West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



Talking to Maurice Haigh

My story this month concerns John Booth, son of Ely and Rebecca Booth who resided at 12 The Booths, Pontefract in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Johnís father, Ely, was a native of the county of Shropshire, but in the late 1800ís had left his home and moved north to find work in the mining industry. He found employment at the Prince of Wales Colliery, Pontefract, and worked there until he was 60 years of age before being made redundant. It was a general policy of Mine Owners to sack their workers when they reached this age. The ownerís strange reasoning for this practice was that they thought the mineworkers had outlived their usefulness and were not as capable of working as productively as the younger employees.

John Booth

With no redundancy packages available in those days it meant you were resigned to the dole and even this small payment for an unemployed worker would be means tested to the extent of being reduced if any other member of the family held a job and brought a wage into the family home.

Times were very hard when you were put out of work and only slightly better if you had a job.

Johnís mother Rebecca, was a Cutsyke born woman and spent her early working life as a servant to a wealthy Wakefield family. John was born in The Booths, Pontefract on Shrove Tuesday, 1914. He was preceded by sisters Ginny, Mary, Minnie and May and brothers Hughie, Bill and Ely, followed by his younger sister Annie.

The house they lived in was like many other dwellings in The Booths. There were two bedrooms upstairs; one was shared by the brothers, while the other was occupied by their parents who shared the room with Johnís sisters, modesty was protected with a curtained partition slung across the room.

The downstairs rooms consisted of a kitchen with a stone flagged floor and a sitting/dining room for everyday use. It takes little imagination to understand the cramped and poor living conditions the family endured. The house had no connected indoor water. A water tap situated within an outdoor passage was the only available water supply to the family and this was shared by two other families. The primitive toilet facilities were supplied by a Ďtwo-seaterí dry toilet (midden) and this requirement was also shared by two other neighbouring families. Cleaning the middenís was a dirty and unpleasant task to undertake, so they were emptied during the night by the ĎMidden Mení.

Johnís early years growing up in the Booths were made more difficult when his father was called up for military service in the First World War. He was enlisted to serve in the Minerís Battalion, which was formed to utilise the menís mining experience for the task of providing trenches for the forward Infantry regiments. He was to serve in France for four years. Johnís mother, Rebecca, and his eldest sister Ginny, both worked at the Barnbow Munitions Factory; Ginny working on the night shift and his mother on the dayshift. Together with his elder brothers working alternative shifts in local pits, it was a struggle to cover his care, but they managed one way or another.

At the age of four John began his school life and attended the local school located at the bottom of Asshill Steps, Lower Southgate, Pontefract, which lay beneath the shadow of Pontefract Castle. The school is still there today but it is now occupied as a private dwelling. He later moved to the Senior Boys School, on Northgate, and stayed there until he was 14 years old, the school leaving age in those days. He completed his last day at school, at midday on a Monday, and left to walk to Fryston Colliery for a job. He was successful in this endeavour and obtained employment the same day as a Ďtub boyí working in the pit bottom. His pay was 2s-2d a day for eight hours work. He stayed in the mining industry for most of his working life, finally working as a coal face worker. He was made redundant from the pit in 1978 at the age of 64.

No transport was available to take John to his work which meant he had to walk to and from work each day, a journey of some ten miles for a round trip. Miners in those times were not provided with Pithead Baths and it was a common every day sight to see them returning home in their Ďpit muckí. As a consequence of no bathing facilities being made available for them, miners had to rely on the traditional tin bath in front of a roaring fire for their bathing requirements. Most dwellings would have a tin bath hung on a nail in the backyard.

One memory John recalls refers to one New Years Night when he was walking home to Pontefract in the company of a couple of pals. He was only 14 or 15 at the time and said to his companions, "Come on, I think we can make a couple of bob tonight", and they walked to Nevison Leap to call at Tommy Sykes house [he had been Mayor of Pontefract at one time] to Ďfirst-footí the household and sing carols. They knocked on the door and were invited inside, offered a drink and each given 10/-, which was an absolute fortune in those days. John returned home with the money and presented it to his mother. She thought his wages had been paid earlier than normal from the wages office.

In the late 1920s John played football with the Booths Football Team and remembers playing games against opposing teams like the Tanshelf Gems, and Willow Park and Halfpenny Lane teams, to name but a few. Most of the games played were competitive games and were entered and played for in one of the local football leagues.

