This mini history is a little different in format to the others in that Tony has recorded his own memories which I have abridged and edited. There are sometimes repeat incidents and experiences that have already been detailed in other histories but I see these not as duplications but as a verification of other peoples times and memories. Over to Tony.
My Mum and Dad put down a deposit in 1938 of £25 on a new house at 75 Fern Way. They had to pay 12 shillings and 7 pence (63p) per week towards the total price of £515.
One of my first memories was of my Mum using a sponge to stipple distemper to the room walls in Fern Way. To my young mind she applied the paint that converted the drab fresh plaster to something of wonder. She had also put brown Anaglypta paper half way up the hall wall and with its embossed surface varnished, it was very hard wearing.
In our kitchen we had a white gas cooker; I remember it’s “Ideal” logo and a wire handle like a chrome spring. Up against the main wall was what we called a Kitchen Maid, with cupboards for food above and below the magical pull down work top on which my mum would prepare our food. We had a scrubbing board for washing clothes, great slabs of soap for shirt collars and a Drummer boy blue cube to make your whites look whiter. Outside the kitchen door there was what we called a safe; attached to the wall, this was used to house meat etc, to keep it cool and fly free. It was a simple box with a hinged door that was framed with a metal fascia with lots of little holes in it.
Many of the Fern Way residents ate Dumplings made from lumps of suet we bought at the butchers shop on the parade and stewing steak from the same shop together with vegetables grown in our garden. Cabbage formed part of our diet but no one liked it; we tried to hide it under the mashed potato. Tripe was a cheap meal consisting of the cow’s stomach lining. It was white and spongy, and I am pleased to say I managed to avoid it! Rabbit was very popular; stewed with carrots and with bread to dip into the lovely gravy it was my favourite. Chickens were not available except at Christmas as they were very scarce. We would store our Christmas bird in the coldest room in the house. The bathroom!
It was war time and my Mum and me had lots of things flying over our house. At the first sign of the siren going off, mum would put herself and me under the front room table, if it wasn’t the table I had to huddle under the stairs with her. I don’t think she realised these two places would not have saved us if a bomb had dropped on us. We did have an Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden but my Mum was more scared of the spiders than the bombs. I only remember going into the shelter a couple of times. My Auntie Violet was killed by the Doodle Bug that fell on Sandringham Road. Her son and daughter survived by climbing out of the window in the wrecked house.
I was soon at Kingswood Kindergarten in Briar Road and had many adventures with my school mates from Fern Way and around. One day we came out of school to find a scruffily dressed man holding a box of day old chicks. He was offering chicks for rags; “the more you bring the more you get” was his cry. We all ran back along Briar Road to Fern Way and frantically asked our Mums for any old clothes. “Please Mum”. I was given enough to get five chicks and they were given a temporary home in a Co-Op box under the sink. My dad built a fantastic chicken hut and run and two survived to provide a lovely Christmas dinner. The butcher on the Parade came round to kill and pluck them for us and my Dad gave the second one to him for 3/6d; as part payment for his services.
The Kindergarten changed my life quite a bit. We had school dinners which included an instant potato called Pom; it was made up from a powder and was horrible. Cabbage again figured in the diet and for pudding we had Junket, Blancmange, Rice Pudding and Frogs spawn. (Tapioca). We also had school teas where we had jam sandwiches and Marmite sandwiches and jelly; and Orange juice or lemonade if we were lucky. The reason behind the teas was that our mothers were working on the “War Effort” and we had to wait until they finished to be picked up. There was a prefabricated building next to the fire station across the road from the shops; where the Garage is now. Here my mother made propelling pencils, or that is what she told me!
Behind the Fire Station were open fields and we were told that if we went past the wooden fence the Gypsy’s would take us away. We never saw them but believed that they existed.
The Fire Station held a dance sometime during the Mid forties and most of Kingwood Estate seemed to be there. Everybody was very happy and I recall something about a Jitter Bug!
We purchased our comics from Kent’s, read them then swapped them. Dandy and Beano were the most common but some boys had access to the American Captain Marvel and Superman comics. These were the Bee’s knees. The Eagle featuring Dan Dare came along later.
Home made crystal sets were all the rage and I listened to the BBC Home Service on earphones with my earth connection to the iron bedstead and a length of wire hanging out of the window for an aerial. We also strung a length of two core cable across the road so that Alan Dyer and I could talk to one another, but our connection was lost when a tall removal lorry wiped us out.
My dad had bought a new electric radio which did not require us to get the accumulator recharged and at a quarter to seven we all sat close to listen to “Dick Barton, special agent”. “Quick, Jock, Snowy” would be the call to action and the Devils Gallop music at the beginning and end sent a chill down our spines. Valentine Dyall played “The Man in Black” and would tell some scary tales. My mum enjoyed ITMA. (It’s that man again) with Tommy Handley. “Can I do you now sir” said Mrs Mop, and Mum would sing along to “Workers Playtime”, “Coming from a factory near you”.
