John Henry Knowles and Esther Perry, aged 18 and 16 respectively, were married on Sunday, December 20, 1891 in Cannock, Staffordshire. They had walked the two miles from Hednesford to Cannock. It was, in Grandad's telling (as Muriel recollects it), a frosty morning. With them went John Henry's uncle Jack Hadlington, who was only four years older than Grandad, and Jack's wife Louise. Afterwards the four of them had a party, with a concertina for musical accompaniment. At the conclusion of the party they cut the concertina in two, uncle and nephew each taking one half for a memento.
Jack and Esther Knowles were married for almost seventy years. They had thirteen children: Eliza, Laura, Bill, Sally, Joe, Nell, Jack, Winifred, Harold, Ernest, Esther, Elsie and Muriel. Esther was my mother.
Ernest died of some childhood illness at age nine or ten; Elsie died by accident when still a baby. The other eleven all lived into old age. Joe died at 73 or 74; I believe the others all made it past 80.
John Henry Knowles (everyone but his wife called him "Jack") was born April 18, 1873 in or near Kates Hill in Dudley, Worcestershire. His father was William Henry Knowles, born 1851 in Dudley. His mother was Sarah Jane Hadlington, born 1854 in the same town. Grandad was an only child. The family owned a "butty mine" from which they could extract coal, which they sold to their neighbors. "Just a hole in the ground," says Muriel. "There was a wooden ladder to climb down into it."
When the butty mine was worked out, the Knowleses moved to Hednesford, a coal-mining village outside the town of Cannock, Staffordshire. Hednesford is pronounced "Hedge-foot" by the locals. After some very basic schooling, Grandad worked minding cattle on Hednesford Hills for twopence a week — about three U.S. cents at that time. It was Jack Hadlington, Grandad's four-years-older uncle, who first "took Grandad down the pit," i.e. introduced him to coal-mining work, circa 1887. (So presumably Jack Hadlington had also moved to Hednesford.)
Esther Perry (written as "Paddy" on one surviving document, for reasons unknown), had been born in Hednesford May 16, 1875. She was one of three girls, the others being Leah and Eliza. Grandad called Esther "the prettiest wench in Hedge-foot."
In contrast to Grandad Derbyshire, Jack Knowles seems to have been loved by everyone who knew him. He was an Englishman made in the ancient mold: honest, fearless, sociable, and devoted to drinking, sport, gambling and singing. His drinking was social and not vicious, as Grandad Derbyshire's seems to have been. He was a beer drinker, and in old age patronized a pub called The Jubilee. They kept a special glass tankard for him there; and when he died, the landlord of The Jubilee ceremonially smashed Jack Knowles's tankard. (So I was always told; but Cousin Terry Knowles told me this is a myth.)
His gambling was chronic. "Any time he got any money, he gambled it away" — Mother. I can remember seeing him hunched over his old radio set — it delivered nothing but static, so far as my infant ear could tell — listening to the racing results. He bet on the jockeys, according to Auntie Muriel, not the horses.
He sang a pleasant bass baritone, and in my memories of him seems always to have been singing.
His children and grandchildren all adored him. I fancy that he specially favored me, as being his last grandchild. Certainly I never heard a disagreeable word from him, directed to me or anyone else. Mum: "I never heard my father raise his voice. If we were exceptionally naughty, Mother would appeal to him to discipline us. Dad would give us a look from over his newspaper and say: 'Why doesn't yo listen to yer mother.' That was it."
Grandad and Lord Littleton. Here is a story about Grandad Knowles.
Sometime in the mid-1890s, soon after Uncle Bill was born, Grandad was walking home from the night shift along a lane between two hedgerows. It was early morning and there was no-one much about. However, the hunt was running after a fox from Cannock Chase. Grandad saw the fox come under a five-barred gate set in the hedgerow, shoot across the road, and disappear under the opposite hedge. "Good luck to yo, Reynard," said Grandad to the fox.
Then up came the hunt. Unwilling to jump the gate on to a metaled road, they stopped. "You there. Open this gate!" called out the master; and Grandad saw that it was in fact Lord Littleton, who owned most of the land thereabouts, including the land the collieries were on, and the collieries themselves.
