I lived in Nettlebank for the first 16 years of my life.
My mother’s family was firmly rooted in this respectable little working-class enclave and according to census information my grandparents moved to Cliff Street somewhere between 1901 and 1911. The men in the family had worked in the coalmines practically ever since mining in North Staffordshire began. Both my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s families previously lived at Brown Lees, Biddulph, within walking distance of Biddulph Colliery. After that closed down, they moved to Nettlebank, near to Norton (Bellerton) and Sneyd Collieries.
My gran was the youngest girl of 9 children. The family was so poor that the children had to stay in bed on Saturdays so that their mother could wash their clothes, which had to clean for Chapel on Sunday. As all mining families in the district they were Methodists.
My gran moved to Harold Street after getting married in 1914. My mum, my dad and myself lived there with her until 1965. My mum’s sister lived on the opposite side of Harold Street with her husband and daughter, one of my gran’s brothers lived next door to us with his daughter and her family, and three of my gran’s sisters lived in Cliff Street, so as you can see we had quite a stake in Nettlebank. And we still have – since the entire family is buried in Burslem Cemetery, which is not in Burslem at all, but in Nettlebank.
Most of the men in the family died relatively young. I put this down to the working conditions in the pits. My granddad, who died before I was born, had a kidney complaint and could no longer manage the hard work. He made an appointment with the colliery manager and asked if they could give him an easier job. The manager replied “There’s only one easy job in this pit, and I’ve got it.” My granddad died in 1943, age 52.
Until I was around 4 years old, my world ended at the bottom of the ‘middin’, the focal point of our lives. It was here that the children played, the men socialised and the women hung out the washing. The middin always smelled of camomile in the summer, as the grassy part was covered by the little white and yellow flowers. There was a railway running along the bottom and the train came chuffing along two or three times a week to bring coal to the wharf. The train driver always let off steam as he approached and this was the signal for the children to run out. We always got a cheery wave from the driver, who we called Uncle something or other. Below the railway line there were several allotments, where we would buy vegetables and eggs occasionally. There were also several chicken and pigeon coops. Several people in the neighbourhood kept chickens, which would roam around the middin.
One of the paths to the outside world was called the “brickle”. Someone told me that this was because there had once been a “brick kiln” there. The other way into the big wide world was “across the banks” which was beyond the gate at the top of the brickle. This was out of bounds for us as very small children. Beyond the banks was Smallthorne! Probably due to my mum’s and gran’s repeated warnings not to “go and play across the banks” I always thought that there was something dangerous and sinister in that direction – and when a woman I hardly knew turned up one Sunday to take me to Sunday School for the first time, I screamed and cried as I was dragged by the hand “across the banks” towards the unknown. My dad, not a Methodist and not really convinced of the benefits of Sunday School, intervened and so I was spared for a while. I must have been about 3 years old at the time.
As I got older, my world started to extend a little further. First of all to Cliff Street and Whatmore Street and Preston Street, which offered wonderful opportunities for playing hide and seek with all their back yards and entries. I was at a slight disadvantage, being the only girl of my age in the neighbourhood. I think there were about 5 boys of my age in Harold Street alone. My mother always said that when the lady came round selling babies she had run out of boys by the time she got to our house, so they had to buy a girl instead. With this in mind I grew up determined to be as good at everything as any boy so as not to disappoint my mum, and joined in all the ‘boy’s’ games like cowboys and indians and climbing up trees. I cried blue murder to have a cowboy suit, but mum insisted little girls didn’t have cowboy suits, so my auntie gave me my cousin’s suit that had got too small for him and I was content. I also remember my mum being quite horrified when on a hot summer day I discarded my T-shirt like all the boys and ran around just in my shorts – an unheard thing for a girl to do (I was about 5 at the time).
After the train stopped, we also used to play in the fields below Nettlebank (where Zamenhof Grove now is), although we were always warned “don’t go too far”. Someone had goats tied up in the fields and I remember one getting loose and chasing us all the way home along the disused railway line. But we spent many happy hours down the fields – away from the eagle eyes of our mothers and grandmothers. We also used to climb over the fence (or was it a wall?) to the coal wharf and play there. But as we always came home filthy dirty, we used to get a ticking off. One of our favourite pastimes was riding our tricycles or scooters down the steep end of the middin – near to the wharf. One of the most pleasant aspects of living in Nettlebank was the fact that you were almost out in the country. On warm summer evenings everyone would escape from their crowded little houses and put a chair out on the middin, from where there was a wonderful view – on clear days as far as Lask edge. One of the most vivid memories I have was watching a huge thunderstorm passing over the hills of Brown Edge – a most impressive sight, with the colliery tips of Bellerton and Biddulph in the foreground and the hills beyond.
Although coal-mining was more predominant in my gran’s rather than my parents’ generation – my dad came from Hanley, where everyone worked in the potbanks – it continued to strongly influence life in Nettlebank while I was a child. There were several men in the neighbourhood who still worked down the pit and as children we were always told not to play in front of their house when they were on night shift. We always respected this without question. One man across the road in Harold Street was seriously ill, and all I know was that he was ill from “dust” – the common term for silicosis. He died a long and terrible death. My gran’s widowed brother-in-law, a retired miner from Smallthorne, used to come and have dinner at our house several times a week, and I was always fascinated by his hands, which had lots of little black spots on them. They were little pieces of coal, which had ingrained themselves into his skin. Sometimes the sirens would go off at Bellerton and my gran would start getting hectic. A brother and several nephews still worked there. Then there would be another siren, that was the ‘all clear’, and everyone would return to their daily activities. No accident this time. Miners gradually became a minority in Nettlebank. Young people didn’t want to “go down the pit” and turned to other occupations. But the moral values and traditions of this essentially mining community remained – you worked hard, you paid your bills, you went to Chapel on Sundays and you looked after and respected the “old’uns”. I never cease to admire the way my gran and her siblings “stuck together” and looked after each other – right into very old age. When a man was widowed, it was an accepted fact that the rest of the family would provide him with dinner and invite him for Christmas. Men couldn’t be expected to cook for themselves.
