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- David Millar
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- 14 November 2003
My Earliest Memories
My earliest memories are inevitably confused with the passage of time. Flashes of incidents occur, but before they can be recorded they have disappeared. I suppose only the significant events become an important factor at the time, even if they appear to be insignificant and unimportant later, when one wonders why they are remembered at all.
I can still remember the house in which I was born, which sadly no longer exists, being now the base of a car park. I was born on 20th June 1932 at 2 Coventry Street, Birkenhead, an end of a terrace of six houses. With acquired knowledge they were of early Edwardian construction and design, with typical bay windows at ground level, and protected by a row of metal railings. There was no garden but a small concreted walled backyard with an outside toilet with whitewashed flaking walls which had a scrubbed wooden seat, a long chain attached to a rusting water cistern which flushed the toilet, and torn newspaper strung together with string, which was used as toilet paper. The backyard gate led into a series of entries (or jiggers) where the backyard gates of the houses could be accessed, but they were avoided generally because of the dogs and cats which fouled them. The coalman used them to deliver coal into the coal shed in the yard. We usually counted the sacks of coal as they were delivered in case the coalman couldn’t count.
I was the youngest of three boys born to Julia Millar ( nee Hyman) and John Millar. Julia Millar was born 22nd July 1902 in Leeds and my father was born in Belfast on 18th November 1894. My father was an upholsterer and apparently tried to set up his own business working from home, but it failed with the recession. The house was rented, and Mr. Bolton, the landlord, came regularly to collect the rent, and to do any running repairs, like replacing, or fixing the roof slates. There was a cellar with a wash boiler which was heated by a coal fire so that clothes could be boiled in the weekly wash. There was a large metal framed mangle with wooden rollers which I loved to turn by the handle on the side, whilst the wooden roller’s pressure was controlled by a wheel on the top, and the water from the wet clothes oozed out and dribbled into a basin below. The clothes were dried on a line in the backyard which had a pulley so that they could be raised high to catch the wind. The clothes pegs were large wooden ones. Magical “Reckitts blue bags” made the wash white. There was always the pervading smell of dampness associated with cellars, which I can readily re-call, even today, and the cement covered floor always seemed to have a permanent shiny film glaze of wetness, and it was mustily dark, even with the light coming through the grating and windows at ground level. In the cellar was the large tin bath which we used to have baths, the hot water coming from the boiler. Going into the cellar down the steep wooden open stairs into the smelly darkness filled the mind with ominous creepy thoughts, especially if you were told that “boney” or “the bogey man” or “nelly greeting” would get you down there ( who ever they were- was boney associated with Napoleon Bonaparte ?) Firewood and some coal were stored there. Down the cellar steps on the right was the gas meter which supplied the means of lighting. Gas lighting gave a warm glow of light. I can remember my father having to replace the mantles when they became fragile and burnt away, so different from electric light, which I can remember being installed and the magical meter being placed in the front downstairs room and fed with money and the electric light glowed. The bulb wattage was always low to save money. Electricity was a luxury and was used sparingly.
The front room was for visitors, or when my relatives came. There was the essential compulsory aspidistra which all houses seemed to have. It stood on a tall elegant wooden Edwardian stand. Thinking about it, it seemed to me as a child that it was the only natural thing growing in this environment. I do remember bluebells in a glass vase, but they wilted and died so quickly but the bulbous green seed heads fascinated me. Was this the beginning of my interest in gardening later in life?
I can remember my paternal grandfather and mother staying with us, when they visited us from Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, but I can’t remember the sleeping arrangements although the house did have 3 bedrooms. My Aunt Sadie (my father’s sister) came with them, so it must have been a bit of a squeeze. I can remember reading to her from a book, but she was not very impressed. In this room was a large cabinet which was the gramaphone , which apparently, had been made by my Uncle Jimmy. It was polished and the grain of the wood showed through. The lid was quite heavy and when opened it rested on a hinged catch. It was fun winding the gramaphone up with an L shaped winder, putting on a record, releasing the turntable switch, and the sound came out of the large built in loudspeaker in the front. The loudspeaker was big enough to put your arm down and feel the vibrations when a record was playing. The pick-up was quite heavy and used steel needles, and if you wanted it to play quietly, wooden needles were used instead. Below the speaker two doors revealed the storage for the records. Records included Gracie field singing “Our Avenue”, George Elliott ( The Chocolate Coloured C**n) “ In my old Kentucky Home”, “Wonderful Amy” (about Amy Johnson, the aviator), Enrico Caruso singing, and Nursery Rhymes — “Mary, Mary ,quite contrary”. They had paper sleeves and some had stamps on them costing 1p. It was interesting hearing the sound slow down when the spring powered mechanism ran down. In this room was a grey patterned moquette covered 3 piece suite that my father had made, and by the fireplace was a small copper kettle which I played with. I have it even today. On the walls were two watercolour pictures of yachts on a river with the sun setting. They had matching gold coloured frames and hung down from the picture rail on cord.
When we had visitors we had the best china brought out. It was kept in a sideboard in the living room and there were two sets that I remember. One had cherry tree patterns in red on a white background and the other had a similar pattern, but in blue. The cups had six sides, and my father always complained that the cups were so wide that the tea was always cold.
I can remember other relatives visiting us. There was Aunt Bella and her husband Uncle Jimmy ( one of my father’s brothers ) with their two children (my cousins) Billie and Maggie who lived at 4 Vanburgh Road, Liverpool. Other relatives included Aunt Sarah (my mother’s sister) and her children Lena, Eric (who became a doctor) and Philip. They lived in Liverpool, in Shiel Road , a house I remember, especially the Jewish Star made in brass which sat on the table in Aunt Sarah’s house, alongside a small brass candle-stick holder for small candles. Aunt Annie was also my mother’s sister. She owned and ran a newsagent’s shop in Brownlow Hill. During the war Aunt Annie managed to get comics for me like The Rover, The Adventurer and The Hotspur. They were great to read. I swapped them with friends for other comics like The Dandy and The Beano.
