Barnoldswick Local History Articles

Saturday, February 16, 2002


It’s 1932 and Ernie is 16 years old and weaving on four looms at Bancroft. In those days, before regulations were brought in which led to re-spacing of looms, there were 1100 looms in the weaving shed at Bancroft. They were crammed in as tight as they could get them.

I asked Ernie if he could ever remember any accidents at Bancroft and he said that there were only minor ones apart from a young woman who was killed when a fire door fell on to her. He wasn’t sure whether this was while he was there or shortly before. Bancroft was still running on the old four loom system, only very good weavers or those with learners as helpers had 6 looms. All the weavers were paid by the piece and Ernie reckoned that a good weaver could earn ten bob for each loom. (50p.)

The cloth pieces were 100 yards long in those days and if you had a really good week, on good sorts with no mishaps you could get two pieces off a loom in the week. Ernie said that he was sure this was deliberate, the bosses had the loom speeds and cloth lengths worked out so that the weavers had an incentive to work as hard as possible. He said that a good weaver was like a flash of lightning moving round the alley. They begrudged stopping for anything, even going to the toilet. Roy Wellock used to tell a story about an old weaver he worked with who had an old Nuttall’s Mint tin next to his loom and he made water in that and emptied it at break times.

There were no sweepers or oilers in that system, the weavers did all this for themselves. They carried their own weft and cloth and were under pressure all the time. You may remember, when I was describing Bancroft, that I said that the tacklers wage was based on what their weavers produced. They knew exactly how much each weaver was getting because they brought the pay round to the weavers each Friday. Each wage was in a small tin on a tray with square wooden divisions and there was a wage slip in each. If a tackler had a weaver that wasn’t performing and they knew of a better weaver looking for a job, they would get the bad weaver sacked and set the good one on. Ernie said that this method of paying the wage to the weaver went on until the late sixties.

Early on in 1932 work was short at Bancroft and they were on short time. Margaret and her eldest son Fred were weaving for B & EM Holden at Calf Hall Shed and they had plenty of work on so she went to the boss, Edward Holden, and asked him if he could find some looms for Ernie. He said yes, and when Ernie went down he put him on six looms! As Ernie said, they must have been short of weavers! This was pig heaven, he was getting over £2 every week this but was interrupted on July 12th when a flash flood caused by a cloudburst on the Weets raised the level of the Calf Hall Beck so much that it burst through the floor of the shed and stopped production. It took about a month to get back into full swing and Ernie settled down on four looms.

On 31st of March 1934 B and EM Holden wove out at Calf Hall and Ernie got a job at Cairns and Lang at Westfield as a sweeper. They were trying the eight loom system out at Westfield and as part of the deal with the weavers, certain jobs like cloth-carrying, sweeping and oiling were taken off them so they could manage the extra looms. The wage for sweeping was 27/- a week (£1-35p.) and there were seven of them. After a while they went on strike and got an extra shilling but had to do more work for it. Ernie was getting a bit fed up with this but then the management decided to do away with the sweepers and go back onto the four loom system. This meant they were short of weavers so Ernie was offered 4 looms and he was back on at least £2 a week. He gave his mother £1 and kept the rest for himself and reckoned he was a ‘Weekend Millionaire’! He was so flush that he went out and bought a brand new Hercules bicycle on the ‘drip system’ at half a crown a week. (twelve and a half new pence)

In 1935, Cairns and Lang wove out and Ernie found himself out of a job. He was ‘standing for work’ at Pickles at Barnsey Shed. Each morning, along with about fifty other jobseekers he would go and stand in the warehouse at Pickles and wait for the4 engine to start. If any weavers were absent, the tackler would come out and select a weaver. If there were no looms they would shout ‘All Up!’ and that meant another day to ponder on. Ernie was on the dole and had to sign on saying that he was standing for work but hadn’t been successful. He particularly resented the way the ‘Little Hitler’ as he called him, behind the counter, used to treat them.

One day, after being turned away yet again from Barnsey, he was stood on Long Ing canal bridge mulling over whether he ought to join the army when the manager at Long Ing Shed walked by. He was called Alf Peckover and Ernie had known him for years. He stopped and asked Ernie what he was doing and as soon as he heard he was out of work, offered him a job sweeping. Ernie took the job, started straight away and stayed at Long Ing until he was called up for the army at 23 years old.

This pattern of intermittent employment and the feeling of not being in charge of his own destiny had an effect on Ernie. He started reading the paper and taking an interest in politics. He was drawn in particular to a bloke called Jimmy Rushton, the ‘Firewood King’, who was the leader of the Communist Party in Barlick at the time. He lived at Lane Bottom. Ernie used to go to the meetings and listen to Rushton speaking and he said it all seemed to make sense to him. He said in later years that ‘Communism was a bloody good thing, only problem was it didn’t work!’

Ernie recalled one meeting up Jepp Hill in 1932. There was an industrial dispute on between the 27th of August and the 27th of September over the introduction of the ‘More Looms System’ and Dotcliffe Mill at Kelbrook was blacklegging. Rushton said that they’d go down there the following day and knock the belts off. He told them all to take a bottle of water to drink and winked at them. Ernie said this was because the bottles were to be used as weapons. The following day a crowd of about two hundred of them marched off down to Kelbrook but when they got to the village they were confronted by a band of extremely large policemen!

The police soon broke the company up and Ernie and his mate found themselves running down towards Earby, the intention was to come back to Barlick via Salterforth. As they were passing Earby police station, a bobby saw Ernie’s mate had an injured hand and said ‘Come on inside lad and we’ll look after that for you’. Ernie smelt a rat and legged it again but his mate was taken into the police station, treated kindly but charged with causing a riot. He was summonsed and fined £7, a lot of money in those days. Ernie said it took him years to pay it off.

Ernie’s interest in politics grew stronger. He said that he knew something was wrong, there were the manufacturers living in big houses and driving round in motor cars and there he was with his britches arse out and no work! He gradually came to the conclusion that the only difference between the mill workers in Barlick and Negro slaves on an American cotton plantation was that the weavers weren’t torn away from their homes but the slaves were fed and clothed. He was particularly bitter about old folk on pensions. As he said, how could anyone be expected to live off ten shillings a week (50p.), even in those days. I asked him if it was possible to starve to death in Barlick in the thirties and he said that if you were old and infirm he was sure you could. He said that the verdict at an inquest would be ‘Found dead’ whereas the truth was they had either died of malnutrition or hypothermia.

Ernie could get quite worked up on this subject and it was easy to understand why. He had been in poverty himself and suffered the consequences and had seen what it did to other people. When you think of the number of people that had the same experience the only wonder is that a Labour government wasn’t returned with a landslide majority every election! I asked Ernie about this and he was quite sure what the answer was. He reckoned that the biggest part of the working class were voting the same way as their bosses on the grounds that they knew what was good for the country. Margaret always voted Conservative as did all her family. Ernie said they were ‘Bloody ignorant!’

I’m very conscious that we’ve spent seven weeks on Ernie so I’m going to leave him for a while and have a change of subject. I’m quite sure from the amount of feedback I have had these last few weeks, that a lot of you have enjoyed being reminded what life was like in those days.

We sometimes hear the phrase ‘the good old days’ and when I really look hard at what life was like I wonder how anybody could regard what I find as good. I asked Ernie about this and he said that life was simpler then. The hard bits were bad and there was real poverty in Barlick but I was struck by the fact that on numerous occasions, when he was describing something really serious, he’d burst out laughing. His theory was that people were brainwashed into low expectations. They saw nothing wrong in saving for a year and living very narrow lives so they could afford a week on Blackpool.

I have always said that it’s impossible to judge a window in time like our look at the 1930’s unless you can see it through the same eyes as the people who lived then. I think the thing that impresses me most is the miserable lot that women had. Ernie himself comments on this, he says that some men regarded women as chattels, not partners. They saw nothing wrong in giving their wives a pittance to run the house and spending the rest in the pub. Think of the drain on Margaret’s system of multiple pregnancies and malnutrition because she fed her kids before herself. The nice thing is that she lived to be 74 and had a far better experience at the end of her life than she did in the beginning. I’m glad of that but I can’t forget the women of the generation before like Sarah Ann Rocky who finished up in dire poverty on 50p a week. Things have changed, and thank God for it.
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SCG/06 July 2001

Friday, February 15, 2002


We’re about to follow Ernie into the world of work but before we plunge into that, let’s have a look at some of the other things that formed part of his life.

At one point I asked him what the status of Wapping and Westgate was in the 1930’s compared with other parts of the town and he was in no doubt that it was the rough area. I asked him who were the people they really looked up to, who they regarded as a ‘proper’ lady or gentleman. He immediately identified old Mr Slater, who at this time was living at Newfield Edge, Bracewell’s old house at the bottom of Folly Lane. He said that usually people would quake and quail if they met a manufacturer on the street. Hardly surprising really when you consider that in a single industry town, these men literally had the power of life and death. If they didn’t employ you, you either starved or left the town.

