BEGINNINGS - POTTERS ROW
I was born on the 5th of March 1918, at 373 Bryn Road. The house formed part of a terrace of six called Potter's Row, in the small coal and cotton town of Ashton-In-Makerfield in Lancashire.
What do I know of the event? Very little. Nothing of the time of day, who was present, whether I made an easy or difficult entry into the world. All I know is the date and the place.
Potter's Row was set back from the road, and approached by a wide path. This was bordered on either side by a fence, which enclosed the area between the houses and the road to form a large garden area. The houses were built of brick and had two rooms upstairs and two down - a living room and kitchen. Only hazy memories remain of the interior - a fireplace, a sink, some stairs. There was no running hot water. Water was heated on the coal fire in a large black kettle. The fire provided heat for cooking and warmth for the house. Water was supplied by a tap over the kitchen sink. As there was neither gas nor electricity, a paraffin lamp provided light. Bathing was a ritual. Once a week a tin bath was set before the fire. Heated water was poured into it and tempered with cold. A towel was laid on the rug at the side of the bath. Into the bath you went, were thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed, your hair being rinsed with fresh water. Then onto the towel, and mother dried you down in front of the fire. And so, on to the next one.
At the back of the house, a door led onto a flagged courtyard in which were brick outhouses, one for each house. These were the "petties" which housed the earth closets.
A scrubbed wooden seat containing a round hole sat above a large pan, the contents of which raised in me feelings of loathing and disgust and fear that have remained with me to the present. I remember always sitting gingerly on the edge of the seat so that there was no chance that the unthinkable would happen and I would fall in.
The outhouses were built up to a high brick wall which ran the length of the row. Over the wall lay a field, part of Pimblett's farm, in which the hens and cockerels ranged freely foraging for seeds and insects. I remember climbing on to the wall to watch them and to look across to the farmhouse over on the right, and I distinctly recall the knowing looks exchanged between my parents when I announced one day that I had seen one of the birds treading on another. I caught an exchange of looks, but of course, it meant nothing to a child.
Pimblett's farm was a busy place and easy to reach. Out of the house, down the wide path to Bryn Road, then turn left and the farm was just a few yards away. I went there often and have vivid memories of it. I especially remember the big horses. How huge they seemed as they stood outside the stables waiting to be harnessed or, after work, coming in from the fields, their sides and flanks stained with sweat. Sometimes, their great hooves drummed on the cobblestoned yard as they were backed into carts, a tattoo that combined with the urgent cries of the men: "Whoa, there! Steady, now!
The smells of the farm stay in the memory too. The horses, especially when being unharnessed after work. The stables with their pungent shock of ammonia mixed with the fragrance of hay and oats. The distinctive clean scent of wheat straw in the barn. And in summer, in haymaking time, the overpowering sweetness of newly mown grass, and its soft perfume as it turned into hay under the warm sun, and was gathered first into lines by a horse-drawn rake, and then into tussocks which finally were tossed up by men with pitchforks on to drays which took them to be made into a haystacks. Sometimes, if you were lucky, usually out in the fields, sturdy hands would lift you into the air and on to the back of a huge horse, and you would ride triumphant home to the farm, the great mass of animal swaying gently under you, and the earth seeming a long way below.
I don't remember the farm in winter; just in times of warmth and sunshine. Besides the haymaking, there was the communal time of harvest - oats or wheat. Everyone seemed to be there, accompanied by dogs. As the reaper did its work, the square of standing grain became smaller and smaller; the air of expectancy increased, until, eventually, the imprisoned rabbits or hares broke cover, to be hunted by stick-wielding men and their dogs. If they were lucky, the fleeing animals would successfully run the gauntlet; if not, they provided some hungry family with something for the pot.
We children went where the farmer and his hands were working, running through the fields, exploring the numerous small, weedy ponds where small fishes lived, following the clanking machines, crude implements by today's standards; reapers, rakes, ploughs, tooth harrows made of unpainted iron, and all horse drawn. A world of wonder and adventure to be explored continually from one day to the next, a world of animals and growing things, governed by the seasons, and one to last forever.
At the other end of Potter's Row, from the fence loomed the black, brooding mass of the pit tip. Starting almost from the end of the houses it stretched what seemed a great distance to me to the headgear of the Crow Pit which had spawned it. I often walked along Bryn Road which ran directly parallel to it. I would gaze up at the superstructure of the colliery, a huge skeleton of beams supporting the great wheel that constantly turned to bring miners and the coal they had dug to the surface.
A sound that I remember well is of clogs early in the morning, as I lay in bed, clogs worn by the miners, and also by the
"pit-brow wenches" as they made their way to work, beating a tattoo on the hard road surface. Clogs were generally worn by working people in these days for everyday wear. Most of them wore leather shoes, or more often, leather boots, only when dressed up to go out somewhere special or at weekends.
Clogs were made like Dutch sabots. They had a thick wooden sole, rather pointed at the toe, and leather tops. Some were made to slip on; others had a clasp across the front to hold them securely to the foot. The toe was usually metal clad. The sole and heel had a narrow piece of steel nailed on to the outside, and it was this that produced the distinctive noise on the roadway. They were made by men who specialized in them - cloggers. They were widely used, because they were cheap, comfortable and hard-wearing. They were often used as weapons in fights, when clogs were used as well as fists, and sometimes teeth. Putting the clog in was accepted practice on such occasions.
