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Rochdale in the 1950s: A world we have lost


Rochdale Town Hall and Cenotaph

Rochdale, then a town of c80,000 inhabitants, nestling in the Pennines, some 12 miles NE of Manchester, was dominated by cotton mills and the world`s  largest asbestos factory. From a nearby hill it was possible, on a clear day, to count over 100 mill chimneys in Rochdale and the surrounding towns. It prided itself on being the birthplace of the worldwide Co-operative Movement (Rochdale Pioneers, 1844). Its neo-Gothic Town Hall was lauded by John Betjeman as being amongst the finest of its kind in England. People on the north, west and east sides of the town lived within easy walking distance of the wild and desolate Pennine moors, which were favourite areas of recreation on Sunday afternoons. The population was almost 100% white. A significant number of Poles and Ukrainians settled in Rochdale after the Second World War rather than return to Communist rule in their homelands (they were known locally as D.P.s – Displaced Persons); they integrated seamlessly into the life of the town (Rochdale is still twinned with Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine). It was a fine place in which to grow up.

Working-class Toryism was traditionally strong in parts of Lancashire. Rochdale  returned a Conservative M.P. to Parliament in the general elections of 1951 and 1955 (neighbouring Bury had even elected a Conservative in the Labour landslide of 1945). This has often puzzled outsiders. It was closely associated with the Anglican Church (C of E). Millowners were predominantly Nonconformist in religion and Liberal in politics. The great 19th century Radical John Bright (a leading figure in the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1840s, campaigner against the Crimean War and on the North`s behalf in the American Civil War, a cabinet minister in Gladsone`s First and Second Liberal administrations) was a Quaker millowner whose descendants were still major employers in Rochdale in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the early Trade Unions in the cotton industry reacted against their Liberal employers in favour of a populist Toryism (before the Labour Party came on the scene). My own family reflected this. My parents and paternal grandparents lived in privately-rented mid-terraced houses in neighbouring streets- no bathrooms or running hot water, lavatory outside in a backyard. Maternal grandparents moved into a council house in 1930 from their “back-to-back” (terraced houses with no backyards) in Ashworth Street. All of them were lifelong and committed Tories and regular Anglican churchgoers. Part of the reason for their Toryism was deferential; they believed that their “betters” were best equipped to govern the country. Another part was a fervent belief in Self-help. I doubt whether they had read, or even heard of, Samuel Smiles` best-selling book of that name published in 1859. But born in the mid-1880s they were brought up in fear of the workhouse if they failed to save enough for their old age (Old Age Pensions were not introduced until 1908 and some of the destitute continued to be sent to workhouses until 1929). My grandfather`s oft-expressed view of the Labour Party was that “they can`t keep their hands off other folks` money”. When he died in 1977 he left c£5000 in his will  – not bad for someone who had left school at 12 and worked in cotton mills all his life apart from periods of unemployment in the 1930s (when people were out of work, incidentally, they were referred to, without irony, not as “unemployed” but as “playing”!). As a child I helped in a Conservative committee room (in a mid-terraced house as described above) on election day in 1951. When it was rumoured there that a prominent member of the local Anglican church was intending to vote Labour, a fellow member of the congregation declared “I shall never speak to him again”.

Churchgoing was an essential ingredient of the lives of the “respectable” working class, which differentiated itself from those it described as “common”  by life-style and not by income. Rarely if ever touching alcohol, or swearing; regularly attending church or chapel, sending children to Sunday school, condemning divorce, subscribing to the notion of “a fair day`s pay for a fair day`s work”. Some led secret double-lives, of course. One of the great scandals of my childhood was when one of our local churchwardens piled up gambling debts with misappropriated church funds; rather than face the music he got up early one morning, put his head in the gas oven and was found dead by his wife. Rivalry between church (Anglican) and chapel (usually Methodist) was intense, but at least we attended the same schools. Roman Catholics, however, were beyond the pale. Almost always descended from Irish immigrants, they attended their own schools. For one of our church members to marry a Roman Catholic was almost unthinkable and was severely frowned upon on the one occasion I remember  it happening. I don`t recall meeting an RC of my own age before reaching university (yes, I was one of the fortunate 6%, a beneficiary of the 1944 Butler Education Act).

For the “respectable” working class, church and Sunday school were also the centres of social life. The Sunday School which I attended and in which I later taught was attended by up to 300 of all ages on the average Sunday afternoon, starting with the Primary for the youngest (up to age 8). We were then separated by age and by gender, 12 classes in all, up to age 16. For over-16s there were separate classes for males and females, and, in addition, adult Men`s and Ladies` classes usually sometimes addressed by outside speakers. Church attendance, for a minority, took up Sunday mornings and evenings, with average congregations of around 100 (up to 400 for special services), with a full all-male choir with a waiting list for aspiring boy choristers. The Sunday School was busy most nights of the week, with a Mothers Union, Youth Club, rehearsals for the annual Pantomime and Amateur Dramatic Society productions, dances and Whist drives on Saturday nights, a Sewing Guild which met weekly and sold its products at an annual Sale of Work to raise money for church funds. The main amateur football league in Rochdale was the Sunday Schools League, in which teams of all denominations played against each other on Saturday afternoons. On the Friday of Whitsun week all members of the Sunday School processed round the parish led by a Brass Band; this Whit Walk, as it was called, took about 3 hours and was followed by a church service, a Sports afternoon in a local park, and a dance in the evening. No-one, apart from the Vicar, was paid a penny for any of this. David Cameron`s “Big Society” already existed in 1950s Rochdale.

Of course there was another side to Rochdale, even then. This can still be seen (on youtube) in the early episodes of “Coronation Street” in which the Rovers` Return pub, not the church, was the centre of social life. Although set not in Rochdale but in neighbouring Salford, they provide an accurate representation of the lives of working-class people which my family regarded as “common”.  Attempts by the likes of Annie Walker and Ena Sharples to uphold “respectable” standards made little impression on the likes of Elsie Tanner.

The town I have described has now all but disappeared. Asda chose Rochdale as the site of its first supermarket  c1970 – in a disused cotton mill. Attendance at mosques now far exceeds that at churches. Anyone reading this wishing to see Rochdale for themselves will find it a very different place. But don`t be deterred. Go and find out the differences for yourselves and let us know your conclusions. At least the Town Hall, Co-operative Museum and the Pennines are still there.

By Joe Ward


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