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Growing Up In Lochwinnoch


John Smith

My father’s name was Peter and my mother’s was Annie Lockhart. Both were born in Glasgow and came from large families. They were married in 1914. In the summer time they rented a one room flat at 11 Calderhaugh in Lochwinnoch. It had an outside toilet and no interior drinking water. They would come down to visit from Glasgow at the weekends and go back to the city during the week to work. I remember my father being  warm-hearted and level-headed. Mother was a hard worker and very active in village life. She was involved in women’s organisations, constantly organizing fetes and concerts and basket teas. She had a particular interest in improving the quality of life of the pensioners and would help arrange outings for them.


Prior to World War 1 my father worked on merchant ships and at the outbreak of war joined the Navy to help the war effort. He served  as a stoker on Admiral Beattie’s flagship ‘H.M.S. Lion’ at the battle of Jutland, and other engagements. He also served on HMS ‘Pegasus’. Prior to going into action all the stokers were locked into the coal-hole. This was to prevent them deserting their posts during the battle. It seems inhuman to do this but if the boilers which powered the engines stopped producing their power the ship would be dead in the water and at the mercy of the Germans. So it was an act that was in the best interest of the crew while recognising that in the heat of battle discipline may break down.


Father was involved in some serious engagements and his ship took some beatings from German guns. As evidence, he once brought home a piece of shrapnel retrieved from H.M.S. Lion which is currently mounted on a stand and sits proudly on the mantelpiece of my brother Pat’s home.


After the War my parents moved permanently to Lochwinnoch as there was plenty of work in the village at that time. This was due to the way in which the village had developed . From having a mainly agricultural base with some cottage industry such as linen-spinning and weaving, Lochwinnoch developed into a thriving manufacturing area. Big mills producing a variety of textiles such as flax, linen, cambric, muslin and silk were set up throughout the eighteenth century, each with their own bleach fields, followed by the establishment of cloth printers, cabinetmakers and a range of smaller producers. All these factories required workers for whom homes were built in the fields of Calderhaugh.


When my father came to Lochwinnoch there was the Silk Mill owned by Caldwell, Young  & Company and a number of furniture makers such as the Calder Cabinet and Chair works built for James Hunter & Sons, the Viewfield Cabinet and Chair works built in 1887 for Joseph Johnstone, and the Lochhead Cabinet Works owned by Hamilton & Crawford. Fine furniture was supplied to many of the shipping companies on the Clyde, including chairs from Lochhead’s to Harland & Wolff for the ill-fated “Titanic.” In addition to these, there was a curling stone works said to be the biggest in the world, and a print works owned by the McKinlay family. They produced flags, bunting, banners and pennants not only for companies at home but throughout the world. They also supplied Pakistan with its national flags after it was granted its independance from Britain.


The boghead dam (at Rab the Bear's, next to Mrs Kerr’s) supplied the water for the felt work. Nowadays it is just the Clock Burn. The dam is long gone. As the name suggests Rab the Bear was a bit of a rough Diamond. He liked his drink. The other extreme would be Mr Bell the Banker. He was always the perfect gentlemen and lifted his hat to all the women, rich and poor. The Oatmeal mill was on the Kilbirnie road. This mill is also now a ruin but set in a lovely situation. The water wheel which was usually outside is in this case on the inside. The small dam which fed this mill is now all silted up.


Among all this seeming prosperity was a lot of poverty. The trouble was there was plenty of jobs in different trades but each one was badly paid. Your nose was kept at the grindstone - relax and you were out. When holidays came you did not get paid, so for two weeks no money. Fortunately the manager of the Co-Op knew the circumstances and let Mother get the food needed on a weekly basis. Father worked in the cabinet works during the day keeping the boilers going to make gas to drive the big gas engine which powered the whole factory including the electric lighting. In the evenings he worked as a cobbler from the front room to earn something extra. You can imagine what the front room carpet was like - more tacks than threads!