By no means intimidated, Grandad called back: "Open the gate yoself. Yo's hands, hasn't yo?"
Lord Littleton took this amiss. He called someone to open the gate, then went after Grandad. Of course, he could see Grandad was a collier. There were no pithead baths in those days, and a collier went home covered in coal dust.
"Which of my collieries do you work at?" asked Lord Littleton.
"West Cannock Number Three," said Grandad.
"Well, you'll work there no more."
Sure enough, when Grandad turned up for work the next night the foreman shook his head and said: "Yo's got yoself in trouble now, our Jack." Grandad was out of work for some months, and had to live by poaching.
Then there was a pit fire and Grandad was called in to help put it out. "Relays of men crawling behind iron trucks, each man dashing forward to put a shovelful of burning coal into the truck, then going behind the relay again. All for ninepence a truck." (Muriel.)
I'd guess that the "Lord Littleton" in that story was Edward George Percy Littleton, 3rd Baron Hatherton, whose dates were 1842-1930; or perhaps his son Edward Charles Rowley Littleton, the 4th Baron Hatherton (though at that point, his father still alive, he would only have been an Honourable, not a Lord), dates 1868-1944. In strict protocol, a person born Edward Littleton who then became Baron Hatherton ought to be called "Lord Hatherton." The Littletons are an old Staffordshire family, though, and from long familiarity, they will always be Littletons to local people, the peerage (which dates only from 1835) merely tacking a "Lord" on the front. In Grandad's time the Littletons lived in Teddesley Hall, five miles WNW of Hednesford. The family moved out of the hall after the 3rd Baron died in 1930. It was demolished in 1954.
Grandad, a sporting man and a lover of dogs and fast horses, would much rather have been riding to hounds than trudging home covered in coal dust after working a night shift underground. It is not very difficult to imagine his feelings towards Lord Littleton here. Feelings of that kind drove much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English social history, which cannot be understood without the imaginative insights that come from hearing stories like this.
There was another family story about Grandad walking to Yorkshire. I have forgotten most of the details here, but at some point Grandad was seriously out of work. I think this was at the time of the May 1926 General Strike, when Grandad would have been 53. In any case, he heard that there was work in Yorkshire, so he walked there. Yorkshire is a very big county, and I don't know which part he walked to. From Hednesford to the nearest point on the Yorkshire border is fifty miles as the crow flies. Finding no work in Yorkshire, Grandad walked back. The only detail I can remember is that he befriended a little dog on the road, who walked part of the way with him.
His personal song for me was "John, John, Put Your Trousers On," a music-hall (= vaudeville) number of the early 1900s. (And one of the first hit records in England. The recording by Billy Williams in 1904 sold several thousand cylinders.) Then there was a sort of miner's folk song (I sang it once into the tape recorder of a folklorist) called "When Thompson's Ales Were New":
Oh, the first to come in was a mason.
He was a very fine person.
He was a very fine person
To join the noble crew.
Well, he smashed his hammer against the wall,
And prayed all the churches and chapels to fall,
And then there'd be work for the masons all!
And then the kegs of beer rolled in —
When Thompson's ales were new, my boys
When Thompson's ales were new.
The next to come in was a soldier.
He was much bigger and bolder.
He was much bigger and bolder,
And joined the noble crew.
The landlady's daughter, she came in
And he kissed her between the nose and chin …
And I forget the rest. Grandad's favorite song was "There is a Tavern in the Town," a music-hall favorite from the 1890s:
There is a tavern in the town, in the town;
And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,
And drinks his wine 'mid laughter free
And never, never thinks of me.
Fare thee well, for I must leave thee.
Do not let this parting grieve thee.
And remember that the best of friends must part, must part.
Adieu, adieu, kind friends, adieu, adieu, adieu.
I can no longer stay with you, stay with you-ou.
For I'll hang my harp on the weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
Oh! dig my grave both wide and deep, wide and deep.
Put tombstones at my head and feet, head and feet,
And on my breast O carve a turtle dove,
To signify I died of love.
Fare thee well, etc.
Also from the music-hall stage were the very sentimental songs about death, of which Grandad had one for every possible occasion. There was "I Want to Telephone to Mother Dear," in which a waif makes his first phone call, presumably to the operator (these songs always came with a spoken intro):
I want to telephone to Mother Dear.