To visit my relatives we had to either walk, or go by bus, to the ferry at Woodside, and sail across the River Mersey ,on a ferry boat with the easily recognised red and black topped funnel and named after places in the area, like “Bidston”, and “Claughton” then by tram from Pier Head , an exciting jostling ride in the green and cream coloured all enclosed trams. It was as much fun in the older trams with the slatted wooden seats and the driver exposed in the front to all the elements . Sometimes we went by the electric underground train from Central Station, or Hamilton Square, Birkenhead to James Street Station, or Central Station Liverpool. I can remember my father telling me that the NO SMOKING sign in the carriage was used by a well known comedian who called himself Nosmo King, who apparently performed at the Argyle Theatre/Music Hall, Birkenhead, but I think it had ceased as an entertainment venue, by the time I can remember, though my mother talked about it with some affection every time we walked passed it going to the large covered in market, or the General Post Office.
Some of the neighbour’s children I remember fairly well. There was Rosy Brooker who lived opposite at No.1, and Johnny James who lived around the corner in Oliver Street. Barbara Pengelly lived at the corner house of Oliver Street and Coventry Street. I can remember a Street Party which was organised to celebrate the Coronation of George VI. Mrs. Rogerson was my mother’s best and closest friend and she lived with her daughter Olive around the corner in Claughton Road. Her husband I vaguely remember was killed at work in Cammell Lairds the ship builders at Birkenhead. Olive was more of a contemporary to Jackie. Rosey Brooker sucked her thumb and Johnny James was slightly mentally handicapped. His mother was a nurse. Barbara Pengelly seemed a little above us as her father was an Officer in the Merchant Navy . There was the Corner Shop on the corner of Claughton Road and Coventry Street which sold sweets and newspapers which had a distinct mouth watering aroma with the combined smell of sticky toffee, boiled sweets, liquorice and powdered sherbet . Next door but one from Mrs Rogerson’s house was Miss Bland. She was known to throw bags of marshmallows in brown paper bags into our backyard on occasion. I think she liked us. On the opposite corner to the sweet shop was another shop. I think it sold cakes, but I never saw anybody going in to it. Opposite Coventry Street in Claughton Road was a Special School. We as children remembered it as “The Daft School”. Next to the school was a nunnery with the nuns dressed in black habits. As my father was an Orangeman and a Protestant I was not encouraged to find out about them. Catholics were taboo. My mother was of Jewish origins, but having married my father, she was ostracised by her parents. That’s another story to be told later.
Looking back I have flashes of incidents that seem to be readily recalled without any reason or logic. Why I should remember a blue coloured wooden cart with shafts, and a light blue coloured metal pedal car, I do not know. I do remember a dark maroon coloured pram clearly and having a flash recall of being in it as a small child with the hood up protecting me from the rain. Olive, Mrs.Rogerson’s daughter, has often recounted the occasion that one day in the pram I just yelled and yelled, until her mother bought a dummy and stuck it in my mouth. I apparantly shut up with shock and disbelief !! I loved the bus conductor’s outfit I had at Christmas complete with ticket punch and peaked hat, and cherished the green metal yacht which I had for a birthday with its two white sails, which I sailed in the boating lake at New Brighton, or in the lake in Birkenhead Park. Quite often we played Bagatelle which had a wooden board, and a pull spring plunger which sent the steel balls speeding around the board into various numbered holes. Lead soldiers in various uniforms and positions occupied a fort which could easily be assembled. If we had a battery we could light up the interior. It was magic. I always remember the Scots Guard soldier with his bear skin and kilt and his moveable right arm which pivoted at the shoulder, which was purchased from Woolworths, and a set of gold coloured soldiers with rifles which was another Christmas present. What battles there were. I remember the Sunday School which was held in a room above Woolworth’s in Grange Road, and Catherine Street, and receiving a coloured wooden doll like figure as a Christmas present. I think my brother George had a Christmas present which was a “Cinomatograph”, a hand turning cine film projector, which projected pictures along the hall on to a white sheet behind the front door. It was lit by batteries. I do not remember what the stories were about, but it was fun making shadows on the screen using my hands. I can still create the shapes even today. I can remember the last tram running in Birkenhead. I went with the family to Borough Road near to the Library and Balls Road East, and saw the tram all lit up in the evening coming down the steep hill and wending its way along Borough Road towards Central Station. There were lots of people watching. I can remember going to the library in Borough Road to see a bust of King George V. Was it a memorial ceremony? I think the bust is still there. At the back of my memory there is a picture of being put into a brown wooden sided light brown coloured ambulance and taken to a place which had a bed looking into the night. Was it an isolation hospital, and did I really have diptheria? I remember having my first comic. It was called “Tiny Tots.”
One birthday I had a card that I recall. It had a small boy on a brownish shiney card with red flowers, looking all angelic. Can’t remember the verse which was written beneath the picture. I remember the opening of the Ritz Cinema at the bottom of Claughton Road and the corner of Conway Street, where there were lots of people waving and cheering. I can remember that there were lots of cinemas in Birkenhead. There was The Claughton, The Queens, The Super, The Savoy, The Gaumont, The Roxy, The Empire , The Savoy and The Plaza. I went to them all, even though the Queens was known as “The Flea Pit”. The Ritz cinema had an electric organ which rose up, as if by magic, from below the screen level and was visible by the whole audience. It was lit up by coloured lights. The organist was Reginald Dixon. The Plaza also had a similar type of organ.