It was common to see miners walking along the road near the house. They trudged along ready for work or exhausted by an eight-hour shift underground; no doubt the latter looking forward to the prospect of a good meal and some sleep. They carried a snap tin for their food and a metal bottle for the water supply each took down with him. And they were in their "pit muck"; that is, they came unwashed and covered with coal dust, for in those days, there were no pithead baths.
The "pit-brow" wenches worked on the top. They did not go down the mine. Only boys and men did that. What they did exactly I still do not know. Probably they worked on the screens where the coal was sorted out as the "tubs" were brought to the surface. I remember them well. I often watched them coming along the road. They wore clogs, black stockings, black dresses, and shawls around their heads. Always in small groups, they chattered, shouting and laughing as they made their way to and from work.
As I look back now, I see that Potter's Row was the meeting place of two worlds - the agricultural world of the farm, and the industrial world of the mine. Today, the farm remains although some of its buildings have changed, but the mine has gone forever, and the monstrous mass of the tip with it. So, for that matter, has Potter's Row. A few years ago, I went to look at my birthplace. The farm was there, still owned by a Pimblett. But, of Potter's Row, not a trace remained. I felt as though a part of my life had been cut away.
ASHTON AND ITS PEOPLE
Of the people of Potter's Row and its immediate surroundings, my memories are indistinct, illuminated here and there, by the fleeting face of a person or some event or other.
As one looked at Potter's Row from the road, our house was the second from the right. The end house was occupied by an old couple, Tommy and Ginny Rosbottom. I remember them as kindly, particularly old Ginny. They had living with them two unmarried daughters who also made a fuss of this little child next door. Tommy once got into hot water, when my mother caught him in the act of teaching me subversion and bad language.
"Ere", he is reputed to have said, "Ah'll gie thee a penny if tha'll call thi faither a bugger."
Of my own parents, I recall from that early period surprisingly little. Perhaps, in the same small house, living our lives so closely together, there was nothing particular to notice. I do remember seeing my mother with a bicycle. I think at that time she had an insurance book; that is, she was an agent for an insurance company and went round to people's houses each week to collect the pennies due on their small insurance policies.
I don't remember who lived in the house on the other side. In the next house to that lived the Connors. They had two sons, the younger of whom was Albert who was about my age. So, because we lived so close, and because both families were Roman Catholic, we played together. Later, when Albert grew up, he went to work in the Co-op on the road into town.
Of the rest of the people in the Row, I remember practically nothing. There was a Mr. Dick at the other end, a bachelor or a widower, I think, and, to me, a distant and shadowy figure.
Across Bryn Road there were a few houses in which lived children whom I knew. I remember two of their names. One was Helen Fairhurst, and the other Veronica Southworth. On my last visit to Ashton, I bumped into a Mr. Southworth, then a man well into his eighties. He told me that Helen had "married a Yank" during the war, and gone off to live in the United States.
It is the people of my mother's immediately circle that I remember best and in addition one woman who must have been an important friend of my mother's. Her name was Mrs. Frayne, Alice Frayne. She lived in a house on a cul-de-sac just a stone's throw from the Robin Hood, a pub which stood in the centre of town. I remember the back yard - we never, in the course of our numerous visits, entered the house from the front door. It was covered with flagstones and backed by a high brick wall. If I remember the visits as uninteresting and dull, it is probably because I sat so many hours listening to my mother and her friend in conversation. Mrs. Frayne must have had her mother - or perhaps her father's mother living with her. I can picture her now - a very old lady, dressed in a black dress and shawl, a man's cap perched on her head, sitting in a corner by the fire smoking an old clay pipe. What the two friends talked about I have no idea. All I recall is an intense feeling of tedium and a bursting desire to have the conversation finished so that we could get outside again.
There was a busy family life on my mother's side. The sisters must have had their differences, and one sometimes picked up scraps of conversation hinting these, as they talked together of those who didn't happen to be there at the moment. Always the talk was of "Our Alice", or "Our Polly", or "Our Annie".
I never knew the eldest sister, nor, incidentally, did I ever know any of my grandparents, the only one of whom alive at the time of my birth was my mother's mother; but I do not recall anything of her. We have a picture of her at home. She is a strong-featured woman, with a face that would be severe were it not for the eyes. Evidently, according to her daughters, she was strong and kindly. She needed to be strong, having been left with a brood of young children in mid-life. Her husband, my maternal grandfather, died somewhere in his forties. That would have been just before the turn of the century, and, in the 1890's, there was little to help a widow - no pension, nor welfare payments as we know them today. Destitute people usually ended up in the workhouse. Men there were separated from wives, parents from children, and life in the workhouse was hard and bleak. My grandmother eked out a living by making black puddings. The girls' job was to go down to the slaughterhouse when pigs were being slaughtered to bring back the fresh blood which was an essential part of the puddings. In all likelihood, by the time she was widowed, some of the other children were ready to go to work to help support the family. There was lots to do to keep the household going. Just keeping all the children clean required a lot of hard physical effort in a time without labour-saving machines. And I have often heard my mother and her sisters talking about coming home from work and having to set about soaping socks in the washtub.
It was a hard life for the girls. As soon as they were old enough to leave school, they got a job. Children were permitted to leave school at the age of 13 if they passed an examination, and I suspect that these girls did that. I know that my mother did. The cotton mills were where most girls went to work. It was hard work; eight hour shifts in the weaving sheds, where the thunderous clatter of rows of flying shuttles and the clank of moving frames made it impossible to be heard by a person standing even close by. People in the sheds used lip-reading in order to communicate. In addition to the noise, the air was hot and humid so that the cotton threads would not snap too often, and was filled with cotton dust that got into the lungs.
