Friday, December 18, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 9. The darker side of employment disputes (Reg Keen)

Your Grandad used to work in the centre of the printing room under a notice "Letterpress Printing". He was a "letterpress machine minder". Under the sign "Printing Room" in white was the part of the room used for "paper ruling", its output intended for ledgers, school exercise books and other writing stationery. There were high bridges up near the roof for official visiting parties of sightseers, who could thus watch what was going on without getting in the way of the workers or risking danger from machines or trollies etc moving between them. Official parties under the control of an official guides passed through the whole factory every quarter hour or so. Guides wore white coats and gloves and peaked uniform white caps with a label on the front in gold saying "Guide". It used to take about 40 minutes to do the trip. At the end a box of sample products was presented to each adult member of the party according to sex. I don't know what ladies got; men got shaving soap, white toilet soap and a booklet of comments.

As you know only workers in the factory could live in the village. Grandad started work in the printing room in 1897, and got married in 1907. When he asked for tenancy of an estate house, he was offered and accepted 10, Primrose Hill, which we moved into before I started school (about 1911 or 1912). We all enjoyed our village life, and in 1922 your Grandad received a gold watch for 25 years' service with the firm.

However in the 1920s disaster arrived. Every summer we used to go to Rhyl for one week's official holiday, and that year was no different except that while we were away, an official strike was called, of all printers in Britain. Dad was told that if he wished to take a few extra days' holiday it would be all right, so he decided to hang on till the Wednesday of the following week (even though we had to find fresh digs). We arrived back at Bebington Station about 7.30pm and three of Grandad's works mates were waiting for him at Primrose Hill. They grabbed him and told him the strike was still "on" next day and demanded to be told what he was going to do next morning at worktime. They wished to remain "solid" and what was Grandad going to do? Some of the bosses with the help of apprentices were able to carry on a small service of printing, but that was all. They assured him that none of his other works mates had so far turned in for work, and they pleaded with him to stay out with them. After some discussion Grandad told his mates that if they were all staying out he would stay out with them as an official member of the Typographical Association union.

Next morning those three blokes went into the works and asked if they could start work again and agreed to instruct the apprentices in the job. Your Grandad and five of his other mates nearly blew up when they found out what had been done and that they had been left "holding the baby". The group stayed out on strike for about three months but with the help of some non-union newcomers to the works the firm staggered on almost as usual. Without any warning Grandad got an official letter from the estate office informing him that he had no right to an estate house and that it was wanted for some other worker, so GET OUT. Grandad visited the office and offered to pay the rent outstanding (rent was normally stopped from wages each week, so with not having any official wages we had not paid rent even though Grandad had called in the office and offered to pay it each week).

Meanwhile the strike had ended and Lord Leverhulme had agreed to take EVERYBODY back to the old jobs with NO VICTIMISATION of any sort. The last six men then applied for reinstatement, but nothing happened, in spite of the agreement signed by "His Nibs". Within a month or so a summons was deilvered by a copper and an estate office agent who said, "Here is your notice to quit, Mr Keen." We had seven days to get out, but houses were not easy to get even in those days so NO DICE at that time. Then Grandad had to appear at the County Court in Birkenhead to state why he had not shifted as ordered. The learned judge asked who owned the house and was told, "Lord Leverhulme." The old guy just grunted, then asked, "And who is Lord Leverhulme?" - and that within 3 miles of the huge factory! The Court was taken aback, as they say, but nevertheless the Judge ordered us to clear out of the house completely within 14 days OR ELSE! So Grandad had to pick up any old house he could. He used all his savings to BUY one for £300 before we could be put out on the street by the broker's men. The house was 64 Cobden Street in Tranmere, a slummy area but there wasn't much choice.

Grandad and his Union wrote to Leverhulme and reminded him of his agreement weeks earlier, but got no satisfaction. Those half dozen men never got back into the factory even though they were the cream of the staff employed there. During the next few years they all got responsible jobs with other firms; Grandad and another bloke named Teddy McGleave both got bosses' jobs at Griffiths in Birkenhead, but they both wanted to get back to the village - without any luck.

We lived in Tranmere till 1937 then moved to Bebington to a newly built house, and the old house in Cobden Street was bulldozed into ruin not long afterwards; now it's a wasteland of bricks and grass.

The big "cheat" always rankled with your Grandad. He was always a very straight man who never broke his word to anyone and always played the game at all times - he was perhaps too straight for many creeps he had to deal with - and he presumed everyone would play fair with everyone else the way he did. He never imagined Lord Leverhulme would not keep his word, and he always lived in hope that it would come right in the end. Even when he died, there in the inside pocket of his suit was a letter from Leverhulme refusing to honour his agreement. Poor old Grandad. He learned an awful lesson during those years, that it was never good to trust anybody too much at any time, because not everyone would keep their word. It was all a terrible blow to him and he never recovered his old self. He developed a great hatred for anything to do with Sunlight except the football team, which then played on the Oval. He did go to watch them every week he could, but that was all.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 8. Clatterbridge, the cop shop and club outings (Reg Keen)

Reg Keen, my father, wrote to me in 1978 about his childhood in Port Sunlight.

