THE LAST VICTORIAN
My childhood was spent in a Victorian world of slums: of mill chimneys, cobbled streets, gas lamps and yellow smogs. This wasn’t true for all my contemporaries in nineteen fifties Oldham. The Coppice, for example, was the home of teachers, foremen and small tradesmen (rows of well-built Edwardian houses with “high class grocers” on every corner); the Garden Suburb was a contribution to the inter-war spread of suburbia; the surrounding belt of council estates a monument to municipal socialism. In a world where motor cars were still uncommon, a child’s range was limited and I lived within the compass of a few streets ending at the mysteriously named “Jammy Lane”, half a mile from my house but a place so remote that I had only unclear notions of how to get there. I was nineteen before I first entered a semi-detached middle class house (Fanny Kuler’s as it happens), and I thought it impossibly luxurious.
Little Jimmy’s parents, Nellie and Hughie, aren’t married. They live in a verminous rented room off Greenacres Road. My brother Denis describes it like this: ‘Dickensian…true squalor…indescribable…a small wallpaper peeling room within which one person would have had difficulty surviving…everything had to be carried up five flights of stairs….constant drunken fighting.’
Little Jimmy’s first memory, however, is of a small terraced house, 5 Warwick Street, Werneth. He is two years old and will forever hold a picture of standing at the rail of his cot, calling to his parents, who are in bed in the same room.
In 1949 the universal ambition to be a homeowner doesn’t exist. Council properties are so infinitely better than the swathes of slum terraces that it’s clearly preferable to be a tenant of the local authority. However, Nellie and Hughie don’t qualify because of their immoral status and have to make do with second best. They buy their first house for £450 only because there’s no alternative if they’re to escape rented rooms. Even so, there’s no avoiding the vermin. The house swarms with mice.
The house is in a terrace of three plus a corner grocery called Dixons. They share a yard with two common toilets at the bottom, opposite our back door. The toilets are made from a length of salt-glazed pipe that falls to a mysterious drop. They’re called “tipplers” and empty erratically, using wastewater from the houses. As I sit silently contemplating the huge grey spiders that run free across the distempered brick walls, the mechanism of the tippler suddenly operates with a violent galoosh! I wipe my bum on The News of the World which is cut up in squares and hangs from a nail. Throughout childhood my backside is black with newsprint except after my weekly bath.
One day the cat falls down the tippler toilet and Hughie and my brother Denis have to fish it out
Outside toilets are found everywhere and they figure largely in my world, whose geography is less of streets than of alleyways and back yards. Their roofs are easy to climb on and they form turrets from which I can keep lookout and bombard enemies during the military campaigns against other gangs waged by me and my friends the Parrys.
David Parry throws a lighted firecracker into the toilet when his father is in it. He emerges cursing and holding up his pants in mid-shit. Dropping bangers down the pipe and hearing them blow the turds to pieces is most satisfying.
An effect of the toilet being outside is that bedrooms smell of pee – a quality they share with the palace of Versailles: the cause being the same in both cases, namely the numerous chamber pots. When Hughie has been drinking, the pot is filled near to overflowing and we carry it through the house with extreme care. But, as a change from pee, the place sometimes smells powerfully of the bleach used to clean the “chamber pots”, though that term is too posh for us. We call them “jerries” and the bleach is called “Lanry”. Finally there’s a stink of mothballs, which Nellie uses liberally.
The Warwick street house is heated by coal. Hughie gets an ample supply as a miner. It’s kept under the stairs by the back door and after a delivery there’s a film of dust everywhere. We have electricity, but there are still gas brackets on the walls. The water supply for the entire house is a single brass cold-water tap in the kitchen-living room. It’s in a corner by a copper boiler and there’s no sink, only a block of unglazed sandstone with a hollow scooped out of it.
Nellie’s first home improvement is to have the “slopstone” removed and replaced by a plain white industrial sink that stands unceremoniously on two columns of bricks – the single brass tap remains. Her second improvement is to remove the cast iron range and replace it with a small tiled fireplace. When a tile falls off the fireplace, my Uncle Joe Wright cements it back with condensed milk. In a similar spirit of improvisation Hughie and Uncle Fred hang wallpaper up the staircase using flour paste. The tile falls off. So does the paper.
