Friday, 5 February 2010

Early meanderings.... Pt1

I was born almost at the confluence of the River Don and the River Rother. Born into (in hindsight) what was considered to be a small family of seven in those long off days. We lived in a two-up and two-down with an attic space and a cold dank cellar. Other bits included an outside toilet and wash house across the back yard.

Other families who lived nearby often had ten or more children all crammed into their little two-up two-down houses that seemed to abounded in those days. However, there was one notable family of about sixteen children or maybe there were even more. At this distance in time, my memory might be flawed but the family was quite prodigious. Just like everyone else, they all lived in a two up, two down house a few hundred yards up the road. The eldest son Derek was a school chum and he seemed to have one dad and one or more different mums from time to time. The surfeit of mums always puzzled me, but as was normal in those days, kids never asked and Derek never broached the subject.  I can't help but wonder where everyone went at night in Derek's home. Maybe they were all stacked on pallets?

But I digress.

My dad had converted the loft space into an attic bedroom in our house. It was into the attic that my brother and I were consigned to sleep. We slept in an ex-army bunk bed that was later replaced by a double bed mattress on the floor as our feet eventually outgrew the bunks. My two sisters had the front bedroom (this was illuminated by the street light outside) and mum and dad had the back bedroom. This arrangement was to help dad sleep free of traffic noise in the daytime when he was on night shift. The family dog had the run of the kitchen with a bed on the hearth. However, on very cold nights he would be invited into our bedroom to add a little localised heat in the form of a living hot water bottle for me and my brother to share. However, he would also share a fart with us which would see him banished to the bottom of the bed. In the winter we would put on more blankets and on very cold days we would even throw on a few coats. Cold days were normal during the winter months. However, very cold days were characterised by ice forming on the window panes, on the inside as well as the outside.

As a miner, dad had regular deliveries of "ome coil" (home coal) which was delivered by a small tipper truck and tipped straight down the "coil oil" (coal hole) and was used to provide all the heating and cooking with a Yorkshire range. The old Yorkshire range and white enamel Ascot gas boiler was later ripped out and replaced by a tiled fireplace with a back boiler, for hot water and cooking was switched to a gas cooker.

Bath nights depended on your physical size, when I was very young, I was dunked in a small galvanised tub. A few years later, I progressed to the "Tin Bath" which was to be found hanging on a peg in the old back garden air-raid shelter. On bath night, I was fourth in line after my brother and sisters. The bath towels and soap that we used came from the pit head baths and was always of good quality. I would always have the smell of Wrights Coal Tar Soap about me, and it is a soap I still use today. On bath night (Friday) the tin bath was carefully placed in front of the kitchen fire. When my sisters went in, the always full clotheshorse was used to protect their modesty. The one abiding memory was that after each child was dunked and scrubbed, a kettle or pan of hot water was added before the next one went in.

We also had a wash house in the shared yard round the back of the house. However, it was used to store bikes and toys rather than be used for washing clothes. Mother had a service washing machine, complete with the latest electric mangle attachment. I can remember watching sheets and other such items being passed through to squeeze out the water. There was a small lever on the side which controlled the direction of travel. One day I managed to get my fingers caught in the rollers and my arm was "mangled" almost up to the elbow before I managed to throw the lever the other way and watch my arm and hand come back through the rollers. Surprisingly it did not hurt!

The war had been and gone and Rotherham was returning to some sort of normality by the time I put in an appearance. However, as the reader is about to find out I was old enough to remember some of the austerity of the early post war years. My childhood was a comfortable time as I was the youngest in the brood. Most of my good clothes had been worn by my elder brother prior to being handed down the chain to me. My normal day-to-day attire was mostly hand made, sometimes by my mother or they were produced by an aunty. I never understood the real family relationship, but it was always handy to have the surrogate aunts who would supply the odd penny for the sweetshop from time to time.

Ration coupons, was a word I did not understand either, other than if I had some pocket money to spend. The coins were worthless without the coupons. A trip to the local shop to purchase sweets - required some careful planning mostly done outside Mrs Crofts shop window on the corner of Westfield View. I would carefully note which of the jars were about to run out. The shop was in reality the front room of someone's home with a rough and rickety home made counter made out of several up-turned bread trays. The window had a wooden cubicle round it with several shelves displaying various confectionery items. The tall glass sweet jars contained loose "boiled spice" which would be reached down and the contents slowly shaken into a brass cup on the scales whilst the pointer climbed to the appropriate place on the scale. I had noticed quite early on, that if you chose a jar which only contained little more than you wanted, the remainder was often emptied into the brass cup for free. I quickly became quite adept at choosing this kind of sweet jar. Hence the time spent studying the level of each jar's content through the window.

