A Peep into my Childhood – Written by Mary Anne (Molly) Cousins (1987) (Note: text as written)
We lived downstairs in two rooms of a back cottage. My grandmother lived upstairs with my Uncle Andra who was the only one of her sons who wasn’t married, though we did hear that, he had been accused of being the father of a neighbour’s child, which he always denied. The house was at the bottom of a yard, which separated it from the house at the front in which my Nana’s eldest son and family lived. Uncle Bob’s daughter Sarah was near in age to my Mam and they were good friends, she also had a daughter who was the same age as me, so we were brought up as sisters. I had two brothers, one 4 years older and the other 4 years younger. Our Rene’s brother had died as a baby and her father had gone to Canada to look for work after the war, as there was not much work here.
I was born in 1921. Our Rene and Sarah her Mother lived with her grandparents who were my Mam’s eldest brother Bob and Sally his wife. My Nana had my Mam at her beck and call, whenever she managed to escape, would come the shout, “Where are you our Maggie”, called down the yard. Me Mam used to say to our Sarah “don’t tell the old bugger I’m here”. Me Dad was a very quiet man, I remember he used to read a lot in a chair by the fire under the gaslight, he never complained about Mam, she used to say “I’m just popping out Fred” and he used to say “alright hinny”, he came from North Shields, she met him one day when she was cleaning out The Charlton’s Bar, he knocked over her pail of water. Mam was in her late 20’s then, she had been engaged to Bob Perry for a long time but he had been killed in the war about 1914. I remember Mam taking us to Grandfather Stephenson when we were little, he put earphones on my head, that was the first time I ever heard the wireless.
We went on the Ferry from South Shields one of my Dad’s sisters, Aunt Maggie, lived in a Bakers shop, near the Ferry at South Shields. My Nana was a little stout body with her hair in a bun and a white apron over her dress. She had been left a widow quite early and brought up 5 sons and 2 daughters. My Mam was second youngest and Uncle Bob oldest, there must have been nearly 20 years I guess between them. Our Rene remembered our Nana, splitting us up when we were fighting and cracking her and dragging me up the stairs. She said she always got the blame. She must have had a hard life as my Mam told me she herself had stood at the Poss Tub and scrubbed steps for coppers to help out. She seemed bad tempered, always shouting.
I remember the pudding boiling on the fire at Xmas, the mistletoe which we used to make out of paper and butter carrot hoops every Xmas. New Years Eve when we were allowed to stay up to hear the bells ring. There was a red plush cloth on the table and the cake and cheese dish and wine glasses set out all ready for the first foot to come. Xmas was lovely then, it always seemed to snow and our Johnny telling us that there was no such person as Santa Claus, but we hung our stockings up anyway. Me Mam said don’t believe him but he was 8, quite grown up.
I remember Nana’s funeral, it was a big one. I must have been about five. I had a purple serge coat and hat, with like silk embroidery round the hem, it sort of stuck in my mind, that outfit, because I can see it even now in my mind. All my uncles and wives were there, I sat on Uncle Pompie’s knee, don’t know where he got the nickname, his real name was Jim. The horses had black plumes and there were lots of carriages. Uncle Andra still loved upstairs and used to make clippy and hooky mats on a large frame stuck on the table and a chair for balance. We learned to prod the holes in the sacking, which was washed and nailed onto frame. You had to cut the cloth in as long strips as you could get. He didn’t work as he had been a Platers Helper in J. L. Thompson’s shipyard for years since he was young, but the shipyards were closed until the war in 1939, when he got back to work again.
Saturday nights were when I went with me Mam down to the old Market. We went in Coronation Street end and came out in High Street, at the top was a booth where we kicked a football into a goalmouth to score. Lining the walls were clothes stalls with suits and dresses hanging up on the walls. Butcher stalls and Fruit and Veg too, but at the bottom was a large hall and in the middle was a square of counters filled with sweets of all kinds and colours, it was paradise for kids, as a penny bought a lot, I got 3 penny’s pocket money every week, it was great.
We used to walk up High Street. The Butcher shops with the open windows and you could buy meat without having to go in the shop. There was also Shuggy Boats in the market. I once got too near and got a cut on my head, I remember running home with my pink cardigan over my head covered in blood. I had to go to the school clinic a few times to have it dressed. The Nurses were horrible, it hurt every time I went. Me Mam and Sarah were very fond of the Music Hall and used to take our Rene and me two or three times a week. They didn’t pay for us we had to duck under the pay box, run up the stairs to the gallery and tell the checker at the top that our Mams were coming with our tickets. He always let us in to find seats.
