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Life in 1920s North Shields

I remember a gramophone that had to be wound up to play records.


My parents were very young when they married and I was the first born.  My father was unemployed at the time, no money and nowhere to live, so my grandmother, who I called Nana, gave them shelter while they were looking for a place of their own.  They finally got two rooms in a tenement building in the same street as Nana.

It was called Queen Street, a narrow cobbled Victorian street, lit only by gas lamps.  Most of the property was condemned, but families still lived there, mostly in two rooms no matter how big their families were.  Conditions were terrible, no electricity, no cooker, no water inside and just a small gas mantle to light the room.  Some people used paraffin lamps, but my mother was afraid of them, they caused a lot of fires.  A cold water tap in the backyard had to serve about four or five families.

We lived in an upstairs flat.  To reach it we had to go through an alleyway where two families lived, this led into a big courtyard where another two families lived.  In the middle of the yard was a flight of open wooden stairs which led to two more flats, one of which was ours.  It consisted of two rooms, one large and one small. The large one was called the kitchen, which was dominated by a huge, black fireplace with the big oven attached to it.  The oven was heated by the fire, but it took so much coal that it was only used once a week when my mother baked a week’s supply of bread.

In the alcove next to the fireplace was a double bed where my parents slept.  On the other side of the fire was a cupboard.  On the opposite wall stood a big old-fashioned sideboard, the doors at the bottom opened to reveal a pull out bed.  Next to this was a marble washstand with a tin basin on top, which was where we all washed.  On the shelf underneath were two galvanised buckets, one held fresh water and the other was the slop bucket.  Two or three times a day these buckets were carried up and down the stairs, to refill the cold water and to empty the slops.

On another wall were a couch and a small table, which held a gramophone with a big horn.  It had to be wound up to play records.  We thought it was wonderful, as we had no radio then.  In the centre of the room was a large wooden table, surrounded with chairs.  It was always covered with a brightly coloured oilcloth, but at weekends it was adorned with a red plush cloth with tassels.  It looked lovely.

Even though we were poor we never went hungry.  My mother used to make big pans of soup or broth with suet dumplings and of course she used to bake her own bread.  In those days butchers had no fridges, so every Saturday night they would sell off their meat very cheaply, as they had no means of keeping it fresh.  My mother would go down about ten o’clock, there was always a crowd outside a certain butcher’s shop because he was the cheapest one.  He would auction joints of meat and if you waited long enough it would be sold really cheap and often he would throw in a pound of sausages for free, so that’s how we always had a proper roast dinner on Sundays.

I remember so much about my childhood, the good times and the bad times.  The bad times were usually at weekends when lots of men would come home drunk and beat their wives. The children would be screaming in terror and even when the police were called in they didn’t do anything as a husband beating his wife was just considered as a domestic row, it was a way of life.  But there were good times too.  There used to be parties in the street, one of the neighbours would play his accordion and everyone would be dancing.

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