Old Habits

I often wonder about life in the rows of terrace houses that housed the workers of Hunslets’ factories. At the time, many if not most would be employed as highly skilled engineers in the myriad of factories. Even if not among the ranks of skilled machine operators, they were likely to be involved in the uncomfortable and arduous if not down right dangerous support industries such as forges, glass producers, collieries or railways and the like.

Hunslet is at one end of the worlds oldest commercial railway: Middleton Railway. Coal was brought from Middleton colliery to be offloaded at the Hunslet Coal Staiths and distributed from there. There was a link to the massive goods yards at Balm Road and Stourton where my father worked for a time.  Stourton now houses a massive container base.  The railway is operated now by a dedicated group of volunteers and gives a fascinating if not awe-inspiring view into the past industrial glories of the nations past.

There were row upon row of back to back, or in the case of our house, backless, homes. The majority of these by far would open their front doors directly onto a stone flagged footpath outside and a cobbled road. Our street must have been pre-Roman since we had not been furnished with the cobbles! They would face directly onto their neighbours on the opposite side of the street and on washing day, tradition says Monday, the street would be crisscrossed with washing lines strung from side to side. The line would be supported by wooden props in the middle of the road. The occasions, extremely rare, that a vehicle came along the street would be a precursor to many groans and steely looks from the vexed housewives who would venture into the street to hold the washing up, sometimes with the help of the prop so the offending vehicle could pass through. I am sure the rent collectors or whoever else could afford road vehicles would have wished they had parked further away and walked.

I was too young at the time to recognise some of the anomalies of life in the streets. Most residents would keep them and their families as clean and tidy as was possible given the constrictions of poor utilities.  However, one thing has, for want of a better description ‘gnawed’ at me for many years. To put this in context of the times, remember this was the nineteen forties and fifties men came home expecting food to be available and after food was time to rest until the pubs would welcome them.  It was the habit of the ‘housewife’ in very many cases to throw food that was left on the plates, or excess food (not that there would be much of either) onto the cobbled street.  For many years, I thought it was a love of the wildlife that prompted this behaviour. Now I think back and remember the general squalor of the place.  There would be flocks of feral pigeons strutting all over the place taking as much food as was possible to eat without causing flight difficulties.  They of course left behind their ‘calling cards’.  But, and I rush to say, I never to my knowledge saw one, there must have been a population of rats that was fed better and were more healthy than many of their human landlords.  The opportunities for rats and other rodents to choose a well supplied existence must have been just about endless.  Beginning with the dark cellars which allowed access from house to house through all sorts of nooks and crannies, roof spaces which were elevated versions of the cellars and less likely to be disturbed by human visitors and ending with outside toilets with open access to the sewer system.

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Baths involved either the indignity of sitting in a galvanised tub in front of the fire. In the romanticised view shown on many current day television shows, the water would be brimming to overflow and topped off with another six inches of bubbles.  All the hot water available had to be heated in a kettle and,or pan on the range or the two ring gas burner so if you wanted a bath ‘today’, reality was three or four inches of tepid water and I have yet to know anyone who managed to get any kind of lather with carbolic soap.  Carbolic soap was the generic, utilitarian red block that would shatter toes if dropped.  It was used for everything from washing the floor, the people who walked on the floor and the clothes the people wore. Wash houses and baths were available for public use but not at the end of every street.

Washing in my house involved the use of a barrel-shaped, galvanised tub and a washing board, both of these items would later find imaginative use as musical instruments in the days of skiffle groups.  The clothes would be dropped into the tub and agitated with a poss, a kind of upturned sieve attached to the end of a stick which would be plunged up and down in the tub.  The washing would be lifted from the boiling water with a stick that was called a dolly and dropped into the sink for rinsing.  White clothes would be rinsed with a chemical additive that would add a blue hue, the originator of ‘the blue whitener’. The washing would be rung out, no spin drier available of course, and hung on the washing line in the street. Of course, teamwork was sometimes required for larger items such as blankets and sheets, so neighbours would be called upon to hold and twist the other end to wring the item as dry as possible! Finally, crossed fingers for no rain and the forlorn hope of no smoky fires.

