Towards the end of the 1960's, my father told me that he had been thinking about writing his life story, and he wondered if there would be any interest in it beyond the family. I said I would make some enquiries and suggested that if he wrote about particular episodes, they could eventually be brought together as a book.
He set about his task, and I contacted newspapers, local radio and universities in the North East. The only positive response was from the Northern Echo. A reporter from the paper was sent to interview him, and an article appeared in November 1970 under the title of "Our World was the Village." (see later) Although pleased to see something of his story in print, he was disappointed that it was not his own written account.
He used to sit by himself in a little outhouse to write. Perhaps publication was never really the goal. Perhaps he was trying, towards the end of a long life, to put it into perspective. He never finished his story - he just ran out of time.
My father, who did not have much education, was an avid reader with an open, receptive mind. He was always interested to know how things worked, and persisted until he found the answer. I remember his sense of satisfaction when he mended my grandfather clock, which had not gone for years.
I also remember him playing the violin when we used to sing round the piano. I did not know how he first learnt to play until I read his story which Julian has so carefully put together.
He did not have many opportunities in life, but the warm family background from which he came, and which he describes with such affection, was itself enriching.
Maureen and I were fortunate to have such a special father.
When Eileen told me that her father had written his life story, but that it was in rough form in his own handwriting, and had never been edited, I was immediately interested - not least because I thought it might help my research into the Shepherd family - and volunteered to have a go at editing the story. Eileen kindly lent her father's papers, and the result is reproduced in the following pages.
Much of the appeal of the original narrative lies in the simple way it was written, and I have not sought to change the style in any way; it is reproduced almost exactly as it was written, with only a little punctuation added.
Julian Shepherd (email@example.com)
Under the Pulley Wheels
The Memoirs of William Herbert Shepherd
(1891 - 1972)
Very early years
I was born in 1891 at Flimby on the west coast of Cumberland, where my father was employed as a coal hewer at one of the collieries that dotted the coastline, but before I was a year old we moved to Birtley in Durham County.
At that time there was a great demand for Durham steam coal, steam being the prime motive power for machinery of every kind. Railways, shipping, factories etc. used large amounts annually, both at home and on the continent. The amount sent abroad was substantial, keeping staithes on the Tyne, Wear, and Tees in continuous work. Durham coal, being of good quality was a "best seller" coking coal. The sinking of several new pits had brought miners from various parts of the country, also from Wales and Scotland, so one would hear beside the local dialect, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Welsh, etc., so Father added a bit of Cumbrian to it.
We did not stay long at Birtley, but moved a bit further north in the County to Springwell. Here I spent my childhood days. We lived in a rented cottage about 3/4 mile from the pit. A rise in the ground with colliery houses atop, hid the pit from us. A main road ran past our front door while at the back there was a small wood, on the fringe of which lived our landlord. I think the rent was about 3/6 weekly, part of which was paid by the Colliery Company in lieu of a house, that being a union agreement.
Across the road at the front was a stretch of fields, beyond which were the grounds of the "Hall". Who lived there I don't know, but they kept it in good order, as I found out later when, as a pupil in the infants school (which was held in the village chapel) we were taken there for tea and sports on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. (I wasn't quite six years old but being tall for my age helped me to win a prize or two).
I spent my time playing about with the neighbours children until I was five years old, when I had to start to go to school. My sisters were then going to the board school at the next village. I spent a year or so there, then was moved to the school my sisters attended. The school being quite a distance from home meant that we had to be off by 8.00 a.m. to walk there and arrive before 9.00 a.m. (no school buses or bus of any kind) We had to take something to eat with us, so that when the local boys and girls went home at 12 noon for dinner, we fed in the classrooms.
We children got 1d on Saturdays, and generally spent «d that day and kept the othe «d for Monday morning. On our way to school we passed a shop (just a front window affair) kept by an elderly widow who lived there. Her speciality was home-made toffee and was very nice too. Some children bought chewing gum but I soon found out that was a dead loss, because during lessons if the teacher saw a few jaws going she would go round the class with a slate on which the chewers had to deposit their gum, which was quickly got rid of. Classes were mixed, though the boys mainly kept to one side of the room, and the girls the other.
Summer and winter alike we trudged to the school, and if the weather was wet, or we were having snow, there was no proper place to dry our outer clothes, so they were damp when we donned them for our return journey. However I don't think any of us took much harm.
The move to Wheatley Hill
I had attended that school for about 2 years when father thought of moving again.. As there was now four children (my brother Sydney having arrived about the time I started in the "infants") we were getting a bit crowded in our cottage, and also he thought prospects may be better at Wheatley Hill in the S.E. of the county. Mother had a cousin who worked at one of the newer pits in that district, so it was decided they should write to him and ask what the prospects were of getting "set on". When he replied, he said he had seen the under-manager about it, so could father go there some day to see that gentleman himself, as it seemed that was all he had to do to get a job. The next week father took a day off and went, saw the under-manager, and got "set on", - and a colliery house into the bargain. So now it was 14 days notice of termination of employment with his present employers, then off again to pastures new. Of course we children were excited at the prospect of moving, but we didn't know how big the change was going to be.
The two weeks got over and the big day came. We were up early, had breakfast, and waited for the van to arrive. When it came, the men slackened the horses' harness, gave them a drink, then began packing their van. As all small stuff had been put in boxes by our parents, they had very little inside packing to do. When all was safely stowed, mother tidied up a bit with the loan of a brush etc from our next door neighbour, a Mrs Buckley. Her husband had been a farm worker somewhere in the Home Counties, but came north to work in the pits, as on the farms wages were about 18/- per week.
Poor Harry wasn't cut out for pit work, so he didn't improve his lot very much, except that he worked shorter hours - coal hewers doing 6« per shift. Men were paid fortnightly though they worked one week of 5 days and one of 6 days, the shorter week being known as Pay week (Friday being pay day) and the longer week was known as Baff week. Sometimes, when Harry had a shilling or so deducted from his earnings for "laid outs", this being a sort of fine for having too much stone filled in with the coal, and handed his pay to his wife she would say "Is this all, Harry?". His answer would be "Yes, the rest has gone down the screens". She didn't know what he meant, but had to accept it as an explanation. They were very pleasant neighbours, with one son (apprenticed to a joiner) and one daughter, and were genuinely sorry at our departure.
