Growing up on Portland in the ’twenties and ’thirties
‘Boy’ Male looks back to his boyhood between the wars
Published in February ’10
Looking back, our young lives on Portland between the wars did not seem as claustrophobic as those of today’s children. As the children of honest, hard-working parents, we enjoyed (although at the time we did not appreciate our good fortune) the privilege of being well-clothed and well-fed, and we were bodily fit to revel in the open fields, the fresh sea air, the wind and the rain. Our playground was the broad if muddy streets in which to play our childhood games and trundle our iron hoops.
Those streets were also used used on a daily basis by the mighty twelve-ton traction engines as they hauled the much-valued blocks of stone up to Priory Corner for onward dispatch around the Merchants’ Railway to grace the buildings of every major town and city in the British Isles. And as they strove noisily with their endless loads past our very doorsteps, we boys, in order to be accepted into ‘the gang’, had to prove our courage by being last across in front of these grinding wheels. Or we would walk the four-inch iron girder on top of the original bridge, down by the Mermaid, as the train was passing under!
Portlanders have an independent streak, born no doubt of the need to be self-sufficient. ‘What I have, I own’ was their proud boast and, quite apart from their arduous daily toil in the quarries, they invariably worked allotments large enough to keep a whole family in essential vegetables and potatoes the winter through. If that was not enough, they usually, with partners from among their quarry-mates, ran a fishing boat in their spare time! These were the kind of parents we were born to: honest, hard-working and totally aware of their responsibilities. They were always busy. As an added interest, my father played an instrument in the then Town Band. He was also an early member of the St John Ambulance Brigade and for 27 continuous years its Hon. Secretary. Is it any wonder that from a father such as this there came the admonishment, shortly after I began working in the quarry with him: ‘If you can talk and work, stop talking and work a bit harder!’
Like many other quarrymen’s families, we lived in one of the stone-built houses in Wakeham. Our front doorstep, with its burnished foot-scraper, was the pride of every housewife’s life, scrubbed clean and whitened daily. Woe betide us, if as boys we were caught leaping homeward from school to clear the scraper, only to land on the sacred white doorstep. The result was a smart clip around the ear if caught by the proud housewife, with no point complaining about this when we arrived home, lest another clip was forthcoming from an unsympathetic Mother.
We had no bathroom or indoor toilet; we all washed, boys and girls alike, in the old and chipped ‘sink’ in the scullery, and it was cold with no heat of any kind and no hot water in which to wash. In bitter easterly winds it took great courage to make the dash to the outdoor ‘loo’ and there, in the starkness of winter, waste no time returning to the warmth of the kitchen fire. In winter, the gloomy living room was lit only by the flame from the paraffin lamp with its quite beautiful ruby-red glass bowl which held the oil and in which the coil of the wick lay like a serpent. My place at table was opposite the fire, with the lamp in between, and I still can see the wonderful leaping, ever-changing patterns made when looking through the red bowl at the fire.
Each of the regular hawkers in the street had his own quite recognisable call sign and from these horse-drawn carts all the mothers would flock to buy. Tom Hewitt, with his dray piled with apples, came from Weymouth; ‘Beauty of Bath’ and ‘Morgan Sweets’ were all tipped into Mother’s apron – no plastic or paper bags then. The old and worn-out man who sat in the gutter to mend cane-bottomed chairs muffled his hands in old rags to save the razor-like cuts from the sharp-edged cane. Men who had served in France in the so-called ‘War to end all wars’ – some crippled, some maimed by the loss of a limb, some blind – tried to find a dubious living by playing some musical instrument. The knife-grinder had a contraption which when upended became his work bench, at which he would sit working with a cycling action. He fascinated us with the endless sparks that streamed from his efforts to grind almost any metal object.
With the aid of technicolour hindsight, our summer holidays were endless skies of blue and with a bottle of home-made lemonade and corned beef sandwiches and a pair of ‘bathers’, we literally lived in the water at Church Ope. Only when the sun had dipped behind the trees of Pennsylvania Castle did we wend our way wearily up the endless steps to the top and, peeping over the high wall surrounding Miller’s Café, look with envy at the visitors licking their cool ice creams in the shaded garden. We camped in home-made tents down in the Weares and, just before our summer holiday ended, picked the first of the season’s ‘dewberries’ followed by the blackberries.
At fourteen years of age we were usually rigged out in our first pair of long trousers and taken to Bill Benfield’s boot shop in Wakeham, there to be fitted up with what, after ordinary school boots, were the enormously heavy ‘Holdfast’ hob-nailed quarry boots. To complete our ‘uniform’ there was a knit jacket with, of course, a red polka-dot handkerchief in which to carry, tied in a neat bundle, the top part of a cottage loaf, a generous dab of butter and a large hunk of cheese: this was our lunch (lunch for the quarryman was at 10 o’clock in the morning) and dinner at midday. To quench our thirst at intervals during the day, a quart bottle of cold, unsweetened tea was always at hand.
Most quarrymen’s sons, from about the age of ten, had served an early apprenticeship in the task of delivering the blunt tools from the quarry by ’go cart’ to the blacksmith’s shop. My routine would be to walk to school, from Moorfield Road to the (now) Royal Manor School, and at dinner time I would run down the back lane of Channel View and, if the station-master was not around, vault the back fence and run across the railway lines to Tom Collins’ blacksmith’s shop. There I would find my ‘go cart’ filled with yesterday’s tools, now sharpened. I would pull the load to the top of the Straits, then the whole length of Wakeham could be traversed sitting in the cart among the kivels and twybils. Next it was a short pull to Perryfield House, where I would find a new batch of blunt tools and start the long pull with a heavily loaded cart back up Wakeham to Moorfield Road. It would now be 12.30 and a hasty dinner with the family would allow me time to deliver my load to the blacksmith at Park Road, and on to school with enough time to play football in the school yard before the lessons of the afternoon began. This would be my daily routine every school day while – as the quarrymen say – they were ‘’bout stone’.
Nowadays, such strenuous employment of ten-year-olds would be viewed by the authorities as nothing less than criminal, but we all seemed to flourish on it, and I am left to wonder where the line should be drawn, with most of today’s children being driven to school. For I seem to remember that I enjoyed every minute of my young toil. Even as quarry boys of fourteen years of age, we still had some way to go before we could be expected to have the strength to do most of the jobs that would in time be expected of us. But continued toil, fresh air, the wind, the rain, cold hands and feet and the continued flexing of our young bodies soon allowed us to gain all the necessary skills and strength to stand up to the arduous life of the quarryman.
Stuart Morris Collection