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Jim Hooley's Memories of Christmas

Salford 1920s: These children, looking much as Jim would have done are scavenging for coal near a local pit

Jim Hooley was born in the Hillgate district of  Stockport near Manchester in 1913. In 1981 Age Concern Stockport published A Hillgate Childhood - Myself when Young, Jim's memories of growing up in the twenties.

Poverty and unemployment were rife, not least in Jim's own family, but as these two extracts about the celebration of Christmas show, life was not always miserable. 

It was a rough school in those early days. The best education you received was how to look after yourself and the first thing you learned was how to use your fists. It certainly came in handy. Many of the scholars went to free meals but my brothers and I didn’t qualify for that — I don’t know why. Maybe we had other advantages.

At Christmas the school would have a party and everyone would have to bring his own cup.. Quite a few of the boys would bring jam jars to drink out of, having no cups of their own. When we arrived the table was laid out with butties heaped up on plates in various sections of the table, together with buns, jellies, etc. The boys would be sat on forms, waiting and watching. None of them would be in Sunday suits, the reason being that no—one had any. Grace would be said and the fight would begin. To paraphrase the words of Winston Churchill, "never was so much eaten by so few in such a short time".

The teachers would wait on the boys as long as the food lasted: I must say it was only on these festive occasions that I saw the teachers actually smile. After the feast there would be a concert, and the singing of Christmas Carols. The concert would consist of boys using what talent they had to entertain. One of my favourite pieces was out of the "Christmas Carol" by Dickens. I had a speaking part in that, in the crowd scene, shouting "Merry Christmas" — that was the nearest I ever got to a theatrical career!

Christmas time was always the best time to see these shops [in Hillgate]. The greengrocers would hang outside the shops fowls, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. I cannot recollect having anything like that for my Christmas dinner when I was young; the nearest to any fowl we got was the "giblets" for our dinner.

If you had an account (tick book) at the local grocers shop, the shopkeeper would, at Christmas, give you a Christmas box; maybe a cake or a box of sweets for being a good customer. I am afraid our family never qualified for that.

Christmas toys for the kids in our family consisted of a "half a crown" parcel from Hallworth’s in Underbank. Hallworth’s was a large store situated at the bottom of Hillgate and it was their custom at Christmas time to make up parcels containing cheap toys and price them at l/6d, 2/6d and 5/—d. Part of the enjoyment was to see what the parcel contained when you got it home.

My vagabond friends and I always formed a choir about Christmas time. The qualifications for membership were to know the words of the carols we were to sing. We would number about four or five, our ages averaging 11 or 12. We knew we were good so no practice was needed. On Christmas Eve we would set off to give the people in their homes and clubs the pleasure and benefit of the magic of our beautiful voices.

On one of these occasions we were singing our carols outside a house in a yard off James Leach Street. After giving our concert of three carols and a "very merry Christmas", our treasurer knocked on the door for our reward. No—one came to the door, although the house light was one, he knocked again, a little louder but to no avail. A man from next door came out to us, drunk, and told us we would have to sing louder for the man who occupied the house had been dead for three days and was being buried the next day. It was voted amongst the choir, he had done us a dirty trick — he should have died after Christmas.

Before going on these Christmas carol jaunts we first had a conference to see who had the most money. One year we decided that the Conservatives had most of the money so a vote was taken that it was to the Conservative clubs we should go and give them the pleasure of our singing. The only obstacle in the way was how to get into the club. It was decided that we should sing outside and maybe some "true blue" with a music loving soul would invite us in. The first club we tried was Hindley Street. After our first carol a man came out and said "bugger off"  — obviously not a music loving "blue". Next was Edgeley Conservative Club. There we didn’t even get started; a man said he would "kick our arses if we didn't go".

The last club was Dundonald Street where we struck it rich. We stood outside and gave two carols. A man came out, drunk. We kids were prepared to duck or run but no. He invited us in. Here was a music loving "blue", or was he too drunk to know what he was doing? However, in we went and on the stage of all places we gave our three carols and ended up with a popular song of the day "Let the Rest of the World go by". I am sure the sober members of the audience wished we had gone by! We must have looked like displaced persons from a prison camp, with our broken clogs, big caps and jackets two sizes too big. I am sure our appearance on that stage would have helped Karl Marx far more than all his writings.

However, the money reward for our singing came up to expectations; a good collection for us kids was made from the members, which sent us on our way happy with our lot, and a vote was taken that the "blues" were indeed a music loving crowd.

There is another extract from Jim Hooley's memoir in 
Land Fit for Heroes



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Tuesday 20 December 2005