At the back of Woolworth’s in Oliver Street there was a goods entrance down below street level, and a man, called Jack, with a peaked cap and blue overalls would throw up wooden boxes and crates that had been used for packaging goods, on to the pavement, which, as I child I took home, where it was chopped up and used as firewood. On Saturday mornings I went with one of my brothers, usually George, wheeling our old maroon coloured family pram to the Gas Works, near Central Station on Borough Road, and bought tickets to purchase coke which slid down a shute operated by a man who filled any receptacle you had. Some had their prams filled directly. We had canvas sacks and rested them on the maroon pram when full. They were fairly light in weight, but harsh to the hands. The works themselves were fascinating, especially seeing the crane cab running on an overhead rail emptying the coke into the shutes from above, graunching around the sharp bends in the overhead track. The smell of the area was very gaseous and sulphurous. Smoke, steam and noise filled the air. It was a relief to go home.
Cammell Lairds was a large ship building yard in Birkenhead and I can remember quite clearly the day that the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal” was launched. I was taken with my parents to the launching ceremony with thousands of others. It seemed very large as it slipped down the slipway into the River Mersey. It was painted grey and it was a sunny day.
Most places we walked to locally, and it was only on the “big” adventures did we use public transport . A walk which I remember well was walking from home down Park Avenue and straight down towards the docks, crossing roads like Conway Street, Park Road and Cleveland Street which was part of the grid iron road system with the roads running at right angles to each other. Having entered the dock area via a railway level crossing, or via a footbridge if there were goods trains, the cobbled roads and train lines spread in all directions. We would walk toward the “four bridges” which spanned the entrances into the very large dock areas lined with ships loading and unloading cargoes. They looked large being in such close proximity to them at the age of five or six. The water beneath the bridges, which came from the River Mersey, and filled the docks, always appeared green and ruffled by the wind, though when calm the myriad colours of oil on water, and the rubbish floating, held a fascination. Three of the bridges rose vertically when in use, whilst the fourth was a swing bridge and moved horizontally. We usually went at weekends when the dock activity was somewhat reduced, but there were always the distinct smells associated with steam engines, horses, sea water, and the Plaster Works which made plaster for the building trade. The railway lines always seemed full with goods wagons with large letters painted on the sides. There was that very easily recognisable sound when the wagons were being shunted and the buffers clanged and clattered into each other in metallic sequence. The sound was everywhere.
Eventually we would arrive at Secombe Ferry where there was a white funnel topped with black and full of holes. Apparently the boat that it came from was famous during a battle in the 1st World War? Was it the “IRIS”? From the ferry building we would walk along the promenade towards the next ferry pier which was at Egremont with the River Mersey on our right with the Liverpool dockland dominating the scene with chimneys, cranes, and the upper structures of ships . On the River Mersey there would be boats at anchor, dredgers keeping the navigable channel clear and tug boats scurrying about their business and the Wallasey Ferry boats plying their trade from and to Liverpool Pier Head. The vehicle transporters were distinctive from their passenger counterparts, but still had the same white funnels topped with black. The promenade was usually full of people walking to, or from New Brighton which had a permanent fair ground, a very large attraction for people on both sides of the Mersey. At Egremont the sand was wonderful for children to play with. Many a time I have spent here with the family building sandcastles, walking under the pier structure with the metal piers covered in slimy green growth when the tide was out, or wearing swimsuits that my mother had knitted in brown, and yellow horizontal bands. Building a sandcastle and making tracks for a small ball to meander through and out of the structure still has a fascination for me. Making sand structures to keep the tide from swallowing them up was great fun. Eating here was marvellous. Chip “butties” always sets the mind racing to these times, and buying pots of tea to drink to quench the thirst of hot sunny days. Burnt skin from the sun’s rays was quite normal and acceptable for having a tanned skin.
New Brighton was the attraction with its fairground. Originally the Tower Fairground it had a tower like the one that still exists at Blackpool, but I never saw it as it had been removed earlier, though the base building still remained and the name remained.
The fairground was magical to me. Entering on the left was “The Figure of Eight” a roller coaster made in wood, and the constantly moving ratchet hauling the cars up to the pinnacle before they accelerated down and along the twisting stomach churning twists and turns, with the screams of the passengers echoing around the grounds. I could never work out how the man with a Chair Scale could guess your weight before weighing you. If he was wrong you got your penny back. I never saw him giving back money!! Merry-go-rounds, sidestalls with their penny slot machines, dodgems, ice creams sellers, ghost trains, helter skelters etc were always exciting to watch, and very occasionally to experience and enjoy. There was a boating lake at New Brighton and a beach which led towards the Red Nose Light House, and the Battery. I think this was a gun emplacement guarding the entrance to the river, but I am not sure. Further along the promenade going towards Leasowe, was a very large open air swimming pool with a high diving board visible from outside. I cannot recall ever swimming there, though I do remember jumping and striding along the pinky red paving slabs avoiding the joins, outside the yellow painted swimming pool buildings.
As a child collecting mussels, opening them and tying a piece of string around the blue/white half shell and lowering it into the boating lake, usually resulted in the capture of a crab from the very small to the very large. Fascinating to look at a moving crab at close quarters, which I did, but very carefully!!
If we had walked all the way to New Brighton from home, on rare occasions we would return by bus, using the No 10 bus. Sometimes it was a Wallasey Corporation double decker bus in its yellow livery. Sitting upstairs in the front seat over the driver was the most sort after seat for me, as I could imagine I was the driver. The route was different and we went through the Bidston Docks, alighted at Price Street and walked home.
I must have started school when I was 5 years old, which was 1937. I went to Cole Street Infant’s School which was about 5 minutes walk from home along Claughton Road. My memories of the Infant School are very sparse over 60 years on, though I have vague memories of classrooms and teachers, like the Misses Bournes and Mrs.Parker though perhaps triggered off by one photograph that I have. I remember some of my class mates names even to day. Jessie White ( whose birthday is the same as mine), Joyce Davies, Stephen Stone, Gordon Edwards, Raymond East, Leslie Blackwell, Ronnie Roberts, Gordon Edwards, and Rex Marlow. I wonder where they are today? In the Infant’s hall I can clearly see a marvellous large dappled grey rocking horse standing against the wall. Empire Day was a half day holiday.
