Sparks’ Story

Sparks’ Story

I was born in West Watford on 25th March 1933 to a father who worked at the Sun Engraving and a housewife mother. This was the same year that Hitler came to power and he was to have a considerable effect on my life; even beyond the date of his demise. My only brother came along 5 years later.

I can recall riding up and down the garden path in a little tin peddle car and standing up inside to swing it round at both ends of the garden. I’m told I allowed Peter the dog to pull me with a rope attached to his collar; but I don’t remember this. The flowers were covered in butterflies and the fountain sprinkled down onto a pond with Gudgeon from the canal in it.

Fairly early on in my life I recall that on Monday’s I was attached to the kitchen table leg by a belt with all the toys I might need whilst my mother did the washing in the scullery beyond a closed door.  This involved; I was later to discover, lighting a fire under the built in copper and boiling the living daylights out of the weekly wash with the inclusion of a “Dolly Blue” bag and washing soda. There was steam everywhere, with condensation running down the walls. This was enough to peel the wallpaper off the rest of the house, hence the shut door and my restraint. The washing was rinsed in a tin bath floating on the flooded scullery tiles then manhandled (mother handled) out the back door to the big wooden roller’ed mangle. A lot of gut wrenching turns on the big cast iron wheel produced a torrent of water and the sheets came out like solid cotton planks to be shaken, folded and hung on the line to dry. This shaking and folding was a two person job and I believe our neighbour was co-opted The shirts had all their buttons crushed into bits. If my mother had been able to see that in the future, in a few years time there would be washing machines, spin dryers and tumble dryer’s, Omo, Blue Daz and Tide, she would possibly have possibly put herself through the mangle and bust all her buttons. The ironing took place on the kitchen table the next day with the iron heated on the gas ring on top of the gas stove. We were not a poor family; she had two irons! The height of high tech in this area was a chrome base plate to clip to each flat iron in turn. This was another not very happy day! Sock darning was another of my mother’s many tasks. Some of mine were more darn than sock. There was also a lot of buttons to replace!

Then my mum told me that I was not going to get anymore Bananas; so this war thing they were talking about must be pretty serious. The men were digging great big holes in the garden flower beds, and the fishpond was removed. A lorry delivered what I heard called an Anderson shelter and the sheets of tin were joined together like Meccano to make a shed which was placed in the hole then covered with the earth from the excavation. This was exciting and without any idea what bombs were, a bit of a game.

My first school in 1938 was Victoria Infants in Addiscombe Road. I recall that it was a dark shiny brick place with dirty looking woodblock flooring on which we played with blocks of wood for the first few days until we were sorted into classes.

After being allocated a tiny desk in a tiered classroom facing a very large desk and an enormous blackboard on an easel, we were instructed first on playground etiquette. When the bell rang we were to stop doing whatever we were engaged in at once. When it rang again we formed ranks in class order and the third ring saw us march into the hall where assembly took place. We would sing a hymn or two and kept repeating “Amen” to something or other. Then march to our classroom where we sat quietly, or nearly quietly until our teacher came in. On this trigger we stood and said, “Good morning Miss Whoever” and were told to “sit”. The register was called and “Present” was the reply. Very rarely was there an absence.

We were taught arithmetic and given books to read out loud to the class and after a while most of us could make a fair job of it. I would guess that the majority could read quite well by the time they were to move to Junior school, and we could certainly recite our ‘times tables’; right up to 12 x 12 = equals something or other… However, sorting one answer out in the middle of a series from cold was possibly a very different story!

One of the activities that I recall was having a half day off once a year after singing “God save the King”.  St George’s day they called it. We had learnt about the Union Jack and the various different coloured crosses but I don’t recall being told who St George really was.  Good man though, we got an afternoon off!

We must have looked like The Bash Street Kids with our cut down shorts and turned down wellies. Very misshapen woollen pullovers were covered by jackets which were often worn with the head in the collar or the arms tied round our necks as we charged around the playground being Zorro or somebody.

The playground was a dangerous place. A gang of boys from a nearby street were led by one family who seemed to have a member in every year. You took your life in your hands if you visited the toilet block when the Mafiosi were about. Stories; some not repeatable, were told and events sometimes witnessed that the Human Rights people could never have even imagined.

The school was on the same block as my house so it did not take long to get home. A journey that was sometimes even faster with a hoard of the Bxxxxx clan on your tail with their coats flying and horrendous threats and promises being hurled.

In 1939 the war started and many of the teachers disappeared to fight. It was fairly soon after the start that I discovered what bombs were about and it appeared to me that the Germans had my name down to kill. The Air raid warning siren was a steam driven device sited at the Cardiff Road power station nick named Moaning Minnie. It made a penetrating series of blasts to warn of approaching enemy planes and I laid in bed on many a night petrified, as Anti Aircraft guns barked and the ‘crump’ of bombs exploding vibrated in my chest. We were able to recognise the engine note of a German bomber and as they did not travel very fast they seemed to be overhead for ages.