The day started early, and as the workers had to walk a good distance to the mill, they had to be up betimes to light the fire and get something to eat before setting out. Many a time I have heard my aunts telling of how, walking to the mill in Golbourne, three of them would link arms, and each would take it in turns to close her eyes from one lamp post to the next. They had to be on time. When the whistle for the start of the shift blew, the gates were closed, and, if they were not inside, they were "quartered"; that is, a quarter of the wages for that shift were taken off.
It was obviously very important to avoid this penalty. The pay was not very high to start with and every last penny was vital. There were no alarm clocks at that time, so some workers paid a man called the "knocker-upper" threepence a week to make sure that they were away in time. This man went on a round of his customers in the early hours, and, using a long rod, tapped on the bedroom windows to arouse the sleepers. No doubt, there were those who saved a penny or two by sharing these services, one waking up another. But by hook or by crook, each must be awake and up and about, for by the time one heard from one's bed the ringing of clogs upon pavement, one could count on being already quartered.
My paternal grandparents were equally unknown to me. Both were born in Ireland, and were married there. My grandfather was Peter Walsh and my Grandmother was Winifred Lavan. There were five children of the union, two girls and three boys. The elder girl, whose name escapes me, moved from the family home in the town of Kiltimagh, County Mayo, to stay with a relative, originally, I think in Chicago. Later she is said to have married a naval officer who eventually, having troubles with his health, moved the family to Colorado. The younger daughter, Anna Kate, emigrated to New York, where at the time I met for the first and only time, she worked for Western Union. I remember her visit in about 1929. She seemed a glamorous figure, slim, dark and good-looking, but her name to fame was that she brought me a pair of water-wings. She brought my mother an electric iron, the first we had ever seen.
I think my father was the youngest of the three boys. They were John, the eldest, and James the next in line. My Uncle John lived in Ashton, a bachelor for many years. I think he was a coal miner. Eventually, late in life he was married to his housekeeper. My sister Joan, who had been on holiday at the time in Ashton, broke the news on her return to Langold.
"Dad", she said, "Guess what! Uncle John has got married."
There was a pause. Then my father said, in his slow manner, "Well he's old enough."
I knew Uncle James better than Uncle John. He, too, was a miner, I think. My mother never seemed to have much time for him. Possibly he drank too much, and could have been a better father. I remember my mother speaking unkindly of him for blubbing when Anna Kate came to visit. She considered him insincere, perhaps playing on his sister's feelings. He and his wife and children, - I don't know how many - lived at the bottom of a slope in a house by a stream called the Steam Engine. I remember the stream very well. One day, playing with the children there on a large pipe that ran over the stream, I fell in, dressed in Sunday best sort of clothing, much to the dismay of my aunt. I was pulled out, taken inside, stripped, washed, put into new clothing, while my aunt washed the other. But mostly, what that house was memorable for was the pigeon-cote in the back yard. There were several, in fact, in that neighbourhood, for there were quite a few pigeon-fanciers. On busy days, the air would be full of the sound of cooing birds, the hasty flutter as they took off or landed, and the sounds of men talking to each other, laughing, and rattling cans of maize to call the birds in.
I think, looking back, that Uncle James and family were considered to be poor. Hardly respectable, in fact. And not the kind of people to be bothered with. My mother's family were poor, too, but they thought themselves a cut above a lot of others. That, anyway, in retrospect, is the impression I have.
My mother's eldest sister had died before I was born. In fact, I do not remember her name. How she died I do not know. Possibly in childbirth. She was survived by her husband, Jim Mather, and their daughter, Ethel. I should say here that the family of sisters consisted of two halves - the older and the younger. And grandmother's work in bringing up her family, was helped by older children, who acted, in some ways, as parents to the younger.
I always knew Ethel as Auntie Ethel although in reality she was my cousin. But her children were of an age with me. The elder was Helen, and the younger Harold. Ethel was married to Tom Caunce, who was a pit deputy, I think. Helen was a tall, fair handsome girl. A very pleasant and agreeable companion, she later went to Ashton Grammar School where she had the distinction of becoming Head Girl. Harold was small, fair, and rather red in the face, as well he should have been. Always up to some mischief or other was Our Harold. Once, shortly after the Council had built a public toilet near their house in Haydock, Harold was collared by some grown-up for going into the women's section. "Well", says Harold, pointing to the name 'Ladies' over the door, "it says laddies, doesn't it?" I don't know what eventually happened to Harold, but he certainly was a trial to Ethel and Tom. Fortunately, Ethel was an easygoing sort of person. Her house was not particularly tidy, but she didn't seem to care. I sometimes stayed with them for a day or two, when on holiday in Ashton, probably to give Auntie Polly a bit of a break. As a child, I was always very sensitive to other people's food, afraid that it might be too different from that which I was used to. Ethel's cooking I remember as being somewhat greasy for my taste. But she was kind, as was Tom. He was small, fair-skinned, with tight blonde curly hair, and not much of a talker. Ethel was fair-skinned. She was rather stout. Her hair was bobbed and an auburn colour. Perhaps her most striking characteristic were her eyes, which were bright blue and seemed always to be smiling.
