A Sheffield Lad
My Dad George Needham, was born at number forty-five St Thomas Street Sheffield in 1920. It had been the Needham family house for over 60 years before it was knocked down in the slum clearance in the 30's. For those who don't know Sheffield, St Thomas Street is on the edge of the city centre, off Portobello Street.
Nos. 39-49 St. Thomas Street looking towards Broad Lane and Red Hill
Source Picture Sheffield: www.picturesheffield.com
As a school boy dad worked his dinner hour and after school at Pollards the grocers on the corner of West Street and Fitzwilliam Street. Old man Pollard was a pillar of the local church but worked his boys extremely hard with dad as a 12 year old having to deliver groceries on dark winters night by bicycle with little street lighting into the inner reaches of Fulwood and Ecclesall - he often hitched a lift holding onto the back of a tram. It scared the living daylights out of him
In his later years he used to say: 'For a lad brought up in the slums of Sheffield he hadn't done so badly'. He owned house and a car; a TV and a phone; had been happily married for nearly 60 years had lived until he was 90 and had traveled the world. Going through his possessions made you think. Before he was one his mum took out a life assurance policy for a penny a week. It is worth £15. You can see why. By the age of 6 dad had had pneumonia twice and diphtheria. He'd spent weeks in Lodge Moor Isolation hospital with his mum and dad having to walk a 10 mile round trip to see him once a week.
By the mid 30's the family were moved out of the city centre and re-housed on the new Arbourthorne Estate. Things were on the up. The family were at work. Dad worked at the Coop and his dad at Osborne's, a steel company in Sheffield. But the war came and changed his life completely. But that's another story.
Dad had fond memories of the area he was brought up in and the University. In the early seventies I was fortunate to study metallurgy for three years at Sheffield little knowing when I started how it linked with my family history. Why do I say that? Well the Metallurgy block at the University now sits on top of the house dad was born in. This is somewhat perverse as I studied there in the seventies for 3 years. My dad wrote this short piece for the University Centenary but it summarises life in inner city Sheffield
In the mid-twenties the industrial side of the University, occupied one side of Mappin Street, opposite the church, skirted Portobello, (no one ever said Portobello Street), crossed part of Abney Street and progressed to St Thomas Street. It occupied approximately one fifth of one side of that thoroughfare. To us the University was the university. It was there -'nowt to do wi' us'.
I never remember any comments at all about the place, except that it was generally assumed that eventually it would take over the whole of St Thomas Street, which they did. Once there was a mighty explosion which blew out lots of windows. It caused speculation that that lot hopefully knew what they were doing. Mr Wainwright commented that 'the buggers would split us before they split that bloody atom'.
The University was situated in a sturdy, practical looking building. An island populated with white coats and smoking tobacco pipes, in a dirty pond of back to back houses, puthering chimneys, little mesters shops, pubs with sawdust on the floor with large soup-bowl-like spittoons, all amply filled, perched on cobbled gas lit streets bursting with ignorance, energy and corner shops. It was a maze of small lanes, through yards, and gennels seething with workmen in their muck, mob-capped housewives shaking rugs and dusters in their never-ending losing battle to keep down the muck. Buffer lasses walked around with their red turbans, scrawny dogs, mangy cats and hawkers.
Noise, like the weather and the rent man, was always there. Horses pulling steel rimmed wheeled carts, clattered noisily on the cobbled streets. Rington's tea with their horse and gig were a familiar sight on the streets, intermingling with hawkers by the score, driving their hired horses and carts, shouting their wares. Huge coal carts, pulled by mighty shire horses, delivering coal to the houses, un-bagged of course, or to Mrs Lovatt's coal yard which she then sold in quarter cwts to the houses round about who could not afford to purchase in bulk. To encourage you to take back the barrow she would give you a spice, no not a sweet; a spice. Only the posh said sweet.
Huge brewers' drays pulled by shire horses delivered beer to the pubs, rail-carts delivered parcels to firms; the horses knew the delivery points better than the drivers who simply sat there with the reins in their hands apparently dozing off. The shoes on these large horses sent up sparks from the cobbles like the sparklers on bonfire night. The Sheffield and Ecclesall Co-op had milkmen pushing large milk floats delivering door to door and ladling out the milk into the housewives' jug on the doorstep. It was a gill or a pint; to us a gill was a half pint. When I went round to the Florist pub for three gills of dark, I would get a pint and a half in a jug. Of course I went to their off-sales which was at the back door of their house. Round about 1930 Walls, in the summer, sent round their cycle propelled ice cream carts with their legendary logo 'Stop Me and Buy One'
I was born on St Thomas Street at number forty-five in 1920 and if anyone had told me that my son would receive a PhD at the University, after carefully enquiring what a PhD was, I would have laughed them all the way down Broad Lane to Shalesmoor and back. Forty-five was one of the smallest houses with a cellar, living room, bedroom and attic. The attic was my bedroom and where I was born. In next door's attic pigeons were kept. The living room was approximately 11 or 12 feet by 9 or 10 feet square. The bedroom and the attic would be the same. The living room had all the accoutrements for living. A fireplace, with a large kettle permanently filled with hot water, standing on the hob; a sink with a cold tap, a wooden roller mangle, a deal scrubbed table, a sofa, sideboard, my Father's armchair (Windsor type), two chairs, a stool and a rocking chair that would have sent the Antiques Roadshow team into raptures of excitement. It was as strong as a Sherman tank with powerful springs that would have probably rocketed us to the moon, but merely rocked the occupant of the chair. In front of the fire was the traditional homemade rag rug. The fireplace had an oven attached in which my mother baked the bread etc plus at the side of the sink a small four pronged gas stove on which she did her frying and boiled our dirty clothes in a bucket - very precarious indeed. Her wash tub was a maiden pot which was kept in the cellar, with the bread inside to keep it moist. There would also be a peggy leg and scrubbing board for washing the clothes. The cellar would also have a stone table on which anything wanting to be kept cool or preserved would be placed. A sort of Stone Age refrigerator. There were fish and chip shops, cookshops, tripe places, oatcake and pikelet shops, temperance bars, pie and pea shops, where you could sit at tables and eat your pie and peas. Pawnbrokers or 'pop shops' as we called them, barber shops with their lather boys and pork butchers that sold halfpenny ducks that only the Lord and the butcher knew what they contained; but they were delicious. There was a lodging house for men in Broad Lane subsumed by the University and opposite, in Broad Lane, a small nunnery with real nuns that floated along St Thomas Street without ever speaking a word to anyone. The street bookmaker was in Newcastle Street. There were women on hand who assisted at childbirth and then went along to lay out the bodies of the dead. In the evening the lamplighter with his long stick, would go on his round lighting he gaslamps then in the morning go round again and put them out.