I was born on the first of January 1919, the first of seven children. As the date for my arrival drew close, Mother decided to go home to her own mother in Glasgow for the birth. As it worked out, I was the only one of her children to be born outside the village of Lochwinnoch. My brother, Pat, came next followed by George, who died in infancy, and then Tom, Colin, my only sister Annie, and, finally, Robert. My wife Isabella was born in early June 1919. Her birth certificate says it was the third of June 1919 but her father was drunk at the time and it was actually the second of June. From there our paths were destined to cross in Alyth at the start of the next Great War.


One of my earliest memories  is of being scalded. I must have been about four years old and lived at that time at 11 Calderhaugh. The kettle was boiling precariously on a lump of coal in the fire. It got knocked over burning me on my backside. It was nasty - but there was a compensation. On the recommendation of Dr. Gregor my parents bought me a football to aid my recovery!

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That's me with mother and father 

When I was a little older, we moved to 42 High Street. I can still remember the house. It had two bed rooms, a living room and an outside toilet. This house was home to nine people, Grandfather Smith, Mother and Father, 5 brothers and 1 sister. We slept 2 at the top and 2 at the bottom of the bed and any others had to sleep on the floor.


As you came in through the front door there was a small room on the right. Grandfather Smith and two of us boys slept there in a double bed. There were wooden shutters at the windows and two bicycles suspended from the ceiling on pulley wheels. There was a large chest of drawers but no cupboards and a single flickering gas light on the wall. The big bedroom had a coal fire and again there were shutters on the window. Two of the boys and one girl slept in the large double bed. There were few blankets and of course in those days coats had a dual purpose.


In the living room there was a coal fire and a cupboard but the furniture mainly consisted of just odds and ends. Mother and father slept in the bed recess constructed of two trestles supporting the bed boards. On top of the boards was a hard straw mattress about 4 inches thick with a softer layer consisting of a bag of loose wool. We had a single gas ring for cooking and a swee for hanging the kettle. The big range had an iron fireplace with a 2-compartment oven. There was a large cupboard and two smaller cupboards. The sink had a swan-neck water tap and there was a pulley wheel for airing the clothes. On the sink top there was an aquarium plus a budgie and a chaffinch with a broken wing flying about free. These two would fight each other for the privilege of sitting on top of the aquarium.


Down the back door (back garden) there was a hen in a proper cray. Father had won it in a Christmas raffle but it had been presented in a box so he thought he was getting a chicken all ready for eating. It came as a surprise when he discovered it was live . He made a cray for it as he hadn't the heart to kill it and it rewarded him by laying an egg. He ended up with a cockerel and another 5 hens which we fed on potato peelings and scraps which were boiled and mashed. In return we had a supply of free range eggs which are much prized nowadays. The downside was the cockerel which would attack you if you went too near the hens. My brother, Colin, kept pigeons here as well but we never got any eggs.


Mother’s washing day was Monday and involved getting up at 5 o'clock to fill the cast iron boiler in the wash house with water and light the fire beneath it to heat the water. The washing was partially dried by putting it through a wringer and then hung out to dry fully. The water from the boiler became our bath water so every Monday evening, summer and winter, was bath night.


Mother had to shop every day. Money was short and she often had to go to the manager of the local Co-op to plead with him not to stop her credit as she couldn’t afford to pay her bill. We were always a week or two in arrears with the payments but he was always very accomodating, providing she kept within agreed limits. As a consequence of this level of poverty we could never buy luxuries like fresh bread and biscuits. The bread we got would be a ‘cutting loaf’ (yesterday’s bake) and the biscuits were stale, or broken. We would buy a penny's worth from Jimmy White’s shop now Calumn Duncan’s at the cross. The only time we had cakes was when the mason’s had a meeting. Father being a steward got all the left overs from the table to take home. At school it was no different, if someone had an apple the other children would plead for the heart of it before it was discarded. In the summertime we would go for “sour look” buttermilk to Bob Love’s place at Cloak Farm in the glen and not only would we drink it but we would apply it to our skin whenever we got sunburned. The original natural organic solution so often used in advertising today.


