Yorkshire memories: knacklers, erry carts and rugby league

C. 1920. The albert hanging from Great Granddad’s watch chain is a boxing medal that he won during his younger days which has unfortunately disappeared, but I was given the watch in my father’s will.

Before our instant and easy credit that we used to call ‘on the tick’ or ‘on the never-never’, most people had another attitude towards buying things that we couldn’t afford: we just managed without it.

During the 50s, 60s and 70s, an attitude of ‘make-do-and-mend’ was the norm, but as household items increasingly became more mechanical, more things required servicing and mending, and if you were capable of making and repairing household items, or knew someone who was, we took full advantage in it. People who could do such repairs were called ‘knacklers’ and, in those days of gender-divided roles, they were almost exclusively men, women being generally more responsible for the everyday running of the home.

My father Clifford was a good knackler, having been encouraged by his maternal grandfather Joseph (Joe) Brown, a very practical man, who could put his hand to almost anything and who passed his skill on to following generations.

Great Granddad Brown was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on 18 November 1864, son of Henry Brown a farm labourer. Joe worked as a farm labourer himself for a while, until he decided to seek his fortune elsewhere and came to Huddersfield. He continued as a labourer and warehouseman until he married Louisa Wood, a daughter of one of his neighbours on 23 May 1886. Joe was a tough, wiry, adaptable character, and soon was turning his hand to anything that could earn some money, mostly legally, but for a while he was a bookie’s runner. Before betting shops were legalised in 1961, shady bets were taken in pubs and clubs, given to a known and trusted contact who would then rush the bet to the head bookie; hence bookie’s runner. Granddad’s boxing skills may even have come in handy at that time!

Great Granddad Brown took one of his grandsons in particular under his wing. Joe introduced young Clifford, my dad, to Huddersfield Rugby League, motorcycling and making extra money on the side.

Photo of 1866 silver pocket watch, once belonging to Great Granddad Brown
One of my prize possessions is this 1866 silver pocket watch, once belonging to Great Granddad Brown. A fob is the small pocket in a waistcoat or trousers where the pocket watch is kept, hence fob watch.

Dad was a lifelong Huddersfield Rugby League (Steam Pigs) supporter, and many years later, he and Mum could be seen serving pies and Bovril at home matches, also working behind the bar until the club moved from their Fartown ground to a brand new, state-of-the art ground on Leeds Road. Dad continued to support the club until his death in 1990. Mum wasn’t particularly interested in the finer points of rugby league, but she often said that she did like watching the players’ legs!

Rugby League was formed on 29 August 1895, when clubs from the north of England met at the George Hotel, Huddersfield. Many northern clubs had been complaining to the Rugby Football Union that the committee was over represented by southern clubs and meetings were always held in London, therefore making it difficult for northern representatives to attend. Some northern clubs offered cash incentives and compensation for the loss of income due to match commitments, known as ‘broken time payments’, which incurred long suspensions from the RFU. Eventually frustration set in, and with the support of many Lancashire clubs the ‘Northern Rugby Football Union’ was formed. The George Hotel is now in the process of being renovated and there are plans for a Rugby League museum to be based within the hotel on completion.

Photograph shows Great Granddad wearing the same watch during his wedding to Great Grandma Louisa, on the 23rd of May 1886. he was 21 years old and she was 23.
This photograph shows him wearing the same watch during his wedding to Great Grandma Louisa, on 23 of May 1886. he was 21 years old and she was 23.

Very unusually for the 1920s, Joseph Brown owned a motorcycle, and then in the mid-1930s, a motor car. Joe continued to prefer to ride his motorbike, whilst the eldest grandson Phillip, and later Dad, drove his cars, acting as the family chauffeurs.  Riding solo motorcycle, or with a sidecar combination, was the chosen mode of transport for many individuals and families in the years before and after the war. Indeed, my dad bought a motorcycle of his own soon after he returned from service, which he said was funded by giving up smoking. (He never smoked again; it was something he thought was a huge waste of money and a source of arguments between him and Mum who smoked almost all of her life). It wasn’t until the 1960s that owning a motor car became possible for most young men or young families.

More from Peter Norcliffe:

Great Granddad Brown, was a tough old bird. When he was approximately 70 years old, he had an argument with a trolley bus while riding his motorcycle. Unfortunately, the trolley bus won and Granddad Brown had to have a leg amputated and was then fitted with a wooden one. That didn’t stop him getting involved with demolishing derelict houses in his home village of Paddock soon after the war. He could be seen scrambling about during the demolition work swinging his trusty hammer. He would be in his early 80s by then and was unlikely to have been too involved with the actual demolition, probably more likely to have been scavenging for something useful. He later suffered bowel cancer and lived with a colostomy bag for many years, apparently without complaint. A proper roughty toughty fella who accepted what life threw at him and just got on with it.

Great Granddad Brown died in 1952 at the ripe old age of 87. His was the first body I ever saw. It was still the common practice to lay the deceased out at their own home so that the family could visit and pay their respects. I would be four years old and had no idea what was happening. I can’t remember feeling sad, just bemused. I can still remember a bag of his favourite hard round mint imperials lying on his bedside cabinet. I wanted one but somehow knew it wasn’t right to ask at that time.

One of Granddad Brown’s money-making ventures in which he had involved my dad was an allotment, where he and young Clifford cultivated vegetables to sell locally. Their chosen vegetable investment was celery, and by the time father joined the Royal Navy he had saved over £70, a considerable sum in 1941. Being a good Yorkshireman, Dad was able to take saving and not spending to a whole new level, never imagined by his granddad from Cambridgeshire!

Like many other families, my mother had to bring my sister up during the war on a shoestring. Luckily, there were no luxuries and almost all essential items were rationed and so there was little to spend money on. Even so, father wouldn’t allow mother to use that £70. (Incidentally, rationing continued for many items for years after WW2 – until1954, in fact.)

Joseph Brown with his grandson Clifford.  c. 1929.
Joseph Brown with his grandson Clifford.  c. 1929. The bike looks like a model D1 A.J.S combination from 1924. A.J.S. were the A.J. Stevens and Company Limited, who were engineers and vehicle manufacturers from Wolverhampton, England. A.J. were the initials of one of the founder Stevens brothers, Albert John.

Mother also came from a family of long pockets and short arms and they never did break into that £70. Mother often complained about Dad’s tightness, but I think she admired him for it really. People from our neighbouring country north of the border have a reputation of being very careful with their brass, but if any Scot shows signs of generosity, they’re sent to Yorkshire for re-training!

Following in Granddad Brown’s knackler footsteps, Dad and I often made things together, or just carried out household chores, like chopping firewood, gardening, feeding the hens, decorating, servicing the bike and later the car. However, what I liked most was when he/we decided to construct something useful. I remember making a garden shed and a garage soon after we moved onto the council estate. I was probably too young to be really useful, but I learned from Dad’s knackling skills and soon became quite practical. Everything was made from scratch; there were no kits or plans and everyone who could relied on practical skills to make things work.

One useful appliance a knackler would need was a ‘barra’ – a box made from planks of wood held together with battens and nails, with two handles fastened to the sides and a pair of old pram wheels. It was in effect a wheelbarrow, but only the building trade and farmers had proper wheelbarrows; everyone else made one.

I also made many of my toys, including sledges, kites, bows and arrows for the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ battles, and a wooden rifle – which could double up as a weapon in ‘Cowboys and Indians’, but could also be used in the ‘Jerries and English battles’, and as all boys know, is much more accurate than a wooden pistol. WW2 was a fairly recent event and the gangs were split into warring groups. The younger boys and the girls had to play the Jerries (Germans) and likewise when we played the Wild West battles, they had to play the Indians. These cowboy battles were inspired by the Saturday afternoon matinee at our local cinema, of which there was one in almost every village. Our heroes were Kit Carson, Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy, among others.

However, the most exciting construction for me was the ‘erry cart’, (hurry cart, or some may call it a go cart). They were made from several planks of wood, anything from three to six feet in length, and the area where the driver sat was just wide enough to go between a pair of old pram wheels. Posh carts had sides and a back –and wimps, as we saw them, even used a cushion to alleviate some of the bottom splinters.

Baby in a pram picture
Pram by DSdriver is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The driver’s area only needed to be long enough to get comfortable, with the centre plank long enough to attach the steering, which consisted of another plank fastened at right angles at the front of the long plank of the body, with a single nut and bolt fastened through both planks. Another pair of old pram wheels was attached to this plank. A rope or strong hairy twine was fastened to the outer edge of this cross section to complete the steering. Anyone whose dad worked in the textile industry also had the opportunity to cadge, borrow or steal spindle band. Band is thin rope and spindle band was used to drive the individual spindles on the spinning mule.

The erry cart driver could also place their feet just inside the front wheels for extra stability when negotiating the really fast bends. As the pram wheels weren’t designed for young boys, and as erry carts were fairly roughly made and definitely roughly abused, a new one had to be made every year or two. The following picture is of a Pedigree pram from the 50s, ideal wheels for an erry cart.

Picture of kids in a homemade go cart
Kids in go-cart by btornado is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The really, really posh ones had a rudimentary braking system, as the main article picture shows. This consisted of a piece of wood fastened to the side so that the driver could pull/push it into the rear wheel tyre. Otherwise, the driver just jammed their feet on the ground and hoped for the best. The erry carts with brakes were almost exclusively constructed by the lads with the cushions, both insisted on by the type of mum who would also have told them to be very, very careful, and definitely never to play with those big, bad boys. Hard to tell whether Great Granddad Brown would have admired the knackling or scoffed at the excess of caution.

Negotiating some of the hills of Bolster Moor, Scapegoat Hill and Golcar was quite dangerous at times, and there was many an incident when I went bouncing down the road. Luckily I landed on my head mostly …This seemed to happen many times in my childhood and youth when I was becoming too confident on my tricycle, bicycle and, following family tradition, the inevitable motor bike. Injuries were almost exclusively self-inflicted, but I do vividly remember my big sis being responsible for at least one of my many head scars. She had apparently thought it a good idea to pull me along the street on my Try-ang tricycle using her skipping rope, when something went wrong and I swapped parts of my face with the road gravel. I’m sure Rhondda thought it was an improvement.

Picture of kid's tricycle
Tricycles are Cool by iMorpheus is licensed under CC BY 2.0
When I rode my tin tricycle along the lanes of Bolster Moor I, Like many boys of that era, thought we were Donald Campbell, Douglas Bader and Geoff Duke rolled into one.

Can you help us reach more readers?