The Reading sisters: growing up in the Althorpe Arms

In the early 1970s, Kit and Ivy Reading were interviewed for the 1st edition of the Bath Place Times, painting a vivid picture of their lives and the area where they grew up.

The Reading family kept the Althorpe Arms in Althorpe Street for 42 years, until the area became a trading estate in the 1960s.   Mr & Mrs Reading took on the pub during the war in 1916, when Kitty was 3.   Kitty said she never knew any other life, she knew everybody and everybody knew her, – “Everybody in Leamington knows our family, we are old Leamingtonians …… we are the oldest victuallers in Leamington.”   She added, “When I was younger, I used to make myself old-looking, used to play piano and entertain – now I don’t mind telling people my age.  It’s very funny in this trade.  My mother used to say, “Kate, get out of that bar – you’re just a picture on a chocolate box, you’re just face value.  Don’t you dare argue at that bar – come out smiling even if you have been crying at the back.”

When the Readings took on the Althorpe Arms, there were three pubs in Althorpe Street, and about every 12 months the managers changed and the ‘Arms’ customers would vanish. Then suddenly they came back, and according to the sisters, “you didn’t dare say “Hello Stranger” and make them believe we’d missed them. You just said “Been poorly?” They’d been in the other pubs to see what the new people were like.”

Ivy continued: “The old pawn shop was by us at the bottom of the street.  The women used to stand in the queue on Monday morning.  Their husband’s clothes had to go to pay the rent and everything.  After the war, there was hardly any work for the men and it was unknown for a woman to go out to work.  For the men, there was only the Council, the gasworks and sweeping the roads.  My husband was an engine driver.   We married in 1919, and he used to get 26 shillings a week and he gave all of it to me.  He didn’t take any pocket money.  A pound of marge was 4d, a 2lb pot of jam 4 ½d.   Before we went into the [pub] business, we lived in a three-storey house in Althorpe Street, with a little shop just facing us, where you could buy a penny rasher of bacon.  Some of the women used to go and work in a laundry – just a cottage – for a shilling a day.  We used to see them coming home at night, with their sleeves still rolled up, calling in the shop.  Mrs Talbot who ran it used to lay the bacon out flat with the back of a knife.  Then they would get a one penny square of best butter, (real farm butter about a ¼ inch thick) and a packet of cocoa, a piece of cheese and oddments like that, all out of a shilling”.

Members of the Reading family, 1950s

Members of the Reading family, 1950s

When Mr & Mrs Readings took over the pub, it cost them £50 “lock, stock and barrel.”   Guinness was 2 ½d then.   Mrs Reading couldn’t write to begin with, but she soon learned to write 4d strap [on the slate].  The customers had ‘tick’ written on a piece of cardboard hanging behind the bar until it was paid on Fridays, then on Mondays their wives would be down at the pawnshop again.  There was many a fight and many a black-eye on Friday and Saturday when the men got their wages.  The Readings kept a bottle of Witch Hazel behind the bar to deal with the bruises.

Ivy never bought meat until about 9 or 10 o’clock at night, when it was getting cheap. She could buy two rabbits for 2s. 6d, a sheep’s heart or a big bullocks heart for 2s. 6d, or an H-bone, big enough to cut steaks off before you started your Sunday lunch.  Ivy thinks that she was better off in those days: the butcher would almost throw a breast of lamb at you, whereas “someone paid 12s. for one the other day” [in 1974]

Ivy and Kit in the Althorpe Arms

Kitty and Elsie in the Althorpe Arms

Kit Reading went on: “I’ve lived my life behind the counter you might say, grew up in the cellar of this business.   I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.   I think I’d do the same over and over again, because I’ve never known a private life.   I spent all my life behind the bar until I slipped away and had a bit of fun.   I had four engagement rings!   I was my mother’s favourite daughter.”

When the Althorpe estate was demolished, 201 families were displaced.   Kitty was interviewed by the Leamington Spa Courier, who reported her saying that “We’ve dispersed the salt of the earth.”  She went on to explain that if someone hadn’t got a sheet for their bed, someone else would go and fetch them one, or if anyone was ill…  Mrs Reading paid the doctor many a half a crown for him to make a home visit.   Some families owed him so much he wouldn’t have come otherwise.  There was a collection box on the mantelshelf in the bar, and when it eventually got to 7s. 6d, whoever next needed to see a doctor at the hospital, was given it.  If you could afford it, there was a dispensary in Hamilton Terrace where 4d a month would pay for the privilege of a doctor to cover the family.

In the depression, Mr Reading became a lamplighter, and sometimes Kit used to go and draw his wages, – 16s 6d.  He also did about 3 ½ days a week gardening, to pay for his tobacco ( he smoked a little clay pipe).  At Christmas time, he made sure he called where he did all the lamp-lighting, so he got lots of tips, – silver 3d bits and 6d, which he carefully saved.  Kit continued, “When I was younger and times were very hard we used to go and fetch a penny ticket from the Town Hall, where the Polish Club is now, and get some soup from where the sports shop is now [1974], in Regent Place.  There used to be a coffee tavern ….. and we used to go down the steps at the side and there used to be a big cooker and that was where the meat was done.    We used to have a quarter of soup for a penny and a slice of bread, and the loaves used to be big long double loaves and the slices used to be two inches thick.”

 

Allan Jennings 2013

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