Our plans to sell up and emigrate to America had not been altogether straight forward. We had at first arranged to sail for the States in June 1924, but we were told we were over the quota and were given no indication at what future date we might leave. After several hectic trips to the American Embassy in Bristol we got a cancellation and so were able to finally embark on the RMS. Aquitania with our two-year-old son Jim on 6th November 1924.
At that time the quota system was in operation which limited immigrants to those having papers and visa as well as means of at least £20. The fare was also £20. The sea crossing took five days. On the first day out of Southampton Jim came out in spots which the ship’s doctor diagnosed as chickenpox. Consequently Jim and I spent the whole trip in an isolation ward. In there with us was another 2 year old boy with his mother. Jim ran a high temperature on one day after which he was pretty good. I on the other hand was very sea sick. The other mother was fine but spoke very little English. Her son was really sick and the doctors at first feared he might have small pox. That caused a bit of a scare before chickenpox was later diagnosed. Cecil was allowed to come and talk to us through a curtain. Fortunately he did not suffer from sea sickness.
On arrival at New York. because of the chickenpox, Cecil , Jim and I, together with the other boy and his parents were taken with illegal immigrants (those that did not have papers and or the £20) by boat to the infamous Ellis Island. We were taken to a building with grey flooring. We sat on long bench seats with no back rest and waited to be examined by doctors. Other immigrants were walking around looking lost in secure wire cages. It sure was a depressing place. then we were told that we would be detained for three weeks in quarantine you can imagine how awful we felt. At least we knew our entry papers were all in order, but would our money last out? I don’t remember eating there. After some hours of waiting and wondering the doctor said ” I think we’ll let this little fellow go”, then turning to the other family said ” we will keep him for a while”. This apparent unfairness created uproar because although the parents were aliens, (they had been on a visit to their families in Europe) their son had been born in the USA and was therefore an American citizen. We were born aliens! After another wait in suspense the doctors decided we all could go. We had already sent a telegram to Gertie to say we were detained on Ellis Island so now we a sent a further telegram to give the time of our expected arrival at Pittsburgh.
We returned by boat to New York and then on by train to Pittsburgh. On arrival at Pittsburgh station there was no sign of Gertie. Soon a couple approached us and, saying they could hardly mistake us, introduced themselves as Bob and Clara Rimmer, friends of Gertie’s. Apparently on receiving our first telegram Gertie was so shocked at our detention on Ellis Island, such was its reputation, that she collapsed and so was unable to meet us herself, but sent friends. Bob and Clara who were English took us to another English couple who gave us our first American meal.
By now Gertie was feeling better and we were taken to meet more of Gertie and Edgar’s friends with their children. They were mostly English people all living in an area at the end of St Lawrence Avenue behind which there was a golf course, open fields and even a swimming pool which nobody seemed to own. There was also one lock-up shop. This area was called ‘Johnny Bull Hill’ on account of its mostly English inhabitants. It was a twenty minute walk from Swissvale, a suburb of Pittsburgh. For that first winter we lived with Gertie and Edgar in a centrally heated bungalow.
In the following summer we all moved a few yards along the Avenue to a ‘duplex’, sharing a kitchen but having separate stairs and other accommodation. It did not have central heating but had an electric fire in each living room which could be supplemented by a ‘Bell’ stove in cold weather. This was stored in the cellar in the summer and brought into the kitchen in the winter where it was connected to a pipe in the wall which was the chimney. It was fuelled by coal. The winters were very cold but we had no burst pies. In contrast the summers were very hot.
We were really a big friendly bunch of ‘Johnny Bulls’. At Easter, Halloween, Christmas and even July 4th, Independence Day, we would all get together in one house or other for a party, putting the children to bed there. The eldest couple were Fanny and John Whitehead who hailed from Birmingham. Their house was always the venue for the New Year’s Eve party as Fanny was renowned for her lovely meat pies.
All the men folk were working at different jobs, Cecil at the Steel Mills at Duquesne, Bob Rimmer and Dick Salmon at Westinghouse. Edgar was a skilled carpenter. At home in England we were used to being paid weekly; here in the US most workers were paid fortnightly and a credit system was much in evidence. For a time in 1925 I went into partnership with Bob and Clara running a lock-up shop selling papers, groceries, tobacco and ice-cream. It was necessary to pay protection money to the police, $5 per month as I recall. Gertie cared for Jim during the day.
At this time Cecil was working on night shifts at the mills. Since we opened the shop at 7.00am for the sale of papers and closed at any time in the evening, by the time I got home Cecil had gone. I hardly ever saw him. This sure could not work for long so I sold out to Dick Salmon who was lodging with the Rimmers. I then worked at the lock-up shop next door to the ‘duplex’ where I could choose my hours.
This was the Prohibition Period. Even so any one so inclined could brew or buy beer. There were shops called Health Food Stores which sold canned malt, yeast and even hops. (I later saw it more rife in California) Cecil sometimes, when their shifts coincided, had a lift to work with a neighbour. On the way home occasionally would call in a ‘Speak Easy’, in other words a drink house which of course was illegal; it was a sleazy place and oft times got raided by the police. Cecil wisely refused to drink there. This was also the era of Al Capone and his gang rule. Prohibition must have been a gold mine for them and tragic for many others.
