George Cunningham: History of His Family ~ Part 2

The Pickle Makers

Researched and written by Gemma Clarke

Pickling onions illustration taken from "By George! My childhood in Sheffield." Page 21. 1987
Photo: Paul Hibbert-Greaves
Cemetry Road taken from "By George! My childhood in Sheffield." Page 84. 1987
Photo: Paul Hibbert-Greaves

George used to spend his early years at the Pickle Factory which was on Queen Street and his playground was round the big wooden tubs of onions that were bobbing about in brine. At the time, the Cunningham family were fairly prosperous when Sid bought a wireless which was the only one in the street. When the family firm finished, his trips to the shop ceased along with outings with Tom the Carter who used to take him out on the dray. The picture and story show how when the factory on Queen Street ceased, how the Cunningham’s worked to make a living and a set-back did not stop them from creating a good business in order to earn a living.

Pickle Making inside No. 49 Michael Road

‘After the pots were washed he [Sid] went out on to the cellar head and brought out the pancheon which he placed in front of the hearth. This puzzled me, especially when he filled the vessel with water and stirred in a liberal quantity of salt. He told my brother and me to sit on chairs and gave us a table knife apiece. Things were getting interesting, even exciting, until he went into the kitchen and came out with a sack of onions, gave us each a little pile, then showed Bill and me how to peel them.’

‘It wasn’t easy. At first, when there was some skin left on there was something to grip, but on the last cut the shiny globe would shoot out of my hand and land anywhere but in the water.’

‘When the onions were bottled, capped and labelled, Dad packed them into a suitcase and went out to sell them. He had to walk or go on a tram and sometimes he would come home, tired and wet, with a nearly full case and put a few shillings on the table. Sometimes he would arrive with an empty case and, rather unsteady on his feet, put down a little more money and a bag of ju-jubes. There was money for coal and even enough to have the wireless accumulator charged.’


I had become quite expert and could top, tail and peel an onion scarcely without looking and quoit it into the brine. Nightly we sat, peeling away, with Charlie the canary from his cage in the corner giving an occasional chirrup before he put his head under his wing for the night.’

‘The heat from the fire and the gas mantle, and the plop of onions into the brine lulled me into a dreamy stupor which ended abruptly when I topped off my chair.’

“Time you were in bed, young man,” said my mother as I replaced myself and she wrapped up a hot oven plate in an old blanket for Dad to take upstairs for a bed-warmer. Cheese sandwiches for supper, and because I was coughing I had my chest rubbed and covered with a square of red flannel. As a sign of our increasing affluence a shovel full of hot coals had been brought up and a fire lit in the little cast iron bedroom grate. I snuggled down watching the friendly glow on the ceiling, then I was lulled into slumber by the sound of trams cruising along Ecclesall Road and by the fumes of camphorated oil and onions.’

P. 20, Chapter 5, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).

Interview with George

‘My err grandfather George Barringer had a pickle business in Queen Street, quite a prosperous one and it was taken over by my mother on the death of him and her brothers, in what the late 1920s and then she married my father. And err something went wrong with the business it err collapsed and what have you, for whatever reason, in those days and um my father was out of work obviously, and there was no dole, so he started making pickles in the back kitchen at home. And he, my mother, my brother and I used to spend night after night skinning onions, peeling onions, and helping to bottle them. He would then take them out in a suitcase each day. And after a bit of doing this, there was a pub, the Royal Oak on Cemetery Road, and the landlord, he had a backroom at the pub, he let my father have this rent free, and he made pickles there, and take them out next day. And, after a bit business was prospering to the extent he said we’d better get a van for you, and he got an old Morris Bullnose van.’

Mr Roy Newman, George Cunningham’s Life, Paintings and Interests, Dinnington & District Historical Society,, Reference copy available at Sheffield Local Studies Library.

Christmas Day

Then one morning I woke and sat up in bed with my breath steaming, to find on the blankets that during the night, although I had tried desperately hard to keep awake, my brother and I had been given an orange, a shiny new real penny and a net full of chocolate ones covered in gold paper. He had a Blow Football set, which I was a bit envious of, but I had a snakes and Ladders set and on top of all these treasures there was a selection box apiece.’