During my schooldays lots of lads wore their Dad's old caps, usually with a tuck made in the back with a big safety pin to stop the cap from falling over their eyes ("gone dark early today, mate?"). These days it's chic and "liberated" for girls to wear the same style.

During the days of the training ships (before my time though) there was a fourth ship in the Sloyne called HMS Clarence after the then Duke of Clarence. There are no sailing ships left these days. Gone also are all the dozens of fishing "smacks" which used to sail in and out with the tides. Some of them used to get into the midnight race to the Isle of Man along with the yachts from the Royal Yacht Club (HQ in Bedford Road, Rock Ferry). Hundreds of spectators used to gather from about 10pm onward to watch the start of the annual race, all done in the dark unless there was a moon. (More about the Royal Mersey Yacht Club here:

New Brighton Pier is now being demolished (1978). It used to be a well known place in the '20s and '30s. There used to be a one-legged man who would dive into the river as the ferry steamers arrived at the landing stage; he'd shout, "Don't forget the diver, ladies and gents!" and that was how it came to be a catchphrase on Tommy Handley's ITMA radio show (It's That Man Again). Tommy was a local bloke and knew all about the one-legged diver.

At New Brighton there used to be "Ham and Egg Parade" where that delicacy could be purchased at any time. They also had a tower, higher than Blackpool Tower. The tower was pulled down in my school days (1913-1922ish) but I can remember the tower. There was also a smuggler's retreat near Egremont called Old Mother Redcap's but it is being bulldozed to dust and its history with it.

The Battery at New Brighton was an official fort, built by the authorities to protect the river approaches along with the batteries at Seaforth. They never fired their guns much at any time. During WW2 we had metal towers built in the shipyards and towed out to the Bar and lowered onto the sandy seabed. Their guns were to protect the docks from aircraft and bombs. New Brighton Battery is being turned into a museum.

There were no passenger transport services of any kind in the village in my schooldays; it was all shanks' pony at all times. The New Chester Road was always muddy and messy. At weekends, horsedrawn waggonettes took loads of men from the local clubs and pubs to the Chester area to booze and play bowls (no darts in those days) and on their way back at night these blokes badly needed to spend a penny but there was no place to go so they took turns to stand on the lower steps of the waggonette and let it go into the churned up mud. It caused a lot of hilarity among the spectators, about the nearest they got to modern day streaking I suppose. Lads used to turn cartwheels alongside the vehicles and call out for money, which the semi-drunk passengers often threw in the mud for them.

When the Lady Lever Art Gallery was being built, the great Troubles were on in Ireland. One night Grandad was on his way home to Primrose Hill after visiting his lifelong pal Jim Parr. It was about 10.30pm and as he passed the Art Gallery building site two coppers pinched him and took him to the police station in Grove Street. Some buggers had been starting fires at the site at night and Grandad was suspect for being out so late at night, He was held at the cop shop for nearly two hours before he finally cleared himself and could go home.

About that time (or a bit later) the Mersey railway was losing money hand over fist but they must have had advice from somewhere because they suddenly cut the fares from 1s 3d return to Liverpool, down to 6d return, and all other fares pro rata. Within weeks they had started to stack the profit in heaps there was so much of it - extra station extensions were built, new trains purchased - but still the cash rolled in. To compete with them the Corporation had to reduce fares on the buses and ferryboats, and that went on until the Mersey Railway was nationalised - then everything went back to something like the old rate. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

You asked about decorations put up when Royalty visited the village. I found a photo of the old house while sorting through a box of other snaps: people made paper roses fastened together with wire. That was about 1918/1919 I think. The Diamond that I referred to earlier, in front of the Art Gallery, was renamed King George's Drive and Queen Mary's Drive, now enclosing rose gardens and fountains etc. Road names also tell you where the streams ran in the village, River Street, Shore Road, Brook Street, Bridge Street etc; also names like Greenbank Road and Windy Hill explain themselves, so does Primrose Hill (but possibly a reference to Disraeli's Primrose League?) The houses called "The Anzacs" were named after the Australia and New Zealand Corps in the First World War. Bolton Road was a tribute to Billy Lever's birthplace; "Soapy Bill" became "Darcy and Hulme" when he was given Honours early in the 20th Century. In the churchyard a crypt was built, and the bodies of Lord and Lady Lever are now in the monument. She was a much loved lady in the village at all times.

Don't forget that Charles Dickens came to visit Mr Mayer at the old house in the park and there is still "Dickens' Walk" under the horse chestnut trees, always a pretty sight in summer.

Clatterbridge in those days was just a few scruffy buildings out in the country. It was then under the control of the Poor Law Guardians and used as a workhouse. Men and women were separated there after years of marriage. Another building was an isolation hospital. In 1942 the Yanks took the place over  - calling it "Clarrabridge" in their accent - and it was all modernised, jointly with the local people - and look at it now - 1100 beds and counting.

