|Me and Mum - 1955|
This chapter covers my nefarious activities from age about 7 to 16. So the major subjects covered are schoolfriends, the transition from primary to secondary school, moving house (to a windy council estate on the edge of Bristol), holidays, final days at school and anything else that pops into my head. It is not yet complete and will be added to as and when I think of things.
I don't think that my parents were particularly religious, they just went to church because everybody else did. On Sundays we would go to Holy Communion at 11 o'clock in the morning (I'm sure it was never called Mass and, certainly, my parents didn't take the sacrament), I would be sent to Sunday School in the afternoon (Jesus wants me for a sunbeam) and in the evening was Evensong.
|Me as a choir boy|
The church is St Agnes and is (was) very fine with some very good artwork - I can remember a mosaic of St Cecilia on the floor of the choir, and some good stained-glass windows. I'm told that it has been allowed to go downhill lately. It was built by the prestigious Clifton College and the following information was given to me by Mr R L Bland of the Clifton College archive.
And this is from John Latimer's "Annals of Bristol" for 1887:
In the 1870s the Headmaster of Clifton College, John Percival, wanted to do something for the poor of Bristol, and chose the parish of St Barnabas, Ashley road. This was close to the river Frome, which flooded frequently and was still, I think, an open sewer. In consequence disease was rife. A committee was established in 1875, a curate appointed. He described the area " Muckheaps and farm refuse, on which jerry builders set up rows of houses which periodically got flooded and sucked up fever and death from chill for the poor folk who lived there. No lamps, streets only wadeable through. a few public houses of the worst sort." He didn't last long and by 1880 all there was a temperance coffeehouse, run at a loss. A new curate opened a mission hall in 1882, designed by the school's architect, Charles Hansom. The name St Agnes was chosen because the people wanted a lady saint. In 1884 a working men's club was built, and the new headmaster, Canon Wilson, persuaded the Council to create a public park of Newfoundland Gardens. The church was built and opened on 2 March 1886. In March 1889 the whole area flooded, and the school responded by organising a boat to distribute food and candles. They then helped sweep out the mud from homes, and the Headmaster bullied the council into replacing the culvert that had caused the floods. A connection of a sort with the parish continues to the present. It became the area into which West Indian immigrants moved when they came over in the 1950s, and today has had a motorway built right past it.
The top stone of the tower of St Agnes' Church was laid on November 16th. The total cost of the building had been £9,520, of which £3,000 were granted by the Church Extension Commissioners and £5,287 by a committee consisting of gentlemen connected with Clifton College.
Next to the church is another large building we called the Church Hall, but was a collection of rooms on two floors used for all sorts of local activities. The biggest room was the hall itself.
|Me (on the right) as the Third King|
(My beard is now grey)
My mum was in the "Young Wives" and they held meetings in the church hall every week and had guest lectures and that sort of thing. Once they had a cake competition and my mum came second - she was fuming - the judge cut the cakes in half and my mum's effort didn't win because "the fruit was not evenly distributed" - the judge didn't even taste it. Shortly after a new vicar arrived (it might have been Father Harley replacing Father Goddard) my mum and her friends were told to leave the Young Wives as they were too old - well, that didn't go down too well and I'm not sure if my mum went to church too often after that.
I was in the Cubs for a while, but didn't really enjoy it (too authoritarian for me). Shortly after getting my uniform we had a day trip to the country for a taste of camping - it rained all day and I hated it. It wasn't long after that that I got chucked out for misbehaving - my parents were not best pleased (I think that they managed to sell my uniform to somebody else though).
Next to the church, opposite the entrance to the school, was an area of concrete with swings, a slider, a seesaw, a roundabout, a sort of maypole and a sandpit (normally empty of sand). We called it the Play Park to distinguish it from the Green Park nearby. The maypole thing was incredibly dangerous and wouldn't be allowed these days. There was a tall central iron pole, with a series of chains hanging down with handles on the end. You hung onto these handles and swung around the pole going faster and faster. As soon as anyone jumped or fell off they would probably get bruised or grazed by the gravel on the floor, and the chain and handle would swing out of control and hit someone else on the head. Good fun though. Up against the chicken wire that separated the play area from the church, under some trees, was a drinking fountain. The sort that you press a button and the water shoots up for a couple of inches and, by putting your finger over the nozzle, you can squirt people. Do you know the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"? In it, yonder peasant lives "up against the forest fence, by St Agnes fountain" - I was sure the peasant lived in our park.
