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As We Were

The fisher wives always shouted, “Fish alive, fish alive”, which I could never understand as all their fish for sale was quite dead!



Gas mantles

Gas mantles

My life began on August 13th 1917 in Victoria Terrace, Whitley Bay where I continued to live with my parents and my only brother, Eric, who was two years older than me.  We moved to Monkseaton in 1936 where I still live.

Our home in Victoria Terrace was a downstairs flat with two bedrooms, a living-room, a sitting-room and scullery and bathroom.  We had only cold water through the taps, all water had to be heated in a large gas boiler next to the bathroom.  We had coal fires and the lighting was gas.  I remember that electricity was installed to replace the gas when I was about ten years old.  The coal fire in the living room also heated water in a large black kettle and often a big pan of meat and vegetables cooked gently on the hob.  In winter we toasted bread and roasted chestnuts on the bars of the coal fire.

We had a back yard and near to the back lane door were out-buildings of a flush toilet, which used to freeze in winter.  There was a large coal house and a place for a dust bin in which we put waste ashes from the living room fire, where most household waste was burned.

Things, which today we take for granted, had not been invented, i.e. plastic, nylon, sellotape, ball point pens, felt-tipped pens, man-made fibres, non-stick pans, tea bags, television sets, electric power tools, lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, drills, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, dish washers, antibiotics, penicillin and many more.  Few people owned motor cars or telephones; these were mainly for doctors and commercial travellers.

Garments were made from cotton or wool.  In summer girls and ladies wore cotton dresses and men wore cotton shirts.  In winter we wore thick woollen dresses, skirts and coats – many were hand made or hand knitted.

There was no National Health Service.  Many doctors ran clubs where patients could make weekly payments towards doctors’ fees.  Mothers did not usually go out to work.  Fathers were the sole bread winners.  If they worked for large companies, small deductions were taken from their weekly wage packets towards the upkeep of hospitals.  There was no such thing as inflation.  Wages were always the same and this kept prices stable.  The weekly rent for our flat was ten shillings (fifty pence).  A joint of beef for four people cost half-a-crown (12 pence), a cabbage cost one old penny.

My father was a marine engine fitter at Swan Hunters, Wallsend, where many famous ships were built, both battle ships and passenger liners.  My dad travelled by train from Whitley Bay station to Wallsend on the same route as today’s Metro trains.  They were electric trains, almost as speedy as today’s Metro.  There was a Riverside line which carried workmen nearer to the shipyards on the Tyne.  When big ships were launched there was a naming ceremony and a well-known person would be chosen to smash a bottle of champagne over the bows as they still do today.  There was always a big bunch of red, white and blue ribbons tied to the bottle and, once or twice, my dad was allowed to bring me a bunch of used ribbons, which I treasured and my friends envied.

Most local traders delivered their goods on hand carts or horse-drawn vehicles.  The latter included the coal merchant, butcher, milk man and Ringtons tea men.  Those with hand carts were the fruit and veg man, the cooper, rag and bone man, fisher wives from Cullercoats with their sharp knives and chopping boards.  These traders had their own ‘calls’.  The coal man used to shout “Coalie, coalie, coalie”, then the housewives had to run into the back lane, where their clean washing hung on lines, and push the clothes prop higher so that the coal man and his horse and cart, piled high with sacks of coal, could pass under without soiling the clean washing with coal dust.  The cooper was the man who repaired the wash tubs.  These were the wooden barrels with metal bands which the wives filled with hot, soapy water.  Washing days took place in the back yard.  Mothers ‘possed’ the dirty clothes with a wooden dolly or poss-stick.  There were times when the metal bands had to be replaced and the cooper would shout “Any jobs for the cooper?”  The milk man would cry “Milk-oh”.  The fruit merchant shouted the names of his produce thus: “Apples, oranges, bananas, cabbages, turnips”, etc.  The rag and bone man blew a trumpet to announce his arrival.  Mother once asked if the trumpet was for sale as Eric wanted it.  She was amazed when the man whispered to her that his vocal cords were so weak from shouting that he had to blow the trumpet to attract customers!  The fisher wives always shouted, “Fish alive, fish alive”, which I could never understand as all their fish for sale was quite dead!  It certainly was fresh fish, probably just caught locally that morning.  The fisher wives used to travel quite long distances with creels strapped to their backs.

