Battle of wits with rats - and my first corpse!

At 5.30 a.m. I was off to work. I suppose, to be earning my first wage, was enough motivation to be up with the lark. I was given a set routine to follow - first I had to collect a waxed taper, then go to each individual light burner and turn on the gas tap then ignite the gas. Next, I turned on the steam pipes to heat up the glue kettles. By the time the workmen and women had arrived at six o'clock, there was a warm glow in the large workshop with its distinctive smell of sawn timber and glue.

My next task was to collect the workers' tea-cans'; mash the tea for 8 o'clock breakfast and warm up a few bacon-butties. I must confess my mother insisted I called them bacon-sandwiches, but, for my work-mates, it was always 'butties'. There was no canteen, but a tool chest or an old box made temporary seats for the occasional breaks. I had a wicker basket with a lid. The lid was important, it protected my sandwiches and cakes from the rats.

The whole place was crawling with rats. At midday break I would find a quiet corner to enjoy reading a few pages from Dickens, when I would see not one, but several rats scurrying round the walls of the room. You could be certain, even when they disappeared from view, that they were not far away from the packed sandwiches, the rats would be waiting for an opportunity to steal your food.

My fellow apprentices used their break periods to go rat catching. They would put down a few morsels of bait, and with practice, became quite adept at grabbing the tail of an unsuspecting rat. Then, with much hilarity, they would dip the unfortunate rat into one of the glue-kettles and then hang up the rat to dry. The rat would struggle for a time as the glue cooled and then all would be over as the glue chilled and set. However, there were other more light-hearted pranks the apprentices used to get up to; one as taking a ride in a coffin. From time to time a coffin was made and when it was ready to be taken to the polish-shop, three storeys above the workshop, it was placed on an elevator and its journey took it through a weaving shed. An apprentice would be stretched out in the coffin. It was frightening enough for the women weavers to see a body in a coffin, but even more disconcerting to witness a resurrection, when first an arm flopped over the side of the box, then, with a jerk, a body would sit up and a hideous face would grin at the shrieking women.

On one occasion it was my turn to accompany the master craftsman to put a real corpse into a coffin.

"Come we me lad," said the Master, "old Tom Hardcastle died of dropsy, we'll have to see to 'im."

I had never seen a dead body before. As I ran behind the gaffer, as he strode quickly down the street, I had to hold on to my cap, such was the haste. I did not have much time to think about this unexpected part of my training as a cabinetmaker.

As we entered the house I noticed all the blinds of the house, in fact, all the houses in the street had their curtains draw. across the windows. I removed my cap, stuffed it into my pocket and respectfully followed my Master up the stairs and into the bedroom where the corpse lay. I was told to hold a bucket and stand by to help. My Master plunged a bradawl into the body and out poured water......."Eyoop lad ! catch it! int 'bucket."

I felt sick and faint; someone came in and gave my Master a brandy, I was offered a glass of water. I vowed that I would never again help out in this way, even if it meant getting the sack. I was never asked again.

A more pleasant job was delivering furniture to a customer's house. If the horse and cart was out on a delivery and there was another piece of furniture ready for delivery, an apprentice would be told to take it round on a handcart. On one occasion there was a delivery to be made to a high-class furniture shop in town. I was given the job to do. It took several labourers to load the cart. They packed the furniture with hessian under the ropes, then when it was quite safe, they helped to get the cart moving - the rest of the journey was up to me. Now most people would have thought it a little inconsiderate to expect a small lad like myself to push such a heavy cart through the streets of the town. But, it was well known that offers of help would surely be made by others on their way into town.

St James Street, Burnley

In fact I had not gone far when a man called out - "I'll give you a push cock". The final half mile I was once again on my own. I had a problem, this precious piece of furniture was so high that I could not see where I was going ! I had to look along the outside of the cart. At long last I had sight of the furniture shop. But, as I pushed the cart along side the shop I suddenly fond that I could not stop the cart, in fact it was increasing in speed. The cart had become hooked under the rear of a horse drawn coal-cart and I was being pulled along; my frantic calls went unheeded. Then I realised that if I lifted the rear of my cart, it would lower the front and I would be released from my unwanted tow. I was pleased that the whole incident had not taken me too far past the shop, and the furniture was safely delivered.