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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

FROM TUG TO TUG
THE REMINISCENCES OF A WATER BABY


NELLIE GALE

My thoughts often return to my childhood, and I think how different my life would have been had there not been two World Wars. I suppose this applies to most people of my age. History repeated itself when in the 1st World War my family moved from the West Riding to the East Riding, and in the 2nd World War my husband John and I, with our two children Michael and Rosemary, moved back to the West Riding. The word Riding is Nordic, meaning ⅓rd, given to the area, namely – East, West and North, by the Vikings when they invaded that particular part of England, and many towns and villages still bear Viking names.

I was born in December 1902, the second child of hardworking parents by the name of William and Lilian Scott, in the small township of Knottingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Unlike most children, I had two homes – one on land and one afloat. We lived in a small rented house owned by the local flour mill called King’s Mill, for which my Father worked. He had a wooden keel named "William & Mary", and had a contract with the Mill owner, along with another keel owner, to bring wheat in bags from Hull, using the Aire & Calder Canal, towed by small tugs to Goole, thence via the Rivers Ouse and Humber, using bigger and more powerful tugs. Some Keel owners did not have a house but lived on board all the time.

The Canal was always very busy, with all kinds of craft going up and down, mostly with the aid of small tugs, or sail, and sometimes by a horse and owner walking along the towpath. The West Riding was, and still is, a great industrial area, and merchandise of every kind, such as coal, glass, pottery, lime, engineering, hardware, etc., is shipped to Goole and Hull, thence by steamer to all parts of the Globe. Coal was loaded from the mines into large square iron containers called Tom Puddings, about seven to ten in a string, towed by a small tug.

I do not remember anything about my very early childhood; not even the birth of a baby brother called William, (known as Willie to distinguish him from his Father) until the day I started school at the age of three. I was dressed in a darkish frock, over which I wore a white frilled pinafore, and little boots as it was wintertime.

My home was quite near the school and canal, so at the ringing of the school bell, we, my Mother and elder sister, Annie, and I would dash across the road, and after saying goodbye to Mother, would join the line of scholars. The school had only two fairly large rooms, with long tiered forms, with two teachers in each room. Infants 3 – 6 in one, and juniors 7 – 11 in the other. After the age of 11 we were transferred to another school about 1½ miles away, to which we had to walk, hail, rain or snow, as there were no buses or school dinners in those days. This meant doing the walk four times a day, with barely time to eat the meal.

To get back to my first day at school. In the classroom we were given a number to which we had to answer. We were then given a sand tray and told to draw any little picture we like. Then we graduated to the alphabet taken from the board. I loved to watch the letters disappear after shaking the sand tray.

After mastering the A, B, C, we were issued with a slate and slate pencil, and what a din those scratchy pencils made! How the teachers stood the racket, with young children, some almost just babies, quarrelling and crying, and the scratchy pencils I shall never know. To wipe the slates clean our Mothers pinned an old piece of rag to our pinafores. The boys put them in their trouser pockets. In the early days school hours seemed endless, and on one occasion at playtime I thought it was dinner time and toddled off home, much to my Mother’s astonishment. On another occasion I must have been naughty and was kept in after school and forgotten about. When I didn’t arrive home my Mother came and found me hammering on the window, terrified I would be there all night. Fortunately, the Headmaster’s house adjoined the school.

When we were due to go aboard the keel on our way to Hull, by some pre-arranged signal the little tug taking us to Goole would blow its whistle when going through Ferrybridge Lock, about 1½ miles away, so up went the hands of the Scott children to be excused as previously arranged, to the envy of the other scholars.

On the previous day, and sometimes in the morning, if the trip was later in the day Mother had a baking session, making bread, teacakes and pies, etc., enough to last two or three days until we arrived in Hull, to be taken down to the keel in a huge clothes basket. Always something was forgotten, and on one occasion, about half an hour after we were on our way, Mother remembered she had left a huge pie cooling in a bowl, containing two rabbits and 1-lb steak. When we got to the first lock, called Whitley Lock, the Lock-keeper was asked to give our door key to any boat owner who lived near my Grandma Addy in Knottingley, so that she could help herself to the feast. The second lock is called Pollington Lock. I think the lock dues were 1 shilling each craft. From either of these Lock-keepers we bought our eggs and chickens.

