Reminiscences of George Dunn
The Minstrel of Quarry Bank
(1887 -- 1975)
edited by Roy Palmer
George Dunn spent nearly all his life in the South Staffordshire village of Quarry Bank. Like his grandfather, who was an iron bundler, and his father, a puddler and then an annealer, he worked in the iron trade, but mainly as a chainmaker. Like his father, he was a singer too. These reminiscences come from recordings made by Charles Parker and Roy Palmer in 1971-3. A record with a selection of his songs (George Dunn, Leader LEE 4(42) was issued in 1975.
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I was born on the twenty-fourth of December in 1887 in Sheffield Street before there wasn't any numbers on the 'ouses, it was number three on the left-hand side going down from the 'igh Street. There was nobody in the 'ouse when I was born except me mother. The midwife, who resided with us, were out on another case, and before she came back I was borned. I was born on the floor, and 'er (his mother) was on the floor; 'er was on the floor a lung, lung time before somebody come into th' 'ouse to fetch the midwife. When I was born I got starved to death well, and I've never got bloody warm since.
My mother's breed o' women, they'm only little uns, but they were brave as lions. The wife wouldn't leave 'er kids. I've seen some terible things 'appen to women; I've seen men 'alf kill 'em, only barely left 'em alive, but they wouldn't forsake their kids. The struggle to rear the kids, yo' cort imagin 'ow 'ard it was. It beggars the imagination. We used t' 'ave a lot more dinner times than dinners, where we'm bin reared.
'Er used to bake 'er own bread, and ninety per cent did. They'd all got a little oven in the brew 'ouse. I've known it when the money's bin short, and it was short mostly at th' end o' the week. We'd got a job to make it last, you know, 'cause they never knew what they were a-gooin' t' 'ave on the Saturday. If they 'ad a pound-and there was nine on us to keep-there was no trouble that wik.
'Er was a jolly little woman, my mother was. Mother sang like a nightingale. 'Er sung all them (songs) father sung: 'er learned 'em off 'im. If it come Friday-'er'd got five sons and two daughters; 'er'd got to get we all out o' bed and get us off to school- 'er'd say: 'Come on, bobbies (1) for breakfast this mornin'.' Bobbies'd be some 'ot water and bread and sugar. And sugar was very cheap: twopence a pound, and yo' could buy 'a'p'orth. Yo' could buy 'a'p'orth o' tay, 'a'p'orth o' sugar. And 'er'd get the kettle bilin'. I might tell yer it was only bread an' waiter (water), but it was a banquet. We'd 'ave bobby every mornin' only we knowed it was no good for we. We'd allus got plcnty o' bread, and if dinners were meagre any time 'er'd say: 'Fill yer bellies, lads, ate plenty bread.
'Er reared seven on we, and 'er could rear anythin'. 'Er reared seven. I was the second. Th' owdest, 'er was three years owder than me. (She was) called Valerie, which was a French name. This was in 1884. Our church, it'd bin up about twenty years then (2). When she came to be christened, Aunt Polly said to Mother-by the way, 'er was named Polly as well: 'Polly, if yo' 'll 'ave 'er named Valerie, I'll buy 'er all 'er clo's to dock 'er in'. (Till they were about-three months old they wore big long gowns. When they got bigger they'd dock 'em, put 'em in shoct clo's).. Mother says: 'All right'.
When she took 'er up to Quarry Bank Church to be christened she told the clergyman (3): I want 'er named Valerie'. 'E says to Mother, 'e says ‘Owd' yer spell it?' Mother couldn't read, not at all. After a bit o' talk, 'e said: ’think yer better tek 'er back', 'e says, 'an' bring 'er another day. I'll christen 'er then'. Of course, 'e expected Mother to go an' find out 'ow ter spell Valerie. There was nobody in Quarry Bank as could spell it.
When 'er took it back next time, 'e says: ‘A' yer found out 'ow ter spell it?' 'Er says: 'No'. 'Oh, wcll', 'e says, "I can't christen 'er if' can't spell 'er name', So mother says; 'Oh, well, I bay comin' up 'ere no more with 'er. Yo' gotta christen 'er now. 'Er gotta be named summat', er says. 'Name 'er Mary Ann; yo' can spell that, cor yo ? ’Oh, yes', 'e says, 'I can spell that'. And she was christened Mary Ann, but that never altered 'er name what 'er should've 'ad. When Mother brought 'er back - they always shortened the name, then 'er was Vally.'Er went all through life with that name.
It was a struggle to rear seven kids, it was a struggle; and yet we never went 'ungry, with all the 'ard times. Mind you, it was rough. Every penny was valuable. You could buy quite a lot with a penny. Yo' could 'ave a penn'orth of almost anything from the chemist.If your mother was bad you could go to the chemist and get a little thin wood box. They'd fill it for a penny with green ile (oil ) of elder. Another thing as I remember quite well at the chemist's-I never realised this, no, not till I was a man. When they got the small children a-suckin' at the breast, the children'd get bad mouths, and there was a certain cure for it. You know what we asked for? A penn 'orth of onion burrus. Old Cox as kept the chemist's shop, 'e knowed as onion burrus was onion borax-fill a little box a'most 'alf an inch deep.
'Er comes from Woodside, that's where she was born; but Father was born in Quarry Bank, and so was I. Our ancestry is lost in obscurity. We know no further than we grandparents. There's quite a lot o' Dunns in Quarry Bank. They were all workers, colliers and chainmakers. My father was iron worker, a puddler. His father was a bundler. 'E was a puddler. The first thing we remember about 'im were when 'e worked at Corngraves.. 'im an' 'is uncle and 'is brothers, they were a team.
