The miners had to be brought up to the job because it was so extraordinarily demanding. Apart from the rotation of shifts, which was taken as granted, there were the rigors of the job. Eight hours of hard work in a darkness illuminated by the lamps they carried, often in a very high temperature. At the coal face, they worked in "pit pants", shorts made of heavy white drill. Sometimes, they worked in water, where there was insufficient drainage to clear the water that dripped steadily from the roof. The tools were simple - pick and shovel, one to dislodge the coal from the seam, the other to scoop it into the tubs. A three foot seam was thick. Men worked eighteen inch seams. Often they had to get the coal lying on their sides. And of course, there was the ever-present danger of an accident, a black damp explosion, or a heavy roof fall. Small cuts on the head, shoulders and back were counted part of the job.
I used to see miners in their swimming trunks up at the lake. All wore blue scars, indicating where small cuts had incorporated coal dust in their healing. When there was an accident, the pit buzzer would sound off a rapid series of blasts, and a tremor of apprehension would run through the village. Then the word would rapidly spread as information became available. The women talked the most.
When there was a shortage of miners during the Second World War, conscripts were given the choice of serving in the armed forces or working in the pits. Some elected for the pits. Bevin Boys they called them. They came to the mining villages, were given some training, and set to work. But only a few stuck it out. The work was too hard, and the life too strange, for them.
"It's young Vic Swindells"
"That's what I heard. Is he dead?"
"Ay. Him and two others. Under a fall."
"Ave they got them out yet?"
"Ay, they just brought 'em up."
"They're all dead."
"Ay, all three. They were dead when they dug 'em out."
" 'Ow old was young Vic?"
"E were only eighteen, I think. He just got married this spring."
"Eh! Just think. That poor lass, widowed at 'er age,
and a young'un on the way."
"Ay, and what about his mother. She lost 'er husband
just the same way fifteen years ago."
"It's hard on 'em all, isn't it?"
Looking back some sixty years, it is difficult to understand how anyone would stay with such a difficult and dangerous way of life. One reason, of course, was that miners knew nothing other than this. So they aspired, with few exceptions, to nothing else. Once down the pit at fourteen, they, in effect, became prisoners, committed to a way of life. And, when little more than children, they were helped into that bondage by their mothers, who couldn't wait for the day when they were taken as door-trappers at a shilling a day. That was money for her budget. When he came home with his wages on a Friday, she would take the lot, and hand him back a shilling, or whatever she considered fair. So, she got more to spend, to eke out a slender income, while he got money enough to begin to be a man. He could buy cigarettes, usually the miners' favorite, Woodbines; he could buy some sweets, if he thought fit, or go to the pictures. He was on the way to becoming a man. As he grew older, he earned more money. Now he could go for a drink to one of the working-men's clubs, or put a few bob on the horses, or go, on a Saturday night to the Pally (Palais de Danse) in Worksop. And soon he was courting - usually a girl from the village. With marriage and a family, the process of enslavement to a life of hard labor in the mine was complete.
No wonder that, in mining villages, there was a feeling of malaise, of quiet exhaustion. Even in the modern villages like Langold. True, there were some miners who were active, imaginative, and adventurous in their lives. These were the ones who eschewed the clubs and the betting shop. They were the curious ones, and the ones with hobbies and interests. They joined the St. John's Ambulance service, or played in the colliery silver prize band, or took part in the production of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, or became excellent gardeners with expert knowledge of roses or chrysanthemums which they produced for show in their greenhouses, or took leadership roles in the affairs of the miners' union, or gave their time as members of the parish council, or read widely in poetry, history and philosophy. But these were the minority. The majority, enervated by the demands of their work, fell into a routine of having a drink at the Legion or the Hilltop Workingmen's Club, studying form in the Racing Pink, and putting a few bob on a good bet, while their garden plots lay untended, often worn bare by the constant traffic of children. Some were pigeon fanciers who kept a cote in the back garden; others kept greyhounds which they raced at local meets, or sometimes used to course rabbits in the fields adjacent to the village. But over them lay a kind of miasma of fatigue, and a resignation to a life to which they were committed, but did not really understand. At the same time, they were quietly proud of themselves, of their ability to do a tough and dirty job. And many of them wanted no part of change. An example of this showed up when their children, bright at school, won a scholarship to the grammar school. Some would not even let them sit the examination. Others could not reconcile themselves to their children starting to live a different kind of life from that offered by the village. They could not understand the need to be learning Latin, or French, or Chemistry, and to be speaking grammatically and not dropping their aitches. To some, this added up to the child acting beyond his or her station, and, by implication, rejecting them and their ways. So they grumbled at this wrong-headed nonsense, gave the child who was trying to attempt to cope with the rigorous demands of the school, often unseen in a distant town, no support, and even lashing out at any presumed slight. Such children, already torn between the friends and habits acquired over the years and new friends and ways, frequently gave up on the grammar school. Homework was neglected, marks fell, interest waned, and finally the inevitable dropping out came, and with it the possibility of the child breaking out of the culture of the village and into a wider world of opportunity.
This problem was widespread. It is beautifully illustrated in D.H. Lawrence's novel, Sons and Lovers, a largely autobiographical work. The younger son is bright, wins a scholarship, goes to teacher training college and becomes a teacher. All this encouraged by his mother, and equally misunderstood and frowned upon by his father, a miner, who cannot understand why his son should want to be anything but what he is himself. And when the son has his first success as a writer, a publisher's acceptance, and a cheque for fifty pounds, his father cannot help but express his disbelief. "Fifty pounds", he says, "and tha's never done a day's work in thee life."
