Tales when young
By George Weallans, 1999
I was born in the village of Ashington at my maternal grandfather’s home. He was a Welsh miner and I think his wife was Cornish, at the beginning of the twentieth century miners went where there was employment. He had also worked in Yorkshire, where my mother was born. My paternal grandfather was Northumbrian and his wife was Scottish. There is no Irish in me as far as I know.
When I was a few days old I had trouble with my “water works”. My mother said that when the doctor treated me, I urinated all over him. This was the last time I showed my true feelings for my ”Betters”.
Ashington had grown rapidly when coal mining expanded in the area at the turn of the century. To meet the need for homes, long streets of featureless houses were built. There was no water, gas, toilets, baths, washbasins or sinks installed. Basically they were brick boxes with two or three bedrooms upstairs and a room downstairs with a coal range.
This had a fire in the centre, an oven on one side and a water tank on the other, that had to be filled manually, to give hot water. Eventually the tank would leak and the only source of hot water would be a kettle permanently stood on top. The range was polished with Black Lead every week. This was a long hard job, the polisher finishing with at least black hands and smudged face. There was plenty of coal so these houses were warm homes.
One Sunday when I was five years old I was going to morning service with my mother when a woman carrying a very young baby gave me a small parcel. It contained a piece of bread, some salt and a silver sixpence. I was amazed but it was a local custom called hanseling. The infant was on her way to be christened and I was the first boy child met outside her home. Even then this practice was dying out.
My grandmother Duddridge had three surviving sons and my mother when I was growing up. Most Saturday nights she baked sliced potatoes, onions perhaps a little meat and always thick gravy in a big meat tin. Three or more of her children and three or four grand children would eat this meal. Someone would bring a Football Chronicle so that we could get the sports results, of course there was no radio. One of my uncles supported Newcastle football team but another was misguided enough to support Sunderland, this could lead to heated exchanges. Grandmother would not allow playing cards in her home to prevent gambling but she did allow dominoes, which we sometimes played, the adults perhaps secretly for pennies. We talked and argued and fed and it was wonderful.
The miners worked shifts and as few of them had alarm clocks a Knocker Up would awaken his customers for a small fee. He carried a long pole with wooden balls on the end. He used this to rattle the window until there was signs of life, often cursing.
The mines did not work every day during the depression. Each pit would blow its buzzer at a set time to let the workmen know if they were working next day. There were two time systems still known in those days, pit time and train time. The latter was GMT; the other must have lingered on since each area had its own time zone before the days of the railway. Only the pit buzzers used pit time, which was ten minutes ahead of railway time.
The Northumberland miners held an annual gathering for themselves and their families at Morpeth but one year they decided to come to Newbiggin. The Union Lodge of each mine had a huge banner, say twice the size of a double bed sheet, emblazoned with Socialist heroes and miners mottoes. This was carried on two long poles with four guy ropes to steady it. It was a great honour to be one of the six men who carried the banner on the parade and worth ten bob a head. Perhaps ten pits took part marching down the main street with local brass bands interspersed. They gathered on the moor with their families to be addressed by the local MP and the top Union Officials, who promised them paradise next year. At Morpeth more than one speaker was dumped in the river Wansbeck. We had no such luck the sea did not have them.
Later there was the more important business of eating and getting a little drunk. The local tradesmen over estimated the number of meat pies required so they were very cheap by eight o’clock. The pubs and clubs managed to have enough beer. A travelling fair with roundabouts and stalls arrived two days before and left the day after the picnic. One of the attractions was a riffle range so after the fair moved on I went looking for spent brass cartridge cases. Extra ‘buses and trains were put on, the ice-cream men and some of the shops made a little money and a good time was had by all. The picnic never came to us again.
My Uncle George was a miner who kept a fire continuously burning, at night it was banked up with coal dust and the ashes raked out with due ceremony each morning. He lit the fire once a year when he came back from holiday at one of his Yorkshire relatives. He was very active in politics as an elected member of the Urban District Council, of which he was chairman for two years. Ashington at that time had a population of about twenty five thousand. He should have been a mayor. Later he was a member of the County Council and went to Newcastle to attend meetings. For many years he was an active member of the Miners Union.
Despite its size there were only three public houses in the village. The locals promptly christened the last of these to open, the North Seaton Hotel, the White Elephant. The name stuck and now appears in ‘bus timetables and the nearest telephone box. The miners were not temperance advocates; their drinking needs were taken care of by more than twenty working men’s clubs. Committees of the members ran these so the profits helped to keep down the price of beer. At New Year most clubs would allow their members a number of free pints, I have heard up to twenty mentioned. Eventually all the clubs in the county and in Durham County banded together and bought their own brewery so beer became even cheaper.