The Pickle Business

After the festive season was over the pickle business slumped even though Dad had branched out with extra lines. These were mixed pickles of cauliflower, gherkin and onions which I enjoyed arranging in patterns in the glass jars and piccalilli which he boiled on the gas ring in a big saucepan, filling the house with the aroma of pickling spice and turmeric. But in spite of all his efforts, my father came home in the late winter evenings tired and wet, with very little money to put on the table. The fire in the grate grew smaller, so that we had to huddle near to it for warmth and a penny for the gas was hoarded until the last flickering minute.’

‘There was no money to charge the accumulator for the wireless, which Dad resolutely refused to part with, as though clinging to the last remaining memory of our former affluence. Some nights we didn’t peel any onions. My brother and I played at blow football or snakes and ladders, but mother and father seemed to spend most of their time just staring into the fire.’

P. 27, Chapter 8, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).


All through the Winter Mam had somehow found the money to buy Radio Malt and Scott’s Emulsion. When I first saw a bottle of the latter concoction, with its picture of a jolly bearded fisherman carrying a cod on his back, I thought it must be something nice, until I tasted it. Mam made sure that I got it down, standing over me, insisting that I lick the spoon and assuring me that it would build me up.’


As the weather warmed up out came the brimstone and treacle. “To clear the blood,” she said as I manfully gulped it down, at the same time wondering how anything as thick, dark and as sticky as that could possibly clear anything. Every Friday night a spoonful of California Syrup of Figs was administered, the idea being that as there was no school for the next two days the potion could take effect at home with less disastrous consequences. Some Saturday mornings as my stomach rumbled and gurgled with the sounds of battle between the opposing forces and the situation being further inflamed by hot tea, I didn’t dare cough until the blessed relief of the lavatory had been reached.’

P. 33, Chapter 10, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).

Winter Clothes

As the days shortened and the cold strengthened out came the camphorated oil; the long scarf was wrapped around me and tied at the back and it was on with the trusty blue Melton overcoat, now just short enough to chafe the backs of my legs but still good enough for another winter. It was too dark after tea to play football so some nights we played Relivo when it was too cold to sit on Smith’s steps.’

A Trip Out

One evening, Dad said he’d take me to see a demonstration of fire-fighting and although I felt I would have preferred to stay in and read, or even peel onions, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings because he took me out more than he did my brother. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I was a bit of a wreckling, having already had more than a fair share of childish ailments plus a rupture for which I had to wear a leather truss for a time. It seemed a very long walk up to the fire station.’

Feeling Unwell

My legs were weak and I was shivering, although I felt hot, and by the time we reached the crowd gathered in Rockingham Street I was panting for breath.’

‘I tugged at Dad’s hand to get him to go home, but he kept saying, “In a minute, I just want to see this bit”, until finally he yielded to my persistence.’

‘Clarence Street was very unsteady: sometimes its paving stones were a long way from my feet and yet in the next step would try to trip me up; the gas lamps bobbed and swam about as though they were in a rough sea. My father must have been worried, because he didn’t call in at Charlie MacWatt’s pub. He put his arm round me for the last few yards.’


And when we got in, Mam, surprised at our early homecoming, took one look at me, felt my forehead and at once undressed me. Dad carried my hot, shaking body to bed. Whichever way I laid the pain in my side was always there. I tossed and turned and sometimes fell from a great height, yelling and screaming, but I couldn’t escape.’

‘Once I saw my mother’s face above me, drawn and worried, with tears in her eyes, but my arms felt so heavy I couldn’t reach up to her. Something hard and cold pressed against my chest and from a long way off a voice said, “Aye, it’s pneumonia all right.”

Back Home After Six Months

The sky above Clarence Street seemed very small compared to the one at Lodge Moor. And the noise was deafening. Cartwheels on cobbles, trams groaning and clanging, hard heels against even harder paving stones – all merged into a din of sounds I hadn’t heard for months. T’Owd Foundry’s smoke competed with the house chimneys to give me a welcome better than a twenty-one gun salute. Mrs Hurst’s shop door was open, letting out a mouth-watering smell of the beef she roasted for sandwiches, and Mr Beresford stood on his step smiling and washing his hands with invisible soap. Our house was small and dark. But it was nice to sit on a soft chair at the side of a coal fire.’

In the Papers

Later that evening my mother cleared a corner of the table and brought out a pile of cuttings she had saved from the Telegraph. “That was your number,” she said, pointing to the head of a column marked ‘Dangerously Ill’. It was 1991 and I was rather proud to see that I was top of the bill for quite a long time before being relegated to ‘Serious but Improving’, then ‘Out of Danger’, until finally I joined the congested ranks of the ‘Convalescent’.’

