Pictures on a Saturday Afternoon
Every Saturday, Ma gave me 2d for the pictures, and along with my mates, Norman and Alfred, we went along to the Carlton Picture House, at the top of Spring Bank. The show started at 2.30pm and we were there in good time, queuing up alongside the picture house to go in at the bottom door.
We paid our money at the box office window and trooped inside, groping about in the semi-darkness, lit only by the small lights in the ceiling, to find an empty seat. The Carlton had a smell all of its own. Cigarette smoke, orange peel and carbolic all rolled into one. We watched out for the clock on the wall changing colour to red because this meant that the show was about to start. As soon as the lights went down, it was bedlam, as all the kids made as much noise as possible, with clogs banging on the floor, I don't know why the film had a sound track, because no-one ever heard it!
Sometimes, the manager came to the front and appealed for silence. I can see him now. "If you don't be quiet I'll put the lights on" He sometimes carried out his threat, and the figures on the screen would assume a light brown colour. There would be a temporary hush, but as soon as the lights went down again, the noise was as bad as ever. I don't know why he ever bothered!!
When sitting in the front stalls, especially on the side, all the figures on the screen seemed to be long and narrow!! Of course, if you wanted to be posh you could go and sit in the seats on the slope, but these, known as "rear stalls" were a penny dearer, so most of the kids sat at the front.
The show would start with an "interest" film or some American comedy short. It could even have been a cartoon of Mickey Mouse. Then came the "following up" or serial. This was an essential part of the programme, because it ensured that the customer came back again the following week to see the next episode! Good business strategy!!
The serials that I can recall from those far-off days were the Flash Gordon adventures to various parts of the galaxy, like the Planet "Mongo" with Ming as the villain, and Dale Arden and Prince Barin as Flash's co-heroes, along with all the various other characters, such as the Clay Men, who could materialize from a rock face, and disappear the same way. Tree Men also, who were Ming's allies. They had such wonders as ray guns to stun their opponents with, and television screens to communicate with. We thought that Flash Gordon was fantastic!
It's only when you see the same pictures today that you realize how primitive they were, but to us kids they were ace.
We also had Blake Of Scotland Yard. He was an ace detective and was on the trail of a shadowy figure known as The Scorpion. When the episode began, all the characters flashed up on the screen, surrounded by the outline of a magnifying glass. As each appeared, they were cheered or booed according to their role. The episode always ended in a cliff-hanging situation, making sure that you came back to watch again the following week. It was funny though, how, when you saw it the week after, subtle changes had been made in the plot, which made it possible for the hero or heroine to escape!!
The main feature was usually a Western or "Cowboy" as we called it. Our heroes were such men as Johnny Mack Brown, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Gene Autry and later, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, with his "sidekick" Windy Carson. Funny thing about cowboys, they never lost their hats, whatever situation they were in, be it riding furiously, falling into rivers, being shot at, the hat stayed in place. Black hats were for the villains and white ones for the heroes, except in the case of Hopalong Cassidy, who wore a completely black outfit; complete with a set of silver cow horns to keep his bandanna round his neck, and he rode a magnificent white horse.
All cowboy pictures ended with a chase, and as we boys came out of the picture house, we galloped off down the backs of the houses in Spring Bank, slapping our backsides, as we re-lived the adventures we had just seen.
Sometimes, Dad would take me to the pictures at night, to see something that he liked usually. I remember going to see my first "Technicolor" film at the Carlton. It was "The Adventures Of Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland I think that it must have been around 1937 when it came out. I was completely hooked! We played at Robin Hood for months after that. I made arrows from pieces of privet hedge, as these were the straightest you could find. Feathers for the flight were easily got when your dad kept hens! We would dig up pieces of pitch from the roadway to weight the ends of the arrows, and then see how far we could shoot them. I was given the book of the film as a Sunday school prize and I must have read it a thousand times. I practically knew it off by heart. It had a coloured picture of Errol Flynn inside the front cover and I would have loved to have a suit of Lincoln green like he had. I fantasized over that story many times.
