November 1942 : Walsall, West Midlands, United Kingdom
My Mother had just returned from queuing at the local greengrocer for at least an hour and a half (not that she knew what she was queuing for). Rumour had it they had some oranges but as usual, by the time she made it to the head of the queue, they had run out anyway. All was not lost, as while they waited the ladies would have a great time with a good old chat about the state of the war, whose sons and whose daughters had gone missing, who has received the dreaded telegram and how many Yanks the ‘floozy’ down the road had been entertaining that week! We used to stand outside her gate and meet the American Soldiers with, “Got any gum, chum?” They would always find something, either chocolate or chewing gum. They always looked like film stars to me, good-looking and very smart — no wonder our girls fell for them. Every Saturday night they would visit the Town Hall for dancing to Joe Loss and his band, singing to Ann Shelton, jitter-bugging and turning the place alive! Rumours were ripe and most were very scary, the latest being that German Paratroopers had landed in Kent and would be in The Midlands by the weekend! On the way back from the greengrocer’s, my Mother would have called in at the butcher’s for a large bone. Stripped of its meat, she would then go on to boil it for several hours with vegetables and pearl barley for our evening meal — a sort of meat-flavoured soup. Ration books and identity cards were necessary for living, so everyone just got on with it. In fact, there is no reason why we should not be issued with identity cards today as we all have a national insurance number - what’s the difference?
We would sit around the dinner table with my Dad, when he returned from work around 6.30p.m. After our evening meal we would all listen to the radio, and the programme would be interrupted by special messages for the Secret Agents abroad, things like, “The doves have settled in for the night”, and the very ominous Lord Haw-Haw, which began with “BER BER BER BUM”, (thumping music), “Germany calling, Germany calling.” This was meant to scare, and it did! We listened in complete silence, and he would tell of the glorious wins. You could see the depression in both Mom’s and Dad’s faces.
Dad was a leather-strainer during the day and a fire fighter at night with the National Fire Service, based at the local Arboretum, in the Grange Playhouse. Very often, he would be on duty all night, standing in for the local Fire Brigade who had been sent to help out in the Birmingham Blitz. My Aunt Winnie was bombed out of house and home in ‘Brum’ several times, but thanks to the Salvation Army Volunteers, who were absolutely fantastic people, she managed to pick herself up and start again. None of us had a great deal so it was easier to start again in those days.
It was Dad’s night off and we listened to the radio shows like ‘Tommy Handley’ with ‘I.T.M.A.’ (It’s That Man Again), or ‘Wilfred Pickles’, ‘Name That Tune’ with Violet Carson at the piano, who, after the War, went on to be the famous Ena Sharples in ‘Coronation Street’. Then the accumulator would run out of electricity, so that would be that. By nine o’clock we would go to bed (and what an ordeal that was!). By this time the living-room would be lovely and warm, so we undressed downstairs, got into our nightclothes and made a mad dash for upstairs which would be freezing cold. My Brother and I slept together for warmth, with old blankets and an old Army greatcoat. Mom would put a house-brick in the oven for a couple of hours, wrap it up in an old towel and place it in the sheets at the bottom of the bed — it worked a treat, and was great for warming your cold feet. Going to bed was a challenge, but waking up the next day was horrendous, and with only your face and nose above the blankets they would feel like icicles! We would often sit up in bed and write our names through the frost on the window, (inside, not out). My wife, Joan, now reminds me that it used to form some wonderful patterns on the window like crystals. Joan’s family had the same cold problems as thousands of others. With our toilet being downstairs you dreaded having to go in the night, but inevitably you would, and you would have to use the ‘Gerry’ or the ‘Guz-under’ (the pot), and it was awful. I remember Mom ‘slopping out’ every morning for years, and yet now it’s considered inhuman for our criminals to ‘slop out’ in prison!
The dreaded fear of an Air Raid was all too often realised when the awful screaming of the siren began to howl over the rooftops. Mom and Dad would grab us in our blankets to take us down to the Anderson Shelter at the bottom of the garden. It was pitch dark, and inside, the musty smell of damp earth greeted you at the door. We would all sit on the teak-made bunk beds supplied with the shelter. We had no lights for we had Air Raid Wardens going around bellowing to people who had candles down the shelter with them, “Get that bloody light out!”
This particular night was a beautifully clear and the stars shone like jewels in the sky, complemented by a full moon. As children, we could feel the fear and tension our parents were suffering. Mom said, “I hope this raid isn’t the German Paratroopers.” Dad replied, “You women and your rumours”. After an hour or so, which seemed like an eternity, we heard the unmistakeable step of Army boots coming nearer. Our garden path consisted of a gravel base, and as the steps got nearer, they changed to a gravel crunching sound. Mom, who by now was scared to death, said “Bill, I think it’s them!” At that point, my Dad who kept the garden tools in the shelter, picked up the garden fork, leapt out of the shelter, held the fork in front of him, and in a menacing manner he shouted “Who is it? Speak or you will get four holes all at once.” With a few expletives, a man dressed in an Army overcoat with huge boots and a haversack at his side shouted at the top of his voice, “Hey Bill, it’s only me”. Uncle Jack had been on the night shift at the local Copper Works, and had just popped home during his break to collect his ‘snap’ and a bottle of tea in an old milk bottle (the poor man’s flask). He had just popped in to see if we were all safe. My Dad collapsed with relief on the turf outside the shelter, and Mom was physically sick! I have got to say, had the garden fork have been a gun, poor Jack may now be dead!