Of course she didn't always smile. Once, she, in company with Auntie Winnie and my mother, went on holiday to the Isle Of Man. One day, they sat on the stands in the sun longer than they should have done. My mother and Auntie Winnie suffered no ill effects. They just turned a little browner. But poor Ethel's skin would not take the sun. She burned a bright red, and blisters began to appear on her arms and legs. She started to weep with pain and frustration. "Eh", she said between sobs, "our Nell will skrike (cry)", indicating her burns.
She always struck me as being less strong in character than some of the sisters, and perhaps I was right, because, after all, they were all senior to her in the pecking order. They were, after all, her aunts.
The oldest living daughter was Auntie Alice. She lived in a house on Old Wigan Road not too far from Auntie Annie. She had two older daughters who had married, and a younger girl, "Our Rita". I always knew her as a widow. She had a lodger who lived in her house for many years, an Irishman named Graham. He was, I was told to my mystification, a compositor for a newspaper, but I have the impression that he was retired.
To look at her, one would think Auntie Alice was severe. She was slightly built and had a pronounced hump on her back. She always carried her head a little to one side, which gave her an enquiring look. Her face had little colour, the features somewhat flattish, and her mouth rather thin-lipped, which gave her a serious aspect. But in conversation and when she smiled, she showed herself for what she was, one who liked people, and generous in spirit. She especially loved children. "Ee! Aren't they lovely, bless 'em!", she would say, or "Ee, he’s a little love. I could eat him up!".
She had had a hard life. Whereas the others had left work when they married, Auntie Alice worked all her life in the mill. I think her husband, Johntie, had not been strong, so she had had to support the family herself. Her two older daughters, had had their difficulties, one way and another, and she had to provide them with support and strength. Now, after a lifetime of work in the cotton mill, she was deaf, no doubt from the din of the weaving sheds. And she did not look strong, but I never knew her to be ill. I had the impression growing up that there had been bad blood at one time between my mother and her. Little things I heard drop left me with that impression, but, if that were so, I never discovered what the occasion for it had been. Later on, when she was a very old lady, she would come to Langold, and once we went off to Mablethorpe with my mother and our children to stay a few days at the seaside, and she was wonderful with the children.
Auntie Annie was the next after Auntie Alice. She was a soft, gentle easy-going, comfortable-looking woman. I never heard her raise her voice, although she had a house full of adolescent children - three girls and two boys. They were much older than I, except for the youngest, Harry. Her name was Mrs. Sim and her husband was named Joe. I didn't see much of him. I remember him bending over to tie up his boot laces, and grunting heavily while he did so, his fat cheeks reddening the while. He reminded me of a pig, and I regret to confess that I thought of him in those terms, although he never did anything to displease me.
They had three girls - Mary, Helen and I forget the name of the other. The boys were Chris and Tom. Chris was raw-boned and ginger-haired. He was a plasterer. Tom was still at school. He later became a teacher and headmaster. One of the girls married a school master by the name of Tom Horrocks who later became a headmaster. They had one son, Rodney, who was later to qualify with a degree in law from Liverpool University. Pressures of his profession, and an unhappy marriage later caused him to take his own life.
Auntie Annie and her busy brood lived on Old Wigan Road in a row of terraced houses on a rise above the road called Daisy Bank. Further up the road, on the same side lived Auntie Alice, and across the road and a little way down towards Ashton lived my Uncle James by the Steam Engine.
Auntie Winnie was my favourite aunt. She was married to Jim Gibbs. There had been a double wedding - two brothers marrying two sisters. Winnie and Bette, married Jim and Jack Gibbs. The latter and his wife emigrated to Canada. They disembarked at Montreal and that was as far as Auntie Bette was willing to go. So that is where they settled, and had their family of two boys, and where they remained for the rest of their lives. Their eldest son was named Jack. He, too, never left Montreal. He worked as a mechanic of some kind. He and his wife were later to be very kind to Frank and Avis when they attempted to get established in Canada in the late 1950's. Their younger son was Bill. He worked at what was then Malton airport in Toronto, now the Lester Pearson International Airport. After the war, he and his wife, Ailsa, and their girl and two boys, moved to California, where he worked for the Howard Hughes organization. They lived first in Culver City and then in Torrance, but after his retirement, having reservations about life in a changing Los Angeles, they moved to Hemet, a retirement community near the San Jacinto forest, north of Palm Springs. There they lived in a mobile home, one of many enclosed by a wall, equipped with a small golf course and a community centre for get-togethers, and given a fancy name. The inhabitants were middle-class whites getting away from the real U.S.A. outside. On our one and only visit I found it dull, even stifling, after only a short time. They found it cold in the winter, and extremely hot in summer, so much so that they were dependent continually on air conditioning. After a couple of years they returned to the coast to live near Oceanside. Ailsa was busy with church activites, but Bill seemed at a loose end, and seemed to go into a decline. He passed away a couple of years ago, the victim of Alzheimer's disease. They had a daughter who was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Tucson at one time. She has returned, I think, to live with her mother. The oldest child, John, is a minister of a church, working at present in a parish in Bellingham. I have never met him. The youngest child, Douglas, served for a time in the U.S. Navy. He made an unfortunate marriage, and when we saw him last, he had separated from his wife.