This is the site of the old "Queens" picture house. It was demolished in 2005 to make way for a block of flats. Such is progress!!
One night, however, we went to the Carlton to see a picture but it was "A" rated and I couldn't go in. I was mortified! Dad sent me home on my own while he went in, Ma was mad at him when he got back home and gave him a good telling off for sending me home on my own. Later on in life, I went to see the same picture. It was "This gun for hire" starring Alan Ladd.
Uncle Joe. Who lived in Tunstall Lane, would go up to the pictures wearing his bedroom slippers!
There was never a lot of money about in those days, a lot of men were out of work and even those who had a job didn't get a lot of pay. My Dad was a "dataller" in the pit, which meant that he was a general labourer, doing any job that needed doing. His pay at the time was 39 shillings and 6pence a week. This in decimal works out at 1.95p. Edna's Dad was a surface worker at Baxter Pit and his wage was only 33 shillings a week (1.65p). It doesn't seem much in the way of pay, but it was sufficient to keep a family fed and clothed. There wasn't a lot left for luxuries, and we as children didn't expect any.
Ma traded at the Coop, and I went there on Saturday for the bread. The shop stood at the end of the row of houses facing Pemberton railway station. The manager was Fred Ashurst, and he wore a long white apron and a white coat, and he always had a pencil behind one ear. As I made my way home with the loaf, I nibbled it along the edge of the crust. I loved that bread!
We got "divi" at the Coop, or "stores" as it was known, and this involved getting what was known as a cheque for each purchase made. These were small-perforated strips of paper on which the shop assistant wrote the amount spent, tore it out, and gave it to the customer. They were then taken home and stuck on to a sheet of gummed paper, provided for the purpose. At the end of the quarter, the cheque sheet was taken in to the shop, scrutinized and added up, the resultant amount divided by the percentage of dividend, which was to be paid out, and the nett sum given to the customer. It was a way of saving up that a lot of families used to pay for things like Christmas goods and clothing.
The Coop produced a free children's paper which I loved reading, along with the other comics of the day, such as Dandy and Beano, which were delivered with the newspaper. Those days, canvassers would come round to the door, trying to persuade your parents to try various newspapers. We started to get the Daily Dispatch about this time, due to a canvasser coming to the door. My Granddad Foster got the News Chronicle. A cartoon strip that comes to mind from the Dispatch of that time was called "Diddle, Dumps and Dido" I can't for the life of me remember anything about the characters, except their names.
The Matches Incident
I recall going to Armstrong's shop for chocolate in the days before the War started. Billy and I were allowed a halfpenny bar each, and Ma and Dad would have a threepenny bar between them, and this was a weekly treat.
I wasn't allowed to play with matches, but as with most small boys, I was fascinated by fire. We tried to start a fire by any means, a burning glass, cigarette end, striking sparks from our clog-irons, none of which worked satisfactorily. One day, however, I hit on what I thought was a brilliant idea. Sterilized milk bottles had a penny deposit on them, we used sterilized milk, a box of matches cost a penny, eureka!! I had the answer, take a bottle back to the shop and buy a box of matches. So simple, why didn't I think of it before.
I was about seven years old at the time. I found an empty bottle under the slop stone and said to Ma "Can I take this bottle back to Armstrong's?" She said yes, never realizing what my motive was. Off I went as fast as my legs would take me. Alf Brown was waiting, "Did you get it?" he asked, knowing what I had in mind. "Yes" I replied. I went into the shop with my heart in my mouth, "Can I have a box of matches?" Mrs Armstrong looked at me "Who are they for?" She said. "Me Mam" I said. Lying through my teeth. I had always been brought up to tell the truth and lying didn't come easy. "Are you sure?" She said, as she gave them to me. I said, "Yes" again as I scuttled through the door.