Of course there were some items that needed ironing.  No electric, the iron was a lump of iron or steel that was shaped roughly the same as a modern high-tech electric one but there the similarity ends.  They did a good job, as long as it was not too hot when it was gingerly lifted off the source of external heat which could be the side of the range or the top of the gas ring.  The user had to lift the iron with a handle that was welded to the base and had no insulation to protect the hands so ironing involved using a thick cloth to wrap around the handle.  If steam was required, splashing the material with water was the only option no plastic water sprays in those days!  We still have two or three of these irons around the house, they make good door stops!

At this point I think it is time to mention the chemical works at the bottom of our street.  My most vivid recollection was to walk from the front door of my home and immediately start coughing.  There was no way to mitigate the cough, the aggravation at the back of my throat was all-powerful. Hunslet was a smoky place at the best of times, but I came to recognise that if the wispy, dark brown-yellow coloured smoke was issuing from the chemical plant, I would cough.  I would later understand that this was a by-product of the plants’ production of sulphuric acid.    Although Sulphuric acid has numerous industrial uses and was the basis for many batteries, it is a very hazardous material.  It is extremely corrosive and must be handled with care.  The HASAWA (Health and Safety ay Work Act) had not yet come into being and obviously manufacturers and employers did what they needed to do to make a profit.  That was about it! The acrid output from the many flues and chimneys was acceptable as long as people did not drop dead.  The acid was carried about on public roads in glass carbouys seated in a straw bed inside a metal cage.  If the vehicle was involved in an accident, there was a good chance of leakage. There was talk of one accident where the driver of one of these vehicles was soaked in concentrated sulphuric acid and suffered an agonising death.

At some time during the nineteen sixties, a large car dealer took over part of the Laporte site and began to park vehicles on it. Most of the vehicles were new cars awaiting sale or delivery.  After a time, it became apparent that fallout from the adjoining factory was causing major problems to the paintwork.  New cars needing paint jobs! Later, after production ceased at the plant, cars were still experiencing issues as tyres were being badly damaged by the acid content of the ground they were parked on. We were breathing in this fallout! Incidentally, it appears that the nearest the Nazi bombers came to hitting a target near my home, before I was born but while my family were resident, was a hit at the edge of the Laporte plant. I am unaware of any casualties but Hitler might have,  with better technology, inadvertently saved many Hunslet residents from lung problems!

 

 

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No idea!

After my failure at everything else, it was perhaps a good thing that my options had included filling out an application for an apprenticeship in the motor industry.

I had two uncles with interest in the industry. One was a well qualified and talented baker who raced motorbikes and had extensive technical knowledge. Later, with his family, he would become part owner of a successful garage. He was a great influence on me since he lived close by and had lots of patience when answering lots of very basic questions from me. The other uncle had spent some time in Canada before being forced to return home after losing everything in catastrophic floods. He had seen enough of the burgeoning motor industry in Canada and the USA so he took a job in a garage in Leeds. He told me how he thought there was a big future for the motor industry here.

To return to the application, I took an assessment test with the Motor Agents Association who were administering the local apprenticeships. Eventually, I was called for interview where I met a very dapper genial man who was to play a bigger part in my future than I knew at the time.

I attended along with my father and was given the impression that the panel of interviewers would be allocating suitable candidates to appropriate employers. ‘Mr Dapper Geniality’ gave me one of the easiest questions imaginable to me, although the answer was not so easy to enunciate given the circumstances. He explained that I had achieved the highest mark of all the candidates and asked why I was not staying on at school to take ‘A’levels and move on to University. I now know that CVs and interviews are media for telling lies which appear to be the truth. This was my first opportunity!

Imagine! Me having dreamed all my way through grammar school having absorbed enough material to achieve a victory. However, it gave me the problem of answering a well pointed question without showing my shock while still being able to give an acceptable response.

