Life and Times of Frances Murphy

Frances Murphy (nee Docherty) [Recorded 3/2/2014]

I was born Frances Docherty on 26 October 1931 in my parents’ home at 12 Watson Street High Blantyre, on the outskirts of Glasgow in Scotland. I was the eldest of nine children, seven brothers followed by my sister who was born after I married. Our village was also the birth place of David Livingstone, the famous explorer. His house is still standing and people from all over the world come to visit it.

Childhood in Blantyre

My first real memory is of my first day at school (St Josephs Primary). I was five years old and I remember mum taking me to my classroom where the teacher asked my name and showed me where to sit. Mum just left and I cried and cried. Two other girls were also crying. They were twin sisters, the youngest of a large family. We consoled each other, played in the playground together and became good friends for life.

As children, we played hopscotch, skipping rope, cubby houses with wee tea-sets and a kind of handball game. We lived in a ten house tenement (five upstairs and five on the ground floor). All the children used to play in a common yard at the back of the tenement, where the wash house was also located. It was a big room with a boiler and wash tubs and each house in the tenement had an allocated washing day.

I never had any dolls, a fact my mother reminisced about on her death bed. It seemed to make her sad, so I reassured her that I never needed any as I always had a wee (small), real life baby in my arms. My mother Joan was a wonderful woman.

I remember our tenement block well. We had a ‘single ender’ which was a room with bunk beds set into one wall, a big wood-fired range on another, next to the door, and a window on another where the dining table was. The bed was high up off the floor and under it my mother would store the washing and other things. Wood for the range would be delivered by the ’fire man’ (not to be confused with the ‘fire brigade’). There was an internal lobby, which we shared with our neighbours; it had some hooks on the wall that stored coats, brooms and shovels.

The toilet was also shared with a neighbouring tenement house and was located on the outside landing, and yes it was very cold! I remember helping mum to cut up newspaper squares for toilet paper. She would cut out the first one and give me the scissors so that I could use it as a template until we had a pile of them. We would then punch a hole in each square and thread it onto string so that we could hang it in the toilet. No plush toilet rolls in those days.

Apart from the first day, I enjoyed school as it was an opportunity to mix with other company. I particularly enjoyed the cooking classes. Unlike one of my brothers who became dux of the school, I wasn’t very academic, especially at arithmetic. I remember one awful occasion when we were given an arithmetic test. I asked my brother to give me the right answer, which he did but added two zeros at the end of it. The twins copied my paper and we all handed them in to the teacher who was a big stern man with big hands and a leather strap for when children were naughty.

He called me to the front of the class by surname and asked how I had got the answer. I began to cry and admitted that I couldn’t work it out and had got my brother to do it for me. He then got me to admit that I had shown the twins. To this day I recall the sense of humiliation I felt in front of the class, I was only about 10, and the feeling of dread as I held out my arm for the strap. I was still crying when I got home and showed my mother the red welts. She asked me what I had done and suggested that I learn my lesson not to do it again. And I never did!

Although my parents were strict, especially my father, they never used corporal punishment (many parents did in those days). My father believed that children should be ‘seen but not heard’ especially during dinner time. We would all have to be in the house by 6pm for dinner, regardless of the fact the sun would not set till 11pm in summertime.

After dinner we would have a bath and then help clean up and go to bed.

The bath was a big aluminium tub that mum would fill up with water heated on the wood fired range, it was all a lot of hard work so the elder children would share the bath water. We would wash our hair under the tap over the sink.

My happiest memory from childhood was when my Granny Gray (mum’s mother) took me on a weekend away to Edinburgh with some other relatives that were visiting her from Wales. I think it was a form of reward for all the work I used to do for her such as polishing the brass, scrubbing the step and using steel wool to clean the fire grate. I would have been about 12 at the time and I recall we even went to a photo studio to have our picture taken – I still have that photo somewhere. Of course in those days people didn’t have cameras, let alone mobile phones!

The saddest memory of my childhood was at the same age and relates to the harshness of my fathers mother, Granny Docherty. On one particular occasion I walked to her place and knocked on the door. She opened it and harshly asked, “What do you want?” I said I had just come to see her. She said, “Well you’ve seen me now”, and slammed the door shut in my face. I was so upset.