I liked staying with Auntie Winnie and Uncle Jim Gibbs, she went out of her way to be a good hostess when I went on holiday to her house. Holidays for us in those days consisted in a stay with one of your aunts. Some people would go to the seaside for a few days and stay in a boarding-house. For Lancashire people, Blackpool was a favourite place to stay. It was just a few miles away and had lots of things to do which did not necessarily cost a lot of money. There were miles of promenade, along which on one side were the sea and sand, and on the other, a variety of shops; shops selling Blackpool rock of all shapes and sizes, buckets and spades for the children, swimming suits, rude postcards, sandwiches, fish and chips and whelks and oyster stalls. All the fun and excitement of the fair. And lots and lots of people, themselves a source of interest and wonder to a small child from a small town. And of course, there was Blackpool tower, with its zoo and other attractions, and on the seaside the great pier full of hawkers and sideshows. And, finally, for the frugal, the sands with its crowds of people and its little donkeys carrying small children on exciting trips of a hundred yards or so.
But stays at the seaside were not for us. When we went, it was for the day and we had to pack into that day as much fun as we could. For holidays we went to our Aunties. Certain ones. I stayed with Auntie Winnie, Auntie Polly and Auntie Ethel. Never with Auntie Alice, or Auntie Annie. Why this was so I never knew. Probably the reason is that Auntie Annie did not have the room and Auntie Alice, being at work in the mill, had an empty house during the day.
The usual destination was either Auntie Winnie or Auntie Polly. Auntie Winnie and Uncle Jim did not live in Ashton. He had served his apprenticeship at the Vulcan Foundry in nearby Earlestown, and on being qualified as a tool and die maker, he joined the shipbuilding form of Cammell, Laird's in Birkenhead, on the River Mersey across from Liverpool. At that time, it was a busy yard, building and repairing ships. He was to remain there for the rest of his working days.
When I first went to stay with them, they lived in a house in a very long terrace that stretched from the bottom to the top of Rodney Street. From the town at the bottom, it was a steep, unrelenting climb up to number 85. It provided good exercise for a boy in a hurry. The house was small, well-furnished, comfortable and spotlessly clean. Auntie Winnie was a meticulous housekeeper, and Uncle Jim also had high standards.
Auntie Winnie had the same general appearance as Auntie Alice - the same slight build, the same colouring, the same shape of face and head. But she was not stooped at all. Her face was bright and intelligent, and, in conversation, she was infinitely tactful. What drew me to her more than anything was the way in which she did everything she could to please you, going out of her way to find out what you really liked. She joined in things, too. Sometimes, you were free to go out and explore on your own, sometimes she would take you out. So, as I came to know the town, I would roam around on my own, looking at the shops on Borough Road or strolling through the market, or occasionally taking the tram and making the hour and a half journey out to New Brighton. At other times, we would go out together, perhaps for a walk up to Tranmere of a summer's evening, or go to the cinema in the evening. (It was incidentally, in Birkenhead that I heard my first talkie: "The Trial of Mary Dougan", and was shocked on first hearing English spoken with an American accent). Sometimes, we would go over to Liverpool either by the underground railway, or, if there was more time, by ferry. There we would become part of the busy, bustling city - something infinitely exciting for a village boy. My aunt made her own clothes, so she would study models in the big stores, like Lewis's and Blackler's, and look for bargains in their cloth departments.
Usually the visit to Lewis's would end with a visit to the cafeteria where we would enjoy an ice-cream in a silver dish. Those were heady days, and particularly so, since, for the only time in my life, when on holidays, I had real money. Usually, it was one shilling a day, a considerable sum in those days to a child of my background. Auntie Winnie used to give me one of these precious coins each day. That empowered me beyond belief. When we went out, I could pay. Sometimes the offer was accepted graciously and sometimes just as graciously refused. Going out on my own, I could buy whatever I wished - something I was not able to do as a rule. And, of course, I had to decide on presents to take back home. She helped with this, too. Not telling, but advising, encouraging, and, on occasion, advising against an unwise purchase.
Uncle Jim was very good, too. He would take me on the ferry from Woodside, on the Birkenhead side to the Princes Landing Stage in Liverpool. He would point out landmarks such as the Liver building with the huge liner bird perched atop and the overhead railway that ran round the docks. As we crossed the river, he would show me the Elder & Fyffe's banana boats - they were painted silver - and other ships of interest, including the Canadian Pacific, White Star and Cunard liners berthed alongside. We could examine some of these close up because there were always some tied up near Princes stage, glamorous-looking vessels that carried much of the transatlantic trade before the long-distance aircraft took it over after the second World War. Always on the Liverpool side, there were freighters tied up alongside that were open to visitors. For a few pennies a member of the crew would show you round the vessel. That was interesting, too. Uncle Jim also used to take me with him to Arrow Park in Birkenhead. The bowling greens were there, busy each summer evening or all day long at weekends, full of bowlers at their play. I remember visiting Arrow Park in 1933 when the Boy Scouts' World Jamboree was held there. It had rained heavily, I recall, and the grass had been churned to mud with the passage of thousands of feet, but the spirits of the scouts were not dampened. They were spread out over a huge area, scouts from nations and peoples all over the globe, each group in its own tented area, carrying on with cooking, displaying skills and practising crafts. I had never seen so many people of various colours. It was Uncle Jim's custom while out on these walks to visit Birkenhead market, where we bought packets of sweets that we took home with us for Auntie Winnie and Dora.
