IN A NUTSHELL
1922 - 1940
by CHARLES ELLIS
PAGE ONE | PAGE
following account forms part of the collection of literature available
in Pontefract Museum.
I have some recollections of my earlier life, that is up to eighteen years
of age. Some of those years after a span of some seventy are vague, but
most stand out in vivid memory.
I was born in Pontefract Workhouse. My mother and I were there because she
had been turned out of her home (because of her pregnancy out of
wedlock). It was a stigma that was to haunt me for many years - in 1922
it was a sin. Being asked over succeeding years, "Where is your
dad"? I could not tell them. I did not know. It was hard for me to
understand as a child and later at school when the slurs started, the
hurt was hard to bear. Children can be very cruel.
heartfelt pain was when joining the army in 1940. Standing in front of
the recruiting officer, being asked my name, fathers name, mothers
maiden name and being told by that unfeeling officer and gentleman that
my name is not the same as mothers maiden name. I learnt very quickly
after that and told everyone later that dad was dead. I never asked
mother any questions as I was afraid of the answers.
my birth, mother was sent out to work. I was placed in the care of ‘Carlton
Cottage Homes’. When old enough to take notice of my home (and it was
home to me) I began to live the life of an orphan.
remember there were three houses, each run by a lady whom we all called
‘Mother’. The bedrooms were large, each with about ten children,
boys and girls. The ‘Mother’ plus a daily help saw to our everyday
needs. Food was very plain but plentiful; it must have been very
sustaining as we were all very robust and active.
everyday was bread and jam or bread and thick black treacle, dinner
mainly stew, breakfast always porridge, drinks, water, no tea. We were
well fed, some children out in the wider world would have been glad of
our fare, as I was to find out later.
days were a treat - we had our teas on a sheet spread on the lawn,
picnic style. Some days a bun or a scone would be included, these
occasions were happy ones for us children. We were at all times ruled
with a rod of iron, rules were there to be obeyed or else. The else was
no jam or treacle at teatime and no cinema. Overall we children were
well behaved, the alternatives were dire. The punishment for being
naughty was inflicted on the whole house, so he or she was not very
popular with the rest of the children.
was at St. Michael’s, Carlton. The local children looked down on us,
there was no fraternisation of any sort. In our dress we stood out a
mile, no uniform as such, but may well have been. Girls wore plain black
dresses with a white smock on top, grey socks, lace up boots. Boys wore
jerseys, grey or black, short black trousers, grey socks and hob nailed
boots. We dressed the same all year round, we really stood out, I do
suppose we were lucky.
was a time of deep depression, poverty was the norm for working classes.
School was very strict. Hours were 8.45am to 12 noon, with ten minutes
playtime. The local kids would indulge themselves in sweets and crisps,
not for us though, it wasn’t Christmas.
12 to 1.30. Back to the home for a meal, stew, but very good. No one
left the table without permission and there was no talking during the
meal, cutlery and plates to be returned to the kitchen then we were
allowed to play until 1.15pm after which we washed and went back to
school. If I had been allowed to remain at this school my education
would have been better, it was a very dedicated place of learning. Some
days I vividly remember my life in the home, other times not, it’s
almost seventy years ago.
was a day of all days, no games of any kind, the day was full of
religious teaching. Sunday school was at 11 o’clock in the village
hall, it was on Carlton Green (the hall is no longer there). Sunday
lunch was at 12.30 and it was the best meal of the week. Back to Sunday
school at 3 o’clock and evensong in the church at 6 o’clock. We took
all this as the norm, we knew of no other life. We were all in bed at 8
o’clock summer or winter, very long dreary nights. Mother would drop
in to see no one was running around.
Saturdays, delight upon delight, a visit to the Crescent Cinema, this
once a month. We all went with house Mothers, what a joy! - going into
Pontefract to us kids would be like going to Bridlington for kids of
today. The town seemed so distant to us and it was only a mile away.
