by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
It was an unpretentious and rather straggly village, Shavington, just off to the south of the direct line from Crewe to Nantwich in South Cheshire. The main road from the Potteries to Chester ran straight through, taking very little notice of it. Most of the village, and particularly its older centre, lay on a mile-long loop on the north side of this road. There were one or two old timber-framed cottages, but most of the houses were Victorian or newer. Built of brownish, rather undistinguished brick, they were dotted along both sides of the road irregularly, as if they had been shaken out of a giant pepper pot. There were a few short terraces, but mostly they were in pairs with gardens at the sides, front and back. There were a few dedicated families who grew flowers or vegetables for show and nurtured them like children. There were others who could only manage weedy tangles. Among the devotees were the Morgans, on the corner opposite the co-op. They had serried ranks of chrysanthemums, carefully disbudded and tied to stakes with little conical hats over each bloom to keep the rain and strong sunshine off. They look a bit like Chinese field workers with their traditional hats, lined up in rows to await the arrival of a mandarin. It was not only the blooms that had hats. There were some bamboo canes put in to deceive the hordes of wicked earwigs, which were intent upon having a nibble at the flowers. Under these hats were traps for the little beasts. Even today, that special smell of chrysanthemems, brings back memories of the Morgans to me.
The Brookshaws were experts too. The god they worshipped was the sweet pea, germinated early, transplanted with loving care into the kindest, most deeply trenched and fertilised soil which skill could provide. They were trained up giant bamboo canes, tied up with raffia and with every tendril removed in case it should reach out a sinister grasp and bend the flower stalk. They used to get the highest accolades in the big shows, like Shrewsbury and Southport. If they came back with only second prizes, gloom reigned at the Brookshaws and the neighbours would hear dark mutterings about midnight raids by competitors to steal their best flowers. This kind of thing was not mere fantasy. Some of the competitors would stop at nothing to win. In later years they widened their field and became expert florists in all kinds of ways. When I was 25 years old, I went to see Mrs Brookshaw to order bouquets for my wedding. I had not seen her for years and years and she took one look at me and said ‘My word Sydney, you’ve grown!’.
Most gardeners were neither wonderful nor awful and most of the bigger gardens were planted at least in part with vegetables. Some also rented allotments along the Crewe Road, plots of exactly similar shape and size, where much rivalry was to be seen. My father had one for a few years, but he didn’t get involved with the rivalry, he just grew nice, fresh vegetables for the table.
A few of the houses had a stone let into the wall just below the roof, proclaiming the initials of the proud first owner and the date of the building. Some did not have to be dated, like Alma Buildings, which recalled a battle in the Crimean War. There is little doubt, though, that most of the village had grown up after the arrival of the railway. This had given birth to the town of Crewe, just a couple of miles away and Shavington was mostly a railway dormitory.
Everybody burnt coal in open fires or in cast-iron cooking ranges, regularly black-leaded with paste from little yellow and black striped packages of Zebra polish. There was a central fire with a water boiler on one side and an oven on the other. Regulating the fire to get the right result when cooking demanded much expertise, doubtless born from much trial and error. Mother had developed great skill and her cakes were mouth-watering. Sometimes a chimney would go on fire and there would be a dense plume of smoke, smelling of burnt, sulphurous soot. Even without that, a pall of smoke would sometimes hang clingingly over the village and slide down the hill into Pusey Dale, where the brook crossed the road.
The village had two pubs, the ‘Elephant and Castle’ and ‘The Vine’, both still open as I write. Then there was a Working Men’s Club, converted from an old watermill down by a small stream, where I used to catch tiddlers and take them home in jam jars with a bit of pondweed inside. Pubs and clubs were regarded by some as sinks of iniquity, especially by the Methodists. Of course they were in any case out of bounds for a small boy. Father and mother did not patronise them either, not because they were prudish about it, but because they preferred to spend their time and limited means otherwise.