Because poverty was so widespread most people grew at least some of their own food in their gardens or allotments. We had one in a part of Lochwinnoch known as the East End. A shipping magnate bought a property which included our allotment and ordered us off the land which had been unoccupied for years. The new owner  told us to get off by June otherwise he would destroy our plants but we just ignored him and carried on until the end of the summer.


Earning a living at this time was a precarious thing. I remember a man selling fish would come off the morning train all the way from Saltcoats with a large oblong box in a push-barrow shouting:-


 “herring, fresh herring

all this mornings killing

of my silvery darlings.”


In these days the railway carried a large volume of traffic, even the daily news papers. Any outgoing goods like furniture was packed with reeds from the meadow to prevent damage. There were a lot of nesting seagulls in the meadow and we would collect and eat the eggs which were strong tasted.


Singers would come round the back doors for coppers and every Sunday evening the gospel held meetings at the cross. Virtually all the children in the village went to Sunday school in the Gospel Hall. This was run primarily by the Alan family who were members of the Christian Brethren. They were wealthy people and very generous. Every year they organised a day trip to Milport for all the children in the village which they themselves paid for.


I remember celebrating Christmas every year. However, as a family we didn’t go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, although many people did. We hung our stockings (a hand-knitted woollen sock) from the bedstead - and were delighted to find in it an apple, an orange and maybe a few nuts - if we were very lucky! We would each get a small toy as well. Heaven knows how my poor mother ever managed to scrape together the money to buy them. I can’t recall having anything special for Christmas dinner but I do remember the dumplings that mother would make and hide a coin in - usually a threepenny bit - for one of us to find.


At Easter we had hard-boiled eggs dyed in different colours which we would roll down a hill in the Barr Woods. Then we would shell them and eat them.


A favourite pastime was a street game we called ‘kick the can’. A can was placed in the middle of the street. Someone had to guard it and count to ten to allow the others to hide. If found you were brought back to the can but could be released by someone kicking the can while the hunter sought someone else. Each game could last a long time but was great fun.


I got an air rifle when I was 12 years old. I would shoot rats in the evening at the coup (local rubbish tip) by laying light paper or material down as a backdrop, when the rat came past I would shoot.


Across the street we had the wee school where all the family started their schooling. Mrs. McMilan was the headmistress and she lived in the school house. McDowell of Garthland endowed the infant school to the village. The wee school had two large sycamore trees in the playground. The roots were exposed by the children playing on them over the years. During the summer months we got our lessons sitting outside on the roots with our slates. Bent but strong the large roots struck out in all directions, giving a sense of security, of loving hands stretching out to embrace you and keep you safe. One tree was known as the girls tree and the other the boys tree. What stories they could tell as each generation slipped by. The school is now a museum.

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Taken in 1925 @ the back of McDowell's school - the current library

 In the photograph above I am standing in the back row, third from the right hand side. I am saddened to say that most of my school chums in that photo are now dead. I wrote this account in 2000.


Behind the school was the Craw Road. The surface of the Craw Road was made up of big stones. I would go down it jumping from one to another. A small stream ran down the left hand side of the road which went under the road at Willie Glen’s hay shed. We would sit there drinking the spring water watching all the creepy crawlies hoping we did not get too many of them in each mouthful! When bringing in the hay all the school children trampled the hay down, as it was forked into the shed. I recall the dust as we trampled the hay, what that did to our lungs I dread to think. Willy Glen had access to the High Street for his cattle to take them to his dairy and the milk parlour to the rear. Granny Glen kept hens across the road in old babbies. Many a happy hour was spent there among the ruins .


I was in the ‘A’ class and as I got older was selected to study French every morning with two other lads. The headmaster took the lessons but he failed to get us interested. Poverty at home meant that our only thoughts were of leaving school at the earliest opportunity. We therefore did not apply ourselves well to the French lessons, much to the disappointment of the headmaster.


