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.

The approach of bonfire night would entail a lot of feverish activity from us kids, gathering anything we could lay our hands on to burn. Tyres, timber, old furniture, it was all collected and stacked on top of our coal houses. Fun was had by raiding other kids stocks and they in turn would raid ours, all in good spirits. Bonfire night would arrive and Tanshelf would be lit up by countless fires, though there were not many fireworks for obvious reasons.

Next sledging in the snow. Colonels Walk was the main slope and anything was used from dustbin lids, boxes, home made sledges and pieces of old tin. There would be snowball fights among groups and these games were only ended by the raucous tones of mothers shouting their sons and daughters in by the simple procedure of standing on their front door steps and calling out their names. The voices really did carry and if you were out of earshot, the message would be carried on and you would be told.

September 1933 came and I had to leave Tanshelf school to go to Northgate Senior Boys School. I started in class 1A learning higher maths and a new subject Algebra - it was Dutch to me and I never really got the hang of it even though I was good at maths. My only interest in sport was cricket which I thought I was good at and really enjoyed, a rub off from Uncle Billy. Metalwork and woodwork were two subjects I enjoyed. Again at this school we walked four times a day to and fro - school dinners would have been handy. It may sound strange but I enjoyed school, it was certainly better than being at home.

School holidays and Pontefract races were ok for us as we could sell Pontefract cakes on the racecourse. We would go to Hillaby's factory at the bottom of Half Penny Lane and they would let us have twenty tins of Pontefract cakes on trust, which we then sold on the racecourse. Most times they went really well at sixpence a tin, often the buyers would pay more, we then returned to Hillabys and got commission. If there was time we would go back to the course again.

My grandma liked a good buy and she would often send me down to Johnson’s slaughterhouse, down by the bridge. I would see Johnny Evans who would serve a complete ring of polony and black pudding for 2d - real value, you could always depend on Johnny. The bake house would be the next port of call and I would take a carrier and ask for 3d of bun bits. Some days were better than others but it was always a bargain.

When we got back from the races with our earnings, mother would want it. I would at times get 2d. but still, I expect that money was very tight. We had another bake house to go to in Nutt Street where we could get bun bits on most days. Wilcox was the name and they also had a grocery shop opposite. We had two fish and chip shops. A portion of chips and a fish was 2d and 3d, a sustaining meal for the working classes, mind you I never got a fish. We also had three shops which sold everything, and I mean everything. Minnie Rose’s, Best’s, Tonk’s, Battye’s off license and paper shop, Tanshelf was quite contained.

I forgot to mention that in the summer months Pontefract Park had open-air theatre shows which we all enjoyed.

On occasions Aunt Nellie would come over on Saturdays to go shopping with her mother and me, which made quite a change. Dennis, her son, was born in 1933 and Pat, her daughter, in 1934. She would fetch the kids over to see us, walking it from Featherstone, and she would often stay late. I would walk it back with her to Featherstone and then she would give me a penny to catch the bus home.

Street rows in Tanshelf were regular, and most times were over children. Many a time the parents were arguing but the children would be friends again. Sometimes arguments were very serious, very foul language was used, at times blows were struck, there was never a dull moment! When I was ten, Mrs Hill died. I still enjoyed my talks with grandma but do not remember any contact with mother or Dorothy.

One very interesting thing stands out in my mind about Uncle Charlie Ellis. I don’t ever remember meeting him and my first recollection after coming out of the home was being taken to see my Aunt Lily, Uncle Charlie’s wife, and cousin Kathleen, who lived in Tanshelf Drive. I knew at this time that Uncle Charlie was dead. I found out later that he had an operation for the removal of an appendix, a serious operation in 1929, and after coming home he fell down stairs and burst his stitches, from which he did not recover. I was nine at the time and all this was revealed to me much later.

I certainly knew about the reception I got. They hugged me, (that was a first in my life), and made a great fuss. I was told to come again and I did many a time, we were great friends.

I must mention the gramophone, I had never seen one before. Aunt Lily put a needle in then placed a record on. I was amazed; I couldn’t understand where the music was coming from. She tried to explain about the winding up, the record and the needle, I was hooked and every time I went to see them a record was played. Also each time I went she would give me a penny and told me not to give it to mother, but I did most times. I always had lemonade there too. The first tune I heard on that gramophone was "tiptoe through the tulips", I have heard it many a time since but nothing will change the magic of my first record.

Now to my mothers other sister Aunt Betty, we knew her as Auntie Lizzie and Uncle Joe, her husband, they were very good to me too. They lived at Golcar near Huddersfield with their daughter, cousin Dorothy. I would look forward to race days because they would come to our house before the races. Each time they came they would give me a whole sixpence, a fortune then, well it would have been if I had been allowed to keep it, I would end up with a penny, ah well!

Christmas in those days for a twelve-year-old was magic, even without the cash spending that goes on today. About October time, mother and grandma would start making paper flowers for me and my sister to sell door to door. We would not sell in Tanshelf as there was no money there to spare, and so we had to travel to Carlton or Darrington where the money was. Walking the streets on cold winters nights was a bit naughty, but we managed to sell quite a few at sixpence for three, the flowers were quite nice.

Leading up to the great day, packs of coloured paper was bought and paper chains made along with paper shawls to drape over each picture and in those days the walls were covered in pictures. These decorations were extremely well made and colourful, even the parlour was decorated, this room was seldom used except only for weddings, funerals and of course Christmas. Presents were not like today’s, I can remember what I got each year, a toy car or lorry always made of wood, a new penny, sugar pig, apple and orange. We were quite content with our lot; no one else got more. We fed really well at Christmas, much better than any other time. We mostly had a quiet household, no fights or arguments. Winter nights when it was too cold to play out, I was, to get me out of the way, allowed to play in that holy of holys, ‘The Parlour’, without a fire of course, but I was well wrapped up.

