I was never punished, as I recall, so I must have been reasonably good. It was customary to go to mass regularly in the church next door, and I remember trying to make sense of such things as "The Holy Ghost", "the Grace of God" (which cropped up a lot), "tongues of fire from Heaven", and so on. In particular, I was always mystified by "the Grace of God", grace being the Ashton pronunciation of "grease", and always getting this confused with the anointment of people with oil, and the idea of "God's anointed"
I estimate the distance from home to school at about a mile and a half. Quite a distance for a four-year old to walk, and unaccompanied at that. Such a thing would be unthinkable today, what with traffic and predatory grown-ups. Evidently, neither was present then. I don't know whether I returned home for lunch, or stayed in school. It doesn't seem possible for me to have returned home. I do remember coming home sometimes. I have a sharp image of my mother standing in Bryn Road, and, of myself, walking diagonally back and forth, across it, and of suddenly becoming aware of her presence, standing waiting for me further down the road.
Ashton was not very big. It couldn't be when a small child could walk to school from one side of it to the other. A coal and cotton town, it was of many in the area between Manchester and Liverpool, which was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. I have mentioned the Record mill. There were others in nearby communities. As for the coal mines, besides the Crow pit, there were Smetherts and Garswood Hall, and others.
The coal mines accounted for the polyglot population. In addition to the native Lancashire stock - probably my ancestors on my mother's side were of this sort, her maiden name was a most unusual one - Blinstone - there were considerable admixtures of Welsh and Irish. The Welsh probably came because they already had experience of working in mines at home. The Irish had no such experience. There were no coal mines in Ireland. Their experience was working on the land, and, at first, they came as seasonal workers. They were big and strong, and hard workers. They also earned a reputation as heavy drinkers.
This resulted from the fact that many of them came as single men, who stayed in lodgings. They sought and found the company of their own kind in the pubs, some of which became almost exclusively Irish in their clientele. After an evening's heavy drinking, fights frequently broke out, sometimes between the Irishmen themselves, and oftentimes between the Irish and the locals. I am reminded of the story that was often told about a local character, who was celebrated in many tales for his eccentric behaviour. He was known as Mucky Tuppy. One evening, he ventured into a pub frequented by Irishmen. When asked by the barman what he wanted, he replied in a loud voice:
"Ah'll have half a gallon of Irish men."
The insult was replied to immediately, and he was taken to hospital suffering from numerous contusions and a few broken bones.
Gradually, the Irish became a part of the community. Instead of working for a season in the mines, and then returning home to help with the harvest, they stayed permanently. By degrees, they married local girls and settled. The flourishing Catholic schools and the Church, the most imposing building in Ashton, were indications of the degree to which this had occurred by World War I. My father and his family were typical of this movement. His father, Peter, came seeking work and found it in the coal mines. He brought John and James with him. My father stayed in the small town of Kiltimagh in County Mayo until he was about seventeen. There he worked for an Aunt who had a small holding of about six acres. Life was hard and pretty primitive, digging lazy-beds for potatoes, cutting the peat and bringing it in from the bog to be carefully stored and dried, feeding the pigs and chickens, and tending the cow. The small cottage had an earth floor. The only source of heat was the peat fire that was always kept burning. The little time left for diversion was taken up by walking into Kiltimagh itself, or to the slightly larger town of Castlebar, about eight miles away. Not that either community offered much in the way of entertainment beyond sing-songs in the bars.
So, when my father left his aunt's place, and came to Ashton, it was almost inevitable that, he, too should go into the mine, and, having settled down, to be married to a local girl.
Acceptance of the Irish was grudging. There was the religious difference. The locals, for the most part, were Protestant. There was also the reputation, well earned, for hard-drinking and fighting. And, in addition, there was the widespread idea, true or not, that the Irish were dirty, slovenly, and generally disorderly in their way of life; that Irish families had large numbers of snotty-nosed waifs; that they had chickens walking on the kitchen table; and that Paddy took his pig to bed with him at night; and that you weren't safe wandering into a predominantly Irish area - what, today, we would call a ghetto. Such were the stories circulated.
If the Irish were feared, the Welsh were regarded with contempt. As the jingle went:
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of beef.
I went to Taffy's house
Taffy was in bed.
I upped with the chamber pot
And hit him on the head.
Planned attacks upon them were not uncommon in earlier times. I used to listen to the story of such an attack. Some men stationed themselves at night at a convenient spot that people had to pass on their way home. As each man passed, a voice would call out:
"Are thee a bloody Welshman?", and if the victim replied with a Welsh accent, he would get a thumping.
Like the Irishman, some of the Welsh miners came on their own. They would find lodgings with a family. There were many families who were only too glad to have a paying guest in the house, even if he was Irish or Welsh, for it meant a little badly-needed extra money. Some of these single men stayed with the same family for years, eventually becoming, to all intents and purposes, a member of the family, whose habits and likes and dislikes were thoroughly understood and catered to. One of my grandmother's neighbours had a lodger who was called to get ready for work partly in his native tongue.
"Pimp o glock, Mr. Davies", his landlady would call. Five o'clock, time for him to rise, and start the preparations for going on to work at 10:00 p.m., the night shift.
I was even taught some numbers in Welsh - in, di, tri, pedwad, pimp.
