Local historian Tom Walsh recently had some of his work accepted into our upcoming Creative Writing Book - a collection of creative responses to the Covid-19 lockdown.
Here, Tom writes his personal response to George Orwell as well as a collection of essays depicting moments from his life that begin with his first day at school.
Wigan Has No Peer.
Born 8 Days after V.E.Day, 1945 in the Scholes area of Wigan, one of the areas castigated by George Orwell in his book 'The Road to Wigan Pier' published in 1937. From a very young age I was aware that Orwell was an anathema in my home town because of his betrayal of Wigan and in particular Scholes and Wallgate, both areas with large Irish communities. Most men worked in the mines and were fearlessly proud on their work. Women too were proud of their homes, both felt they had been besmirched by the imposter from the south. I can't vouch for it but as a child I heard stories of his image being used as target on dartboards, so intense was the feeling of betrayal.
I'm as convinced today as were the people of 1937, that the author came with an agenda to the north. His was not a crusade to help the downtrodden, rather to find those less fortunate and to use them to suite his preconceived prejudges, some less charitable may say to sell his book. Whatever his motivation, his writing did a great disservice to the north in general and Wigan in particular, mainly because of the title he chose, which has hung around the neck of our town like an albatross for the last 80 years. I have lost count of the times I've heard reference to this work always in a derogatory way and each time it does a little more damage almost like the sea pounding the coastline, indiscernibly but taking its toll nonetheless .
My time in my beloved Scholes was several years after the book was written, but I questioned my parents, and countless aunties and uncles at length , all agreed that whilst there was poverty and the vast majority still had gaslight and outside toilets this didn't equate to the filth and squalor as depicted in the book, of course there were homes where cleanliness wasn't the order of the day but they were a tiny minority. I dare say you could find that today in some very affluent neighbourhoods, even among some of our southern brethren! On the contrary, homes were spotless, steps being moped often a daily bases, competitions to get the whitest washing. All this a thousand miles from the picture painted by Orwell.
As alluded to earlier I know that my birthplace was looked upon with some misgivings even among people from the better off areas of the town itself. Much of that is down to this piece of fiction, and that is what it is 'fiction' dressed up to be a serious look at the plight of the working class of the 1930s. To be fair he did some good and some of the observations he makes are to be applauded, highlighting the appalling working conditions in the mines the unfairness of the Means Test,
but that didn't give him carte blanche to belittle the people who trusted him. He says in the book "if there is one man I feel inferior to it’s the coal miner" and so he should! He came to find squalor and if that was his raison d'être then he succeeded, if it was to give a fair unbiased view of of life in the north at that time, then he failed and failed miserably.
In the chapters that follow I try to unpick the damage to Wigan's reputation and in doing so show that we in the north are proud people with a story to tell. However in my story, a collection of essays written over several years. I hope they show the human face of northern England, the humour often in the face adversity. To coin a phrase cut one and we all bleed, Orwell cut us with the sharpness of his pen. In an article I wrote for The Wigan Observer written to coincide with the anniversary already mentioned, I say quite clearly that I don't doubt his prowess as a descriptive and talented writer, I do however doubt his sincerity. For the record this is the article, much of its content is a repeat of the sentences already penned, but I think for accuracy it is necessary to include it in full.
Wigan Observer Article
As the 80th anniversary of the publication of that wretched book 'The Road to Wigan Pier' nears, there are moves afoot from various quarters to celebrate the occasion. And, while I can see that these efforts are sincere and well meaning, I take completely the opposite view and hope it passes with as little fanfare as possible. Although, I'm sure the author will be lauded as a working class hero, a title he neither sort nor deserves, not insofar as this piece of writing is concerned. I have no doubt that he was a talented wordsmith as much of his other, and some aspects of this work proves.
George Orwell did incalculable damage to Wigan at the time of printing and the harm carries on to this day, an example, American travel writer Bill Bryson wrote: "Such is Wigan’s perennially poor reputation that I was truly astounded to find it has a handsome and well-maintained town centre". Much of the blame for its "poor reputation" can be laid at the door of this odious book. Many commentators and politicians often refer to this work as a serious example of working class life in the 1930s nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as homes are concerned. One of the few times he seems to begrudgingly admit that there is possibly another side to life in the North is when he writes in Chapter 2 " The whole of the industrial districts are really one enormous town, of about the same population as Greater London but, fortunately, of much larger area; so that even in the middle of them there is still room for patches of cleanness and decency. That is an encouraging thought. In spite of hard trying, man has not yet succeeded in doing his dirt everywhere." How's that for for being condescending, it almost takes your northern breath away!
To be a true insight, all aspects of life should at the very least be touched upon, not a mention of visiting what was a main source of recreation and social interaction ‘the pub’ of which there over 80 in the Scholes and Wallgate areas, six within a stones throw of his lodgings, not a word about the Churches, equally well attended in those days although often by a different clientele! Not even a nod to Mesnes Park, a jewel in Wigan's crown. These may seem trivial points, but they are not, it gives credence to the belief held by many, including myself, that he only saw what he wanted to see, namely squalor and dirt. He does however rage against the Roman Catholic Church in part two. I find it particularly unbelievable that a man who writes about his idea of the perfect pub ten years later, the fictitious Moon under Water,(Wetherspoon's got the the name from his ideas,) would he not at the very least visit a local watering hole, The Preston Arms was only yards from his chosen lodgings. I say chosen advisedly.
I was born in Scholes in 1945, nine years after his visit, and whilst obviously I have no knowledge of life at the time of his writing my Mother, my Father and numerous Aunts, Uncles and other relatives lived in the area throughout the 1930s. I questioned them about the book for an essay I wrote whist at school, I think in 1957, the twentieth anniversary of the first print, I can't be sure of that date but it does seem a logical conclusion, I remember a kerfuffle at the time. All of them, without exception reacted in the same way, his name being an anathema because of his unfair portrayal of Wigan in general and Scholes and Wallgate in particular. As they pointed out that were undoubtable problems, and some families where hygiene wasn't the first priority but these were a small faction. They readily agreed that poor housing conditions were rife but his description of the way people lived, they felt was deliberately misleading. Orwell's depiction of his sordid lodgings above a tripe shop – with an unemptied chamber pot beneath the breakfast table – makes great copy but tells us little about the living conditions of most Wiganers. It generally believed that he only moved lodgings because his first port of call was too clean, so much for accuracy!
The vast majority of people lived in clean and well kept homes, albeit money wasn't in abundance, many houses still lit by gas light, with outside toilets but this doesn't equate to filth, far from it. Women would take a great pride in their homes often mopping steps on a daily basis and woe betide you if you walked on their mopping. Home baking was practiced almost universally , especially on Sundays. Washing day Monday, there was a joke that there was a rainbow over Scholes on Mondays. Bedrooms Tuesday and so forth. All this a thousand miles from Orwell's portrayal .He painted a picture of filth and despair. I believe he came to the North with an agenda and a suitcase full of prejudices, he says in the book that he had lost most of the latter, alas he was deluding himself, to be fair to him I don't think deliberately, his canvas already partly painted he sought to fill in the spaces to suite his preconceived ideas. He completely ignored the side of life that didn't fit into his fantasy or that of his paymaster Victor Gollancz. According to Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick, publisher Victor Gollancz first tried to persuade Orwell's agent to allow the Left Book Club edition to consist solely of the descriptive first half of the book. When this was refused Gollancz wrote an introduction to the book. "Victor could not bear to reject it, even though his suggestion that the 'repugnant' second half should be omitted from the Club edition was also turned down. On this occasion Victor, albeit nervously, did overrule Communist Party objections in favour of his publishing instinct. His compromise was to publish the book with an introduction full of good criticism, unfair criticism, and half-truths. Almost like the book itself you might think!
Not only Gollancz and the people from Wigan found the book repugnant, a fellow writer Jack Hilton, who Orwell greatly admired, and who incidentally gave him the notion to visit Wigan, he had originally intended to visit Rochdale, Hilton’s recommendation that Orwell concentrate on colliers rather than cotton operatives was also significant, encouraging him at an early stage to see the representative working-class figure as a man engaged in skilled, essential, dangerous and ill-rewarded labour, Hilton described the book as “piffle”, Jack Hilton was a writer from a working class background and I'm sure saw through the snobbery of the book. Orwell would be the last person to think himself a snob but even a cursory reading of part two shows that he was, and in large measure at that. He claimed to be a socialist a claim that is spurious at best, again in part two he seems to decry so much of the principal and denounces the would be participants, although in the very last chapter he seems to contradict himself and struggles to champion what in earlier chapters he debunked. He did however join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War to fight against Fascism.
