Quite likely most Liverpudlians have read Helen Forrester’s memoir of growing up in a poverty-stricken family in Liverpool in the 1930s, Twopence To Cross The Mersey, though I imagine she’s less well-known outside the city. She shouldn’t be, because her account of life in Depression-hit Liverpool is honest, raw and unsentimental. Forrester died this week in Canada where she had made her home after marriage in the late 1940s to Avadh Bhatia, an Indian physics student at Liverpool University.
Twopence To Cross The Mersey (published in 1974) tells how Helen’s family was thrown into desperate circumstances after her feckless and financially incompetent middle class parents were declared bankrupt in the 1930s. They lost everything. Her father moved the family to Liverpool in the hope of finding work, but, instead found himself, bemused, in a city crushed by the impact of the Depression and blighted by unemployment and poverty.
Helen Forrester was, of course, a pen name: she was born June Huband, in Hoylake across the water on the Wirral. The title of Twopence To Cross the Mersey referred to the unattainable cost of taking the ferry from Liverpool to Birkenhead and thence to her grandmother’s home, a journey as make-believe as Dorothy following the yellow brick road. She was the oldest of seven children, and she is unflinching in recording her parents’ financial ineptness and matter of fact in describing how the burden of looking after her younger siblings fell to her. Her parents lived on credit and had no idea how to manage. Forrester describes how she had to guide her father in how to look for jobs in the Liverpool Echo, whilst her mother refused to look after the younger children herself, pawned her daughter’s coat for cigarettes and forced her husband to run up debts with moneylenders.
Helen was forced by her parents to leave school when she was eleven, to look after her brothers and sisters. She tells of having to sell clothes for money to buy bread, sleeping seven to a bed under tattered old coats, and stealing milk for her baby brother.
Several of the children had sores which took a long time to heal. These were sometimes caused by normal cuts and abrasions going septic; and sometimes from their scratching at their vermin-ridden bodies. We nearly all suffered from toothache from time to time, and mother’s teeth began to loosen. Brian suffered torture from gumboils. … Father began to realise that unless help came the younger children would probably die from the first germ that infected them. The death rate in Liverpool at that time was one of the highest in the country, and the infant mortality rate was correspondingly horrifying.
Helen was helped by the kindness of strangers – a policeman who secretly paid for milk for her baby brother; an old man who encouraged her love of literature, and a landlady who took the family in, after everyone else turned them away. Encouraged to read and improve herself, at 14 Helen began night school in the face of opposition from her parents, and soon after got a job as a telephonist in Bootle.
In an obituary for The Guardian, Kate Bradley records that both Helen’s first love, a seaman, and the man to whom she later became engaged, were killed in the Second World War. After the war, she volunteered at a society that organised social events for students from foreign countries. It was at one of these events that Helen met the young Indian student, Avadh Bhatia.
They fell in love, and though it was an unconventional match for the 1940s, her parents showed indifference. But Helen embraced Avadh’s world with enthusiasm, and the two were married in Rajasthan. They lived for two years in Gujarat where the simplicity and spirituality of the people captivated Helen. Her novels Thursday’s Child and The Moneylenders of Shahpur (1987) took the region as a backdrop.
Helen Forrester published eleven novels, alongside the four volumes of memoirs that began with Twopence To Cross The Mersey. The others in the sequence were Liverpool Miss, By the Waters of Liverpool, and Lime Street at Two, which told the story being a social worker in Bootle during the war years and her devastation at the death of her fiancé on the Atlantic convoys.
Twopence To Cross The Mersey was later adapted into a musical which had four successful runs at Liverpool’s Empire theatre, taking more than £2m at the box office.
Despite her success as a writer, Helen Forrester regarded her greatest achievement as having ‘survived the misery of my girlhood, of always being put down as ugly, stupid and useless, except as an unpaid domestic servant in my parents’ house’.