I think the Slater that Ernie is talking about is Joseph Slater, he married Ada Bracewell, Billycock’s daughter and they were certainly at Newfield edge in 1904. Ernie said they used to be frightened of him because he had a very red face but he realised in later years that this might have been blood pressure or whisky. Every Christmas, any child that went to Newfield Edge on Christmas morning got six new halfpennies as a present. I think this was the man who bought Ernie the clogs and he was certainly never forgotten. Ernie said he was a proper gentleman and he had good memories of him.

This didn’t apply to all of them of course. Ernie could get very scathing about manufacturers and how they treated their workers. Ernie had bow legs and was convinced it was due to malnutrition when he was a child. He said to me once, “None of Nutter’s children were bow-legged!” He had another caustic comment about them, “Rob the workers, build a chapel and go to heaven.” Harsh words I know, and no doubt some would argue against them, but Ernie had seen hard times and never forgot.

We’ve already talked about Ernie and bad health. He was to have one more episode that left an indelible mark on his memory. He’d started taking an interest in girls and he said that he realised he had what he described as a ‘sore point’! He’d seen the notices which used to be displayed in all public urinals warning about the dangers of Venereal Disease and knew that syphilis in particular had been a big problem during the First World War so he decided he had better go to his doctor, Dr. Glen.

When he went to see him the doctor took one look at him and said “Syphilis!” and gave him some ointment. Ernie said his blood ran cold because he knew that in those days it was the equivalent, as he said, of ‘Being sent to Siberia’. This was a serious matter, and he decided to go to Burnley where he knew there was a specialist clinic. When he went there the doctor soon reassured him that there was no serious disease, gave him some ointment and sent him home with a note for his doctor. Ernie said he didn’t have a lot of confidence in Dr Glen after that. Being Ernie, he decided to look further into this and one Saturday he got the afternoon train and went to Liverpool where he knew there was a Museum of Anatomy. He said that what he saw there made a big impression on him which he never forgot.

I asked him whether there was any attempt at sex education in those days and he said he hadn’t come across any. The only thing he could remember his mother saying to the three lads was that if they ever ‘bairned’ a girl, they would marry her. End of story!

Ernie said that Wilson had diphtheria and scarlatina, this was the old fashioned name for Scarlet Fever. Both these were life-threatening diseases. Scarlatina in particular was very infectious and BUDC built an isolation hospital at Banks Hill where the bungalows are now. There was a special green ambulance and anyone who got the disease was taken into the hospital to be isolated during the infectious phase of the illness. Ernie said that when they got Wilson down there they found he hadn’t got it but because he had been admitted he had to stay there. Ernie went down and pulled faces at him through the window!

Ernie’s mother Margaret told him that she once had an abscess on her breast and the cure was a cow clap poultice! Even Ernie baulked at this but it does show us how much things have changed now.

Of course, it’s not surprising that infection was rife. The lack of hygiene in those days is incomprehensible to us. As I’ve said before, if we were moved back in time to those conditions we’d drop like flies because we wouldn’t have the antibodies to deal with the infections that were common. Talking of flies, there were a lot more about in those days. The cure was a flycatcher. This was a roll of paper in a tube with a loop of cotton at one end. You hung it up by the loop and pulled the tube and the roll of paper unfurled and hung there. It was covered with a very sticky substance and when the flies landed on it they were stuck. You left it up until it was full of flies and then threw it on the fire and started another one.

But, whatever the disadvantages, Ernie had survived childhood and in 1930 he was ready to go out into the world of work. Now those of us who have any knowledge of the thirties know that there was a recession and much unemployment. So you might think that this would mean that Ernie would have trouble getting a job. Not so, the employers had a little trick up their sleeves which ensured that there were plenty of jobs available for healthy young people. They called it the apprentice system.

Surprisingly enough, Ernie’s first job wasn’t in a mill in Barlick, it was in King’s Foundry in Skipton. Remember, this was an undernourished fourteen year old lad. His first job was buffing the rough edges off newly cast iron manhole covers. These weighed about 150lbs (75 kg.) and he had to lift every one on to the machine. He said the foreman was a cruel man and it didn’t take Ernie long to work out that he’d be lucky if he survived. The wage was twopence three farthings an hour. (This was slightly more than 1p. an hour. He was taking home about 35p for a weeks hard work) He noted that as soon as any of his co-workers reached an age where their wages would be raised, they were sacked on some pretence and another school-leaver set on. Ernie said that exactly the same system was operated at Dewhurst’s Thread Mill in Skipton and he described it as ‘slave labour’. So, one day, he started buffing the flanges off the manhole covers, rendering them useless. This did the trick, he got sacked and went home and told his mother.

Margaret hadn’t been very happy about the foundry job in the first place and she told Ernie not to worry, she’d have a word with her sister, Ernie’s aunt Louise, who wove at Bancroft.

Since he had been about ten years old, Ernie had been going up to Bancroft regularly on Saturday morning to help his aunt Louise and learn to weave. So, when she had a word with the manager at Bancroft, Tom Rigg, he agreed to let her take on Ernie as a learner weaver or tenter. Notice that it was aunt Louise who set Ernie on and she had to pay him a wage. To compensate for this she was given another loom or two which could be managed with help. At that time, only the very top-class weavers had six looms, the usual number was four.

It didn’t take long for Ernie to get the hang of weaving. He had the odd bit of trouble like one day he was called into the warehouse over a piece of cloth he had woven with too many ends in the selvedge. Surprisingly, the manager was very kind to him, pointed out the mistake and how to cure it and told him never to do it again.

Ernie always looked forward to Saturday morning because there was a good chance a weaver would miss coming in. If this happened, Ernie was paired up with another learner, a girl, and they ran the four looms for the missing weaver. They got paid two shillings and sixpence for this by the management, one shilling and threepence apiece (slightly more than 6p) Aunt Louise was paying him half a crown a week, so this was a bumper week!

Ernie did two years at Bancroft and graduated first to two looms and then four. By 1932 he was earning about £2 a week. He ‘tipped up’ his wage to his mother and she gave him a couple of bob for himself so Margaret was getting to be a wealthy woman, she had two sons working in addition to her own wage. In 1932, this triggered off a move from 1 John Street to 9 Westgate. This was one of the houses that used to stand on the left hand side of Westgate looking uphill. They were demolished for road widening about 20 years ago. Hartley Street, where Ernie was born, was in this block of houses.

The new house was a great improvement. It was a through house with two bedrooms and a parlour in addition to the kitchen. There was a backyard with a washhouse and a tippler toilet. (That’s right, were back to basic functions again!) Tippler toilets were the first lavatories in the town that worked on the ‘water carriage’ system. That is, water was used to carry the waste away to the sewage works instead of manual collection. The way they worked was that there was an earthenware pipe about 14 inches in diameter connected straight into the sewer and this had a seat on top. It was flushed by the waste water from the sink which collected in a ‘tippler’ in a chamber in the yard until there was enough to overbalance it. When this happened, there was a rush of soapy water into the toilet which flushed it out. The shaft down to the sewer could be 15 feet deep and it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that we would regard them as highly unsanitary. They were also very frightening if you were a child.

So, we’ve reached 1932, Ernie is weaving four looms and even though times are still hard, Margaret is in better shape than at any time since she was first married. All they had to worry about now was continuity of employment, remember, there was a recession on.

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SCG/06 July 2001


The story so far, we left Ernie Roberts in 1926 when he was living at 1 John Street. He was ten years old and had a sister and an elder brother called Fred who had started work. His younger brother Wilson went to York Street school with him and his sister and his mother Margaret was working as a weaver. She had her wage, a war widow’s pension and most of Fred’s wage. The total family income was probably about £3 a week. This wasn’t a fortune but was certainly much better than the days not long before when they were on parish relief and surviving off 25/- a week. (125 p.)

I was asking Ernie about entertainment and he told me about the time that Margaret saved up enough money to pay for a week in Blackpool. The arrangements for this holiday were slightly different than a modern holiday. They went on what was known as the ‘bed and cruet’ system. When they went down to catch the train they took with them a large tin box containing enough food to last the family for a week. When they arrived at the digs they hired the bedroom for a week and any food that needed cooking was seen to by the landlady who made a small charge. Ernie says they had a good week and he fell in love for the first time with a ‘little brunette’ who he never saw again.

