I was born on 20th May 1899 at 70 Swinebank Cottages, Dawdon. (Darden as we called it).
It was a small village of stone built cottages for miners working at Seaham Colliery called the ‘Nack’. The most widespread opinion as to the name ‘Nack’ was that the windmill which stood at the foot of a bank called the Mill Bank made a clicking noise of ‘nicky nack’ as the arms turned round and round and so the pit was known as the Nicky Nack, or just the Nack. This colliery was perhaps three miles from where we lived at Swinebank Cottages and the miners had to walk. One road was called the Pitman’s Walk, now known as Strangford Road. Men had to use this road from Dawdon to the pit. Then, the little village of Dawdon consisted of 83 cottages standing in four rows. Two rows with their backs separated by toilets (middens) and coalhouses standing in a back yard. Gardens were at the front and the two centre rows of gardens were known as Garden Walk, at the top of which stood the village school run by the Londonderry Family. This also served as a church and Sunday School. The teachers at the school were also expected to teach at the Sunday School. The Vicar of Seaham Harbour used to pay intermittent calls and the Vicar of St. Mary’s, whom we called Daddy Copley, paid more infrequent calls, but he was a grand old man and his visits were heralded as if they were royal.
The cottages at Dawdon were built of stone. I have heard my parents say that they were built for two families to each one. One family occupied the front and one the back, which is why there were remains of toilets at the bottom of the gardens. Then they were altered to house one family each, because miners with plenty of sons were given the houses with their jobs. The world often seems to turn topsy turvy. Then men were encouraged to have families, now they are discouraged and the know-alls are scheming how to punish the big families.
Each cottage had a sitting room, a small living room with a big pantry running along one side and a staircase with three bedrooms. I mention the staircase because they were the pride and joy of every housewife. You see, before the houses were divided they just had a ladder to climb up to the bedrooms. Hence the saying ‘up the ladder’ when it was bedtime. My father kept his ladder for many years. He carried it to the bottom of the street, stood it up by the big fence surrounding the football field, and had a free show. Well those with big families could not afford the ha’penny admission for every week.
You notice I always say the top or the bottom of the street. Well everything seemed simple in those days. When parents looked for children they looked at the top or at the bottom, ‘go to the top’ my father would say and watch out for the caller. It was the man who came with a crake and told the miners if it was working the next day. Weather or lack of boats used often to lay the mines off. My father was a stoneman down the pit and he would bid me listen to the caller to see if he said ‘all the pits idle the morn, shifters, wastemen and mechanics’, ‘and mechanics’ was the vital part for my father because if the caller stopped at wastemen my father would work, but if he added the dread words ‘and mechanics’ my father would loose a shift. I remember the first time I was sent to the top to listen for the caller. My father asked what he had said. I told him ‘all the pits idle the morn, shifters, wastemen and me nannies’, I never lived it down.
The four rows of cottages were surrounded by fields. At the bottom was the football field I have mentioned, called the ‘Stars Field’ after the name of the team which was mainly composed of Cottages men. Then the South Hetton railway running down to the Docks separated the Villa’s field where the Villa team consisting of Seaham Harbour men mostly working at the Bottleworks played. There was great rivalry between the teams. Don’t talk of rough play, I know, my eldest brother was goalkeeper for the ‘Star’ and he had all kinds of injuries, but it was accepted as part of the game. What rejoicing when the Star players won a silver medal. There couldn’t have been more rejoicing or more honour heaped on them if they had won the Victoria Cross.
There was a road at the bottom of the street and the football field which had only three sides fenced. The other side needed no fence because there was an embankment and at the top the North Eastern Railway ran. My father used to say that people let their pigs feed on this embankment and that was how it was called Swine Bank Cottages. Of course that would be before the railway was laid. Then on the south side of the cottages was the cow’s field owned by the farmer who owned Dawdon Farm. Our garden walls in the last row of cottages formed part of the fence for this field. It was beautiful meadowland and we spent most of the summer playing in it near the garden walls. Only the farmer himself would chase us. Periodically he would ride round his land on a beautiful horse. We scattered when he came towards us. We did no harm. Our pleasure was picking the flowers, and playing the lovely game of funerals. One child would lie on the grass full length with arms duly crossed on the chest and the other children would heap grass and flowers on top of him. We made wreaths and crosses of daisies, buttercups, dandelions, bluebells, cranesbill, ladies fingers, cowslips and many more. It was difficult to get anyone to tackle the dandelions for we firmly believed if we touched them we would wet the bed. That would set off an argument as to how many ‘skelps’ mothers dished out on bare bottoms for committing this awful crime. I was once the victim of a funeral. I was buried under a great mound of grass when all of my playmates scattered. Someone shouted ‘keep down and he won’t see you’. My goodness the horse went very close to my head, too close for comfort and I very nearly became a real dead one. It was the farmer. One hears of so many cases of poison these days and I wonder how we escaped. We ate the corns of the cranesbill dug out of the soil without washing, we ate sour docks, which were the leaves of the dock plant. We would make fiddles out of them first. That was pulling the centre of the leaves apart leaving the strings or veins like a fiddle. Then we ate them. They tasted like vinegar, we got turnips out of the big field on which Deneside is now built and had feasts off them. We plundered our gardens for mint, lettuce, rhubarb and carrots. We would play on summer days from dinner time until bed time without going home for any food. The taps were in the street so it was easy enough to put ones mouth under and get all the drinks one needed.
Miners were very proud of their gardens. They had the most beautiful flowerbeds in great profusion, the colours had to be seen to be believed. Every little hole and corner was decorated with boxes or barrels. Mother had barrels of chrysanthemums, bronze and white at either side of the front door with boxes of nasturtium growing up the wall under the window. But the good gardeners had Canterbury bells, phlox, marguerites and many more. They were ready for the big flower show held in Seaham Hall grounds on the first weekend in August. It was called ‘the big flower show’. Big marquees were erected in the grounds. There were all kinds of side shows, and refreshment tents. That was the day of the year, for people came from all the surrounding collieries and there was great fun. I look back with nostalgia on these great days although I always had to sly into the grounds. The first time I was allowed to go with my sister was when I was eleven years old. One had to pit ones wits against the gatekeepers, but we won at last. We had the magnificent sum of one halfpenny between us – but that did not mar our fun in the least. There were plenty of boys to chase us and plenty of other people with a lot of money to spend so we watched and shared in their fun. Then the gardeners had Paddy Finn’s Leek Show which followed a few weeks after the big show. Paddy was landlord of the Station Hotel and had a big marquee erected outside his hotel at the top of Marlborough Street. On Whit Monday morning was the big cycle parade. Cyclists from far and wide joined in. I do not know where they started from or where they went to, but I can remember taking my stand at the corner of Railway Street and North Terrace to see them all sweep around onto the North Road.
On Good Friday there was a big parade of all the Sunday Schools, excepting Catholics, scholars and adults marched along the main streets singing lively hymns. Nobody would miss this. Then on Easter Monday the Cottages folk en bloc would go ‘down the Dene’. It was a lovely little dell in those days and Easter Monday saw it crowded. Everybody skipped and danced, the boys chased the girls and stole their hat pins and everybody picnicked on the grass. Then there was the celebrated race with our eggs. We rolled them down the bank that leads into the Dene. The winner took the egg from the loser. Then there was the game of jarping. You held your egg closely in your hand while your opponent bashed it with his. The wide boys knew exactly how to win. These eggs were dyed and on Easter Sunday morning we would run to our friends houses with a can full of eggs, one for each child in the family and then they would return the compliment. We had Carling Sunday. These were greyish brown peas, which our mothers steeped on the Saturday and we all had packets of them to eat on the Sunday. We would pick the wild rose branches and stick a carling on each point. It was who could get the biggest one to hold the most carlings. Simple things, but then we were simple. Our fun never had to depend on money. We had a holiday on Pancake Day, and one on Royal Oak Day. The boys and girls would gather into gangs and roam up and down the four streets singing ‘Royal Oak Day on the 29th of May, if you don’t give us holiday we’ll all run away’.
But I think the greatest day for the children was the Sunday School treat. It was always held on the Friday the schools closed for the summer holidays. We, from the Cottages, joined with the mother church of St. John from Seaham Harbour. We marched in procession from the school along what is now Princess Road and so far through the Dene then into the Jubilee grounds, which have since been closed because of mining subsidence. These grounds were large and had swings and roundabouts and May poles. There was a large building with tables and forms right down the centre, where we had tea if it rained. If the weather was fine we sat on the grass and school teachers and parents supplied us with the tea, buns and sliced currant loaf from clothes baskets. The boys and the men would take the women and girls up on the swings, but I remember a big row when a new curate stopped the fun because he would not allow such infamous goings on as mixed swinging. He stopped a couple by hooking the swing with his walking stick and nearly caused a serious accident whilst tearing the lady’s blouse. She happened to be the wife of a policeman and there were ructions about it. He, the curate, didn’t last long after that. There were rebels you see in those days too, for they made their voices heard although they stood in awe of church authority.
There was a drill hall beside the Co-operative store at Seaham Harbour. Every year the volunteers staged a big parade – it was a grand sight. All of the officials at Seaham Colliery were the top notchers in the volunteer brigade, and they headed the parade in their grand uniforms and plumed hats, some on horseback, some on foot. There were brass bands and the whole population (en mass) of Seaham Harbour and the Cottages (it was seldom referred to as Dawdon) turned out to watch. At night a big ball was held in the drill hall. We stood around the outside to watch the people arrive for this great event. We goggled at their dresses of velvet, silk, satin and the jewellery worn by the women. The men were mostly in uniform, but some few were in tails. I remember peeping in and seeing a great cannon standing in the middle of the floor. I suppose it would be moved for the dancing. Yes, times were good and mildly exciting. We were poor, but we did not miss what we never had and we depended mostly on the weather for our enjoyment. What we had most of was fresh air. Families were large, houses were small, so we had to come in only at meal times. Even in the cold weather we spent most hours out of doors. We were warmly clothed, had good strong boots, had good plain food so we took no harm. When our fingers were cold we would stand up against the gable ends of houses and warm them on the wall. It was surprising the heat that penetrated from the large fires of the miners. They had free coal in an adequate supply so everybody was warm. Bricks or oven shelves were put in the beds to warm them. I can remember when we had only oil lamps. It was quite a ritual trimming the lamps each night before it turned dark. A man came round selling lamp oil. He had a trolley and he would shout ‘lamp oil, lamp oil’. It was a favourite pass-time of the children to stand round a corner, pop out and shout ‘what do you feed your donkey on’ and he would shout ‘lamp oil’.
We only had three little tuck shops at the Cottages. Old Janey had one in the first street. Danny had one in the second and MacDade’s had one in our street. Then a family had a little paper shop in their front room. They had a family of boys, one of whom fancied himself as a yodeller. You could hear Joe yodelling in the early and the late hours of every day. I remember their father used to bath them every Saturday afternoon in the poss tub in the back yard. We would see one little naked body after another running across the back lane into the house to be dried. They were as tough as nails or so we thought. However mother’s predictions came true for they were not a long living family. You see mother thought the best place after a bath was bed, and that one paid the price in after years for all this ‘foolhardiness’. It may have had no such effects.
Meals were not elaborate in our early days. All bread was baked at home. We had small round ovens, which were always hot. Mother used to bake 48 loaves at a time. She and her neighbour had an arrangement whereby one would bake one day and half was baked in the neighbours oven after she had made her midday dinner. Then when she wanted to bake Mother would stoke her oven and return the compliment. Then mother baked forty eight tea cakes each week. The boys liked them for their ‘bait’ down pit. A couple of tea cakes with jam in between was considered a good ‘bait’ down pit. Then she baked a large ginger cake in a big dripping tin and it was cut into squares. I can still see my father with a pint pot of cold water, a large chunk of ginger cake and his cracket, strolling across the back street. He would sit in the sun with his back to the backward wall and have his snack. He was also very fond of rhubarb pie and Victoria plums. We had a big bed of cherry rhubarb in our garden, so while it was in season we had plenty of rhubarb pies and puddings with white sauce over them and rhubarb jam. Gosh! I could never eat rhubarb jam again. There were stacks of seven pound jam jars stored on the top shelf of the big pantry. Some with a little apple mixed in and some with ginger. Mother worked exceedingly hard to make ends meet. She sometimes baked bread for sick neighbours, or washed a few shirts or towels to help a neighbour to ‘put over until she was well again’. She made all of our dresses and underclothes and night clothes. Everything she made was decorated with feather stitch. I remember she made my father and brothers some new flannel body shirts for the pit, and my father who was very witty said how nice they were but one thing was missing – the feather stitch. These shirts were put on when they finished their shift so that they absorbed the sweat and helped the miners to prevent them catching cold when they came to the cold atmosphere at bank. She also made ‘bait pokes’ and many a family bought them from mother. She also made ladies aprons, just very plain, made of white calico for best and blue and white checked ones for every day. She made a lot of chemises (shifts as they were called). Some were very decorative and lots of people having babies would buy them. All babies were breast fed in those days. Then there were things called abbot shirts which women wore when feeding babies. These prevented them from being too exposed. Pit men wore flappers. These were very simple and while covering the men allowed them plenty of air. They were worn like bathing trunks. When pitmen came from work these flappers were so wet and covered in pit dust one would have thought they had been dipped in a muddy pool. It was the job of the girls of the family to ease the lives of the miners by having hot water ready to fill the tin bath, and after the bath we had to wash out the flappers and socks and put them to dry. Then we took all the pit clothes outside and dashed them against the wall to remove the pit dust. One had to feel in the pockets and take out face cloths or bait pokes and often one found beetles in the pocket. My father and brothers would often say that they hung their clothes and bait pokes on pit props down pit and when they went for them they were covered in beetles. So a tinsmith set up a shop and began to make bait tins which were carried in their pockets. Then they had tin bottles made by the same man to carry their drinking water. Often we had to take these bottles to have new bottoms put in. They had a little ‘lug’ at one side of the neck through which a string was passed and it was hung on a button stitched to the shoulder of his coat. My father loved to scour the beach at the Blast Sands’ to collect corks washed up from the sea. Mother kept these in a special drawer after she had sterilised them, and everybody in the Cottages knew where to get a new cork for a pit bottle.