Bound to the grinding life of work underground, miners nevertheless managed to display a stoic acceptance of their lot, even a sense of nobility that stemmed from pride in themselves, that they could do a job of work that few others could do. They knew their worth, and the hardships of their way of life drew them together, gave them a strong sense of community and mutual interest. When it came to a strike, such as the General strike of 1926, the miners were the last to give in. Distinctive in appearance, there was no mistaking them among the general public. They tended to be smaller than average and compact in build, usually somewhat paler in complexion. Their usual dress consisted of a dark jacket and trousers, muffler and cap. For special occasions, when "Sunday best" was worn, it would be a navy blue suit, tie, shoes, and perhaps a hat.
These were the miners of the 1920's and 1930's when they numbered half a million or so. Today, coal is no longer king. North Sea gas, oil, and cheap imported coal have resulted in massive pit shutdowns. Coal mining is today a dying industry, with a workforce that is now down to about 20,000. The homogeneous nature of the mining villages has changed. Langold, and scores of similar communities, were sold off by the National Coal Board, which took over the mines after World War II. Langold is now home to commuters who travel far afield to their work. Whether it has any sense of community, I do not know; but I doubt whether it has that sense of oneness that existed when it was a mining village.
But this is to run ahead of my story. To complete the description of the community, I should include the shop front. As I have said, the village lay on the west side of Doncaster Road, and the shops on the other. All the shops, that is, except Miss Limb's and the chip shop at the top of Riddell Avenue, Bailey's which housed the Post Office, and, like Miss Limb's was next to a fish and chip shop, and a grocery shop half way along Church Street. These three shops served the immediate needs of neighbouring houses, but the main shopping was generally done on "the front". Starting at the north end, there was one shop, Hutchinson's. Separated by an empty piece of land from the next one, about a hundred yards away, it seemed to be out of the mainstream and to do little business. But this drapery and clothing shop kept going for years. Next was a block housing three business; a fish and chip shop, Pask, the pork butcher, and a cycle shop. Then, standing alone, was a working-men's club, quite small, and looking as if it was built originally as a shop. Next was Bentham's, ran by Jimmy Bentham, and on occasion by his wife, who taught somewhere out of the village. They were news agents, that is, they sold newspapers, which involved getting the papers delivered in the morning and evening, looking after the shop which also sold sweets, tobacco, and sundries, and collecting the weekly paper bills. You would see Mr. Bentham, book in hand, out collecting on Fridays and Saturdays, getting his dues before the money was spent on other things. He was a handsome man, tall, well-built, with a fair weather-beaten complexion and clear blue eyes. I often looked at him, and then at his wife, thin, older-looking, dark, and somewhat pinched in appearance, and wondered what brought them together. Between Bentham's and the Scala cinema, stood a large detached house.
Here lived Dr. Potts, one of the two physicians for the village, the other being a raw-boned, red-haired young Irishman, Dr. Timothy Ryan. And here was held the morning and evening surgery. You passed through the front door into a square room, went to a wicket behind which was a small office in which there was a secretary who kept the records. Having informed her which of the doctors you wished to see, you sat on a bench attached to the wall. As you sat there, patients would come out of the two consulting rooms; while others came in, reported, and in turn took their seats. When your turn came, the ring of a bell would indicate that the doctor was ready to see you; and in you went. The doctor life was busy and demanding. Apart from the two daily surgeries, they did their rounds in the morning, visiting patients at home, and then, in the afternoon, they visited patients in Worksop Hospital, and also did surgery there. In addition, they were on call during the night if an emergency arose, such as a difficulty in childbirth, a critical development in an illness, or an accident at the pit. Incidentally, children were born at home. Births were attended by the midwife, Nurse Walton, who, for years, was to be seen on her bicycle, with the inevitable black bag. Assisted by neighbours, who stepped in to help and to take charge of things until the woman regained her strength, Nurse Walton brought nearly all the village's children into the world.
Directly opposite to Wembley Road, where the buses stood between trips, and next to the Scala cinema was the Co-op. The cinema itself was not a success. On one side of its entrance was a men's barber and on the other a betting shop. They were busy enough, but the Scale itself never seemed to do well. Even its manager, a small, bald, bespectacled man named Mr. Ostick, didn't seem to fit in. People regarded him as somewhat eccentric. He hailed from Retford, where his family ran a successful tobacco business, didn't live in Langold, and seemed never to be of the place. Eventually, the Scala's life as a cinema expired, and it became a billiard hall.
By contrast, the Co-op was a hive of activity. The Co-operative Wholesale Society, to give it its proper name, was an organization spanning the whole of the country, providing local branches with the benefits of large-scale buying and financial support, where this was needed. The idea originated in 1844, when a group of working people in the Lancashire town of Rochdale organized the first co-operative. These were the Rochdale pioneers. Their action was a response to company truck shop prices and profiteering by private shopkeepers. The idea was simple. Buy direct from producers. Sell direct to members at reasonable retail prices, and, if a profit was realized, to divide this among members in proportion to their purchases. This was called "divvie". Divvie day came at the end of each Quarter and was usually about two shillings and sixpence in the pound; or about twelve and a half percent.
The Langold branch was the biggest shop in the village, the only one having any claim to be an emporium. It had two floors. Upstairs was furniture and household appliances. The ground floor contained the food and clothing departments.
I spent quite a lot of time at the Co-op, and didn't particularly like going there. It meant tedium and hard work. I might be playing outside, and hear the dreaded cry. "Gerald!" My mother.
"Come here. I want you",
"I want you to go down to the Co-op, and bring me
half a stone of best white flour."
So then, I had to leave my play, and trudge the quarter mile or so, down Riddell Avenue, to the front.
The shop was always busy especially on the left as you entered through the wide doors. Here were the staples: bacon, butter, cheese, tinned goods, jams, biscuits, flour, and so on. A long counter ran the length of the floor; on one side of it the busy assistants, and on the other the customers with their orders, all women. Miners never did the shopping. The air was full of noise, as the women gave their orders, and the assistants, mostly men, responded, often in a bantering tone. The bacon was displaced in the piece, and labelled with the price and description: BEST DANISH: 1 shilling and 4 pence/lb: or IRISH SMOKED, 1 shilling and 2 pence/lb. So was the cheese: Cheshire, Lancashire, Cheddar, Canadian Cheddar. Bacon, cheese and butter were cut as requested by the customer.