There was plenty of entertainment in Barlick as long as you had a bob or two in your pocket. There was no TV of course but the lads went to the cinema four nights a week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The way it worked was that there were two cinemas, the Majestic and the Palace. (There was the Alhambra down Butts as well until it burned down in April 1923. This was before the Roberts family came into money so Ernie never went there.) Each cinema changed programme on Thursday, so Monday was Majestic night, Tuesday was the Palace, Wednesday was a night off and Thursday and Friday were back to the Majestic and Palace. On Saturday, if they were flush, they would get on the train for Earby and go to the Empire.

They got a surprise free trip to the Empire one Saturday night when Raymond Riding, one of Ernie’s mates, told them he had been digging where they emptied the silt from the gully grates in the street and had found a pound note. Now Ernie smelt a bit of a rat because he said that the note wasn’t wet or crumpled. He knew that money could be found at the tip, they often went scavenging there and found odd coins but he had never heard of a pound note being found before.

Anyway, the trip was too good to turn down. About four of them set off, called in at Atkinson’s for a new cap apiece, got on the train for Earby and had a good night out at Earby pictures with a bag of nuts thrown in as well. When they got off the train at Barlick, Mrs Riding was waiting on the platform for them and they soon realised that all was not well. It turned out that Raymond had been sent to Bonny’s shop with a pound note to pay the shop book. He had taken the change back to his mother but somehow, had managed to keep hold of the original pound. Ernie said that Raymond got a good hiding, had to apologise at the shop keeper and pay the money back at so much a week. Ernie got to keep his cap and so did pretty well out of it.

I asked Ernie if they ever got into any trouble with the police and he said that apart from the odd enquiry about a broken window, they were never in trouble with the law. The nearest they ever got to it was when they raided the mill yard to cut canes out of the sides of the big basketwork skeps that weft was delivered in. They used them to make bows so they could shoot arrows. He said this was dangerous stuff, if you were caught with a penknife in your pocket ‘you were sent to Siberia’! Similarly, if they went ‘chubbing’, that is collecting wood for their Fifth of November bonfire, they only went after trees and branches. If they had been caught with a weft box lid or something else that was from the mill they were in real trouble.

Ernie told me about drink in the town. The predominant brew was Massey’s Burnley Ales. He often went to the outdoor department which was the side door at the Seven Stars to get a jug of Nut Brown Ale for his mother. If any of the kids had a cold she would dip a red hot poker in the beer and give it to them to get a sweat going. Another favourite order if things were flush was a noggin of rum. A noggin is a quarter of a pint, you took your own bottle and got it filled at the pub.

Very few women went into pubs, it was frowned on in those days. A notable exception was an old lady called Sarah Ann Rocky who lived in the little hovel opposite the butcher’s shop in Walmsgate. Ernie told me he had seen her being brought back home in a wheelbarrow many a time. She lived on her own on ten shillings a week (50p.). He remembered her once having a small fire and when the brigade came to rescue her she begged them to get her bread crock out. When they did they found she had been using it for a toilet!

There was a lot of drunkenness in those days. Ernie says a lot more than today. It was not unusual to see men staggering about in the street. As Ernie said, they worked all week, gave their wives as little as they could to run the house and boozed the rest away at weekend. They would also save up, perhaps for twelve months, and then ‘strike t’rant’. They would simply go into the pub and start boozing and carry on until the money had run out. This could take a week sometimes. Then they would go back to work and be almost teetotal until they had saved up enough to do it all again. There’s a famous book about Salford called ‘The Classic Slum’ and Roberts, the author, describes exactly the same thing there, he says that ‘The quickest way out of Salford was four pints’. Ernie agreed with this, they were drinking to escape but he had no sympathy for them because of the way they treated their wives.

I asked Ernie if anyone had ever tried to warn him of the evils of drink. He said that he had signed the pledge many a time in order to get the free coffee and buns that were on offer at the temperance meetings but he always kept his fingers crossed as he signed! He reckoned this made it all right. He could never understand why the religions were so dead set against drink. As he said, ‘They had wine at the Last Supper didn’t they?’ Once he realised this he dropped the idea of temperance and enjoyed a drop for the rest of his life.

The only time they went to chapel was at Whitsuntide when they could join in with the sports and get free coffee and buns. He remembered him and his mates getting scrubbed up to go one Whitsunday and the preacher, a Mr Kay who was a weaver by trade, said ‘All boys who haven’t been to service in the last month must leave’. So they had to get out and never got their afternoon out. This really upset Ernie, all those years after I could see he was so angry at this man who had denied four poor lads an afternoon’s entertainment.

After the Alhambra burned down, the space where it had stood was used for an open air market and the fair used to set up there as well. This is the piece of ground where Butts Clinic is now, Ernie said that in later years it was a good courting shop as well! Next door, on the site where Carlson Ford have some modern buildings now was the Conservative Club bowling Green. Every now and then they would have a ‘Frizzle’, which was I suppose the equivalent of a modern barbecues but everything was fried in big pans. Ernie said that they were always made welcome there, they would get as much eggs, bacon and sausage as they could eat. Needless to say, they never missed one.

Ernie still had his odd jobs going, running errands and making a bob or two wherever he could. He said one of his regular jobs was weeding the garden for three teachers who lived in a house near Bancroft Shed. He used to go up there and work for sixpence an hour and get his tea made for him.

He told me about the street traders and entertainers who came round. There was one bloke who Ernie says seemed to be coming round all through his childhood. He used to sing just one song, ‘Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight’ and the kids used to mock him by singing back, ‘He’s gone to the petty to have a shite!’ Ernie said that the funny thing was that when this bloke died they heard he’d left a row of houses at Colne in his will! There was another man who had a piano accordion and a good tenor voice. Ernie said they didn’t mock him because he was good and knew more than one song!

There were street traders as well. One bloke used to sharpen knives and they called him ‘Flagger’ because he didn’t have a grindstone, he used to go round the corner and sharpen the knives on the flags or the kerbstone. Another man sold clothes props and every now and then, itinerant gypsies came round selling lace and clothes pegs.

We have to leave Ernie again for a while. He’s knocking on a bit now and next we’ll have a look at what happened when he left school at the age of fourteen in 1930. I don’t know whether you will agree with me, but with all its faults and failings, the picture that Ernie is building up of Walmsgate and Westgate is of a very tight knit community which, though poor, was full of life. I know that infant mortality was dreadfully high, and we’ll have a look at some other health matters shortly, but from the description, it feels safe to me. There is no vandalism or street violence and nobody had any qualms about giving their kids freedom to roam.

Against this must be set the grim picture Ernie paints of the woman’s lot in this society. As Ernie said at one point, he is all in agreement with Women’s Liberty. He reckoned that the men treated the women like chattels and it was shameful. He even gets mildly critical of his father, who, though unfit for work, saw nothing wrong in saddling his young wife with another baby the year before he died. It was an honest place, but for some, a hard life.

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SCG/08 June 2001

Thursday, February 14, 2002


If you had happened to be in Westgate on Christmas Eve 1924 you might have seen a eight year old lad staggering up the road with a turkey over his shoulder that was so big its head was dragging on the ground behind him. That’s right, it was our Ernie!

I can hear you saying, ‘hang on a minute, the last we heard he was on his chin strap’. You’d be right, but sometime late in 1924 Margaret found out that she was entitled to a War Widow’s Pension and so she claimed it and got back pay as well. Ernie said it was a great day when this happened. The first thing she did was take him to the indoor market that was held daily in the Majestic and buy him a scooter. He was so excited he was riding it round in the market and the Market Inspector was going to turf him out until he found that it had only just been bought.

Ernie reckons that the pension was about £2 which was a small fortune as far as they were concerned. I’m not too sure about this amount. All I know is that my Grandma Challenger only got 26/3 [131p.] in 1917 for herself and three children when my Granddad was killed in the war. I suppose it might have gone up in the post war years.

Margaret was still unable to work because the youngest lad, Wilson, was only three years old but even so, things were a lot better. One of the first improvements was a clothes rack in the kitchen that could be raised up to the ceiling by ropes running over pulleys. This was a great improvement when washing had to be dried on a wet day. They got a wringing machine as well and this found a home in the parlour. Ernie tells me that one of his jobs if he was about was to wind the wringer for his mother. He told me he has never forgotten winding like hell one day so he could get finished and get out to play. They were doing sheets and when it got to the end the handle slipped out of his hands and spun round and hit him between the legs. He said he’d never been right since!

Their standard of living went up and they could afford to patronise Bob Hudson’s fish cart which came round daily except for Sunday and Monday. All the fish used to come into town by rail in those days and Monday was always a fishless day because there was no refrigeration and no deliveries because fish wasn’t landed on a Sunday. I can remember when I was a lad that fish and chip shops were always closed on Monday for the same reason. Ernie said that Bob always had a crowd of cats following him because when he cleaned the fish he put the scraps in a bucket hanging on the back of the cart and the cats used to jump up and steal bits out of it.

