The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there.
Well, I can't remember who wrote that (I'm now told it was L.P.Hartley in "The Go-Between") but, on reading the first few pages of this document, it seems to me that my past was on a different planet.
The past is all a bit of a blur to me - I can remember events, but their order gets a little confused.
So, I thought that I should write down what I can remember and then rearrange it to make some sort of sense. If anyone else finds any of it interesting then good luck to them.
I was born in Bristol on Tuesday 7th December 1943. My mother still lived there until recently, but my father died some time ago. See the Knaggs' Family Genealogy for details. My older sister still lives there - I'll tell you about her and her family later.
I was born, at home, at 22 Canton Street, a small cul-de-sac that went from Newfoundland Road to the river Frome (or the Danny as everyone called it). The streets off Newfoundland Road were called, alphabetically, Albion Road, Byron Road, Canton Street, Dermot Street, Eldon Road, Fern Street and Gosport Road. I wonder if anyone can spot the connection?
|Map of the St Agnes area of Bristol|
All these little streets, having survived (more or less) all that Hitler could throw at them, succumbed after the war to the ravages of the motor car - they are now beneath the concrete of the M32 motorway.
|Me aged 6 months, June 1944|
The second World War was still raging and so I spent many nights down the air-raid shelter with my mum, while my dad was on fire-watch. I don't remember any of this, thank goodness, only being a baby at the time. Several houses in our street were damaged and, one night, a land mine destroyed about eight houses making up the four corners of Newfoundland Road, Canton Street and Dermot Street. The resulting fire from a gas main only attracted more bombers. [Don't be fooled into thinking that the Blitz was only in London.] The resulting bomb sites proved useful later for playing cricket on, but playing fields would have been better.
One day, near the beginning of the air raids, my great aunt Alice was washing her hair when the sirens sounded. With a wet towel around her head she went out into the street to watch the bombers going over. According to my mum, she then went indoors and promptly died. Until she was buried, every time that the sirens sounded, my mum had to dash over and put the lid on the coffin before dashing down the shelter.
At the height of the war, before I was born, my mum, my sister and a few other relations were evacuated to the relative safety of Cornwall. They stayed in some sort of shed in a farmer's field just outside of Polperro . This is a pretty fishing village and is now a tourist trap but then was still 'unspoilt'. After a while they couldn't take any more of the primitive living conditions and the locals' attitude and moved back to civilisation.
My first memory is of the street party to celebrate the end of the war (I suppose it must have been VE day). My mum says that I couldn't possibly remember it as I was too young, but I distinctly remember being sat in a high-chair next to a piano.
|Me, Catherine, Geoffrey Matthews|
22 Canton street
Our house was pretty normal for working-class families of the time, and you can see houses very much like it today in all large English cities. It was a 'double bay fronted villa'. That is to say that the windows projected out both downstairs and upstairs. Facing the street was a tiny garden, perhaps 3 feet deep, of no real use except to provide the illusion that your front door didn't open straight onto the street. There used to be wrought iron railings, but they were removed for the war effort. In fact, many Victorian railings were removed all around the country - most ended up as piles of scrap and were never used to build battleships, There was a proper front door of solid wood, behind which was a small entrance hall and then a 'glass door' that led into a corridor that ran the length of the house. Downstairs, at the front was the 'front room' - kept neat and spotless but hardly ever used and certainly never heated that I can remember.
Behind this was the 'living room' ('lounge' if you are middle class, 'drawing room' if you are upper class, 'saloon' if you are aristocratic). This was where most waking activities took place i.e. playing, eating, listening to the radio (we still called it the wireless then), bathing, and later doing homework, and later still watching television. Like most of the rooms, the living room had a real fire-place that burnt coal. The first task of the morning (not for me) was to rake out the ashes of the previous day's fire and make the new one.
