61 Hymers Street

At the end of the street Sadler’s tar works and Cochrane’s chemical plant spewed  toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Alongside Saddler’s stood Rundle’s steel works, rumbling twenty-four hours a day, stamping out washers. On foggy nights, the fumes could not escape into the upper atmosphere and when inhaled, the tar fumes stung throats and lungs. Hymers Street was a main thoroughfare for the workers of Rundles.

William Blake – ‘Jerusalem’
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark satanic mills?

Of course, these ‘dark satanic mills’ have long  since been confined to history, along with the row upon row of tiny terrace houses close by.

From my bed in the small box room I often lay awake listening to the tramp of the studded boots and clogs of the ‘6 till 2’ shift filling the still air.

At midday, the workers’ wives passed with steaming hot blue enamelled billies of soup or stew for their menfolk’s lunch.

Sadler’s Tar Works Fire – 1947

These days you would never dream of leaving the house unsecured. In those days  the front door was never locked, probably because there was very little, if anything, of any value to steal. The door faced east and was partially protected with ancient blistered brown paint. At its base lay a high stone step, worn through years of traffic and sanding. The front door opened directly onto the flagged pavement.

Downstairs consisted of one main room, the eating and living area, a pantry tucked under the stairs and a ‘back kitchen’. Lighting was a solitary electric light globe hanging from the centre of the front room.

There was only one power socket in the house and it was used for the wireless. When Mam eventually acquired an electric iron, a double adaptor was connected to the hanging light socket. Before that, ironing was done with a cast iron ‘flat iron’, heated on the gas stove top. The gas meter was situated in the small cupboard to the left of the chimney breast. The meter was coin operated, requiring a penny in the slot to access the gas supply.

The floor coverings at 61 Hymers Street consisted of lino and a number of ‘hooky’ or ‘clippy’ mats that Grandma made at her kitchen table. She made the mats on a large wooden frame stretched with hessian. Old clothing was cut into narrow strips (clippings), sorted into colours and hooked through the Hessian to form the patterned mat.

The ‘back kitchen’ was not really a kitchen at all, but a narrow passage that gave access to the stairs, and beyond that a small alcove that housed a thick square ceramic sink fed by a single cold-water tap. Next to the sink stood a free-standing cast-iron gas oven. Adjacent to the stove was the back door that led to the yard.

Furniture in the main living area consisted of a kitchen table with four chairs, an ancient chaise-lounge and an armchair. Squatting along one wall sat a small sideboard. In the corner to the right of the fireplace was a door that led to the small pantry under the stairs.

The back yard was a small concrete rectangle with a coalhouse situated opposite the back door. Alongside the coalhouse was the back gate that gave access to a narrow alleyway leading to a row of toilets, one of which belonged to 61. Past the toilets, another gate gave access to the ‘Back Arch’ or ‘Back Alley’. When Coral and I were small, we were scared of the dark and Tommy was called on to escort us ‘out the back’ when nature called for us to pee in the gully trap outside the back door or out through the gate to the toilet if we needed to “sit down”.

61 Hymers Street

2  Livingroom           3 Bedroom              4 Window on the stairs
5 Ray’s bed               6 Coalhouse           7 Tin Bath   
8 Sink                     9 Gas Oven          10 Air Raid Cupboard      
11 Wireless             12 Gate                13 Jones’ Yard
14 Williams’ Yard    15 Back Door       16 Pantry         
17 Gas Cupboard               18 Toilet “Out the back”

On a hook driven into the brick party wall hung a tin bath that came into the front room in front of the fire each Friday night for the weekly family bath. Mam always went first and the littlest one went last.  If we were lucky a kettle was boiled to reheat the rapidly cooling water. As we got older, we were sent out ‘to go for a walk’ so Mam and Dad could bathe in private.

Directly above the living room was Mam and Dad’s bedroom. This front bedroom contained a double bed, a tallboy, and a dressing table. Next to their bed was a bucket in case anyone needed the toilet during the night.

In the space above the stairs was a small box room that we called the ‘Backroom’. It was just big enough to hold a single iron framed bed and a wardrobe. The room was so small that the wardrobe door could only be opened halfway. In the Backroom, the bed head faced the bedroom door, which was always open.

Beyond the door was the dark hallway and top of the bare wooden stairs. A small window allowed the filtered moonlight to cast strange shadows in the stairwell. When I was in bed, I hated looking at that spot, but was also too scared to turn my back on it. I often had a recurring nightmare of a shadowy figure that came up the stairs and slowly walked towards me. The figure’s face was never revealed and he never reached me. Hiding under the covers, I pretended to be asleep so the spectre wouldn’t get me.

The nightmare was finally defeated one night after Dad told me to imagine in the dream that it was only a dream.  That was the last time it happened – but it didn’t stop me wetting the bed each night.

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