Depression Years
By Eric Fitton

In the mid 1920’s things started to go wrong in the cotton trade but as I was only four years old by the time of the General Strike I did not appreciate just how bad things were.  Father, a cast iron moulder, was on ‘work-a-week play-a-week’ which was the way they described working one week and on the dole the next week.  I know that the men used to go to the pub with their wages from the working week to buy drinks for the foremen, hoping to bribe their way in the next week and I once accompanied mother to get him out of the pub and come home.  This journey was not successful and I next saw father flat out on our doorstep with mother threatening to go out and get as drunk as he was.  Brother Albert was a ‘check boy’ in the foundry office and one of his duties every weekend was to hand two brass tokens (checks) to each man who was required for work the next week.  The look in the men’s eyes, as they waited to see if there was a check for them, haunted him for the rest of his life.  He told me this in 1958, saying that it played a big part in his decision to join the army in 1926.  Albert was an accomplished pianist and organist and this stood him in good stead in the army.  Before enlisting he used to play for services at one of the local churches.

In 1928 we moved to a house in Park Gate Chadderton, the newly built council estate and this had a bathroom, and an inside toilet.  We were now able to go upstairs to a Water Closet with a flushing system, instead of a shed at the end of the back yard and a lavatory with a seat that was set about six feet over an open drain.  We also had a small garden instead of a backyard and mother had a gas cooker and gas boiler.  There was also a back boiler to the living room fire that provided hot water to the bath and the kitchen sink.  Mother soon coped with the cooker but was terrified of the gas boiler.  This house had electricity installed that gave us far better lighting and provided a power source for the wireless.  Very soon all the tenants were purchasing new radios to take advantage of this facility.  Our next door neighbour used to play hers so loud it could be heard in our house louder than our own and caused many rows between my parents and her until I accidentally found the remedy.  The electric light on our stairway had two way switches and the one at the top was faulty, when used it caused interference to the radio next door and completely ruined the reception.  So every time their radio caused annoyance up I went and played with the light switch until they turned the volume down.  As a horrible little boy I used to enjoy that.  All these new houses had gardens and tenants were soon cultivating and wanting manure. This provided young lads with a source of pocket money, there were lots of horses on the roads in those days, used by traders such as milkmen and coalmen and the many wagons transporting bales of raw cotton for processing i.e. carding, spinning and weaving in the cotton mills.  Every morning before school I and many other lads, would go out with a bucket and scoop, I think we used to get two pence for each full bucket.

By 1932, during the depression years, which followed the boom, there were only two children still living at home with our parents, my brother Ernest aged eighteen and myself aged ten.  Albert in the Army, the others married and living away from home but still in the Oldham area.   A weekly habit of my parents entailed mother going to the local pub in the evening for a pint of beer and a gill of stout (a Lancashire gill is a half pint in the rest of the country which is a source of difficulty to schoolchildren).  She would wear a shawl on her head, pinned under the chin and which draped to her waist.  This concealed the two pots holding the booze.  On her return father would take a red hot poker from the fire and stir it round in the stout for mother to drink while he quaffed the beer. I believe the cost of this weekly luxury was about three pence.

