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Sylvia Cox née Mower and the Workhouse.

Written by Arthur Cox but the story is from Sylvia’s memories.

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Let’s go back to wartime in the early 1940s – the years 1942 and 1943 in particular. Sylvia was then aged 8 to 9. Her mother got a job at the Union Workhouse in Braintree, Essex. And Sylvia was then an only child and, of course, went to live with her. Her mother’s job was as an untrained nurse or assistant carer.

St__Michael's_Hospital,_Braintree,_Essex_

The Workhouse when it had been converted to a hospital

Sylvia went to the local Braintree school. Sylvia had a brace on her teeth and in those days it had to be taken out and cleaned and the fixing wires tightened up every day. So Sylvia went to the dentist every morning and always missed out on the arithmetic lessons. She blames her poor maths skills on this. The dentist was probably a refugee from Germany and didn’t think that kindness was his concern so bleeding often resulted.

Sylvia remembers the workhouse Master and Mistress. They had their own children there and Sylvia played with these kids. One girl was called Joan who was older than Sylvia. She recalls they once climbed (or attempted to climb) a huge pile of coke and were caught at this. Rather a dangerous game because they could so easily have been smothered if the heap had moved. Sylvia escaped a reprimand because she was with the Master’s children. Most of the inmates were very elderly. Remembered very well is one old lady who was blind and kindly taught Sylvia to knit. Just casting on and plain stitch but a lesson well learnt and something that proved useful in later life.

In January 1942 the Americans troops had arrived in the UK and some had their barracks and airfields near Braintree. They came to dances with the workhouse staff. Sylvia recalls one who was with her mother and Sylvia told him to clear off. She also learnt that very useful phrase “Got any gum, chum?”

Very much remembered is the local countryside. A stream with beautiful golden king-cups and blue water forget-me-nots come to mind. King-cups are still a great favourite.

king cups

King cups and water forget-me-nots

water forget-me-nots

Sylvia thinks that she was there at Braintree for about one year or perhaps eighteen months. They left because Sylvia’s mother was pregnant and the child, Sylvia’s first sister, was born in July 1944 when Sylvia was aged 10.

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Some background and extra memory  details that are not to do with the workhouse but were prompted by those memories.

Sylvia was aged 7 when her mother married her father in May 1941. A little earlier in that very same year, there had been an arrangement for her mother to marry another man but at almost the wedding date it was suddenly discovered that he was already married so that ended that clever plan. Sylvia’s grandfather, with whom she and her mother were then living, had somehow, despite the rationing, managed to acquire some dried fruit and a wedding cake had been prepared. That cake was now suddenly redundant and it was used shortly afterwards to celebrate Sylvia’s 7th birthday in March 1941. Shortly after her parent’s wedding at St Margaret’s church, Downham, Essex, her father went off back to the army and was with the British 8th Army.

Sylvia was living in Castledon Road, Wickford with her grandfather Alfred Maishman and a great Aunt Mary Humber. Sylvia remembers Aunt Mary nursing the new and very fretful baby. Then her mother rented a single room in Nevendon Road (the Basildon end) and Sylvia became the nurse to her sister. There were many sleepless nights and because Sylvia kept falling asleep at school, she was allowed to sleep in the next door bungalow which was occupied by the school’s head mistress. Here she was allowed to read in bed and get some peace.

Mentioned above was the birth of Sylvia’s first sister. In anticipation of the birth it was decided that Sylvia should be sent away for two weeks to stay with her Aunt Mary Maishman who lived somewhere in London. So by the very earliest possible train from Wickford, Grandpa Maishman took Sylvia to London. They got on the Central Line (Underground) and after travelling round this circle several times they arrived at Aunt Mary’s house before she had even got up. Aunt Mary was French and married to Sylvia’s uncle Leonard. There was a son called Ian who Sylvia remembers as being a perfect pest and annoyance. As a special treat Aunt Mary gave Sylvia a can of condensed milk but Ian grabbed the can and had it himself. Sylvia remembers that there was a chicken run there and she would get in with the chickens to get away from cousin Ian. And she recalls being put on to a horse (with no saddle) and the horse bent forward to eat and Sylvia shot off over its head. Grandpa was always too early for things and Sylvia returned home to Wickford before her sister was born. Later, after the war, Mary and Leonard and Ian set up home in Brussels. In 1975 Sylvia took her mother there for a visit.

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Notes by Arthur Cox.

Sylvia, my wife,  is my second cousin and I was in 1941 living at the same premises in Castledon Road. I was with my mother and my two siblings. We lived in an old army hut in the orchard. So I also remember the 7th birthday of Sylvia. Grandfather Alfred (and my great uncle) served up some home-made wine. It was disgusting stuff and we children quietly poured it away into a plant pot. Grandfather Alfred never knew why his plant died. 

For a short time, my own father also worked at Braintree Workhouse. He no doubt got the job of hospital porter through Sylvia’s mother. He rarely did anything on his own account. He would regale us with tales of his work with particular emphasis on taking the deceased to the hospital mortuary and what happened to them there.

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