James Street, Cleator Moor
On the West Cumbrian coastal plain in the North-West of England lie a string of villages near the once important sea port of Whitehaven the most important of which are Egremont, Frizington, Cleator and Cleator Moor. Due to deposits of coal and iron-ore they enjoyed a brief flourishing at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th and in that time attracted considerable immigration from Ireland both Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist. As has been the nature of the flourishings of the Industrial Revolution once the earth has been stripped of its treasures the people who worked on them, who built communities and shared histories are more or less left to fend for themselves and it was into such a community that my mother, Elizabeth Foster (known as Betty as a girl) was born. There was still a mine in Cleator Moor until the 1960s and I remember playing on the steep sided heap of slag there with local boys and watched the steam locomotives as they pulled trucks of material away from the mine. I spent my summers with my mother’s family and loved it although I did not understand the question, “Are you a Cat (a Catholic) or a Proddy-Dog (Protestant) ?” having been raised in the gentle South of England. In the second summer I spent in Cleator Moor the slag heap was gone and we played on the disused tracks of the mine railway. And my mother’s family were Protestant and very strictly so.
It was into this world that my mother was born. I wish I could tell you about her parents, my grandparents, but I know almost nothing about them for at some point in her early life she was taken in by her grandmother and lived the rest of her early years at 2 James Street, Cleator Moor, a tiny miners’ cottage with a toilet in the shed in the yard and no indoor bathroom. It was a household of women for the First World War had robbed them of men and my mother’s uncles, Tommy and John are both buried in military cemeteries in France and Belgium. It is said that their father died of a broken heart soon after. Their mother did not however, taking in her grand-daughters, Annie and Winnie as well as my mother. It was a household full of images, the photographs of young soldiers on the mantlepiece. My mother did not know who they were and she did not ask. She did not know why Christmas Day was so sad either. It was years later that she learned that it was on Christmas Day 1918 that her Uncle John died from his wounds, sustained just before the war, in a military hospital in Belgium. I have seen his photograph. He was hardly more than a boy.
My mother revered her grandmother and stories about her were a part of my own childhood. I hope to meet this brave woman some day and to do her honour. She used to make my mother walk to Frizington each Sunday afternoon to visit her parents. After her grandmother died she never went again. I never met my grandparents or their son, my uncle and know nothing about their lives. I am not sure that I want to find out.
I must not give the impression that life was only cold and hard although growing up in the Depression with very little money must have been hard. My mother tells stories of winning a race at Sports Day at Montreal Primary in Cleator Moor. I have seen the certificate! She also loved to go dancing and for her, the outbreak of the Second World War meant interesting new dancing partners. She spoke of the slightly dangerous (and exciting?) French Canadians stationed nearby and Polish officers with their formal manners. They bowed stiffly to her when asking for a dance. She also spoke of having to climb in through the coal hole when she came home as the door to the house was locked against her.
I realise that this posting could become very long indeed so I must continue more quickly but I loved the stories of the mischievous side to my mother’s character and her sense of adventure too. She left Cleator Moor at the end of the war, heading down to Preston in Lancashire and from there she would go dancing in the Blackpool Tower ballroom getting the last bus back to Preston and walking alone through the darkened streets of the town. She also spoke of an insurance policy in her name maturing and how she spent it all on one holiday in Blackpool. But my own particular favourite story of her mischievous sense of fun was how, after she began to train as a nurse in London, she had been on a visit home and when returning by train fell in with some American soldiers. They must have been delighted to meet this very pretty nurse (I have seen photos from those days and she was very pretty indeed!) and by the time they reached London she was rather drunk. It was my father who met her at the station and who, on greeting his very tipsy girlfriend bidding farewell to her new American friends, took her gently by the arm and steered her away, acting as if nothing had happened. My mother told me that it was at that moment that she decided that he was the man for her.
I have got slightly ahead of myself and must go back a little. My mother’s travels had by this point taking her to London where she trained as a nurse at the isolation hospital at Joyce Green in South East London. The hospital was by the banks of the River Thames situated there so that in a time of an epidemic in the city the sick could be loaded up on boats to be transported down the river to the hospital. The hospital required a farm to supply it, especially in times of emergency, and it was run by a young man called John Winter, my father.
My father had been raised in London, the son of Bert and Lucy Winter. Bert, my grandfather, was a London black cab taxi driver and my father’s first job before the outbreak of war was at Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable Market in the heart of London. As with many men of his generation the war opened up doors that had until then been closed. My Father served in the Royal Artillery during the war, taking part in the Normandy landings of June 1944, and the battles through western Europe and into Germany, and when he was finally demobilised from the army in 1947 as a Sergeant Major he took the opportunity to go to Agricultural College and and spent his working life running farms. My mother and my father married in August 1952 and I was born, their first son, in February 1955.
I will write more of their life together in another posting soon but will end here by saying that my mother loved her new family. Her mother in law was good, strong and very kind and my mother wrote to her every week sharing news of her growing family. My grandmother told me years later that she too had been very drawn to her own mother in law who was good and kind, and as I was later to learn, Italian! I love the fact that I am descended from so many immigrants on both sides of my family! But what I mainly want to say here was that both women, my mother and my grandmother were drawn to strong, kind women. I have much to be grateful for to all the women in this story I have told so far.
END OF PART ONE