Another thing which helped was that Ernie got a job as a lather boy in Billy Demeline’s barbers shop next to the Seven Stars where Woodworths watchmakers shop used to be. The hours were long, he went in after school at four o’clock every day and he could be working up until ten o’clock on a Friday and Saturday night but it brought a 3/6 a week in to the house. It cost twopence halfpenny for a shave [1p] and a lot of customers would give Ernie the odd halfpenny so he finished up with a bit for himself as well. Their regular customers were the tramp weavers who lodged in the Model down Butts, where Briggs and Duxbury’s are now.
Fred was a milk boy for Taylforths at Calf Hall Farm and brought in another 3/6 a week. They did two rounds, one at night and one in the morning because the milk went sour so quickly. When Fred got to working age, Ernie took this job over from him. He remembered that the horse was called Captain and it used to fart as it went along!

Another little job that cropped up at this time made Ernie a bit for himself but was totally illegal. In those days, off-course betting was a crime and if you wanted to place a bet you either had to find out where the bookie lived or give the bet to a runner who would take it for you. The barber’s shop was just the place to study form and write a betting slip out and who better to pop round to the local bookie but Ernie, the lather boy.

The bookie was Isaac Levi who lived in the end house on the row where the butcher‘s shop is now, Billy Blackburn used to live there and I think his widow still has it. Ernie told me that at one time there was a fiddle going on with some of the runners. They would write a slip out of their own and stick it to the back of the genuine one with a bit of spit. When the slip was accepted and thrown in the box with the others the spit dried out and the false slip fell off and counted as a genuine one. It didn’t take Isaac long to twig this but Ernie reckons that it cost him money before he realised what was happening. Isaac lent money as well and Ernie said he had a very good reputation, he never heard anyone cry Isaac down. This must be fairly unusual for a back street moneylender.

By this time the three eldest children were going to York Street School and Ernie was doing well as a scholar. I can well believe this because I was always struck by the fact that you could have a conversation with Ernie about any subject under the sun and he knew something about it. He must have read every book he could get hold of. Funnily enough he once told me he had never been to the library. He said he didn’t like reading a book unless it was his, he had to own it.

Life wasn’t all work and school. They had plenty of time to get up to mischief. Ernie said they had a gang called the Wapping Shin Crackers and they spent quite a lot of time defending their territory. In summer a favourite occupation was swimming in Calf Hall Shed Dam. Ernie was still regarded as a delicate child and wasn’t supposed to do this. He remembers that one day, the fun was in full swing behind the shed when his mother turned up with a picking band [a leather strap about eighteen inches long that connected the picking stick to the picker on a Lancashire loom] Someone had told her that Ernie was swimming! She dragged him out of the dam, picked his clothes up and made him walk naked down Calf Hall Lane. Every few yards she caught him a crack on his bum with the strap and Ernie said that he gave swimming a wide berth after that!

Their favourite occupation was roaming round the countryside. They would set off and walk miles just to see what they could get up to. I remember doing exactly the same thing when I was a lad and often think how much modern children miss by not being allowed to do this because their parents are afraid for their safety. I saw a statistic somewhere recently that said that only 8% of children walk to school today. From the age of four I had to go a mile and a half each way by myself to school and when I got to grammar school it was seven miles in each direction. Mind you, when I think of some of the tricks we got up to I cringe, there must have been a guardian angel looking after us.

By 1925 Wilson was four years old and was accepted at Church School. This meant that Margaret was free to go back to weaving and so the income rose again. She started at six in the morning and worked Saturdays until noon, 48 hours a week. She had four looms and Ernie reckons she’d have a pound a week. [Standard hours in the mill were 55 ½ up to 1919 and then it was reduced to 48 hours. The Amalgamated Weavers Union census of wages in 1913 gave an average of 26/3 for a four loom weaver. In 1924 the Ministry of Labour census for the average manual wage was 36/10 a week. Weavers would be well under that so she might have been on 30/- a week maximum]

When Margaret went back to work, Fred was in charge until they went to school and in the evenings an aunty used to come in and do a bit of cleaning and make tea for 2/6 a week. Not everybody could afford to do this, or even stay out of the mill if they had a small child. Many women acted as child-minders. Ernie said that his mother had told him that some young mothers used to take their babies into the mill and have them in a basket by their looms because they were still breast-feeding them.

There were no school dinners in those days but there was a pie shop called Holmes’s on the corner of Westgate on the Seven Stars side. Ernie said that his mother had a standing order there and they used to go in each day and have torpedo and peas or pie and peas, threepence a time. His mother paid every Saturday afternoon. Other working mothers did the same and Ernie said the shop was always packed out at dinnertime.

I’m not too sure what age Fred was but it would be about this time that he started work as well. He would start by going half time, that is half a day in the mill and half a day in school so there was another small wage coming in. Ernie said that his mother splashed out on a new iron. It was what they called a box iron. It was made of cast iron and was hollow. You heated blocks of cast iron up in the fire and popped them into the iron with a pair of tongs. While you were using that one, another was warming up in the fire. All the ironing was done on the big square table and his mother did this in the evenings. This was one job she wouldn’t let the kids do for her.

So, we’ve reached 1926 and Ernie is ten years old. We’ll have to leave it now but don’t worry, there is more to come. or 813527 will get me if there are any comments. Thanks for reading so far.

SCG/28 May 2001


It’s 1921 and we left Margaret Ellen and her family living in 1 John Street on 25/- a week parish relief. It was a hard time for all of them and not surprisingly, a lot of Ernie’s memories of that time are about food.

I asked him about birthdays and Christmas and whether he could remember any presents. Birthdays were ignored apart from getting his hair pulled by everyone and Christmas wasn’t much better. He said that the only present he could remember was getting an orange for Christmas. Next time you’re doing the Christmas shopping for your kids you might bear this in mind, but I don’t think you’ll be very popular.

Ernie can remember the Christmas after his father died, it was Christmas Eve, there was no food in the house and they all went to bed early. At about ten o’clock there was a knock on the door and Margaret got out of bed to go and see who it was. When she opened the door it was the Salvation Army delivering a basket full of food for them. Ernie says he has never forgotten that kind gesture, it made all the difference to them and he remembered it as one of the best Christmases they ever had.

Of course there were times when all resources failed them and Margaret would have to make a visit to Jimmy Wraw’s on Church Street. As I remember it, Wraw’s used to be somewhere near where Barclay’s Bank is now but if anyone can tell me for certain I’d like to hear from them. For the younger ones, Jimmy Wraw’s was a pawnbroker’s shop. ‘Uncle’ as everyone called them. A pawnbroker was, in effect, a moneylender but they only gave money out for security. This could be anything from a wedding ring to a piece of furniture. You took whatever it was into the shop and left it as a ‘pledge’ against the money you were lent for it. You could go back and redeem your pledge at any time for twelve months and Ernie thinks that the interest charge was a halfpenny a month for every 2/- you borrowed. This worked out at 25% per annum which sounds high but is actually less than most credit cards nowadays.

If you couldn’t afford to redeem your pledge within twelve months it became a ‘forfeited pledge’ and the pawnbroker was allowed to sell it. So Wraws was a good place to go if you wanted anything secondhand, from a wedding ring to a piece of furniture of course. They also sold new working clothes as well. Both Ernie and I were trying to remember the name of the little bald headed bloke that used to be the manager there but we failed. If anyone knows, please let me know. Ernie said that the manager was a good man and very fair. He had nothing but good to say about Wraws, it was always there when you needed it and he said they looked after his best suit better than they could have at home!

This statement raises an interesting point about the conditions that Margaret and her family lived in. Imagine a house with a badly fitting door which allowed draughts to blow in all round. The window frames would have been little better and the roof slates had no underdrawing or pointing. There was no insulation in the roof at all and consequently the house would have been, to our central heating conditioned systems, cold, draughty and damp. These are the ideal conditions for wildlife like cockroaches, silver fish and moths.

Right up to the fifties, any wardrobe or drawer that had woollen clothes in and wasn’t protected with moth balls was infested with moth larvae. These had only one purpose in life, to eat wool! I suppose a lot of people will use the phrase ‘moth-eaten’ to describe something that is tatty and ragged and yet don’t realise where the phrase comes from. The ‘moth balls’ were small balls of camphor, about the size of an aniseed ball, and they gave of a heavy, sweet scented vapour that deterred moths and clung to the clothes. In later years they were shaped like Polo Mints so that they could be hung on a string on the coat hanger. I grew up with the scent of moth balls but now we nearly all have dry centrally heated houses, moths are a thing of the past.