When I was around 4 1/2 years old, the size of my world grew by the power of about 10, – when I started to attend Smallthorne Nursery and Primary School. My cousin, who was 6 months older was put in the 1st class, whereas I was put in the nursery. I considered this extremely unfair and didn’t want to go to nursery school at all, which was something for “babies”. We were given coat hooks with pictures instead of numbers – I remember mine was a red pram. In the afternoons we were supposed to sleep and lots of little beds were put up during the dinner break. I really didn’t understand why my mother had to take me all the way back after my dinner just to lie in a bed when I could have stayed home and lain in my own bed. I found it a terrible waste of time and never went to sleep because I was not tired. This prompted the nursery teacher to put me in a bed right at the front so she could keep an eye on me. I just lay in the bed, totally bored with my eyes shut and pretended to sleep whenever I thought she was watching. One day she threatened to put all the children who didn’t go to sleep in the laundry basket, and said that they would be taken away when the laundry van came. She found it hilarious when several children started to bawl their eyes out. When she asked me why I wasn’t crying I told her that she couldn’t put us in the laundry basket, because our mums would make a fuss when they came to pick us up and you can’t do what you want with other people’s children. I suppose I was quite a precocious little brat!
I don’t know if this was the reason, but a short time later, my parents told me I was going to be taken out of the nursery and sent to the infants school for a trial. There I was reunited with my cousin, and wasn’t treated like a baby any longer. There we learned to read and write and do sums. I really enjoyed primary school. The only thing I didn’t like about the “big” school was the playground. There were some tough kids in Smallthorne and they played rough. How sheltered my life in Nettlebank had been! I can’t remember at what point I started to go to school on my own. But I know we always went down the brickle to get to school. And that we had to make the journey there and back twice a day, since we came home for our dinner. Only the poor and neglected children from Smallthorne had school dinners. That was a bit of a social stigma. If you were from a respectable family you went home for your dinner. As far as I know, nobody from Nettlebank had school dinners.
Having so many relatives around meant strict social control, but also that there was always someone to visit. We also had a constant stream of visitors at our house. My gran’s brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces would drop in for a cup of tea and later on, after my dad built a bathroom, sometimes to take a bath! It was very annoying not being able to go to the toilet because Aunty xxx was in the bath. But then I just went round to visit Aunty xxx or Aunty xx and went on their toilet instead. We were the first house in the street to have a bathroom. Before that it was a tin tub in front of the fireplace once a week or a scrub-down in the kitchen sink.
It was very crowded in our house. We had the usual 2 little bedrooms upstairs and 2 little rooms downstairs, plus a kitchen. The toilet was at the bottom of the yard until we built the bathroom. I remember having to go out in the cold to the toilet, and being afraid of the spiders on the walls. In the winter we had a little petrol stove in there to stop it freezing up. This took up half of the toilet and it was very tight manoeuvring in there with your winter clothes on. My mother once nearly set herself on fire as a result.
Until we moved away from Harold Street I was obliged to share a room with my gran, who – to be honest – was quite a battle axe. In fact, until I was about 11, I had to sleep in her bed. How I envied the kids who had a bedroom of their own, or at least only had to share with a brother or sister. I must admit that when my gran’s brother from next door died, which meant that my cousin had the bedroom all to himself, I found myself wondering how long it would be before my gran died, too. (She lived to be 89 by the way). Since the living room, which we called the kitchen, was the only place heated in the winter, all activities took place here – this is where we ate, watched TV, entertained visitors, where my mum did her sewing and I did my homework. When I had measles followed by pneumonia at the age of 6, I also has to sleep there, because it was too cold upstairs. I can’t imagine now how everything fitted into such a tiny room. In the winter, when I couldn’t play outside it was really miserable. Gran wanted to watch TV, I had to do my homework, mum was getting my dad his tea or doing her sewing – all in that tiny little room. The front room, which we called the parlour, was only heated on Sundays, and it was a great occasion to sit in there and have tea and biscuits on Sunday afternoons. Later, as my homework load grew, we had a small gas heater installed and turned the room into a sort of study for me, but I still had to share the bedroom with my gran. It was unheard of to have a bedroom downstairs. This is probably the reason I was one of the few children who actually enjoyed doing homework, because this was the only time I had a room all to myself.
The room where we cooked and did the washing was called the back-kitchen – logically, as it was at the back. This was out of bounds on Mondays, which was washing day. We used to have a huge washing machine with a mangle and my gran would get up at 6 o’clock to start with the washing, which was an all-day event. I really hated washing day and was always glad when it was over. In bad weather it was particularly gruesome, because the washing had to be dried indoors. This meant that space in the living room was scarcer than ever, because we had to share it with a XL-clothes maid. But even if it was pouring down on Monday, the washing had to be done. That was the tradition. Often I sought asylum for the day with my mum’s sister who, strangely, never seemed to do any washing. Later on, my dad bought an automatic washing machine, but my gran never ceased to grumble that it didn’t get the clothes properly clean.
Finally, after months of arguments and discussion with my gran, who didn’t want to move from the house she had lived in ever since she got married 50 years ago, my parents sold the house and we moved to near High Lane. Now we had a tiny garden and a garage and at last I had my very own bedroom – even if it was only a tiny little box room. I was 16 years old by this time and it was like moving to paradise.