I don't actually remember the end of rationing or not needing the coupons. I don't remember any significant change taking place other than over time the number of sweet jars grew and one wall behind the counter had extra shelves fitted to contain them.

School was something my mother had carefully prepared me for and I was able to read and write fairly well, even before I started. I can remember being a bit excited whilst at the same time reticent about the whole school prospect. The day dawned and I was escorted to Alma Road Infants School, as were many other kids by their mother. I was very loathe to leave my mother in the playground and to go indoors. Etched indelibly in my memory is the face of my new teacher Mrs Ducker - as she bent over and looked me straight in the eye and I looked her straight in the smiling mouth - which was full of discoloured teeth and accompanied by a strong smokers breath. I was instantly filled with a sense of foreboding of what was to come. I was not about to be disappointed!

I have a few vague memories of that first day, of being sat in a green walled classroom with tables and chairs which seemed to be, even then, far too small for comfort. There were kids wearing glasses with sticky tape over one lens and one or two with purple dye on their heads. It was the summer and some kids were wearing Wellington's that had been turned down at the top. At the same time, there were strange pictures on the classroom wall done by some previous class of infants. On the wall next to the blackboard was a strange plinth like box, with a small switch underneath. I found out much later it was the "Rediffusion" an early form of cabled radio. I have memories of listening to children's stories being read out over the rediffusion radio.

The next morning my mother came into our bedroom to wake me and my brother up. She said it was time to get ready for school. I reminded her that although she seemed to have forgotten, I had actually been to school the day before. It came as a shock to my system to be told I have to go every day Monday to Friday. I remember thinking that it would soon be Friday and my ordeal of going to school would soon be over. The following Monday it came as an even bigger shock to find out that I would be going to school every Monday to Friday for the foreseeable future. What puzzles me now is that I never noticed previously that my brother and sisters were disappearing off to school each day.

At school lunch time we were lined up in pairs along with children from other classes. Into what is called today a crocodile and marched off hand in hand down the road. We went to a small hall where we were seated and supplied with lunch. The food at that time had a peculiar all pervading smell and taste which seemed to be ingrained deep into the greasy hard plastic plates we used. Our teachers however, sat at a posh table on a small stage, where they had glasses and a jug of water to share. Water was something which the children were never provided with. The food we had seemed to have been boiled into submission and all vestiges of goodness would have been removed. I remember telling my mother about my experience and not long afterwards I was escorted home each day for a real meal at home.

School milk was something I enjoyed in the morning, but loathed if it was served in the afternoon. In a morning it was still quite cold, refreshing and usually palatable, in the afternoon after it had been stood in the sunshine in the school yard It was often quite warm. Not only that but the cream had risen to the top and congealed to form a plug, that you had to pierce with your finger or tongue.

Later I progressed through the infants and on to Alma Road Junior School where a whole new lot of teachers had to be coped with. The schoolboy anecdotes recited by our older siblings about the teachers - left us in the infants - somewhat scared and wary of ever going up. Names like "flogger" Parkin and "caner" Lindley did nothing to inspire confidence. The names were etched into my mind as teachers to be avoided at all costs. However, in truth some teachers like Mrs Garrison (who was the wife of a local policeman) were in fact quite warm and friendly. However, others were at best indifferent, whist others were proved to be true to their reputation - that had preceded them.

My happy life in the infants was rudely shaken apart by moving into the juniors. Bigger "bully boy" classmates were a constant threat to personal safety. However, this threat was somewhat mitigated by having an elder brother who could be called upon for backup as needed. I soon learned that it was better to stand your ground despite the consequences. There was a need to be prepared to lash out, and to be first to do it. This also needed to be a sustained attack continued until such time as we were pulled apart. That way I tended to come out somewhat unscathed. At the same time I earned the reputation that I was not to be messed with.

Like most boys in this period who were a bit short of stature - our dads arranged for some boxing lessons at "Steelo's" (Steel Peach and Tozers) boxing club on Sheffield Road. I learned not only how to hit, but more importantly also where to hit. After attending for a few months I let the boxing drop, it was not something that I enjoyed - but it had given me some much needed confidence and advantage of some pugilistic know-how. (Steel, Peach and Tozer by Terry Gorman.

The Alma road junior girls school was up a set of cast iron stairs from the school yard. The boys would to position ourselves to get the best view of the girls going into school. The more adventurous boys trying to sneak a peek up their dresses to see what colour underwear they were wearing. There would be the odd "wolf whistle" emanating from the boys hidden in the toilet block. It was not good to be seen wolf whistling as this could mean that you were summoned upstairs into a classroom full of girls to explain why you were whistling at them.

To be continued.....

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