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Memories of Farnworth: The Rag and Bone Men

by Alan Burrows

They came down our back street at least once a week but never on Mondays. That was washing day and from bitter experience they had learned that angry housewives were a force to be reckoned with if they were asked to lift up, or even take down, the weekly wash load that was strung out on clotheslines and held clear of the ground (plain dirt with grass and dandelion fringes, or mud if it had recently rained) with a long, wooden prop with a `V' cleft at the business end.

They were the rag and bone men. You'd hear their cries long before their carts rattled and trundled past your back gate.

'Rag bone! Donkey stone!'
'Firewood for old rags, all dry firewood!'
'Bone! Rag bone!'

They were a singularly shabby breed and usually pushed a big wooden cart with big wooden handles, an axle and two steel-clad cartwheels. The more successful gatherers of rags - old clothes and any discarded household item or scrap metal - employed a donkey to do, well, the donkey work, but in the Campbell Street area of Farnworth in the 1940s and '50s the pickings were slim.

What they did with the rags I don't know. Recycling was not in the vocabulary of that era. As for bones, any of those went into the soup first then into next-door's dog."Give 'im that old bed sheet out of the lean-to, Love, and gerra white donkey stone,'' Mam would say typically. ``Make sure it's white not yellow. Last time he gave you yellow.''

Mam was a white stone woman but we lived in a mixed neighbourhood; some housewives preferred yellow.

On a day when all the cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, shopping and myriad other household jobs had been done, Mam would donkey-stone the back and front doorsteps.

I watched and learned because eventually the job fell to me. A bucket of warm water, a donkey stone and lots of elbow grease were required. You'd dip the stone in the water and rub it furiously across the doorstep until a sort of thin paste was generated which, in time, would dry leaving the step a creamy white. The final `polish' was effected by gently gliding a damp cloth over the steps to remove any little lumps of chalky stone and any streaks. Woe betide anybody who stepped on that step during the first 24 hours!

Occasionally the rag and bone men would entice a better quality item from unsuspecting young go-betweens such as myself by offering not donkey stones or firewood but GOLDFISH!!

Oh, how desperately I wanted a goldfish. I'd beg Mam to find something good to exchange ... but times were tough and not much got thrown out. Some of my pals managed to score one, and one lad in `our gang' systematically pinched bits of washing from clotheslines over a period of about a month and stored it up to make sure he got a fish. It lived for two weeks in its little round bowl then went to God. Well, a rag and bone man had to keep the rags and bones coming, didn't he.

Tommy's dad found out about the washing, by the way, and took his belt to Tommy who didn't sit down for about a week.

Poor but honest were the folk in our neighbourhood.

Now, the coalmen who drove the big Co-op lorry down our back street were accorded a different greeting and a semblance of respect. They weren't begging or hawking but delivering.

Mams would rush out to hoist their washing high on the poles with a pointed `Eee, you're early this week, Love!'

Big burly men, faces and fingernails as black as the coal they carted in filthy hessian sacks would hoist one hundredweight of coal onto their upper back and shoulders from the flatbed lorry and judo-throw it over their head into your coal shed. The only protection they had was an equally dirty jacket and a leather back-plate punctuated with metal studs, constantly polished by the work.

`Where d' you want it, Love?' was their stock greeting. `Three bags of nutty slack, int' it?' Occasionally they'd offer a cut-price bag of coke (not Coca-Cola but the real thing), though that by-product was usually sold off to factories, schools and other public buildings as furnace fuel for boilers and central heating.

The council's dustbin men were usually punctual, but the dust and ashes they left in their wake was a source of annoyance, particularly if Mams had just donkey-stoned the back step. They knew better than to put their big hobnailed boots on the step but they couldn't do anything about the air-borne fall-out.

As time wore on Mam and Dad saved and had asphalt put down in the front room and kitchen of our two-up, two-down terraced home as a replacement for the flagstones that separated us from the damp earth below.

That was progress, although the smell of newly-poured asphalt lasted for weeks. It meant that donkey-stoning was due to be consigned to history - at least at 33 Campbell Street, Farnworth.

The new era was red-raddling and the coming of the oil man on a Saturday morning with his paraffin, washing power, soap, oil and red-raddle. It was a sort of red, waxy polish.

The only problem was that I wasn't able to consign old-fashioned elbow grease to the history books ... and now I needed much more of it!