Twopence to Cross the Mersey

Liverpool, 1930s. Helen and her family had been living a very good life in southern England, but when the depression hit the country and father went bankrupt, they all moved to Liverpool, the childhood town of the father, in hoping that there would be more jobs to find there. But life was not easier in that central part of England, harder even. Soon they were thrown into filthy and very small room to live, too small for the size of family of seven children. Coal to heat the room was luxury, bug bites were everyday thing, hungry was their daily struggle. They were pulled from the comfortable middle-up class life to utmost poverty in the industrial town Liverpool, a life they had never imagined to be their own.

Helen was the oldest child in the family, aged 12. As father were busy searching for jobs, and mother ‘needed to be outside’ in effort to prevent her from mental breakdown because of the situation, Helen was then forced to stay at home, taking care of her six siblings from morning to night, running the household. For this, she was told to give up school for the time being, despite her aspiration to go to school and to continue her normal life. Although she found it as unfair, she did what was expected to her thinking that it would only be temporary. She was then pulling herself to being practical, managing the daily needs of her brothers and sisters (including the youngest brother at 5 months old). I could not imagine myself doing what she did, at a delicate age of 12! So everyday Helen would come out of their room with the baby brother in the chariot, walking around the block to buy food, if they had money that day, or just sitting in the park. The other children were going to school.

But the temporary seemed to become forever. When the mother was finally successful in earning some money, she decided to continue her work, and spend considerable amount of her slim wage into clothes and shoes to make her more representable to continue the work. Her being outside for work meant that Helen should continue being at home, for an indefinite time. Father agreed to this idea, fearing that if mother was staying at home for too long she would fall into mental breakdown. And this continued on and on, despite the fact mother had gained better health, physically and mentally. Here I was furious with their selfish attitude! Whatever the case, parents should be the ones to take care of their children. As an oldest child, and a daughter for more, Helen was assumed to be taking role at home, sacrificing her life for the wellbeing of others, and she was assumed to obey what is told.

Before their life in Liverpool, Helen’s sweetest childhood memory had been her visits to her grandmother’s house, just across the Mersey river, the river that runs through Liverpool. At first Helen did not understand why they could not just go to grandmother’s home for shelter as it was already so near. But then she found out that her parents were in feud with the grandmother (her father’s mother) and so they did not even tell the grandmother that they were living in struggling in the same town. Helen was missing her grandmother badly, sometimes she wanted to run away from home to just come to her. But to cross the river it cost twopence to take a ferry (hence the title), and Helen did not have any. If they had had twopence, they would have used it to buy food or other basic needs.

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This book is a touching memoir of Helen’s life in the beginning of depression years and specifically her personal struggle in pursuing her right to go to school and to learn as any other children did. Despite the severe condition she was facing, this memoir was composed with dignity and lack of self-pity. The phrases are beautifully written, specially when she was expressing her thoughts and feelings. I almost came to tears when reading her disappointment, anger, hopes, gratefulness, or simply her compassion towards her family. The life was also presented in a not-black-and-white picture. Like everywhere, there are good people and bad people, and in her surrounding in Liverpool, beside some judgmental neighbors or bad boys, she also met some incredibly kind people.

And here are some phrases that I loved most:

An advice from an old gentleman sitting on the park bench:

“Then read! Read everything you can. Read the great historians, the philosophers, especially the German ones, read autobiographies, read novels. One day, you will have the opportunity to make use of the knowledge you will accumulate, and you will be surprised to find that you know much more than those who have had a more formal education.” (p.143)

He pointed out that, in studying by myself, I was following in the footsteps of many great Lancastrians, who though doomed to poverty… found means to study and outshine their better-educated contemporaries. He cited the example of John Butterworth, the mathematician from Haggate, who never earned more than fifteen shillings a week and learned to read and write at the age of twenty. Such was his love of learning that he became of the finest geometricians of his day; and James Crowther and Richard Buxton, the Manchester botanists, both self-taught, both always poor, both famous. (p.213-214)

About her sorrow and anger and her conviction:

Nobody asked me what I would like to do. My role in life had been silently decided for me. It was obvious that my parents had no intention of allowing me to be anything but an unpaid, unrespected housekeeper. With all the passion of a fifteen-year-old, I decided that such life was not worth living. (p. 263)

And when she was laughed at by other more fortunate children:

I fought back my tears. I was made of better stuff than the children before me. (p. 271)  

Helen continued to write. Beside this book, Helen Forrester also wrote three other autobiographical volumes that picture her perseverance as well as her continued personal struggle, and a number of equally successful novels, with Liverpool as the city prominently appeared in her works. In 1988, she was awarded an honorary Doctoral in Literature by the University of Liverpool in recognition of her achievements as an author. Knowing this fact, I am so glad that finally Helen could make it through and even become a distinguished honorable person. Helen Forrester was a pen name. Her real name was June Huband. After she got married, she moved to Alberta, Canada. She died on 24 November 2011 at the age of 92.

This book is dedicated to the Liverpool City Police, whose one of its personnel had helped Helen in a very kind and supporting way while she was a struggling child in the city’s slum. This memoir has also been made into some theatrical plays.

Heartbreaking yet heartwarming.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey/ Helen Forrester/ Harper Collins/ 1993 (1974)/ Memoir/ English/ 281 p.

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