Blog From Beyond The Grave
Hello! Pleased to meet you. You are looking well! Wombat’s Dad here! Now, since today is my 83rd birthday, my rather hirsute son is graciously allowing me some time to tell you a few things about my early life. Actually, I originally wrote most of this down shortly before I died in 2003, so that my grand-daughters (and perhaps even their children) would know what sort of life we led in the dim and distant past, and could compare it with their own. Now I’ve just tidied this collection of nostalgia up a little for this blog thingy (whatever THAT is when its at home) using a ghost writer. See what I did there? Little death joke to lighten the mood. OK, let’s get started –
My first memory is of sitting in my pram at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester, looking at the lion. I was about three years old at this time, so that would be in 1929. Four years later I was a pupil at Netherfield Lane Primary School, and as usual on Mayday and Empire Day we were forced to pair off with a girl and dance round the maypole… Yuk! In those days the council workmen were more often than not repairing the roads with tar, and mothers used to send their children out to stand in the smoke and breathe the tar fumes, as it was believed that it would cure and prevent colds.
In the early Thirties, the milkman used to come round every day with a milk churn on a flat bed lorry. Mum used to ask usually for a gill (half a pint) of milk, which Mr. Milkman got out of the churn in a gill-dipper and poured into mum’s own jug. He had two sizes of dipper, half and one pint, so that he could supply any quantity of milk required. I also used to go to the Co-op at the end of the street for the weekly shop, and used to love watching the manager or his assistant making the pats of butter from the huge churn, which was kept behind the counter.
Another memory is of playing Street Hockey with a tennis ball and roller skates, when I was about eleven. At this time there were water meadows about a mile from our home, with lots of holes scattered around between three and five yards wide. We used to go down there on our bikes and play at scrambling in and out of the holes. Some were steeper and trickier than others, and we had quite a few falls whilst trying to master them. In the winter, the pools used to spread wide, and in cold weather froze. The locals went skating on them, and there were a number of fatal accidents. I never did this, although with some of my friends I went down and made slides along the edges of the ponds.
On the way down to the meadows stood the mighty Parkgate Iron and Steel Works, where ingots of iron and steel were made. At the end of this process a large quantity of molten slag (waste products) was left. The molten metal was poured into moulds and the rest was poured into large tipping wagons and made into a small train. This was then driven up to the top of the slagheap and then tipped sideways, allowing the molten slag to pour down the sides of the tip – a spectacular sight for young lads!
Another of our favourite outings was to go to a place where two railway lines were very close together so that we were able to see all the trains on both lines. The idea was to record the numbers or names of the engines (even though anoraks had not yet been invented). Most kids loved to put a penny on the rail when a train was due, so that it would be flattened and enlarged when the train went over it. People weren’t aware of the dangers of doing this at all.
During the autumn when the nights were drawing in and the days were getting colder, we used to go up to the playing fields where there was a high brick wall. There was a ditch running alongside the wall with lots of clay in the bank. There were also numerous frogs and toads living there, as well as minnows, newts and tadpoles in the spring. We’d get a lump of wet clay from the bank and make it into a box shape without a lid, then fashion a hole in the front. When finished it looked rather like a hut without a roof. Getting another piece of clay we shaped this into a flat oblong which covered the box so that it was like a flat roof for the box. A small hole in the lid followed by a hollow cylinder of clay formed a chimney. We then took the box home and if mum was in a good mood she would let us put it in the oven and harden the clay as potters do today. Next morning when the clay was dry we went back to the fields and got some tinder wood (there was plenty about) and broke it into small pieces. This was put in the box with some dried grass and lit. The smoke came out if the chimney and when the fire inside got going, the box made a lovely hand warmer.
Knurr and Spell
Another game which has nowadays been virtually forgotten was ‘Peggy-top’. In the Barnsley area it was played in leagues by the miners, but they called it by its proper name, Knurr and Spell. It was a bit like golf really; the players had a striker (in the proper game this was a pick-axe handle) called a Knurr, and the Spell, which was a piece of wood with a wedge shape at each end and about three inches long. A lump of flat wood or stone was also carried, for the same reason as golfers use a tee. The spell would be placed either on hard ground, or on the base wood or stone, and hit with a sharp downward stroke on the wedge end with the knurr. The spell would fly up into the air, and the striker would try to hit it as it came down and knock it as far as he could. Players took turns in knocking their spell to the end of the field and back, the winner being the one with the smallest number of hits around the field.
