A Durham Village Childhood

28th August 2019 — 25 Comments

Did you enjoy the works of Shakespeare when you were a youngster? I can hear the echo of an emphatic NOoooo! And that’s understandable. The texts used in schools had all the naughty (filthy) bits taken out. Anything thought to be objectionable or unsuitable was expurgated. Shakespeare’s iconic plays feature risqué humour, with crude jokes hidden throughout his works. Here’s an example and one you might know.

Othello: Act 1, Scene 1

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. Iago is informing another character, Brabantio, that his daughter has married Othello, a Moor. Iago is far from pleased with this turn of events, and so uses this unusually colourful and eccentric image to tell Brabantio. As a result of this scene, ‘the beast with two backs’ came to be a fairly common euphemism for sex.

A couple of years ago I had an article published in The Best of British, a popular magazine aimed at wrinklies and devoted to nostalgia. Unfortunately, the published version had all the best bits taken out. What follows his the unexpurgated version. You may be familiar with some of this ‘cos it may have appeared in an earlier blog post.

A Durham Village Childhood – the Unexpurgated Version

I was born in the bedroom of a mining village cottage over 78 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 was a naughty boy.

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. 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 houses 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. ‘Twas 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!

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.

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

Ludworth Mixed Infants’ School

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.

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.

My Class – 70 years ago. I was eight . . . can you see me? Click to enlarge . . . answer at the end.

‘Sounds Horrendous’

My Aunty Mary and Aunty Sadie 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.

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. 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.

Stamp Book

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 bumblers, 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.

The Netty

The Netty – with thanks to Bob Olley

I tried – unsuccessfully – to trap birds by propping up the bin lid with a stick and hiding in the netty at the end of a piece of cord. They were attracted by the food of course and when they went to get some I pulled the string. The resultant clatter not only scared the birds away, but also annoyed the miners who were trying to get some sleep.

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.

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, me Ma ‘wasn’t amused’ and I felt the full fury of her wrath.

Hark, hark, I hear thunda

It’s the peas I ate last Sunda

Quick, quick, the netty door

Too late, too late, it’s on the floor!

Introducing Jacky – also published elsewhere, but much longer.

  • 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, I kept a jackdaw as a pet.

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.

Jacky – posed by a model

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.

Goodness, I could go on and on reminiscing about my childhood, but that’s enough 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 Little Guy at 7 Years Old

Awwwww. Look at all that hair. Don’t be fooled – that tie was on a piece of elastic.


The Expurgated Version – Click to Enlarge



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25 responses to A Durham Village Childhood

  1. nice memories john the good times never to come back mate

  2. Way before my time John but a good read. i have you pegged as the second kid from the right. Am I correct?

  3. All great memories of a similar mischief that I got up to 4 miles away from Ludworth, in those days we could spend all day up the wood making a camp and baking potatoes on a camp fire.
    John your blog story still provokes the same amusing reflections as the last time you presented it.
    Keep at it.

  4. What a childhood you had John.. Mine was of a kind, although some obvious differences.. I well remember stealing the cream from the milk bottle; although I never did learn to ‘replace’ it, as it were.. LOL

    My spare time was spent exploring the old coal mines of Cumberland.. Why we did not kill ourselves in those mines remains a mystery to this day.. There were deadfalls,open pits of 500 feet drop or more, innumerable channels to get lost in..Life was so much more free then..

    Most of my time was spent learning the fine art of farming on ours and my uncles farms.. riding the clyde, haying.. but going to the feed store in the old Ford truck was the best.. mainly because I got to drive it on the roads; at 9 or ten years old..

    And I too well remember the ‘razor strop’.. In fact I still have it and it sometimes unpleasant memories.. But the image of my father using that strop to whet his straight razor is one of my most powerful and pleasant memories.

    Thank you my friend


  5. Brings back memories of the northeast -thanks John!

  6. My childhood was in East London born 1942 a war baby . Us kids spent a lot of time playing in bombed out houses etc .looking back now how dangerous it was John .

  7. I did find you in the school photo. It was difficult as your beard seemed to be in the wrong place. Love the nostalgic story.

  8. hahaha! loved it. that brought back some memories. How I loved the film fun. I used to go to jumble sales to look for the albums
    Hated milk and still do. I was always being dragged into the cop shop and having my name and misdemeanour written in the book.
    on one occasion I got caught nicking empty beer bottles from the B.Legion (remember getting the deposit back?) the local copper gave me a back hander ,put me on his crossbar and took me home for another backhander from the old dear.

  9. I love this piece. And you’re right about the intelligence of jackdaws. A great aunt of mine had one that she raised from a fledgling. He amused himself by silently perching above the doors in the house and dropping down on the heads of anyone passing below, particularly when his victim had both hands full. He seemed to especially enjoy the crash of a loaded tray dropping to the floor.

    So sorry someone dispatched your Jacky. You must have been heartbroken.

    • Thanks Karen. I bet your Aunt didn’t scale up a quarry cliff to get her bird. Just another reminder of the dangerous things we used to get up to as kids. Surprised I’ve lasted so long!

  10. i was raised in canning town east london …only 5 mins from the royal albert docks …i used to raid the barges opposite where the 02 now stands …it was the oposite in my childhood ..it was my dad who used the leather belt …across the hands ..it bloody hurt like hell …still didnt stop me from getting into all sorts of trouble

  11. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 30th August 2019 at 5:16 AM

    Though I’m a fair bit younger than you John, the strap was still a thing for me in school…..of course it didn’t last long before being phased out, I still had my share of them.

    Dad was the disciplinarian at home, and we soon learned what what the belt rattling meant when we heard it.

    Looking back, I would take those days growing up as a kid all over again. I taught us manners, principles and the cardinal rule “respect your elders”.

    Ours weren’t mine shafts to fall down, but we did live in subdivision hell and a heck of a lot of open pits to fall into it. It was fun, it was dangerous, and it was outside exercise………something lacking with today’s youth.

    Another enjoyable read, and nice to see how others had grown up.

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