As the "William & Mary" was the biggest in the string of craft, we were always hooked on next to the tug as this helped with the steering. In the spring, summer and autumn we enjoyed the changing scenery, which was mostly rural, up and down the canal and exchanged news and greetings with the string of canal boats going in the opposite direction. Canal people were a friendly lot; very closely knit. Winter was a very different story. When it rained or snowed the hatchway was closed which made it dark inside, despite the deck skylights, so the big brass lamp hanging from the ceiling was lit most of the time.

After docking at Goole we awaited the big tug which was to tow us to Hull. These powerful tugs were known the world over, especially for their salvage work. The biggest of the tugs which towed us to Hull most frequently was called "Salvage". All the rest of the Fleet were numbered. It was always a mystery to me how and when these arrangements were made as everything went smoothly, except in bad weather conditions. Always depending on how the tide ran, sometimes we were able to catch the big tug to Hull the same day, otherwise we had to wait until the next day. This meant we were away from home and school at least five days. In 1918 the Education Act came into force then all school children up to the age of fourteen had to make regular attendances, which put an end to children living on board.

When I was seven lots of events took place. I was "moved up" into the big room and placed in Standard 1 as it was called. When I got interested in the lessons I was loath to break off, especially in arithmetic, as I missed either the beginning or the end, which might explain why I was never any good at this subject. Mental arithmetic was, and still is, mental torture to me. I was quite good at drawing and painting, and remember coming home with sixpence as a prize. I liked sewing and had ideas that I might make a passable dressmaker after I left school. Most families had their own dressmaker in the early days of the century. I liked knitting, except when on board and the weather was bad, Annie and I had to occupy ourselves knitting Father’s long grey woollen stockings which came over the knees. We had to knit so many rows and Mother used to thread a different coloured piece of wool to show how much we had done. When she wasn’t looking we would cheat and move this piece of wool further down. I don’t know if she ever cottoned on to this trick. I didn’t mind the knitting part, but hated the colour, which never varied. Annie hated knitting in all its forms, so it was sheer misery to her.

I also acquired a baby sister called Daisy, and because of this addition to the family Father decided he needed a bigger craft as the sleeping accommodation of the "William & Mary" was very limited. Also he could take a bigger cargo, thus earning more money for his growing family. After consultation with a Boat Builder on the River Humber at Hessle, plans were drawn up to build a steel keel – the first steel keel to be built at that particular shipyard, which was bound to create problems. It cost £500. which was quite a sum in those days. After months of waiting, the great day arrived for the launching, and the name "Energy" was given to this worthy craft as she slid down the slipway, suitably decked with bunting. All the family were dressed in their best clothes, which were worn only on Sundays and Festive occasions, and this was a festive occasion for us. Some months after the launching, work on the fore and aft cabins was finished, and Father took Possession at long last.

The aft cabin in which we lived when afloat was well appointed with mahogany and glass cupboards with brass fittings, mahogany steps with brass treads (Dangerous in my opinion), mahogany lockers, in sections, the whole width of the cabin, where our clothes and food in tins were stored. A hinged let-down table for meals, and beyond the small bunks a separate tall cupboard for personal washing and washing up. In here we kept a paraffin stove which was very useful in summer when it was too hot to have a fire. There was also a neat little fire-grate and oven, next to which was a narrow door which lead into the hold, and when ‘light’ (meaning not loaded), with a few hatches taken off to give light, we children spent many happy hours rigging up swings and slides.