From our back bedroom window my father showed me the glow in the sky that was the London docks ablaze. The flashes of the guns lit the sky and searchlights crisscrossed searching for targets. The pictures in the papers of the damage to London in particular took the lack of Bananas right out of my mind.

If the siren sounded whilst we were at school we sat close to a wall, under a window, if it happened at home we got under the kitchen table or the stairs. Some nights were spent in the shelter but it was so damp we were more likely to die of pneumonia than be hit by a bomb in Watford, although quite a lot fell in the area as we had several important manufacturing plants locally. One day a man on a cart was outside the school gates; (kept locked to keep us in and not others out!), offering guaranteed unsexed day old chicks for old woollens. I found just such an item behind the toilets; I suspected that it had been dragged off some poor victim and chucked somewhere nasty; and exchanged it for a lovely fluffy blonde chick. It was made to walk home most of the way along School Alley and seemed to us to enjoy the adventure. My mother thought otherwise! It could only lay down by the time it got home! She gave me another old woolly and sent me back for another for company, threatening me with something not fully described but sounding quite nasty if this ones feet as much as touched the road. “And don’t hold it too tight”, were her parting words. Both chicks survived on another old woolly in a cardboard box with a rubber hot water bottle under them, fed on hard boiled egg and breadcrumbs. It’s amazing what the brain can drag out of the mists of time when given the opportunity. To me it is, anyway!

My father constructed a hen run in front of: behind and over the top of the shelter where both chicks turned into lovely and rare Sunday dinner roasts. It was not long before more young birds arrived and these were hens. We had eggs throughout the war years and even hatched broods of lovely little chicks that did not have to walk home! I had for years a goldfish from the same source as the chicks, that lived in my bedroom in a big sweet jar. I had to take a 1lb jam jar to collect it as plastic bags were not yet invented.

If we had any money the little sweet shop on the end of Fearnley Street beckoned. We would purchase Liquorish sticks; which were actually bits of wood from god knows what, and Lemonade Powder in a 1 penny newspaper twist. This last item fizzed in our mouths and turned lips, tongues and even teeth yellow. Monster gobstoppers from an enormous jar on the top shelf would change colour several time so you would take them out of your mouth to show around. I mentioned money; where my pennies came from, I do not recall. I did know where the Mafioso got their money from! The rest of us!

Another memory of my first school was sitting for hours “fraying”. This involved cutting up old woven cloth and separating the warp from the weft. The resulting springy mass would be sent away, possibly to another school, where pillows would be made. For our wounded soldiers we were told. A fine war effort but it did little for our accumulation of knowledge.

By the time I was eight and settled in I had to move to Chater junior school. It was a bit further away and in Southsea Avenue. In retrospect a bigger misnomer I cannot conceive.

The boys had the top section of a two storey building and my first impression was of the enormous hall with its climbing bars and how nice the singing was. This was the ‘big boys’ world!

The Mafioso was now a small fish in a big pond and except for the ring of baying boys yelling FIGHT! in the playground; when they would almost certainly be one of the protagonists, I saw a lot less of them. They also went a different way home to most of the rest of us others, so we could play marbles in the gutter as we made our way back without the fear of being hijacked; providing we kept an eye out for snipers! It was great day when the big lorry with the elephant’s trunk came to clear out the street drains. The ladle on a long handle used to remove the solid gunge from the trap would pour out many old glass friends. They went into the woollen sock with the rest of our collection and after a trip in our pockets were as good as new. Our marbles all had names but I can only recall one. A Bonzor, was a big one!

The journey to school took me down Whippendell Road and past the Yorkshire Bakery where we would purchase for a farthing each; large crisp bread rolls. Stuffed into our pockets it looked as if we were deformed and we would put them in our desks to pull bits off when we thought no one was watching. This accounted for quite a few sore ears and a desk full of crumbs. I developed water on the knee which kept me from class and for a long time and I had to be taken to school in a push chair. You can imagine what it did for my street cred. Being allowed out before the others in order not to be killed in the rush  (WALK BOY. DON’T RUN!!!)  down the twisting stairway usually got me away and alive before the hordes were released.

We had a school allotment at the bottom of Cassiobury Park and would stick forks in our own and other boy’s feet and bring most of the mud back with us. And the occasional cabbage.

One morning after a quite heavy raid we climbed the cemetery wall at the end of Durban Road before school to find out where all the earth spread over the road had come from. A big hole was the answer, but we could find no shrapnel. Every boy had a shrapnel and land mine parachute cord collection. At play time there was a loud explosion and some of the windows were blown out nearby but it was not till I arrived home that I found the end of Durban Road cordoned off. The hole had held a time bomb and when it exploded it blew a tombstone over the wall and cracked the gable end of the nearest house. Hitler got his timing wrong there I thought; but not by a lot!

