Home and around (4)
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I often wonder about life in the rows of terrace houses that housed the workers of Hunslet's factories. At the time, many if not most would be employed as highly skilled engineers in the myriad of factories. Even if not among the ranks of skilled machine operators, they were likely to be involved in the uncomfortable and arduous if not down right dangerous support industries such as forges, glass producers, collieries or railways and the like.
Hunslet is at one end of the world's oldest commercial railways: Middleton Railway. Coal was brought from Middleton colliery to be offloaded at the Hunslet Coal Staithes and distributed from there. There was a link to the massive goods yards at Balm Road and Stourton where my father worked for a time. Stourton now houses a massive container base. The railway is operated now by a dedicated group of volunteers and gives a fascinating if not awe-inspiring view into the past industrial glories of the nation's past.
There was row upon row of back to back, or in the case of our house, backless, homes. The majority of these by far would open their front doors directly onto a stone flagged footpath outside and a cobbled road. Our street must have been pre-Roman, since we had not been furnished with the cobbles! They would face directly onto their neighbours on the opposite side of the street and on washing day, tradition says Monday, the street would be criss-crossed with washing lines strung from side to side. The line would be supported by wooden props in the middle of the road. The occasions, extremely rare, that a vehicle came along the street would be a precursor to many groans and steely looks from the vexed housewives who would venture into the street to hold the washing up, sometimes with the help of the prop, so the offending vehicle could pass through. I am sure the rent collectors or whoever else could afford road vehicles would have wished they had parked further away and walked.
I was too young at the time to recognise some of the anomalies of life in the streets. Most residents would keep themselves and their families as clean and tidy as was possible given the constrictions of poor utilities. However, one thing has gnawed at me for many years. To put this in context of the times, remember this was the nineteen forties and fifties men came home expecting food to be available, and after food it was time to rest until the pubs would welcome them. It was the habit of the housewife in very many cases to throw food that was left on the plates, or excess food (not that there would be much of either) onto the cobbled street. For many years, I thought it was a love of the wildlife that prompted this behaviour. Now I think back and remember the general squalor of the place. There would be flocks of feral pigeons strutting all over the place taking as much food as was possible to eat without causing flight difficulties. They of course left behind their ‘calling cards’. But, and I rush to say, I never to my knowledge saw one, there must have been a population of rats that was fed better and were more healthy than many of their human landlords. The opportunities for rats and other rodents to choose a well supplied existence must have been just about endless. Beginning with the dark cellars which allowed access from house to house through all sorts of nooks and crannies, roof spaces which were elevated versions of the cellars and less likely to be disturbed by human visitors and ending with outside toilets with open access to the sewer system.
Baths involved either the indignity of sitting in a galvanised tub in front of the fire. In the romanticised view shown on many current day television shows, the water would be brimming to overflow and topped off with another six inches of bubbles. All the hot water available had to be heated in a kettle and/or pan on the range or the two ring gas burner so if you wanted a bath ‘today’, reality was three or four inches of tepid water, and I have yet to know anyone who managed to get any kind of lather with carbolic soap. Carbolic soap was the generic, utilitarian red block that would shatter toes if dropped. It was used for everything from washing the floor, the people who walked on the floor and the clothes the people wore. Wash houses and baths were available for public use but not at the end of every street.
Washing in my house involved the use of a barrel-shaped, galvanised tub and a washing board; both of these items would later find imaginative use as musical instruments in the days of skiffle groups. The clothes would be dropped into the tub and agitated with a poss, a kind of upturned sieve attached to the end of a stick which would be plunged up and down in the tub. The washing would be lifted from the boiling water with a stick that was called a dolly and dropped into the sink for rinsing. White clothes would be rinsed with a chemical additive that would add a blue hue, the originator of ‘the blue whitener’. The washing would be rung out, no spin drier available of course, and hung on the washing line in the street. Of course, teamwork was sometimes required for larger items such as blankets and sheets, so neighbours would be called upon to hold and twist the other end to wring the item as dry as possible! Finally, crossed fingers for no rain and the forlorn hope of no smoky fires.
