Sarah Ward was born in Halmer End in 1916, moved to Silverdale at the age of 18 months and has lived there ever since. The recollections in this article cover the period from her stay with her grandparents in Halmer End in about 1922 to her marriage in 1939.
Her account is full of items of historical interest. For example, the material about her grandparents describes family relationships from the early 1920s, but the grandparents themselves were born in the mid-nineteenth century, so we have a glimpse, as through a glass, darkly, of how their characters were formed at that time. It is important that the memories of older people are recorded, or we will lose even that faint echo of distant days. Even the detail of both her grandmothers marrying twice is a reminder that broken families were common then as they are now, though usually then by death rather than divorce.
The information was gained through a series of interviews and supplementary letters that she provided in the first half of 1997. The interviews were written up as question-and-answer, and so the text of this article has been selected from the original 64 pages and pieced together around themes. Her actual words have not been changed, though. Phrases in italics have been put in by the editor to link the extracts together and are not Sarah Ward’s; they often indicate what the question was. Sarah Ward has been a keen and active participant, reading over the transcripts, correcting them and adding information. She has scrutinized this article to check that I have not distorted her words in the editing process.
Grandma Jones lived at Halmer End. All me father’s family lived at Halmer End and me mother’s family lived at Basford. I always remember me Grandfather Jones as being ill. I think he must have had cancer or something, but they used to call it wasting disease in them days. I remember as a child going back to Halmerend while me mother looked after him, and going Halmerend school and that.
Me Grandmother Jones was a martinet. She was only about 5 foot nothing and she was the boss. You didn’t dare go in the house if she was cleaning up. You’d got to go out hail rain or sunshine till she finished her morning’s jobs. You had stop outside. If anybody called while she was doing her work, she’d say, “Have you done your bloody work yet? If you haven’t, bugger off and get it done while I do mine.” Cause I don’t swear, I’m just repeating what she used to say. And at night time, if anybody was there and she wanted to go to bed, she’d sit there twiddling her thumbs and she’d say, “I’m at wom, I wish every other bugger was.” Cause she was a real card. But me Grandmother Johnson (from Basford), she was a quite ladylike. She could swear when she wanted to but she was different altogether. I mean, me mother was a ladylike person as well, you know, she was always genteel. She never used to swear. And me father, although he worked in the pit, you never heard him swear at home either. Whether he did when he was at work I don’t know, but he never did when he was at home.
My grandparents on my father’s side, the Joneses, were a different class of people altogether. Me father went to work in the pit when he was about 10, I believe. Course he wasn’t very well educated and me mother had to teach him to read after they got married. So that was the difference, cause me mother’s mother’s people originated from Biddulph Moor, really, and they were sort of market gardeners.
All the family went to live at Halmer End while my grandfather was ill, but we didn’t leave the house, we didn’t give the house up in Silverdale. He’d got daughters and granddaughters of his own living at Halmer End that he didn’t want to look after him. He preferred me mother to look after him cause they had to wash him and he didn’t want his own daughters messing around him he said. All Father’s sisters married miners and the boys all married into mining families except Father. I often wondered whether this was the reason he always seemed the odd one out.
I got chased with the mop more than once. She would be mopping the floor and you’d get chased with the mop. She used to soap-stone the table in the living room every day and the toilet, of course, was a wooden seat with the old duckets. She used to soap-stone them every day. You didn’t dare go use that till it dried off and if she saw us going in she’d chase you with the mop, “Come out that bloody petty, I’ve just cleaned it.” Oh dear. We had some good times there.
She’d got a softer side to her. It was just that I don’t think she could stand the children really. I think she’d gone past looking after children. Cause I think she was a bit older than me grandad actually. But she didn’t die till a few years after his death, which was about 1922.
Nearly every other house in Halmer End was relation to us. So when we went to Halmer End it was a matter of going from door to door and we very often went, you know. It was a day out when we did go. You didn’t dare go in one house without going in the others. “You’ve bin see our so-and-so and you didn’t come see me”, and all that sort of thing. When me mother and father went to visit, they always used to take us with ‘em.