Uncle George’s wife, my Aunt Alice, was obsessed with dust. China, which had been used two hours previously, had to be wiped before using again. She worried about the comfort and health of any visitors. On a hot summer’s day, with a roaring coal fire she was sure we were sitting in draughts. She had the great skill of being able to cut perfect thin slices of bread, while the loaf became a wedge shape. One of her cooking specialities was coconut pyramids, she must have made thousands over the years. Aunt Alice was reluctant to go out on her own, even to the shops in the middle of the village. The local Co-op just round the corner where she could buy food was her limit. This meant someone had to go with her for new clothes, shoes etc. She was a very gentle lady.
One New Year’s day my parents and I went to Morpeth to visit my father’s Aunt Betty and family. They lived in a detached stone house that had been in the Daglish family for many years; it eventually belonged to Aunt Sally. We all went together to see the local Hunt Meet. This took place in the old Town Square, which is overlooked by an hotel. Some of the hunters would have a drink in an upstairs room while waiting for the horses to arrive. Children would sing under the window “Hay canny fella hoy a Hapny oot.” The men inside would heat copper coins on a shovel over the fire and throw them out the window as requested. No one was really burnt in the resulting scramble.
The pack arrived with the excited hounds running around in the crowd while the huntsman shouted in a raucous voice and cracked a long whip trying to control them. Eventually the men in pink and the ladies assembled and rode off and the crowd found it’s way home or to the pub. There were no demonstrations against the hunt, we were all thrilled by the colour and excitement and seemed part of it.
At the other end of the town there is an old stone built tower which houses a carillon. Near the top stand two half life-size statues of men in eighteen-century style clothes. One statue fell off early this century and my Grandfather carved the replacement. The original stood outside the family house for many years.
Every Easter we used to dye and hard boil eggs, sometimes by wrapping the egg in onionskin or cheap print dress material. Names could be written on with a candle and show among the colour. We called them paste eggs. At Morpeth they were rolled and chased down a steep grass slope. No prizes were awarded we ran and tumbled for the fun of it. The other practice was “jarping”. You held a paste egg in your fist with the pointed end up and your opponent tried to smash it with his egg. Aunt Sally told me this was possibly a pre-Christian ritual, signifying spring breaking out.
Everyone would wear his or her new clothes on Easter Sunday. For men this was normally a new navy blue three piece suit, an exceptional brown or grey might appear on a would be trend setter. Men of my father’s generation wore a Bowler Hat when formally dressed and a cap during the week. If you had nothing new, a cap was enough; some bird might leave its calling card on you.
My mother used to brush our Sunday suits every Monday morning before putting them away for another week
Men wore two shirts a week, one for work and the other for weekends and evenings. The best shirt had two loose collars, held on with a front and back stud, so it could perhaps count as two clean shirts. If worn without a tie a knitted white silk scarf was deemed quite elegant. We used to kid each other about polishing the brass front stud to look smart. Some men wore a false white shirtfront, often starched, to go to a really special gathering. On Sundays, a stiff starched collar was worn even if it cut into the neck.
Most years the local choirs would unite to perform Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday. There was never enough time for practice but they sang their hearts out and the audience enjoyed the music. Most of the people in the area can sing at least the first two lines of the Alleluia Chorus.
The doorsteps of the miners’ houses were made of a slab of stone, which were rubbed with soft sandstone to a uniform yellow. A rag and bone man whose cry was “Scrubby stone for stocking legs” often supplied the stone. The feet of stockings wore out before the legs so some knitting wool could be reclaimed. Some posher people used a manufactured white compound on their steps but it did not look right. The back windowsills were made of sandstone. Some had a deep curve worn into them where people had sharpened carving knives to cut the Sunday joint.
Nearly every house had a large water barrel near the back door to collect rainwater to use for washing. At about four years of age I stood on the seat of a tricycle to look into one of these barrels and went headfirst into the water. I was soon rescued and dried off but I still can not swim. Backdoors opened directly onto a narrow pavement then the road. These roads were unsurfaced, so were deep mud for half the year and dust for the remainder.
Across the road were the conveniences, in blocks of two, consisting of a hole in a raised wooden structure with a large metal bath beneath that was emptied by professionals once a fortnight during the night. Toilet paper was old newspapers, cut in squares and put on a string. It could be interesting or annoying trying to follow an article or story that caught your fancy. It was rumoured that newspaper ink is antiseptic.
