Margaret Northrop’s memories were written by her grandson, A E Disbrey. They formed part of an article written by Mike Petty n Cambridge News of 22 Nov 2010 entitled ‘Sparrow pie and dread of the workhouse gates’.The photo is of Margaret’s mother Eliza Ann.
My mother, Margaret Northrop, was born in 1894, the third child of a family of six girls and two boys.. They lived in a small house in Harston, one in a row of 12. It had a living room with a large walk-in pantry, the stairs went straight up into the front bedroom which then led to the second bedroom. There was no back door, just a small front garden with a bucket privy.
How did they all manage? As soon as they were old enough, 13, the children went off to live in domestic service. Two girls went to London, one to Shrewsbury where she married the son of a former mayor. One son went off as a boot boy at a local big house and my mother went to Letchworth.
At the end of 1904 there was a prolonged period of cold weather. The ground was frozen hard and for my grandfather who worked on a farm, there was no work. In those days, it was ‘no work, no pay.’ He applied to the guardians who offered him some money, but said that the family would have to go into the workhouse. This was considered a great disgrace and granddad decided they would manage somehow. So it was sparrow pie for Christmas. They were more numerous then, mother recalled, and easy to catch but the devil to pluck.
After that things seemed to improve for the family, grandfather started up a carrier’s cart business. He had a flat top wagon and horse doing local carting and running in to Cambridge twice a week to do people’s shopping. We have a wedding photograph when one daughter married in 1913 showing him in a bowler hat, grandma dressed up and six bridesmaids with big Edwardian hats.
Things went downhill later. Grandfather like a drink or two and when he died in 1926 the family was hard up again. Like others of her generation, my mother had the life-long fear of the workhouse. When she was getting frail in her 80s she would say ‘you won’t let them put me in the workhouse, will you’ although the workhouses had long since gone. One daughter died in her 50s but all the others lived well into their 80s and one reached 94. So perhaps sparrow pie for Christmas didn’t do too much harm!