Walter Wears Remembers

Walter James Wears was born on the 5th of November 1921 at 16 Quality Row, a coal miner’s cottage, my dad being a coalminer at Hebburn ‘A’ Pit. The cottage had two rooms plus an attic, and there were beams across the ceilings. We had a huge fireplace that held 6 bucketful’s of coal past the actual fire, and as the fire burned down you just raked more coal down onto the fire. Our fire never went out in the winter as we had an abundance of coal.

We had one tap for water which was in the back yard outside, and the house was lit by gas-light. The toilet, known as ‘the netty’ was about fifteen yards across the back, and also known as the middens. It had a small trapdoor in the side where we put the ashes from the fire which went in to the same place as the human excrement. It was emptied on a Friday morning.

Mother baked two stone of flour every week which made loaves of bread with crusty tops, cakes & pies etc. I can almost smell them as I write this down.


Quality Row & Wagonway Road
(Paul Perry photo)

Traders used to come with there horse & carts with fruit & veg, fish etc. The fish man used to come with his horse & cart with a huge cod on a wooden slab with a block of ice, and you went out and bought slices which were cut to the thickness you required. In the summer in the Herring season you went to the cart with a big enamel dish and bought a dishful of Herring which were literally about ten a penny. We used to give the horses crusts of bread and they knew which houses gave them crusts so they would stop at your door and scrape there hooves on the ground and wouldn’t budge until they had there crusts.

People only seemed to buy fresh milk on Sundays. The milkman’s transport was a pony & trap, with two milk churns on & he used to ring a bell and people came out with a jug or basin and bought it. The milkman had a pint measure and a half pint measure. I often wonder now how no one seemed to get food poisoning.

Every Monday the CWS (Co-op stores) man came for our order. He had a book about fifteen inches by six inches which had all food items printed on it such as tea, butter, flour etc and he ticked off what you required and you paid him. The order was delivered every Friday and everyone used the Co-op as you received a dividend on what you spent twice a year. It was half a crown in the pound which helped to buy our new suits at Easter. Our Co-op number was 2980.

My father’s hobby was racing his pigeons and we had between 20 & 30 in our pigeon loft which we called a ‘cree’. My brother and I had one pigeon each and his was called ‘snowy’ as it was pure white & mine was called ‘Dempsey’ after a famous Boxer of the time, as it had an odd shaped beak like a boxers nose. We also had a huge dog called Rover who was an Irish terrier. He was a good watch dog, but he would not go in water. My cousins dog would go in water as it was a black Retriever, and as we only lived about three hundred yards from the river Tyne, we used to go down to collect drift wood. Jess the retriever would swim out and push the wood into the shore. After the ship launches there was always a lot of wood in the river & on the riverside so we collected it and stored it in our coal house to dry out. Our coal house was large because every month a ton of coal was delivered, which was free to the miners. We used to keep the neighbours in coal as we had a good community spirit in those days. No one locked the doors.

When my father was on ‘backshift’, which meant he started at 2am, the ‘knocker up’ used to knock you up. You had to chalk a 2 or 2x2 or 2x2x2 on the cottages shutters and depending if you were a light or heavy sleeper he knocked according to what was on the shutter. One ‘2’ meant you were a light sleeper so only required a gentle knock, while 2x2x2 meant you were a deep sleeper so the ‘knocker up’ really knocked loudly numerous times. The ‘Knocker up’ was an ex-miner who had either lost an arm or a leg in the mine, so that was the job he was given.

My earliest memory was when I was about 2yrs old and I got lost in the crowds in Ormonde St, Jarrow one Saturday night. A drunk picked me up and bought me a huge pork sandwich which I was eating through the tears until my panic stricken mam found me, being held shoulder high by the drunk.

Another of my memories was of really poor people. I remember a poor lady who died and there was no money for a funeral so eight local men, four on each side, carried her coffin from Quality Row to Hebburn Cemetery.

We had no electricity in our houses, just gas and the street lighting was also gas, with the ‘Lamp Lighter’ coming round with a long pole with a thing best described as looking like a ‘sparkler’ on the end that he put into the glass casing of the lamp and pulled the small lever in the lamp. He had to be very careful not to break the gas mantle which was made from a kind of gauze and was easily broken. He had to return the next day and put all the street lights out. Now as I write this, Halloween is upon us which was very exciting for us in those days, but no such thing as ‘trick or treat’. We filled a dish with water to about 6 to 8ins deep and we put in the eating apples and you then put your hands behind your back and had a try at getting an apple out of the water. We called Halloween ‘Dooky apple night’ and you usually ended up soaking wet, and when all the apples were out of the dish your parents put a few small three penny pieces in the water. This was really hard and the only one I remember who could retrieve them was my uncle Tommy who died in 1995 aged 92.