There were three bunks, one large one where Father and Mother slept, and two smaller ones, one on top of the other, where young Willie and Daisy slept. The ‘forecastle’ was strictly for stores, except for a large bunk where Annie and I slept. Lockers the whole width of the keel were used for storing everything not in regular use. Buckets, coils of rope, paint, coal for the after cabin fire, anchors and all the rest of the paraphernalia used in boating. It we were catching the early morning tide from Hull, Loaded, say 2, 3 or 4 o’clock and the weather was tough, Father came down the iron ladder to wake us up; wrap us in a blanket and carry us to the after cabin to finish our sleep out in the big bunk. Invariably I had a nightmare. During these return trips to Goole, Mother would make up a batch of bread of five or six loaves, put the tins to rise, stick a piece of paper with our name on speared with a pin, and on arrival at Goole we took them to the dockside bakery to be baked at a cost of 1d per loaf. There were a number of shops on the dockside which were a Godsend to the river folk. All our water was bought from a water boat, and pumped into a large barrel with a tap, fixed to the deck.

In the old "William & Mary" the cargo consisted of bags of wheat, as she had no bulkheads to separate the hold, and two bags were lashed together in the steamers hold and slung by crane into the "William & Mary’s" hold, in which where two men with hooks ‘trimming’ the bags evenly so that the cargo didn’t shift in rough weather, which was extremely dangerous. Back at the Mill the bags were unloaded in the same way.

In the new "Energy" the wheat was in bulk, drawn out of the steamer by suction and dropped down an enclosed chute into our hold, with two men standing in the wheat with huge shovels trimming it level. Back at the mill the wheat was sucked out by elevator.

Sometimes the "Energy" was ordered to Albert Dock to take a cargo of wheat in bags. Most of the steamers using this dock brought mostly fruit, etc. Cranes were used to unload the crates of oranges or lemons, etc., and many fell apart, dropping into the dock. Father would be waiting in the coggy to pick up the floating fruit. He could pick up as many as 10 dozen oranges, enough to last us for a few weeks.

Situated between Albert Dock and Alexandra Dock was the entrance to the River Hull, known as the Old Harbour, and the "Energy" was occasionally ordered to load a cargo, in bags, from the warehouses on the harbour side. The bottom was of mud and as the "Energy" took on more cargo the heavier she sank in the mud, and when the time came for us to be picked up by the tug we were well and truly stuck fast. As the tide rose the water came further up, swamping the deck, with Father in waders waiting for the worst, and Mother with her bag of treasures and we three children sitting in the coggy, these where tense moments. Suddenly with a "whoosh" up came the keel, causing great waves, rocking the coggy so that we had to hang on fast. We hated these times.

A bit of history is worth mentioning here. There were no warehouses on the harbour banks in the old days, but were the back gardens belonging to some large imposing houses in High Street where the rich merchants and other notables lived. One such notable was William Wilberforce, the slave emancipator, who was Member of Parliament for Hull at the time. These houses, except for Wilberforce House, which is now museum, are now used as merchants offices and I little guessed that in the not too distant future I should be working as head typist for a firm of Insurance Brokers in the office next door to Wilberforce House.

I was about eight years old when my parents decided to leave the house belonging to the Mill and bought a semi-detached in Mill Lane. We lived in one and Father let the other, so that the rent from that one helped to pay the mortgage on the one we lived in. It was in this house that I had the misfortune to have an accident. It was bath night, including hair washing for the children, and the big zinc bath was placed in front of the fire. Annie was first, and as she was drying her hair the towel caught the handle of a large pan on the stove, spilling the contents of hot water over my legs. Matters were made worse because I was still wearing black woollen stockings and as these were pulled off my skin came off too. Dr. Steward was called in the following morning, accompanied by his wife. Mrs. Steward was very kind to me and taught me how to do embroidery. A dresser cloth I made was in use for years. I was off school for six weeks and Father had to hire a mate until Mother was available.

When we were old enough Annie and I felt grownup when we learned to scull the coggy-boat. The technique is totally different from rowing, but is necessary for getting about when space is limited.