We also had to grease the pit boots. This kept the leather pliable. We would put tallow candles in a tin, put the tin in a warm place to melt the candles, then after removing all dirt with a scrubbing brush, we used a cloth to rub on the tallow. Men’s feet were often covered in blisters by the time they had walked three to four miles from the pit in ‘clarty’ socks and heavy boots. When the pit clothes were ‘dashed’ we put them in the right order, the coat spread out first, then the shirts then the socks then wrapped the sleeves of the jacket around the lot and put them into the cupboard under the stairs. When the time came around for another shift we lifted them out and spread them before the fire on the fender. Daughters had to work very hard in a family of pit workers. Woe betides you if you ever forgot to fill up the boiler at the side of the fireplace. The boiler was on the right and the oven on the left with a flue to feed each with hot air. The back of the fireplace had a shelf of two bricks wide. Coals were heaped on here to rake down with a big coal rake when needed. We had to take our turns at filling the coals’. How many mother? ‘Two on and two to stand’ was the answer. One full pail stood in readiness at either side of the back yard step. We had two steps up and a foot scraper at one side. This was sorely needed as streets were like ploughed fields in wet weather and at your peril to bring mud in on the good mats. People made their own mats in those days. Mother made one or two, as was needed, every Christmas time. As soon as the mat back was stitched into the frames we smelt Christmas. Mother would buy some red, green and gold felt at the store and cut it up into clippings. Some people measured these with a match box. Not Mother, she was as quick as lightening snipping the clippings and I bet you all would be the right length when she was finished. These coloured clippings were used to outline a pattern which my father had already designed. He was very good at drawing although he could neither read nor write. Mother was a good reader but oh the fun we had with her spelling! As she ran out of things for the pantry she would write the items with chalk on the back of the pantry door. We have spent hours trying to decipher them. She could, and always said the same thing ‘you talk about scholars, I can beat the lot of you’. Back to the mats. The rest of the mat was filled up with mixed clippings from old trousers or coats or such strong material so as to give good wear. Oh yes – and the border was always black. When the mat was finished and cut out of the frames it was my father’s job to make a big pan of toffee and this was shared amongst those who had had any share in the making. What a time to look forward to and to be the first to roll on the new mat. Great days. You will all notice that our pleasures had to be without cost. Mother many times had to go to bed as soon as my father had left for work, around 8:00 to 8:30, because she had no money for oil or the gas when it was installed.
Only twice can I remember my father and mother having a trip on a Saturday. Once they went on a train trip to Stockton. We children thought they had gone to the other side of the world. We had never been left on our own for so many hours, although my older sisters and brothers were quite capable. Father told us the train would pass along the line at the bottom of the street and we were all to wave farewell. We waited and waited but most of us were asleep before they came home, but we wakened up, came down stairs and they had brought a big bag of horehound candy. What jubilation. The other time they went to Sunderland. My mother brought a new hat for me. It was bright red and exactly like the helmets worn by Dad’s Army, only it had a big feather sticking out at one side. I hated it, however one of the girls in my Sunday school class chewed the feather almost entirely and finally when out one blustery evening the crown blew away and I was left with just the rim. Mother always bought our clothes when she saw bargains. Whether they fit or not was a different matter. I remember the sailor’s suit she bought for my brother John, to wear on the Sunday school trip. The legs reached down to his ankles, but it was Mother’s contention that that was the wise way to buy clothes then you grew into them. Poor bairn – he looked comical and matters were worsened because he had to wear his straw bertie with it. These were very popular but not with a sailor’s suit and to make matters worse everybody laughed and pointed. John had a violent temper and I often wonder that he did not take the offending trousers and rip them to pieces, instead of which he just walked with a red face and a very set mouth. It made him look worse. But we did not realise then as we do now in these affluent days, the struggle mother had to make ends meet. We were well fed and warmly clad thanks to her ingenuity. She could always manage a trip to the pantomime on a Saturday afternoon in the winter, a small present each from the three penny bazaar, with a new hanky and a new penny at Christmas time, a paste egg at Easter and carlings on Carling Sunday. No birthdays were celebrated, but then ‘there were too many’. Mother used to get very angry when one used this phrase in any connection with her family. She would say never say too many if you were talking of her family, because if God gave her a choice to sacrifice one she would not be able to decide. She was a good wise woman, but very strict, but then she had to be as there were twelve of us every day, including father, mother and Jack Blake. The latter was a cousin to us, nephew to my parents. His mother was my mother’s only sister and when she died, Jack, who was thirteen, joined our family. We always referred to him as Jack Blake. He was a good worker, and every fortnight on payday he would give each of the little ones of the family a penny. We looked forward to this as we never got any other money; men were paid every fortnight. One weekend was called pay weekend and other was called baff weekend. The pawnshops did a good trade every baff weekend. I remember one family, in our street, would have a glorious time on pay weekend. Friday was payday and all the family would be off to the theatre on the Friday night, into town on the Saturday and dead broke after that. Everything possible was pawned the next week. Mother was too proud to live this way. She schemed and pinched and made her money serve. Theatres and pictures were out of the question.
Boys and girls all played together. We played with balls and skipping ropes and hitchy dabbers and diablos (father called me the diablo queen) but he always predicted a broken nose. We played rings, choosing the boys we wanted to kiss and we played boy’s games as well. In winter the boy would put a candle in a jar hung with string. This was known as ‘the Maggie’. They would run away in the dark, shine their Maggie and we had to follow the light and try to catch them. As we ran we shouted the jingle: ‘Jack shine yer Maggie, or the dogs canna foller’. The girls played buttony. We had bags of buttons round our necks and we would play each other or in teams. We had to throw a button up against the wall and then your partner would follow suit. If you could span the distance between the two buttons you were the winner and took your partners button. Then we played hitch bays. Bays or squares were chalked on the ground, we had no pavements, and we hitched the dabber from square to square. Of course there were many rules and diversities in the game and one had to practise a good deal to be expert. We were not allowed to play any of these games on a Sunday, It was supposed to be against God’s rules, but I suspect it was because of our Sunday boots. But like all children we could find a way round. We played ‘Sunday bays’ which omitted the dabber, and ball games against the wall. The wall took the battering instead of our boots and that did not offend God. We could not play ring games like ‘Looby Loo’, ‘Old Roger is dead’, ‘Oh Mary what are you weeping for’ and Romans and British’ etc. because we could not sing songs on Sundays. I had to take the younger children out for a walk on Sunday morning while the dinner was being made. Of course we went to all the forbidden places. Many a lie we’ve told to cover up. Then we went to Sunday school which was held in the village school. I remember we were never allowed to miss, both mother and father were strict on this. But we never received a prize for good attendance. This went on for some years until Mother noticed that the prizes were given to the children who lived beside the teachers in the first and second rows. Some of my friends received a prize for good attendance in several successive years. So Mother took us away and sent us to the Free Church in Seaham Harbour. I loved it, and received a prize for my contribution at the Anniversary. It was a book called ‘A Basket of Flowers’. I loved the happy singing at Sunday School and it was such a bright lovely church in those days – alas it is no more. However, old ‘Daddy Copley’ was paying frequent visits to our house to bring us back to the fold, and after about a year and a half we were sent back to the dreary old school again. After this some of our family did get the odd prize. They stood on the best table which was covered with a plush cloth. The big family bible stood in the centre with grandmother’s photo on top, then the books at each corner with a photo of uncles and aunts on top. I remember some of the books quite well. My ‘Basket of Flowers’, ‘The last of the Mohicans’, ‘What Katy Did’, ‘The Log Cabin’, ‘Children of the New Forest’, ‘Bachelor’s Buttons’ and some I don’t remember at present. I loved them but Mother wasn’t keen on reading ‘trash’. All books were ‘trash’. She thought one’s time was better spent on mending, darning, knitting, etc. You see how times change and progress. I read a good deal when my children were young. Stories at bedtime, and rhymes and jingles were great pleasures for you when you were young and not the distorted versions my father used to repeat to amuse us. He would draw for us mostly amusing pictures and make up a story as he went on and we would be in stitches at him and remember he was no scholar. He bitterly regretted this all his life and was determined that we should not be like him. He told us many times that when he was only an infant he was brought to Seaham Colliery. His father was a miner and he went from pit to pit. He was taken to the local school and in order to find out which ‘class’ he was fitted for, the master asked him to read from a child’s book. Father recognised the picture and reeled off the nursery rhyme. The master looked very pleased but when asked to read the next page he did not recognise the picture and could not read a word. The master thought he had been taken for a ride and that he thought, should not escape punishment. He beat my father so severely that he ran from the building and no further punishment or persuasion could ever make him return.
Of course in those days children had to pay to go to school and no doubt my grandmother would be glad to be relieved of this debt. But how different these days, thank God or man for making it so. There was a life blighted from childhood for when he became an invalid in his latter years he would have been glad of a nice book to pass his weary hours in greater pleasure. Yes times have changed and the greater part for the better, but don’t believe that the old days were all bad. We were very poor, but we had a peace which you will never understand, that is why I still find great pleasure in my old age, watching the cows go back to pasture across our village green. It recalls my very young days when I sat on our garden wall and watched old Sally from Dawdon Farm call the cows, ‘kee-op, kee-op’, she would shout and all the cows would turn and follow her, I can see her still in her milk maid’s bonnet, skirt turned up at the front and pinned behind, with several frilled petticoats down to her heels and a coarse apron tied with string around the waist She had big boots and a very weather beaten face, having worked on the farms all her life. We knew her by no other name but Sally. We crossed the same field, went under the ‘Dardon Bridge’ to the farm for milk. We always took three cans ‘two pints of old and one of new please’. The old milk was very cheap and we had it on our porridge for breakfast. We used condensed in our tea. We never had coffee or cocoa. The latter we didn’t like and the former we had only heard of in the shops. The ‘hitchy dabbers’ I mentioned before were got from the ‘bottle house’. This was a factory making glassware. It was situated along Ropery Walk at Seaham Harbour, just before my time there had been a Ropery and a Blacking Factory, but these had ceased and the ‘Bottleworks’ employed many of the adult population of Seaham Harbour and the Cottages. Many of our friends worked there, but mother thought it a common place for girls. The ‘Blacking Factory’ I mentioned used to make, amongst other things, blacking for boots and horses harnesses. You put these black cakes in a tin, poured water over, then applied the paste to the boots or other articles to be polished. It needed a lot of elbow grease to make a shine. Jack Blake was an expert at making his boots shine. He took a great pride in his boots, so much so that no one had to touch them but himself. It was the girls’ job to take all the Sunday boots into the back yard on a Monday morning before school and clean them ready to put away until the next Sunday. Then when we got ‘off the floor’ that meant school or bed, in this case school. Mother would brush all the Sunday clothes, remove anything from the pockets and they were then folded and put away in the two bottom drawers of the tall boys (chest of drawers) until the next Sunday. Nothing but a funeral would disturb those clothes until the following Sunday. ‘Funerals’ – there was an occasion, alas not an uncommon one. Everybody in the Cottages would rally around the bereaved and on the day of the internment the body was brought from the house into the street and set upon chairs. The population would gather around and sing hymns and standing in the background would be the ‘waiters on’. These women would be dressed in their Sunday black with a white apron on. Mother was usually amongst them. Then the coffin would be carried to Dawdon Cemetery. Only the better off could afford a hearse. These huge black painted, glass fitted monstrosities were decorated with plumes at each corner. The bigger the plume the dearer the service. The mourners rode in cabs. If it were a child being buried, a box was hung on the back of the cab. It had sides of glass so that you could see the coffin. But I remember as a child seeing women carrying little white boxes under their arms. These were babies of a few hours or days old being taken by the midwives to the cemetery.
But even at death the miners could joke. They had a very keen sense of humour, and so many of their pals met with fatal accidents in those days that they must have developed this humour to protect themselves. The powers that be at the collieries showed no respect. It seemed to be considered as one of those things. I remember a man falling down the shaft into the sump. His wet dripping body was brought by comrades through the streets on a very roughly constructed hand cart. He had been a very short sighted man who wore very thick glasses and I, as a little girl, wept as I saw it go along. But I heard the men joking and actually laughing about it afterwards. Again I remember the story father told mother when one of our neighbours was killed. The official at the colliery chose a man to go down and break the news to the family. This was always a terrible job, so the chosen one tried all the way to think of a gentle or subtle way to break the news. This particular messenger knocked on the door and the housewife answered. He said “does widow Brown live here?”, she said “my name is Brown, but I’m not a widow”. He said, “well you soon will be when you see what is coming”. Yet they were only callous outwardly. Underneath they were a grand lot of men extremely kind to all children.
Men played several games in the little free time they had. I remember seeing them at marbles with a huge ring chalked at the bottom of the street. Street played street in competitions, and their knuckles would be red raw by the time the game was over. Remember we had no well laid roads or streets and no footpaths as we have today. They used to box, bare fists, and wrestle, all in fun but there were many black eyes and bloody noses, when they were finished. Another popular game was handball. The miners had a ‘ball alley’ at Seaham Colliery. This was a high very wide wall built on some waste ground near the bridge which led over the railway to the pit. It was smoothly cemented and was always kept in good trim. Men would smash a hard ball with their fists against this wall. They counted and followed various rules. They played in teams, and other collieries joined in matches just as they do with darts today. Then they had cards and domino matches. My father’s hobby was pigeons. Most men kept them. They had dockets at the bottom of their gardens, had pigeon races and really enjoyed their one day off at the weekend. Some men had whippets. You always knew a whippet man because he wore a red handkerchief tied tightly around his neck. These men were the gamblers, so my father wasn’t amongst them. Many men went fishing, especially those with male families. They owned their own cobbles, so fish was plentiful and cheap. They brought their catch and hung it on iron roped fences at the bottom of Church Street at Seaham Harbour. So if we wanted fish we went to the ‘rails’. There were four fish and chip shops in Seaham Harbour. These were only open at night, every night excepting Sunday. One proprietor was known as George Willie. It was near the Theatre Royal, the only place of entertainment in those days and at the interval, all would rush to George Willie’s. “Two ha’porths George Willie”, meant a fish and a ha’porth of chips. These were usually the families like the ones I mentioned before who lived up our street, no breeches with backsides in and no shoes to their feet, but the whole family excepting the father, would be at the theatre each week. We were only allowed to go to the pantomimes at Christmas time, but we were well clothed and well shod.
We looked forward with glee to pay Saturday. We had several families at the Cottages where the father took too much drink, and caused a terrible scene at the weekend. One man always opened the upstairs window and threw out pictures and crockery or anything that would go through the window. Another couple, for both drank too much, fought with flour. It is quite true. She would fetch a large bowl of flour from the pantry, put it on the table and they would throw handfuls at each other. Crazy! But great fun to watch. It was like a comic picture. Another one had a rifle. He was a poacher and he would scare the life out of the whole street. We children would see him rolling back home and we would scatter shouting ‘Jimmy Thomas’. The streets were emptied till Jimmy was safely indoors. I never knew him shoot the rifle but there was always the chance.
