Hillgate Childhood 3



A word about the shops in the district. There were many fish and chip shops on Hillgate, and as long as one had a penny there was no fear of dying of starvation. I remember Mrs Dooley's Pork Shop, opposite John Street. You could smell the roast pork, meat pies and home made meat dishes cooking. The shop had a stone floor, well sanded and was always lovely and clean. Mrs. Dooley was a stout lady with a jolly red face. She would always appear with a clean white apron on when serving in the shop, and always addressed everyone with the same question "What can I get for you love"? It was always a pleasure to go into her shop and see the large fire place and the ovens where all the cooking was done.


Miss Crompton in Edward Street had another well known shop. She lived with her nephew Mr. Nolan, a master butcher. All the meat that was not sold on Saturday night (no refrigerators in those days) would be turned into "penny ducks". On Sunday mornings, people would come from all parts of Stockport to buy Miss Crompton's penny ducks, bringing pots and jugs of all kinds just to get the gravy.


We next go to Peter Fiddler's chip shop on Middle Hillgate. Peter was a well known character in those days, and was one of the principal organisers of the Stockport Carnival. He had his fish and chip shop opposite the Salvation Army Citadel. He was also the leader of a brass band, and a girls' Morris Dancing Group. These girls were local and took great pride in their dancing. The dress was a white frock, bow of ribbon in their hair, and clogs with bells attached. The group took part in most of the Carnivals around Lancashire and Cheshire. Peter was indeed a very busy man but never too busy to give the kids a large portion of chips for a penny in those hard times.


Another popular dancing group, again consisting of girls, was Fosbrooks Morris Dancers. All the girls were local and came from around the area, their dress being more colourful than Fiddler's, they were short blue velvet trousers, white shirts, short blue velvet waistcoats, and clogs with bells attached. It was always a pleasure to watch them at practice, which took place in a little street off Mottram Street. The music was provided by a man with a concertina. On a summer evening crowds would gather to give encouragement to those young girls.



The Hillgate of my childhood and youth was a happy place, in spite of its poverty. It is true we had more public houses than any other part of Stockport, and fights were frequent on Saturday nights, but, with it being a largely Irish community it was only to be expected.


On Saturday afternoons we kids went to the "Star" Picture House on Hillgate, or, to the "Albert Hall" Picture House on Wellington Street. The penny crush was indeed what it suggested, a crush with fighting and struggling to get in, afraid the pictures would close before we could get a seat. We were always eager to see William S. Heart, Eddy Polo, Tom Mix and that ever popular young lady Pearl White. Of the two picture houses, the "Star" was our favourite. The films showed on Saturday afternoons were all serials - we kids called them "following up pictures". What a thrill it was to see Pearl White escape again with her life. The films I remember were "The Hooded Terror", "The Fatal Ring", "The Iron Man", and so on.


Sometimes we were given a comic or an orange on entering the picture house. When it was full, the pianist, situated under the screen would begin to play all the popular songs of the day, finishing up with a song all the kids knew, "Pearl Pearl you are a Wonderful Girl".


One Saturday afternoon the children had a visitor at the "Star", a full blooded Red Indian called Chief White Elk. He stood in front of the screen with folded arms looking so proud whilst the kids went wild, cheering and clapping. I don't know what he was supposed to do, all I know is he handed out sweets and comics to the children.


It was a common sight to see the boys so excited with the film that they wouldn't go to the toilet but would pee on the floor before missing the best part.


On week nights the price of admission was three pence to sit on the first ten front forms, five pence at the back of the hall and nine pence in the balcony. On summer nights when the picture house was full, a member of the staff would come round with a container of disinfectant and spray it over the audience. At night time the crowd would be waiting long before the picture house was open to get a good seat. The old women used to come when the doors had been opened B while and tell the kids not to be "cheeky little buggers" and to get up from their seats and let them sit down. These old ladies always went in pairs, one who could read and the other who could not, so it would be unfortunate if one sat in front of them: - the one would be reading to her friend what the villain had said, while her friend would reply in a loud voice "Did he say that, the bloody swine", it was a great relief when the "Talkies" came out.


The Stockport "Theatre Royal" was another great favourite place in those days, the melodramas having a big following as well as plays such as "The Face at the Window", "The Woman always Pays", "Love on the Dole" etc. The price for admission was four pence to sit in the "Gods" where you sat on a kind of wooden step. Often plays would be "heart breakers" but how the audience loved them. Actors and actresses would say lines that would be laughed at today. For example - the father would say to his daughter "You can leave the baby but you never darken my door again". The daughter turning to the audience would say "The child is mine and I am it's mother, I will never leave it". The audience would cheer, clap and go wild with delight.


The inhabitants of Hillgate had many other forms of entertainment, that is of course if you had the money! The public houses each had their singing rooms, well supplied with singers and many a good Saturday night I have spent when a youth, listening to some good old sentimental songs which were always favourites with the locals.




We also had our individual characters who lived around the area. To name some names would be wrong for obvious reasons but I am sure they were better comedians than the professionals of today - or maybe we laughed more easily at a joke in those days. You only had to find the price of a gill (3d) to get into the pub and you could be sure to have a good hour of jokes and songs, and maybe if one of the lads had "come up" on the horses with a sixpenny double, he would see you alright for the next hour or two.