"I'll 'ave half a pound of that, (pointing to a piece of bacon) cut thin."
The assistant would then cut a slice on the hand-turned machine on to a piece of grease-proof paper, and show it to the customer for her inspection and approval. In the same way, cheese was cut to order from the block, using a wire cutter. Butter was made up into pounds or half pounds by deft assistants using two wooden paddles. Their skill, speed, and accuracy were quite wonderful. Jams were big sellers, especially strawberry: and another favourite with miners' wives were Italian tinned tomatoes, one brand, in particular being favoured - Tarantellas.
Shopping, then, was what is now known as being "highly labour intensive", and, on very busy days, one would have quite a wait before being served. I must say that the women were very fair. Should one be overlooked by the assistant, they would be very solicitous.
"No, it's not my turn. I think it's this young 'un next",
they would say.
And so I would finally get my half stone of flour, neatly packaged in a stout white paper bag. I would pay for it (my mother always paid cash), and give the assistant our divvie number - I have never forgotten it: 8705 - the assistant would then hand me a counterfoil on which was noted the date, the price of the purchase, and the divvie number. Now came the hard part. Seven pounds doesn't seem to be a lot. But a bag of flour has no handles, or anything that enables one to carry it in a comfortable manner. You just hug it to your chest with both arms, and plod along as best you can. And over a quarter of a mile or so, eight or nine year old arms get very tired indeed. And a sense of grievance develops.
Not only is one being put through this purgatory, but, at the same time, valuable playing time is being wasted. Of course, there was a little satisfaction on, bringing the cargo safely home, being given a bit of a pat on the back - "That's a good lad", or some such.
The Co-op was run by a manager, Mr. Charlesworth, a small, ruddy rather self-effacing man. He lived with his family in a house owned by the Co-op society to the rear of the store.
Next to the Co-op, and standing on its own, was the large British Legion hall, complete with manager's house. This was the main drinking place and centre for communal gatherings, especially at the weekends, when miners and their wives would get dressed up, and go out for an evening on Saturday or Sunday night. As the evening wore on, the noise level would steadily rise, and the air turn blue with tobacco smoke. Frequently, these gatherings would be made even more rowdy by the presence of entertainers. In the days of early radio and no television, music-hall was popular. A music hall variety show consisted of singers, mostly men, and mostly of the Oh! Danny Boy sort; humorists, often a comedian and his straight man; and jugglers, ventriloquists, dancers, acrobats, etc. The artists who worked the music-hall circuit, the less well-known, or those serving their apprenticeship in the hope of rising to the top levels of the profession, would do week-end appearances at places like the Legion. Their job was not an easy one, confronted as they were by a hall full of people letting off steam, some well into their cups, talking loudly to the person next to them so as to be heard above the rising din, the jangling of empty glasses and the movement of people in and out, and across the floor. Some failed miserably before this daunting audience; they might leave to an accompaniment of boos and catcalls. Others would get the crowd going. Some comedians would evoke gales of laughter from the beered-up audience, while some of the singers would get them singing the old-time sentimental favourites. The noise rose then to a crescendo, and, the entrance doors and all the windows having been opened to clear the air and cool the temperature, it spilled out into the night. The shopkeepers who lived close by were not amused, but what to do? A complaint to the manager would bring no result, for there was no way that he could amend the situation, even if he had wished to do so. And to ask P.C. Betts, our local bobby, to intervene would have been equally futile. No, there was nothing for it but to wait until closing time after which the revellers, left in dribs and drabs, some singing, some laughing, a few staggering, to go to their homes.
It was not the custom for women to go to the Legion at other times. On weekdays, and Sunday mornings, it was men only, and I particularly remember womenfolk who had spent Sunday morning preparing the dinner, which in those days, was a roast of beef or pork, going out to the gate and looking down the road to see if their husbands were on their way home. Many a Sunday dinner, the one big meal of the week, when there was a roast, was spoilt while an errant husband got a skinful, as the saying was.
And often there were rows when a tearful and angry woman shouted at her husband, while he, often as not, raised his voice, too. Sometimes, blows were struck, while terrified children cowered in a corner and watched the frightening display.
Drunkenness was much more common then than it is today. Perhaps that is a matter of perception, for then people got drunk in a public place, a club or pub, and then had to walk home, whereas today fewer people walk, and more travel in cars. Moreover, there is much more drinking at home today than formerly. Anyway, it was not uncommon, at turning-out time, to see men lurching along on unsteady legs, some concentrating with a drunk's intensity on staying erect, others giving forth speeches to imaginary listeners, or singing in what they imagined were melodious tones. Some men knew their limit and watched their p's and q's; but a few, probably alcoholics, didn't know when to stop. These were the men who brought suffering to their wives and children; not only from their frequently violent behavior, but also from the fact that they squandered money that should have been spent on food and clothing. Where both parents in a family indulged in too much drink, the children were the greatest sufferers. I went to school with children who were pinched with hunger, and dressed in castoff clothes - boys in old cut-down trousers of their father's, or short pants, which we all wore then, with the breeches backside out, and shirt tails showing; and with boots with big holes in the soles, sometimes, again, the castoffs of the father or an older brother. One would see these poor little scarecrows, still being children despite their old-person appearance, running around the school playground at break, big boots, a mile too big, with the soles flapping and slapping, as they played tag, or tig, as we used to say. The girls seemed a little better off, in their hand-me-down dresses and pinafores. These were the poorest people I have seen in my life. Heavens knows what kinds of abuse they suffered at home, from desperate or slovenly mothers, or drunken fathers.