In the distance, we could hear the familiar drone of German aircraft. They had a peculiar sound, as if ‘off and on’. We knew they were coming again, louder and louder as they drew nearer, and then all hell was let loose as an aircraft came into view. There was a huge searchlight. It was sited on Bailey’s farm two streets away. Us kids had watched all day as the Royal Artillery set up the light with the massive guns alongside. When the light caught a plane in its beam, the guns opened up, the ground shook beneath us, the noise was deafening. Birmingham was nine miles away, even less as the crow flies and by this time, the leading aircraft was pounding the city. You could hear sounds like huge thumps, not explosions, just heavy thumps, with a glow in the sky liken to a roaring bonfire on a vast scale. The prime target was Witton, particularly the I.C.I. Factory. Hundreds of men and women from this area travelled there every night for the evening and twilight shifts, making bullets and bombs. It took them about half an hour’s journey by Midland Red buses (or as we called them, “buzzes”). The courage of these people in this factory was unbelievable, with very few taking time off work for sickness or family problems.
I remember a particularly nasty medicine called ‘Fenning’s Fever Cure’. It looked like gin, and was diabolical. Another nasty remedy was a bread poultice. This consisted of a slice of bread wrapped in Comfrey Leaves (a wild plant found easily in the hedgerows) put in a linen cloth and held over a steaming pot until the bread was soppy and boiling hot. As you lay in bed feeling sorry for yourself, probably with a chest infection, you would soon know when the poultice was ready. You could hear Mom dashing up the stairs (she had to because it was so hot she could hardly carry it) singing at the top of her voice, “Here comes Rose with a red hot poultice, she slaps it on and takes no notice!” The skin on your chest would peel for three days, but at least your infection would be gone.
I hated Saturdays. The day would actually start well with a slice of bread toasted on the coal-fire and covered in beef dripping (lovely and hot with a salt and pepper dressing). But every Saturday was the day of the dreaded coke run (coal with the tar and chemicals removed, leaving a slow-burning, porous coke nugget). Just as soon as we had enjoyed our last morsel of toast, Mom would issue our marching orders to go to the gas works. The mission would be to take our wheelbarrow to collect our ration of 1cwt of precious coke.
As you turned the corner by the old St. John’s Church into Pleck Road, we were confronted with the daunting vision of a two-abreast queue snaking down, past the pub, round the corner, up Prince Street, up to the gate and right down the long drive — hundreds! (it appeared like hundreds) in the queue, the hated queue. It only moved every few minutes, so judging by the amount of people in front of me and our Billy, we were going to be there for HOURS! How the Gas Board treated us left me scarred for life. There was only ever one man serving and one man taking the money and they had the manners of pigs (no, that’s unfair to pigs!). It was scandalous really with the amount of people that needed to be served. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, but I was just a child, and in those days, you had to be seen and not heard. That’s what I like about the younger generation; they’re so idle they will not be ‘dumped on’ by anyone.
By the time we had struggled home with the coke, Mom would flip a coin to decide which of us went back near to the Gas Works for a fish and chips lunch. I always seemed to lose the spin. Mom always favoured Billy so I think she used to fix the toss! Again, there would be a queue that would snake all around the shop and out of the door — never in my entire life did I ever see it any different, it was always full. Just as you finally got to the front and went to open your mouth to place your order, you would be interrupted by the screechy voice of Mrs. Rollingson with “you’ll have to wait for chips, they have only just gone in.” I often felt she did this in spite, just to me, to make me wait all the longer. Many times I would be left near to tears.
My queuing experience made me vow that I would never stand in a queue ever again. Even to this day, I would rather walk away and do without, than stand in a queue. I am the first one to complain bitterly to our local DIY store. There are six tills at their disposal, but even on a ‘Wrinklies Day’, (10% off for the over-60s), you can expect to see a queue of thirty or so people with only one till working! I am sure the owners of this chain of stores could save a fortune on tills that are never utilised. I estimate that they cost about £3,000 each so they could make a saving of at least £15,000 in my local store alone!