Alf was waiting impatiently outside. "Have you got them?" he asked. We shot off round to our playground in John Daws building yard. "Let's light some grass" We pulled up some dry stuff and with hands trembling with excitement, struck a match and fired it. The smoke started to rise up, and we heard a voice from over the wall. "Hey, put that fire out!!" It was Mrs Spencer who lived there. We stamped it out, guiltily, and made off round the backfield, where we lit some more grass, but our prank was short-lived. A voice was calling "Freddie, Alfred, you're wanted" It was Alf's sister Stella who had been sent with the message. I don't know who had ratted on us but Ma knew of the matches.
We set about destroying the evidence, striking matches and stamping them out as we retraced our steps. When we reached home we both got our ears "cottered" and were lectured on the evils of starting fires and also of telling lies to get matches. It was a salutary lesson that we didn't forget.
Our Gang were outside Armstrong's shop one Saturday morning, looking in the window, but strapped for cash, when who should come riding down on his bike, but David Talbot, a boy from our school who lived up in Winstanley. "Do you want some toffee?" he said. We didn't need much persuading and we went into the shop with him. "What would you like?" Well, we didn't take long in choosing, and we all thought that David was a good guy, paying for sweets like that. We only found out later that he had taken the rent money from the wall clock, where his mother had put it for safekeeping!! I don't know how the rent was paid, but the toffees were very good!!
One of our really good playgrounds was of course the "Norley Line", Let me explain a little about this. It was the old mineral line that at one time during the early part of the century had been used to transport coal from the pits at Norley, where now stand the sprawling council estates of Norley and Worsley Hall. This coal was transported to the marshalling yards at Blundells Colliery, and then shipped out from there. Originally, the line crossed Ormskirk road at Union Bridge, no doubt so called because it joined the two collieries. From here, it went along the back of the houses in Mitchell St, crossing Victoria St at a level crossing by Jewson's Builders yard.
There are two cottages here where the crossing keepers lived and they were on duty for twelve hours each. I can just remember the set of steps that went over the line there. They were always known as the twenty steps. The line then entered a cutting passing under two bridges taking it under the main lines of the LMS railway and the LNER. From here it went under Little Lane Bridge to finish up in the colliery marshalling yard.
The line was discontinued around 1935 and I can remember the sound of the little shunter as it puffed along the track past Dad's pen. I must have been about four years old when the track was taken up, but I recall Ma saying to me as she held me in her arms, watching the train go by, "Listen to the engine Freddy, He's saying, `I can do I can do it`" as the engine puffed his way up the incline. When he was on his way back she said that he was saying "Didn't I tell you, didn't I tell you."
When the rails were taken up, the railway company sent some workmen to fill the bridges in under the main lines. Uncle Charlie was one of these and he came to our house for his dinner each day. Ma brewed his tea can for him to take back after dinner and what fascinated me was the little box that he had for his tea and sugar. I'd never seen one before; it had a lid on either end and was oval in shape.
After the bridges were stopped up we children played in the section, which was bounded by the backfield. Here a spring ran from somewhere under the main line, and alongside the cutting in a ditch. To get to the line we had to cross the field and at that time it was under cultivation, as it belonged to the farm in Billinge Rd. Joe Peters, the tenant farmer waving his stick at us as we ran through his standing corn, chased us off many a time.
He had a couple of shire horses by the names of Tommy and Prince. When the field was empty of crops, he grazed these two horses there, and we children would try to call them over to the gate "Hee-ere Prince! Hee-ere Tommy!" some times the horses obliged and the braver souls tried to mount them. It's a good job they were docile!!
When we reached the line, there was a typical railway fence of four rails to climb. The main attraction of the old line was of course water. We brought digging spades and enlarged the ditch to make a pond, Our imagination then could run riot, sailing boats made from bits of wood, fashioned in Granddad's pen where he had a vice and a plane. Pretending to be pirates or, when we released the dam, shooting the rapids as the water ran away. We certainly had some fun there. I was sailing a boat there one day when I reached out a bit too far and fell into the pond! I had to go home, dripping wet and was told off and kept in until my things had dried out again.