PP. 72-78, Chapter 26, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).

Further Bad News

When I had been home a few days a letter came from Lodge Moor. My mother opened it and I saw her face cloud over. Dad was sitting at the table trying to compose a winning couplet to Bullets in one of his many attempts to fill the family coffer. “Now what’s up?” He sucked his top denture, a habit of his when exasperated. “Our Georgie’s got to go to Queen’s Road to be X-rayed,” Mam replied. “We’ve got to be there next Monday at nine o’clock.” This information had a disquieting effect on father. He threw down his pencil and asked for spiritual guidance by shouting, “God Almighty, what next?” He then donned hat and coat and went out.’

‘When he returned home in the afternoon he was more composed, though a little glassy-eyed, and he had brought me a bag of ju-jubes. He never gave us hard spice, due to a fear of choking which resulted from his childhood when a large piece of Everton toffee had lodged in his gullet and he had to be turned upside down and shaken and banged on the back.’

Glad to be Home

‘After tea, out came the pancheon and the onions. It was as if I had never been away, although I was a bit out of practice, letting the occasional one shoot out of my grasp, and my eyes watered profusely. Nothing had changed. The big ornaments festooned with bunches of grapes stood at each end of the mantelpiece, flanking the clock with its stained dial and muffled tick, a result of Dad’s over-indulgence with the camphorated oil when it stopped one night.’

No More School!

On the way back home Mam told me that I hadn’t to go to school until I was discharged from the Clinic; this cheered me up as I had begun to feel that having tuberculosis hadn’t proved, so far, very interesting.’

PP. 79-80, Chapter 27, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).

Public Houses

One of my father’s favourite hostelries was The Royal Oak at the bottom of Cemetery Road. It had become his usual practice to write an order for pickle jars or make out his ‘Bullets’ entry during the evening. Then after nine o’clock, just as I was getting ready to go up to bed, he’d put down the newspaper and start to glance up at the clock every five seconds, check the time with his watch, clear his throat and remark to no one in particular, “I’ll just about catch the post tram.”

‘He must have had a poor sense of direction because he always went past the stop at the bottom of Ecclesall Road to go into The Oak and emerge an hour later to walk back through the Co-op Arcade, just in time to deposit his envelope into the box on the tram. This is what Mam told me when I asked her why Dad took so long on a five minute errand, for he nearly always woke me up when he came home and I seemed to have been in bed for hours.’

A Business Creation- The Royal Oak

‘This association blossomed to such an extent that one day Dad came home with the momentous news that henceforth the pickle manufacturing would take place at the back of the pub. He took me down, along with some spare pickle jars, but Mam insisted that he leave the pancheon at home in case things didn’t work out.’

Mr Lawrence Hartley

I was introduced to the landlord, Mr Lawrence Hartley, a lean, sharp-featured man with a bald head and a brisk manner, who shook me firmly by the hand and gave me a bag of crisps and a bottle of lemonade. I began to understand why my father liked public houses so much, if every landlord was as generous as Mr Hartley.’

‘The Cunningham Pickle Company’s new premises was to consist of the old washhouse in the backyard, reached by a passage to the street. My mother and I went to help every day, but trade increased to the extent that extra staff had to be employed.’

P. 81, Chapter 28, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).

The Cunningham Van

I still wasn’t strong enough to run or walk very far and one morning I was in the backyard of The oak, playing with Blacky, the big labrador which belonged to the pub, when the insistent honking of a motor-horn summoned us both into the street. There was Dad at the wheel of a dark blue van with a big round shiny brass radiator. Mr Hartley patted it with pride while I goggled in wonderment. “It’s a Morris Bullnose, best model Lord Nuffield ever made, it’ll last for ever,” he declaimed. “Hop in, we’ll go for a spin!” I was bundled into the back of the van with Blacky, who had been barking his head off with excitement, but still managing to cock a leg up on the front wheel.’


Thus happily launched we set off on our maiden voyage down Cemetery Road. “Stick your hand out, Sid, we’ll go up London Road,” commanded the captain, lighting a cigarette and helping Dad to change gear. We zoomed past the Landsdowne Picture Palace with a fusillade of backfires which stirred a ragman’s pony into a gallop and shed a brass bedstead onto the road.’

P. 83, Chapter 29, By George! (courtesy of Paul Hibbert-Greaves/Hibbert Brothers).


 Michael Road

The Man and His Art ~ Introduction

This page was added by Gemma Clarke on 26/03/2015.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *