Following on from The Colour of Life, my father-in-law Geoff Cronin wrote two more books with stories of life in Waterford and Dublin from the 1930s. He collected the stories on his travels, swapping them with others in return for his own and then treating us to the results of the exchange. Geoff also added some jokes overheard just for the Craic…Over the next few weeks I will be sharing selected stories from Milestones Along the Way.
The Saga of Selby
In the ’50s Joan and I were still living in Ursula’s Terrace. We had three children and even though I had built a kitchen on to the house, we were hard pressed for space. We badly needed a bigger house and our prospects of achieving that were extremely remote. The company which was parent of my employer would have given me a mortgage but it was limited to two and a half times my salary which worked out at £700. At that time the going price for a ‘starter’ house was £1,200–£1,500, so obviously the odds were stacked against us.
Being without a car meant that our weekend recreation was limited to a walk round the suburbs or to the local park and it was on one of these Sunday walks that we noticed the house. It was a four-bedroomed terrace house and the name on the gate was ‘Selby’. It was vacant and up for auction in a couple of weeks’ time. On enquiry, it turned out to have been vacant for three years and it looked a bit shabby. Sheer curiosity led me to enquire further and I discovered that the previous occupier had emigrated and the property was mortgaged to the Royal Liver Insurance Company, who had foreclosed and were therefore the owners. I rang the auctioneers who told me the reserve was £1,200. Now the house in my opinion was easily worth that money, but why was it unsold? What was the catch? On impulse I asked if I could have the keys for the purpose of viewing the property and having obtained them, I went to have a look.
I was in the act of opening the front door when a man who said he lived nearby approached me and putting his hand over my arm he said, “If you’re thinking of buying that house I would advise you not to because the man who lived there previously never paid the rates or the ground rent for years. And, as well as that he owed a lot of money elsewhere and whoever buys that house will be saddled with all that debt. I told several people about this and I thought I should warn you.” He departed and I was left standing with the keys in my hand.
Now I was never one to rely on hearsay or gossip, so I let myself in and saw that the place had been sadly neglected. Off the hallway there was a drawing room with a bay window which was connected by double doors to a small dining room and at the end of the hall was a kitchen. This was floored in old tiles most of which were broken, there was a tap dripping into a sink of sorts on the floor, one small window overlooking a narrow yard and a small pot-bellied stove – solid fuel – at the end wall. The ceiling was cracked and dirty and the remaining wall had been completely covered with wallboard which had come adrift from the wall and now lay halfway across the floor. There was a boiler house adjoining and it had no roof. There was a coal-house next to that.
Upstairs there were four good sized bedrooms and the master had a dressing room also. A bathroom was on that floor too and then on the third floor, which consisted of one large room with a dormer window and a small fireplace. The ‘piece de resistance’ was the heap of ashes piled up in a corner of the room.
Outside was a large garden which was completely overgrown and it had an apple tree in the middle. So this was Selby, a wreck for sure but the building was dry and basically sound and I saw the potential, given that a huge amount of work was required to make it habitable.
That evening I brought my wife to see it and when she saw the kitchen she literally wept and she said, “I wouldn’t want to live in this hovel and anyway you’ll never buy it for £700”.
At this point I began to believe that by some chance, I might possibly be able to buy the place and I knew I could handle the renovations. Next I found that the Royal Liver could be held liable for the outstanding rates and ground rent and there appeared to be very little interest in the forthcoming auction. So I went to my solicitor and instructed him to attend the auction and bid to buy on the very strict understanding that the price would have to include auctioneers fees and his own fees, and the total could not exceed £700 because that was all I had.
At first he refused quoting the fact that the reserve was £1,200 and while he was considering the matter, I told him to remember I wanted clear title as well. Finally he agreed saying the offer was ridiculous and that he didn’t know what the auctioneer would think of him on making such an offer. Well I arranged the mortgage at £700 and held my breath until the day of the auction.
So came the day and the solicitor rang me that afternoon. “You must be the luckiest man I ever met,” he laughed. “You’ve got the house.”
