The shop’s business continued to grow, but slowly. After all, this was the thirties, the years of the Great Depression, a time of massive unemployment. In the towns and cities, long lines of men formed up to collect the dole and perhaps, if they were very lucky, to pick up a day’s work. Considering the ensuing poverty and hopelessness, it is surprising that there were no riots. There were occasional demonstrations but these were peaceful. The most famous was the Jarrow March. Jarrow, a ship building community on the river Tyne, near Newcastle, had virtually 100% unemployment in 1936, and it was from there that a group of demonstrators set out for London, to bring the attention of Parliament and the rest of the country to their plight. As they walked, they received gifts of food and clothing by the populace, and their numbers swelled by people joining then. Eventually, they reached their destination. There had been no violence during the weeks that the walk had taken.
In Langold there was no unemployment. Instead of laying men off, the colliery company elected to spread the work around, so that instead of half the miners being idled, and half in work, all the men worked half a week. This was a wise decision in many ways. It avoided the tensions that would inevitably have arisen had half been getting a wage, and the other half nothing. Moreover, it was very much to the company’s advantage, since it owned all the houses in the village.
With everyone getting a wage, the company could stop the rent and the electricity charge from the wage before the man received it. Perhaps this was the best that could be done in the circumstances, but it did ensure that, although all the men had some work, everybody was poor. So, a man with three shifts in at eleven shillings would have earned thirty three shillings in a week, but before he received his pay, the company had taken eleven shillings for rent and one shilling and threepence for electricity, leaving him with a little more than a pound to take home. In many houses it was the custom in pay day for the men to come home and throw the money into his wife’s lap, and she would then give him back a little for cigarettes, or beer, or a flutter on the horses.
With a pound or so to provide for a family for a week, the miners’ wives had to be very canny shoppers, just to get by. Either that, or their families suffered. These were the shop’s customers.
As I said, the business grew slowly. We all helped in our way. Central to it was my mother’s efforts. She started to bake. At first a few cobs, and then loaves, and then meat pies, and custard pies. People could not get enough of them. The kitchen became a hive of industry. The Yorkshire range was busy all day long, so much so that the corner of the oven nearest the fire was burned through and an iron saddle had to be attached. Mother bought another oven, this one heated by paraffin, to increase output. The table would be covered with rising bread, and pie cases. Sacks of flour completed the scene. Mother was a tireless worker. She worked in the shop, too serving customers. Besides us, she had two helpers, Bella and Mrs. Davies. Bella was a small, colourless, unprepossessing sort of person. She had lost her husband in the war, and lived with her sister and her family. She had a son, Ivan, who was really being brought up by her sister. Bella was totally faithful to mother. She worked in the shop, and I can’t remember her ever being away from work. Mrs. Davies was a big, hearty, handsome woman. She came in to do housework, but would turn her hand to anything. Both of them seemed to take my mother’s outbursts of temper in their stride. She, in turn, appreciated their help and their friendship.
My father helped when he could. Sometimes he seemed to be quite well, and had energy enough to do things. At other times the pernicious anaemia took over leaving him with no energy at all. At such times, he would sit quietly doing paperwork. He rarely served in the shop; much to slow. He was very useful in dealing with Taylor’s, the fruit and vegetable wholesalers from Worksop. His mental arithmetic was excellent. For example, given the count of oranges in a given box, he could rapidly calculate the individual price.
During one of his better spells, he bought a Tin Lizzie, a Ford lorry with a flat deck, of a vintage, I should think, that went back into the early 1920’s. As I recall, it was controlled by two pedals on the floor, one of which was for forward motion, and the other, which served as both reverse and brake. There was also a handbrake on the floor connected by a steel wire cable to the rear wheels. Four-wheel brakes were yet to come. The car and gasoline controls were levers attached to the steering wheel. It was a temperamental beast, which responded to a gadget attached to the engine called the commutator. Every now and then, when out on the road, when a loss of power was sensed, one had to stop, get out, lift open one side of the bonnet, and adjust the commutator. I never did, nor do I now understand, what exactly the commutator’s function was. I suspect that it had something to do with advancing or retarding the spark.
The Tin Lizzie came to play an important role in the business. Father would visit local farms and buy potatoes direct from the farmer. Mostly this was Norman Yeardley who farmed about 600 acres near Blyth. Half his acreage was sandy land and half limestone, and it was on this limestone that he grew very good crops of Majestics, a popular variety. His farm could be reached in two ways, by road to Oldcoates and then on the Blyth road, turning right by the bluebell wood; or, on foot or bicycle, by the bridle path, which went directly there, passing Mr. Revitt’s farm and Hodsock Priory, where Mr. Hartley, the milkman lived with his large family.
