There it sits, a crocodile handbag, a treasure of the thirties – boxy, sharp-cornered, there is nothing handy about this one. It tells of danger, exploitation and, eventually, luxury. It tells of the achievement of one woman, Edith.
Her birth in 1898 was hazardous. When the midwife pulled her out at last, her disjointed hip crippled her for life. She started life in pain, continued to face and grapple with difficulties all her life until, from this inauspicious beginning, she could become the proud owner of the crocodile handbag.
She went to school in the little village where she was born, eventually becoming a pupil teacher like her mother before her. It was a closed environment; almost everyone married someone from Hambleton or another village a day’s walk away. There was a once daily horse and cart to Selby but otherwise very little chance to see the world outside. Her brother Jack was a constant source of trouble –his fury once publicly cooled off under the full force of the village pump.’ It destroyed him’ she said. He escaped to sea.
With the rise of work on the railway, the family moved to Darlington. Here Edith moved from school teaching to become personal secretary to the MD of a major company in the town.
Snapshots at this time show her on trips to Blackpool, Scarborough, the Isle of Man, even Southampton and Le Havre, often accompanied by her loyal childhood friend, Sam, who was working as a draughtsman.
Nursing her Mother until death from breast cancer had been such a harrowing experience that later she accepted drastic surgery herself, only to find her disfigurement had been unnecessary. In her distress she finally agreed to marry Sam.
Having left his steady job for what seemed better prospects as a commercial traveller, Sam needed a car; he used their house as security. Edith had thought herself secure but, by the time their son was three, she discovered that the house was to be repossessed: everything had to go. Sam must go too. From now on she would manage on her own.
Brother Jack, married and home from sea, gave her work in his new shop until, with savings and references from her previous boss, she managed to raise a loan to buy a tiny corner shop. Here she fended for herself and her son, scrimping and saving, showing a cheery face to her customers. Then, just before the outbreak of war, she managed to buy a larger shop which she extended for accommodation and storage. She sold everything from eggs to coats and corsets, travelling to Leeds each Wednesday to buy her customers’ orders. She ran a Christmas club to keep her customers and their precious ration books!
The war meant advantage to Jack, who sold his car and stocked his garage with tins of ham and spam, salmon and Bartlett pears, barter in wartime ‘ if you register with me’. Edith sat up at night counting coupons, doing the books, planning ways of expanding sales, of keeping out of debt, of looking after her son. It was a time of shortages, food rationing and bureaucracy. It was hard, very hard .She coped.
She not only coped, she thrived, but always on the edge.
When I met her she had retired, a smart respectable woman limping in an adapted shoe with smiling dignity, able to travel and enjoy life but hampered by severe deafness which accentuated her overbearing manner: she had learned to be direct and single-minded, assets in business but a handicap in personal relationships.
Like the Queen, she always carried a handbag, a crocodile handbag.
She had surely earned it !