Mass Observation Worktown Study: Social Conditions and Housing Estates (Reel 34, Box 44)

Over the Vault Counter’ by Ernie Luetchford

In the 1930s Bolton Council began building council houses. Early estates included Hall I’th Wood, parts of Breightmet and Johnson Fold. It seems that those in greatest need, in the worst housing, or close to homeless were allocated homes first. We know that Norma Holt’s family and Bill Naughton’s young family were allocated houses. Another family allocated a house was Ernie and Mary Luetchford and their four children. Ernie had lived on Norwood Road, Victory, most of his life, but in 1938 was offered a tenancy at 17 Shackleton Grove, Johnson Fold. Ernie was a very active Mass Observation Observer in 1937 and 1938.

The quality of these first council houses was second to none and the difference between the brand-new semis with a bathroom, garden, big rooms and built in heating compared to the drafty, poky, thin walled, two up two down terraces with only an outside toilet was startling. It must be said that despite the physical advantages of the new homes (growing your own vegetables, having an inside toilet), there were moans. The rents were high, heating was spring gardenexpensive, the rooms were bigger after all. There were few local amenities – pubs, clubs, shops and churches all being in town. Tram trips into and out of town were expensive and the doorstep community many were accustomed to was no longer possible, nor was constant oversight of children playing in the streets. Some felt cut off from all they knew and went into town each day just to keep it close by. So men went to the pub less often, and grew their own vegetables. A slight social advantage was felt by those in the new council tenancies.

 And the pull of a proper home was considerable. The council, of course, mindful of the cash spent and the quality of the accommodation, wanted to protect their assets and so a careful vetting procedure was put in place which included an interview with council officials for the privilege of securing such a prize. Once through the interview the accommodation the putative tenants came from was inspected for ‘vermin or bugs’ – bedlice, fleas and other creepy crawlies. If any evidence of such things was found all the clothing, furniture and other belongings of the new tenants had to be fumigated. This happened to Ernie Luetchford’s family, better the Department take them and get them gassed on hygiene grounds, said the Housing official.

 When told about this procedure Ernie asked how much it was and was shocked to find it was a pound. ‘How can I afford that on UAB (Unemployed Assistance Benefit)’ he asked. ‘You can pay off weekly’ said the housing official.

 The goods were called for on 4 Feb (1938, I think) at 9.30 am. They left at 11 am and Ernie was told to expect the items at their new home, 17 Shackleton Grove, by 4.30 pm.

 When the furniture, bedding and clothing arrived Ernie noted several problems:

  • A drawer had been wrenched off the sideboard

  • Casters on the kitchen table had been removed

  • Bedding had been scorched and was a light brown colour

  • Two eiderdowns (50/- each!) were missing

 The family were instructed for the first night in their new home to:

  1. Keep the windows open all night

  2. Air all the bedding before use

  3. don't sit on any upholstered furniture tonight…’

 There was no mention of the missing eiderdowns. Ernie said ‘we all got up the following morning with our throats made up and spitting a yellowish slime’. It reminded Ernie of the Great War (not that Ernie could have been involved as he was only 15 when the war ended). And the effect lasted through the following day.

 breakfast consisted of porridge, bacon, bread, tea and pineapple gas. Dinner was potato hash and pineapple gas. Tea was sausage, marmalade, bread, butter, tea and pineapple gas.

 Ernie complained and wanted to see Mr Hughes the boss about the eiderdowns which had, in Ernie’s words, disappeared over the vault counter (i.e had been nicked and sold down the pub). But he was put off – the eiderdowns will be returned when they are fit for use. However Ernie did say that he and his wife Mary were clever enough not to let the Department take his best suit (unpaid for as yet) or her best coat.

  Dave Burnham, for Live from Worktown