Whether I was able to hoodwink ‘Mr Dapper Geniality’, I think not, but I told him that I wanted to take the work route and felt there was enough career prospect for me in the motor industry. I did not say, that although my results had not yet arrived, I was sure there was no possibility of the ‘A’Level route being an option for me!

So, ‘Mr Dapper Geniality’ gave me the details of the company where I was to appear for a second interview. Not one of the big dealerships that I was expecting but a medium sized garage that, at least, was on a bus route for me from home.

I realised later that this second interview was, in fact as much for me to approve the garage as for the garage to approve me. The works manager who met me was a very kind agreeable sort of man who made me feel very comfortable. I was to have a very good long term relationship with him. The only questions I asked were. What tools do I need? Answer: A pair of pliers and a screwdriver would be useful. When do I come to work? Answer: Next Monday at 8.30am. Problem: I am going on holiday next Monday for two weeks. Answer: Come on the Monday after. That was how easy it was to get a job, particularly in the motor industry.

So, mid August, one week before my sixteenth birthday, I boarded the bus with much trepidation. I was eventually to be supplied with overalls but at the moment was swathed in a pair that would have adequately covered me fifty years later but at the time contained about 40% more material than was necessary. Screwdriver and pliers along with sandwiches accompanied me in an ex War Department shoulder bag.

I duly reported to the works manager who put me in the care of a mechanic who at the time seemed a little put out at having to worry about my well being and introduction to the industry.

So my first day started with me looking at the bottom half of a pair of overalls along with some boots that stuck out from underneath a Standard 8.

Standard 8

Standard 8

Now to put things in context. In a modern garage, each mechanic has a lift, in many cases two, that lift vehicles to whatever height is comfortable to work on. There is lots of room under the car and people can work as a team without crawling on a floor that often collects drips and spills of oil, water and anything else that falls from a vehicle at various times. Lifts have built in lighting systems so visibility is excellent.

I was not in a modern garage! The car ‘we’ were working on was supported on what are known as axle stands. These raised the car about 30 centimetres from the ground and the mechanic was laid on the floor. There was no comfort trolley or board available at his time: if the floor was wet, oily or dirty, so were you!

My job was to pass tools to the hand that occasionally appeared alongside the lower half of this person who appeared to be trapped under the car. “Pass the quarter wit” would be met with consternation and “What is that?” “Pass the seven-sixteenths wit socket, ratchet and universal” left me wondering where I was going to dredge up the language that I had obviously dreamed through at school! Nowadays, tools are all simply metric and marked in millimetres indicating the distance between the flat faces of spanners or sockets. Then, we were heading towards metrication but it would not be adopted for another ten years. So we had fractions of inches: half-inch, seven sixteenths etc. that were used on american generic cars (Fords, Vauxhall- General Motors) and Whitworth that were used on older British built car (Standard, Triumph, Austin, Morris).

After about half an hour of being totally bewildered and confused, two other apprentices approached me and said I needed to go with them. Dougie and Glen it appears were old hands and knew all the ropes. They had started two weeks before; when I should have started but for my holiday. I had missed out further on my education!

Now I was to be introduced to the most important part of my new job. Making tea and collecting orders for sandwiches. These had to be present when the rest of the workshop staff arrived in the ‘canteen’ for their tea break. We started by wandering around the workshop floors. There were two levels, ground floor for commercial vehicles and first floor for cars. About twenty five people were employed in the workshops and the works offices and most would order something for their break. Bacon, sausage, eggs or any combination of same were the popular choices. The tea was made in a big electric urn, no alternative was available, no coffee (too posh), no Earl Gray (was he a general in the first world war? Definitely too posh).

At least the tour of the workshop prepared me for the uncouth nature of the business that was to shape my future. Of course the language as such was not new to me but the fluency of it certainly was. Before, foul language was something that was used to indicate foul moods or temper, now, it had a life of its’ own and generally engendered no offence whatsoever. I also found that I had a cousin working there on the commercial vehicles. Everyone called him Ginner.