I had measles and was kept in bed in a darkened room. Itching and scratching heat spots were dabbed with calomine lotion to “cool” them. I remember having billious attacks when I would be sick. Going to the doctor, or coming to visit, cost money. Earache and discharging ears can easily be remembered. Visits to the Children’s Hospital on Woodchurch Road are recalled when seeing small blue medicine bottles. The nurses had long white headresses and dark blue aprons. Warmed onions placed in a sock brought some relief, as did hot water bottles, and warmed sand in a bag was also a relief We had asprin too. I clearly remember going to the Liverpool Eye Hospital and seeing a Mr.Gorst who placed a patch over my right eye to improve the sight and insisted that I wore glasses.
I remember having some teeth extracted when I was young at the Schools’ Dentist which was near to the Children’s Hospital. I had a mask put over my face and woke up to blood pouring out of my mouth. I was not very happy, though my mother was there to comfort me.
Haircuts by Mr. Smith in his shop near to Exmouth Street was performed by hand clippers and could be painful. He used a cut throat razor for shaving men and he sharpened it by using a strop. He had three sons like us, and the two younger ones were called Sidney and Kenneth. I often played with them as the lived in Claughton Road, just around the corner from us. Their house had an empty room like a shop in the front and we had great fun playing in it. They had a fairy cycle and they rode around the large room on it. I managed to ride it. ( The Smith family took over 2 Coventry Street when we moved in 1943.) I can remember being met by my mother from school one day to take me to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” but somehow we didn’t see it and my mother was not very happy about it, as I recall.We eventually saw the film at a proper cinema. I had my first remembered car ride. My mother had been to the dentist very near to Cole Street in Grange Road West and the Dentist drove us in his red car to Grange Road and the corner of John Street and we walked home calling into the co-op bread shop for an “oven bottom” loaf of bread. “Nitty Nora” appeared regularly in school and we queued up in the front of the class to have our hair examined. My hair was always combed with a tooth comb, a rectangular shape with fine teeth along both edges. I never took a letter from her home, as some of the other children did.
I have vague memories of going to see my grandparents in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, before the war. We went by boat from Liverpool, either from Princes Dock, or from the Pier Head Landing Stage, and sailed overnight. The names of the boats I recall were the “Ulster Queen”, the Ulster Prince” and the Ulster “Monarch” The had a black topped red funnel. We usually had a cabin, and the journey, quite often, was very rough. I cannot remember being sea sick, but remember being kept awake by a very persistent cough on one of the journeys. My Uncle Albert, I vaguely remember, picked us up once in his car and I sat in a seat that pulled out from the back. It was an open topped car. Other times we went by train from Belfast. We stayed with my grandparents and Aunt Sadie at “Alberta” which Uncle Albert had built. It was in Ballyvester Road in Millisle, just outside Donaghadee. Just down the road he built his own bungalow called “Sans Souci”. He was a carpenter and worked at Harland and Wolfe, the ship builders in Belfast. He was married to Auntie Eileen. I mowed the grass with a push mower. I found it very hard work. He made me a kite which had a light wooden frame, and covered with light weight paper. It had a long tail, and it flew. We collected water in white enamel pails by going down to the pump in the lane, and pumping water into them, then carrying them back to the bungalow. We collected milk and eggs from Nox’s farm just below “Sans Souci”. Geese roamed and they were very frightening to me with their wings outstretched and their raucous noise. They were very menacing. At the bottom of the lane crossing the main road was the beach and the sea. There was a wooden green coated shop just by the beach which sold most things. Uncle Albert bought his Gallagher cigarettes from there. I had a wooden spade for making sandcastles. Granny and Grandpa always seemed to be dressed in black. They had two dogs. “Snowball” a little white dog with butterfly shaped ears, and “Mickey” a large Irish Red Setter. The toilet was a small shed at the bottom of the large garden. There was a strong smell of disinfectant. I saw masses of roses growing everywhere and the smell was exquisite.
Memories from 1939 onwards are less hazy. I can readily recall singing in the Junior School hall in Cole Street School the hymn “Eternal Father” when the submarine “Thetis” sank on trials in Liverpool Bay. I can remember being fitted for a gas mask which had an additional metallic green filter taped on to the end of the black rubber mask. We collected them from a school that was in Borough Road. You had to test it and was shown how to put it on. There was a distinct rubber smell, and the air was forced out at the sides. It was warm inside the mask and condensation usually blurred the flexible eyepiece. It was kept in a stout cardboard container with a shoulder strap. Was it string? My father made a leather case to protect the box, and later made one to fit the mask itself. My father was good at making things like that. From time to time we practised wearing them in case we had to wear them for real.
The beginning of World War 2 was 3rd September 1939, and on that day I was evacuated with my brother George to Western Rhyn, near Chirk. We were lucky as my mother came along as a helper, unlike many other children who didn’t have that privilege. We went with my brother’s evacuation school group, Hemingford Street School , which was a Central School. The headmaster was Mr.Dickens. I remember marching from the school to Woodside Railway Station, where we boarded a train, not knowing where we were going, and really what it was all about. My eldest brother Jackie was sent to his grandparents in Northern Ireland who lived in Donaghadee. He was the brightest one in the family, having won a free scholarship place to Park High School from Cole Street School at the age of nine. He had passed his school certificate with flying colours, but the start of the war meant he could not take his Civil Service examinations at that time. I think my father was working in different places, throughout the country, and quite often he seemed to be away from home working. He somehow coped with the fact that our mother was with us.
