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 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