There were many hawkers in those days. We had only the little tuck shops at the Cottages, so hawkers were very welcome. There was the lamp oil man, the pikelet man with two clothes baskets on his head. These were filled with pikelets and covered with clean white cloths. When warmed and buttered these were lovely for tea. There was the yeast man. He came round once a week in a little trap. Mother could get the yeast on the baff week to pay for it on the pay week. There was the egg man, hen and duck eggs, brought in big baskets. No milkman, we carried our own from the farm. There was the ‘prop wife’ called one eyed Clara. What a character. Terrible to look at poor thing and this enhanced with her rags that she wore. She carried the props on her shoulders and called out “clothes props”. The boys and girls teased her unmercifully and she would reply with the foulest language, words that we had never heard but guessed they were swear words because it was Clara. She would go berserk, put down the props and chase them all, and really to see her with her arms and legs flaying the air was very laughable, but thank goodness she never caught anybody. Then there were fruit hawkers. Whatever was in season, someone would come round with a small horse and cart selling that fruit. There was the ragman. Oh their trumpets! They would give candy for rags, bones or jam jars. So any raucous noise was referred to as ‘the candy man’s trumpet’. Oh, I forgot to say the pikelet man rang a little hand bell. Then there was the potman. His visits were fairly rare, but I can still see him with about a dozen plates in his hand which he rattled. He held them like a man holds a stack of cards when he is displaying them. He also sold brown dishes and jars. Then there was the second-hand clothes woman with her big basket. They were clothes begged from the better off and sold cheaply to the poor. Not for mother. She said you never knew what diseases you might get from them. There was the vinegar man. It was surprising the trade he had, but then people in those days were very fond of vinegar and gardeners had onions, beetroots and pickling cabbages to pickle for the winter. In every pantry you would see big jars of pickles ready for the winter. We never had preserved fruit. Mother believed in fresh fruit when it was in season. Once a man came round selling eggs. They were extremely cheap. He said he had got them from a boat in the docks. Someone who had been served first happened to use them straight away and found out they were all bad. Word went round the grapevine in no time at all, and the poor man was pelted with the rest of his eggs before he could make his escape. Make no mistake, tempers ran very high if they thought they were being cheated.
Money was scarce so every halfpenny counted. I remember going shopping with mother and a thing would be marked 6 3/4d. Now the farthing was being phased out, so mother reckoned if you could not get your farthing change why mark things in farthings? So she decided she would have her money’s worth and asked for a farthings worth of pins in lieu of her farthing. She never purchased anything without a lot of palaver. She would ask for something made of cotton and she would pull this way and that and examine it thoroughly and reject it saying it was full of starch and when washed would be like a clout. If by buying two small items she could save a farthing she would buy two. I can still feel her nudging me with her elbow and saying “you have to watch shopkeepers, they are selling but I’m buying”. Every Monday following the pay Saturday she would go to the Co-op. She would say “if I only have a penny or tuppence to put in the savings bank, I know that I am not in debt, and always remember pennies grow into shillings”. She would also say “you can look anybody in the face if you have a pound or two behind you”. She didn’t economise on food, she bought all she could afford, but we often just had half a kipper each for tea, or even half an egg. I often think of her when I have a boiled egg. I can see Mother with one flick of a knife, slice an egg in equal halves and never waste a bit of yoke. What a mother to be proud of. Mind you, disobey her, or cross her in any way and out came the tawse. We called them ‘the tars’. This was a leather strap with tails cut half way up. One lash with the ‘tars’ and you submitted. Yet we had a lot of love. Father would sit by the hour asking guessing stories. Many of them were made up by himself. He would repeat nursery rhymes which had little semblance to the original but were much more entertaining. The same with fairy tales. His father was quite a good scholar although he was self taught. At the early age of eight he lost his parents, and his sister and he was left alone. They lived in the Isle of Man. His sister went to train as a nurse in London, she being the elder, and my grandfather came to Cumberland as a stowaway. He often used to tell us of the old cottage they left behind. One room downstairs with half of a ceiling built above. This half made an upstairs bedroom, which had a ladder. I saw one which I imagined must be very similar when I was in the Isle of Man. He never heard from his sister again, as he had landed in Whitehaven. He was looked after by a miner and his family and worked as a trap boy down pit. He was only eight years old. As he grew older he went to other pits, then married and had a family, finally settling in Seaham Colliery. He was a great one in the union movement and was deported to America, as he was blacklisted and could not get work throughout the country. He was brought back and became one of the best respected men at Seaham Colliery, but a strong trade unionist.
My father David, called after his father, was the second son. He married my mother who was an orphan. She had a sister (I am called after her) and a brother. Mother was the youngest. Her father was a sea going man. He had gained his tickets and had been promised his own ship on the next voyage, but was lost at sea, just off Hartlepool. This was a great tragedy for the family. My grandmother was terribly crippled with rheumatism and could do nothing. In those days when the head of the house was taken the whole family fell to pieces. Mother’s sister and brother had been well educated (for a poor class) but mother got not further education after reaching seven. At eight years old she was working at the farm, but she was always grateful for the kindness the farmer’s wife displayed towards her mother. It wasn’t the coppers she received but the butter, eggs, potatoes and a turnip each week, sufficient with care to last them. All those years afterwards mother still used to weep about the heartbreak her mother suffered over parting with her bits and pieces. They could receive no assistance as her mother refused to part with her sewing machine. All they had left was the table, three chairs and the beds. Although grandmother could no longer use the machine she was bent on keeping it for mother. Grandmother had been a tailoress, indeed, she made the riding habits for quality in her younger days, being employed in a shop for that purpose. Mother too was very handy with the machine. Employers seemed so heartless in those days. Yet mother always got comfort from the fact that she had been spared the fate of my father’s aunt.
She worked down the mine. She pulled the tubs like a beast. Yet she lived till she was eighty. She was a very small, thin but tough old lady. She always looked as if she had just got out of a tub of hot water. Her clothes too were plain but immaculate. She wore a little bonnet tied with ribbons under her chin, a big warm shawl and very bright black boots. I do not think she had ever ridden in any vehicle in her life, but walk, my goodness, she had her constitutional every day. Her house which consisted of one room and a pantry was as clean and neat as herself, and I remember she made ginger beer to get a few coppers, well she had to, her room cost one shilling and sixpence a week rent. Mother used to send her a quarter pound of tea every pay weekend. Her husband had left her with two small children. You see she was a Salvationist, a non smoker, non-swearer, non-drinker and non-gambler, just a good efficient housewife. She was very roughly spoken, but very honest. Matt her husband was none of these and so at last she gave him to understand that he must either conform or get out. He chose the latter and she worked very hard to bring up her two children respectfully. Years afterwards, she was paying a visit to her sister (my grandmother) when they heard someone singing in the street. Thinking it was a beggar, a very usual thing in those days, grandmother looked out of the window and asked Aunt Annie if it was Matt. Yes it was. She got up to the window and pelted him with all the tea things on the table. The astonished Matt made his getaway as quickly as possible and was never heard of again.
Grandmother was a little stout woman with the pinkest parting down the centre of her snow white hair. She was what we would call a canny little soul, mild and gentle and greatly loved by grandfather. He was boisterous and drank a lot, talked a lot but left the house and family in control of grandmother entirely. When I was very small they lived in the old mill I told you of at the beginning of this tale. It had ceased to work and was converted into a dwelling house called the Round House. It was extremely quaint but neither hygienic nor satisfactory. Next to it were some little old cottages called the Mill Cottages. They have long since disappeared. Next to the Round House was a big field, one had to climb a stile to get to it, and I remember the big dog grandmother had leaping over this stile. In their latter years they lived a little distance from this mill in the Miners Homes. Grandfather paid frequent visits to the Mill Inn, where he was well known and well treated. His legs were failing him and when he left the pit at night he would stand and shout “Janey, Janey” at the top of his voice and Janey would come and take him home. He had to promise he would not cross the road without her. He died when he was 83 and grandmother soon followed him at 81. Their family did not reach anything like these ages. My father was only 53. He never touched spirits in his life, yet my grandfather has been known to drink several bottles in a week. He used to say it preserved him and that was the last thing he asked for before he died. Grandmother’s house was very clean but very poor as was normal in those days. I remember Grandfathers big arm chair with the spittoon beside it. He was not allowed to spit into the fire place. She had a square table, a dresser and some odd chairs. I also remember a stool made out of a butchers block. It was very, very heavy, but it stood solid on four legs and could not be tippled. Grandmother seemed so opposite to Grandfather. She neither smoked nor drank, nor swore. She had little to say, whereas Grandfather never stopped talking. After rambling on he would look at her for some comment and all she ever said was “aye so Betty was saying”, or “aots man” yet she could rule him and he loved her.
As I said before Father had his pigeons. Uncle Bob (he was father’s brother in law) lived up the street and he was a great pal. He had a very loud voice, which was always heard above all others, and when he laughed it could be heard all over the Cottages. He laughed all the hours that he was awake mostly at himself, which my father used to say, showed the quality of the man. I remember when Uncle Bob built his first pigeon ducat. He built it in the attic room of his house, and then found he could not get it through the door. He had everybody in the Cottages up looking at this beautiful ducat he had made before he would take it to pieces again. It caused peels of laughter, the loudest from Bob himself.
Talk of smoking. Even the old women smoked pipes. Ganny Race would sit at her back door enjoying her pipe. I can picture her so vividly. She was a tiny little woman with a very wrinkled face. She always called bananas ‘fananas’. Her husband was just as tiny. He had an accident at the pit which caused brain damage. He became like a little child, I remember he used to run out of the house as soon as her back was turned. One day I and some other children were playing at the bottom when we saw the old man running towards us. He was just in his shirt, no pyjamas in those days, so we ran for Ganny. Of course, before she caught him he was half way across the cows’ field. We were highly amused when we saw her bringing him back. She was holding up his shirt tail and slapping his bottom as he ran, just like you would treat a naughty child. “Run away wad ye, I’ll larn ye”, she was saying. I am saying old Ganny Race, but you know she would not be sixty, because she did not die until nearly twenty years later. But people looked and dressed old when they were comparatively young. Grandma bonnets and capes, with long trailing skirts made them look very old. Mother never wore those, they were going out of fashion.
Mother had to go down into Seaham Harbour every Saturday night to do her shopping. Shops were open then until near midnight. She would see all the work done and the young ones bathed and in bed before she went out. Two older ones were left in charge. As my oldest sister went into service I was left with my sister older than me to keep charge. My sister was always up to some tricks. Once she varnished all the furniture. My mother was really mad when she returned and we couldn’t sit on a chair or touch the furniture for days. There was no quick drying in those days. Another time she had a fancy to make welsh rarebit, but as the frying pan would smell of cheese and give the game away she fried it on the dust pan. The greasy mark left behind gave the show away. Another time she would make some pancakes. But instead of a few tablespoons of flour, she used a very big dish full, mixed it with water and poured a good pan full out. It would not set so we had to get rid of the lot. Where and how, that was the point, so we each took a cup and threw a cup full into every midden in the street, thereby spreading the load. It was years afterwards when we told mother. For once we fooled her.
Then my father began to stay with us instead of going out. He would make a pan of toffee and would tell us not to tell mother or he would get into trouble for wasting the stuff. This was just a joke because he knew what would happen. When mother returned we would stare at her until she asked what was wrong and childlike we would say “father hasn’t been making toffee”. Sometimes when the little ones were off to bed, he would make a big pan of hot pot. He knew my brother and Jack Blake would be hungry when they returned. Mother had already made some flat yeasty cakes ready for tea. This was always our Saturday tea with a big jar of strawberry jam. A treat from the rhubarb. Many a chunk has Mother given to the beggars. There were many of these in those days both men and women and especially cripples. Some would sing some would play mouth organs and some would dance. Especially popular were the Scots in full regalia with bagpipes and swords. They would do the sword dance and many of the women in our street would join in a highland fling. They would give these men the very last of their coppers. I remember one beggar who came regularly and was often served by mother. She must have been very short this day but had not the heart to face the man. So she told me to say “she is not in today”. He said, “well I’ll not be back tomorrow”. Out popped mother and told him “never” would be soon enough and he could save himself the bother of ever calling again. That was the last we saw of him. There were several men who lived in the caves on the ‘Blast Sands’. One was known as Loppy Dick. He hung in absolute rags and never washed, but he didn’t beg and no matter how he was teased he never spoke a word. He lived there for many years but was never in any trouble for he molested no one.
We had our weirdoes even in those days. We were severely warned against them and would scatter quickly when we saw them. They molested little girls and the funny thing was they belonged to very good families.
I remember the women who came round at Christmas time with a dolly in a box, supposed to be the Christ child. It was always on the Christmas Eve, after mother had hung up the mistletoe. These were the rims of apple barrels, two inside of each other and decorated with coloured tissue paper. Mother was a good hand at these. Then we bought little toys, sometimes candy ones, to hang on the mistletoe. I remember spending all my money at one go on a wax angel. It was so beautiful with its little gilt wings I couldn’t leave it in the bag. I was taking it out to have another peep when I let it fall. I remember I said “aoh-ah” and that lived with me for many years. The poor angel never reached the mistletoe. I can still picture father teasing us on a New Year’s Eve telling us to go to the bottom and we would see a man with as many noses as there were days in the year. After looking at all the men we saw we would come back and tell him they had all only one nose. My mother had to explain, because he just went on teasing. We all had to sit very still when he was using his cut throat razor, getting ready for going out “where are you going Da?” we would say, “to get my ears pinned back” “Are you going to the doctors then?” “Aye my doctor”, he would say meaning the pub but we didn’t guess. When he came back we would examine his ears very closely, but could see no sign of any shifting but he would insist we were blind. The next time he would say he was going to have his lugs put back again and there was the same performance. He used to get 2/- or 2/6 every fortnight for pocket money, and every Sunday following the pay day he would send us to old Janey’s shop to buy some sweets. This cost him 2d. He would share the sweets amongst us. We had to choose small sweets so that they would go round. This always happened after we had been to church on the Sunday evening. We couldn’t wait for the service to finish. In the later years, as we got to thirteen or fourteen we were allowed out for a while after evening service. Everybody made for the terrace at Seaham Harbour. Boys and girls would follow each other, exchanging chat, from the Railway Street corner to the old infirmary and back again. The Terrace was brightly lit with sweet shops and it was a great attraction. I bet every couple in that generation met and courted on the Terrace. Very few young people ventured beyond the old infirmary, it was a dark stony frightening road beyond. Yet in daylight we loved to roam down Lover’s Lane, now Denehouse Road but when we got to the sea we turned back again. On summer nights Saturday and Sunday it was a great delight to go into Adam and Eve’s gardens. These were beautifully kept gardens, where bunches of flowers, fruit and drinks were served. You went down Chapel Road as far as the police station and opposite was an opening. You walked down a bank, across a foot bridge over a stream and into the gardens. There were stone effigies of Adam and Eve set in the flower beds.