Western Rhyn was a small place, and we stayed with a Mrs Rogers. We went to the Village school, and I can remember being a shepherd in a canvas sacking dress in a nativity play. I remember there was a dump of spoil from a coal mine and there was a very strong sulphur smell which it seemed to generate. I remember having a red jacket and being warned not to go near fields because bulls were attracted to red!! Walking along unlit lanes, and roads at night in the full moon cloudless sky with my mother and brother has always remained vividly with me. I remember being shown how to trap birds to look at them close to. It was very simple. A garden soil sieve was propped up on it’s edge with a stick and food for the birds was placed underneath . The prop was tied to a length of string which stretched some distance from the sieve . By pulling the string the sieve fell and hopefully trapped a bird. I thought blue tits were so beautiful seeing them so close. The birds were always freed.
The winter there was exciting with the snow and the ice. Sliding down a snow covered hill on an enamel butcher’s tray was fast and exhilarating and in the main uncontrollable and looking back, extremely dangerous. Making a snowball and rolling it along was fun trying to see who could make their ball of snow the largest, and using them to create fantastic snowmen. The local pond was frozen and sliding and attempts at skating was the order for the day. If we had a cold Mrs Rogers made a concoction of something called “paps”, but I can’t remember the recipe. We always seemed to have extract of malt for our well being as well as castor oil, Californian Syrup of Figs, and Fennings Fever Cure. Iodine was used liberally for cuts and grazes. Warm olive oil was used for earaches, and peroxide for cleaning waxy ears. I can recall being chased around a table by my brother and catching the top of my eye brow on a corner. I still have the scar today.
The expected immediate war did not happen, and after a period of time, my mother decided to go back home, leaving my brother and me in the safe hands of Mrs. Rogers. Shortly afterwards my brother George became very homesick and so we were collected and re-united at home. Life went back to normal and I went to the Junior School at Cole Street. Mr. Brighouse was the headmaster. He was very strict. There were no younger members of staff, and they all looked old, but I do recall the affinity and respect I had for Miss Evans. The playground for the Juniors was on the top of the building, with a panoramic view of the park and the docks and a covered area in case it rained. Miss Hughes took us for PT (physical training) and she wore a green pleated skirt and white blouse. She took us out into area for pond dipping. My mother made me a net from wire, a bamboo cane and part of one of her stockings. We were involved in Hiawatha at school and I remember going with my mother to Exmouth Street to a shop that sold game birds and asking for feathers to put into a corrugated cardboard band which went around my head, so that I became a Red Indian. War was not here. My mother was a great knitter and I was shown how to knit at an early age. I used to do some knitting at school, as well as weaving.
I became a cub for a while, following in the footsteps of my brothers. The cubs met in a church in Price Street. I remember going to the park and playing games with the other cubs, as well as the dib dobs and “promises”, but now all rather hazy though I do remember the neckerchief which was light green with a yellow border.
One day a new boy came into our class. His name was Francoise Tikkel and he came from Belgium. I befriended him. He spoke in quite good English about the Germans and where he came from. There was a war. Our metal railings were cut down from the front of our house, the windows were taped with sticky paper and two air raid shelters were constructed in the street. I had never seen building construction on this scale before using brick and concrete. Somehow we managed to have a brick concreted roofed air raid shelter built in our own back yard. The sirens were tested quite frequently, a sound that I can never forget. One day they went and in the air I actually saw a solitary German plane flying quite near. To encourage the War Effort people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables, and my father obtained a plot near to Tranmere Rovers Football ground just off Borough Road. We grew vegetables and marrows and even loganberries. There was a great deal of talk about the bombing of Coventry by the Germans and the hundreds of fatalities. It stuck in my memory because we lived in Coventry Street. It was quite a distance to get to the allotment and when part of Birkenhead Park was opened up for allotments we went there instead. We built a tool box, a compost heap and grew lots of vegetables. I learned about double digging, sowing seeds, transplanting and the importance of horse manure, watering and spraying derris powder as an insecticide using a brass hand pump. I often went around with a small handcart my father had made to sweep up after horses, or went to the stables in the docks and filled the cart with well rotted manure and took it to the compost heap, where it steamed. I remember planting drumhead cabbage seeds that my father had been given to him when he had been working in Bangor in North Wales, and how well they grew. Quite often going to the allotment I would pass French sailors in their distinctive uniforms with a red pompom on their hats walking through the park Where had they come from?
The War actually arrived in Birkenhead when the air raids started. My eldest brother had returned from Northern Ireland and I think he had a job in Liverpool. George was still at school and so was I. Jackie became a member of the Homeguard, and my father seemed to be away working on ships at Barrow-in-Furness, or in Glasgow and sometimes he returned to work in Cammell Lairds. My father made the air raid shelter more comfortable and built in some bunks, and covered the concrete ceiling with cork granules to help reduce condensation. We used candles, or oil lamps, to light the inside, and made sure that there was no light visible from the outside as there were black out restrictions which were rigidly enforced by the air raid wardens
In the park I recall the raising of a barrage balloon which was tethered to large vehicle and the wire gradually unwound until the silver fabric covered balloon was high in the air. From the School roof playground the dock areas could clearly be seen and barrage balloons seemed to be everywhere. A search light battery and an anti-aircraft gun emplacement was set up in the park at the corner of the cricket field, and we passed it going to our allotment. I remember going to the allotment, with my mother, passing the army unit, when there was a violent thunderstorm. I think this was the first time I had actually been outside in a storm. The flashes of the lightning and the reverberating thunder was very frightening. We sheltered under a tree, though my mother did say it was not the best place to be because of the lightning. I always recall this when I am caught in a storm
Lots of sandbags were placed around the school at ground level especially around the windows of the classrooms. Wasps and bees colonised them and many children were stung. On occasion we were sent home from school carrying our gas masks to see how quickly we could get there. I ran as quickly as possible, holding my breath thinking that I would not breathe any gas until I arrived home. I can recall the air raid sirens going off one afternoon at school, and all the classes occupied the corridors away from the possibility of flying glass if a bomb exploded near by. Usually the air raids were at night, but there was double British Summer Time in operation which meant that night time was later and people could work longer daylight hours. After an air raid it was common practice to collect pieces of shrapnel, incendiary bomb fins and shell cases to swop with other children.