This is how you do it (for people, these days, who don't know they're born) - first you lay several layers of newspaper loosely crumpled, then two layers of chopped wood laid diagonally, then the coal. You light the paper with a match (and, if you are my dad, light the first of many cigarettes with it as well). The paper burns quite easily and starts the wood burning (you can't light wood with a match). The wood burns more fiercely than the paper and lights the coal. Often this process needs to be improved by holding a sheet of newspaper over the void of the fireplace in order to create a draught of air. Besides the fireplace is a set of tools (often in iron with soot-blackened brass ornamentation) that normally includes a poker (the art of poking a fire will soon be lost to humanity), a pair of tongs (for adding more coal to a fire), a small shovel and a brush (for clearing away the ashes).
The living room was the only room routinely heated in winter and so the living room was where everyone had their weekly bath (on a Friday night). In summer, baths could be had more privately in the scullery, but I haven't come to that yet. A zinc(?) bath would be fetched in from the back garden and placed in front of the fire. Buckets of hot water would then be carried from the boiler in the scullery and poured into the bath. People would take it in turns to bathe - in some sort of order of precedence (I was last). The bath would be topped up with another bucket of hot water between people. People not bathing were not supposed to look at those who were - this rule did not apply universally!
But back to the house. In the corridor, under the stairs was the coal cupboard. At the end of the corridor was a room that I can't remember the name of (I shall have to ask my mum). It was really a dining room, but it was unusual to eat there. I remember that it had a dresser for the storage of food and crockery etc.
Beyond that was the scullery - a sort of cross between a kitchen and a utility room. It had a table, a gas-stove, a gas-boiler and a sink. A door led into the back garden. Next to the scullery, entered from the back garden, was the outside toilet (there wasn't an inside one!). Frosty mornings could be a shock. In the back garden was a mangle and a washing line. (What's a mangle daddy?) In summer, you could get back into the living room through a pair of french windows (the forerunner of patio doors).
Upstairs were the three bedrooms. My parent's bedroom was at the front so it had the bay window. I also slept there until I was about five. My sister slept in the middle bedroom (over the living room) and I slept in the third (smallest) bedroom until my sister married.
I hope that you are not expecting me to remember the names of every person who lived in every house. I can remember those families that had children of my own age, or of my sisters age - most of the rest are just strangers. (See Directory list later)
Next door, towards the river, lived Jean Lacey - she was about my age and all I can remember about her is that she knocked one of my teeth out - I've no idea why?
Next door to her was the yard of Mr Coggins, a 'Rag and Bone Man' (just like Steptoe and Son on the telly). He would take his horse and cart out every day, either collecting junk through the streets of Bristol, or would go out into the country collecting who knows what. We ignored each other.
Next door, towards the road lived the Striblings (husband and wife) in a gloomy house with black venetian blinds. He was blind, so I don't suppose that he minded.
Further down the street, on our side, lived the Saunders' (Sandra was a friend of my sister) and then, near the road, the Hernimans (Tony was my sister's age).
Across the street from us lived my Aunt Mary, Uncle Les and my cousin Peter Wood. Peter lived near my mum until recently - more about the Woods later.
Next door to the Woods (toward the river) was a sort of lock-up warehouse. At one time it was used by the bagwash (whatever that is), but the only time that I can remember going in there was for the Coronation street party.
About half way down the street (at number 11) lived my gran (my father's mother, called either Granny Knaggs or Granny number 1) together with Great Aunt Nell, Evelyn and Catherine. As far as I can tell, Evelyn was 'taken in' by my Gran and cared for as if she were her own daughter.
The following is taken from the Kelly's Directory of Bristol for 1950 . . .
We'll explore the neighbourhood, and then the rest of Bristol, as I get older.
