A Hillgate Childhood

- Myself When Young.


Jim Hooley


Family and Home

I first saw the light of day in November 1913, in Mottram Street off Hillgate. The children who arrived before me were Peter, Helen, George, Nora (who was to die in 1936 after a long illness) and Joseph. Another brother, Henry, was born in 1918, completing the Hooley family, which was to make itself known to the Board of Guardians in later years.

Mottram Street was a typical street of that area: a thoroughfare of stone sets, going from Hillgate to Wellington Road south. On the side where we lived [at] No. 36 starting from the bottom on the Hillgate side, and going up Mottram street on the right hand side were – The “Higher Pack Horse”, nicknamed the “Big Lamp”, three terraced houses, Charley Hawkins Rag & Bone yard, five terraced houses, Mrs. Broadhurst’s corner shop, the commencement of Police Street and then the long row of four roomed terraced houses, of which one was the Hooley residence. In the middle of the row was a Mission Chapel, I believe it had something to do with St. Thomas Church, Hillgate.

It was on the corner of Police Street and Mottram Street under the old gas lamp that the kids of the area would gather on a winter’s night for games. On the other side of the street, opposite our house was Mellor’s cotton mill. On a cold winter’s morning you could hear the old “knocker-up” tapping on the windows and saying, in a mournful voice, “it’s six o’clock and a cold morning”: enough to want to put your head under the blankets, that’s of course if you were lucky enough to have blankets.

At 7.30 the mill girls could be heard coming up the street, their clogs making music as they faced another hard day’s work.

Middle Hillgate at the Junction of Mottram Street; circa 1900

Middle Hillgate c. 1900. The "Big Lamp" (Higher Pack Horse) on the corner of Mottram Street  can be seen on the right.

The house we lived in at that time had four rooms: two bedrooms, one kitchen and living room. With the mill facing the house we got dust and noise all day long. The lavatory, which was shared by two families, was a good thirty yards from the house. We were lucky; we had a flush lavatory, whilst many still used the dry type which were emptied weekly, during the night.

From 1918 onwards I can remember incidents in my life. By this time my father had returned from the war and had started work as a bricklayer’s labourer: - in other words, a hod carrier – joining the ranks of the vast army of hod carriers and navvies that lived on Hillgate in those days. In the winter, like many others, he was out of work, and during that period we had to rely on the Board of Guardians (Stockport Workhouse) for outdoor relief.

My Grandmother on my mother’s side was a great help in those hard times. She would send the family money, food and other provisions. The old lady was born in Ireland and was a character. She liked to sing songs and loved a drop of the “hard stuff”. Like most Irish-women she was a wonderful story teller. I remember her saying she came over to England at the age of about 13 and had to wait under the clock at Liverpool Railway Station for someone to pick her up. The story after that got somewhat mixed up. She remembered a “big war in America”, that would have been the American Civil War.

My father was the only child of his mother’s first marriage. Her second marriage was blessed (if that’s the word) with twelve children. Not many survived. From what little I know of my father’s father, he was born in King Street Stockport1 and was a cotton worker in his early years.  In later years he seemed to have acquired some education for he worked his way up to the treasurer’s office. This surely would have given him some standing amongst the people of Hillgate in those days. However, it was a mistake to make him treasurer. He went off with the company’s money and was, as the story goes, never seen again. My father was brought up with his grandparents who seem to have had a better standard of living than the average family on Hillgate in those days.

Now, to give some idea of the house where I was born. The living room was bare to say the least. We had about two chairs, one table, a thing called a dresser (a long flat contraption with six drawers – two broken), a small cupboard in the centre, and a broken sofa. I don’t recall the floor being covered in linoleum but there were maybe a few bits here and there, it was certainly not covered with carpet. The pictures on the walls were not painted by Constable or Turner. I remember two: one of the Sacred Heart which all Roman Catholics had in those days – it was supposed to bring good luck to the house, though the only luck we had was bad. The other picture was of my father as a soldier looking sorry he had ever joined up.

The kitchen had a stone floor, a thing called a slop stone (sink), one cold water tap, an old mangle, a brick boiler, a lot of old clothes hanging up, a few pots and pans and a gas ring. On Monday mornings the kitchen would be full of steam. My mother’s voice would be heard through the mist: “Get from under my feet if you want any bloody tea!” The system was; she would wash all the good things, shirts etc., dry and iron them, and pawn them at Thompsons pawn shop on Hillgate to get money for our meals.

There were two pawn shops in that district, Thompsons and Browns. Mr. Brown’s house and shop were at the bottom of Radcliffe Street, fronting Hillgate. The entrance to the front door of his house was up a flight of about six stone steps and was a regular meeting place for the men. It was a common sight to see a crowd of men sitting on these steps, both night and day, hoping someone would take them into the pub and treat them to a pint.

Mr. Brown was an old gentleman. Well mannered, he dressed very old fashioned even in those days. With his full beard and his manner of speaking, he certainly looked like a figure from the Victorian Age. His pawn shop was the larger of the two, was very dark and had racks going all the way up to the ceiling. On the racks were bundles of clothes that some unfortunates had pledged. I often thought, looking at those bundles, what stories each could tell. The pledging office was entered by a door in Radcliffe Street.