She's somewhere in the sky so high.
She's been gone such a long, long while.
You don't know how I miss her loving smile.
I can't tell you what her number is,
But it's somewhere in the sky.
I want to hear
Her voice so dear
As I used to in the days gone by.
And another poor orphan on tiptoe at the railroad station ticket window:
Give me a ticket to heaven, please.
That's where Dad's gone, they say.
He'll be so lonely without me
Travelling all that way.
My mother died when I was born, Sir.
And left Dad and me all alone.
So give me a ticket to heaven, please,
Before the last train has gone.
The Victorians and Edwardians loved that kind of thing. Our great favorite was "Don't Go Down in the Mine, Dad," which was composed by Robert Donelly and Will Gedder and published in 1910 by the Lawrence Wright Music Company of London. The opinion of people who research this kind of thing is that the song was inspired by the great 1907 mining disaster at St. Genard in South Wales. It was known in the U.S.A. too. Woody Guthrie wrote of his Oklahoma childhood: "The soft coal mines, the lead and zinc mines around Henryetta, were only seventeen miles from my home town … I learned to jig dance along the sidewalks to things called portable phonographs and sung for my first cancered pennies the 'Dream of the Miner's Child' …"
A miner was leaving his home for his work
When he heard his little child scream.
He went to his bedside, his little white face:
"Oh, Daddy, I've had such a dream.
I dreamt that I saw the pit all afire,
And men struggled hard for their lives;
The scene it then changed, and the top of the mine
Was surrounded by sweethearts and wives.
"Don't go down in the mine, Dad,
Dreams very often come true.
Daddy, you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you.
Just go and tell my dream to your mates,
And as sure as the stars that shine,
Something is going to happen today —
Dear Daddy, don't go down the mine!"
The miner, a man with a heart good and kind,
Stood by the side of his son.
He said: "It's my living, I can't stay away.
For duty, my lad, must be done."
The little one looked up, and sadly he said:
"Oh please, stay today with me, Dad!"
But as the brave miner went forth to his work,
He heard this appeal from his lad:
"Don't go down in the mine" etc.
Whilst waiting his turn with his mates to descend,
He could not banish his fears.
He returned home again to his wife and his child,
Those words seemed to ring through his ears.
And ere the day ended the pit was on fire,
When a score of brave men lost their lives.
He thanked God above for the dream his child had,
As once more the little one cries:
"Don't go down in the mine" etc.
Cousin Terry Knowles gave me the sheet music for "Don't Go Down in the Mine, Dad."
Mining was vile work and the miners all hated it. One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Fred (Auntie Sally's husband) telling me not to "goo down the pit," shaking his head at me very sternly. Grandad wasn't so worried: he knew there were no coal mines in Northamptonshire and so it was unlikely I'd end up a collier, though I think I recall him saying to my mother once or twice: "Yo'll not let this lad go down the pit, our Esther, will yo?"
In his prime Grandad was what they called a check-weighman. This meant that he was head of a gang who would contract with the colliery to cut so much coal a day. The check-weighman would be paid by the colliery, and it was up to him to distribute the money fairly among his mates. In later years, I suppose when he could no longer do the hard work of coal-cutting, Grandad was set to look after the pit ponies. These creatures were used to haul the wagons of coal from the face to the shaft. They were kept underground all the time, and I think blinded after birth to accustom them to the darkness underground. (This is the meaning of "wretched blind pit ponies" in Ralph Hodgson's poem "The Bells of Heaven.")
I doubt if Grandad Knowles ever earned more than two pounds a week from colliery work — small rations to raise thirteen kids on, though he supplemented his income by poaching and bookmaking, both illegal.
Grandad served briefly in World War One. There is a touching letter he wrote from the Western Front here, and some information on his military service in the notes at the bottom of that page. His discharge papers are here.
Mother told me one of her earliest memories was of sitting on Grandma's bed just after Muriel was born. Grandma was eating "pob," a kind of gruel made from bread, milk and sugar — Mother used to give it to us when we were ill, too — and Grandad was in his army uniform, presumably having just come home from the war. This must have been a confused memory, however, as Grandad was discharged a year and a half before Muriel was born.