Talking of the police station reminds me of our village bobby. He lived in the first house of the Cottages. The mistress of the school, a Scots lady lived in the same street. The policeman was a big, strong fellow, magnificent in his uniform. He was a friendly, fatherly figure, but mind you everybody had the greatest respect for him. Boys used to get up to tricks but anything beyond the limit and they got a severe clout across the face with his gloves. They seldom repeated the offence. Everybody went to him with their troubles and he always lent a willing ear. He had a big family himself and understood young people. He joined in all activities so there was always order. I remember only once Jack Blake had had too much to drink. He had the horrors as they were called. Bring the police. Now, he would whip him into custody but not our village man. He sat on Jack, douched him with cold water, undressed him, put him to bed and stayed until he was sound asleep.
Our doctor lived in Seaham Harbour. He was six feet three, a very fine looking Irishman. He had great respect for mother. He thought she was the best and most efficient housewife he had come across and told her so. When the last of her nine children were born, he asked her what she was going to call it. She said she had run out of names, so he suggested calling it Gerald after himself. This mother did and he gave the baby a threepenny bit. He sometimes rode on a horse to pay his visits.
I seem to be hopping about like a cat on a griddle. I am back again to New Year’s Day. This was Mother’s Day. Father would say “let ma alone today, look after yourselves because it’s her day off”. You see the neighbours had parties in each others houses. Mother’s was always on New Year’s Eve. There was singing, dancing, joking, eating and drinking. Mother always boiled a ham, a big piece of beef, a pig’s head which was pressed in a dish with a plate on top and on top of that the flat iron. She did a big dish of spare rib and rabbits made into a pie. With the stock she made a furnace pot full of broth. It would take my father a whole day to chop the vegetables. We had plenty to eat for a full week, so that the celebrations could go on. You see life was still good even on ginger wine. She was due to this week of celebrations because she had papered and painted and scoured and washed and made mats all in preparation, and all with the greatest enthusiasm and anticipation. She was a great dancer. I can still see her twinkling toes whenever she heard music. Father never danced but he would sit in a corner and enjoy watching.
Of course we had ‘broken up’ at school. We had had ‘the scramble’. This was a ritual always held on the last day of school. The Marchioness of Londonderry supplied an orange for each child. Then she supplied a big sack of mixed nuts. The centre of the big room was cleared and the nuts were thrown onto the floor and we all had to scramble to get at them. The thickest skin held the longest out. Needless to say the boys did better than the girls but it was all hard fun. Sometimes Lady Londonderry would visit the schools when in residence at Seaham Hall. We were taught special songs, mostly patriotic to sing to her. She was a singer herself with a deep contralto voice. I remember she sang for us once, ‘Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep’. I can still see this well made woman, weighed down with a big hat trimmed with huge ostrich feathers. I thought my mother looked far nicer in her new hat with the bird’s wing in the front, which she bought to go to Stockton, and she had a much smarter figure. In fact she was more commendable in all ways to our minds, but don’t tell the Marchioness.
The big day in the year for the men was ‘Cavel Day’. This was a draw at the pit to see where the putters and hewers worked for the next so many months. Some places were good and some were very bad. On Cavel Day all one could hear was “what’s thee cavel Dave”? “Oh in the watta”, was the reply. This meant he worked in a seam full of water, which brought their skins out in great big boils. It was the dread of every man to ‘get in the watta’. Some families were very lucky and got good cavels, others always seemed to be dogged with bad luck, so there was either great despondency or great joy. These men worked in teams, called ‘marras’. “Wee’s the marras?, one would ask another, when the man told his enquirer “bugger my” you knew the poor fellows marras weren’t up to much. The putter filled the coals into tubs. The coal hewer hewed the coals and the putter filled them into the tubs and hung a token on each one as it was filled. There were ‘token slingers’ at work sometimes. This was a man who changed the tokens on another man’s tub. They were hard to catch, but when they were, they were either heavily fined or dismissed. His life wasn’t worth living if he was caught for he was never forgiven by his workmates. These hard working men had Saturday and Sunday off, but maintenance men had no respite and men like my father only had a Saturday. Mind you they could be sent for at anytime of the day or night for an extra shift, which was always reckoned a ‘god send’. Sometimes father would work a double shift. A boy would call for extra bait to be sent down to him. I remember my oldest sister writing on the bait poke Father’s name, The Maudlin, Staple Top. The ‘Mauldin’ was the name of the seam. Then there was the ‘the Main’ and many others. My father’s ‘marra’ lived at Seaham Harbour but they always met at the crossing to travel along pitman’s walk over a footbridge onto Seaham Colliery Road, then up the Black Road to the ball alley, across the railway bridge and into the pit yard. It was a long way on foot especially in the winter, and it was very, very lonely and dark. I remember I once walked up the Black Road in daylight as I was going to visit my grandmother, then on my way back I had to call at the overman’s office and collect my father’s pay note. This was every other Thursday just after tea. As I went up the Black Road, two pitmen were walking in front of me. I kept well behind and when they came to the high wall around the pig field they stopped. So did I and they shouted “away hinney we’ll not hurt ye”, but I off back home without the note. This was a terrible thing to do, as you had to have a very good excuse for not collecting the note at the proper time or place, otherwise it was returned to Londonderry Offices where all the knobs worked and they could treat you with great disdain. When I explained to father he said the men would be hiding their pipes near the wall, with their matches so that when they left the pit at the end of their shift, they could have a smoke on their way home. This proved correct as the two men recognised me and explained to father. You see when mother was a little girl, a playmate was murdered on Feather Bed Rock and we got so many warnings all men were suspect, so I was forgiven. I do not know how or where the note was collected.
I forgot to mention the game of quoits which was very popular. A big spike was driven into the ground and the mean threw heavy rings called quoits to land on the spike. All these games have many rules which must have made them very entertaining as they were very popular. Collieries played collieries for prizes.
Every morning very early say two three or four o’clock a man called a caller used to come round to call up men for the first shift. He would knock on the door with a knobby stick, and shout ‘caller’. He would continue to knock until you answered so it was best to jump straightaway or all the house, or even the street, would be wakened. I remember one caller was very deaf and would go on knocking until someone opened the door. My brothers thought it would be good fun to frighten him. They waited until they heard his footsteps at the yard gate and then they hammered on the inside of the door. He was mad and they could hear him cursing all the way down the street. The man who came to warn about the working of the colliery was called ‘the crake man’. He rattled this crake up and down the street before telling that the pits would be idle.
I have told about funerals, now I shall tell about christenings. These were big events, almost as big as the weddings. Even the fathers would not miss or the uncles. The woman who carried the baby to church would give away its ‘cheese and bread’. This was the name given to the little parcel presented to the first girls she met if it was a baby boy being christened, or the first boy she met if it was a girl being christened. The parcel had small cakes, a piece of the christening cake and some money in it. Weddings were big occasions too. It wasn’t common for the bride to be in white. Any gay colour would do. Everybody wore buttonholes and most people walked to the church, but the bridal party went in a cab drawn by two horses gaily decorated with ribbons. All the children of the Cottages would gather and as the bridal cab began to move we shouted “hoy a ha’penny out”. The men would throw out coppers and we would scramble for them. The men would all go off to the pubs after the meal and then return late to end in a punch up. The newly married couple usually set up house in one upstairs room of their parent’s home. In Seaham Harbour there were many houses with little cottages built in the back yards. These little two bedroom cottages were greatly prized but one had to know the landlord to be able to acquire one. Key money as it was called was often exchanged as bribes in those days as houses were in short supply. They were between 1/6 and 2/6 a week rent. My cousin set up in one of these cottages and it was very comfortable. My Aunt Annie whom I mentioned earlier had one room downstairs at the corner of Adelaide Row and above her in one room was an ex-schoolmistress. Aunt Annie was very religious and thought God has blessed her in choosing such an aristocratic lady to be her near neighbour. All the ‘elite’ of Seaham lived in Marlborough Street. Seaham Harbour Station stood at the top. There was a ramp to walk up to the Station and as children we used to love to run up and down this on a Sunday morning. To get to it we had to walk down to Seaham Harbour and go up Marlborough Street. There was an alternative, but we had to cross the South Hetton Line and walk along the Black Road which brought you out at the cabin crossing. But this Black Road was very narrow and hemmed in on one side by the railway embankment and on the other by alley-ways leading to the allotments. One man who had one of these allotments was a bad character so we were forbidden to go along the Black Road without escort. So we used Marlborough Street but we were often chased away. These houses had small front yards and footpaths. The occupants all boasted maids who scrubbed the steps and paths so we were not allowed to walk on them. We had to walk on the road and even so were often made to turn back. Class distinction was very rife. We went down the docks to play on a Sunday morning, because we knew there would be no one around. We were forbidden to go there, but children have always been the same. Then we went back home to our Sunday dinner. After dinner, Sunday School and mother would have an afternoon nap on top of the bed. This was a great treat for her.
As I have told you before we all had earth closets. There was a big wooden seat which stretched from wall to wall narrow ways. This had to be scrubbed after washing day, because one could not throw out good hot soapy water. Then it was scrubbed again at the weekend on a Saturday morning. It was a rotten job and we used to wrap a scarf around our nose and mouth. Poor Paddy the midden man had to shovel them out and lead his load away to the tip. Some people used to scrub their chairs and tables. We scrubbed, baking boards, rolling pins, potato mashers, brushes and broom handles and anything made of wood and used in the house. Then we cleaned knives, forks and spoons with bath brick every Saturday morning. An older member of the family would do the brasses. These consisted of fender, tidy betty, brass kettles and stands, candlesticks etc. The hearth was whitened with whiting, and the fireplace blackleaded. This would all take up to dinner time. Then the floors would be scrubbed downstairs and mats replaced which took up to teatime, when the men would return from their football matches. The females of the house relaxed after tea until it was time to bath the little ones and put them to bed. Monotonous? Well we were so glad of a relaxing hour or two that we enjoyed it. Anyway it was our way of life and grumbling got you nowhere. There were no places of amusement as in these days, but we enjoyed an early evening with “The Band of Hope” or at church concerts. Sometimes we had a ‘magic lantern’ show. These were generally shown to help missionary work. These all took place in the long winter evenings, in summer you could find your own recreation in the fields or streets.
Religion in those days was a scary thing. We believed that for every lie we told we would pay for it in the hereafter by having a hot poker pushed down our throats. ‘Don’t eat while you sit on the netty, or you were feeding the devil’ was a firm belief. The netty was the name for the earth closets. It was so widely used we thought nothing of it; in fact people had the name in whitewash on their back yard doors, because any hawker or beggar could use it without question. God was never presented as a kindly fatherly figure but more of a spy watching, unseen, any little misdemeanours one committed, yet overlooking the good. One expected him behind any door ready to pounce and slap you down to size. Death was the ultimate, when God decided to send you to heaven or hell, where you burned in a fierce furnace forever for any sin committed. Imagine any sensitive child lying in sheer terror at nights recalling all his little sins of the passing days. We feared our parents, the priests, the policemen and the ‘class’ of our society. I often think now that we only enjoyed God’s free gifts like, fresh air, wind, rain, snow, the green grass and most of all for me, the birds and flowers. Seeing a swallow now brings surges of happiness that I have forgotten for so long. My father was a bird lover. After a hard long night shift in the mine he would come home, have his bath, get his breakfast, crumble some bread to put on the yard fence posts for the birds and take an early stroll across the fields onto the Blast Sands. He would come home have his dinner and go to bed until it was time to go to work again.
Everybody bathed in either the poss tub or big tin bath. If the poss tub was used it was rolled to the back door after use and tipped over the step. The water cleaned the yard and gutters with the aid of a broom. If a tin bath was used two people had to carry it to the door to tip it for the same process. We had to rub the backs of the miners with a coarse towel. These towels were made from coarse sugar bags. Every family had one or more coarse towels hanging from a nail on the pantry door. You used them to dry any part of your body excepting your face. As I said before we rubbed men’s backs with them, as it was a general thought that washing weakened a miner’s back. You can imagine what it was like for all the members of a big family to get a weekly dip. The tin bath hung on a nail in the back yard when not in use.
We had our own special dialect, which was a mixture of Scottish, Irish, Wels and English, like the population of the Cottages at that time. We never said ‘go’ but ‘gan’, ‘tak’ instead of ‘take’, thrippeny bit, ‘hume’ instead of ‘home’, ‘lugs’ instead of ‘ears’, ‘brick’ instead of ‘break’, ‘breed instead of ‘bread’. Oh dear, it was like a foreign language. For example – ‘had away doon the bottom an see if ye can fin the bairns’, ‘if I etter tell ye again the can luck oot for it”. The boys in class at school felt positively soft when they had to read from a book. In fact some of them could not understand the language, swear words were used always by many children, but they had to be clean swearing. It was not allowed in our home, but we knew all the words.
School was a terrible place. It was the rule of the rod, and parents had no redress. It was supposed to be good for us. The lessons were very monotonous. Reading, writing and arithmetic. Writing in the winter was really terrible, because a blot from your pen brought severe punishment. We had a little geography and history when we reached the senior class, but geography was just a repetition of all the rivers, mountains and promontories around the coast of England. We learned songs, mostly patriotic, but these lessons were only occasional. When you reached the top standard the boys got drawing and the girls sewing. A garment like a nightdress would be produced by each pupil and that was all. We learned all we ever knew in sewing and knitting from mother. One could sit an examination at 12 or 13 years to leave school. It mostly depended on the state of the labour market whether one succeeded. Boys went to the mines girls went to the Bottleworks or into service. A servant girl was lucky to receive three shillings a week for doing all the work including washing, cooking and minding the children while the mistress went out at night. They would have Saturday night free, one week and Sunday night the next, always depending on the whims of the mistress, but as mother said if they were in service they ‘were one less to feed out of our own pantry’.
Life was very hard for our parents but, of course, like all children we did not realise this. But one good thing was we were free from all fears of war, which when we came to experience war later on brought home to us our peaceful security in our very young days.