On the positive side, and there are some positives,Orwell described graphically the harsh and inhuman conditions in which miners worked and this aspect of the book told a story that needed to be told, as did the harshness and unfairness of the Means Test but this didn't give him carte blanche to demean proud neighbourhoods in order to give his work "a shock factor ". It is thought in some circles that the book lead to better conditions in the mines, I disagree with this analysis. The improved conditions, came about because of two factors. World War II, and subsequent need for energy gave them a better bargaining position but by far Nationalisation of the industry immeasurably altered the lot of the miner, and not a moment too soon.
To say Orwell was selective in his choice of lodgings and houses visited would be generous, a generosity that should not be afforded a writer who claimed his work was a factual record, which in some aspects it was, telling some unpalatable truths, but to use the people he used to suite the aforementioned painting whilst almost completely ignoring the vast majority of well kept homes belittles what could, and perhaps should have been a chronicle of great importance. Highlighting the plight of the miner and the appalling conditions in which he worked. Orwell says in Chapter 7 "That the miners of Lancashire and Yorkshire treated me with kindness and curtsey that was even embarrassing” also said “if there was a man I felt inferior to it was the coal miner" and so he should be, they trusted him and in my opinion he betrayed their trust, as surely as if he had slapped them across the face with a piece of "black tripe".
I have thought long and hard before writing this book but on reflection I felt it was not only something I need to do, in fact it was my duty. A duty to my kith and kin and to all the descent people of my beloved, but much maligned Scholes of yesteryear.
If there is one paragraph in the work that caused me to rage more than any other it was this, in Chapter 4 - where he speaks of “superior ' types”.
“I found that the people in Corporation houses don't really like them. They are glad to get out of the stink of the slum, they know that it is better for their children to have space to play about in, but they don't feel really at home. The exceptions are usually people in good employ who can afford to spend a little extra on fuel and furniture and journeys, and who in any case are of “superior” type. The others, the typical slum-dwellers, miss the frowsy warmth of the slum. They complain that “out in the country”, i.e. on the edge of the town, they are 'starving' (freezing).'
This is a bit rich coming from a man who liked to be thought of as an egalitarian I hope readers don't think I'm over sensitive, it's just that this book is an abhorrence to me, the slum dwellers, a phrase he throws about like confetti, are my parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, so I hope people will understand why it rankles so very much.
The following chapters are an insight in the life of a working class lad in from a northern town. I had a wonderful childhood in Scholes and wouldn't have wished to be born and raised anywhere else. Wallgate whilst I have only limited knowledge, I'm sure was equally as damaged by Orwell's blinkered observations as was Wigan as a town. Maybe you would need to be born within the sound of St.Patrick's or St.Joseph's bells to fully understand the community spirt and sheer goodness of the residents of Scholes and Wallgate. If there is an afterlife I'm sure George Orwell will feel a need to apologise to the good people of Wigan and the other towns he besmirched in such a cavalier way.
My First Day At School
(St. Patrick's 1949)
My first day at St.Patricks School, is etched on my memory as brightly as the moon on a clear frosty evening. My Mam takes me to the school door, as far as parents were allowed to go in those days, I'm not at all nervous, on the contrary,I'm looking forward to my life as a schoolboy. My Mam had been telling me for several months that I'm a big lad now, and would really enjoy it, new friends learning to read etc., and I've heard her say to my Aunties "he's ready for school", he of course being me.
Mam gone, a very large statue of St.Patrick gazes down on me, with what I convince myself is a disapproving look, not the hint of a smile. I in my childlike way try to reason why if our patron saint is in heaven he looks so glum, on the other side of the large hall, is another statue of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the expression on his face is only marginally more friendly, maybe he's annoyed with St.Patrick for not showing more joy at being in paradise. I soon avert my eyes from the residents of heaven, and busy myself with my new class mates, some of whom I know from the adjoining streets, but the vast majority are completely new faces. Several of the new faces are much taller than me, and like the statues don't seem overjoyed at my presence. I start to wonder if this school thing is such a good idea, and I sure my Mam will be lonely, and missing me terribly . Tears are only held back by the fear that, if I allow them to flow,I will be called a softie, or worse still a cissy.
The atmosphere of the hall changes noticeably on the arrival of the Head Teacher,Miss Egan, whom I know by sight, from seeing her at Mass on Sundays, she is welcoming.and seems very very pleased with her new charges. Miss Egan tells us that we are fortunate to be coming to the best school in Wigan, and we ought always to remember that, both in and outside school. Miss Egan then introduces us to our class teacher, Miss Dickinson, who is at least 7 foot tall, she has very friendly countenance, and I think looks a lot like my Mam.
Everyone is delighted with her pleasant manner, none more than me as I'm sure she'll be particularly nice to me, because of her striking resemblance to my Mam . As we make our way to the babies’ class, the first class was always referred to thus. As we make our way we pass the afore mentioned statue of St. Patrick, I give a sideways glance at the saint, he seems to have the hint of a smile, no more than a hint, mark you. Statues I ought to explain are a feature of most Roman Catholic Schools, not of course to be worshiped, as some people imagine, but as a reminder of the saint that we may direct our prayers, asking, for their intercession, perhaps as one mightn't look at a photograph.
On reaching the classroom the first thing I notice is the very large fireplace and the equally large fire guard, although no fire at that time as it was the middle of Summer, it would be something that later in the year I would appreciate very much. After that my eyes dance round the classroom, little green chairs and desks, displays all over the walls, and then my eyes alight on a sandpit with buckets and spades, which reminds me, where do your own go to. On a visit to the seaside new ones bought on each occasion, only to disappear into the ether, never to be seen again, similar to lost socks later in life, however I digress.
At the back of Miss Dickinson’s desk, yes you’ve guessed, another statue, this one of The Virgin Mary, much smaller than her saintly companions in the main hall, and looking in good humour, with a definite smile on her face. On closer inspection I notice that her nose had been chipped more than once, and repainted, probably by Miss D. who in the following weeks I'm convinced can do anything. On her desk there's always a vase shaped jar of Gloy, (water based glue) with which she seems able to make anything, from birthday cards to little paper lanterns at Christmas time, all done without difficultly. I try to persuade Mam to buy a bottle of Gloy for home, so I can show her how to make paper chains and all the other things Miss D. has demonstrated, but Mam says flour and water mixed into a thick paste is just as good, "it's not as good" I protest, "there's a little brush in the jar at school" "well you can use the brush from your paintbox",says Mam in a you've gone your limit way. I realise I'm fighting a losing battle, and content myself with the thought that when I grow up I will be able to buy my own, plus anything else that takes my fancy.
The morning seems everlasting, and I keep wondering how they are coping at home, without me. I ask Miss Dickinson if it is possible to go home to make sure everything is as it should be, she assures me that all will be well, I'm not totally happy with her assurances. My mind’s taken away from home by the announcement, “Thomas (me) Brian, and Martin your turn at the sandpit”, much more fun then learning new prayers which had taken up the majority of the morning. Then at last, grace before meals, and the realisation that Mam would be waiting at the school gates.
Mam seems overjoyed at seeing me, I knew how much she would miss me."Have you made some new friends'” ?,”Is teacher nice?", the questions go on all the way home. When we arrive, my Auntie Maggie's waiting to welcome me,"here comes the big schoolboy!" she exclaimed. We have a nice dinner(lunch for our southern brethren ),more questioning of course. Then like a bolt from the blue, Mam says "Wash your hands and face", time to go back to school, "WHAT twice in a day," I sigh. After a lot of persuading, and I mean a lot. We, three, this time, as Auntie Maggie decides to join Mam and me on the short walk to school. I'm not as happy as I was, only a few hours earlier, on my initial journey to St. Patrick’s School for Young Gentlemen, as a sarcastic neighbour always referred to it.
I'm not aware of his sarcasm, and thought that was the full title of the establishment for many a long year. Thank goodness I never uttered it within the hearing of a teacher.
Grace after meals, the first prayer of the afternoon session, so to speak. Prayers completed. Miss Dickinson reads a story, and although I can remember almost everything of that day, I can't recall the contents, but I know I enjoyed it enormously, and wondered for the rest of my school life, why teachers didn't employ this method of teaching more often. I hope against hope for the call to the sandpit for a second time, alas the call never came. The afternoon passed much quicker than the morning, thanks, I think to the story. Afternoon prayers, thank God!, home time. Miss Dickinson says "that we've all been very good ", and she was looking forward to seeing us tomorrow, (not if I can help thinks me) On the way through the main hall, I half look up at St. Patrick, and from that day, to this, I'm sure he gave a wry wink.