What do I remember most of the life in this small town? One memory is family gatherings. There would be a ham tea, a table laid out with a fine table cloth and the best china and cutlery. Aunts and cousins busy cutting mountains of bread and buttering it, setting out the cakes, preparing the tea. As children we mostly got in the way, but nobody minded so long as we did not interfere with the contents of the table. If you were suspected of delinquency, you were warned off. Sometimes, the warning came too late. Harold Caunce was a bit of a devil. One day, at the height of preparations for a tea, Harold Harold is round the table sticking his finger into this and that. "Harold, stop that! Harold, get away! Harold, don't touch!" The warnings were of no avail. In a cunning move, when all attention was elsewhere, Harold saw his opportunity and stuck his finger into a pot containing some brown substance. Auntie Winnie, I think it was, spotted him as he was popping his finger in his mouth.
Alas, her call came too late, and to no avail. In a trice, Harold was hopping round the room, tears coming to his eyes, and his face turning a bright red. He had dipped his finger in the mustard pot.
After tea, the conversation at the table was adjourned to the fireside. Bits of gossip and local news were followed by stories about the old days, when they were young, very often involving eccentric characters and their own adventures. Such eccentrics included Mucky Tuppy and Owd Pinner. Mucky Tupper would swallow a mouse any time if somebody would buy him a pint to down it with. Owd Pinner evidently had a wife who constantly replied to any information he gave her with: "I know." He resolved to teach her a lesson. In those days, there was a chamber-pot under each side of the bed. The need frequently arose during the night, and there were no indoor toilets. So one day he smeared the rim of her chamber-pot with glue, and replaced it under the bed. Then he waited. Sure enough, he was wakened during the night by his wife's cries. "What's up?", he asked.
"This chamber's stuck to me bottom", she cried, standing up to show that this, indeed was the case. "I know", he said, and promptly turned over and went to sleep.
There were stories of their schooling. Evidently, the older ones had to take "school pennies" to school with them to help defray the costs of their education, for they had gone to the National School, which had been run by the Church of England. They told stories of going to work, and of helping at home, washing, sewing, darning, etc. Some of them had had to go down to the slaughterhouse when pigs were being killed, to bring back the blood which grandmother used to make black puddings, the sale of which helped to keep the family afloat after she had been widowed. They also repeated yarns about the strange antics of the inhabitants of nearby villages. In one place, the people were reputed to put the pig on the wall to watch the band go past: in another, they were known to Ashtonians as Cay-yeds (Cowheads) because it was told that in that place once a cow got its head through some iron railings. Many of the villagers came to look and to give their advice as to how the problem should be resolved. Eventually, the solution decided upon was to chop off the animal's head.
One story would lead to another. It was a warm, exciting atmosphere - the fire blazing, the stories bouncing around the circle, and lots of laughter. Of course, we children were not allowed to speak. Only to listen. And sometimes we were the subject of the conversation as if we had not been present. We were all thoroughly discussed - Our Dora, Our Chris, Our Gerald, Our Frank, Our Eddy, etc. We were compared, too, I think, and there was a certain amount of quiet bragging, and possibly, some jealousy. Auntie Polly, especially, focused on Our Eddy. Auntie Winnie, strangely enough, rarely referred to Dora as Our Dora, which was the acceptable northern working-class way. Dora was almost invariably Dora.
The jealousy bit seemed to me to be contained in something Auntie Winnie said to me, and this in the presence of others, so much out of character for her, that I have never forgotten it. It was while I was at Langold school that a school report came home that gave me nine top marks and eight comments of "excellent". My mother must have said something about this. Anyway, one day, when there was a gathering of adults, I happened to say something:
"Hey, thee shurrup, nine tops and eight excellents", she said, assuming the local idiom. I was embarrassed and mortified.
I have no doubt that to her that it was nothing, and soon passed from her mind, but it stayed with me almost as a shame for many a long year.
Other memories of Ashton remain. The market is vivid with its long rows of stalls selling its cloth, cheese, vegetables, chinaware, meat. In the family, they talked of Dick Kay who had a butcher's stall on the market and a shop on Gerrard St. backing up to the market. He had done well, become quite well-to-do selling lamb, they said, for five a leg and four a shoulder (fivepence a pound for leg and twopence for shoulder). I remember, incidentally, another butcher. His name was Mr. Hotchkiss, and I remember him and the lady who worked in his shop, probably his wife. I was always made a fuss of there. At the corner of the market, down at the Steam Engine end, was a bakery, full of fragrant breads and delicious-looking cakes, and always a whole boiled ham, the outside adorned with golden bread crumbs. Very thin slices of pink, succulent meat were cut to the customer's order. Across from the market, on the opposite side of Gerrard St. was the Rec. For the most part, it was an expanse of rough grass-covered land on which children could run wild. But it also contained a club house and a bowling green, which provided recreation in the summer months for both men and women.
Another thing that springs to mind is the custom of "walking days". This was widespread throughout Lancashire. At Whitsuntide, the children, all dressed in white, would walk in procession through the streets of the town. For weeks before, mothers would be busy making the girls' dresses, and on the day, Whit Sunday or Palm Sunday, the town would turn out to watch the parade.
For all these activities within the town, people walked or biked. Cars were unknown, or very scarce, at that time, and only a few people had a horse and trap. In any case, the town was small enough to make walking to any part relatively easy. If one wished to go further afield, one walked, if the distance was reasonable. We always walked to and fro between Ashton and Haydock where the Caunces lived. For longer journeys, there was the tram, which was reliable and cheap, though not very fast by our standards today. By this means, one travelled to St. Helens, Wigan, or Warrington, all of which were bigger towns with more interesting shops, and were within a few miles of Ashton. It was on a tram, incidentally, that I managed to embarrass my parents. I had evidently, just turned five, the age at which children had to be paid for.
Perhaps this had gone to my head, or perhaps it was just my desire for the truth. At all events, the conductor came to collect the fares. My father paid the fares for my mother and himself.
