Middlesbrough - hell on earth
In this blogposting…
*The Good Old Days
Tread softly…

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 this upcoming Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just a couple of hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all but ONLY if you bring an idea for a ‘viral lie’ we can spread on the internet; see blogpostings, passim.

I hope we’ve all been good citizens and completed our census forms on time and accurately. To be honest, I thought it got a bit personal in one or two places and was sorely tempted to tell them I was a 19 year-old trainee chicken-sexer from Ogle. This in turn pressed the buttons marked ‘deranged’ on my febrile imagination and I decided that I could be a seismologist in Quakinghouses or a Bereavement Counsellor in Pity Me or a French Polisher in Shiney Row or a Prison Officer in Crook….I could go on.

But common sense - and the thought of a hefty fine - got the better of me. I told them I was a Nobody in No Place ( - surely the north-east’s most surprising place-name).

To remind us of how lucky we are, though, I’ve done a little cursory research into some of the trades and occupations mentioned in previous censuses (censi?), most - but not quite all - of which have thankfully disappeared down the plug-hole of history.

How about, f’rinstance…

*Dung Boy..
This was the lad who swept up animal manure off the streets using a pan and brush. He then slung it into a bin. Locally, these bins were taken to a spot near the coast where they were shamefully allowed to pile up higher and higher. In time, the mountain of stinking ordure grew so big that some bright spark in Whitehall decided to give it County Borough status and call it Middlesbrough.

*Nymph of the Pavé
Victorian prudery dictated that prostitutes did not exist - so Victorian semantic jiggerypokery had to come up with alternative ways of denoting them, of which this is one. Others included ‘fallen’, ‘unfortunate’ and even ‘gay’ - which only goes to show how times have changed.

It makes you wonder, though, if you’re allowed to put ‘prostitute’ on a census form nowadays…

*Bulldog Burner
Be still, your beating heart. This has nothing to do with those wretched creatures in studded collars pulling their charva owners back home to Redcar. Oh my word no. My sources tell me that a ‘bulldog burner’ was (and I quote) ‘the man who roasted tap cinder from blast or puddling furnaces’ - thus producing ‘bulldog’, a ‘refractory slag for lining puddling furnaces making wrought iron or steel’.

So now you know.

(In truth, if anyone out there can explain any of that in terms that a 6-year-old would understand, get in touch.)

*Lucifer Woman
I know what you’re thinking; that we’re back to fallen nymphs again. But no. A Lucifer Woman was, of course, a woman who made or sold lucifers, they in turn being the oversized Victorian version of matches.

It was a terrible job. The business end of a lucifer was made of antimony, sulfide or stibnite, potassium chlorate, gum and starch. To mask the stink of all this, white phosphorous was also added to the mixture - which caused diseases like ‘phossy-jaw’.

In a way, the north-east is to blame for the match-girls’ plight. Matches were invented in 1827 by a Stockton chemist called John Walker. Interestingly, he got his cumuppance in the 1970s when Stockton Council decided to honour him with a statue. Unfortunately, it’s a statue of entirely the wrong John Walker - not the inventive chemist but a local councillor and bigwig from 50 years later.

The Teesside effect. Its aural equivalent is available on BBC Radio Tees every day.

*Fat Lad
Forget the jibes. This was a truly horrendous occupation. A young lad was employed in a mine (often an iron-ore mine) to grease not only tub and bogie axles but also the sheaves and drums guiding haulage ropes. And he had to do it in the dark.

I’d be interested to know if local coal-mines employed someone like this.

The origin of modern slang 'knackered', this trade - which appears in every 19th-century census - was concerned with the disposal of dead or dying horses, which would be collected - or taken away and slaughtered - to be cut up for cat meat. There must be many people still alive who can remember the local ‘knackers’ yard’. We discussed them on-air once and I was amazed at the number of calls we received about them.

There were famous knackers’ yards in, I think, Byker, Wallsend, Hebburn and Gateshead. You can get a pretty good idea of what they were like by simply visiting Bishop Auckland.

We’ve already come across the ‘dung boy’ in our survey and it’s weird to think about how commonplace and prevalent horses were in our everyday lives. My eldest brother’s first job was helping out on the local Co-op’s delivery round - which was horse-drawn, even in the early 60s.

And, of course, a colourful local way of describing a well-built bloke is to say he’s built ‘like a store horse’.

*Sad Iron Maker
Apparently, ‘sad iron’ was another expression used for ‘flat iron’ - the sort that some benighted people waste their time using to press clothes and other things. They weren’t, of course, electric in the Good Old Days; they were rather those heavy, clodhoppers you see at Beamish and other museums. Overworked abigails would stand them over the fire below stairs until they were hot enough to be yanked away and pressed onto madam’s bombazine until it was as flat as a proverbial pancake or until the unfortunate slavey passed out from sheer exhaustion.

No wonder they were called ‘sad irons’.

It all makes me glad that I’m alive in 2011 rather than 1911. We have no looming world wars (as far as we know) and no dung boys. Give me cheap flights and the internet any day…

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Ellie said...

Well thank you for making me laugh and laugh and laugh (just before I am off to bed too, so probably won't sleep) - you have the most incredible mind Ian - that was fabulous - Have a good AGM th'mora
Nite nite

Ian Robinson said...

Thanks Ellie!

Murphy and Dora said...

Hello Friends!

Enjoyed our AGM at Birkheads Secret Gardens & Nursery yesterday!

Luv from,
Murphy, Dora, Jock, Gol & Rocky
x x x x x