Saturday, May 29, 2010

Picking Bunting

Once upon a time, Amy was my mother's best friend at school, and she obligingly married my mother's favourite cousin. More than seventy years later, she is still my mother's best friend, and Amy, who is totally delightful, has come to stay for a while, from her home in Barrow-in-Furness.

Today she was telling me about what happened when her own mother was three.

Amy is eighty-six, like my mother, so this was a while ago. In fact it was in the very early years of the last century, at the time of the second Boer War in South Africa.

Amy's mother was, perhaps, unimpressed when her new baby brother or sister - Amy doesn't know which it was - was born. Or perhaps Amy's mother, whose name was May, was trying to help.

Anyway, New Baby started to cry and May decided to solve the problem by putting a clothes peg in New Baby's mouth.

Although the baby was quickly discovered and suffered no lasting harm, young May was branded Trouble and it was decided that she should be sent to school.

They wore blue serge dresses and white pinafores as uniform and it cost a penny a day to send them there. But May was too young to learn to read and write and anyway she was not there for her own benefit: she had really only been there to keep her away from her mother and the new baby. So what she - and her fellow criminally-minded three-year-olds - did, was picking bunting.

Bunting these days is usually taken to mean rows of little flags displayed to celebrate some occasion or other. But - and I didn't know this until Amy told me - it is actually a kind of cloth.

It came in bright red squares, and the "picking" bit meant "to unravel". Rather like Victorian prisoners or workhouse inmates had to work picking oakum, which was old rope.

So the little three-year-olds sat in a row, unravelling the red cloth, and the thing that May remembered, and conveyed vividly to Amy, was that the bright red fibres contrasted strongly with the dark blue uniforms.

The red fibres, apparently, were used for packing munitions for the Boer War - and, thereafter, once they got to South Africa, used for packing the soldiers' wounds.

Things have changed a bit in a hundred and ten years and here in Britain we don't think it's a good idea for three-year-olds to do that kind of thing, thank goodness. And, in fact, Amy's mother grew up to be a cold and demanding woman who treated Amy in rather the same way that she had been treated.

I searched for "picking bunting" on the internet and it's not there, except in the context of "choosing flags". It's very nearly a lost bit of history, existing only in the memories of lovely old ladies like Amy. There'll only be a tiny number of people who know it ever happened. I like being one of them, and I hope that you do too.


Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

I'm glad you captured this memory of times past. It's now there for all to see and perhaps when anybody else googles "picking bunting" in the future they will come to your site and find out. Arguably, picking bunting is better than chucking sand around in a sandpit or pouring imaginary tea from plastic teapots in corner playhouses. At least it presses home the importance of recycling. You're never too young to learn!

12:51 am  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

I never picked bunting, but I did pick out several hundred of those nobby thingies on a chenille bedspread in my stepmother's house while she and my dad were on their honeymoon trip.

I was a mere 17 at the time. I don't know why I did it. I just got started and couldn't stop. I chalk it up to nervousness.

It's a wonder I lived to see 18. Amy and I are cut out of the same cloth, as it were....

10:04 pm  
Blogger Kate said...

Fascinating. I shall store that nugget away and use it in a art-work one day.

8:28 am  

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