They were all there. Their uncle was the boss.
Me father worked there till 'e was in middle age. Puddling, (5) it was a most laborious job. The composition that made the iron was put in the furnace. After the furnace was loaded the temperature was got up by coal until all this material they'd put in, it 'ad all gotta be mixed up by a man with a pole about ten foot long. Their job was when th' iron began to melt: they'd gotta keep a-mixin' an shovin' while it was on the boil. When it got so far, all the rubbish in the furnace that wouldn't make iron, it'd float on the top and th' iron'd go to the bottom. then they'd open the tappin' box an' all the slag'd run off the top o' th' iron. Then they'd gotta break it into pieces.
Six balls to one 'eat: they'd gotta turn that into six balls of iron, and they'd got to keep on mixin' it up all the time, turnin' the paddle, jammin' it through. The balls that they made were taken to the steam 'ammer or the elbow 'ammer, which was worked by water, a water-wheel. Any slag that'd be left in th' iron, it'd be knocked out by th' 'ammer. After that there was a set of rollers on the bar bank, and the roller would roll it into a piece of iron about inch thick. That'd be put on the one side for the mill furnacemen t' 'ave it. They'd cut it up. That was put into the mill furnace and just got on the melt. It was 'eated weldin' 'ot, then it was put into the rollin' mills. When it went through the mills it was an iron bar .These iron bars 'ad to be cut into lengths and bundled. The bundler cut it with the shear, another thing worked with the water-wheel. After that they 'ad a big pair o' scales, and they were made into 'undredweights, so many rods in a bundle.
My father 'ad one or two bouts o' sickness. 'E 'ad typhoid fever-and it was an epidemic: everybody in the street 'ad got it, nearly, there was only one doctor, Dr Tibbets. I remember it quite well. I'd be about ten year of age when my father 'ad it, and twenty in the street died. They dae expect to get better. . It was a mean street but there was a lot o'love in it, and a lot o' camaraderie. I’ll admit it was a mean street, but there was lots o' kindness in it. And there was lots o' poverty; plenty, plenty o' poverty.
There was no (married] women employed then. It didn't matter what they worked at, when they got married, they'n finished. Their job was 'ousework. It was a 'ard job. There was a lot o' kids. Them as we lived next door to, them 'ad 21. Then it was the same all down the street. But the neighbours, when yer father wasn't at work, the neighbour'd say to me: 'Georgie, 'an yo ‘ad any dinner?' I'd say: 'No, missus'. 'Er'd say: 'Come on in'. She'd 'ave some lard or some drippin'. lt was devoured with relish. That was the spirit that appertained. It doesn't appertain now, you know.
Me father was a fisherman, 'is 'obby was fishin'. Most o' the time after 'e finished work on a Saturday, 'e'd pack up and clear off, and we shouldn't see 'im no more till Sunday night. 'E'd 'ave the night in the pub, a rendez-vous for fisherman, at Kinver or Cutley. 'E done years o' that. They used to put some eel lines in at night: piece o' string, 'ook on the end, and a grub or a small fish they'd caught for pike. Pike'd tek the gudgeon. Mind, it was all poachin'. Kinver was a private estate belonging to the Earl of Enville. There was th' Earl o' Dudley round 'ere, Lord Cobham at 'agley, Clent, and th' Earl of Enville. Them three, if you'd got on a prominence and could look an the way round, three or four mile, they owned the lot. Nobody else owned anything.
If Father was alive today 'e'd be called a naturalist. 'e knew where all the birds nested, and all the bird song. Me father was a champion whistler. 'e was known. Anybody come to Quarry Bank and enquire for Sam the Whistler, 'e was directed to our 'ouse. Samson, but they called 'im Sam.
The New Inns, that was a grand place for 'im when 'e'd got a bob or two, but when 'e got no money, apart from fishin’ 'e'd got no other 'obby, none at all, and' e used t' amuse we kids by singin' these songs. 'E used to sing to we to keep we quiet for one thing, and to see we didn't get into mischief for another. And that's 'ow we went along. 'E used to sing 'undreds o' songs. 'Ad it not been for Dad I should 'a' known none o' these songs. What me father sung I never seed in print. then or now. 'E just carried 'em about in 'is 'ead. 'E couldn't write 'imself. nor Mother. Anybody as 'ad a letter in our street, they'd gotta go and find somebody as could read it for 'em.
Jack Clark was th' on'y man I knew at that time that could read. It was the New Inns, Quarry Bank, and it was Moses Stephens that kep' it. 'E 'ad the paper at night (6)-and by the way that was a ha'p 'ny. Jack Clark 'e 'ad some beer to read the paper to the customers.
There was no diversion except the pub. Beer was very cheap: you could always 'ave a pint for a penny. They were allus singin' in the pub. It was like a concert every night. Now that (The Miller's Song') always went very well in a pub. When they'n primed they'd put the 'fal di iddle day' on it. I learned it off me father. We sung in the pubs more than anywhere else. Me father sung in the pubs and I sung in the pubs. That was where we gathered. I'll sing you Irish song as 'e used to sing. I've neer 'eard anybody else sing it. It must be 60 or 70 years ago. That was in the troublesome times in Ireland. (Far, far away). 'Istorically it's true. They 'ad used to goo an' turn 'em out o' the cottage. Well, they weren't cottages, they were cabins. She's only one (in the song) out o' thousands as was turned out, and the cottage burned down. The laws were very drastic. Cromwell-they've never forgiven Cromwell, and they never will.-They burned Londonderry Castle down, with all the folks in it. 'E gid 'em an ultimatum to come out: if they didn't come out that day, they'd never come out no more. And they didn't come out, so 'e carried 'is threat out, so 'e set fire to the castle, roasted everybody that was in it. That's an 'istorical fact.
