An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire

Part 69 (of 92 parts) - Memories of Sutton Part 20

Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a series of recollections of Sutton's past that have been contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences - perhaps from your childhood - that you'd like to share, do please contact me. I'll be delighted to hear from you!  SRW
An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 69 (of 92 parts) - Memories of Sutton Part 20
Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a series of recollections of Sutton's past that have been contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences - perhaps from your childhood - that you'd like to share, do please contact me. I'll be delighted to hear from you!  SRW
An Illustrated History of
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Memories of Sutton 20
Researched and Written by Stephen Wainwright ©MMXVII
Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a 25-part series of recollections of Sutton's past contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences that you'd like to share, do please get in touch.

Extracts from ‘Memories of my Youth’ by Harry Cunliffe

Harry Cunliffe was born in 1909 at Phoenix House in Sutton (which later was Dr. Campbell's surgery) to father Henry and mother Mary and the family later moved to Convent House in Fenneys Lane. Harry married Margaret Fallon from Powell Street and the couple brought up their family at 59 Peckers Hill Road (by the Prince of Wales pub), where for 50 years they ran a general shop. These are extracts from Harry's handwritten memoirs. Thanks to daughter Hilary Grange and Olive Parkinson for their help.

Phoenix House

I was born in a large house just across from where I now live [at 59 Peckers Hill Road]. For the first few years I lived there but I only have a few memories. The brewery next door bore the same name as our house, “Phoenix”. The house had rather large gardens on three sides, the other end joined a short row of terraced cottages. The house contained two families but being of such large proportions, we seemed so rarely ever to make contact with each other.

I asked our Mary one night not long ago what memories she held of Phoenix House. She said when she was about eight years old, one night just before Xmas she was lying in my mother’s bed, the windows were covered in patterns that only Jack Frost can draw. She had been listening to the Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols and when they finished she went to the window and scratched off the frost. Peeping through, towards the shop across, all dressed up with tinsel and red crinkly paper, lanterns swinging as people went in and out of the shop, the ground reflecting the moonlight, and in the distance the sound of carols being sung by men in the street. This picture flies to her mind’s eye every Christmas time.

The house was bought and both families were found other accommodation. Our new home was at the end of a row of houses, about a mile further away from where I was born. Rather a large one by the usual standards and well constructed. We always seemed in this house to be in the country as there were fields all around us. The time we lived here was filled with happy memories. The First World War had started and perhaps seeing so many soldiers with bands playing, maybe, was the biggest reason for my being thrilled and so full of excitement. When the time came my parents made a move. We moved quite close-by, this time to an old Convent that had been converted into two houses by the simple method of fastening one door upstairs and one door downstairs, so that they could not be undone.
Harry’s Father and Mother
My father, a miner, had always had a well paid job. He was a dirt contractor, a conscientious man, with a very good attendance record, and a good man at his job, and well respected. He held the family’s respect as well. Sometimes I think it was because his temper was so fiery when aroused, because he was so good and kind at other times. When he came home from work he would sit down and my mother would take off his work boots. We children nearly fought for the right to polish his going out boots, and they had to shine like mirrors. My mother had made father a king and we all accepted this.

Left: Harry outside the Convent House; Right: Parents Henry and Mary Ellen - contributed by Hilary Grange

