by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
The near-by rural area was pastoral and lovely, even though it didn’t have mountains, large lakes or other spectacular scenery of the kind, which I nowadays so much enjoy in Wales. There was much unspoilt countryside with footpaths crisscrossing the fields – not that anybody bothered if you did not keep to the paths as long as you did not leave gates open. In fact this last point rarely arose, for there were stiles or ‘kissing gates’ in most places. Particularly nice was an area called ‘The Lawns’, which was parkland with trees dotted about. There were oaks and limes and elms, all trimmed off below to the height grazing cattle could reach, to browse on the branches.
The parish church at Wybunbury was situated on a hill. It was a fine building in the perpendicular gothic style, but not constructed on good biblical principles. It was built on sand and in the eighteenth century the tower developed quite a tilt. Somehow or other, work was done on the foundations to correct the problem. What a pity; it might have become as famous as Pisa! The church got into trouble again in my time. The east end of the church started slipping down the hill, and the nave had to be shortened. Recently a new church has been built in the village and all that remains of the original structure is the tower. It makes me sad to think of it.
When I was a little older there were many Sunday evenings when I walked with my parents over the fields to the sound of the church bells, the bellringers doing their best to make a tidy job of ringing the changes with their peal of five. Often we went quite near to Wybunbury Moss, where islands of vegetation floated over a deep and dangerous pool. There was talk, which I am sure could be true, of straying horses having been drowned, never to be seen again. This sinister reputation made it irresistible to me and my friends. There was a thin and patchy cover of small alder, willow and birch trees and in between was grass and a great variety of flowers. We trod warily and felt a bit scared. There was a stagnant smell and a bubbling of marsh gas, and the earth quaked as we walked. Now it is all very securely fenced off and there are no such thrills any more. How tame the world has become!
Mother was country-bred on the borders of Shropshire and Montgomeryshire. There was lovely parkland there too, but more cultivated fields, revealing the deep red soil. I often visited the area as a child. Mother’s maiden name was Wynne and her mother was born a Davies – all Welsh, but in that border country the Welsh language had all but died out. Two generations earlier it had been spoken widely. Many of the family were farmers. The Shropshire ones for the most part kept dairy cows, while in Wales they kept sheep too. Not so my maternal grandparents. They kept a very pleasant old inn just inside Wales. It was called the Hand and Diamond, in the hamlet of Coedway. The very name Coedway was a mixture of Welsh and English, coed meaning a wood in Welsh. In the old days it had been a drovers’ inn, a stopover on the sheep drives from Wales into England before the railway came.
My maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, ran a carpentry business and also brewed his own beer for the pub. Having by these means made a living from the locals during their lifetime, he exacted a final tribute by selling them a coffin. There were six children in the family, quite usual in those days, and I got to know them all except one, the youngest daughter. She died of diphtheria at the age of 12. Bringing up such a family as a widow of meagre means gave my grandmother a pretty hard time. My mother went ‘into service’ at a large house quite near to where the Jodrell Bank radio telescope now stands, and it was there that she met a very shy young man with a high stiff but fashionable collar and a bristly moustache named John Ellerton. They were married in the local church at Swettenham in 1911. This was where Sir Bernard Lovell, of Jodrell Bank radio telescope fame, played the organ in later years.
Coming back to the Wybunbury area and near-by Shavington, there were two wholly different worlds around us, distinct but at the same time very close together. ln one direction lay the farmland, centred on the lovely market town of Nantwich. There were many fine old timbered buildings, mostly Elizabethan, and the town felt friendly and secure. The River Weaver passed through town and there was an old water mill. Standing close to the little square was a splendid red sandstone church with a massive octagonal tower. It peeped out from behind trees as if it was a little shy. When I was a teenager I sometimes sat in the organ loft with Mr Taylor, the organist who was also our school music master, and wondered how he managed to do so many things at once: the manuals, the stops and the pedal organ. Even his knees were busy, controlling the volume of sound from the swell organ. There were some interesting old charities based on Nantwich church. On certain days of the year the porch was filled to brimming over with loaves of bread, which the poor could collect. There was the lovely smell of new baking. Up Hospital Street, near to the magnificent, timbered Churche’s Mansion, there was a group of almshouses. A condition of tenancy was that every Sunday the elderly ladies and gentlemen should dress up in a costume dating from Stuart times and process together to the morning service.
