Visiting the grandparents - and their outside brick-built privy - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Visiting the grandparents - and their outside brick-built privy

Towards the end of the war some of the ancient pre-war West Riding red buses were replaced by what were called 'utility' buses. Utility was a much-used word during the war: in addition to utility buses there were utility clothes and utility furniture. In fact, anything that was produced to less than the pre-war standard tended to be called utility. The utility buses had the entrance door in the conventional place at the rear. They were more powerful than the old pre-war ones but were very uncomfortable to ride in because the seats had no upholstery.

The upper floor of the utility buses was very claustrophobic. The roof was several inches lower than on the older buses and tall people were unable to sit upright. The seats were bench seats capable of holding up to five adults across at a squeeze. There was only one aisle on the upper deck so whenever passengers on the inside wanted to get off there was a considerable kerfuffle while other passengers moved around the aisle trying to make way. When the bus stopped quite often someone would shout down to the conductor, "Hang on a minute, Luv, there's more to come." (Many of the conductors during the war were female.) Worst of all, there were always dense clouds of cigarette smoke on the upper deck because almost all the men and many of the women were smokers. Most of the upstairs passengers found their heads were permanently in the smoke clouds. The ill effects of breathing someone else's smoke were not known, or certainly not acknowledged, in those days. The lower deck of all buses was always strictly non-smoking.

We used to visit Grandma and Grandad Winter at least once a week. I loved going on the red bus to visit the Winters. We got off the bus at the bottom of Bell Hill close to what was called Wakefield Road Bridge, where the road passed over the LMS railway. The journey to this point from the Bull Ring was only about eight miles but it used to take around 30 minutes. We could easily see Westbury Terrace across the open fields and allotments from where we got off the bus and usually either Grandma or Grandad saw us coming and one of them would start to walk out to meet us.
Above: This was how I found Westbury Terrace in 2010. My maternal grandparents lived in the house on the left until 1942 when Grandma died.
The houses on Westbury Terrace were similar to those on a dozen or so parallel terraces on either side of Parnaby Road. Westbury Terrace was by far the most desirable of all the streets because it alone fronted onto open fields - and it still does - well almost. The northern side of Parnaby Road and all the parallel streets on that side have long since disappeared beneath the Leeds urban motorway (M621), and feeder lanes to that motorway have cut off direct access to the A61 Leeds to Wakefield main road.

Most of the houses in the area were basic back-to-back dwellings. My grandparent's house had just one main room on the ground floor, known simply as 'the room'. The house's only door was at the top of three or four steps and opened directly from the street into the room. In the room was a coal fireplace with a back boiler and a small oven on one side. A couple of dampers, manipulated by a special poker with a hook on the end, allowed the heat of the fire to be diverted either to the oven, to the back boiler, or directly up the chimney.

The tiny scullery, off to the left of the room, was a fascinating place for a lad of tender years. I still remember the pervasive smell of Senna pod tea; both grandparents drank a brew regularly, presumably to keep their bowels regular. When Grandma one day encouraged me to try it, I found it disgusting and my coughing and spluttering made the grown-ups laugh. In one corner of the scullery there was a substantial brick-built, totally-enclosed fireplace, inside of which was the set pot, also known as the 'copper' because it was made of metal - presumably copper. Dirty washing was boiled in there on Mondays - always on a Monday. I still remember the great clouds of steam that used to fill the entire house on washdays almost, but not quite, cancelling out the smell of Senna tea.

Our visits to the Winters had to fit in with Dad's shifts at the prison. One Monday afternoon when we were visiting, we could see from quite a distance that there was no washing hanging out to dry on the line. That was so unusual I'm sure Mum and Dad feared that something awful had happened, but Grandma met us cheerfully at the top of the steps to tell us that she'd got up at about midnight on the previous night because she couldn't sleep. After checking with the grandfather clock downstairs that it was past midnight, she 'did' the washing, including pegging it out on the outside clothesline to dry, and then went back to bed. Grandma had then enjoyed a long and no doubt luxurious sleep until it was time to get up again for breakfast. It was not socially acceptable in those days to hang washing outside on the Sabbath, but very early Monday morning was OK. Perhaps I inherited from Grandma my habit, irritating according to my friends, of not doing things at the proper time if I can get ahead of myself and do them early.

Above: Grandfather Winter with me in his arms on my 1st birthday (1936). Grandfather was rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth; as a child I loved the smell of the tobacco. You can see the roof of the proverbial brick-built privy behind - down a few steps.
Beneath the main living room there was a cellar accessed only by going out of the front door, down the few steps to yard level, and then down another, longer, flight of steps. In the paved yard, midway between each pair of houses, there was an outhouse shared by two families: this was the proverbial brick-built privy. There was not a lot of privacy because the privy had a crude wooden door with large gaps at the top and bottom and narrower gaps between the horizontal planks. Inside there was a shiny-smooth, wooden seat mounted over the septic tank. The seat had two circular holes cut into it, providing side-by-side seating for when two people were caught short at the same time. It was a source of worry to me on every visit to my grandparent's house that I might have an urgent need to use the privy and then fall in. I don't think I ever did use it but on one visit, when I urgently needed a pee, Grandma showed me a very large plant pot behind the rickety garden shed out at the front. "Wee in the pot," said Grandma, "it'll help the lilies grow." Every visit after that I thought it was my duty to help the lilies grow, so I did my best.

Grandad’s clothes and the main room in the house always smelled strongly of tobacco. The only gifts he seemed to get, whether for birthdays or Christmas, were blocks of tobacco, packets of wax tapers, and new clay pipes. As far as I could tell, he always used one particular brand of tobacco; I can't remember its name, but I found the smell very pleasing. Even today I occasionally catch a whiff of that brand of tobacco, or something very similar, and thanks to the miracle of the way our brains store memories of smells, I am immediately transported back to my childhood days of more than 70 years ago.

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