Next to the British Legion club, going south, was a terrace of shops extending to the road that led to the backs of the shops and to the cemetery. Beyond this road was another terrace of shops. In the first group in order was Rance's drapers, Shaw's grocer's, Coleman's butchers, Tyler's shoe shop, our shop, Jones' garage, Snell's butcher's, Siberry's fish and chips, Martin's sweets and tobacco, Wimbush The Chemist, and Reg Jink's wireless repair, etc. Then the road. And beyond that the Palace, the village's other cinema, the Meadow Dairy, branch of a nationwide grocery chain, Drabble the cobbler, Barron's sweet shop, Fenton's fruiterers, a dress shop whose name I have long forgotten, and finally Shakespeare's news agents. Beyond Shakespeare's was a piece of empty ground, which was occupied maybe twice a year when a travelling fair came to the village, and set up shop, when for a brief few days, the place was alive with whizzing chairplanes and magnificent bobbing horses on which we rode to the music of a steam calliope, and with coconut shies and penny games of chance. The only place beyond this, before you came to the bridge on the main road over the railway cutting was the Hilltop Working Man's Club. It stood where Church Street joined Doncaster Road, and opposite the Methodist Chapel, busy enough but with nothing like the clientele of the Legion.
I suppose that the front, with its clubs, cinemas, and the shops, was the heart of the community. People came to it every day for one reason or another, but especially for the shopping. People bought in small quantities to meet the needs of the day and so visits were frequent, usually a daily occurrence, all, of course either on foot or, less frequently, by bicycle. The scene was busy all day, from the wholesalers making deliveries early on in the day, to the rush of people buying sweets before going on to the second house at the cinema at half past eight at night. Encounters on the front gave people the opportunity to meet, have a chat, exchange news and gossip, and generally keep in touch with what was going on. Friday afternoons and evenings were especially busy, for Friday was pay day, and the day when you took your book in, had your weekly bill totted up, and paid up.
So there are the three main constituents of the community - the mine, Firbeck Main, the village where its workers lived, and the shop front which was the main centre of the village's life and activity. Actually, when we arrived in 1926, not all the streets and houses were completed, nor were all the buildings on the front. I remember going into the Palace, while it was still being built, and running around on the sloping floor, which yet held no seats. So now we will return to 1926, to our first house.
46 RIDDELL AVENUE, 1926 - 1931
We lived at 46 Riddell for five years. The house was one in a block of four, not too far from Miss Limb's. Ours was the end house at the Doncaster Road end. Between the front door and the street was a smallish garden. The side of the house was solid brick, with no windows. Next door was a pair of semi-detached houses, the sides of which similarly had no windows. Between the two houses was a building which contained the coalhouses for them, and a large, rectangular space, paved with asphalt. This was a popular area for playing games, marbles mostly for the boys and throwing a sponge rubber ball at small stones set out on the ground near a wall, and catching it as it rebounded; and for the girls throwing a ball high against a wall, and catching it, after performing increasingly difficult maneuvers, or sometimes, skipping.
The other door was at the back of the house which gave entrance to the kitchen by means of a short passage open to the outside, which then opened on to the lavatory. At the back of the house was a long garden, fenced in at the end, and along both sides. This was where the vegetables were grown, and where I first learned something about gardening, working alongside my father. The front garden was reserved for flowers. I particularly remember a border of flowers near the wall of the houses, and under the window of the living-room. Two varieties stand out in memory: wallflowers, for their variegated reds and golds, and wonderful perfume, especially in the evenings; and mignonette, a small, rather dowdy little flower, with a brownish bloom, and out of fashion today, but favoured for its perfume.
Entering by the front door, you were in a small passage, with the living room on the left, and the kitchen, pantry, and bathroom on the right. Ahead was the stair that led to the three bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was the hub of family life. It had a sink with hot and cold running water, and a Yorkshire range on which all the meals were cooked, and which also provided warmth and the supply of hot water from a tank at the back of the coal fire. The Yorkshire Range consisted of an open fire, a large oven at the side of the fire, and a steel shelf above the fireplace, where plates and such could be warmed. At the other side of the fire from the oven was a ledge or hob on which kettles of water could be heated or vegetables cooked in iron pots. Adjacent to the kitchen was a scullery with a sink, and the pantry with its shelves for foods and a concrete slab on which milk, meat, cheese and other perishables were stored.
The sitting-room, or parlour, as it was often called, was not often used. It had a fireplace, and the best furniture. It was a place where you took visitors if you had company. I always associated with grown-ups, in their Sunday best, engaged in boring and seemingly endless conversations, with a kind of suffocating and tedious stuffiness. It occasionally came to life, as at Christmas time, when the fire would be burning brightly, and we played in the room that we had decorated with home-made, many-coloured paper chains, the light from the fire bouncing off the richly-tinted glass decorations on the Christmas tree.
In the living-room, there were easy chairs, a small table, a brass fender in front of the fire, a clock with Westminster chimes, some ornaments and pictures, and a rug in front of the fire. By contrast the furnishings in the kitchen were few and spartan. Central was a square deal table, the top of which was white, the result of countless scrubbings. Round it were wooden chairs, which my father varnished from time to time; and, by the fire, was a wooden rocking-chair. In front of the fire was a brass fender, and behind that a rectangular hand-pegged rug of many colours. Above the Yorkshire range, the mantelpiece, decorated by a green cover with its row of hanging bobbles, carried a clock and a few ornaments. The floor, apart from the rug, was covered in linoleum, which was replaced from time to time, as it showed wear on the heavily-trafficked parts and showed a tendency to curl up at joints and edges.
The table served many purposes. It was where we ate most of our meals; then, it was covered with a piece of oil cloth, which was easy to wipe clean. It was my mother's workplace when she was baking, and that was often. Twice a week, she would bring out the big brown, conical, glossy panchion, big enough to hold a stone of flour, and make up half a stone of bread. At other times, she made pastry for pies, cakes of all sorts - Dundee cake, Victoria sponge, fairy cakes, iced and sitting in their paper cups, wearing a piece of walnut or cherry. Or a batch of jam - strawberry, damson, blackcurrant, apricot - or marmalade. The table, too, was where she cut the meat that went into the oven as roasts or stews.
