My Childhood in Stillington
By Dennis Law
I was born on August 18th 1931 at Church Farm, Marton. My father died of cancer aged 37. Church farm belonged to The Church Commissioners so mother had to sell up. Total sale of stock and implements was £720.
I moved to Stillington aged 2 years into rented Ivy Cottage (at 2/6 per week), with my elder brother Geoff and Mother where I spent my school days. Mother kept the family together by housekeeping, baking, washing etc. for families in the village. Mother seemed to be always baking for us and other people. All cooking and baking was done on the kitchen range, with water heated in the side boiler. Irons were heated on the front of the fire with the ironing of clothes done on the kitchen table. We had no running water in the house - we had a well and a pump in the back yard which we shared with the Souters next door.
The 'toilet' was the earth closet at the bottom of the backyard - a two-seater which we shared with Miss Coverdale, our other next door neighbour. Toilet paper was the York Evening Press. You did not hang about in winter to read it!
Life was very organized in those days. Monday was wash day. Up at 6 am to put the copper on (to heat the water). Water from the water butt was used because it was softer. On Sundays there was Morning Service, Sunday School and Evensong. I rang the bells and sat with Mr. Hutchinson, the Church Warden, who always had a packet of sweets to eat during the long sermons. Spring cleaning had to be done every year. Carpets had to be taken up, dragged across the road, laid over the church wall and beaten everywhere with a carpet beater - no carpet sweeper in those days! Then we had to drag it along the grass which was supposed to bring the colour back.
Winter evenings were spent playing board games, card games and listening to the wireless. Mother was always busy - sowing, darning or crocheting and there was always a clipped rug on the go.
There was a big disadvantage being the youngest - I had to wear Geoff’s clothes when he grew out of them. Footware for the boys were hob-nailed boots. These were heavy leather boots which we took to the cobbler to get steel toe plates, heel plates and as many steel studs as possible in the soles. There was always competition among the lads as to who could get the most studs in their boots. You could hardly pick your feet up but they were brilliant for sliding in the school yard in winter, which brings me to my schooldays.
I went to the village school from the age of five and left at 14 years old. There were three classes - Infants, Juniors and Seniors. We had three teachers - Miss Gaythorpe taught the Infants, Mrs Averill the Juniors and Mr. Metcalfe the Headmaster. Mr. Metcalfe was a smart, dapper man who dressed in a suit and trilby. His discipline was very strict but fair. He would cane the boys and if you behaved very badly he would punch you in the back with his fist - no, it was not a reformatory school although it sounds a bit like it! At lunch time Mr. Metcalfe would go to next door to The White Dog pub for his tot of whisky or two.
The school yards were divided to wall off boys at one side and girls the other and we went into school through separate entrances. At the back of the school was the garden where the boys learnt gardening - Horticulture. If you wanted to miss a lesson in the afternoon, the dodge was to take a few cabbage plants to school to plant out.
Games played were hopscotch (by the girls mainly), whip and top. marbles and conkers in season. Collecting cigarette cards was a big hobby and you always had some in your pocket to swap.
Boola hoop was also played (hitting an iron hoop with a stick or your hand) along with Rounders in the school yard and ‘Fox Off’ - where a gang of boys would run off into the countryside then another gang would set off in 10 minutes (say) to find them. Football and Cricket were played on the village green. On Friday nights, games would come to an abrupt halt when half the team - made up of the North family - would have to leave early because Friday night was bath night! One tin bath, one boiling copper bucket and one bar of soap in front of the fire then up to bed.
Every year the wooden (cooker) van came and parked on what was called the Clary (clay) Pits opposite the green where the chestnut trees are and there the older girls learned to cook.
School holidays were mainly spent on the land - weeding and pulling carrots and setting potatoes - all done by hand. And in October, we had two weeks off school to pick the potatoes. The highlight of our holidays was the annual trip to Scarborough. All the children were given five shillings (25p today) to spend. Most of the village went on that trip - there would be eight to ten coaches lining the village street. People who were left behind said it was like a ghost town. We must have enjoyed ourselves because I remember we sang all the way back from Scarborough. A few of us used to go the Scarborough cricket festival - it was Gentlemen v. Players in those days.
We would go down to the mill and bathe in the River Foss, changing in the water meadows under wild rose bushes - no fancy swimming trunks in those days, just your underpants. Mr. Wood and Mr. Souter would be further downstream fishing for trout -Happy Days! On some Saturday afternoons a gang of lads and girls would walk to Easingwold to the pictures in the town hall.
At school the lads all had nicknames, and often they stuck for life. Here’s some I remember:
Noel Foster - NODD
Ron Fothergill - FOGGY
Mervyn Ellis - SUNNY
Geoff Law - LIMEY
Dennis Law - BLOB
Allan Shepherd - BARB
Bill Shepherd - SHEP
Geoff Shepherd - JEDDY
Lawrence North - LOL
Geoff North - JOINER
Les North - TOSH
Bill North - GOLDIE
Jim North - NAY BOB
George North - BRONK
Gordon Kay - GANDIE
Geoff Metcalfe - MUSH
Eric Metcalfe - EGGY
Richard Metcalfe - DICK
John Sparrow - SPUGGY
Eddie Midgley - BRUST
Ray Midgley - TUBBY
Jack Borwell - SPRATT
Maurice Borwell - CHATTY
Tom Scaife - WALLA
Norman Scaife - SQUIB
Lol Morse - POPS
George Scurr - PUDDING
Ray Souter - SAUCE
Before school I had to deliver milk around the village from my uncle's farm opposite the church. The milk was half pints, pints and quarts which were poured in to people’s jugs. I did the same after school.