Life in the mining community was free and easy for us as children. Any rules, if there was any, were unspoken. Whatever we were taught was by example, we copied our parents. For instance, no one in my father’s family, not even the ones that were already grandparents themselves, would have dreamed of disobeying my grandmother and we respected our parents in the same way. But life for adults was hard. Grandmother, although in her seventies, would insist on scrubbing the table with bathbrick, a kind of pumice stone, getting down on her hands and knees to clean the floor everyday, which no-one dared to walk on until it was dry. After that it was open house for anyone. Washing day was a nightmare with no washing aids. The boiler would be lit about 4 am, washing started about 6 am until midnight. It was done by hand or scrubbed on the kitchen table. Sheets, blankets etc were put in the tin bath that most people had hanging outside and the miners bathed in in front of the fire - there was no pit baths then. The sheets were then trodden like grapes. Having no mangle, it took two people to wring, one at each end twisting in opposite directions.
Polite so-called etiquette was nil. If you were offered a meal it would most likely be served straight from the oven onto the bare table on the enamel plate it was cooked on. Tea would be offered in thick earthenware or enamel mugs. Grandmother’s teapot was only emptied once a week - it was left on the hob to stew. The leaves would be dried and mixed with tobacco to make it go farther. Tobacco was sold in loose strips, then called twists. Smokers had to cut and shred it themselves. The pipes were pitcher and the stems regularly snapped so we would give them bowls a good washing out and use them to blow bubbles.
Bumps and bruises were treated matter of factly, no kisses and cuddles “to make it better” but that didn’t matter because I always felt safe and wanted, the reason being, I suppose, because if one had a real problem they would stop whatever they were doing and just listen. Even Grandfather, as ill as he was, would hold my hand, and listen. His favourite remark was, “Don’t worry lass, it will be all right”
Relationships with parents
Mother didn’t show a lot of affection, but she was an easy person to talk to and me dad was as well, but if you were doing something that me mother didn’t like... Like when I was in me teens, if you used make-up in them days you were a tart and she didn’t like me using it, of course, but me father, he ought to have been a diplomat, because he used to stand there and he’d say, “Leave her alone. There’ll come a time when she’s got to use it to cover up the mistakes she’s made.” So of course, I didn’t use make-up. Same as I say, he ought to have been a diplomat.
My parents expected us to behave towards them with respect and we were expected to do what we were told when we were told. If we answered ‘em back... We never got smacked, but we had a dirty look. Me father’d be looking at his newspaper and me mother would say, “Talk to these kids,” and he’d only just have to raise one eyebrow. He’d got a trick of raising one eyebrow over the top of his paper and we’d shut up as though we’d had a darn good hiding. He only ever hit me eldest brother once, me father did, and that was for something really bad he’d done, and then went upstairs and cried himself, me father did. He really didn’t believe in that. Mother never hit us either. But we got punished in other ways. Sometimes we would have prefered a smack.
My parents had an uncanny knack of stopping me from doing things they didn’t approve of by agreeing with me. For instance, all teenagers try to see how far they can go. I was no exception, so one day at a party I accepted a cigarette. Having lit it, one of the elder guests turned to mother and said, “Are you going to let her smoke at her age?” Mothers reply: “If she doesn’t smoke in front of my face, she’ll smoke behind my back if she wants to.” So, of course, my act of bravado fell flat and I never smoked again.
There was no bed time, not really, but I think we were all sort of brought up that bedtime was bedtime and you sort of got tired at the same time every night and you went to bed when you felt like it, but there was no hard and fast rule about going to bed. I think we just naturally assumed that we would go to bed at a certain time.
Food and clothes
Clothes were mostly new. We did have some second-hand ones - they were hand me downs from relatives - but they were mostly new. But they were bought on a card that me mother used to collect on at the Co-op. Used to have a dividend card , or whatever they used to call it, and she used to pay so much a week. If you wanted anything during the sales and that, that was when we used to get our new clothes.
Shoes were very difficult. There was one thing she would not let us have, was second-hand shoes, because she had terrible feet from wearing hand me down shoes, and she didn’t want us to suffer the same. If she went without herself, we had new shoes. And the only time I ever saw me mother cry was because she couldn’t afford new shoes. When the strike was on and they provided all miners’ children with clogs at school, I went home highly delighted with these clogs, sparking along the road, you know, on the footpath, and as soon as she saw me she started crying. She says, “It’s a bit of a beggar when we’ve got come down to this.” But I was highly delighted with the clogs.