Each child was given a small bar of Toblerone chocolate, being informed
first that it was a gift from the Board. The films to us were wonderful
and we looked forward to every month.
summer holidays we enjoyed, there was plenty of room to play and the
days seemed never ending. Older boys and girls of seven, eight and nine
would have chores, always under supervision of the staff; sewing, bed
making, potato peeling, sweeping and dusting. It was not thought of as a
chore, merely a break from the norm. I don’t remember having a job
myself but still, I was only eight when I left.
new clothes was a great event. Any to be replaced would be taken by us,
Mother in tow, to the Matrons house. It was a bit scary for us. We
entered a room resembling Aladdin’s cave, clothes of all kinds,
frocks, socks, trousers, boots (no shoes), towels and sheets. Matron was
very reluctant to give any away. She would examine our garment or boots
with a very critical eye and if they could be repaired our request for
exchange would be refused. Darning and sewing would have to be tried
first. Getting anything from Matron was a feat; just going to see her
was an experience!
day in August was a day to look forward to, it was the homes outing. A
bus would take us to Hensall or Goole for the day. Not much by today’s
standard, but to us in 1926 it was Blackpool and Benidorm all rolled
into one. Our day was one to be cherished. We would not be able to sleep
for days before the big event, everyone was excited, none would dare do
anything wrong for fear of the consequences.
last the big day dawned, I never remember it raining, it dare not. All
up at 6am, bathed, best Sunday clothes on, early breakfast, then all up
at the windows looking for the first sight of the busses, all agog happy
kids eager and keen for the days events. Coaches are here, loaded up
with food, fruit, lemonade, even crisps, compliments of the Board. At
last we board the busses, excitement at its highest, a window seat worth
its weight in gold. We are going into the countryside, miles away as we
thought, but no one can take away its magic.
arrive in green fields, races planned, sacks given out, skipping ropes
etc. Now food bags are given to each child, all amazed at the contents,
crisps complete with little blue bags of salt, boiled sweets, meat
sandwiches, biscuits, bottle of pop, what a day! We exchanged sweets,
enjoy to the full all the sports events. We all said we were going to
save some sweets, but alas none did - at the end of the day all were
gone. Inter-house games were played, football, cricket, rounders, a
great day out, but it had to end. Home we went tired out.
don’t remember once having any visitors, but was told later Uncle Bill
and Uncle Charlie had been to see me, but I didn’t remember.
was now coming up to my seventh birthday, they were not special days
then, there were too many children to have birthday celebrations. I was
doing very well at school and enjoyed it. About this time I was having
trouble with my eyes, not with vision, but red, inflamed and sore. A
medication called Golden Eye Ointment was used, it helped a little, but
this was to plague me for years. A doctor visited the home every week
and we had a resident nurse. Sometime in July 1930, I was told that I
was leaving the only family I ever knew and going to a place called
Tanshelf to live with my mother, grandmother and granddad. I was told I
had a sister Dorothy, whom I had never seen, my mother and grandparents
I never remember seeing either. I do know the change upset me, I was
going from security into the unknown.
home was now Coburg Street, Tanshelf. It was very strange. I met mother,
sister grandparents, all of them complete strangers to me. I was
surprised to find that Auntie Nellie, mothers’ stepsister, lived there
as well as Uncle Bill, mothers brother; it was all overpowering for me.
I cried most nights for some time. This house at the top of the row, had
three bedrooms, the norm was two. After the space I had lived in it
seemed very crowded. More was to come as mother was married to a Mr.
Poole and I had a stepfather, but more about him later, enough to say I
we all lived in that house even today I don’t know. Even at the tender
age of eight I knew how uneasy and very unhappy I was. The days of
regular meals, baths every night, lots of friends, had gone forever. Now
bread and dripping, cold water and a cold bed shared with my sister. It
soon came to me that crying over my lot was not going to help. I was in
a new world where it was dog eat dog, more so on the streets of Tanshelf.