I loved the shows, one of Mams favorites was G. H. Elliot. The Chocolate Coloured Coon he was called. The Pantomimes were great favourites, Cinderella being the best loved, the Coach covered with coloured lights and pulled by Shetland Ponies. Our Rene hated the fact that we got in free, but I didn’t care, I loved it all. My best friend was named Doreen and lived across the road. There was quite a gang of us kids all roughly the same age as me, we played games in the back lane which was a dead-end at the top because of the railway line wall. We used to play Kick the Tin, Hydie and Mountikiety where one stood by the wall and we all bend down keeping together, others jumped on our backs until we all fell down. We played Football and Two-Baller against a wall. Skippys and Tops and Whips, they all had there seasons. At night times our Mothers used to call us in and it was always “Can I have another five minutes Mam”, sometimes depending on her mood and if we were lucky to get it.
Joining the Library was great. When we were 8 I discovered the world of books which I don’t think I could live without. Our favourite Library was Villette Road and we walked all the way from our homes in a group, can’t remember us ever using the Tram in those days. We seemed to have some lovely times then, the summer always seemed hot. We would go to Roker over the ferry and walk from there. My Dad was the Green Keeper at Roker Park. We had a Yacht which we sailed on the lake, it was kept in the Clubhouse. My brother Johnny was always in charge of it and I had to go round the other side to turn it back when it came over. I didn’t care for school really, our school was red brick called Hudson Road School. The Infants and big girls shared a schoolyard but the big boys had there own yard and we girls were upstairs in classrooms and boys downstairs.
The Junior school was opposite and we were in mixed classrooms there. The worse thing was when the nurse came, if you had Nits you got a green card to take home, had your hair combed at night with a small tooth comb on a piece of paper, if anything came out it crackled when tipped in the fire, then you got your head soaked in Sassafras Oil which stunk, you felt that everyone knew and tried to avoid you. I was always excused PE as the school doctor said I had a weak heart and a goiter in my throat. I went in the children’s hospital for about a week, I got some nasty red medicine to take, and used to long for visiting time to see me Mam and Dad. I also had my tonsils and adenoids out at one time, I was scared when they dressed me in white gown, stocking and cap, I was in a Nursing Home three days.
In those days, deliveries were made by horse and cart. Woe betide the Coalman if he came up the lane before the women had time to get their washing off the lines that were stretched across the back lane. The ton of coal was tipped at the back door and we all got to filling up the buckets of coal and carrying them into the coalhouse in the yard.
Monday was washday. The washhouse was in the yard. The coal fire was lit under the boiler. When the water was hot it was ladled-in to the poss tub, then filled up again to boil the whites, towels, sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths. All clothes were possed first in the tub then put through the Wringer and scrubbed on the table, whites first then coloured. After everything had been scrubbed and possed the dirty water was thrown out into the yard and clean water added for a final rinse. The whites had a Dolly Blue added to their final rinse and looked beautiful hanging on the lines. The washhouse and yard would get a good scrub with the hard broom. We had cold meat and fried spuds on washdays for dinner. I don’t think we went short as we always had Yorkshire Pudding and Roast Beef on Sundays.
Uncle Andra used to make Ginger Beer, we often heard a bang as the corks popped off, he used to sell if for 2d a bottle. I remember me Mam sitting by my Dad’s coffin when he died rather sudden when I was ten. He had the flu and was off work, he had quite a few brothers and sisters who came to see him and insisted on seeing his doctor who they thought was being neglectful. He was taken into hospital, it was found to be Pneumonia and he died soon after. He had a big funeral and me and my two bothers followed the coffin, it was on a garden trolley as he was a gardener and privileged. Not long after Mam had an illness, she started blacking out and went into hospital. Aunt Maggie came from South Shields to take our Freddy and me to stay with her and Uncle Joe and my cousin Peggie who was a year older than me. Our Freddy wouldn’t go so I went instead on my own, it was lovely on a morning before going to school, we were allowed a few sweets from the shop. They bought me a new navy velour coat and black felt hat with a ribbon round it, navy skirt, white blouse and patent leather shoes. My cousin Peggie was dressed the same as me, every Sunday we went across the ferry to visit Aunt Emma. She was very kind, she had no children, just a big dog.
I must have stayed about 6 months and remember seeing the airship R101 going over South Shields. When me Mam got better she found a job at the Guild of Help in the place where there now is the Trustee Savings Bank. She used to clean the offices at night, I always went to keep her company. I used to sit in the waiting room where there was a big box of books. I think Dickens, Pickwick Papers, was my favourite, I read it over and over again. I was never ready to go home, I loved reading.