Althorpe Street – Leamington Priors: A Social History 1901-1961

(compiled from extracts from ‘living memory’ interviews conducted 2006/2007)

Recollections 1920’s-1930’s

earlyalthorpestreetOver a lifespan of 120 years, there was little structural change in the houses on Althorpe Street from their being built in the mid 1830’s to being demolished in the early1950’s. The street was basically two long rows of terraced houses broken up by side streets such as Moss Street, Wise Street, Neilston Street etc. The houses fronted directly onto cobbled pavements where street lighting was by gaslight. At the rear of the properties were common ‘courts’ or yards shared by several houses, with an outside (unlit and unheated) shared toilet in the ‘court’. These ‘courts’ served as the modern day equivalent of a utility room with laundry being washed outdoors using a zinc tub and washboard (C21st equivalent washing machine), a hand cranked mangle for squeezing water out of wet laundry (spin dryer) and a series of washing lines criss-crossing the ‘court’ (tumbler dryer). These and all other domestic chores were the responsibility of the women of the house irrespective of their ages.

By the 1920’s/1930’s it appears (from those interviewed) that Althorpe Street was what we would deem today as an area of high social deprivation. However it was an area where the residents still took a pride in their houses.

white-step“In those days your neighbours would judge you by how clean you kept your front step. Mother used to keep it keep it spotlessly white [using a donkeystone obtained from the rag and bone man in exchange for any old clothes or articles that could no longer be used]”

Inside, the houses had a front room and a kitchen on the ground floor.

“The wooden floorboards were highly polished and you had to be careful that you did not skate across them on the [hand pegged] rug. In the kitchen was a coal and coke burning ‘range’ on which we did all the cooking. It had an open fire to heat the room and an oven on one side. There was always a black kettle on the boil for hot water and usually a pot with soup or stew in it simmering away all day. The range was black leaded and we kept it so shiny you could see your face in it. There was also a large ‘copper’ in the kitchen with a fire underneath it when we wanted to boil water for either the laundry or for a bath. We had a tin bath kept at the top of the cellar steps which used to come out on a Friday which was bath night. Often we would take it in turns to share the same water.”

Each of the houses had a cellar which acted as the cold storage area for food as well as somewhere to keep the coal. One of the jobs that children had was to go to the gasworks and collect or buy coke to burn. Three old pennies could get you enough coke to fill a pram – when it was not being used to transport children. Coal from the coalmerchant (dropped down an outside grate into the cellar) and a load had to last a fortnight because coal was expensive. Some of the larger families used the cellar as an extra bedroom. Upstairs were two bedrooms and then above them an attic.

“It wasn’t until the 1930’s that we got electricity. Before that we had gas lighting. Even when the electricity came it wasn’t in all the rooms and I had to use a candle to go to bed or to read upstairs”.

Many of the families living in Althorpe Street in the early to mid 1900’s were inter-related, with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins creating an integrated community. “Everybody knew everybody, we didn’t lock our doors but simply tapped on the door, shouted COOEY and walked in”.

Whilst no-one had much money: “We looked after one another if anyone fell on hard times. There was a local caterer who used to share out for free any food that he brought back from his functions. There was a also a pawnbroker in the street but this was a last resort for most families. One of the women in the street used to take bets. She was often raided by the Police which was strange because the policemen used to go to her to place bets”.

The Police Station was at the bottom of Althorpe Street (in what used to be the Town Hall but is now the Polish Centre.)

“On one side of the road was a chip shop and the other a tobacconists. The Police never paid at the chip shop. On the other side of the Althorpe Street on the Radford road was a locksmith, people always said that the police had set him up in business so that they could keep an eye on him. The back entrance to the police cells was just the other side of the present rail bridge. I can remember that we used to be able to see into the cells from the road. There were stone steps down to the cells and you would never believe it but sometimes people would fall down them. There was also a post in the Station where they used to tie up people to carry out any sentence of birching that the Court had given out. You could hear them screaming as they were birched (whipped across the back a number of times depending on the Court’s sentence). It was frightening as a child to see and hear this.”

The first factory in Althorpe street was built behind the old Police Station underneath the railway arches.

“Above the door was a sandstone lintel with T.C.Howden and Co. I remember as a boy not being able to hear anything for the noise of the steam trains rumbling by at office height and when the factory started in the morning the lights in the street would dim as the line shaft electric motors started. The factory subsequently moved from under the railway bridges to the corner of High Street. The Fire Station was also under the railway arches which at some time were all occupied with businesses”.

Having enough to eat was a major pre-occupation.

“I can never remember going hungry. There was always a soup or stew on the range from which we could help ourselves. I used to get sent to the local butcher for 3d (three old pence) of lean bacon which mother used to mix with suet, tie in a cloth and boil for hours to provide a filling meal. We also used to go round the baker’s shops to buy any stale buns they had left over. They were cheap and you got more for your money. Father never did any cooking. It was woman’s work even though many of the women on the street also had jobs such as the laundry or taking in lodgers to help with the family income”.

Children also had no fear at this time of playing out, even after dark.

 “We always felt safe, unlike today. We would be outside most of the time either up at the canal or playing in the street with whips and tops, marbles, hopscotch or skipping. We made games out of what we could find such as bottle tops and empty cigarette packets. We were not frightened to roam about, even going as far as the woods where there is now the crematorium.”

Whilst money was scarce, 2d (two old pennies) of pocket money could get you:

  • Entrance to the local cinema
  • A bag of Spawater rock
  • A bag of chips from the Althorpe Street chip shop
  • Lots of broken biscuits

Whilst life for the residents and children of Althorpe Street appears to have been harsh in the 1920s/1930s one recollection is that:-

It might have been tough but we still had a good time

Recollections of World War II – 1930s 1940s

The most enduring memory of this period was November 1939 when the Germans bombed Coventry. “From the top of Althorpe Street you could see the glow in the sky as Coventry burned. I will never forget it.” During the war “we had to take our gasmasks to school. There was an air raid shelter at the top of Althorpe Street as well as one on Shrubland Street, with anti-aircraft guns sited on the railway line”. One resident remembers “a german plane being shot down and landing in nearby fields after a bombing raid on theLockheed factory”. At the end of the war we had street party to celebrate

Recollections 1940s – 1950s

trainbridgeBy the 1950’s “they were sad, old houses with no bathrooms and very basic accommodation. Some were rented out like Council houses but others were rented out by private landlords. When the whole area was condemned and demolished round about 1952 the residents were moved all over Leamington and whilst we were all pleased to be going to new houses with bathrooms we lost the community spirit, the pubs and shops on the doorstep and our friends”.