This is the fourth story by Margaret Wilby about her childhood in Ossett. It concerns her great uncle, Jack Hinchcliffe, or as she called him, “Uncle Swearer”. It is written from a recorded “chat” between Margaret and Mike Adams from The Friends of Ossett Library”. The recording can be found at the end of the story.
Uncle Swearer’s real name was John (Jack) Hinchcliffe. He was born at Overton and was a coal miner all his long working life. I have never met anybody quite like him. He lived in Workhouse Yard in Flushdyke and his was the largest of the houses that were created when the workhouse closed and it was divided into cottages. Thinking about the structure of it, my guess is that originally it had been cottages and later converted into a workhouse. When the town started using the Union Workhouse in Dewsbury it had reverted back to cottages. If you looked at the window and door openings it just looked like a row of cottages and there were three or four on the side facing St. Oswald's Mission and there were two at the other side. He lived in the larger of these and he had quite a big garden. He was married to my father’s father’s sister, Harriet Brammer. The first thing that amazes me about him is how young he was when he went down the pit. When he was 10 years old in 1883 the school leaving age was 10 and he may well have started work at the pit at that age. As far as I know he always worked at the coalface. He worked at Hartley Bank Colliery between Netherton and the river Calder for a lot of his life. Harriet worked at Thorne, near Doncaster, in service as a domestic helper in a house. After working at the coalface all week, to do his courting at the weekend, he used to walk from Overton to Thorne to see her. This is a distance of about 33 miles and to walk each way would take about eleven hours. It would not leave much time for courting. He must also have walked to and from the pit every day for I never saw him with a bike.
When I came on the scene Harriet was already dead. One teatime in autumn 1935, just after the clocks had been changed and it had started getting dark early, she had been crossing the road to go to Flushdyke Post Office when she was hit by a pedal cycle. The bike did not have a light on. She was thrown to the ground ,landing on the back of her head and fracturing her skull. The cyclist never stopped and even after appeals on the radio he was never traced. Nobody ever came forward with information. She died a day or two after that and left Jack with the youngest of his children to cope with life as they could. He was one alone and I suppose I was a bit frightened of him really. Sometimes when we were playing or when I went home from school at lunchtime with my friend Freda for some of the chocolate that my father had brought home from the war ,(see “Homecoming” my first story in the series) we used to peep round the corner at Uncle Swearer. I used to take her "to look at" Uncle Swearer not" to see" Uncle Swearer because we were scared of him really. I think he was probably quite an unhappy man because he had had a hard life. He was still working at the coal face, probably at Hartley Bank, when he was over 70 years old. So staggeringly he must have been working at the coalface for almost 60 years. Even when he was still working I thought of him as an old man with a pronounced stoop. Unfortunately I had not started to take an interest in family history when I saw a newspaper report in an edition of the Ossett Observer about his retirement. If I had been researching our family history then I would have taken more interest and kept a copy. It appeared in the seventies in a regular feature entitled ,“ It Happened 25 Years Ago” . He had been involved in a roof-fall and rocks had fallen on him, breaking his leg.
When I was about 10, I can remember my mother taking me to see him in hospital in Wakefield. He was lying in bed with his leg held up by a pulley and was cursing and swearing because ,“They’ve cut mi bloody pit pants off and they wa' new ones”. That was all he was bothered about. Because he was in his seventies ,the accident ended his career. I can remember him telling us on this visit that after the roof-fall he had been on the ground buried under rocks and stones with his leg under a 1 cwt. boulder and one of his workmates was shouting “Jack, Jack, where are thi ?” and he shouted back ,“Tha’s bloody standing on me”. His workmate was standing on the pile of rocks that were covering him. That is how tough he was. Anyway he recovered and he lived to quite a good age.
What I remember about him was he had a piece of cultivated ground adjoining his house and a yard at the back. Because he lived in the end house he was able to build himself a long wooden structure which in fact was like a tunnel. It had a door at the front and ran the whole length of his yard and it seemed very long to me. His “miner’s coal” that he got for his service, came by the cartload as part of his wage then pension. This came in big pieces or cobbles. What fascinated me was that after he had spent his whole week hewing coal, he used to carry his coal allowance piece by piece into this shed. He created a “seam” with coal piled up on both sides – his own pit. He must have accumulated coal because it always seemed to be quite full. This stock of jet-like, gleaming coal shone when you looked into the shed. He had started this “project” whilst he was still working.
He kept hens and with these as with all things, he was as hard as nails. I can remember watching him when he got one of his hens between his knees , cut open its crop, put his hand in and pulled out a ball of corn that had been causing an obstruction. Then he stitched it up with black cotton. The hen went running off when he let it go. It’s true that once when he cut the head off a hen , it escaped from his grasp and continued to run round the yard for a short time. These days we would be frightened of children seeing such things.
He grew loganberries. I have never known anybody grow them but him. They were rather large, a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. He also grew small pom dahlias and in season, he was never without one of these in his buttonhole when he went out. He was always immaculate.
The cottage was really quite simple, one downstairs living room with a flagged floor and a beamed ceiling, a door that went into a back scullery or kitchen , also with a stone floor. In the living-room was a black-leaded ,cast iron range to cook on and a wooden door, fastened with a sneck, lead to the upstairs. A large, mahogany ,mirror-backed sideboard held a wonderful collection of Victorian glass lustres under domes and in the centre of the room was a "scrubtop" table with polished ,carved legs.. The only floor coverings were homemade, pegged rugs.
I once went with my mother and he was sitting in his usual Windsor chair in front of the fire trying to pull out one of his own teeth. He had a string round the knob of the open oven door with the other end tied around his tooth. He had killed the nerve with a red hot needle heated in the fire first and then he kicked the oven door closed to pull out his troublesome tooth. Unfortunately it did not work first time so he had to have another go to finish the job off. Unlike my father and other members of my family he swore an awful lot. To us children the swearing was a big thing and that was what helped to make him the colourful, memorable character he was.