There were two main retail milk farmers:
William Ellis, Church farm (my uncle) and
Bert Sparrow. White Bear Farm
Mr Ellis' fields were on the Easingwold road so the cows had to be brought down the front street. Can you imagine the sight of twenty to thirty cattle being driven down the street? Cows were not keen on walking on the road and were always trying to get on the grass so a small fence was erected to stop them. Part of it survives there today near the entrance to the Admiral's House yard. The cows were tied up with a chain in stalls of two and milked into a bucket sat on a three legged stool. The herd were Shorthorns of mixed colours.
Ponds were the main source of drinking water for the cattle and horses. There was a pond at all the entrances to the village where the horses were driven in to drink.
Mr Sparrow's herd were Ayrshires, a breed from Scotland - lovely brown and white cows with big horns. His land was down Brandsby Road so the two herds did not meet in the front street. Sparrows had two Land Army girls, Audrey and Lucy, who looked after the herd. Sparrows were the first to cool and bottle milk and deliver it round the village.
A busy man was Mr Sparrow: he had the farm, a threshing set and kept the White Bear pub - no wonder he nodded off on the bar at night.
When I left school I went to work for Woods (the Builders) who lived on the Village Green, and also farmed Marton Park Farm. The first year I was sent to work on the farm - I was told it was to build my strength up for the building trade. I did not think I was that weak but Mrs. Shepherds (nee Woods) cooking worked wonders - fried ham and eggs, porridge for breakfast and large dinners, including crow pie in season. Crow pie was made using young crows which were shot just before they were able to fly so now you know why there’s the rhyme "Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie …"
The staple diet of the farm hands was boiled fat bacon, which had been hung from the pantry ceiling. The pigs that were killed were large sows that would have already had several litters, which brings me to
Pig killing: this was an exciting event - the sow would have been fattened up for months. The necessary equipment would have to be collected from where the last pig was killed. The copper had to be put on for the hot water ready for when the butcher arrived. First of all this large sow had to be caught so who was the brave man who was going to do it. ("Not me!” said the butcher) By this time the old sow knew something unusual was going on so there was nothing for it but the farmer who had known the sow and farrowed it all these years who had to go in and capture this 'Large White' - as big as a donkey! He went in with a piece of rope with a slit knot which had to be inserted into the pig’s mouth behind its front teeth and pulled tight over its snout. All hell was let loose and the farmer could not get out fast enough. The pig was killed to a large audience of kids. First the pig was put into a wooden tub, scalding water just off boiling was poured over it to loosen the hairs then the hair was scraped off with tools shaped like candlesticks, (the round base at the bottom used for scraping the hairs off). Next the pig would be taken out of the tub; put on the creel, a bench type of thing with carrying handles at both ends where it was cleaned up; carried into the barn before being strung up over a roof beam, gutted and left for the next day to be cut up into pork joints. The hams and sides would be salted down for a month then hung up in the pantry or kitchen ceilings to dry out. After all that you just hoped it had cured well and was ready for the table. To keep a pig during the war you had to have a licence - two for farmers, one for cottagers per year. I think there was a bit of fiddling went on - black market they called it.
Threshing days were a big event on the farm - the threshing machine was pulled into the stack yard by a big traction engine the night before. The next morning the engine whistle would blow for a 7 a.m. start. My job as the lad was to lead water and coal to the engine. The water was carried in a water cart with iron wheels -I remember that by the time I got to the engine I’d lost half of the water on the rough ground!
Threshing days involved about twelve men made up mainly of other farmers' or their men and the odd casual labourer. The strongest men were the two corn carriers who carried 16 stone sacks of corn up the stack yard to the granary steps - no need to go bodybuilding in those days!
The dust would be choking - you could hardly see twenty yards. Some of the men used to smoke twist tobacco when threshing - solid black stuff on a stick about six inches long. They would cut a piece off and chew it (the saying went "de ye wont a chow").
The best part of the threshing day was 10 am and 3 pm when the farmer's wife brought the 'drinkings' - gallons of tea to slake the dust, cheese sandwiches, apple pies and scones - thank goodness it wasn't that boiled fat bacon! If there were signs of rats nesting in the stack, netting was put round to stop them escaping. The men on forking the stack used to tie their trouser bottoms to stop rats going up their trousers.
Looking back now, life was not easy - no modern gadgets, everything was hard work whether it was in the home, on the farm or in the work place. But work did not kill anybody and all were proud of their skills. Us children used to run errands for people to make a penny or two for pocket money or to put into the Post Office savings bank but we did have fun too such as gathering birds eggs around the hedgerows and ponds or getting up early to gather mushrooms before other people - nature was all around us.
We followed the fox hounds when they were in the area and opened the gates for the horse riders, and getting a big 'Thank You'. People used to whistle a lot. I think it was a sign of being happy.