I met the kids of the street and I got a rough time. I was a new boy
wearing trousers and jersey with no holes and clean knees, I had to muck
in and join them. Let your guard down and your life would be hell, you
had to give as much as you got and not run away. For me it was hard, I
had led a sheltered life. I dug my heels in and stuck up for myself as
it was the only way. I was a new kid with no friends and someone to pick
on. I had a few fights, but don’t remember winning any though the
thing was not to cry.
the kids were in gangs and I had to get into one to exist. A few lies
about my background and more fights was helping, but it caused lots of
trouble at home. Cut knees, torn shirts and jerseys would be rewarded by
bawling and shouting plus a few clouts around the head.
was now getting accepted into the gang. Cyril Gill was called captain
and there was Tom Madden, Billy Burgess, Owen Oates, and Charlie Hill to
name a few. When it was found that I was a decent fast bowler my place
in the gang was secure. My Uncle Bill who lived with us was a very good
slow left arm bowler and played on a local team. He treated me very well
indeed. Early Saturdays in summer was cricket match days, I would clean
and whiten his boots and he would then take me to the match. They were
great days of village cricket, at this time he was playing for
Glasshoughton. The food at teatime provided by the players wives was to
me, at nine years old, out of this world. I was always hungry and there
would be sandwiches of all kinds, cakes, jellies and pop for the kids.
This was the first time I had tasted butter, good old Uncle Bill.
how we all fitted into 20 Coburg Street I don’t know. Cyril Poole,
mother, Dorothy and myself in one room, grandma and granddad in another,
then there was Auntie Nellie and Uncle Bill.
still had to go to bed at 8pm come summer or winter; talk about being
scared! I’d been used to sleeping in a big room in the company of
other children. Most times grandma would take me upstairs holding the
candle and when it was blown out I was very frightened. I would keep
coughing, and grandma would shout up "It’s alright we’re still
here". Those were some of the most lonely nights.
never saw mother a great deal, my life revolved around grandma, granddad
and Uncle Bill. In winter I would sit with grandma for many an hour, she
would chat away about anything and answer my childish questions. Last
thing at night she would put golden eye ointment in my eyes, they were
always red and inflamed. I had a cup of cocoa and a biscuit, then up ‘calvary
mountain’ as she called it.
and Cyril Poole (I never called him dad) would be out every night and I
hardly saw them. On Saturday nights at 9pm, very late for me, grandma
would say, "get the basket Charlie, it’s time to go to Ponte
market". Almost all shops closed late those days. There were
bargains to be had after 9pm as there was no refrigeration. Grandma
would make a beeline to the hot-pea stall for a dish of hot peas and
bags of vinegar - it was a feast. Next the fruit and veg stall where the
stall-holder would be shouting at the top of his voice accompanied with
jokes. As a typical example he would hold up a paper carrier and amidst
his chatter he would put in a scoop of potatoes, carrots, onions, a
turnip, then a rabbit. He would start off at two shillings knowing he
had no chance at that price and we would get the carrier for 11d or even
10d. His jolly patter was worth that.
the meat shop where a sheep’s head, stew meat and a pile of bones cost
a shilling. I think one weeks’ wages were only about twenty-five
shillings at this time, so every penny had to count. A weeks dole was
ten shillings. The last call me and grandma made on Saturday night (it
would be about 10pm by now) would be the sweet stall, a childs’
delight. For 2d she would get a bag full of boiled sweets and would
always ask for a couple of complete boiled fish, different colours of
course, for me; what more could a child want? A steady walk down
Sessions House yard, Colonels Walk, and then home with our spoils, I
could not have a fish until Sunday. A mug of cocoa and then off to bed,
complete with candle, tired out. I loved Saturdays!
Continued on page two ...
Further articles by Charles Ellis:
In a Nutshell Part Two: 1922 - 1940