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.