Alongside these blocks were the coalhouses also in pairs. Poor quality coal with a lot of slack was delivered once a fortnight. During the warm months boards were put across the inside of the door opening and stocks built up ready for the winter. Alongside these blocks there was a communal mains water tap, where you got your water in a bucket.
Someone with a sense of humour named the streets of hundreds of houses. One estate was named after the rivers of the county, another lot after the heroines in Shakespeare’s plays and a third after trees. At the other end of the village the names were simpler namely first, second and third row. It was the late thirties before water to a sink was put in the houses; much to the joy of all the housewives. Electricity had been installed in the late twenties. Eventually WCs were fitted but still across the road. Pre-war there was no hot water on tap in these houses.
My parents moved into two rooms in a shared house at Newbiggin by the sea. Again there was no hot water or bathroom but we did have gaslight. One evening when I was being bathed in a tin bath, a mantle broke and the hot remains fell on and singed me. One day I was missing from home with the girl next door. We were found at the other end of the village. I am alleged to have said, “I took Mary to see where my Daddy worked”, that is the last recorded occasion when I managed to lead a girl astray.
We next moved to Maitland Terrace. This had a front garden about a metre wide with iron railings and a small enclosed back yard. The front road was Tarmac but the back was paved with cobblestones. On washing days, normally Mondays, strings of washing hung across the back lanes. During the rest of the week butchers, bakers, fishmen and greengrocers came round selling their produce from a horse and cart. Horseless carriages were still years away from common use in our area.
Few people rode in cars, often only for weddings or funerals. Sometimes the first time a young girl would ride in a car would be on the way to get married. Her father would accompany the bride on her way to church. He would throw out pennies to the waiting children to bring luck to the bride. After the ceremony the best man would throw out the money to bring luck to the marriage. Often there would be no honeymoon but a return to live with a mother while they waited for a colliery house. I once rode with the driver in the front seat of a Rolls Royce going to a funeral, I remember the ride but not the name of the deceased.
There were seasons for playing games. Suddenly we were all playing with tops and whips or marbles would appear. No signal was given, it just happened. Football was played at any season, often with a tennis ball. Some of the World’s best players were produced by this system. If we played cricket in the back lane the ball came off the pitch at some amazing angles.
My mother lived and worked to a strict routine. This house had a fitted open top iron boiler with a chimney and fire. On Mondays the boiler was filled with water and clothes, the room was filled with heat and steam. From the boiler the clothes went into a wooden tub to be thumped with a metal or wooden “Dolly”, or in the dialect a “poss stick”. To whiten the clothes a Dolly Blue was used, I have no idea how this worked. The clothes next passed through the wooden rollers of a mangle before being pegged up outside. On wet days the washing had to be dried inside in front of the fire, releasing more moisture into the house. Life was not much fun for anyone on a wet washing day.
On other set days the living room was suitably washed and polished, the bedrooms were done and so on. Dinners were also the same every week; roast on Sunday, cold meat on Monday, pie on Wednesday, broth on Friday. Sometimes the Sunday Yorkshire pudding was served Yorkshire style, as a separate preliminary course with gravy. It was exceptional if puddings were other than rice or tapioca. My mother was a good cook, baking cakes and scones as well as main meals. She sang in the chapel choir, attending practice one evening a week. Once a month she went to an afternoon missionary meeting. Her needlework, embroidery and knitting were much admired and praised. She was a member of the Women’s Institute and was on the committee for a number of years. At the monthly meeting a speaker would lecture or demonstrate some subject, such as cooking or flower arranging. Each month there was a members’ competition for such as three fancy home-made biscuits or the greatest number of items in a matchbox. Each member of the committee gave a small prize, in turn. This could be a box of fancy soap or some notepaper or similar item. The prizes tended to reappear time after time, they were not for using. I once was given pocket-knife at the Christmas party.
There were very few carpets in the home. Like many others my parents made rag rugs to help to cover the floor. A rectangle of hessian was sewn into a wooden frame made from two lengths of inch by two-inch bearers. A thinner piece of wood slotted into each end to hold the tension in the material. A simple pattern would be drawn with a purple indelible pencil and water, often after much discussion, and followed as closely as possible. Old coats, skirts, trousers and similar material was cut into strips and attached into the hessian. Two types of tool were used resulting in a “Hooky” or “Proggy” mat. Some were works of art and all lasted for years. It was interesting recognising the coat you wore two years ago.