Across Thomas Street from the play area was the "Green Park". I think that this must be the Newfoundland Gardens referred to above. It was a very pleasant park with green spaces (that you had to keep off of), a small pond with fish, a bowling green and a sort of hillock covered with trees and dense shrub - we called it "the Mountain". It was tended by a Park Keeper (the Parkie) - every kids worst enemy, but I'm sure he was all right really.
From John Latimer's "Annals of Bristol" for 1882:
£1,500 were granted for laying out two pieces of ground near Newfoundland Road - for which the Corporation had given £2,358 to the feoffees of St James parish - one piece to be asphalted as a playground for children, and the other planted as a pleasure ground.
My mum recently unearthed a black and white photo of a group of kids, all lined up with paper hats and fancy dress. This was taken at the street party to mark the coronation in June 1953, so they are mostly kids who lived in or near Canton Street.
Front row - two unknowns, Catherine and then Graham Williams.
Middle row - Martin Williams (with the sword), Alan Hughes, Michael Harris (in a dress), me (peeking out), Sandra Saunders (wearing the flag), Jean Lacey (in a nurses outfit) and Tana Chew.
Back rows - Rodney Williams (looking glum), two unknowns, Barry Hook (at the back) and Tony Herniman (at the front), Peter Wood (my cousin), Pat (my sister - at the back), then Maureen Lacey, Brenda Lacey and "the girl Tomkins".
I didn't have a great many friends at school, but those that I remember were . . .
|Geoffrey Matthews, Me|
& the coalman's horse
Geoffrey Matthews - he lived around the corner in Newfoundland Road. Most old-fashioned photos of me, that my mum has, also seem to contain Geoffrey Matthews. A couple of years ago now, I phoned up the RAC to tell them of a new car, and the person working at the call centre was Geoffrey Matthews (he recognised my name, and asked if I used to live in Bristol). It turns out that he is married with 2 kids and has recently retired from a career in the police force. Doesn't time fly.
Maurice Adams - he lived in Thomas Street. His parents were strict non-conformists (his father was a preacher in the Gospel Hall) and so he wasn't allowed to join the Wolf Cubs (the Scout movement was thought to be too involved with the Church of England). His father worked at BAC (the Bristol Aeroplane Company - now part of British Aerospace) and designed the door of the Bristol Britannia (I'm sure he must of done something else as well).
The Bristol Britannia was one of last successful airliners powered by gas turbines instead of jets. It was called the whispering giant, but was quite small by today's standards.
On Sunday 29th October 2000, I visited my mum in hospital in Bristol. Afterwards I had a look round my old church (St Agnes). When I came out there was a man standing in the middle of Thomas Street taking pictures - it was Maurice Adams. He now runs the largest Garden Centre in South Africa, and was in Bristol to celebrate the marriage of his 91-year-old father!
Frank Russell - my mum didn't approve of Frank, but he was the only boy who I continued to see after going to grammar school. His family moved around a lot. They came from the Radstock / Midsomer Norton area and, at first, lived in Dale Street. This is a street (with Hill street) of tightly huddled houses with doors opening straight onto the pavement. Then they moved to a street behind Stapleton Road station (where, on Saturday 6th May 1954, I saw Roger Bannister run the 4 minute mile on television) and eventually moved to Clifton. There, they had a flat, in a rambling great victorian house that you entered through a sort of glass tunnel - very strange. I found his mother and sisters very friendly and we used to play Monopoly there if it was too rainy for getting up to mischief. I never ever saw his dad, but I think he was some sort of haulier - one day Frank pointed out this lorry that seemed to be pulling a tree through Bristol.
Whenever the weather wasn't too bad, our favourite occupation at weekends (Frank and Me) was "exploring". As part of normal everyday life, kids would roam to quite a distance. But exploring took it that bit further, with the added pleasure of doing things that were just a little dangerous, and certainly wouldn't be approved of by adults. The centre of Bristol had been heavily bombed in the war and, in the fifties, there were some quite major bomb sites that were easily accessible (well, you might have to bend a bit of corrugated iron). In some cases, all that was left of buildings would be a low outline of walls where rooms used to be - these could be investigated much like you go around old Roman remains in Italy today. Often there would be interconnecting cellars, one of which (near the present day Castle Park) looked out onto the river just upstream from Bristol Bridge. Two of these bomb sites had ruined churches that could be explored - you could go up the spiral staircase in the bell tower but at the top was just empty space (very dangerous). These two churches are still there, but all the debris has been cleared away and new office blocks have been built around them.
