A Durham Childhood … and my First Metal Detector

19 January 2017 — 17 Comments

I was born in the bedroom of a mining village house nearly 76 years ago … and what a wonderful childhood I had! In retrospect it seemed to me that summers were scorching hot and winters were very cold with plenty of snow. I can’t remember who said that I wasn’t born, but knitted by the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), and pushed through the letterbox when my mother wasn’t looking!


My Mother Winnie and Father John – © JW

My Mother had a leather strap hanging on a nail in what we used to call ‘the back kitchen.’ I remember it stinging when she chastised me, which was often. My father never raised his hand in anger once; he was a miner and a true gentle man. I loved them both.

A Naughty Boy

Little Innocence © JW

I remember being ‘encouraged’ to leave the house early in the morning and left to my own devices. I got up to all kinds of mischief.

The milkman left bottles outside most properties in the row. Perhaps you remember the style – cardboard top enclosures with cream visible in the top two inches. I was adept at removing the top, swigging the cream, physically topping it up and carefully replacing the cardboard … use your imagination.

No mean feat for a little lad. Thinking about it now, it was remarkable I could hold my water and use it to refill another couple of bottles. Couldn’t do it now!

Vintage cardboard milk bottle top

Then the inevitable happened. A neighbour, half asleep, wearing white voluminous night attire and hair in curlers, caught me in mid-flow. I can still hear the strangled screech and the rough tugging of the ear; and me with trousers about my ankles, being marched back home with the lady shrieking loudly for my mother. Me Ma spared me no mercy. I hated that leather strap. Sometimes it was inevitably ‘lost’. I used to blame ‘Scampy’, our excitable and noisy Yorkshire terrier.

School Days

Trouble used to follow me around. Me Ma pleaded with the headmaster of the local school to admit me early, and he reluctantly agreed. Albeit, although fewer in number and despite the leather belt, my nefarious activities continued.

The village school was rather small and built in a quadrangular shape. You entered as an infant, moved up to juniors and, if you didn’t pass the 11+, passed out the other end as a senior. Most boys ended up working on a farm or down the pit. I ended up at the local colliery. At the tender age of 14 I embarked on a soul-destroying job on the surface, picking stone from coal. This lasted for about a year, then I was offered an apprenticeship as an electrician.

Ludworth ‘County Mixed and Infants School’

I enjoyed school. There were two entrances, one for boys and the other for girls. Teachers had separate staff rooms and there was an air raid shelter in both playgrounds. This was late 1945, so they were boarded up when I became a pupil.

Pigs, Church, Hens and Other Birds

Aunty Sadie (L) and Aunty Mary

My Aunty Sadie and Aunty Mary lived next door to each other and both kept open house. As a kid, I would lift up the latch, go in and sit down; sometimes say nowt then just return home. Aunt Mary always had a cauldron of something hissing and bubbling on the fire – I guess it was mash for the pigs, although my only, somewhat hazy memory of a pig is one hanging up on the wall outside.

Picture by Jeff Cohen

A more vivid memory is the tree stump in the back garden where Uncle Ted would dispatch the hens (we never called them ‘chickens’). After decapitation they would run around for ages afterwards. He would give us the legs and we would practice making the toes move by pulling a ligament – and frightening the smallest person we could find. Another of my pastimes was to release Aunt Mary’s hens. She wasn’t very pleased – and neither was my Mother. Time for the belt!

Goodness, re-reading what I have just written sounds horrendous and I can’t imagine anything like that happening today. My parents were good people and I don’t blame them for the mischievous child I was.

They sent me to church every Sunday. Even though I collected the stamp proving that I had attended, it was a sham. I always volunteered to stay in the vestry and pump the organ. Using my feet for this task meant that I could read a comic at the same time. My favourites were the Dandy, Beano and Film Fun. In retrospect, Dennis the Menace was probably my role model, though I didn’t realise it at the time!

Kids in those far-off days did unusual things like digging out a hive of white-arsed or sandy bumbler bees, transporting the buzzing bundle of boundless energy into a back garden wilderness, simply to watch them going about their business. Thus I was familiar with the excruciating pain of a bee sting from an early age and soon became immune.

I tried – unsuccessfully – to trap Spuggys ( House Sparrows ) by propping up the galvanised bin lid with a stick and hiding in the netty at the end of a piece of cord. They were attracted by the food and when they went to get some, I pulled the string. The resultant clattering din not only scared the birds away, but also annoyed the miners who were trying to get some sleep. I wasn’t popular!

My Mother Winifred © JW

The Netty

Incidentally, in the North East, we always referred to the lavatory as the ‘netty’. My father told me this was one of the words left to us by the invading Romans. On the Roman Wall, and at intervals, you will find a gabinetti. The word, meaning a toilet, is still used in Italy today. We simply truncated the word to ‘netty’.

The word evokes one of my most painful memories. Think strap. At school we were encouraged to write poetry and the best efforts were mounted on a wallpaper frieze adorning the classroom wall. I thought that I had written a masterpiece, but it never appeared.

At home and in my innocence I recited the verse to my Mother, together with gestures reminiscent of the classic ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ …

In the words of Queen Victoria, she ‘wasn’t amused’ and I felt the full fury of her wrath.

My First Metal Detector This section is adapted from a longer and previous lost blog post …

We made our own amusements. Remember, I am evoking a time when it was not out of the ordinary for children to enjoy unlimited freedom and, like many of the local lads kept a jackdaw as a pet … my first metal detector!

Jacky – posed by a model. Picture by Jeff Cohen

Jacky (imaginative name) was ‘acquired’ from the local quarry as a fledgling and ensconced in a rough and ready-made small cree hastily constructed by my father. You could tell the boys who kept jackdaws by the running streak of black and white droppings down the back of their jerkins – for some reason the bird would involuntary defecate when landing on your shoulder.