Left: Harry outside the Convent House; Right: Parents Henry and Mary Ellen

Left: Harry outside Convent House; Right: Henry and Mary Ellen Cunliffe

My mother often said she very rarely attended school but she met scholars returning home. Reason? When she was a girl you had to take a penny to school to pay towards your lessons, which her parents could ill afford. So she copied the lessons, which were chalked on the scholars slates that they carried on their backs on their way home from school. But she was remarkably clever. She was a herbalist and in our garden, comfrey or nip-bone, burdock, golden rod, horse radish and hosts of other herbs grew. Whatever she needed that did not grow in our garden she would send you out to collect. Dandelions , scabious, elderberry, dock and many others. She made eye ointment, ointment for sores, ointment for boils and abscesses. She made pop from nettles, thousands of gallons of it, whiskey and every wine there ever was. She made strings and strings of sausages and black puddings and savoury ducks. She must have made thousands. We as kids had to deliver them to houses all around where we lived.
Drudgery for Women
My mother was the world’s best worker. A slave to marriage, a slave to motherhood, a slave chained to the home. She bore fourteen children, reared ten. In those days you baked your own bread when you could, or sent the dough to the bake-house. But as we all grew bigger she found it impossible to keep on doing it. So we had a bread van call each day and leave my mother seven tin loaves, seven pork pies, fourteen buns or scones. Just imagine cutting seven loaves by hand nearly every day of your life, getting up at 5 o’clock each work morning, putting lunches up, then the task of trying to waken the lads for work. Walter, Jim, Billy, Frank, George, Harry and Leslie. It was like trying to awaken the dead. All had to be on their way to work by six.

Routine is a procedure but at our house without any labour saving devices it must have seemed impossible. On Monday morning all suits that had been worn on Sunday were wrapped or folded up and put away, and all soiled clothes gathered up for washing on Tuesday. All that needed steeping were put in a tub to soak till morning. When you looked at the amount there seemed enough clothes for a laundry. About eighteen best shirts, four or five union shirts, seven or eight working shirts, pit drawers working stockings, pyjamas, twenty starched collars and shirt fronts, without reckoning the girls things. They had to be washed, dolly blued, dollyed and then tortuously put through the mangle, a huge ugly big beastly contraption as ever was contrived by man’s ingenuity to enslave a woman. Millions of women suffered and were broken and died by this monstrosity.

The clothes then were pegged onto a clothes line to dry, weather permitting. If not, dried round the fire on a clothes maiden. Also get the dinner ready for when they all came in from work. That meant the small chore of peeling about nine pounds of potatoes and cooking four pounds of steak. Then there was tea and supper to follow. Imagine that! Week after week, year in, year out.
The Old Convent House
The front of the convent had a high wall round it. The front and its side, although built of brick, was plastered over with cement and it gave the appearance that it was erected of huge blocks of stone. It seemed to give one a forbidding look, a fortress appearance, although in time we got used to it and gradually learned to love the place. It seemed to us to hold a thousand times more memories than all the homes in Sutton. You did not just eat and sleep there, you lived, you pulsated, you really breathed life that became infectious with liveliness. So much so that when you invited friends, which was very often, they did not gradually warm up, but were jolly and gay as soon as they came into the house.

Left: Harry's rough sketch of the convent house in Fenney's Lane; Right: a late 19th century illustration of the convent

Left: Harry's sketch of the convent house in Fenney's Lane; Right: 19th century Illustration

Left: Harry's sketch of the convent house; Right: 19th century illustration

If I may try and describe the house and the part we lived in. The house was like a big letter 'T' lying on its side, our portion of the house was the cross top part. To enter the houses from the rear, you crossed a large playground. One door led into the scullery, from there to the large kitchen, seven yards long five yards wide, with a large fireplace and a massive cooking range. On the chimney breast, built in, was a huge sandstone bearing a deep cut circle around the letters ‘J X P’. This was the Passionist order to which the Convent belonged. Above this inscription was a wooden cross.

There were two gardens, a flower garden at the front and a vegetable garden on the side, which ran the full length of the Convent. These gardens were separated by a very large rockery with Lilac and Laburnum trees, which made an archway. A feature that pleased my mother was the Fernery. This was under the bathroom, which was a new addition to the old building, a necessity for the Nuns when they lived there, as I suppose there were quite a considerable number. I was led to understand that the bathroom was built for free and the Convent itself was given to the nuns for a nominal sum of one shilling a year by a Mr. Smith. The Church was called at first Smith's Chapel. Now I cannot swear all this is correct, but basically, Mr Smith was the cause of the birth of the Convent according to what Mother Superior related to my Mother. Many times while we lived there, the nuns would ask to let them bring visitors round and allow them to look through the house.

