Remembering Mary Owens 1923-2022 (Part 2 of 5)

Continued from Part 1 yesterday and more of my interview with the late Mary Owens of Blantyre, who sadly passed away at the end of October, aged 99. A month earlier, Mary told me:

Play was often with brothers and sisters. James, Hugh and Rose. They all excelled at school, fully supported by their parents and throughout their lives, they were close.. Baby Rose however sadly died at only 10 days old but another later child (b1934) took the same name. Mary added, “There was a girl who worked beside my mother called Rose”, which is why the family chose this name.

One of Mary’s earliest memories was about her younger brother Hugh, aged only 3 at the time in 1928, when she was only 5. She remembers Hugh went missing, causing concern within the family due to his young age. “He had run away from the house to High Blantyre Station. When asked what he was doing there, he said he wanted to see the trains. There were no electric lines, so he was safe enough.”

Hugh Owens, Mary’s father worked down the pits at Priory Colliery. His family were originally Irish from a farm near Clones. One of his sisters apparently became the first head housekeeper at Stormont. His family were very poor farmers and so moving to Scotland for employment opportunities as a miner seemed appropriate. Mining however, was a difficult profession. Hugh and his own father were often called in to fix equipment in the mine when it broke. Mary told me, “He had a dangerous job. They weren’t allowed to smoke inside the mine, but Hugh did smoke as the man in charge of him smoked, and allowed people who worked with him to smoke too. Thankfully, no explosions.

My mother had to wash my father’s clothes every day when he came home.” Pausing for a moment, she added, “No automatic washing machines then, she used a mangle.”

Mary admits she was a little closer to her mother than her father. Perhaps due to the hours working in the pit, her mother, Catherine had more time for her and her siblings. I was left with the lasting impression Mary and her mother were close.

Mary’s mother, Catherine “Kitty” Keoghan or Keohan was born in Tramore, Ireland. She came to Glasgow in her sister’s footsteps around 1913 and joined her sister in the kitchen of Henry Francis Newbery, the first head of Glasgow Art School, a painter himself, and friend of Mackintosh who designed the Art School. When her sister got married and had to give up her job, Kitty became their main cook. After marrying Hugh in 1921, the couple came to Blantyre to settle and children soon followed in post WW1 years with their first child James born a year later.

These were difficult years as Ireland fought for its independence. Bigotry by others was rife both there and in Scotland. Around this time in Ireland, there was an incidence called the ‘Pickardstown Ambush’ where the underground IRA attacked the army barracks unsuccessfully. A story was told to me, where Paddy Keoghan, Mary’s Uncle had climbed down the cliffs and hid in a cave when the British soldiers hunted for those involved. When he came back up, he had pneumonia and died.

From Low to High Blantyre

The Owens family suffered a big setback in 1928, when their house at Blantyre Lodge, in the Village along others was cleared and demolished due to improvement works nearby at Shuttle Row which was being turned into the David Livingstone Museum. This left many families homeless, including the seven families sharing the Blantyre Lodge House. However, I was relieved to see that the Owens family were one of the luckier families, rehoused. Mary was just 5 years old and this event being 94 years ago, has understandably little to no recollection of her time there or the house move.

There was a lot going on in 1928/1929 at the village. The village saw extensive demolition in those years, Waterloo Row just one of many properties to be completely cleared. However, a programme of regeneration meant spacious new houses were being built in various places in Blantyre. Homes in the Village weren’t quite ready in the aftermath of the fire, but those in High Blantyre were nearing completion and the family found themselves renting a brand-new County Council home in Maxwell Crescent, just off Auchinraith Road. This was a far cry from the smaller home they had been used to. These homes had indoor toilets, separate kitchens and several bedrooms with miner’s families at the time stating they seemed ‘palatial’ by comparison to older miner’s rows.

Mary told me, “Whenever we moved home, thankfully new houses always seemed to be ready.” The Owens family are in the 1930 Valuation register at number 36 Maxwell Crescent, but by 1935 they were living at number 34, having swapped homes, moving into the adjacent house. This sometimes happened with council properties by agreement, especially if families required larger homes. My own grandmother did this too. The Owens remained there throughout WW2 years.

Around this time of “the 1928 move”, Mary started School and being of Catholic upbringing this meant attending St Joseph’s School, which was located in an old building on Glasgow Road, immediately next to the St Joseph’s Chapel, where mass was conducted. Remembering back all those years, Mary commented, “We didn’t refer to ourselves as ‘Roman’ Catholic, just ‘Catholic’. We had to go upstairs to the school rooms and priests also lived in the building.”

“Teachers were generally kind, but strict. The use of canes or the strap as punishment was dependent upon the individual teacher. I remember one time when we were going home, the teacher saying to the children, ‘Don’t put on your coats just yet’, but I forgot and put my coat on anyway. The teacher, Mr Farrell was so angry and in a rage about this, he gave me the strap! But I held my pride. I wasn’t going to cry in front of the boys in my class! It was the only time at school I got punished.”

Mary proved herself as an intelligent child, scoring well in exams and by her own admission, “I’ve always been clever”, she joked. Her grades and education would set her in good readiness for a later promising career.

To be continued on Part 3 tomorrow

There’s more wonderful photos to illustrate Mary’s story. She is pictured around 1927 at Maxwell Crescent, Blantyre at their new home, alongside mother Kitty, sister Stasi and brothers Jim and Hugh. Mary is the little girl. The other photo taken a few years later at the start of the 1930s, is Mary and her brothers Hugh and Jim.

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