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Family Stories


 

It is my mum's family who have passed on most of the family stories. Some have proved accurate, others are sheer invention. They all deserve to be written down, and I've added some relating to my mum too.


Saint George the Martyr

 

George Marsh was a protestant preacher who refused to convert to Catholicism during the reign of Mary Tudor. His home was at New York, an exceedingly small settlement a short walk from the parish church at Deane, south west of Bolton.

Accused of heresy, he was taken to Smithills Hall, north of the town, and there is said to have stamped his foot so hard on the floor in affirmation of his Protestant faith that he left a footprint in the stone. He was burned at the stake at Chester on 24th April 1555, and became St. George the Martyr.

A monument to George stands between the lychgate and the door of Deane church.

One of my mum's grandmothers was born a Marsh, and the story was told that they were direct descendants of George. Each generation was said to include a George in his honour.

Unfortunately, my research has revealed very few Georges, and most branches had none. Parish registers for the early 16th century are also very thin on the ground everywhere, so I can prove no link.


Seventh son

 

My mum's grandfather claimed to be the "seventh son of a seventh son", and so possessed magical healing powers.

He actually had just one older sister and four younger siblings, but the warts still succumbed to his charming.


The House

 

My mum's father died when the was just seven and her sister nine. That meant that my grandma had to go out and work. Theirs was the only single-parent household that the girls knew.

With money tight, they couldn't afford a fancy house, so they moved to a cheap one on the very outskirts of Bolton. 826 Wigan Road was built in the first half of the 19th century. It was the middle one of a row of 5, second from the left on this 1950s photo:

Deane, Three Pigeons

The pub, The Three Pigeons, is still there but the cottages were demolished in the 1960s. The council decided that the low roofline meant that they were officially slums and therefore had to go.

The rent was only 4 shillings and tuppence a week - about £40 now allowing for inflation. Security was unneeded in those days - you could open the back door from the outside by lifting its latch with a spoon. For some unknown reason, the fireplace in 826 was enormous. The grate could take half a hundredweight of coal. When my dad later took on the task of replacing the enormous range with a more modern "Bungalow Range" (which was about five feet square), he used 400 bricks filling in the gap. The location was wonderful. The only thing spoiling it was that at the left hand side of the cottages, rather than the field you see today, was the thriving Victoria Colliery.

But all around there were real fields. Much of it is still farmland. It was proper countryside, and ideal for children to explore. It may have been a mile or so to school, but people walked a lot more in those days. They knew where all sorts of plants grew and which trees were easy to climb.

The row was occupied in those days by Margaret Greaves (the licencee), Mr. & Mrs. Greaves, Mr. & Mrs. Webster, My grandma with my mum and my auntie, Jimmy Burns and Mrs Jolley. Herbert Greaves was Margaret's son. With Jimmy Burns was a blind man whose name I now know to be John Richard Wilkinson, but was known to all and sundry as Dick Spree, from his habit of occasionally heading out and spending all his money on drink.

Mrs. Jolley ran her cottage as a shop, and outside was a cigarette machine. In each of the packets of 5 cigarettes, she inserted a match. The miners leaving the colliery could have a smoke on their way home, both cigarettes and matches being contraband in any colliery. Of course they would be back after their next shift for another pack of 5.

The Victoria Colliery had more than one shaft. One was used for winding coal, but the one nearest to 826 was used only for winding the men. That meant that Jack Holden the engine driver had little to do between shift changes. A great deal of brass polishing went on. On cold mornings the occupants of 826 would rise from their beds and find that their fire was already well ablaze. In the middle of the night they would often hear a whooshing sound as coal was surreptitiously added to their supply. They would occasionally order coal from the coalman for the sake of appearance.

When it came to school friends, my mum and auntie were very popular. Lots of little girls wanted to play "house", and 826 was a real one, with lots of chores to be done before mum got home from work, and there was at least an uninterrupted hour to do them in.

So my mum was happy to let her friends get on with them.


Tramps

 

In the 1930s, there were a good number of people walking the country looking for work. On their way, they would call at houses looking for refreshment. They would usually have with them an enamel brew-can, and twists of paper holding tea and sugar.

For some reason, they always called at my grandma's house. They never went to any of the other houses in the row. The belief was that there was some secret code used by tramps to show where they might find a welcome.

One day, a tramp arrived wearing better clothes than the average, and presented his brew can in the hope of a hot drink. My grandma, as usual, brought him inside. She set quarter of the dining table with a cloth in a civilised fashion, sat him down and brought him tea , with a proper cup and saucer, and a sandwich, so that he could keep his supplies for another time. Enquiries revealed that his next stop was to be Wigan, so he was sent on his journey with tuppence to pay for the tram journey as far as Westhoughton.

When the table was cleared, underneath the cloth was half a crown.

That was more than half the week's rent!


The Parcel

 

My grandma, though a great baker of bread, rarely made cakes. Once, though, a jam roly-poly made it into the oven, part of the range which heated the cottage. Something happened, and it was forgotten.

