Reminiscences of Coalville between the wars.
I was born in the early 1920s, an unfortunate time indeed, following the Great War, a difficult time of adjustment with an uncertain economic climate. I was the second son in the family but my early years of infancy are vague. I was surrounded by grandparents, uncles and aunts on both sides. I recall that boys wore frocks until quite big, that was quite normal.
At four, school beckoned so I was sent to Bridge Road, entering the infants’ class of Miss Burton. Our school uniform was woolly jumpers with long sleeves (hot in summer, warm in winter), short trousers (chapped legs in winter), long stockings etc. We stayed in that same building until ‘ejected’ at 14 into the hard world. Miss Lager was head of the junior school, Mr. John Henry Massey was head of the senior school. He was a dapper little man about five feet tall; some of the boys were taller than him. Tom Pepper followed him as head and other teachers were Roy Woolerton, Albert Mason, Brian Glover, Miss Reed and Miss Turner. They did their part but the education was very basic. However, we were numerate and could read and write. Sport and athletics were encouraged but only if one could afford football boots. A feature of the school each year was the celebrations of Empire Day. We sang patriotic songs of Empire, waved flags and each class did a turn. Our parents were able to attend for this.
I also remember the airship R101 flying over the school; this later crashed in flames in Bedfordshire.
The older boys each had a garden plot to cultivate, growing their own vegetables; presumably this was to equip us for gardening after leaving school. Our family had an allotment as did many others at that time.
Eventually the time to sit the ‘scholarship’ came round and, following the results, the ‘clever ones’ went to the Grammar School, the ‘lesser ones’ to Broom Leys and the ‘also rans’ stayed put. This was not all it seemed. Many has passed but the family could not afford the expense of higher education. Many who had failed, having more prosperous parents, were allowed to pay fees for places at secondary schools.
Our parents had little money as did most other families at that time. The pits, the brick and pipe works and Wootton’s Iron Works seemed to employ most men and even then only on ‘short time’. The factories; Wolsey, Burgess and Clutsom and Kemp had lots of women employees. Another large employer of men was Stableford’s Wagon Works on Mantle lane. When that closed down in the late 1920s it was a great blow to the town.
Miners never knew if they were expected to work each day. Each mine had a distinctive ‘buzzer’ which sounded at a special time, the men stood on their doorsteps and listened to see if they had to go to work.
In 1926 the General Strike was called by the unions and everything came to a standstill. We were all in trouble then and we began to live from hand-to-mouth. I remember my father helping some miners dig ‘outcrop’ coal in the Altons and getting a bag of coal as payment.
School continued as usual during the Strike but our uniforms all became worn and darned. Our boots suffered too. I recall a charity which provided boots to poor families, if your footwear had holes you might get a new pair.
The depression continued into the early ’30s. Father did labouring jobs, mother, dressmaking. At this time Whitwick Colliery was on one side of Whitwick Road and the brickworks on the other. The colliery dirt bank was always on fire and smelt awful. The kilns of the brickworks belched out black smoke. In the winter the fire in the kilns glowed liked Dante’s Inferno.
After the clay for brickmaking had been dug out it left deep holes in the ground and the pit wasted (after any coal had been sorted out on the screens) was emptied into the holes as infill. Often small amounts of coal remained in the waste and we would go and with a box on wheels to sort it out for home use. I understand this was almost stealing but the colliery workers turned a blind eye to our activities and even put little heaps of coal on one side.
By the middle of the 30s our family fortunes improved. With the outbreak of World War II the country geared up to the making of armaments so it was then a case of almost full employment and an end for many to poverty.