Dumpers (cigarette butts), picked up from the streets and re-rolled, provided a smoke.
In the borough of Tynemouth, now part of North Tyneside, on the banks of the River Tyne in Northumberland, lies the small town of North Shields. Renowned as a fishing port and situated in a mining area, the town motto “Messes Ab Altis”, meaning “We Harvest from the Deep”, reflects its origins.
Being on the coast, it overlooks the North Sea in all its moods, such as sunshine on golden beaches, winds howling and waves crashing on the beaches in winter. Walking along the seafront in the summer, one’s ears are assailed with screeching seagulls, gliding over the cliffs looking for food. In winter, the same walk is usually made in howling winds and the noise of storms or the eerie ghostly silence of a foggy night, with foghorns sounding through the mist like some lost soul.
And so it was that in 1928, to the sound of busy streets and shipyards, I was brought into this world. Being descended of seamen, my association with shipping was assured.
Salubrious living was unheard of by the packed masses of working-class people living in tenements of vintage 1780, cottages of vintage 1780 and houses such as ours vintage 1880. All rented. Most families existed on around £2 per week, in an area rife with unemployment but rich with characters and true grit.
Various means of self-help to survive were in action at all times. Knock on Mrs Brodie’s window and she would sell you black puddings, potted meat, tripe etc. Grandma Douthwaite sold ginger beer and toffee pats. Firewood was sold from a wheelbarrow by Eddy Hart (I used to help him); dumpers (cigarette butts), picked up from the streets and rerolled, provided a smoke, scrap iron (source unknown) could be sold at Blackie’s scrapyard. Mr Martindale across the street cobbled footwear in his front room (my father cobbled all our footwear); sweet cakes could be bought from another house, peas and pies from another house. Around the corner a woman did hairdressing, a young man artistically blessed, crayoned posters for the local flea pit cinema. Sawdust for pubs and butchers shop floors could be bought from a handcart, pushed around the streets by “Moosie”, a young-old man. I had many a ride on “Moosie’s” handcart.
Around the streets and back lanes, the cries of hawkers of various goods and services could be heard. Old women shouting, “Rubbing stone, rubbing stone”, walked the streets, carrying a heavy basket full of rubbing stone, awaiting housewives to come out to buy their stones for daubing the front steps of the houses. They got their stones paddling around the fish quay beach picking up this special stone.
Vinegar sold by the pint from a man selling it from a barrel on a handcart, ice cream from a tub packed around with ice standing on a handcart. Clothes props for washing days could be bought in the back lanes, coopers wanting to repair washtubs, wandered the back lanes. Fishwives with their creels on their back, shouting “Caller herring, Caller herring”, walked the lanes selling their fish. They were dressed in traditional print bodice, coloured neckerchief tucked inside a blue flannel skirt, worn short, with lots of tucks, home knitted stockings and strong shoes.
Selling firewood from a noisy wheelbarrow we would walk the back lanes shouting, “Firewood, firewood, a penny a bundle”, and so we obtained some money to help out at home.
The roughest, toughest section of the area was Milburn Place. These 1780, tenements, once the houses of the 18th century rich, now housed large families packed into one or two rooms. The area was a maze of alleyways, courts and yards, seething with humanity. To enter this area was to enter another world, with the surprises one expects in different cultures. When I think back to it, it was an Anglo-Saxon tribal set-piece, frozen in time and in the same vernacular speech.
Every year, the town had a carnival and one of the most enjoyable sections was the Milburn Toffs Band. Poverty was their heritage, but on carnival day they were the richest, with humour, song, laughter, rhythm and the sound of marching feet. Their band played instruments, unheard of in the world of professional music. They passed us, full of colour, playing and singing to the tune of a well-known march “We are the Milburn Toffs, we are the Milburn Toffs”, all to the beat of the drum, “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM”. The swinging, swaying, swagger of their rhythmic, primitive feelings as they strutted along the main street was a joy to behold to those who watched. These were REAL people who laughed, sang and marched through life and finally through a war.
Thus the scene was set, into which I was born, survived and grew up in.
We children played in this “other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress”, so Shakespeare described in his England. Life was fun, we children thoroughly enjoyed our childhood, running around the back lanes, streets, fish quays, beaches, cliffs and trawlers, amid the smell of fish which hung over our town.
Gangs of boys congregated in their back lane areas for companionship, fun and adventure. Occasionally they would sally forth to engage in battle with other gangs. Sticks grazing on limbs, howls and war cries could be heard above the battle whilst people watched from their windows. No one was ever hurt, and it was good practice for what was to come for real in wartime.
The “Low Street” as my mother called it, was the hub of a colourful throbbing nautical community. Sailors from all over the world frequented this area. The smell of ship’s chandlers, the noise of the throng, the excitement of ships sailing and sailor’s drunken’ song. All have passed, this is progress, is what I am told but one’s memories of boyhood will not let them grow old. There were brothels with gaily coloured doors, Greek dealer’s shops, old pubs, dark alleyways, some of which led to boat trips up the River Tyne. A life-size wooden carving, known as a Wooden Dolly, of an old “Fish Wife” with her wicker creel on her back, (mutilated in various places, by the knives of seaman), stood at the entrance to one of these alleyways.
