Wigton Salvation army band.

Mary Heslam – Part A (CSWIG3A)




2017 Cumbria Speaks Oral History Project


Respondent Code:
Respondent: Mary Heslam
Date of birth: 29/12/1936
Date of Interview: 15/04/2017
Interviewer: Isanna Curwen
Interview conducted at Mary Heslam’s home.


First part of interview

  1. Courting William. (William teaches Mary’s father to drive)
  2. Wedding
  3. Early married life – moving home to begin farming. Independence.
  4. Land drainage and moss.
  5. Buying and selling land.
  6. Acquiring sheep and cattle.
  7. Pregnancy, trouble at the pub and childbirth.
  8. 1956 mains electricity is put in.
  9. Farm increases in size.
  10. Family relations.


IC         So today is the 15th of April 2017, and were in Wigton and I’m the interviewer, Isanna Curwen. Hello Mary.

MH      Hello Isanna.

IC         Could you please give me your full name, your date of birth and where you live please.

MH      Yes, Mary Heslam spelled H e s l a m, which is rather different. We get Heslap or Haslam, anything but Heslam. That’s another story though, about hospitals and things. Er, anyway, it’s Mary Heslam, Grainger house, Red Dial, Wigton and my birthday is the 29 of December 1936, the very end of ‘36.

IC         And could you tell me where you were born?

MH      I was born in Wigton, on the edge of Wigton in a little, almost a hamlet, called The Stampery.

IC         And did you have brothers and sisters?

MH      I had an older sister, three years 8 months older than me, yes.

IC         Yes. And you, your parents, did they, did they both work, or, did they work in Wigton?

MH      Yes, my mother was born in Wigton, and she worked in Elwood Scott’s leather factory. She had quite a good job, actually, because she er, cut the leather which was, er, it was quite clever because you hadn’t to waste any. It was an expensive material so you hadn’t to waste any, and she was quite good at that so she, er, you know, got the job that quite often it was given to men, well it was usually a man’s job, so she got that. Er, I remember her telling me a little tale once, er, it, they make a thing of it nowadays when a man makes advantage, advances to you and this chap was making advances to her and she told him to stop and er, he wouldn’t desist, kept on and she said, ‘I’ll use the knife’, cos she was standing at her, her, where she worked, and, oh ha, he laughed at her and she just put the knife…and it, just was against his fingers. She said, ‘He never bothered’ her again. So, er, I just thought nowadays you know, when things happen to women.

IC         Yes.

MH      Yes. And my father…interrupted it, my father was chemical plumber and he liked the distinction of the name and in the twenties and thirties he was never out of work because he used to go and build new plants, er, all over the country. He was in Glasgow, down in London, over to Bristol and everything, and eventually came to Wigton, where things were changing at the time and, over the country. I think people realised they had to start and make work for people and decent places. And in Wigton the factory had started in the late twenties, Rayphane…

IC         Red…

MH      The Rayphane factory, sort of…

IC         Now Innovia?

MH      Yes, Innovia, making the money this time, yeah, the fivers and now the tenners. So father built the plant for that, you see. He came from a big conurbation, Newcastle. So when he came to Wigton, Wigton was as its called, a little Thostle’s nest and there was nothing surrounding it, no suburbs, nothing, just this little place, erm, in, Wigton, quite small but with 6,500 people in it. Er whatever street you went down you came to the country, so he thought, I won’t stay here long. However, he met my beautiful mother and er, they hit it off and they got married and there was a new plant starting near Flimby so they went there.

IC         Oh, they went to Flimby first?

MH      Flimby, yes, and then they came back and he got a permanent job in Wigton and by that time they’d had my sister and were in 2 rooms and in a house in Church Street. That was what everybody did; live in 2 rooms. And finally they got a little cottage in the Stampery, which was a step up from the two little rooms. I don’t know if it was, really because at Church Street, they had a water closet, but in the Stampery it was a dry closet outside and shared with next door. But at least they had a cottage of their own, So that was mother and father.