We bought potatoes regularly, usually a ton at a time. We would take the lorry to the clamp. At the end of the clamp that had been opened, there was a sorting machine, operated by hand. Mr.Yeardley had a family of farm labourers in his cottage – the Wilkinsons, I think they were called. I remember two men, big strapping fellows, and a tall, strong young woman, who came to help with the work. The clamp would be opened up by removing the cover of straw, and then one man would shovel potatoes on to the screen of the sorting machine which was activated by the other turning a handle. As the potatoes rolled along the screen, the small ones would fall through on to the ground. Pig potatoes. The remainder would travel along the moving screen and fall into a sack attached to the end of the machine. The girl would tie the neck of the sack when it was full, and put on a new sack. So it went until we had our twenty bags stacked on the lorry. We then took them home and unloaded them into the shed at the bottom of the yard.
I well remember the time of the cauliflowers. It happened that father met a butcher in Tickhill, probably in a pub, who had planted a field of cauliflowers on a piece of land he owned. Just how it came about is a matter for conjecture, but the upshot of their meeting was that father bought the cauliflowers.
The deal turned out to be a bargain, and it was not long before the cauliflowers were ready to be harvested. There were lots of them, but not only that, they were large and healthy. It was not uncommon for one to measure a foot and a half across the flower. We were now faced with the logistical problems of harvesting. Anyone who has but a passing acquaintance with cauliflower growing will know that, although a row may be planted at the same time, the plants will not all come to maturity at the same time. They will also know that once they are ready to collect, they must be gathered quickly, otherwise they will bolt in an attempt to run to seed. So it was that, for some time, our visits to Tickhill were frequent. Every day, in fact. Father, Frank and I would set out for Tickhill after we boys came home from school. Once arrived at the field, Frank and I roamed along the rows of plants, spotting those ready for market, sawing through the tough, woody stems and depositing the harvested cauliflowers in sacks. Now, it was not a large field; maybe two or three acres, but even a small field can produce a lot of cauliflowers, and, as the harvest came on, we were faced with an embarrassment of riches. Each trip saw the back of the lorry full to overflowing. The problem now was how to market this wealth. Lots were sold in the shop. We had a barrow, a flat topped affair on a pair of large wheels. This was stationed on the forecourt and loaded. Sales were brisk. No Wonder. For threepence, you could have a huge cauliflower in prime condition. Unfortunately, the demand could not keep up with the supply, so new marketing methods had to be devised. And so they were. Dad hawked them round the village. That helped. Then we went to Manton, the mining village near Worksop, and hawked them there. That helped, too. A great deal. In the end, he was making deals with John Taylor’s, the wholesale fruit merchant, to take quantities off his hands.
I will never forget those evenings; the tedium of walking the rows in the light of the fading day lightened only by finding a cauliflower of extraordinary size, and admittedly there were many of these; hauling the heavy sacks to the lorry; climbing aboard – one of us had to sit in the back, - and then the four mile journey home, charging down the hill that led to Malpas Hill, gathering speed to give us a good run at Malpas, and so through Oldcoates to home.
Occasionally, we would buy stuff from the Wheatsheaf Market, the wholesale market in Sheffield. That meant early rising. On cold, winter mornings it was more difficult to get going. The radiator, having been drained the night before in case of frost – there was no anti-freeze then – it was necessary to fill it up. For this we brought hot water from the kitchen. This was supposed to make starting easier, but it seemed to work only sometimes. If we were lucky, the engine would catch quickly; if not, we had to go on swinging the starting handle – there were no self-starters at that time, either – taking care not to advance the spark too much and cause the engine to backfire and damage your hand or break your arm. Frequently, it was a long, frustrating process, the engine coughing in a promising manner, but just not taking hold, the spark being advanced or retarded in response, until success came.
We had the road to ourselves most of the way. Down the road to Oldcoates, turn left to Dinnington and Aston; right at Aston and down through Swallownest to the outskirts of Sheffield at Handsworth. Things became a bit more complicated here, because of the trams. They were not easy to pass, and one had to avoid getting the lorry’s tires in the tramlines. Soon we arrived at the market. A busy scene. Rows of dealers, each with his merchandise – bags of potatoes and onions, boxes of bananas and Spanish oranges, barrels of American apples – York Imperials and Oregon Pippins; boxes of Guernsey tomatoes in season and much more. Such noise and bustle. The dealers shouting, the porters carrying purchases to lorries. We were not long in loading up and off back home. About twenty miles. If we were lucky, we would make it in about an hour. And then breakfast.