My father was a journeyman butcher, his employer had four men and a youth working for him. He sold meat from a horse and cart and as his round included Ashington and surrounding villages, on Fridays and Saturdays, he worked long hours. In winter the cart had two candle lit carriage lamps, these showed where he was rather than lighting the way. The horse, with others was stabled in winter but kept in fields the rest of the time. The horses were often reluctant to be caught for work. I have stood, for what seemed like hours, rattling a tin of corn at the field gate trying to lure the horse for my father to catch. They had to be groomed and fed all the year round. This was very time consuming and no overtime was paid. Wages were poor but “free” meat was included in the package.
In the killing shop my father used a knife or a hammer to slaughter animals for meat. The introduction of a captive-bolt-humane killer was a great advance. The animals were bought at the Morpeth mart or from local farmers and kept in rented fields till required. Black and white puddings and sausages were manufactured on the premises; the mixture in white pudding was similar to that in haggis. Also made was a jellied form of potted meat, which was my favourite, although today’s regulations would make it difficult to sell legally. All meat was hung for a day or two before being sold, the period varied with the weather. This improved the taste and tenderness and flavour. Modern methods, alas, seem to have ended this practice.
There was an infant school at the bottom end of the terrace, which I attended for two years. It had an assembly hall and two large classrooms where we sat in pairs at combined bench and desk furniture. Two different age classes were often taught in the same room. School dinners were in the far future, not even thought of. Very basic toilets, boys and girls, were outside in the walled schoolyard. We learnt our tables by saying them over and over, and the alphabet by singing it. Very few of us could not read and write when we moved on to the next school.
There was a total eclipse of the sun when I was six years old. The schoolteachers must have impressed upon us that we must not look directly at the sun. Like the other pupils I collected and swapped pieces of broken brown glass bottles. Someone smoked clear glass over a candle and tried to trade it for boyhood treasures. The actual eclipse I do not remember but it was exciting making preparations for it.
Our hair was inspected regularly by the Nit Nurse because close contact between us could spread the nits through the school in no time. My mother used to use a fine-tooth comb to rake my scalp over a newspaper to detect insect life, which would be killed between two thumbnails with a pleasing crack. Once a year the School Doctor came to examine everyone. I can only remember the eye tests, there was a letter chart and for colour blindness we matched bits of wool on tags. He must also have checked teeth, we were sent to a dentist at Ashington for treatment, extractions only. My mother once bought me a game of Ludo after one such visit.
My next school was over a mile away in the Colliery part of the village; all the pupils had to go home for lunch during the dinner break. During the few weeks around Christmas this break was shortened so more hours of daylight could be used, I can not remember any artificial light being used. For this period we took sandwiches for lunch. One of the boys in my class had a streak of white hair across the top of his black hair, a family trait. One of the girls was a platinum blonde, probably the only genuine one I ever saw. There were no playing fields just a large schoolyard where we ran around making a lot of noise and learned the basics of football at playtime. We were well prepared for the scholarship examinations that would allow a few of us, say five out of sixty per year, to go to grammar school.
Around the corner from the bottom of our street was a small “pop” factory which also bottled Newcastle Brown Ale. The Co-op had a shop nearby which had sections for clothing, meat, bread and cakes and groceries. The competition was provided by Thompsons Red Stamp Stores, which sold only groceries. As implied, they gave red stamps to stick on a card, with every purchase. A full card could be exchanged for a selection of presents but this did not match the quarterly dividend paid by the Co-op. This could be as much as ten percent of the money spent. Once a fortnight a man came round from Ashington Co-op to take an order for groceries. He had a book with a long printed list of the normal family requirements, with space at the bottom for extras. As I remember, the list started – blue blacking blacklead and continued through all the other groceries. A few days later the goods would arrive neatly wrapped in brown paper. Butter was cut from a block, sugar weighed into a blue bag and soap; White Winsor or carbolic; in a hard block. Similarly most of the other items would have been measured out in the shop. Great skill must have been needed to fashion the parcels from the many shapes.
Newbiggin was a mainly mining village but there was also a long established fishing community so there were some older houses. The local council and the Mine Owners built estates for the new pitmen as mining expanded. The three divisions of the village were called East End, West End and Colliery. The first two were adjoining and ran round the bay but the third was perhaps half a mile away. The East End was the oldest and had most of the shops. These were fairly comprehensive providing for food, clothing, banking three days a week and a Post Office.
There were three barber’s shops, at one of which I had my first proper haircut. The barber caught my ear enough to draw blood so that is my excuse for not liking having my hair cut. One winter evening when my mother took me to be trimmed, two boys came into the shop; each carrying a lighted candle in a glass jam jar; and said “Do you want the Guisers in”. The barber agreed so they sang then recited a poem. I have never since heard of the Guisers except in connection with the Shetlands when they burn a Viking boat. Perhaps the lads were going through an ancient ritual.
