Doris Darbyshire

The Congregational Tea Party

I waken and remember that I am seven today,
It is ‘Shrove Tuesday,’ and my birthday, and a day school holiday.
It is the year nineteen hundred and seven, so the calendar will tell,
My age, if I grow very old and can’t remember well.

The postman knocks, I run downstairs,
He brings birthday cards for me,
And then I’m given presents,
From all my family.

I see that it is snowing, so I must join the play,
We make snowballs and a snowman, it is a lovely day.
At noon my mother beckons, she’s made pancakes nigh a score,
I take them round to neighbours who are old, + sick and poor.

My sisters set the table, we all sit down with zest,
Most mothers make good pancakes, but my mother makes the best.
And afterwards my sisters tidy up the room,
And I must wash the dishes, every plate, knife, fork and spoon.

Then mother bids us stay indoors, to be quiet and to rest,
For tonight it is the party, we must be at our best.
She sets off quite early, she’s in charge of the tea,
For the Mothers’ Union members, it’s success they guarantee.

In time we all are ready, we trudge through ice and snow,
The school is lit up brightly, my heart is all aglow.
In the cloakroom we take off our gloves and scarves and mackintoshes,
On pegs they hang and on the floor we leave our wet galoshes.

The tables stretch from wall to wall, are gay with plants and flowers,
By the numbers on the tablecloths we know which one is ours.
For our tickets too are numbered, I proudly take my seat,
We are early and I look around, my happiness complete

At the head of every table sits a lady of esteem,
They all wear hats of fashion, each one looks like a queen.
In rush a few latecomers, for their seats in frantic search,
Now we are waiting for the Vicar and the elders of the church.

We all stand up to greet him the moment he arrives,
With him the curate and church wardens the lay readers and their wives.
At the topmost table they all then take a place,
The Vicar gives us greeting and then he says the grace.

From then on all is bustle, there’s a lot of to and fro,
The Mothers’ union members are continually on the go.
They bring plates and plates of sandwiches, and there are cakes galore
They are home baked and delicious, we could not wish for more.

To each table comes a tea urn, and the lady who presides,
Pours into the tea cups the liquid it provides.
The children who do not drink tea are given lemonade,
We have a really splendid meal and only half price paid.

Some want another cup of tea, and the lady at the urn,
Fills up more cups and sends them down the table in their turn.
When everyone has finished the Vicar rings a bell,
He thanks all those who made the meal and those who helped as well.

Then the plates and cups and tea urns are quickly moved away,
And the table boards and trestles stored for another day.
Benches are placed to face the stage, the first two rows kept clear,
For the aged of the Parish so they can see and hear.

We children sit upon the floor in front of all the old,
They tell us to be quiet and do as we are told.
We wait in great expectancy, the concert to commence,
And when the curtains draw apart our excitement is intense.

There on the stage are rows of men, in ‘Sunday Best’ attire,
They bow to us in happy mood, they are the ‘Male Voice Choir.’
By the piano sits the choirmaster who announces that they’ll sing,
In harmony of perfection ‘A Welcome To The Spring.’

A bar of music gives the note and then we all are told,
That the ‘Merry, Merry, Merry, Springtime’ will soon replace the cold.
The singers all amuse me, most in dramatic pose,
As to the beat some nod their heads, and some tap heels and toes.

With ‘Merry Springtime’ finished, they bow and we all clap,
They leave the stage and in their place comes on the comic chap.
He’s our own Johnny Milligan, adored by everyone,
He winks at all the old folk and we laugh ’ere he’s begun.

He tells a tale of wash day, his jokes are true to life,
He struggles with the mangle, Oh who would be a wife?
Next comes a lovely lady, a gentleman in tow,
His name is John for many times she sings ‘Oh no John, no John, no John, no!’

Another lady follows on, she has a velvet voice,
The ‘Last Rose of Summer’ is the subject of her choice.
We see the rose she sings of, her voice is clear and deep,
Then her gantle tones as it fades away almost makes me weep.

Again the male voice choir appears, they are dressed as farmers boys,
And all the animals on the farm contribute to the noise.
The lovely lady comes again, still with her male escort,
He sings ‘Madame Will You Walk With Me?’ and continues to exhort.

But the lady still refuses, she loves to say him nay,
‘No, I will not walk or talk,’ but in the end gives way.
Then, to close the concert, we have again our favourite Johnny,
We laugh at him until we are hoarse, no one is quite so funny.

And now the Vicar is on the stage he bids us stand and sing,
We raise our voices one and all and pray ‘God save the King.’
My mother now is hurrying, get your outdoor coats we’re told,
We say good night to everyone, then out into the cold.

It is slippery and we stumble, we are clinging to the wall,
And then I lose my balance, alas I’m going to fall.
I tremble as I’m falling, then suddenly I’m aware,
That strangely I am waking up, sat in my fireside chair.

Dear Lord, I have been dreaming that I went to the tea and show,
At a congregational party long, long ago.
It was in nineteen hundred and seven, but now my calendar makes it clear
It will be nineteen hundred and eighty seven in just another year.


Notes on this poem

When writing this poem in 1986 Doris erred in recalling that her 7th birthday fell on Shrove Tuesday. In fact her 7th birthday on February 27, 1907 fell about two weeks after Shrove Tuesday. Her sixth birthday on February 27, 1906 coincided exactly with Shrove Tuesday. This adds a note of irony to Doris’s phrase “so the calendar will tell, / My age, if I grow very old and can’t remember well.”

Shrove Tuesday is, of course, the last day before the beginning of Lent. In the UK it is known colloquially as “Pancake Day” reflecting the pancake tradition Doris so clearly describes in her verse.

The Mothers’ Union, which organized the Congregational Tea Party, is a society of Anglican women, formed to strengthen and preserve Christian marriage and family life. The modern day Mothers’ Union has a website and a Wikipedia page. The St. James parish Mothers’ Union, in Poolstock, to which Doris’s mother belonged, also has a website (the parish is now known as St. James with St. Thomas).

Alas, we can find no trace of the comedian Johnny Milligan. Perhaps a visitor to this site can shed some light on who he was. The “mangle” Johnny struggled with on wash day refers to the pair of rollers used to wring out clothes on old fashioned washing tubs.