We Had to Eat Gravel!


We Had to Eat Gravel


When you look back along a reasonably long life you see that so many things have changed, most of the local pubs, corner shops and cinemas have closed down, open fires, decent ballads and lavies down the street are a thing of the past, church attendances are down, the coal mines are closed. The simple things we used to do in life have been usurped by modern technology. I find it hard to believe these changes have happened in just one life time. Perhaps most of all I remember how happily primitive general living used to be.

Do you remember that great old Monty Python sketch where a group of well healed old farts are sitting around in leather arm chairs supping their whisky and purporting how hard it had been for them on the way up, each one trying to outdo the last on the depth of the depravity they had endured in their early lives until it got brilliantly silly and towards the end one old fart said after the previous one had made maniacal claims.

‘Right, well listen to this then. We lived in a shoe box and all we had to eat was gravel!’

Not to be outdone the final guy said, ‘Shoe box! That would have been a luxury for us, we would have loved to live in a shoe box we had to live in the canal and every night our dad came home from work and murdered us.’


Well you know we East Leedsers who have been lucky enough to have had a reasonably long life can look back on times descending back to what now seems almost comic proportions of destitution. I’m going to put myself in the position of those old farts going back over my life. I’ll pretend to be different old farts getting more and more disadvantaged but really they will all be me and although it won’t be as exotic as Monty Python it will all be true.

Old fart number one. ‘When we were first married we never aspired to satellite television we just had a colour TV with the basic channels, no free view facility, just had an old dial  telephone on a land line, we were never  able to afford those magic mobile things that just about tell you what you had for breakfast.  And there were no ‘sat navs’ you had to know how to read a map. If your car wouldn’t start on a morning you had to swing it with a starting handle sometimes it kicked back and knocked your shoulder out Twenty pounds a week was a top wage – you could get a mortgage on twenty pounds a week we only had the one toilet of course and a galvanised dustbin.

Old fart number two. Colour television? You were lucky, we never dreamt of colour television. When I lived in Cross Green we had a 12 inch black and white TV which constantly rolled over and over and had one channel,  BBC one. We only had one electric plug to run everything off. We had no fridge or washing machine we had a keeping safe in the cellar to keep food going off and Mam washed our clothes in the sink.  If we wanted to telephone we had to go to the big red box up the road and I went to work for years on an old pushbike.

Old fart number three. ‘Television! We’d never heard of even black and white television. When I lived in Knostrop we didn’t even have electricity we had gas downstairs and nothing at all upstairs. You can’t run many appliances off gas so we had to make our own amusement. We had running water and a flush toilet but it was outside and froze up in winter. We had to sleep outside in an air raid shelter while the Germans rained bombs down on us. When it rained heavily, Knostrop being so low down in Leeds the water came out of the man holes instead of in and flooded us to the depth of about ten inches and floated everything about. Being a large old house I had a big bedroom but ivy grew on the inside as well as the outside walls, when I went to bed I climbed the stairs with a candle stick like Wee Willy Winky. The nearest telephone box was at the top of the hill so was school, where we always had to walk to on our own after the first day and where on a bad day we would expect to be smacked on our arms and legs by the women teachers and caned by the head master.



Old fart number four. Flush toilets! We would have loved a flush toilet. When I was evacuated to Aunt Nellie’s at None-Go-Byes Farm Cottage all we had was a dry toilet round the back that smelt terrible and was only emptied now and then when the midden men came round. We had no gas or electricity only oil lamps that smoked smelt terribly too. The only water was iron water from a tap in the yard. We had two bedrooms but you had to pass through one to get

To the other



there was no phone box at all you had to post a letter if you wanted to contact anyone and the post box was three miles away as was the nearest shop and bus stop. The Germans dropped flairs on us looking for the munitions factory. When the kids went to school they had to take their shoes off and walk in bare feet across the fields so they wouldn’t get their shoes muddy and be told off by the teachers.

Old fart number five. Two Bedrooms! We lived in The Humbug House, an old single story gatehouse. We never dreamt of having two bedrooms we had one room and one bedroom, neither gas nor electricity and it was so damp because it was below the water table that vegetation grew on the inside of the walls, I don’t remember what we did for a toilet perhaps we used a bucket?



Every word is true, it’s been a long road, when I look back and sounds as if it could have been unhappy but it never was. I never felt disadvantaged at any of those places.  Folk were all in the same boat getting themselves through the war, Mam and Dad were alive and love abounded. If I could go back to any one of those times I’d be there in a trice because I’d be young again and nowt fazes you when you’re young does it?


Comments welcome


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5 Responses to “We Had to Eat Gravel!”

  1. edward blackwell Says:

    That’s a great tale Pete but you were lucky we didn’t have a house we lived in a hovel made from brushwood and mud the roof leaked when it rained, and we didn’t have beds we slept on the floor it was cold in the Winter and hot in the Summer, there was no food on the table because we hadn’t got one and we ate anything we could get our hands on, but we didn’t complain, and you’ve lived in luxury all of your life…lol..

  2. Doug Farnill Says:

    I’m a really old Fart. Nowadays everyone has personal transport, when I was a lad we had shanks pony. Nowadays we have washing machines, when I was a lad, poor mam had to poss the washing in the old tub with water heated by burning chips. Nowadays, we have frozen fish fingers, and in the old days we had to be satisfied with glorious, marvellous, tasty, luscious fish and chips from the bottom or our street in the Glensdales. Transport me back in a flash Peter.

  3. Eric Says:

    I think we can all relate to the massive strides in material acquisition within our lifetime . Today , absolute poverty is replaced with comparative poverty but what I’m not so sure about is the equivalent progress from a social/cultural perspective. Your story & the comments suggest as much , that less importance was attached to possessions than to the enjoyment of life itself & that todays sense of entitlement was largely absent.
    Although presented in a somewhat lighthearted manner Pete, It’s really an interesting & thought provoking piece ,encouraging us to think about the nature of how our lives have changed.
    Well done


  4. Dave Carncross Says:

    When people talk about our old streets they always manage to work in a reference to how people donkey stoned their steps in those days. I always say “Steps!! Steps??” You were lucky. All we had was an old scaffold plank and that was only for half of the year because we had to burn it to keep warm during the winter. Being serious though, I still sometimes marvel that I have a car which starts every time and has all the usual amenities like good lights and power steering. My first motor – a 1936 series 2 Morris 8. – cost £8. You had to REALLY want to learn to drive to go around in that. It got so that all I had to do to take the engine out was lift the bonnet off and whistle and it jumped out the nto my arms.

  5. edward blackwell Says:

    Things have certainly changed from when we were young , and values associated with material things in my opinion have outpaced many of the social aspects of society. Things like I don’t want it if it’s not got a designer name, and labels on the outside of clothing, I always think there wearing something inside out, we paid a lot of money for that label is what they say. Yet the simple things like manners and etiquette are no longer regarded by many as important, “don’t put you elbows on the table, keep your mouth closed when your eating, don’t interrupt when someone else is talking, wiping your feet before you come in from outside”, I’ve had many a clip round the ear for answering back when I was young but I was never disrespectful. Some things have improved but greed and avarice, has also increased, people are more selfish and self centred, less willing to help others….selfies what’s that all about….me me me…I’m with you Doug I’d go back anytime, jam and bread sarnies for tea will do for me..

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