Eventually I found each barbering establishment had a main topic of conversation; say golf, gambling on the horses or fishing. Few men shaved themselves with the available cut-throat razor, so there was a rule “All shaves before haircuts” on a Saturday. After a haircut the barber would ask if you wanted a singe. This involved running a lighted wax taper over the recent cut. The burnt ends would then be vigorously brushed off, I think this prevented catching a cold and cost one penny. One old barber kept half an eye on the street as he worked and would rush out to greet a friend or any other distraction leaving his customer part shorn or shaved. He read the bumps on customer’s heads and told me I would travel a lot. He had some tall tales about smuggling and stripping wrecked ships after the crew had been saved by the brave heroes of the Lifeboat service.
The big bay is crescent shaped with rocks at either end and with a mile and a half of fine sandy beach between. I used to look for precious stones among gravely patches, there were a few bits of agate and quartz but pieces of glass that had been ground and rounded by sand and sea were the most attractive. If you rub two pebbles together the harder one is unmarked and is the gemstone, once in a long time. The southern end was an outcrop of rock some twenty feet high. A stream had, over centuries, cut a hole just high enough for a crouching child to traverse through this prominence. I only did this three times, once on a dare and twice to show off. This headland was named the Needle’s Eye (this place is of historic importance since it was there that I proposed and was accepted) and the other end was called the Church Point.
The church is eighteenth century with Victorian additions. Coast erosion brings it nearer the sea every decade. On this point an old man lived in a shack made from half an upturned boat, I can remember nothing of his history but he smoked a very short stemmed clay pipe.
If the weather was fine during summer weekends and public holidays hundreds of people from the local villages would arrive by train or ‘bus to enjoy the beaches and surrounds. Relations and friends would check in with my parents during the morning and expect to be fed at midday and perhaps teatime. Occasionally we did not answer the door if we planned to go out ourselves. As there were very few telephones, no warning was given of visits. A tin of pink salmon was kept in the cupboard to make sandwiches for unexpected visitors, if they were worth the expense.
The next bay to the north had a narrow strip of sand and the Fairy Rocks. These were always bright and clean because the fairies came twice a day to scrub them. When the tide was coming in, waves rushed up gullies and crevices between the slabs of rock and spouted feet into the air and splashed over them. Visitors could sometimes be manoeuvred into a position to benefit from the spray. The sea seldom covered these rocks for long periods so nothing grew on them. For some reason this beach often had sand fleas which bit ankles and raised red patches. Coal was washed up on one end of this beach, probably from a seam of coal on the seabed. There was sometimes enough for two or three people to gather it in sacks for their own use or sale. It was of course called sea coal.
Along the cliff top runs an eighteen-hole links golf course with an old bowling track just visible as a yard wide trampled, part sunken path. Years ago men bowled underarm a four-inch steel ball along a two-mile track and back .The winner took fewest throws; there was a lot of gambling on the result. Behind the course there was a patch of waste ground with a lot of rat holes in the grassy mounds. Older boys used to pinch carbide from their father’s lamps and put this with water down a rat hole. Acetylene was generated and when a lighted match was thrown into the hole a satisfactory explosion took place. I never saw any dead rats resulting from this exercise. A younger boy was sometimes allowed to throw the match and get singed.
The fisher folk lived at the East End near the church. Most of them were inter-related, news and rumours spread rapidly. The men wore long heavy knit black jerseys, locally known as “Gansees”. The patterns were handed down through families so you could tell to which family the man belonged by the knitting, useful if a body had been in the sea for some time. The men went to sea overnight mostly in three or four man cobles. These are adapted fishing boats to suit the slow shelving beach. At one time the women would carry the men to the boats so that the men would start the night dry, long rubber waiders ended that practice. The boat was rowed or sailed to the inshore fishing ground where a long line with baited hooks was put over the side, the hooks were baited by wives and family. Few of these men could swim, partly because of superstition that if you could swim you would need to. Swimming in the cold North Sea would not have prolonged their lives much in any case.
Next morning the catch was brought ashore and laid out by the boatload in lines on the beach and auctioned in small quantities. The buyers were local traders and housewives with occasionally a buyer from Newcastle, especially if there were crabs or lobsters. Any holidaymakers were welcome to pay over the going rate. A live crab once got hold of my left foot and clung on till a fisherman lifted the crab and my foot and put a stick in its other claw, then it left loose. The crowd thought it very funny.