At one time, there was a flood of water in the backfield, as the farmer attempted to make a drinking trough for his shires. He diverted the stream into a hole that he dug, but he hadn't reckoned on us kids. We broke down the banking and let the stream run into the field. This produced an expanse of water about 6ins deep and stretching over about 5yds wide.
Our Billy had a small bike known as a "Fairy cycle" I don't suppose that it would have been called that today!! He was dared to ride through the water and off he set, he got to the middle and then as he pedalled, his feet went into the water. He tried to keep them dry by stopping pedalling, but as anyone knows, you have to keep going on a bike or you fall over! Billy teetered there for a moment and then slowly toppled over into the water. He was wet through and went home to a telling off from Ma.
As we were growing up; there was a small cottage at the other side of the railway line where Mr. And Mrs. Jump lived. I never knew what kind of business Mr. Jump was in but he would come home office hours, carrying with him a small attaché case. He was a small man, and I can picture him now, wearing a brown Homburg hat, a gabardine mac and brown shoes, as he made his way home to the cottage at the far side of the tracks. It was, to us boys a rather mysterious place, as you had to cross the rail track to get to it, and this was forbidden territory.
The trains fascinated us and the more daring of us would at times, put pennies on the track to see the steam locos flatten them. I recall that the trick was to spit on the coin before placing it on the track, as we believed that this would ensure that the coin stayed on the rail and not be picked up by the engine's wheel. We could see the signals from our vantage point and we always waited until we knew that a train was due.
However, I digress. Mrs. Jump was a tall lady, always dressed severely in dark clothes and she had a pale complexion. We saw her on occasions as she went out to shop. The cottage was very primitive even by the standards of those days. No running water, no flush toilet, no gas or electricity.
When the Jumps moved out, it would be just after the end of WW2 we went over the tracks to see what the place looked like. We found a veritable hoard of empty beer bottles in an outhouse. These we gathered up and took to the nearest off licence to convert into cash. We were all smokers at the time, and "best" cigarettes were in short supply. When we got the money from the shopkeeper, we asked for Players cigarettes. I recall that the price of a 20 pack had just gone up from 1/9d to 2/6d. The lady, being a bit of an entrepreneur, sold us some at the new price!
Granddad Foster had an allotment where he grew flowers and vegetables to eke out his pension, he also had a greenhouse where he grew tomatoes, and also in it there was a grape vine, which he fed with offal and any dead hens from his hen pen. The root of the vine was outside the greenhouse and to feed it he would lift up the flag that covered it. Granddad never pruned any grapes, so consequently there were lots of bunches of small ones. We went into his pen when he wasn't there, as he never locked it up, and helped ourselves to the small tomatoes and the grapes, and then we'd hear him complaining to Dad, "they've been in the greenhouse again"
Granddad's pen was a real treasure house of junk. He was what you might call a bit "careful" when it came to throwing things away. He had loads of old shoe soles, part worn but salvageable, clog irons "with a bit left on" hanging from nails in his shed, balls of string, buckets with no bottoms "to force rhubarb with". If he found a bucket, which in those days was made from galvanized steel, with the bottom corroded away, he would find an old pan lid or a piece of tin to mend it with. Uncle Billy Foster once went round the pen and counted the buckets. He said to Dad, "Do you know that Father has 43 buckets in the pen and none of them have any bottoms in?"
The greenhouse had a boiler system for heating, with pipes running round it inside and to fuel this, Granddad went to the tip that was on the land near Alexandra Park. Here, Clough and Gaskell who had the builder's yard where Jewson is now tipped all the sweepings from the joiners' shop floor. Granddad took his renovated buckets and filled them with sawdust and shavings, together with any bits of wood that had been thrown out. He then took these back to the pen and searched through them for any nails or screws that he could salvage.