What is meant by austerity? I am sure my early childhood was not unusual. There were many families in the same, perhaps even worse predicament. A description of austerity then, with details would be very different from today. To my knowledge, there was never electricity in my first family home and that precludes installation of things like televisions, telephones, microwaves. The occasional introduction of a flashlight (torch) as a Christmas present for me was about as near as we would get to electricity and the quality of the battery left much to be desired. Of course when the battery failed, there was no money for replacements so that was the end of the torch. The final act was to try it again some time later to find that it still did not work and the battery and much of the interior of the torch was reduced to a sticky acidic mush. So if there is no television, there is no games console.
The only time we saw professional sport required a visit to the actual live match. Big matches, whatever the sport, would get limited coverage on the Pathe News at the cinema so the general public were aware of international matches and FA Cup Finals and that was how we would be dissolved into a state of awe by 10 seconds of poorly focussed, black and white magic from Stan Matthews or the legendary cricketers such as Don Bradman or particularly, in my case, as a Yorkshireman, Len Hutton. Yes, the ‘action replay’ would appear about two weeks later on the big screen.
Since Christmas got a mention, lets consider a typical seasonal celebration. Turkey was not an option. Even chicken was too expensive for most folks. To be fair, beef seemed to be, from my experience the normal meat for the weekend so pork made the table for Christmas. Most foods were still rationed. Bread was rationed until 1948 and sugar, meat and other products did not become free from rationing until well into the 1950’s. Little prospect of prawn cocktail starters, Turkey with the trimmings and as for Black Forest Gateau after six years of war with the Germans? Let’s not go there!
Christmas presents were, of course, limited by the family budget. The stocking would be hung on the mantel shelf and in the morning would appear magically bulging with an apple, an orange (probably a satsuma or clementine), a few nuts (requiring cracking open with the flat iron) and a brand new penny. There would be one major present. I can only remember one of these. It was a train set. It had a circular track roughly eighteen inches (half a metre) in diameter and the train pulled a coal tender and a single carriage. The power source was clockwork. It ran for about three circuits of the track before the power was all consumed and the train stopped for refuelling (rewinding). I loved it! There was however an incident involving the train that left me in tears. My dad had a good friend who was doing the refuelling one day and he decided to add some reality to the proceedings. He placed a burning cigarette in the funnel of the train and set it off round the track, apparently with steam issuing from said funnel. I was young, naive and inexperienced. I reached out to touch the smoke and, of course, burnt my hand before I could be restrained. That was the end of reality although there was some authenticity in the train clattering along a metal track on the cold stone flags of our room!
Even if we were going to get more or bigger presents we would not really have an idea what to ask for! The lack of television meant that there was little visible advertising of products other than in the relevant shops, on advertising hoardings or at the cinema. There was not an over-abundance of money available even for the basic things in life so advertising tended to be limited to those things that, at the time might have been essential or at the very least adding gravy to the kitchen table. So we would see pictures of a couple of kids with an apparently desirable aroma wafting past their nostrils under a caption of ‘Aah Bisto’. Oxo cubes were advertised as a meal, not just additional seasoning.
Cigarettes of course were essentials and they were advertised everywhere. Well, everyone smoked didn’t they? So the brands were at war. I remember Craven A, Senior Service, Woodbine, Capstan Full Strength among others and the associated images endure! At the cinema, the same products were advertised of course and there have been many critics over the years of the way that smoking was glamourised. In fact an enduring feature of any trip to the cinema in those days was the fog through which we observed our heroes.
Unless we were in a shop that sold them, we did not see the top rated toys of the time. Meccano construction sets or Hornby train sets were saved for the rare occasion when, as a treat, we were taken into the large toy departments of the big shops in Leeds City Centre. In some ways, although it was well intentioned, in reality it was quite cruel. It is reminiscent of the old television show when the losing finalist is finally ground into the earth with the immortal words ‘Let’s see what you could have won!’. We were looking at extravagant displays featuring huge construction sites littered with wonderful creations made from lengths of steel held together with screws and operated by clockwork (later electric) motors. An array of Hornby electric trains, passenger and goods would clatter round a track many feet long with all sorts of junctions, rail-side furniture such as signal boxes and level crossings. At no time was there the suggestion “choose which one you want”! In any case I was five years old before I lived in a house that gave us access to the wonders of electricity.