Dad worked until 1pm on Saturdays so would always be back home by the time I returned with the fish and chips. Soon after we had enjoyed the feast, the next assault would unfurl. “Come on then”, Dad would say, “get the bikes and sacks out of the shed”. We’d then set off to Bentley Hall Estate, on the grounds of the historic family of The Lanes (Lady Jane had escorted King Charles to safety from the battle of Worcester.) The Hall, by this time, had been knocked down the family seemed to have abandoned the site. Many small mines sprang up by people trying to mine enough coal out of the ground to keep there families warm, we had some very severe winters during the War years, with 1947 being one of the worst winters on record, several hundred people gathered there on a Saturday picking coal-chippings from the slag-heaps discarded by the army of Pit Men. Some got killed attempting to dig their own mines. I was told that a huge seam of coal runs through this country deep in Kent, coming nearer to the surface in Warwickshire and Staffordshire, and going deep again further north. When contractors built the M6 motorway, it cut through Bentley (now Junction 10) and at only 10 feet deep they were pulling up pure coal. Hundreds descended on the site and the police had to be called.We would return home late on Saturday afternoon, tired and dirty, and with a few bags containing bits of coal. We would then mixed it with the coke to make enough fuel to last the week, it wasn’t good fuel, bits of slate known as “cracker” would sit in the fire, become hot and then spit red coals all over the hearth going off like firecrackers hence the name “Cracker”.
One day Mom and I were standing in the garden. It was a lovely peaceful day, but then we heard one solitary aircraft flying low and fast. We could see that it was German. My brother, Billy and all the other children were in school. Our garden ran onto the school perimeter and I could clearly see the pilot’s face grinning at me. He was laughing and strangely he looked very Chinese to me. Mom was screaming at him, “Please, not the school, God, not the school!” The bombs fell crazily from the plane’s open doors. We watched helplessly as they fell, and we saw the flash. Something suddenly picked us both up and flung us at the back door. It really hurt, and I started crying, but not because of the pain, because Mom was so upset, and it seemed I was crying in sympathy. Later on, Lord Haw-Haw said on the radio, “Today we have bombed Birmingham Gas Works.” They had not. They had bombed Walsall. Amazingly, not one person was lost. Several houses were demolished but each one was empty as the people were all out working and helping the War effort. The Gasometer was gone, but the Gas board deserved it, I have no sympathy, if only because of those accursed queues only one person slightly injured. When we heard Mom and Dad discussing that it was the Gas Works, Billy and I both thought “great, great, no more queues!”
Sunday was the unofficial slaughter day because the Ministry of Food Inspectors never worked on a Sunday. If you had managed to conceal a pig on your premises (we all had something) and it was ready (fat enough), Sunday would be when the poor animal met its fate! The Ministry men would preside over an official slaughter to examine the conditions and procedures (hygiene etc.) then on behalf of the State, take half of the animal away “because of the rationing” (I really would love to know what actually became of that meat.) The unofficial way would mean the total spoils for the breeder. The perpetrators would grab the pig under cover of darkness but the poor animal would always give them away as he would let the whole world know they were about to kill him. The screams would be dreadful, and Mom would simply comment, “there’ll be some pork about tomorrow”, and sure enough, after a few days, we had pork for dinner! And of course my favourite pork dripping on toast with loads of salt and pepper — fantastic, my mouth waters at the very thought!
We had a hundred or so chickens, with registered customers for eggs, and half a dozen cockerels. They were Rhode Island Reds, nasty beasts that always attacked you when you went in the pen to collect the eggs. One particular Cock, Bruce (after the boxer, Bruce Woodcock) would grab hold of the back of my leg, which was especially painful, because I wore short trousers. When our customers requested a bird for Christmas dinner, he was top of the list! That bird had lumps off me. When I stood in the bath, filled with just a drop of water, plucking all the birds ready for the table, I kept telling him how he had brought it on himself, and how he was going to die regretting it! Plucking was a terrible job. All the feathers would get up your nose, especially Mom’s and mine as we had the biggest ‘hooters’ but gutting was worse and oh, the smell! Dad would kill about 20 birds in a session over the drain in the yard using a sharp knife. Sometimes the head came right off and when he let go the poor bird would do a lap of honour around the yard with its head in the drain singing, “I ain’t got nobody!” It’s a wonder Bill and I never had nightmares. I once watched Mom skin and clean a rabbit that Uncle Jack had caught at the back of the Copper Works that morning. It was rabbit stew for dinner that night with pearl barley and dumplings — fantastic!
Bill Clements, my best friend’s Dad, was a lorry driver who frequently went to Liverpool Docks with goods and when he returned, he would always have acquired a block of chocolate the size of a large biscuit tin. When he pulled up outside his home, our tribe would descend upon it with axes, saws, hammers, chisels, anything that may have cut through it but it was as hard as concrete. You could hit it with a huge blow from an axe, only to remove a tiny morsel of chocolate. It took hours of hard labour to reduce it to nothing. It tasted of cocoa, and wasn’t all that sweet. God only knows if it was fit to eat, but none of us lot came to any harm (except for the hammered fingers) so it must have been OK.