It was said that when the railway dividing the convent from the monastery was laid, a tunnel was constructed underneath the lines to enable the priests access to the convent garden from the monastery. This was supposedly bricked up prior to the nuns leaving. This convent which for so many years its walls shut out the world, except for a few girls who attended school which was in the other part, gradually gave way as a school was erected by the side of the church. In fact my auntie was taught at the convent but I think music, sewing and making lace where mostly why the girls were sent there. Of course discipline and religious instructions were a must.

After the nuns left, the rooms that for years had heard only prayers chanted, voices that spoke in low undertones, it gave way to laughter, noise and children’s constant running feet. Our family grew bigger and larger, always an organ or piano or concertina could be heard, churning out all the tunes of the times.
"The Haunted House"
There was a kind of awe about it as if when the nuns left it, there was something remaining behind that had no association with ordinary people. You had a sensation somehow that when you were on your own, you could sense someone close, as if they were going to put a hand on your shoulder. This feeling was felt by more of us than we cared to admit, but being part of a large family with six brothers, I did not like to admit to my sisters that along with them I felt a little scary.

We were asked many many times “Was it haunted”. Did we “have a ghost” and we always said yes. Then be asked, are you not frightened. Reply, Oh no! Not now. We have got used to it. Then what kind of ghost was it, how was it dressed, where did it appear, and when, and for some reason all of us when asked would give the same reply:- It is a tall black shape like that of a man wearing a dark cloak. You cannot see his face, and you might meet in the garden or in the hall. If you did meet him in the garden you could note his manly shape and see him disappear through the wall or trees. But if you met him in the hall it was always near the bottom of the stairs, and you could not see him but would feel, or sense him, brush past you, and you would hold back your breath and stifle the need to scream, and your hair felt as if it was stood erect. Then you would be walking stiffly but quick to get into the lighted kitchen.

But like a lot of things you can say them so often that you tend to believe them. Yet this I do know, that never in the Winter has any boy or girl, or woman for that matter who visited the house, ever went upstairs on their own. They always asked someone to go with them. Imagine a small light at only one end of the hall, which when you looked along it looked miles away, and so gloomy, even deserted, and a flickering flame on the gas jet at the top of the stairs, which nearly blew out when a door opened or shut. Doors, doors, doors. Downstairs there were thirteen, upstairs there were eleven, two arches and a hall. And most of the doors upstairs had top glass panes. So if the night was windy the moans and groans of the wind throughout the house sometimes sounded like all the banshees out of hell were being let loose or holding a wake.
Young Harry & His Siblings
Cunliffe brothers
L-R brothers George, Frank, Walter, (nephew Harry), Jim and Harry
I cannot imagine what I was like as a kid, a dirty grubby brat as was possible to behold, I suppose. In those days boys were like girls till they were about three, and even then your first suit would be sailor type dress, short pants, blue sailor blouse with white front and collar, round hat with white ribbon bow hanging down at the back. Fronted with gold letters emblazoned with ‘HMS Terrible'.

I was quite healthy and robust from most accounts. I suppose I can bless my parents for that, mother especially, because she fed us all well. Every week I was sent to the butchers for 14lb of shelbone, a leg of lamb, 5lb of stew, shin beef stew and a pound of suet to make a great big crust. Sometimes it would be cow heel and ox-tail, with a crust an inch and a half thick cooked in a steel dish so big you wondered how she lifted it.

There were ten of us brought up out of the fourteen my mother bore. The eldest my bother Jim was a field gunner in France in the first world war and took part in the unforgettable Battle of the Somme in 1916. After this massacre everyone proclaimed those who survived as heroes but tragically they soon forgot. Jim went back to mining. His family became bigger, then low wages, strikes etc. and soon poverty was knocking on his door. He could not understand how after millions of men lost their lives, how those who had lived through the ordeal could be forced to want. Need and poverty was their reward for their sacrifice. So later when forced on the dole, that surplus scrap heap, his dissolution, degradation, his bitterness in justice became more bitter when he had to ask for a few shillings a week from a government means test. So physically and mentally he became one of the many thousands whose spirit was crushed by poverty.

