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Two Rooms And A View: 9 - At The Bottom Of The Hill

"Our furniture was extremely sparse. In the living room it consisted of a table, three chairs of varying age and size, a large sideboard with mirror, one easy chair, an old horsehair sofa, a marble top wash-stand and a small table. The table held the accumulator-operated wireless and my sister's wind-up gramophone. In the other room were two beds, a bed-side table, an old dressing table and a set of drawers. The backs of doors were our wardrobes and the floor was covered by lino and a variety of mats and runners...

In many contemporary biographies, the writer states that their family didn't have a bathroom and they washed in the sink. We didn't have a sink!''

After his father had walked out of the family home, three-year-old Robert Owen, his mother and his sister moved into an old, small upstairs flat in South Shields.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's autobiography please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

The Frederick Street area of South Shields is situated near the riverside. Like a rectangle, it runs approximately three-quarters of a mile from Laygate Lane to the Deans and about half-a-mile between Temple Town and Dean Road. In 1939, it contained about twenty long streets, many of them cobbled, of typical nineteenth century crowded and drab back-to-back terraced houses.

Reed Street was one of those streets. It started off yards from the River Tyne, bisected Frederick Street and then continued via a steep hill to the Chichester end of Dean Road. The bottom end of Reed Street was very noisy with loud daytime clatter from the nearby shipyards, that could be heard all over the town. The street was very likely named after Archibald Reed who was Mayor of Newcastle before bringing his financial interest to Shields in the late nineteenth century.

Our new accommodation was an old, small, upstairs flat situated at the bottom of the hill near the busy junction of Reed Street and Frederick Street. It was directly opposite the impressive entrance to the large Wesley Methodist Church. Opening the front door, we found a steep staircase with a high ceiling and worst of all an unpleasant smell. We later found this came from a butcher's shop in Frederick Street which shared the stair-case wall.

At the top of the stairs was a small landing which led to equally steep rear stairs, back door and communal yard. Off the landing was a door to a square shaped living room, which in turn led to a similarly shaped bedroom. The toilet, coal-house, water tap and sink were in the back yard which was shared with two other families. The rent for this was 7s. 6d (37p) per week or put another way, a quarter of my father's weekly maintenance money - if it arrived!

One of the rooms had a small cupboard and a black-leaded fireplace that included an oven. The other room had just a small fireplace. Both rooms had a sash window which overlooked Reed Street. Electricity appeared to have been just recently installed because both rooms still had a gas mantle hanging from the ceiling. A small one-burner gas ring stood on the floor near the fireplace. There was a single 2-pin electric socket in the living room and a penny in the slot meters existed for the supply of both gas and electricity. Both the meters were situated high on the wall at the bottom of the front stairs and could only be reached by standing on a chair or steps.

Our furniture was extremely sparse. In the living room it consisted of a table, three chairs of varying age and size, a large sideboard with mirror, one easy chair, an old horsehair sofa, a marble top wash-stand and a small table. The table held the accumulator-operated wireless and my sister's wind-up gramophone. In the other room were two beds, a bed-side table, an old dressing table and a set of drawers. The backs of doors were our wardrobes and the floor was covered by lino and a variety of mats and runners.

I am told that my aunt Ada came down from Newcastle and distempered the walls of the flat for us. She was a tall, agile woman and had decorating skills that any man would have been proud to possess. Even when she was of very mature years, she was still going around the family to do their decorating.

In many contemporary biographies, the writer states that their family didn't have a bathroom and they washed in the sink. We didn't have a sink! Every pint of water had to be carried up or down stairs. Buckets played a vital part in our everyday lives. One enamel bucket, or pail as we used to call it, was used for drinking water; a slop bucket for waste water and a strong bucket for coal and ashes.

Carrying a full pail of fresh water upstairs and a bucket of waste water downstairs, several times a day without spilling, required a degree of strength and skill. My mother couldn't do this all the time and I was soon tutored for this job with half-full buckets. I also recall being taught how to recognise and pick cinders and any partly-burnt coal out of the ashes of the burnt-out fire in the mornings. These were used again to help re-light the fire. The remaining ashes went into a bucket for the bin in the outside yard. It was a cold house and we rarely went to bed without a hot water bottle.

I also recall watching my mother light the fire in the morning. She would say, "Watch this and you will be able to do it when you are older."

Old newspapers were kept for this and all corner shops sold bundles of firewood. The routine was, paper on the bottom, wood on the paper and then coal and cinders on the wood. The paper was always lit at the bottom in the hope of the chimney causing an up-draught. If this didn't happen, a draught would be created by balancing a shovel on the front of the fire grate and placing a large sheet of newspaper in front of it. This was extremely dangerous because the newspaper could easily catch fire from the draught it created. If this happened, the shovel had to be removed quickly and the paper allowed to burn out in the fire.

Once burning brightly, the fire was undoubtedly the focal point of the room. We used to sit round getting warmed, watching the coal burn and trying to find faces or images in the flickering flames. The fire also had to be used for cooking as the small gas ring only took one pan. I used to enjoy using the fire for toast at tea-time. My mother used to call me the toast machine as I ate one slice whilst toasting the next!

Above the fireplace was a mantelpiece. On it, positioned like a football forward line of the time, was an array of ornaments and necessities. On the wings were two large trinkets, playing inside-forward were the button box and the much-used tea caddy. In the centre-forward position was the essential clock. Tacked to the front of the mantelpiece was a decorative frill. Positioned below this and running the full width of the fireplace was a brass rail. This was our drying area. It was always full of wet towels, clothes and washing, all seeking the heat from the fire.

In front of the fireplace was a large metal fender that acted as a barrier to stop any coal or hot cinders from falling onto the mats. Somewhere within the area enclosed by the fender, was a long metal rod with a handle, commonly known as a poker. Our poker was continually used to rake out the redundant ashes and to ensure the effective burning and maximum warmth from our scarce coal supply.

Very soon I was assisting with a variety of household tasks which would not normally be expected of a child my age. Looking back, perhaps my father leaving and the family moving to inhospitable Reed Street, stimulated my early development. hatever the reason, I learnt quickly and was house-trained and street wise at a very early age.

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