You might wonder what the effect of these conditions were on the family. I suppose the short answer is bad. Remember that there was no refrigeration. Almost all the food they ate was either contaminated because of age or because of the dust that drifted in from the street and settled on uncovered plates. Almost everyone suffered from a permanent low level infection of the stomach that gave them mild diarrhoea. In addition, Margaret’s system was weakened by child-bearing and malnutrition and her condition was even worse. Like many other women in those days, she swore by Beechams Pills. These were small balls of medicine screwed up in a scrap of paper. I think there were about six in a twist. Margaret, like my mother and hundreds of thousands of other women wouldn’t dream of going to bed without taking one.

Ernie himself was a very sickly child. He reckons he was on seven death beds before he was three years old. He always had something wrong with him. He remembers his mother once trying to dose him for a sore throat. She had got some flowers of sulphur and loaded it into a piece of rolled up paper. The idea was that she was going to blow the powder down his throat but Ernie blew first and his mother got the dose! He says she nearly choked and when she recovered, gave him a good hiding and sent him to bed. Home made remedies like this were common because people couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. I can remember having a sweaty sock wrapped round my throat when I went to bed to alleviate a sore throat. The theory was it kept you warm and the ammonia healed your throat.

Another cure for sore throat was to gargle with salt water. A solution of borax was good for mouth ulcers and a dose of sulphur mixed with black treacle was essential in spring to ‘clear your blood out’. Tonics of all sorts were in vogue. Any chemist would sell you a bottle of Easton Syrup which was mostly which was mostly quinine and incredibly bitter. I know it used to make my teeth go all funny. Fenning’s Fever Cure was another great standby I remember well, the main ingredient of that was nitric acid!

Even life threatening diseases were treated at home. If a child had Whooping Cough the cure was to take them down to the gas works and get one of the workmen to take them up to the top of the retorts and expose them to the sulphurous fumes, some people reckoned that the fumes off a tar boiler in the street were just as good. These boilers were full of gas tar and this was heated up and poured round the stone setts in the road to seal them. In hot weather the tar melted and the kids would collect it and use it like Plasticine to make models. When it stuck to your hands the only thing available to get it off was lard, there were no detergent hand cleaners in those days.

Ernie told me another story which reminded me of my grandmother. Fred had an old muzzle loading shotgun that he used to use to get rabbits for the family. Uncle Ernest used to keep them supplied with gunpowder and one day Ernie was experimenting with this in the kitchen, throwing small pinches on the fire. He slipped up and threw the whole packet on and there was a serious explosion.

Apart from burning Ernie’s face and bringing down clouds of soot from the chimney, it frightened the old lady next door so much that she jumped out of bed. Now the interesting thing about this was that she was what they called ‘bedfast’ or ‘bedridden’. You never seem to hear of this now but in those days anyone who was so seriously ill that the doctor couldn’t cure them took to their bed and stayed there. In my experience it was usually women. My grandmother was ‘bedfast’ for 17 years before she died! I have little doubt that in today’s world she would have been up and about. Anyway, Ernie ‘cured’ the woman next door!

There’s lots more to tell about Ernie and his life but can we just pause for a moment and look at what we have described so far from a 21st century standpoint. Margaret and her family weren’t alone in their poverty, there were many more families and widows like them. Because Wapping was an old part of the town, housing was cheaper there and the proportion of poor people was higher. The equivalent in Earby would be the ‘Dockyard’ behind Victoria Mill.

These people were living in cold, draughty, run down property and they are all malnourished. In short they are in poverty. Shortage of money affected their lives in many ways. They couldn’t afford decent health care, clothes, footwear and certainly not holidays. Because they were forced into debt they had to support high interest payments. What benefit system there was, The Parish, turned out to be corrupt in Margaret’s case. General standards of sanitation and hygiene were appalling and this imposed even more strains on them and their health.

No matter which way you look at it, these were not the ‘good old days’. Ernie can laugh when he looks back but it was a bottomless pit of human misery and the only escape was by seeing the bright side or dying. It was no wonder that when men were in work, drink played such a large part in their lives. I’ve talked before about men saving up and ‘striking t’rant’, going out and boozing until they were broke. The women didn’t usually have this escape because that’s what it was. There’s a book called Classic Slum by a man called Roberts and it describes exactly this scenario in Salford. He said ‘The quickest way out of Salford was four pints.’ The same thing applied to Barlick.

The wonder of it all is that they survived. How they did it and what happened to improve their situation will have to wait until next time. As usual, 813527 or will find me and I’m always glad to hear from you.

SCG/28 May 2001

Tuesday, February 12, 2002


We ended last weeks piece with the outside closet. We might as well continue on this exalted level and look at the rest of the household waste.

I used to spend quite a lot of time in Laneshawbridge and there was one place in a field there, next to the beck, where for years, all the dustbins from the village were emptied. Over the years the beck had changed course and started to cut into the tip and as it fell away all sorts of interesting things came to light.

The first thing I noticed about it was that the tip was mainly ashes from coal fires and the only other things you found in there were rusty tins, small metal or glass objects and broken pottery. In other words, things that wouldn’t burn. This gives us some clues about waste disposal at the start of the 20th century. Actually, I didn’t need these clues because I’m old enough to remember what we did at home in the 40’s and things hadn’t changed that much.

The first thing to remember is that there was hardly any packaging like there is today. The only things that were wrapped at the grocers was sugar, flour, tea etc. that had to be sold in a bag. Butter and lard was wrapped as was bacon and meat but just about everything else was unwrapped. Nobody would have thought of wrapping vegetables or bread, they just got dropped in the shopping bag or basket. So, there was hardly any waste from food packaging and what little there was would burn on the fire.

Food waste like potato peelings or pea pods also went on the fire. This damped the fire down and saved coal. Nearly everyone banked the fire with soft waste of this sort just before they went to bed, with a bit of luck the fire would still be in in the morning. At the very least, the grate would be warm and easy to light.

You might be wondering about left-over food. There is a simple answer to this, there wasn’t any! You ate everything that was on your plate without fail and if something was going off a bit, you ate it anyway. Remember that in the early years everyone in Ernie’s home was under-nourished. Ernie said that his mother looked like a ‘skinned rabbit’, she only weighed about six stones and even if there was more food than usual, she made sure the kids got it so there was never anything left on the plates.

A word about fire lighting wouldn’t go amiss here. I watch these ‘survival’ programmes on the TV and never fail to wonder at the mess that the participants get into when asked to light a fire. Even if they have matches they struggle to get a flame going. Every child of my generation knew how to light fires and so did all the generations before me. First one up lit the fire and one of the first things my mother ever taught me was how to make firelighters out of newspaper. I can’t show you here but you rolled the paper up into a tube, then flattened it and then plaited it into a sort of lump and finished off by tucking the loose end in. Ask the oldest person you know and they’ll show you how to do it. If you made about four of these, placed them in a clean warm grate and carefully packed some knobs of coal round them, all you needed was a match and in ten minutes you had the beginnings of a good fire.

Nearly all the grocers shops sold bundles of kindling for the well to do customers and there were even special firelighters that were a bundle of creosote soaked shavings held together with four sticks and some wire but these were beyond Mrs Roberts’ pocket!

In 1921 when George Roberts died, Margaret was at rock bottom. She couldn’t work because she had a child she was still nursing and she must have been badly advised because she didn’t seem to realise that her husband’s death was due to war service and she was eligible for a pension. There was only one thing to do, go ‘on the Parish’. In other words, she had to apply to the local relieving officer for a hand out from the Poor Rate, the workhouse in other words. She got 25/- a week and this was delivered every Saturday morning by the relieving officer. I know his name but I’ll keep that to myself because he may still have relatives in the town. Two years after she started on the Parish, the relieving officer was found to be embezzling money from the clients. Margaret should have been getting 35/- a week, not 25/-. The man was tried at Skipton and given nine months in the second division, that is, without hard labour. Ernie reckoned that this was nowhere near the punishment he had inflicted on his mother for two years and I tend to agree with him.

Be that as it may. Margaret had a hard two years and so did Ernie and his brothers and sisters. The first problem was that there was never enough to eat. They lived from hand to mouth. There was a small shop opposite John Street run by a lady called Mrs Matthews and Ernie said you could get anything there for a penny. You could get a small twist of tea or sugar or an onion or apple. If you went in with a penny you would always get something. Savages were in business on Church Street by now and Mrs Yates had a greengrocer’s shop on there as well. There was no such thing as refrigeration in those days so the aim was to sell everything that was perishable late on Saturday night. This was the time when people like Margaret went hunting for bargains. Church Street at ten o’clock on a Saturday night was the place to be. Nothing was wasted, the bad bits were cut out of fruit and the good parts sold cheap. The same applied to vegetables and a bag of ‘broth bits’ with a bone from Jack Tomlinson the butcher was the basis of many a Sunday dinner.