1 Thatcher, Edwd Jas
3 Vale, Miss Ellen Eliz
5 Hogan, Eugene
7 Watkins, Mrs Lucy
9 Jughes, Jn Redvers
11 Knaggs, Mrs Sarah Ann (this is my gran)
13 Watts, Tom Jas
15 Dolman, Mrs Florence
17 Gibbs, Mrs Mabel
19 Ford, Mrs Ann
21 Wood, Leslie Donald (this is Uncle Les)
Kelly, Edwin Albert, builder and dealer, workshop (he built the street)
24 Lacey, Albt Wm
22 Knaggs, Albt Wm (this is our house)
20 Stribling, Wm Edward
18 Stallard, Herbert
16 Walter, Miss Nora
14 Turner, Arthur Joseph
12 Saunders, Regnld Fredrck
10 James, Mrs Eliz
8 Hook, Mrs Ellen (my mum doesn't know why it doesn't say William)
6 Harris, Wm Jn
4 Herniman, Sidney Ralph
2 Williams, Stanley
My mum was a Reece as I have mentioned before. That's the English spelling of the Welsh name Rees. Her mother (Granny Reece) lived in Cowley Street which was one of the streets off Newfoundland Road past Gosport Street. She had a brother, my Uncle Ern (Ernest really) and three sisters, my Aunts Lil (Lilly really - because she was so white at birth), Elsie and Mary. Her father was a bit of a drunk and had died earlier on. Her early years was more primitive than mine, not wearing shoes till she was quite old. Her early education was rather lacking as it wasn't considered important for working-class girls. She attended St Simons Church School from the age of 3 to 10, then Newfoundland Road School from age 10 to 14. At Newfoundland Road she was initially put into the 'Handicraft Class' as she didn't seem to be very bright. She was promoted to a normal class after one year and presented with a Bible for making such good progress. If only she'd had a better start. From the age of 10 she earned 6d a week looking after other people's children. On leaving school she got a job in a printing firm and then in a laundry, in each case being fired after a year in lieu of a wage rise.
My dad's family had a little more money, and he actually went to a grammar school for a few years. He had all sorts of jobs including door-to-door insurance salesman, but his main trade was a clicker. In the shoemaking trade, a clicker is the man who cuts the leather for the uppers using a paper pattern and a very sharp flexible knife. The knife clicks as it changes direction. Early in the war, my father turned up for work to find his factory wasn't there anymore - only rubble. He got a job as a policeman for the duration. After the war he returned to clicking for a high-class shoe manufacturer named Hutchins - "A Shoe of Beauty is a Joy to Wear". In his time, my father made shoes for Queen Elizabeth (when she was only a Princess) and Haile Selassie (the Emperor of Ethiopia - living in Bath because the Italians had driven him out of Ethiopia).
|My parents' wedding (Evelyn left, Aunt Mary right)|
My parents married on Saturday 8th June 1935 at St Agnes Church. This is from the Bristol Evening Post -
IN WHITE GEORGETTEThe wedding dress was bought for a guinea (one pound one shilling) from "the guinea shop" in Old Market, and was later used by my Aunt Mary.
Miss Rose Emily Elizabeth Reece, third daughter of Mrs M. Reece was married to Mr Albert W Knaggs, only son of Mrs S Knaggs at St Agnes' Church.
The bridesmaids were Miss Mary Reece, sister of the bride, and Miss Evelyn Dickson.
The bride, who was given away by her brother, Mr E Reece, wore a gown of white georgette, with orange blossom and veil, and carried a bouquet of pink roses.
The bridesmaids wore frocks of sky-blue suede crepe, and carried sweet peas.
Mr L Wood was best man.
I didn't know either of my grandfathers - my mother's father (George) was a bricklayer and died when my mum was 13 - I think that he had a "drink problem". He was the eldest of 10 children and my mum always thought that he was probably married before (but "nothing was ever said") - one day a soldier turned up claiming to be his son. In fact, this mystery has now been solved. The soldier was Edward Victor Rundle, and was my mother's eldest brother but born before the marriage of his parents (so had his mother's surname). My father's father (Albert Edward) was a seaman and died in the first world war - his story is so interesting that he gets his own page here .
I knew both of my grandmothers but can't remember much about either of them. My mother's mother (Margaret Joanna) had a hard life. We would visit her every so often - I remember a living room with a big black coal burning range, and a front room with brown victorian pictures on the wall and an aspidistra in the window. The front door opened right onto the pavement (sidewalk) and there was a piece of string with the key on the end 'hidden' through the letter box. My father's mother (Annie, but really Sarah Anne) lived in our street so we saw more of her. She used to take me for long walks (in my pram) which did not always involve a stop at a pub. I can remember the Black Swan and the taste of crisps dunked in beer. Her house did not have electricity - lighting was gas mantles. She spent most of her time looking out of her front room window and could tell you everything that had happened - you don't need Neighbourhood Watch if you've got grannies.