And where on a Saturday morning, as she was baking, I would get the job of emptying the cutlery drawer and cleaning, or, occasionally, grating the block of salt that came home in brown paper, and storing the grains in the earthenware pot in which it was kept. Then, at these culinary times, the table was stripped of its covering, and its surface was used as the working area - rolling out pastry, or cutting meat, or sorting fruit, or a hundred other jobs. And that is why it was white; it was scrubbed with soap and a hard-bristled brush over and over again.
Cooking was central to the life of the home. At a time when there was no fast-food except for fish and chips, or the cooked meats that the butcher had on offer - boiled ham, roast pork, brawn, or faggots - cooking went on all the time, every day. There was always something in the oven, or in the black pot on the fire. So it is not surprising that kitchen scenes and kitchen smells and the warm feeling stay in the mind. Particularly in winter, for a cold outside and a cool house made appetites doubly keen. The smell of baking bread must be one of the most satisfying there is; and the sight of crusty loaves just out of the oven, tapped on the bottom for the right sound, and passed as properly done, sitting on the table, just as satisfying; and the taste and texture of the crusty loaf, generously slathered with best butter - magnificent! Or the aroma of a roast of prime Scottish beef or leg of pork clad in golden crackling - this on Sunday; there was only one roast a week - wonderful! Food was very important to hungry children, and we ate it all - with gusto. Sunday dinners - eaten at midday - always featured a roast, with vegetables, followed by a dessert that also came out of the oven - rice pudding, or a fruit pie, or a steamed pudding, depending on what was available and the season of the year. Mostly, of course, dishes were simple and made of inexpensive ingredients. On Mondays, which, incidentally, were wash days, we had to manage on the remains of Sunday's joint. Sometimes, this extended to Tuesday. On other days, we had Lancashire hot-pot, lob scouse, scalloped potatoes containing liver and topped with bacon and done in the oven, potato cakes cooked in the frying pan, split open, and drenched in butter, beef stew, barley and cabbage soup, steak and kidney pie, steak and kidney steamed suet pudding, Scottish kippers held with a toasting fork close to the hot coals of the fire, a piece of ham slowly cooked in a pot by the fireside, to name a few.
We ate two big meals a day, one at about noon, and the other at five o'clock. Of course, we always had a substantial breakfast. My mother had a porridge pot on the go. In those days, there were no quick-cooking oats: porridge had to be cooked slowly for a long period of time. As porridge was taken from the pot, more oats and water were added, and so on. My mother and father both ate the stuff, and, no doubt, great believers in its good and wholesome properties, they were anxious that I should eat it for breakfast. I disappointed them. Despite their exhortations and cajoling, and despite my attempts to eat it, I could not. Urged on by their encouragement, I would put some in my mouth - but - I could no nothing better than roll in round in my mouth, while my gorge came up to meet it. I tried, God knows I tried, but to no avail.
Even with the offered reward of the bacon that I really loved - "You can have your bacon when you've tried a bit of porridge" - I could not do it; and eventually they gave it up as a bad job. I have never liked porridge, although I can eat it provided that it is thin - more like a gruel - and that it has lots of sugar and cream on it. I was not saucy, never have been. The only other thing that I didn't like, and still do not, was home-made custard pie. My mother made them often - a mixture of milk and egg baked in a pastry case, with just a touch of powdered nutmeg on top. Full of goodness. They looked delicious. All the family loved them. I just could not eat them. I still can't.
But for the rest, I really enjoyed breakfast. A bit of Danish bacon and a fresh egg, with some homemade bread, and just a bit of the fat from the pan to dip the bread in - that, to me, was heaven and the only way to start the day. Or perhaps, simply, a fresh farm egg, boiled with some home-made bread and butter.
So, the kitchen was a place of comfort. It gave warmth; there was always a fire on the go, whatever the season. It was a place of good smells and satisfying tastes. It was where you were part of the ongoing work of the house, whether it was cleaning knives and forks, or powdering salt, or gleaning the remains of the cake mixture from the bowl, or even doing some washing up. It was also where, of a Sunday afternoon, after dinner, or of an evening the family gathered round the table, now wearing its cloth cover, to play cards. Whist, mostly. Whist drives were a popular pastime in the village, and my mother was a regular participant. But we played other card games, too. Black Lady was a favourite of my father's, and especially so, when he lumbered the next person to him with the Queen of Spades, which cost them a penalty of ten points. Dominoes was another favourite. At such times, there was often a bag of sweets passed around the table, often buttered brazils, and most often those made by Barker and Dobson, of Liverpool. Golden, buttery, nutty delicacies.
In those days, people had to make much of their own entertainment. Diversion outside the home was limited. There were the clubs and the pub, but for those who did not drink, the alternatives were few. Whist drives, of course. These were usually run by a group or a church which raised a little money from. Occasionally, there would be a dance in one of the halls, admission one shilling, dance from eight o'clock till midnight, refreshments included. Refreshments were usually sandwiches and little cakes prepared by the womenfolk, and, to drink, tea or lemonade. These were well-attended, providing the local beaux and belles with the opportunity to meet and to show off their dancing skills, often learned and practiced at the Palais de Danse ("the Pally") in Worksop. In the summertime, there were things going on at the lake. Radio was just beginning. I remember my father, fiddling about with a crystal set, trying to find a signal. It was a primitive device, a coil and cat's whisker, and terminals to which were connected the wires that led to the earphones. I remember sitting expectantly, wearing the earphones, and listening for the magic sound, as my father searched.
When the signal came through, it was faint, and disappeared from time to time beneath surges of static noise. Radios which operated on valves (or tubes) and electrical power were just beginning to come in. The electrical power was supplied by a battery, which had to be taken down to Mr. Jones at the garage from time to time to be recharged.
