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Two Rooms And A View: 12 - The Value Of Money

Robert Owen recalls the hard-up days of his South Shields childhood, when gas and electricity was paid for by putting pennies in the slots of meters. "Many's the time the last penny dropped and the lights went out. Access to a box of matches and a candle was always essential. It was then I was sent out onto Frederick Street to ask a passer-by 'Have you three pennies for a three-penny piece please?'''

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

It was about this time that I also started to learn the value of money. This was aided by the periodic visits from the local gas and electric suppliers. We used to pay for these services by a 'penny in the slot' and every few months, an official would call to empty the meter. He took away most of the coins to pay for the gas or electricity used, but as a rebate, always left a basin full of pennies. From these I learnt the mechanics of pounds, shillings and pence.

Once the rebate coins had been fed back into the respective meters, we lived dangerously. Many's the time the last penny dropped and the lights went out. Access to a box of matches and a candle was always essential. It was then I was sent out onto Frederick Street to ask a passer-by "Have you three pennies for a three-penny piece please?"

A money-making method I soon learnt when I was a little older was 'money on the bottles'. To encourage customers to return empty bottles after use, many shops used to refund Id or 2d on each empty bottle returned. Along with like-minded friends, I remember knocking on doors and asking, "Have you any empty bottles please?" We used to get some, but many were from unknown, out of town suppliers and often we couldn't find a shop to take them. Initially, we were left with a supply of empty bottles, but soon learnt only to accept those on which we knew we could get a refund.

Another illegal source of income was going around telephone boxes pressing Button B. The cost of a call was two pence and in order to make contact with the number dialled, the user had to press Button A. If for any reason the number was unobtainable Button B had to be pressed and the two pence was returned. It was amazing how many people forgot to press Button B. We did it for them!

Poverty is a relative term, but during these years, we were poor by any standard. I remember adults talking about poverty during the pit strikes and lock-outs of earlier years. One much-repeated definition of poverty was when a family pawned their best clothes on a Monday so they could eat, and then got them back at the week-end so they could go to church on Sunday. I believe there was a Pawn shop at Laygate that did much business, but in 1939, we didn't have anything worth pawning.

Our standard of living must have belied our appearance, because we were not at Reed Street long before neighbours were trying to borrow from my mother! A bucket of coal or a penny for the gas, were perhaps the most popular requests. Money for the electric was not so important, because it was possible to sit in the dark or go to bed early. Coal however, was essential to keep warm and gas was desirable for cooking, especially as fires were often not lit until the evening to save coal.

Addie also lived in our two-roomed flat while working at Ingham Infirmary. Her proud possessions were her bike and an old wind-up gramophone. She used the bike every day for going to work and at weekends for trips to the country. The gramophone was not well used, simply because we didn't have many records. The ones we had were played over and over again. Two of these were 'For me and my Gal' sung by Judy Garland' and 'Whispering Grass' by the ever-popular Ink Spots. I usually got the job of winding up the gramophone. It wasn't an easy job to keep ahead of the record!

There weren't any books in the house, except a Family Bible, which I still have, and some large war books about the 1914/18 conflict. I was therefore delighted one day when I found one of Addie's cycling maps of England and Wales. This was the first map I had ever seen. Until then, I had no concept of the size of land, sea or distances. I still could not read but those cycling maps led to a lot of questions and a lifelong interest in geography. The following Christmas I got a small Atlas and it was my pride and joy for years to come.

Shortly after we moved to Reed Street, I started going to Sunday School. With such a large imposing church opposite the front door, where else could it be but to Frederick Street Methodists. Even then, it took an Easter party in 1939 to persuade me to attend. The children who did attend Sunday School were asked to bring a friend and somehow I got an invitation. It was the first party I had ever attended and I remember the tables of food, paper hats and party games, Easter eggs and a short talk by the minister.

Our loyalty must not have been very strong because a few months later, another Sunday School opened at a New Mission Church in Frederick Street. There the attraction was a 'magic lantern' slide show on a large screen. Several of us voted with our feet and attended the new attraction before the novelty wore off and we returned to the Methodists.

Not many world famous people come from the Reed Street area of the town, but one of them was John Simpson Kirkpatrick. He used to live in Bertram Street - the next street - before going to sea, jumping ship in Australia and enlisting for their army during the first World War. He then made a name for himself by saving many fellow soldiers with the aid of a donkey, while serving with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) on the Gallipoli Peninsular in 1915. John Kirkpatrick is a national hero in Australia. He is buried in Turkey and a statue of him and his donkey exists in Ocean Road, South Shields.

Another lesser-known local product was Sir Robert Wilson, the famous astronomer. He was born in Taylor Street, at the bottom end of Reed Street, in 1927. Sir Robert went to Laygate Lane Junior School, before going to university and becoming a Professor of Astronomy and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Shortly after we began our new life at the bottom of the hill, my father found a regular job in London. His maintenance payments began to arrive regularly and we were a little better off, and much less humiliated than receiving the P.A.C. Relief. At Christmas and on my birthday, he used to send me a small present. Afterwards, under my mother's instructions and guidance, I remember writing 'Thank-you' letters to an address in Hendon, London. Apart from this, I believe he had no contact with the family.

In 1939, maintenance money for separated families was paid into the Magistrates Court in Keppel Street. During the coming years, I was to spend much time queuing with my mother in the austere corridors of the Court Building. The money had to be collected between 4 and 5 p.m. on a Monday and long queues used to assemble before that time. No chairs were provided and sometimes with the large number of children, it was more like a nursery.

When it was our turn on the command of 'Next', we would go into the office and state our name. An official-looking man behind the counter would then look up in a ledger to see if anything had been received. If so, he called out this amount and his assistant would assemble the required money from a till. My mother would then sign for the stated amount. If there was no money, we were told 'nothing received'.

Several times during my parents' early separation we were told at the Magistrates Court - 'nothing received'. If this happened it was once again a quick dash up to the P.A.C. office for more questions and a plea for some more 'emergency relief.

Looking back, this was a slow, formal and degrading system of paying separated women what was rightly theirs by law. Standing in the corridor, I once heard it referred to as 'the deserted wives'queue' by passing office workers. I had to ask my mother what 'deserted' meant! During the next few years, I spent so much time queuing in that corridor and looking at the memorial on the wall, in memory of the policemen and firemen who lost their lives during the 1914/18 war, that sixty years later, I can still recite the wording that appeared at the bottom of the memorial. Many years later when the Magistrates Court in Keppel Street was demolished, the memorial must have been removed - but where to? Nobody seems to know.

This then, was the turbulent and uncertain pattern of my early life at our Two Rooms and a View abode, until September 1939. Then a much greater world-wide conflict began which was to change our lives yet again.


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