Mobs, sharks and buckets of blood
WHEN my uncle worked as a Pill ferryman, it's said that he would take the fare in the boat, which was overlooked by The Watch House, the old Customs House.
An old lady, who used to sit in the window knitting, had a pin cushion at her side and, for every person who crossed on the ferry, she would push a pin into the cushion.
At the end of a shift, the ferryman had to walk to the Watch House and pay in his takings, money which had to tally with the number of pins in the cushion.
In those days there was not much to do in the village for us children.
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There were three mobs – the Park Mob, the Longshore Mob and the Pill Field Mob.
Pill Field (now Newsome Avenue) is where we used to play football.
My mother always told us to keep away from Watch House or the Oakum Boys would get us.
She told us that they lived in Ham Green woods, but this was just a story she made up to stop us going there.
She didn't like us collecting chestnuts at Ham Green because of the men walking around there who had TB, or consumption. Ham Green was a fever hospital at the time.
Before I was born, the Pill pilots used to have their boats built at the Watch House.
The Oakum Boys were the labourers to the men who would caulk the vessels.
Oakum is hemp, treated with tar, and used for caulking the seams in wooden boats and ships.
At Ham Green, where some steps lead down to the river, three nurses were paddling their feet at the high tide when two of them slipped in and were drowned. My uncle picked them up from the river some time later.
During the winter months the lake at Ham Green would sometimes freeze over.
One year, when two boys were playing on the ice, it gave way beneath them and they were drowned.
I also recall a ferryman being drowned while I was a child.
There are many stories about how the Pill Sharks name came about.
If a dead body was found in the river, the person who recovered it – usually a ferryman – would get a payment.
They would usually take the body to the Shire side because they would get more money there than on the Pill, Somerset, side.
There were very few cars about when I was a child, the roads being mostly gravel.
Eventually they were covered in tarmac, but were still narrow.
Most people travelled by train, which ran every half hour from Portishead to Temple Meads.
As children we used to play lots of street games, such as knock out ginger – knocking on doors and then running away.
We would also put black cotton across the road to knock people's hats off.
If we got chased we would disappear into the village's alleyways.
Pill Rag in November was always an occasion that we looked forward to, with a huge bonfire on the green.
With home-made masks on our faces we would carry a tin with a rag and paraffin, which we would light up and carry through the streets.
Pill Regatta was another occasion that we loved.
There were many boat races on the river with men on greasy poles falling into the water.
Another highlight of the year was the annual charabanc trip to Weston- super-Mare with the Baptist chapel and the other churches.
At weekends, while helping my father on his allotment, I would buy a penny-worth of yellow sherbet, put it into two bottles of water and make lemonade to enjoy while we gardened.
There were plenty of horses in Pill in the 1920s and I would go around the streets with a hand barrow collecting manure for the garden.
I would also sometimes call into the slaughterhouse at Back Lane for two buckets of blood for the allotment.
By the time I got there it had often congealed, like jelly, but it was good fertiliser.
I recall getting told off by my father one day.
I had poured the blood onto the garden in a lump and, as it congealed, the crows had eaten it.
I should have waited for him to dilute it in the rain-water barrel.
Sometimes a boatman would take us, when the tide went out, to the mouth of the river where we would scrape the sand for coal to take home for the fire.
We would usually get one bucket-full, which we thought was wonderful.
When we had finished the rising tide would lift the boat off the sand and we would float back up to Pill.
Good pickings could also be had up river, at the Horseshoe Bend.
But as we had to row against the tide to get there and back again, we didn't go there so often.
In the posh part of Pill, Monmouth Road, was a house with a wireless set and we would creep under the front wall and wait to hear the music being played.
We were soon chased away by the owner, who would call us urchins.
In about 1932 Pump Square, where we lived, was demolished and we moved into a brand new council House facing the river.
With electricity and proper sanitation, my mother thought it was absolutely wonderful.
We were surrounded by fields and it was good to have a large garden with a view of the ships going up and down the river.
We were able to grow our own produce and the whole family would walk down to the wharf to collect wood washed up by the tide for our fire.
During the season we would get up at about 5 am to go mushrooming in the fields.
Life was certainly getting a lot better.