In Memory of Russell Collins 1917 – 2008
I was born in the summer of 1917 in the small village of Pill, in a large detached house at Pump Square, surrounded by 5 public houses, the Duke of Cornwall, the Red Lion Inn, the Swan Inn, Mariners Arms (which was used for storage of timber whilst I was a boy), and the Waterloo Inn. There were many other pubs in the village, The Shepherds Arms, The Star, The Railway Inn, the Kings Head, The Rising Sun and the Anchor Inn at Ham Green
I was the second eldest of a family of six children, four girls and two boys.
Although a large house, there was no garden. The walls were so thick, the window sills were large enough to place the babies on (on a cushion and coats). We had no cots or cribs. The house was very cold and damp, continually smelling of the drains. It seemed that at high tide the smell was exceptionally bad inside the house. Each evening before my father was due home from work, my mother would light a rag and go from room to room with it to disguise the stench.
Although we had an indoor toilet (no bath of course), it was in a very dark corner of the kitchen. We had no electricity, just oil lamps. The water was supplied through a standpipe in the back kitchen, into a bucket (no sink), which was then poured down the toilet. We cooked on an open fire in the kitchen. We had no ovens. The house originally had built-in ovens at the side of the fire, but during my time there they were unusable as at some time in the past before I was born they had caved in and were never repaired.
My mother would buy a joint of meat on Saturdays, it would hang on a tripod in front of the fire. As a young child I would sit and baste and turn the meat for her. I recall Dr Newsome, when visiting one of my sick sisters, saying that we were the last house in the village to cook this way, but we had no other way.
As we were surrounded by pubs, every weekend there were fights in Pump Square. The Avonmouth boys would come over on the ferry. My mother insisted that we go inside early in the evening before the Avonmouth boys arrived. The local policeman who was based in the police house next to the school would arrive, but often there was nothing he could do and left them to get on with it. Many times men were thrown into the Creek during the fights.
I attended Pill school from 1922 when I was 5 years old until I was 14 in 1931. Discipline was very strict. The cane was in daily use and I recall one child having 12 strokes of the cane.
I attended Pill Baptist Church until I was 14. I attended twice each Sunday.
When I was a child I had an old aunt who lived on the river-front. The houses on the river-front had shutters which would slide over the front door to stop the high tide from going in to the house. Often I would stay home from school at high tide to collect the clay-type mud from the slip-way. I would plaster this mud on the front of the shutters to act as a barrier against the rising tide. However the river would still come up under her floorboards and up through her toilet. I would often sit on her stairs and watch the tide rise into her house, far enough to put the fire out in the grate.
When I was about 7 years old a boat called the “Ettric” (Bristol City Museum Reference) went aground at Horseshoe Bend. It tipped over on its side and the general cargo washed out of the holds. Everyone in Pill did well with the salvage ! I recall Frys Five Boys Chocolate which we were eating for weeks. I recall a policeman was guarding a pile of salvage on the slip-way and Captain Preston came over to me and my mate and said “I will take the policeman round to see some more salvage round the corner, when I am gone, help yourselves”. We loaded all we could carry and ran to the back alleyways to hide our bounty.
My parents did very well out of the salvage. My uncle who lived with us was a hobbler and he was able to salvage from the wreckage using his own boat. At the top of our stairs we had a cupboard, My father took the latches off, put the loot in (which was mostly Puriton soap and Woodbines) and wallpapered over it so the customs men would not find out, as they were asking everyone to give back the loot.
My uncle used to take men up the river to look at the boat on its side and I used to go with them. He used to charge 1 shilling a trip!
Hundreds of people would view the ship from the shore. It stayed there a long time and was eventually towed away.
When my uncle worked as a ferryman, it is said that he would take the fare in the boat, which was overlooked by the Old Customs House (The Watchhouse). An old lady used to sit in the window knitting – she had a pin cushion to her side and for every person who crossed the ferry she would put a pin in the pin cushion. At the end of his shift, the ferryman had to walk to the Watchhouse and pay in the takings for his shift. The money had to tally with the pins in her pin cushion.