There were in all three little general stores and also Kendrick’s, the paper shop. There was a sub-postoffice too and a barber who operated in a large shed. Our nearest store was Warner’s, a corner shop with windows on both sides and a flat, painted area high up on the corner, proclaiming it as J.R.C. Warner’s General Store and Off-Licence. It was staffed by father and son with mother popping in from time to time. Mrs Warner was a large, rather frumpish lady prone to overdressing and, in her own opinion if in no other, a cut above the general population. She adorned herself with a powerful, cloying, far from subtle perfume, but maybe that was necessary to overcome the all-pervading smell of paraffin, coming from a large red tank in the corner as you went in. Paraffin was much in demand, as mains electricity had not yet arrived in the village and people used oil lamps for lighting and sometimes Primus stoves for cooking. Jack Warner, the son, had a pretty young wife who seemed to manage not to be cowed by her mother-in-law.
The two Misses Cadman ran another corner shop down ‘Bag Street’, an often muddy, unadopted cul-de-sac which officially carried the rather posh name of Osborne Grove. Posh because it was named after Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s favourite retreat in the Isle of Wight. Nothing could be more different. The Cadman sisters had not married, maybe because of the shortage of eligible males after the slaughter of the first world war. They seemed to love children, for they stocked all sorts of goodies to be bought for a halfpenny or a penny. They were patient while the children pondered, often for a long time, on how to spend their money.
‘Platt’s’ was at the other end of the village, near the ‘Elephant’, a small general store in a red-brick house with flat-roofed extension on the ground floor to accommodate the shop. We didn’t normally trade there, as it was so far away. It was easier to take a bus to Crewe.
Dolly Broadhurst presided over the Post Office. Her shop was stocked with various ladies’ things, such as knitting wool, patterns and sewing thread. These were stacked higgledy-piggledy on a profusion of shelves and some of them hung from the dark, low wooden beams. She was a plump, rosy-faced, bustling lady, well-liked in the village. Not many years later I used to ask her for special corners of sheets of stamps which bore ‘control numbers’, for I was already getting infected with an enthusiasm for philately (or stamp collecting). Her rosy-cheeked husband Joe ran a bakery at the back of the shop.
The largest shop by far was the Co-op, which incorporated a butcher’s shop as well as a very busy grocery. Cooperative Societies were very strong in the industrial north, being founded on the principle that private traders were wicked and grasping. This was where the main shopping was done. Every customer had a membership number (I still remember ours was 779) and for each purchase he received a little receipt of which a carbon copy went to the office in Crewe. Every single purchase, however small, was added up and ascribed to the member’s number and each quarter a dividend, popularly known as the ‘divi’, was paid out of profits; maybe ten percent. To do all this without any kind of mechanical aid must have been prodigiously labour-intensive, but, of course, labour was cheap. Children were sent along by their parents to collect the weekly grocery order. Things like sugar and flour were weighed up into bags on the premises and the assistants were expert at making neat little conical bags out of flat sheets of paper, with a twist at the bottom and the top neatly tucked in. Butter and margarine came in great blocks or barrels, from which pounds and half-pounds were cut. Sugar was always wrapped in blue bags, which made it look whiter and purer. Tea was prepackaged, right down to one-ounce packets for twopence. I liked best the smell of fresh bread and could not resist tearing off strips of crust to eat on the way home.
There were some travelling suppliers too. Mr Parton came with his cart and plodding horse with its sagging back. When he stopped to serve customers, the horse was allowed to nibble at the contents of a canvas nosebog. The cart had a roof, and hardware was displayed on shelves on each side. Behind the shelves was a tank containing paraffin burning oil. On the back was a tap and various clanking jug-measures: gallon, half-gallon and quart. Mr Parton rang a handbell as he went along, sitting on the front seat. The roof did not extend forward to cover him, which was too bad for him it it was wet. He looked as sad as his horse and inevitable smelt of paraffin. He was Warner’s competitor for paraffin sales and was popular, because he took it straight to the houses.
Then there was Mr Titterton, tall, thin and cadaverous. His name sounded like a stammer. He must have been served us at a later date, because he had a motor lorry: when one is very young, time sequences get a bit mixed up. Mr Titterton used to go to a colliery over the border in Staffordshire and buy his coal direct, selling it round the houses for two shillings a hundredweight. He did not look strong enough to carry the hundredweight sacks to the coal shed, but I suppose there is a knack to such things.
Two occasional visitors brought excitement to the younger ones. Sometimes a street organ-grinder turned up, complete with monkey, wearing a colourful little coat. More often came the rag-and-bone man with a horse and cart, offering prizes, such as a goldfish in a bowl, to any children who could induce their parent to part with enough old clothes. The less successful children had to put up with balloons. While they envied their luckier friends they also blamed their parents for not trying hard enough to find old things. The rag-and-bone man’s cart gradually piled up with nondescript goods, which could be described as having odour rather than aroma.