When I was about eight or nine I remember that every Saturday I used to be given spending money every week… one old penny! Doesn’t sound a lot, but it was of course, worth much more then than it is now. I used to go down to the shop at the corner of Albert Road and Hollybush St. and spend it straight away. My most common buy was to spend halfpenny on five toffees, my favourite flavour being ‘creamy whirls’. Another of my favourites was a sherbet dip.
To Auntie Emma’s Sunday mornings
From being in my pram until I was about twelve, I used to go with my Dad to Aunt Emma’s house at Rawmarsh (the district was nicknamed Silver City because the houses were all occupied by miners). We kids were always given a tasty glass of elderberry wine and a thick piece of moist fruit cake. My Dad’s cousin was also a frequent visitor. He was a member of the Magic Circle and spent most of the time he was there entertaining all us kids with close-up magic.
Stocks Lane Blacksmith’s
When we went home from Rawmarsh, if the weather was fine and there was time to spare, we walked instead of catching the bus. Our route took us up Stocks Lane and we were often lucky enough to see the blacksmith making the new horseshoes in the forge, hammering them noisily into the correct shape and size for the horse and then nailing them on. I used to love watching; it seemed so skilful.
Threshing Machine on the Island
When we lived on Hollybush Street, at the top of the road was a spare piece of rough ground surrounded by streets on each side, known as The Island. It was used as a playground by the local kids. Each September, however, the local farmer who owned the ground used to bring in threshing machines and all the associated paraphernalia, which was all driven by a Steam Traction Engine. The harvested corn, oats, etc were brought on horse-drawn wagons and loaded into the hoppers on the threshing machine. When the bales of straw were ejected out of the machine, men threw them onto a lorry to be driven away. Meanwhile, the ears of corn, oats and so on were sent into a hopper at the back of the machine where a man operated a tap to let the corn fill a sack. From there all the filled sacks went to the corn mill for grinding onto flour.
Back wall fair
At Hollybush Street there were three houses in our yard, and about three yards from the back doors was a brick wall about four feet high. When the fair came to the town, twice a year in the spring and autumn, me and my pals used to jump over the wall when we got home from school and watch the operators putting the rides and stalls up. The fair arrived on Tuesday and ran Thursday to Saturday, then spend Sunday and Monday morning taking the rides down and travelling to the next venue. As soon as we could after school on the Monday following a fair, we went to the fairground and searched under where the various stalls had been. If we were lucky, we would find a number of coins that had been dropped by the people attending.
We used to go on day trips quite often, mainly to Cleethorpes, sometimes to Bridlington, or Mablethorpe and very rarely to the Lancashire resorts, Blackpool and Morecambe.
I remember a day trip to Cleethorpes, when we got up at the crack of dawn and walked down to the local station to catch the steam train for the four hour journey. After a glorious, exhausting day on the sands, and walking round the amusements and shops, we trudged back to the station to catch the train home only to find a terrific queue for the trains. In those days, lots of trains went to the coastal resorts from most of the towns and cities east of The Pennines. You can imagine all of these people turning up at the same time to catch their trains home. (You see, in those days there were very few buses, and private cars were as rare as hen’s teeth. Only the well-off posh people owned a car). There were so many people waiting for our train that extra trains had to be put on, and all trains were also given extra carriages. In spite of this, our train was still so crowded that we had to go in the guard’s van (like an ordinary wagon with a roof on and a seat for the guard) and all we kids were lifted on to the pile of mailbags and parcels. Adults stood in whatever space they could find. We were finally settled in the guard’s van by about six o’clock, and we didn’t get off until half past midnight. Exhausted, we had to walk home to bed and then get up early for school the next morning.
Another day trip that I remember was to Skegness when I was about eight or nine with Mum and Dad and my Uncle Norman and Auntie Hilda. There we are on the right. That innocent little lad on the left, clutching tightly to his spade, is me, then Dad (Wombat’s Grandad, of course), Mum and Norman. Look how well wrapped up we are. Although it was supposed to be summer, there was a howling gale and it was really cold. After about half an hour on the sands we packed that up and spent the rest of the day looking in the shops and riding in the fairground to pass the time till the train arrived to take us home.
One other day out that sticks in my mind was to Liverpool on the train. In those days, in the mid-Thirties, there was an elevated railway which ran the whole length of the docks. If you travelled the length of the line, which was about 10 miles long, you could see all the ships which were in dock – tramp steamers, ocean liners and all manner of vessel in between. After we had ridden on the railway, we went to the dockside and Dad persuaded a man to let us go on board a liner and marvel at it.
