Footsteps through the past (Running errands in 1950-1951)
I grew up in Hirwaun, in old Bethel Place in fact, and I was lucky enough to have spent a blissfully happy childhood there.
The warmth and feeling of Community in the Village then was like being wrapped in a Welsh-flannel shawl. I was born in 1943, so, by 1950 I was old enough to run errands for my family.
Those errands gave me the chance to meet some of the wonderful, colourful characters, who made up the rich tapestry of Village life that has long since disappeared.
Because of the freedom children enjoyed back then I got to know every stone and blade of grass in Bethel Place, as well as every short-cut to other parts of the Village, so going on errands was part and parcel of my life.
I’m recounting a few of them as a sort of “snapshot” of Village life back in the early fifties from a child’s perspective.
Going to Bob Baker’s the Cobbler at the top of Harris Street
My father had taken his working boots to Bob’s for repair.I must have been with him because when my father sent me to collect them Bob recognised me straight away and went to fetch the boots off the shelf.
He realised that he hadn’t quite put the finishing touches to the boots, so he tried to explain to me that he had to finish the job.
As he couldn’t hear a thing or speak a word, his mode of communication was very animated.
I did understand what he was trying to explain to me and everything was fine until he switched on a large machine that stood behind the counter. A huge bellows at the back of the machine with a noise quite terrifying to a small child.
I was scared out of my wits and ran out of the shop and down Harris Street quicker than you could say working boots.
When I told my father why I had come home without the boots he just chuckled to himself. He went to collect the boots himself and I never knew what he said to Bob about me running out of the shop.
Going to Bray’s (Sweet Shop on High Street)
Miss Bray! What can I say about Miss Bray? A formidable woman, who could shatter the confidence of a seven year old with one of her waspish remarks. Children of today would be offered counselling after visiting her shop!
She was a broad shouldered woman who looked to be in her sixties. No wrap around pinny for Miss Bray though. She was usually turned out in a full length brown or navy overall. Her white naturally curly hair was kept in a short, neat bob. She completed her look with lisle stockings and brown brogue, lace-up shoes with ‘Cuban heels’.
She stood guard behind that counter and God forbid anyone who stepped out of line. Not that anybody would in those days. I don’t think she was particularly fond of children! Odd really since she kept a sweet-shop and most of her customers would have been children. Needs must I suppose.
Anyway, my mother paid a Christmas club with Bray’s, so just before Christmas members of this club would go along to the shop to collect boxes of chocolates. Easy enough you would think, not when it came to Miss Bray! I don’t know why my mother couldn’t go, so yes, you’ve guessed it. The job was dedicated to me.
I turned up at the shop one afternoon after school and had to wait and wait and wait, sitting on a miner’s block for what seemed an eternity before being summoned into the living-room where Miss Bray was sitting at a table, piled high with boxes of chocolates.
Sweet rationing hadn’t been lifted at this time, so a box of chocolates was a rare luxury. When she saw me she was aghast. She was most put out that i had come along to collect the chocolates. She made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t my place to pick up the chocolates, my mother should have done it, by now I was squirming and wished the floor would swallow me up. She grudgingly gave me the chocolates and I went on my way.
I never really warmed to Miss Bray.
On another occasion when I went to the shop I was wearing a sun-suit that my mother had bought for me on a recent trip to Blackpool. I loved that sun-suit! It was a navy blue two piece with a small white flower print, the skirt was like flared shorts and this was attached to the top by four strips of material, two at the back and two at the front, which left most of my midriff bare. Quite risqué for the time I suppose, well, Miss Bray must have thought so because as I stood there waiting to buy some sweets she took great delight in pointing out to me and other customers in the shop, that in later life I would be sure to suffer with kidney problems because of wearing my sun-suit.
Is it any wonder why I didn’t warm to Miss Bray!
We called her Miss Bray even though she was married to Mr George Griffiths, a lovely man.
I remember one New Year’s morning when I was running around wishing people a Happy New Year Mr Griffiths was standing by the railings opposite the shop. He was wearing a dark blue boiler suit, and, as I wished him a Happy New Year he dug deep into his pocket, hesitated slightly, then pulled out a half a crown and gave it to me.
That half a crown was an absolute fortune to a child in those days when you could expect a penny or two.
I was stunned and that simple act of such generosity has remained in my memory all my lilfe. Even as a child I used to wonder why such a nice man was married to Miss Bray!
