Letter 1

June 11th, 1937.

Ilkeston of today, with 33,000 inhabitants, its up-to-date churches and chapels, its spacious schools, a Town Hall with a Mayor, Aldermen, Councillors and officials, its excellent drainage system, and pure water supply. Motor cars and buses, speeding through the streets, well-lighted thoroughfares and brilliantly lit shops. All this is very different from the Ilkeston of the early fifties of last century.

Ilkeston at that time, had for its water supply a few wells, but the water in them was dirty, and unfit for use. Some of the people would collect the rain water in butts, standing against their cottage doors. This was very well in a wet season, but when a dry time came their stocks were soon exhausted, and if they had no access to the wells, which was mostly on private property, they had to patronise the parish pump that stood in a recess behind Weaver Row. This water also was bad, but the people had to have water for daily use, so were obliged to make the best of it. If drinking water was wanted, it had to be fetched from the Park spring, which was in the field below Hilly Holies, or from the Oak Well Spring which was in the third field below Oak Well Farm House, but either entailed a walk of a mile, or even more.

The drainage of the town was a very primitive affair. True, there were grates in the streets, but as there was no carrying water, anyone going through the streets after the midday meal, especially on Sunday was assailed by the unpleasant smell of cabbage water, etc. But people were glad to have this way of drainage, inefficient as it was, rather than the old cesspools.

Most of the cottages were small and inconvenient, having a tiny living room and a parlour, with two bedrooms over them. Some cottages had only a living room, with bedroom over, which was often divided, the first room being open to the stairs. There were no sculleries or coppers, all the boiling of the clothes had to be done over the living-room fire. There was a bar over the fire that held a ratchet hook, and the large boiling pan had to be lifted on and off the hook, a very trying and dangerous business for the wife and mother. Sometimes there would be five or six children in these small dwellings but very few people complained a bout the smallness or inconvenience as they had got accustomed to them. There were no gas or electric cookers, all cooking had to be done either over the fire or in the small side oven. Some of the very old houses had only hobs either side of the grate, so an iron stand with hooks had to be hung on the bars and a dripping pan or a Dutch oven had to be used for cooking meat, so it may be imagined that under these conditions life in a small house with several children, was not a bed of roses for the wife and mother.

Winter was a very dreary time; the streets were unlighted, and the shops were dark and gloomy. Very few people went shopping after dark. The church and chapels were lighted by candles. The two candelabras that held the candles in the old Cricket Ground chapel were hanging there until a few years ago.. When evening drew on, the children were kept indoors, candles were lighted, snuffers and tray placed on the table and the family gathered round it. The boys would be reading or playing some game, the girls would be sewing a long seam or knitting. If a family were fortunate enough to possess a piano (we had a table piano) it helped to pass the time more pleasantly.

Amusements were very few. There would be a party or two at friends’ houses at Christmas time, and perhaps a concert in the Cricket Ground chapel, but it rested on the mother to keep her children interested and entertained during the long dark winter evenings.

There were no bathrooms or baths. For small children a wooden washing tub was used, older children and adults used the dolly tub. It was a common thing to see the dolly tub in the collier’s house as it was necessary for the man or boy to have a thorough wash when he returned home from his work in the pit.

There were no foot warmers or hot water bottles, but if a bed required warming the warming pan had a few hot cokes shaken into it, and then the pan was moved inside the bed to warm it, but great care had to be taken, as the sheets were liable to get scorched.

The Midland Railway was not what it ought to have been. For a few years passengers for Nottingham were taken down to the Junction in two coaches which were open from end to end, and started on their way by horses. But either the Company turned economical or found the traffic not sufficient to warrant taking the travellers down to the main line, so discontinued the horse accommodation, and people were obliged to walk down to the Junction. This was  great hardship for those who travelled regularly by the Midland Railway. There were no buses, so all had to walk and when the weather was bad the so-called waiting room was a cold and dreary place in which to wait.

There was no Town Hall; the officials running the business of the town were embodied in the Ilkeston Highway Board which held some of its early meetings in our parlour in East Street. Later on, and until the Town Hall was built, all public meetings were held in the Cricket Ground Chapel.

There were two  public schools, the BritishSchool and the school over the old Butter Market, The first ChurchSchool for girls was built in 1851; it is now the site of the Free Library.

At that time no motor bus or buses passed through the town, but one-horse carts, with their loads of coal, could be seen plodding up Bath Street, or an occasional farmer’s waggon or dog-cart. Tradesmen’s carts were unknown, for people took large baskets when they went shopping, and carried their goods and parcels home themselves.

My father, the late John Columbine, wrote a letter to the ‘Pioneer’ under the nom-de-plume of ‘Aquileia’, stressing the need for a good water supply for the town. But it was not until 1856 that the Water-works were established, and although hot and cold running water in the bedrooms, or three taps over the kitchen sink, were not included in the scheme, the people were very pleased to have a good and plentiful supply of water brought to them through taps which were placed near to their homes.

In 1857 Ilkeston streets were lighted by gas, but houses and shops were still lighted by candles. In the early 1860’s a small paraffin lamp came into use — it had a metal container holding half-a-pint of paraffin. This was an improvement on the candles. Later on larger lamps with glass containers came along and the long, dark evenings were passed more pleasantly.

The builders of the thirties, forties and early fifties were very economical in their planning of cottages for the working class. This was apparent in Club Row, Mount Street, Weaver Row, Anchor Row, Albion Place, commonly called Jack Lee’s Yard, and West Street, known as Wide Yard. All these cottages had only one room downstairs and on entrance door. The cottages facing Warner’s Yard and South Street were built back to back, in a block, and their domestic offices were in a yard at the side of the old Chapel. Some of these rows and yards are to be seen today and give an idea of how the working-class lived, and brought up their families. Of course rents were very low in those early days and so were wages. It was wonderful how the people lived, paid their way, and brought up large families. It was a desperate struggle, but it was done, and some of those poor colliers and their wives, out of their meagre earnings saved, and had a cottage built for themselves. Some men were fortunate in becoming butty colliers; these had men working under them, and earned a comfortable living. A very few became contractors and pit sinkers. One contractor that I knew personally, at his death left £30,000. This I know was a great exception. A few left small fortunes but the majority had to work hard to keep a roof over their heads, and provide enough food for the family. Some of the wives would go out to work , washing and cleaning; for this they would receive one shilling, and their food, for a day of ten or eleven hours, so the working class had not much leisure for amusements even if there had been any.

Today things are very different. The small, uncomfortable cottages are giving way to up-to-date houses, where the wife and mother has the advantage of modern times.

When we look back, and see the wonderful improvements that have taken place in Ilkeston, it seems like a dream. Bath Street is altered out of all recognition and it is only when we see the noble church of St. Mary that we realise that it is indeed the Ilkeston of our birth and childhood.

Continued in Letter 2