Father now locked up and took the key to the landlord, then off we went to the railway station - a good walk. Mother took a basinette containing a little bit of this and that , and Father carried the baby of the family, whilst we other three carried various parcels, one of which was food, because as we would be at our new house a while before the van arrived, we could have a "put off" meal.
At one point on our journey we went through a tunnel. There were no lights on the train so we sat in black darkness until we emerged to the light of day again. Soon after there was a rush to the carriage window to look at the sea. A change of direction and we were travelling again through fields, woods and small villages. Eventually after about 3/4 hour we arrived at Thornley station, our destination as far as our railway journey was concerned.
When we got out of the station we found there was no road, only a footpath running alongside a branch line to the colliery, which we followed until we came to a signal cabin, a level crossing, and a railway junction, where a second line went on to another colliery. Here the road widened, but still it was only a cart track as it went past a farm to the village. Here also we met 'Cousin George', my Mother's cousin who had seen about the business of father being "set on". He had come to meet us so that he could take us to our new house, of which he had the key. It was our first meeting with him so he greeted us all, and helped with the little luggage we had.
Now looking past the farm I got my first view of the colliery. The high sets of headgear showing two shafts were working, being surmounted by the big whirring pulley wheels which were to dominate my life for a few years. Now we passed some buildings which we were told were the "Offices", after which came a terrace of fairly decent sized houses, where some of the officials lived. We were quite close to the pit now, with their sidings, smoke, steam and dust. We walked on towards the streets of miner's houses, and saw that the village was divided into two unequal parts by a branch line running through it. This went on to another pit in the same group. We walked along, passed the first row and turned into the second. Halfway down here Cousin George pushed open a crude gate leading into a yard and said "This is it and here is the key".
Dad opened the door and Mam followed him in, followed by Cousin George and we children. The place was, I suppose, like miners houses anywhere in the county, so I will give a brief description of it.
There were two main rooms, the back one being kitchen, living room and general utility room. A large larder or pantry was an offshoot into the yard. Open stairs from this room led up to an attic. In the kitchen there was a huge fireplace with a flat surface at the back, which would hold nearly a half cwt of coal, while at one side was a round oven, and a "set pot" or boiler at the other, both heated by flues which went round them, the draught of these being controlled by dampers. Above it all was a broad mantle shelf. The kitchen window looked on to the back yard.
The front room looked onto the opposite street's front. On opening the door we found there was a concrete pathway almost a yard wide running down the whole length of the street. A smaller path ran down the street opposite, and in between was nothing but clumps of grass, bricks and stones. The windows, both front and back, were fitted with outside shutters.
The attic ran the length and breadth of the house, and had been divided crosswise to make two bedrooms, each having for light a hinged skylight.
We young ones noticed that on the front door, or on pieces of slate or wood fastened on the wall slate beside it, some of the houses carried chalked numbers. There were 3's or 5's and sometimes both, so we asked Cousin George the reason for them. "Oh," he said "they're for the caller." He then explained that a man was employed to knock on those marked doors with a stick at the time stated by the chalk marks, to awaken the worker who had to go down the pit an hour later; 3 o'clock was for fore shift hewers who went down at 4.00 a.m. and 5 o'clock was for the younger ones - lads, shift putters,drivers, trappers, etc.,who went down at 6.00 a.m. When the last of them were down, the pit "hung on" - that is began to draw coal, and the days work began for all the men and boys who worked at bank. It was quite obvious the 'caller' could not call them all at once so some were awakened a little before time, whilst others just had time to dress and (if their wives or daughters got up) have a cup of tea.
Allowing for breaks during which time the back shift went down at 9.30 a.m., and the fore shift rode at 10.30 a.m., work went on until 4.00 p.m. when the pit "loosed out" that is finished for the day. Although coal winding stopped then, work still went on underground. Canch men, stone men, and lots of other sorts of workers were at work from 4.00 p.m. to 12.00 midnight, or 10.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m.
At the back of the house and midway between these and the backs of those on the opposite side of the street, were rows of ash pits, earth closets and middens, and between these again, there were conical heaps of coal duff (miner's coal) - coal so small that later we saw it blown about the streets in heavy winds. Some men had covered in the part of the yard between the end of the larder and the outside wall, and shovelled their coal in there. It was easier to get at and kept the rain and snow from it.
About 4 feet from the yard, a gutter ran the whole length of the street, which then ran down to a sink at the bottom of the street, and I suppose to a main sewer. Dirty water and slops of all kinds were put in, though generally people would wash it away with a pailful of clean water taken from a barrel in the yard, where rainwater was stored. This water was used mostly for ablutions, clothes washing, in fact anything but drinking. The gutter, which was of glazed earthenware, was as a whole kept very clean by the various householders, each doing their own part.
Father asked Cousin George where we would get drinking water. He said "Go to the top of the street, cross the road, then the line (railway), and you will see a tap fastened to the wall of the end house of the street there. People generally carry two pails at once with a girth, some big handed ones can carry four pails that way." A girth was either a steel ring or a wooden square which kept the pails away from the carriers sides. Well, that was something else to try out when we got our pails from the van.
By now it was time for Cousin George to go home, as he wanted a nap before going to work at 10.00 p.m. He was a stoneman and worked 8 hours ending ar 6 a.m. the following morning. He wanted us all to go to his house and have a meal, but we had to be ready for the furniture van's arrival. The lady from next door then came to offer the loan of a couple of chairs so Mam and Dad could rest while waiting. Father thanked her, and took them, then we found that during the commotion the baby of the family had strayed away. We three went to look for him and found him playing in the water and dirt around the grating. He was in a sorry state but Mother couldn't do much with him until our washing utensils arrived, by which time the water would be hot as Father had got a fire going.
Soon after that we heard the noise of children in the street, and on going outside we saw the van coming, with about 20 children after it. They were making guesses as to what it contained as a furniture van was a bit of a rarity. "I knaa," said one "its the shows." "Dint be daft" said another "There's ne room for shows doon here, they wad gan up beside the chapel like they alwas dee." They hadn't to wait long for enlightenment. The men slackened the harnesses, and after asking the children where to find water, saw to their horses' nose bags, then began to unload. When the kids saw it was only a removal they ran off, as they had seen plenty of those, although by different means generally.
