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.