Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Port Sunlight in the 1920s: Part 7. Sunlight soaps, scrumping and smallpox (Reg Keen)

Reg Keen, my father, wrote to me in 1978 about his childhood in Port Sunlight.

A magazine called "Progress" was published monthly at the Sunlight works and printed in the printing room there. It kept the village folks informed of local events and so on. I think it is now (1978) called "Sunlight News".

Products that I can remember being made included:

Lifebuoy Soap; pink, for ordinary use - probably better described as "red carbolic".
White / pale yellow soap for washing laundry, everyday jobs etc.
Lux flakes for laundry washing
Monkey Brand, a type of abrasive block like a solid version of "Vim", very gritty; size about 2 and a half by 1 and threequarter inches with the name "Monkey Brand "stamped into each block onboth sides. They were packed in orange coloured paper with a monkey's face along with the brand name and the instructions for use printed in black. Adverts said in large type "remember that IT WON'T WASH CLOTHES". It was about the only cleaner of its type in those days when pumice stone was not easy to get - and it was more useful.

There were some powder type cleaners available but none seemed as popular as modern products of that sort. One big drawback was that all the workers who were engaged in packing the stuff used to suffer from constipation and so work in that department was not popular.

The same factory also made a dye called "Twink" which was excellent for dyeing materials, such as straw hats; it sold in small brown bottles, a bit bigger than medicine bottles.

The printing room where Grandad worked for many years did a lot of outside jobs like chocolate boxes for Barker and Dobson's "Viking" chocolates; the lids were embossed - the title of the brand was depressed on the inside and so "stood out" on the lids. Paper ruling was another frequent job, ie, ruling paper sheet for making cash books and ledgers. A lot of general printing was done for sale in local shops for all sorts of purposes.

Another aspect of the factory was making "oil cake" cattle food in the department called the oil cake mills near the firm's docks beside the Pool. Presumably the oil was used in the soap making and the residue sold as feed.

The company made wooden boxes to pack their own products, to send away from the factory in their vans or by steam barges via the Pool to Liverpool for the docks or by train from local goods stations. The railway lines went to most local factories including the "Maggie Anne" works (Planter's Margarine works) which later became "Stork" and later Van Den Burgh and Jurgens. I think they dabbled a bit in the candle works too but I am not certain.

You remember the "tram lines" up at Storeton? Well, that stone was dug out to help build the wharves at Port Sunlight for loading and unloading the barges. The old waggon lines led from the quarry past the school grounds of what is now Wirral Grammar school; they passed down what is now Quarry Avenue under the bridge near the General Offices in Greendale Road and then on to the little dock area opposite Poets Corner by where the Bridge Inn now stands.

It was a great place for us kids to play around and explore and so always remembered. All us lads had an "inside knowledge" of the area and the steam trains which ran regularly from the factory and the oil cake mills down the New Chester Road cutting to the margarine works and then to Port Rainbow to start the products on their export trips. I knew several drivers on the trains.

In addition to the stone from Storeton Woods some stone came from the big quarry by the windmill (now demolished). It was a grand place for "niggers' funerals" (blackberrying) - a great spot for whipping fruit of all kinds - scrumping apples was a common pastime, even along the footpath from Mayer Park towards Ellen's Lane. (A bloody big black dog chased me on one occasion when I was about 12.) There were lots of allotments around and some kids spent hours digging under the potato haulms to get at the spuds underground, then the kids lit a fire on any handy spot to bake the spuds for eating. The plant would hang on for a while, but next day it would have drooped and withered, giving the game away to passers-by. The sabotaged plants were removed, being no use any more. I never dared to join in that lark because my old Dad suffered too much from similar predation on his allotment at the back of the houses on Primrose Hill and I knew how much it used to upset him to have spent money on seed potatoes and then not get any crop worth mentioning. But lots of kids in those days were underfed and needed those unofficial picnics. You were lucky to have shoes on your feet every day and not to have to wear "reach-me-down" pants (usually your Dad's old ones cut short). That was even the case in the "posh" area of Sunlight Village, and it was much worse in New Ferry around Olinda Street and Woodhead Street (now mostly pulled down). Woodhead Street is now a car park near Berkson's shoe shop.

I remember many scares about smallpox in New Ferry area while I was at school - usually from a patient escaping the isolation hospital near the brickworks. There were great panics and the streets used to be sealed off, so shopping had to be done by friends, or the local police, while the folk living in the streets concerned stayed in their houses until the groceries etc were delivered over the table-type barriers across the streets. On one occasion an escaped smallpox patient was found at dawn in a gents' toilet in Woodhead Street. The police took him back to the hospital then workmen piulled the whole place to pieces and removed all signs of the "utensils", then the remains were burned with a sort of flame thrower and finally sprayed with disinfectant. A lone bobby was posted to keep the nosey kids away (and some adults) - although most adults kept away without any warning, they were all so scared of the dreaded smallpox.

More in the next... 


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