The war ended and all England celebrated VE day. Landing craft 180 was no longer any use, so the British government gave them to the French government to use as coal barges up and down the River Seine. So, we were ordered to sail old 180 right up the Seine, to a small wharf, just outside Paris. On our way up the river, we pulled in at a small town called Morlais and we all marched into town accompanied by the local brass band. Our columns of three were soon demolished by local French girls, who seemed very interested in British Matlows.
The working people were genuinely pleased to be set free from German oppression. When we reached our destination, we were bungled into open-topped trucks. It is a good job the sun was shining! We were driven to the coast and went aboard an American destroyer, called the Marine Wolf. We sailed over to Southampton. Then I was sent on to Stranraer, across to Larne and finally ended up in the Queen’s Hotel, Belfast, there to wait until another landing craft was fitted out. Then we were bound for Rangoon.
We spent three weeks in Belfast, during which time we ate too many duck eggs and bacon and drank too much port. Unexpectedly one night, I received a signal from England. Able Seaman Cottam was to be demobbed immediately and returned to brick making. Because of the bombing there was a severe shortage of bricks. I sailed from Belfast to Liverpool, the only passenger on a very smelly cattle boat. I continued to Ashton-on-Mersey, to an old cotton mill.
There I was demobbed and fitted out with a military mac, an Al Capone trilby, a cheap grey cotton suit, with a twisted leg and some brown shoes. All I wanted to do was to get home and see my people once again.
I got off the bus at the Red Lion in Cadishead and went down the side of the pub, across the fields, to our small farm on the north banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. It was an old hall with 17 rooms, stables, cow byres, pig sties and a double-door barn. As I walked along the bridal path in the pasture field, my mother, who was hanging out washing in the farm yard, spotted me and ran down the path. She flung her arms around me and kissed me and was overjoyed that her young son had come home with very few physical defects. I was deaf in one ear and had a hernia and bruised spine. Other than that I was okay. I suddenly blurted out, “Mother I’m going straight. No more coming home drunk.” Mother was delighted. My Dad and all the family made me welcome.
My release from the navy was on conditions that I started immediately at the brick works, so I only had two days at home. Then I went to the works and again I was made welcome. I asked the boss for a job outside. After being on the sea I didn’t fancy an inside job, so he set me to work down the clay pit. I joined a gang comprising of six men. Our job was to keep the brick works supplied with clay.
After the first day at work, the foreman told me that the manager of the Eagle and Child pub would be glad to see me and that the first pint would probably be free. I told him I had promised the old lady I’d go straight, so it would have to be a quick drink. True to his word, the manager was pleased to see me. The first pint was free, but of course I had to reciprocate and buy Sid and the manager a round. I left, but the next night I stayed a bit longer and then when pay day came, I went out and again I went to my old haunts, The White Horse, Irlam. I came home a bit tipsy, but within the fortnight I was back to square one and my mother must have been broken hearted when she heard me fumbling around in the old farm house, worse for wear.
I began to realise, for the very first time, that I was addicted to alcohol. It had got a vice-like grip on me. This went of for a few weeks, until one day I arranged with a pal called Ray, from the clay pit, to meet him outside Harrop’s sports outfitters shop at 7.15pm. We planned to go out and have a night in the White Horse. I was sort of half sitting on Harrop’s shop window when I heard a house door shut to my left and out of the house porch stepped a middle aged lady with silver hair. She was clean and was holding a Bible in her hand.
“Oh, hello Lawrie,” she said. Her name was Mrs. Annie Westbrook. I told her I was okay, then she continued, “Will you come into the Church, to say hello to all the folk?” I flicked my cigarette end into the gutter and told her that wasn’t my line. “I’m going to the White Horse in a few minutes. I’m just waiting for my pal, Ray.” She said it wouldn’t take long to go in and say hello to the people who had sent all the parcels to me and prayed for me while I was away in the war. I hesitated, but there was something about this woman that compelled me to respond to her request, so I said, “Okay, I’ll compromise. I’ll come in for ten minutes and then I’m on my way to the White Horse.
So we both crossed the main road and entered the old gospel mission, which had been a fashion cutting shop in days gone by. Everyone shook my hand and made me welcome, then in came the pastor, Tom Morgan. He walked to the front, took a salvation testament out of his pocket and said, “I’m going to read two scriptures to you. First John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ The second scripture is found in Corinthians II chapter 5:17. ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold all things become new.’ One translation reads, ‘A new life is started inside.’”
When I heard theses scriptures, I thought that I needed a new start, then all the people stood up, took the cushions they had been sitting on and dropped them on the floorboards. They knelt down and one by one they started to pray. I counted them. There wee nineteen in the meeting. Then something unexpected took place. I started to cry; just quietly at first, then I began to sob and sob. As I wept, I felt a strange change take place. I felt a kind of release. Now I know the psychiatrists will say it was a reaction to all that I had gone through during the war – a kind of traumatic stress thing, but I know this wasn’t the case.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Pastor Morgan. I looked up at him, through the tears. He smiled and quietly said, “Lawrie, will you receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour?” I nodded and said that I would. He then gently said to me that he was going to help me to pray a sinners’ prayer, which he did, then we all sang a hymn:
Once I thought I walked with Jesus,
Yet such changeful moods I had
Sometimes trusting, sometimes doubting
Sometimes joyful, sometimes sad.