My father died in 1932. 'E was 74 then. My sister was one of the first that ever attended Quarry Bank Board School. There'd never bin no education before (8), and them that owned the works saw to it that they didn't get any. They wanted a big pool o' powerful men as could work 'ard for very little money. When I got married I got a pound a wik if I was lucky. It were very difficult to do a week's work: there was always some snag, either no iron or no cokes.
I went to school at three. I think that's about the first thing I can remember, when I was took to school. The children was always took to school at three, at that time. Nine till twelve o'clock, and two till 'arf past four. By the way, at that time they'd 'ad a wooden signal. It went clock. That was for silence. I remember who the teacher was. She was Miss Yeomans, who eventually became Mrs England; she married a teacher, William England, from the school. They 'ad a big family.
She asked us what a penny was. Well, we could answer that; at least, some of us could. Then she asked us what 'alf-penny was. She said: 'What are the two together?' They couldn't say: 'Three 'a'-pence'.
We sung little ditties such as 'The Cuckoo and the Donkey'. I sung that in th' Infants. We sung quite a lot o' little ditties. I was very good at poetry. I was really boss in the class for poetry. Every year we 'ad at school a piece o' poetry as we'd got to learn. The one as learned it first. as could recite it from beginnin' to end, 'e 'ad a concession. L got most o' them. We used to 'ave The Buildin' o' the Ship' an' 'The Midnight Ride o' Paul Revere'. I cor recite it now. only snatches on it: that's bin welly eighty year ago.
Education was very poor. The sex problem, it was kept very much in the dark. 'Ow wc learned about it was in little bits. There was all big families, and it was the biggest mystery in the world. Because that your mother was goin' 'ave a baby you didn't know, you never noticed any difference, then all of a sudden there'd be an addition to the family. 'Wheer's it come from? Wheer's the babby come from, Mother? 'Oh, the doctor's brought it in 'is bag'.
We used to sing at the door when we were young. Christmas Eve. They'd run yer off if you went before. Three or four, just a little gang. We just went to them as we knew. They'd gi'e us 'a'p'ny or a mince pie or something like that I remember once it was Christmas and I went a-carol singing, and J went with two cousin Fred an' Sam Dunn, and we went t'Evans's that was the tripe shap They were a musical family. We went to various doors and got a copper or two, and I can always remember thiS, because when we went in all the Evanses were there. They were all choristers and they enjoyed singin', We sung by the door an' they asked us in. After we'd sung a carol they asked me to sing one by meself, so I sung one. After I'd sung it they 'ad a collection for me, threepence or fourpence. There was a row about that when we come out; they wanted to share it. I said; Oh, no. I sung for this meself'.
They used to sell Lucky Bags. They were only a penny. There were one or two sweets in, or a little settee or a chair, but on the back there 'd be the words of a song. All sorts. They'm owd now, such as 'Oh, Molly Riley';
Oh, Molly Riley, I love you.
Tell me, Molly Riley, does yer 'eart beat true?
Marry me, my darling, I'll die if you say no,
And you'll never 'ave another, Molly Riley, oh.
A song like that, or another as I remember, 'Sweet Marie'. All such as them, and 'Genevieve' or 'I'll take you 'ome again, Kathleen'; all them sort used to be on the back o' the Lucky Bags. Sweets were cheap; twopence 'a'p'ny a pound.
There was quite a lot o' play. When I say 'play' I mean unemployment. In this district there was only one little work, and when you left school you never knew when you were going to be employed. As a matter of fact, my first job, the first job that ever I had, was blowin'. I was thirteen years of age, I'd left school, and every penny counted. I 'ad three an' a tanner a wik for that, the bellows, big leather belIows, they were put into a frame: two posts with a cross-bar and a rock (9) on the back. There'd be a 'ook t' 'ook on the bottom of the bellows. they were a double bellows. By working the rock yo'd pull the bellows up. Pull of the rock; the rock 'ud be about six feet long, and the bellows down the front to the back, they 'ud be about five. Then you'd do that al1 day.
There was a certain amount of wind come out of the bellows when you pulled the rock, but if you wanted some fiercer blast, if they wanted the fire bigger, they put weights on the back of the bellows. They put some mighty weights on sometimes. It was wuss than bein' in the galleys, I can tell you that. All day, six till six, at thirteen. My dad started at eight (years old). I 'ad a brother as passed the labour examination at eleven. If you passed the examination at eleven you' could work 'alf time.
There was one work, about a mile from 'ere. That was the Judge 'ollow-ware, by Cradley Station. They employed quite a few people. I worked there meself when I left school at thirteen. I worked there for about a couple o' years.(10) I went up to Noah Bloomer's after, and I worked there till I was 72.
Our firm was just a-startin' then; Noah Bloomer's and Sons was just a-gettin' on its legs. They couldn't market their own production: they 'ad to do it for a bigger man in the district. When it come pay time on a Saturday - we should 'a' bin paid about one o clock. Sometimes it was tea-time before we got the money, because the youngest - there were four in our firm - the youngest, it was 'is job to go round to the people that we'd bin a-makin' the chain for to collect the money to pay us.