Depending on the weather we had good trips or bad. In summer on the Humber it was delightful to be in the breezy fresh air, with the sun shining on the rippling waves and when loaded we children would sit on the deck side, holding on to the rail, with our feet dangling in the water. A delightful sensation. The steel deck on the "Energy" would get very hot and buckets of seawater were thrown over at frequent intervals to cool it and we all wore shoes or got burnt feet. The cabin used to get very hot too, so two glassy skylights in the deck were unscrewed to let in a bit of fresh air. Sometimes our little feet went through the holes and skinned our shins. I have scars to this day!

We dreaded the winter trips, especially when loaded; with gales blowing and rain and snow falling the "Energy" rolling and tossing (in spite of the lee-boards which we used in rough weather) with gallons of seawater swilling over the deck, sometimes into the cabin, despite the closed hatchway.

Annie suffered from seasickness and spent most of the time dressed in oilskins, tied to the chimney stack to prevent her from being washed overboard.

The Greatest hazard was fog, and despite foghorns blowing continuously it is not easy for a tug pulling a string of barges to get out of the way quickly, especially if a strong tide is running, and it wasn’t funny to see a great hulk of a steamer looming straight ahead. Sometimes, if the fog worsened, we had to moor at one of the few jetties dotted on the northside of the Humber – sometimes for days. The Humber is the most treacherous in Britain owing to the shifting sandbanks.

On loaded trips from Hull to Goole Father hired a man to help with the tiller, and do any jobs which were necessary, especially in rough weather, as this work was too heavy for a woman to manage. Mother was Father’s mate in more sense than one. The hired help returned to Hull by Train, or begged a lift on any craft returning to Hull.

One voyage to Hull was a nightmare. Owing to the heavy weather the tug, with its usual string of barges, arrived at Alexandra Dock gates too late to catch the tide which would have enabled us to get safely into the dock. The "Energy" was rolling and tossing about so badly we children had to get into bed to stop us from being thrown about the cabin, as Mother was too, so it was decided that all except Father should go ashore. We then had the nerve racking task of climbing a vertical iron ladder attached to the jetty, with the noisy, angry waves dashing around us. It was terrifying! We were then taken to the Dockmaster’s hut where we spent the night drinking tea, eating biscuits and nodding off, although this was difficult with all the noise made by the wind and sea.

At six o’clock the following morning the gale had abated and we returned to the "Energy" very much relieved to find that Father had not been washed overboard. Riding lamps were smashed, coils of heavy rope missing; the little coggy boat sunk but still attached, and debris floating everywhere. Fortunately there was no loss of life.

Whilst the "Energy" was being loaded in Hull Annie and I, with Mother, used to go by tram to the market, which was a good one as all the fish, fruit and vegetables, etc., were fresh from the ships in dock. To have a ride on a tram was for us a great treat. The fare was 1d. for adults and ½d. for children under fourteen.

Father was a great music hall fan and knew all the big names of singers and comedians. He would go to the first house, learning all the words and tunes of the songs, come back on board, bringing a parcel of fish and chips, get out his "Boss Medodion" (accordian) and give a credible performance. Mother couldn’t sing a note in tune and when she did sing anything they were always hymns. Her Father had been a Chapel Organist.

One day the Headmaster of our school, a very nice man I remember, called Mr. Poole, sent a note to my parents asking if one of them would call at the schoolhouse. As this was unusual Annie and I wondered if either of us had done something we should not have done, but it was nothing of the kind. Apparently he was quite concerned that their children whom he said were not stupid, were missing so much schooling, and could it be arranged for Annie and myself to stay with a relative on future trips. So it was arranged that we stayed with Grandma Addy, who lived at the other end of the town. As I have previously mentioned all the girls wore white pinafores over their dresses, which were changed every day. On the second day it was discovered my Mother had only packed one for me and three for Annie, who was much bigger and taller than I. Grandma said I must wear one of Annie’s pinafores but this was going to make me look ridiculous, and I would be a laughing stock, (Children can be very cruel). I was rather a shy and sensitive little girl so I blankly refused to go to school wearing it. This was the nearest I ever got to playing truant. When my parents returned and asked if we had behaved ourselves Grandma said I had been a little bitch for refusing to go to school. We did not stay with her again.