Kipper smokehouses gave out their pungent smell, trawlers, drifters and cobles landing fish onto the quay, seagulls screeching as they weaved and dived at the fish on the boats, added colour and smell to the scene. Scottish fisher lassies with bandages on their fingers stood on the Old Quay gutting herring and packing them with salt into barrels for export. Boys such as myself, fishing off the quay amid the nets being repaired and the odour of fish on everything, including ourselves. All this was part of my boyhood and growing up in the Thirties on the banks of the Tyne.
The back lanes and streets were all paved with cobblestones. Most transport was still horse and cart which clattered and rumbled down our street with we boys hanging on the backs and old women sitting at the doors screaming at us to get off.
Street lamps were all gas and every evening the lamplighter switched them on with his stick and in the morning switched them off.
About 1936 all the cobblestones in the streets and lane were covered over with tarmac and so, in a flash, we felt our standard of living was improving.
Street singers, usually ex-servicemen, walked in the gutters singing for coins thrown from the windows, sometimes it was old women who did the singing.
In the next street to ours was an ex-serviceman with no legs who lived on his own in a dingy room in a dingy passage, hopping around on his hands. His reward for his sacrifice, with boys such as I staring at him!
At the front doors of the houses sat the old people, mostly old ladies, wearing caps, long dresses and shawls, sometimes smoking pipes. We would run messages for them and on return with the goods; they would give us a penny, halfpenny or farthing.
In the back lanes sat the middle-aged, unemployed men, watching the world and their manhood roll by, waiting for employment. One of them, an unemployed shipyard worker, sat for years, whittling bits of wood to wile away the time. Thus this handsome manly, man passed his life, in a land fit for heroes. As soon as war was declared in 1939, this man and all other unemployed men had work within a week and this scene vanished forever. This man’s son is now a Doctor of Medicine in my hometown so, good blood survived to free the next generation from a bondage of servility and poverty.
I was unaware of the struggle to survive by my parents going on around me, food and love I never wanted for. My father was a great storyteller and every so often, at nights, he would sit my sister and myself on his knees and tell us stories of the family of long ago. Tales of his American grandfather and his family in America, silver mines in Nevada and other pioneer family stories. We would sit enraptured in front of the old Victorian coal burning fireplace, as we thrilled to his stories of where he grew up and of his life as a soldier and sailor. His odyssey was even more embellished by my mother, sitting at the table making ‘clippy’ mats for our floor, from old rags, who would put in a word now and then to deride or pad the story even more.
From very poor beginnings and abject poverty, Ma and Da created our home and brought up the family with love and security. There was always a feeling within our family that we had to do well in life. Da used to point out that he was only a labourer, but he expected better things from us.
Education was the escape from ignorance and poverty, so our father said. He himself was a great reader, politically aware and a self-educated man. He was a ‘gentleman’ in the full sense of the word, gentle and quiet, his only luxury was his pipe. The only outlet to gain education, to improve one’s position in life, were night schools for technical subjects connected with one’s apprenticeship. All of us boys had to go, there was no choice, it was like going to university as far as father was concerned. Academically, my oldest sister was quite brilliant so, when the chance came to send her to the local high school, the family were elated. We had one problem, a shortage of money. Nevertheless, using second-hand school uniforms and other clothes and Da giving up his smoking for a number of years, we managed to send her. This surely was success, the family was on the way up and Da was so proud.
William Henry McQuire, my Da, had dreams of better things than being a labourer for his children. A soft speaking man, easy to listen to, a philosopher, a sweet and charming person, who had been buffeted about somewhat in the stormy voyage of life. He was scrupulously clean at all times, slight of build, light brown hair when young. His high forehead, thin grey hair, gentle blue eyes, long chin, thin nose with high white-veined cheeks, his quiet demeanour, his peaceful presence, is remembered with great love by all his children.
Sarah Elizabeth Robinson, my Ma, was a stout woman, medium height, dark hair, high forehead, medium chin, chubby cheeks with penetrating deep blue eyes. She was the strength of the family, starting work at thirteen years of age as a skivvy in a large house in Tynemouth. She was a loving caring mother and tended us well, especially me, and protected us from the poverty around us as best as she could.
Mother strived at all times for more immediate material things, she was uneducated and unsophisticated but was no fool. She had the cunning of one who has suffered and had been deprived but was not intending to be in the same state again.
A doer, determined and positive in everything she did, the world and life never got Ma down. Pugnacity was her penchant in striving to survive. She led Da and the family through life with her strong physique and powerful stoic character, through good and bad times. I never saw Ma show emotion or tears in any tragedy or trial in life. She was hard, with that fundamental insecurity that poverty can inflict for a lifetime and it made her strive at all times never to be vulnerable. In later life, she annoyed her adult children somewhat with her dogmatic, intractable rulings for everything to be as she decreed, with no appeal. She couldn’t see that we had inherited her obstinacy within ourselves.
What she was, was what life had made her and it was not of her choosing if one understands the struggle she had. Always resolute and indomitable, she let nothing or anybody thwart what she thought were her rights. As I write now, I realise how much I admire her and what a remarkable woman she was.
All in all, they were parents I am proud of and they gave much to me that was good, by example and genes, that I am thankful for.
On her death bed when she heard someone say, “nana was not well”, she opened her eyes and said, “not well, you bugger, I’m dying.” This was the calibre of the woman, who was my mother.