We did not have a radio in our home until much later; not until I was about fourteen. By that time, I was going to school in Retford, and I used to envy the other boys who would talk about the dance orchestra they had been listening to the night before on the B.B.C. This world that they knew was a closed book to me. What we did have was a gramophone and a collection of records, often played when the family was together, perhaps when playing cards, or just relaxing. It required quite a bit of effort, and a lot of attention. The turntable was powered by a powerful coil spring. As each record was played, the spring, which had expended its energy on the previous record, had to be rewound. Failure to do this resulted in a slowing down of the record and a distortion of the sound, so that sopranos descended to the level of baritones, and baritones sank to some depths never heard in the real world. At such times, quick action was needed to save the day. Someone would quickly rush to the handle and wind, taking care not to disturb the needle in the record's groove. Then the soprano and baritone would slowly rise from the depths and resume their accustomed notes. Steel needles were used, and these had to be replaced frequently, after each record ideally, in order not to damage them. The records were thick and heavy, and eventually developed clicks where scratched, or repetitive sequences caused by wear that needed a nudge to move things over. Of course, they were played over and over again, so that the words and melodies stay in the mind. Peter Dawson, in his robust baritone, singing "The Floral Dance" on one side, and "Tiny Ball On End Of String" on the other; Count John McCormack, the great Irish tenor, created a noble of the Catholic church by the Pope, singing "Ave Maria" and "Killarney"; Leyton and Johnson, two American blacks, with "Ramona": arias from Verdi and Rossini sung by Enrico Caruso: and a baritone whose name I have long forgotten singing a song, the Bandolero, a boastful ditty of pride and outlawing:
"I am the bandolero, the gallant bandolero,
I roam the mountains and I tum tum tum.....
I'm an outlaw with a kingdom beneath my sway,
Brave and gallant bandolero, etc, etc."
The only other room in the house that I remember at all was the bathroom, the scene of the Saturday night ritual, where we had our weekly bath whether we needed it or not. In summertime, there was no problem. Lie half-submerged in the warm water, often until your fingers began to take on a prune-like appearance; and then step out on to the towel carefully laid out ready, a good towelling, night-clothes on, and so to bed. In the cold of winter, it was a different matter. The bathroom was as cold as a tomb. In very cold weather, a layer of ice formed on the inside of its small window.
In this frigid atmosphere, one quickly undressed and stepped into the bath, and attempted to submerge as much as possible of one's person beneath the protective warmth of the water.
Such pleasure as there was in this was diminished by the knowledge that soon one would have to emerge into the chilly air, towel oneself dry, get into night clothes, and quickly depart for warmer places. The best refuge was in front of the kitchen fire, but usually, one was soon ordered to bed. At these times, the bedrooms were as cold as the bathroom. Some had tiny fireplaces, but a bedroom fire was lit only in the case of sickness, when it was necessary to take the chill off the room. So one scampered up the stairs, jumped into bed, and shivered, and worked one's feet rapidly on the sheets to make warmth by friction.
I grew up to fear and dislike winter. I didn't even like autumn, because it was a sign that winter was on its way, with all its discomforts. The worst of these was chilblains. They came every winter without fail, swellings on the knuckles of the fingers, and on heels and little toes where they made contact with the boots. Painful when cold and itchy when warm, they made putting on one's boots in the morning an agony, and hurt like the very devil if one happened to catch a knuckle on something. Sometimes they cracked, and exposed the flesh beneath; then they had to be smeared with vaseline, or covered with a bandage.
NEIGHBOURS AND PLAYMATES
During our time at 46 Riddell, the neighbours changed very little. Next to us in our block of four were the Oxleys at number 48. Mr. Oxley was a small man of self-effacing demeanor who walked leaning slightly forward with feet at ten to two in a permanently apologetic manner; his wife was a pleasant woman who kept a very clean and tidy house and looked after her husband, and their son, Alan, who was a couple of years older than myself. Then, at number 50 lived the Browns, an older couple, with four grown-up children, two girls and two boys. Old Tom Brown, thin and slight in build, came from Clay Cross, in Derbyshire, and continually talked about returning there, as though he had lost something important in coming to Langold. His wife was a strong, unsmiling woman, yet not unpleasant. The daughters, Elsie and Doris, were at this time, about eighteen or so: the boys were Harold, the eldest child, and Bill, the youngest. Bill was about fifteen, so he had left school fairly recently, and had started work at the pit. He was good-looking and well set up; as time went by, he developed a reputation, not unearned, as a bit of a Don Juan, his affaires with a number of married women providing grist for the village rumour mill and embarrassing the otherwise staid and proper Brown family. I remember the Browns mainly from the times in the summer evenings when these near grown-ups would sit on the walk in front of their house, and sing the latest popular songs. We younger ones would join in, picking up the tunes and learning the words. Two favourites were "Bye bye, Black Bird", and "When the Red, Red Robin comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along". We also sang "The Charleston", which was all the rage then, and did our version of it, and of the "Black Bottom". In the end house, number 52, lived the Asberries. I remember only the father, Len Asberry, a cheeky-chappy type of man, always ready with a cheery quip.
Across the street, in an identical four-house block, lived, amongst others, the Moxons, and Sammy Earp. The Moxon's house was directly across the road from ours. They were a quiet, respectable family; the father and mother, two girls and a boy, Harold. I particularly remember Harold because of an incident in which he and I were involved. A number of us were playing leap-frog in the middle of the road. We stood, at intervals, down the street, bent at the waist; the one at the back started, and jumped over everybody, and then took up position at the head of the line, which made the game continuous. It so happened, on this occasion that Harold Moxon, was the one behind me. When he came to jump, I moved slightly upward as I felt his weight on my back. This was not an unusual move as it gave the jumper more height and a better leap, but, unfortunately, Harold was unbalanced and lost control, with the result that he landed partly on his face. To make matters worse, the road surface had been completed fairly recently, and so the chips of stone provided a rough surface. At all events, Harold was helped home to have his wounds dressed, a protest was lodged by Mrs. Moxon to my mother, and I received a dressing-down for my part.
