The ‘Witch of West Street’ takes in another waif and stray

The Shadow of the Teapot is a touching memoir of events that took place in Croydon between the 1940s and 1970s, and details how in those early days of the NHS, an elderly, poor woman took in children who had been abandoned by their parents.

The book is written about her own childhood by MARGARET SHARPE BERMUDEZ. Here we publish an extract

December 1954, South Croydon

Mum Williams gently lowered herself into the front seat as Kath took hold of the massive steering wheel and jiggled the long gearstick into position. Hilda was holding open the big double gates as I stretched my neck to see out of the window and wave at the boys from my school playing football in the street.

Hilda jumped in as Kath tooted her horn to shoo the kids out of the way, and we were off.

“What was it like when I was born?” I asked hoping they would humour me with a full rendition of my arrival.

“Ooo Margy, you was absolootly bootiful,” Hilda began.

Kath and her car, around 1954

“You took an ‘ell of a long time to get ‘ere, caused ‘alf the road to go deaf with the squealing, an’ cost a small fortune, as I remember it,” Kath put in caustically.

“You was breech,” Mum Williams explained, “that’s why we ‘ad to get the doctor in the end an’ ‘e charged seven an’ six.”

“You can get a dog licence for less than that,” Kath said, “but it were worth it cos it stopped the squealing, although we were eatin’ potato stew for two weeks afterwards to pay for you. Philip ‘ad us roaring though, ‘e took one look an’ said ‘What’s that?’, ‘It’s a little girl’ Mum says, ‘I don’t want it, send it back!’ ‘e says. Ooo we did laugh at that!”

“Yer Mum did squeal summut rotten,” Hilda agreed meekly. “Kath were shouting up the stairs ‘Can’t you shut ‘er up Mum, we’ll ‘ave all the neighbours knockin’ on the door.’ But it didn’t do no good. Squealed so loud you could ‘ear ‘er at the Blackwall Tunnel, that’s ‘ow we knowed you was born just after midnight, cos the squealin’ stopped.”

I had been born two months after the National Health Service got underway, at a time when almost all women gave birth at home, so when my mother needed somewhere to go Mum Williams didn’t hesitate to swing into action. Hospitals were viewed with fear and suspicion, something which Mum Williams and Hilda never got over. However, both my sisters were delivered in NHS institutions that now provided wonderful free care for everyone.

The Mayday Hospital was only three miles away from our home at 21A West Street. There was a special entrance for the Maternity Ward and Kath’s great vehicle was soon sweeping through the grounds before stopping to the left of some wide stone steps. Hilda and Mum Williams got out of the car. As they made their way up the steps a nurse emerged from the doorway with a well-wrapped bundle in her arms. She was followed by my parents. There was a short conversation, none of which I could hear because it was a cold December day and the windows of the car were firmly shut. A couple of minutes later the nurse handed the bundle to Hilda while my parents walked briskly down the steps and off to the right.

They didn’t stop or wave.

Mum Williams’ creaky 70-year-old knees began crabbing their way back towards us in the car. Hilda followed, her face flushed with awe, looking as if she were carrying the crown jewels.

“Can I see her? Please can I see her,” I cried as soon as Hilda had wiggled her way into the back seat.

“Ahh Margy aint she lovely, aint she just a peach, oh Mum look at ‘er, ain’t she lovely,” Hilda cooed.

“It’s not right, yer know,” Kath growled.

“She’s called Martina,” Mum Williams announced. “Reckon they were ‘oping for a boy and ‘ave just stuck an ‘A’ on the end!”

“Mebee they’d ‘ave cared for a boy,” Kath put in, but any foreboding went over my head as I was desperate to be allowed to hold my new tiny sister.

“All right Margy, you can ‘old the body and I’ll ‘old the ‘ead, ‘ow’s that? Ooo ain’t she a peach! Drive quick Kath we need to get ‘er in front of a good fire.”

The ‘Witch On The Corner’, Nell Williams, would take her band of children blackberry picking at Outwood as a treat. Margaret is the tall girl to the left

Winter darkness had taken hold by the time we got back to 21A. We shivered our way through the front door groping for the light switch. Kath headed straight for the stove.

“Ooo yes, you get the kettle on Kath, I’ll bank up the fire, it’s freezin’ in ‘ere.”

Hilda was rocking the baby as Mum Williams placed the bassinet as close to the grate as she dared.

“Pop ‘er in ‘ilda an’ go an’ find some biscuits to go with our tea, they’ll all be round for a look-see in a minute.”

Soon the living room was full of towering adults peeking down at the baby. Ivy and her husband, Uncle Cliff, had come straight from work. Philip’s Mum, Violet, was chatting with Kath. Uncle Charlie was giving Marjory a squeeze and teasing her, from the look on her face. The house was bursting with noise, laughter and endless cups of tea. It filled my chest with a happiness I could hardly contain. Adult eyes looked down on me with lashings of affection so that I never missed the hugs and kisses that might have been part of a less Victorian upbringing, I knew this family loved me, and I loved them.

The party atmosphere was in full swing when a cry went up in the kitchen, “Auntie Vi’s coming …”

“Ooo bugger it! ‘ide the baby,” Mum Williams commanded, her face flushing red as she pulled the bassinet away from the fire. A dozen eager hands grabbed me and my sisters, the quickest ones were up the stairs and into Kath’s bedroom taking Martina with them.

Three of Nell Williams’ ‘waifs and strays’ all dressed up for the May Queen celebrations at St Andrew’s

Hilda had Christine halfway into the hallway by the time Auntie Vi stormed through the back door looking like a cross between a sergeant major and a dried up prune.

“Where is it then? Where is it?” she cried, doing a great impression of a Rottweiler on a mission.

“What are you talkin’ about?” Mum Williams soothed. “What’s the matter with you Vi? ‘ave a cup o’ tea an’ take the weight off your feet.”

But her sister had no intention of calming down or being diverted from her quest.

“You’ve taken it! I know you’ve taken another one! Don’t play dumb with me Nell Williams! You’ve got another of your waifs and strays!”

There was a huge row taking place above my head, but down at my level I was trying to work out how Auntie Vi knew we had a new baby, but more than anything I was digesting the phrase “waifs and strays”.

It dawned on me that she was referring to me and my sisters, my beautiful sisters. This was our home, but for the first time ever someone had said something which made me feel as if I didn’t belong here, as if these people were not my family.

Shocked and unhappy, the maelstrom of raised voices whipped around my blonde curls, gaining in strength with every new accusation. Auntie Vi’s son, Ernie, was younger than Kath, but he was a man, so when he joined in the argument it became far more serious.

Warming his backside in front of the fire I heard him lecture Mum Williams as if she were a naughty schoolgirl. Hilda was crying, Marjory’s voice was shrilling above Auntie Vi’s while Mum Williams hung her grey head and asked if everyone wouldn’t just sit down and have a slice of Victoria sponge, “I done it all nice this morning, wiv strawberry jam an’ all…”

“Waifs and strays”, how could that apply to us? I had nice dresses to go to parties, best shoes to wear to Sunday school, good food on the table, trips to the cinema; there wasn’t another kid on the street who was better cared for than me. How could I be a labelled a “waif and stray”?

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