Our entertainment was mostly in the street. The gaslights left a lot to be desired, and the only effective light was immediately under the lamp itself with pools of blackness between, which made it ideal for ‘Hide & Seek’. Some games would go on for hours, like ‘Tip Cat’ a game played in the dark, in our case a combination of hide and seek whoever became nominated by eeny meeny minny mo system, would have to be in the circle, the striker would take hold of the handle similar to a broom stick striking the tip quiet hard on the end, because of the shape, similar to a huge cigar shaped at each end, when hit it jumped up in the air to be hit again by the striker projecting it several yards away, whilst the retriever chased after it to bring back to the circle everyone else in the game disappeared behind garden gates privet hedges, anywhere out of sight, with the poor retriever having to discover us, the first one caught was the next in the circle, then the Tip cat would be hit again. There would be football in teams, with the top half of the street playing the bottom half. Inevitably someone would get kicked a bit too hard, or pushed, followed by an obligatory fight. The girls would play Hopscotch, Rounders, or Group Skipping. We never had to worry about being run over, as we had no motorcars on our estate with the exception of Mr. Humphries. He wasn’t allowed any petrol so he would get his car out on a Sunday morning, clean it, and put it away again. The only vehicles using our street belonged to the Co-op or horse & carts delivering bread, milk, coal or grocery. After 5.00pm you would never see a vehicle in the street until the next morning when the milk was delivered. Bread wasn’t wrapped up, and you would often see a loaf of bread on the doorstep, open to ‘all and sundry’ that may fall upon it. The family would arrive home, take the bread in and use it without a second thought.
Our local ‘Copper’ lived in the street and if he caught you ‘up to no good’ such as scrumping (stealing apples from someone’s trees), he would give you a ringing belt around the ears, and you never told your Dad because he would have given you another one! Our Copper’s patrols were done on pushbike.
It was a Monday and I hated Monday’s too. This day was dedicated to the chore of all chores — washing! The very thought of it raises the hair on the back of my neck and my palms go clammy and damp! Mom would start the day at the crack of dawn. Dad was lucky, he could run off to work but we weren’t so lucky and even if it was a school day, you had to perform chores before and during school and on your lunch-break. Only near death could get you excused from washday duties. The previous week’s ashes had to be removed from the fire, newspapers had to be wrung together like wringing a wet sponge and laid at the bottom of the fire-box with several dry selected bits of firewood placed over the paper. Then you would attach a light and stand back. The boiler was made of a cast iron pot about 18 inches in diameter and about 18 inches deep, mounted in brick and dominating a huge chunk of the kitchen. It would be filled with water to the maximum and when you opened the chimney flue-box fully, the flames would roar up the chimney, soon boiling the water into cascades of steam into every room of the house, with every window and door or aperture open to the elements, regardless of the weather. Sometimes it was freezing and the whole house would look like a station platform waiting for some huge express train to leave. There was a hive of activity of stoking, prodding with the boiling stick, dangling the ‘Rickets’ blue bag until it disappeared, stirring, lifting, tossing, sheets, shirts, pillows, socks, nighties and knickers. There was no sanctuary from the pain, nor peace or tranquillity. Mom would occasionally appear amidst a fog of steam, near the sink, dowsing sheets from the boiler to the tap, rinsing, prodding and squeezing. We would interrupt the proceedings to request food — no chance — “Get yourself a carrot to scrape, that will keep you going” she would retort, so we would slip into the pantry for a slice of bread and butter, cut like a door step and smothered in Bee Top brown sauce. We needed to build our strength up for the next step, which was more of an experience than a task.
Mom would introduce you to the ‘Maid’ — a stick of a young thing, with a head liken to a castle-top, with handles for shoulders, made of soft wood, standing up to its neck in the beer barrel she had acquired for a tub. I could just about peer over the top into its murky depths. She would demonstrate with great vigour how to beat the living daylights out of our laundry — you would slap your hands on the handles and set it going up and down like a Navvy’s jackhammer! The momentum would take over, and sometimes it was difficult to stop! I did not know which was worse, maiding or wringing a huge handle attached to two large wooded rollers known as the mangle, which had gears and cogs, all at eye-level to me! Mom would spin these with great gusto, and on command, you would attempt to attach yourself to the handles, whilst in a fair old lick of speed, sheets would disappear into one side and come out the other, releasing gallons of water in the process, and all the time these cogs and gears would rumble just past my nose, teeth into teeth, with the smoothness of a Rolls Royce. By the time Dad was due home from work, wash day may would be drawing to a close. On a nice day the sheets would be cascading down the garden like the sails of a regatta but on a bad day, slung across from corner to corner of the living-room with the rest of the evening like being on board a tea-clipper with the full rigging above your head!
Uncle Ernie acquired an American Red Indian motorcycle with long handlebars like steer horns. It had running boards for footrests, which ran the whole length of the bike. It was a noisy beast. One day he invited Dad to get on the back for a ride, so having accepted the invitation, Dad cocked his leg over the saddle with Ernie giving the accelerator some ‘wellie’. The noise and vibration were enormous. At the split second that Dad placed both feet on the road to adjust his seat, Ernie let the clutch soaring off like a Boeing 747! Time froze for two seconds then gravity kicked in depositing Dad on his ‘pride’ with a bump. Ernie went 15 miles before he had to pull up in traffic outside Burton’s window (the tailor’s shop) and saw that he was alone! This was quite a shock and he worried all the way back to the point where he actually lost Dad. Poor Dad never did get that ride!
