Category Archives: #WordyWednesdays

Wordy Wednesdays #1: Tallyman

To her surprise and delight, Mary received a letter from Harry the following day. Recognising the handwriting, she smiled to herself. ‘He’s got the pilot playing postman for him again, I bet.’ She sat on her bed reading slowly then gazed, rapt, the letter clutched in her hand. After a while she began to read it through again. Shaking her head she went to her bedside cupboard and took out a small dictionary.

It Never Was You by William E. Thomas, Ch. 10, p.234  

I’m sure many a reader chuckled when they read this passage in It Never Was You, as it sums up pretty well the character of Harry and Mary’s early romance. Mary’s loquacious but unsophisticated chatter is offset so brilliantly by Harry’s intermittent yet eloquent ripostes. He is a quiet man, but one with a well-honed vocabulary that he puts to good use, often for comic and sardonic effect.

Harry’s banter often reminds me of William himself, who loved to explore and experiment with words. He peppered The Cypress Branches with a plethora of wonderful, and sometimes weird, acronyms, slang and now long forgotten, obsolete words and phrases. The way people spoke in the 1940s and 50s when the books are set was very different to how we speak now, and once common and every-day phrases now seem baffling to the contemporary reader.

More than once, as I was editing and reviewing the books, I have found myself in a similar situation to Mary, reaching for a dictionary or going online to look up the meaning of a slang phrase. I love this aspect of the books. It roots them in the time they’re set, and makes the dialogue that much richer and more believable.

So, I thought I’d start a series of posts exploring some of the more obscure and interesting words which I have encountered in the books, and share with you what I have been able to discover about them.

Are there any words or phrases you’ve seen in the trilogy that you’d love to know more about – or just know what the heck they mean? If so, let me know and I’ll add them to the list to explore in future posts.

Wordy Wednesday #1: Tallyman

Where? It Never Was You, Chapter 6, page140

What’s the context? Harry and Mary are on their first outing together, and have stopped to take tea in a small patisserie. Mary is on one of her never-ending “ear-bashings”, telling Harry all about her family and her past.


“…don’t know how they managed, really, me mum and dad, him being away at sea, like, not that they were sex-mad, well not for each other, anyway, know what I mean, me mam put it about a bit, you know, the tallyman, the milkman always come out with a smile on their face, like…”

What does it mean? There are a number of possible definitions of a tallyman. As the name suggests, they are people employed to keep a tally – a running count – of people or items. In some countries, the tallyman is present at an election count, to keep a note of preferences when the ballot boxes are opened. In some towns and cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tallymen were often employed by landlords or councils to do head counts, to ensure the correct number of people were living in council owned properties.

More often, though, the tallyman was the collector of debts. Hire purchase was popular in the period between and after the war, when the desire for consumer goods outstripped the everyday purchasing power of families. The result was many households buying goods (from furniture to vacuum cleaners) on credit, and paying back in instalments. Credit unions also helped out families on low incomes, clawing back the debts by sending the tallyman round periodically to collect the payments. Alan Johnson writes about how he and his family would hide from the tallyman when he came knocking, in his memoir, This Boy: “We were well practised in ducking down away from the windows and remaining silent as soon as we heard four knocks, and lying low until the tallyman gave up. We also knew we had to walk straight past the house if we saw one of them on the doorstep. They were easy to spot with their uniform belted raincoats and the thick, black ledgers they all carried.

Liverpool and its tallymen: The word has a particular association with Liverpool, where It Never Was You is set. During the early Victorian period, Liverpool was renowned for its overcrowded, unsanitary slums where dock and factory workers crammed into tiny dwellings with their extended families. In an effort to clean up the slums, and improve the health of the ever-growing population, Dr William Henry Duncan was appointed as the city’s (and the country’s) first Medical Officer of Health in 1847. He had some radical ideas, and it was undoubtedly thanks to his influence that the living conditions of Liverpool’s population improved markedly, with the slums eventually making way for the now ubiquitous Victorian “two-up two-down” terraces.

But Duncan’s legacy has a more sinister side, with tales (whether apocryphal or not, it isn’t clear) of a version of the tallyman sent to check on the number of people living in each home. So the stories go, the tallyman would visit, often at night, and if the home was considered too overcrowded or unsanitary, the authorities would remove children from their families and re-home them outside the city. The tallyman thus became an object of fear, and many who grew up in the 40s and 50s tell tales of how they were encouraged to behave, “or the tallyman will come to get you”.

Whether this was officially sanctioned, or even if it happened at all, isn’t clear, but it does make for a great “bogieman” threat to keep kids in line!

Have you heard of any tales of the tallyman? Can you shed any more light on the tallymen of Liverpool? If so, please leave a comment.