There’s no bathroom. On a nail in the yard hangs a galvanized bath, which we bring in as necessary and fill from the copper and pans heated on the gas stove. We bathe once a week and share the water (except that Hughie showers at work). Bath night is Sunday, and afterwards the tub is dragged to the back door and poured into the yard to drain away.
The joy of the house is three decent sized bedrooms. I share a bed briefly with my brother Denis until he leaves to join the RAF when I’m seven or eight. My sister Ann also has her own room. My brother Jack doesn’t live with us. He stays with Grandma Howard and I see him now and again when my father pays for his keep. Children take their own families to be the model of all families, and nothing in this arrangement strikes Little Jimmy as odd.
In my world cars are rarities. I know of only three. Joe Holden has one, a small Austin in which he makes deliveries. He’s a grocer and owns a shop in which biscuits, ham, coffee, tea, cheese and butter are all served loose. The shop possesses a bacon slicer and magnificent mahogany display counters, and is a rich and unforgettable mix of savours. The second car is a green Jaguar and belongs to the chemist. He sells eggnog, Sanatogen Tonic Wine and “British sherry”, and I call on him every two or three weeks to fill a brown medicine bottle with Hughie’s chest mixture. Finally, Roy Sutton’s dad owns a huge black American sedan like something out of a film noir. But this car isn’t for driving. It’s for taking apart and putting back together. Shirley’s father owns a car upon similar principles.
At night, as I lie in bed, I hear an occasional car pass by on Oxford Street. My window is leaded and the sweep of headlights causes the pattern of glass to rotate around the room. This image of the night, silent except for the shush of tyres on the rainy street, is the most powerful one of my childhood.
The absence of cars is reflected in Nellie’s language. It, too, is Victorian, retaining many dialect words and old pronunciations, which she loses in later years. She says “kekkle” for “kettle” and “bokkle” for “bottle”. A street or road is specifically the “cartroad”, because it’s carts not cars that use it. A motor coach is a “sharrabang” or “sharra”. The name was once used for a horse-drawn vehicle.
It’s possible for a child of seven to cross the main road from Oldham to Manchester unsupervised. I often do in order to go to Werneth Park. Children ordinarily play in the street at hopscotch and tag games or swing on a rope from the horizontal bar against which the lamp lighter rests his ladder. Dorothy Mee is my sister’s age, has pigtails and big feet, and, when George the Sixth dies in 1952, she tells me so outside the back gate of her father’s butcher’s shop. One day we play a game of circuses together, leaping off a low wall like acrobats. It counts among the handful of days that are the happiest.
Streets are cobbled. Tarmac is so rare that, when we come across a drop of it in the cracks among the cobblestones, we scrape it up and mould it into shapes. Tarmac streets are a sign of modernity. Cars are objects of wonder driven by grocers and other members of the aristocracy. I ride in one no more than half a dozen times until I am well into my teens.
My house and its area are by no means the worst that Oldham offers. Indeed the house still stands, now occupied by Pakistanis in ethnic dress for whom its resonances must be quite different: for whom it is in no sense Victorian.
Until the great slum clearances of the sixties, Oldham had many miserable terraced cottages in very poor repair. Some of them had inhabited cellar-rooms that were entered by steps from the street. I recall something like them in the film Hobson’s Choice.
‘Ra-ag Bo-hone! Donk-hee Sto-hone!’
Most weeks the iron-shod wheels of the rag and bone cart rattle down the street or the back entry, and Hughie rushes out to shovel up horseshit for his roses. In exchange the rag and bone man gives blocks of pumice stone in a range of colours from cream through honey tones to a light tan. Donkey stone is one of the kinds on offer.
In the Victorian class war, pumice stone is the heavy artillery.
Marx is wrong. For the working class the sharpest conflict is not its opposition to the bourgeoisie. That war is unwinnable, even though one may succeed in an occasional skirmish. The bourgeoisie is rich and clever and the workers know it and decline to fight.
For families like mine, and in particular for women like Nellie, the bitterest struggle is at the boundary between the rough and respectable working classes; for respectability is something that can be lost. Equally, it can be won. More to the point it’s a struggle that’s easy to conceive of in real terms and for which practical strategies can be devised. The bourgeoisie live in their distant castles (though they may be no more than a mile away), but the chaotic poor are our closest neighbours. Their kids steal our milk and their dogs make a mess outside our front doors.
