Many things stand out in one's
childhood - some small, some
great. Often it’s the smallest that
are the dearest – like the gas lamp
at the bottom of the street where
we played many an hour before
being called in for bed. It was
polished bright by the countless
times we climbed up then slid
Then there was the long summer
holidays when we played up the
fields in our bare feet with
occasional dips in the pond - the
more adventurous ones caught
newts, tiddlers and tad-poles - then
a mad rush home with appetites
like horses, hoping Mother might
have baked some stotty cakes and
fadges, which we dipped in bacon
fat and eaten hot made our day.
The occasional trip to the seaside
with Mother in a brake - at each hill
or bank we had to get out and walk
to ease the horses.
A Tribute to a Local Historian from Birtley
We were thrilled if we were allowed to sit on the three steps at the back, singing and
shouting our hearts out. If it rained we hid under Mother's coat and like a brood of
chicks she cuddled us in.
Odd times there were sad days. Some one had been killed in the pit. Usually school
had finished and we stood and waited for what we hardly knew, but somehow we
sensed from the quiet behaviour of the older people that this was bad. Later would
come four grim-faced coal dust stained men pushing a couch affair on four wheels
on which somebody lay covered entirely except for the big pit boots sticking out at
the bottom. In our innocence we look upon the family of the deceased as something
special, and could not wait to tell our teacher: "Please Miss, his father was killed in
Then the day of the funeral - the pit band and Banner, everyone dressed in black
and all the blinds drawn in the windows. I can still hear the Boom de re Boom of the
band as the cortege slowly wended its way to the Churchyard. We knew we had to
be on our best behaviour or woe betide us when Mother came home from the
Church. Being young we soon forgot it - later we were to learn of the terrible scars it
We always liked a wedding, there we could scramble as much as we liked for the
coppers thrown out, sometimes with a shout of "Shabby wedding" if we thought
they had not thrown out enough. After the wedding feast we all climbed on top of
the coal house or midden to see the guests dance to the music of a concertina or a
melodeon played by a man who usually sat on his hunkers, only stopping now and
again to sup the beer so freely given him. Often the yard where they danced was
only hard muck, soon everyone was a little grimy from the clouds of dust raised -
but that didn't deter them and it went on till dusk, or a fight started between the In-
Christmas was always a grand time and in spite of hard times and low wages
Mother always managed to get a few little surprises for us. At Christmas the house
shone like a new pin. The fender, tidy and the mantelpiece brasses gleamed in the
light of the long glass chimney oil lamp standing on the table.
We were all bathed, then packed off to bed vowing we would stay awake all night to
see Santa Claus. Our stockings with our names on hung from the mantelpiece rail.
Those, who could had borrowed a big pit stocking. We were always warned not to
expect too much, but nevertheless we trusted and hoped.
Then in the morning downstairs we'd rush, to find the stocking filled with nuts,
apples, oranges and sweets.
Our big present, as we thought of it at the time, was on the table - a doll for the girls,
a clockwork train or a magic lantern for each of the boys, maybe a pop-gun a game
or two, perhaps one or two toy soldiers and a toy cannon. After a hasty snack we
would dash out side to see what the other children had got.
The day was rounded off with Christmas dinner, a glass of ginger wine and a piece
New Year of course was different we all had a 'first foot' who brought a lump of coal
and was given some wine or spirit (as the pocket would allow). One year I
remember some Guisers came and did a play about King George and Doctor Brown.
To us this was completely out of this world. We were absolutely amazed as we had
never seen the like of it before.
Not all times were happy ones, going to school was terrible. Mine was a Church of
England school and every Wednesday we were marched into the Church, and if we
couldn’t remember on the Thursday morning what the Vicar had said we got, as we
called it, a howking. We also got caned if we were dirty which wasn’t fair as our
school playground was muck.
Then our childhood games - Hidie Boo Seek, Knocky nine doors, Kick the Block,
Munly Kitty, Jack follow the leader.
I was eight when the first world war broke out and, as it dragged on, I can well
remember the soldiers coming home on leave from the trenches - tin hat, rifle, the
lot, and the second and third hand tales that drifted down to us about their exploits.
One thing stands out from that time. I was coming past the end of a row when a
woman came running out, shouting, "They murdered my bairn".
She was caught by her husband and taken home. But that woman just shrivelled
up inwardly and in later years this gaunt woman was still trying to come to terms
with life. Then there was the woman who lost three sons - we just could not take it in.
Memory plays queer tricks and often when not thinking about anything, there
flashes upon that inward eye, scenes of boy- hood: the cheese and bread at
christenings, the new clothes and frocks at Easter, Sunday School to which we
were forced to attend (which in later years I learnt was to enable our parents to have
a snooze and a bit of peace). Then there were the Saturday afternoon matinees at
the pictures - as we went in the either got a bar of toffee or an orange or some small
gift. There we were lifted beyond our wildest dreams to worlds unknown. There was
always a serial, which ran for about twenty weeks, we followed it assiduously.
The day someone killed a pig was a red-letter day for us. We all had grandstand
seats on coalhouse tops and missed nothing. The pig-killer in his blue and white
striped apron like a Master of Ceremonies played to the Gods. The owner of the pig
watched and helped, with that look of affluence or better than thou look. What we
wanted and got was the bladder with which we played football until it burst.
The deaths of baby brothers and sisters are only dimly remembered. We'd go with
Mother to put flowers on the graves, and made on we didn’t see her turn away and
shed a few tears.
In the long cold wintery nights we sat and watched pictures in the fire. No two could
see the same pictures in the fire. No two could see the same pictures, but like what
life became for us later, it was ours.
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My father, Harry Letch, wrote the book "Gleenings from the History of Birtley"
which was published in 1970. I believe that this may have been the first history of
Birtley, Tyne-Wear. He was a remarkable man. He left school at age 14 to work
down the coal mines and was there all his working life. He was a self taught man
who was passionate about local history. No internet in those days so he chased
parish records and scoured the local libraries for whatever facts he could gleen.
Hence the name of the book.
The book was published the year he died (of black lung) but he did get to see the
Many years later we won a claim against British Coal for his illness and the money
is now used to fund an annual history prize for Lord Lawson School.
When a new street was built in Birtley my dad's name was put forward and the local
councilors agreed to the name "Harry Letch Mews". A fitting tribute to a great
Harry Letch Jnr. October 2014
|Harry Letch describes his Early Childhood