Poverty meant I weeded gardens at Glenlora during summer holidays from school to earn a few coppers. They had a small furnace for boiling our tea cans and we had half an hour to boil our tea, drink it and eat our piece. We were often told off for only pulling the big weeds. This meant we could go more often to the tip easing our aching backs from all the bending. As the compost heap was a long way off this added to the relief. I also delivered milk morning and night before and after school for more money. The milk can handles hurt your hands by their weight and the milk was very warm having come straight from the cow. In the winter our fingers would turn blue from the cold.


I left school at the age of fourteen to go to work. Father came home from work one lunch time and told me to go up the Johnshill and see “Big Will” the owner’s son about a job, adding “and don’t forget to tell him who your father is”. That’s the way it worked in those days. So the following Monday I started as an apprentice with Joseph Johnstone.


The apprenticeship lasted for five years but for the first few months I was really just a messenger for the skilled tradesmen. These were older, respected men whose word was law. The apprentices would never dare to challenge or disobey. The tradesmen would regularly have a laugh amongst themselves at our expense. I remember one time in particular when I was told  by one of them to run along and ask to borrow the “Cutty Sark” from another worker. Not knowing that the “Cutty Sark” was a famous ship, I ended up being led a merry dance as I scuttled from one craftsman to another in search of that elusive tool!


In time, I got to try my hand at the various skills including cutting out and assembling wooden carcasses, making drawers, squaring up cabinet drawers, installing the doors and drawers into the carcasses, fitting locks, and applying decorative beading. At this stage a veneer would be applied to the piece of furniture and any blemishes removed before it went off to the polisher’s. I don’t think they had any mishaps there but they certainly did in the machine shop. People quite often lost a finger through slight errors of judgement and some had two or three missing by the end of their working lives!


The company provided me with a set of brand new, good quality tools which I had to pay for out of my weekly wage over a period of time. I still have some of those tools to this day. The downside to the apprenticeship was that as soon as your time was served you were paid off and another apprentice would  be taken on. I suppose this was to keep costs down. The benefit was that a steady stream of skilled workers were turned out.


In 1936 I remember there was a cabinetmakers’ strike at Joseph Johnstone’s. This came about because all the other employers in the area had agreed to raise the pay of their skilled workers by a penny an hour but Mr. Johnstone refused. His employees refused to work and had the support of the community, but I know it caused a lot of hardship to some local families. It didn’t affect me at all because I was only an apprentice and carried on working the normal day.


After finishing at Johnstone’s at the age of nineteen, I went to work in Glasgow for a Jewish family firm called Cooursh. They made furniture using plywood which was cheaper than traditional materials but wasn’t highly regarded by those who favoured quality in those days. However it came to be standard practice, and eventually the Cooursh family even took over my old place of work in Lochwinnoch. Cheap mass-produced furniture replaced the solid woods of old. Sadly, more and more of the work was transferred to Newcastle over time and the factory in Lochwinnoch closed down for good. Incidentally, a year or two after I finished working in Glasgow there was a serious fire in the Glasgow premises in which some members of the Cooursh family died.


During the Second World war mother worked making aeroplane wings in Joseph Johnstone’s cabinetworks in the village. They were constructed of a wooden frame with linen stretched taught over them.


Eventually all my family became tradesmen and women. My sister Annie became a French polisher with Hunters, a local cabinet maker. Tom and Robert became cabinet makers like myself while Colin became a painter and Pat an upholsterer.


Every year there was a cattle show in the nursery park (where Struther’s garage is currently situated). This was an event that was taken very seriously by exhibitors who would start preparing months in advance for a show where reputations could be made - or broken! As boys we would sneak in from the Barr Woods to avoid paying the entrance fees. Some of the sights were wonderful to behold, especially the horses which would have had their manes plaited and be adorned with plumes and other finery. The prizes were often fiercely contested.