At the shops, we joined the queues where all the local industry errand runners were lining up for the same menus. Running back to work was necessary so we were in place when the bell rang for pandemonium to begin. Everyone squeezed in, dived into the box of assorted sandwiches, poured themselves a cup of tea and after complaining bitterly about everything began taking the mickey out of everybody who could conceivably be a target. Especially the younger apprentices.

After break, change had to be distributed to those who did not have the correct money to begin with. There was always some criticism of the prices paid as if it was the fault of the apprentice. I can say this now, I would not have dared then. Don’t shoot the messenger! Whilst this was going on, either Dougie or Glen would be tidying the canteen and preparing for dinner. But as soon as the change had been sorted, it was time to think about the lunchtime order. Many brought sandwiches so it was not quite as hectic as morning break but still time consuming. Of course, fish and chip days were Wednesday and Friday. Then it was a different story. Various combinations of Fish, Chips, Fishcakes and Bread cakes to a total of about twenty five portions was a big order for any business and we were treated well by the shop. However it was still Monday. There was afternoon tea break although nothing like as onerous and if anyone was working overtime, they would have another break before the rest of the staff went home.

In amongst all this, I did manage to spend another hour or so becoming more and more bored looking at the legs from which strange utterances filtered.

At 5.25pm, everyone who was going home arrived at a single sink and cold water tap. The soap used was basically a form of soap paste mixed with what seemed like coarse sand. The idea was to grab a handful, rub it into your hands and the top few layers of skin came away with the dirt. The fingernails were left with a black halo.

On my way out someone asked me if I had enjoyed my first day. At home, I was asked the same question. I had no idea!

For the rest of the week, the process was the same. I don’t think ‘my mechanic spoke more than half a dozen civil words to me. To be fair, I will have been as much to blame as him. He was busy I was not.

The Standard 8 was the focus of my mechanical attention for the first week. It had been in an accident, rolled over and the body was wrecked. I became involved when the new body shell had arrived and the aim was to transfer all the mechanical and detachable body parts. It was a big and very complicated job for its’ time although nothing like as complex as a modern car. The body shell was in grey primer which did not add to the visual splendour of the surroundings. The Standard 8 was, even when compared with other bottom range cars of its’ time, very, very basic. There was no joy for me as there would have been working on a Jaguar or Aston Martin. A common phrase associated with the Standard 8 was ‘not enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding’. Later in my career, my friends and I would have wagers when in slow moving traffic whether we were trundling behind a Standard 8 or a Ford Pop!

Anyway, I had got my hands dirty, knew how to make tea, recognised a hungry mechanic and at the end of the week collected £2 16s 6d (approximately £2.80p) for the pleasure. I was lucky, I got a rise next week to £3 1s 6d £3.05p since I passed my sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, Glen and Dougie were products of the secondary modern system, left at fifteen and despite their superior experience and knowledge gleaned over the two weeks I had missed were stuck on the lower scale for some time to come.

At some time in this first week, ‘Mr Dapper Geniality’ ran up the stairs past me, gave a cursory glance and entered the workshop office.  He was a director and general manager of the company! Very interesting!

Genesis

I was born in Hunslet. My family, I was the second child born during the second world war, would eventually stretch to six in total. The house in Hunslet was a two roomed terrace. It had a room upstairs, the bedroom, and a room on the ground floor which was for everything else. There was, of course, a coal cellar which was used for nothing else. Mother, Dad and three of us lived here. Our youngest brother arrived after we had moved to the dizzying fresh air of Belle Isle, further south in Leeds. More of Belle Isle later, Hunslet has to make a bigger mark on this story.