Some of the fishermen’s cottages faced onto the main road and the wives would sometimes sit at the gates selling whelks and prepared crab in the shell. The whelks were sold in a newspaper cone and supplied with a pin for immediate consumption, not only by children. Crabs were a family treat as there was little money to spare for such luxuries.
It was rumoured that the fishermen did a little occasional smuggling. Ships from the continent were met and cigars and spirits came ashore without paying tax but only in small amounts for the families. It was not regarded as a business. The tale that they fastened a lighted lantern round a cow’s neck on the cliff top, to look like an inshore boat, and so lure ships onto the rocks on dark nights, is not likely to be true; not even in the past.
The village was well supplied with places of religious worship. Apart from the Church of England, there was a Primitive Methodist, a Wesleyan Methodist and a Salvation Army building. The Roman Catholics said a weekly mass in a room above Thompson’s Stores. My parents worshiped at the Primitive Methodist Church. For years I attended morning and evening services and Sunday school in the afternoon. My mother sang in the choir and my father held various offices over the years. While he was church steward he had to prepare the things once a month for our minister to perform the sacrament. Each participant received a small separate glass of wine and some bread. The wine was black current jam mixed with hot water during the afternoon, so it was cold by evening. The bread was a cube cut from the white loaf we had that teatime. The source made no difference when the items were blessed. The forty or more glasses had to be washed before and after the service. As my fingers were small I got the job of drying the glasses.
Sometimes after an evening service half a dozen or more of us would go to Mrs. Cook’s for a singsong around her piano. The music varied, including religious works and folk songs from the Evening Chronicle book. She and her husband were members of the congregation and they provided refreshments in the form of cold Yorkshire pudding and apple tart, simple fare and amusement but great fun.
Two or three family friends had a second room downstairs which was always called the front room. It would be fully furnished and even sometimes have a piano, which perhaps no one could play but was a good status cymbal. There were lace curtains at the window but the room was very seldom used. A wedding or twenty-first birthday party might see it in use, perhaps with a meal laid out on a snow-white cloth. The sandwiches would be made from a ham shank boiled with some peas pudding, which was always very cold, as there would be no fire on in the room. I can remember there was always a lot of singing at any party. I absorbed the last verse of the Red Flag without actually learning it.
Some Sundays, particularly if we had company, there would be tinned fruit and evaporated milk for tea. It was a well known fact that the pineapple was really swede. Peaches were fine but pears were best and for some reason the most expensive.
Evangelical Groups came to try to convert us, over a weekend, to the true way to God. This involved a lot of singing and some praying but the best part was the faith supper on the Saturday evening. This food was provided freely by the congregation, they had faith that there would be enough and there always was. The ladies of the congregation were in friendly rivalry to produce the best food. The same lady made the tea for many years and another always provided the milk. Once a year there was a pea and pie supper, the pies supplied by a local baker and the peas boiled with a ham shank. Food fit for a king.
The yearly anniversary of the founding of the church was celebrated with a religious concert on the Saturday night and special preachers on the Sunday. Small groups of people from other congregations would visit the concert and at the end each group would sing one verse of a favourite hymn, then on to the supper. Similarly groups from our church would visit other anniversaries. We walked or went by ‘bus to these meetings. On a cold winter night the ‘bus was always full of tobacco smoke and heat.
At the children’s anniversary each scholar from the Sunday school said her or his piece and sang together in the afternoon and evening. One year I was part of trio singing a song, the other two dried up during the second verse and I forgot the words of the third so I repeated the first. That ended my career as a singer. During the Anniversary Sunday morning we sang in the streets outside the homes of members of the congregation and collected money for good causes. Once a year the Sunday school went on a picnic. Morpeth was the usual choice where we played on the grass on the riverbank and had tea in the local chapel. Each Christmas we had a party. This involved team games, running about and singing, and a few embarrassing kissing games. These last caused much laughter among the supervising adults; they enjoyed them more than I did. As always there was a big tea and each child left with an apple and an orange in a bag, some years there was also a coin.
On Christmas Eve after an evening service the choir plus hangers on would sing carols outside the houses of Church members. Often these people had retired for the night but came to bedroom windows to hear the carols and give money. One year I had a torch and got into trouble for shining it up at the listeners in their night attire.
One of the Saturdays before Christmas my mother would take me to Newcastle to see the display of toys in the big shops. Some of the largest had a Santa’s Grotto. For sixpence or a shilling one could see Santa and tell him what presents you wanted. He had two big sacks by his side, pink for girls and blue for boys, from the appropriate one he would give you a present as you left. This would be examined at home and reappear on Christmas morning.
