Friends of mine bought a small, terraced house in North Manchester built in the 1880’s; they were very pleased with it. A few things needed doing to the house; they had the roof re-done and the roof guttering but otherwise the house was comfortable and smart. An old woman had lived in it all her life and looked after it really well.
There was only one thing lacking in the house. There was no sign of the old cooking stove in the kitchen; the Lancashire range as it is called. A range is entirely made of cast iron and consists of a fire basket with an oven on one side and a water heating basin on the other. When a range is blackened and the steel or brass handles polished it can look very charming, a reminder of the romantic old days of warm kitchens, Grandma baking potatoes and sizzling roast beef.
They soon found the place where the range might have been. Tapping with their knuckles around the walls in the kitchen they noticed a hollow sound on one part of the wall which was slightly raised above the rest.
“That’s it! The old lady put some hardboard across it and wallpapered over it…probably in the fifties.”
Dilemma! If they took the hardboard off they might find nothing underneath at all, just a hollow space and then finish up with a ruined kitchen. On the other hand, there might be a beautiful Lancashire Range which they would enjoy and which would impress their friends!
So one Sunday morning they prized off the hardboard, making as little mess as possible.
There was the range as beautiful as they had imagined it! And even the brass handles had kept their shine! The old woman had taken the trouble to leave in it in good condition before it was hidden from view for nearly fifty years!
Beautiful! But, on the top of the range, on the left, was a pair of wooden clogs with black leather tops, standing neatly together!
“Why were the clogs left there? Whose were they?” They asked each other.
For a day or two they were just pleased to have found the range and the mysterious clogs so carefully placed. As time went on the question about whose clogs they were began to grow and, even in the night, to obsess them. None of their friends knew about clogs except that they were the common footwear for work in the mills in the old days. One of their friends spoke knowledgeably about the clattter of clogs on the cobbles in the streets when the mill workers’ shifts changed. He was pretty sure that the clogs, on their range, were men’s.
“But the old lady was never married, as far as we know!”
“Ask her relatives what they think!”
“She didn’t have any, as far as we know, not round here anyway!”
They talked to their neighbours but they were all new to the area or said they didn’t know anything about the old woman except that she was quiet and decent and kept herself to herself. Then one day somebody told them about another old woman who lived in the street parallel. So they went round to see her, told her who they were and why they had come and she invited them in.
They sat with her in the kitchen at a small table beneath the window looking into the yard at the back while she made them a cup of tea on a bright, cream coloured electric stove. Next to them was a richly blackened Lancashire range with a rag rug in front of it and a vase of flowers on the top. They were plastic flowers but they looked nice all the same.
“That’s a lovely old range you’ve got there!”
“Aye, but they made so much dirt you know with the smoke and all and bringing in the coal. But they were cosy. I brought up all my family here in this kitchen, the little ones crawling about on that mat. They’re big now! In their forties and with lovely children. I’ve got seven grandchildren!”
My friends told her about the range they had found in their house and about the clogs on the top of it.
“I reckon I know whose they were!” she said, “She was called Mavis Chorley. I knew her all her life. We went to school together, “Mill Road Primary School. She never married.
“You see, she loved this lad up in Braithwaite. He was a farmer’s son. Now unluckily for him he was the youngest and he didn’t have a chance of inheriting the farm, that went to his big brother, not that it was much of a farm, just a few acres and more heather than grass.
Anyway both families were against them seeing each other so they used to meet secretly. All her friends knew about it. They used to meet in the evenings on the edge of town, what was the edge then, beneath an old holly tree.
“It went on for a year or two like that but there was no hope for them, you know. In those days if your family were against something it was very difficult for you. We were all expected to stick by the family and they would stick by you.
“Anyway, one day Mavis went to the tree and he never came! She waited, but he never came! She went the next night and the next but he never came.
“Then she asked people who knew the family and they told her that he had gone to America. She was shattered! She went into herself from that moment. She was a nice lass but she went into herself.
“Then I heard that she had got a letter from him, from America, about a year later, it was. And from what I heard, it said, ‘There was no hope for us getting married at home so I left and came to America. I want to get a job here and earn a bit of money and then I can send you some and you can come out here and join me and we can get married.’
“At the end of the letter he wrote, ‘P.S. I’ve come in my leather boots. I left my clogs in the holly tree.’
“She waited and waited for the letter. She waited all her life but she never heard from him again.”
Origin of this story
I lived in Manchester for fifteen years and I heard the story there. I think I heard it rather than read it but I don’t remember exactly.
It rings true (it is probably true). The millworkers (cotton) and farmers did often wear clogs in the nineteenth century. It could be a very hard time for people and millions emigrated to the United States from Liverpool, just next to Manchester. It must have been very tempting for the young farmer’s son in the story…no money, no farm, no wife, no future.
In the United States anything could have happened. For Mavis, left at home and working in the mill, life was uneventful and it passed. She lost her chance of a husband but he remained in her mind like a dream.
I am very careful about choosing this story to tell to people. It is such a depressing story! At the same time it is so rich in feeling like a real glimpse into the past.