When the war started, Clough's were contracted to make ammunition boxes and as the job was paid at piecework rates, any nails or screws that were dropped were left on the floor, thus when the floor was swept, there were quite a few in the sweepings. It was said at the time that Teddy Gaskell, the senior partner in the business, went into the assembly shop one day and saw one of the men drop a nail. He left it on the floor and picked up another. "Why don't you pick them up when they are dropped?" said Teddy. The man told him that it took too much time but Teddy insisted that he picked them up. He soon changed his tune when production slowed down, and orders were given to leave them on the floor! Granddad put these into tins of sump oil obtained from Tom Rollins who had the coal yard near his pen. The small lean-to that had been built to protect the boiler from the weather was stuffed so full of sawdust and shavings that to go through it we had to bend double, and we were only kids! So how Granddad did it I don't really know. Finally he learned his lesson when all the rubbish caught fire and the Fire Brigade was sent for. Also in this lean-to was the small vice and plane which we put to good use, making boats to sail in the brook in the old line.
As Clough&Gaskell were in the "war effort" making ammunition boxes, their works premises had to be protected from attack by firebombs, as incendiaries were known. There were posters telling people to "Watch out for Firebomb Fritz". Dad was on the rota at C&Gs, watching out for any attack, and being ready with the stirrup pump to put out the fire. He took me with him and we went into a big shed erected for the firewatchers. Here was a billiard table, dartboard and playing cards to while away the time. There was a big pot-bellied stove in the corner of the room to keep warm by. Jim Matthewson was the team co-coordinator and Dad reported to him and signed in. It was fun to go there with Dad and have a try on the billiard table, feeling sort of grown up. I was probably about eleven at the time.
In the old line by the side of C& there stood an EWS (emergency water supply) tank. These were made from sections of steel plate bolted together to form a tank, approximately 10ft wide, 15ft long and about 4ft deep. It was painted with a sort of tarry paint to preserve it and was usually half-full of bricks and other debris that the kids had thrown into it. The water was full of algae and weed, and I don't think it would have been of much use in an emergency.
The Second World War
When the war started I was eight years old and in the junior school, and I remember vividly, going out into the backs, playing with the box that had contained a new dynamo Dad had bought for his bike, and hearing the big boys, Arthur Brown and Tom Birchall talking about the start of the war. It didn't mean a lot to us as children just then, but it sort of crept up on us.
It was about this time that we played with an old motorbike and sidecar. Behind Mr. Brown's garage, was a bit of spare land and here was this old bike with a box for a sidecar. Originally used as a milk float, but now in a state of disrepair. The engine had long gone, but the tyres were OK and the big lads pushed it up to the top of the backs. We then piled into the sidecar and with either Tom or Arthur steering it we careered to the bottom of the slope. This went on for quite a while until Mr. Brown came out and put a stop to it!!
We began to see men walking about in uniforms, and heard of people being "called up". Horace Cunliffe was one of these; Horace had been a butcher and came to our house with his butcher's cart. This was a horse-drawn vehicle, closed in like a box with doors in the middle to serve from. Horace was killed in a bizarre accident near Windy Arbour about 1944. He was based at Burtonwood, which was the largest US Air force base in the country, and being so near home was allowed to live out and report in each morning. He had a motorbike to travel to work on, and, one morning as he was going along Pemberton Rd, he hit a tree that had fallen across the roadway. There had been a strong wind during the night and this brought the tree down. There was still a blackout in force and Horace had baffles on his bike lights. The bike went under the fallen tree but Horace took the full force of it and died in hospital from head injuries, leaving a widow and four children. The inquest said that it was an "Act of God" and his widow got nothing.
We used to hear the air raid siren being sounded from the Carnegie library in Ellesmere Rd, first of all in practice and then for real. Although, we weren't really touched by any enemy activity, the only signs of war that we saw were the searchlights over Liverpool and the barrage from the anti-aircraft guns that lit up the sky. We would go outside with our parents to see it when the sirens had sounded, and it looked for the entire world like a big firework display. Of course we didn't realize at the time that people were being killed there.