Leaving School and Going to Work

I left school at 14 and began work in the same week. I was “sent away” for Farm Service. My fathers sister, Aunt Chrissy was in Farm Service and her boss had a son who needed help on his own farm, so that’s where I went. It was awful. I had a small attic bedroom above the kitchen of an outbuilding used to feed the 15-20 farm workers who would commute to work from the nearest village- about 45 minutes by bus. My only furniture was a single bed and a wee bedside table. I only had one change of clothes and a number of underpants and aprons.

Frances Docherty

Frances Docherty

In the mornings, I would have to get up early to rake the cooling embers from the range stove and start up a new fire for the day. I had to scrub the big table and peel vegetables, basically I was the kitchen hand. After about 8 weeks, I was allowed to go home for a weekend. I told mum I didn’t want to go back, but my father insisted. He said what was good enough for his sister, was good enough for me.

So I reluctantly returned but I soon got ill with the grieving, so much so that they let me go home again. My mother must have got worried at my weight loss and convinced my father to allow me to get a different job. It was a job in a dress shop in Glasgow, half hour away by bus, five days a week so I could stay at home. I loved that job and continued there for 2 years until the shop burned down.

About the same time our family was allocated a brand new four bedroom tenement house. It had a separate scullery and its own bathroom. It also had electric lights (instead of candles and those fragile gas mantle lanterns). I was 15 by then (1946) and got a job in Sidneys – a factory that made little suits and wee overcoats for children. My job was to press the garments after the machinists finished sewing. We used big steam presses.

One day, I heard we needed another presser and I had a friend in need of a job. So I told her to apply and tell the boss she was a “Hoffman” presser, it being the name of the German machine I used. Well my boss came to tell me that my friend had admitted to him that I had recommended she tell him she was a “halfmoon” presser! She got the job anyway and we soon trained her.

Love Interest and Marriage

About that time, while walking to work, I would pass a tenement building from which a boy would wolf whistle at me from his window. Of course in those days, it was one of the only ways to communicate interest as most people didn’t have a phone. Unlike today when a wolf whistle is almost seen as an insult, then it was considered flattering and I was a bit interested.

I got to meet him at the local indoor swimming pool where my girlfriends and I had started swimming lessons. One day I was trying to do breast stroke when I saw him on the high dive board. He saw me and did a beautiful dive, cutting the water smoothly, he was showing off, and I smiled. He came over and introduced himself and asked me to go to the pictures the following Saturday. We went to see Gone with the Wind, there was a queue a mile long and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see the end of the movie as I had to be home by 10pm.

In those days (1947), they ran the movie on a continuous loop and you entered when you got to the head of the queue, regardless of where the movie was up to. You left when you got to the same point in the movie as you had entered. Anyway, afterwards Alex walked me home and asked me out the following week to ballroom dancing lessons at the Gordon’s dance studio. We both loved it and returned as often as we could afford it. We continued to go out for some two years.

Sadly, no one told youngsters about sex and I had no idea how babies were made, despite having 7 younger brothers at the time. Even when I got my first period, I was at school and had no idea what was happening to me. I told mum and she just said, “that’s you becoming a woman” and she warned me it would happen every month. There was no disposable pads, you were given some bits of old sheets and safety pins to secure them to your panties. When I was 18 my mother took me to the doctor as I had not had a period for a couple of months. He examined me and said “of course you know you are pregnant?” I was so shocked. I had no idea. I didn’t even know how it had happened.

Settling down in Blantyre

Frances and Alex pictured in middle at Miners Welfare

Frances and Alex pictured in middle at Miners Welfare

Anyway, dad said we would have to get married and Alex and I were only too happy to oblige as we were very much in love. After the wedding we were lucky enough to be allocate a “single ender” near Alex’s work. It was just a tiny wee house but it was like heaven to us. I was 18 and Alex was 20. Since he had left school and like his father and grandfather before him, Alex worked in the pits (coal mines). It’s a pity really as we was that bright, he could have been anything. Instead he would come home from work, black all over with only the whites of his eyes showing. I would have to wash all the black coal dust off his clothes.