Uncle Jack, my Dad’s brother, was a very easy-going fellow, in fact as half-soaked as you can get. He and Aunt Lill had a motorcycle combination. Having no children (of course I never knew why), they had a few ‘bob’ between them and on Sunday mornings, Jack would disconnect the sidecar from the bike chassis for cleaning purposes. Now, only two steel-set screws secured that bike to the side-car in a tubular frame, made by Swift of Walsall and it was top of the range. One Sunday afternoon they set off to go to Kinver Edge. Everything started out very smoothly with Aunt Lill (who was a bit of a snob) sitting like The Queen behind the Perspex screen. It was only when Jack was accelerating away towards Wolverhampton and they were approaching the first ‘Y’ junction, that things went horribly wrong. At first nothing seemed untoward, the side-car was upright, but as Jack proceeded towards Kinver Edge, Aunt Lill headed off towards Dudley! It was only when the axle dropped that Lill became aware of the sparks that were dancing around the cockpit and a distinct smell of burning. She travelled for quite a way, poised on one wheel, which was driven by the momentum and Jack was totally oblivious to the situation! Eventually, all was well — well nearly. Lill didn’t speak to Jack for weeks, and the bike was never ever used again!
Jack joined the R.A.F. He was in a bomber crew as a Sergeant Bomb Aimer aboard Lancasters. He went to do the full tour of duty and I understand he undertook almost 20 operations. I was very proud of my Uncle Jack. Aunt Lill went on to become an Ambulance Driver. She also enjoyed the company of Yanks, which went down very badly with my Mother who had been brought up in a very strict regime. We often heard Mom and Dad discussing her antics while Uncle Jack was away at War. Things came to a head when one Saturday night, Mom and Dad popped into town for a drink. Unfortunately, Lill, a very good-looking woman, was in the company of American Soldiers. Now my Mother had flame-red hair, with a temper to match, being a Watkinson of Irish decent. She stood the situation until she reached breaking point, and then finally snapped. She flew across the room, taking a number of chairs and tables with her and had landed quite a few punches before the Yanks knew what had hit them. This was nothing new for Mom, as when she lived with her brothers, she would fight as hard as any man. Anyway, mayhem ensued, with our poor Dad trying desperately to pull Mom out of the chaos, as she was involved in a tirade of abuse, with “slut” being top of the list and punches were being thrown left, right and centre. Eventually, calm was restored when the Licensee threw both Mom and Dad out of the pub and to add insult to injury, they were now barred for life! Both women never ever did speak to each other again and Aunt Lill looked the worse for wear for quite some time!
Dad said he never liked that pub anyway. He complained that it was highly unlikely that you would be served unless you were a regular customer. The Licensee would not actually refuse to serve you, but according to Dad, he would serve everyone around you, leaving you in the middle of a crowd feeling like a ‘mug’. If you did get served, you were only offered the ‘smackers’ which was beer that was drawn off the pumps and tap trays — the slops! After the War, Dad went out of his way to pay a visit to this particular pub. Now, beer was plentiful and Licensees were ‘breaking their necks’ to serve you. Dad went into the pub, told a tale of friends following him and then went on to order a large tray of mixed drinks. When he asked how much the round was and received his reply, he promptly told the Licensee to “stick ‘em” and reminded him of the times he had stood at this bar trying to get served and how he had waited years for this moment! Dad said look on the Licensee’s face made his day!
Scientists today are debating ‘cloning’. The women of 1942 were all ‘cloned’. Every single woman I remember looked the same — about 6-7 stone in weight (because a lot of them gave up their food to their husbands and children, even though they were already rationed) They wore a blue, green or patterned wrap-around overall, with no make-up or nail-polish and of course, the stereotype head-turban. The effect of the War certainly made them look like ‘death warmed up’. The head-turban was a square scarf, folded diagonally across the corners. You would take both ends in each hand, tie a knot on top of the forehead, leaving the corner draped over the head, tuck in the ends, fold the corner back off the forehead and there you had it — the headdress worn by the entire population, from factory girls to housewives to land girls. That’s how they looked, all the same, everywhere. Only on Fridays or Saturdays would they ‘doll themselves up’ with lipstick and Pond’s Cream, put on their best dresses and wash their legs with a solution of sand and water to make believe they were wearing stockings. When their legs had been painted and dried, a girl friend would take a soft lead pencil and from bum cheek to heel, scribe a straight line down the back of each leg. These were ‘poor girls’ nylons’, which became a bit of a problem if it started raining on the way to a dance, but most times, did the trick!
The exception was the ‘floozy’ down the road, She was not a clone and there was no overall for her. She only wore pencil-slim skirts with proper nylons, large blouses with huge sleeves, painted nails and always make-up — never without make-up. Blonde curls billowed out over her shoulders and she would have a big American ‘fag’ in her ‘trap’ — she was a ‘cracker’. Women hated her and men dreamed on! When collecting her Jimmy from school, no one ever spoke to her. All those ‘knives in her back’ must have been painful! Men would always give her a smile and hold open the door, if only to have an excuse to watch her walk away and the Butcher always found her a bit extra. I used to play with her Jimmy at their house and it’s funny, he never had Monday’s washday blues and I never did see her ‘red cardinal’ the quarry tiles in the kitchen like my Mom did!
