West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections


1922 - 1940




The following account forms part of the collection of literature available in Pontefract Museum.

Continued from page one ...

I would stop in bed the next morning as it was Sunday. I would be awake but not allowed out of bed until I was told. Breakfast was always stewing beef and cow heel, which had been cooking all night at the side of the coal fire. The milkman would come about nine and I would go out with a jug for a pint of milk. It was Yorkshire pudding day and the milkman only came on Sundays, other days condensed milk was used. Sunday was also the day for wearing your best clothes (if you had any). I remember once having a blazer, talk about being posh, it probably vanished, like anything else during these hard times, to the pawnshop.

A word or two about granddad Crisp, he was mothers stepfather, Auntie Nellie’s dad, though I didn’t know this at the time - everything was so strange to me. Taking people as I found them, granddad and grandma were very good to me, as was Uncle Bill and at this stage of my young life it would have been hell without them. At this time I would be about eight years old, granddad was a night watchman for the Yorkshire Electric Company, any work in the streets that could not be completed before night time, he would be called upon to duty, mainly from 6pm to 8am. He had a box to sit in, which resembled a sentry box. He would fill up red paraffin lamps, place them near open holes and make sure they remained lit all night. A brasier would be glowing red hot outside the box, and at times he sorely needed it. About seven at night I would go with grandma to take him a flask of tea and a jug of hot stew. We walked it and sometimes it was quite a distance. Granddad had another string to his bow, an allotment up Ackworth Road. He made a hut there, a home from home complete with a stove, kettle and teapot. Sometimes after school I would find that he had left me 2d to go to the cheap shop (I forgot the name) and get half a pound of ginger nuts and take them up to the allotment. We would sit munching biscuits and he would tell some tall yarns, but they were great at the time.

When I was nine years old, apart from these episodes with grandparents, I felt very unhappy as there was always a lot of tension at home, I had to do this, go there, be seen not heard. There were terrible rows and all involved mother, Cyril Poole and granddad. I would be terrified. If Uncle Bill was there he would get me out of it. Whatever the rows were about I never knew, life was hell.

On one occasion Uncle Bill took me to one of our next door neighbours Charles Hill, and sons, Charlie, Harold and Clarence, they were to figure a lot in my later life, not to the better I may say. My sister Dorothy’s participation in all this is vague, she was still with us, but must have been working. I never saw her much only at bedtime. The rows at home continued. My Uncle Bill left about this time to marry Auntie Doris and went to live in Featherstone. Auntie Nellie was courting a miner from Featherstone and he was very good to me. He had a car, which was a novelty as there were not many cars to be seen in Tanshelf. When he pulled up in the street, the neighbours all turned out to watch. The kids including me gathered around this strange object. He and Aunt Nellie would get in and set off with all the kids hanging on, their day was made, mine was to come. One day, I’ll long remember, he came to pick up Auntie Nellie and she wasn’t ready, so he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride - cor did I! In I got and all the kids were watching, it was great! That was the first of many rides with him. They were married in 1932 and lived in lodgings in Mount Pleasant Street, Featherstone.

Now to my new school, Tanshelf Junior Mixed where I soon fitted in. Kids were rough in those days and they had to be, there was no place for a mummy’s boy. You gave as much as you got and added a little bit more. I walked to school for 9am and back home for dinner at 12noon; I use the word dinner, if bread and jam can be called that. Back to school for 1.30pm and home again at 4pm. At the top of Beechnut, where the school was, there was a small wooden hut facing the park, smaller than a domestic garage. It was a lock up shop that sold sweets, crisps and pop. It would not last ten minutes today, the vandals would see to that.

My first day got off to a flying start in more ways than one. I had a fight with one Cyril Gill, he picked on me and tripped me up, a fight ensued but I gave as good as I got. We were parted by the Headmaster Mr. Lee and both made to stop in after 4pm. Cyril and I became firm friends and remained friends until his death in 1987. Cyril’s dad was a widower, a 1914-18 soldier. His house, or at least the back kitchen, was later to be our gangs base. Schooling at Tanshelf was not up to the standard of Carlton school. At eight years old I was way ahead in maths, reading and history and this was to be my place of learning until I was eleven, I really liked that school.

A great surprise awaited us one lunchtime. We left school at 12pm and there outside the school gates sat a man on a big carpet covered with all sorts of toys including yo-yo’s, whip and tops, skipping ropes, mouth organs, footballs, pencils, dolls, etc., to us kids it was a great sight. The man informed us that to get any one of the goods on offer we had to ask our parents for old woollen’s - that was a laugh, Tanshelf kids were wearing them! Going back to school at 1.30pm his trade was very slack, after one more envious look at the goods on display we filed into school.

