The Tettie Howker’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Tettie Howker’s Tale

by Peter Main

Praise God I was a healthy youngster, thanks to (or despite) the ministrations of my Mother and Grandma. In those days there were all sorts of medicines that you could buy at the chemist’s shop that claimed to clean out your system, build you up or generally do you good. Having been at the receiving end of many of them, I was of the firm opinion that the worse they tasted the greater were the claims of doing you good. Here’s a selection of the ones that assaulted my taste buds the most.

Cod liver oil is still on the market today. I was forced to take it because it would ‘build me up’ especially over winter. I hated the stuff and complained loudly every time I was given some. Eventually my protestations were noted and I was given halibut oil in gelatine capsules instead. At least you couldn’t taste the horrible liquid that way.

Brimstone and treacle, I was told, ‘cleansed the blood’ and helped you resist the colds and ‘flu that came with the season. Brimstone was a form of sulphur and it was mixed with treacle, supposedly to make it more palatable. Unfortunately it didn’t. It tasted awful, but I had to have it because it ‘did me good’.

Fennings’ Fever Mixture was Dad’s favourite remedy for when I had a temperature and was slightly feverish. The dose was half a wine glass and it tasted indescribably foul. It would take me at least half an hour to get it all down. Only years later, when I read the small print on the label, did I learn that the main ingredient was nitric acid!

Castor oil was the worst medicine of them all. I could hardly take it without throwing up and I can’t now remember what it was for. It was possibly for constipation, but that was also treated by syrup of figs, which was just ordinarily awful.

Much more palatable were Grandma’s Easter Eggs. We had our own hens at home so it was easy to save up a few eggs for Easter. Grandma wrapped each egg in onion skins and tied a piece of cloth around to keep the skins in position. The eggs were then hard boiled. Removing the onion skins revealed shells that were dyed in different shades of brown and yellow in fascinating and varied patterns. On Easter Sunday each member of the family would be given an egg and then we’d ‘jaap’ them. This means hitting your egg against somebody else’s until one of them breaks. The one with the broken egg gets to eat it and the winner is the one with the last intact egg. They get to eat their egg last. The jaapin was usually accompanied by Grandma reciting the rhyme:

Tid, Mid, Miseray / Carling, Palm, Paste Egg Day.

These are the names of the Sundays in Lent, with Paste Egg Day being Easter Sunday. She told me that Carling Sunday, the week before Palm Sunday, is so-called because of a famine in Newcastle. A ship laden with food was wrecked on the coast and its cargo of dried peas (or ‘carlings’) was washed ashore and eagerly gathered up by the hungry people and then fried and eaten. Since then it has been a tradition to eat fried peas on the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Grandma never told me where the other names came from, but I’ve since looked them up. They are from the Latin words at the beginnings of Lenten hymns and psalms. ‘Tid’ comes from Te Deum laudamus (We praise you, O God), ‘Mid’ from Mi Deus and ‘Miseray’ from Miserere mei, Deus (Have mercy on me, O God). The first Sunday in Lent doesn’t seem to have a name.

Families like ours had limited material goods. For example, we only had one carpet that had been bought; all the other carpets were home-made proggy mats. Making proggy mats was a family occupation and everybody contributed, including me at the age of five or six. Old clothes made of suitable material were cut into strips and incorporated into mats. Grandma once went a bit too far when she cut up Granda’s best (and only) suit for a mat. He complained bitterly, but Grandma pointed out that he never wore it. ‘Wey,’ he replied, ‘aa wes gannin te git buried in that, woman.’ Fortunately, their relationship survived this minor crisis.

I don’t recall Door-to-Door Tradesmen selling double-glazing units in those days, but they did sell other things. Every autumn, Mam bought a year’s supply of onions from the French onion man. He’d travel by bicycle, which was festooned with strings of onions, and sell them from door to door. This trade has now ceased, but in the 1950s it was quite common. French onion men were farmers from Breton, usually from the area of France around Roscoff, and they clearly found a better market for their produce in England than in France.

Other door to door visitors were the rag and bone men. They came round with horse and cart and would take discarded household items that they could sell as scrap metal, electrical wiring and so on. They also took items that they thought they could repair and then sell. They were often rather choosy about what they’d take and you couldn’t just get rid of any old rubbish that way.

Most weeks, a man would come along the back lane shouting his trade, which was shoe repairing. You could go out to him with your boots and shoes and he’d take them away, returning them a week later when he made his next visit. I never understood how he made a living as we had two perfectly good cobblers in Newbiggin.

Like all youngsters, we played a great variety of imaginative games. As well as the inevitable football, we all joined in hot rice, monkey in the middle, dodge ball, keps and stots, leap frog, cannon or hopscotch; we’d roll hoops, spin tops – they were either ‘turnips’ or ‘mushrooms’, play muggies with potsies, glassies or penkers or play chucks *. At school, where there were more children, we’d play cowboys and Indians, tiggy, tiggy on high, pussy in the corner, moont the cuddie as well, of course, as lots of football. There was never any shortage of things to do.

But life was not all play; just occasionally we’d prepare ourselves for the real world by doing some work experience. The School half-term holiday during the autumn term was usually called ‘blackberry week’, but this was also the time to go tettie howkin. At the beginning of the week lots of school children would go to the potato field early in the morning, each carrying a bucket. Mr. Peace, the farmer at Spittal Farm, would be there. After lining us up, he’d take a good look at us and choose the ones he thought could do a good job. The rest were sent home.

The field was measured out in equal lengths along a row of potato plants and two of you were assigned to each stint. The plants had already been treated with sulphuric acid to kill off the foliage and a tractor would come round pulling a spinner that spread the row of plants over the field. It was then our job to pick the potatoes and put them in our bucket. This could then be emptied into sacks placed nearby. You had to work fairly smartly to get all the potatoes picked before the tractor came round again and turned out another row of potatoes to pick up. You also had to watch the people in the neighbouring stints because they’d move the boundary stick to make their stint shorter and yours longer. When boundary disputes threatened to become serious, the stints were all remeasured and some people who didn’t get along with their neighbours were moved to a different part of the field. Each day after work, we’d all go home with aching backs, chanting the rhyme:

Here cum the tettie howkers cummin doon the raa,
sum wi’ raggy brichies an’ sum wi’ nyen at aa.

After four or five days the field would be cleared and we’d all get paid. I’ve no idea now how much it was, but when you were on a few pence per week pocket money, even a few shillings felt like a fortune. Today, as a University Physics Professor, I’m pleased to say that I get paid just slightly more!

* Editor: Peter Main is Emeritus Professor of Physics at York University. Here he reminisces on some of his early childhood experiences when he lived in Newbiggin. Peter tells me that ‘muggies’ are marbles and the three sorts are ‘potsies’ (baked clay), ‘glassies’ (glass) and ‘penkers’ (metal ball bearings). To commence a game, you have ‘to penk off’.