“And the price?” I asked.
“£700 plus the auctioneer’s fees,” he said. “Withdraw the bid,” I said, “the offer has to include the fees as I told you, I haven’t any more money.” There was a moment of silence and then he said.
“For God’s sake man, how am I supposed to do that?” “I don’t know,” I replied, “but I gave you my instructions and you better see the auctioneer immediately.” He hung up the phone!
About midday the next day he rang me at work. “I don’t know who you have been praying to,” he said, “but he’s delivered the goods, the house is yours clear and free and the price agreed is £700 including auctioneers fees. Incidentally, only one guy came to the auction and he left before I made my bid.” I could hardly believe my ears and left the office and went to tell my wife the news. “Don’t you worry,” I told her, “when I have finished with that house it will be fit for a Queen.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she replied.
A day or two later I was on my way down town when the manager of the Provincial Bank accosted me. “Mr. Cronin,” he said, “I want to congratulate you on your purchase of Selby and could you stop by my office for a minute.” I did so and he then said, “You will be aware that my bank holds a second mortgage on that property and you now owe me £180.” I replied that I would be in touch with him and left. I went straight to my solicitors and asked him to confirm that I had clear title to Selby.
“Indeed you have.” he said.
“Well now, tell me if I’m right in thinking that when there are two mortgages on a property which is then sold for a price less than the first mortgage, then the second one is null and void?”
“Correct.” he said.
“Well,” I said, “would you ever ring the manager of the Provincial Bank and tell him what to do with his bill for £180 which he asked me to pay on foot of a second mortgage.”
“Consider it done,” he said.
Late that day I was passing the bank when the manager saw me and stepped out to meet me. “I’m glad I met you,” he said, “I’ve been on to my head office and I’m happy to tell you that they have agreed to waive the mortgage charge of £180.”
“I know,” I said, “I was listening to that conversation and by the way, I have a small current account with you – close it! Good day”.
There is a further chapter to this saga… A week later I was in the house when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and there stood a man I had never seen before. “Are you Mr. Cronin, the new owner of this house?” he asked. I answered in the affirmative.
“Well, “he said, “I’m in a difficult situation. I’m a solicitor and I was instructed to bid “£1,200 at auction for this property but when I went to the auction I saw nobody there but your solicitor and I panicked and left without bidding. I have now to offer you the £1,200 if you’ll sell me the house.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t want the money, I want the house.”
He repeated the offer and I again refused and he left expressing deep disappointment.
Well, subsequently, I managed to squeeze another £100 from the company to “redecorate the home”. I got £126 for the back kitchen at No. 30 St Ursula’s Terrace from the incoming tenant and with that money I was able to do all that was required to turn the wreck into a lovely home where we lived happily until 1964 when another chapter began involving a home in Wexford. But that is another story.
One abiding memory of the renovations at Selby remains. I couldn’t get any charlady to tackle the cleaning of that top room with its pile of ashes and had to do it myself – it took a hundred and fifty three buckets of water to complete the job.
©Geoff Cronin 2008
Geoff Cronin 1923 – 2017
About Geoff Cronin
I was born at tea time at number 12 John Street, Waterford on September 23rd 1923. My father was Richard Cronin and my mother was Claire Spencer of John Street Waterford. They were married in St John’s Church in 1919.
Things are moving so fast in this day and age – and people are so absorbed, and necessarily so, with here and now – that things of the past tend to get buried deeper and deeper. Also, people’s memories seem to be shorter now and they cannot remember the little things – day to day pictures which make up the larger canvas of life.
It seems to me that soon there may be little or no detailed knowledge of what life was really like in the 1930s in a town – sorry, I should have said City, in accordance with its ancient charter – like Waterford. So I shall attempt to provide some of these little cameos as much for the fun of telling as for the benefit of posterity.
I hope you have enjoyed this weeks stories from Geoff and I hope you will pop in again next Saturday. Thanks Sally.