"Is this child over five?", the conductor inquired.
"No", replied my mother, "he's only four."
"I'm not, then", I cried, "I'm five."
I never lived that down. The tale was told and retold around the family circle for years.
It must have been on one of these outings that I got lost in Warrington. All I remember is being in a large shop in the company of a lady and a gentleman who were unknown to me. As is common with young children I had wandered off on my own. I don't recall being frightened or upset, and was soon reclaimed none the worse for wear.
For longer journeys, there was the train. If you wanted to go to Manchester, or Liverpool or Southport for the day, that was the way to go. Trains were frequent and there were cheap day return fares available.
I had only a hazy idea of local geography. I used to listen to my aunts talking about many places. Carmel, where they went for picnics; Knowsley Hall, the home and estate of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby; Haydock Park where the racecourse was; Billinge, Bryn, Atherton, Earlestown, Newton-in-Makerfield, all nearby communities. And Stubshaw Cross, which I remember, because it was there that I first encountered migraines. Stubshaw Cross was in the opposite direction from Potter's Row to Ashton. I had walked down the lane by Pimblett's farm, past the first field, and then turned right, and followed the path till it joined the road at Stubshaw Cross. All I remember there was a pub on the corner and people passing, and myself sitting on the kerbstone by the road, being extremely sick and feeling deathly ill, a long way from home, and wondering if the world had deserted me. A desolate feeling, and one that I shall never forget. Strangely enough, I have no idea how I got home, but I never forgot Stubshaw Cross.
Such are the recollections of the place where I spent my six or seven years of life. A small, drab, undistinguished place in the eyes of the world, then as it still is. I have met very few people who come from Lancashire who admit to knowing it. Even people from Warrington some six or seven miles away. To explain to them where it is, one has to mention Haydock Park. Oh, yes, of course, they know where Haydock Park is. Everybody knows that because of its racecourse. Then you explain that Ashton is a mile or so away. But from birth to six years, it was my world. The Crow pit tip, Pimblett's farm, Potter's Row, the houses of dark red brick, the mill, the market, the cobbled streets, the trams, schools and church, men in dark suits and women in shawls. And providing a base for exploring this world, the circle of family, the centre consisting of the nucleus of aunts, and on the periphery the uncles.
Our family left Ashton in either 1924 or 1925 to venture into a different world, but I was to return time and again to this nurturing environment. When I was either six or seven, we moved to Nottinghamshire, to a raw, new mining village called Bircotes.
Imagine, if you will, a small village in rural Nottinghamshire, England, with its old stone church and a graveyard well-stocked over the centuries, a village green, a pub, and a scattering of houses and farm buildings. This is Harworth, little changed over the years, until in the nineteen twenties, it finds itself the neighbour of a new, bustling mining village just a mile away. Walk through Harworth and up the hill to the plateau at the top on which Bircotes is built. On the left, as you go, there is some empty land; on the right, the growing mountain of refuse from the coal mine. An aerial system of pylons, steel cables and containers move the material day and night to a place on the cable where a lever causes each container to overturn and spill its load on the growing accumulation below. As you near the top of the hill, there is a row of shops on the left - grocery shops, shoe shops, a cobbler's, clothing stores, fish and chip shops - and larger buildings to house the miners' social clubs. On the opposite side of the road, standing back some hundred yards or so, and approached by a broad avenue of its own is the mine itself, Harworth Main Colliery; or, more correctly, its headquarters, since the heart of the mine is eight hundred yards below the surface in the galleries of tunnels where the miners worked to extract the precious coal. Dominating the mine buildings was the winding gear, two huge wheels which powered the cages up and down the main shaft, taking down men going on shift and empty tubs, and returning with men coming off and full tubs of coals. Nearby was the engine house which supplied the power for the winding gear, the pumps to keep the workings clear of water, and the forced air system below which circulated the air round the galleries, clearing out the explosive black damp gases and keeping the air temperature at a level that the miners at the coal face could work in. The engines also produced all the electricity needed by the mine and its village. A variety of other buildings was scattered around - a repair shop for the constant work needed to keep everything in running order, a blacksmith's, and the lamphouse where the lamp that every miner had to carry down the mine with him, was kept, cleaned, and numbered. The miner could not go down without his lamp and, on coming up, could not go home without surrendering it, a routine strictly followed; for, in the event of an accident underground, it was the lamp tally that could tell how many were involved, and, indeed, who they were.
Harworth about 2002
Bircotes about 2002
The village of Bircotes lay across the road from the colliery at the end of the line of shops, dominated by it, as, indeed, it was in every way. It was the reason for the village's existence, the sole employer of its workers. It must have been in 1924 that we arrived there. Building was still in progress. My memories of our stay there - just over a year - are vague and indistinct. Although I was six years old, I do not remember arriving. I do remember our address - 23 The Crescent - and the fact that there was building going on nearby, for the village was not yet complete.
And I especially recall playing with another child in a game, hours long, where we found a hole in the ground, possibly excavated for sewer pipes or water pipes, and, sticking bits of wire in the earth somehow hoped to produce a flow of water or something equally miraculous. But, and this surprises me, I cannot remember much about the school - no teacher or classroom springs to mind; only the name of the headmaster, a Mr. Larwood, and this, probably only because he was the brother of the famous Nottinghamshire bowler who played for England, and whose so-called "body-line" bowling against the Australians was so controversial. I cannot even recall walking to and from school.
It must have been during this time that Joan was born. She is six years and six months younger than I; Frank, is four years and four months younger, so he must have been about two. I mentioned Joan's birthday because I do remember our two doctors - both Irish - Dr. Quigley and Dr. Lafferty - and they would be visiting our house, as was the common practice for physicians in those days.