My first school was Eustace Street, primary and junior.  This was followed by North Chadderton Elementary. My two years there were complicated as there were three other Fittons, none of us related to each other in the same class.  I joined the choir and used to enjoy the outings we had, giving concerts at venues all over the district.  It was from this school that in 1933 I passed a scholarship gaining a Lancashire County Council, Junior Exhibition Scholarship which paid my fees to Chadderton Grammar School.  As my father and brother Ernest were unemployed (on the dole), there was no money for school uniform etc. which was compulsory in those days and had to include Cricket whites, Soccer boots and strip, Gym vest and shorts, regulation satchel. All had to be purchased from a specified shop in Manchester.  The theory was that we would all be equal, dressed the same no matter how much money our parents had. I discovered many years later that my brother Albert, by then serving in the Far East, was approached and most probably he provided the money for these and enabled me to go.  Two wonderful years were spent there, starting with presents from two of my sisters as reward for passing the scholarship.  Ethel my recently widowed oldest sister took me on holiday to the Isle of Man to watch the T T motor cycle races. Edith, although still barred from coming home was, at that time, still in touch with her brothers and sisters and bought me a bicycle.  Aged only eleven years, I cycled to Fleetwood, 65 miles, for the second holiday in a year, two of the only three holidays I remember in my life till then.  The first holiday I had was to Blackpool (where else for Lancashire people?) when I was about three, made memorable by my wandering off and getting lost on the beach, eventually being returned to my parents by the police.  I say made memorable because the spanking I got still remains a vivid memory.  My companion on the cycle ride to Fleetwood was my school friend Ronald Brunt, like me a scholarship boy.  Sadly Ronald who became a Bomber Pilot in the RAF lost his life on the first ‘1,000 Bomber Raid’ over Berlin.  I enjoyed my time at ‘Chaddy Grammar’, my only grumble being that as my parents couldn’t afford school meals I, along with other boys similarly placed, were not allowed to use the dining room at lunch time.  We had to eat our sandwiches sitting at the benches in the woodwork classroom, girls in the same situation had to eat their packed lunches in the domestic science classroom.  This did tend to create a bit of ‘us and them feeling’ but on the whole there was a great feeling of friendship at the school.  The teacher for our German lessons taught in a way that we enjoyed but I am sure that if anyone tried his method in to-days world he would be in trouble.  On his entering the classroom we all had to stand, say “Guten morgan Herr Lehrer” then raise our right hands and say “Heil Hitler”  He would respond with the salute and “Guten morgan mein kinder” just as schoolchildren did in Germany.  Boys had either soccer or cricket sessions one afternoon each week and the girls played tennis.  We had 2 hours ‘home-work’ each day Monday to Thursday and 6 hours every weekend, so I did not have a great deal of spare time.  However I was a keen cyclist and would, during school holidays, go camping on the Yorkshire moors.  A member of the Boys Brigade, I played a bugle in the band.  My practice sessions on this instrument did not always go down well with the neighbours.  One Sunday the Oldham Battalion Boys Brigade went on a big parade, there were hundreds of us and we marched to the music of five bands.  A Brass Band, a Bagpipe Band and three Drum and Bugle Bands.  Of course only the best bands were chosen and ours the 7th Company were not considered good enough which was a big disappointment.  However that day remains in my memory for the Church Service we attended at Sale Congregational Church.  Many ladies attended and provided us with refreshments after our march, then we were all squeezed into this very big church to be addressed by a Dr. Courtney Weekes, on the ‘Evils of Alcohol’.  He was a wonderful speaker and at one point became so emotional that his voice broke, and it really did affect me.  Two weeks later my brother Robert took me to Chadderton Town Hall to hear a Lecture by the same Dr. Courtney Weekes, on the ‘Evils of Alcohol’ and I was pleased to go to hear him again having been so impressed the first time.  Then came disillusion, at exactly the same spot in the talk he became emotional and his voice broke again.  Sadly that is not the end of the story because a short time later the Doctor came to my school. All pupils had to assemble and listen to him telling of the ‘Evils of Drink’ and be sorry for him when he nearly broke down and cried, again at exactly the same spot in the talk.  I think the lesson I learned wasn’t so much about the evils of drink but to take some of these sincere speakers with a pinch of salt.

Brother Robert, a keen cyclist, often took me on rides, his knowledge of Lancashire and the history of old Lancashire was very comprehensive and very interesting.  He was a brass band musician, playing the Euphonium as his main instrument but could also play every other instrument in the band including the drums.  He had been the bandmaster of the local Salvation Army band but in 1934 was master of the band at the Grosvenor Hall Mission, which was a religious organisation in the centre of the town and popularly known as the ‘Ragged School’.  They had gained this name because they provided clothing and clogs for needy children.  One could always differentiate between bought clogs and charity clogs as the charity clogs had metal piping, the bought ones leather piping, where the uppers were nailed to the wooden soles.  The Mission employed a visitor who called on families to assess needs and I remember Miss Britten coming to our house on a number of occasions.  She wore a Bonnet and a short cape and carried a purse, which had cords to pull in order to fasten it.  After chatting with my parents we would all kneel round the table and she would say prayers, then she would rise and leave while we remained kneeling.  As the door closed we would stand up and father would pick up the piece of paper left on the table.  This would be a voucher, to take to Ramsden’s pork butchers in the town, to be exchanged for sausages, liver etc.  Father used to take me to the shop but would stand round the corner while I went in to collect it.  It didn’t affect me at the time as I was too young to understand, it was only later in my life that I realised he was ashamed to accept charity but could not afford to refuse.  There were soup kitchens run by Salvation Army and Church groups but I never actually had to go to one, I do however remember being bought a bowl of soup at Yates Wine Lodge.  It cost one penny and was so thick it needed chewing rather than drinking.


Moving to Letchworth

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Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 30/09/2008 16:04