Pottles of Peas and Memories of Maltesers

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Ronald Pearsall enjoys reminiscences about growing up in Edwardian England

Edwardian Childhoods by Thea Thompson

(Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1981 248pp + 50 illustrations)

At the beginning of this century S. Baring-Gould, Cecil Sharp, and many others went about the country collecting folk songs that were in danger of dying out. The children of that period are now being canvassed by sociologists not for folk song but for folk memory, and Edwardian Childhoods contains nine transcriptions of interviews diligently carried out, and ringing true.

The publishers claim that the book 'presents a refreshing and unexpected view of the Edwardian world'; the book-jacket refers to the 'distant, vivid and often magical world of children before the Great War'. What revelations are there? The poor worked damnably hard, but were philosophical and jolly on the whole; the middle classes felt that they had missed out somewhere along the line; the rich total up their servants and the numbers of rooms in their houses. We know this or can predict it without reading Edwardian Childhoods, but the book is valuable on small points. A gas stove burned five hours for a penny, peas were sold by 'the pottle' and not by weight (costermongers left them loose), and the poor bought old scenery from the theatres to cut up and use as sheets. It is interesting to know that even the rich children had few presents at Christmas, and the ones they gave were most likely to be handmade.

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