There were changes in our daily lives too, and we were issued with gas masks, which we carried wherever we went. They were first issued in cardboard boxes but later on we had carrying cases made from "rexine" a sort of leathercloth, to put them in. We had our gas masks checked regularly, and ARP personnel did this, probably. I recall going to a big van parked in Enfield St. and here we donned our gas mask while someone held a rubber pad to the bottom of it. You then breathed in and felt like you were choking! This was to see if any leaks were present, but we hated it! Later on we had another filter made from a green coloured metal, fitted to the gas mask with sticky tape. I suppose this was for some other kind of gas that the Germans had perfected.
Soon after the start of the war, the government issued to all houses an air raid shelter. These were known as Anderson Shelters, named after the War Minister, Sir John Anderson and they arrived in kit form. A pile of corrugated sheet, some angle irons and nuts and bolts together with a spanner to fit it all together. Dad had a look at the instruction sheet that accompanied it and set to work. It was decided to site it at the bottom of the yard and he got going with the delving spade. He had to dig a hole about a yard deep and to the size of the shelter.
The number in the family determined the shelter size. There were two segments for each two persons, and these were straight at the sides and curved inward at the top, where the boltholes were to connect them together. When bolted up, the two pieces made an arch. The next two when connected, overlapped the first and so on. The base of the arch fitted into an angle iron frame, which was bolted together and placed in position at the bottom of the hole.
When all of the arched sections had been placed in position, the back and front sheets were put in place and the soil that had been excavated put back on top of the shelter. It was designed so that the entrance was on a level with the ground and it was no good to anyone who wasn't nimble on their feet! I don't think that Great Grandma ever went into a shelter. We never used ours either, as it was always full of water, as the ground that it stood in was clay.
When the air raid siren sounded we would take refuge under the stairs, as this was reckoned to be the safest place in the house. Dad had cleaned off some "dropping boards" from one of the hen sheds and these had been placed in position under the stairs. We had some old blankets and rugs, which we used as bedding, and we thought it to be a great adventure as we bedded down with a small oil lamp for illumination.
Where Edna lived, all the people had put their shelters together to make one great long one, situated in Alice Stockley's granddad's allotment
There is one incident from that time that stands out in my mind. The Germans were attempting to bomb the ROF at Euxton and each night, we could hear the bombers as they droned overhead. Because of the load of bombs carried the aircraft engines had a distinctive throbbing sound as they laboured towards their target. If they hadn't jettisoned their deadly cargo over the ROF they would drop them haphazardly to get rid of them. It was said at the time that Wigan couldn't be seen from the air because of the "smog" that hung over it.
This particular night in question, we children were in bed asleep and Ma and Dad were watching the night sky through our bedroom window. We had no light in our room, so there was no need for the curtains to be drawn. Everywhere was in darkness owing to the total blackout that had been imposed and the only visibility was from the searchlights as they criss-crossed the sky, searching for enemy aircraft. Dad said to Ma, "I think I can hear a Jerry somewhere" Suddenly there was a shrill scream as the bomb came hurtling to the ground, followed by a flash and a bang. Ma and Dad grabbed our Billy and me and ran downstairs with us to take refuge under the stairs, and there we stayed until the following morning.
We found out later the bomb had dropped near St Paul's church, wiping out Peter Lomax's greenhouses and causing very little other damage, other than a bit of shrapnel buried in the church door. Ma and Dad had been decorating the kitchen the day before, but they were so un-nerved by the incident that they left off and didn't start again for several weeks!!
Another bomb was dropped in Wigan as well as this one and that demolished the chapel in Greenough St, but other than these two incidents, Wigan wasn't touched.
Liverpool and the docks of Bootle got a hammering. Ma took us to New Brighton once or twice during the war, and we looked in amazement at the barrage balloons round the city centre and some of the devastation that the bombs had caused. The barrage balloons looked for all the world like a lot of tethered airships and we were told that their being there was to prevent enemy aircraft from coming in too low to drop their bombs. The cables on the balloons would foul their wings if they did.