Mother was an animal lover; we always owned at least one dog and one cat as well as any strays.  She used to buy big cod heads for one penny from the fish wife, boil it in a special pan, then, when cool, the fish was flaked into special bowls placed on our back yard wall for all the homeless moggies!  Stray dogs were taken to the Police Station and destroyed if they were not claimed within seven days.  A policeman would bring such dogs to our house, knowing that Mother would care for them until a good home could be found, so we usually had more than one dog or cat.  Once we housed a beautiful rough haired terrier call Peter, but he was a ‘sand’ dog who spent all his time on the beach while passers-by threw stones for him to retrieve from the sea.  Peter’s teeth were worn right down from carrying stones – he could never become a house dog. One dog we took in was an old English sheep dog called Lady.  Unfortunately, she had fleas, which got into our goatskin hearth rug, which then had to be burned.  After that my dad refused to have any stray dogs to stay with us.

My parents were country born, Mother from Bishop Auckland and Dad from Sedgefield.  They never really got used to living in a flat at the seaside after their homes in the country with large back gardens.  However, Eric and I learned a great deal from our parents about wild flowers, birds and trees.  Each Sunday, after lunch, we went for long walks, often by the golf course or to Briar Dene where many wild flowers used to grow – now disappeared under housing estates.

We had four weeks school holiday in August and spent most of our time playing on the beach.  Those of us lucky enough to have relatives who lived elsewhere usually spent a week of our summer holiday with them.  For Eric and me that was either Bishop Auckland or Sedgefield.  Those were long journeys by train and bus and I was never a good traveller.  Sedgefield was very primitive, lit only by oil lamps and water had to be drawn from the village pump and carried home in large white enamelled buckets.  The lavatories were at the end of the gardens.  Rain water was collected in barrels and used for washing facilities.  Country food was too rich for me, fresh cream and butter, raw fruit straight from the garden, eggs still warm from the hen’s nest.

Granny was a farmer’s daughter and an excellent cook, but not what we were used to.  Granny’s meats were roast pheasant, partridge, jugged hare, pigeon pie and even rook pie, which was mainly little bones.  No-one was allowed to know Granny’s recipes.  She made delicious cakes and biscuits, jams, chutneys, pickled walnuts and mushrooms.  She was a well educated lady, attended Durham Girls’ School until she was 17 then learned her culinary skills at home on the farm.  Her husband, my grandfather, was registrar of births, deaths and marriages.  His office was in their house at Sedgefield; he also travelled to the local villages writing letters for illiterate people.  He had a pony and trap for such journeys.  When he became blind and unable to carry on his registration work, my Granny was allowed to do the work which she had been doing when her husband’s sight failed.

At home the beach was only a short walk away and there was very little traffic on the roads so it was quite safe for us to walk down.  Tram cars ran from North Shields ferry to Whitley Bay bandstand on the Links.  We had plenty of free entertainment with Pierrots who performed at the bandstand and also on a stage below the slope on the Central Lower Promenade.  They really were very good performers, comedians who also danced and sang.  There was an area roped off which had deckchairs where the audience paid to sit.  Of course we school children never had any money, so when the clowns came around with their collecting boxes we disappeared onto the beach!  I now realise what cramped space they must have had back stage.  The bandstand was demolished many years ago and the tarmac circle showed where it once stood – not very big.