The only other persons I remember were the Phasey families. I suppose Ernest Phasey was a workmate of my father's. He was a veteran of the Great War, one of the Old Contemptibles, the British Expeditionary Force, and so-called because the German High Command referred to them as a "contemptible little army". Mr. Phasey's pride in being a member of this gallant band which slowed down the German advance into Belgium and northern France at the beginning of the war was reflected in the name of the couple's only daughter, Courtrai, after a town there. We used to go to the Phasey's for Sunday tea, or they would come to our house. Afterwards, in the summer time, it was a common practice for families to walk together, the men in their blue serge suits walking ahead, while the wives walked together at a distance behind, taking charge of the children. In this way, we would walk to nearby villages - Bawtry, on the Great North Road which connected London and the northern cities, with its old inns and staging houses where the coach-horses had been changed, or Scrooby, with its tiny church, famous as the home of John Brewster, one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers who came over to North America in the Mayflower in 1620.
My general impression of Bircotes is of a certain dullness about the place. Architecturally, it was designed to be interesting. Older mining villages - and including small towns like Ashton consisted of rows of houses, often back to back, each with a small back yard containing an outhouse, and no front garden - ugly, monotonous and dreary. The newer villages, such as Bircotes, were designed to be more interesting and liveable. The streets were in interesting patterns; the houses, set back from the streets, had both back and front gardens. Also the houses were equipped with an indoor toilet and a bath. All this was intended to humanize the environment of the miners and their families, and it was a great improvement. Nevertheless, there was something lacking. The place was new. It had not had time to develop into a community. The population was a mixture of people newly come from older coalfields - Yorkshire, Wales, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Durham and Northumberland - all of whom, in a sense, were refugees, seeking a better life.
Perhaps, also, there was a lack of variety and its accompanying excitement, common to all mining villages, because the mine was the only employer.
So, the sense of connection, of belonging, that one felt in a place such as Ashton, was lacking - the bonds of family, the familiarity of well-known places and things, the routines determined by usage and tradition. This is probably why my mother took to going back to Ashton for brief trips. How many, I don't know, nor for how long. But I remember her not being there, and my father being in charge. He was not very good in the kitchen. We would get badly burned bacon and blackened eggs. He tried. I remember him trying to figure out how to make rice pudding. Did you put salt in it? Yes. How about pepper? Don't know about pepper. What does your mother do? We put the pepper in, anyway, and it didn't help the pudding.
I often wonder why I remember so much more about Ashton than about Bircotes. Of course, we were there only for a year or so. That might be a part of it. Perhaps, as I have suggested, the dullness of the place might have had something to do with it. Maybe, it was a phase that, at six years of age, I was going through.
In the spring of 1926, we moved from there. Not very far. Langold is only half a dozen miles as the crow flies. Another modern mining village, with a new colliery, and a new village, with people from all over the country. Just like Bircotes, one might say, but, unlike Bircotes, destined to play an important part in my young life.
The road is lined on both sides by men. They stand in small clusters, quietly talking amongst themselves. Occasionally, one of the men shouts something in a voice that can be heard a good way down the road; the cry is taken up and the message passed on. The men keep looking expectantly up the road to the north. Suddenly, in the distance, a bus is spotted. A stirring of expectation runs down the line like an electrical current. The bus lumbers on. It is a yellow bus, full of men. It does not stop. For a moment there is silence, except for the noise of the bus; then, all of a sudden, the air is full of wild shouts, and brickbats hurtle through the air. Some shatter the windows. The men inside attempt to shelter below the level of the windows. The bus does not stop. It runs the gauntlet of the line, and finally, disappears to the south in the direction of the mine, a mile or so away. The mine is Firbeck Main, the village where the attack took place is Langold, where its miners lived.
The year was 1926; the reason for the violence was the General Strike, in which the workers in the country's principal industries, resisting the demands of the employers for wage reductions, downed tools and walked out of factories, and mines, and off trains and buses. The employers, in their turn, attempted to beat the strike by using substitute labour - what the workers called "scabs". For a time, the country seemed about to dissolve into chaos and violence. Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, called out the troops to maintain order, and to man the docks. In some towns, students and bank clerks manned the buses. In the mining industry, the owners used the labour of those willing to brave the picket lines, and to endure the opprobrium of being labelled as "scabs" who would break the miners' solidarity. They also employed puppets to set up alternative units to the N.U.M. (National Union of Mineworkers) with whom they could negotiate, and through whom they hoped to undermine the N.U.M.
The temptation to go to work was great, even though one became a social leper thereby. One might even avoid the worst consequences of "scabbing". The owners would draw workers from one mining village and transport them in buses to work in a mine a few miles away; only a few "scabs" came from their own village, and for them and their families, ostracism hit hard. Those who were tempted, however, received a wage every week, which enabled them to feed and clothe their families. The strikers, by contrast, depended on a small weekly allowance from the dwindling union strike fund, barely enough to put food on the table. As for replacing worn-out shoes or clothes, there was no hope of that. Make and mend was the way. Mothers stitched and sewed; fathers often repaired shoes. That is, if they were good parents. Some were, others were lazy, or feckless. Their children were the ones with their britches backside out, or footwear with great holes in the soles. For these, the soup kitchen was a boon. This was a contraption consisting of a boiler on wheels, in which a thick beef and vegetable soup was brewed whenever supplies were available. Women and children - never men - would walk to where it was situated, carrying jugs or bowls, and received a portion according to the number in the family.