Further on were the docks. With the increase in the size of ships, the importance of the Bristol City docks declined and were replaced by deep water docks at Avonmouth. So there was a general sense of decay, and of not much work going on - an ideal spot for exploring. Behind Queen Square, near the Prince Street bridge, were a series of bunkers containing massive piles of sand. This was "Egypt" - you could have all sorts of games. You had to keep an eye out for the occasional workman - they didn't approve of kids. There was all sorts of cranes and machinery that you could clamber on, and make up games - I expect it's all gone now (the docks have been gentrified).
Beyond Hotwells is the Avon Gorge with the Clifton Suspension Bridge overhead. On the far side of the river there is a tow path that goes on for miles (as far as Pill I suppose). It's a bit rural, but there are regular light beacons at bends in the river that can also be clambered over, and there are steep valleys that can be scrambled up - you come out on the Portishead road and can walk back down into Bristol. Now on the Clifton side is the really dangerous places. Most people wanting to get from the bottom to the top would walk up the Zig-Zag - but not us! There is a very steep valley quite close to the Suspension Bridge with plenty of bushes, rocks and things that can be held onto as you scramble up - it's allright if you don't look down. At the top you come out near a large rock outcrop that every single kid in Bristol knew as "the Slider" - it has been worn smooth by countless generations of kids wearing out their trousers on it. You can also get down to the Portway by the same route but it is more difficult. One day, when exploring by myself, I tried to find another way down further on. All went well at first, then I rounded a large rock and saw that there was nothing in front of me and I could look vertically down onto the road - I have never been so scared in my life.
We are talking pre-supermarket here. Most intersections along a main road would have a "corner shop". As I have mentioned before, the ones in Canton Street were blown up during the war. On the corner of Byron Street was a sort of general grocer's and us kids were often sent there on small errands either by our parents or by neighbours. Once a lady asked me to get some Kit-Kat and I came back with Kit-e-Kat - since the first is a chocolate bar and the second is cat food she wasn't too pleased.
My mum, like all housewives, had to shop almost every day because we didn't have a fridge. Most groceries were bought from the Co-op on the corner of Newfoundland Road and St Nicholas Road. This was a very pleasant shop where, of course, you queued up at each department and were served with your food, none of which was pre-packaged (except I think that sugar came in blue one pound bags). Your cheese got garrotted with a cheese wire, your bacon got sliced to whatever thickness you liked - there was probably not a sign saying "Please do not sit on the bacon slicer - we are getting behind in our orders". Your money was put into a fascinating overhead wire contraption and was whisked off to a cashier who had a glass booth in a corner; your change came flying back. Meat, especially in summer, was bought on the day it was to be cooked. Milk, as today, was delivered daily to your doorstep.
While we are talking about chocolate - although most of the wartime rationing had ended, sweets were still on the ration. You took this little book (I still have mine) to the retailer (sweet shop on Lower Ashley Road in this instance) and he cuts off a square from the relevant page. He then serves you your two ounces of sweets from a big jar into a little cone of paper. I suppose someone had the job of sorting out all those millions of little squares to make sure that no-one was fiddling.
On Newfoundland Road, opposite St Nicholas Street, was a small row of shops. One was a Post Office where I can remember my dad buying me one of the first Premium Bonds - it never won a prize, and only a couple of years ago I cashed it in so that I could buy larger denominations. It was to another of these shops that we took the wireless' accumulator to be recharged.
In Lower Ashley Road, opposite the sweet shop, there were a cobbler's (where you got your shoes repaired) and a pet shop (where we bought bird seed and the occasional cuttlefish bone for Joey our budgie).
At one period we also had a kitten called Timmy - he didn't last long. My mum says that he ran away but I have strong suspicions that he met a watery death - he was never house trained, and my mum got very annoyed with him.
Most holidays were taken, at first, at the local seaside resorts such as Brean or Uphill. Then we moved a little further afield. A favourite place was Dunster. This is a pretty little village between the North Devon coast and Exmoor. We stayed in a little chalet (not much more than a hut really) right next to the beach, and most of my time was spent playing on the sands or in the sea.
Two or three times, we had a day trip to London. It used to take about three hours for the train to travel the 140 miles between Temple Meads station in Bristol and Paddington station in London. Once, in 1951, we visited The Festival of Britain on the South Bank but, apart from that, I've no idea what we did there, apart from tramp the streets.
Once, before catching the train back to Bristol, we went into a Fish and Chip Shop. My dad asked for "Three lots, please" (which is what you said in Bristol). "Three lots of what?" was the reply, because, there wasn't just generic fish and chips but several different sorts of fish including "Rock Salmon" which, I think, is actually Dogfish.