Pontefract at that time boasted three cinemas and a theatre. On Sunday morning we would go to the top of Tanshelf (the posh part), and watch the actors arriving for the weeks show. The Alexandra Theatre was right opposite the Queens Hotel. The first film shown was Top-Hat. The Crescent Cinema was posh, the Playhouse in Gillygate and the Premier provided varied entertainment. My favourite was the Alexandra Theatre, and all the kids that could afford 2d would sit up in the Gods, that was very high up indeed; a wire mesh screen was in front of us for protection.

A place of delight for us was Pontefract Park, this would have been between 1932-39 and around the lake was a massive flower garden, well tended, rose trees of all varieties, flowers galore, it really was a delight. Today it’s a tip. Near the far side of the grandstand was a high mound of earth, which we knew as the Butts. During the 1914 war, soldiers at the barracks used it for rifle practice and we used to dig into the Butts for spent bullets. We found many and used them among ourselves to exchange for marbles, glass allies, anything for barter. Again the walk around the lake was a delight with the profusion of flowers, the boats on the lake were beyond our reach (no money). I and my new found friends spent hours in the park for me it got me away from an unhappy home, the constant arguments, fights and tension.

Another gem of entertainment was Pontefract Castle where again Pontefract Town Council excelled themselves in flowers, bushes and lawns that they provided in this haven; it was a credit to all concerned. At the entrance to the castle there was a First World War tank and many an hour was spent there, what happened to it? We Tanshelf children walked miles with bread and jam sandwiches and a bottle of water (full of breadcrumbs) - our parents enjoyed it too as we were not under their feet. We would get home late afternoon, tired and very hungry, the sandwiches had gone after the first mile or so.

At times in the summer holidays I had to go pea pulling with Cyril Poole and mother. A lorry would pull up in Stuart Road and the women and kids with their stools and buckets would climb up into the lorries. Everyone stood up so they could get more people aboard and then it was off to the pea fields. All the pullers would line up in the field and start picking peas, for 6d or 7d a sack. A sack would contain about four domestic bucketful’s and it was really hard work. If you earned 5/- (25p) you had done well.

After the grown ups had had their meal the quart water bottles would be empty and we kids would then glean or pull peas, shell them and do our uttermost to fill the bottle. A very tedious job, but on going home mother would tell me to knock on doors and sell them.

Jobs on Mondays were varied – it was wash day and also time to pay a visit to the pawn shop where suits, frocks, coats, sheets and blankets would be taken. As I got older, it became my job and the articles would be pledged for a few shillings. Sometimes we would return for them on Friday, pay a small fee and they would be back the following Monday. On wash days Granddad would fill the copper boiler in the corner of the kitchen and light a fire underneath. All whites were washed separate, the colours next. Clothes were hung out in the back street on our line. In bad weather, they were put on lines in the house or on the clothes horse. The mangle, a great big monstrosity in the scullery, was often used. It had massive wooden rollers and a great big wheel to turn them. Ironing was carried out when the clothes were dry. Two irons were placed on a grid in front of the fire, right next to the coals, until hot enough; you tested by spitting on the hot surface.

Monday was also bread making day, Thursday also, when loaves, cobs and breadcakes would be made, oh what a glorious smell! Eating them was a gourmet meal. Black leading the kitchen fire was done on Fridays and the fire could not be lit until this job was completed. I’ve seen Uncle Billy and granddad do this work which was a picture when done.

Our neighbours in Tanshelf, most of them anyway, were the salt of the earth. Everyone helped each other and their help was always given gladly. No one had any money, because 1930-39 was grim by any standards, depression and poverty was eating into the very soul. I think dole money was £1.00 a week, but most men did not get that as they did not have enough stamps on their cards. You couldn’t get stamps if you were not working. These men had to resort to someone called Leng (if I remember correctly) who oversaw the poor relief run by the local council. Before he would lend any money, (sorry, but it had to be paid back) you first had to sell anything you had to sell, all he would leave you with would be a bed, table and chairs; I learnt all this as I grew older. What would they have done for today’s handouts?

At this time I would go with mother, cap in hand to the Municipal Offices to ask for a pair of boots so I could go to school. It was heartbreaking because of all the questions asked. The powers that be were very unfeeling. Dire poverty is not to be recommended, it was soul destroying. At this time 1930-31 Britain had the largest empire in the world, but the riches of this empire stayed with the rich. The only help would be from our neighbours, true friends. If you were ill and could not bake bread or wash, help would be given. Illness or death was a time of help by others, help in all forms except money was freely given. Childbirth was always at home, some women (not midwives) would be in attendance and do all there was to do. The same help would apply to a death in the family, a woman would be called in to see the body and lay it out for burial. Yes, help if needed was freely given.

Charles Ellis


Further articles by Charles Ellis:

In a Nutshell Part Two: 1922 - 1940


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