Going to the Oil Shop (next to Bray’s Sweet Shop)
I would have been about seven years of age at the time my mother sent me to ‘Smale’s The Oil Shop’ to buy a chamber pot.
Now, we weren’t into collecting antiques you understand, we just needed a chamber pot!
The shop was known as the ‘Oil Shop’ but it was the ironmongers where you could buy all manner of hardware as well as oil for lamps, paraffin for heaters and of course, chamber pots.
I entered the shop through one of the two narrow wooden doors. A spring-loaded bell above the door clanged as I went into the vast emporium.
The place was deserted as I stood there alone on the flag stone floor. I must admit I felt rather small standing there, looking around me. To the left of me, a long dark brown wooden counter ran along the length of the shop. To my right were two enormous free–standing lidded cauldrons, one for oil and one for paraffin, which would account for the strong whiff of paraffin that hung in the air!
The shop was run by two sisters, so as I waited I expected one of them to emerge from the living area at the back of the shop. I was a bit surprised when the husband of one of them came striding towards the counter.
I knew Mr Harrison a good looking bespectacled man who was in his forties, all I knew about him was that he had an important job ‘down Aberdare’ well it must have been important because he always wore a smart suit.
So there he stood in his brown pin-stripe his arms outstretched, arms on the counter looking down at me, waiting for me to ask for my purchase, for a second or two he looked thunderstruck, then, without a word he turned on his heels and walked the considerable length of the shop and disappeared through the doorway at the far end.
I waited there for what seemed like an eternity wondering if I had done something wrong, and then Mrs Harrison, better known by her Maiden name of Katy Smale appeared. A cheerful, dark haired woman looked to be in her forties, wearing a wrap around pin (most women wore those pinnies for doing chores in those days). She seemed rather flustered as she quickly picked up a chamber pot from the shelf, wrapped it up in newspaper and handed it to me.
All of a sudden my cheeks started to blaze, when I realised that Mr Harrison had been too embarrassed to serve me.
Then the penny dropped as to why my mother had sent me on this rather delicate errand.
My mother, a very proud woman would have been mortified if she had gone to buy the item. I’m glad I was able to spare her blushes, even though I had a few myself.
Going to the Johnson’s
Occasionally my mother would send me to the Johnson’s to buy two shilling’s worth of flowers.
It was always two shillings, so it must have been the going-rate.
Now here was I, from a very humble cottage in Bethel Place, going to the grandest mansion in the village.
I always felt a little bit privileged to be allowed to knock on the back door, never the front!
I was also a little bit in awe of the Johnsons. I mean they were monied people and very posh; There was a certain amount of mystery about the family.
As I stood there on the stone steps, one of the brothers, a man who looked to be in his sixties would come out and lead me to the part of the enormous garden, where he grew flowers for cutting.
Before being led away from the door I caught a glimpse of one of the sisters, she too looked to be in her sixties sitting in the back-kitchen. Her fair hair was plaited and the plaits had been coiled up and sat one each side of her head. I always thought they looked like head-phones!
The sketchy knowledge i had about the Johnsons was that seven or eight brothers and sisters had made a pact never to marry, and that only one of the brothers had broken that pact, and indeed married and sired a son. I believe the family disowned him after that!
I always looked on the Johnson family as rather quaint.
They lived in their own world, in that vast mansion, with that manicured front lawn, That is now Johnson Parc.
A bygone era indeed!
Paying the rent
One of the errands I was not particularly keen on was going to Watkins’farm to pay the rent. The princely sum of eighteen shillings a month!
Cae Felin Parc is built on the farm land now.
I had to take my courage in both hands when I went to the farm because once I had gone through the tall iron gates I was on my own and had a few obstacles to overcome.
The first one was the boggy field, and you could bet your life, that whilst scampering across the field, one of my shoes would be “ captured” by the bog. This meant having to hop back, avoiding the ‘cow pats’ find my shoe and slip my foot into it and reclaim it as my own. The next hurdle was having to pass the herd of cows, I was always wary of the cows and kept a healthy distance between them and myself.
I did take a glance or two to make sure they were all cows, you could never be sure that the bull wasn’t among them.They stopped grazing and looked at me as I passed, so far so good.
Next two black and white border collies would be in front of me, barking like mad! No good turning back now, I was on a mission!
