Childhood Memories

Wigan Fair

The bi-annual pot and pleasure fair made its appearance again after the end of the war, because until now, the blackout had put paid to it. I was in my last two years at school and as we came back after the lunch break, it drew us like a magnet. Many were the times that boys were late in due to being stuck on the Ferris Wheel as the attendant waited for customers! There were still a few traction engines about to provide the electricity supply, but most of it came from portable diesel generators, a lot of them ex WD stuff. Walking around the various attractions, care had to be taken to avoid tripping over the snaking black cables that seemed to be everywhere. There was the Waltzer, Caterpillar, Big Wheel, "Cocks and Horses", or carousel to give it its proper name, several small roundabouts, The Shamrock, or Swingboat, a long boxlike affair that would rock in ever increasing pendulum movements until it was nearly vertical. I was never a lover of anything that went round, as when I was a youngster of around 7, I had been on one of the roundabouts and had become dizzy and sick sat on a small bike, so most of my pleasure came from the side shows. I loved shooting and the airguns were a big draw to me. I never won anything as the sights on the guns had been filed out of line. Our Bill was shooting once, and as he wasn't much of a shot, he managed to put two darts through the tent top. The lady in charge gave him his money back!!

I was always a sucker for "freebies" and I recall parting with a shilling for a "Peruvian" gold ring. In no time at my entire finger was going black from the copper after the gold had come off. I once went to the man who guessed your weight for a shilling, and having failed to guess it, he gave me a "lucky Mexican Bean", which turned out to be a French runner bean in disguise!!

There were loads of different sideshows about, and one I visited was advertised as a "freak show". Talk about a swizz!! All the exhibits were stuffed. One was supposed to be a cross between a bulldog and a cow and was a superb example of the taxidermist's art. Another was a 3 legged duck, this was alive and had had a third leg attached to its backside, probably with some glue. It was walking around dragging the third leg behind it!! Another sideshow promised "striptease" What a let down!! The tent was full of adolescents all agog at the promise of bare female flesh. The girl who was supposed to be stripping came on the stage in a diaphanous dress and proceeded to shed it to an accompanying music from a gramophone record. Having shed the dress, she turned her back on the audience, started to unhook her bra, and just at the vital moment the proprietor blew a whistle and pulled the curtain across the stage!!!

Butterworths Pea Saloon was well in evidence, but Ma had said to keep away as "Their cups were none too clean and had cracks in them" Plenty of other people availed themselves of the delicacy though. Another stall sold small pieces of potato cooked in the chip boiler and sold in cone shaped bags.

There was "all press", where everyone playing had a bell push in front of them. A carved figure of Ben Hur in his chariot was on a plinth in the centre of the stall, and this was sent whizzing round by the stall owner. Above it was a board with illuminated numbers, and as the chariot went round, the lights flashed on the board, stopping on the winning number as the chariot came to rest. The impression given was that harder you pressed, the better your chance was, but I don't think that in reality, the bell pushes were connected to anything.

I never fancied any of the more violent rides, such as the Waltzer, as one day as I stood watching it, there was one poor soul in a car and as it spun round he was throwing up at every spin. That really put me off!!

The stuff that fascinated me was in the penny arcade tents. "All-Win Deluxe" I think they were called. It seemed impossible to lose, but they took many a penny from me!!

There were a couple of "roll-a-penny" stalls, and Eric Taylor devised what he thought was a winning plan. When the man's back was turned, Eric removed the slide and placed a penny on a winning square, and when the man turned round, he paid out the prize money. After a few wins, the man got suspicious and whipped round to see Eric placing the penny. That put paid to that scheme!!

There were many other "pitchers" on the outskirts of the Market Square and we boys knew one of these as "Joe Strong" I think that he sold some sort of patent medicine. He always dressed in a singlet whatever the weather, and he had in his hands a spring device, used by bodybuilders to improve their physique. He put a penny in the spring and we waited patiently for him to perform with it but he never did.

I recall another who sold a special sort of soap that could work miracles on a stained carpet. When he had a crowd around he put soot, grease, and jam on the sample, after which he rubbed on the soap and Hey Presto!! All clean again. When he was rubbing the jam in, he apologized about it saying that he couldn't use real jam as it was in short supply and rationed, so he used some sort of fruit substitute.