One other photo, of the "Marx Brothers" in full dress is of my Uncle George in his Smithy yard with three of his "boys". Nunks is the bloke standing behind the big hammer, next to the man with the horseshoe in his hand. I spent many happy hours in that yard letting off fireworks etc and wallowing in the wonderful smells of the working smithy. They really were the good old days.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 7. Sunlight soaps, scrumping and smallpox (Reg Keen)

Reg Keen, my father, wrote to me in 1978 about his childhood in Port Sunlight.

A magazine called "Progress" was published monthly at the Sunlight works and printed in the printing room there. It kept the village folks informed of local events and so on. I think it is now (1978) called "Sunlight News".

Products that I can remember being made included:

Lifebuoy Soap; pink, for ordinary use - probably better described as "red carbolic".
White / pale yellow soap for washing laundry, everyday jobs etc.
Lux flakes for laundry washing
Monkey Brand, a type of abrasive block like a solid version of "Vim", very gritty; size about 2 and a half by 1 and threequarter inches with the name "Monkey Brand "stamped into each block onboth sides. They were packed in orange coloured paper with a monkey's face along with the brand name and the instructions for use printed in black. Adverts said in large type "remember that IT WON'T WASH CLOTHES". It was about the only cleaner of its type in those days when pumice stone was not easy to get - and it was more useful.

There were some powder type cleaners available but none seemed as popular as modern products of that sort. One big drawback was that all the workers who were engaged in packing the stuff used to suffer from constipation and so work in that department was not popular.

The same factory also made a dye called "Twink" which was excellent for dyeing materials, such as straw hats; it sold in small brown bottles, a bit bigger than medicine bottles.

The printing room where Grandad worked for many years did a lot of outside jobs like chocolate boxes for Barker and Dobson's "Viking" chocolates; the lids were embossed - the title of the brand was depressed on the inside and so "stood out" on the lids. Paper ruling was another frequent job, ie, ruling paper sheet for making cash books and ledgers. A lot of general printing was done for sale in local shops for all sorts of purposes.

Another aspect of the factory was making "oil cake" cattle food in the department called the oil cake mills near the firm's docks beside the Pool. Presumably the oil was used in the soap making and the residue sold as feed.

The company made wooden boxes to pack their own products, to send away from the factory in their vans or by steam barges via the Pool to Liverpool for the docks or by train from local goods stations. The railway lines went to most local factories including the "Maggie Anne" works (Planter's Margarine works) which later became "Stork" and later Van Den Burgh and Jurgens. I think they dabbled a bit in the candle works too but I am not certain.

You remember the "tram lines" up at Storeton? Well, that stone was dug out to help build the wharves at Port Sunlight for loading and unloading the barges. The old waggon lines led from the quarry past the school grounds of what is now Wirral Grammar school; they passed down what is now Quarry Avenue under the bridge near the General Offices in Greendale Road and then on to the little dock area opposite Poets Corner by where the Bridge Inn now stands.

It was a great place for us kids to play around and explore and so always remembered. All us lads had an "inside knowledge" of the area and the steam trains which ran regularly from the factory and the oil cake mills down the New Chester Road cutting to the margarine works and then to Port Rainbow to start the products on their export trips. I knew several drivers on the trains.

In addition to the stone from Storeton Woods some stone came from the big quarry by the windmill (now demolished). It was a grand place for "niggers' funerals" (blackberrying) - a great spot for whipping fruit of all kinds - scrumping apples was a common pastime, even along the footpath from Mayer Park towards Ellen's Lane. (A bloody big black dog chased me on one occasion when I was about 12.) There were lots of allotments around and some kids spent hours digging under the potato haulms to get at the spuds underground, then the kids lit a fire on any handy spot to bake the spuds for eating. The plant would hang on for a while, but next day it would have drooped and withered, giving the game away to passers-by. The sabotaged plants were removed, being no use any more. I never dared to join in that lark because my old Dad suffered too much from similar predation on his allotment at the back of the houses on Primrose Hill and I knew how much it used to upset him to have spent money on seed potatoes and then not get any crop worth mentioning. But lots of kids in those days were underfed and needed those unofficial picnics. You were lucky to have shoes on your feet every day and not to have to wear "reach-me-down" pants (usually your Dad's old ones cut short). That was even the case in the "posh" area of Sunlight Village, and it was much worse in New Ferry around Olinda Street and Woodhead Street (now mostly pulled down). Woodhead Street is now a car park near Berkson's shoe shop.