When ‘e come back on a Saturday- it was on'y a little wooden place, th' office. I dare say there was about twenty employed there, then. It grew while I was there - he'd bring a few sovereigns and a few 'alf-sovereigns and a few 'alf-crowns in 'is 'at. 'E'd bring it into th' office. 'George! - if it was a good week - "ere s a pound for you'. Gold sovereign. Gold. One of me brothers: ' 'ere's 'alf a sovereign for you an' two alf-crowns'. That was 'is week's wages.
Ultimately it grew to a big firm. We 'elpcd to make the cables for the Titanic and various others. We done some for the Queen Elizabeth. We grew to quite a respectable firm that employed 'undred. We made up to as 'igh as three inch, three inches in diameter. Every link in the ehain was 'alf a yard. It weighed tremendous. They mek it now down Brettle Lane, but they mek it by electricity now, not by 'and.
Me brothers all worked in the chain trade. I was in it for above 55 years, and t' others 'ave got 50 year in. It was a struggle, but when the 1914 war come, that altered things.
I was 27. Yo'd be singin' some o' the war songs: 'God send you back to me' or 'The Roses of Picardy'. They were songs from the music halls: 'Down at th' owd Bull an' Bush' and ‘Er as fol1owed the van'. The News of the World kept yer up to date wi' the songs every Sunday: 'aIf page o' the News of the World (11) or the People with the words an' music on, ready to prop up agen the piano.
I was a key worker. I've got a medal: 'National Service'. 1f yo’ walked about the village and 'adn't got one o' them on, if a policeman saw you 'ed stop you: 'Yo' ought to be in France'. After the war there came a general rise. We started to get a bit more money then.
You might have called me a smith. I did lots o' things beside mekin' chain: blacksmithin'. Chainmakin '(12) is a sort o' smithin'. Gerrin' iron 'ot 'an weldin' it, forgin' it into different shapes. I worked there till I retired.
As a rule, unless your father worked there, or unless you knowed someone alse'd take you thee and learn you the trade as a striker. Most o' the work was big work. It required a team of two or three, or even four. When I told you we made some three inch, every link'd be above 'undredweight. Well, it took about four men do that job. If you 'adn't got somebody to taker yer in an' give you a job to work with 'em, it was 'earth fillin'. Every chainmaker'd got an 'earth, with a fire in the middle on it. That's where 'e made 'is chain. Yo' filled th' 'earths. The fires were made o' cokes, an' yo' did that. if you'd got a minute or two to spare, and somebody else o' yer own age were workin' there, yo'd goo an' do 'is job for a link or two. Let 'im 'ave a rest. 'E wouldn't mind at all. Whenever you got a chance to use the ‘ammer yo' would. Eventually you would attain the skill to do the job.
It was all the rule of thumb, when the iron was weldable; and there's other times when the temperature 'as risen when they'd gotta be very careful, because it smash, it'd pulverise, like breadcrumbs. If 'e (thehainmaker) brought 'is link out weldable, but wanted threshin', 'e'd say to the strikers: 'Come on, quick, 'it it 'it it, ‘it it. If it'd gon over when 'e brought it out, an' it'd pulverise: ‘Light, light, light. Ooh, you bloody fool'.
Yo' can almost feel it when you'm a-workin' it. The good iron, it's meant to stretch. It stretches: an' owds, but th' 'ard iron, it's brittle; an' when yo’ put weight on it, it cracks. If it's good quality iron when you bring it out, it's like toffee. That is the secret of a good workman.
All the chain they make, it's got to be tested; it's got to pass the government test. It's made in lengths of fifteen fathoms, that's thirty yards. Some vessels that are goin' to work in the deep water in their outfit, as they term it, they might 'a' twenty lengths. These lengths can be shackled up. If they want six lengths they shackle six lengths o' chain up. I were the superintendent o' the test for the last ten years.
Houses 'adn't used to be two bob a week. (13) They couldn't let their 'ouses unless they'd got a shop at the back for the women. Some shops'd got two 'earths. The women and children worked the bellows themselves. I've seen scores o' babies on th' 'earth in a clo's basket; be very nice an' warm. They were chain mostly; there was only one or two isolated nailmakers. I started work in 1900. There were very few nailmakers at Quarry Bank at that time because they'd change over to chainmakers. The chain 'earths were exactly the same. Quite a lot o' the men worked in their own shops together with their wives and children.
Nelly, the last lady chainmaker in Quarry Bank, worked for Bloomers. She made out-chain for Bloomers - and Jone's, and LyaJls, and Griffith's, and Alf BiIlingham. They could make it for anybody if they could get th' iron.
Some o' the chainmakers on the very big chain, they employed three men beside themselves. That made the fire up into a team. The chainmaker, 'e employed the strikers. The striker's name . prior to this last war, 'is name was never in th' office, never until it 'ad to be Pay As You Earn. 'E paid 'em what 'e liked; what they worked for. The pit was the same: the butty. That's 'ow it was. But the women, if they could make chain, they went to any master and asked for some iron to make into chain, to bring back to the boss, whoever it was. There was quite a few round 'ere. when they 'ad 'undredweight of iron, they were supposed to work it up buy their own fuel- and return it to the master when it was worked up. if not then, when they 'ad another worked up. That'd be two 'undredweight o' chain, but that's an impossibility. You see, you can't make two 'undredweight chain out o' two 'undredweight of iron, because o' the scale. You've seen the iron scale, I suppose.