More often than not father only worked two days. There was no dole then, the rent would have to be paid or you got turned out. It took a lot of ingenuity to feed and clothe a family; lucky for us my mother had plenty. Instead of sitting down to moan she did things that some mothers didn’t seem to know how.
Once or twice a year she would hear that one of the farmers (there were 5 within walking distance) would be killing an animal, which they were allowed to do then. She would go and barter for a pig’s head to make into brawn which would last for days, trotters, chitlings and hodge which the farmer would have thrown away, cows heels, heart, and tongue. Tongue in the shops, then as now, was a delicacy and would cost 3d or 4d a quarter pound. She would get a whole one for sixpence, boil, skin and press it. This also would last for days; nothing was wasted. Everything was initially boiled and the stock used for split pea, onion or lentil soups. Main meals not starters.
We had a slaughter house in the village and used to help to drive the animals to it from the station, but Mother never bought anything from there, she would have had to pay butchers’ prices. In between times it was a pennyworth of bacon bones from the grocer or a marrow bone from the butcher that was the base of our soup. A couple of times we had pigeon pie, pigeons donated by an old neighbour in exchange for Mother making him one. Father cleaned and dressed them.
We would hear that a farmer was making butter. We would grab anything that would hold a quart and get a quart of buttermilk for a penny ha’penny. Our main meal that day would be mashed potatoes and buttermilk.
The only thing that Mother didn’t make was savoury ducks. These were made by butcher Basford’s wife, usually on a Wednesday. We would dash home from school grab a basin and a penny and stand in a queue. She would not serve adults and only one per child, so everyone had to fetch their own. Sometimes we were lucky, sometimes not.
The dry crust was not a fallacy; it happened often. We never saw butter or marg till later - our main source of fat was dripping or suet. Mother never bought packet suet, always a great lump from the butchers for a few pence and grate it herself. When we had steamed or boiled suet puddings they were for a main meal, not afters. It was usually sailors’ doughballs on top of soup. She even saved on salt. Instead of buying a 3”x3”x9” block from the grocer for a penny, she would buy a 9”x9”x18” block for 3d off a man who came round with a handcart. We children spent ages making sculptures out of it while grinding it down to put in jars.
Milk was not processed and delivered in bottles automatically as it has been for years, but brought straight from the farms in churns, on specially made handcarts. Only the people that could afford it would come out as the milkman rang his bell.
Occasionally we would hear that one of the bakers (there were 4 on the village) was making vanilla slices. We would go round for a pennyworth of vanilla bits, which the baker would cut off the ends. One baker would always include a bag full of stale or mis-shapen buns. Some children would eat them on the way home, but if we were lucky we always took them home, where Mother would steam them to soften them and serve with watered down jam and thus making a sweet for all of us. The only jams that she made at that time were blackberry & apple, blackberries picked by all of us as there was an abundance round the village, and windfall apples from one of the local farms; and rhubarb and ginger. Rhubarb she grew in a bucket before we had a garden.
My favourite sweet at this time only cost a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. It was beastings custard, something else the farmer would have thrown away, but when cooked properly would taste better than the most expensive baked egg custard today. The only disappointment was we couldn’t get the beastings often enough. Beastings is the milk from a cow that has just calved. I never did find out why it was never mixed with regular milk, why on a mixed farm it was fed to the pigs; on a dairy farm it was discarded. I did ask the farmer I worked for but all the answer I got was a shrug of the shoulders.
As regards proper cooking, I think it must have been the temperature. Mother would beat sugar and beastings into an overproof dish, and put her hand in the oven - there was no thermostats then. Sometimes she would put the dish in straight away, others she would wait awhile. Without any setting agent of any kind, at the right temperature it would set like blancmange, but taste a lot nicer. Once I think she must have got it too hot as it curdled. Not to be outdone she poured it into a muslim, drained it overnight, and next day we had a kind of sweet cheese on our bread.
I can’t imagine the children of today eating half the things we did, even if they knew what they were, or in some cases especially if they knew!
Comparing then and now, some of the parents today, if a child calls for his/her playmate and the family are eating, they are told to go away and come back later. When I was small, every child up to 6 or 7 years of age could walk into their playmate’s house as if it was their own; after that we had to knock, but were never refused entry. If the family were eating we would be given a small piece of whatever it was, no matter how poor they were.