Next door but one to the Moxons lived Sammy Earp and his uncle. Sammy hailed from Rotherham. He was small, pasty-faced, ginger-haired; his voice was thin and raspy, and unmelodious. He didn't join in games much, and we regarded him as different from us. Not as much a child, perhaps. Or, maybe, in a community where everybody had a mother, whatever her quality, there was something different about a person who didn't have one - or at least one that one could see.
To return to our side of the street. Next to us on the Doncaster Road side were three pairs of semi-detached houses. In one of these lived the Towns, all males except the formidable Mrs. Town. They were Yorkshire tikes, from Airedale in the North Riding, with accents to match. They had three boys who all resembled the father. Mr. Town was small and compact and sturdy. He didn't seem to spend two much time at home in his leisure hours, being an afficionado of the booky's trade and the Legion, so that the rough, tough boys were left to the tender mercies of their mother, a lady of loud, commanding voice and great self-confidence when it came to negotiating with other parents over the conduct of her offspring. Next to the Towns lived the Lavers. They didn't seem at all like miners, and not surprisingly, since Mr. Laver - Horace - had been a shopkeeper, was a failed shopkeeper, it seemed. He was a tall, fair-complexioned man of gentle demeanor, always well-turned out. His wife conveyed an impression of faded gentry, as though she was living in circumstances to which she was not, neither did she want to become, accustomed. They had three children, two girls and a boy, about my age, and with whom I played, and the reason that I came to know that they had been shopkeepers was that in bedroom closets and such places were secreted bottles of boiled sweets, evidently the wreckage of a sunken enterprise. Some time had obviously passed since these were manufactured for they were no longer hard but gave to the bite like pieces of fudge, but they were appreciated none the less for that, hungry as we were, for any kind of sweet stuff. And, when Mr. & Mrs. Laver had dressed up and gone out for the evening, we would play in their house, and Dorothy, the eldest, would brighten our day by doling out shares of these delectables.
Next to the Lavers lived a childless couple, the Castells, and directly across the road from them a retired couple, Mr. & Mrs. Whitfield. Joe Castell I knew because, when my father became the Secretary of the Miners' Home Coal Delivery Service, Mr. Castell was a member of its committee, and I was given the job of taking notices of meetings, and minutes of meetings to him and to the other members. He was also a member of the Parish council at a time when my father was also a member. I remember him only as a rather stern and unsmiling man who answered the door when I delivered the messages. His wife I scarcely knew at all, known only because she answered the door when he was not at home. Old Mr. Whitfield across the road suffered the torments of old age when brought into contact with boisterous youth. He had a long front garden, in which he laboured hard and took great pains. Unfortunately, the nearest street lamp was near his garden. In the darker evenings, if it was still outside, that is where we would congregate, and from this base, we would organize games of Rallico, often known as kick-the-can.
In our efforts not to be spotted, we hid behind walls and gateposts and available bushes; and of course, Mr. Whitfield's garden was well used. Outraged on discovering footprints in his flower beds and damage to his plants, Mr. Whitfield would frequently appear during a game making loud and threatening noises. And in this way, a state of endemic guerrilla warfare began, and, on occasion, besides trespassing on Mr. Whitfield's territory, practical jokes were played - a piece of cotton attached to the door knocker and the other end held by some mischievous child at a safe distance; or stuffing newspaper into a drain downfall pipe, and then setting it alight, to create a "bullroar" effect. Poor Mr. Whitfield. How cruel children can be without evening thinking about it!
CHILDREN AT PLAY
When we arrived in Langold, as I have said, the building of the village was not complete. Much of White Avenue and School Road was still to be finished. In fact, the village school at the top of School Road was still being built; children were still attending school in a corrugated iron building at the bottom of Markham Road. Shortly after we arrived, Riddell Avenue was properly paved, an enterprise which took quite some time, and provided a spectacle of great interest to us children. A great black barrel on wheels, heated by a fire, was fed blocks of asphalt; connected to the base was a pipe which led to a spraying device, a long rod punctured with holes along its length. A man held this wand and moved it slowly from side to side as he slowly advanced, thus depositing a layer of molten tar on the road. This man presented a strange figure, from his cap and muffler to the tar-encrusted leggings and boots, the tar steaming and smoking around him. After him came the men with shovels skillfully spreading a thin layer of rock chips over the prepared area, and after them, the great steam roller, crunching slowly back and forth over their work. The smell of the tar, the noise of the fire heating the tar, the hissing of the spray, and the huge rumbling presence of the traction engine, engulfed the senses. We looked on fascinated. And later, when the men had gone home for the day, and the tar had cooled, we could find chunks of the congealed pitch oozing from the stone, which we would pull off and use as chewing gum.
The street became our playground. It was wide enough for games of all kinds; it had lamp-posts which became gathering-points on dark evenings; and it had walls running its length, brick walls about three feet high and topped with a semi-circular coping ideal for hiding behind, or jumping over, or just sitting on. And, of course, there was little traffic to interfere with our activities; and that was generally slow-moving. Most was horse-drawn:the milk-cart, pulled by a horse that knew as much about the round, as the milkman, Mr. Hartley, who, for years, came from his home at Hodsock Priory, a mile and a half from Langold, to deliver milk. His face was weathered, and I never saw him smile, but he always delivered the milk. I don't remember that he ever missed a day. He appeared at the door with his can of milk and his pint and half-pint measures, and poured the amount you wanted into your jug. As he walked from one house to the next, the horse, unbidden, would move along, too, stopping at the gate where his master would emerge. Then there were the butchers, at first selling from a horse-drawn van, and later from a small motor van. They were usually followed by a trail of hungry and hopeful dogs. Then there was the Co-op bakery van, again horse-drawn, bringing fresh bread and cakes. Mr. Driver, the greengrocer, came from Rotherham twice a week; he displayed his wares on the flat bed of a Ford T-model lorry. For better viewing, the larger boxes were propped at an angle of 45 degrees - oranges, apples, sacks of potatoes. His stock was large - fruits and vegetables in season, as well as filleted codfish in the large, flat, wet boxes, labelled Grimsby, and the Australian rabbits slung in pairs over a pole running the length of the lorry, which was used to support a canvas to cover the merchandise should it rain.