It is against the background of frustration, misery and want, that one is able to understand the anger felt against the "scabs" and also against the owners who were determined to reduce wages. The miners had previously been on strike in 1921, had lost, and been forced to accept reductions, the owners arguing that they could not compete with the cheaper coal coming into the country from Poland and Germany. The miners felt they could not accept another reduction in 1926. In particular, the system seemed unfair. They worked eight hour shifts underground in hard and dangerous labour at low wages; the owners operated the mine, and sold the coal at a profit, and the landowners, who had sold the land to the colliery company in the first place, had retained royalty rights; so that, on every ton of hard-won coal, they received a payment of a shilling a ton. So, the coffers of the local landed gentry and aristocracy - from Squire Riddell in Oldcoates and Squire Plumtree Ramsden in Carlton to the Duke of Portland, the Duke of Newcastle, Lord Scarborough, Earl Manvers and Earl Fitzwilliam, to name but a few - received a steady unearned increment from the coal.
Such was the state of affairs when we arrived in Langold in the spring (I think) of 1926. I was to live there continuously until I left to go to University in Sheffield in the autumn of 1936.
It was a new village, very much as Bircotes was, one of the new "model" villages. It was planned as a unit: with broad streets, curving avenues, and houses built in twos and fours, instead of the long, faceless terraces of older worker housing. Each house had electric light, a bathroom with a bath, a w.c. just outside the backdoor but still within the main building, and a coalhouse separate from the house but joined to it by a bridge or arch of brickwork. At the front and back was a large garden space.
When we arrived, it was still half finished. Only the houses near the main road were finished. The more one moved away from that road and into the village proper, the less completed were the houses until at the top of the village, construction was in its rudimentary stages. Here was a place of adventure. Houses with floors half completed, walls newly plastered, or covered with a framework of laths ready to take and hold the plaster, tangles of pipes and electric wires, stairs leading up to bedrooms and bathrooms complete with a tub. And outside, the usual chaos of a large building site; stacks of wood for beams and flooring, piles of bricks, stacks of roofing tiles, glossy brown sewer pipes, great pits of slaked lime for making plaster into whose jelly-like depths we threw whatever came to hand. It was a great place for running wild, playing out whatever fantasies came to mind, and free of menace, save for the danger of falling into the lime pits, for I can recall seeing no watchmen on duty when the bricklayers, hod carriers, plasterers, carpenters, and navvies had gone home for the day. Our visits did frequently have a useful purpose; all around lay pieces of wood - broken laths, trimmings from beams and flooring - which we collected and took home for kindling. There they were chopped into "sticks".
One had to have a supply of dry "sticks", so that the morning's fire could be started quickly and easily. Otherwise, there was nothing to cook with, all cooking being done on the fire, or in the oven which lay next to it. So, no fire, no morning cup of tea, no hot water, no breakfast, and no warmth, for the fire was the sole source of heat for the house. The secret of success lay in the preparations of the night before. A bucket of coal was brought in from the coalhouse, the sticks, if not already dry, were dried before the fire, or in the oven, and strips of newspaper twisted into large spills were prepared. If this were done, a blaze was quickly assured in the morning. If not, there might well be lots of smoke and an equal amount of frustration and bad temper instead. So our foraging expeditions were encouraged, and no harm done, since what we collected was of no value to the builders. Needless to say, the roads were unfinished, too; quagmires of mud when it rained, one had to pick one's way gingerly along the streets.
The whole village was designed to consist of about four hundred houses, a "model village", as I have previously said, in which respect it was similar to Bircotes. But unlike Bircotes, which was on a road which seemed to come from and go to nowhere in particular, Langold was on the main road from Worksop to the south, to Doncaster on the north situated on the Great North Road. Both were sizeable towns; both had long histories. Worksop Priory was a church going back to the 14th century, while Doncaster had been a Roman settlement called Danum. From Worksop the road runs north, passing through a string of communities - Carlton-In-Lindrick, Langold, Oldcoates, Tickhill and so to Doncaster, a distance altogether of about sixteen miles.
As in Bircotes, the village shops lay on the east side of this road, and the village itself on the other. Not good traffic planning, one might say, but, in those days, there was very little traffic. A local bus company ran a service to Worksop, a distance of about five miles. Underwood's later called the East Midland, travelled between Doncaster and Worksop, and from there to Nottingham. Cars and lorries were few and far between; so much so, that one of our pastimes was to sit at the side of the road with a pencil and a piece of paper, and write down the registration numbers of all vehicles that happen to pass.
The village was roughly in the shape of a square. There were two entrances to it from the main road. The northerly one was Wembley Road which ran a hundred yards or so before reaching a row of houses barring its way. At this point, it split into two arms which ran at right angles to it. These in turn, ran only a few yards before turning to resume the initial westward direction of Wembley Road. The shape of this road pattern was that of a tuning fork, with Wembley Road as the base and the two roads coming out of it as the prongs. These roads both ran parallel in a straight line to the western boundary of the village. The one on the right was Markham Road, the one on the left Riddell Avenue. Before reaching the top of the village, both were intersected by streets running east and west, first Cross Street, then Williams Street, and finally by White Avenue.
Langold about 2002
Atop this rectangular grid was the triangle of School Road, which ran from White Avenue to the village school, right at the top of the village, and then back down to Markham Road.
The entrance at the south end was marked by the Wesleyan Methodist chapel, a red brick structure, which I never once entered during the whole of my time in Langold. I used to see people near it and going in and out - children going to Sunday school and older people going to and coming out of service. The chapel marked the beginning of Church Street, which ran along the south, and below, was "the cut" containing the sidings where the rail cars for the coal were marshalled. Beyond that lay the colliery, Firbeck Main, that was the reason for the existence of the village. When we arrived there, the work on the cut was still going on, and I remember watching the big steam shovels - they were called "American Devils" - at work, huffing and puffing, and jangling, as the great jaws dug into the earth.