There was a particularly long week of nightly air raids when the moon was full. My father was working away from home. Jackie was doing his Home Guard duties and my mother, brother George and I were on our own. The sirens went and almost immediately the anti-aircraft guns were blazing away and search lights probed the sky and we stood on the kitchen steps watching. When the whistle of bombs dropping was heard we went into the cellar and not into the air raid shelter because a street shelter had been hit by a bomb nearby and mother thought we would be safer in the cellar. The throb of aeroplane engines droned on for what seemed like hours, and the guns pounded the air as bombs whistled towards the ground. Another sound like the regular whoosh of a steam locomotive starting was made by bombs attached to parachutes as they glided to earth. The sounds of the explosions were very frightening. Even the large battleship Prince of Wales being constructed at Cammell Lairds used its available guns to fire at the enemy planes. Jackie came home in the thick of the air raid saying that he had helped to put out an incendiary bomb. My mother did not like the idea of him being so close to danger.
At night the smoke screen vehicles pumped smoke into the air to try and confuse the position for the bombers to bomb their targets. Each day dawned and the bomb damage seemed to be everywhere. It was a way of life and parachute cord and silk from the parachute bombs was much sort after by children for swops as well as other collectable items. Bombed houses were flattened into piles of rubble, or left standing with floors and walls precariously balanced. Areas that I had known were gone including parts of Exmouth Street, Oxton Road and Borough Road. There was a distinct smell of rubble dust and smouldering wood. The raids became almost routine, and in anticipation of yet another raid we went to Hamilton Square underground station with lots of others for one night, thinking that it was safer and less noisy than being at home. It was very crowded, and we did not go there again.
Attendance at school was somewhat disrupted, especially when it was discovered that there was an unexploded bomb just near the entrance to the park, about 50 yards from the school. We were moved to another school, just off Borough Road, for a little while until the bomb had been dismantled. Walking to this school from home there was a small greengrocers, which I passed, and I remember buying a carrot to eat on the way, as “Carroty George” ( a newspaper cartoon advert), encouraged people to eat them as they were good for you, and it improved your eyesight to see better at night, like night fighter pilots.
At school we had a new Headmaster, Mr. D. Oliver who took over from Mr. Brighouse. I can remember winning National Savings Stamps for “Wings for Victory” week with a model Spitfire I had made ( with some help from my father) which was displayed in the Town Hall and awarded 1st prize, in a competition for schools, as was a poster which had also entered which won 3rd prize. I had won a grand total of 17s 6p.
It was about this time that Birkenhead was visited by the King and Queen. We stood along the pavement in Claughton Road near to Cole Street School and waited to see the large black Rolls Royce car drive past. We waved and cheered as they passed us by.
It was about this time that another incident occurred which I saw. A Spitfire came flying over our house quite noisily and low then it seemed to climb banked and came hurtling towards the ground. There was a tremendous thud then silence. Word soon got around that the plane had crashed, had narrowly missed houses in Claughton Road and had nosed dived into the park. Funnily enough it was near the road and the area where the unexploded bomb had been, and very near Cole Street School. My brother George and I went to see where it had landed. There was a huge crater and chunks of metal around it. Apparently the pilot had bailed out setting the plane to fly out to sea, but something went wrong. The pilot landed safely.
Despite the war life continued and we became the proud possessor of a wireless which used electricity rather than the wet batteries which powered earlier sets like Mrs. Rogerson’s. It was bought from the Co-op in Grange Road and it was a “Defiant”. It was the first wireless that we owned as far as I knew. It was another world listening to “Lord Haw Haw” and his propaganda, and all the latest news, Churchill speaking, and Children’s Hour, Dick Barton, Into Battle, Hippodrome and “the penny on the drum” Tommy Handley and ITMA, ( my father was in the audience on one occasion when he had been working in Bangor ), and the King making his Christmas Message. It was interesting playing with the tuner and trying to pick up new stations and sounds. My father didn’t approve in case I damaged the wireless. Somewhere along the line of time we acquired a pair of budgerigars which were kept in a cage. We allowed them to fly around the room but it always was a problem trying to return them to their cage. They were fed with Spratts Budgerigar Mixture which we bought from a pet shop in Borough Road. I remember having to take a very scrawny unwell baby bird to the shop for advice as to what to do with it. I think it died.
Buses ran during the war, as did trains. The postal service continued as did the postman and the telegram boy. The shops opened for business as usual, and people queued for hours if there was something special on offer. Ration books and identity cards were the order of the day. (I can still remember my identity card number even today OJPJ 2045). Along Grange Road the shops remained open as did the cinemas (or Picture Houses) in the town. My favourite Ice Cream shop “Fabriis” in Grange Road closed down because the owners were Italians and interned. Mr.Jones, the manager of the Co-op Grocery Shop on the corner of John Street and Grange Road, quite often served us. He wore a black coat and an apron around his waist. The other assistants wore white coats. Sugar was weighed and poured out into blue coloured bags and the tops sealed by folding. We had a check number at the Co-op for the “dividend”, or the “divi” as it was generally known by. It was 31314 and was written out on pink tear off slips and a carbon copy retained in the receipt book. Money paid for purchases were placed in a cylinderical shiney metal container and attached to an overhead wire and pulled by a wooden handle by the shop assistant. This sent the container to the cashier who sat in a raised area in the centre of the shop. Change was returned back to the assistant in the same way. The floor of the shop was made up of black and white mosaics and sprinkled with sawdust which was swept up from time to time. The smell mingled with the aroma of smoked bacon. Ingredients for rice puddings, tapioca and steamed puddings came from here as well as Fennings Fever Cure, Extract of Malt and tins of syrup and treacle. Post Toasties and Porridge Oats were part of the diet.
