Street Life: Food, Glorious Food!

When the industrial revolution began, men, women and children flooded into Manchester seeking work. They found themselves in one up/one down dwellings or multi tenanted houses where the only cooking facility was a pot set on an open fire.

For centuries it was vegetables, barley, suet pastry, pulses and, above all, bread that filled hungry bellies. Punitive Corn Laws that made wheat bread too expensive for workers forced them to subsist on oatcake or Waterloo porridge (oatmeal, water and salt, with perhaps a bit of cheese, red herring or bacon on a Sunday.

Although potatoes came to Britain in the late 16th century, it was some time before the poor came to rely on them as a staple food. By the time workers’ houses had cooking ranges, potatoes and cheaper cuts of meat were the basis of good plain meals still being eaten in the 1950s. But there were exceptions to every rule.In 1907 my Nana (aged 13) went from Collyhurst to London Road on foot every day. After 10 hours machining football shirts, she came home, collected a basin and set off to buy ‘a tuppeny mix’ (vegetables and potatoes) for her tea. Despite her mother’s poor example, Nana became an excellent cook.Meat and potato pie, like Nana used to make!

Once rationing finished, pre-war favourites like meat and potato pie, soup with bacon ribs or ham shank, neck chops, breast of lamb, fried plaice and pot roasted brisket made a return. At home we had something called ‘fat cake’ which nobody else seems to have heard of. It was a sort of plain scone mixture bound together with melted butter and baked in the oven on greaseproof paper.When we lived with my grandparents, the larder always contained a large jam tart or fruit pie – fresh fruit in summer (winberry was favourite) and raisins or sultanas in winter. Homemade cakes were coconut, fruit or parkin – all delicious, as was Nana’s treacle toffee.

Apart from milk puddings and custard tart, such desserts as we had came out of a tin. Peaches, pineapple chunks or fruit salad was served with evaporated milk or tinned cream (not to be confused with condensed milk). As far as I recall, I never tasted fresh cream until the late 50s, and it was a revelation after the horrible tinned stuff.

I speak from bitter experience when I say that rose coloured spectacles couldn’t make me nostalgic for the tinned Spam or waterlogged vegetables we ate when mum took on the cooking, when we moved to New Moston. She was the sort of cook who put the Christmas sprouts on to simmer in November.Many households relied on ‘the chippy’ for a ready to eat meal. However there were one or two things that could almost be called convenience foods. My granddad’s favourites were black pudding with plenty of fat and the kind of dark tripe that looked like a filthy wash leather. The rest of us contented ourselves with pies, crumpets or pikelets.Black tripe – Grandad’s favourite!

Nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine how limited the food horizons used to be, especially for the non-meat eaters. Our school cookery lessons only included one vegetarian dish, and that was nut cutlet. Thanks to ingredients unknown 60 years ago, having a vegan or ‘free from’ friend round for tea isn’t the challenge it used to be.

But what I would like to know is why trendy ‘foodies’ have been allowed to claim they invented ‘slow food’? Their gentrification of our traditional dishes has made bacon ribs, oxtail, belly pork and breast of lamb more expensive per pound than a roasting joint.

And while you may find good old sausage and mash on the menu in a gastro pub, it’s more likely to come with a ‘jus’ than simple brown gravy. It seems beer is now obligatory in fish batter and, for all I know, there might be Ovaltine in the soup to give it ‘hipster’ appeal. What’s more, don’t be surprised if your meal arrives on a hub cap with the side order of chips in a plant pot!Next time you pop something in the microwave, spare a thought for those fifties housewives. With the most basic facilities, and only a few shillings left from the week’s housekeeping, they managed to produce tasty meals cooked from scratch, day in, day out.

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Street Life: Hands, Knees and Elbow Grease

In the 1950s, northern women in their wrapover pinnies, headscarves or hairnets were on their knees at home more often than in church.

Laying fires, black leading grates, and scrubbing floors were only a few of the many domestic rituals performed on hands and knees – but there was a revolution on its way.What we have learned to call ‘white goods’, were slowly insinuating themselves into working class homes, though they were almost never white in those days.

It would be some time yet before wash boilers or ‘Dolly tubs’ were entirely replaced by electric washing machines. And, for every meal cooked on one of the new enamel gas stoves, there were plenty still produced in ovens needing a weekly black leading.

‘Stoning’ steps was done for pride, and in areas like ours, it was a measure of a housewife’s respectability. Donkey stones could be had from the rag and bone man in exchange for old clothing. Balloons and windmills on sticks were also on offer – guess what I had to ask for?

I was sometimes allowed to brown stone the back step. Cream stone was reserved for the front which nana always did herself.Getting the bedding and towels for a large family washed and dried, especially in winter, was worth every penny of the small sum charged for a wash-house ‘ticket’. Dilapidated prams had a second incarnation once their life as baby carriages was over, and it was a common sight to see a woman pushing one to the wash-house with the week’s laundry nestling under the hood.