It’s probably time here to mention the ‘hunter-gatherer syndrome’. If you are hungry enough, there are lots of ways you can get hold of things to eat. Ernie had an uncle Ernest who he was named after and he was an expert at trapping starlings. Ernie says they used to skin them and then roast them on the top bar of the coal fire. He says they were reight fatty and sweet. Rabbits were a great standby. Fred, Ernie’s elder brother was a good man at trapping and shooting rabbits and as Ernie said, if you had a rabbit, an onion and a bit of salt, you were all right. His mother would soon make either a stew or a rabbit pie.

While we were on the subject of rabbits we both agreed that we’d gone off the idea of eating them since myxomatosis had been introduced into them to cut the numbers down. Ernie said that it was ‘an invention of the devil, pure greed, just because they were eating the farmer’s grass’. I told him the thing I had against it was the cruelty of it. The virus is a terrible thing and the poor animals get tumours and go blind and die a horrible death. There’s plenty of rabbits about at the moment but many of them have ‘myxy’. If you’re hard up and want to know how to decide if they are fit to eat I’ll tell you, look at the liver, if that’s healthy the rabbit is OK.

The lads spent a lot of time walking around the fields and if there were mushrooms about or blackberries that soon found them and took them home. Ernie admitted to raiding the odd hen house at times, he said the farmers had got wise to this and locked the huts up but they had a secret weapon, a child small enough to squeeze through the bob hole of the hut and pass the eggs out. I asked him about coal and he said that if they were short, a trip down to the railway yard with a bucket at dead of night could usually cure that deficiency. All right, it was stealing, but if kids are hungry or cold I reckon the rules change a bit, sorry about that.

I asked Ernie about his mother’s cooking and not surprisingly he said she was a ‘bloody marvellous cook’. She would have to be when you think about it. He said that the thing he missed most was lemon curd and rice and currant tarts. I’ve never come across the tarts myself but I’m going to find out about them and have a crack at making some. If anyone knows the recipe, give me a ring!

I asked Ernie about clothes and whether his mother made any for them and he burst out laughing. He said his mother might have been the best cook in the world but she was the worst seamstress! He dreaded her darning his stockings because it felt as though he had a lump of coke in his clog! Most of their clothes were hand me downs. Jumble sales were a good target but this didn’t help with footwear. He said that he spent most of his childhood ‘witchered’. I’ll bet a lot of you have never come across that word have you. It’s a corruption of ‘wetshod’ and means having boots that leak and wet feet.

He told me a story about old Mr Slater, the owner of Clough Mill. He said that him and Fred were walking down Manchester Road one Saturday and they came across Mr Slater in the street. He weighed their footwear up and said ‘Come with me’. He took them to a clogger called Barlow at the bottom of Manchester Road and told him to make the lads a pair of clogs apiece and to make sure they knew that if they broke an iron they must go back to Barlows and have it fixed. Mr Slater would take care of the bill. Ernie said he sat in the clogger’s shop all day Saturday until his new clogs were ready. He said that the man was a saint and he’d never forgotten this kind action. He had an idea that Margaret might have worked at Clough at one time and this was how Slater knew about them. Often Slater would take them into Mrs Yates and buy them an apple or slip them sixpence for their mother.

Ernie and Fred were what we would call today ‘street wise’. They never missed an opportunity for getting something for nothing or earning a halfpenny. They had a regular series of customers who they ran errands for. Ernie said that one day he went to Mrs Yates for a donkey stone for an old lady who lived on Colne Road. Donkey stone was the name for a small block of soft stone that was used to put decorative lines on the edge of a scrubbed doorstep or on a kerb edge. You could get hard or soft and they came in white, yellow and orange colours. Well, Ernie was given a half penny and went for the donkey stone but when he delivered it the lady never gave him anything. He set off down the street but then went back and asked her, ‘Was that donkey stone hard or soft?’ The old lady grinned and said ‘oh dear, I never gave you the half penny for going did I’ as Ernie said, ‘I must have been cute even in them days!’

Right, we’ve run out of space for this week.. More about Ernie and Wapping next week. Comments etc to or 813527. Always glad to hear from you especially if you know the recipe for rice and currant tart!

SCG/27 May 2001


I’m going to try to give you an impression of what life was like early in the 20th century in Barlick, to be more specific, in the Westgate and Colne Road part of the town. The reason I’m concentrating on this area is that my descriptions are based on the life of a friend of mine, Ernie Roberts, who used to be a tackler at Bancroft Shed. Twenty three years ago I sat down with Ernie and got him to tell me his life story so all the circumstances and incidents I shall describe are just as Ernie related them to me. This doesn’t mean that every tiny detail will be correct, memory plays tricks on all of us, however, what you can be sure of is that the overall picture is accurate. So the next time the kids are whingeing because they haven’t got the latest piece of software for their computer or the ‘in’ designer label clothes, sit them down and tell them some of this story and see if you can make them believe it!

Margaret Ellen Alton was born in Brierfield in 1895. We don’t know a lot about her early years but by about 1908 she was living in Barlick and working as a weaver at Long Ing Shed. There she met a man called George Ireson Roberts who was also a newcomer to the town. His father was originally a joiner on the Gisburn Estate but shortly after 1900 he was living in Bracewell with his wife who was the village midwife. George was born in 1889 and so was six years older than Margaret. We suspect that when his family moved to Bracewell, he got a job at Long Ing and this might have been one of the reasons for the family making the move from Gisburn, they could get their children into work and have an income from them. Ernie tells later of having an uncle Ernest who lived in Barlick and I think he was George’s brother.

The first thing to realise about this period is that there was a lot of migration into Barlick from the surrounding towns and villages. The magnet that attracted Margaret and George, together with hundreds of others was the fact that the mills were expanding and there was work in the town. The collapse of the Bracewell interests in 1885 had eventually spawned the shed companies and the profits made by the manufacturers in these sheds fuelled a further burst of building in the early part of the twentieth century which culminated in the completion of Bancroft Shed on Saturday 13th of March 1920. The growth was amazing, one simple statistic tells it all, round about 1890 there were 3,000 looms in the town, by 1920 there were 20,000. In 1900, if you had stood below Forrester’s Buildings and looked North you would have seen nothing but fields and the occasional cottage and farmhouse. By 1920 it was a sea of new houses.

On the face of it, the future looked bright for Margaret and George when they got married. We aren’t sure of the date but Ernie said his mother was ‘very young’ and I suspect she could have been married, or at least, bearing children, as early as 1910. The reason I say this is because we know she conceived 10 times before 1916 and once again in 1920. Out of the 11 confinements, four children survived. Two of these confinements were within ten months and both these children died within a fortnight of each other of German Measles at one year old and three months respectively. She ended up in 1920 with three sons and a daughter, all under working age.

Just think about the life Margaret must have had for a moment. By the time she was 25 she had endured ten years of childbearing. As Ernie said, his mother once told him that she could remember walking down the road carrying one baby, leading another by the hand and carrying a third in her belly. This was by no means uncommon in those days. The only method of birth control available to the lower classes was abstinence and it seems fairly obvious that this was fairly thin on the ground.

Having said this, we shouldn’t run away with the idea that Margaret felt hard done to. After all, this was her experience, as far as she knew, all women had this sort of a life. She was probably grateful that she had a man, they had a rented house and there was plenty of work. Unfortunately, this was all to change and things were going to get much worse. In 1914 war broke out with Germany and by 1916 George was called up into the army, Margaret was left on her own tending her three children. Almost at the end of the war, George was very badly wounded. He survived and came home a broken man, never to work again.

George may have been badly disabled but he fathered another child, Wilson Roberts who was born in 1920, a year before his father eventually died. By this time they had moved into a smaller and cheaper house, number one, John Street. This was a one up and one down house and all six of them lived in one room downstairs and one bedroom with two beds. This is where our story about life in Wapping really starts because this is the house Ernie remembers from his childhood.

John Street was owned by a man called Lund. Ernie’s mother used to call him ‘Monkey’ Lund. Legend had it that he’d bought the entire row of houses for £300 and he lived in one and rented the others out. Ernie said that they got notice to quit every week, not because his mother didn’t pay the rent, but because the two lads, Fred the eldest, and Ernie his brother were so mischievous.

The first thing I got Ernie to do was describe the house in detail. The downstairs room, the parlour as they called it, was stone-flagged and there were no carpets. There was a sink and a gas stove rented off the Council. The reason why it was from the Council is that in those days the Urban District Council ran the gas undertaking having bought it in 1892 from the old Barnoldswick Gas and Light Company. It was a big, cast iron stove, black leaded and Ernie says it took any amount of punishment. It cost 5/- a year to rent. [25p.]

The sink was a stone slopstone. Theses were about three feet long, two feet wide and about four inches deep with a brass plughole and plug. There was a cold water tap but that was all, no hot water and this was the only tap in the house. I’ve lived with a stone sink and the thing I always remember is that no matter how well you cleaned them, they always had a smell about them. I suppose it was because the stone was porous and grease soaked into them.