If any mother had a windfall of food from whatever source - poached, given to them or a bargain-buy, like mother with her pigs head, 4 or 5 extra small mouths would be fed.
I can’t think of Mother making any medicines. I think the main medicine we used to use was goose oil, if we had a sore throat or a bad chest... She used to buy a goose every Christmas and save the fat off it and that was your chest rub all through the year till the next year. Then you got a fresh goose and the old grease was thrown away. If you’d got a cough you took olive oil with a bit of what they called raspberry vinegar from the chemist’s and you’d have your chest rubbed or your throat rubbed with it and that was the only medicine we used to have, was this goose oil.
We never seemed to have many ailments except tonsilitis. But our grandmothers’ remedies were completely different Grandmother Johnson’s were supposed to be preventative. It was a ritual every Friday when I stayed there to have either a spoonful of liquorice powder to clear the bowels, or brimstone and treacle to clear the blood.
At Grandmother Jones’s if someone sneezed or shivered with a cold they were given at least a pint of ice cold water to drink, then tucked into bed with the hot ovenshelf. This was a solid plate of iron, not the racks of today. She had 4 leeches in a jar which she used for boils abcesses, and carbuncles which seemed rife at that time. Once when I cut my hand I was trying to stop the bleeding, but when she saw that it was only a flesh wound she knocked my good hand away saying, “Let it bleed, it will do more good.” Then after a while, when the bleeding abated a bit, she took me into the outhouse and wrapped my hand round and round in a cobweb to seal the wound, so she said. Funnily enough, it didn’t need any more treatment. She didn’t believe in bandages or fancy ointments.
We used to go on outings with the church. We’d p’raps go down to Trentham and have a tea in Trentham Hall, something like that, you know, but that would be the Sunday school trip. And then as we got older it was Rhyl, p’raps, occasionally. But when we were younger it used to be sort of a picnic up the fields with games and that, but apart from visiting relatives, we never went on trips.
As for games, we used to play kick can. Used to kick a can. One of ‘em used to kick a can and everybody used to run and hide while one of ‘em ran and fetched the can and then he’d got to find where everybody else had hidden themselves when he got back with the can. And bodger, used to play bodger. That was one person bending down by a building with their hands on the building, then another child’d go and jump on his back and then hold onto his back and then the next one’d got to jump over that one and onto the first one. And then we used to play skipping, hopscotch, top and whip, and if we’d got nothing else to do we’d go and tie two people’s doors together and knock and run off. We used to get cardboard and pitch it to see who could pitch it the farthest. And that was how I come to break the Salvation Army Citadel window. Can’t remember any others we used to play. Oh, we used to have boxing gloves on and we’d have a little scrap in the street. Me mother put a stop to that because I knocked one boy out once, so she put a stop to that. And we played football and cricket cause I was one for boys’games. I wasn’t one for dolls and prams. I was the only girl in the family, but I was a tomboy, which was probably reasonable when you come to think you’re brought up with three brothers.
I was always knitting and sewing. Me dad taught me to knit and sew before I ever went to school. He taught me to knit on what he called Lucifers. They were longer match sticks than the ones we get today and he taught me how to knit on these match sticks. Me father spent a lot of time with me anyway. He used to take me for walks and show me the animals and the birds and the trees and the flowers and we used to walk for miles, miles. Of course, at that particular time, Silverdale was more-or-less country, so no matter where you went out of the village you were in the country. We’d go up to Keele and Whitmore. Sometimes we went as far as Stableford.
I didn’t have a bike till I was in me teens, then everywhere I went I went on me bike. I biked to Rhyl once, but most of the time it’d be round about Congleton or Tunstall or Burslem. I worked at Burslem and I used to go on me bike every day to Burslem and back. Well how far is Congleton? 10 or 12 miles is it? Buglawton and all round there. We used to be a gang of us. We went to Alton Towers once and when we got there, none of us had got enough money go in.
When I was ‘bout 18 or 19, ten of us went camping at Rhyl. That was the only holidays we ever had in the teens. One of the girls worked on a potbank and it was organised by somebody on the potbank and I was asked to join - not my potbank, the one as I worked at - I was asked to make the number up. We just went round the town, sat on the beach. We had a storm that week while we were there. We sat on the beach wrapped up in blankets, just watching the waves come over the sea walls. We just messed about, really.