At Minehead, just along the coast from Dunster, Billy Butlin opened one of his Holiday Camps. We stayed there a couple of times (in the late fifties)and, although it was very regimented, it was a good place for kids and teenagers as they had lots to do without leaving the camp.
|Mum, Dad, Aunt Mary and Uncle Lez|
West Bay, Dorset
We also went to a little place called West Bay, once, which is near Bridport in Dorset. I think that we stayed in a couple of caravans but I shall have to ask my mum.
So, I made slow but steady progress through the junior school without drawing too much attention to myself. I can't remember much of the lessons, but I suppose that I must have learnt something.
|My class at Newfoundland Road Junior School - 1953? (Miss Reynolds)|
|My class at Newfoundland Road Junior School - 1955|
|Martin Williams - Brian Burrass - ? - Frank Russell - Bob Norris - Peter Mansfield - Richard Tattersall - Tony Herniman - Mike Bidwell - John Mainstone - Keith Harris|
|Joe Matthews - Maurice Adams - Stephen Jennings - Christine Allen - Joan Maslen - Jean Lacey - Sheila Horsfall - Robert Tuckfield - Geoffrey Matthews - Jeffery Knaggs|
|Gillian Powell - Irene Street - Gwen Thomas - Gillian Abbott - Sylvia Warren - Edna Buss - Eileen Atkins - Irene Bates - Hazell Brown - Pat Taylor - Valerie Walsh - Christine Harvey|
|Teacher: Mr K. A. Williams|
|Thanks to Michael J Bidwell for the photo, and a much better memory for names and faces than mine|
Everybody seemed to know that I had passed before I did. I met the vicar in the street and he shook my hand and congratulated me - I didn't know what for. The system in Bristol was that, before the exam, your parents filled in a form giving their choice of secondary schools. The better that you did in the exam, the more likely you were to get your 1st choice. They put Fairfield Grammar School down as first choice (that would have been all right), then silly things like Bristol Grammar School and Q.E.H. (Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School) (that would have been dreadful - a scruffy kid from the back streets would have had a hell of a life at the posh schools), and then St George Grammar School. That was the one I got - I had never heard of it and didn't know where it was. My dad and I went out on our bikes to look at it - I thought it looked like Colditz Castle (all dark and brooding up on a hill).
|Me in my school uniform|
The school colours were dark and light blue. The tie was just diagonal stripes but there was a nice badge to sew on your jacket with the letters SGGS intertwined.
I know that school uniform is frowned upon these days by the politically correct crowd, but I think it is a good idea. Kids like me and quite wealthy middle class children (I didn't know they existed) all looked the same and you couldn't tell which was which.
About a week before the start of school we were all invited, with our parents, to a lecture by the head. All that I can remember of it is an explanation of the school motto "Palma non sine pulvere" (no palms without dust - meaning no rewards without hard work), and the head telling our parents that he didn't want to see them again for 5 years (they thought that was a bit odd, being used to regular parent-teacher meetings).
The first day I think that I walked to Clarence Road and caught the bus up Lawrence Hill to St George - later I rode my bike. That first day was very strange as I didn't know anybody. The new kids were split into 4 forms - (1a, 1b, 1c and 1d) - I was in 1b. We were also split into four houses, mainly for games. they were Avon, Severn, Mendip and Cotswold - I was in Mendip house. In later years the forms were streamed depending on how good you were at language. So, for instance, 2a did French and Latin, 2alpha did French and German, 2b and 2beta just did French. I was destined for the b stream - I couldn't see the point in learning French, as I was obviously never going to go abroad, so I didn't bother with it.
As well as the main building (a four storey red brick victorian building) there were some 'temporary' huts in the quad (you were encouraged not to call it the playground) and that was where our form room was. The form room was where you were based - you had a lockable desk where you could leave your books etc. It was where your form master/mistress took the register in the morning and afternoon. But for most lessons you all streamed around the school as most classrooms have specialist equipment (for science, geography etc) - our form room was the music room but the only specialist equipment was an upright piano, a gramophone and a blackboard with staves ruled across it.