The ‘wiches’ – Nantwich, Middlewich, Northwich – were all salt towns. The only remaining use of the Nantwich salt was to fill the swimming pool at the Brine Baths Hotel, though later a public brine bath was built. Most of the Cheshire cheese was sold in Nantwich market. In those days it was nearly all made in farmhouses, not in factories, and very hard work it was for the farmers’ wives. Each farmhouse seemed to have its own wild collection of bacteria and fungi, so that there were many flavours of cheese, some good and some bad, and although Cheshire cheese was normally ‘white’ or made ‘red’ by the addition of anatto, a West Indian plant rich in carotene, some of it turned out to be blue. In the market hall the cheeses were piled high and the buyers had borers which they pushed maybe six inches into a cheese, withdrew the sample and then broke off the end to taste it. The rind end of the plug was then pushed back into the hole and the cheese looked as good as new. We local schoolboys used to get hold of a borer and, if we were not chased off, make ourselves nearly sick with cheese. Swiss cheese had no more holes than some of the Cheshire variety.
The shops in town were nearly all family businesses, very unlike the accumulation of chain stores, building society offices and estate agents which now occupy the town centre. The shops had character and style and we knew the proprietors and they knew us. There were some small industries: two or three small clothing factories and a very smelly tannery.
The other world was really industrial. Only two miles from home was Crewe, which didn’t even exist until the railway came. They built the town, even the parish church: ‘they’ being the London and North Western Railway, the L.N.W. There was a steel works, a locomotive building works, large engine sheds and vast marshalling yards. Other railways came into Crewe, but only on sufferance. The L.N.W.R. even bought a large tract of land and gave it to the town as a park. A generous gesture? Not on your life: it was to prevent the Great Western coming in and establishing its own station.
For me the railway meant the distant clank-clank-clank of buffers on wagons being shunted, not only by day but during the night too, but never loud enough to be disturbing. The railway also meant standing on a bridge over the London line and being shrouded in sulphurous steam as a fast train thundered underneath. The ground shook and the din was deafening. It also meant that anywhere within half a mile of the tracks, smuts were deposited over everything. Pity the poor housewife with clean washing on the line. Although Crewe Works were nearly three miles away, if the wind was right we could hear the works hooter giving fifteen and then five minutes’ warning of the start of the working day, then announcing the actual start and finally the all-clear in the early evening. In some areas they still had ‘knockers-up’ who carried long poles with which they tapped on bedroom windows to wake up the workers.
Just once it meant something very special. On November 11th, 1918 came Armistice Day, the end of World War I. I was only four, but I vividly remember all the engines in the area sounding long blasts on their whistles to announce the armistice. Different engines had whistles of different pitch and they even got around to trying to play tunes.
Nearly every breadwinner worked on the railway, for there was nothing much else to do unless you had a farm, kept a shop or worked as a teacher, policeman, postman, roadman or such-like. My father, both his brothers and my grandfather all worked in one way or another on the railway. Whereas mother’s brothers joined the Royal Engineers and went to war and I remember them coming home on leave, in khaki uniform with puttees wrapped round their legs, railway work was considered to be essential to the war effort and was a ‘reserved occupation’. Father was a carpenter and repaired freight wagons, Uncle Alfwas a fireman on the L.N.W. and Uncle Leon was a Great Western driver. The L.N.W. had not entirely excluded all other lines and there were Midland, North Staffordshire and Great Western trains to be seen. Uncle Leon often used to drive G.W. passenger trains into Crewe. The train, engine and all, had to be turned round to face the other way to return to Shrewsbury. This was done by driving round a ‘triangle’ and, thrill of all thrills, I was sometimes allowed to do this under my uncle’s watchful eye. Climbing up to the footplate of what seemed to be a huge, clanking monster was quite a feat and when the firedoor was opened it looked like the entrance to hell. There was so much smoke and steam too. Steam engines always seemed to be alive and quite awesome at that.