We, that is my family, lived in a four-room flat above a family called Thompson. There were Ma and Da, four brothers (myself included) and two sisters. I slept on a hard, wood chair which converted to a bed at nights; it had a hard corduroy sleeping pad. My three older brothers slept in a bed in the back bedroom. Ma and Da slept on a divan bed in the main bedroom and my two sisters slept in a small front box room.
The main living room was a sitting room, dining room and washroom combined, with one cold water tap over a bare sink with a curtain around it, there was no bathroom. When bathing was required a tin bath was removed from the alley wall and placed in front of the open coal fire. Hot water was supplied by kettles placed on top of the fire. The furniture was three wooden chairs, a wooden form and an old horsehair sofa. On the floor was a large clippie rag mat, made by my mother. The cooking was done in a Victorian oven under which hot coals from the fire were pushed. An old Victorian foot pedal sewing machine stood at the window.
Toilet facilities were a ‘poe’ (chamber pot) under the bed and a ‘netty’ (toilet) in the back yard (in which my wheelbarrow was stowed), toilet paper was unheard of, newspaper sufficed. A coal house was next to the toilet and when more coal was obtainable, a horse and cart arrived and dumped the coal into the back lane opposite the coal hatch door in the wall. We all then set to and shovelled the coal through the hatch into the coal house. Also in the yard was a washhouse which had a scrubbing bench and a ‘cupola’ shaped boiler with a coal fire underneath. A big steel hooped wooden ‘poss tub’ complete with ‘posser’ stood opposite the boiler. When all was ‘possed’ clean, an old fashioned mangle turned by me, squeezed the water out. I sometimes played with toy boats when, after the clothes were washed, my mother put me into the boiler to bathe me. To watch my enormously strong mother vigorously pounding the dirty clothes with her wooden pronged ‘posser’ was a sight to behold. When Ma ironed the clothes, the flat iron was heated on the coal fire.
Our house was lit by a gas mantle, when it burnt out I would be sent to buy a new mantle in a white box which the corner shop sold. In 1933 my oldest brother, who was an electrician, converted the house to electricity for the princely sum of five shillings. Considering it very expensive, my mother complained for a long time that it was too much to pay.
Illnesses among the family were dealt with by mother, vinegar on rags for a headache, bread poultice for a tight chest, ‘Senna Pods’ for the adult regularity. For tummy aches and anything else, ‘Castor Oil’ was the cure, it was foul to taste, so a spoonful of raspberry jam went with it. Da’s favourite medicine (for what ailment I forget) was Spanish Black Rock, every so often he made a batch, chopping and crushing round black Spanish liquorice rock. After boiling it he stowed it away in a one-gallon glass jar which he kept under the bed. On Sunday morning, usually, he would dose my sister and I with this foul concoction, it was supposed to do wonders. For toothache Ma put ‘Tincture of Myrrh’ on the gum, for chapped hands in winter she rubbed with ‘Winter Green’. Only when it was beyond my mother’s knowledge did she call a doctor in. We at times had to go to the council clinic for dental treatment and other forms of children’s treatment. When the doctor was called, he was on foot, without transport, with his black bag in his hand, in which we thought the new babies were carried, as he passed us walking down the street.
I was what was known as parky (disinclined to eat most things), so Ma strove at all times to entice me to eat jellies, blancmange, gingerbread men etc. Because I didn’t eat much, I was given ‘Cod Liver Oil and Malt’ daily for years, she was forever telling all and sundry that I was thin, weak and pale and that I would never be strong. Mother and my youngest sister ate anything, tripe, potted meat, black puddings, pig trotters, cow heels etc., and so both of them were stout in build, my sister being held up to me as a paragon of health.
Musically our family was quite good. Da being slightly deaf would cup his ear with his hand and sing in harmony with sweet music from the wireless. Ma would sing in a very good melodic voice the tunes of her youth. One brother played the banjo and mouth organ, a sister played the piano and Da played in his own fashion the guitar and mandolin. Drums were the forte of another brother but, having no drums, he played a knife and fork as drumsticks all over the table. This brother could also sing well and used to go on stage on amateur night at the local flea pit (cinema). So, with our gramophone and family accompaniment, our house always rang with music and song. All the family could sing close harmony to records on our ‘wind-up’ gramophone; we fitted a new needle for every tune. In 1938 we bought an electric radiogram, but we still had to change the needle for each tune.
Sunday mornings were when Da took my sister and I through the quiet timber docks, sauntering amidst the fields on one side and the River Tyne on the other side of us. Peaceful and serene, skylarks hovering and singing overhead, other birds and creatures scurrying about amidst the fragrance of wildflowers, and the sweet astringent aroma of fresh-cut timber. The coolness, stillness and shadows of shafted sunlight, as we walked under the gloomy coal staithes, all brought to us a tranquil feeling of peace and harmony which made us forget about the hardships of life for a few hours. The highlight to the walk was when we reached Howdon, Da bought us sweets at the shop in the docks. Our childish prattle soothed and amused Da as we sucked our sweets and compared who had the most and best.