I remember many scares about smallpox in New Ferry area while I was at school - usually from a patient escaping the isolation hospital near the brickworks. There were great panics and the streets used to be sealed off, so shopping had to be done by friends, or the local police, while the folk living in the streets concerned stayed in their houses until the groceries etc were delivered over the table-type barriers across the streets. On one occasion an escaped smallpox patient was found at dawn in a gents' toilet in Woodhead Street. The police took him back to the hospital then workmen piulled the whole place to pieces and removed all signs of the "utensils", then the remains were burned with a sort of flame thrower and finally sprayed with disinfectant. A lone bobby was posted to keep the nosey kids away (and some adults) - although most adults kept away without any warning, they were all so scared of the dreaded smallpox.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 6. A picnic at the Manor (Reg Keen)

In those days the river was full of ferry boats as well as other ships including sailing ships. There was the service to New Brighton and Egremont, a service to Seacombe, a service to Woodside, plus another to New Ferry and Rock Ferry. Finally there was a service of small paddle steamers to Eastham, all very handy and interesting to Sunlight village residents, who attended in hundreds by steamer or bike to collect thousands of the beautiful bluebells every spring weekend. The Ferry Hotel is all that is left of Eastham Ferry service and buildings nowadays, worse luck.

Another well-known picnic spot was and still is Raby Mere, and it has boats on it even now.

There were always organised picnics during summer, usually transporting people sitting on wooden forms fastened to a coal cart, but NOT for the village children. We usually had a big band to play at outdoor events, and there were some fine ones in the area. Port Sunlight Silver Band, Tranmere's Gleam of Sunshine, Bromborough Pool's Silver Band and Cammell Lairds' Band - alas most of them have now gone into limbo.

Once each summer the whole village went by coaches (charabancs) to Lord Leverhulme's home Thornton Manor, all very posh - but when the dozens of coaches had been filled, the enclosed works lorries were brought into use to help out. Inside those it was dark, noisy and smelly and the trip could not end soon enough. The coach children were very chuffed, but the lorry kids were not so pleased.

On arrival at the Manor the kids all got books of tickets for trips on various rides, including a sail on a motor boat of which there were two in use, the "Mauretania" and the "Lusitania", both flat bottomed, white painted, slow moving barge-like ships. It was all very interesting to us kids. Everyone did as they liked and a good time was had by all. At tea time all the kids trooped into huge marquee tents erected on the lawns and they all got the same meal: bread and margarine and a bag of cheap cakes from a Liverpool caterer's.  Last of all we got an enamel mug of hot stewed tea.
Thornton Manor (Gerald Clarkson collection)
Then followed more "rides", then organised games on the grassy field in front of the Manor. One one occasion a lucky lad had won a cricket set, a bat, three wicket stumps and a ball, so everything was laid out for a game. At this point Lord Leverhulme himself arrived, clad as usual in light clerical grey including his "topper". Being in a sporty mood he at once volunteered to join in the game. He grabbed the bat and took up his stance at the wicket, shouting, "Come on, boys, bowl at me." That is just what they did, but instead of the regulation ball he was expecting he received what was then called a "Berlin Pancake", a roundish, greasy, sugary, jammy cake withdrawn from some kid's picnic bag. It flew through the air and just missed the immaculate topper and spotless suit. His Lordship looked very shocked, and he quickly dropped the bat even though he had not hit a single ball, and nipped away saying, "Thanks boys, good luck," then he was GONE. To the kids it was the highlight of the day, bowling cakes at his Lordship and after he had paid for them too. I can still see it happening, I'll never forget that day at the Manor.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 5. Wartime and the reformatory Ships (Reg Keen)

Reg Keen, my father, wrote to me in 1978 about his childhood in Port Sunlight.

During the First World War many aircraft were very active over the village. Many Royal Flying Corps planes flew over as well and some crashed; one landed on Highcroft where Highcroft Avenue now is. I ran all the way from school to Highcroft at 4pm to see the "scout" plane land - it was very closely guarded by police all day. Lots of small planes used to fly up and down the long straight roads of the village, Central Road, Poolbank, etc. They scared the daylights out of us kids at times.

The village showground (now The Oval) was used to accommodate troops on their way to the bloodbath of Flanders. The Cheshire Regiment and the local Bantams (all under about 5 foot 3 inches in height) and many others camped at the same spot, till, about 18 months before the war ended, a gale one stormy night wrecked the camp, and the place has been more or less a dump ever since.
The Oval (posted on Facebook by Diana Parker)

Troop trains ran from Bebington and Port Sunlight station en route to France or Egypt. Two of my relations started out from there, and luckily both returned safely. There were always huge crowds to see these men board their trains, usually led by Major Ormerod (before-mentioned). There was a band stand on what was called The Diamond and when the war ended all the village gathered to rejoice in the victory to which it had given so many lives. The War Memorial to the men was erected near the open air swimming baths, one of the original buildings in Port Sunlight at its inception.

If I misbehaved in any way while at school my parents would threaten to send me to a training ship named "Clio", on station in the Menai Straits. Even the slightest misbehaviour was given as a reason for sending me to the "Clio" and it scared the pants off me. She was a reformatory ship like the three stationed in the Mersey: the "Akbar", the "Indefatigable" and the "Conway". Only the last two were on station in my school days. The two big training ships were always of great interest in the Mersey along with all the schooners and steamships anchored in the Sloyne area of the river.