Well, they used to be allowed what they call 'ild. (l4) If they'd got 'undredweight of iron they'd gotta return 'undred an' four pound o' chain. Eight pound less than the 112. When they were working this iron up, workin' it into chain, they were as careful with it as gold. It didn't matter to an eighth of an inch whether the links were uniform or not in the chain that they made. When they cut the links off they 'ad a gauge. That'd got to work out to the nine feet or ten feet or twelve feet, whatever the length th' iron was, because they daredn't spoil a link and have a little bit left. Iron at the time I'm talkin' about was five pound a ton. It was that. It's seventy today.
When they took their 'undredweight o' chain in, if it weighed 'undred pound, it were four pound short, see. They'd get fourpence knocked off. For years an' years it was two and threepence 'undredweight for bare sevens. Now there was lots o' girls an' women down in Sheffield Street as made bare sevens. Bare sevens was the most popular size forselling. It was the most popular size to mek. If they were a pound short they'd gotta pay a penny a pound for that. If they got hundred and six pound in, they got a'p'ny a pound for that (on each of the two extra pounds). That was the meanness o' the masters. It's true.
The lowest grade that I'm talkin' about now, the prices were what I say. They were what we called slap. They could make that quick; 't’adn't got to be nice an' polished, see. It was very rough, some on iIt. That was slap.
They used to work all sorts of hours. Sheffield Street was alive at ten o'clock wi' chainmakers, ten o'clock at night. They didn't start at a specified time. They 'ad to buy their own firin'. Most of' em'd got big gardens. Plenty gardenin', plenty gardenin'. I'd got 'alf acre, nearly; I'd got a little orchard.
Within the last ten years I've seen the chainmakers comin' out o' work with the sweat a-comin' out o' their shoes, fIop. There was some sort of a union, later but at the time I'm talkin' about there was no union.(15) I don't b'lieve the women ever 'ad a union, but they did force the masters to make a scale, list. (16) The chainmakers they got a job at the rate what the work paid, see. If they didn't like the rate, if they could do better somewhere else, they just left. I never knowed an organised strike, never in me life, (at) Sammy Taylor's, Sykes's, Rees’s, Kingsley's, Griffiths's, Griffin's.
Women were only employed in their own workshops, really, but there were a shop that'd got about a dozen 'earths in -Arthur Bloomer. Twelve 'earths, two sixes. Poor Claire turned a wheel and it 'ad some mechanical appliance up in the roof, attached to the bellows. As she turned this wheel the rocks come up automatically'. She'd gotta do that for twelve hours. She 'ad about ninepence for that, you can bet your life on that. (17)
After they'd worked till ten o'clock at night, if they'd got nine bob a week clear they were lucky. So much so that they used to go out on it if they could get job in the factory. They dae get no more' theer, but it wasn't so laborious. It's 'ard job mekin' chain. The factory hours when I started, they were six till six. Then it was reduced by an hour, and Saturday till one instead of till two. I don't think anybody did anythin' about the chain trade till Mary Macarthy come from London. She 'ad a crusade round 'ere. After that we 'ad Margaret Bondfield, the first woman Minister of Labour .(19)
If they played on a Monday, if there was a pigeon race or a dogmatch (I'm talkin about whippets) they didn’t come to work; and if they dae work, I couldn't work. There were some people, they were better workmen than others. from the best to the worst, one man could get twice as much as another in a day, see: no uniformity. All piece work. You got what you earned.
The bosses were annoyed some time if they'd made a contract to make an outfit o' chain, shall we say. it 'ad to be made to time, when the ship was bein' built. Most on it was made like that; it'd gotta be made to time. If they started playin' for their own interest, it was plenty 'o play with the boss's interest.
Yo' couldn't do a week's work. you weren't paid weekly, you were paid daily. It was badly organised. There was either no cokes or no iron or summut the matter with the machinery. You were never sure you'd do a wik's work. You were paid by the penny. Sevenpence a day. Six till six. Twelve hour day. You 'ad hour for dinner and 'alf-hour for breakfast out o' that. Not Saturday. One o'clock on a Saturday. 'E (one employer) 'ad a factory at Cradley 'eath just be the railway station. 'E employed 'undreds. 'E was very firm in 'is methods, and got very rich in later life. 'E got to be a man that gave money away: 'e gave most of 'is money away before 'e died. 'E gave most o’ the Park in Quarry Bank, and 'e gave us a lectern at the church, beautiful lectern.(20).
We 'ad various spare-time occupations. There'd used to be dog-fighting. There was people as loved dogs, and they loved to fight 'em. The Staffordshire terrier, 'e originated 'ere, an' 'e was a game dog. When 'e gets 'old 'e won't loose. AI1 yo' can 'ear at a dog fight is some 'eavy breathin'. No, they gotta be throttled off, as they call it. It aye exactly dead now.
I'll tell yer about the game cocks an' the pigeon flying as we knew it. Short flyers, we called 'em: mile, or two mile. There was a lot o' pigeon flyers. I'll te me own street. George Dunn, Tom 'Omer, Dick Guest, Josiah Deeley and George Parsons. That's five. All of these men kept racing pigeons. short races: mile, two miles, three miles. We did race from 'Agley - that's five miles - but it was too much trouble: we trained these pigeons on foot.
After that there was Torn Penn, 'Arry James, So1 Pearson, David Jesper, Tom Pearson. These men, they all kep' pigeons. On a Saturday night, p'r'aps when we'd got a bit o' money to spend, only a small bit, we'd mek a match. we'd mek a match to fly for thirty bob as a rule. We'd fly for thirty bob, and we'd pick the place to fly from. Now, I'm a-goin' to match my pigeon to fly Tom 'Omer's. I'm goin' to fly 'im a mile for thirty bob in three weeks' time. This match wouldn't come off till I'd made the stake. It'd 'ave to be made up the next Saturday night to ten shillin', then the followin Saturday night to twenty shillin'. You'd pick a stake 'older.
