Authors: June Tate
With love to my dear friend Maggie Dias. We met in Portugal, many moons ago and have shared the good and the bad times together. She is an amazing lady!
Daisy Gilbert put away her needles and thread, rubbed her tired eyes and was thankful that her working day was over. She sat up straight and arched her back to try to alleviate the ache in her shoulders and neck, caused by bending over the material as she sewed. She was certain that all seamstresses must end up a hunchback unless they took the greatest care. To this end, she walked upright as she left the workroom, anchoring her hat first with a hatpin.
Ever since Britain declared war on Germany the previous month, the country had seemed in turmoil, but to Daisy, at eighteen, the seriousness of the situation was beyond her comprehension. All she and her workmates were worried about was keeping their jobs. She worked for a small but prestigious gown shop in Southampton’s London Road, whose clients were wealthy and, she hoped, would not be too affected by events. It was vital for her to be employed. Her father suffered with tuberculosis and was unable to work and her mother took in washing to earn extra money.
How Daisy hated going home on wet days when damp sheets hung in the scullery and the living room, near the fire in the black leaded stove, making the air damp and unpleasant for the family. She was certain it wasn’t good for Fred, her father, but he told her not to fuss, they needed the money.
Sitting on the tram on the way home, Daisy felt her eyes closing. She wished she was on the tram that went round the city for two hours twice a week with a military band playing on the top deck in an effort to boost recruitment. At least that would keep her awake.
The prime minister, Herbert Asquith, had called for more recruits and all around the town were posters with the face of Lord Kitchener, pointing, with letters under saying,
She wondered if her boyfriend, Jack, would answer the call? She hoped not.
Jack Weston was nineteen and worked in the docks, learning to be a riveter. They had met at a fair on the Common one bank holiday when Daisy had walked around with her friends. She was trying, without success, to knock a coconut off a stand and voiced her disappointment. Jack had stepped up and said he would get her one, which he did with great force and dexterity. This had annoyed the stall holder, to their shared amusement. Handing his trophy to Daisy he had introduced himself, and they had been walking out ever since.
Daisy’s skill at decorating the gowns with bugle beads, sequins and embroidery made her an asset to her employer – Mrs Evans, known as Madam to her staff and clients. Without her knowledge, Daisy already had a few private clients on whom she would call when they required alterations or further embellishments to older gowns. As the main wage earner in her household, the extra money from her private clients was vital towards the well-being of her family.
Her favourite was Mrs Flora Cummings, a flamboyant woman of doubtful reputation, who had come to the gown shop to purchase her garments and who had quietly asked Daisy to do extra work for her, outside of shop hours. She paid well, so Daisy was happy to oblige.
Flora ran two establishments in the dock area. One was a brothel run under the guise of a bed and breakfast, with rooms to rent for the night with a girl of your choice, from the four girls on offer with breakfast thrown in, if desired. This catered for the hoi polloi of the constantly changing seafaring population. Seamen who were far from home, looking for female company and sexual gratification. Soldiers, waiting to be shipped to France to face the enemy and wanting to hold a woman in their arms. The second establishment catered for the upper echelon of society, disguised as a club with a licence to serve alcohol. The Solent Club offered several rooms for their clients’ use, and the hostesses at the club were always fully booked.
Flo, as Flora was known to her clients and friends, had her own private establishment in Bernard Street where she lived and entertained her lover, Jim Grant, the landlord of the White Swan in Oxford Street. And to her home address was where Daisy would go to work on Mrs Cummings’ clothes.
Daisy also liked one of Madam’s wealthy clients, a Mrs Grace
Portman, an army officer’s wife who used to visit the shop on a regular basis. She lived in the Manor House in Brockenhurst and Daisy, scrimping and scraping for every penny, often wondered how it would be to live like Grace Portman.
Jack would listen to Daisy’s tales after her visits. ‘Well it’s all right for them officers,’ he remarked. ‘They have a good life but the ordinary soldier has to rough it in comparison. Still, on the battlefield, a good officer is what a soldier prays for.’
‘You’re not going to join up are you, Jack?’ she asked nervously.
‘I have been thinking about it,’ he confessed. ‘Several of my pals are going to. The accommodation’s supposed to be good and if you live at home during the training period, they pay you two shillings a day board and lodging over and above. That’s good money.’
Daisy felt her heart sink at the thought.
‘There’s no need to rush into it, Jack,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you wait a bit and see what happens, after all they say it’ll be over by Christmas.’ She caught hold of his hand. ‘I don’t want you to go away from me, not yet.’ She gazed up at him, eyes filled with fear.
Putting an arm round her shoulders, he said, ‘I’ll wait for a while, there’s no immediate rush so don’t you fret none.’
She breathed a sigh of relief. She had read the account of the bloodbath at Mons, where the loss to the British troops had been so high. To think of her beloved Jack caught up in such fighting, filled her with horror.
The war was the main topic of conversation in the sewing room the following morning.
‘I’m seriously thinking of changing my job,’ declared Agnes, one of the seamstresses.
‘Doing what?’ asked Daisy, somewhat surprised as she and Agnes had joined the establishment together two years before.
‘With all the men joining up, there are lots of jobs going. The munitions factory is looking for workers and they are taking on women to be conductresses on the trams. And the pay is better!’
One or two others confessed they too had been thinking on the same lines.
‘What about you, Daisy, would you change jobs?’ asked one of the women.
She shook her head. ‘Not me, I’m sticking at what I do best.
I have plans of my own for the future and leaving here wouldn’t suit at all.’
They all became very interested. ‘What plans are you talking about?’
‘Getting married to that handsome fellow, Jack, I expect,’ called out one of the girls.
‘Eventually, but I’m going to have my own business, that’s my plan.’