I used to watch the crews holding their races on the river during summer months and wondered if, very soon, I would find myself rowing for a "Clio" crew in the Straits. It was a nightmare to live under such threats. On one occasion my bag was packed and put by the front door ready for the police to come and collect me for my punishment. Eventually when I left school the threat was dropped and I forgot all about the training ship until last week when a photograph was published in the Echo of the old "Clio" in the Straits. I have cut it out to keep as a memory of my schooldays.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 4. Sunday is Funday (Reg Keen)

The Boys' Brigade was very popular with the villagers and their bosses, and the Brigade used to go to camp in the Isle of Man each summer, often at Laxey. Grandad used to tell me about the tricks they used to get up to at camps. His favourite (being the Big Drum) was to tighten up the outer skins of the drum and then march through the small old fashioned villages banging away like hell to the great annoyance of the local populace. When they left the village he slackened the skins again to save splitting them.

The Band of Hope was organised by the churches, and each church often had their own mob. They would meet on Friday nights for all sorts of genteel games, like Ludo, Musical Chairs, three-legged races etc, then a bit of polite singing, usually hymns or similar ditties, and if you didn't sing you didn't get a (stale) cake or a swig of cold stewed tea. The thrill of that soon died away and the lads joined the Scouts; the girls never bothered much with such organisations to avoid trouble.

The country round about was very sparse except for some farms, commons, lanes and big houses - like the walk from Bebington to Raby Mere without the new housing estates. New Ferry was very like it is today but without Grove Street School; the Park was as it is now too and New Ferry Road (then New Ferry Lane) was well used by folk walking down to the Liverpool steamers (every 20 minutes). That service kept the place alive till a tanker ran into the pier during my later schooldays and that finished off the service for good.

At weekends the lads used to visit the shore at New and Rock Ferries to wander about with shoes and socks off (those who had socks!) in the thick slimy mud, singing all the popular songs to the passengers disembarking from the ferry boats, and then shouting, "Spare a copper please!" The passengers would throw pennies, always edgeways into the mud and out of sight so the kids would have to forage beneath the slime to try and grab the cash, which was very scarce in those days. It was a well known game at that time - early '20s.

Other games, on land, were: Pussy four corners, Marbles, Tip Cat, Throw the can (an improvement on Kick the Can, better aim!) - it was easier to knock off the bobby's helmet if you threw the can with a brick stuffed in it!

We also played cricket and football, fives, releavo and weak-horse; and with fag cards, cherrywags, hoops, tops. A favourite game was to tie two adjacent doorknockers together then knock at one door and run like 'ell. A harmless gag was to get two empty wooden cotton reels and two lads would stand either side of the footway in the darkness of evening and go through the motions of winding cotton onto the reels, shouting at homecoming passers-by to "Mind the cotton please!" The antics of the folk were a good laugh as they dodged the imaginary cotton. Another trick was to collect a ball of mud, wet it and divide it into smaller balls to throw at house windows where they flattened and remained stuck.

There were few street lamps (gas) in those days so there was a lot of scope for polite mischief but there was no rough stuff or damage done to property. We all knew that Billy Lever would soon "fix" you if you got too venturesome.

Number 10, Primrose Hill, was a 5 roomed house plus a small pantry and a bathroom, but no water laid to it either hot or cold. When you wanted a bath you had to light a small coal-fired boiler in the back kitchen, which heated water in a "copper" above it. The water then had to be ladled into a bucket and poured into the bath. Laundry was done the same way. It was a hot, stuffy, steaming, smelly and dangerous system especially when young children were present. After bathing or washing was completed the dirty water had to be ladled out and poured down the outside grid in the backyard. All very tiring. There were three bedrooms upstairs and nothing else, no toilet - that was at the very bottom of the backyard. It flushed but there was no light or any refinements, just a big nail with small newspaper bits strung on it for eventual use. All water was cold water, from a tap in the back kitchen - no pumping required.

Grandad had a rented allotment in the land behind the enclosed "backs" at 2s 6d per year rent. We also took up some flagstones in the back yard and planted flowers right outside the kitchen door,  Some tenants kept hens in their allotments, which was allowed.

There were ice cream carts and donkey rides on New Ferry shore from the pier offices towards Bromborough Pool, at the foot of what was known as the Shore Cliffs. In the second world war there was an anti-aircraft battery there, very near what was years ago the Isolation Hospital (treating smallpox), for ships' crews arriving in the port of Liverpool. Barnes' Brickworks were near the hospital (Grandad worked at the brickworks when he was 12).

Every year there was a walking race from Woodside to Ellesmere Port, organised by a relation of my family, Harry Thompson. His son Harry Junior won the race on several occasions.

