Helen Holmes, 2007

I have lived in Stone since 1962. It is not exactly the Potteries, but close enough to ensure that wherever I am, I have acquired the habit of turning over cups and plates to look at their backstamp. I have even learnt to use that term!

North Staffordshire is about 60 miles from where I was brought up, in Atherton, near Leigh in South Lancashire. Both my parents came from Leigh and our relatives did too. I was born in 1931. In those days visits to aunts, uncles, and elderly relations were sometimes a Sunday afternoon delight, occasionally a duty. Like most folk I knew, we had no car, but there was a good bus service which everybody used. We had two important sets of ‘very old’ relatives to visit. One of these was my father’s mother, and the other was my Uncle Bill— the brother of my grandmother, who unfortunately died before I was born. This is a story about Uncle Bill and his family.

Uncle Bill lived with his wife -- Auntie Alice -- and their daughter, also Alice. Although we called her parents Auntie and Uncle, in fact they were my Great-Aunt and Uncle.

This photograph shows the Knowles family. Bill is on the far right, and my grandmother Esther Ellen in the centre back. The photo dates from about 1891.

Bill and Alice lived within a mile of the parish church in which they were married -- St Peter, Westleigh. Amongst their wedding presents was a tea service made by the ‘Hanley Porcelain Company’. 

A backstamp from this tea service has become part of the Made in England Mosaic. I do not know who gave the tea service to them, though it was probably amongst their grander gifts. Perhaps it came from one or other of their parents. It would almost certainly have been bought in Leigh, so I would imagine the short-lived Hanley Porcelain Company had ’commercial travelers’. This old-fashioned term described a salesman employed to tour the country, drum up new business and ensure the company won repeat orders from regular customers. Presumably Leigh was a stop on the round of the traveler employed by the Hanley pot-bank.

On his marriage certificate Uncle Bill is described as a ‘factory operative’.  I think it is likely he had a fairly unskilled job in one of Leigh’s cotton spinning mills. His father is described as a collier, and later in life Bill also worked in the mines.  There were several collieries nearby, one – Parsonage Pit, Leigh -- almost opposite the house in which he spent most of his married life. Characteristically, no occupation was given for the bride.  I think it is likely she also worked in the mill. Neither of them was particularly young.  Bill was 25.  Alice was 27.

Both worshipped regularly at St Peter’s. The vicar gave them a Bible as a wedding present.

Bill was a keen cricketer, who played for the Church team. When he married, Bill was presented with a lovely writing box by his teammates.

Alice was a pillar of St Peter’s Sunday school. Until the late 1950s, every parish church in Lancashire had its own Walking Day, when church members would circuit the Parish, bearing witness to their faith. I vividly remember Walking Days -- the smell of sweet peas instantly takes me back. Flowers were an important part of the ceremonials – as a photograph later in this essay shows.  In the picture below – taken in the 1890s, probably with one of the simplest of Box Brownie cameras, you can see Alice Cundliffe and her friends dressed up in Walking Day finery.  The clothes would certainly have been their ‘best’. The photograph predates her marriage, and shows fascinating details of blouses, hats and so on. It also depicts two very fetching little girls.

Bill and Alice were married nine years before their first daughter was born. Like many female children their firstborn was named after her mother, Alice. Her sister. Margaret Eve, named after her father’s mother, was born in 1912.

Early in the Great War, Bill volunteered to join the army, and served throughout its length in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Bill was in France when his daughter Eve became ill, in May 1917. He was allowed compassionate leave to go home, but Eve died of Cebro-Spinal Meningitis before he made it back.

I have a large collection of the birthday cards and postcards he sent his wife and daughters. He frequently asked about their work at school and thanked them for cards they had written to him. 

He exhorted them to be ‘good girls’ for their mother and teachers. These are the simple gentle thoughts of a man to his family, far away from the medical post where he tended the horrendous injuries of soldiers wounded in battle. Letters and cards were obviously censored, but he gives no hint of life ‘at the front’.

On his return, Bill must have been proud to discover that his remaining daughter Alice had won a scholarship to Leigh Girls Grammar School.  I have the Chemistry prizes she was awarded there. There was no question of Alice leaving at fourteen and working in a local mill. She stayed on into the sixth form, from which she went to Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge.  -- a period she remembered with affection. She made three close friends at the college -- all of whom lived to a good age. I think I was the only blood relative at Alice’s 90th birthday party. I arranged a sort of ‘This is Your Life' for her, and Bessie – one of the Homerton crowd -- came to the festivities.

I was the eldest of four children. It seemed to take forever for us to get ready for the two-hour bus journey to go and see Alice and her parents. At the time of our visits, Alice had long moved back to the family home, and worked at St Peter’s parish school, attached to the church in which her parents had married.
Sunday tea at Uncle Bill and Auntie Alice’s was invariably sandwiches and perhaps jelly and blancmange, or apple/blackberry pie in the right season. The table in the front room was properly set, with tablecloth and ‘best’ china. They had a harmonium, and a huge sideboard, on which stood a glass-domed ornament with a spray of wax flowers, and Uncle Bill’s medals of W.W.1 It was a typical example of an industrial terraced house: a back ‘living’ kitchen with a large black-leaded grate, which included the oven on the right side, and a kettle was usually simmering on the ‘hob’ on the left side. Food preparation went on in that room, but we never seemed to have a cooked meal, ‘Sunday tea’ was just that. On the left of the chimneybreast was a built-in, glass-fronted cupboard above three wide drawers. In that cupboard, ‘best’ things were kept: special items like the wedding tea-service Bill and Alice were given as a wedding present – part of which appears on the ‘backstamps’ section of the website.