They had gas lighting downstairs, one jet with a mantle. Ernie said that you always had to keep the door closed in summer when the gas was on because otherwise it attracted moths and these headed straight for the light and broke the mantle. If you were hard up, this was a serious matter.

The only furniture in the room was a square table, a dresser, two chairs and a horse hair sofa. There was one other prized item, an oak corner cupboard which Ernie said was his mother’s pride and joy, he reckoned it was the one piece she had started her marriage with. There was a story attached to this cupboard. At one time, in the early days, when both she and her husband were working, they had saved six half sovereigns and they were hidden in this corner cupboard. They went out one evening and when they came back they had been burgled and the six half sovereigns had gone. Can you imagine what a loss that was? It was the equivalent of a months wages nowadays and Ernie said his mother never got over it.

The seating arrangements at mealtimes were a bit of a lottery. Only two people could sit, when his father was alive it was father and mother. After 1921 when his father died it was first come first served for the other chair. Latecomers stood at the table to eat.

The floor was covered with a sprinkling of sand. This was the usual way to maintain a stone floor. Once a week it was swept and scrubbed and sand scattered on it. During the week the constant walking on the sand scoured the floor and kept the flags clean. The sand wasn’t sand as we know it which is all water worn and has rounded edges on the individual grains, what they used for the floors was finely crushed sand stone which tended to bite into the flags and stay where it was scattered. There were no curtains as we would know them. What people used was a piece of mill cotton, what was known as a ‘skive’ usually, that is a faulty length which had been cut out of a piece. This was died with either a ‘Dolly Blue’ or a ‘Dolly Yellow’ to give them a tint. If you don’t know what these are, ask your mother or grandma, they’ll tell you about them.

I remember asking Ernie if there was any stair carpet and he wanted to know if I was joking! He said that apart from the fact that they couldn’t afford a carpet, you can’t nail carpets to stone steps. The bedroom furniture was simple, a chest of drawers and two beds, end of story.

Some of the young ones might be asking at this point, what about the bathroom and lavatory. Simple, there wasn’t any. There was a tin bath hung on the wall outside and every Friday night it was brought in, placed in front of the fire and enough kettles boiled to give six inches of warm water if you were lucky. Everyone took turns in the same water and when you’d finished with six of you it was getting fairly thick. To empty it you dipped the water out with a lading tin like a big scoop and filled buckets and emptied them outside in the gully. When the bath was light enough you dragged it out, tipped the water out and hung it on the wall again ready for next week. If next door was harder up than you they might borrow your bath. It wasn’t unusual to see a bath walking about the back streets on a Friday night up-ended over someone’s head!

The lavatory was at the end of the row and wasn’t a water closet as we know it. It was simply a wooden board with a hole in it over a tin bucket. You used torn-up newspaper for toilet paper and once a week the Council sent a cart round and the bucket was emptied into it, scattered with disinfectant powder and replaced. More about the ‘night soil’ men later.

That’s all we have room for this week, I’ll come back to the domestic arrangements at 1 John Street next week. Thanks for all the feedback, or 813527 will get me any time if you have any comments or requests.

SCG/27 May 2001

Monday, February 11, 2002


Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it gives us 20/20 vision of where we went wrong! It’s a very useful tool because by identifying the consequences of past actions we can learn lessons about the way we manage our environment. One action from the past I have always regretted is the demolition of the railway line between Barlick and Earby. Just think what we could do today in terms of tourism if we had a steam railway running right into the middle of the town! It’s water under the bridge now of course, we can’t re-write history. However, what we can do is be aware of our assets and stand up and shout if we think that we can identify another mistake being made.

It’s not all bad news of course, there is a body of opinion in the town that recognises the dangers of wholesale modernisation and it was this groundswell of opinion that made it possible to save Bancroft Engine in the early 80s and resulted in initiatives like the Town Square. Actions like this make it possible to embrace change and improvement without throwing away the essential features that lift Barlick from being simply another boring provincial town full of brand name shop fronts to being a unique and human scale environment. We’ve not done too badly in the past and with a bit of forethought we can do just as well in the future.

Right, I can hear you saying, “What’s triggered him off this week?” Simple, I saw a report that there is a move afoot to demolish the little hovel behind the telephone box at the bottom of Walmsgate and ‘tidy’ the area up. I can see why this might be seen to be a good thing. Theft of roof slates, neglect and vandalism have combined to make it an eyesore and I agree, we need to do something about it. However, before we rush into demolition, let’s just stand back and take a long hard look at what we are doing.

My mate Ernie Roberts was born in one of the small back-to-backs on John Street and in the thirties was a leading light in the local gang, ‘The Wapping Shincrackers’. Walmsgate was part of their territory and very little went on there that they didn’t know about. He told me that the hovel in question was the home of a woman they knew as Sarah Ann Rocky. She was evidently a bit of a character, Ernie said she liked her drink and he had seen her brought back home slightly worse for wear in a wheelbarrow!

After Sarah, the hovel was occupied by another woman who lived on her own. Ernie couldn’t remember her name but he knew quite a bit about her because she couldn’t read or write. She had a son called Eric who was in Canada and Ernie used to write letters for her and read the letters she got back. He thought she was living there until the late thirties. He remembered one incident when there was a fire in the building and when the fire brigade got her out she asked them to save her crock. Thinking it contained valuables they went in and got it out but then found she had been using it as a toilet!

All good stuff and part of Barlick history but the really important message we get from this evidence is that the ‘hovel’ we are looking at is actually the smallest house in Barlick. It still has a fireplace and a flue and a curious barred window at high level in the rear wall. Dig a little further and the first thing that strikes me about it’s shape and position is that it occupies a peculiarly shaped piece of ground bounded by the path behind, the road in front and the house on the East side. It has all the indications of being a squatted site, built on a piece of land that wasn’t owned by anyone. This possibility is reinforced in my mind by the fact that in this part of the town there are quite a few pieces of land which don’t have clear title. I say this on the basis of a long conversation I once had with Harold Duxbury. I’m not going to go any further into this matter because it can be a very sensitive matter and it is no part of my brief to upset anybody’s applecart but I would lay a shade of odds that at one time the hovel was built on waste ground.

So what we have may be an eyesore but it’s also an important piece of Barlick history. My recommendation would be to re-roof it, reinstate the chimney, point it and put a good door on it. This could possibly be cheaper than demolition and revetment of the ground behind it and would result in another asset for the town. Years ago, I bought the little building opposite the Conservative Club for the same reason. It was falling into disrepair and was an eyesore. John Northage refurbished it and I sold it for what it had cost me. It’s just a peculiar little building that looks as though it is trying to set off down the hill, but I think it adds something to the townscape and has been in constant use ever since. Can we please apply the same principle to the building in Walmsgate?

I’d like to have a look at another distinctive part of the town while we are on the subject of managing change in such a way that we retain character. I have no doubt that many motorists are of the opinion that the stretch of Barlick Lane (Manchester Road) between Hill Top Farm and Bancrofts ought to be widened and resurfaced. Please don’t do anything of the sort. On road traffic grounds, it is a very effective piece of ‘traffic calming’, it slows vehicles down as they approach the town down a steep hill, can anyone ever remember a serious accident on this stretch?

On historical grounds, look very carefully at the boundary between the road and the fields stretching down to Bancroft Mill. This is an original pre-medieval boundary, that hedge has been there for at least 800 years and almost certainly a lot longer. Take the trouble to walk down from the top and notice that in the top corner of the field, there is a walled enclosure that is now completely overgrown. This is the yard where destitute people who were recipients of ‘outdoor relief’ from the Skipton Workhouse used to have to break stone for road mending in order to qualify for the ‘dole’. Old Barlickers call it ‘Poorbones’. I never pass here without thinking of those poor people and the misery they must have endured in all sorts of weathers in order to get enough money to keep them barely alive. If we lose that small and insignificant piece of land, we lose a direct link with our roots and a potent reminder of how far we have progressed in terms of social care. I’d like to see it cleared out and celebrated as part of the rich heritage of the town. Is anybody on the Council listening?

There’s another big problem looming right in the centre of the town. I can’t for the life of me understand how a system works that on the one hand says that Rainhall Road School is redundant, and on the other says that Coates needs more classrooms. Leaving that on one side, what’s going to happen to the building? Are we going to have the windows boarded up, the wonderful window boxes and hanging baskets disappearing and eventual demolition and a commercial use? Surely we have the imagination to use this fine building for community use?