Old Driver was a great one at exchanging banter with the ladies, as they chaffed him about his goods or his prices. And he could skin a rabbit in a twinkling. The motor traffic mainly consisted of the lorry owned by the miners' Home Coal, a large, red Dennis, with solid rubber tires, which continually circled the village, dumping a ton of coal at a time on the street in front of the house of the customer who had ordered it. It carried four tons, each in a compartment, which had a door that opened to release its contents in a cloud of coal dust. I came to know this vehicle and its driver and mate, and even to ride in it and work on it occasionally, for my father was the secretary of the society. The driver was Harold Thornsby and his mate, Jimmy Hankinson. Harold was one of those men who was fascinated by machinery. He was a motor-bike enthusiast; as well as a proficient mechanic, and an excellent driver. Jimmy was a good worker, had a houseful of children, a married wife, and drank a bit too much, as well as playing the horses. They would come to our house after work on Friday, the two of them, to pick up their wages for the week. Cars we rarely saw. At that time they were few and far between, especially in the village, so scarce in fact, that one of our pastimes was to take up station at the side of Doncaster Road, paper and pencil in hand, and jot down the numbers of the cars that came along. Occasionally, we would have a visit from a rag-and-bone man. He would take old clothes, unwanted scraps of iron, and so on. In return, he handed out balloons, and, if you took out a jam jar full of water you might get a goldfish. Very occasionally, we would see the knife-sharpener. For a copper or two, he would sharpen the dullest knife or a pair of scissors. He operated from a bicycle, which had an attachment driven from the back wheel. As he pedalled, a grinding-wheel turned, and on this, in a flurry of sparks, your knife or scissors took on a new and more interesting life. And also very occasionally, we would have a visit from the gypsy women. They usually sold clothes pegs they had made, but often they would wheedle their way into a woman's confidence, and tell her fortune; after she had crossed their palm with silver, of course. And I must not forget another regular visitor - the ice cream man with his horse-drawn contraption, a cart, but one with four supports and a canopy, and the whole thing decorated in an exuberant Italian style. Their appearance, and the ringing of their bell, was the occasion for much activity. Mothers were beset by children who hoped for a delicious taste of ice cream. A halfpenny bought you a cone. Then there were penny and twopenny wafers, made as you waited, from the tub in the centre of the cart. Or, if you preferred, you could get a pennyworth or more in a glass tumbler. We looked with growing anticipation as the delicious, cream confection, was deftly scraped along the inside of the glass, and then topped with a couple of waters. If you wanted, you could have a few squirts of raspberry cordial, too; but my own preference was for the pure, unadulterated ice cream. Actually, we had two ice cream purveyors: Massarella's came from Doncaster: they were the favourite: Pizzuti's came from Worksop.
So, while we did not have the streets to ourselves, we could play there safely. There were so many games that it is difficult to know where to begin. Most required the very simplest of equipment and most of that was improvised.
For skipping, we mostly used the rope from Spanish orange boxes. It was coarse and of poor quality, not flexible like the cotton cord of the commercial skipping ropes, but it cost nothing, and so we used it. You could skip on your own, or join in a group. Mostly the groups consisted of girls, one at each end of the long rope turning, while the others would run in and out. The turners called out rhymes as they turned:
"My mother told me I never should,
Play with the gypsies in the wood",
and so on
Sometimes they would speed up, with a Pitch, Patch, Pepper.
There were ball games, too. For these you had to have an india rubber ball, cost one penny. Girls played a game, throwing the ball against a wall, and catching it, in an increasingly difficult series of maneuvers, which including turning completely round, clapping hands, bending and touching the ground, and so on. The boys played catch, or cricket with an improvised bat and wickets drawn in chalk on a wall; or French cricket, where the person who was "in", protected his legs from being hit by the use of a bat from a ball thrown at him from a circle of boys surrounding him. Another popular game was to throw a ball at four or five small stones, arranged in a square at the base of a wall, attempting to dislodge the stones, while catching the ball as it ricocheted of the wall.
Cigarette cards were important too. These came in sets, usually fifty to the set, each set having a theme - cricketers, boxers, horse-racing colours, birds, flowers. One card came in each packet of cigarettes, and one collected where one could - fathers of course, uncles, lodgers, and any man with a newly-purchased packet of cigarettes who could be persuaded to part with the card. We collected these, and swapped them to make up sets. We also played games with them. One way was to set up a row of cards on end leaning on a wall; then the competitors, usually two, would skim cards at them, turn and turn about, to dislodge them, the winner being the one who dislodged the last card standing, his winnings being all the cards used.
Whips and tops were popular in the spring. We had to buy the tops; they were a penny each, but one would last a long time. We preferred "window-breakers". They were shaped like a mushroom with a thick stalk, and a pointed base clad with a metal stud on which it rotated. You could really make these fly, especially if you had a good whip. The shop variety of whips were very poor, consisting of an inferior quality short handle, through the top of which was threaded a leather lace. We made our own, using a stout stick, and when we could find it, a long piece of flexible cotton cord. We spent hours belting our tops up and down the street.
Wheeled things were important, too. There were bicycles and tricycles. Tricycles came first. They were easy to ride, and, as one gained in expertise, it was possible to tilt the machine and show off on two wheels.