As the anniversary of the end of First World War approaches I began again to think about Wigan’s involvement in the war to end all wars – if only it were so – and my mind wandered back to my school days at St Patrick’s School and being told about Thomas Woodcock V.C., a former pupil of the school. We were told how after a Civic Reception at Wigan Town Hall he was the guest of honour at our school and that very night he left Wigan to return to the front, never to return to Wigan.
He had cheated death once but wasn’t to be so fortunate a second time. He was killed in action on the 27 March 1918, only months before the armistice. His bravery was further underlined by the fact that as a recipient of the Victoria Cross, he was excused front line action, but he insisted on rejoining his comrades. Considering his experience, his insistance on returning to rejoin battle was surely as brave as his exploits on the battlefield; by this commitment surely another medal for bravery was deserved.
His citation reads:
‘On the 13 September 1917 north of Broenbeek, Belgium, when an advanced post had held out for 96 hours and was finally forced to retire, Private Woodcock covered the retreat. Private Woodcock heard cries for help behind him – he returned and waded into the stream amid a shower of bombs and rescued another member of the party the latter he then carried across open ground in daylight towards our front line, regardless of machine-gun fire.’
In preparing this story I had the great pleasure of meeting Mrs Veronica Ashton, grand-daughter of this outstanding man. She was able to give me an insight into the pride his family still have almost a century after his sacrifice; she allowed me to view her albums and a picture that has pride of place in her home. She recalls clearly his medals being displayed in a glass case in her grandmother’s home in Cambridge Street. Mrs Ashton has visited her grandfather’s grave along with her children; she tells me of the overwhelming feeling of pride mixed with sorrow, tears only just held back. Veronica is a kind person, of steely determination and it is clear that Thomas Woodcock’s traits have been passed down the generations. As she is proud of him, I’m sure he in turn would be equally proud of her.
There are memorials to this brave soldier in both St Patrick’s Church and School. His Victoria Cross can be seen at The Guards Museum, Wellington Barracks, London. I haven’t yet seen the medal but on my next visit to the capital I shall certainly pay a visit. I’m sure it will be a surreal experience knowing that I’ve shared a schoolyard with a man of such outstanding courage, albeit 55 years apart!
My only real memory regarding the First World War was of seeing a large coin type ornament on the sideboard of a neighbour in McCormick Street. Mrs Kelly had lost a son in The Great War, as she always described it, and asking her about it she explained that it was given to the families of servicemen who died in the war and that it was called ‘The Deadman’s Penny’.
I remember saying in a childlike way, ‘a penny isn’t much for a life’. I can still remember her reply, ‘Eh" love it’s not but it’s all I’ve got of him, and it’s worth its weight in gold to me’. At such a young age I couldn’t fully comprehend what she meant or understand her great sorrow, which never truly healed. Mrs Kelly died in the family home in 1951, still a broken woman. The suffering of the First World War was not only on the battlefields of Flanders and Passchendaele, but in the hearths, hearts and homes of the mothers and fathers who would never see their sons again, not even left with a grave to tend. I think I half realised, even for one so young, that part of Mrs Kelly died on that day in 1918.
As the centenary of the start of that war is remembered, my mind went back to Mrs Kelly and the so called Deadman’s Penny and I resolved to find out more about her son. The following article is what I was able to ascertain with the help of the records from Wigan’s Archives & Local Studies, where the newspaper index and records of the war are truly amazing; thanks are due to all who worked on its compilation. Below is the full report:
‘Wigan Observer, 2 November 1918.
Nineteen, and Four Years’ Service.
Mrs Kelly of 34 McCormick Street Wigan has received news that her son Pte. John Kelly, Royal Irish Fusiliers Lewis Gun Corps, has been killed in action. Pte. Kelly who was nineteen years old and single enlisted in November 1914 and was last employed as a drawer at the Maypole Collieries. A comrade-in-arms, writing to the bereaved mother, tell her that her son was very well liked by all the boys in the platoon.’
John Kelly was born on the 4 June 1899, so he was only fifteen years, six months old when he volunteered (conscription was only introduced in 1916). Therefore, he must have exaggerated his age to enlist; I don’t think many questions were asked in those days. The tragedy is compounded by the nearness of the ceasefire; had that taken place a week or so earlier, John Kelly would have returned to Wigan a war hero and Mrs Kelly would have been spared thirty-three years of heartache. If a week is a long time in politics, it must be an eternity in war.
I was only six years old when Mrs Kelly died and I have often wondered what happened to the penny. I hope it didn’t go in a house clearance or was sold in a second-hand shop for a few coppers; a man’s life surely deserves better than that. Had I been older when Mrs Kelly died I would have suggested that it was placed in her coffin. Mother and son together forever. What ever its fate, I’m sure Mrs Kelly would be proud to see her son still remembered almost a hundred years after his death.
• Wigan Observer, 2 November 1918.
• Wigan Observer, 20 October 1917.
• Wigan & Leigh Archives Online http://archives.wigan.gov.uk/entity/64617.
Sunday Afternoons, 1950s
A Sixpenny Wish
Early nineteen fifties, Sunday afternoons without fail, I, along with a collection of older cousins, walked to Mesnes Park. Church out of the way, and armed with coppers earned throughout the preceding week, going errands for neighbours, or on a particular good week, shillings from the rebate, after the gas meter had been emptied. This time of wealth alas, only occurred infrequently. I know more than one school pal, who decided that the collection money meant for the upkeep of the church, would be better spent in The Park Cafe, "anyway it's only tuppence and won't be missed", said to justify their misdeed. I must confess to being tempted to follow their lead, but after much soul searching, concluded that eternal damnation, and the fire that never goes out wasn't worth risking for a few pence. Catholic guilt I suppose!
On the way to the park we would often call at The Market Square to admire the cars that had been parked over night, each child would decide which car we would like to have when grown up, my choice was always the Triumph Mayflower, an ambition that hasn't totally disappeared.
On reaching the park gates, the race was on, to reach the statue of Sir Francis Sharp Powell. Each believing the story, that if you rubbed his foot and ran round the bronze figure three times, you would find a sixpence. I can't remember feeling disappointed when week after week the promised reward failed to materialise. However, I can still remember the excitement when the predicted dividend, almost transpired. That particular Sunday, I won the race, and having completed the ritual, made my way towards the cafe. As I made my way along the path (no waking on the grass in those days). In the distance, glinting in the afternoon sun, I see what I convinced myself was the long looked for tanner, alas to be crestfallen, on discovering the windfall was only a threepenny bit. After initial disappointment, I am pleased with my find. Hence from that day, I have believed that this local piece of folklore is at least half right!
Next stop the cafe to spend our treasure, winter months hot Vimto, on warmer days a glass of lemonade, and if funds allowed a Cassinelli ice cream, with raspberry. The establishment was always packed to overflowing, my sister, seven years older than yours truly, was usually there, and not at all happy to see my smiling countenance. Her group of friends used the cafe to show of their Sunday best and look for eligible young men, more than one marriage had its beginnings in the Park Cafe. An uninvited little brother may well have cramped her style. I more often than not managed to blackmail her in to giving me a copper or two to make myself scarce. Then loot in my pocket off to the playground.
We would play all sorts of games, the girls Seashells , two balls, hopscotch and skipping sung to rhymes such as "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich-man,Poor-man ,Beggar-man, Thief" .
The boys would have no truck with such girly games, perish the thought! You’d have been ostracised if you so much as touched a skipping rope, worse still a ball if it wasn't a football or a rugby-ball . Although some games were played by both sexes Hide and Seek
and my particular favourite, SKilly, a game I think peculiar to Wigan, I won't go into the rules, but I'm sure many readers of The Wigan Observer will also remember it with fondness. Another popular game, the older boys would play Tarzan on the monkey bars, the younger boys Cowboys and Indians and even more controversial Japs and English,or Jerrys and Brits. Remember, this time was only a few years after World War 2,and people were far less hung up on political correctness. It was a time when people would examine goods to make sure that they had no input from Germany or Japan, thank goodness times have moved on and scars have healed, today terms such as these would be frowned upon, but not so in those days, so I felt I ought to mention them for accuracy ,certainly not to cause offence.
After the playground, a brief visit to the bowling green, the stay there was short because like my sister and her compatriots, the men,(always men bowlers in those days) were not pleased with our presence and would threaten us with 'The Parkie', now there was a man not to tangle with. The threat ringing in our ears and a similar welcome on the Tennis Courts, off then to see the ducks, and then home, passing Sir Francis without so much as a glance; strange on entering the park everyone wanted to take part in polishing his shoe, on the way home he was universally ignored, so much so he mightn't never of lived!
