Northampton in the 1900s

Paul Maynard remembers Northampton as a child, before World War I.

“I was born in a Public House in Northampton Town Centre in July 1899. The Pub was called the Northampton Arms and was on the corner of Silver Street and an alley was which still runs into Sheep Street . On the other corner which is now the covered market stood a factory known as Jackson’s where hard hats or men’s bowlers then in fashion were manufactured and sold for the sum of  3/9d.

“My parents relied a lot on the employees for custom and situated as it was in the centre of a busy town the pub saw plenty of life much of which was imprinted on my mind at my tender age. For instance I remember celebrations and a large bonfire in the Pub yard and was told in later life that it was in connection with the Relief of Mafeking (1901). A year later (age 3) I distinctly remember celebrations for the Coronation of Edward the 7th and Alexandra.  A younger brother was born on this day June 26th 1902 and he was naturally Christened Edward Alexandra. Children went to School age 3 in those days and we had a nanny who used to take me the short distance to St. Katherines School where the Criterion now stands.  From the commencement of Edwards reign everyone seemed to come to life after the long drab years of Victoria’s era. The town seemed very prosperous and busy and there appeared to be a Boot Factory in every street. As many of you will remember, working hours were long 56 hours per week, wages £2.10 to £3 for men and 30 shillings for women.  However, the cost of living was proportionate and one could get a packet of 10 Players, a Pint of Mild & Bitter and have change out of sixpence. This was the era of horse transport and I recall having a ride on the horse drawn Tram.  People travelled in from surrounding villages in the Carriers Cart on Wednesday and Saturday’s Market days.

“Around 1904 my parents gave up the Pub and moved into another district and I found myself attending St. Edmund’s School.  At this period the local transport was undergoing an amazing transition from Horse Trams to Electric and we youngsters were fascinated with the laying of the tram lines.  The horses were stabled in Abington Street on the site of the Co-op Arcade, but the Electric Trams were driven to the depot at St. James.  The terminuses then were St. Mary’s Church, Franklins Gardens, Abington Park and Welford Road junction Kingsthorpe.  Far-Cotton had horse Trams until 1914, and I well remember seeing the lines laid over the railway crossing soon after World War 1 broke out.  Since the start of Edwards reign improvements were taking place in every direction. Oil lamps were giving way to Gas mantles and in some cases electricity. In the field of aviation and motors great strides were made, and one recalls a certain Wilfred Moorhouse of Spratton Garage who had his own Monoplane and used to alight and take off from the Racecourse and people would congregate in the streets and wave to him.  He joined the Royal Flying Corps and won a posthumous V.C. in 1915.

“From 1904 to 1922 the Country had a Liberal Government headed by Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and although no politician I would say that these years under Free Trade were the most prosperous and enjoyable in my lifetime.  Two Liberal characters who held Northampton for many years were Les Smith and Mc Curdy.

It was a great shock when King Teddy died in 1910 and from then on there were rumblings and rumours of war with Germany as the Kaiser thought he had certain claims to the British throne through his German connect ions with the Prince Consort. In 1911 Lord Haldane raised the Territorial Army of part time soldiers and these men later became known as the Contemptible British Army.

“In 1909 I entered the Blue Coat and Orange School situated at the bottom of Bridge Street and styled as a Charity School and founded in 1811. The scholars consisted of 18 Blue Coat boys and 15 Orange Boys age 9 to 13 which was the School leaving age in those days. The Blue Coat boys wore long trousers a red waistcoat, peaked cap and a swallow tailed coat. Orange Boys wore knee length Breeches, Orange Stockings, Orange tam a shanter and Black Shoes and many of you may remember seeing the boys walk  by two to All Saints Church on Sunday mornings, headed by the Master in his top hat and morning dress.

“The Master Mr. J.T. Barton was a well educated man and as there were only 33 boys he was able to take a personal interest in each boy and encourage the less brilliant. Many of the boys were sponsored by certain Aldermen and Councillors and upon leaving School  were apprenticed to a trade they were interested in and suffice to say, some clever business men were turned out.  On May 29th (Oak Apple Day) each year the boys attended a dinner and prize giving at the Angel Hotel, and each boy wore a gilded oak apple and ivy leaf in his button hole.  The tradition of the oak apple was  connected with King Charles who hid in the Oak tree while being pursued by Cromwell’s men. After the Great Fire of Northampton Charles gave hundreds of tons of timber from Salcey Forest for the restoration of All Saints Church, hence the statue of the Monarch on the Church portico, which is decorated with a wreath of Oak Leaves on May 29th even to this day. The nearest Sunday to May 29th was known as Charity Sunday, and the Mayor and Corporation would attend All Saints Church for a thanksgiving service, and the boys of the school would march in procession still wearing their gilded oak apple buttonholes. I believe Charity Sunday is still observed although sadly the School was closed down in the 1920’s.