IC         Would be a cottage, a whole cottage on its own rather than a floor or a…

MH      It was a whole cottage. A tiny tiny vestibule, which father being a plumber he couldn’t put water into it of course cos the, it was rented which everybody was, even quite wealthy people in the town rented their houses, very few people owned their own properties.

IC         Do you know who owned the properties?

MH      Just various people around, I mean Union Street for example was built by a union of builders, called Union Street so they would have all shared in the renting of th properties in Union Street. And, er, Water Street, it breaks my heart to think of it, actually, that’s why I say mum and dad had a step up when they came to the Stampery, because Water Street, one Old man told me years later, that he lived in, er…I..I’m quite emotional about it really. He lived in one cellar with his family and his brother lived in another cellar with his family, two families lived on the ground floor, and two families on the floor above. That was the whole street was full of families like that. (6.46) Now you think only one family in that house would have a fire, nobody else would have a fire. The children would be cold, would be cold. And that was one of the reasons why I say change was in Wigton because Brindlefield was built solely was for the people in Water Street they absolutely almost filled, er, contradictory terms absolutely and almost, but er, they almost filled Brindlefield, er, and after they left Water Street, the people who had nowhere, moved into Water Street. So when you think, the people in the town, 6,500 people and the majority of them living like that. So we were in comfort. It was splendid in our little cottage and we’d to go outside to the dry closet and that sort of thing, we’d to go across the green for water. Dad made water tank beside the door for, if we wanted to, er, you know, have a bath or anything like that, there was a tin bath. But otherwise, drinking water was from a tap in the washhouse across the green, there was this shared wash-house for all the houses where there were about eight houses altogether and this was on the edge of Wigton in a field so it was bliss for us children, absolute bliss. But of course I’m talking about before the war, you see. But the changes in Wigton there was a new school built and I remember one man telling me how he would be about 6 years old I think, when the school was built and they all were marched, from, er, Water Street, right up through to the new infant school in Wigton and it was a beautiful school, it still is a beautiful school…

IC         And when was that built?

MH      It was built in the 30’s. I was born in 36, so I think it was the early 30’s. I think it was Robert Studham and er, my cousin Jean, she’s 88 and she remembers being marched up to the new school, that was built for them, from the old school, you see.

IC         Is it the school you went to later?

MH      And I went to the infants then, but that’s another story.

IC         Do you remember going there?

MH      Oh, I remember. (Laughs) As I say that was, well that was during the war, you see. If you count my birthday ’37 because it was the end of ’36 so when the war started late on in ’39 I was two and a half, so it would be ’42 before I started school. And, er, I couldn’t understand, the little boy that I played with in the Stampery, he was Roman Catholic and of course we were Anglican and his school was right beside us, the er, Roman Catholic school, and he was going there, and of course I was going right thorough Wigton past the fountain, right up to the infant’s school, I couldn’t understand and mam tried to explain to me that he was RC and even in those days, the RC were looked down upon. People didn’t, no, they were RC. Of course being my mother and father they never were like that, but that rubbed off later when you found out about it but it used to be awful, really, and erm, dad used to threaten me if I was naughty, with the convent, because there were still convent children. The nuns came, er, a 100 years before, it would be, no, maybe a little bit later, er, from Bermondsey and they’d been with Florence Nightingale at the Crimea. Not the same ones, but that, the, from Bermondsey and we said it was preparation of Wigton, the Crimea (laughs). So er, anyway, little Billy was going to the nuns and I was going to the infant’s school.

IC         And what did you think of the infants school?

MH      Oh I…

IC         What do you remember?

