The signs of the Zodiac which today influence so many was to many of my generation as alien to us as the stars above or outer space. The majority of our lives was dominated by the only sign we ever knew, and on which our way of life was influenced, and surrounded by the sign of the pawnbroker whose menacing sign beckoned us every Monday morning to pledge Dad's watch, suit, shoes, bedding, children's clothes and footwear or family treasures, to help us survive until the next pay day.
To have been born during this period gave us the spirit of survival and the experience to cope with the many problems which faced the poor families during our early lives and later years.
Being born in a large and Protestant family, my first experience of class difference came when I commenced my schooling, which incidentally happened to be a Catholic school, St. Edward's which was in those days in Windmill Street, off Halton Road.
The majority of the pupils were of the Roman Catholic faith, but a minor few of us who were not of the faith had to attend assembly each morning to register. Then we would leave the school for the playground until 10 o'clock when the religious lessons were over. This hour every morning I spent with a few of my Protestant pals playing in what was then known as the Delph Hole and used as a refuse tip by the local Council. This huge hole was a relic of the once prosperous quarry industry in the Runcorn area. This site was later developed during the thirties depression to provide employment to the many unemployed, and now known as the Rock Park Recreation grounds.
During this hour every morning we would watch as the dustcarts pulled by large Shire horses, with the driver backing the cart to the edge of the quarry, then tip its load into the huge hole. We would watch with suspense each time a cart arrived and waited with expectancy if one should back too far and disappear over the edge, but the experience of horse and driver made sure this never happened. Although most of my classmates were Catholic there was never any animosity between us and many of them became my lifelong friends.
During my first years at school my family lived in Cartwright Street, off Halton Road, where I became familiar with most of the local industries – tanneries, gasworks, Borax works, brickworks, chemical works and the busy Bridgewater Canal with its many narrow boats which transported goods all over the North west canal system. It was to the canal that I would accompany my elder brother to dredge for coal spilled during the unloading at the various works. We used an iron bucket with flat sides and holes to drain out the water. We had a length of rope attached to the handle; the bucket would be thrown into the canal and pulled along to scoop up the coal and deposit on the bank to take home for our fires.
My father was employed at the Wigg Works which made fertiliser for agriculture. I was often required to take a can of tea and a meal to him if he was working overtime. It was quite a long walk from Cartright Street, via Halton Road, Irwell lane, over the swing bridge to the works. It was a common occurrence for the bridge to be swung to allow the large ships to pass up, or down, the canal from Eastham to Manchester. Many a time I received a scolding from father if I was late, especially if his tea was cold.
The nearest pawnbroker for us was Tom Brown's in Bridge Street. Each Monday morning one of the family had to take the weekly bundle to be pledged, for the few shillings we obtained was to buy food until the next pay day which was usually Friday or Saturday; when clothes and footwear had to be redeemed in order to wear them to attend Sunday School in the morning and afternoon. This ritual was strictly observed by most of the working class families.
The Halton Road area in those days was a community in itself with shops of every description which served the needs of all the families living in the area. I have many pleasant memories of living in Cartwright Street amongst such friendly neighbours and tradesmen; also the children of my age who shared the fun and antics we usually enjoyed, with respect for our parents and the law.
The outbreak of the First World War had an immense impact on our family. My father and eldest brother answered the call; my father joined the Army and my brother the Navy. My other two brothers, both in their teens were put to work on the canal barges. Most families were depleted by joining the Forces or to make up the loss of manpower in industry.
After the first shocks of the outbreak of the war the family settled down to cope with the situation, with each one sharing the burden. We moved from Cartwright Street to Princess Street in the town centre. This was a great loss to me as I knew I would miss my many boyhood friends, and my schoolmates from St. Edward's. I was enrolled as a pupil at All Saints Parish School in Church Street. The motto over the main entrance still sticks in my mind as it was appropriate to the standards of discipline which was a feature of the school and its teaching staff. "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it". The Headmaster was Mr. Arthur Lindsay, although he was a very strict disciplinarian he was also a kind and considerate gentleman. We had to line up each morning in the playground for inspection by the teachers for cleanliness and tidiness, and woe betide any pupil who was not up to the standards required, which on such occasions ended with a visit to the Headmaster to receive six of the best.