Church Street was well-named, for in addition to the Methodist Chapel on the corner of the main road, there was, further along, a Church of England, and a Salvation Army. Beyond these, there were houses on both sides of the road, until the road came to its end, and debouched into a path in the woods which extended along the whole western side of the village. If one took a fork that bore to the left, it was a short walk, downhill at first, then up a short sharp rise to the lake. So, Church Street was well travelled. People coming along Williams Street and White Avenue, going to the lake, fed into Church Street.
I mention Langold Lake because it was an important part in the life of the village. People of all ages went there for diversion. Immediately before the rise that took one up to the lake, a large playground was built, where children could disport themselves on a variety of swings, roundabouts and other vertigo-inducing devices. Around the lake itself for much of the way, there were, at intervals, rickety stages which took the fishermen beyond the fringe of reeds. There they would sit by the hour, with their lines in the water, a small tobacco tin of sawdust and maggots nearby, watching the quill-like float for signs of a bite. Their reward seemed small - occasionally a small roach or perch - and very occasionally, someone would pull in a pike, a much bigger fish, with a long mouth lined with vicious-looking teeth. There were a couple of rowing boats, too, that fishermen could use if they chose, but they eventually disappeared. The far side of the lake was more interesting, as far as I was concerned. Here was a swimming pool, a rectangular concrete structure. It had a row of changing cabins alongside it. The shallow end was very shallow indeed, where water entered from the lake to fill it, and replace the water draining out slowly at the deep end. The deep end itself was about four feet deep. In the summer, this pool was packed with children. Their cries could be heard a mile away, and hastened the step of other children hurrying after school with their swimming costumes and towel rolled into a neat bundle and tucked under their arm.
The pathway continued, forming a little bridge over the water entering the pool from the lake, and then rose gradually to reach a gate some twenty yards away. Beyond the gate was a grass-covered field which sloped gently up from the water. It was at this gate that Frank, Joan and myself once did our best to drown Nora. I must have been about fourteen at the time. Frank eight, and Joan six. Nora, of course, was a baby - in a pram. It was not intentional, of course. It happened this way. We were given the responsibility of looking after the baby. The usual deal was struck. Yes, you may go to the lake, but you have to take the baby with you. I was not enthusiastic, but had no alternative but to comply. Who, at that age, wants to be encumbered by a baby in a pram? It was a hot afternoon, and, I suppose, tempers were easily frayed. Anyway, we trudged along Church Street, down the path to the lake, past the swimming pool full of joyously shrieking children, and reached the gate. At this point, and the details are now forgotten, there was an argument about who should look after the pram. The argument commanded all our attention. So engrossed were we that nobody noticed that the pram was rolling down the path in the direction of the lake, bearing the sleeping infant with it. By the time that it came to our attention, the pram was in the lake and sinking fast. Such occasions concentrate the mind marvellously. In a matter of seconds, we rushed after it, arrested its downward motion, and pulled it back on to the shore. We had stopped the pram from sinking, but we could not stop our hearts from doing so. My God! What would happen to us when we got home? Surrounded by this time by a crowd of interested and helpful bystanders, I took the sopping, and now howling child, from the watery confines of its erstwhile warm, dry and comfortable bed, and began the long walk home. I forget what happened when we arrived home. Perhaps the petrifying fear that haunted us mercifully drove all recollection away, but the memory of the event remains vivid.
I had just taken you beyond the gate into the field beyond. This was where there was a great deal of action. There was a large changing hut near the lake. Further up the slope was a bandstand, where on holidays and special occasions, the colliery band filled the air with music. I loved it then and still do today - the sound of a prize band in the open air is wonderful. At such times, there would be food and ice cream stands, and lots of people sitting on the grass or strolling around. We, as small boys, used to get terrific enjoyment from running madly around and wrestling each other on the grass. Behind the bandstand, the field continued towards the colliery buildings and the pit tip. We didn't go up there much. Sometimes, we used to walk up and watch the pit ponies. These diminutive horses worked down the mine pulling the tubs of coal from the coal face to the pit bottom, where they were loaded into the cages and brought to the surface. After some months of continuous work underground, the ponies began to go blind, so they were brought to the surface for rest and to restore their eyesight.
At the lake itself, and jutting out from the shore, there was a pier of some twenty yards in length. It was about five feet wide, made of wood, and supported on barrels. Out into the lake some forty yards or so was a square, flat free-floating raft, also supported on barrels.
Beyond that, a hundred yards or so away, was a diving stage offering three levels from which one could dive. It was by the pier, in a safe depth of water, that I learned to swim. This was before the pool was built. Along with others, I would imitate the breast stroke, using one leg in a frog-like manner, while the other kept me in contact with the bottom, all the while calling others to witness what distance I had just swum. I think we all did this, and we all learned to swim. There was no instruction. Nobody pushed you to do it. You just did it when you were ready, having watched how others did, and having monitored their progress. Once you had the rudiments, you ventured round to the end of the pier, and into deeper water; and from there, out to the raft, and the diving stage. The raft was great fun. You could swim out to it, haul yourself aboard, and, if there was no one else there, could sunbathe or practice your diving. If there was a crowd on it, mostly likely, there would be a lot of dashing from side to side, with people being thrown into the water.