Schoolboy football was very much in evidence. Church Drive Boys played at the Poolbank enclosure (The Tins, painted red) in the centre of the village. Most local schools also had teams and provided the lads for the local "town" teams such as Bebington Schoolboys, and Birkenhead Schoolboys who included the great Dixie Dean when he was under 14 years of age. He was the greatest centre forward ever in this country, scoring over 60 goals in a season.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 3. (Reg Keen)

Continuing the letter from my father written in 1978:

Most of the raw materials for soap manufacture came to the works by steam barges, often towing other barges. They were normally painted black with red funnels (when they had funnels). They proceeded to the works from the Mersey via the Pool, after which Bromborough Pool was named - a small village that was built before Port Sunlight existed and was controlled by Price's Patent Candle Company.

I have no idea how many people worked at the Sunlight factory but it must have been in the region of 10,000 men. Conditions inside the factory were very good for the times but strict. Everyone had to W O R K and damned hard, for the whole day, no scrimshanking of any sort, and the 'sack' was always round the corner. Pay was about £3 per week for skilled tradesmen, less for labourers. A great pal of your Grandad's used to get one gold sovereign each week as a labourer. He said it was just enough to keep him going while he worked another week for another gold coin, ad infinitum. No pound notes in those days. Poor old Jim Venables. He used to walk down Central Road to work each day. Grandad got about three times Jim's pay because he was a tradesman printer (machine minder). Jim was killed in the first World War, a fact which always upset Grandad, he never forgot Jim of "Skipper" as he was always called; a lovely man, unmarried, sober, honest and very straight. Grandad was always proud of him being his friend.

Grandad worked at Price's Candle Works when he was a youth of about 16, before starting work as a printer at Lever Brothers in Sunlight village. His work at Lever's made us eligible for a house on the estate, and in 1909 we took over 10, Primrose Hill, the earliest home I can remember. We lived there till I was 16 and happy years they were for me.

The well known Art Gallery in the village was built when I was about 13 (1921/22). I passed it going to and from school each day. It is built in one of the small valleys which used to hold small streams that abounded in that part of the Wirral, all on their way to the river Mersey via the Pool. The gallery was built to commemorate the life work of Lady Lever, Lord Lever's much loved wife. All the villagers thought very well of her and she remained completely free of scandal during all her life and that was something even in those days. She was greatly liked by the children of the village; one reason was that every child in the village always received a stiff backed book, according to the child's age, on the morning of EVERY birthday from 5 to 14. The books were marked with a printed label showing the Lever family photograph and inscribed, "As a gift to ...... on the occasion of their ...... birthday." A smartly uniformed boy of about 17 was employed to deliver each book before noon on the big day. We looked forward to his call very much and I still have some of those much valued books.

When New Chester Road school was built it was not inside the old village limits but all the old classes from Church Drive were transferred to it and the kids from the old Lyceum went to Church Drive. A terrific rivalry grew up between the two schools, and great dislike when they competed at cricket, football and swimming. Most kids looked forward to heavy snowfalls and by common consent both groups of children gathered in the area of Brook Street where a huge snowball fight took place until time for school to open at 9am. It was renewed at dinner time and when school closed at 4pm. It was  usual for each snowball to be stuffed with small bricks or "mackies" (road stones) and there were many bloody battles with cut heads all winter. But nobody ever got badly hurt, to my knowledge.

I learned all my ignorance at the village school - no universities for the likes of me in those days. I had to start work at 14 and got 11s 8d a week (no Tax!)

Bread was about threepence ha'penny to fivepence a loaf (1lb to 2lb). Spuds, about 5lb for eightpence to a shilling according to the age of the spuds. A rabbit cost ninepence to a shilling each (very tasty too). Poaching was fire of course, usually along the area of Storeton, along to Prenton woods. Sunday joints about 2s 6d upwards according to weight. Coal was 1s 3d to 1s 9d per hundredweight. We used to get ours from Dick Houldin, advertised as "Grate Stuff" for years. His sons are still in the firm in the same place (1978).

The trees in Sunlight village were planted under the original scheme and are only new being renewed. The main road to Chester was packed mud and clay from the Toll Bar outward past Bromborough Cross and it was only macadam or tar from the Toll Bar into Birkenhead.

More in the next... 


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Friday, December 11, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 2. (Reg Keen)

Continuing the letter written to me by my father in 1978...

There was very little traffic in the village then and all roads were macadamised, not tarred. The "Backs" behind the houses were macadam too for coal delivery carts etc to get round easily. Most roads outside the village were just pounded down clay or mud and in wet weather they made an awful mess of shoes or boots and pram wheels (called "Go-carts" then, not prams). Rules were very strict in the village and nob ody was allowed to stand and gossip at their front doors - the Backs had to be used for that. The estate staff used to keep an eye on the tenants and arranged to have them chucked out if they "sinned". No lodgers were allowed except on the request of the "firm", no drunkenness or drunken singing and of course there were only about two cars in the village then, owned by bosses who lived in the bigger houses near to Hulme Hall (named after part of the Lever family who took their title from Hulme near Manchester / Bolton).

