My great-aunty Lizzie is one of my greatest heroes. She was born in Govan in 1893 and died in 1987 at the age of 93. My sister and I always called her “gran”, because this is the woman who brought my dad, uncle and aunts up from an early age.
When my (real) grandmother died just after WW2, my dad was just 7 years old. My aunt Betty was a toddler. Jackie and Rosemary were a little bit older so could understand what had happened a bit better. Their father couldn’t cope and asked my grandmother’s sister (great-aunty Lizzie) to help look after them. He then disappeared to Australia and nobody had much contact since. Lizzie was a widow with a young son of her own to bring up, but she took those poor kids in anyway, as the alternative (beatings and abuse at Nazareth House) was just not an option for her.
So my great-aunt (I’ll just call her gran now, because I feel weird calling her great-aunt), a young widow living in an attic in Plantation with her two year old son decided not to abandon her sister’s family. She had a part-time job as a cleaner in the local school – a hard, physical job in the days before hoovers and floor cleaners, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing floors with carbolic soap. There was no Widows Pension or Child Benefit. She didn’t get compensation of any kind after her husband died working in the shipyards. The father’s family had nothing to do with them either, just forgot all their promises of help and turned their backs.
My gran would get up at 5am six days a week. She would go to her job, work her socks off, come home, light the fires, make porridge, get 5 kids up for school, washed, dressed and out the door. Then she would go to the Steamie to wash their clothes, mangle them, carry the heavy wet washing home, clean and scrub the two rooms, take her turn “on the stair”, make the tea, help with homework, clear up again and go to bed. Money was always tight, rent to be paid, the coalman, food, the electricity meter – all on a few pounds a week. Clothes were hand-me-downs from neighbours or from the St Vincent de Paul. Lizzie couldn’t be off sick or take time off for emergencies (she’d either lose her pay, get the sack, or both), and holidays were for the “posh yins up in Pollokshields”. And always, always, at the back of Lizzie’s mind was the thought that if she was too sick to work, if she lost her job, if she fell on the ice and broke her leg – well those children who depended on her would end up ina home, and she’d be on the street. She would lose her family and her home.
Life eased up once the welfare state was created. The slum clearances meant that the family got out of Plantation and away to Pollok. The sheer relief of novelties such as hot and cold running water, three bedrooms, a living room and their own toilet!! No more sharing a filthy communal toilet with 20 others (I honestly can’t even begin to imagine). There was fresh air, grass, space for the kids to run around and explore….. bliss. The NHS meant no more worrying about the doctor’s fees and the price of medicine. (Lizzie’s brother Daniel died when he was 8 after developing diabetes and their parents couldn’t afford a doctor – this stayed with her all of her life). Lizzie kept working, but she knew that there was a safety net there if something bad happened, and she knew she could retire with some dignity instead of relying on the chapel and the charities.
Lizzie’s wee family prospered and got older. Her son Jim made it to University, graduated with a degree in engineering and had a really good job with British Rail (he helped design the predecessor to the Pendelino). My dad ended up a sergeant in the British Transport Police. My aunt Rosemary was a clerical officer with the council for about a hundred years and my aunt Betty worked as a secretary for Strathclyde Police. My uncle Jackie did his electrician’s apprenticeship in a shipyard and emigrated to Australia as a “Five Pound Pom”. They all did really well, worked hard, raised their families, looked after Lizzie until the day she died.
But the Tories and the Lib Dems want to destroy all the good that the welfare state has done.
Don’t let them.