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.