For two days.

On its rediscovery, is was harder than the ancient bricks of which the walls were built. It was nearly consigned to the dustbin.

My mum and her sister carefully wrapped it with brown paper and string. They then placed the neat parcel on the wall by the nearby tram stop, as though it had been forgotten by a previous passenger, and settled down to wait.

It was not long before a woman got off a tram and noticed the parcel. Thinking she had come across some great treasure, she tucked it under her arm, crossed the road and caught a tram back the way she had come, leaving three people in hysterics imagining the reaction when she got home.


The War

 

The Second World War meant quite major changes for most of the population, but my mum's household was probably hit less than most. She had no dad to be called up, and they didn't exactly have money to spend on black market goods, which would have been beyond their reach before the war in any case.

With rationing in place, each person had to register themselves with various traders for the relevant rationed goods. My grandma, always thin, explained to the butcher that her doctor had told her to eat liver, a standard remedy for iron deficiency. Each visit to the shop would net the family some of this tasty stuff. Liver was not on ration, and so was in great demand, and on more than one occasion the butcher defended this preferential supply on medical grounds.

Liver is not well thought of in most of Britain, but liver-and-onions was standard fare in Lancashire homes, and still is in many. Many people's only exposure to liver is badly cooked. If you try to cook a typical piece the outside will be like leather before the middle is done. The best way to cook it (pig's liver is my favourite) is to heat a frying pan and cook the piece of liver for about 20 seconds, so as to colour the surface. Then move the piece to a board and take off a thin slice with a carving knife - it will be firm enough to let you do this. Colour the other side of the slice and then put it to one side on a plate. Return the piece to the pan and repeat until you have a pile of thin slices. When it is time to serve, the slices only need heating through, for example in onion gravy.

My grandma, a cotton spinner, went to work at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Euxton, one of over 30,000 workers there. This huge place, with an area of about two square miles, had been built in the mid-1930s because Woolwich Arsenal was within easy reach of bombers from the other side of the Channel. It boasted the telegraphic address "Factory, Chorley". A shift change would have been an incredible sight. "ROF Halt" on the railway may sound like a sleepy place, but it actually had four double-length platforms. Eight trains would arrive and the workers from them would head off into the works. Those finishing their shift would then head along to the station and board the waiting trains. This happened three times a day, every day. When my grandma was on night shift, she would meet her daughters at a café in Bolton so that they would actually see each other. Then she went home to bed, the sisters to school.

Beaumont Road, which had been built as part of an intended ring road for Bolton, did not exactly get a lot of traffic, so was blocked off. The space was used for storage of tanks and other army vehicles on the run up to D-Day. Of course these vehicles had to be guarded, and grandma made a couple of shillings extra by providing hot meals for the handful of soldiers on duty.

Booth's Foundry on St. Helens Road was visible on the horizon from 826. Strange structures were seen being constructed in 1944. Once they reached a certain height, they would disappear, and a fresh one would eventually take its place. Mum later recognised them in pictures of one of the great structures associated with D-Day - the Mulberry Harbour.

 


The High Jump

 

I was watching the Olympics a few years ago and my mum mentioned that at school, she used to be good at the high jump. Long before Dick Fosbury changed the style of jumping forever, there was the Straddle Jump. One leg over and then the other, with your face pointing downwards. There was just a coconut mat to land on, and they hurt if you just sit on them, never mind fall.

My mum, while still at school, could clear 5' 3". That's 1.60m. Of course, nobody knew much about athletics at the time. There was no TV coverage anywhere, and it hardly makes for good radio. Newspapers might list tables of figures, but photographs were normally just portraits, with an action shot only occasionally used for football.

At the 1936 Olympics, the three medal winners had all cleared the same height, but in different numbers of attempts.

That height was 1.60m.

 


Cycling

 

Once they were old enough, my mum and her sister acquired bikes. Nothing fancy, with just the one gear, but they meant that the trip to work in the morning did not involve a tram fare. At weekends, trips could be made further afield.

Cycling was extremely popular then. Cars were anything but common, so going any distance involved trams, buses, trains - or bikes. So gangs of cyclists would head off together on Saturday afternoons or Sundays to the country or the seaside. It's a fair way from Bolton to the sea, but Blackpool (38 miles) and New Brighton (43 miles) were common destinations. If they were setting out late, they would probably head for Southport (34 miles, but mostly flat). If they were feeling energetic, then Rhyl could be reached after pedalling for 75 miles. That is a hundred and fifty miles in the day, on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle without the benefit of changing gear.

At any of these places, there was always someone who rented out space in their back yard to keep your bike safe until you had tired yourself out walking around the resort, and their yard would be full.

There were also cafés which catered to the cyclists, in the style now more commonly associated with heavy goods vehicles. You might find a hundred or so bikes outside, and inside find their riders eating simple fare such as egg on toast. These places seemed only to be visited on the way home from the seaside, once you knew how few pennies you had left.