Nellie wasn’t respectable by nature. She achieved the blessed state by a long struggle. She always knew her claim was thin. She’d been brought up in poor circumstances. Her own legitimacy was questionable, her stepfather lived on a war disability pension, and her mother was an alcoholic. She had two half-brothers, Joe and Fred, with whom she was brought up, but there were rumours of a previous family her mother had abandoned. Nellie set up home with a coal miner from Wales, who already had a wife and three children, and in due course she had a child by him. Little Jimmy was nine years old when they slipped out one day and got married.
‘Don’t tread on the steps, I’ve just donkey-stoned them!’
A common sight in any street is a row of large bottoms as women kneel to mop and stone their steps, and afterwards, from all mouths, the same cry goes up: ‘Don’t tread on the steps!’ But how can you not tread on them? They’re the threshold to the houses.
In Little Jimmy’s childhood, respectability can’t be measured by money and consumer goods. The ‘rough’ working class has money. It squanders it on beer and fags. Consumer goods are scarce. A woman can cling to her respectability even if impoverished. But to maintain her claim she must spend the one thing she dispose of: her own labour. Let the lazy buggers match that!
If you want, you can pumice the front and back door steps, the windowsills and the area of pavement in front of the door. You can completely mop the step or just the edges. You can do it daily or weekly, or – God forbid! – not at all. Respectability can be exactly measured.
The point of pumicing the steps is precisely that it’s pointless by any criterion except respectability. It has no hygienic value. It doesn’t last. Within minutes (‘Don’t tread on the steps!’) the effect may be lost by a careless caller whose feet will print dirty patterns on the powdery surface left by the donkey-stone. Only rarely will the result of so much effort outlast the day in its pristine state.
And so it has to be repeated like mowing the lawn: another activity that consumes labour and which respectable people do while their rougher neighbours watch satellite television.
Nellie hated donkey-stoning the steps, but she did it. Then, as affluence provided more material means of demonstrating status, so the custom of mopping and stoning died out, and now it seems as antiquated and barbarous as foot binding. Mowing the lawn may go the same way – the increased use of gravel and decking gives reason to think so. Customs become redundant or absurd that were once seen as essential. So, as I write, young men with earrings and shaven heads wear morning dress for their weddings. The trousers concertina over their Timberland boots and their shirts and bellies show beneath waistcoats that are too short. To win respectability, money is spent instead of labour, but the effect is still ridiculous.
Clogs. The footwear of the Lancashire mills. Black leather with wooden soles trimmed with irons. The tops of men’s clogs are enclosed, but women’s clogs, though so clearly functional, retain a feminine note and are cut low over the instep and fastened by a strap.
In the fifties the cotton mills are still in a substantial way of business. The skyline of Oldham is magnificent with its vista of mill chimneys. Each one is emblazoned with its name: the Durban, the Nile, the Royton Ring Mill. I’m placed in their nurseries while Nellie works there. She wears a headscarf but still comes home with clumps of cotton in her hair. At nursery I discover toothpaste – something we don’t use at home because Nellie and Hughie, though only in their thirties, have false teeth. The brand is Gibbs and it comes as a tablet in a tin similar to shoe polish.
Old men wear clogs. They clatter over the cobbled street. In Manchester Art Gallery is a fine picture by Eyre Crowe of some mill girls, brazen and swaggering in their aprons, shawls and clogs. In my childhood they’re still alive as doddery old ladies, still in shawls and clogs.
I wear clogs.
Shoes are a serious expense for working people. Children mostly wear wellington boots or black canvass plimsolls, but my parents buy me a pair of clogs. I’m five or six years old and have to wear them for school.
The shame of it.
‘They’re cowboy boots, sirrah,’ says Hughie. He’s the Last Cowboy In Wrexham and should know. To prove the point he fringes the leather at the ankle, but I still can’t imagine John Wayne wearing them.
I cry in real distress, ‘Nobody wears clogs at school!’
But I do. Little Jimmy trots off to school in his green corduroy windcheater, knitted balaclava and clogs.
Only briefly, however. My parents relent very quickly. They’re ashamed of putting their child into such footwear.
