The everyday life of the Ridley Family (1914-1930)
by Elizabeth 'Betty' Cockburn (nee Ridley)
Article first published by Pat Farnaby on the Heddon web site
My earliest recollection of my childhood is being rocked in a wooden cradle by my Mother in the middle of the night. I had toothache. I must have been only about three years old. I can remember my mother sighing with weariness. I remember the firelight flickering and the shadows dancing off the walls of the cottage where we lived at Hill Head, Heddon on the Wall.
I was born at Wood Houses, Wylam, on 6th June, 1912. I was the sixth child born to my mother. She had nine children. Three boys and six girls. The boys all died in infancy at Wood Houses. When we moved to Hill Head, there was Father and Mother and four girls. Our Mother was to have two more children, both girls after we moved to Hill Head. My Mother's maiden name was Alice Knowles. She lived with her mother (a widow) and her brother John in George Stephenson's cottage on the river side below Wylam. She was a bond worker on the Rift Farm. They lived in the cottage and she had to work in the fields in order to get a roof over her and my Granny Knowles' head. They must have come from South Moor because I have in my possession a small New Testament presented to my Mother for good attendance at South Moor Sunday School in 1890 Holmside Parish. She was married to my Father at Wylam Church.
My Father was born at Mickley, William Henry Ridley. I don't know much about his youth, but I do know that as a young man he was a soldier in the 'Northumberland Greys' as he called them. My eldest sister has a picture of him in uniform with my Mother and his Mother seated beside him. When he left the army he worked in the mines, coal hewing at Heddon Colliery. He also served in the 1914-18 war as an army cook. My father's mother lived at Whickham. She had a most unusual maiden name which was Miss Bread.
Our life at Hill Head as a child was as happy as we could make it. I was a country child. I loved the woods and roamed for miles often on my own. The birds, flowers and animals were my life. Spring time was bird nesting time, and the birds used to nest under the pantiles of our little cottage and woe-betide any of the neighbours children I caught on our wall trying to get at the bird's eggs. I've shed many a tear over a small dead bird. The man next door to us used to trap the birds and cage them and keep them in a shed in his garden. I sat one day and watched them fluttering around in this shed till I couldn't bare it any longer so I went in and freed them all. I spent a few anxious weeks in case he found me out but he never did. I still cannot bear to see wild creatures caged.
Times were very hard for us between 1924 and 1930. The General Strike of 1926 left most miners families worse off. The men had to go back for less pay than they had had before. I well remember going to the soup kitchen at Heddon chapel, along with my sisters during the strike. We got a bowl full of corn beef hash twice a week. One day a girl behind me pushed me and broke my bowl, by the time the helpers found me a plate there was no hash left. I was so hungry I cried all the way home from school. We were also given six loaves of bread at the weekend to take home to our parents. What our parents lived on God only knows. They must have starved. Many of the men trapped the rabbits in the Common. One man had a double barrelled gun and his family never went short of meat but our father just would not go in for that sort of thing. So we just lived on bread and (pheasant) margarine and the few shillings we were allowed from the Guardians.
I remember going with my father to pick coals at Heddon pit heap. He took me because he said I could carry the most. He used to say I should have been a lad because while my sisters played with their clouty Bettys (dolls) I played football and marbles and ran races with the best of the boys. He showed me how to use my fists as well so that when any of my younger sisters were in trouble with the other children at school they always ran to me for protection. I got many a good hiding on their behalf. I think my father was bitterly disappointed he never had a son that lived.
Looking back I had some very miserable days at school (Heddon Schools). We were poor but our parents did the best they could for us, though we never had lots of clothes. We wore the same thin dresses in Winter as we did in Summer. I was very thin and wiry. One day I went to school in Winter in a thin dress. I was blue with the cold and the master took me out in front of the class, yelled at everybody to look at my dirty arms. They were not dirty, they were blue. I felt really bad about that. Thereafter I was terrified of him.
He used to take snuff. One day he was looking over my shoulder at my map book and he blew his nose on his handkerchief and some of the snuff fell on my book. I hurriedly wiped it away with my sleeve. He gave me two swipes with the strap across my shoulders for making a mess on my book. The weals were still on my back when I went home so my father went to see him. I don't know what was said but he never touched me again.