Father was brought up at Hartshill in the Potteries and the family had such a reverence for Josiah Wedgwood that my grandfather was christened Josiah. Everybody called him Jesse, though. Father was christened John, but most people called him Jack. He loved to visit the museums and company showrooms in the Potteries to see the ceramics and he often took me with him. Sometimes we followed on to the Grand Theatre in Hanley to see a show. I remember seeing the famous George Robey there. The theatre was amazing, for it had a sliding roof and on dark summer nights we could look up and see the stars.
One advantage of railway work was getting free passes and quarter fares (oneeighth fares for children). I spent holidays in Cornwall and in Scotland and regularly had shorter trips. On the ‘Knotty’ (the North Staffordshire Railway) to the Potteries, for instance, there were little red tank engines with N.S. painted on the side, with the Staffordshire knot between the two, hence the name Knotty. The special knot, I was told, was invented for the purpose of hanging three men at once, and I used to try to imagine it happening. I certainly did not want a demonstration, though I could never quite work out how it was done. We travelled in old-fashioned clerestory coaches with gas lighting, a clear glass half-dome over the mantles, and chains at each end of a lever, one to turn the gas on and the other off. There was a little pilot flame for ignition. Returning after dark we could see great cascades of fire on the waste tips at the Shelton Iron Works, as red-hot slag was tipped down the steep slopes from trucks pushed along the ridge. Sometimes we went to Manchester or Liverpool. Liverpool was my favourite, for there we could see the towering White Star liners preparing to leave the floating landing stage for far-distant America and we could travel on our own mini-voyage, on the ferry to New Brighton and back. From the ferry we could see all the shipping in the Mersey and also new ships being born at Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead. Manchester and Liverpool both had department stores called Lewis’s and in Liverpool there was a cafe called Reece’s, all of which actually sold ice cream right through the winter!
My most frequent trip, however, was to Shrewsbury. From the main line station with its elegant frontage, dominated by the red sandstone castle on a cliff above, I would walk down Dogpole and Wyle Cop (what lovely street names Shrewsbury has!) past the fine Abbey church to the Abbey Foregate station, there to join the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire railway, variously known as the ‘S & M’, the ‘Slow and Miserable’ and the ‘Potteries’ or ‘Pots’. It had originally been planned as a line from the Potteries to north-west Wales, but only the section from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech was ever built, with a short branch to the Criggion granite quarry. All railways were wondrous, but this one was both wondrous and different. The engines dated from the previous century and had a quaint look about them and the coaches seemed equally old. They even boasted one of Queen Victoria’s early royal coaches, which could be put on a train for a fee of five shillings.
The trains were mixed passenger and goods and just outside Shrewsbury there was a connection with the Great Western and wagons were shunted back and forth, sometimes for ages. The slowest journey I can remember lasted 45 minutes for the five miles to Ford, where two of mother’s brothers lived with their families. In the dying days of the line the journey to Ford took twenty minutes only, because there were no more wagons to shunt and the train consisted of two Ford buses on flanged wheels, tied back to back. Another route I sometimes followed was to Whitchurch, then on the Cambrian line through Oswestry to Welshpool, there to transfer to the narrow-gauge Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion railway, owned by the Great Western, which travelled through the streets of Welshpool. The engines, ‘Earl’ and ‘Countess’ had a Great Western look about them. They still exist, in the hands of the railway preservation society which now operates the line.
