The large numbers of children born into many local families in the 1900s and 1920s introduced many of them to very real poverty at an early age. In those days, families had next to nothing to fall back on in hard times. Our series on Childhood this week recalls that poverty, and the child labour and exploitation that accompanied it.
"There was a terrible lot of poverty, I can remember it through the First World War. There were big families in small houses, two up, two down, some of them had eight or ten kiddies living in there and there weren't bunk beds in those days; they were sleeping head to toe, or else on the floor. They had some hard times.
"You'd see them with their washing hanging out - I don't know if you've ever seen them, Carr's flour bags, the white ones, from Carr's of Carlisle; all the working people in those days got them from the grocer. When the flour bag was empty, wash them, and they make good pillow cases. They all used them, you'd see them everywhere. When we went bathing, we had no towel - a fine sack like your mother would have for a rough apron - we all had those. We hadn't a towel. If a lad went out bathing with a towel he was lucky."
Growing lads that were always hungry sometimes used to hang round yards or workshops at the end of the day:
"We used to wait for the men coming in of a night so we could have what they had left in their dinner bags; there was often a few lads waiting of a night. 'Can I have your dinner bag if there is anything in it?'
The ritual of bath time for children and all the fun of the bubbles and toys is a modern luxury:
"There were no baths in those days; we all had a bath when our mother had the washing boiler on, when she'd been doing the washing, and you could sit on the edge of the tin bath or else in the dolly tub. I've bathed many a time in a bucket, one leg in a bucket..."
With such poverty, it was hardly surprising that quite a number of enterprising seven-year-olds were already out on the streets as errand and delivery boys earning a few pennies a week. A morning milk round brought in about 7p a week, and there were paper rounds and messages to run for any small boy who was strong and willing. Some employers never questioned a child's ability to do the work required:
"I went to work for a grocer on a Friday night, and he kept his potatoes up in the loft amongst the hay to stop the frost getting at them, and I used to go with a bogey and hurricane lamp up a Jacob's ladder and fill a basket with potatoes and bring it down into the bottom and put it into the bogey. Well, I wasn't big enough to carry this, to bring this basket down, so I used to let it down with a piece of rope in the bottom. I used to be afraid of that because there were rats about in this place but we had this to do when we were kids; then I would go, let this basket down with all the potatoes in, go down and empty my bogey and go up with my lamp again, or pull it up with a string.... pull it up again and let it down, and I had that to do every Friday night after school."
Eventually a new law was passed forbidding children to work under the age of twelve; an inspector came round checking up, but many under-age children were allowed to continue to work because they'd already been in employment for some time:
"I was eleven when I started work for a shoe-maker, helping in the workshop of a night from school, knocking clog bottoms off, knocking nails out of hob-nailed boots after the shop shut at night, and they used to keep open until eight o'clock every night as long as there was a customer; if there was customers coming in they would stay open until ten. I didn't leave school completely till I was fourteen, but we all worked in those days. We used to do all sorts of jobs when we were going to school; soon after I started there was a rule came out that you couldn't start until you were twelve, but all the lads had been working there for some time. You'd to work all hours.".
The shoe-maker paid him about 8p a week, and all the children were offered a free ticket to the pictures as an incentive to work harder.
Many children ran errands and made deliveries,rattling about on old bone-shaker bikes they made themselves from bits found on the local tip, down muddy pot-holed lanes with no lamps or street lighting; many women who took washing in relied on their children to collect and deliver the laundry, sometimes in wheelbarrows. One little lad said the wrong thing to a customer and cost his mother her job:
"My grandma, having lost her husband, had to take in washing, and she took bundles from the big houses, and the two younger children used to take it out on a wheeled barrow. Well, the young boys had gone round to these very big houses, and in those days the ladies wore bonnets. With Grandma being a widow and poor, they'd given her little boy a bonnet for her and he brought it home. Next time this lady said to him, 'And how did your mother like her bonnet?' And being just a little boy he said, 'Very much, thankyou M'am, she's washing in it!' Well, Grandma lost that job because they were very strict in those days and they thought, Well, she couldn't have been all that poor if she could use the bonnet to wash in!"
However young and carefree a child was, the reality of having to earn a living was never very far away, and many children were all too familiar with sweated labour and bad working conditions long before they were grown up. But they were canny, and learned to make the best of things, especially at Christmas, when an errand boy could collect a small fortune in tips. One young errand boy had reason to regret his honesty:
"The boss used to come to me at Christmas and say - (soft I was!) - 'How many tips have you got this Christmas?' And I would tell him, 'approximately twelve shillings,' and he would say, 'Oh well, that's alright for you, then.' You mightn't believe it, but he'd break a single piece of Toblerone chocolate in half and say, 'Here, you can have that for Christmas.' Half a piece of Toblerone for Christmas!"