During those lazy days of summer our family, on Sundays, spent a lot of time on Tynemouth beach. Da would come down by bus with us children to set up a beach site near the swimming pool, mother would come later. We would cover Da’s legs with sand, dig moats around sandcastles, paddle in the sea, turn over rocks to look for crabs. All very invigorating. About 3 p.m. mother would turn up, waddling with her rolling gait across the beach carrying two wicker baskets, one in each hand. In the baskets were sandwiches, flasks of tea, sweets and so on, these were laid on a tablecloth over a sand table we had built.
It was lovely to sit amid the clean golden yellow sand, under a clear blue sky, our lungs and bodies alive with the fresh sea air. The never-ceasing beat of the rolling surf with seagulls screeching and diving above, all contrived to lull our senses and brought us nearer to tranquillity. As the sun set, we gathered our belongings and we trudged step by step, sinking into the powdered sand, towards the stairs to the promenade above and our bus home.
A regular visitor to our house was Aunt Hannah; she was an old lady of about seventy years of age. She was dressed in a long black dress, high necked with a brooch at her throat, a long black coat and a large black hat, of enormous size, held in place with two hat pins, typically Victorian dress sense. She was kind and gentle and family to me. When I was a boy, when paste Egg Day (Easter Sunday) came around, she used to give me ‘Paste’ eggs. They were ordinary eggs boiled and stained with tea leaves and had faces and decorations painted on them. I still remember her even today, with a smile and a tender thought. Her own house was full of china cherubs, artificial flowers and clocks, covered with glass domes, medals on the wall, alongside Victorian picture scenes and portraits of her Victorian loved ones. When she died in 1958 at ninety-two years of age, my mother gave the furniture, pictures, in fact, everything, to a scrap man. On the Antiques Road Show on the television these days I constantly say to my wife, “that’s what Aunt Hannah had” when Victoriana objects are displayed.
Christmas was exciting as we wondered about what we would be getting. Sometimes we crossed in the ferry to South Shields which had a better shopping centre, “South Shields the sunny side, but North Shields the money side” so the saying went. My sister and I used to make Christmas decorations from coloured paper and flour mixed with water for glue. I usually got, as a present, the ‘Hotspur’ or ‘Wizard’ comic boys annual (I still have four of them). A small toy and a stocking full of fruit and nuts was an annual delight. We never got toys during the year, so this was a thrill to me. One Christmas I received a very tiny flat top hand torch, I was thrilled to death with this great event, I still remember my happiness even to this day.
At the bottom of our back lane, next to a stable, was a piece of land known as the “Muck Heap”. A gambling school used this land to play ‘Pitch and Toss’, about a score of youths, usually carrying boat oars, gambled here at times. We young boys acted as ‘lookouts’ who would warn when the law approached. Within one year of the war starting, a number of these youths were dead or Prisoners of War. One youth, who limped badly, managed to get into the Merchant Navy and was last seen swimming for his life, being machine-gunned by German aircraft, after his ship was sunk. So the gamblers risked their lives and lost them serving their country, which had served them not at all.
Characters among us abounded, there was one called ‘Pack a Loaf tin’ another called ‘Moosie’, an old man called, ‘Tin Tash’. Families with uncommon characters were also around. One family called ‘Reid’ were always drinking, fighting and throwing things at each other. When we boys heard the gathering sounds of impending battle we would sit on the coal house roof and in no time at all we had Ma and Da Reid with their sons, (one of whom was called Uggy) chasing each other around the back yard brandishing chamber pots etc., and, household utensils flying through the back window. Egged on by we boys, it was quite an amusing scene to behold. This family kept pigeons in the coal house and bantam birds in the wash house.
The cobblestone back lane and front street were my play places, squatting beside gutters on rainy days sailing match sticks in the streams of water was but one of my pastimes. Friends galore were everywhere; we made up a gang of boys who were out for adventure. We fought other gangs in the streets with sticks, we explored the riverside, we climbed up old buildings and cliffs off the beaches.
The fish quays were a great place for adventure, scrambling over trawlers, drifters, cobles and other vessels, we got in the way of the fishermen as their craft were unloading their catch.
Fish was cheap and we would get fish thrown up to us, if we asked for them, by the fishermen from the fishing boats. We would thread a string through the fish gills until we had about a dozen. Sauntering along the low street we would knock at pink or blue or red house doors and sell them to the women who entertained the sailors.
A whole day could be spent away on the beaches of Tynemouth, Cullercoats and Whitley Bay, all in the company of my ragged, wondrous friends, the only food to sustain us was a shared penny packet of broken biscuits bought from ‘Carey’s’ shop. It was a point of honour and pride, that we never touched a road going. We climbed cliffs all the way from the Fish Quay to Whitley Bay.
Those dreamy, sunny blue skies over golden beaches, with adventures on the rocks catching crabs, hermit crabs, whelks etc. With wet feet and sandshoes hanging around our necks, we were kings of our boyhood realm. Coming home at night we would try to ‘thumb’ a lift in some lorry or car and managed it sometimes.