Port Sunlight was a peaceful little backwater in those days and anybody living there was considered to be "somebody" compared to the other folk around the area. My cousins who lived in the slums of Birkenhead looked at me with awe when I went to visit them - I was a sort of freak for living in Port Sunlight.

Only workers at the Lever factory were allowed to rent the houses and if you left your job you got the sack, and if you were kicked out of your job you got the sack (one way of trying to keep the workforce honest I guess).

The rent for the houses, about 7 shillings a week, was stopped out of the husband's wage each Friday so there were never any arrears. Tenants were not allowed to paint their houses or decorate inside or out; the Company painted the outside of their property once every 5 years and the firm selected the colours. The inside was papered and painted every 7 years, and within limits, the tenants could choose their own colour scheme.
The Auditorium (picture posted on Facebook by Joanne Phillips)

There was a big "garden show" each year, usually held in The Auditorium at the north end of The Dell near the bridge. One mystery was how the men who grew stuff for the shows got such huge onions etc. But anyone who lived near the allotments knew about the buckets of bedroom slops (urine) poured on the soil in the months before the show. The conversations in the pubs, in a surfeit of congratulatory beer, often revealed the other mystery of how certain blokes won so many prizes. Many were won with produce that had never been grown in the village at all. The date of the show was the weekend after the great Shrewsbury Show and lots of Sunlight exhibitors had attended Shrewsbury to buy items for the village show a few days later. For instance, villagers who showed "onions in lots of six" had never had any onions in their garden the day before the show. There was  a great deal of fiddling because prizes were very good: 5s, 7s 6d or even 10s for special classes. A few prizes of that sort soon covered the cost of the trip to Shrewsbury to "collect".
Fire Engines and crews (Stephen Dutton collection)

Port Sunlight in those happy days had its own horse-drawn fire engine and ambulance stationed in the village opposite the works entrance, and there was always great fuss and much noise when they had to turn out.

More in the next... 


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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 1. (Reg Keen)

Reg Keen, my father, wrote to me in 1978 about his childhood in Port Sunlight.

My parents moved to Port Sunlight when I was about 6 months old (summer of 1909). Life was very happy there during my early years with lots of space, lots of trees and flowers and lots of little pals. On reaching the age of 5 (1913) I was enrolled at the village school, Church Drive. The Junior school headmistress was Miss Slater, an elderly spinster, and my class teacher was Miss Peacock aged about 25. When the time came for me to enter the senior school (aged about 10, in 1918) the headmaster was Mr JA Simister, ably supported by Mr Higson and Mr Hartley Hughes who later became the first headmaster of Grove Street School in New Ferry. We also had Mr Lawrie ("Lorrie" or "Jimmy") and James Ramsey Smith, a trainee of Chester College, who was very popular but eventually left to become the headmaster of The Delves Schoolhouse, a village school built by Sir Delves Broughton in a village near Chester, Wybunbury.
Church Drive Schools (posted on Facebook by Joanne Phillips)

About the middle of my school life, 1918/19, I was away ill with chickenpox when all the school was moved to the newly built New Chester Road school, while the children from the old village school now called the Lyceum took over Church Drive. As I was away ill at the time I was not included in the shift to New Chester Road and I was pushed in with all the Lyceum kids at Church Drive, which meant finding new pals altogether. They all seemed to originate from homes nearer to the Soap Works and Trafalgar Village.

In my young days the village was run by the school heads, the estate office staff (2) and the local parson Mr Hooke who was the choirmaster at the village church. There was also a Major Ormerod, a little tin god Territorial Army officer who held a lot of power in the village until after the first World War. He gave the land known as Ormerod Gardens, to become part of Mayer Park around 1965.

In the village there was the Boys' Brigade in which Grandad (Reg's father) used to bang the big drum; a Scout troop; a Guide troop; three football teams and the Band of Hope which was tied up with the church  in Bebington Road near Grove Street.

The senior football team (amateurs mainly) played at The Tins, Poolbank Enclosure in Central Road in the village, by the Cottage Hospital and Church Drive School which was next door to the Church; so all the important buildings were grouped together. They were in the midst of open fields abutting Central road which led to the main Offices of the soap factory.

There were two pubs, the Bridge Inn close to the bridge over The Dell, and the Railway Inn at the edge of the village near Bebington Station. There was a Catholic school, St John's, on Bebington Road, but it was NOT part of the village. There was also a Liberal Club in the village, as of course old Billy Lever was a Liberal in politics.

Most of the houses were laid out on a plan like a flattened "O" with traffic roads back and front of the blocks of houses. They were arranged round plots of allotments which could be rented by the householders if they wished to grow anything for themselves, but there was so much greenery about the place, more was not really needed. It was a very pleasant spot to be brought up in at a time when most of the kids living in nearby towns had never seen anything actually growing apart from a few apple trees. A cousin of mine on a visit to Port Sunlight in 1920/21 spent lots of time in Grandad's allotment looking under the potato plant stems to try and find some potatoes, not knowing they grew underground.