To be a pigeon flyer you've got to 'ave a school, 'cause this pigeon's gotta be took three or four times a day to the startin' point. It'd take three weeks to train your pigeon an' get 'im right-as fast as an eagle. When they'd made the match we started to train. As a rule a good 'en will fetch the cocks. You'd gotta time the match for 'is 'en to be layin' the followin' day.
If we won we'd retire to the pub - 'tek the stake 'older with us- then we'd spend the money. I was in great demand as the minstrel. I sung all the latest songs o' the day: 'Alice, where art thou?', 'The Flight of Ages'. When the war were on we sung war songs. I remember when the Boer War were on, there came a song out: 'Break the news to mother'.
I never 'ad a singin 'lesson in me life, but forty years agoo I was in great demand for the do's that we used t' 'ave; the pigeon flyin’, the dog fightin' or the cock fightin'. I've bin associated with all these things in me time. It was wonderful, or wicked, I doh know which. Lot o' cruelty in it; lot o' cruelty in the cock fightin' an' dog fightin', ar. And in the pigeon flyin', but in the pigeon flyin' it was cruelty to yo'.
We'd got 'ave a gang, as we called it, a little club, when we'd got the pigeons or the dogs or the cocks. We used t’mek a match for a couple o' pound or thirty bob. It was a lot o' money, and we 'ad t' 'ave a gang of about ten. The regulars as trained yer dogs - the dog's gotta be walked about; tek 'em to Clent - you wouldn't believe the pleasure they got out o' winnin' two bob or 'alf a crown. You wouldn't believe th' effort that went into it.
Cock Fighting was legally banned before my time,(28) but it certainly continued up till, shall we say, 1940. It was done round 'ere. I was in the middle o' the people that did it. It was done in secret, o' course. I fought me self in a small way.
There was quite as much put into breedin' cocks to fight as there is today breedin' racehorses. They'd got no money but they liked sport, and they'd cock-fight for just a few bob. Solo cock fights ¬my cock t fight your cock - that'd be done very often; but they would sometimes organise big mains to fight ten cocks on the one side and ten cocks on t' other.If six out the ten won they'd won the main; whoever 'ad the six winners they'd won the main.
Cock fighting-or dog fighting or pigeon flying-it 'ad to be organised. There'd gotta be a camp, say ten men: and these ten men were loyal to one another. When they bred these birds they bred 'em just the same as racehorses, none but the best. They were always cut out: tried out, and killed if they were no good, and eaten. The game 'ens, they were bred from bottom birds, what they called bottom birds, who'd fight till they died, see. And these 'ens were selected with quite as much diligence as 'orses are selected for the stud, now.
When they decided t' 'ave a fight, it required all these men to find the money. They didn't fight for big sums because they just 'adn't, got it, unless some bigman come an' said 'e'd back 'is cock for money. If yo' could get somebody on your side t' equal, 'is money, then it Was for a few pound, but otherwise it was real only in shillin's. But when th' 'en was put down to sit everybody in the gang knowed, and then if it 'ad good luck an' these was ten chickens each man'd 'ave a chicken of ' is own. If they were all cocks, so much the better.
After these chickens were grown they'd 'ave to be tested; they'd 'ave to be what they call 'cut out'. Now these young cocks would be taken to a good old bird, to a champion bird, and if they showed any signs of cowardice the lot were condemned. They were all killed, all the lot, lock, stock an' barrel. They'd gotta be bottom bred before they rear 'em, and then after they'd reared these cocks they'd make the matches.
When a match was made the cock'd be fed for the last day or two on corn that was soaked in sherry. Then when the match come off it was in secret. Not many knowed about it beside their own gang, but somebody'd gotta be let into the secret for the betting. When this cock'd got fit they'd ge it steel spurs. Yo' know a cock 'e's got spurs. wen, these were lovely little spurs that were made, som o' them three inch or two inch long. They fought with the same length. They'n works of art. At the bottom was a little socket, and they tapered off no thicker than a needle. There was a little buck: that'd buckle round the cock's leg. They'd fight with the spurs, and flap their wings as well. They'd fight with their beaks. They hit with their wings. They kicked with their 'eels.
When there was one knocked out on one side a bit, the cocks were picked up rested. That was the end of a round. Long round or short round, that was the same.
The cock was picked up and rested. When a cock 'ad 'ad enough 'e wouldn't go. That was the end o' the fight - and th' end o' the cock. And not only th' end o' th' cock. end o' the breed. 'E was a quitter. They couldn't stand that at all.
After there was a main they got better, a lot o' the cocks did. But if one got a unlucky blow, got spur in 'is 'ead or any thin' like that, 'e was eaten just the same. There was a lot that bred game fowl to eat. I did meself. They appear to be smaller but they're as 'ard as this table, and as compact. It was like beef.
In the old times all the winning villages were cock fighters. They come from 'ere and Gornal, 'Olly 'All. When the cocks were matched to fight, if they shouldn't be knocked about, instead o be in' spurred they were muffled: the spurs were wrapped up so they couldn't 'urt one another, not really urt. Old English game, them were the fighters. There were the black-breasted red, the duck-wing grey... there wasn' such a lot of fighting cocks about, because the job they'd gotta do, they'd gotta be good, and if they weren't good, they weren't kept.