Our local cinema was called the ‘Tyne’, it had about a dozen wooden forms at a penny a seat. We were packed on them like ‘sardines in a tin’, the overspill sat on the floor. Behind these wooden forms were six rows of plush seats (as we called them) at threepence each and under the film operators control room were two rows of super plush seats at fourpence each. All the very first sound films came to the ‘Tyne’, ‘The Three Stooges’, ‘Harold Lloyd’, ‘Wheeler and Wolsey’, ‘Laurel and Hardy’, ‘John Wayne'” in ‘B’ movies. Cowboys such as ‘Tom Mix’, ‘Ken Maynard’, ‘Jack Holt’, ‘Buck Jones’, outer space films with ‘Buck Rogers’, ‘Flash Gordon’, all were available for one penny. Many a time and often the film broke down and we would stamp the floor shouting “we want our money back”, tickets would be issued to each of us to come back another night or afternoon to see the rest of the film.
We were not aware of any other form of existence and so we were happy in our ignorance of better things. Occasionally, my father took us to a posh cinema such as the ‘Princes’, ‘Albion’ or ‘Boro’ (for which we had to get washed and put on our ‘Sunday Best’ clothes), which were nine pence for adults to get in. On the way home from the posh cinema we stopped off at the pork butchers (they were open at nights), I would have a halfpenny bread bun dipped in gravy and Da would have a two penny bread bun pork sandwich.
The highlight of the year for all Sunday Schools was the grand Parade of Witnesses on Good Friday. With every child in their Sunday best clothes. Banners flying, bands playing, all the Sunday school children of the town marched in the procession. Proud parents stood on the pavements waving and smiling as their children marched by. As the procession tapered off, the children returned to their Sunday school to receive a new penny and an orange. Ah, such joys. On Carling Sunday, before Palm Sunday all shops sold ‘carlings’ which was a dried pea, steeped in water in a bowl in the shop window, we children loved this old custom. Why dried peas? I don’t know. After Carling Sunday, came Palm Sunday then ‘Paste Egg Day’ (Easter Sunday).
When local elections came around, the candidates for various political parties hired party rooms from which to conduct their campaigns. We boys used to go to these rooms and get given to us placards with the name and picture of the local party politician on them; these were nailed to long sticks. If you can picture long processions of a few adults and lots of boys parading through the streets waving our placard on sticks singing “Vote ,Vote, Vote for Stanley Holmes, Holmsy sure to win the War” and shouting what we would do if we met a rival political procession. We knew not what it was about, other than it was exciting, exhibitionist and fun. Nothing genteel about this way of electioneering, but no harm was meant in the relatively primitive background we grew up in.
Old empty 1780 buildings, in a derelict state, were a place of exploration and adventure. We smashed up old metal fireplaces and sold them to ‘Blackie’ the scrap merchant. It is only now that I realise that these fireplaces were of antique value and that we were smashing our history, I now feel so ashamed. We melted old lead in tins on fires on old slum sites and poured the lead into matchboxes to make lead weights for our fishing lines. Fishing for fish and crabs on the river’s edge was a popular pastime with us boys.
My father, who was a crane driver, usually drove the crane which lifted large steel shipside plates from the horse-drawn wagons. Two horses, one in front of the other with the clippety clopping of shod horse hooves over the rough cobblestones, pulled the laden wagon of steel plates through the streets, connected with bright steel jangling chains to the horses. It was a powerful awesome sight to see these magnificent horses pulling and slithering these steel plates on the wagon exactly under the crane hook. When my Da and his crane had carried out this mighty task of lifting these steel plates, I took my ‘bows’ and boasted to my friends, “That’s my Da”. A small door would open in the large door of the shipyard, Da would stick his head out and say to me “run across the road to ‘Innes’s’ shop and get me some black bullets (sweets)”. On my return, he would take a black bullet out of the packet, pop it in my mouth and disappear once more through his small door.
When Da, was working overtime I used to take a hot can of tea and sandwiches down into the shipyard. Walking amidst the noise and drama of ship repairs, I would go to the crane Da was driving. Standing underneath, I would try to catch Da’s attention above the noise. When he saw me, he would lower a bucket on a rope 100 feet down to the quay to me on the side of the dry dock and I would place his tea and sandwiches in the bucket, and he pulled his meal up. I was only ten or eleven years old and took all this in my stride then. Nowadays it would be against the law to do this.
In an old mill in the docks lived a family who refused to succumb to the standard drabness, we children called the woman and her daughter ‘The Queen of Mill’. When they walked from the shopping centre in town through our street area on their way home, children mocked them, and grownups glared at them. Why? Because they were beautifully dressed, wrapped in fox fur around their necks, scrubbed clean, well made up, were different and looked with disdain (some thought) on we of the lower orders. I never saw or heard of them harming anyone so, when I look back at these episodes, I’m not proud of showing an inferiority complex.
We even had a ‘painted hussy’ who lived among us. ‘Rosie’ was her name and what a fine, elegant, well dressed women she was. She even dared to dye her hair blond and painted her cheeks until they were quite red. People spoke, pointed and mocked and were shocked at her as she walked by, but she just would not conform.
Pomp and ceremony in my mind from what I saw regularly as a child was associated with funerals. All carriages were pulled by two horses, the hearse itself heading the procession. A man with a black hat and dressed in tailed black coat and black trousers headed the procession, with carriages full and friends in a column behind, the procession proceeded for about two miles to the cemetery. Everybody stopped on the pavements when the cortege passed, the men taking their hats off and gave a slight respectful bow of the head whilst facing the hearse. Bodies laid out in peoples parlours were a common sight to us boys. Each street had its official layer out who was usually some housewife who got paid for her service.