Another chap was a big African who sold tooth powder. He had a marvellous set of teeth and told us that he was 70 yrs of age. We never believed him of course!! He would ask for volunteers from the audience to have this powder rubbed on their gums and teeth but I never went out.

I left the Grammar School in 1947 having gained a School Certificate of sorts; I had to do two years in the transitus form as I flopped on the first attempt, because in those days, there was no such thing as taking the subjects that you failed in. All the lot had to be re-sat. I finally finished up with credits in General Science 1 and 2 and in French, with passes in English language, English Literature, and Geography, and failures in History, Latin and Maths. So far at school I had kept out of trouble, except for the odd run in with authority, but I nearly came a cropper when, during the time I was taking the School Cert, I had the unfortunate chance to meet the Headmaster with a cigarette hanging from my lip. As soon as I saw him, I threw it down and stubbed it out. "That was a foolish thing to do boy!" Said the Head. "What's your name?" I told him and he said, "I'll see you after the exams" "Not if I can help it!!" I thought.

For the rest of the exams, I kept my head down, and as soon as they were over, I left school never to return!! Thus began my short career as a fruit and veg seller. Although I wanted to get away from school at the end, I must say that I enjoyed my time there, and when I look back to the times that we had, in those dark days of wartime, I remember them fondly. There was a good mix of boys, many of them from so called "deprived areas" of Wigan, and a lot of them went on to academic careers, and did well for themselves, thus giving a lie to the thinking today that "social deprivation" stunts a child's natural ability to learn and be a success.

Such a boy was Colin Davies. He started Grammar School the year after me and came from Highfield School. Colin and his sister lived in Wesley Street, off Enfield Street, and they had no father. I never knew anything about the father, except that he had died earlier. The family was really poor, and when Colin started Grammar School he was the only boy in his year that didn't have a coat to wear. We didn't have to have uniform in those days, as clothing was rationed. Some boys had blazers, but the majority just had a cap and a tie. The caps were 5/- each (25p) and the ties 1/-each (5p) to buy from Pendlebury's who had the contract for the School. To prove a point, Colin although not well blessed with this world's goods, had a good brain and finished up as a Professor at a University in Scotland.

Colin was a big, rawboned lad as he grew up and he always had problems getting plimsolls to fit him. I recall the school sports day on the Mesnes Field when Colin ran his races barefoot. At that time, a story was running in the Wizard comic paper about this fantastic athlete called Wilson. Supposedly given a drug made from a herbal formula by a guru in Tibet, Wilson could perform record-breaking feats in any branch of sport. He always ran in an old fashioned woollen track suit and in bare feet, so as Colin ran round the track, the cry of "Come on Wilson" was taken up by spectators!!

As we didn't have to wear uniforms as such, the cap was a badge of the school and we were required to always carry one, wearing it if ever a master saw us in the street. We all started with a new cap at the onset of our Grammar School life, but after a couple of months, caps were lost and the lost property office under the stairs was the place to go. For the magnificent sum of one penny, one could try any number of caps and pick out the best fit. No matter whose name was written inside, they were all fair game.

Having no uniform also brings me to another amusing tale. As clothes were rationed, hand-me downs were the order of the day. One of Dad's cousins had a couple of suits of her husbands that were going spare so I was taken to try them on. One was brown and the other grey, and the jackets had saddles across the back with vents at the sides. Very smart, I thought, as I tried them on. The first thing that I always did on trying on a coat was to plunge my hands into the pockets, and as I did so out came an object best described as a "rolled up balloon". As soon as she saw what it was, Miriam, Dad's cousin blushed furiously and took it from me, I said lamely, "I think it's a toffee". What Miriam's husband was doing with a re-usable condom in his pocket, I never found out, but the whole incident became a closed book, never to be opened again!!

Fruit and Vegetable Hawking

While I was at Grammar School, Dad had to finish work as a miner. He had been in the job of Deputy for a while and as his earnings had risen to the dizzy heights of 8 pounds per week, I had to have school fees paid at the rate of 3 pounds per term, even though I had passed the scholarship exam. It was a big blow to the family economy when Dad was no longer working.