The first event that I have a record of was my baptism, on 23rd January 1944, at our local parish church - Saint Agnes. I shall postpone the description of this fine church until the 50's when I become a choir-boy. As far as I can tell, my only god-parent was my Aunt Mary.
I didn't know it at the time, but on the 28th February 1944, a certain Maureen Ann Crampton was born in Welwyn Garden City where her mother had been evacuated from London. We won't meet Maureen again until the 60's.
Nothing much actually happened to me for a while. Times were hard and my father wasn't earning much money (but I didn't realise that at the time). I can remember my fifth birthday for only one reason - I had a birthday card from my parents containing the rhyme
|"Goodness gracious, snakes alive|
Birthday's come and you are five."
When I was five, I started school at Newfoundland Road Junior School. It was only five minutes walk away so, the first day, my mum took me there, introduced me to the infants' teacher and, supposedly, left me. In fact, as I was crying, she hung around and secretly watched for a while. I remember being allocated a hook to hang my coat on - instead of names or numbers, they were identified by little pictures (I suppose we would have to call them icons today) - mine was a mug. There was no formal teaching as far as I can remember. There was either individual or group play, or the teacher (I have no idea what her name was) read us stories. I think that I went home for lunch (with my mum, the first day) and returned in the afternoon. We had to sleep for an hour or so on little folding camp beds - probably just to give the teacher a break. On subsequent days I went to and from school by myself.
Free-Range and Battery kids
These days kids get taken to and from school by their parents in large cars no matter how near the school is. They are not trusted out by themselves in the big wide world because of 'what might happen to them'. Is the world really so hazardous? Of course there are strange and dangerous people about - there always have been - but you learn to avoid them. In my day, when you saw a drunk or a tramp etc. you just crossed onto the other side of the street and carried on - no problem. As part of my growing-up in Bristol, I wandered all over the city and got up to all sorts of mischief that kids just aren't allowed to these days. I'm glad that I was a free-range kid, and I'm really sorry for the battery kids of today.
My parents had taught me to read (after a fashion) before I started school (for which I am eternally thankful - that is the biggest start you can give to anyone). I can remember us going to George's bookshop at the top of Park Street and buying a couple of Janet and John books. The first book that I spontaneously read by myself was an Enid Blyton 'Famous Five' adventure. I never looked back.
These days the UK school system uses US-style grades (1st grade being at about 5 years old) but in my day things were different. At secondary schools, the 'first form' was age 11+, through to the 'fifth form' at 15+ (after which most people leave) and the 'sixth form' (two years) which is preparation for university. But I can't remember the naming system for primary school classes (infants and juniors).
Anyway, in the next class (age 6+) real teaching began. Those who couldn't read had a first stab at it, and the concept of number was introduced (simple addition and telling the time). What I always found difficult, and still can't do, was to write legibly. At first, would you believe, we each had a slate to scratch on. When, in later years, we moved on to pen and ink (that's the old-fashioned sort of pen - a nib on the end of a stick, and an inkwell built into the desk and replenished by the ink monitor (never me)) my pages were a mass of blots and smudges. This makes you unpopular with teachers, who tend not to see beyond the disastrous presentation.
It must have been at the end of the 40's that I was introduced to the public library. Bristol's central branch of the public library was (and still is) a fine old building, on College Green, next to the Norman Abbey Gateway and then the Cathedral .
The buses, in those days, were run by the corporation and were even built in Bristol (I must check up to see if they still are). They were traditional British double-deckers - the best place to sit is upstairs at the front. You paid your money (a couple of old pence - I shall have to tell you about the old UK currency some time) and received from the conductor a pre-printed ticket that was torn off a little rack and was then clipped by a little machine (female bus conductors (conductresses?) were sometime called clippies).
Anyway, back to the library. The children's section was very big and had every sort of book that you could imagine. I would return to the library at least once a week for the next decade or so. I probably learnt almost as much from the library as I did from school (not to mention many hours lost in the world of Biggles, Jennings & Derbyshire and Just William).
