My second few years, 4 - 7 yr old, during The Great Depression of the Thirties, were spent in a back-to-back, terraced house on Brook Street, Littleborough, among a collection of similar rows of houses. They were just off the main highway from Rochdale to Leeds which, just after us, snaked up our side of the Pennine Range and over the Lancashire border before dropping down into Yorkshire and Halifax. Two rooms down, two up. The back wall was the shared wall of the house in the next street parallel to ours. Strangely, I do not remember any noise through the wall. Many years later I lived in a row of new, middle-class, town houses and always knew when next door hubby arrived home because the coffee grinder almost smelled through the wall. That. as they say, is progress. But maybe, in 1936, there were no electric coffee grinders; and there were certainly no thumping audios and TVs. The first TV service was just starting in London then (mid-thirties) but unheard of by me until nearly twenty years later. Anyway, no one could have afforded them.
The street was of earth and a bed to many small, loose stones. One of my fondest memories was sitting in the street building castles and forts with these stones using earth as mortar. Few vehicles came along the street and they were horse-drawn by large cart horses so I could just stand and stroll to the side. The scene is always with me. I was totally concentrated on my task and I can still see those little piles of stones and earth and feel the enjoyment.
Thirty years later I played a little trick on my Social Administrator tutor, Penny Jessel, (The late Dame Penny Jessel) in my college rooms at Oxford. Penny is the daughter of the late Sir Basil Blackwell, of Blackwells publishing and the premier Oxford book shop opposite the Sheldonian Theatre. As I was her only student in the college she would visit me once per week to hear my essay, discuss it and, usually, have a chat on this and that over a cuppa. Penny was a dedicated liberal and used to be a perennial, unsuccessful Liberal candidate for the British Parliament. She was a WW2, hands-on worker with the under-privilaged; and did, I remember, participate in some organisation for unmarried mothers when that was not trendy, but rather on the shameful, side.
She knew that I was working class and I tended to play it up because middle-class social reformers tend to see us as their clay. I think my essay was on housing. So I managed to work in the old industrial terraced houses and little children whose only play was making castles of stones sitting in the dirt of the street. To this I added the gangs of kids that roamed over the mill's rubbish dump searching for old, sweaty shoes thrown away by the workers when desperately worn.
She was very concerned and, I think, feeling a little of that guilt which partly motivates the charitable well off. "Poor children" etc. Then I told her that the ragamuffin in question was me. Oh! She was so sympathetic. I was then able to tell her that these were among the happiest memories of my life. She was a bit miffed. Nevertheless, a charming and honest woman - and rather attractive. I did not tell her that the shoes we collected were saturated in oil from the machines in the mill. We found that they made excellent fuel for our daily camp fire during the school holidays. And a memorable smell of burnt rubber and sweat.
At the top of the street was a wall on a bank. Up the bank was a set of stone steps with a swinging gate atop. Ascend, and one stepped onto the tow path of this very Rochdale Canal - or the Cut as we called it. Not at this particular spot in the photo, but several miles down from Manchester City. The Irish navvy got his name from digging our canals. He was a "navigator".
But, just as in this picture, there was a set of locks and a factory. Not a pristine factory like this one. It was abandoned, But it afforded an excellent adventure playground for us kids. It was behind the lock-keepers's house which stood by the towpath to the right as one stepped through the gate.Within, at basement level, one could find shiny translucent blue glass fragments among the detritus of fallen plaster and peeled paint.. I collected them - they were my jewels which were sorted along with my some glass beads some one had given to me. These treasures I kept in little manila envelopes left over from our pet shop in Rochdale. On each envelope I placed my secret mark and hid them in various crevices.
The lock keeper's children were friends and we used to help pull and push the great wooden handles to open and close the gates when a barge came along. It was always a thrill to see the boat rise or fall many metres when it was to progress up, or down, the Rochdale Canal. The cart horse was un-hitched and led along the towpath to be re attached at the other end of the locks to the long rope tied to the barge. The same horsy procedure was carried out a little further along where there was a hump back bridge over the canal. The boat had sufficient momentum to traverse to narrowed canal under the bridge and pop out the other side where the horse had been led We were often allowed to lead the large placid brute. I would run my fingers through its mane which hung down like ringlets.
Opposite, and across the locks, were farmer's fields with dairy cows. The flattish fields gradually rose into a hill. Some Saturday mornings we would cross the narrow top of the lock shuffling sideways clinging to a rail. It was a long drop down to the canal and there were stories of boys falling and drowning by the bottom of the lock gates. When you can't swim and you are little the height is twice the real height.
After doing the scary side-shuffle we would aim for the hill clutching a small saucepan, a few matches and some potatoes. Just where the hill started its rise we would dig clay from a soggy patch where a spring trickled. Then, after filling the pan we would climb to the top with these added materials. After searching around we found sticks and dried wiry moor grass. A fire was lit and spuds boiled. We ate greedily. Often hard in the centre but, on top of a hill, who cares? The clay was molded into various articles and baked in the embers. This was how we thought pottery was made.Of the items baked I can only remember molding little cups to collect some water for a drink. Then we were off home in time to be there when my mother returned from her Saturday morning's work in the local woolen mill of Sir Alfred Laws.
At Whitsuntide we had our field days with races. A parade of children from the various churches and Boy Scouts groups would march through the village streets under big double-poled banners with Church icons. The parade, colloquially called "The Walks", would proceed past our little housing enclave up the Halifax road to the mansion of Sir Alfred, the provider of Mum's employment . We marched along his drive and round the back where maids in stiff aprons standing behind table-clothed, trestle tables would hand us a bun, a small pie and and orange. The master and his servant's children. An orange - what a treat! And this last week today my boys and I have been juicing hundreds of our own citrus fruits to freeze. That is after giving away many bags full to friends. Changed times!
This incident popped into my mind when living in a rather pleasant, restored Georgian house on the Cliff in Higher Broughton. We had a couple of student lodgers as we were students too. One was Christina Baron and her parents were mill owners from Rochdale. By this time I appeared, in speech and habit, to be embourgoisified. Christina's mother came to bring her the little children's armchair that she had owned since a toddler. A nice motherly touch. Mrs Baron was interested that I came from Rochdale too. What is your last name. I told her. "Oh! Weren't your folks in textiles, I seem to remember some of that name." "Yes!" I truthfully replied. I did not add that my mother was a weaver - probably had worked in their mill. That tickled me.
Rather curiously, Christina was very friendly with the aforementioned Penny and she too was a Liberal. One Sunday afternoon she came down to our sitting room and asked if she might borrow some of my text books for an essay that she was writing. "Help yourself!" She did and held three or four hard backed tomes as she stood chatting behind my couch. She was spouting off about the capitalist class - she was only twenty - and said that I, as a left winger, ought to be ashamed to be making money out of rents. I replied that she might like to sell that new car her parents had just bought for her birthday and distribute the proceeds to the needy poor. I think that I momentarily passed out as the books slammed down on top of my head. But I heard her run screaming and sobbing up the stairs. Gratitude? However, she cane down again and apologized. Anne and I went to her wedding too. Biggest I've ever seen and at the Manchester Midland Hotel. Afterwards we drove them - she and Allan - back to change and then to the station for their honeymoon. Next time I saw her was on TV when she was giving a rousing speech to the Annual Liberal party Conference. She insisted on using her maiden name and yes, she was thumping the podium as she made her points. A good hearted girl. And do you know? I have that kiddie chair over in my shed - one leg missing! My last three children used it - and it will do for the next lot too. And that shed is on a small mango farm in tropical North Queensland.
Copyright 1999, Clive Halliday.