Home then to a good old fashioned tea. Mothers would have been busy in our absence, baking, the tables would grown under the weight of meat and potato pies, meat pies, egg custard tarts and of course home baked bread. Sitting in the middle of the feast, a trifle, which couldn't be disturbed until everyone had their fill of the savouries. When tea was over the leftovers were carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper and placed in the meat safe ( very few had refrigerators in those days) waste wasn't an option, my Mother was a particularly good manager, Aunties would joke " Janey can make a meal out of a dish cloth". Waste was a luxury that couldn't be afforded! The residue from Sunday would make a lovely Monday tea or "jack-bit" for Dads and Uncles to take to the pit, today it would be called 'a packed lunch' ,although truth to tell it never tasted as good on the second day. I reasoned because the baking aroma had dissipated, that on the previous day had the gastric juices flowing on entering your home, or even passing a neighbour’s house, everybody baked and the smell emitted from every door. Nothing could be touched before hands and face had been washed and the obligatory inspection of said hands had taken place.
November 6th, acrid smoke still hanging in the air, skeletons of spring interior mattresses and other incombustible items litter the sites of of the previous night’s fires. Bonfire night over for another year, the weeks of collecting ' bommy' standing guard in case a rival gang decides to help themselves to your hoard, already seems a distant memory. The excitement of that night well and truly behind, Christmas then became the main focus , strangely in 1950s no one seem to think about Noel until the last embers of Guy Fawkes night had died down. However from that day forward everybody, particularly children were obsessed with the coming celebrations and merriment that would certainly occur. The religious element was much more important in those days, sadly as each year passes the real meaning of the 'Holy Day' diminishes.
I know that younger readers couldn't possibly imagine the anticipation of Christmas that abounded in the early 1950s, only a few years after the deprivations of WW2 and before that the depression of the 1930s. People could at last start to think of better times and splash out for the special day. Rationing was still in force for many things including 'Toffee' but everyone was determined to make it something to lift the spirits. Talking about spirits, better off families would have a bottle of whisky and possibly brandy, while those whose budgets were more stretched would have to settle for a bottle of sherry. It was very unusual in working class homes to have 'drink on tap' so to speak. So there wouldn't be anymore alcoholic drink in the house until the following Christmas, likewise the pedestal glass cake stand which at Christmas teatime held pride of place at the centre of the table would be laid away until the following year, although thinking about it that may have made a reappearance on Whit Monday. I still have my Mam's , which I treasure as a reminder of happy times of yore.
Houses would be decorated with crepe paper of various colours ,bought in sheets to be trimmed into 3 inch strips and twisted into twirls and then drawing pined to the ceiling, criss crossing living rooms, houses with gaslight had to make doubly sure the festoons were kept well clear of the light fitting. Families with a little more disposable income would boast a Christmas Tree, some ' real ones', others the artificial kind that seemed like green toilet brushes on a stick, to be fair the fake ones when decorated looked quite acceptable especially when adorned with electric lights.There was a device that could be fitted that would make the lights flash on and off at rapid intervals they would drive neighbours to distraction, goodness knows what effect it had on the mental wellbeing of families where these contraptions were installed, flashing from dark until bedtime, it must have been tantamount to torture.
Schools would start rehearsing nativity plays. I had hoped against hope to be St Joseph along with the kudos that went with the staring role, if not Joseph one of the Kings or at the very least a Shepherd, you can imagine how I was crestfallen when informed I would be one of the trees, a role that even came without a costume. I'd thought at the very bare minimum a tea towel would have been required and I told my Mam weeks before the performance to make sure there was a new one available for the big day. However the only requirement was brown trousers and shoes. A tree, I ask you, how could you look forward to being a tree!
After the disappointment of missing out on a leading role in the play, I content myself to looking forward to Christmas Day itself and the presents that would be left in a pillowcase at the bottom of my bed. I can still remember the feeling of overwhelming happiness on waking as I gazed at the pillow case with its many shapes sticking out at abrupt angles straining against the confines of the pillowslip. The carefully wrapped gifts would peep out above the top of the make believe sack. I remember asking my Mam if I should leave a bolster case( twice the size) but it was explained that if all children did that Saint Nicholas would never get round, I can recall being sort of satisfied with the explanation . All Christmas wrapping paper seemed the same in those days, white with green holly and red berries . I'd been to see Father Christmas at Lowe's a few weeks earlier, and he had explained that dogs, cats and other livestock were outside his remit ,so I wasn't expecting to see a Jack Russell running round the bedroom. Maybe that would be something to be considered for my birthday in May! however I digress, back to the job of opening the parcels , many seem to be old faithfuls appearing every year, paintbox and colouring book, a chocolate Father Christmas , a Soap Bobby and gold chocolate coins in a net bag. Girls would Invariably get a post office set or a Toffee Shop ,with jars of dolly mixtures and a little set of scales ,skipping ropes were always a perennial favourite for young girls; John Bull printing sets and a compendium of games ( Ludo, Snakes and Ladders etc ) were unisex. One year I got a Magic Robot, and whist a long way from today's computer games it really did seem 'Magic' and the ultimate in educational toys.
The Christmas of 1952, I'm sure of the year as we had for years a photograph, dated with pencil on the back, of myself resplendent in my Cowboy outfit, try as I may I can't find the picture, but I tell you I could have given The Milky Bar Kid a run for his money. Stetson, waistcoat, holster with two six-shooters adorned with white handles with little red fake jewels and of course the obligatory Sheriffs’ Badge. I'm delighted with my main present, a delight that lasted until afternoon when I go with my sister to see our Auntie Nellie who lived near St George’s Church. Thereupon the despondency of being overlooked for the Nativity play pales into insignificance as I see a boy on The Drill Hall steps, he's similar age to me, with an identical outfit,
but, and to me at 7, it's a very big BUT, he sports a pair of chaps ( coverings for the legs consisting of leggings and a belt), brown with fringes no less ! I'am ashamed to say I have never felt so envious, nothing in my outfit seemed to please anymore, as my desire for a pair of the afore mentioned chaps became overwhelming. My mood is lifted somewhat when my Auntie Nellie gives me a 10 Shilling note, which my sister assures me would be easily enough to buy a pair of you know what. I'll be at Woolworths at 9 O'clock the day after Boxing Day me thinks. On the way home from Auntie’s I realise my Sheriff's Star is missing, in my childlike way I wonder if God is teaching me a lesson for feeling so envious, but I needn't have fretted, after retracing my steps only 50 yards or so I see it glinting on the pavement in the afternoon sun.
Christmas Day comes to an end when the last of the visitors leave. The house is tided, the fire quenched ( wasting coal in those days would have been an unforgivable sin). My feeling of envy has completely dissipated, quite forgetting the trauma played out on the The Drill Hall steps, and the feeling of animosity towards the unknown boy only hours before forgotten. In the meantime I'd convinced myself that mine was a much better hat than his and I'd put the idea of chaps firmly on hold, I reason they are a little bit ostentatious and I'm too old for them anyway, in any case real cowboys don't have fringes, perish the thought ! Auntie Nellie's ten bob would be spent on a 'Tommy Gun' instead. Mam puts me to bed and asks " Have you enjoyed the day" l reply with my well rehearsed lament "CAN I HAVE A DOG FOR MY BIRTHDAY ?". Christmases and birthdays came and went and the longed for canine pal never arrived, in fact it would be decades later before that particular ambition would be fulfilled, when in my mid forties I became the proud owner of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Sally, who became a wonderful companion for over 10 years . I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart that she was well worth every minute of the wait!
The King ls Dead,
Long Live The Queen
The first time I heard King George VI had died was at St Patrick's School, the Headmistress, Miss Egan went to each class in turn to say she had some very sad news; in very gentle way she broke the news “The King had died”. Miss Egan said we should say a prayer for him and The Royal Family, we should also especially remember Princess Elizabeth as she was now our Queen. I remember thinking in a child like way "they've soon sorted that out!"
I couldn't wait to get home to tell Mam, thinking, in a another child like way she wouldn't have already heard. I remember her saying he had been a good King who had been unflinching during the war, age 7, I didn't know what unflinching meant, and thought Mam must have heard the word on the wireless.
The following day, even as a child, I could sense a feeling of sadness in the air; everyone seemed to be talking in whispers. We started the day with prayers for The Royal Family, a lad from my class who had a sister in the 'girls school', a completely different buildings in those days, said some of the girls had been crying on the way to school, we less emotional boys were wondering if we would get a day off school. I can't remember if we got a day off for the funeral.