Our religion was not neglected. When we were children we went to the Methodist Chapel (Methodist Church) at Heddon twice every Sunday, afternoon for Sunday school and evening service, sometimes with our Mother. We had special clothes for Sunday and only wore them on that day. We always wore boots. Our Mother bought these boots on Scotswood Road at 5/11d. a pair. We didn't have shoes until we left school and went to work.
We had three special days during the year, Christmas Day, Anniversary Day and Trip Day.
Christmas filled me with happy feelings weeks beforehand, wondering what present I would get. We only got one gift each and an apple and orange. I could always play a mouth organ so my present was nearly always a new Band Master. Many a time I've played tunes for my sisters to dance to till my head was nearly bursting with blowing.
My sisters could all sing and we often did a concert in our childish way to amuse our Mother. She never went away anywhere unless we were all with her.
My Mother's Mother lived at Crawcrook. We often walked from Hill Head to Crawcrook to see her. How weary our Mother must have been many a time before we got back home.
Our parents never had a holiday in their lives. My Father liked a pint of beer but our Mother didn't get many luxuries other than perhaps a quarter of sweets which she shared with us children. She was the most unselfish person I have ever known and we loved her dearly. She was our anchor in those hard up days.
When we went to see our Grandmother at Crawcrook we always called to see a friend of my Mother's at Wylam by the name of Stephenson, in Algernon Terrace. They had a dog and when we asked his name we were told it was Askim. I used to pat him and wonder how the dog could tell me its name.
My Father's Mother lived at Whickham. Her name was Patterson having been married twice. She was blind. My Mother used to go and see her. She always took me and my smallest sister. We had to walk from Scotswood Bridge. I got the job of carrying the young one when we got to Whickham Bank, piggy-back. We used to sit down halfway for a rest. My heart used to ache for the horses that pulled loads up that hill.
There was a steep hill going to our house at Hill Head and the roadway got very bad for the horses and carts so it was decided to pen it with stones from the quarry. John Hunter and Jack Dunn did the job. I and George Laws pulled the barrow with the stones on.
We used to look forward to tattie picking time. That was the chance to earn a shilling if you were lucky to get set on. One farmer I knew was kind and gave you a few potatoes as well as your shilling. At another farm you got your shilling or a pail of potatoes. Those tatties were very welcome in our house and you forgot about your aching back next day.
One very hard Winter, I must have been about eleven years old, all my family were ill. Father, Mother and five sisters all were in bed with flu. I was the only one able to go around. I remember lighting the fire, boiling the kettle and making tea for them before I went to school. I didn't know what to do for them all so I started to cry and told the teacher about my troubles. Her name was Ella Farthing. She sent me home with a letter for my Mother with a ten shilling note inside to get some food. She was very kind to us and ten shillings was worth ten shillings in those days.
My Mother had a brother called Jonathan who had a very bad stutter. He used to visit us often and he always wore a bowler hat. He used to take us children for walks. One Sunday we were out and saw some cowslips at the other side of a deep gutter. We asked him to pick them for us to give to our Mother and he jumped across the gutter right into a wasps nest. He took his bowler hat off to swipe the wasps and got stung rather badly about the head and face. Mother covered his head and face with a blue bag. He looked really queer and we got into trouble for laughing. He worked at Clara Vale Colliery and many years after was so badly hurt in a pit accident he died.
When our Father worked at Heddon Pit (Coal Mining in Heddon) there were two shifts, fore shift and back shift. Fore shift started at 12.30am and we used to creep about the house in case we made a noise and woke him. We must have been a real trial to our Mam as she tried to keep us quiet. The seams of coal were only eighteen inches high and he often came home with skin scraped from his back and legs.
With working at the pit Father got a load of coal every month. It was just duff and small stuff but it kept us warm. You could get three bucketfulls onto the back of our fire. We picked sticks out of the wood for kindling the fire. The fireplace was built of brick with a round oven and a set-pot to heat the water but we could never use that because it was cracked. Our Mother used to blacklead the whole fireplace till it shone.
Father continued working as a miner till Heddon pit closed. They used candles down the pit for light. He had a candle box in which he put five candles and he had a squib box. These were like yellow straws filled with powder and were used to fire the shots down the pit to loosen the coal. Our chimney at home often needed cleaning of soot and Father used to light one of these squibs and it used to shoot up the chimney and bring the soot down.