It all started with a bout of coughing after having been in a place underground where he had been firing shots for some workmen. He came home and was spitting blood. I can see him now, lying on the settee, still in his pit dirt, breathing erratically. He went for an X ray and was told that he had torn the pleura, which is the protective sheath round the lungs. Dr Richmond, who was the specialist in chest problems at Wigan, said that he should go into Delamere Hospital for some recuperation, Delamere being the TB hospital near Frodsham, and Dad was stuck in there for 3 months in 1944.

Ma was at her wits end, and if it hadn't been for kind friends such as Joe Jayne and Joe Hill, I don't know what we would have done. Ma was trying to bring our Bill and me up on ten shillings (50p) a week. I honestly don't know how she managed. Every Wednesday and Saturday she went off on the train to see Dad, travelling with Mrs Bewley, whose brother Gerry Marshall was in the same hospital. This was the same Gerry who later in life ran the Casino and Mister Ms in Station Road. As it was a TB hospital, before the advent of streptomycin, the treatment was fresh air, and all the small cabins where the beds were had their doors wedged open. As it got colder, Ma had to fill a hot water bottle to keep herself warm!

Dad was in there until around Christmas time 1944. When he came home, he had gained a couple of stone, but his chest was no better than before, in fact any exertion made him tired and he couldn't face going up a hill, however slight the gradient was.

It was about this time that a funny incident occurred. In the pen was a New Hampshire rooster, which Dad had bought before his illness, to put new blood into the flock of hens. It was a magnificent bird that strolled round with its flock of hens, in a very proud manner. Our Billy found out that by making the noise of a hen in distress, the rooster would come running to investigate. Well, one day when Billy was in the pen, he made the distressed call and as the rooster came running, he legged it for the gate, but unfortunately for him, he tripped and fell before reaching it, the rooster stood over him and Billy, scared to death, was shouting frantically for Dad to come and rescue him.

When he was saved from his fate, Billy hated that rooster, and wouldn't go near him. Anyway, when Dad was ill, it was decided that he needed some nourishment, and Tom Rollins was asked to kill the rooster to make some soup for Dad. When Billy heard about this, he said, "I don't want any of it, I don't like it for what it did to me." Well, as Ma was cooking the bird, it smelled delicious, and hunger got the better of him. Finally, Billy said that he wanted some of the rooster, and managed to eat part of his old enemy after all!!

As no money was coming in, it was decided that Dad should go into business as a fruit and vegetable hawker.

Those days, to get a hawker's licence, it was necessary to go in front of a panel to see if you were a suitable person or not. Because Dad had been in the TB hospital it was against him, although he hadn't had the disease, and had only gone in for recuperation, one man on the panel, a fellow by the name of Gill, who incidentally ran a milk round, was dead set against him having a licence. I remember Ma saying that Gill had said that Dad having had TB it wouldn't be right for him to sell food! Anyway, we found an ally in Harry Hancock, who was a friend of Joe Johnson. They were both on the council at the time.

Harry saw to it that Dad's licence application was approved and that Dad could start in business. The next job was to get some equipment, such as a horse, a cart and scales etc. He managed to get a cart from somewhere and to start with, we hired a horse. I think that the cart was about £30 to buy; I never knew where the money came from, because we were totally skint. The horse was hired from one of the horse dealers in Wigan, who were known as "forties" as in forty thieves. The pony's name was Johnny and it had a roman nose, we only had it for a week or so. When it was time for Dad to make his debut as a fruit and veg hawker, Ma went out with him to give moral support.

I suppose that at the time that he started in business he was fortunate in the fact that a lot of the usual hawkers were still away on war service and he managed to put together a decent sized round which took him along Billinge road to Tunstall Lane and down to Valley Road, also along Billinge Road to its junction with Ormskirk Road, and into the Worsley Hall estate, Almond Grove, Ridyard St, Poplar Ave. Elm Ave, Alder Ave, Palm Grove, and Bulteel St. He also went along Billinge Road to its junction with Pemberton Road at Pony Dick, and then into the Park to the cottages there.

I was still at school at that time, and each morning I would go with him, driving the cart to Wigan to pick up the produce. By this time we had obtained our own horse, the famous "Rose". She was an Exmoor pony of around 14.3 hands, black all over except for a white 3 pointed star on her forehead. She also came from a dealer, John Meadows, and cost around £40.