“Bridge Street in those days was the busiest street in the Town and had no less than 23 hostelries in its length commencing with the George Hotel at the top.  Although motor cars and aircraft were making great strides most conveyances were horse drawn and consequently there were still Blacksmith’s shoeing horses and we lads loved to watch the blacksmith at his forge in Angel Lane, another one was Matthew’s at South Bridge.  Each time the horse tram was due from Far-Cotton a lad would take a horse from All Saints Church to the bottom of Bridge Street where it was hitch on to help the other horse pull the tram up the hill.

“The cinema business was also making good progress and Andrews Pictures at the  Temperance Hall the first in the field were soon followed by others like the Electric Pavilion-Cinema De Lux, Kings Picture Palace, Picturedrome etc, and when the New Theatre was built in 1911 had 2 Theatres, Vints Variety Theatre, and about 12 Cinemas. There was also 2 0r 3 roller skating rinks, while first class Military and Brass Bands played in Abington Park and the New Theatre., Dancing too was very popular 3d and 6d Hops they were called, and one remembers the dancers, Quadrilles etc. Dancing took place a lot at Franklins Gardens where there was a bandstand at the Jubilee Hall which is now of course the Salon Ballroom.

“The Town was very proud of its Police Force and Fire Brigade and both were housed in Dychurch Lane. The firemen lived in houses in Dyechurch Lane and the Riding. It was a sight to see two horses standing ready to be harnessed to the Fire Engine quickly on an emergency and a thrill to see them racing to a fire and sending sparks flying as their hooves struck the cobbles of the main streets. There were some spectacular fires chiefly in timber yards and warehouses and firemen looked good in their brass helmets.

“A number of prison wardens were still employed at the prison on the Mounts. And I recall seeing the notice on the Prison door stating that the last execution had taken place there and that was around 1915.

“The Town was serviced by two good newspapers both political. The Chronicle was Conservative and the Echo Liberal and both offices situated on the Market Square. The copies sold for half penny each as did the Londonmorning papers of which only the Daily Express and Mirror survive.  Schoolboys were allowed to sell both morning and evening papers and shout  their calls, but had to wear the licensed armband and have a licence approved by the police.

“The Market Square with its fountain reputed to be the second largest in England was always a hive of activity and on Market days trading took place until almost midnight  under the lighting of naphtha flares. Many famous characters used the Fountain  steps for oratory and I well remember Sylvia Pankhurst and her votes for women supporters being pelted with eggs and tomatoes and having to seek Police protection and being smuggled into the Corn Exchange for safety.  The Corn Exchange itself had some famous visitors, Dame Nellie Melba and the Sousa Band giving a concert there in those early years. Among others were General Booth Salvation Army, Jack Johnson world heavyweight and others in the forefront on the time.

“In 1913 the Army held manoeuvres in Northamptonshire and King George v took part and stayed at Althorpe House.  The manoeuvres over,  the King and Queen Mary decided to visit Northampton and unveil the statue of Edward V11 outside the  General Hospital. It was a great day for the Town which was gaily decorated and the public were asked to keep the decorations up for a few more days to welcome home the 1st Batt. Northamptonshire Regt. Who had returned home after 19 years in India. They were quartered in the Militia Field for a few days, and the County felt very proud of them. Sadly many of the men laid down their lives in less than 12 months later.

“The war itself brought many changes to the Town. The whole Welsh Division descended on us plus the Cheshire’s, K.R.R. etc. and they were billeted out and camped on the Racecourse. The Welshmen in particular were great favourites with the ladies and many married and settled in Northampton. One in particular became the Mayor of the Borough and proprietor of the Angel Hotel. (Coun.P.C.Williams) Berrywood patients were evacuated and the place was turned in to a  large hospital for the wounded, as were various Schools and Church Rooms. Many Australian wounded were sent here. Once or twice Zeppelin s came over and one dropped bombs on the St. James area killing twin sisters in bed. The war ragged on and seemed it would never end. Relations and friends were killed or wounded and in time it came to ones own turn. I was lucky enough to be in Northampton on 11th November 1918. I was on sick leave after recovering from a flesh wound and I shall never forget the scenes as the sirens blared forth as All Saints struck 11. Factories emptied in no time and everyone gave way to their feelings.

“It didn’t seem possible that over 4 years we were returning to sanity, and it took time to sink in. But with true British grit and spirit prevailing at the time the task of reorganisation soon got underway.”

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