We had all the water to carry for the household (Water Supply in Heddon). The well was down the field at the back of our cottage about three hundred yards. You had to lie on your stomach and reach down into the well with the bucket. After rain you had no trouble getting water because it used to run over, but in the Summer water got very scarce.
Washing day was the worst. We carried all the water for our Mother. We had a square and carried two buckets at a time. The job was hard in the Winter when we had deep snow.
Our Mother also went out doing washing. She went to Wylam where she used to get two shillings for doing a big washing and she used to be away all day. During the dark Winter days we used to light Father's pit lamp (midgy) and go down the fields to meet her coming home. Often she had a children's book or odds and ends belonging to the children where she went to wash that had been given to her. These were shared out among us children.
In the Winter there was always a proggy mat in the frames. All us children progged when we were big enough. Our prodders were made from clothes pegs and your finger ends did get sore pulling the clippings through the canvas. It was quite an occasion when the mat was finished and we cut it out of the frames.
Our cottage consisted of one big room and a pantry. My Father and Mother slept in a big double bed in the far corner of the living room. My sisters and I slept in a dess bed, which had to be folded up every morning. It had legs that folded back and these legs had to be straight when the bed was unfolded each night or else you landed on the floor, many a laugh we had when this happened.
Across the yard from our door was the midden. Everything went into it from three cottages. There was one dry closet for three families and this all ran into the midden. When the midden was full the men folk got the loan of a cart and horse from the farm at Houghton and cleaned it all away. It was awful in the Summer when we had to hang fly-catchers in our house because we lived nearest to the midden and there was swarms of flies.
In the Autumn the leaves from the trees used to pile up beside the wall and we had a great time jumping off the wall into them.
Hay leading time at the farm was also a time of excitement to us children. If the farm hand liked you he would let you ride on his bogie and you helped to kick the bottom of the pike in and you put the chain around then he would fit a handle to the roller and wind the pike on. Then you sat on the back and got a ride back to the stackyard. The hay leading time nearly always took place during our Summer holidays. We got a month off school then.
As we got older things got more difficult and our eldest sister left school when she was thirteen and went to work at Wylam looking after an old woman and her sons. As soon as you left school you had to find a job or go hungry and it was all private service in those days for maybe three shillings a week, fine if you were lucky.
Another treat we got once a year was a trip to Ryton Willows. Mother used to make tatty pies the night before and the next morning we all walked down Heddon Bank, past Heddon Station to Moor Court, to the river side and got the boat over the river to the Willows. It cost a halfpenny each. There was a horse brake waiting and we all piled in and got a ride over to the shuggy boats that cost another halfpenny. We had very many happy days on the Willows.
I can remember the Peace Tea at the end of the Great War 1914-18. It was held in the Killiebrigs field belonging to Mr. Shield of Heddon Banks. All the children got a bag of buns and a new penny. We also ran races and I won a shilling in the potato race. The field is now a big housing estate.
Heddon Common used to be very popular with day trippers and campers. The campers came from places like Newcastle and Gateshead and we thought of those places as another land, because we had never been there. Then groups of children used to come as well. They got a halfpenny tram ride from Newcastle to Throckley and walked to Heddon.
People also used to come to the Common to pick blackberries in the Autumn. We used to help some people pick the berries. They were called Curry and they had a three wheel morgan car. Mother used to make them tea and they always gave us coppers for helping them which we spent on sweets at Waugh's shop at Heddon. We also bought all the paraffin oil, which we needed for our lamp at Waugh's shop. There were no electric lights or gas where we lived on the Common.
There was a big quarry not far from where we lived (Quarrying in Heddon). We called it Hunter's Quarry. It was owned by George Hunter who lived at Hill Head in the big house. He had workmen who carved gravestones in the Quarry. There was also a joiners shop. They blasted the rock down in big chunks then split it and trimmed it for house building. There was also a big crane but I never saw that working. A man called Chambers fell off the crane and was killed and a small cross was chiselled in the rock face where he fell. This quarry was filled up (1979) with refuse.