A love of books has always been a great part of all my life, I cannot remember not being able to read. Da was a self-taught scholar and a great reader. I believe he taught me before I ever went to school. Being a library member since I was seven years old I have read thousands of books throughout my life. Starting with comics, then boys books, boys adventure books, Christmas Annuals (I still have some) and these days, any non-fiction book of human interest and occasionally, a spy story. All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been, it is all lying in magic preservation in the pages of books.
Not all the families in the area took pride in their children, one family of three boys and three girls lived in two rooms. In one bed the girls slept at the top and the boys at the bottom, the parents slept in the other room. This was their ‘Estate’, their share of the Empire’s wealth and hunger was their inheritance. The father, an ex-serviceman, drank heavily, the mother was a martyr for her children and the beatings her husband gave her. Years later I read he had been killed falling downstairs, fate had caught up with him I thought, and he had got his just reward but now, older and wiser, on reflection, I wonder. His children were often hungry and when I asked my Ma for a slice of bread and jam, they would whisper to me, “Ask your Ma can I have a slice of bread and jam as well”. Ma would say to me, “I can’t feed anybody else’s family”, but she always gave me an extra slice for my friend.
Cigarette cards, which most boys played with, were obtained by standing outside tobacconist shops and asking the customers coming out of the shops for them. During the war, we boys used to pack empty cigarette packets with cigarettes at the local tobacconists as packet cigarettes were hard to come by. Street games were played with them, in which cards were won or lost between boys. Street games such as ‘Cut the Bay’, ‘Jack, Jack show your light’, ‘Four Corners’, ‘Statues’, ‘Marbles’, ‘Tops and Whips’, ‘Hoops and Guards’, swinging with ropes on lamp posts (mostly played by girls) seemed to have seasons whereby at specific times of year different games were played.
In winter, in bitterly cold temperatures, boys in short pants played on sledges or played in the snowbound streets. When I think of this now, I shudder.
During winter weather the old people used to get we boys with our barrows or sledges to go for ‘two stone’ of coal for them, from a local coal depot, we received a halfpenny for our efforts. Very often all water supplies to the houses were frozen and so my mother used to send me with a large tub on my sledge to get water from some unfrozen tap in another street.
When coal supplies ran out and no more was available, I was sent with my sledge or a bicycle or an old pram to the gas yard to obtain six pennyworth of coke. We stood in a long queue in the snow awaiting our turn with other poor, roughly dressed working-class people. At nights to get the fire blazing hot, Da used to have what we called his ‘tin blazer’ which he put over the open fire aperture to create an airflow up the chimney and when removed the fire roared. We all crouched around the fire to keep warm around the licking flames. Once in bed a stone hot water bottle filled with hot water kept us warm.
One of the casualties of slippery frozen snow were horses slipping and breaking a leg. We curious morbid boys would go to see this sight. What really fascinated us was when we saw the horse shot dead. This was a talking point between us for days. The unthinking callousness of we boys horrifies me when I think of this now.
I was mixed up with horses and stables a lot and cleaned stables and horses of various tradesmen who let me. Down one back lane there was a blacksmith shoeing horses. The pungent smell of burning hooves and the thick smoke rising above the horse I can smell and see clearly in my mind’s eye to this day.
On Sunday mornings I went out with a milk float, drawn by a horse. We ladled milk with a long-handled scoop into the jugs on the doorsteps. Collecting wood at the sawmill yards with horse and wagon was another pastime.
Horse manure was found in the streets now and then. We boys would shovel it up and run-up to the allotments with it where the gardeners would exchange it for a stick of rhubarb.
Cattle were conveyed in wagons to the slaughterhouse in ‘Milburn Place’, usually about four or five at a time. Occasionally one would escape and rampage and run amok through the streets, my friends and I sitting on walls didn’t help matters, as we shouted, jeered and cheered at the drovers trying to recapture it. Sheep were also brought to the slaughterhouse in wagons and again we boys would stand and watch as they were slaughtered, the callous curiosity of we boys was truly amazing.
We boys were forever climbing and clambering over roofs, walls and back yards. I can see and hear my father in my mind’s eye shouting, “boy, get off that wall”. Our nearest approach to greenery was a window box full of plants plus my frogs, beetles and caterpillars which often alarmed my mother when she attempted to water the plants.
Sunday school trips to places in the countryside of Northumberland and Durham were a regular summer feature of delight; mothers only, took their children on these. We gathered in the town centre to climb onboard old fashioned single deck buses. Every child blew on his tin trumpet in rhythm but out of tune to the songs, sung by the adults. When we got to the destination we had various kinds of competitive sports with prizes for the winners. We would eat tea and sandwiches in some shady nook, then knock fruit off the trees just for devilment. On our return journey home at night, there were ‘high jinks’ by some of the ladies up and down the bus aisle as we sang and played our trumpets. Usually, as darkness came in, the singing died down and but for a few singing “Ye tek the High Road”, in a subdued voice, most people were nodding off to sleep. Our Sunday school was the ‘Evangelist Mission’ but our childish tongues couldn’t cope with this name, so we called it the ‘Bando-Lastic-Mission’.