Another show was held each year by the bowling green. This was known as “The Rebels” because it was set up by a splinter group from the cattle show who were not content to simply put their animals on display. So this was an altogether more exciting (if less up-market) event with races of all sorts and a garden fete. Trotting pony races took place on the football pitch next to the green keeper at the bowling green. Ponies names were Middle Maid and Annie L rode by Willie Fenion, owner Mr. Irvine. For the athletic races lovely furniture prizes were donated by Joseph Johnstone and this attracted athletes over a wide area to Lochwinnoch.


We had a good and enthusiastic runners club in the main street next to Jim McGran’s sweetie shop. George Fulton, Robert Fulton, John Fulton, Jim McGran and Archie MacIntyre were all runners. Davy Law was a high jumper and excellent at the hop, skip and jump and Harry Fenion was a marathon champion. My brother Pat was good in the 100 yard event and both Tom and Colin were footballers. My brother Robert became a P.T. (A.P.T.C.) instructor.


The show that everybody looked forward to, however, was the one held in Beith every September. As youngsters and later on as young men, we would walk the few miles to the next village where the attractions included coconut shies and shooting ranges, helter-skelters and swing boats. This was a fairground where fun was guaranteed!


Johnny Manders owned the local cinema and he himself belonged to a circus family. He would stand outside shouting:-


“Roll Up Roll Up

They’re sitting like milestones here”


As an added service he used to come round during the interval with the evening paper to people who had ordered them.


Gambling went on under one of the railway bridges up the avenue leading to the Barr Woods at the Engine Tees. Pitch and Toss or Pontoon were the games played. The participants were usually unemployed, with approximately 20 players. There was another group at the Clock Burn and the Liberal club. All this was illegal but the police turned a blind eye. The Liberal hall is now the Masonic hall.


In the winter the loch would ice over and the men would spend many an hour in curling competitions. Braziers were brought along to ward off the cold and horse and carts would be used to transport the heavy curling stones up the loch. Ice-skating was another popular activity at that time amongst the men. To play ice hockey we used strong branches to make hockey sticks, the puck was a flat stone or small can or tin. In those days skates were screwed to the soles of your shoes as no-one could afford separate ice skating boots.


In the summer we would either swim or paddle in the Calder. The Woody pool up the glen was deep and treacherous and had claimed a number of lives. Even paddling in the shallower lower reaches of the river could be dangerous because of broken glass. In these parts of the river I would enjoy watching the lamphres twist and turn in their gravel nests. Using the roots of dockens twisted into a loop I would gently slip the loop over its beardie head to catch one of these ever active wriggling eel like creatures. I have not seen any nests of lamphres in the Calder for many a year now.


When the Calder was in spate numerous trees would be washed down into the loch where we would make them into rafts. It was a million miles from the sophisticated scenes on the loch today with sleek fibre glass hulls of all sorts of shape and size.


In the Castle Semple estate behind the loch there were three ponds used for breeding trout. The rhododendron bushes came right to the water edge, we hid in them with a penny cane and short line with a cork and hook keeping an eye on the gamekeepers hut which was behind the bushes. Some of the fish here were about 1lb in weight and made a very nice meal. The loch was also good for pike and perch fishing.


Ice caves were situated near these ponds to keep food for the big house cool in hot weather. The tower on the hill above Castle Semple was for the ladies of the big house having a picnic, and watching the hunt. The tower was in good condition in 1912. Lord John Semple the original landowner is buried in the Collegiate church as well as the Harvey family who later owned the estate.


Lochwinnoch is full of history. The Semple’s first brought it to prominence through their bloody deeds for grace and favour with the king of the day. Through the days of Empire it was an industrial centre producing all sorts of goods including candles to light up the darkness. These day’s the village is as popular a place to live in as ever it was but the industry is gone and it has become a dormitory village where people rest and sleep after a day’s work in Glasgow.


During the Second World War Lochwinnoch gave of it’s sons as did every other town in Britain during those dark days. You can read about my experiences during the second world war in this section on the page entitled A Soldier's Story. Just click on the underlined words to jump to that page.

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