The jackdaw is known to be a gregarious bird and especially fond of people. I found Jacky easy to adopt and keep as a pet. We had great fun. He was noisy, inquisitive, enjoyed performing amusing tricks and even learned to imitate (in his raspy voice) my calling of his name.

I reckon that if all the birds in the world took an intelligence test, then the jackdaw would top the scores. It is a well-known fact that he will fly off with any pretty little object that catches his eye and Jacky often returned home with spoons, rings and other bright shiny objects that he had stolen.

One day he returned with an Acme Thunderer whistle he had snitched from a guy refereeing at the local football match. That was his undoing. An irate fan downed Jacky with a catapult when he returned for a second forage. I cried for a week. You never forget your first metal detector!

Test Results for the Jackdaw

  • Ergonomics – very light, able to fly and well designed, but can be quite messy – 9
  • User Friendliness – comes when called. Operates better without supervision – 10
  • Build Quality – rather fragile, I suppose. Avoid catapults and stroppy pigeons – 8
  • Weather resistance – you’ll never have to put it in the airing cupboard to dry off – almost waterproof – 10
  • Performance – discriminates well. Avoids dross and other dull crap – 10
  • Value for Money – Minimal initial outlay – 9
  • Battery Life – Perhaps its Achilles Heel – needs frequent and constant top-upsof grubs, black beetles and centipedes – 6

NB – the Jackdaw is not available at your usual stockist.

I could go on and on reminiscing about my childhood, but that’s enough nostalgia for the moment. I hope that you enjoyed my scribblings and for some of you they have evoked long forgotten memories from your own childhood.

The author as a little lad … and getting on a bit! © JW


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17 responses to A Durham Childhood … and my First Metal Detector

  1. You had a strap.. my father had a razor strop… Unfortunately, I well remember that.. 🙂
    And I would guess the north American equivalent of the Jackdaw would be a raven, crow or a magpie..I have
    been told that some people actually would look for nests and scoop the finds therein.

  2. That was fascinating reading John, I think most of us a boys got into a lot of mischief and got the belt or cat of nine tails as I called themn

  3. My friends thought that I was lucky because neither of my parents ever hit me, but they had a way of looking at me that I to this day believe was worse than getting the strap. Neither was against corporal punishment, they just didn’t do it.
    I also got the weekly comics, Beano, Dandy and the Eagle.
    You are bringing back memories John.

  4. My parents had a whip ( The style that jockeys use) hanging behind the kitchen door. Least it hung there some of the time, the rest it was being used on my brother’s and my legs / backside.

    At primary school I graduated to the cane across the fingers and at high school it was the cane across the backside. The headmaster had an umbrella stand with canes of various length. The shorter they were, the more they hurt. He reserved the shortest one for me.

    I came to hate those teachers and that school. They would be imprisoned today for what they did to me. We eventually parted ways. I won’t go into any detail except to say ” I won.”

  5. I remember getting the strap at school. Very common for Tech school kids to receive a few double handers. Looking back i suppose it may have been said that most of us were wild childs but we didn’t realise it at the time.

  6. Great article John. Often visit Ludworth as my good friend, Dave Woods, runs the Village Community Centre.

    • There were THREE public houses opposite the Community Centre – then a wooden hut. Although the pubs had names, referred to them as the Top House, Middle and Bottom House. Proper names were Colliery Inn, Queen’s Head (I think) and Standish Arms. When the latter was converted into a dwelling by Ray Perry, he asked me to re-wire … I was 19 at the time and it was my the first large job on my own.

  7. Good read John I’m from a similar background although my father wasn’t a miner–Pitch & Toss–Radio Accummulators–a drink named a “Penny Vantis”–the belts/straps used in all Scottish schools were made by a Lochgelly Saddler whose surname was “DICK” Street football was common too.Much more time was spent outdoors then than by children today. Probably the reason for thinking we had very cold winters and very warm summers back then. Keep up the GOOD WORK.

  8. Thanks John for your look back in time and all very reminiscent to my childhood with the same terminology and activities we were both around at a near same time and from Durham pit villages and only 4 miles apart, those were the days and never any boredom in those times, there was always other kids out and about on the streets looking to play a game of any strenuous activity even if it was only “kicky the tin”.
    My favourite activity was going up the wood with my mates and taking a axe and saw and building a camp then lighting a fire and baking tatties which were taken from the local fields on our way to the wood.

  9. Thanks for a great read John, even though I am not of your years just yet It brings back many memories that I can relate too, such as being out early and wandering for miles, nicking milk lol and although I was never chastised at home with corporal punishment, this was the opposite of my time in infants and juniors where I received a caning on an only too regular basis !!
    Thanks for a great read and bringing a smile and giggle to my day.

  10. Thanks John, that was an amazing read and it brought back memories of my childhood in Hartlepool where you had to fight your way around your paper round so that you didn’t get mugged for your paper money.
    And that was just from the Police. Rough place that.


  11. Fabulous post John, as a Cockney growing up in Herts, our childhoods shared much in common. Perhaps that’s why growing up is not easy, they can’t make us do it!

  12. john mate I loved reading your childhood …and seeing the old pictures ….what a little rascal you was pmsl with the cream trick

  13. Great blog post.

    I appreciate everything you do for me and all of the northern Relic Hunters.

    Thank you from Durham and suchlike

  14. Am musing and sounds like you had a great time them days. Thanks for sharing a piece of you time. Topping up the neighbours milk lol. Take care. Paul 42 from stanley

  15. Great read John .my school was aproved by the goverment lol ,i cannot tell any tales of when i was younger ,still some unsolved crimes from the 60s haha

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