As I approaches the farm yard Mrs Watkins would be there, shouting at the dogs, trying to quieten them down. “Come on in bach” she would shout at me.”The dogs won’t hurt you”. I can’t say I was convinced of this, but I has to press on, I had to pay the rent.
Mrs Watkins, a thin, wiry woman who I guessed would be in her seventies stood before me. She was a sight to behold, dressed in a wrap around pinny, with a piece of sacking material tied around her waist and she had a pair of wellingtons on her feet. Most of her wild grey hair had escaped the hair pins that were supposed to secure it in a ‘bun’. She was a friendly enough sort of woman and always gave me a warm welcome.
Mrs Watkins ran the farm with the help of her ‘right hand’ Harriet. Harriet lived just across the road from the farm with her husband Will Feltham. It’s still there today. Harriet was a lovely jovial woman who looked to be in her forties. I remember she was full of mischief and fun as well as being hard-working, a ‘salt of the earth’ kind of person.
Mrs Watkins led me into the barn where Harriet was milking one of the cows. She was wearing a wrap around pinnie and wellies and her hair was wrapped up in a turban. When she spotted me, out of sheer devilment she put one of the cow’s teets to her mouth and squirted some milk inside, then she aimed the teet at me and spattered me with milk. She just laughed uproariously whilst Mrs Watkins just looked on.
Mrs Watkins then suggested that because I looked a bit peaky I should visit the farm every morning before school and have a cup of milk straight from the cow! I never did take up that invitation; it was enough to face my fears when I went to pay the rent besides, the thought of luke-warm milk straight from the cow just didn’t appeal to me, despite Mrs Watkins telling me that it would do me good.
After parting with the rent money I said my polite ‘goodbyes’ to both of them before making a hasty retreat back to the safety of good old Bethel Place.
I could breathe a sigh of relief until the next time the rent was due.
Going to Isle’s Bakery at the bottom of Harris Street
I think I’ve kept the best ‘til last!
Quite early on Christmas mornings my father would take our goose to Isle’s bakehouse to be roasted in one of the giant ovens in the bakery which was at the bottom of Harris Street.
A raffle ticket would be skewered onto the bird as a means of making sure which one was yours. You didn’t want somebody else’s by mistake.
Later in the morning I would accompany my father when he went to collect our bird, my job was to carry a jug for fat that had been drained out of the roasting tin.We would both go back to my grannie’s cottage in Bethel Place which was just around the corner from ours, and enjoy our Christmas dinner my mother had cooked on the black leaded grate.
As for the fat I had carried well it was ‘liquid gold’ It was commonly known as goose grease and was a panacea for all ills, whether you had ear-ache, a sore throat or a bad chest, this warmed grease would be slathered on, then dressed with a clean white hankie topped by a warm scarf. You would smell as if you were ready to be roasted, but, no matter it was known to do the trick! Where or when the practice started I really don’t know, but every self respecting home would have a jar of goose grease in the pantry along with a bottle of Mrs Griffiths’ mixture and knowing how to apply a ‘bread poultice’. Who needed antibiotics!
Isle’s bakery was a family run business, where Mr Isles and his son-in-law produced the most wonderful selection of bread and cakes imaginable. They worked tirelessly throughout the night, then during the day Mrs Isles would sell the produce from the small shop at the bottom of Harris Street. I often marvel at the sheer talent of these men. They baked a selection of bread which included cobs, batches, milk loaves, Swanseas, sandwich loaves and tins as well as mouth-watering cakes such as cream-horns, cream-slices, custard tarts, éclairs, snowballs and madeleines, as well as individual trifles! Oh those trifles were such a treat, served up in wax paper cartons. The explosion of plastic was yet to come!
What a sad loss to the village when that business closed down. The same could be said for every family run business, that breathed life into the village.
With the loss of the businesses, I feel the heart has been ripped out of Hirwaun. The village culture has been decimated and I fear for the future.
No-one would want to go back to the days of outside lavatories, tin baths and chamber pots, but somewhere over the years the very spirit of the village has been lost.
I fear Hirwaun has gone down the slippery slope of decline. Let’s hope a rescue package can be put in place before it’s too late.
We can but live in hope. Let’s hope the children of today with their iPads for company will look back on their childhood in ‘technicolour’.
I know I can and I often tell my sons what a wonderful time I had growing up in Hirwaun.
I wouldn’t have changed it for the world!
Glenys O’Gorman Nee Morgans
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