There was also Uncle Jim with his team of Evangelists on the beach who played hymns on an organ.  At the bottom of the slope on the Central Promenade, a one-legged ex-serviceman from the 1914-18 War built beautiful sand castles.  He used coloured powders and sprinkled the finished castles in reds, greens and blues.  People put coins into a box for the poor ex-soldier.  Sometimes stray dogs would run across his castle or high tides would wash away his beautiful work.  I can picture him yet with his sun-tanned skin and his peg-leg which sank into the sand with each step.

There were sand-castle competitions for us children.  These were sponsored, I believe, by local newsagents.  We had to buy a comic paper to display on our effort.  I once won a prize for my entry, but I cannot remember what the prize was!

There were other attractions on the beach, donkey rides and ‘shuggie boats’.  All these had to be paid for; so we learned very early in life, that all these attractions and round-a-bouts in the Spanish City were for visitors only and not for us locals.  Perhaps, as a special birthday treat, we were given pennies to have a donkey ride.

Summers have always been brief here on the north east coast so beach traders had to find other ways of making a living.  I do know that the Pierrots played in the pantomimes at the Newcastle theatres.  August Bank Holiday was carnival time when two male Pierrots were crowned king and queen and rode in an open-topped vehicle, decorated with paper flowers, streamers and balloons.  The carnival parade was competitive, children decorated their cycles and wore fancy dress.  The merchants, who had horses groomed (their charges decorated the harnesses with ribbons and paper flowers), vying with each other to win prizes.  The carnival parade marched right through Whitley Bay to the Links.  There were jazz bands and pipe bands.  After dark there was a confetti battle – great fun when the boys tried to put handfuls of confetti down the girls’ necks.  It was all harmless fun in those carefree days before World War Two.  There was no violence or vandalism.

As Christmas approached, the shop windows filled with toys, books and games.  I remember when Woolworths first opened in 1927, I was ten years old.  Woolworths was often called the sixpenny store as everything they sold cost no more than sixpence.  Of course that meant that if you bought a set of cups and saucers, or a pan with a lid, each item cost sixpence.  Even so, it was very good value for money.  There were no self-service shops.  Whatever you bought was wrapped and handed to you by an assistant behind the counter and we paid cash – no plastic reward cards!  The bigger stores had overhead pulleys with screw lid containers in which the assistants placed our money and sent it across the store to the cashier and any change was returned in the overhead money boxes.  In the grocery stores butter, sugar, etc. was weighed as we watched, fascinated by the nimble fingers of the packers.

We had no indoor swimming pool but there was a natural pool on the Table Rocks which filled and emptied twice daily with the tides.  There, or in the cold North Sea, we learned to swim.  We usually undressed and dressed close to the water, wrapping large towels around each other but the sand stuck to our skin and it was quite painful to rub it off.  There were a few wooden changing huts at the Table Rocks.  On the central beach there were some large canvas bathing huts, pulled down by a horse to the sea at low tide and back to the promenade wall at high tide.  Of course, we had to pay to use these bathing huts and we seldom had any money for such luxuries.  My birthday, being in August, meant that my party was usually on the beach with my friends.  Mother used to pack a picnic.  I can remember the sand in the egg ‘sandwiches’.  I was allowed to choose something special, usually my favourite spice loaf.  One hot birthday, I chose black-currant jelly which Mother sealed in a metal container.  When we opened it the jelly had melted so we drank it as black-currant juice.

I remember when the new Tyne Bridge was opened by the late King George V and Queen Mary in 1928. Mother took Eric and me by train to Newcastle to witness the historic event.  Next day at school we were both severely reprimanded by the head mistress for taking time off school.  There was no patriotic waving of flags by cheering school children in those days.  I have since learned that only Newcastle school children were taken to the ceremony seventy years ago.