Having over 700 pupils, it was a lot more impersonal than Newfoundland Road School. But I liked it and got on reasonably well with most of the teachers and the other kids. For sport, and for practical subjects such as woodwork, art, technical drawing, cooking etc we had to troop over to the sports ground at Whitehall. I was useless at all of that. When the captains get to choose their teams, I was one of those that got left till last. At woodwork, I never made anything that wasn't held together with glue. My artworks would fetch a fortune these days - they would be mistaken for Jackson Pollock. For swimming, we yet again had to troop to the public swimming baths at Barton Road. They tried to teach us the breast stroke - well I couldn't do the arm and leg movements at the same time, so sort of taught myself the crawl. The only time that I do any swimming these days is on holiday in places like Tuscany where there is an almost deserted pool.
|Pat and whose dog?|
When they got engaged we all went round to Raymond's house for tea. I can remember that Raymond's mum had prepared a great spread and asked us if we "liked the table". They got married on 7th September 1956 in St Agnes church. The reception was at The Long Bar in Stapleton Road and I got most annoyed with my dad because he took me home early as it was my bedtime (I can't see kids standing for that these days). I can't remember where they lived at first, but a little later they moved to Summermead near Parson's Street Station. Just after Pat married we bought our first television (black and white of course at that time) - Pat says they waited till she left. More on the Coopers later.
When I was about 13 my Aunt Mary's family moved out of their house in Canton Street to live on a Council estate in Withywood on the southern edge of Bristol. Their house in Canton Street was slowly falling down due to a combination of war damage and subsidence probably due to a nearby extinct coal-mine near Pennywell Road. We had seen this estate being built on our frequent trips to see Uncle Charlie at Dundry, and Aunt Lil's family had also moved there. For some reason, maybe because Pat had now left, my parents decided to join them. My mum was later to tell me that this was the worse decision that they ever made (and I agree). The move involved becoming Council tenants, and the council would only agree to it if we could arrange an exchange with an existing tenant. Somehow this was fixed up and a young couple paid us £200 to buy our house and we moved into theirs at 1 Whiting Road. Now this is either in Withywood or Hartcliffe, but I always put Bishopsworth on my address as it had a better reputation.
|Dad - Whiting Road|
The house itself was a great improvement on our old one. It had a bathroom with a bath and an inside toilet - what luxury! Hot water on demand was available from either a boiler built into the back of the fireplace or from an immersion heater when their was no fire. Downstairs there was the hall, the living room and the kitchen (with a small larder). Upstairs was my parent's bedroom, my bedroom and the bathroom. In the long back garden was a shed for gardening equipment and bikes etc. Nothing much had been done with the gardens and they caused my father (no great gardener) much hard work in the next few years. Instead of a high brick wall around the garden there was only a few strands of wire - it was very open (windy and cold in the winter) and everybody could see what you were doing.
And what a long way away it was. We were used to being right in the middle of Bristol and now we had to take a long bus ride everywhere. My dad couldn't come home for a midday meal any more and soon got fed up with the long bike ride and bought a little moped. Similarly for me, the bike ride to St George was far too long and I had to get the bus. Also, apart from the Wood's and Phillips's, we didn't know anybody and the local shops weren't too good.
When I was about 14 I joined the ATC (Air Training Corps) - it's the cadet force of the Royal Air Force. I can't remember where I got the idea from, it seems totally out of character for me. I was cadet #6522 in 37F (City of Bristol) Squadron based in a big old Victorian house in Clifton (Victoria Square, I think). Two evenings a week we had meetings where we were taught the basics of the design and use of aircraft, engines, weaponry etc. We were taught how to use charts and navigate. And there was "square bashing" - marching up and down with a rifle (empty) - left wheel, about turn, present arms and all that sort of stuff. I wasn't terribly good, but least I knew my left from my right. The officers were all ex-RAF and getting long in the tooth. The chap who taught us navigation was an ex Royal Flying Corps bomb aimer from the first world war - this involved holding a bomb over the side of the aircraft and, when over the target, letting it go. Our uniform, which was provided free, was very old fashioned with a high collar - once as I was waiting at the bus stop a kid asked me if I was a German.
For a week in the summer we went to an RAF station. The first year, as I was only a probationer, I wasn't allowed to go.
|Me at ATC Camp|
We also got to fire our rifles. They were ancient Browning 303's with a bolt action. You pushed a clip of five or six bullets down into a slot and brought a bullet into the breech with the sliding bolt. We just got the one clip of bullets and had to try and hit a target what looked like a mile away. One of my bullets got stuck and I got shouted at by the instructor for waving the rifle around while trying to free it. The best shot got to use the Bren gun - it wasn't me.
I gave it up when I was sixteen as I didn't want to make a career out of it, and exams were approaching . . .
Now this topic scrapes into 1960 but I'll include it here for completeness. The only outing that I can remember was a joint visit of some of the 5th and 6th forms to a plastics factory in Birmingham. We had a film show and were shown around the factory - I think it made Bakelite and similar products.
|Visit to Plastics Factory - 1960?|
Transcripts of the exam papers are / will be available for browsing . . .
There was virtually no career advice on offer except a few booklets in the library - certainly no individual counselling. So, what did I do? See the next decade.