Oh, the peace my Saviour gives
Peace I never knew before.
For my way has brighter grown,
Since I learned to trust Him more.
The last verse goes like this:
Now I’m trusting every moment
Less than this is not enough
For my Saviour bears me gently
O’er the places once so rough.
Then the pastor closed the meeting. He and all the other people shook my hand and everyone of them was delighted that I had been saved by Grace. Then the pastor told me the times of the meetings and I simply walked slowly out of that old mission.
When I came to the road, it was a matter of turn left, to the White Horse, or turn right and go back to the farm. At 9pm I made my way slowly back to the old farm house and ducked under the very low, thick, living room door. It was a very old building. My mother looked at the clock and said, “Why have you come home? Are you sick? Are you in trouble?” I said, “No. I’ve been to church and received Jesus Christ as my Saviour.” There was a stunned silence, then my Dad, in his Yorkshire accent, said, “You will never regret it lad.” He shook my hand. My mother hugged me and burst into tears and for the first time in nine long years, I sat and ate supper with them, cold sober!
The next morning I went to work. We always got there early and had a smoke and a cup of coffee, whilst we chatted. The boiler man used to light our stove for us. As we were drinking coffee, I spoke out loud and clear and said, “Fellas, last night I went to Church and became a Christian.” There was stunned silence until one man asked me if I was serious. I told him I was and explained that from now on, if I trapped my hand between the tubs or hit my thumb with the hammer, I was going to try not to swear. I knew it was going to be difficult, but thought I’d have to learn a better language. The foreman said, “Tommy Morgan has brain washed you, Lawrie.” I replied that he had not, but that he had preached on John 3:16 and that it made good sense to me.
Up until then I felt that my life had been going down the drain, but now, I told them, I was in for a better life. They then started laying bets on how long I would last as a Christian. Sid, the foreman said, “The first hot summer we have down here in the pit and you will be the first in the Eagle and Child. No one can sink a pint of bitter faster than you can Lawrie!”
I disappointed him. About 15 years later, when preaching in the open air, in Lancaster Road, Cadishead, an old man, who was leaning on the garden gate, beckoned me and said it had lasted longer than he thought
he would. It was Sid the foreman from the clay pit.
To a workmate I gave away my cigarette case that was made for me by the Italian prisoners in North Africa. I also gave my Ronson cigarette lighter. The very first pay day after I became a Christian, I made it my business to be the first at the pay window. I put my wages into my pocket, then stood and gave every worker in the brick works an invitation to come to the gospel mission in Cadishead to hear a visiting evangelist. Word soon got around that I had got religion and I quickly acquired the name, ‘Preacher’. One thing no one could deny was that my life had changed completely. I was a different man altogether. I committed my life to the work of the church completely, hook, line and sinker.
This chapter would not be complete if I did not tell you how I met Nancy, my dear wife. One sunny Sunday afternoon, I went to my brother’s house in Lord’s Street, Cadishead. John was busy in the back kitchen, preparing for tea. I went and stood alongside him and said, “I’m going to marry that girl in your front room and we will have six kids.” He told me I was crazy and that she was only 17 years old. After tea, I asked Nancy if I could take her home. She was agreeable, so I went to Mrs. Westbrook’s house. I told her that I was going to marry her daughter and she was shocked and just said, “Oh!” I also told her that I was prepared to court Nancy for as long as she liked. I would make sure she was home before ten o’clock each evening and if, for any reason, we were delayed, I would phone Mr. Pook, the grocer to pass on a message about where we were.
Nancy did not have good health. She suffered from kidney trouble. After about six months, one Saturday dinner time, the local Scottish doctor, named Drysdale, visited Nancy, who had been ill.
Mrs. Westbrook simply told the doctor that I wanted to marry Nancy and asked what he thought. Doctor Drysdale said, “I believe this is the best thing Nancy could do. Lawrie will look after her.” So when Nancy was 18, we got married in the old gospel mission, in Cadishead and we lodged in Hayes Hall Farm. It was an old hall that had 17 rooms and we lived with my mother and father. In our section of the house there was no water, gas or electricity. All we had was paraffin Tilley lamp. In fact there was only one gas lamp in the entire building.
We cooked in two large ovens and a skillet that swung over the fire in a great Yorkshire range. Our pantry was as big as the modern-day living room. Around the walls we had benches made of Welsh slate, on which we cured ham and bacon. We had shelves full of preserves – jams, marmalade, fruit and pickles. We had a large white, enamelled bucket in which we preserved a gross of eggs in icing glass- a liquid preservative. We had a barn full of all kind of vegetables, protected from the frost by bales of straw. We may have been primitive, but we certainly had plenty of good quality food, including an ample supply of bees’ honey, from my own hives.
The first year we were married, Nancy and I ate 13 large Muscovy ducks accompanied by roast bramble apples. (Muscovies are native to Mexico and Central and Southern America.) Nancy has never looked back since the day we were married and we spent 13 happy years in that old farmhouse. She has been the main reason for me going on for the Lord all these years and has never objected to me giving the Lord everything I have; including time. No man has had a better partner and when I’ve been down and almost out, she has revived me and picked me up and helped me to go on for the Lord. She is still helping me today, at the age of 81. It’s her birthday today, 24th June.
The very purpose of this autobiography is not only to encourage the reader to go on, but to be a blessing to your wife, husband and family.
The very best way of doing this is by example.