I continued my visits to Aunt Lilys and I was always made welcome, she knew how to fill a young boys stomach. Visits from Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Joe were eagerly awaited as they made you feel wanted. One time Uncle Cliff, Aunt Nellie and mother went to Golcar in Cliffs car, again well looked after, great tea, good day out. "The best is still to come" Uncle Joe said to me, "Come on Charlie I want to show you something." Upstairs we went into their bedroom, "Now" he said "open that door." I turned the key, opened the door and lo and behold I was in a roadway, I was amazed. He explained to me that the house was built into the side of a hill, wonders never cease.

The games played by us Tanshelf kids were many and varied. One game was called ‘kick off can’, where someone got an empty tin can, of which there were very many laying around, and he or she would kick it as hard as they could. While it was moving the others had to hide and once anyone was found it was their turn to kick the can.

Another game we played was called ‘Peggy’. A three-inch piece of wood would be cut, bevelled at one end and placed on a house brick. The peggy would then be hit on the sharp end and when it jumped into the air it would be hit with a stick. It would fly down the street and when it stopped the opposing team would declare how many running strides they would have to take to reach it, the lowest score was the winner; it certainly kept you warm. We would continue to play until a voice like a foghorn would break the silence. It shouted Tom, Dick, or Mary, and the voice was always obeyed.

Tanshelf without its losing schools would not be down Tanshelf. I understand that certain activities were illegal, but no-one hurt anyone. The police raided many times, but the men usually had touts out and when the police came they would dash into a house, any house, through one door and out the other, it was great fun to watch.

Life ground on for me and I was still unhappy at home because of the frequent rows but things did improve later.

I still went shopping with grandma on Saturday nights which was the high spot of the week. I went to granddads allotment, enjoyed ginger nuts and took his supper when he was a night watchman. All us boys were still in short trousers and would be until we left school at fourteen. I, along with my family, never had holidays, by that I mean day trips. Some boys and girls went on school outings but we could never afford it, others went on trips with various working mens clubs because their dads were members.

In 1935 I would be thirteen, I vowed to leave this rat race whenever I could. Now more trouble, we left grandma and granddad. We moved into 18 Corbury Street but this move did not make me happy at all, but I still had grandma to fall back on. The dreary days at home continued and I made a pact with myself again to get out.

About this time my granddad died, how and when, I never knew, I just knew he had gone. I learnt later he had died in 1935, the same year I lost my sister, who left to get married, she was well out of it. My life at number 18 was unhappy, I said my prayers every night as I had been taught in the home.

Hygiene in Tanshelf sometimes was clean, sometimes not, and in fact some were very dirty. Ours, as far as a twelve-year-old knows, was clean, the step and window sills were scoured with a donkey stone every week. I used to visit the council depot in a building opposite the municipal offices, taking a large bottle that they would fill with a strong disinfectant which was used for the outside grates and toilet. A powder of the same strong smell was also issued and this was spread around the yard. Our toilets both at number 18 and 20 were at the bottom of the yard with a three-quarter door, open at the top and bottom, a real wind howler. The toilet box went across wall to wall and it was white wood scrubbed clean, the bowl was earthenware, a devil to keep clean. The flushing system was unique. Back up the yard outside the scullery, the waste water drained into a kind of balancing earthenware bucket and when this was full the bucket upended, the water travelling underground down the yard to the toilet, so the system only flushed when a lot of water had been used. There is one thing to be said, it was not great, but at least it only used waste water. Toilet paper as we know it now, was none existent and old newspapers were cut up into squares, a hole made in the corner, a piece of string put through it and the lot was hung at the back of the door. How this sort of paper cleaned us, I don’t know. The wind and rain would belt through the door and no one ever took a book to read in there, they were in and out quickly. We on Cobury Street thought ourselves lucky with our modern system as most other streets only had open middens, On Colonels Walk for instance, there was one midden or toilet shared between three families. A midden was a brick built structure at the bottom of the yard. On one side facing the house was the toilet door and on the other facing the street was a small door, low down, this was for council workmen using shovels to scrape out the waste matter, complete with household waste, ie: fire ashes and empty tins that had been put in the midden through a small door above the other one. The council men of a very brave kind only worked during the nights. It must have been awkward if you were using the loo at the time but hardly likely as chamber pots were in general use.

Further problems in Tanshelf were the vermin, bed bugs, black-clocks, lice, and silverfish, which everyone had at times. If you got rid of them and your neighbour didn’t, they would be back. Bed bugs for instance made sleep difficult. They were in the mattress, bed springs and wallpaper and you could be as clean as you wanted, but if next door had bed bugs, you would get them too. I have seen grandma and mother going over the bed springs with a lighted candle to burn them out.

We had black-clocks by the thousand and if you thought bed bugs were foul, these were big and foul. At eleven and twelve years old I was scared to come downstairs early morning because they would be running all over the hearth, in my boots, even if they had been left upside down. You had to knock your boots and tip them over before putting them on. Silverfish were rampant and lice were common - most girls had them. The nurse used to come to school to inspect the children but most boys got away with it as we only had donkey fringes.

Some houses were so badly infested with vermin, that a council lorry would come to the house to fumigate it and the occupants would have to leave and stay with relatives or friends for two or three days. The men would then seal the house, every window and door was boarded up, and a hole in a window made to take a four-inch pipe. A lorry would then turn up, like a petrol tanker, and a pipe was placed to the hole in the window and a foul smelling gas was pumped into the house. Crowds would be watching but they did not stay long as the smell was terrible.

Charles Ellis


Further articles by Charles Ellis:

In a Nutshell Part One: 1922 - 1940


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