I never think of the lorry without a memory popping up of the time when Frank painted Agnes Jones. The Jones’s lived next door. Old Charlie Jones owned the garage. He was a placid sort of man, quiet, a pipe smoker, and an armchair socialist. He always had a pack of Alsatians cluttering up the house or running about his back yard. He came from the Crystal Palace area of London, and at one time was a competitive cyclist. I suppose that is how he met his wife. She came from Bethersden in Kent. She had a ladylike accent and manner which unfortunately did not go well with her person. For she always looked as though she needed a good wash. Her face and neck were ingrained with dirt. So far that matter was her house. It never looked clean. Perhaps she had given up the battle with the dogs which littered the place. They had two children, Agnes and Peter. Peter was of an age with Frank, and a co-conspirator in trouble. Agnes was a little older. She was a bright girl, later to win a scholarship to the Girls’ High School in Retford.
On this particular day, Frank had been given the job of painting the lorry which was parked in its usual place at the bottom of the yard. He was using a light blue paint, an unusual colour for any lorry, let alone a Tin Lizzie. Why the paint was blue I do not know. Possibly it was bought at a bargain price. This seemed to be the best explanation. After all, why would you want to draw attention to yourself in a bright blue Ford lorry? Frank was making good progress with the job, when, after some time, Agnes issued from the garage next door, and paused to watch him at his work. What exactly occurred is not clear. We have only their versions which, of course, as you would expect, differ widely. Certain it is that, at some point, words passed between them. Possibly Agnes made remarks critical of his work, perhaps with suggestions as to what he could do to improve; always very annoying to a workman. If so, he most probably would have responded by telling her to get lost, or words to that effect. Whatever was said, or not said, there is no doubt about subsequent events. Agnes launched a physical attack on Frank. In his defence, Frank stuck out his brush to ward off her attack. Agnes now had paint on her hands, arms, face, and in her hair; but she was not dismayed.
A spirited, feisty girl, she persisted in the attack, casting all caution to the wind. Now it is a well-known fact that a little paint will go a long way if well worked in with the brush. Frank met renewed assaults with calm and an outstretched arm, no doubt feeling that, as the defendant, he was occupying the higher moral ground. After what must have seemed an age to both contestants, Agnes must have realized that the more she persisted, the more colourful she was becoming. Besides hands, arms, hair and face, parts of her clothing were now blue. So anger and aggression subsided, and gave way to tears and withdrawal from the field of battle.
I don’t recall what happened after that. These things were usually dealt with by mothers, and that is probably what happened in this case. Words would be exchanged, each mother stating the case for her offspring and the case against the other. Then each mother, having defended the actions of her offspring, would administer him or her, a tongue lashing for having been involved. No harm was done. Agnes sustained no long-term effects, and Frank no effects at all. And the lorry did get painted; and after that we called it The Blue Bird.
Our dealings with Normal Yeardley brought us into contact with his wife. Mrs. Yeardley was of medium height, dark-haired, and rather sharp featured. She walked a little pigeon-toed. Like most farmers’ wives, she looked after the fowls and the eggs she got from them provided her with pin money; in her case, quite a decent sum, since she had quite a lot of poultry which were housed in a number of henhouses situated in a paddock close to the house. At some time, an arrangement was arrived at, which was to last a long time, whereby we bought her eggs. She used to bring them in large baskets, in her car, a Humber Snipe. Week in and week out she brought them for years. She was paid the price published in the Worksop Guardian of eggs at last week’s Worksop market. Free-range eggs were popular, and occasionally, were sold out. That was when I was called into play. I was not particularly pleased, on arriving home from school to be greeted with this news. After something to eat, I got out the old ladies’ bicycle and taking a beehive-shaped basket, hit the road. Down the hill towards Costhorpe, turn left half way down on to the Bridle Path, and push on to Yeardley’s. The path was rutted, and I came to know it so well that I knew when to shift from one part of the path to another at exactly the right time to avoid getting into a rut. Arrived at the farm, I dismounted and walked round to the back door, there to be greeted by Mrs. Yeardley. Inside to the right lay the living quarters; to the left the dairy. The dairy was dark and cool, in the centre a large, low stone table on which were large, flat bowls of milk set to cool and collect the cream, and baskets containing eggs. She would pick up the eggs deftly with both hands four at a time, and place then in my basket, putting one egg on the table as a tally for each dozen. Then with my precious and highly breakable cargo, I set off home. Remarkably, I never broke an egg. Occasionally, she would have no eggs gathered. In that case, she summoned her two young daughters and with them, I went round the henhouses, feeling in the darkened interiors for eggs in the nests. What a wonderful feeling to feel the warm eggs in your hand!