Birthdays were the same but less extravagant! I have a vague recollection of receiving a toy car for one birthday but as my birthday is in August and we were on holiday with family in Blackpool. I think the car was bought by grandma and grandad, who I am sure would have been imbued with the spirit of the holiday as motivation to treat me!
I repeat, I am in no way complaining, I was no different from most of my peers. We did not know what we were missing. Sweets were on ration so the odd occasion when we did get them, it was a real treat. I am told that I was such an undemanding child that the first time I asked for an ice cream, my parents were so taken aback that my dad ran around the streets of Hunslet searching for the purveyor who pedalled around on a tricycle that had a cold storage box fitted between the front pair of wheels. I am sure that I would have been at least as surprised to get what I asked for as my parents were to be asked!
I was born in Hunslet. My family, I was the second child born during the second world war, would eventually stretch to six in total. The house in Hunslet was a two roomed terrace. It had a room upstairs, the bedroom, and a room on the ground floor which was for everything else. There was, of course, a coal cellar which was used for nothing else. Mother, dad and three of us lived here. Our youngest brother arrived after we had moved to the dizzying fresh air of Belle Isle, further south in Leeds.
The house was situated in a square of similar or worse properties. Constructed in the Victorian years it shared nothing in common with the modern concept of ‘Victorian terrace’. There certainly was nothing grand about it at all. I recently asked an aunt of mine about it and her first words were “It was a midden!” For the uninitiated, a midden was (or is) a crude earth filled toilet. In this case, it was just a term to describe the general state of decay in and around the property. Oddly, the one thing it did not have was a midden. There was a flushing toilet at the end of the street for use by everyone in the street and I suppose anyone passing through. There are many chamber pots (gozunders) which are relics of the era and will have saved innumerable frost bitten extremities from exposure during inclement weather. Good prices can be had in antique fairs for some of these life saving, essential accessories. Fortunately, television was a thing for the future, newspapers had a very wide circulation and would invariably be recycled after being cut into manageable sizes and hung on a nail strategically placed on the back of the toilet door. Toilet tissue was also a thing of the future in Hunslet.
Back to the, relatively speaking, warmth of the house. There was one window upstairs at the front of the house and a window alongside the door at the front.
There was a stone flag floor and its only cover was a clip rug about six feet by four feet placed next to the hearth. A clip rug was a home-made item which consisted of a piece of hessian, or sacking, through which were pushed small pieces of material clipped from old items of clothing. The clips were knotted at one end to stop them pulling through the hessian. They could be quite attractively produced with colour patterns and were definitely better than sitting on the cold flags.
The coal fire was the only heating and there was no electricity. Lighting was by gas with very fragile mantles to provide a minimum of diffusion. The mantles seemed to be a magnet for the Trilby hat worn by my uncle who did not see the need to remove the offending apparel before entering the house. My dad was not amused!
There was only one water tap in the property and that was for cold water. Any hot water had to be heated, very slowly, on the ‘cooker’. The cooker was a very simple two ring burner, no oven or grill, just two burners. Campers nowadays would regard it as a very primitive piece of apparatus! However, it did produce some good quality, nutritious home cooked meals with the assistance of the oven built at the side of the coal fire. There was no washing machine of course. Standard issue of the time was a peggy tub and a scrubbing board. All washing was dependent on the weather but since there was as much dirt in the air as on the floor, changing clothes was not an essential daily event.