I continued to work as a presser and one day I asked a woman at work, who had children, how I would know the baby was due. She said, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll know alright!”. I then asked her where they cut you to get the baby out. She laughed unbelievably and said, “they don’t cut you. It comes out the same way it went in!”

Again, I couldn’t believe it. It just goes to show how ignorant I was about such things, I was so young and so green. My one and only boyfriend had also been a virgin and no wiser than I. Alex and his brother had been reared by one set of grandparents whilst his two sisters were reared by the other set because his mother had died at childbirth. I suppose they were reluctant to speak about the facts of life even more so than my own parents.

Anyway, when my time came, I was taken by ambulance (very few people had cars) to Beckford Lodge in Hamilton, which was the nearest hospital. There I had a gorgeous baby girl who we named Joan after my mother. She had lovely blond hair and I fell in love with her as soon as I saw her. I remember how proud I felt when pushing her along in her Silvercross pram. It was quite high with a lovely rounded shape and a place underneath to store your messages.

 Just eleven months later, I had my second daughter Anne, named after Alex’s mother. This time I knew what to expect and had her in the comfort of my own home. At the same time as I was pregnant with my second daughter, mum was pregnant with my only sister, mums last child. Little wonder she treats me more like an aunt than a big sister!

Not long later, Joan started to walk and I noticed she kept pulling up her leg and crying when she started to walk. I took her to the doctor who said there was nothing wrong with her. But I insisted on having x rays as I knew there was a problem. It turned out I was right and she was diagnosed with Perthes Disease, which meant there was something wrong with one of her hips. Anyway the poor little things was put in splints with a wedge keeping he legs wide apart. She had to stay in hospital for a year!

Unfortunately, when Anne started walking, she displayed the same symptoms. Again I took her to the doctor who said I was imagining things. I insisted on x rays and she was diagnosed with Perthes Disease like her sister, and suffered the same treatment. For a time they were both side by side in hospital with their legs spread wide in splints. Thank god the government paid for their treatment as we would not have been able to afford it.

Family and Australia beckoned

Two years after Anne, I had our third daughter, Sandra and another two years later, I had Brenda. Thankfully, both Sandra and Brenda had normal hips but I felt four children were enough of a family for me and Alex agreed. The girls all attended school in Scotland. In 1972, when the youngest was 14, Alex and I emigrated to Australia to join our two elder daughters who had gone there on a 2 year working holiday. They had been encouraged by my parents who had emigrated to join mum’s brothers and sisters. They in turn had emigrated just after WW1 and had returned to Scotland for their retirement trip. They convinced my parents that life in Australia would be good for them, especially my father who could easily get work as he was a bricklayer.

Alex and I and our two younger daughters arrived in Australia in 1973. We moved into a rented apartment in Cronulla. Joan was working in a shop at Caringbah and Anne worked in an office at Kurnell factory, where she arranged for Alex to have a job too. So for the first time since he was 14, he wasn’t working down a pit under the ground. I was so happy. We saved our money and bought our own unit in Tullimbar Road, Cronulla two years later.

2011 Frances Murphy (nee Docherty) at her 80th party

2011 Frances Murphy (nee Docherty) at her 80th party

Unfortunately, Alex became ill with emphysema and died after a very long illness at the age of 72. He had always been a heavy smoker and the coal dust would not have helped either. It was terrible seeing him laying there so ill. In a way, I felt it was blessing when he finally passed. I stayed living in our unit for a long time until Joan invited me to live with her family in Kareela, where I remain to this day in a nice little granny flat they converted for me within their home. I have my own entrance, lots of privacy and I do my own cooking, washing and cleaning but I also have help and company whenever I need it.

I feel lucky to have 4 beautiful daughters, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Regrets I have few, but not many. I worry a bit about my future health but try to stay positive which is why I have returned to the Jannali Friendship Group. I’m looking forward to making new friends and enjoying the outings and activities provided.

I sincerely thank Frances and her daughter Brenda for sharing this wonderful history and such a marvellous story. Recollections such as this are a vital way of preserving Blantyre’s history and retelling such accounts ensure generations of people in Blantyre today, know that things weren’t always quite as easy as they are today. Now in her 83rd year, I wish Frances and her loving family every happiness for the future.

Leave a Reply