Washing days were the greatest dread in those days. I remember our clothes were made of strong heavy stuff, like worsteds or woollens, for endurance as they had to be handed down. These were hard to wash and harder still to dry. People had very big mangles in those days, but no spin dryers, or biological washing powders. No, the dirt had to be removed by hard scrubbing with hard blue mottled soap. This was bought in long bars and stacked for weeks to harden so that ‘they would go a long way”. Mother bought blue mottled for household purposes and ‘pale’ soap for personal purposes. All was hardened in a cupboard for weeks until you could scarcely cut it up. Clothes were possed with a poss stick made of hard wood. The part that possed was like a tree trunk cut like clothes pegs are cut. Then there was a handle convenient in length for the handler, with a thick wooden peg at the top to hold when possing. Plonk, plonk, plonk went the posser, plonk, plonk, plonk if you double possed. Mother had two possers because everything was double possed. But the drying was a different matter. If the weather was fine and windy all was well. The clothes were hung in the gardens and across the back street. But in bad weather they hung in the small kitchens for nearly a week, and tempers were frayed to breaking point, trying to dodge damp clothes. If the weather was good tempers were good and there was singing and much banter between neighbours. I laugh now when I think of the clothes flying in the back street. Women’s wide voluptuous shifts and bloomers of every deep colour you can imagine, swelled out with the wind like barrage balloons. Men’s long Johns and wide big shirts of flannel, all blowing in the wind. The remarks passed were jolly and in clean good fun. There was widespread happiness on those lucky days. But big rolleys covered in, bringing goods from the co-op would be sure to come on washing day. Some of the drivers, who always came from Seaham Harbour, would be anything but helpful. There was widespread antipathy towards the Cottages people to start with, so they would drive through the clothes, knocking out the props and snapping the lines. Clothes would be dragged through the streets and dirtied. The women decided they had had enough. They knew the drivers and decided to wait. It only needed one rumpus, and no driver did it again. They knocked at the door and asked if they could be through, sometimes clothes had to be taken down, sometimes they could be propped higher, but peace was restored. There were Catholics and Protestants all living together, and sometimes there was trouble but no more so than between Catholic and catholic or Protestant and Protestant. Gunpowder Plot was a great night. There were plenty of crackers and London lights and a big bonfire. It was a welcome way to get rid of a year’s rubbish for parents, and a jolly night for all of us. But our joy was marred the year a tiny tot was burned to death in its pushchair. Its older brother or sister had left it too close to the bonfire. I witnessed it and I have always been fearful of bonfires since. But the old order changeth. When I was nine years old a railway line was built along the bottom of our street connecting the South Hetton line to a site near Dawdon Farm. It was the foundation of the ‘new pit’ as it was called at Dawdon. Trucks began to fly backwards and forwards an on this line and one of my playmates was killed, crushed between two wagons. He was a rough boisterous happy boy. As he came rushing out of school that fateful lunchtime I remember the teacher shouting after him. “Tom Wharton, you know what’s in store for you when you come back”. But he never came back. Then houses began to spring up, houses for the new miners, occupied first by the sinkers and freezers working on the new pit shaft. Our little peaceful village was no more. Streets and streets of houses, newly built, began to be occupied by miners from outlying collieries, and we began to be despised. Although these people had left worse colliery houses than our beloved cottages they felt superior in their new houses, and we were gradually pushed out. A new school was built and new teachers bought in. A new church was built and a new vicar installed. A new surgery was built and a new doctor appointed. What a change. We did not want to stay anymore. Whereas we had hated the idea of leaving the Cottages to go to Seaham Colliery, we now queued to go. Once over everybody longed to be given a house at the Cottages, now nobody was keen, only as a last resort. Mind you I had never heard of Durham Big Meeting until Dawdon Colliery came into being. I suppose it was too costly for our fathers to go to Durham so it passed us by. But not now, this new breed made a great thing of their big meeting. It was talked of for a good few weeks before and then on the day before the women folk were kept busy baking. I remember seeing meat pies and bilberry pies galore outside cooling, all in readiness for the big day. The banners and band were on the march to Seaton Station at six o’clock that morning. What a turn out and what a return in the evening. We had never in all our lives seen as many drunken men. But we were to see a lot of them in the future. I suppose it was a way of life then and, of course, times have changed again.
At first I didn’t like the school although I loved the new teachers. I didn’t like the church, but all this was because it was a new way of life. At first the church called ‘St Hilda’s (HILD’S??) and St Helen’s’ was referred to as the brick factory. The inside was all bare brick, no doubt the best of bricks, but the pillars were square and all brick. We had been used to round, plastered pillars nicely painted, but this was new, and it took some of us a long time to accept it. All our lovely fields disappeared and new roads opened up to what had been to us inaccessible places, we felt old, small and despised. The Cottages had died and we mourned its loss and many of us forsook it and went to live at Seaham Colliery. I myself felt my childhood had been ruthlessly destroyed. I think we look back with nostalgia on many things which are better to look back on than to endure. Our parents were very strict and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was strictly followed. I know if mother said we were to be punished we were punished. I remember the time near Christmas when a concert was to be given by the Sunday Schools in the Candlish Memorial Hall. This was a big building, a community centre, we would call it now, situated near the Bottleworks. I had been presented to the community in memory of one of the Candlish family who owned the Bottleworks. Now a girl who lived in our street, who fancied herself as a theatrical, and whom we regarded as a stuck up clown (which she may not have been) was one of the artists. She was going to sing and dance. Our motive for going to the concert was quite ignoble, for we had no idea of the girl’s ability. To us it was a great joke. We had looked forward for weeks to the great event but when the Saturday dawned the rain simply pelted down and we couldn’t go out of doors. A Saturday of all days to rain like that when there was so much work to be done in the house. So mother said we could play in the upstairs bedrooms, but not in the best room. Well there was a crowd of little feet galloping around and the noise got on mother’s nerves and at last she said ‘any more and no concert’. You would think this would have curbed us but somehow it didn’t, and we thought she would be so glad to be rid of us for the whole afternoon that she would relent. Not mother, all our apologies and tears could not move her, so we did not go to the concert. Our friends afterwards sang high praises for our girl and we had missed it. You can imagine what we thought and said on the sly about our punishment, but no doubt we deserved it. I wouldn’t care there was only a collection and we could pass the plate without any shame, we were so used to it.
Shanks’ pony was our way of travel. I can remember my first ride in a train; I would be eight or nine. Mother took us to Roker in the summer holidays. ‘Never again’ she said and no wonder. We had bottles of water, bread and jam and teacakes, which we thought a sumptuous meal. But the seaside air made us so hungry it had gone as soon as we hit on the beach. Mother couldn’t afford to supplement this and we were all crying out for something to eat before we had been there half of the allotted time. It was a long trail from Roker to the Sunderland Station and another nearly as long from Seaham Harbour Station to the Cottages. That was the end of our trips. Mother said and quite truthfully that we had more fun playing in our own fields with much less bother. Then I remember having a ride in a trap. A man living at Seaham Colliery had ponies and traps which were used for public travel. Two used to stand at Seaham Harbour beside the store. It was called the Castlereigh Stand. It took you up Seaham Colliery Road to Model Street. That was its terminus. My grandmother lived in the house attached to the Miners Hall. So we left the trap and walked up the Black Road. I thought I was somebody great because I had ridden a trap. We always walked. The doctor rode a bicycle, a contraption with very high handlebars and two big wheels. Before that he had a horse. But when we went to Seaham Colliery the doctor had a motor bike. You should have seen the excitement when this noisy thing roared through the streets and in those days the doctor seemed to be always on the roads. His surgery was open every day and all hours. But I remember when the new surgery was built at Dawdon and I had to go to register a call. I rang the bell, a new innovation, and I heard a voice saying “yes, what is it?” I could not tell where the voice was coming from. A maid came to the door at last and she must have been mad at me and I bet she thought me the nitwit of the year and pointed to a speaking tube just above the bell. I was so frightened and confused I forgot my message. This was when we still lived at Dawdon. I am skipping around aren’t I? But it is just as I remember. The same man with the traps had traps standing at the foot of the bank that led into Dawdon Dene from Dawdon end and these carried passengers through the Dene to the foot of the bank leading out at Dalton-Le-Dale. There were no lights along this road and there was no other means of transport. I remember years after, a young man was killed on his motorbike at the Dawdon end of the Dene. He ran into the shafts of one of the traps standing there. This Dene was very popular on a Sunday night in summer time when families went out walking. Aunt Annie, whom I have mentioned before, used to walk right through and back again once every week, winter and summer. She was a funny old girl very determined and very brave. She and my grandmother used to chuckle over the stories they could tell of Uncle Matt. Evidently this gentleman made a habit of grumbling about his dinner, no matter what was set before him. He always said the same thing “what muck is this then”. Annie would say it was no muck and many a man would be glad of it etc. etc. whereupon he would fling it away. One day she went to grandmother’s very distressed and told her he had flung away his dinner again and said he would rather have dog muck as eat that rubbish. Now grandmother never had any trouble like this. She said “well Annie, you can easily satisfy him there”. It set the notion in Annie’s head and she soon was thoroughly enjoying the thought of seeing his face the next day when she put grandmother’s suggestion into action. Sure as life “what’s this muck then?” She removed the cover and said “something you’ve been asking for for a long time Matt, and I hope you enjoy it”. He never grumbled again, but he never mended his manners either and at last decided to disappear altogether. She used to say it was the best thing that ever happened to her. What a woman, scarcely five feet high with a face so thin and weather beaten that her eyes, nose and ears swamped her head, but she was afraid of no-one. Isn’t it funny the things you associate with people when you are young. I remember one day when I walked across to the back yard, and as I put my hand out to lift the sneck I thought my goodness that looks like my uncle’s face. And do you know to this day when I look at an old fashioned sneck I am reminded of him, I think it was the way he wore his cap tilted over his brow. Many of the men who lived at the Cottages were very small in stature. It seems to me, as I look back and remember that this present age is much taller than they were then, although my father was nearly six feet and very straight. People always thought he was a member of the volunteers.
Living in a family of boys is a great experience. You had to be tough to stand up to them because they were very rough. Mind you we were never allowed to fight with fists. Mother always said she was quite capable of chastising all without any help, and so she was. As is the case today boys didn’t like best clothes. Sunday was a penance. Indeed they never liked decent trousers or gansies (jersies now). I remember my brothers deliberately making holes in the knees and seats of trousers to have a patch so that they could be one of the lads. Their boots had to be filled with hob nails, with steel toe and heel caps. The heavier they were the better they liked them. A case ball to them was as good as a gold mine. They used to go to the butchers shops on a Tuesday night which was killing night and get the beasts bladders which they would blow up for footballs. Cricket was not popular to my knowledge although we had a cricket field and a team. People tried to make a little bit on the side to help out in those days. Some would make toffee, some would make ginger beer, others would boil and sell crabs and winkles, many sold fish from their cobbles. I know a man who would fill your boots with protectors. These were three pronged nails and even girls shoes or boots were covered in these. In the later years of my father’s life when he became a complete invalid mother used to do all our cobbling. She could rip off a sole and resole the shoe as good as any man. She even stitched with the waxed thread any splits. She could turn her hand to anything. She was solely occupied with her home and family and a visit to the local theatre when there was a good drama called ‘The Fatal Wedding’. There was great fun over this because two very subnormal people we knew got married at that time and wit was flying high. The theatre did well that week and the actors and actresses must have wondered at their popularity.
Lovers Lane’ now called Dene House Road was the popular place to walk on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, but when darkness crept in the couples went onto the terrace. Lovers Lane was a country lane with fields on either side and many couples met there and later married. At the sea end was a deep hollow where the Dalton-le-Dale stream ran down to the sea. This hollow was called Bessy’s Hole. We were told it was the haunt of witches and were warned never to go there. But we did and although we never saw any witches we were still convinced that they lived there, but perhaps were engaged on some terrible deeds somewhere else. It was a frightening way of life really. All sorts of weird tales were told of things that would happen to you if you told lies, red hot pokers would be pushed down your throat when you died. If you sinned in any little way you would be cast into everlasting flames. If you passed the cemetery gates in the evening you would see ghosts with flaming swords sitting by the closed gates. If you walked round a tomb stone three times then put your ear to the ground the corpse would speak to you. If you bit your tongue it was a sign you had told a lie and punishment would catch up on you. If you looked into the face of a cross eyed person you were going to die. Think of the effect of all this on simple childish minds. Yet I cannot recall one delinquent.
It was a code of honour strictly adhered to, to show respect for old people. The roads were very bad in the winter, indeed they weren’t good at any time, and everybody would help old people to get from A to B, or run messages or fill pails of water or coals. We thought nothing of it but that it was the done thing. And you must remember women were old at 60. Children were old at 8 or 9 years. We all had jobs to do in the home even before this age but girls of 9 or 10 would stand on a cracket (stool) and poss the clothes. We had huge mangles that would wring blankets and quilts. They had a big iron wheel to turn and one girl would put the clothes in the mangle while the other turned. Most of the clothes were pressed by mangling as ironing was a long job. We used flat irons, which as their name implies, were flat pieces of dressed iron triangular in shape with a handle. The fire had to be very red and a stand was hung on the front bars with flat irons resting right up to the fire. To test the heat you turned the iron up and spit on it. If the spit slid down and off the iron without leaving a mark the iron was ready. It was such a slow job that ironing was kept to a minimum. No dress shirts, excepting very special occasions, mufflers instead of collars, no pyjamas, table cloths only on Sundays, everyday cloths were made of oil cloth which were rubbed clean with dish cloth. Boys wore white rubber collars for school. They were uncomfortable things as they rubbed against the neck and caused sore red patches. They were fastened at the neck with a stud. It was a grievous calamity if you lost your stud just as you were getting ready for school, as excuses were never tolerated. As soon as we came home from school, the girls took off their white pinafores, folded and put them away for the next day. The boys took off their collars and all changed shoes. School ones were cleaned ready for the next day and then we could go out to play. The master walked up the front and down the back of the lines of boys assembled in the playground and inspected back and front of feet and looked at their collars. The mistress inspected the girls in the same manner, looking at shoes and pinafores.
A big boy was set outside the playground to watch for the appearance in the distance of the head master or mistress. He would run into the school yard and before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’ lines were formed and teachers stood at the ready. Woe betide anybody, scholars or teachers, if they as much as blinked when the head walked into the school yard and up those lines.
School was very monotonous under the Londonderrys. Religious reading, writing, arithmetic, home time and homework. We only learned patriotic songs when some VIP was expected, but on a Friday afternoon after playtime, the boys would have drawing and the girls needlework. Even so this was dreary, for the boys would draw a jam jar and the girls would stitch a hem on a piece of calico about 5″ x 3″, the object being to get even stitches. But when we went to the Council School when Dawdon Colliery was built, we got library books to read every Friday afternoon. How I loved this and I still remember being very upset when I went up a class and could not finish my library book. It was called ‘A Rough Shaking’ and was the story of a young boy’s experience in an earthquake. I have never heard mention of it in any way since that time although I made many enquiries. I promised myself I would buy it when I grew rich.