As well as songs, Grandad Knowles had a rich fund of odd little phrases and idioms, most of which I have forgotten. Some of them could keep a dialectologist busy for years. He nursed a mild prejudice against Shropshire, my father's home county. Learning of my mother's intention to marry a man from Shropshire, Grandad said: "A Shropshireman? Why, them's neither Welsh nor English." (Shropshire is next to Wales.) Another of his anti-Shropshire remarks (which I think were all meant in good humor): "Shropshire, aye, that's where they put a pig on the wall to watch the parade." This dates from the first swimming of the English Channel, which was accomplished by Captain Matthew Webb, a Shropshireman, in 1875.
News of Matthew Webb's amazing feat filtered back to his home community here in Shropshire, he returned in triumph and arriving at Wellington railway station was met by large crowds of locals, eager to share in the glory and heap deserved praise on their own Local Hero. It is known that he was escorted back to Dawley amid a carnival atmosphere boosted by the able ability of the Shifnal Brass Band. The journey itself was to spawn endless tales of folklore … [L]ocals to this day … still refer to The Pig On The Wall. Legend has it that as the Band led Webb's procession into Dawley, a pig placed its front trotters onto the wall of its sty, to watch the band pass by.
Most baffling of all was this simile of Grandad's, applied to any thing or person extravagantly colorful or over-decorated: "As fancy as a Shropshireman's waistcoat [pronounced weskit] — butterflies up one side, King Georges down the other."
Speaking of Grandad to Cousin Terry, Terry reminded me of Grandad's box — a wooden box kept next to the fireplace, by his chair in the Princess Street cottage. In the box Grandad kept his betting slips, his pocket money, and a supply of candy. We little ones got a candy from the box now and again, when we'd been exceptionally good.
My own particular joy when staying at the Princess Street cottage was to play with Grandad's box of dominoes. They were traditional-style dominoes, black with white spots, kept in a wooden box with a sliding wooden lid, stored on top of a tall dresser so that I had to ask someone to get them down for me. I used them as a construction kit, building domino towers as high as they would go.
Grandma Knowles was originally Esther Perry, born May 16, 1875, died April 18th 1961 aged not quite 86. Grandma's people were a bit above Grandad's, and I think she married him against some opposition from her family. She was the youngest of three daughters of John Perry, born 1841, died December 12th 1915. Her mother was called Mary Ann, but no-one seems to know the surname. Someone in her father or grandfather's generation was governor of Strangeways Prison in Manchester. One of Grandma's uncles, mother told me, was a colonel in the Indian Army. There is a shadowy rumor of a high-born Spanish lady in this line of the family, who came over in a ship with a battalion of servants. "And that's why we have dark eyes," Mother used to say. "It's the Spanish blood." (Everybody in my father's family had blue eyes. Muriel, by the way, disputes the "Spanish." She says the mystery lady was Javanese.)
Granny's sisters were Leah Beatrice and Eliza. Great-Aunt Leah, dates uncertain, married one Henry Spencer, born 1878, died May 2nd 1931. They had three children: John Richard (born 1899, died October 15th 1919), Louie (born 1908, died March 28th 1921) and Ernest (died 1982). Louie was a girl — when she died, my mother, aged nine at the time, was given all her clothes and toys. Ernest became a famous runner. He married a girl called Violet and they had a daughter, Maureen. Ernest joined the Navy in World War II as a radar technician, and was badly injured somehow — at Dunkirk, according to Muriel.
Eliza married one Henry Plant. They had two children, Henry Junior and Annie. Henry Junior had two children, Dorothy and Harry. Annie married a Thomas Norwood and had children Esther, Tom and Annie Junior.
Great-Aunt Leah also had an illegitimate child (called a "by-blow" in Staffordshire); a daughter, Mary Ann Junior. This was the result of a union with a red-headed sailor. When Great-Aunt Leah's family found out about her condition the menfolk went looking for the sailor, going as far as Liverpool, but they never found him. I knew Mary Ann well as "Auntie Annie." I don't know her date of birth, but she died August 29th, 1976. More about Annie in my notes on Aunt Muriel.