MH      Oh, when I first walked in I thought it was lovely, it had the water closets and everything, just the size for children to sit on, and er, lovely beautiful windows and everything like that, and I went in and Miss Iveson was very tall and thin. And at play time I thought I would go and find my sister because she was 3 year, 3 years 8 months older than me, she was in the top class a Miss Cameron, and er, they’d come in, Miss Cameron wasn’t in yet after play time and my sister who was very gentle, er, looked a bit worried and she sat me behind this other girl, between them, I was, and then Miss Cameron came in and Miss Cameron reminded me of the witch from the Wizard of Oz, we’d seen it in Wigton picture house, the Wizard of Oz had just come out and she reminded me of that and she had, she screwed her eyes up and looked around the room and she said, Agnes Riding, who’s that behind you, you see, and the finger drew me out. Er, she crooked her finger round, I was drawn out almost hypnotised and, ‘My little sister, Miss Cameron’, ‘Go back to your classroom, so she sent me back down the corridor – I remember distinctly, so at four and a half, I would be, in the September, so it’s my memory, it isn’t what I’ve been told. So I went down to the bottom of the class and looking through this beautiful window and again into my class and I thought, no, I’m going home. So I went all the way back down to Wigton. I don’t know how I remembered it, I went all the way back down through Wigton and down to me mam, and I was quite proud of meself when I got back in and my gentle kind mother, lifted up the brush that she’d brushed my hair with that morning and smacked me on the bottom, dragged me all the way up through Wigton and presented me to the headmaster, Mr Scott. And Mr Scott knelt before me, I remember he’d a moustache, a very big moustache and it came quite close to me face and he said ‘Mary,’ he said, well, in a deeper voice than that of course and he said, er ,‘Mary,’ he said, ‘You’ll enjoy school.’ And I said, ‘I will not’ and he smacked me and my mother turned round and went out. And after that I thoroughly enjoyed school, right up until I left, I loved school. But I do remember, it was rather naughty, Mr Scott used to come in and I think he must have known that my dad was very political and although dad didn’t push his politics onto us, he, er, you know, you do take notice and he used to, at the time the Chinese were in turmoil and Chiang Kai-shek and all those, were in, you know, so Mr Scott used to often ask questions like that, things that were going on in the world. And ‘I’ve a penny for anybody who can answer this question,’ and he would know fine well that I could, you see, I think he was so upset that he’d got, that he’d reached down to smack, because, I never saw him do that, you see, and er, so, er, I got many a penny out of Mr Scott after that. It was er…

IC         And, er, were there subjects you particularly liked?

MH      Yes, er yes, I liked, I liked most subjects in school except for knitting. Miss, when we left Miss Iveson, we had to be…try to be quite close to the 12 times table. That was very good for infants but it was all learnt my rote, you see, they had the parchments right round the room and every morning we said the times table and when she thought we’d got past the 6 she’s start us on the 7 and we would march all though it, so we finished off (16.04) Er, the times tables in Miss Steel’s class, and she was, Miss Steel, she was sort of grey and she had steely spectacles and the name suited her quite well. And we started knitting and we’d to cast on 20 stitches, I always ended up with 19 and the stitches were so tight on the needles she could hardly get them off to start me again. And I remember I got a little bit further and then this time I went home and we’d to finish this off at home and er, mam, er, mam was the most adorable mother, but she couldn’t knit or sew. She could make mats, she made hooking mats which we’d help her with, but she, she knit..knitting or sewing was out of it so, I said, ‘I’ve to finish this off, this is the thumb’ and I went back to school the next day with a thumb that was about 7 inches long, you see. So all my knitting had to go out again, so, no, mam used to make hooking mats, er, the one on the wall there, that my daughters made, that’s a rag mat, but mam used to make hooking mats – that’s one there and…I made for to the cats to sit on. And erm, we used to spread it out and Lyle stockings were good for that. If you got holes in your stockings which couldn’t be mended any longer, I used to sit in and cut round and cut round and round and round and round till we reached the end so she got a long ball of Lyle stocking which she could hook, you see, on the mats, so mam used to do that so we were taught that and dad was very good at teaching us how to mend our bikes and that sort of thing you see, so…