I have been watching the ‘Horse of the Year Show’. There was a parade of beautiful Suffolk shires which reminded me of bygone days. The coal carts, midden carts and rolleys were drawn by big horses very similar. I remember the Clydesdales drawing the coal carts. They were great big powerful beasts. The clop clop of their hooves on the rocky streets was the only traffic noise we knew, other than the roar and whistle of the railway engines. We loved to give these horses dry crusts of bread. The coalman’s horse would not move from our door until he got his crust.
Down pit they had ponies, called Gallowers. The putters loved their Gallowers. My father had one which refused to start his shift until he got a black mint. Father was very kind to all birds and beasts. His ‘marrer’ down pit said he would never use a whip or stick like other men but would flick the animal with his cap, but my father would say life was bad enough for them, working so hard and never seeing the light of day without being cruelly treated, so when we went for our ration of sweets on a Sunday night, we brought black mints for his Gallower. Many cruel things were done to ponies down pit when men lost their tempers. Father loved birds as I have already said. He fed them every morning before he had his own breakfast and it was considered a sin in our home to throw the tiniest crust on the fire. The Cottages was a place of many birds, swifts, skylarks, house martins, swallows, amongst the many that were common to us. Amongst the trees in what is now called the Green Drive were many owls. We never saw them because being so lonely it was forbidden ground, but if we awakened through the night we could hear them hooting. A funny thought has struck me. I cannot recall many families with dogs. There was one in our street, a big retriever dog which used to tear down the street and across the football field to try to catch the train which passed every day at 1:10 pm. This train was so punctual we as children knew it was about time to go back to school. Punctuality was a great thing in those days and no excuse saved one from punishment. There was also the Bottleworks buzzer. This blew at one o’clock and was never known to be a minute out. Everybody set their clocks and watches by the Bottleworks buzzer. My father used to say that the sun and moon might go wrong but not the buzzer. Then there were the ships’ buzzers. We knew many of the ships by their buzzers and on foggy nights the fog horns were very familiar because we were very close to the docks as the crow flies. Yes the buzzers and the fog horns, the whistle of the trains, the clip clop of the horses and the bells or crakes used by hawkers, and the candy man’s trumpet were all the nuisance noises that disturbed our peace in those long ago days. And walk, my goodness how we walked. To the farm right over at the far end of Dawdon where the pit is now, and to Seaham Harbour at the butchers before we went to school on a morning but we were all in bed before my father set off for work just turned eight o’clock at night. Mother would be sitting in her nighty waiting for him to go, and would shoot the bolts, then his voice would call “goodnight and god bless” and mother would say the same to him, then all would be quiet until he returned early next morning. “Open the door to nobody when I have gone at night” he would repeat to her. I wish it was in the nature of things to turn back the clock and have a reunion just once in a while, then we could say all the things we neglected to say in their lifetime.
Little boys and girls were all dressed alike in those days. No boy wore trousers until he was nearly five years old. I remember taking my two little brothers and sister out one Sunday morning and the one five years old went missing. I was in a panic and weeping bitterly. A woman advised me to go to the police station where a policeman asked for a description. All I could tell him was that he was dressed in a velvet frock made out of mother’s old coat. When I got home the culprit was there. I expected a thrashing but my distress excused me.
I can picture mother sitting on her cracket with a knitting sheath in the waist of her skirt and her knitting needles clicking so quickly you couldn’t count the stitches. She was always re-footing stockings or socks. We all wore wool ones and the legs could be green with age but as long as they held together they were re-footed and worn again and again. All clothes were handed down from one to the other. Mother counted herself lucky that her family were so spaced that this was no problem. There was my oldest brother the first born, then four girls, followed by four boys, which was ideal for the handing down system. Nothing went out of fashion in those days. Household things were bought very cheaply or handed down from one generation to another. There was a pokey little shop in Seaham Harbour owned by Annie Redman. It was a dark, dingy, tiny little place, but it was amazing what was stored there. Couples setting up rooms could buy anything from a brass bedstead or big mangle, to a tiny little Kelly lamp for a bedroom. Pots, pans, dishes, brushes, flat irons, poss sticks, tubs you mention it Annie had it in her shop. She sold blacking, blacklead, bath brick, tallow candles, curtain rings and bamboo poles – everything and anything. Many a home has been set up for less than five pounds which in those days was counted a fortune.
The firesides of the house proud were works of art. First of all the old brick fireplaces were blackleaded and polished until they shone like mirrors. A lid with a brass handle covered the boiler. These lids along with pokers, coal rakes, dust pans and blazers were made at the colliery blacksmith’s shops, on the sly of course. Then we had an ash box made of metal under the big bars.
Bars and ash box were both blackleaded. Next came a tidy betty which stood in front of the ash box. This was made of steel and was polished until it looked like silver. It too had brass knots on the front and a row of brass spindles under the top rim. Then we had two brass stands with brass kettles on them standing in the fireside, with a big steel fender with brass spindles to match the tidy betty which surrounded the whitened fireside. At your peril to put your feet on that fender. We had a long seat which my father made at one side of the fireplace and if one sat in the corner and put down the round oven door it formed a table on which to have a meal. All places were utilised at meal times, but this was a much sought after seat especially in the winter so we had to take our turns. Life seemed to be made up of turns. Who would sit nearest the fire, who would get the crusts off the loaf, who would get the legs of the rabbit. Mother would try her hardest to be fair but in the end her word was law and sometimes we thought unkindly of her decision. Who filled the boiler, who filled the coals, who slept in the middle, the warmest place when three in a bed. Who went to the farm, or who went to the butchers. Who scrubbed the netty seat and who did the knives and forks, who washed and who dried the dishes. These little things were of great moment to us when growing and we fought like little tigers. Often we ended with a good hiding plus the job we hadn’t wanted. When the jobs were finished we were free to roam. Vandals didn’t exist in those days. Nobody would dare destroy property. They were colliery houses and nobody could afford to replenish so it wasn’t done. Little things happened of course. Boys played at knocky nine doors, or rattled bobbins down your windows. This sounded like the firing of a repeating pistol and would frighten the inmates nearby to death. They would raid your gardens for carrots. Another thing was often practised was when at night we wanted to go to the toilet we would take a candle in a jar and two of you would go together across the street and into the back yard. Boys playing about would see you and know where you were going. They would get some water from the tap in the street and quietly open the wooden hatch (used for emptying) and throw the cold water up onto your bottom. What a fright! Once when mother had been baking, she put two yeasty cakes, or oven bottom cakes some used to call them, out on the window sill to cool. It was a dark night and when she went for the cakes there was just a tiny bit of each left. Mother questioned us but we all denied any knowledge. She wasn’t convinced and said we should own up and we wouldn’t get wrong. Next day the pals of my eldest brother sent a message to say that they were the best yeasty cakes they had ever tasted. So the mystery was solved with no hard feelings.
As I have said before our language was quaint and far from King’s English, but we were never allowed to swear. Mother’s hair would have stood on end if we had used the word damn, never mind anything else. She would say “talk proper its just as easy as the other way, talk proper”.
All men and boys had nicknames. Stinker, Nobby, Gussier, Shorty, Lengthy, Footie, Loppy, Nitty, Potty, Tuck and many more. One family had a ‘tupenny a penny and a hapenny. Some had been handed down from family to family. There was a family of three boys, not very bright, who during the years of the depression searched the gutters for tab ends. They were nicknamed Stop, Point and Pick. The first one would stop, the second would point and the third would pick up the cigarette end. They always walked in single file. There were expressions used that one never hears today. Like ‘that’s wasky water’ when it tasted soft. We were used to the limestone water. Mother used to call us ‘gleyky when we were a bit daft. My father would chastise us by saying “I’ll mak the down slot off yer heed”. I couldn’t fathom this for years. A person who was a little subnormal was always ‘not reet. ‘Gie ye ways out an play’ was always the command when you were one too many on the floor. When people were wasteful mother would say ‘they spare at the tap and pour out at the bung’. I remember the time when my brother, when he was around five years old came to mother and said ‘gis a ha’penny ma’. Of course, she hadn’t one so she said ‘adaway and luck for one’ so he did. He was searching around when a neighbour a little worse for drink came along and asked him what he was looking for. Joe said ‘a ha’penny’. The man helped in the search and finding it fruitless put his hand in his pocket and gave Joe one. Whereupon he turned round and asked for ‘one for our Herb’. The man said ‘has he lost one an’ all?’ Joe replied “no man I was just lucking for one”. Of course this story went the rounds of the pit and father got to know that way. I remember some girls coming to me at the grammar school and saying, “so your brother is a hawker now”, I didn’t know what they meant but apparently Joe was going around the street with his little toy barrow hawking horse muck, penny a lump. In the family he was often referred to as the fat juicy turnip full of sweet yuss, because this was a sentence found in one of his writing books brought home when full. He had been writing an autobiography on ‘I am a turnip’. This kind of humour might not please nowadays but it caused great fun in the family. There were many little things like this which might seem unworthy of comment today, but fun in those days was directed towards oneself as well as all the family. As I grew older I had to help in the cooking. Mother never made fancy cakes but on a Sunday we had rock buns. My first attempts were not very successful they really lived up to their name. Of course a situation like this was not allowed to pass unnoticed. So one of my brothers came in on the Monday and said to my other two brothers “eh lads, Cornish Street is declaring war on Australia Street tonight around seven, so we’ll tak some of our Addie’s rock buns in stocking legs for our secret weapons”. He thought the other side would never stand a chance. Life was great fun amongst them all. They were always trying to scare the girls in the family. Once when mother went out and my sister and I were in alone we heard some heavy footsteps on the stairs. Ghost stories were all the rage and we were petrified, but it turned out to be the boys who had climbed through a bedroom window. As I have said the Old Cottages were surrounded by fields and boys could let off steam with football or cricket or I remember a game something like wrestling. Perhaps the lack of the space accounts for a lot of the vandalism now, although money was so scarce we would have been in serious trouble if we had spoiled property of any kind. If we could take the joy of those days with the real joy of today it would be Utopia. I often think back on my early days with longing for the quiet peace that reigned and I think of Winston Churchill’s words “the old world in its sunset was fair to see”. But then I have never been faced with the anxiety that poverty entails and perhaps mother and her generation would have different thoughts. One thing I do know, if she knew of our existing circumstances she would say “my goodness if I were in your position I would own streets of houses”. Owning her own house was her burning ambition but she never achieved it. But then she used to say “you cannot have both stock and money”. She certainly had the stock. What a straight women she was, never devious but called a spade a spade. Her firm conviction was ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. She would say that if your circumstances never improved it was no use to resort to borrowing. Neither did she like to lend or borrow household goods. I remember Mother’s big shiny tin baking mug. It had to be large because as I think I told you she baked forty eight loaves at one go. This baking tin was used for no other purpose. A neighbour came to borrow it and mother loaned it very reluctantly but she made the stipulation it was to be returned with the paste sticking to the sides. We protested saying why should we wash it after she had used it, but mother said it was the only way she could be sure that the neighbour hadn’t washed the pit flappers in it.
There was a neighbour whose husband had a wood stump. He had lost his leg from above the knee in an accident at the pit. He drank more than he should. One afternoon father was standing at the gate getting his fresh air, when old Mary came past. “I’ve fettled him the day Davy” she shouted to my father. “He’s anted till I come back” and she opened her shawl and showed Father the wooden leg. ‘Anted’ was a word used by pigeon fanciers when the birds had settled into their ducats, and would fly back ‘home’ from any distance. So poor Paddy was ‘anted’ until Mary returned with his wooden leg. This leg was just a thick wooden stick like a fat broom shank with a leather socket and straps at the top. When father was bedfast in his later years a miner friend used always to call with a flower from his garden, preferably a rose and father would have it as a buttonhole in his shirt. This man was ill too and now I know it was sclerosis but not known as such in those days. He died just before or just after my father. He went by the nickname of Blunt for obvious reasons.
I hope I do not give you reasons to despise our way of life, for we had a code far more to be desired than some today. We were taught that honesty was the best policy, even If we sometimes doubted it. We were taught respect for all our elders. Nobody would have cheeked a neighbour, and neither boy nor girl would refuse assistance of any kind to the old folk. We ran messages without any reward as far as money went, but often we would be given a slice of jam and bread. This was never despised.
Men were always drunk at weekends, when they would often be very generous. One just had to say “Hello Mr So and So” and he would give you a ha’penny. We were quick enough to exploit this even though forbidden. A lucky bag or a lucky potato was a great treat. Some were supposed to contain a threepenny bit (a tiny little silver coin) but I never knew anyone to be so lucky.
There – the cows are coming back to the farm yard again – no Sally and the lights have gone on in the village. That reminds me of the lamplighter when I was a little girl there were gas lamps then, one at the top of one street and the bottom of the other so we had four lamps for the Cottages. Old Tommy used to come with his long pole and light the lamps. This was a great step forward for we had only lamp oil before that. Old Tommy, who lived at Seaham Harbour, was everybody’s friend. We used to wait for him then follow him all around the Cottages until the lamps were lit.
I remember the ‘Maypole Shop’ in Seaham Harbour. We always went there for our margarine. You got double weight, that was if you bought one pound you got a pound free, so we went each week for three pounds of double weight. Now that had to last the stipulated time. When the margarine ran out you had to have jam, treacle, fat (every drop of fat was saved) or sugar on your bread. We did not mind, when the fresh margarine came it tasted all the nicer. We even got presents at intervals when buying the margarine. A balloon, a flapper, a windmill, and at Christmas a new penny. The new penny was given with every pound sold so, of course, Mother sent each one for a pound, so that each got a new penny. It was given to mother, but it appeared in our stocking on Christmas Eve. Of course, it was from Santa Claus. You had to have all your buttons on in those days and Mother had none missing. I have known eggs be 48 a shilling when Easter came round. You wouldn’t have had an Easter egg otherwise. There were no chocolate eggs for us in those days. Even the boiled eggs were rationed out. You could eat one on its own on Easter Monday but the rest had to constitute meals. Often we were given a ha’penny between two and thought ourselves extremely lucky. We were, because father would make us toffee. We would go for a penny worth of sugar and he would make a pan of toffee. This was a great treat, more so because he used to add things to the toffee for variation like condensed milk, nuts, raisins or anything he could find at hand.
As I have said previously all clothes were handed down. I remember little reefer coats which had been worn at certain ages by every member of our family. Mother was quite convinced that if you put them away in a drawer over the summer they would clean themselves and come out brand new in the winter. Not so with footwear. Each wore ones own, but even if they crippled you nothing could be done about it until your turn came round.