Living in the town centre had its advantages as we were in easy reach of four pawnbrokers; Sam Imison next to the Parish School; Herbert Lightfoot in High Street; and the two shops of Alf Dodd - one in Cross Street and the other in Egerton Street. As my mother and elder sisters and brothers were working I had the responsibility of taking the weekly bundle to one of these establishments, besides looking after the younger members of the family, whilst my mother and elder members of the family were contributing to the war effort.
I had to see that they went to school and prepare the midday meal which was usually bread and dripping or treacle. Most foods were in short supply and joining a queue for food on ration was a daily occurrence, to try to obtain the bare necessities. There was no time for recreation, even the young had to make sacrifices towards the war effort.
The terrible battles taking place on the battlefields of France, Belgium and the Middle East, was reflected in the casualties suffered by local families. Every day we heard of someone we knew losing a father or brother, wounded, missing or presumed killed.
It was only during the long summer days we were able to get a respite from the daily chores. One of the favourite pastimes for many of us was to go down to the ferry hut to swim in the Ship Canal. We would swim across the Canal, climb over the gantry wall and walk across the sandbanks to West Bank on the Widnes side, making sure that we started the return before the tide came in trapping us over the other side. Another favourite pastime was to stand in the water below the Transporter Car as it was leaving and ask the passengers to throw pennies down and watch the boys scramble in the water, this often proved very fruitful especially when the Car was busy.
It was 1917 and the war in France had taken a serious turn, casualties were enormous both on land and sea, German submarines sending many ships to the bottom. We had one piece of good news - the Americans were sending us huge supplies and were mobilising an expeditionary force to come to our aid. It was during to summer of 1917 that both my father and brother came home on leave unexpectedly, what a celebration we had. Princess Street had been decorated to welcome home our hero Private Todger Jones, who had won the Victoria Cross. Tables were brought out into the street, food seemed to appear from all quarters; the party went on well into the night, even the children were allowed to stay up.
It was while my father and brother were home on leave that we heard of the holocaust that was happening on the battlefields and at sea. My brother had been at the Battle of Jutland in the battleship 'Lion' with Admiral Beatty in command, and my father on the Somme. It was with feelings of gloom when they had to return to active service; we went to the station to see them off. Father was going to Palestine with the 5th Cheshire Regiment and my brother to Scapa Flow. It was weeks before we settled down to normality after all the excitement of the last few weeks, but our daily routine had to carry on despite our worries.
Food rationing had become more acute and more time had to be spent queuing up for the bare necessities, even our clothes and footwear were worn out with very little chance of replacement. My clogs could only be worn for school, the rest of the time we went about barefoot, except for school and our attendances at Sunday School morning and afternoon, with feelings of depression over the worn state of our clothes in comparison with others whose families were better off than us. There was no prejudice against us by other children whose families were better off as they knew that our plight was not of our own making.
With the signing of the Armistice in November all families were waiting with expectation at the return of their loved ones. Some had long waits, other were more fortunate, whilst many knew that their loved ones had paid the supreme sacrifice and would never return.
My family were one of the lucky ones, my father and brother were demobbed early in 1918 and our home returned to normality again, except that work was hard to come by, with industry slow in recovering to the change from war effort to peace. My father returned to his job at Wigg Works, but it was only for three days a week due to the non-arrival of raw materials required from overseas, and only the home market could be supplied.
This situation lasted for three years which still required the weekly visit to the pawnbrokers
I was now 12 years of age and with all the family at home again I had plenty of time to pursue my interest in swimming down the ferry hut and playing on the larger area of chemical waste between the Bridgewater Canal and Norman Road and my frequent visits to the docks to gaze at the sailing ships and watch the crews at work.
To increase the family income I secured a job as a lather boy with Len Tonks, whose barbers' shop was at the bottom of Princess Street. I spent two hours each night after school and all day Saturday lathering the bristle chins of customers. My wages were five shillings a week which was supplemented by tips from the more generous customers.
I was now reaching the time when my schooldays would soon be over and wondered what the future held for me. I had dreams of travelling the world; this was inspired by my love of the sailing ships and the spirit of adventure, but most of all to get away from the poverty of the family life with its weekly visit to the sign of the three brass balls. To live in poverty in a world full of riches seemed unfair. Perhaps my dreams may come true and in the years to come I may have the experience to write about them without forgetting my early years and the many friends I made both at school and play. The happiness despite the poverty and my wonderful family in the town of my birth.