Twenty years later my friends, Chris and Ann Hulbert, have a pair of red clogs made for their little boy, Mark. By then the social meaning of clogs has changed entirely.
Victorian pennies are commonplace. Jimmy comes across them in small change all the time. They remain as live relics of the era until 1971 when the currency is decimalised. Authentic Victorian people also exist in their millions. They form the generation of my grandparents.
John Parry is given a copy of The Guinness Book of Records for his seventh birthday. The world’s oldest living soldier fought in the American Civil War. There are still a lot of ancient soldiers from the Boer War or the First World War. Mr. Hardcastle is a veteran of the trenches. War cost him a foot. He’s our neighbour and shares one of the outside toilets with us. His wife is very respectable. She comes from Harrogate, which, so Jimmy understands, is grand (and my Auntie Dilys, who looks like the Queen Mother and has a grand manner, moves to live there, so the story may be true). She has a stick with a gravity-knife that shakes out of the tip. She tells Jimmy she intended to use it to bayonet any German paratroopers who happened to turn up in Oldham. But they didn’t. Jimmy hopes they still may.
‘Uncle’ Walter is also a Victorian and a war veteran. I come across him only when I get myself a paper round in my early teens. He’s vaguely related to Nellie and lives a couple of streets away in a house that smells of Condor pipe tobacco and is furnished with a grandfather clock and a peg rug. Peg rugs are a common item of working class households. We’ve got one, though it vanishes early. They’re made by fixing strips of coloured rag to a backing of old sacks. Shirley remembers her father making such rugs of an evening while listening to the wireless.
Mats of coconut fibre are also common. They’re cheaper than carpet and we have one in our front room. Later they became “ethnic” and fashionable and their significance as a badge of poverty is now lost.
Beneath the coconut mat the floor is laid with flagstones. They’re uneven and very cold.
The Victorian Empire lasts until the sixties and its ethos is visible in books like the Biggles stories which I love. Empire Day – established in the twenties when the Government scratched its head over exactly what the Empire was for – is still celebrated in schools. We dress up as Scots, Red Indians and Chinamen (I also played a Chinaman in the Nativity play and, too, a black cat, which makes me wonder which version of the Nativity we were playing). Mrs. Hardcastle lends Jimmy a white shirt to wear with his kilt. Its label reads “Empire Made”, which seems so appropriate that he’s stunned. He thinks it has been specially made for the occasion.
The Boy Scouts – admittedly an Edwardian organisation but very much a symbol of Empire – are highly visible. Most Sundays they parade with bugle, flag and drum. Every church has a troop. They decline as the churches and the Empire itself decline.
In time the roads are tarmacked, the mill chimneys felled, the slums demolished. The smogs die out in the early sixties: I’m about 14 years old when the last one occurs. My Victorian world is slipping away and Little Jimmy is fading with it, acquiring long trousers and acne and putting Brylcreem on his hair: no longer Little Jimmy at all.
Rationing ends in 1954 and from about that date the changes start. We acquire a television – 14 inch screen, one channel, black and white, and rented from DER. In fact I see the Coronation on television the year before: the Hutchinsons own one before they emigrate to Australia as many people do in those years (Jimmy’s pal, Alan Hutchinson, promises to return when he is eighteen – but his Second Coming, like another one, is long overdue). The first programme I watch on our own set is Prudence Kitten. That same night the damn thing breaks down during Life With The Lyons. These early sets are famously unreliable, as are the broadcasts themselves. It’s common for programmes to be interrupted and replaced with a card stating ‘Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible’. When this happens we play dominoes and pontoon with my Dad. The wireless also figures as family entertainment rather than background. On Sundays we listen to The Billy Cotton Bandshow, which is heralded by a cry of ‘Wakey! Wakey!’ from Billy Cotton himself. And while we listen, Nellie reduces a joint of lamb to old boots because she never learned to cook from her alcoholic mother. She boils the vegetables to mush while she’s at it.
In due course Nellie gets a small washing machine that ties the clothes into a knot. Before then she does the laundry by hand in a possing tub using Fairy soap and a brightener called “Dolly Blue”. It’s a tablet tied to a stick and wrapped in muslin and we buy it in shops that smell of paraffin. The clothes are mangled by hand on a cast iron mangle that stands in the yard. The first washing machine still has a mangle, which gives it a hybrid quality like a platypus.