Some of these characters, however, cannot go without mention and this I do with all due respect. One was Jimmy Marine, or Jimmy the Marine [he was] sometimes called, a big tall man who had spent twenty one years in the Royal Marines but was at this time a rag and bone man. He lived alone in a single house in St. Thomas Court, Hillgate. Having no resemblance to Bramhall Hall or Lyme Hall, the house he lived in was one of a number of back to back houses on Hillgate at that time. I never was in Jimmy's house so I cannot give an account of the furniture but I am sure it was not of the French period type. Yet I do know at least he had a bed, from the following story: - one Sunday morning, about twelve o’clock, a friend of his went to his house and saw Jimmy in bed. Upon being shaken and told it was five past twelve and the "Cat" ('Golden Lion") was open, our hero at once jumped up out of bed, put on his cap and was ready to receive his first pint: surely a feat that should be in the Guinness Book of Records.


Two more men I must mention also lived in the same court about the same time as Jimmy. They were Tommy "Keeper" Walsh and his son Johnny. The nickname "Keeper" was given to him after the First World War, though why I cannot say. His son was known as "Basham" - I believe this was a name of an old time boxer. Johnny was a good natured lad, inoffensive but easily led. At that time he would have been my age but I didn't know him as well as I knew his father. Although the difference in ages between us was wide, old "Keeper" was a very interesting man and the stories of his past life were always good to listen to. He told me that during the Boer War in South Africa he had been sentenced to death, his crime being falling asleep whilst on sentry duty. He was court martialled and the sentence was "to be shot" but after being in prison for about two months he was reprieved by Lord Roberts. Another interesting story was that during the First World War he had lived in Macclesfield. On coming home on leave from France he had caught his wife being unfaithful. He threw the man through the bedroom window and carried Johnny, his young son, on his shoulder to Stockport where he left him with friends, and he joined another regiment under an assumed name. This I am sure will show the character of the man.


One day "Keeper" asked me to accompany him and visit his son who was at that time a guest of His Majesty, doing six months. I must say it was the first and last time I ever was in Strangeways Prison.


Both father and son lived together in St. Thomas Court until the 1950's when they both died within a day of each other in St. Thomas Hospital.


Quite a number of men who lived on Hillgate in those days had nicknames. There were Wingie (one arm); Nelson (one eye); Rough Arse (rough man); Salford Jack; Dublin Johnny; Soapy (a man who sold soap); Gentleman Johnny (a well dressed navvy); and others. We also had our prostitutes, both professional and semi. I cannot go deep into this subject for obvious reasons but I do know many made their way to the top of their profession by going and starting a round in Manchester.


One cannot write about Hillgate without mentioning Harry Clark, the local "Bookie". My first memory of Harry was his bookie’s yard in Higher Barlow Row, Middle Hillgate. I think he brought more entertainment to the district than any other man in the area -he organised many concerts and such like in those drab days of the 1930's. The first concert I remember was a tripe eating contest at the old Central Hall, Lower Hillgate: the first man to eat two pounds of tripe won the prize. This was followed later by a talent contest, or, as it was called in those days, “a go as you please concert”, at the same hall. You can imagine that Hillgate had more stars than there were in Hollywood during that period.


We also had walking contests, from the ""Cat" to Poynton Church and back. The funny part of this was the outfits the competitors wore; some with pants and vest, others with long pants and shirt, clogs, shoes, slippers, etc. In the excitement some dropped out others fell out and many didn't even have the strength to walk as far as Great Moor.


The next big event was the boxing contest, again organised by Harry Clark in the old Central Hall. This made every third man who lived on Hillgate a boxer. I must confess there were quite a few good ones but conversely many were just terrible. The boxing at this hall was conducted fairly, not like some of the '"blood tubs"" we had in the town in those days.


On the subject of boxing I am reminded of a woman who lived in Bamford Street, Hillgate. Aged about 60, she looked 80, her nose had been flattened and her face beaten. She lived with a big navvy and it was his hobby on a Saturday night to knock hell out of his lady love. Maybe she enjoyed it! She also had a silver plate in her head. Her navvy man was responsible for that -maybe that was the only plate they had in the house when she was in. One day her navvy man died and went to hell (the only place he could go I suppose). On the day of his funeral, several kids and myself went to the house intending to get a front seat for the great event. The door of the house was open and nobody inside, only the navvy man in his coffin, and he was going nowhere in particular. It was there I saw a scene that still lives in my memory: on the coffin were half a dozen cats smelling at the body, I could never understand why that was. However, in time the horses and funeral carriages arrived but no mourners. The undertaker was not too pleased at the hold up but after some( time, up came the mourners, the lady love trying to walk straight and her company not caring, they had been in the "Waggon and Horses" public house to give the navvy man a good send off and who could blame them.


It was a custom in those days, especially with the Roman Catholic community, to keep the body of the deceased in the house until the time of burial, which meant someone would be with the body day and night until time came for the funeral. My sister, brothers and myself still carried out this old custom when my father and mother died, knowing they were believers in this and would have wanted it.