IC         And can you remember the games you played as a child, at school and…

MH      At school, well I remember a story about that. Er, when we still lived down the Stampery then, and I was, it was September and a it was a fine day I remember and everybody at school had marbles, it was marble time and er so mam bought me some marbles and put them in a little bag for me you see, and off I went these marbles and of course I played my…it was quite a good game because you got points and thig like that and certain ,marble took other marbles you see and so er you could end up with a lot or this day when I came down erm, I hadn’t any in the little bag and the first cottage in the little hamlet belonged to, well it didn’t belong, they rented it from the farmer who owned the property, and er, Mr William Dixon and he said, What’s up Mary, lass? You see and I told him that I’d lost all my marbles, explained it to him that I was upset about my marbles and he said, hang on a minute, and he went into the house and he came out with a handful of coloured, mar…balls which were marbles and he said, Here lass, and er, he put them in, still wet, into my little bag, you see, and so when he got them in,,.put them in, he made this gesture which I didn’t understand but he touched his finger to his nose and although I didn’t understand it, sort of like that on the side of his nose, and so I didn’t understand it but I think we both know that I hadn’t to say anything to anybody because the marbles came from his daughters fish tank and she was so proud of this fish tank. She used to take us in and say…show us the little fish in it and everything and we were fascinated and he’d taken a little handful of these marbles out of the fish tank. But he said the nicest thing to me which I always remember as well. He said, I knew there was something matter, Mary lass, because you weren’t smiling, and he said You always smile, and he said, you remind me of Jane Hayton who would be your great great grandmother. And she had the Cross Keys in Wigton which was beside  er, the…Well, they’ve both gone now. It was beside what’s just recently been the bistro. It was beside there and it was a little pub and grandmother, this great great grandmother of mine, had it and she made the best Carlins in the town, so it…

IC         What’s Carlins?

MH      Carlins is erm, black peas. And they’re traditionally eaten at this time of year, actually and er, do you want me to tell you about that?

IC         Yes.

MH      Because, I mean we’re going back in history now. The legend has it that Mary Stewart, not Mary Queen of Scots, she’s in everything isn’t she? But Mary Stewart came to this part of the country and the people were in such dire need that she said, Is there nothing to feed these people? you see, and the Curwen’s and their ilk, the only thing that they would give was the black peas that they fed, their pigeons, their doves with and pigeons, because they kept a lot of pigeons in those days and so these bags of black peas were soaked in a lot of bones and that, the meat was leftover, not much meat on the bone but there, and er, ever after that to celebrate this event, people from Cumbria, have eaten Carlins on Carlin Sunday, which is the week before Palm Sunday, yeah and so er, that was the legend anyway. And so all the pubs in the town used to make…at the time there were 36 pubs in the town, little wee town, and they used to make Carlins and grand, this great great grandmother of mine presumably made the best Carlins. But he said, She was always smiling. He was just a boy at the time and he could remember her and I was very like her, presumably, so, Mary lass, knew that there was something matter, you see, because I suppose that when I was standing at his gate and I came from school I would smile at him, you see and I wasn’t that day. So anyway that was our little secret -which is out now, on video to tell everybody the secret of the marbles.

IC         And did you play with, did you have friends in the neighbourhood that you would play out in Wigton?

MH      Well, while, no our little hamlet was isolated in a way and so Billy and I played together. My sister was 3 years 8 months older than me and the little girl opposite was about the same age. Her father was a, er, joiner and they had the joiner shop in Water Street and has just recently retired actually, old men not long retired, her brothers. And er, their father and mother and brothers lived opposite us but they were rather older boys and getting on for their teens and being apprentice to their father, you see, a joiner. So Margaret played with my sister Agnes er, and I played with Billy and Billy had a little brother Jim, who is still alive, see him occasionally in Wigton. But he was a baby, er, so there were, er, Agnes had, er, but Agnes had rather more friends because she’d been going to school for a while you see, but I just Billy and we played together ‘day bit length.’ (24.56). We played sedgaps, up the river we fished, we played pooh sticks longs before there was any such thing as pooh sticks. Because there was the little, the great big railway bridge at the end of our territory on one side and then there was the town bridge which is beside, erm , Lidl now. And the town bridge…