In addition to the day trips we often went for a week at a time before the war to my Aunt Lily’s boarding house at Cleethorpes. For the first part of the war I spent quite a lot of the school holidays there. There was a roller skating rink where I went often. I made quite a few friends there and remember that they ALWAYS played “Blaze Away” when the skating started. I suppose that being a march it encouraged everyone to get skating quickly.
Another time I went to Uncle Horace’s for a couple of days during one holiday. His son was my cousin George and about the same age as me. They lived in a small village called Yarborough which was just outside Grimsby. Uncle Horace was a coal merchant, and one day he took us into Grimsby to the railway to fetch a lorry load of coal for selling around the village (there was no gas in the village at that time and most heating was by coal). On the return journey we had to sit on a tarpaulin on top of the coal, with a couple of sacks of potatoes for company. However, we had also bought in Grimsby a couple of spud guns, and had a glorious time perching on the coal firing potato bullets at passers by. It didn’t do much for the state of the potatoes, I have to say.
Just before the war I had an old ‘sit-up and beg’ bike which was in need of an overhaul. I was riding one day down Barbers Avenue on the way home from my friend’s house. I was also showing off by riding with hands off the handlebars. As I was passing the cricket ground the local policeman (who was not in uniform) stepped out and signalled me to stop! As I said before, the bike needed attention and the brakes didn’t work properly so I had to use my feet to help me stop. The bobby gave me a telling off and told me to get the bike fixed before I rode it again. He also told my Dad what he had done so that was another telling off and a week’s grounding.
On most Saturday mornings my friends and me would get up early and go to Rawmarsh Swimming Baths. We tried to get there at about opening time, half past seven, and race to be the first to get changed and be the first in the water. We swam all morning, usually staying till noon, and then made our way home. On the way back we ate our Dripping (beef fat) sandwiches – this was our breakfast which we had saved till then. This did not, however, stop us tucking in to a big dinner when we got home.
During my schooldays, we had an old-fashioned outside toilet which was across the back yard. There was no heating except perhaps for a smoky oil lamp in frosty weather. It was rough when you had to go to the toilet and it was raining, or even snowing hard and freezing cold. In those times not many people used (or could afford to use) toilet paper. We used to cut the daily newspaper into small six-inch squares, poke a hole in one corner, and hang them up behind the door on a piece of string. It was a bit rough and scratchy, but it did the trick.
Buses in winter
I went to Mexborough Secondary School, having passed the exams that were then necessary to go to there. It was about six miles from home, so I had to catch the bus every day. Incidentally the buses were known as ‘Tracklesses’ because although they were driven by electricity from overhead wires, they were, unlike their precursor trams, without tracks and ran on rubber tyres, just as cars and lorries do. Whenever we had a substantial snowfall in winter, all pupils who had to go to school by bus looked forward eagerly to a few days off. You see, no one used road salt then, only ashes or grit, and the traffic packed the snow down hard. If this froze then the roads became so slippery that the buses were withdrawn until the roads improved. If it thawed on the other hand, the roads developed potholes in the packed snow, which also caused the buses, if still running, to be cancelled because of the danger of breaking the suspension on the potholes.
Great! No school! On rare occasions when the buses were able to get through we used to have snowball fights while waiting for the school to open. One day we were having a good game throwing snowballs when I aimed wonky and knocked the hat off a Science Master as he came through the school gates. My punishment was six strokes of the cane on the bottom.
Just before the Second World War started I was at my Auntie Lily’s boarding house in Cleethorpes. About thirty minutes after war had been declared the sirens sounded and everyone expected the bombs to start falling, but nothing happened except that shortly afterwards two RAF fighters flew past, probably from Driffield airfield which was only a few miles away. No doubt the air spotters were being extra careful, it being the first day of the war, and no one was sure what to expect. In the early years of the second world war, most Saturday mornings about half past eleven I used to go to the shops in Parkgate to buy the family Saturday lunch (which we in Yorkshire called dinner). The shop was called Schonhuts, and though they had lived in Parkgate and Rotherham for decades, since before the First World War, they still had a lot of trouble from nutters breaking their windows because of their German name. I used to take a basin with me to Schonhuts and buy half a pound of Roast Pork for our Saturday dinner. It was still warm and had lots of gravy in it and on the way home the aroma was so tantalising that I used to pinch a small piece of crackling (unknown to my Dad, or it would have meant a smack).
… Blog From Beyond The Grave.