The only other thing we know about Grandma Knowles's family is that she had an aunt named Lizzie Pickens, who begat a tribe of footballers — her grandson, Tommy Galley, played for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1940s and 50s. Cousin Terry recalled being taken to see him play. Lizzie's daughter was in show biz — she trod the boards with Florrie Forde.
By the 1930s the Knowleses were living in a three-bedroom bungalow in Huntington Terrace Road, Hednesford, opposite a pub called The Jolly Collier. About 1937 or 1938 Grandma — well into her sixties at this point — underwent an operation at Stafford hospital for removal of gallstones, major surgery at that time. It left her weak and nervous. The opinion of the surgeon (whose name was Sworn, though I am not sure of the spelling) was that she needed full-time care at home. Hearing this, Auntie Sally and Harold's Win arranged for the family to be moved to a smaller cottage at 76 Princess Street, Hednesford. Mu quit her job — she was a cook for that same surgeon, as it happened — to look after her mother.
Mu was unhappy about all these developments. She thought her mother would have been more contented staying in Huntington Terrace Road, sitting by the window watching the street, which was much busier that Princess Street (there was a bus stop right outside the house). She felt that Sally, Laura and Harold's Win were just acting for their own convenience. The Princess Street cottage was, she thought, poky and under-equipped.
Whatever the other facts of the case, this last judgment was certainly true. I can remember the Princess Street cottage very clearly. We — Mum, Judy and I — used to stay there every year at Easter, riding up from Northampton in the train. As the train got up into the Black Country of Warwickshire and Staffordshire you started to see slag heaps — great conical piles of coaly mud and soil brought up by the mine workings. Because of their coal content, these slag heaps were permanently on fire, or at any rate smouldering, and at night were covered with thin flickering blue flames — a spectacular sight from a train window, when you are four or five years old.
The cottage had only one bedroom. There was a parlor at the front with a big fireplace (everybody burned coal in those days). The fireplace had a kind of small oven built in over it. Next to the parlor was a small kitchen. Behind it was Grandma and Grandad's bedroom, with an old-fashioned brass bed, whose round knobs could be screwed off by curious small boys. Alongside the bedroom was a bathroom. I used to sleep on the bath, which always thrilled me. Grandad set wooden boards across the top and made up a bed on them. Mum and Judy slept on a sofa-bed in the parlor.
Behind the house was a large garden with black soil full of large round white stones. Beyond the garden was an open area of waste ground. A deep cutting ran across this waste ground, carrying the narrow railway for coal trucks to and from a nearby pit. A sports stadium was built on the waste ground to commemorate the Festival of Britain in 1951 — Cousin Terry went to the opening day. On the other side of this waste ground (which I confused in my infant mind with Cannock Chase, a far wilder and more extensive affair) lived Auntie Sally with her husband Fred and daughter Freda. You could see the cottage from Sally's house.
Every evening Grandad would walk to a nearby pub, The Jubilee on Pye Green Road, to drink and play dominoes or cribbage with his mates. I was always asleep when he came home, of course; but he would leave a packet of "crisps" (= potato chips) on the boards by my head, for me to find when I woke up in the morning. In those days your crisps came with a tiny blue waxed-paper bag of salt included.
I used to love being at the cottage. Grandad would sing to me. For a midday treat he would eat a dish of cucumber slices in vinegar. (This concoction was also a favorite of President Ulysses S. Grant.) He also like pigeon pie. I remember watching fascinated in the cottage's little kitchen as my mother gutted the pigeons over the sink. (These were wood pigeons, not city pigeons.) Grandma drank tea all the time. She kept her tea in a pretty little tin. She couldn't drink out of a cup, though, because her hands were shaky. Instead, she drank from a saucer. I never understood the logic of this. It seemed to me that with shaky hands, a cup would be a better bet than a saucer.
Sometimes my uncles, aunts or cousins would visit with us at the cottage. Most often, I think, it was Aunt Muriel and Uncle Fred; but Uncle Bill and Auntie Gladys used to come a lot from Wolverhampton, and Uncle Harold and Auntie Win from Wellington. Actually, of the eleven Knowles children who survived childhood, I only really ever knew half. Some lived in inconvenient places; some had fallen out with others; and some just weren't sociable.