Up until the time I finally leave home at the age of twenty-one, we have no telephone or refrigerator. We do have a vacuum cleaner. Instead of a fitted kitchen there’s a form of cupboard with a drop-down front covered in enameled tinplate. It’s called a “kitchenette”. The galvanized bath is in use until I’m fifteen. In 1962 we leave Warwick Street and Werneth for 32 Estate Street, Hathershaw, a house, which has a bathroom. Because I’ve got no experience of bathrooms I don’t know which is the ‘correct’ way to sit in the bath, and for years I sit with my back to the taps for aesthetic reasons: so that I don’t have to look at them
I’m sixteen before I first use a telephone. It’s a callbox and the price is threepence, paid with a multisided brass coin that takes its metal and shape from somewhere in the colonies. The first person I ever telephone is my girlfriend, Kathy Redfern.
Do I remember the knocker-up or is he a figment born from repetition? I can’t tell.
A ‘knocker-up’ makes his living waking-up shift workers by tapping on their windows with a long stick. He’s a walking alarm clock.
Such an occupation is too strange to have been invented.
In Uppermill there’s a second-hand bookshop, and Shirley and I are there one day when we come across a collection of postcards. One of them is a picture of the last knocker-up in Oldham. He retired in the nineteen sixties.
It’s quite possible that I remember the knocker-up as he walked the damp streets in the early mornings. It’s also possible that Nellie told me about him. History reaches out fingertip to fingertip.
The Victorian English are addicted to laxatives.
“Have you been?” Nellie asks most days. (Conveying unpleasant details by knowing emphasis is a common habit of speech that now seems archaic. Hence my Latin master, Tosser Thompson, is “one of those”. The meaning of “those” is understood.)
You must empty your bowels every day. You’ll die if you don’t.
In Salford Museum is a row of shops set out as they were in the late nineteenth century. Similar shops survived into my childhood, gradually dying under the attack of supermarkets. Contemporary Asian grocers retain little of the atmosphere of these dead businesses: the dust and stocks of mean necessities: fly papers, bootlaces and Camp coffee. What’s striking about the shops in Salford Museum is the range and quantity of laxatives that are sold with the bread, tea and sugar, almost as a dietary staple.
Nellie’s preferences are syrup of figs (delicious as I recall) and liquid paraffin. The first is for emergencies. The second is a daily precaution in her case but only an occasional remedy in mine.
‘You’ve got to keep regular,’ she says.
As far as I know I’m always regular, but I take laxatives all the same.
Self-medication is probably a permanent aspect of the human condition, but the form is a matter of time and culture. Nellie’s remedies lack the gloss of pseudo-science or New Age mysticism. She relies on anecdote, folk wisdom and Victorian quackery.
‘I’ve got a sore throat,’ says Little Jimmy.
‘This’ll cure it,’ says Nellie. She produces one of Hughie’s sweaty socks. Jimmy is to wear it.
So there goes Little Jimmy to school – the last Victorian – in balaclava helmet and clogs, with his dad’s sweaty sock tied round his neck to fix a sore throat. Let’s hope he gets there before the laxative takes effect.
NOTES ON “THE LAST VICTORIAN”
This essay isn’t concerned with incident. Instead it tries to paint the larger canvas of my childhood, and the details are there only to capture the “feel”, the day-to-day texture of my world.
I was born in 1947 and, at the most obvious level, I’m a child of the fifties and sixties. For convenience we divide history into segments and characterise them as having a unique identity, in some way representing a break with what has gone before. It’s an approach that has its uses and even a certain truth. It can’t be denied, for example, that the fifties and sixties of the last century differed materially from the Victorian period. Nevertheless history remains a flow of events and even catastrophes like the French Revolution and the First World War, when re-examined at a distance, mask considerable continuity between the worlds either side.
It has come to me only lately how much of my childhood was spent in the world of the Victorians: how it was lived in a physical environment built by them and a social environment that still reflected their economy, their morals and their customs: an age when the working people, schooled in heavy and manufacturing industry, retained much of the culture they created when their ancestors were tipped off the land and forced into the cities. My parents worked in mining and cotton. They were quintessentially nineteenth century industries, and have now disappeared.
