This instalment of Commando Senior’s memoirs looks at some of the little things that made life bearable back in, what must have been, austere and bewildering times. Today, even those of us who lead a fairly frugal life, sit surrounded by gadgets to cater to our every need and take most of them for granted. It’s quite humbling then, to travel back in time and see what it was like not so very long ago.
Circa 1944, my younger brother, Alan, had a red tricycle which was his pride and joy and on which he trundled up and down the streets for hours. Unfortunately, when he could, he followed me, on my old Hercules ‘sit up and beg’ ladies bicycle, everywhere. In an attempt to dissuade him from doing so I once rode from Northam Street to Southampton Common and back, accompanied by a determined, but very tired, tricyclist. How he kept going, given both the gearing of the trike and the distance involved, is beyond me to this day. Once we had relocated to Queens Walk, however, with only a verandah available and with memories of my encounter with concrete stairs still extant, the trike had to be lost, probably in transit.
Queens Walk, until the eighties, still had electricity from the old tramways power station at Back of the Walls. This supplied 600 volts to serve the tram system, the surplus generating capacity used ‘downtown’ as far north as Bedford Place. Consequently we only had 200 volts d.c., severely limiting the availability of suitable electrical equipment such as radio receivers and record players, as virtually all were for a.c. only, with very few universal items. In my travels as an apprentice plumber, I occasioned upon and old wind up gramophone, which I acquired and brought home. I then bought my first ever 78 rpm record for my brothers. It was The Legend of Davy Crockett and was played incessantly, to destruction.
For the technically minded, the mains electricity was distributed by 400 volts d.c. centre grounded to allow 200 volts live to neutral/earth, with alternate premises having positive and negative earths respectively. One problem with this arrangement was that the relatively new fluorescent lights had to be reverse switched daily to obviate blacking at one end.
The lunchtime rush
On the day we had to replenish our grocery stock, that is, when the date in the ration book allowed, I had to hurry from school at noon, collect money and ration books from Mum and cycle to the subterranean store. This had once been Edwin Jones emporium, now razed to the ground by the bombing. Now, only the cellars remained and operated as a general/grocery store. Having purchased the week’s groceries, including selection of extras on which to expend precious points, I cycled home for a quick sandwich and returned to school for two o’clock.
As a matter of historical interest, certain items of foodstuffs were available as definitive rations. For example 2oz (50g) of tea, 2oz butter, 4oz margarine, 2oz sugar per week per person with extra portions for manual workers in heavy industry. Ancillary to these items were scarce ‘luxuries.’ These were allocated, for fairness, on a points basis, each ration book containing a number of points. These could be used in the purchase of such ‘luxuries’ as toilet soap, biscuits and toilet rolls. A situation causing even the most affluent to use squares of newspaper as toilet paper. Only the Times, of course.
When I was seventeen I bought my first ever motor bike, an Excelsior 150cc two stroke, for the princely sum of seventeen pounds ten shillings. Taxed, insured and with a brand new provisional licence, I set out to conquer the world of open roads, soon to find so much wear in the bearings that even a kid on a trike could overtake me on a hill. This was a situation which occurred in St Denys Road and which determined me to overhaul the machine. Alas my mechanical skills at that time were not up to reassembly after the parts had been machined by others and I sold it on, wiser, if financially poorer.
It was during the quiet period of the war, when Dad came home for a day or two, that I was closer to him than I remember before or since. Being ten or eleven, I sometimes accompanied him to events such as ‘all in wrestling’ at the old Albion Hall in St Mary’s Street. Being sat in a windowsill at the rear of the hall I had an excellent view of the ring, albeit through watering eyes caused by the fog of tobacco smoke.
Some of the wrestlers, often on leave from active service, went on to become household names after the war, when such events were popular, in huge venues and, eventually, on television.
During my travels I occasionally meet individuals from the old flats, often at such places as Aldi. Two of the more recent ones were Billy Williams from next door and one of the Baker brothers. From these I hear of others, like Eric LeFerve, most now living abroad, especially in France. One I ran into in 1967 changed the course of my life.
A few years my junior, Alec McDonald was managing a ‘Soogi’ gang, men who were successors to Victorian sweep boys. They cleaned the inside of ship’s funnels and flue ways and other such dirty jobs. In an effort to reduce downtime, Alec decided to diversify into hotel/restaurant kitchen cleaning and I agreed to undertake a job for him, chargeable to the client, in disconnecting kitchen appliances for cleaning and reinstating after.
This was, of course, night work and, although his gang arrived two hours after the agreed time, we were nonetheless finished soon after 2am. The hotel, then known as The Skyway Hotel, were so pleased with my attentions, they gave my company more work. This eventually, through changes of ownership and name, continued until I retired in January 2012 to care for my wife, April.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip back in time. It has certainly made me appreciate the creature comforts all around me. What about you?