IC         That’s the one, the one by the Blackamoor (pub)

MH      Er, er at the bottom of the hill from the Blackamoor er, and we could go there, which was an adventure and walk under the bridge actually. But in between those two bridges was a big flat sandstone, sandstone bridge, absolutely flat an er, we could lay on there and play the pooh sticks you see, it was absolutely lovely, so I didn’t need any other companion at all. Just Billy and me, so the sadness was him going to the er, convent school and me going to the other bit, but I soon made friends up there, you see, but I..yeah, like…but Billy and I played until we left when I was 5 at the Christmas, we left. Mam and dad had been saving up for a house cos dad had quite a good job and as I said, things were changing in Wigton and one or two new houses were being built that people were actually buying. Er, there were houses along Brackenlands which were being built and up West Avenue and oh, all sort of West Road but beyond West Street, West Road, those were all new houses starting to be built, starting to be private houses and the ones on…rather nice, they are, Brackenlands were about £400 which was a lot in those days when you considered a man’s reasonable wage was about £6 a week. Er, so £400 was a lot to save up. And, that reminds me that was the only row that I can remember my parents having, that was why we remembered it, my sister and I. Because dad hated the cottage with the outside lavatory and that sort of thing, you know, and, but that was nothing better that they could get so they were saving everything that they could get for to buy a house. Er and after a while dad said he was tired of being there, we…we…we’ll try and see if we can borrow some money from somewhere, er, which was rather strange in those days but people could…and there were no building societies the same and banks didn’t lend the same or anything, but dad was sure that, you know, they could get out of this place. Er, we couldn’t understand why, cos I loved it, you see, idyllic it was to me. Anyway mam went up to the Council Offices while dad was at work and said to the lad in the council office, er, er, was there any possibility of borrowing any money from the council or anything like that. Oh, he said to her, don’t put a rope around you neck, like a millstone round your neck, like that, lass, buying a house, you don’t want to be doing that, you see. So when she came home and dad came home at night, that was then the row came and Agnes and me couldn’t understand this row and we were sent to bed and er, so dad was so angry he…after work he went up to er, the council offices and demanded a council house. Er, they were top of the list but they never bothered because they were saving up for this house, you see, and he didn’t…demanded a council house. So there was a one, er vacant on Brindlefield so yeh, right, he would have this one on Brindlefield, it was the on what’s now the Syke Road, it’s gone rather posher. And er, which is funny. And er so, when he came home he said…Oh mam didn’t want to go to Brindlefield where all Water Street people had gone, you see. So, isn’t it crazy, absolutely crazy. Anyway dad was adamant and we moved to, Christmas, we moved to, so I never played with Billy again…

IC         Oh.

MH      Never played with Billy again. Met other friends, met a friend that I was friends with for life until she died with smoking.

IC         Oh.

MH      Erm, I never smoked myself but er, Margery did.

IC         And so how old were you when you went to the new estate?

MH      5. I was 5 at the Christmas and er, mam and dad had made quite a big party for me, er, they were party people, er, the family always came to mam’s for a party and we had Christmas and New Year and of course my birthday was in between and we’d had a parcel sent from an aunt who was a nurse in America and she sent a food parcel and one or two other things and er, beside, er with them. It had landed after Christmas so there was a lovely doll for me. And er, so, it was presented to me by Santa Claus on my birthday. He’d come on his bike, I think, but er, but they didn’t show me that bit and er, it was Billy Hodgson, Billy…we always called him Mr Hodgson anyway and he was a verger at the church but he was the town Santa Claus and so mam and dad had asked him to come and present me with this doll for my birthday because it was rather special, there were moving, so all the neighbours were there and we had a nice little party so I was the centre of attraction which pleased me, of course. And er, then we moved to Brindlefield you see, short…in the January. And…

IC         Do you know when…

MH      And the coal cart, the coal cart, the…Bells, coal, Bells delivered coal around the town and they also moved people, so our furniture was put on the back of this coal wagon and we sat on the back and away we went to be…to the new house.