I went to Halmerend school while me mother was looking after me grandfather. I hated it there. There was one teacher that just didn’t like me at all and everything that happened was my fault. If I was anywhere near about it was my fault but, looking in retrospect, I think it was because I could do the handcrafts better than she could. Cause when she was teaching the children how to do knitting, and platting and darning and that sort of stuff, I was sitting there with me elbows in me hands, you know, elbow on the desk. “Get on with your work, Jones.” “I’ve done it Miss.” “You can’t have.” Cause I was knitting socks for me brothers when I was 6 and while she was telling the other girls how to in, over, through, off sort of thing, I’d got my piece of knitting done and sitting there with me chin in me hand.
And one day she went a bit too far. It was raining and we couldn’t play outside and the boys were running round the cloakroom and things they do, and they paddled all over the wash hand basins and one of them came away from the wall, and because I was washing my hands on that basin when she came to call us into school, I had me legs slapped, cause they used to slap your legs in them days, not give you the cane, the little ones anyway. And when I got home, cause I’d still got the weals on me legs and me mother wanted to know what it was for, and next day when we went down to school, the teacher’d got a black eye. So me mother had gone down and belted her one. She says, “So next time find out...” Cause she says to me, “Are you sure you didn’t do it?” And I said “Yeah, I didn’t do it.” I told her who did, so she went down, belted the teacher one. Although me mother wasn’t a person as lost her temper, really, but she did lose her temper that time.
Later, I used to enjoy school, actually. Some teachers we liked, some we didn’t like. Most of them were OK, but they were very very strict. They were all spinsters and they were very strict and you got the cane at the drop of a hat, or if you did anything very serious you went to the headmistress, for her to give you the cane. But, all in all, I got on all right with all of em. I did anyway. Some of the girls played up and got punished. I don’t suppose I was an angel by any sense of imagination, but I didn’t seem to have the cane as often as some of the others.
We never had the cane in the infants , but in the juniors you had the cane if you... We were always lined up in the hall for morning prayers and if you were late for morning prayers you had the cane. If you went with dirty shoes, or your socks half mast, you had the cane. You had to show your hands like that. If your nails and your hands were dirty you would have the cane. I think we only had the odd girl that used to have the cane for using her cheek. Whether the cane was the deterrent or not, but all the teachers were treated with respect and we did as we were told. But they were very strict on cleanliness and punctuality. That was my biggest misdemeanour, was being unpunctual. I used to be running to school at five to nine. Just dodge in through the doors before prayers started, more often than not.
We used to have to write things down and you used to have to learn things by heart, but when we first went across the infants, it was chalk and slate, which, of course, got rubbed out when you’d written it down, so more often than not what you’d learnt on that disappeared when you rubbed it out. But it wasn’t until oh I was about 10 or 11 that we started using pens and books that you could take home with you and learn - we never did any homework or anything like that.
Apparently, according to the last teacher that I had, I was one of the brightest in the class and they wanted to put me forward to go to one of the other schools (Orme Girls), but in those days you had to pay to sit your exam and my mother couldn’t afford to pay, so of course, I couldn’t go to any of the extra classes, any of the higher classes, so that was it. I had to finish at 14. I wanted to go as a dressmaker’s apprenticeship, but in those days you had to pay for your apprenticeship and me mother couldn’t afford to do that (either), so that was that. I had to go and work in a shop.
It was in Bridge St, Newcastle. Hubankses. I started by selling nuts. In those days you seemed to have every kind under the sun, great big piles, and they were all sold in their shells, not like they are today. And I went from there to the fish stall, and then on the game stall, like pheasants and ducks and rabbits. I skinned 500 rabbits in one day. At 14 years old, yes, and because I’d done that, the boss give me an extra half crown. But I didn’t work there long because where I was standing in the shop. The others were behind the counter and they’d got duckboards. It was a concrete floor and they’d got duckboards to walk on, whereas I was standing afront of my counter, on the bare floor, and working hours in them days were 8 o’clock to any time that you’d got a customer coming in. I’d be going home at night sometimes when they were turning out the pubs. I’d get home and, of course, the first thing, me feet would go in a bowl of water and I’d go sleep eating me tea. So me father made me finish. He says, “Er’s going ave rheumatic before she’s finished, before she’s 20 with that job.”