There were one or two village enterprises besides shops. There was Jim Wigley, for instance, often seen walking to the bus stop in his uniform as a Great Western guard, carrying his well-worn leather bag with two long handles, from which his red and green flags protruded. That was equipment for his official job. Unofficially and possibly illegally, he was the local bookmaker. The ‘bookie’s runners’, who went around collecting bets for him, were certainly not within the law.
For shopping outside the village there was the bus, every 15 minutes to Crewe and every 45 minutes to Nantwich. Some of the buses from Crewe went on to Wybunbury (pronounced Wymbrey unless one wanted to be posh) and Walgherton. This was called Walkerton. Cheshire seems to be full of such place-names, the best-known being Cholmondeley, pronounced ‘Chumley’.
Both Nantwich and Crewe had a good selection of shops, mostly family businesses in those days. One of the nicest was Hawthorn’s, with a smell of freshly roasting coffee wafting out right into the street. In Crewe the insidious invasion of the chain store had begun. There were Boots and Halfords, Currys, which was at that time little more than a cycle shop, and W.H. Smith. There was also a covered market hall of ornate, Victorian design in brick. Down below, local butchers, fruiterers, confectioners and others competed with their wares. Upstairs was Cohen’s Penny Bazaar, a very poor imitation of Woolworths. It had to suffice most of the time, though, because a visit to the real Woolworths meant going to Manchester or Liverpool, 30 or 45 miles away. At the back of the market it got more exciting, especially on a winter Saturday evening. Part of the area was covered with a galvanised iron roof like a Dutch barn. Here were the noisy vendors of ‘seconds’ from the Potteries, plates, cups and saucers and much besides, clanking them together loudly to prove that they rang true and were not cracked. This was one to the accompaniment of much loud, fast and often amusing patter, persuading the lookers-on that they were really being done a great favour.
Behind this covered area was what we regarded as the real ‘back of the market’. It was in the open, on unsurfaced ground sometimes full of muddy puddles. Lighting was from yellowish, smoky naphtha flares, which gave rise to rather sinister, flickering shadows. Naphtha was nothing to do with moth-balls, but was a petroleum distillate. Cheap-jacks vied with each other with their racy patter and it was a great game to watch. Many of them could have made their living in the music halls. Here and there it became a bit gruesome. One fellow filled his table with large glass jars containing massive tapeworms and other intestinal parasites preserved in formalin. He was proclaiming what would happen to us if we did not take his pills. I used to imagine these creatures groping about inside me and indeed I used to wonder if there was even room for them. There were real bargains to be had too, for, in the absence of refrigeration, anything perishable had to be sold on a Saturday night for whatever price could be obtained. We often bought fruit that way, but for meat we had out favourite butcher, not in the market, and stuck to him.
Just a few yards from this animated scene was the New Theatre, mostly operating as a twice-nightly music hall, but sometimes doing musicals, plays or light opera, such as Gilbert and Sullivan. I remember seeing ‘Ruddigore’ there and also Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. The exterior was plain enough, but inside it was all rococo and red plush, with soft colours and little cherubs picked out in gold. Smoking was only allowed in the twice-nightly shows and the smoke got pretty thick at times. Before the show a big fire-proof curtain was lowered across the front of the stage, covered with advertisements for local traders. When I was taken to the theatre I was always given a packet of those little brick-shaped, wrapped sweets called chocolate neapolitans. If I see them anywhere today, my mind goes back to Crewe.
I have been carried away with thoughts of the local town life and must return to Shavington, and to the provision made for a smooth passage into the hereafter. To this end there were three chapels and a church. The chapels seemed to have been smitten with an overdose of schism, for they were entitled Wesleyan Methodist, Primitive Methodist and United Methodist, which presumably had at some stage been united with still another brand of methodist. Each had its annual anniversary celebration and invitations were sent out to all. The Wesleyans seemed to have some claim to superiority because their chapel was bigger and newer than the others and several of the more prosperous local businessmen were members. The ‘Uniteds’ by comparison were a down-trodden lot.