The food cooked for our chickens consisted of boiled potato peelings in a large saucepan, mashed and covered in a very fine powder known as ‘meal’. The smell of the brew was enough to put you off your dinner, but the fowl loved it. When the meal-bag was empty, mom would wash it and then hang it out to dry. She would then slit the sides and lay it out flat. For weeks she had been bullying everyone into cutting old pieces of cloth into 6 inch strips or even old suits, skirts and anything heavy and woolly. Cutting would bring up the blisters on your fingers through having scissors too small for the job. We would all spend hours cutting on the dining-table — having said that, everything was done on the dining-table, because that’s all we had — the scrubbed white table with four chairs, an old battered piano (Dad could only play “Begin the Begin” which he had taught himself parrot-fashion, the rendition was murder!) and a clothes cupboard with the radio mounted inside it by Dad. Getting back to the cutting, when Mom had had enough of this coarse material, she would then take a huge sewing-needle with a really big eye, pass the 6-inch strips through a hessian sack about half way and pull the material through one side. When she had totally covered the sack with cloth, she would sew another sack over the top of the first one. When she turned it over, you would have these strips of material facing upwards. It was called ‘bodging’. Bodging a rug — a sort of shaggy rug story!
Clinic day was always on a Wednesday. We had to have a bath and put on our best clothes to visit the nurse and then she would make you take them all off again, look in your ears, up your nose, down your throat and in your hair for nits. She would look at your teeth and nails for those telltale signs — calcium deficiency, or lack of white blobs on your nails. Some of the nurses were most unpleasant, and their fingers were always freezing cold. One was particularly unpleasant. She never wanted the job but the Ministry would not just send her the money! Her face was always like thunder and she handled us like dirty dressings ‘at arm’s length’. Anyone could see that she really hated the job — she issued pure orange juice, cod liver oil, malt extract (waste from beer), at the rate of one spoonful per day (no wonder we went on to be ‘boozers’ being weaned on it) and American dried egg powder that made fantastic scrambled eggs. It was beautiful stuff, but that cod liver oil, oh! we loathed it! One tablespoon per day was bad enough. Mom would always lace it with condensed milk, which made it taste sweeter than honey.
Aunt Nance was a beautiful woman with the heart of a Saint and she would speak to the ‘floozy’ with no problems. Aunt Nance always saw the good in everyone and she had nothing, in fact her house was worse than ours, but even then, she would invite you to share in what little she had. Being the eldest, Nance was ‘Mother’ too. Grandad was injured badly in the 1916 War and his scars left him in constant pain but when able, he would clean windows for pennies. Grandma made Nance follow him everywhere so that when the customer paid for the windows, Nance would beg for the money to buy bread or grocery. If he managed to keep the money, he would go straight to the pub and stay there until the money had gone, or he was ‘Blindo’. To make matters worse, Grandma was as bad. Given the chance, she would get as drunk as him. Both of them kept my Mother’s family on the verge of living in the workhouse and inevitably, Grandad’s war injuries killed him not long afterwards. It was this ‘having nothing’, the constant poverty that drove Aunt Nance to watch every penny. She would only do her shopping when the shops were about to close. She would walk down to the market, at the end of the day when traders would be getting rid of their stock at ‘rock bottom’ prices and finally, giving it away rather than taking it back. There were no fridges or cold stores in those days and all the stock had to go on a daily basis. Then she would walk back. Walsall would be about a 3-mile trip, but like all of us then, she walked everywhere.
My Father’s family was not much better off, so both our parents understood how it was to have nothing. That generation appreciated the small things we all take so much for granted now. Our parents brought us up in a relatively modern council house (as all my relatives managed to do) and all through the bad years, I was so proud of them — Mom’s brother and sisters, husbands and wife.
With the accumulator fully charged, we could stop the roar of the London traffic to “Buy some violets, lovely violets”, have tea in the Palm Court Hotel, send a record request to a Force’s sweetheart via John Metcalfe or Cliff Michelmore, listen to “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn, or even learn to dance with Victor Silvester. Mom and Dad sent for the course. For each dance you would receive brown paper templates of someone’s feet! They would roll back the bodged rugs and lay flat the paper cut-outs and wait for Silvester to start the lesson. The men would tread in the gents’ steps and the women in the ladies’ steps — it was a sight for sore eyes, with a couple of grown-ups holding each other in front of the radio, feet together, apart, listening to the tempo, stepping forward and back and we could hear Dad complaining, “Step out Rose, you won’t lose anything!” Later, they would go on to dance to Henry Hall and his dance night. They entered a competition in the Church Hall for the Quick Step and won first prize, which was a wall mirror. We had that mirror years. Personally, I preferred Paul Temple with his Flying Scots music.