On the other side of John Street was the Co-op Greengrocery, a public house, Co-op meat shop, Co-op Dairy, and Co-op Bread shop, and facing them was John Street School, which had a spooky dark small entrance. In the greengrocery I can remember potatoes displayed in sacks and the assistants filling up the large metal scoops with potatoes and weighing them on scales which used large weights measured in lbs. You could enter the shop from Grange Road as well as John Street. We bought our milk from the dairy, and from the milk man who wheeled a cream coloured cart with two churns of milk which he ladled into containers for customers, or sold pint bottles from a crate. Occasionally we had butter milk to drink. This was measured out from a milk churn in the shop with a ladle. The pint milk bottles had waxed cardboard tops which we used to make woollen pompoms by winding coloured wool around the top and through the centre. At the bread shop we bought oven bottom loaves and twists. These were wrapped up in white tissue like paper, which I used to trace pictures as it was so transparent. The meat shop had large wooden benches for preparing the cuts of meat. Neck end of lamb I remember as well as stewing steak and mince which was prepared as you waited.
Food during the war was not easy to come by, and most things were rationed, and I can remember my mother trying to get the best value for her “points”. We ate dried eggs, spam, and on occasion, even used dried milk. One day we received a food parcel which came from America and it included packets of noodles which I had never seen before amongst other things. Who it came from, and from where, we never found out, but it was very much appreciated.
The Co-op drapery shop was in Grange Road, selling wool, clothes towels and even bicycles. My eldest brother Jackie had one purchased from there. It was a “Federal”. I eventually learned to ride it. There were lots of shops in Grange Road. At the Grange Road West end was “Robbs” a large departmental store and was rather up market, to Allinsons at the other end. In between there was Woodsons ( a grocery shop), Waterworths ( greengrocers), Timpsons (shoe shop), Pykes (jewellers), The Maypole (dairy products), St.John’s Church and St.Werburghs (Catholic Church), Woolworths (3d to 6d store), and many more. This was part of the world I knew and took for granted. The covered market was large and near to the entrance to the Mersey Road Tunnel which went under the River Mersey to Liverpool from Birkenhead, and was opened in 1934. My father was presented with a commemorative medal to mark the occasion which I now have in my possession. The market was a busy place, especially on Saturdays, with characters like Eli who sold crockery and displayed plates and saucers by letting them slide down his arm. His patter attracted a large audience. I remember when we purchased a large turkey for Christmas from the market. My father chose his cheese from here. I loved eating the toffee apples as a special treat, which were on sale here. Piles of salted sheets of dried cod fish always fascinated me as we walked passed the stall which sold them. I wonder who did buy them? Licquorice pipes with their glowing pretend red ends, and laces were always a treat. Pomegranates with their edible pips extracted with a safety pin from the blood red interior was fun. Apples purchased from the market were used for “Bob Apple Night” and they dangled on strings and suspended from the clothes airer, or “pulley” as we called it, which was above the fire and cooking range in the living room, the object being, to try and eat the apple with your hands behind your back. Another way was to have the apples in a bowl of water on the table, or floor, and trying to get them out with your teeth without using your hands.
As I write these reminiscences I realise the time scale and chronological order of events are somewhat jumbled, but nevertheless worthy of recording, even if only to satisfy my own ego, as well as giving an insight into my childhood life.
Family walks to Bidston Hill blackberrying was fun, as was using a walking stick to pull the more difficult branches closer to pick the berries. The windmill fascinated me as did the Observatory, but did not really understand how important the Bidston Observatory was until I was much older. We walked to places like Noctorum and Arrowe Park through open countryside and farmland, listening to the skylark and the cuckoo, and sometimes watching people ploughing, using teams of horses, and stacking sheaves of wheat. Arrowe Park was remembered for its walks passed the rhododendron lined paths leading to the area where there were swings and American cradles, which were like see saws but moved horizontally, and could go very frightingly high. I can remember my father hitting a golf ball with a toy golf club which had a wooden handle and the metal head screwed on to it, and the ball went a great distance across the field. I could not even hit the ball. We played French cricket and learned to catch balls. Picnics here were exciting and memorable. A flask was used for carrying hot tea. Cream coloured linen cloth serviettes which had narrow black lines forming a chequered pattern were always brought with us, with a matching tablecloth which was spread on the ground. Near the entrance there was a white monument marking the Scout Jamboree that had been held there. I remember having a Sunday School Treat at the park. At the entrance to the park was a large cream coloured bus shelter and stop. Sometimes we would take the bus home. If it was hot my father made head protection from handkerchiefs knotted at the corners and put on our heads.
In Birkenhead Park a very large underground air raid shelter was constructed and covered with grass so that it was not very obvious. At strategic points around the town large EWS (emergency water supplies) open tanks were filled with water in case they were needed. Fire engines were painted grey and called the National Fire Service (NFS), instead of the Birkenhead Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigade was by the side of the Claughton Cinema before it moved alongside the Roxy Cinema near Borough Road and Charing Cross. At night it was always dark as there was a “Blackout” and there were no street lights whatsoever.
The war continued. Life in Birkenhead continued. School continued. At school I learned how to make paper mache puppet heads using plastacine as the basic detailed shape, and covering the “clay” with a layer of small pieces of tissue paper stuck together with flour paste then followed by a layer of small pieces of newspaper. Five layers were applied then allowed to dry. When the “clay” was removed there was left a hard sculptured shape of the original shape. This was attached to a cardboard tube which was stuck to it. This was the place for the forefinger to enter and control the head movement . My mother made a simple puppet glove to cover my hand and my thumb and middle finger became the arms. The face was fun to paint on the white tissue covered shape.