I'm a Villa mon (man). The Villa team ‘as won the cup and league a long, long time ago, it was: George, goal; Spencer and Evans, backs; Bowman, Cowan and Crabtree, 'alf-backs; Athersmith, Weldon, 'Ampton, Bache an' 'All, forwards.(22)
I 'eard a song about the Rowdy Dowdy boys when I was very young. It was football final time, an' Derby County they'd gotta play Sheffield United. They played at the Oval. I remember because I 'eard this in the barber's shap. I used to lather for the barber when I was about ten, an' this'd be about this time. It was the cup final, an' I 'eard one o' the customers say that they went to th' Oval, the Sheffield crowd they 'ummed 'the Dead March' in Saul, an' the Derby boys they sung:
Now, boys, now, boys, now for a jolly spree.
Rum tum tiddly um, come an' 'ave a round with me.
Come an' 'ave a round or two, I don't care what you do,
But I say: clear the way for the rowdy dowdy boys. (23)
Derby won, They beat the favourites.
When th' 'op pick in' season came about - about the beginnin' o' September or the latter end of August -we'd sometimes be away for six weeks. Plenty of 'em packed up lock, stock an' barrel. The 'ouse was shut up. The farmers,-they employed agents: it be a woman out o' your street, very likely, or the next. They abounded, and they used to 'ire these pickers. You were 'ired. You got a shilIin' for an adult and a tanner for a child. The mothers - they'd tek the children with 'em, o' course they'd got one about three yer old, they'd put 'im down and 'ire ‘im. They'd got t''ave allowances: tea and cider and potatoes. Oh, the farmers were very good to us provided you behaved yerselves and kept out o' th' orchards. There's no bigger lure in the world for a kid than an apple tree.
The train was 'ired, an' if yo’ were 'ired you 'ad a ticket off th' agent. That was goin' from Cradley to Worcester, an' went on the Leigh Court an' Tenbury an' Knightwick, Sutley, Leigh Sinton. There's not many that I 'aven't bin to. It was a great occasion for we after we got adults. We used to go down wi' bicycles on the Saturday an' come back on the Sunday. They'd find us accommodation in the straw.
Mother took us 'oppin. Father came over every Saturday while we were there an' stayed till Sunday night. I used to love th' 'op fields. We stayed in the barns. All the stables an' cowsheds and that, just accordin' to the amount o' pickers they wanted, the animals were taken out and the stables white-washed and plenty of new straw put in. You took your own bede1o's and made yerself comfortable. We were in for a month's fun. Yo' took yer box, yer clo's an' yer kids, an' yo' mucked in.
Sometimes the wages weren't as good as they ought to 'a' bin. We were paid by the bushel. At the time we were goin '-me an' my family, me brothers an' sisters-we 'ad to pick nine or ten bushel. It always used to be agreed with the farmer. We'd say: ‘Ow much?' 'Ten to the shillin', or 'Nine to the shillin'.' If it was ten we went down th' 'opyard, and when we'd bin a-pickin' till, say, breakfast time - it might be very cold as well to go down in September; there might be frosty nights an' it's terrible to pick'ops in the frost - when they'd bin pickin' about an hour, they'd go on strike. They'd go back to the barn. But in later years they came down to one a shillin'.
There were different 'opyards: at Leigh Court there's sure to be ten farmers who grew 'ops' Knightwick, Sutley, Bromyard, Pershore. Sometimes th' 'ops 'd be very good. You'd pick them ten bushel to the shilling. If the t'others were inferior that'd be dropped, it'd go down to nine or eight bushels to the shilling.
Lovely in th' 'opyard. Everybody was a-singin'. I sung better down th' 'opyard than ever I did in me life, in the fresh air. I was wonderful. I went one year when I was twenty year owd, me an' another chap went when work was slack, me an' 'Arry Ford, we went an' we 'ad a month theer. I sung beautiful in th' 'opyard. Lots o' th' owd songs. They killed this young woman an' buried 'er ('Crue ship's Carpenter'). That was one; and lots of others: the young sailor that got up in the mornin' an paid 'is mistress with two 'andfuls o' gold ('Young Sailor Bold').
You sung while you were pullin' th' 'ops off. They were in furrows. One row o' poles or wires, then another. Between them wires was room to carry the crib when you 'ad to move. (A crib was a structure o' poles and hurden - that's baggin'. The edges roughly sewn on with string. Yo' picked in that). The pole puller 'd come and show us a 'ouse (area to pick). When yo'd finished that 'ouse yo tek the crib into the next furrow because the poles 'd be all down, that side. The others joined in. When you come to the chorus they'd join in. Th' 'opyrad was full o' singin'. Them in the vicinity all join in the chorus.
We 'ad sing-songs round the fire. The farmer, 'e supplied facilities for you to cook your own food when you came from th' 'opyard. There was a man appointed by th' 'op pickers themselves an' given a few shilIin's to come up before the day was over, an' the day was over when they bushelled the last out of a crib. When you were bushelled out they (the hops) went into sacks that held eight bushels. This is th' 'owd way. It ae done like that now: they gotta machine.
Any (hops) as stopped over night, they'd only be 'alf the value, cause they'd sink in the night. They'd go phantom', as they called it: instead o' bein' proper solid little 'op, it'd be like a bit o' paper. This one bloke, 'e came up from th' 'opyard to light a fire an' get some water. Most o' th’ water 'ad to be carried from the pump. 'E filled the utensils. They were 'avin' a meal in no time.
It was a jolly time. After the meal was over there was nowhere to go. The pub at Knightwick was a mile away from the barn, and although they went down on the Saturday night very few went down on the wik night; it was too far to go. To fill the time up they'd 'ave concerts - not organised. Somebody'd set up a tune:
O she was so good and kind to me
And all the rest of the family.