The village was always choked with hundreds of men and young women going to and from the soap works each day, including Saturday mornings in those days, of course. The nearest tram route terminus then was at the Toll Bar corner in New Ferry where a tram service ran every 10 minutes to Woodside for the ferry to Liverpool; or workers could walk to New Ferry and down New Ferry Lane to the New Ferry / Rock Ferry steamer to Liverpool. There were a great number of workers using the river to get to work at Billy Lever's soap works, while an equal number went the other way to work at "the Yard" - Cammell Lairds shipyard. The Sunlight railway station was not built until much later, about the middle '20s I think.

More in the next... 


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Reminiscences of Wirral 1910s-1930s - coming up!

Over the next few days I am going to type-up and present a long letter full of reminiscences of Bebington, Port Sunlight and Birkenhead on the Wirral, which my Dad wrote to me in April 1978. He was born in Port Sunlight in October 1908 so he was almost 70. He was remembering things that happened between the 1910s and 1930s.

I don't have many photographs so what I put up will mostly be borrowed from other blogs, to which I will give credit of course!


Between now and 26 February 2016 you can earn a free Kindle Book by simply downloading and registering the free Kindle reading app, or buying a Kindle Book, or buying a book. Here are some of mine to get you started!

And, rather less specific  - "Castles, Customs and Kings - Volume 2" by English Historical Fiction Authors, edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard, is available at:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Merry Exhortations

Now look. I controlled my urge to slap you for posting Happy Hallowe'en messages, didn't I? I do not need passive-aggressive exhortations about the kind of Christmas greetings I should be exchanging. "Merry Christmas" is fine, but as we haven't even reached Stir Up Sunday--Just. Not. Yet.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Blimey, Elijah!

Last month, the Cumbria Rural Choirs presented Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah".

It is a lot of years (better hadn't say how many) since I first sang it, as a soprano in our school choir. We performed it in the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, one of the great Merseyside singing spaces, along with "Paddy's Wigwam", the Catholic cathedral. Yes, we sang there too. Doris Parkinson forced us to be VERY good indeed.

Thinking back, at seventeen I found the story of "Elijah" a confusing one. Having sung it again now, this time as a tenor and a grannie, I realise the music carries it, from the opening curse to Elijah's triumphant gallop into heaven; but my word, the action is nasty.

Here's a run-down:

1 Elijah gets a cob on because the Israelites don't worship his god.
2 He curses Israel, saying his god will stop the rain for three years, and all the children begin to die of hunger and thirst (nice, huh?)
3 He challenges the priests of Israel's other religion (Baal) to a burn-the-bullock contest.
4 He gets lucky, lightning strikes when it's his turn so everybody says his god is the winner. The spectators seize on the priests of Baal and kill them.
5 He prays for rain and a storm comes and produces a flood (this bit probably wouldn't have gone down well in Carlisle 10 years ago).
6 Yay, god is good. Cups of tea in the interval.
7 Ahab and Jezebel are pissed off that Elijah had all their priests killed (did I forget to mention that it was his idea?).
8 They wind up the people into a murderous mood.
9 Elijah legs it into the wilderness (you can see why), tells himself he's a failure, and is comforted by the angels.
10 Then (the ultimate Deus ex Machina) his god takes him to heaven in a Fy-erry Fy-erry Charr-Yot with Fy-erry Fy-erry Horses.
11 Wrap and curtain.

I have no doubt that Mendelssohn's contemporaries thought this was a jolly good story. The oratorio has undoubtedly survived, and is still sung with enthusiasm in both English and German.

I find the whole thing much more thought provoking these days than I did back in the 1960s. Maybe it's due to the extensive TV coverage of current events.

Even if we only look at the first couple of points in the story: "You aren't worshipping the same god as I do, so I'm going to curse and punish you." Disregard the Christian / Abrahamic skin under which Mendelssohn wrote, and just consider the premise. Isn't this the same excuse that's given for war by groups like ISIS and Al-Quaeda?

The second point, a three-year drought and resulting famine, is something we're all familiar with from news coverage. What I can't buy is the idea that a prophet calls down such suffering on his people. I'd accept that he might cash in on existing events and say that the drought is because they have been wicked; there are plenty of precedents for religious fundamentalists claiming that disasters are 'intended' to turn other people towards their own beliefs - and in the case of war, creating merry hell with the same intention.

Back to "Elijah". The music in the oratorio is wonderful, and Andrew Mahon, the young bass-baritone who sang the part of the prophet last month, has a part of my heart forever for his wonderful voice and dramatic interpretation. But I can't put Elijah himself on a heroic pedestal. Yeah, I know, it is just a story. So is Noah's Flood. Biblical hokum at its best. But it has a lot of modern parallels, and for me, Elijah-the-prophet needs to be dropped into the same deep hole as any other religious extremist.