In the mining areas, if a family moved to a nearby village, or anywhere within a few miles radius, a flat cart or rolly (a bigger flat cart with 4 wheels) was used. If they were going further afield, they usually sold up and started afresh in their new house. Neighbours were always kind and ready to lend a few articles of furniture and essentials until the newcomers got settled down. That was the accepted way of doing it then, and no one thought much about the inconvenience as they soon got to work and put things shipshape again. Some men moved often, in fact it was said that if the movers kept hens (which a lot of miners did) they (the hens) would lie on their backs to have their legs tied if an empty cart or rolley came down the street!
After the men got the table and a few chairs into the living room, and some of our belongings into the house, we children went in search of water. We followed the directions given by Cousin George, going up the street and crossing both road and 'line' with the whirring pulleys on our left, and finding the tap placed as he said. We filled our two pails and got back without losing much of their contents. Mother now filled the kettle and put it on a hob which she pushed round over the fire with the poker. It soon boiled and after getting some of the tableware and food out of the boxes we all, including the furniture removers, sat down or stood up, for a light meal. Then the driver was paid and he and his mate harnessed up again and set off on the return journey to Gateshead.
Work at the pit
We were now on our own, so Father went to the colliery office just after 4 p.m. to see the under manager about "starting" next day. When he was away we helped Mother to square up a bit, but of course Father would see to the beds, lino, and other necessary things when he returned. What a difference we saw when looking out of the windows! At the old place we looked over miles of fields and trees, and had our own little handkerchief sized garden at the front, now it was just another row of houses, while at the back, over the top of the outhouses where we looked on to a wood, here was nothing but heaps of house coal (duff), middens, earth closets, and another row of houses. Everywhere a drab and dreary outlook, but as I soon found out, clean and shining inside most of those houses. If the womenfolk couldn't do much about the outside, they certainly made up for it inside. Spotless clean beds and bedding, tablecloths, and all else down to wearing apparel, shining brass on the mantel shelf, and fenders like mirrors. However, more of that later. When Father got back, and said he had to go to work the next day on the back shift and report to a certain deputy overman, who would place him temporarily until the cavils went in at the end of the quarter (about 3 weeks time). In the meantime he should see about some "marras" himself.
The caviling system meant that all sets of hewers, and the putters, balloted for places in the pit for another quarter. There was a lot of luck attached to this as some parts of the coal face was "softer" than others, and when four men (two in the fore shift 4.00 a.m. to 10.30 a.m., and two in the back shift 9.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.) got a hard face, they could not produce the tonnage of the men at the softer faces, so there was a difference in pay. Putters may be drawn to a "flat" that had just been moved up, so their journeys to and from the hewers was short. Others drawn where the flat was about ready to be moved had much further to push the tubs, both full and empty. Putters were also affected by whether conditions were wet or dry, and by the level of the gateways. Putters were in two classes, hand and pony. Hand putters pushed tubs by sheer bodily strength, but where it was too heavy for handwork, the ponies or "galloways" as they were called, were used to pull the tubs; these were always used where the face was lower than the flat. Galloway putters were also the younger lads who went on to hand work as they grew older and stronger. They rode on the "limmers" or shafts and guided the tubs by pulling or pushing on the handles. Their jobs were to take the empty tubs "emte-uns" to the hewers at the face, and bring the "fall-uns" to the flat. From there they were taken to the landing by larger horses but smaller boys, known as drivers, from where after being assembled into "sets" of anything from twenty to forty tubs, they were taken to the shaft bottom either by "main and tail" haulage, or by endless rope.
Anyway, caviling day which was on a baff Friday, was looked upon by some as a time for omens, and so if a man who thought that way met on his way to work a person with a cast in his eye, he would go back home, as a "cock-eyed" man meant bad luck. Others had different signs. A black cat running across his path was lucky. Wives also played their part in this, some being known to put the family cat in the oven (just warm of course) until the draw was over.
The results of the draw were posted at the colliery office, and there was always a large crowd of men and lads to be seen scanning the boards for their partners, and to see where they would be working for another quarter. Saturday was shifting gear day. Picks, shovels, crackers, etc. were moved to the nearest place where they could be taken up on the Monday on the way in bye to the new place. On Father's first day he worked with another newcomer, both of them "hanging their own up" This meant they each put their own tokens on the tubs they filled, and were credited separately for them. This was kept up until the cavils went in, by which time he had been approached by Bert, a Lancashire man who had lost his "marra" (friend/colleague) through an accident, (and looked like being off work for quite a while; perhaps not able to hew again ever) who was wanting a fourth marra. The other two of the set were the marra's sons. They were known to be very good workers who lost very little time of their own accord, so Dad was lucky in getting such men to work with. Although the days of the "big hewers" were coming to an end, (and who hadn't heard of their fabulous feats, and of Barty Keith in particular) good sets of hewers were known and respected in the industry.
Bert was known to we kids because when he had first called at our house to talk to Father about his joining them, he pulled out of his pocket a large slab of toffee, broke it, and gave us each a generous portion. He called it "claggum" as it was of a treacly nature. Bert was a jolly chap and came regularly to our house on a Friday night, and he never forgot the claggum; we naturally looked forward to him coming. The cavils had gone in and Dad was now working with him.
A new school
His next job was to see about getting we children off to school. We got fixed up and we three went off the following Monday (after removal) to the Board School which was "up the Hill". I was put in Standard 1 just to see how far I had got before the next moving up took place. It was too easy for me, but I enjoyed it. Here the boys and girls were separate whereas where we had been was a mixed classes school. I soon got to know the boys of my class and found them friendly. I played the usual games at playtime with them, but at night and on Saturdays I played mainly with the boy who lived next door to us, and was about my age.
My sisters too, soon palled up with other girls, so we got off to a good start. The boy next door was in Standard II, but when he told me what lessons he was having, I knew I could do them too, so I wasn't worried about what happened at the yearly exams.