There's a story to be told about our Billy at this time. He was a very honest boy and would hang you for telling lies of any kind. Anyway, Ma had to go to the Food Office to register the horse, so that we could get some provender for her, because at the time there were a lot of restrictions still in force, even though the war was over. Billy went with her and was standing there as the official came to the counter to take the particulars. " Is this your first horse Madam?" the man said. "Yes"-said Ma. She felt a slight tug on her sleeve, "Mam, it's not really our first horse is it? What about Johnny" The official looked at Ma, puzzled. "Well" He said " Is it, or isn't it?" Of course Ma had to explain that we had borrowed a horse for a week. When she got outside, she said to Billy, "Don't ever show me up like that again" But Billy was adamant, "But Mam, we did have Johnny first didn't we?" There was no getting away from it!!

Talking about honesty, Billy came in from school one day and said in all seriousness to Ma, "We had a hymn today in assembly and I couldn't sing it." "Why ever not?" Ma replied. " Well, it was 'Our Fathers were high minded men who firmly kept the Faith' and as Dad doesn't go to Chapel very much, I didn't think that I could sing it!!

By this time I was getting a bit fed up with school and I couldn't wait to leave. I had taken the School Certificate first of all in 1946 and made a hash of it, which meant that I had to stay in the transitus form for another year. All the time that I was at school during this period, I worked on the fruit cart at weekends. I went with Dad every morning to harness up the horse and get her into the shafts, and in the dark mornings this meant taking a storm lamp into the stable to see with. If there was any frost, we screwed studs into her hooves to avoid any chance of slipping, because if she had gone down on her knees, it might have meant that she couldn't have worked. We went into Wigan and got into the infamous "Owens Queue". Owen Owen was the big one in fruit wholesaling in Wigan. There were others of course, such as Conroy Bros, Peter Conroy, Fishers, Randall Owen, but Owen Owen had the biggest pull. His place was half way down Market St, and the queue stretched right back to past the Crofters and sometimes into Little Hallgate. He had about 30 porters working for him at the time, and Leslie Owen, Owen's son, was the business manager. Owen Owen came into Wigan during the early part of the century from Wales, and was well established as a fruit and vegetable merchant. His brother was Randall, and he had another brother Osmond, who had a fruit business in Chorley. All the Owens seemed to have unusual names; Randall's sons were Royston and Dunsdon. Owen junior's son was Rasburn.

Owen was a magistrate in the borough court of Wigan, and I recall one day, being in court as a witness over some trifling affair of a horse found wandering the street. Owen was on the bench and there was a case in progress where someone was accused of using foul language over the phone. Those days, the offensive words were written down, and as the case progressed, the court clerk handed the piece of paper with the words written on it to Owen. It was funny to see his expression as he read them!! But I digress from the story.

Les stood there at the front of the warehouse, clip board in hand, wearing a white coat, tan riding boots and trilby hat, "30 potatoes (1cwt bags), 10 apples (40lb boxes), 10 plums (20lb boxes), 10 carrots (28lb bags), 2 swedes (28lb bags)" he would shout to the porters who busily picked up the articles and put them on the waiting carts and wagons. Because Dad had no experience in buying he let himself be led by Leslie. At first when the cart was loaded up Dad said "We'll never sell all this stuff" but it surprised him how much people wanted. The cart was so loaded at times that we had to get off and push to help the horse pull it. We always came out of Wigan by way of Prescott St, Miry Lane, and Wilcock St, to avoid the rise to the top of town, and even then, it was a tough climb over the canal bridge. As we got over the rise, we drove the horse into the kerb so that the iron rims on the wheels rubbed on the kerbstones to act as a brake.

We were coming over the canal bridge one day; I'll never forget it as long as I live. There had been an accident at the junction of Melverley St and Wallgate, a bus and a motor bike were involved, and there was the figure of a man, lying on the ground, covered by a blanket. Lying around on the road were blobs of a pinkish substance, which we soon realized were the unfortunate man's brains. Both my Dad and I were white faced as we realized that the bus wheel had crushed his head.