A special treat was to go to the cinema as a family this particular night did not turn out so nice! Mom came up with a brilliant plan to cope with the transport arrangements but the trouble was, Dad wouldn’t know anything about them as he had gone to work. There were no mobile telephones in those days and you could only use the phone-boxes in life or death situations. It was arranged Dad would go straight to the Savoy where he would meet us in the ‘cheap’ seats leaving his cycle at work, we were taking his sandwiches. Mom’s plan was that one of us would go down to Dad’s factory, Hanford Greatrix Leather Works and collect the bike so it would be ready for his use the next day. We duly reported to the ‘copper’ on the gate in security who promised faithfully that he would tell Dad that we had his bike — well perhaps he would have done, had his shift not changed! The police were called and they turned up (try that today for a bike). On investigation, it was agreed that the bike had been stolen. In the meantime, we are all in the cinema craning our necks to spot Dad. He was busy with the Police and out of the goodness of their hearts, the ‘coppers’ gave Dad a lift home in a lovely shiny Wolsley 12 (imagine that today!) All the neighbours were glued to the windows shouting “police, police!” One ‘copper’ suggested that we have a look in the shed, just in case. Dad’s heart missed a beat as he caught a slight glimpse inside the shed. “You’re never going to believe this”, he said, as he let the shed lock slip away, revealing his bike in all its splendour! Both the coppers left shaking heads in disbelief. By now we had left the cinema and were on our way home with Mom, who was fuming in the belief that Dad had forgotten. Dad was contemplating murder, how could she do this? He came home long after us, when we were tucked up in bed and he was little worse for wear. Although we were in bed, we were not asleep and oh what a row! As I saw it, all Mom had to do was apologise, but no, she was the one most upset. Dad had “ruined her night” — typical woman!We had some fine cinemas, the best being The Savoy or The Gaumont — they were both on a par really. My wife, Joan and I went on to have our Wedding Reception at the Kenmare Gaumont Restaurant in 1957. There was red carpet all around and plush red seats and we sat down to a chicken salad meal with a prawn starter. There were sixty or so guests, “an arm and a leg” by today’s standards — must have had more money than sense! Goodness knows what our Nance would have said about spending so much money.
One day, Father decided to paint the parlour and said, “Go to Wilkes and fetch me a ball of whitener”. Wilkes was our local shop that sold everything from firewood to sweets, cigarettes to paraffin and candles to cucumber. If you could think of it, Wilkes would have it. A more miserable pair you would ever wish to see in your whole life. Mrs. Wilkes had frizzy hair standing off her head as if she had received an electric shock and never wearing make-up. She was just straight up and down and always wrapped up in a ‘pinny’. Mrs. Wilkes would never serve a child. It didn’t matter how long you had waited, it would only be when a grown-up would say, “this child is before me” that she would acknowledge their existence (Mr. Wilkes was just as friendly). “A ball of whitener please? She handed it across to me wrapped up in an old newspaper, which was quite heavy to carry all the way back home. When I finally got back, Dad dropped it in a white enamel bucket, began to break it up with a knife, added water and as the ball got smaller, the bucket got fuller of distemper. Using a whitewash brush, he started painting the walls and when several coats had been applied, it would finally be left to dry. He would add a cloth-dye to the remaining solution to change the colour and soak an old tea towel in it. Then he would mould the tea towel into the shape of a dog’s bone and holding it loosely in the palm of his hand, roll it over the nearly painted white walls. The dog’s bone shape would raise a pattern — ‘stippling’ it was called; The poor man’s wallpaper!
Being of Italian descent, Norman Diccico talked ‘a lota lika thata’ and was Walsall’s answer to the Mafia. He rode around on a fridge fitted with wheels and handle bars for steering, a sort of fridge cycle. Norman would shout, “Geta ya isas, lavoley isas.” He travelled all over the place and must have covered miles. In the winter, he pushed this heavy cart a mobile cooker. He would trundle down Stafford Street and park this flaming fire-bucket onto his pitch outside the New Imperial Cinema. It was coal-fired and had about five drawers containing potatoes. Around Christmas, he would sell hot chestnuts too. A fantastic smell would drift down the street and the salted potatoes with charcoal skins tasted out of this world, for just three pence a bag. He would stand there for hours in all weathers, shouting, “Geta ya lovoley roasta tatas!”
Dad said, “Pop up the road to the ‘witch’ at Wilkes and fetch me two woodbines.” Yes, two ‘fags’ were two-penny halfpenny each. “Don’t let her fob you off with them stinking ‘pashers’, if she has no ‘woodies’ you can tell her to stick the funny stinking fags”. Dad, Jack and Uncle Ernie all smoked John Player’s Navy Cut, (when they could get them) in fact when they were smoking them, it looked just like a frigate or a cruiser coming in to dock! Everyone smoked; when you visited the cinema the air would be that thick, the projector would cut huge beams through the dense smoke blankets. A chorus of coughing in tune with the symphony of blowing noses would accompany the film from start to finish. On the upstairs level of the first morning bus the poor conductor would be almost consumptive. You would see some old chaps nearly bursting blood vessels in their throats, but who still refused to put the fags out. On foggy days the smog would drop like a stone, stick to your eyelids and your mouth would look as if you had been eating liquorish. It was dark and dank, there was coughing and choking and in my opinion, the whole bus should have been driven to the nearest decontamination unit but of course, it would only have to turn around at the terminus ready for the next lot. We are today told to avoid passive smoking, but there was no passive smoking on board these double-deckers, it was down right deliberate!