As the business grew, it established its own rhythm, one to which the whole family marched. The shop opened at 8 for the few customers who needed something for breakfast. Nobody waited in the shop itself for these few. We would be in the kitchen and were alerted by the ring of the shop bell, and somebody would go to serve the customer. Of course, during term time, we children would be off to school early. As the morning wore on, there would be more customers, and travelers came, and deliveries. Once a week, Mr. Keyworth came, and Mr. Guite from Nichols Brothers, wholesale grocers in Sheffield, and the man from the Danish Bacon Company, and Dick Taylor, the representative of John Taylor, wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant in Worksop, and the men from Burdell’s, Parkinson’s, and Stothert's in Worksop. They took orders, and delivered a day or two later. Then there were those who brought their wares with them. Once a week came the Brooke Bond’s man and the Lyon’s man, both of whom delivered immediately from the van, tea, all in quarter pound packets. And then there was Ernie Tong from Apollo Mineral Waters with the pop. Ernie was a motorbike man. He used to regale us with tales of his club’s weekend outings, always hinting at his sexual escapades. Each morning, there were deliveries of bread from Freestone’s Bakery in Worksop, and Mother’s Pride, based in Rotherham. I think on Fridays, I remember, Len from Freestone would bring in four or five large wooden trays, each containing cream filled sponge cakes, a very popular payday treat at sixpence apiece. We came to know these people as friends, and there was a good deal of joshing and joking. Oftentimes the customers joined in the fun.
Things were run with the precision of a military operation. At twelve noon prompt, the first persons would go for lunch, while the others saw to things in the shop. When they had finished, they relieved the others while they had lunch.
As I have indicated, during slack periods, nobody was in the shop until a customer came in. There was no point in standing around, for the hours were long, from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. If things were very slack, we might play cards in the living-room, whist, solitaire, or Black Lady. I usually had a load of homework to see to.
These were busy times when the periods on duty needed more help. We couldn’t afford to keep customers waiting. Then the cry would go out; “Shop”, to summon help. The busiest times were on Friday, pay day. All the regular customers had a book, that is, they bought on credit during the week, and paid at the week’s end. The shop had a corresponding record. All purchases were recorded in both books. In order to save time when the customer came in to settle up, the accounts in the shop book were all added up early on Friday. The customer’s book has tallied when she came in, and the two books had to match. When the bill had been paid, it was usual for the customer to take out a big order. All this made for a busy time, which could last until closing time on Friday night.
There were other mini-rushes. There were two rushes for the picture-going crowd. The cinema had two houses, one at 6 p.m. and another at 8:30. It was usual for people to take sweets into the pictures, so far a brief period before the shows began, there was a busy time selling sweets and chocolates.
The same, on a smaller scale, when the miners were going to work. The afternoon shift men would set out to walk to work at about 1 o’clock. Many of them would stop in to pick up a half-ounce packet of thin twist tobacco. Chewing also helped to keep their mouths clear of coal dust or rock dust caused by drilling or blasting as they spat out the tobacco juice.
My mother and Bella served most in the shop. My father did not. He helped by dealing with some of the travelers and by the deals he made with farmers and his visits to the Wheatsheaf Market. He was a little eccentric in his ways. One would see him walking along the front, wearing a smock and his bedroom slippers, and being greeted by all and sundry Paddy, they called him, and my mother hated that. I knew my way about the shelves, so was able to help out with the serving. There were many things to know. Apart from groceries and fruits and vegetables, we sold many other things, mostly sundries – Dudley’s – 4,5, and 6 pint – miners’ snap tins, ice cream which we made ourselves and lots of ointments and medicines – people went to the doctor, but for many ailments, they treated themselves. So we sold an assortment of remedies which we bought from the manufacturing chemists, Burdall’s, Parkinson’s, and Stothert’s – Aspro’s for headaches, Bates’ Salve for boils, twopenny tins of ointment, zinc and boracic; packets of boracic acid powder; twopenny bottles of olive oil, camphorated oil and cough tinctures, small bottles of folk remedies such as Indian Bark, Sweet Nitre and Friar’s Balsam. We even sold bootlaces.
Busy times were exciting, exhilarating even. Lots of activity, with stuff being delivered, and customers taking their orders. And at the end of the day, the takings being counted, the money being put in the cash box, and the books brought up-to-date. Of course, there were the slow times, too, but there was always something to do, usually receiving orders and stocking the shelves from the sheds at the back of the house. Orders could be large; frequently they were small, often delivered by a small child who carried a note written on a scrap of paper in an illiterate hand. A quarter of corned beef. Three pennyworth of pot herbs. This one quite common for which you put together an onion, a carrot or two, a couple of potatoes, perhaps a stick of a small turnip, celery, or a small parsnip. Together with a bit of scrag end, these bits would make a meal for a family.