At age eleven I was on the move once again; back to Victoria Senior School. I had not taken the exam that may have been the only way to an office job by attending the Grammar School as I had lost so much term time from Chater due to poor health. To be perfectly honest I doubt that I would have passed anyway. Most didn’t!

Victoria was the school I remember with some affection. I can even recall some of the teachers. One was known as Corker Holmes; he rode a bike with a fixed wheel and one free pedal crank as he had a wooden leg. This was our reasoning I recall, and anyway if you can ride a bike with one leg then you must be pretty clever. He was not bad at art and science either. He would whack us with a length of pipe with a gas cock on the end if we fiddled with the gas taps in the middle of the science room tables. It was his reward for “Tap twiddle-ling twirps”. John Hard was my form master. A great man; quiet, but with two way respect, he ran a very calm classroom. Except for a ginger headed yob and a pair of twins from hell that is. They disappeared before long. The rumour was they eventually finished up in prison; as was the way for criminals in those days.

Our Headmaster was Mr Wells. He had a fine collection of fossils, many collected by the boys on their day trip to Pitstone chalk quarry. I wonder in retrospect what train passengers on Tring station must have felt at having to share their journey with a mob of chalk and slurry covered lads with caps full of fossils. Horror I fancy. His study; and you would only know if you had been sent there for the cane, overlooked the toilets. It was from behind these that smoke rose like a factory chimney at break time. He could identify whoever he chose to make an example of that day and have him sent up for his caning on the boys return to class. It did not seem to make much difference. We went to county school camp at Cuffley once a year. This was fun; not! Cold, wet and pretty awful food. My one good memory, which is unlikely to be repeated; ever, was listening via crystal set earphones in a galvanised bucket to Bruce Woodcock fight Joe Baksi for the World Heavy Weight Championship. He did not get it!

The other half of the senior school was for the girls. A high wall separated us but with a little guile we sometimes saw them play netball. This I recall seemed a lot more interesting than cricket but may have had something to do with the little short skirts and white blouses. We all lusted after one girl who seemed to fill her kit rather better than most; to our none to discerning young eyes that is! Her name was Brenda and she was world famous in West Watford!

I had two jobs whilst at this school. A morning paper round which took me on a trip round the Cassiobury Estate with a big bag of papers and heavy magazines for which I received six shillings and six pence. The papers had to be through their correct letter boxes by 7.30am or there was trouble. After school I worked at Lunney’s the local provision store on the corner of Whippendell Road. Here I made up orders in cardboard boxes from customer written lists then loaded them on to a killer Trade bike and delivered them; again on the Cassiobury Estate. Four evenings a week and Saturday mornings for ten shillings and all the biscuits I could pinch. That was quite a lot actually! They were stored on every step of the stairs, several tins high. Our favourite chocolate ones could be removed and placed in the mouth in the time it took for the boss to go down to the cellar and back; when you had the knack

The number of times the overloaded top heavy bike fell over I can’t recall, but repacking an order at the kerbside with broken eggs and bottles and split bags was no fun. Especially for the customer.

I could now afford my weekly comics; Dandy, Beano and later on the Eagle. (Desperate Dan, The Bash Street Kids, Dan Dare and all that).

Vicarage Road saw me every winter Saturday to watch the Blues play. First team and reserves. Six pence and free I seem to recall, after climbing the cemetery wall and dodging the superintendent we forced our way out through the privet hedge by the Red Lion and stood by, or sat on the dog traps at the Rookery End. We also started to use the Hempstead Road Baths most weekday evenings.

The end of the war was a great relief. The celebrations at the Town Hall on VE night in 1945 were something I’ll not forget. My mother took me to see the masses celebrating. Climbing the tall lamp standards that then lit the roundabout and singing and dancing. Street parties were held everywhere and the kitchen tables and chairs and even the piano was manhandled out on the street. A great relief all round. Others had been just as scared as I was.

Time to leave school at age fourteen with not a lot to show for it. A lot of teachers had been called up and were only just returning as I left school in 1947. A fair amount of time had been spent in the air raid shelters and lying in bed listening to others being bombed. In the later years of the conflict my nemesis had produced the V1 or flying bomb, or Doodle Bug as it was affectionately known. This obscenity would putt, putt, putt, across the sky; and then suddenly stop putting. Now was the time to get your head down as a big bang was not far off. Two or three fell on Watford and the one in the North of the town killed a lot of people. This was not enough for Herr H. He then found a way of killing us from inner space. The V2 rocket gave no warning, coming out of space at a speed that was beyond comprehension in those far off days. Instant carnage! I don’t believe Watford got one of these as they were now more accurate, but London got a lot.