There was not much to do in the village for children. There were three “mobs”. The Park Mob, The Longshore Mob and the Pill Field Mob. Pill Field is where we used to play football (it now Newsome Avenue).
My mother always told us to keep away from Watchhouse, as the “Oakum Boys” would get us. She told us that they lived in Ham Green Woods, but this was just a story to stop us going there. She did not like us collecting chestnuts at Ham Green because there were lots of men walking around who had “consumption” (Ham Green was a fever hospital at the time). Before I was born the pilots used to have their boats built at Watchhouse. The Oakum boys were the labourers to the men who would caulk the boats. (Oakem is a hemp which was treated with tar, and was used for caulking seams in wooden ships)
On the river-side at Ham Green there were steps leading to the river. Three nurses were there in the 1930’s, paddling their feet in the high tide. Two of them slipped in and were drowned. My uncle who was a ferryman at the time picked them up from the river some time later.
During the winter months the lake at Ham Green would sometimes freeze. One year two boys were playing on the ice, it gave way beneath then and they were drowned.
I also recall a ferryman was drowned whilst I was a child.
There are many stories of how “Pill Sharks” got its name. One of the stories is the name was derived because if a dead body was found in the river, the person who recovered it would get paid (usually a ferryman). He would take the body to the Shirehampton side because if taken there would get more money than if he had taken it to the Pill, Somerset side.
There were almost no cars when I was a child. The roads were mostly gravel. Eventually they were tarmaced, but they were still narrow. People mainly travelled by train which ran every half hour from Portishead to Temple Meads.
As a child we would play lots of street games such as Knock Out Ginger, knocking on doors and running away, and we would put black cotton across the road to knock people’s hats off. We would get chased but we would disappear in the alleyways.
Pill Rag was always an occasion that we looked forward to. It used to be held in November. Of course there were no lorries to decorate so we used to have a huge bonfire on the green. We had home made masks on our faces, and would carry a tin with a rag and paraffin, which we would light up and carry through the streets, something that would not be allowed now !
Pill Regatta was another occasion that we loved. There were so many boats on the river, there were men on greasy poles falling into the water, and many boat races.
Another highlight of the year was our annual trip to Weston Super Mare with The Baptist Chapel and the other churches in Pill. Several charabancs each year were loaded with people and we spent a lovely day at Weston Super Mare rain or shine.
At weekends I would help my father on his allotment I would buy one penny worth of yellow sherbet, and put it into two bottles of water to make lemonade to enjoy while we gardened.
There were plenty of horses in Pill. I would go around the streets with a hand made barrow collecting the manure for the garden. I would also sometimes call into the slaughterhouse at Back Lane for two buckets of blood to put on 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, it was in a lump as it had congealed and the crows had eaten it. He was cross because I should have waited for him to dilute it in the rain-water barrel.
Another of our pleasures was that sometimes a boatman would take us, when the tide went out, to the mouth of the river Avon, and we would scrape the sand for coal to take home for the fire. We could usually get one bucket full which we thought was wonderful. The tide would then lift the boat off the sand and we would float back up to Pill.
Good pickings could also be had at Horseshoe Bend. But we had to row against the tide to get there and back again, so we did not go there so often.
In the posh area of Pill, Monmouth Road, a house had a wireless set. We would creep under the front wall and wait for the music to be played. We were soon chased away, and the owners would call us “urchins”.
Pill was a lucky village during the war. Although we had lots of bombs around us, there were only two casualties, Pill Church and a house at Watchhouse Road were bombed by incendiaries.
In about 1932 our house in Pump Square was demolished. We moved into a brand new Council House facing the river. The fields were surrounding us 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 in the large garden. The whole family would walk “down Longshore to the Wharf” to collect wood washed up by the tide for our fire. During the mushroom season we would get up at about 5.00 am to go mushrooming in the fields.
We had electricity and proper sanitation, My mother thought it was absolutely wonderful.