To get a ticket to go to a free poor bairns treat and excursion, to a field I felt was miles away, was a natural way of excitement. My world was poor, but safe, as my father and mother shielded me from the fact of deprivation. We bairns all lined up in the local schoolyard in columns. To each column had been designated an alphabetical letter to organise the function. Those in the ‘L’ column shouted that they were ‘Lions’, those in the ‘E’ column ‘Elephants’ and so on. Each child brought his or her own knife and fork, spoon and enamel mug. Clutching these in our hands, we noisily awaited, in the increasing excitement, the lorries or horse and carts to take us to the ‘treat’. Curt orders were given, and each column moved out of the schoolyard to the road outside to be lifted onto our transport.
It was only about half an hour to get to the field where the function was taking place, but to our childish minds, it was forever and miles away. So, a tinge of fear was mixed with the excitement as we left the working-class housing area for a brief taste of heaven.
On getting to the field, we were marshalled to trestle tables to await our turn to get our share of this sumptuous display of sandwiches, buns, lemonade and tea etc. We sat in our groups devouring the food, putting some up our shirts and in our pockets to take home to the family.
As soon as the feast was over, there were games with prizes, such as racing, three-legged races, wheel-barrow races etc. The excitement mounted even more if a prize was obtained from one of these competitive sports. I once won a magnificent tin banjo which elated me to a height of feeling that I can still feel today.
Those were the days when nothing was in the future for us and nothing was expected of us but, some of us fooled them and we climbed or clawed our way out of the ‘poor bairns treat’ society.
For all the poverty, there was something amongst us then that seems to be missing today. Simplicity or naiveté of thought, perhaps ignorance of the better life, made us expect nothing and we got nothing. We had no falsity of thought and so we found ourselves nearer to happiness in our poor upbringing.
School was a Victorian built set of buildings across from our house. At five years old I went to the infants’ section. My first day, I remember a large rocking boat in which, with other newcomers, I was rocked back and forth to make us forget our unease at leaving home. However, after an hour I’d had enough, so I went home without permission. When my mother asked me what had happened I said the teacher had hit me, which was a lie. My mother took me back to school, infuriated, but after talking to the teacher things were sorted out.
Infant women schoolteachers were dressed prim and proper with coiled braided hair over each ear. They had an aura of authority, which we children felt and reacted to in a disciplined manner.
All teachers held a position of respect in the community and were utterly professional in their approach to teaching. No nonsense was tolerated as they taught us reading, writing and arithmetic on our squeaky scratching slates.
At Christmas we had school parties and Santa Claus landing his aeroplane in the schoolyard (so the teachers said) made us writhe and wriggle with tensions of excitement. Another act at the party was a man making silhouettes behind a lamp onto a white sheet by manipulating his hands and fingers.
When seven and a half years old, I went into the older boys building across from our infants schoolyard. Except for the two junior classes, all the teachers were men and what wonderful men’s men they were.
Men teachers were strident but droll to anyone who got noisy or out of hand, the methods of punishment were variable, but we did have a choice. We could have the cane across the hand or two raps across the knuckles with a ruler, or a hit on our rear posterior with a ‘T’ square, or sing a funny song in front of the class.
One humorous punishment I saw was to tell a boy to get into a cardboard box and get his brother from the next class to jump up and down on the box. He didn’t know his brother was inside it. We roared with laughter at the spectacle of this troublesome boy being punished by his own brother.
Chalk was pelted at us if we talked during a lesson or caused a rumpus. Boisterous or unruly behaviour was handled in a rough, tough fashion but with humour by the teacher. We enjoyed this raucous lively atmosphere, totally suitable for boys. A result of this treatment was that I cannot remember any boy who could not read or write or do arithmetic. Some of my classmates came from an utterly poverty-stricken background, were uncouth, sometimes barefooted and often hungry, but always full of humour. I enjoyed school and my school mates.
The teachers were strict but understanding in their manner to us and kind and gentle when the occasion demanded. These people were progressive and enlightened teachers, for which all of us now in our prime of life remember with great affection.
They treated us in a rough but fair manner; they were humorous and delightful in their care of us. When war came all but three of the men became army officers and fought gallantly for King and Country. Those who were left taught us well, and many successes in life from humble beginnings were due to these teachers. Their example guided us through the stormy paths of life and for this, as I sit writing, I thank you gentlemen.
We were taught to love our Country and our King. On Empire Day we held pageants in which we were dressed up to represent each country in the Empire, and Britannia was a girl in a white flowing robe with an old fashioned fireman’s brass helmet on her head. How sad I find it today that love, pride and loyalty for our Country, are not present in the modern-day school curriculum. We have lost something which was beyond price, which was part of our heritage. The pride and depth of feeling for our Country, instilled in us by our teachers, lives within my generation even today. On the day before our school ‘Empire Day’ pageants, all children picked daises from the fields these, wrapped in silver paper and pinned to the lapels of our clothing, symbolised our unity as, tingling with excitement, we celebrated our ‘Empire Day’.
Things were getting a little better for our family now. Having passed through their apprenticeships, money became a little easier as more pay packets came in from my older brothers. Times were changing for my family.
Suddenly on 3rd September 1939 war was declared on Germany and immediately the unemployed situation changed. Within a week, jobs became available and the old world that we lived in with its social divisions vanished forever. The war changed our world and the way we had lived was never to return. We had new trials to test us now.