At Xmas time we made our own decorations, the main one being mistletoe made of two hoops from an apple barrel. One hoop was put through the other at 90degrees and tied together. Our parents bought different coloured crepe paper and wrapped around these hoops and we put that in the centre of the ceilings and then made paper chains and lanterns etc stuck together with paste which was made from water and flour which we had plenty of. We hung up our stockings and a pillow case over the fireplace, and in the morning you went for the stocking first because the stocking always contained an apple and an orange with a load of mixed nuts and a brand new penny. The pillow case usually contained a new pair of football boots and a new football between us, maybe a child smoker’s outfit or post office set, or a torch / flash lamp. These were needed to see what you had got before your parents got out of bed.

When I read today of some uncaring parents my heart aches as I think of the love and kindness we received even though my mam was strict. My parents were very kind so I have tried to pass this onto my daughter Pauline who now lives in the USA.

‘Quality Row’ was about 100yds from the mine, so when the ‘Cage’ (what you would call a ‘lift’) came up from the mine you could see the pit wheel turning on the headgear, so I would run to the pit gates to meet my dad who would come with his pit water bottle slung over his shoulder. He always left a drop of water in it for me as I thought it was great to have water which had been down the mine, even though it was now warm and putrid. There were no such things as Pithead baths, or hot water taps in the houses so the Miners came home after every shift black from head to toe. They used to work wearing only boots, stockings and ‘pit hoggers’ which were similar to today’s ‘boxer shorts’. Every mining household had a big tin bath hanging on a hook in the back yard. The yard was concreted and about 15 feet by 12 feet. My mam used to boil water in a huge cast iron pan on the fire and also a ‘set pot’ which was heated on a coal fire in the wash house. We as children had to go into the other room as my father bathed in the tin bath, and then mother had the job of emptying it every day and hanging it back on the wall.

Monday was ‘washing day’ and everyone had a huge poss tub and a poss stick. After the clothes were boiled in the ‘set pot’ they were then scrubbed with a brush and blue mottled soap then possed by the women folk. As a child I could hardly lift the poss stick. Sometimes when the washing was finished we had to take our clothes off and jump in the poss tub and get bathed like that, and thought it was great fun. When the clothes were taken from the poss tub we had a huge ‘wringer’ called a ‘mangle’ that was kept in the back yard. It was almost 5ft high and about 4ft wide and it had a cast iron frame with two wooden rollers about 5inches diameter each. It had a large screwed wheel at the top for altering the rollers as you had to ease the rollers up somewhat when you were doing large articles such as blankets and quilts. The handles for turning the ‘mangle’ was about 20 inches and sometimes you got ‘spelks’ off the rollers into the clothes.

Not many ‘Traders’ came around with there horses and carts on Mondays as everyone washed that day and as there clothes lines were strung from one side of the back lane to the other, the horse could not get passed the lines of washing when such things as blankets, sheets and other everyday clothes were hanging on the line with a prop in the centre to take the weight and stop the line from snapping. The lines were only made from thin rope. Drying the washing like this in summer was not a problem, but in winter time the clothes were hung up in the kitchen on lines across the room which made the windows steam up. In those days the kitchen was used as a dining room, sitting room and a bedroom because we only had two rooms and my parents slept in the other room.

To iron the clothes the ‘flat iron’ was put on the edge of the fire to get hot and the handle of the iron used to get hot as well so you had to be careful to use a cloth when lifting it off the fire, then wipe the base clean on an old piece of blanket or similar. People used 2 ‘flat irons’, one on the fire getting hot, while you used the other one then you changed over once the first one cooled down.

Friday was a busy day, and the day we cleaned all the fireplace and the fire-irons. As I stated earlier the fireplace was huge so this all had to be black leaded with a brush similar to a shoe brush and then polished until you could nearly see your face in it. The fireplace was made of cast iron. The fire-irons etc were made up of a  steel fender which was about 7 feet long and about 2 feet wide and about 10 inches deep. The ‘companion set’ comprised of a pair of brass tongs, a brass shovel and a stainless steel poker with fancy brass handle. These you cleaned until they gleamed, but you did not use the ‘companion set’ as it was only for show, but you did have an ordinary steel poker for the fire. This poker was usually made by someone you knew in the shipyard who worked in the blacksmiths shop. Above our fireplace about 6ft off the floor was a ‘mantle piece’ about 10inches deep trimmed with a type of cloth decoration about 7 inches deep and crocheted or some kind of needle work to make it decorative? Below the ‘mantle piece’ was the brass rod about 2 inches diameter and about 8ft long. To clean all of these properly with ‘Mepo’ and ‘black lead’ etc used to take nearly all day, and when they were finished you spread newspaper over the fender to keep it clean. This paper was removed on Sunday s, so on Sunday morning with the fire flames dancing bright and all the fire-irons etc shining bright, and the polished kettle on the hob it made it look all worth while. I can almost feel the heat off it now as my dad made us toast with home made bread, not like today’s ‘blotting paper’ bread done in an electric toaster.