The Mafia was also active. At this time an Italian used to bring around vegetables to sell. He owned a store just over the Monogahela bridge in a street of shops with apartments above. One night the store was blown up. He and his wife were out that night so escaped but seven of one family as well as a young married couple were killed and their young daughter Helen badly injured. Gertie and I went to the funerals. All because the Italian vegetable seller had not paid his protection money in spite of being warned. He never sold vegetables again. No one was ever charged with the murders.
The Klu Klux Klan were also in evidence. They believed in Americans only for America. They had their marches and carried fiery crosses but one never knew who they were as they wore a cover over their heads so keeping their faces hidden. One day a man came into the shop where I was working offering for sale a pianola with a Victoria case full of music rollers. We bought it cheap for $100. Apparently he had a warning from the KKK to be gone in 24 hours. He lived in a lovely bungalow just up the street from us. I never knew his name or what he had been accused of. Ben Cook the man I worked for in the shop collected the pianola in his truck and next day the man and his wife had gone. We never saw them again. At the end of our Avenue there was a track leading to what we called ‘The Hollow’. Here there was a bunch of very shabby looking homes occupied by only coloured families. We did not know how they lived as no whites ever ventured that close.
Christmas was a great time. Our first one in 1924 was so different from home in England. All the shops were so brilliantly lit and displayed. There were Father Christmases marching up and down the pavement outside all the big stores shaking their charity boxes. A week or so before Christmas each year a raffle for turkeys was held at the Fire Station. Our menfolk attended and one year Bob Rimmer was successful in winning a large turkey. Christmas lunch was held at the Rimmer’s that year! Also before Christmas we would get a sales catalogue from ‘Sears Roebuck‘ (a postal store in Chicago) to study for presents. It seemed strange to us that there was no Boxing Day. The men would have to go to work on this day or risk losing pay for Christmas day’s holiday.
Gertie and I would go to the sales in Pittsburgh. We would take the train from Edgewood, a fifteen minute walk from our hill and one station nearer Pittsburgh where all the toys were half price – it was a big saving. This is not to say that Irene and Jim did not have their stockings filled for Christmas Day. Clara, who had no children. took care of ours until we got back. I remember one year Jim got his dump truck and Irene her big doll.
Living in America was certainly very different from the country life we knew at home. From purely a women’s point of view it was much easier in the home. In England at that time, certainly in most country areas, there was no electricity. For cooking we relied on coal fired stoves and had to go to bed with a candle for light.
Already in America we had mains electricity for lighting and heating and had some domestic electrical equipment like vacuum cleaners and electric irons for instance. There were no electrical refrigerators at that time however, but we all had an ice-box. This was a food storage cabinet with provisions for an ice block. A tradesman would deliver and install blocks of ice of either 25,50,75 or 100 pounds weight as required. The size of block required was displayed on a card left in the window and the ice man would bring and install the required block and collect his money which we left quite safely on top of the cabinet. We would leave doors unlocked in those days. During the hot summer months food would keep fresh for quite a few days in such cabinets.
We were all mostly in our twenties at that time and on a Sunday evening the children would be left with the men whilst, for entertainment, six or seven of us women often went to various meetings. It may be an Episcopalian church which was always full, or as on several occasions to a Spiritualist meeting in Braddock. Here there was no admission fee, but you had to give a donation to get out! There were several hundred people there. The sessions started with singing followed by a medium, either a man or a woman, on a platform shuddering into a trance. in this state the medium would pick out someone who had earlier place a personal item such as a glove or a handkerchief on a table and pass on to its owner some message from a departed loved one. I remember Cecillia, Belle Innis’ sister, one night put her glove on the table. It was not selected but we got a laugh when the woman medium said “there’s a lot of unbelievers in the room to-night”. On the other occasions we went to an Evangelist meeting. None of us went down to the front to be saved. We never joined any of these groups. We also listened to a famous Evangelist, Aimee McPherson, on the radio. She raised a million dollars with her speeches to build a church on First Street in Los Angeles.
One day an advertisement appeared in the daily paper for people interested in learning to fly. The idea was to receive tuition by post followed by a practical lesson at a later date on an airfield at Bets Field several miles away. Cecil, Bob, Dick and Alex all decided to have a go and applied to the address given in Pittsburgh. They sent their five dollars cheques and in return got some paperwork instruction. This continues for a few months and then a letter was received saying the plane would be available at Bets Field the following Sunday. On that day we all went off to the airfield with great expectations but disappointingly could find no sign of the aeroplane. We read in the next day’s paper that a man had been arrested for fraud. He was Frenchman by the name of Le Neve, the same as Dr. Crippens girlfriend! So that was the end of the flying instruction. On another occasion at Bets Field we saw the Graf Spee zeppelin airship.
In May 1926 I came home to England with Jim on holiday and in August took Leonard back with us. On our return Gertie and Edgar moved out into a row of houses. Cecil was still working at the Duquesne Steel Mills. Within a short time, on Uncle Bill’s suggestion, Leonard moved onto California. Throughout my stay in America I worked. In Pittsburgh, while Gertie looked after Jim, I kept a lock-up shop selling all sorts of goods.
1927 Edgar, Gertie and Irene came back to England on holiday. When they returned to the US Edgar’s carpenter wage had increased to $66 (£16.50) per week compared to about £3 in England.