I’ll never forget my Mary Ann,
She was, she was...
And another'd start:
O she was so good and so kind to me...
We'd sometimes go on like that for an hour at a time, singin' for kiIlin' time. Then it was: 'Give us one, George. George, you sing us one'. The nights were passed very pleasantly. It was good to be down th' 'opyard, it was really good. It was good for the children, although some on 'em they 'ad a bit of 'ardship because 'op bines, they're very tough.
On Saturday night we went to the pub and we 'ad a good spree - sing-song. That was the best part about it. The fresh air in the country, it made your life lack o' burdens. That was before the School Board started to summons the lads for goin'. That was the reason the farmers turned for mechanical pickin'. I've 'ad some good times down th' 'opyards. I 'ardly missed a year. It was the best o' my days.
1. The word does not appear in Wright's Dictionary of Dialect.
2. Quarry Bank Parish Church was opened in 1847.
3. Rev. T. Carpenter Dixon.
4. The New British Iron Company at Corngraves. near Halesowen, was started in 1810 and closed in 1894.
5. There is a description of puddling in Walter White, 'All Round the Wrekin', 1860. pp.258-9.
6. The Birmingham Evening Post.
7. The massacre took place at Drogheda, in 1649.
8. From 1844 there was a ohurch-run day school in a former nail warehouse at Victoria Road, Quarry Bank. This may well have been fee paying, and George Dunn is referring to free schooling.
9. Rocker, or lever.
10. In fact, for four years, from 1900 until 1904.
11. This feature started in 1898 and continucd until 1939. A song fram this column, entitled 'His Little Wife Was with Him All the Time', is reprinted in my 'Everyman's Book of British Ballads', 1980, p.205.
12. Cf. these accounts of chainmaking: 'Report as to the Condition of Nail Makers and Small Chain Makers in South Sraffordshire and East Worcestershire', by the Labour Correspondent of the Board of Trade, presented to the House of Commons in 1880; 'The Chainmakers of Cradlcy Heath', no.lV in a series by R. H. Sherard, entitled 'The White Slaves of England' in Pearson's Magazine, 1896; 'The Chainmakers of Cradlcy and thereabouts', by E. Kestle, in the Conference Handbook, 1974, of the Institute and College of Craft Education.
13. On another occasion the figure quoted was precise: Is. 9d a week.
14. Again, Wright does not include the word.
15. The Report mentions a six'-week strike for the implementation of an agreed list of prices, led by the Chain Maker's Association of Cradley Heath, in 1888. This comment was made: 'Numerous attempts have been made from time to time to establish a strong union, but invariably without success' (p.38). A union certainly existed in 1896 since Sherard acknowledged his debt to the secretary of the Chainmaker's Union, Mr James Smith. There is an obvious need for some research on this matter.
16. There was a strike of women chainmakers in 1910,led by Mary MacArthur to compel the employers to pay the rates newly agreed by the chainmaking trade board. There is a photograph of the strikers, together with a reference to them in a song in my 'Poverty Knock', 1974, pp.3~7.
17. Cf Sherard (p412-3): 'In the smaller factories manual labour is employed to work the machines by which the forges are supplied with blast, and here also the master extorts an unjustifiable profit. I remember seeing a woman thus supplying 'blast' to four forges. She was a pitiful being, chlorotic, with hair almost white, and a stamp of imbecility - too easily comprehended - on her ravaged and anaemic face. Her work lasted twelve hours a day, and during the whole of this time she had to turn the handle of a wheel which actuated the bellows of four forges. Each worker paid 3s. a week to the master for blast, while the anaemic Albino received for her squirrel slavery, "when things were good". the wages of 6s. a week'.
18. Mary Reid MacArthur (1880-1921) was appointed General Secretary of the Women's Trade Union League in 1903. Three years later she helped to found both the National Anti-Sweating League and the National Federation of Women Workers. 'Her work for the women chain-makers of Cradley Heath was especially notable. She was elected by them as a workers' representative on the chain-making trade board (1909), and after this board had fixed legal minimum rates of wages she led a memorable strike of the women in order to compel the employers to pay the new rates of wages without the delay permitted by the Trade Boards Act of 1909' (DNE). See also M.A. Hamilton, 'Mary MacArthur: A Biographical Sketch', 1925, and Margaret Cole's essay on Mary MacArthur in her 'Women of Today', 1938.
19. Margaret Grace Bondfield (1873-1953) was the first British woman cabinet minister: she became Minister of Labour in 1929 during Ramsay MacDonald's second administration. In 1906 she had helped Mary MacArthur to form the National Federation of Women Workers.
20. The Lectern was presented in 1900 by Mr Ernest Stevens, the owner of Judge Holloware. He employed both George Dunn and his father.
21. Cock fighting was outlawed in 1835. An epigrammatic cock-fighting song from George Dunn, 'This cock it must have crowed', is in my 'Rigs of the Fair' (with Jon Raven), 1976, p.36.
22. Aston Villa were champions of the first division and also FA. cup winners in 1897. The team which beat Everton by three goals to two in the cup was: Whitehouse; Spencer; Evans; Reynolds; Cowan (James); Crabtree; Athersmith; Devey; Campbell; Weldon; Cowan (John). Some of the players listed by George Dunn were members of later teams.
23. This was the chorus of a popular song of the day, which appeared alongside 'Daisy Dell' on a broadside without imprint in Hull City Library.
© M.P.L.H.G. 2015