If you proceeded from that field, through another gate, you came into another meadow, with a path which followed the line of the lake. A quarter of a mile along this path, you came to the head of the lake, and to the stream which fed it. Here was a stone bridge, and an old boathouse built of stone, and for long years in disuse, and now in disrepair. It was easy to imagine the days when the landowner who had built it, and his friends and family, would use the elegant boats moored alongside the stone jetty. The bridge crossed the stream and led to the other side of the lake, along which the path continued through another meadow to complete the circuit. Along this side of the lake were most of the stages used by the fisherman, roughly built mainly from tree branches laid in a corduroy pattern.
Most people confined their visits to the area of the pool and the first field. We used the rest. At all seasons; in the summer for quiet walks, away from the boisterous noisiness of the swimmers: in the spring to look for tadpoles, and, later, for the thousands of tiny frogs that came hopping out of the water and towards the land; in the fall, to savour the colours of the leaves and the smell of ripe grass and decaying leaves in the sharp October air; and, in the winter, if we were very lucky, the days of hard frost would transform the lake into a vast area of ice. We were drawn to that as to a magnet. As the ice formed, we watched the hard blue sky and prayed that it would stay, and keep freezing. Then we would test the ice by stepping out gingerly from the shore; only a step at first, and then, by degrees, further and further out. Sometimes, we threw stones on to it, and these would bounce away over the ice, sending clunking echoes across the length and breadth of the lake. Once assured that our luck was in, and the ice thick enough to bear our weight, we set about getting equipment, either digging out skates that had lain rusting in some corner, or trying to persuade parents to let us buy some from the ironmonger's, - if we could find them, for skates were not in great or steady demand. If you were lucky enough to get skates, you attached them by their clamps to a pair of boots, and you were ready for action. Freezing years were few and far between, which meant that each time there was skating one virtually had to learn again. So we were not graceful.
We hobbled and staggered around at first, ankles turning unexpectedly inward and outward, until we attained a degree of proficiency. Then we flew over the singing ice, with aching ankles and sore feet, and stiff muscles, but with rosy cheeks and a wonderful joy in our hearts. Eventually, some could even skate backwards, a feat regarded by the less accomplished with a combination of admiration and envy. While skating lasted, it consumed our lives. We were off up to the lake for every available minute, staying on into the winter gloom well after the sun had set. When there were enough present, we would play a version of ice hockey, huffing and puffing, and continually struggling for balance. We enjoyed all this in a hungry fashion because we knew it could not last, and heavens knew when the lake would freeze again. Maybe years would pass before it did. And, sure enough, the day soon came when the sky clouded over, and the cold released its frigid grip. But we kept on for as long as possible. Water began to form over the ice, but that did not deter us, although a fall entailed much discomfort. Even when there were ominous cracking sounds rebounding from shore to shore, we still persisted; until eventually we were convinced that it was too dangerous and reluctantly gave up, and the skates which had served us so well were put aside, to be forgotten and gather rust until another great cold came.
OUR FIRST HOUSE
We lived at 46 Riddell Avenue, about two thirds of the way from Wembley Road to White Avenue. At the top of Riddell Avenue at White Avenue was Miss Limb's. This was a small shop which sold all kinds of things. It shared a building with a fish and chip shop, so this building became a focal point for the top of the village. Miss Limb's was about a quarter of a mile distant from the shops on Doncaster Road, and on this account it picked up a lot of casual trade. So much so that one frequently heard people referring to it as "a little gold mine". We children were often sent on errands to it - from our house it was about one hundred yards or so. My mother did most of her shopping at the Co-op (Co-operative Wholesale Society) but would send to Miss Limb's for small items - salt, or sweets, and always yeast. I remember the yeast well. We were often sent for a pennyworth, which was an ounce. This was weighed on a small balance scale, and put in a one-ounce triangular paper sweet bag. The yeast supply was always kept on the counter under the scale, where it was handily convenient to the light-fingered. We knew when it was fresh, because that was when the D.C.L. van had just visited (Distillers' Company Limited) and had left the square parcel made of heavy jute with the unmistakable sour smell. Returning home, we would often pinch a small piece of the gray gooey stuff and pop it into our mouths for its sticky, beery taste. Sometimes, we would sample just too much, and what remained by the time we returned home, was not enough to leaven the batch of bread it was intended for. But the most interesting thing to us children that the shop had to offer were the sweets. The one and only window was devoted to sweets, laid out in boxes, almost all of them twopence a quarter.
For a halfpenny, which is what we usually had to spend, you could buy an ounce of something. So much choice, but just one halfpenny! - dolly mixtures, jelly babies, wine gums, chocolate chewing nuts, coconut mushrooms, marzipan teacakes, Kay-Kay toffee (plain, nut, or fruit and nut) in trays, and broken with the little toffee hammer on request, gob stoppers, aniseed balls (forty a penny), licorice sticks, licorice whips and licorice laces (in black or red), Kaylie suckers, licorice root, and locust beans, to mention a few. And at the back of the window on shelves, there were bottles of boiled sweets, most of them twopence a quarter, too: black and white mint balls, mint pennets (black and white, or brown and white), acid drops, lemon drops, rhubarb and custard, butterscotch, malt fingers, and so on. There were other confections too, but they received little attention from us children. At fourpence and even sixpence a quarter, they were out of our range. The only time we encountered them - Sharp's Supercreme Toffee, buttered brazils and buttered walnuts, Jordan almonds, Palm toffee and Radiance Devon Cream toffee - was through the generosity of a grown-up, or on some special occasion.