I nearly forgot to mention that the ‘mantle piece’ was covered with big ornaments. Ours had a big china dog on either side plus two beautiful ornaments with handles which my mother won at the ‘Saturday fair. She had tried for ages to win these & she was so proud of them.

Our gas was supplied by a meter in which you put a penny in the slot and for that you got about 2 hours light, and when you were running out of gas the light went slowly down so you had to rush and get another penny or pennies and stick them in the meter. The light would then brighten up again. The gas man came around every quarter to empty the meter, and he used to count the coins very fast and put them in piles of 12 as there was 12 pence to a shilling, and you got a discount, so the more gas you used the more discount you got. There was always a treat for my older brother and me when the gasman came. One day he called and there was no one at home and as no one locked there doors those days he let himself in. As I said previously we had a very good watchdog and it bit him on the leg. He brought the local Policeman to our house next day, a Mr Blake, who was friendly with my dad and when he said he entered our house when there was no one in the Policeman said he could be prosecuted for entering, so we heard no more about that episode.

I started school at 5 yrs of age at Hebburn Colliery Board School which was a very good teaching school and very strict on disciplines. Every morning the ‘partitions’ were pushed back between class rooms and we said morning prayers and sang a hymn. At the end of the day the partitions were pushed back again and the whole school sang the hymn ‘Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh, shadows of the evening draw across the sky, birds and the beasts and flowers will soon be asleep’ I forget the exact words as I left that school over 60 yrs ago.

I remember some people were very poor in those days and some went to school in there bare feet which seems incredulous now 60 yrs later. The Headmaster used to arrive early at school and stand at the gate and if your shoes were not polished or those with bare feet had dirty feet which was quite often, you got the cane. The ‘caretaker’ of that school used to come round every day and on his back he had a huge cylinder like a fire extinguisher, and he used to spray all the classrooms. It was some kind of disinfectant.

When we started school at 5 yrs of age we used a slate to write on and later we progressed to paper and pencil long before we eventually were allowed to use pen & ink. When you did use pen and ink if you got blots on your book which could easily happen with the kind of pens we used you were liable to get the cane which used to smart your hands, so you became extra careful.

In those days there were no such things as toilet rolls so we used to cut newspapers into 8inch squares and thread them onto a nail in the toilet. This was common practise whether you were rich or poor.

Our Saturday afternoon treat was an outing to the ‘matinee’ at the ‘Pictures’ (Cinema) which was always ‘Cowboys & Indians’. At first these were silent films in black & white and the captions were printed underneath. You had to be a quick reader to follow the plot, which helped your spelling and reading, and when the Cowboys were winning you whistled & cheered. If the Indians were winning you stamped your feet.

The ‘matinee’ was always a ‘serial’ ending in an exciting part so you always wanted to be back next week. The entrance fee to the matinee was a halfpenny at the back of the cinema and a penny at the front and two pence upstairs. This was when 240 pennies made £1. Sometimes if you had no pocket money left they would let you in for two jam jars. Oh happy days!

In those days, no homes had fitted carpets or carpets of any kind. People made mats/rugs either proggy or hooky mats. You had a large mat frame stood in the corner of the room and you could go to a shop and buy hemp type yarn which sometimes had a design on it or you made up your own design.  The coarse hemp yarn was stitched onto the mat frame and twisted onto the long runner of the frame, then rolled the rest onto the other runner. You then left about two foot or more and stretched this tight and put pegs in the holes to keep it tight so that you could now work on it. We never threw out any old clothes as these were washed and dried and put into bags to make clippings. The children usually cut the clippings which were about half an inch wide and as long as you cared to make them. For some reason unknown the mats all had black borders about 4 inches wide. We used to place the mat-frames over maybe a table and chair or something similar and the grownups would sit around and ‘prog’ away. We used to sort out the different coloured rags or clippings for the design being made, usually something like leaves etc. We usually made the mats in the long winter nights to pass the time away, but my aunt Meggie and her friends had a mat club where they drew lots to se who got the next mat. They used to sit out in the back lane in the warm nights, about 5 women on either side just ‘progging’ away and laughing and joking. No one had many worldly goods so there was not much envy about. Everyone seemed to share what they had. How much different things seem to be today? People today in 1995 even think me odd as I don’t have a video recorder.

