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Christina Elliott | The Irish Experience - oral history project | Birmingham City Council
Photograph of Christina Elliott

Christina Elliott

I was born in Dungarven in County Waterford in 1919. There were 13 of us. My mother died when she was 42; I was only 4 at the time. We didn't know about mother being dead until we were brought into the convent, there were 6 of us girls. The 2 boys were sent to Cork. We didn't know we had brothers until we were 17. There were 300 children in the convent. We could have visitors, and for a long time my sister was coming to see me and I thought she was my mother. After a while I found out she was my sister, and I hadn't got a mother. I didn't understand I was in an orphanage. I had 5 more sisters in there, and I didn't know one of them. In a school like that everyone was your sister; nobody knew why you were there.

My father was a cobbler, a shoemaker by trade. He was disabled from the Great War, he was shell-shocked; he wasn't able to look after us. He had to struggle on his own. He lived in the small house where we had all lived, all 13 of us and mother and father. There were 2 rooms down and the loft, that was the bedroom; you had to climb up the ladders to get there. There was no running water and no gas. You had to go to the pump down the street, and you had to light the fire.

We stayed at the convent until we were 16, but my goodness it was very hard work in there. We all had jobs to do in between our school work. I had to do the boiler for the whole school; I had to light it in the morning and take the clinkers out of the fire, then do the laundry, and then heat up the bathroom. Then we'd be put on cooking for 300 people. We prepared the vegetables overnight and put them in to a big boiler, you had to climb a ladder to get to it. Then you'd stir up the cabbage a bit. The work was 7 days a week, and no holidays. You had to do gardening, make sheets and mattresses, and work on the farm. It was real hard work, and you'd be punished with a leather strap across the legs even if you didn't know what you'd done wrong.

We had bread and a cup of tea for breakfast, stew and unpeeled potatoes for lunch, and the evening meal was porridge at 6:30pm. You weren't allowed to speak at all while you were eating; if you whispered to someone beside you, you'd be punished. We were in bed by 8pm.

When you were 16 they'd tell you "you were wanted upstairs", and you'd stand in the corridor in a line and somebody would come and pick you out. It was nearly always someone from a farm, or a relation of one of the nuns that wanted you for housework. The one that picked me out asked me my name and said "I'll have you"; she was a widow with no children, it was on a farm. It was very lonely, I didn't stay long. Then I got in with this family with 13 children, the father was the clerk of the church. Oh yes! That was hard work; all our lives we seem to have been hauled into it.

Then I put in to come over here, the war was on, and my sister had already come over. There were a lot of people signing up to come over. You had to be examined, weighed, the colour of your eyes and hair, everything had to be straightforward because the government was paying for you and you were going into war work. I wanted to come and look after children. I was assigned to work in a munitions factory in Worcester. We enjoyed it there, had great times. When the war was over, we all scattered and I came to Birmingham where my sister was. I lived with her and we worked at the aircraft factory at Castle Bromwich.

I was sad to leave Ireland, it's just where your heart is. It's quite a different place now, there's a lot of building going on and it was very busy when we last went over. We found it very hard to make friends over here, we never found anyone from Waterford. We went to the pub but we never drank beer, but we enjoyed ourselves especially when you were in there late after closing time and the police came. You'd open the window and escape through it! On St Patrick's night it was extended, and if the police came you'd pull them in and make them join in. It was a real good time.