Our new school was situated at the far end of the village away from the pit. To get to it we went over the 'line' then through the higher half of the place, where we passed a few private houses, then a farm which was set back from the road, and the shops, the largest of which was the Co-op, one window of which was full of miners gear which they bought themselves, pick blades, shafts, sockets, wedges, lamp nails, also pit shirts of blue or grey flannel, stockings, "hoggers" (short trousers), leather caps and knee caps, belts, in fact anything needed for work. On the other side of the road was a village pond, then a public house, the Post Office, two or three more shops, then the school.
The farmer went round the village every morning with his milk float, and measured the pints and halfpints into his customer's jugs or basins. If anyone needed more during the day they had to go to the farm themselves to get it, or as we often did, take an empty can with us after dinner break, leave it, and collect it after school. On Saturdays and Sundays we children took turns to go.
The boy's schoolmaster was a handsome man, a strict disciplinarian but always ready to listen to the boys, or their parents either. I got on well there and liked it. Of course the three R's were the basic schooling, but we had many other interesting lessons. The day of the School Inspector's visit was not very welcome to us, as we thought he always asked such awkward questions. One day after we had had several lessons on rainfall, rivers, springs, etc. he arrived, and as was to be expected asked a boy who had just returned to school after an illness and resultant layoff "What is a spring?" The boy stammered awhile then said "The things they put in couches". No doubt he had done a bit of bouncing on the couch at home.
Playtime was filled in with the usual boys games, the younger ones with 'tag' or 'tig', kitty, etc. On cold winter days we would according to classes play "crush in the corner", in the buttresses of the school. The movement of the close packed bodies made us warm. The bigger boys had games of their own. Oh well, they were happy days.
After school we played all sorts of games I had not seen before, kick the block, tip cat, etc. I being a new boy was drawn into a game of "bees". You only fall for this once then wait for another mug. A circle was scratched on the ground and the new boy had to stand in it as it was the hive and he represented the queen bee. The rest went running off with their arms outstretched to represent wings, then returned buzzing to the hive with a handful of coal dust to represent their pollen from flowers. They did this two or three times, then the next time they would each come back with a mouthful of water, and squirted it into the mugs face. He usually took it with good grace, and would then wait until he could be a "bee". So the nights of the back end of the first term at school were partly filled in.
During one of Bert's visits, he asked Dad if he thought the trouble in South Africa would lead to a war with the Boers. Dad thought it very likely and wondered what effect it would have on the coal trade. As children we were not allowed to enter any conversation, but I was all ears to hear what I could about the threatened war.
Well it did come and I, though just turned eight, listened to what I could hear, and read what I could about it. When they mentioned names of places, I would look up in a big atlas at school on the Monday. Then of course there were the names of the Generals, both British and Boer, and the brave doings of the various regiments to be talked and read about. One Newcastle firm made use of two of the enemy generals' names in advertising "Don't Botha about de Wet" they said, then referred the reader to their selection of rain-wear.
Religion and Chapel
By now, Dad, who was a chapel man had got to know some of the Wesleyan Chapelgoers, and after going himself for a week or two, said we three had to go. Sunday Morning Service, Sunday School, Evening Service. If parents had only known the resentment against chapel they were building up in their children, they probably would have let them off with Sunday School and choice of Morning or Evening Service. However, it was a case of best clothes on and away with ones hymn book and bible. After the weeks big meal, Sunday dinner, there wasn't much time until off to Sunday School. What could one learn when the teachers were only older scholars or old men with no training for such work? One teacher I remember, a village tradesman, would read something to us, then ask questions on what he had read, but to make us take notice of what he read, he would pay 1d for 1 correct answer, or 3d for 2 correct. We all got a chance for the penny ones, but the second was paid to the one who was quickest off the mark with the answer.
The chapel itself was made from two colliery houses, but a building fund was in hand for a new one. The Primitive Methodists or Ranters already had their own. The Churchpeople had a nice little church up the 'Hill'. The Salvation Army had their Citadel in the next village, Thornley, but alternate Sundays toured around. They were always well received and listened to reverently.
After we had been going for some time, our Dad was made Sunday School Superintendent and also became a trustee of the building fund. He didn't become a 'preacher' on the circuit. The preachers for morning and evening services came from the various villages that made up the circuit, and a member would take them to his home for dinner and tea. It was always a busy time for Mam before the Sunday when it was our turn to entertain.
The great day for the Wesleyans was when their new chapel was ready and opened. Instead of a harmonium as in the old one, it had a pipe organ, so now we were as good as the Ranters.
After Evening Service a lot of youths and girls went for walks. Others, and a number of youngsters went to the 'Hall' to a "Penny Reading". Someone would read from a book behind a screen to cover a candle or oil lamp, while someone else worked the lantern, putting in slides that illustrated the story being read, during which time the hall was in darkness. The hall was normally lit by electricity, as were the chapels. The current was generated at the colliery which it served for lighting, also for street lamps, which were few and far between.
An interest in fretwork
Soon after settling in at home I went to see Cousin George, where I was introduced to his wife and daughter. They had another daughter who was married, and lived at the next village. Cousin George was sitting at a machine, which he was working with his feet, doing something with a piece of wood. He stopped when I went in, then after a little talk with Cousin Helen I was shown what he was doing. "This is a fretwork machine." he said. I answered "Yes." waiting to hear and see more. He then pointed out to me how by moving his feet he could make the saw go up and down while he fed the wood gently up to it. When he cut a piece out he slackened the blade, and put it through another hole which along with many others he had drilled previously. The wood had a paper pattern stuck on to it, on which the white parts were cut out, and the coloured left. I asked him what he was making and he replied "a pipe rack." He then let me see a picture of what the finished article would be like. When I looked round the room I could see a lot of things he had made, the most noticeable of all being an overmantle frame. The mirror had been supplied along with the wood and pattern from "Hobbies Ltd." so after all the cutting out had been done he had followed the instructions supplied and put it together, and now it hung over the fireplace. I thought it was great work and said I would like to do some. "Well," he said "you will have to begin with a hand frame. I'll give you one, then get yourself a cutting table, some blades, and a drill, and I'll come along and show you how to work it."