Dora was their only child. Bright, animated, and a good scholar, she had, when I came to notice her, won a scholarship to Birkenhead Girls High School. She seemed very much older than her years to me. In fact, she was seven years my senior so that when I was just beginning in Grammar School, she was just about finishing, and preparing to go on to university. Sometimes, she came out with us; to the cinema, perhaps, or maybe for an afternoon trip to New Brighton, but mostly I saw her at home.
The other member of the family for many years was Bunty, a small black and white spaniel. She was spoiled, of course, especially by Auntie Winnie. Bunty used to make a great fuss of Uncle Jim when he came home from work, dancing around him as he entered the door and continuing until he sat down in his chair.
Uncle Jim was a small, compact man. His hair was light brown, straight, and neatly combed to the sides of the head. He sported a small moustache. His eyes were blue and had a piercing look. Not one to waste words, he could seem almost abrupt at times. He could not tolerate sloppiness or poor manners. I recall Dora was sniffling once. He stood it for a little, until his patience was exhausted. "Empty your trunk", he said, and resumed reading his paper. The Liverpool Echo was an important part of his evening ritual. He was not one to go out except sometimes for a walk, perhaps to take the dog for a constitutional. He was never a drinking man. I don't think they had drink in the house. Usually, after supper, he would settle in his armchair, light his pipe, and read the Echo.
One great pleasure in staying in Birkenhead and, later, Bromborough was the food. Auntie Winnie was an excellent cook. The meals she set on the table were always delicious. Her cooking had a light dainty touch that others lacked. She baked often and made all her own preserves, which were labelled meticulously before being stored away. One was treated as a guest. She went out of her way to find out what were your favourite meals. One of my favourites in the summer time was cold roast leg of pork, thinly sliced, with a Guernsey tomato and bread and butter. Often when I came home from school, and things were very busy in the shop, or it had been too hot to cook a meal, I would go next door but one to old Coleman's butcher shop and buy two ounces of the succulent, delicately-perfumed meat sliced from a leg that was always standing on his counter. Auntie Winnie found out about my liking for this delicacy, and, sure enough, it soon appeared on the table from time to time. There were always little treats - walnut crunchy made with oats, walnuts and syrup, various fruits in season, a cream puff now and then. She just had a way of making food interesting. Even on picnics, the same high standards prevailed. When we went to New Brighton, whether two or three of us, or whether a bigger family crowd, there was always a picnic. Often the only equipment taken along was a bread knife and a knife for buttering bread. Come meal time, the ingredients of the meal were bought at nearby shops - thinly sliced York ham, a fresh crusty loaf, butter, Guernsey tomatoes and cakes of some kind. With these in hand, we would pick a spot on the hill overlooking the water, and everybody would enjoy a delicious meal. The grown-ups would then adjourn to a tea-shop where they would order a pot of tea.
My mother was next in the line of sisters. She was senior to the youngest, Auntie Polly. All her sisters referred to her as "Our Mat". Her name was Martha. I think she was born in 1891. The thing I remember most about her was her strengths. Physically, she was much bigger than Alice, Winnie, Beth and Annie, and she looked stronger than Polly.
Mentally, she was strong, too. Like her sisters, she was bright, intelligent. I suppose that, today, they would all be university graduates, but, at that time, the opportunities for working-class children to advance themselves through education were pretty well non-existent.
My mother's strength and lack of fear of other people meant that to some she was an intimidating presence. She definitely had two distinct sides to her personality. On the one hand, she was kind, thoughtful and helpful. Mr. Scotney, the manager of Tyler's shoe shop, next to ours in Langold was a weak physical specimen who was frequently bowled over by colds, or doses of influenza. On many occasions, my mother, when hearing that he was poorly would call over to Mrs. Scotney, and hand over a bowl of hot soup or stew. She was often thoughtful and generous to people in this way. But the other side of these actions was a critical, judgmental attitude. Mrs. Scotney, for example, she regarded with what amounted to contempt because, in mother's eyes, she was a lazy and self-indulgent wife who didn't feed her husband well and look after him properly. Too many trips to Siberry's fish and chip shop, and not enough good, nourishing home cooking. And worse, too, because she had no children to see to. Worst of all, perhaps, was the fact that both the Scotneys were Londoners, which made them, de facto, inferior beings.
In the kind of business we had, that is one run on 'the book' credit from one Friday to another, my mother's ability to intimidate proved useful in keeping backsliders in line. If Friday came around, and somebody came, or more frequently sent a child, for a sizeable order without paying the outstanding bill, the matter would be dealt with by her. If it was a child, the order would usually be turned away; if a woman, there would have to be a good explanation, or no further credit would be granted. Sometimes, backsliders got away with running up a sizeable bill, and then moved their custom to another shop, walking past our shop with eyes averted. I have seen my mother walk out on to the front at Langold, and confront delinquents, and seen them quake before her demands.
She was a turbulent, restless person, faithful to her friends, but unforgiving to those who violated her trust. She worked hard for causes she believed in. She supported and worked for the Labour Party. She was for years a member of Co-operative Women's Guild, until she started a business which itself was in competition with the Co-operative Wholesale Society.
I often wondered whether her volatility and energy were the result of frustration. Was she frustrated by the role in life that she was forced, by circumstances to adapt to. Having passed an examination to leave school at the age of thirteen, she was sent to the mill. Either she didn't like the mill or was unable to adapt to work there. At any rate, she soon started work at Winwick, near Warrington, as a practical nurse, or nurse's aide. Winwick was, and still is, a large, national institution for the insane. In Lancashire and Cheshire, to say that somebody is 'stone Winwick' means that that person is not right in the head.