At our house, ‘body linens’ were done at home. I used to enjoy scrubbing my granddad’s loose collars with a nail brush and yellow soap, while his shirts were getting a hot wash in the (gas) boiler. Less robust items went into the dolly tub for a possing. Whites were dolly-blued and sometimes starched, while curtains, dingy from much laundering, got a freshening up in ‘dolly cream’.Vintage ‘washing machine and mangle (photo compliments of Direct Discounts, Oldham, purveyors of present day appliances). 

Our own nod toward modernity came when the large mangle was replaced by a wringer. It had rubber rollers that folded away under an enamel top that made a useful work surface.

On washing day, a ‘maiden’ (clothes drier) stood open around the oven and above there was a rack, suspended from the ceiling, raised and lowered on a pulley and used for airing.Airing rack still in use today (photo compliments of the editor’s mother-in-law)

Due to her mistrust of electricity, nana’s ironing was done with a flat iron on an old blanket spread across the kitchen table.

City planners were rightly proud of the council houses that replaced the 200-year-old slum terraces of Ancoats and Collyhurst. The new houses had hot water, inside toilets and bathrooms, and the mixed blessing of indoor coal storage. Coal ’oles were handily situated next to kitchens and living rooms. Many a housewife’s heart must have broken as she saw the black dust settling on her newly cleaned surfaces with every sack of ‘nutty slack’ the coalman tipped.

Fires, grates and fenders got daily attention, but there was always the fear of incurring a fine for setting the chimney ablaze. There was a patent product called the ‘Imp’ which was put onto the fire to somehow dislodge or disperse the soot from the chimney.The flues on the back-to-back oven also required regular attention. First, kitchen shelves and surfaces were cleared and rugs taken outside. Then a housewife would kneel on the floor with a complicated array of long handled fire irons spread out on newspaper. Ash, fine enough to fly up at the least breath, was raked out first, followed by oily and rather sinister looking soot. Both were consigned to the dustbin before the kitchen was put to rights again.

Floors and surfaces were scrubbed and the clean shelves lined with new oil-cloth (sometimes called American cloth) – ours had a scalloped edge cut along the front to make it look nice. Clothes were returned to the rack, pots and pans went back on shelves, and, following a good beating, and mats were put down on the floor again.

That kneeling band of indomitable women, and the language of their labours, has long since been consigned to history. How many people today have heard of dolly blue, donkey stones, Zebo black lead, Duraglit, Cardinal Red, the humble posser or a Ewbank carpet sweeper?

Acknowledgements: Direct Discounts, Oldham

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Bouncers and Shakers at North West Theatre Arts Company

Intriguing title and no idea what to expect. I’m ever ready for a surprise at NWTAC so, assuming it’s a new one on you too, I’ll set the scene.

Location: A night-club in a town centre: Could be anywhere so for us, it’s Manchester. Shakers Cocktail Bar.

Era: Late 1970’s: But, as NWTAC like to put their own slant on things, some references are more recent.

Main characters: Four night-club bouncers. Four cocktail barmaids. Four lads on the lash. Four girls up for a night out.

Event: One night out on the town and the preparations leading up to it.

Maybe you’re thinking “sounds pretty straight forward”. It’s actually two plays merged together into one and the 16 plus characters are played by just 8 actors.

So, now you could be thinking “sounds pretty complicated”. Nope, just very clever and very, very funny.

As we filter in from the bar area we’re involved in the show before it even starts. Smart suited young men greet us and show us to our seats before we realise they’re actually the bouncers in the show. They inform us the performance is about to begin.

“Any filming or flash photography is not allowed and mobile phones must be turned off…”. Then sternly add “…or there’ll be trouble.”

I fumble for mine, just to check, even though I know it’s off! From there we’re transported to their ‘world’; standing in a freezing club doorway waiting for the pubs to close and the nightclub client’s to roll up, in whatever state they’re in.

Scene Two is a hairdressing salon but is this where we’re introduced to the girls? Ah no. The bouncers do a character flip and play a group of girls getting ready for a night out. Giddily gabbing away, deciding what hairstyle’s best or what colour nail varnish they want amid getting all the gossip and bitching about this or that.

It’s a while before the real girls, aka cocktail shakers, take to the stage and they have a similar start. Getting ready for another night behind the bar, wiping down tables and discussing the new brazen uniform they’ve be told to wear. Before long they too do a character flip and jump scene to a fashion shop changing room. The banter has us in stitches.

These role changes are executed so well. Each character is totally believable, the script is brilliant and it’s fascinating to watch.

I’m a Manchester lass. I went to those night-clubs and bars and hairdressers and dress shops in the 1970’s. I remember the changing rooms in Chelsea Girl and the freezing mile long taxi queue at 3am in Piccadilly. God, feet like blocks of ice. I was there! And, going off their reaction, so were most of my fellow audience.

We loved every minute of this play. Thank you Bouncers: Jonny Molyneux, Gareth Maudsley, Solomon Asante-Owusu and Owen Maudsley for your wit and timing. Thank you Shakers Toyin Lawal, Jade Hamer, Kate Bannister and Melissa Grimes for your humour and sass. You were thoroughly entertaining and a joy to watch.

The line-up for Saturday’s performance was slightly different but I hear they stormed it too.

NWTAC’s theatre is on Lightbowne Road, Moston and their next project is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. Click here for all the details and how to book your seats.