With the end of October came the first fogs of autumn. A visitor to London might have found the fog there to at least have some compensations: the sensation of walking around with your ears muffled and not being able to see more than a yard ahead lent a certain adventure and sport to the endeavour. Any visitor to Sheffield though had no such romantic notions of its fog on stepping off the Great Central or Midland train. In Sheffield, the air felt abominably dirty; its dampness clung, fell to the ground and created that thick mud, treacherous to horses, which leapt on to your clothes like filings to a magnet. Sheffield fog was a thing to be endured, for it would only pass when it was ready, sitting over the town like a beast over its half-eaten dinner. Its soupiness was full-flavoured. And, above all, no one would escape the sore throats and the melancholy that it brought with it. And it stank – it seemed to capture and to hold every smell released by industrial process, man and animal alike. It then blended them, ripened them and fermented them, so that ladies would stay indoors, and all but the hardiest and most downtrodden pulled their mufflers or neckcloths up over their noses.
Real hardship was now manifest all around the neighbourhood, as out of work engineers and their families lived on handouts from their neighbours and supplemented their potato and swede diets with the bread and soup they queued for. They were not alone in their suffering. On the hills above Sheffield, the Earl of Wharncliffe and his guest Balfour and others found it too foggy to play golf and had to settle instead for shooting one thousand one hundred rabbits and a hundred and fifty brace of pheasant, most of which, entertainment over, were piled up and left to rot. Back amongst the blackened bricks, money was collected in boxes, and brassy instruments attempted to blow away the fog at parades of the Newhall, Tinsley Victoria or the United Grimesthorpe bands marching from Ellesmere Road Temperance Hall to town. Attempts were made to raise funds and spirits: glees were sung by Attercliffe Clarion Glee Club, charity concerts, magic lantern shows, and lectures on things like ‘A Trip to the Moon,’ were held at Liberal Clubs, and there were special football matches between locked-out engineers and publicans: sometimes combining the fancy dress of the preceding parade with the match itself. Rab and some of the United team wandered along after training to join the five thousand or so spectators to watch such a game at the Sheaf House Ground. The players were given many a pat on the back for their unbeaten run and they all felt obliged to empty the change from their pockets into collection boxes or to buy buttonholes or oranges from the women touring the ground. A Great Dane, that his owner said ate three blokes Rab’s size every day for breakfast, had a collecting box round his neck and Rab had little choice but to put in a thruppenny bit he had been holding back.
Escape from the gloom was provided by the away matches. A thousand supporters accompanied them to Goodison Park where they swelled the crowd to thirty thousand. Everton and their fans were confident they would be the first to lower the colours of the United, especially on taking the lead only four minutes in. But it was the thousand who cheered their boys the loudest, the opposing supporters being seized by despair, as the red and whites outplayed the blues; Bennett finishing the game with a fourth goal, taking on and beating four men; such quality raising cheers from all parts of the ground. Plaudits turned to stones aimed at Bill Foulke, and the referee had to stop the game to caution the crowd – Lawrence Bell, the Wednesday player of the season before, tried to take on United’s custodian in an aerial challenge to knock him off the ball. The unfortunate Bell lay prone on the earth after the mountainous goalie landed on him. Bill picked him up like a baby and handed him to the trainer at the side of the pitch. Rumours of his death later proved to be unfounded.
Towards the end of November, storms came and swept the fog out of the skies and the mud off the streets. Then December brought the first frosts. That cold air flowing down across Sheffield’s hills from Scotland and beyond brought fear to some of its inhabitants. Cold exacerbating the hunger; that little food which seemed to suffice when it was mild, no longer satisfied. They feared a harsh winter of frosts that penetrated window panes, that froze the privy middens so that they could not be dug out for weeks on end, that brought lasting stillness to their elderly as they lay in their beds or sat through the long days in front of embers that faded with them. They stiffened their backs, prayed or cursed the unrelieving grey skies.
Then there was the daily choice between food and coal, and if food it were, then uncooked it would have to be. Into the evening and early morning when twilight’s cloak was thrown over the woods around Attercliffe and Brightside, neighbours would bump into each other and exchange a knowing nod, or quiet “’ow do” as they stripped the ground of fallen branches and hacked down saplings to take home as fuel enough to raise the heat in a kettle sufficiently to mash some donated tea. Then, every time the cold air stilled, the fog started to congeal once more.
On undedicated streets like Lake Street, the smell and the filth was not just in the air but became part of the broken ground which it permeated and infested so that even a good downpour would not cleanse it, for bubbling up it came again straight after. Then sometimes the stench would be overlayered with carbolic when some typhoid-worrier attempted to combat the work of the nightsoil men, who had scraped and shovelled their special recipe from ash pits and privy middens into a workable pile for trundling away to the tip on their creaking, leaking carts before the good citizens emerged for the day.
Selina was by now a very peculiar shape, not nicely rounded, not ripening like a mellow peach: her belly stuck out tight, at right angles from her lean frame as if she and the child were not one harmonious peachy whole but existing in polarity alongside one another. She was now tired and unable to walk very far and was of limited help around the house, her back sore after standing for very long.
‘I’m going to have to go round to our Sarah Ann’s soon Dei; whilst I still can. I can’t leave it much longer.’
‘Well you just say when you’re ready, and I’ll help you and carry your bag – we’ll not have that far to walk: just from the bridge to Snig Hill, then from the tram stop up to their house. It’s a shame you’ll be poshaley, and not be here for Christmas though.’
‘I can’t risk it – she could even come out on Christmas day.’
‘In a way it was easier when all you needed was a separate tent. Then you could just burn it after.’
‘Well, I can be nice and quiet up at Sarah Ann’s and you’ll not have to look after me as well as the kids. She’s only got Archie to sort out, now all the others are grown up.’
‘But how they’ll miss you! We’ll have to bring them up to Walkley to see you every week and at Christmas as well.’
‘I’d like that; I shall miss them too. You’ll have a lot on though Dei. Will you manage, what with looking after everyone, and the house, and those blasted pigs?’ As if they had heard their name used in vain, a squealing noise came from outside.
‘Yes I know how to look after things here; and Sarah Ann knows how to look after you which is more important. And you can rest without Little Rabbi, or big Rabbi for that matter, bothering you.’
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish