Blacklocks

Number 61 was infested with blacklocks. Blacklocks are relatives of the cockroach family, shiny and black with two long feelers. They grow to about 40 to 50mm in length. At night they came out from under the crumbling concrete floor, through the gaps in the skirting boards and crawled around the floor foraging for food. It didn’t matter how clean or dirty one’s home was; they still came.

Hymers Street was a row of solid brick terrace houses and the blacklocks lived under the concrete floors. But the funny thing was, apparently we were the only house in the street that had them! Mam asked the neighbours on either side how they coped with the pests, hoping to wage a united war against the horrible things.

“Oh, we don’t have blacklocks!” was the standard reply. As poor as they were, they were too proud to admit that beetles infested their neat, clean homes.

Mam sprinkled a yellow poison powder called ‘Strike ‘Em Stiff’ around the lino each night and whoever was up first had the task of sweeping up the twenty or thirty dead creatures each morning. It was all matter of fact, like taking out the ashes or sidey-ing1 the table.

If one of the family stayed up later than the rest, the standard saying was: “We’ll leave you down here with the blacklocks!” Usually this was me staying up late, listening to Radio Luxembourg.

Blacklocks would never come out while the light was on and their movements were restricted to downstairs. That was until Mam found one on our bed when she came up to check on us. She was horrified and called Dad who soon got rid of it. I never let on that I was awake, so Mam would think that I still felt safe upstairs. Not long after that I started having nightmares involving a giant blacklock that was coming to get me in my bed.

Most of these terraces were demolished in the slum clearance programme of the 1960’s. The whole area was bulldozed to make way for a better style of housing. When the bulldozers ripped up the foundations, thousands of blacklocks emerged from the wreckage.

Slum clearance 1963

The new housing concept proved to be a disaster and 30 years later that too was cleared for further ‘improvements’. My initial feelings are that none of these initiatives could ever recaptured the homely village-like atmosphere of the original township. I’m probably wrong; environments and circumstances may change but people still retain their core values and sense of ‘place’ and belonging.

When we were kids, Tommy and I slept in the box room single bed ‘top and toe’. In later years when Coral was too big to share Mam and Dad’s bed, Tommy went around to Gran’s and Coral moved into the single bed with me. I eventually joined Tommy in the double bed in the back room at Gran’s when I was about nine.

In the evening at bedtime, whatever the weather, on went hats and jackets, and Tommy and I headed off to sleep at our Gran’s house at 34 Harrison Street. I thought that we were the only family to have this arrangement but later discovered that it was a common practice. Gran’s was a little larger than Hymers Street and although it still only had two bedrooms, both were large and both contained double beds.

Usually, sitting on the blackened cast iron hob in the fireplace, a huge pan of soup bubbled away. In front of the fire lay Gran’s tortoiseshell cat, Tishy. From the light cord hung a sticky ‘fly catcher’ strip which was bought in cylindrical form similar to a film roll.

Granddad had his own chair beside the fire. He didn’t smoke like everyone else, but instead chewed on a wad of tobacco. Periodically, a loud hiss and sizzle would erupt in the fire as he spat out the ‘baccy’ juice. If we were hungry, he often gave us a treat of a condensed milk sandwich.

Guy Mitchell – ‘Always Room at our House’ 1951
There’s always room at our house
To share a smile or two
There’s always room enough, dear friends, for you

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