Working in the wards there, she was, as quite a young girl, locked in with deranged people, some of whom were capable of violence. Not a very pleasant sort of work for a young girl growing into womanhood. I think she worked at Winwick until she married.
Marriage itself could not have seemed to open many doors. My father was a miner, improving himself by taking evening courses at Wigan Technical College, working towards his manager's certificate. There would not be much money, and the house in Potter's Row was hardly a palace. Her ambition showed itself at this time in the insurance round that she had, but its potential was obviously limited.
I am unclear, talking of volatility, of my mother's relationship to my father. What stands out in my mind is the fact that he seems to have had only tenuous links with the sisters. I cannot remember him as a member of that family group. Other husbands were not as marginal. Joe Sim was not particularly close to them, nor Tom Caunce for that matter. Uncle Ted, Auntie Polly's husband, on the other hand was very close. Did mother keep Father out of the group? Did he not wish to be associated closely with it? Did the group not want to be associated with him? After all, he did have two strikes against him. He was Irish and he was Catholic. I remember also my mother's seeming dislike of father's brother Jim. And Uncle John was never mentioned to my knowledge.
I never could know as a child what things were like between my mother and father, but as I grew older, I did become aware of the tensions between them. Although they thought alike on matters social and political, there were strong personal differences. My mother took exception to my father's habits and manners. She looked askance at his table manners, and his habit of spitting into the fire repelled her. But it was in the matter of drink that there was most friction. My father may have gone to excess occasionally when a young man, as most normal young men do, but growing up I never saw him the worse for drink. He enjoyed a pint, or possibly two, over a game of dominoes at the club or pub, but drunk, never! However, my mother was dead set against the demon drink - except when, in polite company, she was offered a glass of port - and it was mostly when my father returned from his visit to the pub that arguments arose and voices were raised. One suspects that, on these occasions, subterranean resentments and tensions broke to the surface and erupted. I found them unpleasant and bewildering. I also disliked the way in which my mother either spoke or openly showed her disapproval of my father to her children. Not only was it disloyal, but it was pointless. My father was never going to change his ways.
I noticed a restlessness when we moved from Ashton, first to Bircoates, then to Langold. It was as though my mother had to get back to her family for a visit. So, from time to time, she would return for a few days, sometimes with the children, sometimes, as they grew older, without them, leaving my father to carry on.
He could not, of course, lose working time, but I think she went back to relax, and renew something within herself. She was always after leaving Ashton, an exile. It was always her wish to return, and, after my father's death, she finally did return to spend her remaining years there.
These observations and speculations paint my mother in a harsh light, and that may not be altogether fair. She was a caring mother. Both my parents wanted the best for their children. Both were determined that we should not be consigned to a life of drudgery - not if they could help it. In particular, the boys would be kept from the pit, working as miners did at dangerous, exhausting and unrewarding work. We were all, one way or another, even if it had to be paid for out of scarce resources, provided with an education that would open doors that would otherwise remain closed throughout one's life. It is not easy today, to realise how much a reasonable education could affect one's life. Boys who went to school with me in Langold mostly went down the pit when they left school at the age of fourteen. They received a shilling a day. Their parents often encouraged them. Mothers couldn't wait until their lads started earning, so that they could make their contribution to the family income. For their part, the boys became men. They had a bit of spending money enough to buy Woodbines and a ticket to the pictures. And soon they were completely locked into the life of the village and the mine, prisoners for life, condemned to hard labour stretching out beyond the bounds of the imagination. So it was always drummed into us that school was important, and that we must work hard and do well. There was encouragement and pressure, too.
The youngest of the sisters was Auntie Polly. She was married to Uncle Ted Houghton. He was a small, stocky, steady man with a very red face, and an even redder nose. A purple nose really. Never seeming to get ruffled about anything, he had a dry sense of humour, and enormous common sense. A man of habit, he used to go up to the Rec.(the recreation ground) to play bowls in the summer, and billiards in the winter. On one occasion, the manager of the local gas works was there in the company of Uncle Ted and some other friends, and he was joking about the colour of Uncle Ted's nose, hinting, of course, that he was a considerable drinker. Uncle Ted had a ready reply:
"Ay", says Uncle Ted, "my nose is like your bloody gas meter. It registers more than it consumes." And, indeed, Uncle Ted did like a drink, but never more than one. He was a man of habit in everything he did. He was hard-working and frugal, and he made money. He was a younger son of a farmer, known in the area as "Plumper Houghton". During Word War I he had served in the Army. His knowledge of horses took him into a cavalry regiment, where he sent his time looking after them. After the war, he bought a lorry and started a round collecting full milk churns from farms and delivering them to the dairy. This meant rising early in the morning, every day, and this he did for years. Doing business, with farmers, he gained the knowledge and contacts that enabled to build up a wholesale business buying potatoes and selling them to stores and fish and chip shops. For many years, he managed to run the two businesses concurrently.
After Auntie Winnie it was with Auntie Polly and Uncle Ted that I stayed with most often. Auntie Polly was similar to my mother in general appearance. Both were bigger and more sturdily built than Winnie or Alice who were slightly framed. She had grey eyes, and always wore her hair short and combed close to her head. Like her husband she was very orderly and systematic. They worked well together as a team. He went out to work and brought in the money. She did the accounts and provided a comfortable home. Everything had a place in her house, and everything was in its place. As the youngest child, she perhaps had been given opportunities that had not been available to the older ones. Before her marriage, she had been a department manager in the Co-operative store. She was obviously a very intelligent person, yet her world was small. Looking after Ted, helping with the business, keeping a very tidy house, interacting with her sisters and Ted's friends, and, last but not least, bringing up their only child, Eddie, was the geography of her life. I don't ever remember being aware of them going away on holiday.