A dramatic change to Johnís life began in 1938 when he walked from Pontefract to Leeds and joined the RAF. His first posting was to a station at St. Athens, South Wales, where he underwent training to become an Aircraft Engine Fitter. His second posting was to the RAF Station and College at Cranwell, Lincolnshire, which incidentally coincided with the declaration of war, September 3rd 1939. This posting at Cranwell was to last approximately two years before his first overseas posting was to take him to South Africa. Originally they were to board a troopship sailing out of Liverpool and were despatched to Birkenhead to await sailing. It was during his short stay here that he met his future wife Ann at a dance in the New Brighton Ballroom. No explanation or reasons were offered to John and his comrades, but the sailing was suddenly cancelled and they all received a weeks leave home. Finally, on Johnís return from leave, he travelled to Greenock, Scotland, and boarded a troopship for South Africa.

Johnís duties at his new station were to carry out regular servicing of the RAFs training aircraft, the Airspeed Oxford. Recreation was found at the Stations pub where John would spend his time at the bar sharing drinks with his pals. He was also a football enthusiast and played full back in the Station Football Team. They would also play games against opposing teams from other squadrons. On rare occasions, along with some of his friends, he would visit nearby Petersburg and enjoy a fine meal in one of the local hotel restaurants. This was a treat they looked forward to, it was a nice change from the usual station grub they were accustomed to eating.

After John had completed his overseas service he returned to England in 1945 and was sent to serve at a Station near Norwich, Norfolk. He carried on his normal duties of servicing aircraft but he was now working on the Lancaster bombers. During his stay at Norwich, John and his fellow groundstaff workers were treated to a trip flying over Germany to witness the damage the allied bomber force had inflicted upon the German nation.

Johnís service life was completed when he was sent to Manchester in late 1945 and was demobbed from the services. He returned home to his parents in Pontefract who had now moved from the Booths and were occupants of a house in Monkhill.

Throughout his service abroad, John and Ann had managed to maintain their courtship by frequent letter writing to each other. After a short stay with his parents John travelled to Birkenhead to be reunited with Ann and they were married in the local church in late 1945. He was lucky to find employment with British Rail but unfortunately houses were in short supply and difficult to obtain. This situation was not helped by the heavy losses of properties in that area during the sustained and frequent bombing attacks that took place on Birkenhead and Liverpool during the hostilities. This forced the newly married couple to board with Annís parents, a situation which continued for some twelve months until Johnís father Ely contacted them and said a house had become vacant in the Booths. With housing circumstances still being difficult for the couple, John and Ann left Birkenhead and moved back to reside in Pontefract. John renewed his connnections with the Fryston pit and stayed until as stated earlier, his redundancy in 1978.

Johnís wife also played her part in the war effort. Her chosen service was to serve with the ATS forces. She enlisted with them in 1941 and travelled to camp in Warrington, Cheshire for her induction into the service and to undertake her training to be a Radar Direction Operator, which later would see her training expertise put to good use working with anti-aircraft crews on sites throughout the country. She served a short period of approximately twelve months in Northern Ireland and on her return to England was posted to Scotland to continue her radar duties. She was also approached to take charge of the Physical Training requirements and to this end was sent on a course of instruction to enable her to undertake this additional duty. Her posting from Scotland took her to a South Coast Site and despite her operational duties she managed to find time to follow her passion for dancing by attending dances held at the Dome dance hall in Brighton. The gun site crews also had some time to themselves away from the sites and were able to socialise together. Food was plain but palatable in the mess dining room. Ann thought the girls sometimes were given preferential treatment when the food was being served.

Ann was demobbed in 1945 and due to a practice in force at the time of leaving, the service allowed for the married girls to be released first, followed by the single girls a short time later.

John and Ann had one son, Ian, and one daughter, Alison. Ian lives in Whitby and Alison close by in Normanton. They have four grandchildren; Emma, Ruth, Kirsty and Ian and three great grandchildren Emma, Charlie and Edward.

Despite Johnís difficult start in life and the hardships borne, he has managed to attain the grand old age of 91 years, which I think is not bad for a lad from the Booths.

John Booth was talking to Maurice Haigh.


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