Street Scene

A blast on the bugle heralded the arrival of the ragman

Long before the motor car monopolised them, we kids lived most of our lives on the streets.  The streets were our meeting place, our club, our playground.  It was there we did our growing up, played our games, chased the girls, did our courting.

We stayed indoors as little as possible because there was nothing to stay in for.  Invariably they were overcrowded, and we were constantly being clipped round the ear or shouted at for making a nuisance of ourselves.  Apart from the immediate aftermath of Christmas, we had few toys to play with and of course, there was no telly to watch or computer games to keep us occupied.  So unless the weather was really bad, we were street urchins and there was always something going on.

Always the vendors and hawkers peddling their wares or services from the backs of horse-drawn carts, hired hand carts or even from voluminous suitcases.  These were humped around by swarthy little men from the Indian subcontinent.  They sold clothes ‘on the never-never’ of course, mostly ladies underwear and they would charge as little as sixpence or a shilling per week.  Then there was the scissors and knife sharpening man who would push his sharpening machine about on a single bicycle wheel and would then use the same wheel to drive a belt or grindstone on which he’d hone your knives and scissors for a few coppers.

Sally the fish wife peddled her wares from a hand cart, and no one worked harder than her for a living.  She would push the cart from Daisy Hill in the East End of Newcastle to North Shields Fish Quay and back.  I remember well her weather-reddened face and the lethal-looking gully knife she used to cut up the fish.  Other hawkers sold herrings for as little as ten a penny and a delicious meal they made after being baked in the oven and served with fresh stottie cake.

A blast on the bugle heralded the arrival of the ragman or candy man as we called him, and for an armful of rags he would give you a balloon or a goldfish in a jar or tiny stick of candy rock.  Fruit hawkers always used gaily painted carts and coalmen with scales hanging from the backs of their carts added to the picture.

We also had a thriving cottage industry, or should I say terraced house industry? Someone would sell pea soup, another pies and peas.  Someone else would sell homemade toffee cakes and to drum up business would give you the chance of picking a cake with a star on the bottom.  If you did you got one free.  Another would sell home brewed ginger beer at a penny a bottle.

These home based entrepreneurs worked on very small profit margins.  One woman sold Woodbines and her only gain was the dividend earned from the Co-op from whom she bought the cigarettes.  On Friday afternoons and early evenings, the vendors were augmented by an army of money collectors.  The insurance man complete with bicycle clips, leather money bag and large ledger.  The milkman, the coal man, the ticket man – all holding out their hands.  The ticket man supplied cheques for ticket shops such as Parishes and Rowland Blaylocks to be repaid at so much per week with a shilling in the pound interest added.  Some poor folk would sell these cheques for ‘real’ money, for much less than their face value, fifteen shillings or even ten shillings for a Parishes pound, digging themselves deeper and deeper into debt.

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