You could walk to town past Mr. Woo’s, the Chinese Laundry who specialised in stiff collars, starched and white as snow. It was one penny per collar. He worked from a tiny little shop, with steam clouds rolling across the footpath and he was always open. As we passed, we’d sing the George Formby classic, “Oh Mr. Woo, what can we do? Mr. Woo`s a window cleaner now”. All mens’ shirts came with a loose collar fitted by a front stud and a rear stud, officially known as ‘the back stud’. To emphasise how most men would describe them, you needed fingers like pincers to fit them and then when in place, if the starch didn’t chaff your skin red raw, the studs slowly but surely almost choked you to death! What a pain they were.
Carrying on past Pellari’s Ice Cream Parlour and Confectionary, their peanut toffee was unbelievable (if you had enough sweet coupons) — sheer bliss! I remember going past Dance’s Coffee Shop, where roast coffee-beans were ground in a machine in an open window and where huge roasts of beef and pork lay piping hot on trays of gravy and crackling, for sandwiches made in Heaven. There was also home-made bread with stuffing — a mixture of aromas that sent you into ‘seventh heaven’ (despite the slightly unhygienic exposure to the flies).
Occasionally we would dine out. Freddie’s Oyster Bar, who did beautiful fish and chips with a round of bread and butter served on a plate with a cup of tea. It was fantastic — to our family this was The Ritz! One Saturday, Father was drooling over a dressed crab and he went out of his way to collect one. Visualising it with a sprig of watercress, his mouth watered at the mere thought. On arriving home he placed the crab on the cold slab in the pantry and retreated down the garden to clean out the chickens. Several hours later, Mom went into the pantry to prepare Dad’s tea. She sighed, “It’s his fault,” he never shuts the door behind him. I’ve told him before but he’s always the same”. Mom poured fuel on the fire that was already raging in my Dad. Apparently, the cat had sneaked in the pantry and purloined Dad’s dressed crab! The cat was now in a very precarious position, but with the full protection of my Mom, she shouted, “It’s no use blaming the cat, it’s only natural!” However, my Dad was wishing the poor cat several unnatural occurrences!
Travel was not encouraged, in fact, posters everywhere asked, “Is your journey really necessary?” Only service personnel travelled extensively. Corridor trains were being introduced but the straight-through carriage type was still in abundance, with ten seats either side of a carriage. On a long journey you would have to have a very strong constitution to hold out for the whole trip. On reaching the destination, there always appeared to be a gentle move towards the toilets but with a definite sense of urgency. Young servicemen would relieve themselves ‘en route’, which was a very dangerous procedure at 60mph!
Big white fivers, pound notes, ten shillings, half crowns, florins, bobs, pennies, three-pennies and Joey’s farthings. The average wage was four pounds and ten shillings. A loaf of bread was four and a half pence; a pint of beer was a bob and a penny and you could get a ride on a bus for a penny. You could take out life insurance with ‘One Penny Policies’ from ‘The Man From The Pru’. A gentleman called every Friday night for two pence. He was a towering man of six feet plus, in a smartly tailored suit and tie — a perfect gentleman. He covered his round on a huge cycle made by Raleigh of Nottingham. I understand he had over 2000 clients and his mileage on that bike all over Walsall must have been outstanding. You could tell he was a gentleman as he always removed his bicycle clips on entering the house. This man commanded respect by his very nature and Mom and Dad always treated him so. Doctor’s Panel Cover for the whole family was only six pence per week. Clothes obtained by practical checks, (yes “checks” not “cheques”) were also six pence per week. ‘Save Now Buy Later’ checks would be issued when you were in credit. Most shops displayed signs reading, ‘Practical Checks Taken Here’.
A visit to the Doctors, however, would only be as a last resort. Our doctor was a huge man. Dr. Llewellyn reeked of whisky, with a bedside manner similar to that of a raw recruit in the Army and his Sergeant Major! The Waiting Room was painted dark brown, lit by a very low lamp. Everyone was cramped up on tight long benches, and all you could hear was coughing and barking (you always seemed to come out with more than what you went in with.) If the doctor looked in your ears, he would stretch them yards. Mom took me to see him as I had a nervous disorder, and quite often I would flinch. My whole body would react as if I’d been touched with an electric charge! “No, nothing to worry about”, came the terse reply, “It’s only ‘the tick’.” “Can’t understand that”, Mom said, “he never goes near sheep!” I still have it today, about once a day, even though the big man said, “He will grow out of it.”
Our Coal merchant delivered by the bag “Watch him”, Mom ordered, “count how many bags he puts in that coal-shed. I’ll swear he never put six bags in there last time. I’ve never trusted him.” This wassupplemented by our Coke ration and coal pickings
Growing up in the peace of the ‘50s’ was pretty wonderful compared to the dreadful ‘40s’. There was great music, clothes, food, washing machines, fantastic cinemas and films, the Windsor knot, drainpipe trousers and the ‘D.A.’ hairstyle, (a duck’s backside!). Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said, “We have never had it so good.” How right he was. Will the United Kingdom ever be the same again I wonder?