Helen Forrester: chronicler of Liverpool poverty

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’.

11 thoughts on “Helen Forrester: chronicler of Liverpool poverty

  1. Gerry, I’m so glad that you did this post; I was hoping that you would! I read Helen Forrester’s books avidly and found, in her autobiographical ones, a certain amount of parallels with my own life that somehow made me feel less isolated. I have a lemon tree, bought because I coveted the one in her book, ‘The Lemon Tree’ !! Perhaps naively, it had never once occurred to me that she wrote under a pseudonym until I read the obituaries this week…

  2. Elizabeth – so she is read and appreciated outside Liverpool. Good. I must admit, though, I’ve not read any of her fiction. Is it good?

  3. I’m neither writer nor critic, but I found that they were the kind of books that it’s easy to read in those times when your mind just isn’t seeking mental agility and complicated plots, but were still packed full of interesting stuff put in a easy-chill way. I was thinking about one of them – ‘Three Women Of Liverpool’, I think it was – when we were talking about the rag and bone man a while ago, because I recall that it gave quite an overview of the process of sorting the rags and the work that could be got in sewing handkerchiefs from the good material salvaged. Is there a place called the Rag Market in Liverpool? Liverpool Basque was interesting because it gave a good basic understanding of the communities that had left the Pyranees in search of a better life, how they adjusted to their new lives and the terrors that haunted any of the dockland families who relied upon the sea for their living. I don’t know a great deal about Liverpool, but so many communities seem to have settled there from other places, often intending to go further but staying put. I wasn’t so keen on the slushier books like ‘Yes, Mama’ and ‘Mourning Doves’, partly due to personal taste, partly because, although they emitted the same amount of historical fact, the subjects weren’t as unknown to me. She obviously had a great sense of place and history, wherever she found herself and whatever her situation.

    That quote that you’ve included from Helen Forrester is really interesting and there seems to have been a bit of a similar theme running through some of your posts of late. I’ve been thinking a lot of the Jeanette Winterson post, but also that Shelagh Delaney film where she spoke of the three sets of restless people. A background like this seems to either flatten you and tie your expectations down to that poverty triangle, elevate you to be able to rise above it and reach great heights, or, just suspend you uncomfortably in mid-air, not really capable of moving forwards but not wanting to travel backwards and I can’t really fathom what it is that puts people in one bracket or another.

  4. In answer to your question about a Rag Market in Liverpool, Elizabeth…I haven’t read ‘Three Women Of Liverpool’, but I suspect it might be Paddy’s Market, once a thriving institution in the north end of the city, though now a shadow of its former glory. It began in the Scotland Road area, settled by large numbers of desperately poor Catholics from Ireland in 1847-1848 after the great potato famine. The area became known as a ‘Poverty-land’, and as a happy hunting ground for dealers in rags and bones and other refuse which could be made to yield profitable pickings. Cast-off clothing in time became the chief commodity, and a distinct trade sprang up. The traders became concentrated in a rough, second-hand emporium nicknamed Paddy’s Market on Great Homer Street selling bundles of rags to people.

    There’s a reference to Paddy’s Market as it might have been in Helen Forrester’s day, in Pat O’Mara’s ‘A Liverpool Slummy’, a memoir of life among the poor of Liverpool published in 1933, and nearly as well-known in Liverpool as Forrester’s books:

    Meandering northward from Whitechapel just behind the Walker Art Gallerylies that acme of British slums, the internationally famous Scotland Road. Midway in this thoroughfare stands Paddy’s Market, also internationally known, where the refuse of the Empire is bought and sold. Old clothes, old boots, bits of oil cloth, turbans, frayed domestic and foreign underthings – to sell such stuff brazen female hawkers seated on the flag floor lure folk with the consumptive cackle : “Now, John, ninepence for that coat! Come ‘ere! Come ‘ere!”
    Just across from Paddy’s Market stands Richmond Row, where, in its squalid shacks – sleeping sometimes ten in a single room for threepence a night – live most of these transient women hawkers. The majority of these young women, after peddling their wares in or outside the Market, sally forth at night towards Lime Street , there to barter anew – this time with their bodies, up alleys, for a mere pittance and to anyone. After such nocturnal forays they meander homeward, get drunk on methylated spirits, engage in internecine warfare, and usually end the night in that stumpy little structure up the road, the Rose Hill lock-up.

    I found a couple of images of the rag market in 1895, Here https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/0-bJ3eBmwpyLGohb7DdW_8tJqmC8003oOU_q0vhgkwc?feat=directlink and here https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/fvkItxyTk2050vQ6Gssc6stJqmC8003oOU_q0vhgkwc?feat=directlink

    The women in a lot of these photos are reckoned to be the original ‘Mary Ellens’ who started Paddy’s market.

    More recently, evocative images of Liverpool 50 years ago, when the city was still recovering from the post war gloom, were pictured in a BBC film now available to watch online. Filmed in 1958, and shown in 1959, Morning in the Streets was made by acclaimed documentary maker Denis Mitchell. It includes sights long since vanished like the weekly round of the rag and bone man and women scrubbing doorsteps. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/working/0189.shtml?all=1&id=0189

    Paddy’s Market is still held on Saturdays in Great Homer Street, but now has a rather different character from the old clothes market, with dealers in fancy goods, books, music and toys, plants, just about anything.

    1. I was born in Richmond Row in 1944′ my Nan owned 3 shops and we were not poor. We lived opposite Berrys pawn shop.

  5. Gerry, I have only just found this comment; my apologies. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to give such a comprehensive and interesting answer. It’s really cheered me up, seeing this, this afternoon.

    I’m hoping to come across in the new year, principally to catch the Titian and Bedford Lemere exhibitions, but I may eventually get to see some of these other wondrous things that you talk of for myself!

  6. The autobiographical memoirs of Helen Forrester live outside Liverpool for sure! As a Southerner living ‘up North’, I love Liverpool with a passion for it’s history, culture, ability to change and grow stronger….but above all I love the people for their resilience, humour, independence and durability. Helen’s memoirs mirror this and it is particularly poignant as she herself suffered so much during her younger years, however sheer grit and the desire to learn meant she achieved so much at the same time. I have read her books three times now and will continue to read them: they provide strength, encouragement and show what can be achieved if you are determined! A lesson in life for us all! I have recommended her books to so many people of all ages who enjoy them: they are a social history and more importantly, a lesson to us all: never give up despite your circumstances and always strive to be the best you can. There cannot be a better legacy to this wonderful lady!

  7. I can remember reading the play script version of ‘Twopence to cross the Mersey’ when at secondary school in Durham, and also getting hold of the actual book (and the next ones in the set!) when I was about 13/14. I loved reading them (and have re-read them countless times since) and when I first visited Liverpool as a student in 1996 I used to wander round the streets recognising place names, streets etc from Helen’s books. Even now, after living near Liverpool for almost 14 years I still think of the places in Helen’s books! In fact I’m just re-reading Lime Street at Two! Thanks for all this fantastic information Gerry. Would love to know what happened to the rest of Helen’s family too
    Take care

  8. I loved miss Forrester’s uato biography. I would love to buy them again. Along with Liverpool daisy. Such a shame she died

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