We had a British Featherweight champion in Johnny Cuthbert who lived at the Brown Cow on Edward Street and who, every time that he won a fight, treated all the youngsters to free fish and chips. The Wragg family, were related to Harry Wragg the famous jockey and trainer. We had two Yorkshire swimming champions, both taught and coached by their father, who could not swim a stroke, and we had a well known hill walker. Two brothers in Broad Lane obtained scholarships to Oxford and the young Jewish lad, Solly Woskow, built up a chain of pharmacists. Mr and Mrs Cade two doors away from us in a similar sized house reared, successfully, seven daughters; three of whom ran their own businesses of which one with her husband developed several retail hardware shops along with a wholesale outlet.
Lots of games were played. There was tossing rings at the corner of Broad Lane and St Thomas Street and constantly football or cricket with the policemen chasing you forever. The girls did their skipping and played games that were only understood by girls. Cigarette cards provided immense pleasure either by skimmering them against a wall or blowing them over on the windowsill. Marbles or 'pops' as we called them, were where the real skill was portrayed. Abney Street was the mecca of the pop players and the skill displayed was very high indeed. There were several different ways of playing; one had holes in the ground where marbles had to be flicked and another where one shot a pop out of ones fingers knocking the opponents pop out of a given area. One girl on Abney Street was the Queen of pop players. She always wore an apron with a huge pocket in front, like the market traders, in which she stored her pops. She won enormous numbers of the things then sold them from her pocket to the also ran's of which I was one. When she was playing, she attracted a large number of youngsters who watched and admired her skill from which she made a pretty penny or rather a halfpenny for herself. A sort of 'Tigress Woods' of pops. I wonder if she continued to display her undoubted entrepreneurial skills for the remainder of her life, I hope so.
There were two schools, St George's and Red Hill for protestants and St Vincent's on Solly Street for Catholics. There was also Bow Council at the corner of West Street and Leopold Street, which was really out of our orbit but was unique in that the school playground was on the roof. The majority of children went to school wishing their lives away to reach fourteen years when they could leave and hopefully 'bring some money in'. The lucky ones with enlightened parents would encourage study to give them a chance to attain a scholarship to a grammar school or similar to enable them to have a better start in life.
There were three picture palaces, as they were called; The Scala, The Weston and the Don. On Monday there was a free magic lantern show which encouraged young people to participate in various cultural activities.
There were gangs of course. The main ones in Sheffield were the Sam Garvin and the Mooney gangs but there were plenty of smaller ones often fighting running battles along the streets. You always had your cellar grate efficiently secured to something in the cellar as they were a popular weapon to be commandeered. I can assure you that life was never dull. Always movement along the street with people, people and yet more people.
Yard of rear of Nos. 39-47 St. Thomas Street
Source Picture Sheffield www.picturesheffield.com
The worst single experience was going to the lavatory, which incidentally was shared with another family, especially at night. One left our house, turned right, walked approximately twelve or so yards down the street to the entry to our yard. Walk a further twelve or fifteen yards up the entry and then about fifteen yards or so to the corner of the yard to where the lavatories were situated. Hopefully you remembered to take a piece of the Telegraph and Star else, when you sat there finished, in the dark, without the wherewithal to complete the job, as it were, you were in trouble. The morning ritual for housewives was to take the chamber pot beneath their aprons looking about eighteen month's pregnant, along the street to their lavatory and dispose of the chamber pot's contents.
My father was out of work for three miserable years during the twenties and we were on Relief as it was called. Despite this, I was always given three meals a day, survived pneumonia and diphtheria, (after a tracheotomy) before I was six, was never sent to school with my backside hanging out and I never felt deprived.
I trust these few reminiscences will give you some insight into the area that your seat of learning covered up. That's all you did - cover it up. I am sure it will never be obliterated. Those tough street wise spirits will always be around. In any case, some are in St George's yard.