There was a smaller quarry nearer Heddon and we called that one the Paddock Pond because we went there for frogs eggs and we called frogs Paddocks. This pond used to freeze in the Winter and we used to slide on it, unknown to our Mother, of course. I lost one of my clogs in there one day. That quarry is also filled with refuse now.
The men used to hold a gambling school there. Many a time we have been chased away for watching them. I used to think they just held their arms up and money came from somewhere, where I didn't know.
We had a cat called Kitty which was brindle colour. It was always having kittens and Mother was kept busy getting rid of them while we were at school because we all used to cry when she said they had to go.
I used to seek the milk every morning for the big house and ourselves and this old cat used to meet me half way down the field and I used to give her a drink of milk in the can lid, unknown to Mother. I used to get the milk for the big house as well. I got one penny a week for that every Saturday morning.
My hair was bright auburn colour, very thick and curly and I hated it. I always had problems at school on account of my hair. I was called all kinds of names by the other children 'Ginger', 'King Charles' and 'Rufus the Red'. One girl took a delight in pulling it and I often went home in tears. I just hated my hair. I realize now I'm old how it must have looked as my eldest Grandson has hair the same colour and its beautiful.
A man lived in the old school house at Houghton called Armstrong. He dealt in secondhand clothes. He rode a ladies cycle and we called him the Flying Tailor. Mother got me a second hand costume from him. A brown one with a pleated skirt. I felt like a lady. I went to Sunday School and no one would sit beside me because I smelt of moth balls.
We had neighbours who went out to dances and whist drives but Mother could never go because she never had any money to spare. There was too many mouths to feed in our house.
I left school at fourteen. I still had three sisters still at school, Sarah, Winnie and Alice who was the baby. Our Mother was a semi invalid then and my older sister, Margaret, looked after the house. Our oldest sister, Barbara, was working as a servant on a farm. As the strike was on at that time I had to look for a job. I got a job at March's farm at Houghton looking after cattle. It was Winter time and the cattle were fastened up in the byres. It was very hard work. The wages were one shilling a day. I had to muck them out and feed them. I was just a little lass about five stone and that muck had to be filled into a barrow and wheeled out to a big heap and shoved onto the top. The barrow sometimes got the better of me and it tipped and I had it all to do again.
I also cut the turnips into ships and carried them in a basket to each beast. I also fed them hay. This feeding had to be done twice a day and I got a shilling a day for that.
The boss sometimes sent me with corn on my back in a sack to feed sheep as well. I was the only one in our house to take any money home that Winter. My footwear was a pair of my Father's old pit boots full of hob nails and very heavy. I also had to give the cattle a pail of water each day, which had to be hand pumped in an outhouse and carried across the yard to the byre.
I remember one poor beast, which had a big abscess on its leg which I had to bathe with hot water till it burst. I was very upset to see this and being just fourteen it make me feel very sick. However, the boss gave me two shillings and said I had done a good job.
Another job on the farm was a back breaking job. I had an apron made from a sack fastened around my waist and I filled this with small stones from the field, then tipped them in the hedge. The wickens were generally burned. Pulling yellows was another job, often you did this on your own and got very lonely for nine pence a day.
Then the poor man hung himself in the stable. He was troubled with abscesses in his ears and the pain must have been too much to bear. He had three sisters living with him, Katie, Lizzie and Mary March, none of them was married and the farm got too much for them so they sold off. I was set to clean an old outhouse out and I remember finding twenty old revolvers on the top of the wall. I've often wondered why they were hidden there. So ended my first Winter after leaving school, now I had to look for another job.
Then a cousin wrote to Mother from Blackpool where she worked in a boarding house asking if any of us would like a job. My older sister couldn't go because she looked after the house and Mother who by this time was a very sick woman. Father used to pay sixpence a week to the 'Doctors Woman' we called her. She collected the sixpence every week for Dr. Pallet of Wylam for Mother's medicine which we had to walk to Wylam to collect. It was awful in the dark nights coming home through the dene on the Wylam road as there were no lights. We had to pass through a little wood at High Farm where a man had hung himself and our imagination gave wings to our feet as it was supposed to be haunted by his ghost.
But, getting back to the letter from Blackpool. It was decided that I should go. I had to have money for the bus fare but as my parents had none the people I was to work for sent it and I was to pay it back with my wages. They also supplied my uniform which I also had to pay for. My eldest sister went with me and put me on the bus at Marlboro Crescent along with the straw basket with my few belongings in.