When I went home and told my Mother, she said "We'll see in a few weeks what can be done, but I'm not too keen on having a lot of fretwork articles about the house." Of course, I hadn't expected to begin at once, so just waited until I could get the tools of the trade. I thought Cousin George was a very clever man, but I hadn't seen the half yet, but that was for a bit later.
More on school and games
When my first summer was over, and we were back to school. I was put into Standard III having jumped Standard II. As the days shortened, it was almost dark by the time we left school in the afternoons, and on coming home we who lived in the lower part of the village could just make out the pit heads on our right, but could see the twinkling lights as the boys and men made their way from the cages to the lamp cabin. When snow was on the ground, it was nice to watch the string of lights which seemed to move of their own volition over the white earth. At this time of year the lads who went down at 6.00 a.m. and rode at 4.00 p.m. only saw daylight on Saturdays and Sundays
Now, one of our games at night was "Jack shine the mugger". One boy with a lighted bulls eye lantern would wander off, with certain limitations of distance. He kept the light hidden by turning the shield on the lamp until he got fifty yards or so away, when he would expose the light for a few seconds, then cover it again, and run on to another position, where he would again show the light. The rest of the boys ran towards the light following a kind of will o' the wisp, and whoever caught him took over the lantern, and the game began all over again.
Of course, there had to be one or two mischievous games too, such as tying two door snecks together, rapping on each door and running away, then hiding round the corner of one of the middens to see what happened. Another game was having a cotton reel, the edges of which had been serrated, a pencil through the hole, and with a piece of string on the reel, making it turn fast against a window pane. Here again it meant getting quickly away.
Bonfire Night, November 5th, was the same as today, with blazing fires in the streets, crackers, wheels-of-fortune or catherine wheels as some called them. Our Da made sparkling jacks with gun powder. Potatoes were laid near the edge of the bonfires and roasted. One such night, the fat boy of the village fell on the bonfire, but was pulled clear before any serious damage was done. Some lads said afterwards that they had heard his fat frizzling!
If the nights were wet or it was snowing, we could always play games in the house. Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Tiddleywinks were to be found in every home.
I arrived at school one afternoon to find all the doors locked, and the teachers who came from a distance and just had a few sandwiches in a staff room, locked in. I then remembered the singing in the playground during morning break "Its the second of May, Royal Oak Day, if ye divvent give us holiday, we'll aall run away." It turned out that some of the older boys had got hold of the keys, done the locking up, and thrown the keys into the pond. However, the teachers from the village on the outside, and those on the inside, managed to get the school open somehow before the headmaster came. Some boys had gone home, or off to play somewhere, and there were very few to line up in the playground. The next day was the day of reckoning. All those who had been at school the day before in the morning, and were marked absent in the afternoon had to take their punishment, 6 strokes of the cane. There was no sparing of the rod.
I was going through my 'standards' or classes quite nicely, being "put up" yearly after the exams. During my period in Standard IV, our teacher was dismissed. The new one was a very tall thin young man, who was immediately named "Clothesprop" by the boys. Poor fellow, he hadn't much authority over the boys. If he was looking at someones work on the right side, someone on the left side would lean under the desk and call "Clothesprop" and vice versa. While he was writing on the blackboard, peas from peashooters (home made) and paper pellets flew round his head. He must have complained, because after a week or two of that, we saw a lot more of the head. He'd just walk through or have a word or two with the teacher, but as his visits were at irregular intervals, and we all knew that if he caught any of us up to fun and games, it meant three or four strokes with the cane, teacher had a much easier life. One thing about him was that he was a good teacher, and he never took it out on any of the boys.
I was now aged about 10 and had been at that school about 3 years, and during that time had played with boys at school, and after school hours, and at weekends. We had plenty to do to keep us healthily employed until bedtime. We played in the long summer nights such games as rounders, tip cat, kite-flying, marbles, sometimes just walking or running, climbing trees, looking into birds nests, or follow the leader - which sometimes landed one of us in the burn, which meant a walk home in wet clothes and squelching boots, and maybe to a ticking off.
Learning to play the violin
I went to Cousin George's one evening and found him playing a violin. Naturally I wanted to play one. Well, like the fretwork, he said he would teach me if I got an instrument myself. Now at this time I was making a few coppers by delivering handbills, bringing parcels from the station in a "bogie" (a box on wheels which I had knocked together), paying men's union dues for them, and in a few other ways, so my parents told me if I would save this money for so long, they would put the rest, and I could have a violin.
Well, in the course of time, I got my instrument complete in case, and went as proud as Lucifer to Cousin George's for my first lesson. He had an old "Tutor" which he gave me, and told me I would have to study the music first. That was something I had not bargained for and it took the wind out of my sails. He then said "Go home and learn from the Tutor the scale and the value of the notes, and I will come up in two weeks time and show you how to do it on the strings."
He was as good as his word and I was dying to get a start, but of course I had to first learn how to hold the thing. When I had done that to his satisfaction, I was shown how to hold the bow. Then the first terrible noises came on the air while I struggled with my fingers on the strings, and drew and pushed the bow across them. He didn't say much, just let me get on with it, then took it from me and showed me the correct way to hold both.
Well, we had a fortnightly session in between which time I had to practise what he laid down for me, and learn so much of the theory. After a few lessons I was able to play The Bluebells of Scotland and one or two easy variations. How my poor Da and Ma stood it I don't know, but Ma's only words were "You know what Cousin George said - give the notes their proper vallee." a remark which seemed to her to have a lot to do with learning properly. Well, like all other boys of my age, the novelty soon wore off, and I began to feel that practicing the violin was a bit of a drag when sometimes I would rather be out playing games. This had, however, shown me another side of a remarkable man, but there was more to come.
Shops and tradesmen
We were always ready for our meals, and although money wasn't very plentiful, food was cheap, and most of the miners wives were good plain cooks. Our mother had a little pull over some, as before marrying she had been cook to a family living in a large house somewhere in Lancashire. She had joined the "store" the local Co-op, and if I happened to be at home during the holiday on a Monday, and the "order man" came, I used to listen intently to him reading down a column in a long narrow book, the full list of groceries and other items, and putting down the amount wanted by Mother. As we had fortnightly pays, this man came every other week. The items ordered came by CWS rollys. The Co-op butcher with his nice horse and van came round the streets, also the greengrocer with his dray. So on the whole the community were well served. Of course the village was also visited by the men and carts of other Co-ops. Daily papers were delivered by boys, and at the end of the two weeks, the newsagent himself would call round for his payment. He always carried a large Gladstone bag with books, magazines and other reading material which the boys didn't deliver. At that time we were having delivered the Evening Chronicle at «d daily, the "Black and White" a war weekly which I think was 2d, then maybe when the boss called on Friday, I would get a boys paper, and my sisters a weekly for girls.
Fish carts were also a daily affair. Herring were always cheap being sometimes 5 a 1d to 10 a 1d or even cheaper if the man was wanting to clear his cart before going home. About that time, ice cream carts were beginning to visit the village too. We would take a tea cup and get it filled up for 1d. The ice cream was (it always seemed to me) more ice than cream, as one could crunch pieces of it all the way through.
Men came round selling clothes props, grinding knives, playing barrel organs, even singing in the streets. Then occasionally we had a visit by a German band. "Bloody spies" someone was heard to call them. We also had sword dancers, morris dancers, and other exhibitionists who were thankful if 1d was dropped into their collecting bag. But the big show was when "Blooms" set up their marquee. This would be erected between the chapel and the Hall, where nightly sales would be held of mainly household goods, but there would always be some attraction such as a singing competition or musical instrument playing, or some sort of knobbly knee, or ugly face competition, or even just plain go as you please. These came between breaks in the selling, and sometimes one or two of the staff would do a turn.
There were two or three raised planks on which the staff walked with the articles into all parts of the standing crowd. A start to selling would be made with a small household article such as a scrubbing brush - "Whiskers on wood" would be called by the assistant while walking down the plank, a few would be sold then quickly on to some other small article, during which time the attendance would grow. After about half an hour of this, one of the staff would sing a song getting the crowd to join in the chorus, also getting it into a pleasant frame of mind. After that the chief salesman would take over, and the offerings became larger and more expensive. These would range from kettles, pans, tea sets up to sheets and blankets. One could certainly pass an hour or so away quite pleasantly without even spending a penny. The company would stay about two or three weeks about once a year, and if any buyer had a complaint, it would be looked into at the next visit, so people were assured of a fair deal with goods at a very reasonable price brought to their doorstep almost.
Several times during the day men would come round the streets hawking their wares, to be joined by the "rag and bone" men, whose cry would be - "Pegs, bones, bottles, rabbit skins, hare skins" all these apparently having some value somewhere.
In addition to the Co-ops, several private butchers, greengrocers, and other tradesmen competed for the custom of the miners wives, so there was quite a procession of carts and rollys up and down the streets, much to the annoyance of those of the women who had lines of washing out, as they had to make way for the vehicles or have their lovely washing soiled.
Washing, cooking and housework
I often wondered how the clothes dried clean with so much coal dust about, and as I remember it washing was hard work. The boiler had to be stoked for hot water, the clothes steeped, then possed, passed through the mangle, (an instrument of torture if ever there was one) then through boiling water and in the tub again, once more to be mangled, then folded pressed through the rollers again, and hung out on the line.
Along with this she would maybe have a baking of bread in the oven at the other side of the fire, then had to get a meal ready for husband coming in from the fore shift or he may wait until the "bairns" came from school at 12 noon, and all have their midday meal together. The woman had probably been up since he went out at 4.00 a.m. if it were summertime. After all that was done she had the floor to wash out and tidy up. The poss tub and mangle cum wringing machine were kept in the yard generally covered by tarpaulin or old floor covering (oil cloth) as there was no room in the house for them. Maybe the woman would do her wash first, then bake in the afternoon, so by the time we boys and girls came out of school we could see loaves and flat bread cakes on window sills cooling off, and also giving off a beautiful aroma. Later on in the week was the time for making cakes, tarts etc for the weekend.
After washing day (the devil's birthday) Friday was another big workday for the women. The table would be covered with brown paper or newspapers, and all the heavy steel and brass were placed on it. The fender and tidy, poker, rake, all the brass candlesticks and horses and dogs, the rail from under the mantle shelf, and any other ornament or useful article had to be cleaned. After all this lot was shining like silver and gold, out would come the cutlery, knives to be cleaned with bathbrick which was put on a strip of leather covered wood and the knives rubbed in it. Silver was cleaned with some sort of home made polish. Furniture got cleaned at intervals, not weekly like the other things, and polished mostly with a mixture of beeswax and turpentine, until it shone like the rest of the household goods. Oh yes, the miners wife was house proud, she liked good beds and bedding, and nice curtains even if the latter had to be washed often owing to the coal dust and fire ash forever blowing about.
The floor of the kitchen cum living room was flagged, and some people had them covered with oil cloth, but all had clippy mats. These were home made. If you hadn't any mat frames someone would lend you a set if you wanted to start making a mat. First of all before the frames came out a few weeks of spare time would be utilised cutting the clippings, which were pieces of cloth about 3 to 4 inches long by about 3/4 wide. Old coats, trousers, skirts, etc. were used. One could buy ex police, and military tunics and trousers for about one shilling per article. These were good cloth and made a hard wearing mat. When the hessian was bought, it then had to have a design drawn on it in chalk. These designs were many and varied. The centre motif may be a cat or dog or if someone could draw it well, a horse. Then the border would be spaced out, and if the maker wanted a little more design, they would add it, otherwise the whole unmarked part was filled in indiscriminately. Some of these mats were real works of art and looked very well, all their six feet by three in front of a nice fire, with its before mentioned shining fire irons tidy, and fender, with maybe a copper kettle on a stand to add to the brightness. A smaller mat may be placed just inside the door. It generally had the word 'welcome' in its design.
The wood floors of the other rooms were either scrubbed or covered with the ubiquitious oil cloth.
The Village Flower Show
The Wingate flower show and sports day was held annually. A visit to it was a must to quite a lot of people, and maybe to many more, according to the weather.