My mother was an expert at making toffee and it was something she’d learned from her own father which would be my grandfather. She would boil the brown sugar, vinegar and other ingredients in a pan and then pour the mixture into two greased tins and when they started to cool down a little she would smear her hands with butter before picking one of these slabs of toffee out of the tin. We had a hook on the back door and she’d put the hot toffee on the hook and then stretch it over the hook and pull. After each pull she’d put more butter on her hands and keep on stretching it until you could see the toffee turning a beautiful golden colour. When it became golden she would place it inside the other tray of brown toffee and pull and stretch over and over again until it was all stripes of golden and brown, then before it went hard she would cut it up to the size of sweets. She would use different essences to make it taste different. Mother always seemed to make toffee when it would be a miserable rainy day and it cheered us up no end. We dearly loved her but I’m sorry to say we never ever told her this. What a shame!

When I was about 9 or 10 yrs of age, (1930/31) our house in Quality Row was condemned and we had to move into a brand new council flat at 28 Leslie Avenue, Hebburn. It was very sad leaving our old home and what seemed to sadden my father, my brother and I was the fact we were not allowed to take our beloved pigeons with us so they had to be sold off to a man from Pegswood in Northumberland. When we got out of bed next day the pigeons were all back on top of our pigeon Cree. The man did not know how to train them and when he let them out they flew straight back home which was about 20 miles. These pigeons could fly 200 and 300 miles regularly and once a year they flew home from France. My father managed to save the ‘Cree’ and convert it into a garden shed.

It was in Leslie Avenue that I saw electric lights for the first time. You just touched a switch and the light came on.  What marvel was this? We also had gas but to encourage you to use the electric the electric company gave you free globes when you moved in and 3 or 4 free globes once a year. This house also had a flush toilet which we had never seen before & we marvelled at no matter how many times you pulled the chain more water came out of the small cistern above the bowl and it seemed to be a wonderful invention.  Prior to this, every home had a chamber pot under the bed to use during the night to save you having to leave the house and go down the yard, which meant you would have to get dressed. Now you just stepped out of your bedroom and the toilet was on the same landing.

We had a garden which had to be divided in two with our next door neighbour, and for this purpose my father bought wooden egg boxes & used the wood for fencing. Eggs were delivered to shops in boxes which were about 8ft long by 6 ft wide and about 10 inches deep. These were filled with wood shavings and the eggs placed in the shavings. We used to buy these boxes for 2 or 3 pence to make garden railings and we soon discovered that whoever emptied these boxes nearly always missed 6 to 9 eggs, so we were very careful when taking the shavings out as we always found a few eggs for free.

Life was fine until 1931 when everything changed and not for the better. The coal mine closed down leaving my father unemployed on the ‘Dole’ for 5 or 6 years.

We no longer had free coal and after a short period my father had to go on what was called ‘The Means Test’ which was terrible. The ‘Means Test Man’ as this official was named called at your house about every 4 weeks to check your circumstances and see any alterations to them.  Our ‘Means Test official’ was Mr Langlands who lived in our street only six doors away. He’d ask how many we rooms have, what was the rent? Etc. Then he would ask how many family mother had even though we used to play with his son Howard, an only child, who years later became an RAF flight sergeant & ‘bomb aimer’ and was killed in the second world war. My parents used to say ‘Hell you live in the street; your house is the same as ours’

People were not allowed any luxuries in these times so when you knew the ‘Means Test Man’ was due you used to have a curtain which we closed to hide the shelf in the corner of the room, because on that shelf we had a wireless powered by an accumulator (battery) that was considered a luxury and way beyond our means. They even wanted us to sell our Piano, but as we had had it for years they let us keep it.

My brother got a job in Reyrolles and the ‘Means Test Man’ came to question him, so because he was out somewhere he started asking my mother questions. He asked her if my brother was on ‘piece work’ & mother said she didn’t know what ‘piece work’ meant. She was then asked for his clock number so it could be checked out. My mother pleaded ignorant not wanting to tell him knowing my brother had just been put on piecework.  I thought I was helping my mam so went and blurted the information out, but did I ‘get wrong’ later?

I did not think anyone would be interested in my story which I wrote in 1995, until Norman Dunn convinced me that a lot of Hebburn folk would be extremely interested. I hope this is the case.

Walter Wears