Many a time I have heard the old people talk of the "Wakes" that used to take place on these occasions but that was before my time. There was one occasion when a relative of our family died. I must have been about nine or ten years of age when my mother took me to see him. I remember walking with her under her shawl late at night. When we arrived at the house there were about six men sat on chairs and three or four women talking to my aunt. All the men were drinking beer and talking in a jovial way, each telling stories of themselves and referring to the dead man as the "quare fellow" if he came into their stories. The room was in semi darkness with an oil lamp burning, two candles, and a crucifix placed at the head of the coffin, contrasting with the women drinking a drop of the "hard stuff".


If the funeral ended with a knife and fork tea and a drink at night, it was voted a good send off. A sad sight to see, as I did on two occasions, was the funeral of a small baby. The first time I saw this was on Hillgate when a group of women carried a small coffin from one of the streets to the cemetery. When I asked my mother the reason, she replied that the mother of the baby had no insurance to bury it and would have to rely on the neighbours for a collection.


You can see a number of things with children and never understand them. In the district where we lived (by now no doubt you will have found out it was nothing like Bramhall, Woodford or Cheadle Hulme), there was an old woman who lived in a cellar -very fond of her beer. She only had one leg and supported herself on crutches. One night with my vagabond friends we saw her come up the street, and I don't know if it was because of necessity or just laziness, but she just stood over a drain grid in the street and had a pee down it. It was then we decided she never wore drawers, and this remained a secret, with the gang, only telling friends, strangers and people we didn't know.


Another character was named Cadman, nicknamed "Caddy" then living in Ridgway Lane; he hawked fish around the district on a barrow, wore a frock tailed coat and was always a competitor for the walking contest. "Nelson", already mentioned with only one eye, when he was having a pint, he would take out his glass eye, put it near his drink and say "I am just going to the back, watch this until I return".


Johnny Tracey, although not a native of Hillgate, spent quite some time in the pubs in that area. He was a great entertainer, both with songs and jokes. One time he went round the district selling firewood, shouting "Roman Catholic firewood every bundle dipped in holy water" -needless to say this didn't please the Church too well. There were many stories told about Johnny, some true and some false. One such story is that one day he and his wife were having a row and she threw him out of the house. When outside he shouted "give me back my photo" and she threw him a sheep's head. Many stories told about these characters were often told by themselves and one could not say if they were true, or maybe part of the entertainment for the company.


It was a common thing in those days of the twenties and thirties to see street singers, these poor unfortunate people. Both men and women would sing in the street, begging for coppers. I don't think any went past our house in Mottram street without my mother saying "poor buggers, we are bad enough but not that bad", and she would send a penny out to them. When we gave the penny to the beggars they would reply with "thank your mother and God bless her". She had more blessings bestowed upon her than the Pope bestows on the crowd on Easter Day in St. Peters Square, Rome.


When my brothers and I reached the age of about ten, we went out selling newspapers the "Daily Despatch" in the mornings and the "Cheshire Daily Echo” at night. The wage I received when I entered the newspaper trade was three half pence a dozen and believe me it took a lot of selling to get sixpence.


Many of my friends at St. Josephs School became members of the Stockport Public Library about, the time I went out with papers, and attended the Children's Reading Room in Lawrence Street. To join you had to get a form from the Library. The teacher at school would then sign it and you would become a member of the reading room. After finishing my papers at night I always' looked forward to spending the rest of the evening in this room until nine o'clock when it closed.


One day a boy told me that there was another room in the library called the Reference Room, up some stone steps where you could see more expensive books just by signing your name. This I had to try! One night after selling my papers I thought, I must try this reference room "who knows, I may become a: Professor before the night ends". In I went, up the stone steps and into the room. The young lady behind the desk looked very severe. Her hair was black and fashioned in a style called "earphones" in those days. She looked -at me like the Workhouse Master looked at Oliver Twist and said "what do you want'? I replied, "I want to look at some books Miss". I thought she was going to have a stroke. First she went white and then red. Then she looked at me and said "get out!" Out I went. Looking back over the years I can see her point of view: I must have looked like a dwarf tramp with my big cap and broken shoes; not a very nice sight!


In September 1923 the murder of Percy Sharpe, a 14 year old boy, was committed in Parrs Wood, Didsbury. In the same month, David Colthorpe, an inmate of a common lodging house in Canal Street, Hillgate, was charged with the boy's murder. David, aged about 60, was very popular with the people around the district. He was always helpful with youth organisations and at this time was an honorary member of St. Thomas Church Scout Troop. Many witnesses came forward to give evidence regarding his honesty and character but to no avail. The police had witnesses to prove David was in Didsbury area at the time of the murder, he could not give any evidence of his whereabouts on the day of the murder. For weeks the people of Hillgate were upset over poor David. Then the happy day came when the police arrested Francis Booker, aged 28, a Manchester man, charging him with murder, for which he paid the penalty. David came back to the fold but died soon after -maybe the past events had been too much for him.


The Hooley brothers with their father George circa 1926
The Hooley brothers with father George 1926 (restored image, the original is badly damaged)


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