Me next job was working on a farm and I worked there 4 years. Still in Silverdale, Silverdale Road. Millbank Farm it’s called and I worked there for 4 years. I didn’t actually work outside, I worked in the house. Me job was mostly looking after the children and washing the milk churns and all that. I didn’t actually work on the land, only during the hay season and then you go and help with the hay, and then I went to work on a potbank at Burslem. The pay on the farm was 5 shilling and me keep. I had one afternoon off a week, and every other Sunday afternoon. I gave the 5 shilling to me mother.
I came to work on the potbank because a friend of mine worked there, so she told me they were employing so I went there. And the wages there, when I started, was 18 shillings a week. It was called Stephenson’s. It was right in the middle of Burslem town, right by the town hall. The main produce was tiles and earthenware, you know, tiles for the grates and I was a tile maker. I stayed there till I got married, another 4 years.
I liked working on the farm but on the farm I was sort of on me own, and on the potbank you’d got other friends, you worked in company. It was a more monotonous job, cause it was repetition all the time, on the machine, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed it.
I worked from 8 till 5 and there were no holidays. I could have gone on working there after I got married. Cause you see, when you said did me mother work, women weren’t allowed to work in them days, but you could when I got married. Married women on the potbank could’ve carried on working, but me husband didn’t want me to.
I was sorry to leave, in a way, because I’ve always been an independent person and I didn’t want to think that I was depending on somebody else for my livelihoood. As daft as it seems, I still wanted to be independent. But I wasn’t out of work long because the war started and I started at Swinnerton.
That attitude wasn’t very common then. There could have bin others like me, but a lot of girls that I associated with wanted to get married, to finish work. But having an independent nature, you might say, I didn’t want to be dependent on anybody else.
I had known my husband for about 5 years when we got married. We met through his sister. I was friends with his sister. His family lived in Silverdale. They were working class. His father was a painter and decorator, glazier. But I never met his father because he died before I met him. I used to go school with his sister, but of course we lost touch after we left school and then, about 17 or 18, I got in contact with her. We went out together and it was only a platonic friendship with her brother until he decided he wanted to get married. He asked me to marry him. So we were never really engaged or anything like that.
We’d got nothing to save. I was only having 2 bob a week pocket money and I was expected to get me own clothes out of that and by that time his mother had become a widow, and although there were 7 children he was the oldest one at home, so all his money had to go in keeping the household going, till the other 3 started work, so he’d got none either. I think he must have thought it was time he was looking after himself, as opposed to his mother and 3 younger ones.
My wedding had to be postponed. We wanted it for the first of January, but it had to be postponed because the parson’d got a boil on the back of his neck. So we got married on the 7th. You just changed the date and that was it. Course, I mean, your wedding today, everything’s arranged 12 months in advance, but I did all the home cooking, I did all the cooking for the wedding - sausage rolls, mince pies, whatever we had. I did it all, the cakes and buns and all that, and we had it at home and it lasted 3 days. The ones as couldn’t actually attend the wedding come after the wedding. We got married at St Lukes and we went back to me mother’s for the reception and then we’d already got the house up Sneyd Terrace before we got married, so we went up there. There was no honeymoon in them days.
I made sausage rolls, pork pies, fancy cakes, all kinds of things, and I made me own wedding cake and I iced me wedding cake. I was still icing me cake - me mother was in a panic - I was still icing me cake when I should have bin in church and she kept saying, “You’re going to be late.” And I used to say, “It’s the bride’s prerogative to be late.”
One of me husband’s workmates had got a car and this was, of course, when cars were a luxury, not the whatsit as they are today. And he says - and he was kidding him up at work - he says, “If you get married,” he says, “I’ll take you to church in me car.” Cause he’d had a new car. That was his overman at Kents Lane at the time. So he took us to church in his new car.
Me mother’s parents came, all me aunties - cause I mean they were big families in them days, you couldn’t cater for em all at once. Lots of friends and relatives. People you worked with, there was quite a lot. At the end of 3 days there was quite a lot.
By September 1939, Sarah Ward had started work at Swinnerton munitions factory, where she had some interesting experiences. The interviews go beyond that date, but limitations on space make 1939 a good place to stop.