Of course, we never went on visits when it was the Sunday for our parish church to have a Walking Day. Our church was St Michael and All Angels, Howe Bridge. Every church had its special Sunday. As youngsters, it was the occasion for dressing in a special new dress, and carrying a basket of flowers made up by the local florist. (Also see Margaret Dean’s image of the Charity Procession, in the essay section of this website.)

We would assemble in school at the start of the day. The parade gathered in the road outside. There would be a local brass band and a large banner, bearing the church’s name.

This photograph shows all the girls who had been ‘under the Banner’ as it was known. I am the 15 year old on the right of the four. The ringletted ‘Sermons girl’ to my right is my sister Kathleen. The shy little girl – also with ringlets -- peeping from the second row on the second from right is my younger sister Barbara -- one of the ‘Ribbon Carriers’. There used to be a great debate amongst mothers as to the colour and style of the dresses.

Two upright poles supported an embroidered banner, which must have been awkward to handle. The poles fitted into a leather pochette borne at the front of a strap. The strap went over the shoulders of two banner bearers, members of the Church of England Men’s Society.

From the banner hung assorted ropes and ribbons -- each held by a girl from one of the church groups. The important ropes were held by the older girls from the Sunday school, younger ones held lesser ribbons.  I can't quite remember where in the parade 'Sermons Girls' would be, dressed in white frocks and veils. They had been part of the celebrations on the Annual Sermons Sunday (when visiting clergy addressed the congregation with special sermons -- lengthy, I seem to recall!). The girls sang special hymns in church and sat in rows in front of the choir-stalls. In those days you had to be male to be in the choir. Even in the 1960s you were expected to cover your head in church.  I imagine this is why the girls were veiled.

The choir boys walked together, followed by Mothers Union, Sunday school, and finally 'general' church worshippers. When we arrived back at school, there was a tea party.  I seem to remember iced-buns were always a feature. I’ve forgotten what other delights were available.

In a big city, like Manchester (about 12 miles from where we lived) a huge procession filled the city centre. Members of numerous parish churches united for one enormous Whit Walk. (This was on Whit Sunday or perhaps Whit Monday, which I believe was a holiday.)

My mother must have taken this picture in 1936. She stood in the road opposite our house. It depicts two bedraggled little girls, me and my sister, wearing organdy hats on a rainy Walking Day Parade.

The following photo must have been taken the following day, when the rain had stopped.

Like Alice, Uncle Bill and Auntie Alice’s daughter, I left home to go to into further education – in my case Sheffield University.  I graduated in 1953. Alice couldn’t come to the graduation ceremony, but my other godmother, mother’s sister Auntie Esther, joined us. My godmothers had a great deal in common, both were single Junior School teachers who took pleasure in taking their godchildren to museums and exhibitions.  On my graduation day the whole family was proud of me. I was (as Neil Kinnock once famously said) ‘the first in a thousand generations to go to university’. 

Helen with her godmother Alice Knowles, and Beryl Daniels (a member of staff from the William Salt Library, Stafford -- where Helen did most of the research for her MA). Photograph by Alan Holmes, Helen’s husband.

Later, I married and moved to Stone, Staffordshire. I had a young family, and, following the death of my parents in the 1980s, I didn’t often have the time to visit Leigh.  My immediate family moved to other parts of the country -- the modern pattern, sadly-- but I kept up the correspondence with Alice, sending her cards and presents. She finally retired in the 1970s, alone in the house she had occupied for most of her life. When my children left home and I had more time on my hands started to go and see her again. She was known to most of the local residents. She had taught them, their children and even their grandchildren.

In later years, I would stay for one or two days. As long as Alice was able, we took trips out by bus, to the local garden centre for example, where we would see the sights and stop for a cup of tea. Invariably we would meet someone who knew  ‘Miss Knowles’. She was independent, and wouldn’t put upon others. If she had a six-monthly doctor’s check-up, she would order a taxi to take her to the appointment, rather than expecting a home visit. She was of a different generation.

She allowed me to prepare her meals when I visited, but if ever I suggested getting out the ‘special’ tea service, she would say it was really ‘too delicate to be used’.  She frequently promised to look for a photo of her parents’ wedding, but never did, and I have failed to find one amongst the photographs I inherited.  There are photos of both her parents in the late 1890s, when they were young, and immaculate albums of black and white photographs of her days at Homerton Teacher Training College. There are also snaps of family holidays.  They show the family in sea-side resorts like Folkestone -- always dressed up in ‘Sunday best’ and wearing hats!

In later years, she took coach tours for her holiday. She made beautifully knitted baby garments, embroidered cushion covers and so on for church bazaars. She went on outings with the Mothers’ Union  -- which was now open to all women – and continued to go to church every Sunday. She enjoyed the companionship of neighbours, friends and acquaintances until the end. She was fit too, and walked to the polling station, a mile away from her home, until the General Election just before she died. She and her family were typical of good-living, honest, hard-working, ever-respectable members of what were the aspiring working classes, seen in every part of the industrial North and Midlands.

On more than one occasion, the bus driver who picked me up from outside her house, and took me to the station to catch the train home,  saw her waving from her front door and said  ‘ She used to teach my mother!’

Alice died in March 2004. I inherited lots of interesting photos and documents, and she left me the tea service that had belonged to her parents.

Made in Staffordshire in 1899, the tea service was given as a wedding present to William and Alice Knowles on the occasion of their wedding, and was brought back to Staffordshire 105 years later.