Suppose we put a nursery school in there, how about a Youth and Community centre, could the doctors do with some more room to provide specialised health care. I’m sure more knowledgeable people in these matters than me can come up with their own suggestions. My basic point is that we have a public asset in the middle of the town and if we don’t do some serious shouting, worst case is that we lose it completely. It’s of no consequence to the accountants in County Hall but it’s of great consequence to us, we have to live here. Put pen to paper and make your voice heard, it’s called democracy and community pride!

The bottom line is that it’s no use at all going round telling all and sundry what a good place Barlick is and how it has a character of its own if we do nothing about the influences that are at work to level us down. This is the reason why I spend all my time researching the history of the town and writing about it. I get enough feedback to be certain that many inhabitants share my opinions. I’m just asking you to become vocal, badger your councillors, write letters to County Hall. If enough of us make enough noise they’ll think it’s a movement! (Alice’s Restaurant. Arlow Guthrie.)

SCG/Thursday, 03 May 2001

Sunday, February 10, 2002


I’m going to get a bit introspective with you this week. I’m still working hard on the Barlick research and one of the things that you have to get right if you’re going to write about history is to be quite certain what is driving you to do it. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and what I have come up with is a short whinge about my problems with authority, class and incompetence.

My mother’s family name is Challenger and she was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire. I came across the family name when I was looking into the history of Chartism in the north of England and found a reference to a man called Challenger who was arrested for ‘seditious riot’ in Ashton-under-Lyne. This is an unusual name to crop up by coincidence in the area where I knew my mother’s family originated from. I like his style, so I’ve adopted him!

My father was an Australian who fought with the Anzacs at Gallipoli. I remember two things in particular from his account of what happened there. The first was his amazement at the stunning incompetence of the British officers who guided them to the invasion beaches and managed to deposit them at the bottom of a steep cliff which they had to scale under fire over a period of two days losing many men in the process. The second was the fact that the retreat was so much better organised than the invasion that ‘Johnny Turk’ didn’t realise they had left until the timed charges went off, blowing up their abandoned ammunition dumps and stores. When they arrived in England after the evacuation they were billeted in tented camps on Salisbury Plain and had a miserable time of it. They were paraded for inspection by King George V who rode round the vast parade ground on his horse looking, so father said, bored with the whole thing. The Aussies ‘counted him out’, one of their favourite methods of expressing contempt, and nobody took issue with them.

This refreshingly clear sight of authority wasn’t confined to the lower ranks. Later in the war the British Army General Staff enquired of the General leading the Anzacs at to why they hadn’t shot anyone for desertion or cowardice. The reply came back that they thought the Germans were killing enough of their men without them joining in. We, the British, shot over 300 of our own men.

My first encounter with the officer class was in 1954 when I was invited to join the Queen’s employ for two years in the 22nd of Foot, the Cheshire Regiment. First a man of the cloth told me it was alright to murder the enemy because God was on our side and then an officer called Lieutenant Scurfield put me on a charge for demurring when instructed to dig a channel uphill to drain water out of a gunpit.

These are small matters but I cite them to give an idea of what my experience of authority is and how my attitudes might have been influenced. It might be my genes!

Let us march forward a few years to the decade starting in 1940. I was a reasonably well-built but nondescript child who wore glasses because of terrible short sight and came from a family which, though technically ‘skilled working class’, was very short of money. I won a scholarship to Stockport Grammar School and was thrown in with boys who were better dressed and more confident than myself and I was quite severely bullied. I got some very good School Certificate results and against the advice of my teachers, left school and went to work in farming for two reasons. First I knew my family would be relieved of the strain of supporting me and secondly, I was fed up with school and the stresses it put on me.

As far as I can make out, if I had been pressed at this point to voice what my overwhelming feeling about myself was, it would have been one of inferiority. This would have been true for the year I spent away from home working on the farm and was certainly the case when I entered the army for my National Service in 1954.

Two years later I had achieved the rank of full corporal and was being pressed by my superiors to sign on for more service. I was promised the rank of sergeant immediately and promotion to colour sergeant within twelve months. I didn’t fall for this offer but took the point that this was a fairly clear demonstration of what the army’s opinion was of me. The offer didn’t remove my feelings of inferiority which were still there deep inside me but it certainly laid the seed of a doubt about my own assessment.

Forty years later with several small successes to my credit and very little feeling of inferiority beyond a becoming modesty, I attempt to identify where the change occurred. At what point did I shake the demon of inferiority off my back?

My motives for examining this question are complex. There is within me the need to know the answers but I have an even more pressing problem in that I want to be as certain as I can be how my attitudes shade my view of the history I am researching. I have no problem with the subjectivity that this implies, from what I can see, the nearer one gets to objectivity the more boring the result becomes. I want to allow my interpretation to be coloured by my opinions. It is my view, they are my passions, I want to tell it my way. At the same time, I want to ensure that these influences are as pure as they can be and in order to do this I need to be as sure as possible that I clearly understand the passions which drive me.

Looking back at what I have always been convinced was an inferiority complex in my early days, I begin to have doubts. This is not to say that feelings of inferiority weren’t part of the picture, I am certain they were. However, I suspect the fog of easily identified inferiority covered deeper and more significant insecurities. Remember that this was a period of total war. Being bombed, sheltering in holes in the ground all night, widespread destruction all around us and more death than anyone should have to cope with at that age, this clear evidence convinced us we were in mortal danger and that we had no control over our fate.

My stage of thinking now is that it is this issue of lack of control which is the key, not only to my reactions at that time but to the forces that govern my attitudes to history now. Rather, it is the insight into the consequences of lack of control that informs my view of the condition of the working classes who were the bedrock of the system which I investigate. My objective is to give these people a voice, to clearly identify their role and achievements and to write in such a way that they can identify themselves, enjoy the experience and perhaps realise that there was more control within their reach than they suspected at the time.

I think I have identified some of the wider themes in the domination of the ‘lower classes’ by their ‘superiors’. There was no need for debate under a feudal system, the Chain of Being was unbreakable, the rich man was in his castle and the poor man was at his gate, they even wrote a hymn about it. As time went on the necessity for social control fostered the determination of the financially advantaged classes to maintain a tight grip on the workers. The weapons that were used were economic control by low wages and organised religion backed by a strong property law. The need for industrial discipline in order to make the factory system work reinforced all these mechanisms and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that two forces emerged which were, eventually, to break some of the chains that held the workers down. The first was the realisation by the establishment that the status quo was actually weakening and killing the workers. This was first brought to prominence by the fact that so many conscripts for the Crimean and African Wars were physically sub-standard. This started debate and gradual improvement.

The next discontinuity was the First World War. As the battlefields of Flanders devoured the flowers of a generation even people like Winston Churchill, in his post as First Lord of the Admiralty, were beginning to ask questions that would have been unthinkable fifty years before; ‘What would happen if they refused to fight?’ The reaction was a sort of embarrassed bonhomie, read Biggles for a wonderful example of this. The recognition was dawning that these people were indispensable and actually kept the world turning! How could they be incorporated into the wider scheme of things without turning their heads? The answer seems to have been to treat them more kindly but almost as figures of fun. I watched a programme on TV last night about the Raj and was struck by the way that the essential men, the engineers and administrators were allowed to get their toes on the bottom rungs of the ladder but carefully manipulated to make sure they stayed there.

The Great War was a turning point for many of the ‘superior class’. They came home with questions in their minds about the social order and these were reinforced by tidings of violent revolution. It took a world economic depression to convince the establishment that all was well and the lower classes were in their place. Business could carry on as before, the excesses of the twenties and thirties could co-exist with the lowest living standards in the civilised world for the under classes.

Beneath all this froth, solid movements were starting to gather momentum in the minds of the thinking classes. There was a gradual onset of recognition, not simply of the potential power of the lower classes but of their utility in society and the just nature of their claim to have more of the fruits of their labours. The Second World War advanced progress and there was a movement which knew that the mistakes of the inter-war period could not be allowed to be repeated.

We made a good start after the war but somewhere in the consumer boom that ensued we have lost our way. I’m not capable of analysing this at this point. The only thing I am certain of is that there is a wider gap now between those who have control of their lives and those who have none. A report issued in April 2001 shows that not only is the gap increasing at around 2% per annum, but the rate of increase itself is growing. The criterion now is even clearer than it was a hundred years ago, it is quite simply the ownership of capital, the ability to consume. I am also aware, as I get older, that there are other categories who must be counted amongst those with no control, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.

So, the conclusion I have come to is that I cannot change the world but, in a small way, at the local level, I can try to give the workers of Barnoldswick a voice. I can chronicle their achievements and solid worth and perhaps help them regain the dignity which for many, was lost by oppression. I shall not be afraid to allow myself to be subjective as long as I am sure that I am being honest. Whatever this does for anyone else, it will satisfy me because by giving the good people of Barlick their voice I assert my own and regain a measure of control.

It must be something to do with my genes.

SCG/Saturday, 14 April 2001