Wigan held its own funeral service on 15th February, the The Mayor of Wigan went in procession from The Town Hall to The Parish Church for a service at 3pm, a further service was held in the evening for those unable to attend because of work commitments. Prayers were also said throughout the town’s other churches.
After the initial sadness the talk seemed to go to The Coronation and all the celebrations that would abound. We children thought the The Coronation would have been immediately after the funeral and couldn't believe it when it was announced it would be over a year, in the event it was it was 15 months, to a child a lifetime, 2 birthdays and a Christmas!
Tuesday, 2nd June, 1953 was a day well worth waiting for, the day, for many started with a visit to church as The Queen had asked for prayers. The months of preparation when everybody seemed to be involved in the planning, every shop, house and street was decorated in ‘Red White and Blue ‘, photographs of Her Majesty The Queen everywhere. All the children singing songs and ditties, one I remember, though there seems little sense in it, was -
🎶 Red White and Blue, The Queen’s got the flu, The Duke’s got the chickenpox and doesn't know what to do 🎶
All the children in Wigan received Coronation Mugs and specially minted coins and other items of memorabilia. For months street parties and been planned, trestle tables and forms borrowed from here there and everywhere. A Queen and Duke chosen for almost every street, I had harboured thoughts of being McCormack Street’s 'Duke ' in the event a soldier was to be my part. I was getting used to being overlooked for major roles having been disappointed at losing out on my ambition to be St Joseph in the previous year’s nativity play! Finishing up as a 'tree', so a soldier doesn't seem so bad by comparison!
The day before Coronation Day there was a thunder storm in Wigan, it spoiled many of the decorations that had taken months to make; everyone hoping for the best for the ' Big Day '. Alas we were to be disappointed, rain was the order of the day. Schools, pubs, clubs anywhere with a large room available to hold indoor 'Street Parties’. The rain wasn't allowed to spoil the day, ,Wiganers, like the Queen of Tonga were not about to let rain interfere with the celebrations. To explain, it rained in London too on the day but The Queen of Tonga insisted on traveling in the Coronation Parade with the hood down on her horse-drawn carriage. In an interview in Australia her way home Queen Salote said "Although I got a good soaking, I enjoyed every moment of it " Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, I imagine impressed by Queen Salote's tenacity, paid a visit to Tonga in December of 'Coronation Year'
Back to events in Wigan, everyone was in high spirits, some more than others as the public houses joined in the jollities. A few families had televisions and those houses were packed to overflowing with neighbours and new 'best friends'! You could tell which were the lucky households with ' tellies' the curtains drawn so to be able to see the flickering screens better. Others listened to proceedings on the wireless. My Aunty Maggie got a relay from Central Wireless specially for the 'The Big Day'. Relays were basically a speaker with 2 wall sockets one for The Home Service the other The Light Programme. The limited choice was compensated by a crystal clear reception. The rental was 1/6 (8p) per week. We lesser mortals ( those with no access to the little screen ) had to wait till we went to ' The Pictures' to see Pathe News, the cinemas of Wigan and district were packed, everybody wanting to see the ceremony. I remember clearly something being said about a prayer being heard only in Westminster Abbey, whilst researching I consulted the archive of Pathe News, my memory served me well. The Communion Consecration Prayer could only be heard by the congregation. Isn't it strange the things that stick in the mind!
Everybody seemed overjoyed on the day, the privations of the war only 8 years before and previously the depression of the 1930s still clear in peoples’ minds, people were determined to let their hair down and as the song goes " Let's be Hale and Hearty - Let's Have Jolly Good Party "
The Queen has been an outstanding Sovereign, unflinching ( I knew I would use that word one day) in her commitment to her people; she has certainly fulfilled the vow she made on her 21st Birthday.
"I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”
I wonder if many people realise what a debt we owe to Mrs Simpson? Later the Duchess of Windsor, had Edward VIII married someone else and had children we would have been deprived of one of this country’s greatest monarchs. "LONG MY SHE REIGN".
*Footnote- Queen Elizabeth’s was the fourth and last British coronation of the 20th century. (Edward VIII was never crowned) It was estimated to have cost £1.57 million (c. £38,680,000 in 2018).
The Magic of Electricity
The big day had finally arrived, we were going to have electric light, and two power points one in the living room, posh people in the parish would refer to it as the parlour, and the "back kitchen" always referred to thus both by posh households and we ordinary folk alike. I've often puzzled why "back" surely kitchen would have sufficed. However that was how it was, and our Mrs Buckets (we had quite a few in Scholes, believe it or not) and we less mortals called the room. I must confess that I still use the term back kitchen occasionally, much to the amusement of my grandchildren. "You can take the lad out of Scholes but you can't take Scholes out of the lad!" I hear you say . How true, I found such peculiarities endearing and still do. I loved my childhood and wouldn't change a jot, not for the world.
We knew for several weeks that the magic of electricity was coming to our street, my Mam had the money saved to be connected for quite awhile, but a number of homes had to agree to make it cost effective for the contractor, 8 seems to stick in my mind, whatever the number we now had enough homes willing to cough up make the dream come true. No more going for gas mantles (made from a very fine gossamer) so fragile that you had to carry them back from the shop as carefully as you would a baby. The weekly chore of taking the accumulator (battery) to be charged, this was the contraption that powered the wireless in gas powered households, would also be a thing of the past.
On the day the contractors were due to perform the miracle, I did everything in my power to wangle a day off school, sore throat, diarrhoea, earache, nothing worked. I must admit I was never really enamoured with school in any case, but today of all days I felt I ought to have been allowed a day off, to be present for the big "switch on" My Mother (Mam) didn't think along the same lines and reasoned or tried to reason with me that I would be in "in the way", and whilst I vehemently disagreed with her logic, in retrospect, as always she was quite right . The last thing a tradesman wants is a child asking "What’s that for?” or "What are you doing now?" Whilst he will say to the Mother, through gritted teeth, "if he doesn't ask he'll never learn" really he's thinking "get this kid out of here and let me get on with the job", or some less polite sentiment. The day seemed everlasting as I fantasied about life after gas, so to speak, I would be able to have an electric train set, my clockwork one could be given to someone less fortunate, a child living in a home without electricity ,it's strange how you can become so snooty so soon after being connected to the National Grid, I pity those who find themselves in such unfortunate circumstances, unlike our good selves, or so I assumed until home time. 4 o'clock finally arrives I run home with one thought "I want to be the first to trip the switch" Disappointment of all disappointments, the workmen are still in our house, the work won't be completed so the connection won't be until tomorrow, worse still the gas fittings have been removed so we would have to manage with candles for that night, good job we hadn't given the battery wireless away in anticipation me thinks. The disappointment is compounded when I realise that some of the adjoining properties have been connected and have electric lights burning brightly one of the houses hasn't even drawn the curtains, show offs! Never mind it'll be our turn tomorrow and we will have glass light shades bought from Adams Stores, they been sitting in the cupboard for months awaiting the big day, one for the living room the other for front bedroom, the back bedroom and "back" kitchen will have to go naked until funds allow.
Younger readers will be amazed that things so mundane would need to be saved for, credit was almost unheard of in those far off days. Credit Cards would have been frowned on even if they had existed.The following day the workmen are in our house before I reluctantly leave for school, my Mam warning me not "mither" them, an instruction I obey, apart from getting a promise from the foreman that we would be "on " by the time I came home. The day passed as slowly as the previous day, then home to find that we were truly connected, alł 4 lights burning as the workmen completed final tests. My Mam had bribed the men to put on the afore mentioned light shades. I really thought we were very posh, electric lights, with shades and a tile fireplace, fitted only a few months before, such luxury, such decadence! This new found affluence would be made more obvious a few weeks later when my Mam acquired a contraption that fitted to the bedroom light allowing the light to be controlled without needing to leave the bed, ( known by one and all as a (Lazy Betty) now that was true opulence. The back bedroom had no such innovation but I was more than happy to jump out of bed to use the switch to give the kind light that came with electricity. Gaslight had the unnerving effect of making everyone and everything look a sickly green colour. Soon we were the proud owners of an electric wireless, my sister would spend hours trying to get Radio Luxembourg which she did intermittently, depending on atmospherics I imagine.
My Auntie became a devotee of The Archers my favourite was Journey into Space. Much later a television set would take pride of place, now that was magic personified, but that's a story for another day!