Yes, I know there was a severe winter that kept me indoors for weeks, but it seems to me that it was always summer. Summer evenings were spent on the street. Grownups would be standing in small groups chatting. Old women, who spend the days peering out from behind the curtains of their front rooms, would be sitting outside and chatting to whoever passed. But for us kids it would be street games.
Skipping - This is a girls game but I had better mention it. It is either done singly (one rope per girl), or there will be a longer rope, held by two girls, stretched across the street. In this case there will either be a single girl skipping, or there will be multiple girls either taking turns or skipping at once. If they are being clever there will be a stationary node in the middle of the rope and two girls will be skipping out of step. Various chants accompanied the skipping e.g. salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper, but I can't remember them.
Hopscotch - This was also a bit girlish, but boys had a go as well. A pattern of squares would be laid out on the street using chalk stolen from school. There were two main patterns - the first was more or less linear, having 1,2,1,2,1,2,1 squares (10 in all) - the second was a spiral of squares. Everybody knows how to play it (if you don't then look it up on Wikipedia).
Touch - This is called Tag in other parts of the country. One person is "on it" (my wife, a Londoner, says "he"). He has to run around trying to touch someone else who, in turn, becomes "on it" ..... until you get bored or a fight develops. A good variation is 'Off the Ground Touch'. Here you can only be touched (tagged) if some part of you is touching the ground, so everyone tries to clamber on to railings, walls etc. You wait until the person "on it" has passed, then jump down and race to another place of safety. It is not strictly legal to push/pull people onto the ground - but it's fun.
Statues - One person stands on one side of the street with his back to the rest of the kids. Everybody else creeps up on him but, if he turns round and sees you moving, you have to go back to the start, The objective is to cross the road.
Marbles - Everybody had a small collection of glass marbles kept in an old jam jar. They had different names that I can't remember. There were all sorts of games that you could play, some involving the use of a street man-hole-cover as arena.
I'm sure there were more - I shall tell you about them in the next decade.
We didn't go far in those days but, luckily, Bristol was quite close to the sea. The Sunday School organised a day at the seaside for the local kids (and their parents) once a year - it was invariably Weston-super-Mare. This is only about 20 miles from Bristol but nobody had a car in those days. Later, we went by bus. Weston was (and, in some ways, still is) a typical English holiday resort. There are miles of golden sand, safe for kids to paddle from and build sand castles. It is on the estuary of the River Severn as it widens into the Bristol Channel and the funnelling effect of the estuary generates large tides - the sea goes out for miles at low tide and you have to squelch through the mud to reach it (though this good for shrimping). When it was hot and sunny (almost all the time, surely) most of the day was spent on the beach; sun tan blocker either hadn't been invented or we couldn't afford it - anyway, I always got sun-burned and my skin flaked off for days after. Lunch was always fish and chips from Coffins (my mum says that this shop is still there, but it's not as good as it was) eaten on the beach with a jug of tea from a wooden shack on the sands. On the beach there are also donkey rides (hence the Bristol expression "up and down like a Weston donkey") and pony drawn carriage rides. At some time during the day a round of Crazy Golf would be played (in later years we progressed to Pitch and Putt) and the end of a perfect day would be a visit to the Pier. This cast iron and wood structure juts far out into the water; at the end there are slot machines and a small fair ground with dodgems, a ghost train, roundabouts, a hall of mirrors and the like. Occasionally we went for a day trip to Clevedon - this has very fine rock pools which are covered by the high tide and contain all manner of strange life-forms.
One weekend we went for a day trip to Clevedon. My father was picking his way over the slippery rocks carrying me on his shoulders. He stumbled and I fell backwards. My mum screamed and he instinctively put out his hands behind his back and caught me - my head was inches from the rocks. When we got back to Canton Street my gran was waiting on her doorstep and came running towards us - "What's happened to Jeff?" she said, "I heard you scream."
Real holidays were only ever taken when the schools closed for the summer (in August). Weston-super-Mare would have been too expensive to stay in as there weren't any caravan parks, so we stayed just down the coast in Worle or Brean. Brean has these huge sand dunes - great for playing in.
In the next decade we would get to Dunster, and even into Devon (a different county)!