by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
In those days village communities were very self-contained. Although people made trips by train, these rarely seemed to lead to close friendships in other areas. Most marriages were within the village or within a radius of five miles or so. My parents were exceptional in that their homes were nearly 40 miles apart. Their meeting happened because father’s sister Lily was on the domestic staff at the same place as my mother. My father-to-be went to visit his sister and it is very evident that his eyes strayed!
A very few people came from outside to live with us. There was a Swiss couple, the Blattners, Mr Blattner being a chef in a big hotel in Manchester. There was also the Williams family, not so exotic, for they had only moved in from Wales. Mr Williams was a pharmacist in Crewe. There were the McCandlesses too, who came from Northern Ireland and took over Heath’s farm. George, their son, came to school with me.
The towns were slightly more mixed. Each seemed to have its Italian family, making and selling ice cream. Crewe had its brothers Delucchi and Shrewsbury its Sidolis. ‘Joe’ Delucchi came up to Shavington several evenings a week during the summer, in his little brightly painted cart with canopy. He went all around the village, ringing his bell and selling tuppenny wafers and penny ‘cornets’. When we acquired a small dog, Paddy, a Cairn terrier, he used to follow the ice cream cart right round the village. My father used to give Joe a penny to give Paddy an ice-cream at some point on the round. Ice cream was totally unavailable during the winter except in the big cities.
Another foreign element in the towns was the Chinese laundry, where the owners worked in a hot steamy atmosphere which must have been most unpleasant. There were two in Crewe.
Half a mile from home, on the way to Wybunbury and just beyond the Brookshaws’, lived Mr Mottershead. He was a florist in Crewe. He teamed up with a Dr English from near-by Haslington to start a zoo. It was small and had no really large animals. It prospered, though, many of its visitors coming down the main road from the Potteries, especially at week-ends. Before many years it moved and became Chester Zoo, still prestigious to this day.
Wesley Terrace had twelve houses and we were about in the middle. Some of the neighbours had children of about my age and, looking at the rather dismal side of things for a moment, two of the four nearest died of diseases which would not have claimed their lives today. George Wycherley, I watched fade away with diabetes, too early to have the advantage of Banting’s insulin. He was a close friend of mine and it was all very hurtful. My father lost a close friend in the same way. Gwen Reade succumbed to tuberculosis, probably the greatest scourge of the time. The Morgans, the chrysanthemum hobbyists near home, had two very bright sons who had gained degrees in Manchester and had just got started in the chemical industry when they were stricken. They both died. Mr Morgan gave me their photographic dark-room stock of papers and equipment and I remember that I was almost afraid to touch it, in case of infection. I knew it was illogical, but there was such a fear of ‘consumption’. There was one lady in the village, Miss Collett, who took communion in church separately from all the others because there was a suspicion that her disease was still active. The well-to do, of which there were not many, would be sent to sanatoria at high altitude …
… the local name for cow-house, lit by a hurricane lamp which cast eerie shadows on the rough, whitewashed walls. The cows in their confined space were sometimes steaming and always produced quite a rich atmosphere! Of course the milk had to be fetched every day, because without any form of cooling at source or in the home, it would not keep.
The Galleys were a very unusual family. There were George, Jim, Joe and Patty, all living in the farmhouse and unmarried. Patty kept house and got up early to make cheese, but from time to time she would disappear to a mental home for a few weeks. I had no idea what the trouble was and whenever I went to the farmhouse she seemed perfectly normal. Albert was the odd man out in that he was married and lived away from the farm. A few years later George bought his first car and was reported, when he found himself heading for a ditch, to have thrown his arms up in the air and shouted “Whoa”.
Most of Galley’s farm was permanent pasture, but they also grew oats and swedes for the cattle and various vegetables. There were pigs and poultry too. They kept a red and white bull in a loose-box with straw bedding. Apart from serving his own harem, the bull had other duties, for neighbouring smallholders would bring their cows along for his attention. Sometimes we small boys would happen to be around and would watch the proceedings with awe. Instead of learning about the birds and the bees, I guess I learnt my basic biology from watching the goings-on of shorthorn cattle. Curiously, it was always the boys who wanted to watch. Maybe girls are bolder nowadays.
My part of Cheshire was not as flat as some. The brook just down the road had carved a valley for itself and the countryside was generally undulating. There were some arable crops: potatoes, oats and vegetables, but most of the land was in permanent pasture. There were mostly small fields with hedgerows. Growing in the hedgerows were trees, oaks and sometimes ash, elms or limes. The overall impression was one of endless, green parkland. The farms had shorthorn herds, with massive, large-footed shire horses for traction. In the farmhouses the famous Cheshire cheese was made, heavy work and long hours indeed for the farmers’ wives. A few things were just beginning to change. On Charlesworth’s farm on the way to Wybunbury I remember seeing an iron monster for the first time – a farm tractor, ploughing noisily and much more roughly than the horse ploughs. On the other hand, really old devices could still be seen. On Fairclough’s farm there was a long timber arm attached to a central bevel gear. A horse tied up to the end of the arm would walk round and round, turning the shaft which disappeared into the building, to turn the churn which made butter. There were still some countryside puzzles for the very young. Hills in roads were called ‘banks’, like Dodd’s Bank near home. I used to be confused about this, wondering where the money was stored.
I don’t remember much before the end of the war, when I was aged 4½ years. I was upset when my pram was sold and disappeared for all time down the ‘entry’ between our house and the Wilkinsons’. A strange thing one day was that a group of men arrived with a lorry and asked if they could fix a huge sheet to the front of our house and the house next door. After dark they projected pictures on to it and invited the local populace to come and watch. It wasn’t exactly a drive-in cinema, but of course they had not been invented then. I presume, though I did not understand it then, that they were recruiting for the armed forces, promoting National Savings or appealing for some other such cause.