Each year my Grandfather would send us a goose by post from his farm at Chinley for Christmas dinner. This meal would be shared with close relations. One year Aunt Sally dropped the goose on the floor but as it fell on oilcloth, no carpet, it mattered little. Christmas tea saw more friends and relations gathering with us, the mince pies, the Christmas Cake in fact all the food would be home made.
Each group of Methodist Churches had a paid minister who took the service in each church once or twice a quarter. Local Preachers, men with strong beliefs but often a minimum of training filled the remainder of the Sundays. If the preacher came from further than say the next village a church member would entertain him to lunch and tea. This could be boring on a wet Sunday but poor transport meant he could not go home and come back for the evening service very easily.
My parents once took me to Newcastle to see Bertram Mills Circus, which at that time was the biggest in the British Isles. An enormous Big Top, with all the caravans and a menagerie had been constructed on the Town Moor. While we were waiting to get near the brightly painted ticket office I bought a miniature copy of the Evening Chronicle, the local paper, which measured about six by four inches. It was complete with headlines and pictures. The flying trapeze act and the lion tamer who had tigers impressed me most. An exploding car was the centrepiece of the clowns’ act.
Beyond the Needles Eye there was a sandstone quarry. Most of the stone was reduced to sand in crushers and finished as concrete paving slabs or artificial stone. There was not much beach on this part, the cliffs rose sharply and there were numerous caves, reachable at low tide only. There was supposed to be a smuggler’s tunnel to the Hall, but it was never discovered by anyone I knew, perhaps coast erosion filled it in, more likely it was another tall tale.
The height of the cliffs around the beach varied between, say twenty feet and ten feet. Houses are built on the top for half of the distance, with gardens falling steeply to stone walls to keep out the sea. At the middle of the bay, divided steps shaped like a horseshoe gave access from the road to the beach. We used to race down separate flights to the sand, at some risk to limbs. The beach was golden sand with a firm wet strip near the water for playing football or for a short season cricket. Climbing up bare rock was exciting with the odd cut or sprain. The North Sea is cold for paddling except when a bright sun warms the shallows. Shoals of very small sand eels would wriggle around your ankles. Seaweed, some as fine as moss, grew in slippery profusion around the rock pools that were alive with tiny fish, shellfish and crabs.
A promenade, which also served as a sea wall, was built when I was about ten. Eight foot long by foot square wooden piles were driven in to the sand to give a firm foundation. Concrete was poured between shuttering to give a four feet wide wall. This was back filled with rubble and paved over. The horseshoe steps were replaced by a single concrete set with a shelter built of the same material at the bottom. For a while jumping off the promenade onto the sands was the thing to do, a few sprained ankles and knees resulted. We soon tired of the sport.
Transport was good. A two-platform railway station stood at the centre of the village. At the entrance to the station stood a pillar box with the letters VR cast into the front. About ten trains a day ran for twenty miles through towns and villages to Newcastle. By changing at Bedlington you could catch rarer trains to Blyth and Morpeth. The line was much used to haul coal to the South and to the local seaports. Opposite the station there was a pond, which served no purpose, it just lay as an unused piece of land. Eventually the Council made it into a lawned park with iron railings and elegant gates with stone pillars. This served as a simple memorial to the local men killed in the First World War.
The United ‘Bus Company ran services to Newcastle via Ashington and other towns and villages. A similar service ran to Morpeth. By changing at Ashington you could get a ‘bus to other places up and down the coast. A small local company, with three little ‘buses ran a service to Ashington. Miners travelling to or from work could not use any of this transport because of their clothing. No pit baths or changing rooms were installed, so men travelled to work in their work clothes and came home covered in coal dust. At home they would use a tin bath in front of the fire, daughters and any visiting ladies above a certain age would have to leave the room. The wife would stay and scrub his back.
In those days there were two hundred and forty pence in a pound. Pocket money was issued in pennies and halfpennies but a penny would buy two ounces of sweets. For a few months a manufacturer sold eight chews for a penny, each wrapped in a paper bearing the name of one of the twenty two first division football teams. If you collected the set, a full size football was the prize. Collecting and swapping the first twenty one was easy but no one ever got the Arsenal wrapper. High class sweets cost fourpence and Cadbury’s Milk Tray cost sixpence a quarter
There was an abundance of fish and chip shops. The standard supper for an adult was a twopenny fish and a penerth of chips; a child would have a penerth of chips. Chips were wrapped directly in newspaper while fish would have the protection of a single small sheet of greaseproof paper, salt and vinegar were free. At some shops a portion of chips could be swapped for a bundle of newspapers. Crumbs of fried batter from the fish; called scranshums; were free on request. Other food delights were available. The Pork Butcher on a corner at Ashington, sold penny dips. A bread bun was cut in half and dipped in the grease and gravy of a roasting joint, with luck you got a bit of crackling with it. Hot pork buns were also sold if there was any money about. On Saturday mornings, you could take a jam jar and buy boiled peas from the door of an old woman at the fisher end.