I arrived in Blackpool at eight o'clock at night. It was February, cold and dark and there was nobody to meet me. I knew the address but I didn't know which way to go so I just kept walking and found myself on the promenade and not a soul in sight. I was only fifteen and I felt lost but a kind policeman came on the scene and took me to the address I wanted.
The house I was to work at was called Rutland Gate and was owned by Mrs. Greenwood and her two daughters and was situated on the Promenade. It was three storeys high and took boarders. I had never done housework and had to be taught. I had a hard time trying to do things right and often cried myself to sleep. There were fourteen bedrooms, a dining room and a sitting room and kitchens to be cleaned and there was only my cousin and me to do it all. We had to wait on table when we were full of visitors.
We got up in the mornings at 5.30. We got a cup of tea and a slice of black treacle and bread before we got started our cleaning jobs. My job every morning was to wash twelve big steps at the front of the house, then the hallway had to be scrubbed and it was all kneeling work.
When the hotel was full we had forty guests and the tables had to be set the night before. The Miss Greenwoods did all the cooking and the food was very good. I used to go to the fishmongers with a note from Miss Greenwood and carry a whole salmon back.
My wages were 4/6d. a week and sixpence was deducted for my stamp. I also had to pay back the money Miss Greenwood had spent on uniform for me. We wore black dresses and white aprons and caps. I always had a job to keep my cap on as I had a head of thick auburn hair, which was curly. We were allowed two hours free time a fortnight. I sometimes went with my cousin to the Salvation Army. She was a member of the Army and wore the uniform. I was with her one night when she kept jumping up and down shouting 'Hallelujah'. I didn't know what to make of it.
The boarding house had cellars and we did all the washing down there. The sheets had all to be washed and the smell of bleach still brings back memories of those days. There was a big mangle with wooden rollers and I had to turn the handle. These cellars were always full of lines of sheets, which had to be folded and mangled. I also had to chop the sticks in the cellar for all the coal fires. I used to do the job as quickly as possible because I was terrified of being down there on my own.
During the season when all the rooms were taken my cousin and I didn't have a proper bed. We slept in the bathroom on a mattress on the floor. We rolled it up every morning and put it in the bathroom cupboard. I had never seen a bed bug and they used to come out at night and eat us alive. I thought they were little brown spiders and they had a smell all of their own. I used to be so tired, I got bitten by these bugs but I never felt them. My legs were a mass of bites but the black stockings we wore covered them up.
Sometimes we got a tip from one of the visitors and we had to put it in a big box. The money was to be shared out at the end of the season. I cannot ever remember getting my share.
An old lady called Mrs. Wright stayed there permanently and I had to take her cocoa up every night. I went one night and found her dead in bed. It was quite a shock, I had never seen a dead person before, it gave me the horrors for weeks.
We were up very early in the morning to get the house shipshape before the guests got up, by lunchtime you were dog tired. One day I was sent to clean a bed room, we had a carpet brush and dust pan, I got under the bed and I was so tired I fell asleep and Miss Greenwood came and poked me out with a long brush handle and called me a 'lazy, ungrateful girl'. I dare not say what I thought of her.
I was sent out to post some letters one evening. The post box was on the promenade and as I walked my legs went stiff and I couldn't move. I managed to prop myself up against a wall and stood there for a quarter of an hour before the feeling came back. People passed me all the time and I was too scared to ask for help and I never told anyone. We never saw a Doctor when we were young though often we felt poorly.
I went to that job on 29th February, 1929 and on 29th May Father wrote to say my Mother had died. I wasn't allowed to come home because I was hired for the season and there was no money for my fare. You only got paid when you left, once a year.
Our Darling Mother was only forty eight when she died. She is buried behind Church House in the old cemetery at Heddon. I can still remember the excitement I had when I knew I was leaving that job. I had to come back home and as I had been away nearly a year I was longing to see my sisters. It was November and a cold frosty moonlight night when I got back to Newcastle. My sister Margaret had promised to meet me off the bus but somehow she missed me and I had to get home myself. When I got home all my younger sisters were sitting round the fireplace, but there was no Mother and we all had a good cry and they were all pleased to see me and hear about my year away.