She was a good hostess. An excellent cook, she permitted a good deal of freedom, even perhaps encouraged it. From her house, I used to walk across to Auntie Annie's, or walk down to the centre of Ashton, or maybe visit Uncle Jim's brook at the Steam Engine. In some things, she stood in contrast to Auntie Winnie, who asked you what you liked to eat, and what you wanted to do with your day. Whereas Auntie Winnie sometimes would join in, or take you out, to Liverpool, say, Auntie Polly seemed to stay within the security of her home. Her home and family unit were of the first importance to her. So much so that, on rare occasions, one could sense a feeling of being a bit of an outsider; not surprising when one thinks of being given the responsibility of looking after nephews and nieces, who did bring their problems with them. I remember Uncle Ted, who had to be up at 4:30 a.m. being robbed of his sleep once by Frank, who would be five or six at the time and who had a belly ache, and cried during the night. On being asked what his trouble was, he told them and plaintively asked, "will Beecham's pills do it any good?" And, when he was even younger, he cried for his mother, and continually asked for "little dyinks of water". Such incidents, often told and laughed about later, must have been irritating at the time, especially in a house that did run, and had to run, so smoothly as a rule.
Eddie was a couple of years younger than I. He was tall and shy, very fair, with a shock of blond hair. He received a lot of attention from his mother, and didn't mix with other children as much as we did. He was to win a scholarship to Ashton Grammar School, and then go on to Goldsmith's College in London, where he trained to be a teacher. His teaching career was brief as he continued his education by taking a degree in law at Liverpool University. He then joined a firm of solicitors in Wigan, eventually marrying one of the daughters, also a solicitor, whom he had met at University. In addition to the sisters, there was one boy, Ben. A shadowy figure to me, I cannot recall ever seeing him, although I heard him talked about. All I knew about him was his name, and the fact that he owned two chemist shops in nearby towns. Later in life, he retired to live in Southport.
When I try to think back to my early days in Ashton, the first image that flashes across the mind's eye is the road to school. I started at the Catholic Infants' when I was four, and my teacher was Miss Floyd. Her name is the only recollection I have of her, or of the school, for that matter, except that it was a small stone building at the other end of town. I cannot remember anything about my classmates, or about what we did in school. I did have a couple of photographs of the class until a few years ago, but somehow they have been lost. The pictures show a class of about 30 or 40 children, arranged in tiers, staring at the camera. My mother obviously took great pride in my appearance, for I, together with a little girl, stand out as being well dressed. My round face and shock of wavy hair is set off by a large white collar, part of a velvet suit. In contrast, most of my classmates are dressed in an assortment of plain frocks and woolen jerseys. Most striking, however, are the faces. The photographer must have omitted the usual encouragement to smile, for the expressions are overwhelmingly sour and surly, unforgettably so - the faces of Bashi-Bazooks, cossacks, and other wild people spring to mind immediately.
I remember walking to school. Out of the house and left on Bryn Road for about 300 yards. On the right were a few houses and then an open field; on the left was a scrap yard surrounded by a tall wooden fence and then a few houses. Bryn Road then joined the main road into town. At the junction was a house where you could buy home-made herb beer in big stone jars. Across the road was a public house, and some houses, near which was an open space in which children played. I didn't like that corner because I was afraid that I might be attacked by these rough-looking children. Having negotiated this spot, I turned right to walk about three quarters of a mile to the centre of the town. On the right, I passed the co-op store, and the place where the Italian family lived who made the town's ice cream, and finally the Robin Hood Pub. On the left were houses, and, opposite the Co-op, the residence and surgery of our family doctor, Dr. Latham. He used to do his rounds in a pony and trap.
At the Robin Hood, a road crossed the main road, which now became Gerrard Street. To the left was the Record, the town's cotton mill: to the right the road went to the Carnegie Public Library, where it split, the right fork being Wigan Road, and the left one Old Wigan Road. On this section of about two hundred yards, there was the National School perched on a hillside on the right, the school that my mother and her sisters had attended. Opposite were shops and a cinema.
I continued up Gerrard Street. On the left were shops and Crompton's Hinge Factory; on the right were shops and pubs, and, immediately behind them and at a higher level, the market place. The market was held once a week. Rows of stalls, selling everything from tea sets to Lancashire cheese, in winter illuminated by flares suspended from the framework of the stalls.
At the top of Gerrard Street, the road went off to the left, to the railway station where I arrived when coming to stay, and to Haydock where Ethel lived, past Lord Gerrard's estate to their house in Penny Lane. I kept going straight ahead, now downhill to the school, a quarter of a mile or so away, leaving the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Boys' School on the left, and large, prosperous-looking houses on the right.
I remember the church well. It was being built at that time, and much of the money was raised through various fund-raising activities as well as contributions of the congregation. I remember the priests, Father Curwen and Father O'Mara. And I remember attending the boys' school next to the to the church, and connected to it by a door in the school wall. The headmaster's name was Mr. Brian, and I had heard such fearsome stories of the cruel punishments he handed out to sinners that I was terrified at the prospect of being in his school.