Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: A humble abode in the 1930s

Back-to-back, one-up-one-down and an outside privy

Sunday, 11th April 2021, 6:30 pm
SIMPLE LIVING: Charlotte Sykes and her husband pictured in the 1930s in their home in Brook Street, Dewsbury, a back-to-back house which was demolished in the 1960s.

Few pictures evoke childhood memories in me more than this one which shows the interior of the kind of house I grew up in. The picture is rare because I imagine few were taken of the inside of such humble abodes.

This one belonged to their great grandson Clifford Sykes who showed it to me when I interviewed him some years ago. He described in detail the interior of the one-up-one-down house and described all the furniture it contained. Perhaps Clifford realised intuitively that these houses, which were demolished in the 1960s, were an important part of our social history.

The couple pictured lived in a back-to-back house in Brook Street, on The Flatts, which Clifford’s granny, Charlotte Sykes, always kept spotlessly clean.

When I interviewed Clifford, he told me how much he loved visiting the house as a child and staying overnight.

“My granny used to tell me about her life, how she left school at seven, able to write, but unable to read,” he recalled.

“Although only seven, she worked in the mill and was paid half-a-crown a week. Her mother used to give her sixpence pocket money but always warned her – “Don’t spend it – I might need it later on in the week.

“Brook Street was on the side of a hill at the bottom of which was Horsfield’s boiler makers. I remember her waking me up to the hum of the machinery and the sound of hammers striking hollow drums.

“I used to watch them wheeling out these huge drums onto a spare piece of land – a wonderful sight for a small boy.

“I remember asking granny why she didn’t have a clock in her bedroom and how she knew what time it was in the morning.

“She replied: “I don’t need one because if Horsfield’s are working when I wake up, I know it’s time to get up. If they’re quiet, I know I can go back to sleep again.”

Brook Street consisted of rows of terraced back-to-back houses with outside toilets which were spotless with white washed walls and wooden toilet seats scrubbed white. Their one-up-one-down house looked out onto a children’s playground known as the ‘rec’, short for recreation ground, where his grandfather used to take him to play. Clifford remembered vividly the stone-flagged floor of his granny’s house and the stone steps leading up to the bedroom.

“Behind the house door was a huge washtub complete with huge wooden rollers with a turning handle, and in front of the window was a long narrow table at which she used to sit side-saddle to do her sewing.

“On the table near the sink corner was a gas ring, the only means of cooking, apart from the oven in the old black-lead range.

“In the sink corner was a stone shallow sink with one cold water tap, and next to it was the set-pot for boiling clothes on washday.

“The high fire range was made up of a water storage tank, with a fire in the middle, and an oven at the side. On the shelf above was the tea caddy, matches or tapers and the mantle clock.

“On the third side of the square room, opposite the window, was a large highly polished mahogany sideboard on which stood two glass domes under which were beautiful light reflecting lustres.

“There was also a clock, looking like a Greek temple, and on the wall above was a large framed picture of ‘The Monarch of the Glen’.

“On the other side was the cellar door, and at the top of the cellar steps, known as the cellar head, were shelves for storage jars and tins of food including a little glass jar with pennies in it for the gas meter.

“The only piece of furniture along this wall was a large horse-hair chaise longue, the enemy of every short-trousered little boy like me, and in the middle of the room was a large square table.

“The rest of the furniture included a high backed chair, a rocking chair and a buffet which was tucked under the table.

“The floor was covered with linoleum with a square patterned carpet in the centre with a hand-made pricked rug lying in front of the fire.

“The room upstairs had only a double bed (with a chamber pot underneath), a bedside table, one chair, and a chest of drawers.

“A curtain on a wooden pole across the recess of the chimney breast served as a wardrobe.”

One thing which stands out in Clifford’s mind was the amount of cleaning his granny did to make sure her little house was always spotlessly clean.

Other women in the neighbourhood did the same and he marvelled at how much effort they put into looking after their homes.

“When you look back you can really see just how hard these women worked,” he recalled.

“They were at it from morning til night, cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing and sewing”.

Clifford, who attended Wheelwright Grammar School and was a local headmaster, loved local history. He allowed me to take copies of other photographs of the time he spent visiting his grandparents which I hope to use in later articles.

Clifford saw the importance of social history and keeping records of what life was like when he was a child. If it wasn’t for people like him, I never would have enough information to write this column week after week. I would like to take this opportunity of thanking all the readers who do write to me and send in photographs.

If your letters or emails have not yet appeared, please be assured that in the coming weeks they will be. Indeed, I am at the moment working on an article which will include not only memories you may have sent me but also the many responses I have received about articles I have written in the past. They say there is a book inside everyone just waiting to be written, so why not have a go?.

If you have memories of the people who helped bring you up, please let me know [email protected]