As well as fruit and veg. we also sold fresh fish bought from the fish market, which at that time was near Home Stores and owned by Bill Davies. The fish came in on a wagon from either Grimsby, Hull or Fleetwood packed in 5 stone returnable boxes, the tops of which were nailed down through a strip of metal at either end. The fish porters unloaded the wagon and put a sample box on the floor to be inspected and when this was opened, Dick Whalley, who was Bill Davies's manager and salesman, invited bids for it.

It was usually codfish, coley, ling or gurnard, and sometimes plaice or "flukes". The boxes of gurnards, or "garnets" as they were known in Wigan, sometimes had all kinds of strange looking fish in them. I think that it was probably to make up the weight. I recall seeing dogfish in there once, they looked for all the world like a small red shark. Dad had skinned one of these, and a customer asked him what it was and he replied "rock salmon" The lady said "Oh, then in that case I'll have some" The fish was packed in ice which steadily melted throughout the day, leaving a smelly trail of water behind. The porters unloading it wore a waterproof on their shoulders to avoid getting sodden with fishy water.

Davies's also had a good sale for rabbits. I think that Bill Davies had a piece of land at Abersoch near Pwllheli in N.Wales and they used to net them there. The rabbits arrived in boxes, ready gutted, with their legs tied, in pairs, and slung over the bars in the box. About 20 rabbits to a box. The wagon that brought them had at least 50 boxes on so there were quite a few rabbits sold. Bill had a contract with the Infirmary and the lads in his shop skinned and jointed the rabbits before sending them up there.

Dad usually bought a mixed box of fish to sell, and this was placed on the board that he had made for the purpose at the back of the cart.

Those days, there were no rules and regulations about hand washing facilities, so the fish was cut up and weighed by the same hands that had been putting potatoes on the scales!! Sometimes Dad went for his fish to another wholesaler, Harry Finch, who had a stand under the Verandah by the side of Davies's. Harry sold smaller quantities, so that there was more variety for the customers.

By the side of Finch's stood the stall of Benny Naylor. What a dirty old man he was! One day, he offered Ma a cup of tea when she came to market with Dad, and she couldn't drink it! He brewed up in a dirty teapot and poured it out in cups covered in fish scales etc. He used a methylated spirit burner to heat the water, and one day, he upset the meths all over his shop and the smell was terrible. He used to wholesale as well as retail from there. I think that all told, there were about 4 more fishmongers under the same verandah. Edward Atherton was one, and Gertie and Alice were two more. I saw Benny one day, get a box of plaice which were a bit "off," covered in smelly slime, and he tipped them out on the floor, hosed them down, and, using a spade, shovelled them up again into the box. He then gave them another quick hose down and put them out for sale!!

Wigan wholesale market was a bit rough those days. When cabbages were bought from the farmers who came in, they pitchforked them down from the wagon. There was always a scramble for bananas when they arrived. They came in on stems and underipe, as Owens had their own ripening house for them. At first, we could only sell them to people who had children. They were issued with green ration books, which were marked when bananas were sold. We were allocated about 4 boxes; this was because we hadn't been in business before the war. Allocations were made on what your pre-war sales had been, and this meant that some of the hawkers coming back from the forces had as many as 20 boxes allocated.

There was one objectionable person living on Worsley Hall estate that came out to any fruitman's cart and tried to buy bananas without a green book. If a hawker was daft enough to serve him, he was reported to the authorities.

Those days, motor vehicles were a rarity, as for one thing, fuel was still rationed and most hawkers had a "turnout" i.e. a horse and cart. Some had carts with 2 wheels but quite a few had the 4-wheel cart with a swivel axle on the front 2 wheels. These were more stable for selling from and could carry more produce. I recall one of the hawkers by the name of Harry Mitchell. The Mitchell brothers came from Ince and I think that there were three of them. All were hawkers but Harry was the most flamboyant. He came on to the market one day with a brand new turnout. It was a beautiful affair, the cart was coach painted, with pictures of fruit in baskets on the backboard. All the wheels were lined out and embellished and the cart had a wooden canopy, painted like the cart. The horse's hooves were oiled and it was in lovely condition, with harness made from patent leather and chrome fittings. Even the reins were plaited. It was said at the time that it had cost Harry £200, which was a lot of money those days.

