Friday, 10 October 2014

Another blast from the past

Aunty Leah about 1914

The last time I posted a memoire blog, I mentioned that we were leaving Birmingham, where we’d lived for three years and were returning to Lancashire. This time were to move back to Bolton, where Dad had been brought up and where his mother’s family, the Harris’s lived. We were to stay, for the time being, with Dad’s Auntie Leah, his mother’s youngest sister, who had inherited the Harris family home at 16 Radcliffe Road. It was a terraced house that opened straight onto the street and delightfully old-fashioned with horsehair-stuffed sofas and chairs, scrubbed kitchen table, plain wooden chairs and a stone sink in the adjoining scullery. The black-leaded range, the fender that surrounded it, the horse brasses all around, gleamed with Auntie Leah’s constant polishing. Upstairs, there were brass bedsteads with feather mattresses and ticking-covered bolsters, heavy Edwardian wardrobes and chamber pots under the bed. And yes, they were used but only in the night as there was only an outside toilet.
              To get to it, you had to go through my great-grandfather’s lean-to workshop. This place, piled high with bits of old junk and ancient tools, all gathering cobwebs, fascinated me. There were rusty tins and jars of screws, old pots of paint and brushes long since solidified. Yet it was not untidy, it was all stacked in an orderly fashion on neat, but very dusty shelves. Going back many years later to visit Auntie Leah, I found the lean-to had been pulled down and all that glorious junk had been relegated to the dustbin.
              I loved my Auntie Leah. She was Dad’s aunt really, my great-aunt, a little round dumpling of a woman, then in her late forties, with the same open face and trusting eyes of my grandmother’s photograph. She always had red cheeks, a smile on her face and a cheery manner, all of which endeared her to the many customers of Yates’ Wine Lodge in Bolton, where she served in the off-licence section. She was well known in Bolton for working in the ‘offy’.
Born in 1900, she lived to be 95. When the house in Radcliffe Road was pulled down to make way for a new road, sometime in the 1960s I think, she went to live with her two nieces, my Dad’s cousins. Still later, and not in the best of health, she went to live in a residential home for the elderly. Going to visit her there occasionally, she would sometimes slip into long silences, perhaps thinking of all those who had gone before her and missing them. Every now and then she would come out with a little story from the past.
              Like the time she got into a fight with a particularly obnoxious girl who lived in the same street. Sensing that she was losing and being only small, she ran up some nearby steps and, pulling off one of her clogs, hit her opponent over the head with it. When the other child’s mother came to complain, her Dad, known as Owd Bill, shut her up with the remark, ‘Ah’ve only one thing to say to thee, it’s a crying shame our Leah didn’t hit that lass with t’other clog an’ all!’
              In 1949 and 1950 when we were living at Radcliffe Road, my parents were working much of the time and as Auntie Leah was home when I got in from school in the afternoons, it was she who tended to look after me. We became great friends, for she had a great sense of fun and whether it was because she’d never married, had retained her own childlike innocence, despite where she worked. I still remember the golden brown toast she made for my breakfast, toasted in the traditional way with a toasting fork in front of the fire and served dripping with butter.
              Very often, she and I would have pasties from Waites’ Bakery on Bury New Road. Never before or since, have I tasted such delicious pasties. Golden crusty pastry, steam and gravy oozing from little flaps in the top, tasty bits of meat, succulent slices of potato, all separated and discernible. Not all like the mush they serve up these days and daringly call savoury pies. I’m sure the pasties they baked in that shop contravened umpteen health regulations, not to mention EU directives, but I seem to have thrived on it.
              It was a time, too, of widening my horizons, of getting to know Bolton. Dad had two jobs at that time, one in the afternoon delivering the Bolton Evening News from the printing presses in Mealhouse Lane and Shipgates to various newsagents, the other in the early morning, delivering milk from one of those slow electric floats. Sometimes, if I could get up early enough, he’d take me with him on a Saturday morning to collect the money. I loved those bright, crisp and often cold sunny days when no-one else was about. Mum was working as a cook in the canteen of a paint and wallpaper manufacturers on the corner of Radcliffe Road and Bury Old Road, opposite the Palace cinema, the local ‘flea-pit’.
              The Bolton days served as my introduction proper to the Harris relations of whom there seemed many. They lived a few streets away from Radcliffe Road in 368 Bury Old Road and I very often called there on my way home from school, particularly if Auntie Leah was working. Auntie Susie was Auntie Leah’s sister-in-law and a widow. Her daughter May, who’d never married, still lived at home and their house, like Auntie Leah’s, was a treasure trove for a little girl. It, too, was old-fashioned with sepia photographs and heavy furniture but what I mostly remember about the house’s physical aspects was that it had a ‘tippler,’ an outside toilet. This fascinated yet repelled me because it had a wooden seat covering a hole which dropped some way into the ground where I suppose it joined the main sewer. I was always frightened of falling in, but it was never possible as the wooden seat filled the space between the two walls of the lavatory. It was always spotlessly clean, with the seat scrubbed almost white and the walls whitewashed every year. When I went visiting the Bury Old Road house several years later, the older ‘tippler’ toilet wasn’t used anymore and had been replaced with a toilet and bathroom converted from one of the smaller bedrooms.
              By far and away the most rewarding experience during that time in Bolton was school. Up till then, I don’t think I’d sparkled at anything. The school, endowed in early Victorian times by a member of the Ridgway family, bleachers of Horwich and Bolton, was only about five minutes’ walk from Radcliffe Road. It wasn’t a particularly large school, probably only a couple of hundred pupils, yet it was the first school I actually enjoyed. This was largely because of Mr Williams, my teacher. Whatever he was teaching, he invested it with interest and humour, arousing my own natural curiosity and imagination. Where previously I had found school work a hard slog, I suddenly began to find it easier.
Me with Aunty Leah about 1990
              In February 1950, I was 11 and I had to make a choice of whether to take the Dreaded Eleven Plus examination for a grammar school place or go to a secondary modern school. At a parents’ evening which I attended with Mum and Dad, Mr Williams said, ‘I want Anne to take the Eleven Plus for a place at Bolton School.’ Bolton School was the big grammar school of Bolton, with mostly all fee-paying pupils but with some scholarship places. My parents were stunned into silence. ‘Even if she doesn’t get to Bolton School, she’ll get a place at Bolton County Grammar.’ I didn’t really mind as the pink-stoned, court-yarded Bolton School fronting on to Chorley New Road was over-imposing and I was sure I’d feel out of place there. Whereas the solid, many-windowed, block-like substance of the County Grammar School adjacent to the Parish church and not far from where we lived was much more appealing.
              To tell the truth, I wasn’t convinced I’d do well enough to go to either. Yet Mr Williams convinced me I could do it. ‘If you don’t pass this exam,’ he told me on the morning I sat for it, ‘I shall be an old man before the day is out.’ He made me feel pretty important and very special, like it really mattered to him.
              Nothing previously experienced measured up to sitting in a strange room with a blank piece of paper in front of me and knowing that there was no escape for a couple of hours. The secret, I found, was to cope with one question at a time and not look too far ahead. Odd to think that for someone so normally lacking in confidence and basically shy, I didn’t find examinations as frightening as some of my more confident school mates.
              I passed the Dreaded Eleven Plus, though not for Bolton School, and was all set to go to Bolton County Grammar School. Except that I never got there! To be continued…