IC         And do you know when Brindlefield was built?

MH      It would be in the mid thirties.

IC         The mid thirties.

MH      In the mid thirties. But this is when the change was going on in Wigton. The change was going on then. The new houses were starting to be built. The council houses were starting to be built. There was a little row built on West Road, a little row of council houses as well, and these…and there was also, I, you…I should know these but just beyond the convent, Howrigg bank was being built but everybody used to say at the time, and I’ve never really looked into it, er, that it was built for er, the forces, air force personnel and things like that. Erm, that was what that was built for, it wasn’t quite council houses, I don’t think. But up until then it was just everything was in Wigton you see. So all the changes, the new factory, was taking on a lot of employment, the er, council houses were being built, the new school was being built, so, er, Wigton was in the 30’s in the throws of a lot of change. It all sort of stopped during the war, and then after the war had a bit of a pause and then things started to move on after the war again, but…

IC         And you moved now from…to Brindlefields, so you were in the town now?

MH      Again, on the side of the town.

IC         Did you have more to do with the town with itself?

MH      More to do with the town, more to do with the town because now I was a little bit older and could er, delightfully walk down to the pictures and I met this lovely friend Margery, I had these two friends who er, were, one is still alive and the other one I’ve lost touch with, she went over to the North East. Er, but Margery and I were such, really buddies, and we used to go round all the Sunday Schools and pay our truppence, I don’t know how our parents afforded it, I think we went to about 3 Sunday Schools on  Sunday and er, we used to go to the pictures and er, Margery’s father had quite a good job in Cummersdale.. He was in…funnily enough, it’s all sort of connected in the Stampery the er -now the name’s gone now and it shouldn’t have. In the Stampery the print works got, er, were destroyed in the 1845 and, the whole of Wigton was destitute then and the factory moved to Cummersdale and Margery’s father worked there so it was strange that he, that little connection, I’d lived in the Stampery and Margery’s father worked in the…the, I wish I could remember it, it’s a name that I’ve known like anything. And, anyway Margery’s father was there. He’d quite a good job, he was one of the…really artistic, he used to er, the wooden, things that were cut out for to do the patters on the materials, his picture’s in Tullie House actually. Er, so, I suppose we had, we didn’t have pocket money as such but our parents were able to give us a little few pennies to go to the pictures and things like that. And we loved the pictures in Wigton so we could go down to the pictures and knock about with the…you know you never, people go on nowadays your parents playing with your children and you must play, attend your children and see to them. We never saw our parents, we didn’t want to play with them, we had each other. You know it was…when I think how how sad it is that they have to say these parents, poor parents have to play with their children and er, I mean I enjoyed playing with mine, I won’t say I didn’t, when we were very tiny, but after you get on your own, what do you want with your mam and dad, there’s so much else to do in the world, isn’t there? So erm.

IC         What was Sunday School like?

MH      Erm Sunday School was quite interesting really, different ones, er Miss Wallace we had, er, for the Anglican Sunday School and she was very strict and that was in the morning on Sunday and then er, we went down to the nuns and went to their Sunday Scholl and again they were very strict and then we went down to the, er, Salvation Army so we used to go to all 3 on a Sunday.

IC         What were the activities there?

MH      Nothing much, nothing much, just telling us all about the Bible and things like that. It ws surprising how it rubbed off. I’m often surprised now the things that I remember because I’m not religious actually.

IC         And it didn’t fit with your dad’s views did it?

MH      Yeah, well dad wasn’t, you see, dad was a communist and he wasn’t interested, but what I loves about my dad, I didn’t realise I loved it because of that until I got older, but he never inflicted, in my, it’s a strong word but he never inflicted his views onto us. He liked to…to think things out ourselves and er, consequently I feel that I like to take the best ideas out of all the parts, I think. Yeah, Jeremy Corbyn’s right about that or yeah, Theresa May, you know, she should be doing that.   

(38.31) PAUSED