November 1948 was bitterly cold the biting winds froze you to the bone. It numbed your fingers until you could no longer feel them. Ralph banged his hands together then blew on them to try and get the feeling into them. The bag of coal that they had bought from Tommy Holmes the coalman was gone and there would be no food on the table if they could not get a fire going.
John seemed to sense when there was coal to be scrounged and made an exit from the house. He was nowhere to be seen as his mother asked Ralph to go down to the fish quay and try and get some sea coal from the Black Middens. The coal barges brought sea coal that had slate in it to the power stations and it was used to power ships and the ferryboats.
Ralph took a coal sack with him down onto the beach at low tide and picked up coal that had fell off the barges and was washed ashore. He managed to fill the bag about half full before the tide came back in then he had to take it home. The trouble with sea coal was, it burned alright, but it would spit of pieces of slate. They were all sitting around the fire one evening when a large piece shot out of the fire and smashed the light bulb. There were glass splinters everywhere. Hannah took up a brush and shovel and swept up the scullery before anyone cut their feet on the shards of glass. “Tomorrow Ralph, you and John can take the old pram up the lines and see if you can get some sidings. Sidings as they were called were big lumps of coal that fell from the wagons as the coal was being transported around the country. It was illegal to be caught on the lines or to steal the coal from the coal board but desperate means’ called for desperate measures. They would have frozen to death in the freezing weather of the North East. The cold winds howled and all the windows were kept shut even when cooking to keep what little heat there was inside.
At night when they lay in bed trying desperately to keep warm. Coats would be placed on top of the sheet and candlewick bed spread in an effort to keep in body heat. Both Ralph and John sent a steam cloud of air into the bedroom as they hugged the bedclothes. It was at this time of year that every family relied on a big pan of broth in order to fight off the winter cold.
In the morning Ralph braved the frosty air and took the pram up to the lines at Percy Main it was five in the morning and there was only the odd person knocking about.
He ran with the pram up to Smiths Park he found the gap in the fence then climbed through, and then pulled the pram through the gap. He had to haul it up the embankment then make his way up the lines that were used for the coal wagons. He found what he was looking for a bout half a mile up the lines where the trains turned on a bend. It was here that the greatest piles of sidings would be found. Ralph picked up the coal shovel and used it to shovel up the smaller pieces of coal as every bit was a valuable source of heat. The larger lumps went on top.
Derelict houses became a treasure trove because the floorboards and joists were ripped out and used for firewood. The council got rid of old furniture from those who had died. They were either utilised or chopped up to keep a fire going. Bonfire night was also a great time for collecting wood and John and Ralph would go into gardens and steal firewood meant for the bonfire night celebrations.
Ralph got what he came for then hurried home again. It was now twenty past seven and he would just have time to get himself washed and ready for school.
He and John attended Western Board Primary School. It was Johns last term in the school he would be moving on to Linskill School after the Christmas Holidays.
Ralph would lose the protection of his older brother but he had to stand on his own two feet and this would be the telling time.