In an age when people have become blasé about the miracle of 'The Box' my mind often goes back to the first time I saw a television working. I had seen them in shop windows of course, but don't forget there was almost no daytime television in the early 1950s. Broadcasting started at 5pm with 'Children's Hour' it would then go off air until 7pm and go off air again at approximately 10-3pm. My first glimpse of a TV was throughout the window of a terraced house in Jockey Terrace, The first one I saw one working, so to speak. The curtains left drawn back so that neighbours could marvel at seeing the receiver. The ultimate status symbol in those early years of the ' little screen'. Obviously I had no idea what was on at that first sighting, very possibly What's my Line or a similar programme. I could only see one person’s head and and shoulders in each shot, and until the next time I saw a TV. In my naivety I thought that was the limit, only one person on the screen at a time. I know it sounds ridiculous but it's quite true ! I think it would be 1950/1951, I know by the time of The Coronation (1953)a few families were proud owners of this fantastic invention.
I was once invited to watch Children’s Hour on a neighbour’s recently purchased set, a 12 inch SOBEL. Having become over exited I knocked a plant pot over, a red geranium in a green jardiniere, neither pot or plant received lasting damage, but from that moment forward I became 'persona non grata' in that particular household. Try as I may, offering to go errands or anything else for that matter hoping to get into good books again, alas all to no avail, a second invitation never materialised. I managed to convinced myself that it wasn't my fault anyway, if the plant hadn't been placed in such precarious position, if I hadn't knocked it over someone else would, and they would have been banished! 60 odd years later I'm sticking to that theory.
For accuracy, rather than use national data about prices of televisions and average wages I consulted copies of The Wigan Observer for 1951 ( available on Microfilm at Wigan Local Studies based in The Museum of Wigan Life). I think this gives a better indication of how expensive a set was in comparison to income and shows what a luxury it was to own one. Using national figures I think would skew the figures.
Haywood's, have an advert for 9 inch and 12 inch sets prices ranging from £44/00- £233/00. The latter a consul model with built in wireless! As an example, to show what a luxury these new fan-dangle contraptions were in comparison to earnings, in the same edition there's an advertisement in the Situations Vacant page for a labourer for North West Gas,wages for 44 hours £5/15 shilling Another example of wages, the N.C.B. (National Coal Board) rates for 1950, one week’s holiday pay was £7 16s 0d (£7.80) for adults, £6 5s 0d (£6.25) for 18 to 20 years and £4 14s 0d (£4.70) for under 18. Back then, a state pension was£1/10s (£1.50) with a further £1 paid to married couples.
Even in families fortunate to have the wherewithal to buy one there was an anxiety about the cost if “the tube went” a major expense in those days. Consequently people would ration themselves as to time watched, in the belief the the less it was used the longer the tube and valves would last. I know of at least one firm Walker Bros, where the workforce formed a 'tube club' members would pay half a crown (twelve and a half pence) in the unfortunate circumstance that the tube failed they claimed from the club, this insurance didn't cover other malfunctions, valves etc.
Older readers will recall how difficult it was to get a 'good picture' needing to fiddle with the horizontal and vertical hold, having stabilised the picture and returned to your armchair of it would go again spinning like a fan on steroids, atmospherics also played a part. If a lorry or bus went past the screen would fill with white dots (snowing). In what seemed a relatively short time TVs became much more reliable.
Then, came an all new ballgame when ITV made its first appearance in 1955. Older sets couldn't receive the new programmes but it was possible to have a converter fitted to the back of the receiver that would make it possible. On the first night of broadcast from the new service the BBC, I imagine annoyed at losing its monopoly tried the biggest "spoiler” of all time, they decided that would be the night that a tragedy would befall Grace Archer and her horse Fury. It worked, The Archers had a fantastic following, it was estimated that 20 million listened to that broadcast.
The figures for television ownership is remarkable, in 1951 only 350 thousand households had a set by 1960 three quarters of homes had one. Today most homes have numerous sets and other devices capable of receiving crystal clear pictures
In the fifties, the hours people watched television were tightly controlled. The 24 hour broadcasting of today was unheard of. The Postmaster General stipulated how many hours of television could be shown each week. In 1956, for example, the BBC was allowed to broadcast television on weekdays between 9am and 11pm, with not more than 2 hours before 1pm. There was also a period between 6pm and 7pm when no television was broadcast. This period was used by parents to trick young children into thinking that the evening's television had finished so they would go to bed without complaint. It was known as the 'toddlers' truce', imagine that today! At the weekends, the rules were no more relaxed. A maximum of eight hours broadcasting was allowed on Saturdays and 7 3/4 hours on Sundays. On Sunday another anachronism reigned, television shown between 2pm and 4pm was intended for adults, children were meant to be at Sunday School! Gradually the rules on broadcasting hours were made less strict; The 'toddlers' truce' for example.
A sight that hasn't been seen for many a long year, 'May Queens' which used to generate so much excitement and was a very common occurrence. The Queen at the head with other girls holding her train, then the bit players dressed in any fancy dress they could put their hand on. Some seemed to put in more effort than others, as you will see later in the story. Many streets would hold one if they had enough children to make a show; some streets seemed to excel. Cambridge St/ Hardybutts seemed outstanding thanks to Mrs Wiggigton a sewer who lived in Cambridge St and seemed to be able make anything from her 'off cuts bag', thus 'The Cambridge/Hardybutts Brigade' started with a massive advantage over others with no such 'secret weapon ' ! Mrs W. was also very gifted crocheter making doilies for half the parish using different coloured silks, made into daisy shapes then sewn together to make one large floral work of art. It was one of her masterpieces that would come to our streets rescue, as you'll read later!
Which brings me to my street, McCormick St., with only a few young children, certainly not enough to put on a descent parade, in such scenarios, recruits would needed to be found from streets with similarly lack of would be participants. That's exactly what we decided do on that May Day, to join forces with other streets, on the morning of the big event, realising we would miss out on a possible windfall from the collecting boxes that always accompanied the walk. The first overriding priority was of course was to find a Queen, no Queen no show. My street had a complete dearth of girls young enough for the position, when girls got to a certain age, about 10 self consciousness kicked in and no amount of persuading would make them take up the throne, so to speak.
The year I write about I'm almost sure was 1954 because I remember some of the paraphernalia used at the Coronation the previous year was on show. We needed a Queen and quick we had a fallback plan, of sorts, to make one like a female 'Guy Fawkes' which would be placed in a tansad (push chair) to be pushed by the Page Boy. We needn't have fretted, we secured the services of a girl from a nearby street who came complete with her own net curtain and her Mum’s high heel shoes, along with some lurid plastic flowers. We'd cracked it we had our monarch, now for the rest of the retinue, my outfit already sorted, a 'pit man', my uncle’s pit helmet 'tommy tin' and soot from the side of the of the fire place smudged onto my pink cheeks. I recall our next door neighbour asking what shift I was on? This gave assurance that the ensemble was realistic, 2 of the lads had gas masks, bought from Kay's Army Surplus Store. I still don't know what they were supposed to be, likewise a girl from the same street as The Queen came in her Mam's coat, velvet hat and handbag, when questioned as to her identity she said she'd come as 'women' ! that must have taken months of planning, me thinks !
Scholefield Lane had quite a reasonable Boudicca, thanks to bits and bobs from the Coronation, a resplendent Queen in full regalia also from celebrations the previous year, ; we have a 'women' and a pit man ! I feared for our financial well being, donations are given on how well passers by judge each parade . I must admit I didn't see Schofield Lanes effort myself, and relied on reports from 'spies ' who would go from Street to street giving a running commentary and sewing seeds of discontent among the children ; come to think about it they had a lot in common with the Startsi the East Germany secret police. Back to our motley crew -several cowboys at least 2 soldiers one complete with a real bayonet snaffled by his Dad from his army days .a nurse, from our street about 4 or 5 not yet old enough to take the responsibility of being The Queen, maybe in a few years her time will come
We were certainly a poor imitation of Cambridge St/ Hardybutts, but 'hey ho” what we lacked in costume we made up for in enthusiasm. Our Queen however seemed less than regal the lace curtain pinned to her hair with clips and forming a train for her attendants to hold while in procession, with strict instructions not to get it dirty as it had to back on the window later that day.
We needed a crown, the girl who had come as 'a women' offered to lend us her velvet hat as a substitute, even at the age of 9 I realised that it would look absolutely ridiculous, and scuppered the idea before it took hold. We thought of making one from a cardboard box but time was against us , we'd spent all morning gathering recruits and sorting a route out, we didn't want to clash with another procession, particularly if they were better turned out than our crew!
The absence of a crown was sorted before we proceeded. To the rescue, came our next door neighbour Mrs McHugh with the offer of a doily crocheted by the aforementioned Mrs Wigington. When placed on the Queen’s head seemed it appeared to transform the whole costume, so much so that I thought our Queen looked grander than our main competitor. Another neighbour remarked that she looked like "The Queen Mother on her wedding day". That was a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one! To be fair it wasn’t said with any malice whatsoever, on the contrary, said as encouragement to what must have seemed a rag tag of a fancy dress pageant .