The house was situated in a square of similar or worse properties. Constructed in the Victorian years it shared nothing in common with the modern concept of ‘Victorian terrace’. There certainly was nothing grand about it at all.  I recently asked an aunt of mine about it and her first words were “It was a midden!”  For the uninitiated, a midden was (or is) a crude earth filled toilet.  In this case, it was just a term to describe the general state of decay in and around the property.  Oddly, the one thing it did not have was a midden. There was a flushing toilet at the end of the street for use by everyone in the street and I suppose anyone passing through.  There are many chamber pots (gozunders) which are relics of the era and will have saved innumerable frost bitten extremities from exposure during inclement weather. Good prices can be had in antique fairs for some of these life saving, essential accessories. Fortunately, television was a thing for the future, newspapers had a very wide circulation and would invariably be recycled after being cut into manageable sizes and hung on a nail strategically placed on the back of the toilet door. Toilet tissue was also a thing of the future in Hunslet……….

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My transport circa 1948.

Back to the, relatively speaking, warmth of the house. There was one window upstairs at the front of the house and a window alongside the door at the front.

There was a stone flag floor and its’ only cover was a clip rug about six feet by four feet placed next to the hearth. A clip rug was a home-made item which consisted of a piece of hessian, or sacking, through which were pushed small pieces of material clipped from old items of clothing. The clips were knotted at one end to stop them pulling through the hessian. They could be quite attractively produced with colour patterns and were definitely better than sitting on the cold flags.

The coal fire was the only heating and there was no electricity.  Lighting was by gas with very fragile mantles to provide a minimum of diffusion. The mantles seemed to be a magnet for the Trilby hat worn by my uncle who did not see the need to remove the offending apparel before entering the house.  My dad was not amused!

There was only one water tap in the property and that was for cold water.  Any hot water had to be heated, very slowly, on the ‘cooker’. The cooker was a very simple two ring burner, no oven or grill, just two burners. Campers nowadays would regard it as a very primitive piece of apparatus! However, it did produce some good quality, nutritious home cooked meals with the assistance of the oven built at the side of the coal fire. There was no washing machine of course.  Standard issue of the time was a peggy tub and a scrubbing board.  All washing was dependent on the weather but since there was as much dirt in the air as on the floor, changing clothes was not an essential daily event.

Stepping from the front door, you were onto well worn stone flags and then the centre of the square was simply well trodden earth.  Ashes deposited from under the coal fires out of the front doors onto the earth gave it some degree of binding.  Not very suitable for road vehicles, but since milk was delivered by horse drawn carts and decanted, for want of a better word from churns into whatever vessel the customer brought, Ice cream was carried in a cool box on the front of a bicycle and most other commercial activity involved horse drawn carts.  So unusual was it to see a car that one occasion shines out to me as a beacon.  The car was driven into and parked on the square and the driver alighted and went into one of the houses.  The car was then surrounded by a small crowd of urchins gaping into the window.  Some, including me climbed onto the running board for a better look.  The result was the running board gave a creak and fell to the ground.  The urchins disappeared and I remember peaking through dirty net curtains as the driver returned. He had a very puzzled expression as he looked around the square for clues.

All my memories seem to be in varying shades of grey! Yes, my memories are often based upon the many photographs we as a family have of those times and all of them are black and white but Hunslet in those times was a morose place with very little colour piercing the smoggy gloom that resulted from the coal-fired industry that was the beating heart of the place.

That industry though was huge and magnificent and essential to the war effort and the rebuilding afterwards. The names of these manufacturing dynamos roll off the tongue.  John Fowler, Mclarens, Hunslet Engine Company, Henry Berry, Hathorn, Davey and Sulzer, Braimes, Yorkshire Copper Works and Cameron Iron Works is not a comprehensive list.  These of course were backed up in other fields of employment such as John Waddington and Alf Cooke printers along with Joshua Tetley Brewery.

The industry was not always good news, as after the second world war, other countries were in a better position to upgrade or even start again with more modern techniques and a lower paid workforce.  Most of Hunslet’s industrial past is indeed the past with very little remaining.  An early casualty of modern technology and materials was my father who was employed as a skilled man in a brush making factory.  After the war, nylon, plastics and mass production techniques rendered him and the factory where he practiced his skill redundant. One of many soldiers returning from war service to find the world was changing rapidly.