In 1939 I was seven years old. My family – Mam, Dad, Sylvia and Myself – lived in a terrace house in Knob Row (named for the front gate post tops) next to the older terraced (Mottled Soap Row, because of the brickwork decoration) higher up the road.
Although it was a terrace house we looked out onto fields and farmland. Our toilet and coal shed were in a concreted back yard. The living room, front room and kitchen outhouse were very cosy, kept warm by a large cast iron oven range with a boiler.
A meat safe was in the backyard with the galvanised bath. The bath hung from a peg on the coalshed and was used on Fridays. Bedrooms, mine and Sylvia’s at the rear, were south-facing and warmed by the sun, the front room (Mam and Dad’s) was north-facing and always cold except when it had a fire lit which wasn’t often, only when someone was poorly.
In winter we undressed and dressed in bed before getting up and scraping Jack Frost off the window glass, admiring the fan-shaped patterns as we did so. We washed at the kitchen sink. Under the steep stairs we had a pantry, access from the living room by a door. This space was also used as an air raid shelter. To one side of the fireplace was a cupboard and drawers which were always warm, so we stored our salt and drinking straws (made of wheat straw) in them.
Dad worked 12-hour shifts (6am to 6pm or 6pm to 6am alternate weeks) at James St Paper Mill, Radcliffe. Mam did part-time work at Setacrepes weaving. She was a good cook and used our rations well. She baked simnel cake scones, made ‘Mintoes’ out of powdered milk, syrup and peppermint, and baked parkin. After mixing, Sylvia and I used to scrape the
bowl clean with our fingers and lick them.
We had porridge every morning and cocoa for our bedtime treat. Coming home from school was good, the house warm welcoming and full of delicious smells, Children’s Hour on the radio with Larry the Lamb, and a lovely warm red fireplace to sit in front of on our homemade peg rug and a bit of parkin before tea.
When Dad came home we all listened to the news on the radio (then Dad would get the world map out, point out where our troops were fighting and explain what the war meant to us (Dad would say he’d send us to Vladivostock if we didn’t eat our greens. He never did.) Monday was washday. Mam was up at 5.30am to put the washing in different piles, fill up the gas boiler to heat the water. Next, she got us up for breakfast and got us ready for school (we went to school from three years old) cleaned our clogs, then she could start doing the washing. Mam on a dry day usually finished washday Monday at approx 8.30pm or carried the ironing over until Tuesday if it had been a bad day.
“DAD WOULD SAY HE’D SEND US TO VLADIVOSTOCK IF WE DIDN’T EAT OUR GREENS”
Coming home from school on Monday was always chaos; clothes everywhere, sheets hanging from the ceiling, a clothes horse full of not-so-smalls, hot and steamy.
My sister and I started school at three years old. Sylvia is two years younger than me. Our school was called Black Moss Primary.
After starting school at three years old I became ill with diphtheria and was sent to the Florence Nightingale Isolation Hospital at Elton, Bury. I can remember being taken by taxi ambulance there.
By seven years old I was at St Thomas’s in School Street, Radcliffe, being taught by a cruel teacher called Miss Thorpe (she used her knuckle between shoulder blade and backbone or use a ruler to rap knuckles and throw chalk).
We used to fight the ‘Quackies’ from the Catholic school further along School Street. Going to school, we would spark our clog irons on the flags, and walking on snow in winter the snow built up to four inches before kicking it off.
As the war progressed we were taken during autumn to pick potatoes on the local farms to help the war effort, or hay making during June and helping with harvest in August.
After school after tea we played out in the back street near the mill wall, games called Relieve-O, Hide and Seek, or Ride a Donkey.
We played until it was too dark to see, or our mothers called us in. Going to bed we took our library books with us and read by torchlight under the blankets, books titled Wildfire by Zane Gray and Call of Wild by Jack London.
As the War progressed, Mam would come into our bedroom to hold us and we stood at the window looking out towards Manchester and seeing the city being blitzed, one mass of flames.
Another night all the hedgerows burst into flames after being set on fire by incendiary bombs. Mam said they were after Mather and Platts at Bradley Fold where they made tanks, rifles and bayonets. It was a Royal Ordnance Factory.
Carr’s farm was burned down and all the animals killed. We kids went next day and the smell of burning animals and smouldering hay was horrible.
Another night Mam came into our bedroom after the air raid siren had sounded and stood with us looking upwards into the blackness of the night sky. A droning noise was heard, and a red tail glowed behind an object in the sky. The droning stopped, and Mam pulled Sylvia and me under her body as we dropped to the bedroom floor.
A mighty roar and whoosh bowed the window but did not break it. It was a flying bomb. Next day all the local kids rushed to the scene. It had exploded in a boat yard next to the canal about 300yds from the new school on School Street. All the windows in the school and the mill on the canal bank had been blown out.
It was said that if the bomb had landed on the school yard concrete, Radcliffe would have been flattened.