There were special events a little later, too. One must have been about 1920, certainly before full-time broadcasting was started by the British Braodcasting Company (not yet Corporation) in 1922. A man brought a whole collection of boxes and wires and rigged up a tall pole with guy ropes in the yard of the infants’ school. Everybody was invited along in the evening to hear for the first time the magic of ‘wireless’. One of the boxes was topped by a row of bright lights, which were the old-style, directly heated, ‘bright emitter’ valves.
One special event occurred every year. The old country tradition of May Day was still observed in many villages. Before the day we practised in the school yard, practised dancing round the maypole, holding interlacing, brightly coloured ribbons. We hoped that the pattern would work out all right on the day. Any mistake showed up and there was no way to hide it. The pattern was undone by reversing the dance, more chance for error and a frightful tangle. There was a May Queen, who was driven in a horse carriage to the scene of the crowning ceremony, which was on a canopied dais in the field behind the Vine Inn. One year, when I was about six years old, I rode with her as the ‘crown-bearer’, sitting on the high front seat alongside the driver in a white silk shirt and shorts, with the crown resting on a purple velvet cushion on my knee. This was to be presented at the right moment in the ceremony to the person who did the actual crowning. I felt very important and certainly very prim and proper. ·
The main fun of May Day, however, went late into the night, for a fairground had been set up in the same field. There was a brightly painted round-about with prancing horses, coloured lights and a steam organ. The organ would have little automated men who would beat drums and bells with a stick. There were swings, a coconut shy, a shooting gallery and all sorts of other attractions. Gaudy prizes were shown on stands, creating desires we never knew we had. After dark it was like fairyland, for the wonderful showmen’s steam engines, with their massive rotating flywheels and their brightly shining brass barley sugar pillars, holding up the roof. They were all running, hissing and exuding clouds of steam as they drove generators and, by means of floppy and dangerous-looking flat belts, the various “rides”. There were masses of electric lights, many of them coloured. At a time when mains electricity did not exist in the village, this was magic. Of course, when one is little everything looks so much bigger and grander than it would to a grown-up.
There were dances in the Infant’s School on some winter evenings. My mother and father used to go sometimes and I looked in. Mother seemed to be very good at the Scottish dances, such as reels and the Lancers. When she had been ‘in service’ in Cheshire she went with the family to Scotland each year for the grouse-shooting season. They rented a big country house near Blacklunans, fifteen miles into the hills north of Blairgowrie in lovely country with lakes and forests. No doubt it was on those occasions that mother learnt her Scottish dancing. She took me up there when I was 7 or 8, not to stay in the big house, but to stay with her friend Mary Easton and her husband Jamie in a stone cottage. We took the train to Coupar Angus, changed for Blairgowrie, and went up to Blacklunans by horse bus. Mary had been the family cook in the old days. Fishing in the near-by rocky ‘burrrn’ was fun, though I never learnt to ‘tickle’ trout. I had a strong suspicion that I was having my leg pulled. I remember being quite afraid of the fierce-looking, long-horned, shaggy highland cattle.
I well remember the first buses which served Shavington. The company was Crosville and the buses were of a type used on the Western Front during the war. Whether these particular ones had been so used I didn’t know, but they were pretty basic. The make was Thorneycroft and they were grey and had solid tyres. It was just as well that they were grey, because the roads were so dusty. The solid tyres and pot-holed roads were not a good combination. Inside, the seats had varnished wooden slats and at the back was an open platform on which perhaps ten people could stand, at least if they squeezed in close enough. They had the full benefit of the dust. The fare was twopence to the near end of Crewe and threepence to the centre, old pennies, of course. Except for the very few, the only other forms of transport were cycling or walking. Curiously I do not remember anybody riding on horseback. Near my home lived Mr Willett, who had years before bought the first car in the area. He still kept it in the small former chapel which later became Addison’s fish and chip shop, but he was by now too crippled with arthritis to drive. It must have dated from near the beginning of the century and nowadays would have qualified for the Brighton Run.
On fine Sunday mornings, from the earliest days I remember, my grand-father cycled up from Crewe, bringing me a quarter-pound bag of Macintosh’s or Thorne’s toffee. He and my father used to go for a cycle ride round the country lanes with me sitting on a little home-made seat with green cloth cover and stirrups for my feet on father’s crossbar. Towards the end of all such rides they would stop at the Red Lion in Wybunbury, where one of the Misses Green would supply them with their weekly pint of beer while I, being too young to be allowed in, sat on the seat outside with ginger ale in a stoneware bottle or in one of those glass bottles with a marble pinched into the neck.
At the age of seven I had my own brand-new, shiny Ariel bike, but of course I first had to learn to ride it. It took quite a time, with my father trotting along behind, holding me up, while I pedalled. I just could not get the hang of balancing. But one day my school mate Albert Platt rode by on his bike. I immediately thought that if Albert could do it, I could, and I never looked back! Sunday rides steadily grew more ambitious. On a Sunday afternoon in one Staffordshire mining village I remember seeing most of the male population out in the street playing their particular version of marbles, a game reserved for children back at home. On another day I remember returning to tell my mother proudly that I had ridden through three counties. In fact this was not very much of a feat, because we lived quite near to the borders of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire.
My father’s two brothers, Alf and Leon, used to come out from Crewe to visit us, sometimes with their wives and sometimes alone. Unlike my father they both smoked and were a source of cigarette cards, avidly collected by the youth of the day. They were a source of supplementary income, too. Uncle Alf used to empty his pockets and let me guess the dates on the coins. If correctly guessed, they were mine. Uncle Leon often just happened to have a half-crown. No less than 2½ weeks of my regular income of a shilling!