Every step was bath bricked. These were hard square blocks, cheap to buy. You washed your step thoroughly then while it was wet you rubbed on the bath brick. Then we had to wet the floor cloth and rub the bath brick evenly all over the step. Some people used to make fancy patterns with the bath brick and leave it like that. Pantry floors and water closet floors (or netties) were done the same. Two blocks of bath brick were rubbed together to make a powder and this was used to clean knives, forks, spoons, fire irons and the flat irons. Firesides were done with whiting which was 4d per bag like a pound bag of sugar.
Everybody hadn’t fancy fireplace’s like mother had. One girl with whom I played had no covering on the living room floor, just a very old mat at the fireside which was just kept swept. The ashes just fell into the space under the grate and half a wagon wheel served as a fender. This was very common in the poorer people’s houses, I say poorer but the father worked at the pit the same as mine and he had a cobble to go fishing and their family consisted of six whereas ours had twelve. So you see it’s the same as today some make the best of things while others couldn’t care less. As a child I loved to go to this house as there were no restrictions about the house. The boys could go upstairs through the window and slide down the roof, or chop and hammer and make sleighs or go carts in the house – nobody bothered. Such licence seemed enviable to us, but in after years we realised that mother’s ways was for the best and fitted you better for the life that was to follow.
Another family of girls we knew all worked at the Bottleworks. They had a nice clean home like our own. They took in a lot of weekly books like The Red Letter’. These had stories, in weekly instalments like The Life of Mary Ann Cotton’ or ‘Mary Martin and the Red Barn’. The girls used to talk about them and wait for the next issue with great anticipation. They would have passed them on to us but mother would never allow them in her house. A hard backed book ‘a proper’ book as mother called it was just tolerable but not this ‘trash’. We would be better employed knitting or sewing. Diversity was never considered. When I was nearly thirteen we moved up to Seaham Colliery, I hated it. The only thing I liked about the house was the back door which was in halves. One could open the top and let in the air, but shut the bottom half and keep out the cats. A daft thing to recommend a house. The people were a different breed altogether. Their language was rougher, many of their habits were totally alien to us and yet only three or four miles had separated us. By this time I was attending the Upper Standard Girls School in Princess Road. When we lived at the Cottages his road was just a rough unmade track to the cemetery. We only used it to go to the cemetery or to walk along pitman’s walk to go to Seaham Colliery. A wooden bridge was built over the railway which connected Pitman’s walk with Station Road. A similar wooden bridge connected the Low Colliery with the Black Road leading to the pit and yet another over the same railway at Seaham Harbour, now known as the subway. This railway ran from South Hetton to the Docks and was known as the South Hetton Line.
Another break and more recalling and I am back to the Cottages School. It is a strange thing but I cannot recall one story or poem learned in those early days. Patriotic songs I recall but not one poem or story and I have thought very earnestly about this. But I do remember being introduced to some beautiful poems in the council school. Perhaps they are not appreciated now but I loved them, The Slaves Dream, The Brook and The Revenge. These are some of them. I loved poetry and I loved stories. Greek fairy stories and Hans Andersen’s to start with, then our library books. In my first year at the Upper Standard School our head mistress encouraged us to read many of Mrs Henry Wood’s books. She, my head mistress, was a great temperance woman, so I suppose this was the reason. But her pet author was Shakespeare and we studied several of these. Julius Caesar, the Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, King Lear and Macbeth. At sixteen I was sent as a pupil teacher to an infant school. The First World War was raging and many of our men teachers were among the fallen, I had the magnificent wage of sixteen shillings a month, from which I received one shilling a month pocket money. I went to church on a Sunday three times so my pocket money just lasted. Then after a year the situation was no better so I had to continue pupil teaching for another year. Because I had had a year’s training I was sent into a senior school and was paid twenty five shillings a month. I received 2/6 a month pocket money. I was going up in the world. Mind you my first class of fourteen year olds consisted of fifty seven boys; I can truthfully say it was one of the most satisfying years of my life. I put everything I could into my work and I loved the boys who were very respectful towards me. I have taught many of their grand children since then. Those war years, in both the first and second war were very difficult as we were very limited in materials. The tiniest stubs of pencils were used and many, many scrap books I have made for classes out of old paper blinds or wallpaper to eke out in our work. We did not worry about working in the evenings as long as we had Saturday night and Sunday free. I didn’t think of it as drudgery but was proud to be able to make do. Now what a change from those days. What marvellous opportunities for our young folk if they will only take them. Mind you they could teach me now. I realise how limited my education was but that is progress. I hope God thinks I have used my talents to the best of my ability. I did not go to college. I went on teaching by day and attended ‘The Tec’ at Sunderland in the evenings. I went there for two years and then was reckoned qualified to teach and received twenty five shillings a week £5 each month. Gradually this increased until after the war when the crash came and we were back to square one. This was after the First World War. On resuming during the Second World War I commenced on £10 a month.
But I have had a good and enjoyable life. I was very happily married. I have a family second to none and now I have my grandchildren, but above all I have memories.
And I still love the cows, I also have words. I have just heard an account by Hardiman Scott on the wireless, he was reading one of his poems ‘When the words have gone’ or ‘When the words are done’. You see my memory doesn’t carry me along for less than an hour, but the title was one of these. It reminded me of the fascination words have for all children. That is why they pick up some of the words not as nice as others. It’s because they are new to them. I remember when I was a little girl I used many words that my father and mother used in their natural ignorance. A gimlick was always used by father for a gimlet. Even when I was at the Upper Standard School I talked of a clad hammer, again my father’s expression. One of his friends told me it was clawed hammer. A ‘sar’ for a saw, and who is the comedian who talks of his ‘shart’ for his shirt. We talked like this and it was hard work to change and learn to spell these words. We’ve come a long way since those days but I do not think we have suffered much in the process. I remember I was quite old when I realised that a bee which we called a ‘reed arsty’ was not quite the thing. Our brothers said it and we did not question. Nobody raised their eyebrows because we were all as ignorant as each other. My father used to say no words were bad, but the thoughts or venom behind them made them bad. He talked of clean swearing and dirty swearing, but he was a kind and loving soul with never a bad thought about anyone. One never hears now of lice and lops, but in my childhood our mothers waged constant war against them. As very young girls my sisters and I had to ‘small tooth comb’ our hair every night as we came from school and mother inspected them every weekend to see if we had carried out the operation. I once sat in church and watched two lice have a royal time on a woman’s coat collar. I heard nothing of the sermon I was so fascinated by them. When I came home and told my father he said a poet had seen the same thing once and written: ‘you dirty donnet, sitting there with a louse upon it’. He said it was Burns but I cannot tell you the truth of this.
Hop again Cassidy, I’m back to the Cottages. Many families kept hens. Some kept pigs. Every scrap of food was kept and taken to these people. We got a couple of sweets for doing this and it was a great treat. When Christmas came and the pigs were killed everybody would receive a few slices of bacon, a bit of sausage and some black pudding. Each street had its own customers.
When Harvest Festival time came round everybody sent something to the church (the little school in our case). There was a great show and after the harvest was celebrated the produce was distributed to the Infirmary which stood at the corner of the Terrace, the fever hospital away back in the fields off Princess Road, and the very poor. Father was very proud to give the best of his leeks, potatoes, and parsnips each year. Mother would never miss this service.
Celebrating the New Year was a grand occasion. Parties would last a whole week. As children we would come downstairs on New Year’s morning and say to our parents: “A Happy New Year, the bottle a-stir, please will you give us a New Year’s gift”. We would get a piece of cake, a glass of ginger wine and a penny. What a treat we thought it.
You know we had no bedroom suites in those days. We had iron bedsteads all with comfortable feather beds, and big boxes with two strong iron handles, one on either side. The box had a lid. We called these ‘chests’. They were draped with pretty coloured cotton and on the top was a white honeycomb cover. On top stood a mirror. These chests held bed clothes or materials bought in the winter for summer wear and in the summer for winter wear. Mother was always ready. Every place was scrupulously clean although sparse. We had a little basket chair with an antimacassar on the back tied with ribbon to match the paper in every bedroom. There was a lot of basket work in those days, like tables, chairs and plant, pot stands. We had them in our home. I remember when mother got her first carpet. It was for the sitting room and was turkey red. We talked of nothing else but turkey red for months. From the living room door straight across the carpet to the front door was a long piece of white canvas patterned in turkey red along each side. This was ‘tracking’ to walk on to save the carpet. Then mother got a new green plush sitting room suite. A couch, two armchairs (one with arms and one without for father and mother) and four chairs. Buckingham Palace didn’t have a look in and neither did we, we weren’t allowed inside that room. The lace curtains were spread right across the floor beside the window and the basket work plant stand with a huge palm plant stood in pride of place right in the centre of the window space on top of the spread out curtains. Then to crown it all mother got a piano, but she never had money to spare to pay for lessons. But we had Cousin Dolly who played well and in after years, two of my brothers were good players. But just to have a piano was a status symbol and standing on a turkey red carpet, with a green plush suite sent us high up the social ladder. When the turkey red carpet had to be lifted in the spring for cleaning, mother and father and my oldest brother would carry it down the garden and throw it over the wall into the cows field. They would spread it face down on the grass and then we would all dance on it to beat the dust out. Then some hefty boys would help to run up and down the field trailing the carpet behind them. This was the method used for cleaning carpets for we had no hoovers. It was great fun, I’ve seen the boys be far our over the field trailing the carpet behind them shouting and laughing. Cleaning a room had great technique in those days. The room was stripped bare for everything was carried across the front street into the garden. Suites were beaten and brushed with a short handled carpet brush. Everything was washed that could be washed. The walls were rubbed down with coarse towels and the ceiling whitened. The best lace curtains had been sent to the laundry. It was great day. These same curtains would last until the next spring cleaning.
I have just had my breakfast. I have had a slice of brown bread dipped in bacon fat which has sent me soaring again. I remember the big seven pound stone jar where mother saved every scrap of bacon fat. Indeed one could buy a big parcel of fat bacon ends from any grocer for a few coppers. When mother saw these on display in any grocer’s shop she would buy them, then rend them down’ in the oven and fill up the jar. We loved it on our bread for breakfast after our porridge. More especially did we like it on our yeasty cake. But mind you it wasn’t often you got it other than breakfast time. There was jam or treacle for tea and once a jar of jam was opened it had to be used up. Remember they were seven pound jars. I still have two of these jars in my house. Mother gave them to me when I married forty-seven years ago. How lovely to sit and recall all these things. One seems to recall all the good, for if there was any bad it was safely hidden from us.
On the days when mother made big tins of hot pot in the oven, she would boil large suet puddings and we would have these with treacle on for dessert. Mother reckoned this was the greatest health giver one could have. If we had a boiled pudding like an onion pudding or meat pudding, we had rice for dessert plus meat puddings. They were boiling in a great big pan when we set off for school. Mother reckoned three hours for a meat pudding. We had to have our meals in relays, because there was never plenty of room for all to sit down altogether. Do you know I can even remember when father and mother ate from the one plate like Jack Sprat and his wife. What a long time ago it seems. I reckon it will be nearly seventy. Well another break until something else jogs my memory.
Perhaps you will find this boring but at least I have enjoyed myself. I remember the Spotty Dicks mothers used to make. These were suet puddings with currants and sultanas in and were eaten with white sauce. Mother used to say she would have to make a pail full of white sauce to satisfy us. It was the same with rabbits. Mother used to make rabbit and spare rib pies. There was always a row about who should have the leg that week. You got it last time. No I didn’t I got the ribs. You didn’t cos I always get the ribs and so it’s my turn. Mother would say “you forget it’s a rabbit and not a spider”. We all liked broth and what broth it was. I can still see mother with the long handled ladle dishing out the soup as thick with vegetables and barley as it was possible. On the first day we had the soup and dumplings on the next day she would boil some potatoes to eke out the broth that was left and cut up the shank and boiling meat which had made the broth.
There was more socialism practised in those days then there is now. Parents helped the young married couples by letting them have a room, which they furnished for them. Things were given by all relatives and nothing was too old. Parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins all helped out; when parents grew old their families looked after them. My mother had little to spare but she would send a yeasty cake and a tea cake each week for Grandmother (Ganny we called her) and for my father’s Aunt Annie of whom I have already spoken. Then every pay weekend she sent them each a quarter of tea. Her brother called on his way from work every Wednesday tea-time and got a good meal and a yeasty cake to take away with him plus a teacake. He was separated from his wife and lived alone in one room in Sunderland. Of course old people did not get the pensions that we get now. We do not need that kind of help now and we have better health now than they had at a much younger age. But then women were considered old as soon as they passed child bearing age and were treated as old people. Now at 73 I cannot think that I am old. I was amused the other night to hear the paper boy shout to his assistant “put one in the bottom door where that ad wife lives”. “Ad wife” and only 73! But seriously life is drawing to a close, but I cannot grumble, I shall still enjoy the remaining years, and still look back with nostalgia on all that have gone before.
I remember when I was about eight, at one of mother’s New Year’s parties, a man was there called Ben. He made a great fuss of me; you see I had beautiful fair hair. I could sit on it and he was fascinated with it. Childlike I thought he was great and said to myself ‘I’ll marry a man called Ben’. Wasn’t it strange that I did do just that and I have come to the conclusion that all Bens are great.
I only know of one new coat bought for 5/- at the dividend sale at the Co-op for my mother. This was the coat she wore on the famous trip to Stockton. She always wore a fur cape handed down from her mother, a relic of their better days. She used a fur muff to match. This muff served as a handbag as well. For ordinary wear she had a big grey shawl. Father had a navy blue suit. It was the only suit he ever had to my knowledge, brushed and put carefully away for better days only. So clothes did not present a major problem. Mother used to say our feet were her greatest worry. We wore high boots in the winter; sometimes they were buttoned up the side nearly to the knee. One could always find a shoe horn and button hook hanging at the side of the fireplace. Sometimes we had high boots which fastened up the front by criss crossing laces on studs. These were called rinking boots. Mother spent the maximum on footwear, because she said all ailments stem from cold neglected feet.