This particular year I went along with two friends. Ignoring the entreaties of the owners of brakes, traps and other horse drawn vehicles to a quick ride to the show, we decided to walk, which was a matter of about three miles, thus saving the coppers for amusement. We didn't hurry, so arrived at the ground in good condition for walking round the various show tents, side shows, and spending a bit of time watching the foot handicap.
The first call was at the big marquee where models of different kinds of machinery were on show. Amongst them were locomotives built to various scales, some with steam up and running free of the rails. There were haulage engines, pumping engines, and other kinds of moving machinery, but what interested them most was a working model of a coalmine. Practically all the models of men and boys were moving, hewers working away with their picks, others going through the motions of their work. Cages went up and down, as the winding engine ran one way and then reversed. The pit head work was going on too, making it very lifelike in a Liliputian way.
On leaving this exhibition to move over to the "Handicrafts" we saw a crowd collected round a one man show. About half a dozen people were holding tubes to their ears, so we boys had to investigate. We were told that for a penny one could use the tubes to hear music and singing from a newly invented machine called a phonograph.. Duly impressed we paid our pennies when the tubes were laid down after the listeners had had their experience. Surely enough we first heard someone saying Edison Bell Record, then the name of a song popular at the time, and the name of the singer. Then with a bit of a rasping sound the music and song got under way. At the end of the record we had to make way for the next lot of listeners.
"What diz tha think o that?" asked one of my friends.
"Ah dint believe it, its a man inside that curtin." said the other.
"Dint be fond ask the man to let tha see." said the first.
"Yis ah will." and he went up to the showman who bent down from his low platform to see what he wanted.
"No, my lad, it is a new invention, but if you want to look behind the front curtain, do so, but you'll only find a box with the records in, and some spare tubes." The lad took him at his word and pulled the curtain back, and it was just as the man had said. He then turned to his us and said:
"Ah still dint believe, its some sort of a trick, mebbe he's a ventriloquist."
After visiting the handicrafts, which didn't interest them much as a lot of it was devoted to home made bread, scones, cakes, jams and marmalade, and other sections to knitting, crochet, lace, shirt making, etc., and the men's hobby of fretwork.
From there they "had a penorth" in the Living Picture show. This form of entertainment was fairly new. A marquee of sorts with rows of form like seats, a screen at one end, and the projector in the centre inside, while just the same as the boxing booth outside with its barker and lurid pictures. There was a cardboard box standing beside the projector, into which the film dropped as it passed through the machine. Between shows the film had to be rewound on the reel by hand.
It was now time for something to eat so "a fish and a penorth," then a drink of 'home made' lemonade, a few minutes rest while having it, and ready for more sights.
The open handicap was being run so thought they would have a look at a few heats. They weren't interested in the 'bookies' hardly knowing about the business, but in the fast running of the entrants.
Then there were the shuggy shows or swings, the roundabouts, the cakewalk, the slide, and other of the usual side shows. There was also the side shows of fat ladies, calf with 6 legs, and more of that ilk. At the boxing booth the "lads" were parading on the front, throwing the gloves to any taker who was willing to have a go with them. While the friends were watching this, the booth proprietor came forward with an old shrivelled up man whom he introduced as Jem Mace. Somehow we couldn't associate this man in front of us as the great bare knuckle fighter.
An introduction to mining
School leaving age was 14 but a pupil could leave at 13 if he or she passed what was known as a 'Labour Certificate'. As most boys were in the highest classes at 13 they sat the exam. Most passed. (Looking back I think the exam was fairly easy, as boys were required for the pits, and their parents wanted them off to work for the sake of the extra few shillings they earned).
At about 12 years of age a boy would be taken down the mine by his father or some responsible relation, to get his first view of where he was to spend his working life. An application had to be made to the management, and permission was only a matter of course. Well, like the rest, I went. I went off with Dad, dressed in my oldest clothes with my "bait" in one pocket and a bottle of water in the other. I stood amongst the hewers at the pit head with my lamp, and when Dad entered the cage, I followed. When the three decks filled up, the banksman rapped (signalled) to the winding engine man, and we began our descent, 200 fathoms, gently at first, then faster. During the fastest period, the up coming cage passed us, then the speed slackened and we dropped gently on to the "keps" (supports). At the shaft bottom all was brilliantly lighted, and as walls were whitewashed, it was as light as day, and our puny oil lamps seemed useless. There was an office, too, and Father reported there that he was taking his son "in bye" with him.
Aid for the Strikers
Colliery men came out on strike against the pay and other questions regarding the opening of a new seam. After about 3 weeks the miners and their families were beginning to feel the pinch. Various household goods which could be spared were sold, also personal objects such as watches, alberts, tie pins etc., even to the wives "keeper rings". The men at pits in the vicinity paid a levy to help too, but all this did not meet the needs of the strikers and their wives and families. Something else had to be done quickly. One Thursday, the crake man went round the village informing the men that a Union meeting was called for that night to consider what more could be done to help their brothers at the other pit. At the meeting it was decided to increase the levy, and also to send round on the Saturday, a bread cart.. This would be a horse rolly lent free by Dan, and driven by his son, which would tour the streets of the village and accept anything people cared to give. Two Union men, the Secretary and Treasurer would accompany it and take charge of the gifts which could even include money (a way to catch the younger unmarried men), then accompany it, and preside along with the officials of the Lodge over the distribution.
To draw attention before the arrival of the rolly in a pair of back to back street houses the colliery band would march, services free as usual, behind a bannerette.
When the lorry got half way round the village, it was more than half loaded with bread, flour, bacon, eggs, potatoes, vegetables - a lot of which had been grown by the donors themselves - and various other food including meat, which without any means of keeping it fresh, would have to be cooked the next day.
The collection had to be halted before it had gone its full round, as with a good load, a drive of about 4« miles, the distribution, and the return home, the evening would be well on the way.
As the rolly was leaving the village, another man who owned a horse and trap, drove up to say he would take the officials, as it was too much to expect them to walk about 9 miles after trailing round the streets, an offer which was thankfully taken up.
The lorry was met by union officials who directed the driver to the "Miners Hall" where a crowd had collected. The goods were taken inside, and each member would get his share if there or not. The receiving party would see to that. As this sort of help was being given by other lodges too, it went a long way to alleviating the distress, and the striking men saw their children had something to eat.
