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U3A Writing: The Dinner Girl

...When I was ten years old in February 1937, it became my duty to be Dinner Girl for the Smithy Men (my uncles). My mother was the only married member of the family and because I was the eldest grandchild it became my honour to take the job.

I went to Deane Church of England School, three doors from the family home, so, as soon as the twelve noon dinner bell went, I had to grab my clothes and collect the dinners. Aunt Mary had them ready in a basket, a dinner for each of the uncles, placed in individual enamel dishes with saucers on top, (no cling film in those days). There were also smaller dishes for the puddings, plus spoons to eat with and everything covered with a thick cotton terry towel to keep warm...

Myra Higson recalls her early days in Bolton, Lancashire.

My mother was the second eldest daughter of James and Margaret Yates, and I am her eldest daughter. We all lived in the village of Deane, Bolton, Lancashire, which has been greatly developed and is now a large district.

Grandfather was a very strict, sturdy man, with a huge moustache, which he curled and waxed each day. He had a vile temper, but ran a successful town centre business of master farriers, shoeing horses and ponies, in the name of James Yates & Sons. They were not blacksmiths, but by coincidence I married a blacksmith who worked in a foundry.

The business was situated in Moor Lane and dated back to the late nineteenth century, having belonged to George, who was James's father. Many years later it moved round the corner to Hanover Street and gave great service to numerous Bolton and district tradesmen.

Horses were the main form of transport in the early part of the century, pulling carts, carriages and wagons and continued to be used until well after the second world war by firms like the brewers, Magee and Marshall & Co, of Derby Street, Joseph Eckersley, (haulage and removal carriers) and the Council. Also many local farms, some in very remote places, were visited by the firm to shoe the horses.

The sons, my uncles Edward (Ted) and James (Jim) continued the firm and David, Ted's son, joined the firm in the 1950's and stayed until it closed in the 1980's.

James, my Grandfather, died in 1938 after a couple of years' illness, which seemed to make him even more bad tempered, as he had suffered a stroke and developed a bad stammer. I was scared of him. I was only eleven when he died.

Now it was left to the uncles to carry on the business. When all the family all lived at home there were seven of them. Mary, the eldest, then my mother Alice, the two uncles who worked the business and another uncle John, who never became part of the firm. He was often on the dole as he worked in the cotton trade, which was in a poor state during much if the inter-war period, so he suffered much unemployment.

My mother, who also worked in the cotton industry as a weaver faired much better. She was never out of work. The spinning side seemed the hardest hit and uncle was a 'little piecer'.

My mother started work in 1912, being then only twelve years old. She worked part-time, or half-time as it was called. She left in 1927 when I was born and never worked again. She was always at home with the children, as was the norm in those days.

Her home before she married was a two-up-and-two-down house with a dark cellar. There was no bath or hot water. The toilet was an outside 'tippler 'tippler' reached down some dark steps through the cellar, leading into a small yard, where Grandfather, until he was ill, kept racing pigeons.

The parents slept in one bedroom, separated by a curtain from the girls, whilst all three uncles slept in the other one.

Auntie Mary was engaged to be married, but the parents decided that she had better call it off as they needed her to look after them in their old age. The name of the man she was to marry was Dupree. Sadly they never did marry and she lived all her life in the little family home, until she died in 1972.

The house was always rented and was situated on Wigan Road near the 'Co-op' Stores and a butcher's, facing the Deane tram terminus, which was in front of the house. I would sit for many an hour on the front step, which was mopped and donkey-stoned on most days, watching, in amazement as the conductor swung the pulley round to reverse the tram for the driver to take it back down the three miles of tram lines to Bolton.

When I was ten years old in February 1937, it became my duty to be Dinner Girl for the Smithy Men (my uncles). My mother was the only married member of the family and because I was the eldest grandchild it became my honour to take the job.

I went to Deane Church of England School, three doors from the family home, so, as soon as the twelve noon dinner bell went, I had to grab my clothes and collect the dinners. Aunt Mary had them ready in a basket, a dinner for each of the uncles, placed in individual enamel dishes with saucers on top, (no cling film in those days). There were also smaller dishes for the puddings, plus spoons to eat with and everything covered with a thick cotton terry towel to keep warm.

Dinner duty for me was Tuesday until Friday. (Monday was wash-day and Auntie was too busy then to cook dinners). Each meal, different every day, was comprised of true Lancashire dishes - potato pie and mushy peas with rice pudding to follow; suet beef pudding and jam rolypoly; cow heel pie or tripe and onions with apple pie; sausage and mash and sago pudding or baked custard pie. All stodgy food, but then thought to be very nourishing for the working man.

I was given a penny of the old type for my tram fare, (half a penny each way). I got on the Deane tram outside the house and rode to the bottom of Deane Road, getting off at The Britannia pub, now no longer there. (On the site is now The Bolton Institute.)

Alighting from the tram, I went as quickly as my legs would carry me, passing the smelly gas works, where the men outside were enjoying the fresh air during their dinner break. When I arrived the at the Smithy, hoping I hadn't spilt any, I was very often confronted by several horses awaiting their new shoes. Feeling a little scared I would rush past them and place the dinners in the 'cabin'.

I had to collect the dirty dishes from the previous day. Those collected on Tuesday were quite mouldy, having been standing since Friday! Hurrying again up Moor Lane I would get a tram on the opposite side of the road from where I got off. Trams were always frequent as not many people had their own transport then and used public transport all the time.

I lived two stops from Grandma's house, hear Haslam Park and as we got an hour and three quarters dinnertime (never called lunch), I had time to eat my own dinner, wash my hands and face and trot back to Auntie's with the dishes.

My reward for this duty was six old pennies a week, which is two and a half pence in money now. However, I never received it in my hand. Auntie Mary kept it and put it in a saving club. At Bolton Wales holiday at the end of June I received thirteen shillings, plus a little interest, to spend on my holidays. Was I rich! The same thing happened at Christmas, this I spent on presents for my family, (my parents, sister and brother).

I did this duty for two years, but when the 1939-45 war started, things changed. I was due to go to another school for higher education. The uncles had been married for a while but still had their dinners provided by the family until Grandma died in 1941.

My sister continued doing the dinners for a while after until Grandma died. At last Auntie Mary was free of her parent duties and she got war work at Walker's Tannery, where she stayed until she retired. These were the happiest and most relaxed days of her life. When the dinners stopped, the uncles' wives had a more modern idea - they made their husbands sandwiches!

My husband and I are now in our mid-seventies and are fully aware of healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle, (being taught by the media), but I reflect on the family and especially the uncles' lifestyle. They had no modern conveniences, no hot water or baths, only a tin bath in front of the fire. They worked half-time from twelve years of age and full-time from their fourteenth birthday, and working hours were from seven-thirty until five-thirty each weekday and seven-thirty to twelve noon on Saturday.

They often had to go out at night into the country to shoe horses, and they ate heavy, stodgy meals at mid-day. They would have to bend and lift iron around and worked constantly over a very hot fire to make the shoes.

Uncle Ted died in his early seventies, but Jim lived until he was eighty-nine years and eleven months, keeping very active until the end. He had cared for an ailing wife and lived alone for a few years.
All this makes me wonder - was Jim just one of the lucky ones?

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