Thompson’s pawn shop was on the opposite side to Browns. To pawn whatever you had to pawn, you had to go round the back of the shop, up Radcliffe’s Court, through a small gate which led into a yard, through, another door into the shop, then down two or three steps into the back room of the pledging room or “office”. It was a dark room with stone flags for flooring – the counter was very high I remember. On Monday mornings this semi-cellar was always full of women in shawls waiting to pledge their bits and pieces. The staff of this establishment were the Manager, a man about 35 or 40 years of age, and his female assistant about the same age. The women would put their bundles on the counter and say “I want half a crown on this” (or whatever was required). The manager’s job then was to open the bundle and see if the contents were worth the required sum. The women would keep him talking to take his mind off opening the bundle, telling him jokes – the kind that would embarrass him. More often than not he would forget to open the bundle and would tell his assistant to make out the ticket for the sum they had asked for.

There was another pawn shop on Duke Street, where men used to pledge the tools of their trade, such as hods, shovels and trowels, from Saturday until Monday morning. There were also on Hillgate at this time a number of old women who would, for a few coppers, take things to pledge for the people who were ashamed to be seen going into a pawn shop.

Back to our humble abode!

All the water we used in the house was heated in a kettle on the living room fire, or on the gas ring in the kitchen. Cooking was done in the oven, which formed a part of the old fire grate. In later years we possessed a steel fender which looked well in front of the coal fire: I don’t know where it came from, maybe someone gave it to us, but I always remember it being the brightest thing in the living room.

It was my sister’s job on Saturday afternoon, after she had finished her work at the cotton mill, to clean the house. By this time we did have a sort of linoleum on the living room floor. After the floor had been cleaned it was covered over with newspapers as no-one dared to walk over the nice new linoleum. On Saturdays all the women in the street would clean the front door step and the first three flags of the pavement with “Donkey Stone”, and one could hear the threats from the women to the kids playing around – “I’ll smack your arse if you walk over my cleaning”.

Our house was illuminated with gas. In the living room was a gas mantle which was broken at least twice a week, so a store of candles was always on hand. In those early days we often had no curtains up to the windows, these being replaced by newspapers acting for that purpose. With the mantle broken and the candles lit, Charles Dickens’s characters would not have looked out of place.

One bedroom was lit by a gas jet only, which made the room look like a scene from Madam Tussauds’ chamber of horrors. The bedroom furniture comprised two iron beds with very few blankets – we made up for that by having overcoats to cover the occupants. The beds were double but this was no consolation for us kids. Sometimes we had to sleep head to toe, and there were times when one would waken in the mornings with someone’s foot in your face. The floor was bare and remained so for all the years I lived there.

The back bedroom had one double bed, again with very few blankets, and again overcoats were used. You had to be a contortionist to get into this bed because it filled the room. The only light here came from the moon or stars, and the view from this bedroom looked down onto the lavatories, surely a romantic sight on a summer’s morning.

The houses in the row where we lived were very old, and in the summer time they were infested with bed bugs. Each householder would launch an occasional attack on these vermin, only for them to retreat into the next house, to be attacked again and sent back; but like the British Navy they never surrendered.

And now to my parents. My father was a shy and quiet man. He liked his beer, but in spite of that weakness he was a good worker when work was available. My mother on the other hand was a mixture between a diplomat and a “go-getter”, and she had a wonderful gift of getting out of paying bad debts. She was the thinker and back-bone of the household.

The Hillgate of my story covers from what was Union Street, to Crowther Street. At one time this was comprised of 40 courts and many cellar dwellings. The population of this area in the early years was mainly Irish, or of Irish descent. In my time the priest came round the Parish once a month for a visit, but mainly for contributions for the church – the more you gave the better chance you had to get to heaven when you left the world behind. I am afraid the chances for our family were very slight as we had very little to give.

The inhabitants of the area where we lived were poor, but the comradeship which existed between families was a wonderful thing, especially where authority was concerned. This was certainly a case of “them and us”. Poverty was evident everywhere, but it is a strange thing that enjoyment was to be had in those days far more than one gets today, or is it me that is getting older and thinking like most elder people “of days gone by”?

The streets which ran alongside Mottram Street were Radcliffe Street and Bamford Street, and the courts in those two streets were many. For example, in Bamford Street there were Sun Court, Walmsley Court, Knowsley Court, Coopers Court, Ormes Court, Pass Court and Broomes Court. Radcliffe Street and Watchmans Court, Bennetts Court, Bates Court and Chapel Yard. In all fairness I must say the people who lived in the neighbourhoods of these courts were both clean and respectable, but some of the courts were unsanitary and unhealthy, with open middens and one or two privies for the use of maybe 20 people. In most cases there was only one entrance into these courts and that was through a long passage – not very nice. When the Corporation men came to empty the middens, the cry would come from the women, “you would come today when we have got the bloody washing out!”-

The women who lived on Hillgate at that time were more “go ahead” than the men. It was their job to keep the food coming in and to think of various schemes to keep it coming in. The men on the other hand, if not working (which was often) would gather on the street corners and discuss the affairs of the day, both political and financial. During these debates one could find more comedians than there ever were at the London Palladium.


The Hooley family 1914
The Hooley family in 1914 (possibly produced as a keepsake for their father George when he joined the army in WW1?) Mother Annie is on the left with baby Jim held somewhat precariously on her lap. Peter, the eldest is at the back with Joe next to him. Nora is standing, centre and older sister Helen is on the right. George is sitting on the floor.

bullet1 - we now know that this isn’t correct, Job Hooley was born in Toll Bar Street in 1851


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