox, is now Hoopers, and remains similar to a department store although it ‘only’ has handbags and makeup and perfumery on the ground floor and above that, the next two floors are devoted to clothes, both for men and for women, and then on the top is the Zest café, with close by some gifts and greetings cards.
      Husband and I spent a short holiday in Bournemouth in 1968, the year before our first son was born. I remember the pretty gardens in Bournemouth and the crazy golf course which we enjoyed!

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