We had a cinema called the Wallaw that was part of a chain of six owned by Walter Lawson. On Saturday morning matinees it cost twopence (old money) to get in. The programme consisted of a serial and a cowboy or gangster film. During the former there was so much shouting and noise little dialogue could be heard, so I am not sure how Flash Gordon saved civilisation nearly every week. The manager had us quietened down by the by the start of the big film. Hundreds of Indians, Rustlers and Gangsters were killed on the way home. The evening programme changed twice a week with shows twice nightly, except on Sunday when another film was shown once only.
The Pavilion cinema at Ashington must have at one time been a theatre, it had the facilities for raising and lowering scenery and wings at the side of the stage. Alternate years the Amateur Dramatic and Amateur Choral Society would perform for a week. The shows were always sold out and received with great enthusiasm and all profits went to the local hospital.
There was an annual carnival held in the summer. The main part of this was a procession of Jazz Bands from the West End to the moor. These bands wore fancy dress uniform and played kazoos and sometimes drums. Starting at the other end of the village they processed to the moor. They were judged on their marching, music and costume. Separating the bands would be children and adults in fancy dress and the smartly turned out horses and carts of the local tradesmen. A collection was taken along the route in aid of the local hospital. On the moor a travelling fair with roundabouts and stalls would have arrived a few days before. The next Saturday another village or town would have the same exciting time.
One of the accompanying events at the carnival would be a one hundred yards foot race. In a park or the football ground up to eight lanes would be marked out with white lines. From the start ten lines were drawn at yard intervals forward and three lines were drawn behind the start. The runners would start from this grid, being handicapped on previous performances and given yards start according to their form. Unknown entrants started from scratch. In theory they should all finish level. There were no starting blocks but most runners had spiked shoes. For a false start a contestant would be pulled back a yard, twice then out of the race. Bookmakers attended and there was a lot of gambling on the heats and the final. The winner of the final would win cash, equivalent to say a month’s wages or more. Amateurs in those days ran for a small cup and honour. To get a good handicap start various tricks were tried such as a small pebble in a shoe, a big meal before a race or carrying a lead weight, which was dropped just before the finish. A tot of whisky added a yard to a tea-totallers performance. Every runner had to appear to be doing his best before the ever-present handicappers. Everyone wanted the maximum start so his backers could pull off a betting coup. A race winner would start again from scratch next time out. The contestants ran under pseudonyms, my informant a plumber called Bob Noble was Bradford on the track.
At the age of eleven I left the Colliery School and went to Bedlington Grammar School, together with five other boys and two girls out of a class of about fifty but that is another story.
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Two other stories by George Weallans:
Chinley Farm (1920s and early 30s)
8 thoughts on “Tales when young (1920s and early 30s)”
Hadn’t seen most of this before.
My brother put me onto this as we come from Ashington where my mother was born in 1918. I live in Australia now, but my brother likes to keep me in touch with my heritage. My mother would have enjoyed this as it covers her era, though I do remember Ashington very well and some of the places and events mentioned.
Thanks for your comment. I’m always amazed by the number of people that either know of, or come from, Ashington and that part of Northumberland.
The tales written by my Father-in-law were very evocative of both the area and time; I wish he had been able to write more, because the three he committed to paper are quite fascinating.
John (known as George) Weallans was my grandfather and I remember riding round the streets of Ashington in the butcher’s van when I was a child. The back to back houses seemed facinating to me and his regular customers always had a lot to say. Surprisingly, a lot of people have connections with Ashington. Just last year I discovered one of the staff where I worked in Nottinghamshire came from there.
Hi there can I just ask which butcher your grandfather worked for please
Hello Theresa, the butchers in Newbiggin was called Manleys.
Hi this is a long shot, but I’m desperate to find someone who knew my grandmother Eleanor Mary Lyons , she was born in Ashington, 23. 12.1917, I am her granddaughter and trying to find family of hers or close relatives , she grew up there , had a brother she called Todd. She talked about it all the time , and loved the place dearly , I’d love to find someone who knew her.
Hello Tina, I don’t know of anyone by that name, but I will mention it to our relatives that still live in the area and let you know if it rings any bells. Roy