Second eldest was sister Edith, buxom woman, who worked hard on ammunitions while her husband was soldiering in France. When we, my younger brother and myself, had to get bathed on Saturday night and she had to tend to us, we didn’t play in the water. For if you did, you would go to bed with a very warm and red bottom. She never had time for any nonsense and she would scrub you as if she was scrubbing a floor.

The next eldest was my brother Walter. He was about medium height, very tough, solid, weighed about sixteen stone, fastidious dresser, quick talker, and a ponderous reader. He used to write poems for the local paper as well as writing to the press about current and local affairs or even Rugby League football, of which he was an ardent supporter. Walter was always immaculately dressed, never turned out without his Homburg felt-hat, leather gloves, spats, highly polished shoes, walking stick, silk frilled shirt, cuff-links and gold studs. He was referred to as “Sutton's millionaire” by many. His appetite for the theatre and for dancing was great. His job as a tunnel contractor down the mine provided him with a wage greatly in excess than the majority of workers. He worked hard but by golly he played hard.

Henry and Mary Ellen Cunliffe's golden wedding party in Convent House c. 1940 - contributed by Hilary Grange

Henry and Mary Ellen Cunliffe's golden wedding party in Convent House c.1940

Henry and Mary Cunliffe's golden wedding party inside Convent House

I worked down the pit, and my brother Leslie worked on the pit brow. He took fourteen rounds of bread sandwiches with him every day. Six with jam and with tongue or boiled ham or boiled eggs. Me I took ten rounds with bacon, eggs or jam. I was not fussy, as long as they were cut thick. There was no sliced bread in those days. The thought of cutting up seven loaves by hand every day, besides scones or buns, was enough to put anyone off the idea of getting married.
Making Your Own Entertainment

Harry Cunliffe (2nd from left) enjoying his weekly pint in a Sutton hostelry - contributed by Hilary Grange

Harry Cunliffe (2nd from left) enjoying his weekly pint in a Sutton hostelry

Harry Cunliffe (2nd from left)

We liked musical evenings. My father could play the piano as well as two of my sisters and three of my brothers, plus uncles and aunts. Times without number there has been a hundred or more in the house at any one time. Parties, bank holidays, birthdays, weddings, christenings, a sing song evening, a hotpot supper, it was great fun. We all loved dancing with the exception of our Frank and all of us liked music, singing, opera or ballads, not that any of us were gifted singers. Sunday night we would gather in the parlour and sing a few popular tunes. Cannot these nights ever return again? Is it not possible for people to have pianos and gather round at different friends’ houses and really entertain each other? Or as in the art of conversation, the talks by a fireside, have they gone, lost forever?

We all loved reading. Father had a big bookcase that he bought from Bold Hall. It was filled with a full set of books on English literature, English history, Roman history, Greek history, set of books on Zulu wars and a large brass bound bible. There was never any need for one to be lost for something to read. My sisters loved to read but how they found time to do so, I cannot imagine.
Extracts from ‘Memories of my Youth’ by Harry Cunliffe
Also See: Article Life in the Old Convent by Dave Latham and St. Anne's Church, Monastery & Convent Religion page
Stephen Wainwright
This website has been written and researched and many images photographed by myself, Stephen Wainwright, the Sutton Beauty & Heritage site owner. Individuals from all over the world have also kindly contributed their own photographs. If you wish to reuse any image, please contact me first as permission may be needed from the copyright owner. High resolution versions of many pictures can also be supplied at no charge. Please also contact me if you can provide any further information or photographs concerning Sutton, St.Helens. You might also consider contributing your recollections of Sutton for the series of Memories pages. Sutton Beauty & Heritage strives for factual accuracy at all times. Do also get in touch if you believe that there are any errors. I respond quickly to emails and if you haven't had a response within twelve hours, check your junk mail folder or resend your message. Thank you! SRW
This website is written and researched by Stephen R. Wainwright ©MMXVII  Contact Me
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