The next threat to my life came with the Poliomyelitis outbreak. (Infantile Paralysis) No one knew how it was spread so cinemas and our swimming baths were all closed. We heard of people being locked in an iron lung for weeks as they were not able to breathe for themselves. Some recovered, but a lot didn’t. Those that did beat it often had muscular disabilities for the rest of their life; some even confined to a wheel chair. When it happened to someone in our road we all looked both ways. Where did it come from? No one knew. Mr Salk eventually came along with a vaccine, but not until we had been subjected to several summer outbreaks.

My first job was only open to me as my father worked at the Sun. I was not able to become an apprentice but did qualify as a Letterpress Assistant’s assistant. Even though I received £4 something a week I could only stand the utter boredom for six months. Much to my fathers disgust I said I wanted to leave. My mother found me an apprenticeship with a firm of Electrical contractors in Market Street for what I believe was £2..15s a week. Yet another string to her bow!

I learned some of the secrets and skills of the trade, attending evening college 3 time a week to work towards an HNC. No day release in the good old days. I was very soon sent to work with my “Sparks” down at the Sun to relight the whole factory. That was us, and about ten others.

At 18. I could have achieved a deferment of National Service but thought that an electrical trade was almost certain in one service or the other with my background and experience; and then a nice trip round the world for two years. No! After a medical in St Albans which passed all but those with three legs I travelled to and completed my Square Bashing at Padgate near Warrington  and was posted to Blackpool to become a Motor Mechanic. On achieving the rank of AC1 on passing the course in 1951 I was posted to sunny Barkway. A little village a few miles from Royston in North Hertfordshire.

Not a lot happened here. Only 65 of us on the camp and I could thumb a lift down the A1 most weekends to watch Watford play. One significant event was being introduced; by her sister, at the Green Plunge swimming pool in Royston to Margaret. That was 58 years ago; and we are still not a day older; not in our minds anyway.

I had the privilege of serving two Monarchs. The old King died and Elizabeth came to the throne. I trained with the rest of the station for the privilege to stand for goodness knows how many hours guarding the kerb along the route of the Coronation Parade in London. Fortunately I was due to be demobbed; as an SAC on the 2nd June 1953, so was not used.

Back to strangling wire. Now I was a Spark’s, with my own boy to shout at. And also back down to the Sun, where White Paper storage bays were under construction.

Margaret and I were married in January 1956 and rented a house, fully furnished, next to my mother. I think the rent was about 30 shillings a week. On our return from our 4 day honeymoon in Bournemouth we arrived in our new home to find everything frozen up. I had bought Margaret a Budgie; a green one I thought, but it turned out to be blue. I reckoned it was just cold! The outside toilet, once thawed out, produced some record short attendances. It took a week; and an awful lot of coal in the only used fireplace in the house to make our new home even mildly comfortable.

I was determined that my wife would not go out to work but a severe lack of cash eventually determined otherwise. Although we had an allotment and grew a lot of our own food we were on the breadline most weeks. I did a lot of private work and Margaret worked as a cleaner several days in the week and we managed to just keep our heads above water.

After two years we moved to a cottage in Nascot Place, unfurnished, for 26 shillings a week. We moved in just before Christmas and had two new wooden armed easy (sort of) chairs, a kitchen cabinet with let down work surface and a leg of pork A couple whose house I had rewired gave us a bed and wardrobe which necessitated the removal of the bedroom window to get them in. The house, or cottage, had no damp proof course and was built out of porous bricks. When it rained, within ten minutes there was a damp patch by the front door. These properties are now called Character buildings and with the inside knocked out form part of Nascot Village. £239,999 plus when we last saw one for sale.

We spent the next six years in Nascot Place, which takes us beyond the period of these memories. We then moved to Fern Way and it must be said that things have been on the up ever since, with a few blips along the way. We both gained and held responsible positions in very good jobs, despite the dubious education we had received, and have seen an awful lot of this old world, especially since we retired!

An explanation for some of the cash denominations may be necessary for those of the younger people who may read these memories. They may have been more difficult than £1 = 100p. but we had a lot less money to worry about!!

The £1 was made up of 20 Shillings(s.) or 240 pennies.(d) The penny was further divided by 2 for halfpennies (½d.) and by 4 for farthings (¼d.) So a typical sum of money could have been written as £2..3s..2¼d. Add three penny bits, tanners, florins and half-crowns and there you have it for the coins. Notes came in the ten shilling variety, plus £1, and very very rarely, £5 denominations.

As recalled by Sparks, to Alan Orchard. Monday, 30 November 2009

These are my interpretations of the events as I see them and I am not the spokesman for the KRA or anyone else. Please do not publish this effort in part or as a whole without permission.

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