All parades had collecting boxes usually National Milk tins with a slot made in the lid. After the parade, the tins would be emptied and the proceeds divided on usually a strictly equal basis. In our case , the Queen not getting a penny more than the girl in the velvet hat who had come as a 'women', even though there had been a great variance in the effort made, a women! I ask you. Some of the better organised outfits would have a party in someone's yard. Ours being a last minute decision lacked any adult involvement and thus Mary Bakers little sponge cake adorned with icing and hundreds and thousands, and jellies provided by Mams would not be on our 'Bill of Fare'
Ours being self organised, we had to make our own party plan so to speak. After much debate, we decided, if we collected enough to get a pie and cake each from 'Pie Joes' in Scholes. In the event there was enough with a few shillings over. The success of our collection was down to ours being a Saturday afternoon affair, which coincided with pubs closing time, some of the men with what used to called 'a ten bob sway' (slightly tipsy) would be far more generous then if we caught them on their way into the watering holes. Scholes being a big mining area was fertile ground for anything to do with mining and I must say my 'pit man' went down a treat, and I'm sure got us some benefactors we wouldn't have got if I'd been a pirate!
At first there was general agreement that the surplus cash should be put in St Patrick's Church Decoration Fund Box. After our pie and cake - a few decided to spend their cake money, on 2oz of Sherbet Lemons from Telford's Toffee Shop, reasoning that the toffee would last long after the cake had been devoured. The split of cake and toffee deciders was on exact gender basis, all the girls taking Marie-Antoinette’s advice and opted for cakes.
Then the final decision of the afternoon, the money left over after our picnic, and that's what it was, none of the Mothers allowing us to eat our pies indoors even though it was threatening rain, to be fair if the rain had materialised, I'm sure at least one, my Mam would have relented.
However back to the ' kitty' the earlier decision regarding 'The Decoration Fund' seemed much less certain, and having reconsidered, taking into account my observation, (I still feel a little guilty about putting my ninepence in) that it wouldn't even buy half a tin of paint, and I felt certain Father Murray would rather we enjoy ourselves, after putting so much effort into our parade. It was then decide unanimously to take Father Murray's advice, albeit notionally, the kitty would be spent on Penny Arrows ( caramel bars) and pear drops and other such delights divided among the participants. Back to Telford's Toffee Shop, en-masse!
Memories of Scholes
A Town Within A Town
I have very fond memories of Scholes. Born in McCormick Street, named after the second parish priest of St Patrick’s, this in itself made it part of the history of the the township. I describe the area as a township because that was what it was, a separate community in every sense. People had a feeling of belonging to Scholes first and Wigan second.
The majority of men were miners, many women worked in the cotton factories both in Wigan and further afield traveling to local towns by coach, putting hours on to the working day because the pay was slightly better. I remember hearing the Knocker Upper rousing households and not leaving until a response was forthcoming, the lady who filled that role in the streets surrounding my home was Agnes Wynn who charged a shilling a week. Agnes, lived locally, and because of her job, went to bed early, children were instructed not play near her house, she needed her sleep, if she overslept half the parish would miss a days work!
Scholes itself had shops of every sort, so much so that many older people would rarely visit the town centre as almost everything could be sourced locally, from ladies fashions, Vi. Almonds, to motor bikes, Millers, we had two cinemas, countless public houses and grocers, a Chinese laundry and a myriad of other businesses. Locals say that if they had put a roof over the street in its heyday, it would have been the first Trafford Centre! Many shops had nicknames, "Pie Joe's "being one, it's a wonder he didn't go bankrupt. I remember going there, sent by neighbours for a meat pie, they would send a large jug with the instruction to fill it with gravy, free in those days. I think the surplus was for use on the Sunday dinner! Another amusing name was ‘Polly do out’, a clogger, it was said she could put a clog iron on a bladder without bursting it! One of the less hygienic shops often had a cat sat on a flitch of bacon. Needless to say most housewives avoided that shop's delights. A temperance bar, though fair to say it wasn't the most frequented of venues. Public houses seemed a more tempting prospect to most. Similarly many of these had colloquial names the two most famous the Dust Hole, (Rose and Crown) this establishment was reputed to sell the best pint in the district, and was one of the last ale houses ( licensed to sell beer and porter only) and the Kill and Cure (The Regent) the latter because it was near to Dr Hoey's surgery .
Whilst times were difficult for many, the feeling of community was tangible, even though many struggled and had little, they would share what they had. Anyone without family who fell ill would be cared for in the neighbourhood. People could leave the door unlocked, in my Mother's case she would leave the rent on the sideboard for collection. I never heard of a house being burgled. When recounting this fact the reply often comes back "there was nothing to steal" on the contrary, every house had a gas meter full of money, talking of which after the gasman had emptied the meter and left the rebate there was unusually spare money in the parish, children armed with shillings bombarding local sweetshops. No deed for ASBOS, “I'll tell your mother", or a more a portent "I'll bring Father Lappin, the respected parish priest of St Patrick’s, was enough to bring the most unruly youths to book.
The overwhelming majority of houses were very well kept women would mop the step daily, and woe betide anyone who walked on their labours. Mondays was washing day, few had washing machines, dolly tubs and rubbing boards was the order of the day. It was said that there was a rainbow over Scholes on Mondays! There was great excitement when the first launderette opened, half a crown for a 9lbs wash, the price alas put it out of the reach of many families, An example that would have bought fish and chips twice, in the early 1950s! Every day a different task, bedrooms , baking another day and so forth. Thursday in our house was the day Mother would black lead the Yorkshire Range, I remember the cleaning agents Zebo and Brasso each with its own distinct smell, as had Mansion polish used on well cared for furniture.
I am proud of my background, and wouldn't wish to be reared anywhere other than my beloved, and much maligned Scholes of yesteryear. Maybe you had to be born within the sound of St Catherine's or St Patrick’s bells to fully appreciate the wonderful atmosphere and sheer goodness of its people. I am often accused of looking back with rose tinted spectacles. I suppose there is an element of truth in that, but better that, than looking back in anger.
Whit Monday morning has finally arrived, I live at the back of St.Patrick’s RC Church. Mam has been up and about for hours, ironing, last minute alterations, cleaning and polishing, not to mention baking, in preparation for the many visitors we would most certainly receive on this very special day.
The first thing I hear is the sound of the bands and the bagpipes tuning up, Mam has left the job of getting me up and ready, till as long has she dare, in case I get over excited.
I always need great persuasion to get from under the eiderdown, except on Whit Monday, Christmas Day, and come to think about it, Easter Sunday too. The teachers have been drilling us for weeks, on walking day etiquette, don't walk too close to the pavement, don't wave to people you know, and definitely “DO NOT TAKE MONEY”, the latter instruction was almost universally ignored.
The excitement is palpable, it has been for weeks, possibly months, it is difficult to explain how important a day this celebration of Whitsun is in the homes of the Catholic community. Lining up outside school the teachers and the helpers, usually parish stalwarts, would remind all the children again on the etiquette of the day with the added proviso, not to walk too fast. Starting off at St Patrick’s Church we would process down Rupert Street, on to Darlington Street, very poor territory for me, being from the heart of the parish, I knew only a handful of people from that street, although my Dad had an auntie, who if she remembered me, might have been minded to give me sixpence, or being a relative, maybe a shilling. I looked unsuccessfully ever year for Auntie Maggie, or was it Mary? which ever, had she spotted me she would undoubtedly have given credence to the old maxim, blood’s thicker than water.
After the poor pickings of Darlington Street, into Chapel Lane, then onto Caroline Street where the welcome (though not in financial terms) was absolutely unbelievable, the parishes of St. Joseph’s and St. Patricks, both with large Irish diaspora communities, had an affinity that was tangible, even to a child, I remember with great fondness the shouts of
“Come on The Pats” from the old ladies of our sister parish.
On reaching the Market Square, to meet up with the other parishes, the two already mentioned, along with St. Mary’s, St. John’s and Sacred Heart. The heightened excitement, was taken to an even higher level, as hundreds and hundreds of people, and the massed bands seemed to have no end. The cacophony of sounds all added, strangely to the solemnity of the day and contrasted to the almost silence as the conductor mounted the rostrum, to lead the bands and the laity in hymns and The National Anthem. I think you would have needed to have been present to understand the feeling of nostalgia and pride, when Faith of our Fathers was sung, hairs on the back of your neck would stand to attention. The National Anthem was sung with equal gusto and then what seemed the long walk back to our parishes loomed.