With so many horse drawn vehicles in use, there was a blacksmith’s forge between Victoria Terrace and Trewitt Road.  There were also stables and hay-lofts, now known as Victoria Mews where today small businesses are located.  I remember our class at Park School being taken to watch the blacksmith at work.  This was no great treat for Eric and me who lived close by.  Eric and my friends often stood at the open door, warming from the blacksmith’s furnace on cold winter days.  Street lamps were lit by gas and at dusk the lamp lighter, a tall, thin man named Mr. Robinson, came along the streets with a long pole which had a hook on one end with which he turned on the gas.  During gale force winds the lamps blew out, especially the standard lamps along the Promenade, so when electricity was installed everywhere became much brighter after dark.  St. Mary’s lighthouse was one of the last buildings to have electricity, also the cottages on the island.  A family called Crisp lived there.  Miss Crisp was a teacher at Park school to which she travelled by motorcycle.  One lighthouse keeper was called Mr. Broom and two of his daughters attended Park school.  Joan Broom was in my class.  Miss Crisp and the Broom girls always had to leave school early before high tides covered the causeway.

I never had cookery lessons at school – only the girls in top class learned to cook before they left school at 14.  I passed my 11 Plus exam and went to Whitley and Monkseaton High School for girls.  The school is now known as Marden Bridge Middle School.  There, only girls taking Domestic Science were taught to cook so I missed out there too.

I did not have a free scholarship.  My father became unemployed during the Depression and was unable to pay the school fees so I left High School before my education was complete.  I would really have liked to be an artist and illustrate children’s books, but there were no free places at Art Colleges in those pre-war days.  Hairdressing was becoming an up and coming profession, with long hair going out of fashion and short styles, bobs and shingles all the rage.  I fancied being a hairdresser so my parents paid for my apprenticeship with the money for a year’s school fees.  When war was declared in 1939 I had just had my 22nd birthday.  Hairdressing was a luxury trade so I was sent to do war work.

My war service was at Vickers Armstrong’s aircraft factory on Scotswood Road where we made wings and undercarriages for Wellington bombers.  Being nimble with my fingers, I trained to be a lady gauger.  This entailed carrying out five different tests on the large nuts and bolts which attached the wings to the fuselage of the Wellington bombers.  We worked twelve hour shifts under appalling conditions.  Day shift one week and night shift the next.  I had an hour’s train journey, plus tram car, from Monkseaton to Scotswood and back for each shift.  There were times when I did not know whether it was day or night or on what day of the week we were working.  My parents had both died of natural causes before the age of 50.  I lived alone, my fiancé was a Desert Rat, fighting in the Western Desert with the 8th Army.  He was twice wounded.  My health broke down and I suffered from bronchial asthma due to the working conditions.  Our family doctor would not allow me to continue working at the factory.

In 1944 my fiancé, along with other soldiers, came home to prepare for ‘D’ Day and we were married on his last leave.  I managed to have a white wedding, rare indeed in February 1944.  Friends gave me their clothing coupons.  The reception was held at the Park Hotel, Tynemouth, but the wedding guests, including the bridal party, could not exceed 24 due to rationing.  My husband’s cousin was a baker in Blyth and made the cake, but I had to supply some of the ingredients.  I remember that the dried fruit was chopped prunes and the white flour and icing sugar were not white but pale grey!

By this time my fiancé had used most of his leave and was only granted a 48 hour pass for our wedding.  Our honeymoon, by train, was to a temperance hotel near Corbridge, then Mick left to join his regiment for the ‘D’ Day landings.  I’ll never forget that dreadful morning when news came on the radio that our troops had landed in Normandy in June 1944.  Everyone else was rejoicing but I knew that my beloved would be one of the first to land on the Normandy beaches.  It was more than a year before we were reunited and it was 1946 before he was discharged from the army and able to return to his pre-war job.

We had two children and 30 years of happy marriage before my husband died very suddenly from a massive heart attack at the wheel of his car.  Our family doctor told me that the strain of Mick’s daily job, plus the stress of his war service, had shortened his life – he had just had his 58th birthday.  Thousands of other service men’s lives were also shortened.

The war changed all of our lives forever.  We must ensure that the 1939 – 45 war was the war to end all wars.

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