The Seventeenth Child by Ethel George

The seventeenth childI discovered this book after a visit to the Norfolk Record Office; I often visit the NRO on my lunch break when the NRO holds short talks on their collections (follow @norfolkRO or see to see what’s on!).

On this particular day, the recorded interviews of Ethel George were being played and discussed by Jonathan Draper, the archivist. After listening to Ethel’s vivid and colourful descriptions of days gone by in Norwich, I borrowed her book from the library. Having heard her voice – with true Norfolk accent, and a brilliant laugh – I could just imagine her sitting with me, chatting over a cup of tea!

Unlike some, Ethel made it clear that the past was not always rosy. Her memories include hardship and poverty, the dirt and smell of the city when dozens of families lived in ‘yards’ and without basic amenities. Ethel recalls the fathers who worked all sorts of jobs to provide for their families (and those who didn’t); Mothers worked hard to keep their families clean and fed, and hers was no exception – especially with 17 children to look after!

Mental illness, domestic violence, scandal and unemployment are all touched upon. Ethel speaks of her parents’ background before moving on to her childhood and the close bond between her siblings, with the adventures and escapades they got up to and their experiences at school. As a young woman, Ethel went to work in a number of well-known Norwich trades, found love and married; her stories from this time are just as funny and interesting!

Ethel’s memory was astounding and I really enjoyed the small details such as the clothes she wore, the food and drink she enjoyed (or wished for!), and Norwich events she attended. I get the impression she was full of life with a mischievous streak! A great read, even if you aren’t originally from Norwich, like me!


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