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A Shout From The Attic: The Light That Failed

Ronnie Bray, writing with great gusto, tells of the day he set a trap for the paraffin thief.

For more of Ronnie's delectable life story please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

I remember The Light That Failed as a dramatic poem vividly illustrating the consequences of the failure of a lighthouse to send forth its warning. The title was applied to almost every failure of illumination during my childhood, and burned so deep into my psyche that I still recall it when a lamp bulb expires or some other failure takes place. But there was one other occasion when the memorable words were ecphoriated with a mixture of triumph and savage amusement.

Having left school at Christmas 1949 and commenced my day labours as a weaving shed weft and everything else boy for Sykes and Tunnicliffe, Bankfield Mills, Almondbury, as has been told, and departed from their employment somewhat summarily, having determined that they could not advance either my interest or my skills, I took employment as an apprentice with Thomas Broadbent & Company of Queen Street South, Huddersfield, as a core-maker.

Cores are used by moulders to ensure that molten cast iron does not occlude places that needed to be clear. I worked with core boxes made in two halves that were held together by iron dogs driven in at each end. They were then filled with core sand mixed with special oils so the cores thus formed could be baked hard but would easily crumble when the moulds were broken open after casting.

To prevent the sand sticking to the sides of the core box, paraffin was liberally applied to the inside surfaces before the sand was packed in and rammed solid. My iron bench held a treacle tin full of paraffin with a one-inch paintbrush to effect the application. Most days I used about three-quarters of a pint of paraffin. Each evening, after cleaning my bench off, I trotted to the stores with my tin to fill it ready for the next day’s work.

It was with some measure of disbelief that I arrived at work one day and found my tin completely empty. Had I not filled it the night before? I had a clear memory of doing so, but my memory never being too hot as far as day-to-day events was concerned, I decided that I had been mistaken and trekked to the stores to obtain the smelly magic fluid so I could get to work and quickly forgot the puzzlement that had gripped me as I stared into the bottom of my empty tin.

That might have been that if I had not had exactly the same experience on the following morning. I was a shy lad, not given to asking questions, and the reticent men who worked either side of me either did not see my bewilderment or ignored it. Thus passed my mornings for the rest of the week. Every night I filled my tin, every morning it was empty. Being hesitant to ask my neighbours, but becoming increasingly concerned and not a little cross, I determined to act to nail the culprit, for I was convinced that I was being robbed.

That night I went to the stores and poured what remained of my paraffin into the spill bucket under the forty-gallon barrel and then repaired to the cold water tap, that stuck out of the wall shining bright in the dirty dark moulding shop, I filled my tin with water. I carried the tin back to my bench and put it in its corner and, with a peremptory “Bye” to my neighbours, headed for home.

When I arrived at my bench next morning the water was gone. I developed a theory that concerned the core maker to my left, Jim. He was a middle-aged, portly, taciturn, pipe-smoking gruffian who had worked at Broadbent’s since Methuselah was a lad. Those who know pipe smokers will understand that they can do anything with their pipes except keep them alight. To save on matches, that cost a penny a box, Jim had made a light by drawing a string wick through the lid of a treacle tin, which he filled with paraffin and kept it lit on the shelf next to his bench.

This morning I kept an eagle eye on Jim and his perpetual light. Taking out a long red-ended match, he struck it and applied it to the string wick. The wick lit briefly then went out. I knew I was on to something. He took out another precious match and striking it applied it to the wick. This lit even more briefly than before and then dimmed to darkness. Jim began striking matches and trying to light the lamp, but by now, the wick would not even take light.

I watched Jim’s face take on a series of expressions that defy description as simple perplexity was transposed through a series of ascending mysteries, eventually resolving into a pudgy red enigma. It was at this point that he started thinking the unthinkable. Using his trowel to prise off the lid of his lamp, he held the tin under his nose and sniffed deeply. It is an interesting and amusing spectacle to see daylight penetrate a dark place as come to pass in the murky recesses of Jim’s turgid mind.

“It’s water!” he exploded, as if water was foreign to the planet. I got the distinct impression that he thought someone else was to blame, but I jumped in anyway in an uncharacteristically loud voice, pressing home my advantage on the heels of his astonishment.

“You have been stealing my paraffin, and now I have found you out in your perfidy, you black-hearted villain!” I roared loud enough to attract the attention of all in a thirty yards radius. The foundry stopped work and a dozen or so pale and puzzled faces, appearing atop dirty black overalls, turned to look at red-faced Jim, compounding his embarrassment, as the awful truth of his unmasking dawned on him. He had been found out and had nowhere to hide.

That was the last time that my paraffin disappeared and Jim’s light, with a new wick, burned as bright as ever. Things settled down in our corner of the core shop as Jim returned to his inner life and occasional grunted greeting, and I set about thinking about my next job. I had been there almost three months and their time was up.

After three months I left, having become bored and I secured employment with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in their transport department at Deadwaters, behind St Thomas’ Road.

Broadbent’s, Jim, the foundry, and the core shop, slipped from the front of my memory as my life moved on to other places and other concerns. Years have passed and I have experienced many things that have had greater claim to be remembered than Jim’s pipe lighter and my missing paraffin.

Yet, from time to time, my memory revisits that dirty sand-strewn corner of Broadbent’s foundry in Queen Street South in old Huddersfield, and I wonder what happened to Jim. If he is alive, he will be more than a hundred years old so it is probable that he now looks upon another world. And I wonder about his passing: did Jim’s light fail? Did he go home in the dark or had he enough oil in his lamp to see him safely through? I would love to know.


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