This was the sort of help-one-another attitude right through the coalfields.
The Pit Accident
It was a glorious summer day, but all the "scratters" saw of it was what sunshine managed to filter its way through the grime encrusted panes of glass round the cleaning plant. It did however, show the amount of dust the lads were working and breathing in, but didn't penetrate to the shaker where the operator (a man) had the aid of electric light. The miserable afternoon poking amongst the coal was interrupted by a signal from the on setter to the banksman that the next cage would be used for "men on". That generally meant someone had been lamed (injured) or taken ill. However, when the winding began the signal came to stop the cage at "the hole" (ground level) so the shaftman and others waited for it to come, knowing it would be a stretcher case. By now the belts were clear and the lads were standing outside on the stairway to the pit head or pit heap as it was generally called.
Slowly the brakesman brought the cage to the hole, the shaftman removed a hinged piece of the shutes and a stretcher was brought out, but this time the whole of the person on it was covered by a blanket, which meant that the poor fellow was dead..
One lad looked at another and said "I wonder who tiz?" "Thy father is on the back shift." Then the rest who had fathers or brothers down that afternoon began to wonder too.
The body was taken to the joiners shop, and the manager and doctor were sent for, while according to custom the pit "loosed out". The younger boys went home at once, but the older ones had the work to do that they usually did after "loose" then they would go home too. Meanwhile the lads and men were riding.
The question on all lips was "Whee ist?" Slowly word got through that it was a hewer called Hepple, a married man with three children, who had been killed by a fall at the face.
As the men and lads were walking home the body of the unfortunate man was being carried to his home through part of the village with his cap and water bottle lying on the blanket. A union official had gone on ahead to inform the poor widow, a job he said he did not want ever to do again.
The funeral was fixed for Saturday morning. On the Friday, which happened to be pay day, all full members of the union had 1/- deducted from their earnings, and the half members 6d. This was customary, and the total amount was handed over to the widow, which with the compensation she would get would have to keep her and her family until they got to work.
As Hepple's children attended one of the Sunday Schools, and he and his wife went occasionally to chapel, when the coffin was brought out of the house, it was placed on two trestles and the chapel choir sang a hymn, then one of the local preachers gave a short address and said a prayer, after which the choir sang 'Abide with me.'
The coffin was then lifted by the carriers or bearers, and the procession began. At the top of the street a hearse, with its two black horses with tall plumes was waiting. The coffin was placed on it, and with the whole village turned out for the funeral, the procession was headed by the colliery band and the banner of the lodge which was draped in black.
I was standing with some of the other lads when the sound of the Dead March with its Boom, Boom, Boom, Ta, ra, raa, played by the band, seemed to fill my whole body with a sort of dread. I felt that the music was expressing all the sorrow of the world. It was the first time I had heard it and it made a lasting impression on me.
The inquest proved that a large piece of slippery stone had dropped from the roof between two sets of gears (timbering) without any warning. This sort of thing is common, but timbering generally obviates or lessens the effects.
William was apparently keen to get his story into print even while he was alive, hence the following article in the Northern Echo but he was a little disappointed with the result.
A transcript from
THE NORTHERN ECHO
Saturday, November 14, 1970
Our world was the village
A miner talks about life at the turn of the century to Laurie Taylor
I was only about seven when the family moved to Wheatley Hill.
In those days a man moving from one colliery to another usually piled all his belongings on a horse drawn rolly cart. If he was coming from another part of the country he would sell everything and make do with the bits and pieces the neighbours would lend him until he managed to get the new house furnished.
In our case, my father, a miner, hired a furniture van from Gateshead - horse drawn of course, that's all there was in those days - to move our home from Springwell to Wheatley Hill.
The family went on ahead to the house and I can still hear the noise of the children - there must have been 20 or more of them - as it trundled down the cobbled street.
And when they'd finally satisfied their curiosity they showed the removal men where to get water for their horses. You had to take your buckets up the street, cross a road then a railway line between two collieries, until you came to a tap on a gable end. That tap served eight streets.
For your ablutions you used rain water. That's why every house had a big tub in the back yard to catch the rain.
Life was like that round the turn of the century. No buses or cars. We had to walk three miles to school every day in all weathers.
Sunday was the day we hated most. Father was a big chapel man so we all went three times on Sunday. But at least there was always the chance of winning a penny off the Sunday School teacher if you could get the Bible questions right. I used to get a penny pocket money, spend a halfpenny on the Saturday and save the rest for sweets on the way to school on Monday morning.
In the lighter nights we used to go for walks, climb trees or play games like Bees where some poor mutt had to stand in the middle while the rest buzzed round him, arms outstretched, dropping bits of coal at his feet - then squirting him in the face with a mouthful of water.
Then there were the Penny Readings in the local hall on a Sunday night. It was a magic lantern show with somebody reading a story by candlelight behind a sheet on the stage while slides flashed on to the screen.
You must realise there was nowhere else to go in those days. No future but the pit. Later on, though, we got the bioscope showing pictures at the village hall like The Great Buglar Dunn. That was a big thing at the time. He won a VC in the Boer War. A man used to stand at the side of the screen with a great long wand to point out particular features of the story.
The Wingate flower show was always an event for us as I remember it too. One day we came across a one man show on the grass. Six people were standing around the small stage with rubber tubes held to their ears. The man said that for a penny we could have a go with the tubes and hear music and singing from a newly-invented machine called the phonograph.
Of course one of our crowd refused to believe it. He thought it was some sort of trick.
It was a hard and simple life in those days. Women did all their own baking at home and used to stand the loaves on the open window sill to let them cool off. You could buy 20 herrings for a penny, eggs at 25 a shilling.
I played violin in a band at the local "hops". The waltz, quadrille and the Lancers were the thing at that time and when the dance ended at 10.30 p.m. you went home by bicycle, brake - or walked.
You were shut off from the outside world. The village was your whole life. I knew men and women in their fifties who had never been out of Wheatley Hill in their lives. The village and the pit was everything. Like everybody else I went to work there as a scratter taking stones out of coal on the belt.
I got about five shillings a week pay.
Times have certainly changed. But looking back on it all, you know, I don't think we ever got bored the way some of the young folk do today . . .