For quite a while, oranges were also allocated and had to go to children. I remember the first Spanish onions that came in after the war, the box, in three sections, contained 60lbs and when we took them out for sale, they only lasted for half a day, as people were buying them in 5lb lots!

In the early part of 1945, we moved house. The shop at 94 Billinge Road was unoccupied at the time, but living behind it were Ken and Betty Marsh with their baby son John, and we arranged a swap with them. We needed a bigger base for the fruit business and this seemed ideal. Originally, we had built the stable for the horse in the pen behind 126 Billinge Road that had belonged to Dad's uncle Harry, so Dad moved the stable down to the pen behind the shop, this being his own pen where the hens were kept.

He was a pretty handy man was Dad, and could turn his hand to practically anything. He put a brick floor in the stable and even had a cesspit. A brick path was laid from the gate to the stable for the horse to walk along. One of the hen sheds was converted into a cart shed, so that the cart could go under cover, and at the side of it, another shed with a raised floor, which was used for a potato store. As timber was in short supply, any material handy was used for its construction. We even used coffin wood, which had the 7 cuts at the shoulder where the box was bent into shape!! We took the cart across to the Hawkley Hall explosive works to pick up ammonium nitrate drums, which Dad split down the seams, removing the selvage at either end with a boat builder's adze. These were nailed to spars instead of boards and under these, before nailing, were placed pieces of cardboard as insulation, and the shed interior was lined with plywood salvaged from boxes, which came from the slipper factory where Uncle Jack Foster worked. I remember that part of the stable roof was made from some green oak boards, which warped as they dried out.

It was great living behind the shop, which had a real bathroom. Our Bill and I had a bedroom each, as there were three good-sized rooms upstairs. At first the shop, which had been used as a depot for the WVS during the war to stock blankets etc. was just used as a store room for the fruit and veg., but later on, as Ma was getting fed up of going on the road with the cart, it was opened up as a retail outlet for the greengrocery. She then looked after the shop and Dad and I were on the road.

The Pony Rose

The Pony Rose

The pony, Rose, was a one off as you might say. She was a sturdy little horse, an Exmoor pony and not afraid of hard work, but she had some funny idiosyncrasies. After work we sometimes took her up to a pen near Stephen's Yard to graze. I would ride her, bareback up to the pen, and one day, nearly decapitated myself on Edna's mother's clothesline, which was strung across the backs. When we arrived at the pen, she allowed me to ride her round just once and woes betide if I tried to go round again. She humped her back and let me know in no uncertain manner that the ride was over. When I loosed her she trotted off to a slope in the pen and, lying down, attempted to roll up the slope. It took her two or three attempts to do this but as soon as she had accomplished the roll over, she would get up, make a mad gallop round the pen, and then settle down to graze.

On another occasion, we were buying potatoes from the farm in Billinge Road. It was very muddy underfoot and as she stood there in the shafts, she decided that a roll in the mud would be a good thing, so no more ado, she lay down in the mud and attempted to roll over, breaking her harness!!

Rose once found a pig bin by the side of the road containing a big cream cake, which she promptly ate, and forever afterwards searched any bins that she found, sometimes dragging the cart on to the pavement in the process. She was a creature of habit, and emptied her bowels every day at the same spot. On the council estate, it was Ridyard Street, and the chap who lived in the house nearby came out with the bucket and shovel for the free fertilizer!!

One day, while we were in Mitchell Street, she decided to pass water, a something that she rarely did out on the road, preferring to wait until she was unharnessed and in the stable. The resultant stream hit the back strap and sprayed everywhere. Billy Melling the shoe shop proprietor was at the cart when she did it and he remarked about her relieving herself when suddenly she broke wind with a deafening rasp. We all fell about laughing!!

When she was in the stable, eating the provender, which was a mixture of crushed oats, wheat, flaked maize, hay and straw, she picked out all the tasty bits and then, getting her nose under the straw that was left, pushed it on to the floor. We had some Bantam hens on the pen, which were allowed to roam loose, and one had a habit of going into the stable and laying an egg in the manger. Rose allowed her to do this and after the egg was deposited, pushed the hen away and ate the egg.

Continued...

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