Miss Limb's and the adjoining fish and chip shop was a gathering place for children. Both were open far into the evening, so both were lit up; and there was a lamp-post on the street as well. Many hours were spent, standing around, watching the traffic to the shops, looking over the merchandise, discussing the merits of the sweets on display, and, sometimes, seeing a friend or acquaintance make a purchase. On leaving the shop, this unfortunate had to run the gauntlet of whining, cajoling, or even, sometimes, threatening beggars.
"What you got?", "Gie us a bit". "Gie us one".
If there was reluctance to part with some of the treasure, perhaps there would be reminders of a previous act of generosity.
"Hey, up! I gied thee some o' mine".
Sometimes, these entreaties bore fruit, but, if not, there was no violence. The non-giver was threatened with reciprocal treatment in the future, and allowed to pass.
Most sharing seemed to be done by lads who worked together to steal things from the shop - a bit of yeast from the bag under the scale, an apple, or a handful of sweets quietly taken from a box in the window. We had some of these in my classes as I went through school. Eric Watts, big-boned, gingery-haired, and fair-skinned worked sometimes with Johnny Gaunt, small, compact, bullet-headed and mean. But mostly, boys were afraid of being caught, reported to parents, and promptly punished. If father got to know, it was most likely the belt that each miner wore. Not a pleasant prospect. Not to mention all the gossip among the womenfolk, who made it their duty to spread the news.
In contrast to Bircotes, where the mine dominated the village by its immediate presence, Firbeck Main was out of sight of most of Langold, a mile or so to the south on the road to Worksop. One walked along the main road, past the Methodist Chapel, over the railway cutting, and, leaving the marshalling yard on the right, proceeded down the hill, over a little stream, then up the hill for about a quarter of a mile to the mine entrance on the right. Immediately beyond the stream, there were houses on the right which extended as far as the pit gates. These were larger houses than those in the village, all semi-detached, except one. They had extensive gardens at both back and front. The back gardens gave on to a large cricket field, at the other side of which were the mine buildings themselves. The sole detached house stood in a large expanse of garden. This was the home of the manager, Mr. Woodhouse. The others housed various other officials - the secretary, Mr. Godber, the winders who operated the engines that moved the cages up and down the shaft, and the deputies, men who represented the manager underground. These homes constituted a community on its own, linked to the village up the road by a common interest, the mine, but separate and distinct from it by distance and, more importantly, by status. It had its own name - Costhorpe - one betraying Viking origins, and, therefore, probably with a long history, though the only sign of old settlement was the farm which had stood exactly where the mine was sited.
The entrance to the mine from the road was quite imposing. A large semicircular area enclosed by a brick wall led through the wide gates down an avenue to the surface buildings. On the right was a large brick structure housing the company offices. This was the domain of Mr. Godber. Beyond this, and still on the right stretched a line of the old farm buildings, low and stone-built. Regularly whitewashed. These now served new purposes. One was a meeting room, another a bar with a billiard table. Beyond these was a bowling green and beyond the bowling green a wooden tennis pavilion and four tennis courts. From the old farm buildings, you looked across the cricket field to the officials' houses on the other side.
The main mine structures lay on the left; a pithead baths where the miners coming off shift in their "pit dirt" showered and changed into clean clothes. Only the most modern pits had baths, and these were achieved only after long battles between workers and management. Men working in the older mines went home in their working clothes, and in their "pit-dirt" covered from head to toe in black dust. Further on the lamp shed: and beyond that the headgear with the two enormous wheels turning incessantly. Beside the headgear, the pump house, and the huge chimney that vented the smoke from the boiler-room furnaces. The great shops, where the fitters carried out the necessary repairs to all the equipment. And finally, the concrete tower where the coal was washed as it came up the shaft, and put on the screens where it was sorted for size, and bits of stone and bat were picked out and thrown aside. Beyond it all was the tip where the stone and dross was discarded on an ever-growing mountain.
In normal times, the pit worked on three eight-hours shifts. The day shift went from six in the morning to two in the afternoon; afternoons was from two till ten; and nights from ten to six in the morning. At each of the changeover times, you could see men going on shift trudging down the hill to Costhorpe, and a little later, men trudging more slowly up the hill to Langold, and home, and a meal, and then to bed. Going or coming, each carried a rectangular tin box in which was his food for the shift - his "snap" tin. Often this would be attached by a hook to the sturdy leather belt that all miners wore. Besides his food, the miner took down a supply of drinking water, which was contained in a round metal bottle, doughnut-shaped with a spout shaped like that of a wine bottle for easy-drinking. This was his dudley. Every man who worked underground had one, and they came in 3,4,5, and 6 pint sizes. Some men carried them home, but most left them with their clothes in their locker at the baths.
To be able to tolerate working down the pit one had to start while quite young. Most of my schoolmates in Langold left school at fourteen and went into the pit, there to spend their working life, until they retired as worn-out old men, or were retired prematurely due to such disabilities as silicosis or nystagmus. Silicosis is a condition caused by the presence of tiny particles of rock in the lung which eat away at the tissue until breathing becomes difficult, and the victim is incapable of even the slightest physical exertion. Nystagmus is caused by spending long periods of time in the dark and dusty workings. It causes the sufferer's eyes to flutter uncontrollably.
The youngest entrant to the pit was first given a simple job. Door-trapping was one. The boy sat at one of the doors or gates underground which controlled the movement of air through the working. It was his job to open and close the doors to allow the movement of "tubs", small wheeled vehicles, which moved the coal from the coal face to the pit bottom. Experience saw him move gradually into other jobs, until he finally became a coal-getter working at the face, or a ripper working in rock. The few who trained and became deputies were responsible for shot-firing, which required expertise so that the danger of an uncontrolled explosion or dangerous roof collapse was minimized.