We had a long brass line hung above the fireplace on which towels were always drying. In a big family like ours it was a problem to keep towels dry for use. There were tea towels, coarse towels and face towels constantly in use. But one had to take great care in hanging them on the brassline as they were apt to slide off and into the fire. We never had our chimneys swept. They were always fired at night when no one’s clothes were hanging out to dry. Mother used to say if you used a blazer to blaze your fire first thing, you never needed a sweep. Every household had a blazer made in the blacksmith’s shop at the colliery. These were big sheets of metal made to fit into the fireplace. They were blackleaded and usually had a brass handle firmly attached. This and the lid of the boiler matched. These things were free if you could get round the blacksmiths. It was the same at the Bottleworks. Many beautiful things were blown at these works by the glass blowers but their main production was all kinds of glass bottles. I loved to look on the shelves of the little chemists shop at the top of Church Street. It was a pokey little place in my young days and was called the Beehive and was owned by old Mr Storey. There were fancy shaped bottles of all sizes and colours. We used to go regularly for 3d worth of paregoric and nitre for father’s bad chest. Mother used to have big dishes of black Spanish cut up into pieces steeping in syrupy water. We as little children used to try to pick out pieces of the Spanish but they were too slippery. We used to be dosed with orange and quinine wine to prevent colds and physiced with Epsom salts and lemon in the spring time. All these things were homemade. You must by now realise how busy our mothers were all through the years. The running out and emergencies.
Ah! I must tell you of the wreck of the butter boat. It was before my time but was a constant topic of conversation. Evidently one very stormy night a Danish boat was in trouble just off Seaham Harbour. It was beaten against the rocks and badly damaged. Barrels of butter were washed ashore and the inhabitants of Seaham Harbour swooped like locusts. Best butter for breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. The people couldn’t get over it and all had a glorious time. The police, which were very few in number, couldn’t do anything about it. We never tired of hearing about it and our parents never tired of recalling it. All kinds used to be washed up on the Blast Sands. Father once came strolling home with a huge enamel kettle and I mean huge. There was nothing wrong with it, of course father kidded the neighbours it was to be used at a big party, but we used it as a watering can. We had to water the garden and it was common thing to ‘water the doors’ that meant the back street. Mother had a thing about ‘laying the dust’. Before sweeping the parlour carpet we sprinkled damp the leaves, saved for the purpose, on the carpet ‘to lay the dust’ then with a short carpet brush and a dustpan the carpet was swept. Everything was utilised or hoarded in those days, because things were passed on from generation to generation.
On winter nights we stitched multicoloured patches together and mother would criss cross them by machine onto old blankets to make quilts for the beds. They were very gay and very warm. It was a great treat to get a bundle of patches from friends who were dressmakers. As a very little girl I used to love to get a shoe box and make it into a doll’s bed with a clothes peg for a doll. I would use some of the patches to dress the doll and the bed. But we had always to take the needle to mother for her to put into the pin cushion so that she was sure it was not lost amongst the clippings of the mats.
My goodness how ignorant we were in those days. Our world consisted of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish people, of whom many lived together. We thought the waters that washed our shores stretched away across the world where the black people lived and that we were far removed from these races. Of the continent we learned nothing so you can image what a narrow but safe little world we lived in. I remember black men coming into our port, and sometimes lived with white women, but they were always talked of as kind and gentle people. One woman mother knew married a black man and mother used to say he made a far better husband than many white men she knew. But then mother’s motto was ‘look for the good in people and your task will be easier and pleasanter than searching for the bad’. If we told tales, detrimental tales, about other children she would sat “sit down now and think hard, have you never done that same thing”. If we liked playmates but called their parents mother would say “don’t despise the tree if you like the fruit”. She was great with ‘sayings’ always found one to fit the occasion.
I spent my childhood teaching the walls in the backyard. One big bump in the very uneven walls was the big dunce in my class at school. I used to hammer him hard and father would say “God help the dunces in the class if she was the teacher”. When father was finished with his pigeons he cleaned and whitewashed the ducket and said I could have it for my school. He made me a blackboard and easel, a blackboard rubber and a cane (very important in those days) and pitmen always had chalk in their pockets to mark the tubs, so I was set. Mother would say “you never have far to search for her”. I would go round the streets and pick up all the hairpins that had been shaken off the mats and put up my hair. I would find safety pins and join them end to end to make a chain to lift up my skirts. These chains were worn by ladies to lift their long skirts out of the muddy streets. My long skirt was one of mother’s underskirts. Children have always liked to dress up. You see mats were lifted and shaken outside the back doors every day and all kinds of things dropped from then. If it was anything like a brooch it was returned to the people, we would never have considered keeping anything like this. We would have felt great shame in such a small community. Remember ‘honesty is the best policy’. ‘See a pin, pick it up, all the day, you’ll have good luck’. This was a rhyme we all knew. As children we firmly believed in it and so many pins dropped from the mats we were hard put to think of our good luck during the day. But childlike we kidded ourselves. Mesmerism – that was a thing much talked of at one part of my childhood and a young girl living in our street told us she was a medium. She had to stand up against a wall whilst another playmate moved his hands backwards and forwards before her eyes. When she swooned she was in a trance. We all ran but when she caught a victim he or she had to do as he was told. Mind you she had sense enough to order childish things – take your dress off and dance a jig, go and put your head under the tap, knock on no 24. But when she ordered me to go and ask mother for a penny she had gone too far. Neither I nor any of us would have dared to ask for such a thing for ourselves, but you see we were under her influence. She soon lost this influence where mother went after her and our family was expelled from the trances. What you will believe when you are young.
We had five brothers and then Jack Blake. You had to be tough to live amongst them. Then my oldest sister married and came home to have her first child. It was a boy. How my brothers loved him, so much so that after about two years old he would not go home. He would be away into the boys’ bed waiting for them to come home. Shrieks of laughter would come from the room, because he would be in the middle and the others would crowd him in. Then someone would shout turn and they all had to turn over. Someone was bound to fall out and this went on until they were all exhausted. They were noisy exhausting but happy days. Beds then had straw mattresses. Straw strung tightly together and covered in coarse hair, and about 4 to 6 ins in depth were the foundation. Mother had feather beds on top which were very warm and comfortable but this was the exception rather than the rule. Some people used to use mats to give warmth in the winter, or overcoats, these because they could not afford blankets. I have known families go to bed in the clothes they wore all day just to keep themselves warm, but in later years I could not understand this. The men all worked at the colliery and the differences in pay were very slight. We had one of the biggest families in the Cottages and only one of my brothers of working age, yet we lived so much better. There was only one explanation, mother’s ingenuity. Mind you there were others as well off, but most had smaller families.
There was a fine old man lived in the next street to us. He had a tall military bearing, snow white hair but a black face. We were told that he had been in the Nack explosion and his face had caught the blast. This had been the second explosion within a few years. Mining was a dangerous job in those days and when we went to bed we were taught to pray for them. We also had to pray for all the family. I remember this prayer that we all said:-
God bless me ma
God bless me da
God bless me ganny and granda, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers
God bless everybody in the wide world
God make me a good little girl
Forever and ever Amen
We would never dare go to sleep without saying this prayer. I remember one night we had all got smacked because we carried on in bed. Mother came up with the tawse and gave each one of us a lash. Come prayer time and as my sister and I started (God bless me ma) my sister said ‘the bad bitch’ and we went off into giggles which we couldn’t stop, so we got another lash each with the promise of double the next time. We had to cover our heads up with the bed clothes to smother the laughter which was now mingled with tears. But for the life of we couldn’t stop. We laughed over this for long enough. Now when it’s too late we understand that Mother’s nerves must have been stretched to breaking point often and often. Yet she was a very happy soul, singing and dancing at the least provocation, and I can still see her laughing over some little incidents. She would be so helpless that at one touch from one of the boys and she would roll over helpless. They got a great kick out of this.
Johnny Race my oldest brother’s pal was the best laugher I ever heard. He was like the laughing policeman. The whole Cottages would pop to their doors and say “Johnny’s off again” and all would join in although they didn’t know the joke. In contrast we had an elderly couple who never smiled. They had very little to say although my father used to tell the tale about him joining in a conversation once down pit. The men were talking about their wives and how they managed and this fellow outdid them all by saying his wife was so clever she could make a good pan of broth out of the dishcloth. Father said it was so unexpected the pit rang with their cheers. This same man never went out excepting into his garden, or across the road to the football field fence on a Saturday. Like father he had a free ticket.
Boys used to earn coppers by ‘putting the coals in’, ‘hoy your coals in Mrs for tuppence’, ‘what, tuppence?’, ‘allreet then a penny’. A penny for nearly a ton of coals, hoisted up and through a hatch at least four feet from the ground. You see all exploited somebody without knowing it. If two boys shared they still got the same between them. But coppers were of great value. A penny took you into the theatre or bought you a good fish and chip supper. Hoy meant throw and was the common word at that time.
Hoy the coals in.
Hoy a ha’penny out.
As I have said before there was real socialism practised amongst us. You could not buy a loaf in the Cottages but you could borrow one. If the coals did not last the allotted time and some had more relatives or friends to help than others, someone would volunteer to help you out. No-one paid for domestic assistance while having a baby as there were plenty of neighbours willing to help out. A night out was an hour in your neighbours house having a chat. But work had to be done first and also all depended on the shifts of the workmen in the family. Mother would take an odd Monday afternoon to look for bargains at the Co-op or the highlight of her life was to go to Bloom’s Sale. This was held in a big marquee on the Bottle House field. This was an annual occasion and mother would not miss it. That was where she bought her seven piece green suite and her turkey red carpet. Another time she bought my father a gold watch and guard for his birthday. This was to be a secret until he returned from work on the morning of his birthday and although father did not mention it to her he already knew from the men ‘down pit’. Evidently another miner’s wife had bid for the watch but mother outbid her. Of course, spiteful people wondered where she had got the money from, but I can assure you all it was by dint of her own hard work and clever management.
On this same Bottle House field used to be ‘the shows’. Murphy’s Amusements used to come every few years. The place was brilliantly lit, and people from Murton, Easington, Horden, Hendon and many more surrounding districts used to congregate. These amusements would be there for about a month and it was a time of great jollity. Boys and men were running around with balloons, coconuts, feather brushes, monkeys on sticks, windmills etc. which they had won on the stalls. There were chip vans, hooplas, shuggy boats, horses and maypoles. A good time was had by all. But in the midst of all this our family had to be home in time for father to go to work. He would not have gone if any of us had been missing. Of course Sunday was respected by everybody. When I think back on the work and life of my parents I think their living was much more meaningful and noble than the lives of great men and women who have been landed to the skies but then as Shakespeare said:-
‘gnats are unnoted, whereso’er they fly, but eagles gazed upon with every eye’.
As I have told you washing days were terrible days with a family like ours, so father decided he would turn the big back yard into a washhouse. He put a roof on and built a set pot as it was called that meant a big boiler with a fire underneath. There was great joy when he finished and tried a fire, for it worked perfectly. He built a long table on which to scrub the clothes and mother was set. She declared washing day was a pleasure. He had found all the materials he needed at the Blast Sands or on the dump. Mother could even hang the clothes in there in wet weather to take the thick of the dampness out of them. They had good mangles in those days with large wooden rollers and they would wring clothes of any thickness. There was a very big wheel to turn which was hard work. Father used to whitewash the walls regularly to make it lighter and found he had to put in a skylight both for light and ventilation. Nothing deterred him if it was to assist mother. I can see him now crossing the back street with his pail of whitewash and his brush, and dressed in one of mother’s voluptuous nightgowns as protection. There was always much banter from the neighbours, but mother was the envy of them all until their husbands built them the same. Oh yes, life was still good, and love which we were taught meant service was the order of the day. I have always been surrounded with love first from my parents, then from my husband. God bless him and now from my family. Again I quote Shakespeare ‘my crown is in my heart, not on my head. Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, nor to be seen, my crown is called content’
Yes, my childhood was spent in a world of contentment for we longed for nothing we could not have. The small shops only sold what was within our means to buy and no-one could outclass another. Of course, some never tried to improve their status but even so they were content with a warm fireside and the food they could afford. I knew no-one in dire poverty living at the Cottages until the big strike came. Mother had foreseen this and had two huge bags of flour stored in readiness, because she said you would not starve if you had bread. But I remember these bags were stored in the front lobby and the mice got in. There we all were with sheets of clean papers spread out all over the place and with a knife we were searching amongst the flour for the mice dirt. Mother could not afford to waste it and so we fished amongst it. “The graded grains make the best flour”. I always laugh at this and think of the mice and our grading. We had heaps of fun and our full share of clean fresh air spring, summer, autumn and winter. I remember mother making her Christmas cakes, one for Christmas and one for the New Year. We all had a stir and a wish and we fought hand over fist to ‘rake the dish out’. As soon as the big dish came into sight someone would shout ‘rakies’ and the fun would start. Mother would say ‘I notice none of you shout clean the dish out’. So one of us would get the order. Then she would make her ginger wine. I often wish I had got her recipe. I know she put in four things, but it was a delicious syrupy mixture. Of course, we argued again as we all tasted it at its various stages, some wanted more ginger others didn’t but it was always settled by the boss. But mother’s Christmas pudding was just a ‘spotty dick’ because she could not afford fruit for cakes and puddings. But it was a Christmas pudding to us. It could not be anything else because it was boiled on Christmas Day, and it was decorated with holly.
I remember Mother and her staircase. She went to the Co-op on Monday and when she came home she had looked through the open door of a ‘quality’ house and seen the staircase. At the foot of the stairs was the banister with a large knob on it which Mother thought was elegant. She told father and soon afterwards he found the very thing washed up on the beach at Blast Sands. He brought it home and polished, smoothed, and polished again and again and finished up with a beautiful mahogany knob which he installed on the stairs. Mother was very proud of this I am sure she thought it could vie with any staircase in castle or palace. Little did the poor good and little did they get. Not Shakespeare this time but one of Maria’s quotations. Whenever she quoted, one of the gang would shout a poet’s name. One day one of them shouted ‘John Bull.
Another game we played was ‘rhymes’. One would say a line then another would make another to rhyme and so on. It was great fun. One of my brothers had on a pair of velvet trousers and he would always make up the best rhymes so these were called his poetry trousers. Life is great and lived to its fullest in a big family. We would have musical evenings. One of my brothers would play a tune, by ear, on the piano another on the organ, yet another would beat a rhythm on the brass fire irons and one on the music stand. This was a bamboo affair and on each of the four poles was a gilt trimmed disc which rattled when you touched them. It was surprising the music that came from all this. The girls sang, that was their contribution. Any of our friends would come in for an hour or so in the evening in these later years.
Life was good in spite of very hard times, but we had to make our own fun and we had the numbers and the capacity to do just that in our family. Mother used to emphasise the goodness of God in preserving her family from fatal illnesses or accidents.
We always welcomed a baby into our house. The joy was unbelievable when a new one came and time after time we were astonished at the size of its little hands and feet and revelled in the soft pink, blue and white nighties mother had ready for it –
Life is good and full of joy if you look for it
The sun, the sky, the flowers, the birds Raindrops falling or the whistling wind
Are gloriously free
But the smile of welcome on a loved one’s face
Or the little hands of your child