Skipping was fun, as was Hopscotch, Bowling Hoops (usually old discarded bicycle wheels) and using a stick to keep it moving, using pieces of slate to make “Clappers”, “Diabalo” and making “Whizzers” using carboard circles attached to string, or large buttons, and “Pat a ball” using small wooden bats and a rubber ball attached to a length of thin elastic trying to beat the record number of “pats” either vertically, horizontally or upwards. Playing “Conkers” was fun. Playing tunes on combs with tissue paper on one side , as well as mouth organs, and “Gazoos”, (a metal cigar like shape which produced a musical sound by humming down it) were all part of my childhood. “Meccano” was kept in a large hand made box with hinges and a fitted shelf with compartments to keep the nuts and bolts, clips, wheels and axles for easier access. I was helped by my brothers to make working cranes and push along vans and lorries, with their brass wheels attached to axles.
My elder brother Jackie was called up to go into the Army. I remember going to Prestatyn in North Wales to see him outside an Army Training area. I went with my mother. I think we went by train from Woodside Station, and changed trains at Chester to go to see him.
I remember making a small garden in the backyard using bricks to contain the leaf mould compost ,which I had brought back from Birkenhead Park where there was large mound of composted leaves. My father had made a wooden sided cart for the allotment and it was used for many things. This was the cart I collected horse manure in for the allotment, as well as coke from the Gas Works instead of the old pram. It had two small wheels which had tyres and they could be pumped up. They had schreider valves, and needed a special pump to inflate them. I planted some nasturtium seeds in the compost and they grew. On another occasion I found some baby ducklings in the park and brought them home, and tried to look after them in my backyard garden. I was persuaded to take them back to one of the lakes in the park and let them go. I hope they survived.
I remember going to the wedding of my cousin Maggie in Liverpool. She married an airman named Bill Threllfall. We went to a church and came back to 4 Vanburgh Road for eats. It was the first wedding I went to. Somewhere there is a photo of my mother, father, brother George and me in the rear garden near the Anderson Shelter that they had in the back garden, in our “best clothes”. The food was very ordinary because of rationing, and the war. I remember being corrected for not using my knife properly at the table. Cousin Billy showed me how he could make a photographic image appear on a piece of paper by holding it to towards the light. Did this start me off having an interest in photography, much later in life?
Quite often we went down to Woodside and walked down the floating roadway which was about 100 yards long, past the Lairage , which led to a landing stage for small vessels, like tugs. The Lairage I think was where the abattoir was. Alongside the floating roadway was some form of water pumping which produced noisy torrents of water which flowed into the River Mersey. Was the water being pumped from the underground railway? From this floating landing stage the River could easily be viewed and many ships, painted grey could easily be seen, including warships. Some of the ships had tethered barrage balloons flying above them. It was about this time that Mrs. Rogerson and my mother went out to work part-time in a bakery, but not sure where, and sometimes she didn’t arrive home before I came home from school. When we moved to Briardale Road she packed up working.
I took my scholarship exam at Hemingford Street School for a Grammar School place when I left Cole Street School when I was 11 years old. I had my mother’s special fountain pen which was filled with Stephens Blue Ink for the examination, to bring me luck. I failed. The Head at Cole Street was disappointed as he was certain I would pass with flying colours. By chance we moved as I was nearing eleven, and I was not faced with having to go to Hemingford Street Central School where my brother George had gone. He had left school at 14 and was working for the GWR as an office worker. He wore a railway uniform.
In 1943 we moved from 2 Coventry Street to 73 Briardale Road. Mr. Bolton also owned this house, which was an improvement to the previous one, as it had a rear garden, a small front garden with a privet hedge, a bathroom and hot and cold running water. Briardale Road was on a slight slope and had Borough Road at the bottom of the road, and Woodchurch Road at the top end. It was a terraced late Edwardian house with the rear facing the trees and grounds of St. Michael’s Church which were bounded by Carlton Road on the other side. There was an alley way which served the rear of the houses. Behind our house was a large tree in the church grounds which was interesting to watch over the seasons. The flush toilet was a small outside affair with an ill fitting door at the top and bottom, complete with scrubbed wooden seat. There was no cellar. At ground level was the front room, living room and kitchen, a vestibule glazed door and hallway leading to stairs which led to the bedrooms. There were two largish bedrooms and a single room, or box room, and a very small room just big enough for a metal enamelled white coloured bath. My parents had the front room and George and I slept in the middle room, whilst Jackie had the box room when he was home on leave. From our new home I walked to Cole Street School and back, though by now I could just manage to ride the black painted “Federal” bicycle, but it was a little too big for me. We painted the walls with green coloured “Wallpermura”, a new form of distemper, which most probably was the forerunner of emulsion paint we have today. The ceilings to the wall paper borders were painted with ceiling white. The budgerigars were housed in an outside aviary with a nesting box attached to the wall. It was placed fairly high up from the ground to protect the birds from the attention of cats. The garden was improved, but there was no grass, just a path down to the toilet and plants that we grew. My father obtained some carnations from somebody in Southport, when he was working there, and they were superb. They were yellow with red edging to the petals, and I learned how to propagate them, and in time we had a striking display.
Being a terraced house we had neighbours on either side. In 71 were the Threlfall family. Mr Threllfall was white haired and elderly and his wife looked old as well. Their daughter was Fanny, and looked as old as my mother. In 75 were the Jones’s. We could hear them rowing and arguing frequently through the walls of the house.
In September 1943 I started my Secondary Education at Temple Road School, and my mother was assured by Mr.Oliver at Cole Street School, that this was a very good school, and that there was a new headmaster who had a terrific reputation. He was right. The Head was Mr.D.H.Cooper who became an important figure in Birkenhead’s Education development later, and a great influence on my life.
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