We always went for a walk on Sundays wherever we were and once when we moored at Goole Bridge I was the first to be dressed in my usual white outfit, waiting for the rest of the family. Whilst waiting I decided to do a little fishing for tiddlers. I fastened a piece of string to a large floating cinder with the idea of pushing the cinder down and the fish to float on it. Lying flat on the deckside I leaned over a bit too far and fell in the dock. Fortunately, my Father’s young brother, who was on school holiday, and taking a trip with us, saw what had happened and clutching me by the hair pulled me out of the water. Taking me dripping wet to the cabin hatchway, called down to Mother to ask if she wanted a drowned rat, to which she replied "Indeed no", but he said "you will when you know it’s our Nellie". She rushed up on deck and when she commenced to undress me I was very indignant as all the people on the bridge were looking on, having witnessed the rescue. My little red stays had stained all the rest of my white clothing a beautiful pink. I was completely redressed and we all went on our walk. I never did understand why my parents did not take advantage of the school swimming lessons at Pontefract Swimming Baths, as we were just the children at risk.

One thing happened which I shall never forget. Father had gone ashore and the "Energy" was in Alexandra Dock awaiting her turn alongside the Jetty. Mother had finished washing up and asked Annie to go on deck to empty the bowl over the side. When she seemed to be a long time Mother sent me on deck to find out why. She was nowhere to be seen and looking over the side I saw her hair floating in the water. I yelled to Mother who rushed on deck and without hesitation climbed over the rail and jumped in from a height of about 10 feet, her long dress billowing out like a parachute. She clutched at Annie’s hair, holding her up with one hand and clinging to the coggy boat with the other. Help was soon at hand, aiding two dripping people on to the "Energy", and Mother and Annie undressed in the hold to save the cabin from being swamped with water. Mother couldn’t swim and had never been in anything bigger than a bathtub. Father could swim like a fish.

On another occasion the "Energy" was in Goole Dry Dock having the bottom scraped and painted. The rails had been removed, and being nosey I leaned over a bit too far, forgetting about the absent rail, promptly fell over the side, landing on the cradle the scrapers were working on. When picked up I had a beautiful black eye!

We loaded wheat from steamers from all over the world; Canada, U.S.A., Russia, India and Australia. When the St. Lawrence was frozen over we loaded from steamers from the other countries. If the wheat was from Bombay or Karachi, the cracks in that little door in the main cabin leading into the hold, had to be pasted over with strips of brown paper as the wheat was so dusty and weevilly, and very hard to get rid of if it got into the cabin. It is amazing how different wheat is from different countries. These steamers carried mixed cargoes, so other craft were being loaded at the same time with various merchandise, such as wool, cotton, etc., etc., and taken to the West Riding to be manufactured into textiles, carpets and the like, then shipped back to Hull to be loaded into the big sheds on the dockside, awaiting shipments by the big steamers.

We children loved to romp and play hide and seek among the bags and crates in these huge cathedral like warehouses, and on occasions have been locked in. After banging on the big iron sliding doors we were rescued by the Dock Police, and very severely told off. But we still did it.

In 1914 there were grave rumblings of war with Germany in the newspapers, and on August 4th, as we were going through the Alexandra lock in Hull for Goole, news was given to us that war had been declared. As one of the biggest and busiest ports on the East Coast this sounded like a death knell as the steamers would be in grave danger from mines laid in the Humber. In consequence, they were diverted to safer ports on the West Coast, which meant that no wheat could be supplied to the mill from the usual sources, and Father was out of a job. After much consideration my parents decided to take a chance and move to Hull, where there would be some sort of work for the "Energy" if only for lightering. So in October 1915, when I was 12, my parents sold the two houses in Knottingley, and bought a row of four houses, one of which we lived in, in a very nice part of East Hull, with a park and boating lake at the bottom of the street.

So my life as a Waterbaby came to an end, and I looked forward to the future, which was going to be very different, with both dread and anticipation. Fortunately, fate treated me very kindly – but that is another story.

Nellie Gale
Leeds – December, 1980.

Knottingley District Civic Society publication.

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