A cousin of my mother’s had a hill farm called Tirnewydd up-country from Guilsfield. The name means ‘new land’ but it would seem that it had been given that name centuries before. We used to be met at a halt on the narrow-gauge railway and taken over the hill to the next valley, where the old timbered farmhouse was backed by steeply rising fields. Jogging along on a narrow, rough and often steep road with the smell of horse and leather and the cloppety-clop of the horse’s feet was a rare treat. At the farm they made their own delicious butter, pressed into moulds with a wooden die with a carved pattern bearing a design and the farm name. In this way customers got to know the marks and sought out the butter with the best reputation for flavour. Another lovely feature was a great stone cavity in one wall of the kitchen, in which a fire of sticks would be made and finally raked out and replaced by dough which became the most delicious, crusty loaves of bread. This household was very different from mine, for there were no less than twelve children ranging at the time I remember best from four to 22 years old, all living a healthy, vigorous life in the country. ‘Aunt’ Laura used to say that after the first six, things got easier, for the older children looked after the younger ones! Surprisingly, I found that when one of the twelve was away on holiday, their mother missed him or her just as much as if he was the only one. With such a large family to feed and farm prices not too high, they used to eke out their income by taking their fresh farm produce to be sold in Sale and Altrincham, on the south side of Manchester.
Little Aunt Rose, mother’s unmarried elder sister, used to help for some of the time and it was nice to meet her again. She was tiny. She never married, but everybody liked her and she lent a helping hand wherever she could. She had the swollen neck characteristic of goitre, as had my mother to a much lesser extent. That would not have happened nowadays: such a simple remedy as iodised salt would have prevented it.
Living on a farm in the midst of such a large family was a new experience for me and there was a lot of fun to be had. The steep slopes up behind the house were grassy and in one hot summer they were slippy enough to encourage us younger ones to try tobogganing. Control was not so easy and once the run ended in a large, dense clump of nettles. The stings were not a question of little raised lumps, but rather a continuous swelling of the whole surface of the skin. Short trousers left a lot of bare skin showing and that was the end of tobogganing for that day! At the top of the slope (‘Y Fron’) was some flatter land and there were some small fields of oats, which were cut with a scythe and the sheaves were bound by hand with little bunches of straws. In these days of large combine harvesters, this now seems incredible.
These visits, like so many others, started and finished with a railway journey. Every such journey remained an event of excitement. Jogging along to a regular rhythm punctuated by clanking as we passed over points or the sudden, short whoosh under a bridge was something in itself. Sometimes there was a sudden roar as a train coming the other way rushed by and more rarely there was a tunnel. Then there was a panic to shut all the windows to keep out the very smelly smoke. On lines well known to me, such as that from Crewe to Shrewsbury it was fun to close the eyes and try to work out where we were just from the sounds. There were the notices in the carriages too, and a kind of wish to be wealthy enough to pay the five pounds fine so as to be able to pull the communication cord to see if it really worked! Hanging out of the window was almost irresistible, but usually ended in a painful cinder in the eye. Engines and coaches had colours which differed according to the line and on the visit to Scotland it was exciting to see, for the first time, blue Caledonian and green Highland engines. This was before all the smaller lines were grouped into four large units in 1922. There were the Southern and the London and North Eastern. The London and North Western was swallowed up in the London, Midland and Scottish and only the Great Western kept its old name.
There was a special trip in 1924, my first visit to London. My father took me, by train of course. First to look around the centre of town and, among other things, to have a sight-seeing ride on the open top deck of a General bus. Impressions were mixed. In the city were the very solid-looking commercial buildings, calculated to instil an impression of wealth and stability and so to impart confidence to potential customers. This feeling was enhanced by the fact that there were still quite a lot of business men walking around in morning coats and top hats. They would have been an astonishing sight back home. Even stationmasters at the London termini were dressed like this, with flowers in their buttonholes. The opposite extreme could be seen up side streets, little groups of grubby children, shoeless and in tattered clothes, though still having fun together as children do.
The particular reason for going to London was to travel on the Underground to Wembley to visit the great British Empire Exhibition. There had been nothing like it since well before the war, probably not since the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. We were still in the days when the map of the world was splodged all over with red patches, large and small, and the Empire looked as if would last for ever.
At Wembley there was so very much to see, exhibits from all over the world, from Great Britain itself to little dependencies in far-distant parts of the Pacific. I remember the Indian exhibit as huge, varied and wonderful. After all, we did own the place! The exhibition ran for a second season in 1925 and in a way it was the last fling of the old Empire.