Later in the war, Dad decided we would cycle to Bellevue to see the animals in the zoo. We went by way of Prestwich, Cheetham Hill and Collyhurst towards Stockport.
In Collyhurst there was not a full house left standing, only piles of brick rubble and shop fronts.
I wobbled when my front wheel caught in the tram lines, bringing me off and bending the pedal crank. Dad went into the ruins and returned with a sash weight and straightened it before we carried on to Bellevue.
We read newspapers and listened to the radio of our successes and defeats; Greece, North Africa, Dunkirk and Stalingrad. We certainly learned our geography the hard way.
Even a visit to the cinema was not without the Pathe News. One visit to the cinema I was
frightened to death. Showing that night was The Mummy’s Hand, a horror film. To get in I
had to be accompanied by an adult and went along the queue outside the cinema asking: “Would you take me in, please?” When I came out I ran home in the middle of the road (no cars then only buses), frightened of being grabbed.
Saturday morning was ‘Odeon morning’ when we went to the Odeon Club to see Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges, The Lone Ranger and always a serial.
On leaving the cinema the bus station was invaded by boys slapping their own bottoms and shouting ‘Hi-Ho Silver’ as they ran madly for their bus. Eventually I left St Thomas’s, passed my 11-plus for either Stand Grammar School or Radcliffe Technical School.
At the technical school the staff was Mr Thomas the headmaster, an elderly Welshman who wore waxed winged collars on his shirts, Mr Settle for science and technical drawing, Mr Woods for maths, English and woodwork.
I loved that school. My most difficult class was mental arithmetic and my worst subject football. It was dirty, cold and uncomfortable, changing in a derelict ratinfested old church. After playing we had to walk home from Warth to Slopes. We had no money for a bus.
Cricket was a favourite of mine. I played on the first team with Harry Hallows and Gerald Parry.
All the teachers were strict but fair; no fooling around. After school I now went down to Carr’s farm to help with milking and collecting eggs, and there learned how to lead a horse, often going home with chaff and wet feet and being told off for doing so, but the eggs helped me get back on the right side of Mam.
I also had a Saturday job at Foster’s butchers delivering orders, scraping bones and skinning sheeps’ heads to make ‘savoury ducks’.
“TERRIERS WERE DROPPED BETWEEN THE CHICKEN WIRE AND THE STACK, TO CATCH THE RATS AS THEY RAN”
Farmers could have their farms confiscated for selling produce on the black market and so lose their livelihood but who could tell if a sow had ten or 12 piglets in a litter? There were ways and means.
The local greengrocer, Demaine’s, sold vegetables and occasionally oranges and bananas. When this happened, a queue formed like wildfire until all the oranges and bananas were sold; only one orange and one banana per person. For Sunday Mam sometimes was able to buy a locally caught rabbit that she stuffed and roasted like chicken. On Sunday we went to Sunday school at Black Moss and during the week rehearsed for the Nativity play.
Chocolates and sweets, we never saw because they were reserved for our soldiers.
In 1944 Dad became ill with pneumonia and very nearly died. It was probably caused by working long hours and cycling to and from work. Daily visits by the Distict Nurse administering M and B tablets made him recover, followed by a lengthy period at a convalescent home at Woolton near Liverpool.
By this time pool petrol was available on ration and Uncle Will (Dad’s half brother) collected us in his Morris 12 and took us to visit Dad.
All our friends played together with older boys and girls; Norman and Harold Pickstone and their lurcher dog Gyp, Margaret and Annie Middleton, Nellie Brooks, Harold and Albert Worthington, Richard Coucil. Sometimes we were cruel, blowing up frogs or putting frogs down girls’ dresses.
In summer we would go down to the Dingle Lodge to swim or look for birds’ nests and watch waterhens on the canal.
On the farm everyone helped at harvest time. The traction engine towing the thrasher would trundle down the lane and set up near the stack that was first ringed by chicken wire, then terriers were dropped between the chicken wire and the stack, to catch the rats as they ran from the stack. Then everyone worked together until the barley or wheat had been thrashed. Copious amounts of milky tea were supplied as it was hot and dusty work.
The men and older boys did the dangerous work. Jack Carr was a rotund florid bad-tempered red-haired farmer who would shout: “Get up that bloody lone and don’t come back till tha larns” if you didn’t do as you were told.
Mrs Carr was a tall thin woman. Their sons – Frank like his mam and Alan like his dad – had their dad’s temperament. Mr Carr gave good advice like “Always face forward when leading a horse, the bridle in your right hand, then you don’t get walked on or get run over if you fall.”
At home an old man named Joe Walsh called morning and evening on his way to and from work. He was a carter who travelled from Slopes tile works to London Road station, Manchester, with a cartful of chimney stacks.
If he saw us going to school he would give us a lift, covering our legs with an old sack ‘Just in case the horse peed.’
On calling in the evening he would ask me to go to the off-licence for an ounce of thick twist for his pipe. I loved the smell as he pared off slices of thick twist and rolled it between his palms, loading his pipe and lighting up.