The road ahead was going to be difficult, but realising that my best patch lay not too far away gave renewed vigour to my little legs, Scholes, Wellington Street,
(The Wearing of the Green was always played when entering this street) and Hardybutts, full of Aunts, Uncles and older cousins, now working, as the modern saying goes "with disposable income". I would probably be able to buy a bike, or at the very least a scooter. The end result was a few Dinky Toys and a YoYoyo. I didn't want a bike anyway and scooters are only for babies.
On finally reaching home we were treated like returning heroes, having walked seven miles, forgive the poetic licence, be it seven, or three (nearer to the truth), it was a long way for the afore mentioned little legs. Now the business of the day to count the coins collected. We hadn't ignored the instruction “Not to Take Money”, but it would have been churlish to refuse, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Your home would be full of visitors, the table groaning with home baked pies, meat, meat and potato, apple, jam lattice and of course two flavours of jelly, along with Carnation milk, few in St. Patrick’s parish had a refrigerator in those far off days, although most could boast a meat safe, a cupboard with a mesh front, usually painted cream or white. I suppose
to make believe we had the next best thing to a fridge. I've never worked out why this devise would keep meat, milk, or anything else for that matter any cooler than an ordinary cupboard.
All the aunties and female cousins would pitch in making pot after pot of tea, cutting the pies and cakes into equal sizes, they had to be equal to save any arguments among the children. As a child I always wondered where all the uncles and older male cousins where, and was told they were having a chat, only years later did I realise that the "chat" was taking place in one of the many public houses that adorned Scholes in those days.
After the feast, the post-mortem, Mam had given orders that there should be no gossiping, everybody had done their best and that's what mattered. This diktat, along with the instruction from the teachers regarding money, alas was largely ignored. It was agreed that all the children looked lovely, but our parish just edged it, this sentiment would be common parlance in the homes of the other participating parishes of the walk.
Then down to brass tacks. The women of the parish, and their outfits, Agnes such-a-body, had that suit that had been on display in Vi. Almond’s window, it looked very nice in the window, pause, enough said, and then just to ram home the point "It wasn't right for the fuller figure", and the fur trim wasn't appropriate for Spring. Mary so-and-so, had that same hat, that had made three appearances before, or was it four, my memory's awful nowadays! The conversation goes on. Not gossiping you understand just expressing an opinion, you can do that even in Russia, Auntie Janey (Mam), says one cousin sullenly, having been admonished for unflattering remarks about a parishioners’ choice of frock. I think the K.G.B. might have something to say about that, mutters one of the more politically aware cousins, almost under her breath. When Mam's back's turned, the conversation is returned to. However, I digress from the story.
After a long day, all the guests had gone home, Mam has tidied the house, and so to bed. Sleep doesn't come easily, after all the excitement of the day and thoughts of next year running through my head. I will be a year older and will consequently know more people, who I will not want to offend by refusing the well intended donation, and maybe, just maybe, my Dad’s Auntie Thingy, might spot me, she's very well off, she used have a chip shop, and if she does, I bet she'll give me ten shillings, to make up for past years. What with that and my new found friends I might get enough for a racing bike, with a dynamo, and in any case it will be a year nearer to be able to have a chat with my uncles. Sweet Dreams!
My First Day at Work
I leave home in a very nervous state. I've been awake half the night wondering what the day would bring? Would the men be nice? Would I be able to come home at dinner (lunch for southern cousins)? My Mother made the morning more anxious, “Have you got a clean handkerchief?’‘ Have you cleaned your shoes?, ‘Have you got your dinner money? (...interpretation time again...).
’Mam’, I yell back, “Stop fussing I'll be alright if you'll just stop fussing, please. I'm not bothered at all about going to work. It's just you keep going on,” which of course is a complete lie. I don't think I have ever felt so scared in my life.
I start my journey into the world. I had secured a job at Lowe’s, a very posh department store a week before. I would be an apprentice carpet fitter, considered a very good trade in those days. I felt very fortunate to have landed a position in such a prestigious establishment.
As I near the emporium I start to wish I hadn't been so fortunate. I think a less posh place of work would have suited me better. I'm from a mining family, but from my earliest days it had been drilled into me, “You’re not going down the pit”. My Dad had been hurt in a pit fall and my Grandfather had lost a leg in similar circumstances. But if not there, where? The world certainly wasn't my oyster, I had done particularly poorly at school, spelling being my biggest drawback, (I am grateful on a daily basis for spell check ). In the mile or so walk from home to shop I convince myself once again that I am indeed fortuitous.
On reaching the Market Square, I look up at the imposing edifice that was Lowe's Victoria House, a cathedral to poshness. Even though I had caught the bus to school outside it every day for four years I never dared enter until I went for an interview. Mr Lowe said my well written letter had impressed him. I had enough nous not say my sister helped me. In truth she had written it and I merely copied the missive. My Mother, likewise had never entered the hallowed halls, nor I expect the vast majority of my extended family, far too grand for the likes of us! As I gaze up, summoning courage to enter, I start to worry again. But here goes.
At the interview I was told my start time would be eight in the morning, on the first day I would be met by Mr Marshall, Furnishing Workroom Manager, and he would introduce me to the staff. I enter the building just as the Parish Church clock chimes. A tall distinguished looking man approaches me, “Are you our new recruit”? he asks in a decidedly officer-type accent. “Yes, Sir” I mumble, trying to keep my voice as low as possible. It rises three octaves in a stressful situation. “No need for sir, you’re not at school now”. “Mr Marshall will do nicely” he says in a firm way. We take the lift to the top floor, I was relieved that we don't use the stairs as I imagine everybody is looking at me and wondering how I'II fit in worse still, if I'II fit in.
We reach the workroom and it’s all very formal, as was everything at Lowe’s. I shake hands with all the seven carpet fitters and the four lady seamstresses. The ladies are all lovely and do everything to make me feel at ease. One in particular seems to take a shine to me, Betty, who I discover lives near to me. We walk home together every day and she becomes a confidant and trusted adviser on workroom politics. We are great friends to this day, a few years later we are to share the same surname when she marries my cousin Jim. What a small world Wigan is! All the men seem very friendly and welcoming apart from one who seemed less than pleased to see me. I shan't name him in case he still roams the planet. I learn later that it was nothing personal, he drinks heavily every weekend and is in a foul mood on Monday mornings.
That first day seemed everlasting. My first duty was to go for toast at The UCP (United Cattle Products), they had a cafeteria at the back of the shop, a strange combination with tripe at the front and tea and toast at the rear. But that’s how it was and I was to become a frequent customer, going for morning snacks for colleagues. On this first visit I got flummoxed and the biggest mix-up was with the fitter with the hangover who seemed in an even more aggressive mood as the day went on. He threatens to thump me if I ever get his order wrong again. “He's only joking he's as soft as my pocket underneath”, says Betty trying to reassure me. I am not so certain. He has a mean look and I imagine that a smile has never visited his thin angry lips. I remember thinking I hope he doesn't frequent his local this week and that his disposition changes with sobriety. Whilst he appeared slightly more approachable later in the week, he was always disagreeable and once carried out his threat to punch me when I got his order wrong from the Millgate Chippy. I've never seen him since leaving Lowe’s and I feel I would prefer a meeting with Lucifer than an encounter with him, please forgive the hyperbole .
On my first day I had decided to go home for lunch –see the poshness is rubbing off already.
Mr Marshall greets me as I enter the shop bang on one o’clock. Mr Marshall tells me in no uncertain terms that a one o'clock start means just that, in the workroom not front of store, “Sorry sir, Mr Marshall”, I utter in a pitch as high as a violin, nerves doing their best to make me look and sound ridiculous. “Don't let it happen again or you'll be looking for another job” he says in the brusque manner that was his way. I half expected him to follow it up with, “And, you'll leave without references”, so Victorian did everything seem.
So much for the formality of the first day. My time at The Cathedral has stayed with me for the rest of my life, even down to handshakes and other formalities, nothing like a modern High-Five by way of greeting! Lord forbid, but it was this very attitude that later I came to accept and I actually came to like, and traces of this old fashioned way of doing things are with me to this day!
I hope that some of the contents in this book lead readers to look at my home town with fresh eyes (mine) and in so doing see through the mist of bigotry and misinformation deliberately peddled by a one-time police officer from Burma. Today, I think it would be described as 'fake news'. I may seem to have been dilatory in taking up the cudgel to right a wrong that incensed me on first reading of it almost 60 years ago at St John Fisher Secondary Modern School, but is no less heartfelt for the delay. I hope I have managed to portray my love for Wigan, to show why I have been moved to put pen to paper, or more correctly finger to ipad. You see for me WIGAN has no PEER !