I didn’t think that I would be writing these words but I find myself returning to Cannon Street.
No, I am not having a Daphne du Maurier moment. You will remember that she opens her famous novel “Rebecca” with the famous words: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”.
The Alfred Hitchcock film made a great impression on me when I was a boy, not because I was absorbed by the story, or wished to be identified with one of the characters, but because I felt that there was something wrong with the storyline. I had to get the book. So I walked up Burnley Road and ordered it from the little library in Haggate. I found that, whereas the film did not make much sense to me, the novel did.
I think I have written before that I often think of the Cannon Street and Bridge Street parts of Burnley. My grandfather had one of his shops on Bridge Street. My father’s first job, when he left school, was at Webster’s, Burnley’s most well-known department store, which was located at the junction of the two streets.
I ought to tell you that I have never lived on either of these streets but my mother had a theory about why I always felt, sort of at-home, on Cannon Street. Those of you who are my age will know that it was on Cannon Street that Webster’s had the entrance to their great toy department.
I spent hours in there, from about the age of 11 to 14, admiring the shop’s Hornby train set as it raced around a track constructed for it in the middle of a large sales area on the first floor. Then there were the Dinky toys (scale models of cars, lorries and buses). They were displayed in glass cases attached to the walls of an area at the bottom of the stairs which led to the sales floor.
I always looked out for new toys and, I am afraid, that I often pestered my mum for a game which I could play with my brothers and sisters. Mother did not often give in to my demands, but one of the games, a magnetic quiz, I argued, had educational value. This persuaded her that, if she bought it, there was the probability that it would keep me quiet and it might have the same effect on my brothers and sisters. (There were eventually eight of us).
She asked how much the game was. “Nineteen and eleven pence, madam” came the reply from one of the shop assistants. Mother must have thought that her investment in the game might pay dividends and, much to my delight, she bought it.
The Frosts were a family of “quizzers”. We had lots of different quiz books but the trouble was that we had used them so often that we knew all the answers. William Collins, the Scottish publishers produced our favourite series of quiz books. They were based on television and radio quiz programmes like “Round Britain Quiz” and I remember us (the Frost children, that is) getting visiting cousins to take on the role of question master.
They were already out-numbered. We “racked our brains” for answers we already knew! This procedure had the desired effects of demonstrating the superiority of the Frosts and it put our unsuspecting relations in their place! It was a bit of juvenile one-upmanship, and totally dishonest but I do not need to tell you that, in subsequent years, we were found out! A few of our cousins have proved to be a bit more intelligent than we thought they were!
The quiz worked by magnetism. The pioneer question-master (me, of course), my brothers and sisters opposite me, placed a plastic model, which looked like a ringmaster at a circus, into a little hole on a board around which a sheet of printed questions had been placed. The “ringmaster” held a whip-like pointer and I would turn him, and it, to a question, reading it out to one of my victims. No one could argue with my interpretation of the answer because the “ring master” came back into play when he was placed in another little hole. He then spun around and the pointer came to rest on the correct answer.
We spent many happy hours with this game and I still miss it to this day. I have to admit that the older I get the more that I miss Bridge Street and Cannon Street. There was something about them which, even in the years which followed the times depicted in today’s images, I found fascinating. There was the narrow alley of Water Street which linked the bus stops on St James’s Street to Cannon Street.
At the top of Water Street, which, until the area was developed just before the First World War, was a fully-fledged though narrow street, there was the entrance to Burnley’s subterranean town centre toilets. I remember using these and I recall the feet of shoppers walking on the thick glass pavement outside the Council transport offices casting shadows on the gent’s urinal below.
Further down Water Street, there were doors which allowed cinema-goers out of the Palace, though they were barred to those who wanted to get in from the street. At the bottom of Water Street, the vast bulk of the Palace was to the right. I used to marvel that such a small piece of land could accommodate such a big cinema.
Then I got the opportunity, when my sister was appearing on stage, to go inside. The Palace wasn’t really a cinema at all. It had been built as the Palace Hippodrome in 1907, a theatre with a large auditorium but with very small and inadequate changing rooms and backstage facilities. These were dark and served by narrow stairs. Backstage was quite frightening. It would have been the perfect place to shoot a film about a murder in theatre.
Opposite the bottom of Water Street was the Webster’s store. It ran almost the full length of Cannon Street. The main entrance was at the Bridge Street-Cannon Street junction but there were other entrances, some of them permanently locked by the time I knew them, along Cannon Street. Two of them, the first of which was almost directly opposite, led to the toy department.
This was the entrance that housed the enticing display of Dinky toys. I was horrified when the “Matchbox” series of much smaller model cars was given space on the glass-fronted shelves. So far as I was concerned it was impossible to improve on Dinky toys. I regarded the Matchbox models as imposters.
Mind you, it did not take me long to get over this shock. There were plenty of exciting discoveries to be made on the sales floor up the stairs ahead of me. I got to know the staff quite well as some of the more senior members knew my father who had worked in the store in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In fact he worked in a number of the Webster’s stores in Burnley. There were other shops on St James’s Street and at Gannow.
The firm had been founded, in Padiham, I think, by Richard Webster (Dickie to all his friends) as a pawnbrokers. The store, on its Bridge Street elevation, still had its “three golden balls” (the sign of a pawnbroker) high up on the wall and my Dad used to tell stories of some of the amazing characters who came into the pawn department on a regular basis.
One was about a woman, who came into the shop, on the same day of every week, carrying a heavy parcel. She placed it down the counter and asked, “What’ll you give me for this, Walt?” My dad would pick up the parcel and pretend to estimate its weight by passing it from hand to hand. He would not unwrap it to see what was inside. “Oh. Same as last time, Poppy”, he would say, and he would make out a ticket and pass it over to his customer, giving her a few coppers at the same time. She would be back after the weekend to retrieve the parcel.
Poppy had fallen on hard times. She had once been a beautiful young girl but she had married badly and, when her husband had gone away, she had been left with almost nothing. Everyone in the shop knew that, inside the ancient wrappings of the parcel that she presented every week at Webster’s, there was nothing more than an old and decaying red brick.
Whether, in old age, she needed the money or whether it was the company she craved, no one knew, but I remember meeting her when I was a little boy. Dad and I were walking along St James’s Street, to catch the number 50 back to Harle Syke, when a little old lady, carrying a heavy-looking parcel, called out: “What’ll you give me for this, Walt?”
It was the last either of us saw her, but I still think of Poppy when I am in the Bridge Street area of town. In the 192’s and 30s she lived in the “Irish Park”, the part of town which began behind Webster’s, on the other side of the Brun.
By the time that Poppy lived there it was an area of dark back-to-back houses, some of which were very small. Webster’s would have been her local pawnbrokers and, within perhaps only a hundred yards of her little house there was almost everything that she could ever want – friendly but noisy pubs, tiny pie and peas cafés and small corner shops. The Irish Park was a real, if poor, community where everyone knew everyone else and, in a way, everyone looked out for their neighbours.
Although today’s pictures come from neighbouring Wapping, on the left bank of the Brun, where Cannon Street and Webster’s were located, they constitute my way into understanding this part of town.
I hope that you find them interesting.