Although they had been going for a long time, in some circles the non-conformist churches were still in some quarters regarded as rather disreputable breakaways and some were prone to feel that the only direct way to the Pearly Gates was with the Church of England, simply called the ‘Church’. There were two or three strange people in the village who went even further into the realms of historical orthodoxy and they had to go to Crewe to worship. Rumour had it they owed allegiance to the Pope. A girl in my class in school was one of these, but somehow or other it had to be admitted that she seemed quite normal. Later she transferred to the greater safety of the convent school in Crewe. The school building later became the police headquarters and I have no idea what happened to the girls.
The church at the end of the terrace was what was known as a ‘Mission Church’, which meant that it was a satellite of the fine parish church in Wybunbury, a couple of miles further into the countryside. It sounded as if Wybunbury was where those of the true faith were concentrated and that it was necessary to have a ‘Mission’ to convert the heathen in Shavington. It was built of wood, with corrugated iron cladding painted with red oxide paint and a tiny belfry with a single, tinny bell. Such churches were disrespectfully known as ‘tin tabernacles’. This one had a schoolroom at the back, a separate building in similar style. I was despatched there on Sunday afternoons and sometimes to the service in the church in the morning. In the evenings mother, father and I often went together and in the winter, with the hanging oil lamps all giving out their yellowish light, it had a rather special atmosphere. I used to like the hymn-singing well enough but found the sermons long and boring, as most children did. At the beginning of the prayer book were the most complicated tables for working out the dates of Easter and I often used to try to use them instead of attending to the improving words from the pulpit. Producing a silver threepenny bit for a collection, no less than 25 per cent of my weekly pocket money, was a serious wrench. Once I put my weekly shilling in by mistake and quickly and shame-facedly took it out again and put in my little silver threepenny ‘joey’. I was amazed and shocked when the uncle of my friend John Meeres put a ten-shilling note on the plate, but then he was a banker who commuted to Manchester, riding his motorbike to Crewe station.
The church was in the charge of a curate, the vicar being resident in Wybunbury. The curate I best remember was Mr Peers, 6ft 4½in tall, which was phenomenal in those days, when people generally were quite a bit shorter than they are today. He had been invalided out of the war because of shellshock. He was a friendly and quite diffident person. The Sunday school had various teachers, under the supervision of Edwin West, who was very earnest but also very deaf and we despicable youngsters used to play him up when we had a chance. Young people can be cruel to the handicapped. There was a Sunday school ‘treat’ once a year, usually in the grounds of some not-too-distant big house. It was timed with great practicality to occur the day after the annual garden party, which took place in the grounds of the vicarage in Wybunbury. We had all the leftover cakes and other goodies. We never had Sunday school trips, as the venues were always within walking distances.
There were still some renegades about and the Crewe branch of the Salvation Army used to come down from time to time to try to recruit them by performing in the street with their band and their singing. They wore uniforms, that of the women being particularly ugly, with a dark-blue or black costume and hats like peculiarly-shaped baskets with a red and gold band bearing the name ‘The Salvation Army’. They had tambourines and drums for rhythm, cornets and a far from euphonious euphonium; when possible a tuba too, to play the regulation oompah-oompah accompaniment. They would play and sing Sankey and Moody hymns at one street corner, make a little speech, mostly heard only by themselves, and would then trudge with grim determination to another place. They were hardly inspiring and rarely successful in gaining recruits, but they had done their bit of mission work and no doubt felt better for it.
My parents had moved to Shavington from near-by Wybunbury when I was one year old. It was nearer Crewe and handier for my father to get to work. I was the only child and stayed so. The address revealed the Methodist influence in the village, for it was ‘Wesley Terrace’. From it we could look down the road to Crewe, but there was also a view across farmland all the way to Mow Cop, some twelve miles away on the borders of Cheshire and Staffordshire. It was a hill capped by an old ruin and from its summit there was a wonderful view all round. There was farmland in most directions, but there was also a view of the Potteries, nesting in a hollow with smoke hanging in the air. At that time the pots were fired in bottle kilns; hundreds of them.
In the village there was no street lighting of any kind. The night sky shone bright and we could see the shooting stars and the markings on the moon which kindled the imagination of the young. From time to time the furnace doors at the Shelton Iron Works fifteen miles away would be opened, or hot slag would be tipped in a glowing cascade down the steep slope of the heap. The red glow in the eastern sky would remind us that industry was not so very far away.