VIDEO: Ex-MP Joe Ashton’s book recalls bread and dripping generation
The Victorian days of clogs and women wrapped in shawls, trying to feed their starving kids, had gone. But in 1933, in October, it wasn’t much better for my dad and my mother, Ike and Nellie, writes former MP Joe Ashton.
I was born in Sheffield three days after my dad’s 19th birthday. He was on the dole which paid two shillings and ninepence a day – about 13p, providing he turned up at the Nunnery Colliery at 10pm every night to stand in for any miner that day who had suffered an injury.
But if nobody was missing, Ike then had to rely on the dole.
The Nunnery pit was known in the area as ‘The Park’, where Park Hill Flats are now, and where the Sheffield Parkway leads out of the city.
Like most of the other pits in that area, it was owned by the Duke of Norfolk, who was then and still is now the premier duke in the peerage of England. A Catholic family descended directly from the Pope.
When I was born, the whole pit had been laid off, because the pit ponies had gone down with colic.
So my dad got nowt.
No dole, no hand out, nothing at all.
Three weeks after I was born, my mother Nellie went back to her job as a buffer girl, totally penniless.
She had to stand up all day, grinding and polishing cutlery with pumice, holding the hot metal in her hands, paid by the dozen for knives and forks.
It was a hard, brutal life for kids, with an everyday diet of bread and dripping or thick condensed milk out of a tin, dipped on to every dummy.
A raw carrot or half an apple was a treat and a few chips.
As soon as a kid could walk or talk, he or she would be given a streetwise nickname.
My name was Joe, so the kids chanted: “Joe, Joe, sit on the po”, or “Joe, Joe, put your fingers up and blow!”
That’s how they nicknamed me Joe Blow.
Which was slightly better than: “Mary Martin – always fartin’.”
I won’t repeat what rhyming nicknames were given to kids called Frank, Dick, Mick and Len.
Such taunts could haunt a child for life.
Many of the little toddlers never wore trousers or knickers whatever the weather. They just ran wild and squatted anywhere to pee or poo.
Running about with their bums naked was the tradition for toddlers in Birch Road and nobody seemed to take any notice at all.
Money was not for unnecessary luxuries.
In actual fact, the fresh air was more hygienic than wearing filthy nappies or hand-me-down pants that were rarely washed or changed.
A kids’ favourite chant was: “You know last night and the night before three little kids came knocking at our door. One with a fiddle, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to its bum!”
In Attercliffe there were four cinemas. The Adelphi, the Regal, the Globe and the Pavilion.
In the dreary years after the Blitz, long before the end of the War, the entertainment business virtually shut down, except for pictures and pubs.
The only way young couples could keep warm was to go to the pictures. Sunday nights were dead. There was only one cinema that was open in Attercliffe, the Regal, who were smart enough to serve up rubbish old films.
In the freezing, pitch-black side of the canal on Staniforth Road there would be a mob of single lads and lasses, all about 16, lined up in total darkness down an unlit alleyway.
It was manna from heaven for young lads up to no good.
Twenty or so young lasses would be surrounded by fifty slathering animals, trapped in the freezing cold. It was the best crumpet line in town, as the saying went.
“The birds” were all squeezed together tightly, with strange hands all over the place in the pitch black dark.
These lasses were the finest talent in Attercliffe.
All crushed into the darkness with elbows held tightly by their sides and no protection from the hungry wolves.
In 1944, very few women wore trousers and they would pay a weeks’ wages for a pair of 30 denier nylon stockings on the black market.
Despite all the cries of “I’ll tell our Billy and mi Dad if tha’ don’t stop it!” or “I’ll get our Freddie or our Marlon to bash thee!” secretly, many of the lasses enjoyed the skirt lifting in the dark.
They must have done, because the following Sunday all the same girls would be back again in the same queue.
And all of them knew that if they wore their ‘armour-plated’ elastic knickers, nothing, but nothing could get past their knees.
Not even a ferret.
Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper and even Shirley Bassey were just a few of the long line of up-and-coming new turns that played the Attercliffe Palace.
Nobody outside Sheffield had ever heard of it.
Every show was virtually the same, but with different turns.
It was always ‘gay Paree’, with three lasses of varying ages as the chorus. Doing the can-can with a French bloke in a beret and a hooped jersey, picking them up and swinging each one over his head shouting “Ooh, la la! Viva la Paris!”
Or sometimes, he might be wearing wooden clogs and doing songs about the windmills and “Zyder Zee”.
* Joe Blow, by former Bassetlaw MP Joe Ashton, is £12 and available from The Star shop in York Street, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S1 1PU. Or call Sheffield 0114 2521299.