A buzz went around the room as they all voiced their surprise. ‘Bloody hell!’ Agnes exclaimed. ‘How on earth are you going to do that?’
‘I’m trying to save enough money to rent a couple of rooms somewhere. I’ll need good needlewomen so don’t any of you forget how to hold a needle if you change jobs.’
‘But you’d need sewing machines as well, then there would be wages … how on earth will you manage all that?’
‘I don’t know, but I will, I promise you all.’ And she picked up her needle and started working. It was a dream she’d harboured for some time and truth to tell, she couldn’t imagine how she would ever be able to accomplish it, but she clung to the hope. Everyone had to strive for something in life and this was her goal.
It had been a dry breezy day, and when Daisy arrived home, there was no washing hanging around indoors, but she found her mother, Vera, busy attending to Fred who was having a violent fit of coughing, holding a handkerchief to his mouth, gasping for breath as he eventually stopped the terrible hacking.
Daisy rushed to his side with a glass of water. Her blood froze as she saw the telltale red stains on the handkerchief. She gazed up at her mother who was fighting back the tears, trying not to show her distress.
‘Go and make a cup of tea, Mum,’ she suggested, giving Vera time to pull herself together. Putting an arm around her father she spoke softly to him with words of encouragement.
‘There, Dad, you’re all right now. You settle back in your chair and Mum will bring you a nice cup of tea.’
‘Sorry to be such a nuisance,’ Fred said weakly.
‘Don’t talk rubbish!’ his daughter scolded, then walked into the scullery.
‘You all right, Mum?’ she asked.
Vera, too full to speak, just nodded. Then taking a deep breath she looked at Daisy, her face drawn. ‘How much longer can he go on like this?’
‘Now come along, Mum, don’t think that way. We just have to take each day as it comes. Dad’s all right now, so don’t let him see you distressed, it won’t help him.’ She gave her mother a quick hug and returned to her father and told him about her day at work. At the same time she was wondering how she could earn enough money to send him to a nursing home for a break.
A few days later, she was sharing her concerns about her father’s health with Flo Cummings as she sewed sequins on to a blouse.
‘If I don’t do something, he’s going to die sooner than he should!’ Tears filled her eyes.
Flo looked thoughtful. She was fond of this young girl who did such beautiful work and wondered how she could help. ‘You could come and work for me in my club in the evenings,’ she said.
Daisy looked confused. She knew of Flo’s reputation and had heard about the Solent Club. ‘Doing what?’
‘You could serve behind the bar. I’ve got a good barman but he’s knocking on a bit. What I really need is a good-looking young girl to help him. Add a bit of glamour to the place.’
‘Glamour – me?’
Flo studied her from top to toe. ‘You know, Daisy, with the right clothes, a new hairdo and a bit of make-up, you’d really be something.’
‘Are you trying to turn me into a tart?’ Daisy asked, outraged by the suggestion.
Flo burst out laughing. ‘Good God, no! I’ve got enough of those. You would be there to serve the drinks and that’s all.’
Daisy’s eyes narrowed. ‘You wouldn’t expect me to entertain any of your clients would you?’
‘Absolutely not! I’m not trying to ruin you, Daisy love; I’m just offering you a way to earn some extra money to send your dad to a place he’d be cared for. That’s all. It’s the only thing I can think of to meet your requirements. I’m fond of you, Daisy, and I want to help.’
‘My Jack would have a fit if I told him I was going to work in the Solent Club!’
‘Then don’t tell him! Men don’t have to know everything. Besides you’re not engaged to him are you?’
‘No, we’re just walking out. That’s all.’
‘There you are then, you are a free woman to do what you like. It’s up to you, Daisy.’
As she sewed, Daisy thought of Fred and how her mother was worried to death about his health, working her fingers to the bone to earn extra money. This would be a godsend to them all. What was more important, her dignity or her father’s health?
‘How much money will I earn, Mrs Cummings?’
‘You work for me three nights a week, I’ll pay you five bob a night and you get to keep your tips. If you smile at the men and spread a little cheer as you serve them, you should do very well.’
Daisy thought quickly. Fifteen shillings on top of her wages and the money from her private work which she could do on the nights she wasn’t working for Flo – and tips, she could well afford to send her father away for a break.
‘I’ll do it!’ she cried.
‘Good girl. I’ll tell the barman. Come along after work tomorrow for an hour before we open and he’ll show you the ropes. Then you can start next week. I suggest you keep this to yourself, Daisy. I’ve always found it better that the fewer people who know your business, the better.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Cummings. I won’t forget your kindness.’
‘Listen, love, you’ll be good for business, so I’m doing us both a favour.’
As Daisy walked home, she was filled with trepidation. Yes, she would be able to help her father, but she was worried about working in the club and being associated with its reputation. But it was a means to an end and she was grateful. If she found it dangerous in any way, she could always leave after her father had had a break. But she would have to tell her mother, there was no way round that. Vera would want to know where the extra money was coming from.
Vera looked shocked as Daisy told her of her plans.
‘The Solent Club! It’s just a knocking shop.’
‘I’m only going to work behind the bar, Mum.’
‘Oh, Daisy, I don’t think you should. You’ll get a bad reputation working there.’
‘What’s my reputation compared with Dad’s health? I know I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ll be earning an honest living, bringing in enough money to send Dad to a place that will make him feel better. It won’t cure him, we know that, but it will prolong his life and to me that’s worth anything.’
Vera hugged her. ‘You’re a good girl, Daisy. The choice is yours. Whatever you decide, I’ll go along with, but you mustn’t tell your father. We’ll say the doctor has managed to secure a bed for him.’
And so, Daisy Gilbert started her evening job as barmaid at the Solent Club the following week.