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.