As I’ve tried to suggest, my experience wasn’t shared by every child in my age group. Children who lived in council houses or the suburbs inhabited a twentieth century landscape, and many of them no more penetrated my world than I did theirs, which, for me, was represented by bathrooms and indoor toilets and that luxury item, the radiogram.
History is apparently a stream of many currents, flowing at different rates. With this insight in mind (if you think it is one) you may care to look again at your own life and, ignoring such superficial indicators as your date of birth, try to place it. You may be surprised by the similarities with the world of your parents and find them worth exploring.
It’s difficult to create a lively sense of the past simply from its buildings. Tower Bridge, from the viewpoint of architectural history, is a classic Victorian structure; but symbolically it’s contemporary: still firmly incorporated in our present image of London. When we see ordinary houses in ordinary streets, that’s precisely what we see: their ordinariness. They’d have to be pulled down before we began to appreciate their special contribution to the look of things and their social meaning. So it was necessary to demolish the old slums and build high-rise flats before the qualities of the former could be fully understood.
When you come to describe the past, you should focus on ephemera, – the fleeting things that go into the dustbin – because they seem to capture it in a special way. More than paintings, we associate advertising posters with the nineteen thirties. Brand names of products, that were once famous but are now gone, are deeply evocative, and jingles are more memorable than most poetry.
Studies suggest that our senses of smell and taste call up the most emotive responses. It isn’t for nothing that Marcel Proust embarked on his great re-creation of the past from a memory stirred by the taste of a small cake dipped in tea. The past smells and tastes different.
Two examples from the essay illustrate this point. The first is the grocer’s shop of Joe Holden. It was dominated by the smell of unwrapped food, especially coffee, ham and cheese and, on the rare occasions when I enter such a shop these days, I return to “J’oldens” as a child hand in hand with my Mum. Similarly the house at Werneth smelled strongly of pee, bleach and mothballs. The stink of urine has been eliminated by plumbing, the bleach by new products with artificial perfumes, and the mothballs by the manufacture of clothes from non-natural fibres. Because they’ve largely disappeared, any of these scents can call up a memory of my old home.
With these indicators in mind, you may wish to re-read this essay, paying special attention to references to ephemera and to scent and taste.
From transient signs such as brand names, it’s only a step to consider customs that were once common but have now fallen into disuse. Shirley and I both remember a time when the churches organised large parades at Whitsuntide: when traffic was stopped by the police and the Protestants goggled at the heathen Papists, especially the exotic Ukrainians in their national dress and the florid faced Irish staggering under the burden of a statue of the Virgin. To us as children it seemed an occasion with origins in time immemorial and immune to change. Yet within twenty years it had largely vanished.
The bizarre business of “stoning” steps belongs to this realm of dead customs. Indeed it’s almost impossible now to convey the importance of this backbreaking chore, which hard-pressed women imposed on themselves to prove their status as good, respectable wives. Shirley lived in a house with a front path long enough to hide the doorstep from the street, so there was little public reason for “stoning”. Still her mother, Ada, did it. Why? For herself, of course: for her sense of her own worth.
If Nellie were to say to one of her contemporaries, ‘Edna didn’t stone her steps,’ the reasons for the failure of Hughie’s first marriage would be immediately understood.
To summarise: the feel of the past is determined not only by events but by small points of detail: brand names, advertisements, popular songs, fashions, scents, tastes and patterns of behaviour. Your memory is filled with these trivia. Individually they mean little. Collectively they describe in the most vivid terms a world that’s passing if not dead. In the present essay I’ve tried to salvage this material and form it into a coherent picture around the motif of The Last Victorian. It may help if you can find a similar motif that you think describes you: The Last Teddyboy? The Last Goth?
The clue that will unleash a flood of memory may be hiding forgotten in your wardrobe.Try to convince your grandchildren that those shoes were once a great idea.
You may have noticed that this essay contains a short passage summarising the history of Nellie and Hughie: material, which is expanded in the two essays about my parents. The reason it’s there is that the present essay, though it appears later, was written before I knew I’d write the others. So it was necessary to say something about my parents in order to tell a complete, self-contained story. In putting the collection together, I might have cut the passage to avoid repetition. However I decided to keep it as a reminder of how this book has been constructed: that it has grown organically by putting together small pieces which once had an independent life.
This book has its own biography. I feel it as alive. That is part of the excitement.