In September 1939 I was evacuated to, Twizell Mill, Warenford, Belford, Northumberland. We stood in lines in North Shields railway goods yard, clutching our suitcases and gas masks. We did not really understand what was happening to us as we were pushed into railway carriages in groups of ten or twelve, with one adult in charge of us. Each of us had our name and address on a large label hung on a string around our necks, so dazed and some in tears we were taken from our parents and sent far from the only home we had ever known and had never left before.
Standing in a schoolroom at Belford, each evacuee was given a brown paper carrier bag which contained a tin of corned beef, a tin of fruit, dark bars of chocolate, biscuits and other food. Strange people walked up to us, read our name labels, looked us up and down and said, “I’ll have that one and this one” and so on. My sister was chosen by a man and woman and taken from me and so we were parted for the first time in our lives. Gradually the school hall emptied until only three boys were left, they were myself and two other boys. A man and woman called Mr and Mrs Clough chose me and one other boy and Mr and Mrs Will Fyfe took the remaining boy. It was dark and late at night when we arrived in the middle of a wood, where two woodcutters cottages stood with lighting by oil-lamps.
When we went to bed that night we were led upstairs with a handheld oil lamp. My friend and I got into a large double bed and huddled up together. An owl was hooting outside our window and except for that, the silence was deafening. To ease our apprehension we began to eat our dark chocolate and in these eerie conditions, we fell asleep. When we awoke, we found chocolate all over the bedsheets, when Mrs Clough saw this, she was very annoyed.
The cottages inside were stark and simply furnished with a stoned kitchen floor with wood-burning fires, and had no toilets. I was to live in one of these with my friend; my friend was to live next door. Twizel Mill was the place of work for Mr Clough and Mr Fyfe, the wood saw was driven from a lake by a water flume.
Each day we walked three or four miles through a wood to the village school in Warenford, with our date sandwiches in our pocket. As we walked we were aiming shots with our catapults at the rabbits. The gamekeeper let us see his ferrets and showed us how he used them to kill rabbits when we stopped to pick up other evacuee friends at the gamekeeper’s cottage.
This sojourn in the countryside only lasted a few weeks, before we were back home with our parents and the war.
The war years stole our childhood and youth from us. We could not help but be more instinctive of danger and death and became small editions of adulthood. With air-raids, bombs dropping, shrapnel flying, mass anti-aircraft guns firing, friends being injured or killed, searchlights crisscrossing the sky illuminating barrage balloons and enemy aircraft. The wail of air-raid sirens and finally the wail of friends and families in grief, we children had an insight into tragedy, fear and tensions which, within our young years we should not have known. I still ‘chill’ when I hear sirens. Standing in queues, dried eggs, frozen eggs, spam, treacle to sweeten our tea, black market supplies, lack of warm clothing, lack of fuel or coke for our fireside, all made us aware of the struggle to survive.
Air-raid shelters, blackout curtains, air-raid wardens, dark streets, sleepless nights, stirrup pumps, sandbags around lamp posts, roadblocks guarded by the Home Guards, street fighting on Sunday mornings as practise for the ‘Home Guard’ all became acceptable and normal. My ‘Home Guard’ brother’s Sten gun under our bed symbolised the desperation to do well, when the bells rang, denoting invasion. My father at fifty-five years of age had a rifle under his bed. He, I knew, as a First World War soldier would go down fighting.
When street fighting Home Guard practise was in play on a Sunday morning we knew there would be a knock at our front door. My older brother would crouch on our doorstep with his Sten gun at the ready. He would knock at the door, I would go down to open the door, he would say, “bacon sandwich”, I would hand it to him then he dashed off munching his sandwich, whilst fighting his make-believe enemies.
We were always fully alert as to what to do in all emergencies. Once, when my mother, sister and I were blown over by a bomb blast (I was thirteen years of age), I took command of the situation and got my mother and sister to an air-raid shelter and huddled there for hours during a severe air-raid.
So the war years passed, neighbours, friends or acquaintances died naturally or were killed or injured at war, in the streets or in their beds and still our family was untouched. But our turn was to come, one son died at sea and one at home, within six months of each other. Our father took it badly and never recovered from the shock and anguish which cut deeply into all of us. I still feel it to this day.
At last in 1945 the war came to an end; people were drained, subdued, weary and worn out but still, austerity and rationing went on. Life after the war was bare, dreary and grey, there was no bounding joy of living or of being alive, it was still queues and shortages.
As the ‘Fifties’ came in, I was at sea in the Merchant Navy so I never suffered the austerity of those years. I was travelling around the world and was reasonably well fed and looked after.
In 1953 I married, and change was on me once again. In 1954 became a father to a baby girl. It was time to take stock. Coming ashore in 1955 I took on various jobs in management. In my drive to succeed in life, I moved to the south of England and in 1958 I became a father once again to another baby girl.
Buying my own house and rising in position in the technical world, I became reasonably affluent considering where I came from. The years rolled by and now I am retired and a grandfather to two grandchildren. My two daughters own their own houses, are well educated and have never known slums, want, poverty or war.
When shopping in supermarkets with my wife, I often feel alarmed and afraid of such affluence on display, for sale (food, goods etc.) in abundance. The present generation accepts it, they have known no different and have never wanted. Everything is provided, they know they have a right to it. It wasn’t always like this, for most people in the THIRTIES, “the boat never came in”.