Stepping from the front door, you were onto well worn stone flags and then the centre of the square was simply well trodden earth. Ashes deposited from under the coal fires out of the front doors onto the earth gave it some degree of binding. Not very suitable for road vehicles, but since milk was delivered by horse drawn carts and decanted, for want of a better word, from churns into whatever vessel the customer brought, ice cream was carried in a cool box on the front of a bicycle and most other commercial activity involved horse drawn carts. So unusual was it to see a car that one occasion shines out to me as a beacon. The car was driven into and parked on the square and the driver alighted and went into one of the houses. The car was then surrounded by a small crowd of urchins gaping into the window. Some, including me climbed onto the running board for a better look. The result was the running board gave a creak and fell to the ground. The urchins disappeared and I remember peaking through dirty net curtains as the driver returned. He had a very puzzled expression as he looked around the square for clues.
All my memories seem to be in varying shades of grey! Yes, my memories are often based upon the many photographs we as a family have of those times and all of them are black and white but Hunslet in those times was a morose place with very little colour piercing the smoggy gloom that resulted from the coal-fired industry that was the beating heart of the place. That industry, though, was huge and magnificent and essential to the war effort and the rebuilding afterwards. The names of these manufacturing dynamos roll off the tongue: John Fowler, Mclarens, Hunslet Engine Company, Henry Berry, Hathorn, Davey and Sulzer, Braimes, Yorkshire Copper Works and Cameron Iron Works is not a comprehensive list. These of course were backed up in other fields of employment such as John Waddington and Alf Cooke printers, along with Joshua Tetley Brewery.
The industry was not always good news, as after the second world war other countries were in a better position to upgrade or even start again with more modern techniques and a lower paid workforce. Most of Hunslet’s industrial past is indeed the past with very little remaining. An early casualty of modern technology and materials was my father who was employed as a skilled man in a brush making factory. After the war, nylon, plastics and mass production techniques rendered him and the factory where he practiced his skill redundant. One of many soldiers returning from war service to find the world was changing rapidly.
Of course there were some items that needed ironing. No electric, the iron was a lump of iron or steel that was shaped roughly the same as a modern high-tech electric one but there the similarity ends. They did a good job, as long as it was not too hot when it was gingerly lifted off the source of external heat which could be the side of the range or the top of the gas ring. The user had to lift the iron with a handle that was welded to the base and had no insulation to protect the hands so ironing involved using a thick cloth to wrap around the handle. If steam was required, splashing the material with water was the only option no plastic water sprays in those days! We still have two or three of these irons around the house; they make good door stops!
At this point I think it is time to mention the chemical works at the bottom of our street. My most vivid recollection was to walk from the front door of my home and immediately start coughing. There was no way to mitigate the cough, the aggravation at the back of my throat was all-powerful. Hunslet was a smoky place at the best of times, but I came to recognise that if the wispy, dark brown-yellow coloured smoke was issuing from the chemical plant, I would cough. I would later understand that this was a by-product of the plant's production of sulphuric acid. Although sulphuric acid has numerous industrial uses and was the basis for many batteries, it is a very hazardous material. It is extremely corrosive and must be handled with care. The HASAWA (Health and Safety at Work Act) had not yet come into being and obviously manufacturers and employers did what they needed to do to make a profit. That was about it! The acrid output from the many flues and chimneys was acceptable as long as people did not drop dead. The acid was carried about on public roads in glass carboys seated in a straw bed inside a metal cage. If the vehicle was involved in an accident, there was a good chance of leakage. There was talk of one accident where the driver of one of these vehicles was soaked in concentrated sulphuric acid and suffered an agonising death.
At some time during the 1960s a large car dealer took over part of the Laporte site and began to park vehicles on it. Most of the vehicles were new cars awaiting sale or delivery. After a time, it became apparent that fall-out from the adjoining factory was causing major problems to the paintwork. New cars needing paint jobs! Later, after production ceased at the plant, cars were still experiencing issues as tyres were being badly damaged by the acid content of the ground they were parked on. We were breathing in this fallout! Incidentally, it appears that the nearest the Nazi bombers came to hitting a target near my home, before I was born but while my family were resident, was a hit at the edge of the Laporte plant. I am unaware of any casualties but Hitler might, with better technology, have inadvertently saved many Hunslet residents from lung problems!
Ken Bywater was born at Varley Square in 1944.
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