As I got a little older we would enter the Spinney (now known as “The Footpath”), turning right at its end and passing the Bungalow Store and crossing the busy North Approach, make our way to the North Watford Odeon for the Saturday morning pictures. We would normally opt for the circle as it seemed more comfortable. Older children acted as Prefects to keep us in order. Before the films we would follow the bouncy ball and sing with gusto the club song. Roars and screams would greet the cartoon. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse or perhaps Popeye. Then would come the serial. Could be Flash Gordon (Space ships), Hop along Cassidy or Roy Rogers and Tonto (Cowboys and Indians) or even Dick Barton towards the end. Will Hay movies were very popular. We all stood for the National Anthem then poured out to re-live the action of what we had just seen on the many pieces of waste land that had yet to be built on. We usually called into the Bungalow Stores (now a Pizza shop) to buy giant lollies the size of cups, and the occasional comic.
We would wriggle under the cemetery railings and run wild in the woods, hiding behind trees and in the tall Ferns, jumping out on our friends, using our fingers as pistols and making the appropriate noises. Then back home to Mum, and dinner.
We played lots of fairly unsophisticated street games but played them hard. “Queenie” involved throwing a ball backwards over your head then trying to guess who had caught it. “Knock up Ginger” was a favourite, with Mr. & Mrs. Strike often the target. “Cricket” with a tennis ball with the street Silver Birches as the wicket was a favourite. When we could buy fireworks we would put halfpenny bangers under dustbin lids in the road and watch as the lid was blown into the air. Marbles and cigarette cards appeared from time to time, as indeed did catapults. We were warned that these weapons “would have someone’s eye out” but never came across anyone with that problem.
We played in the back alleys and in the gardens and would cover a wooden clothes horse; folded to make a tent shape, in a blanket. This would be our fort, hospital, jail or anything else our imagination wanted it to be.
In the cemetery we would get stung by nettles and use Dock leaves to relieve the stings whilst birds nesting and climbing trees. Indoors it was Dinky toys, it was war years so they would be models of field guns, tanks, Spitfires and Lancaster bombers. We would simulate our battles with appropriate noises.
The winters of 1947/48 were very cold and snowy. We built two giant barriers of snow outside the Thornton’s house to hide behind as we had snowball fights. We still believed in Father Christmas and shouted up the chimney for presents. Most of them turned out to be made of wood, but I did get a few tin windup toys, tangerines and comics. All placed in a pillow case by Father Christmas.
Talking of cold weather, my Dad and Joe Dyer would, along with many others, go to the railway sidings at Watford Junction and bag up “slacK”. (Rough bits of coal and mainly dust that were not of any other practical use). Brought home they were mixed with a little cement and cast into flower pots to set and make brickets. With only open fires to heat the house and hot water they helped to keep us reasonably warm.
My Mum would light the fire in the front room; which also heated the water, by laying the bed first with paper, then firewood and coal. She would then cover up the whole of the fireplace opening with an unfolded sheet of newspaper; except for a few inches at the bottom, to draw the fire up the chimney with a roar. She would have what she called “A blue fit” when the newspaper caught fire and required scrunching up and pushing quickly into the grate before it set the room on fire. The coalman would deliver the coal in sacks to tip into the galvanised bunker with a lid on top and a slot at the bottom. My job was to count the bags carried in. “Make sure it’s eight bags Tony”. “OK Mum.”
Some residents now found they could afford lino for the floor. Up till then many had stained the wooden floor boards in a border about 20 inches wide and put a rug or mat in the middle. The lino made the room look really posh. The design was of simulated wood block which was like the posh houses.
Us kids suffered with all sorts of ailments in the 1940’s. Polio, or as it was first known as Infantile Paralysis was possibly the most scary. My friend was taken away in an ambulance and his parents were told to burn all his clothes, bedding and possessions. Quite a number of us kids caught it and no one knew what caused it. Scarlet Fever was another very contagious disease requiring isolation. Still with us, but with immunisation available now, were Whooping Cough, Measles and German Measles, Chicken Pox and nasty ear infections. Before the National Health my Dad had to pay 2 Shillings per adult and 1 Shilling for me to have Dr Woods from a surgery by the Bungalow Stores, on call. I can’t be sure if that was per week or per month.
Whilst on health, the removal of tonsils and adenoids seemed to be very popular to cure all sorts of ills. Shrodells Hospital became my personal hell as I recall they did most of the preparation on me before the anaesthetic; including opening my mouth with a shiny tool and placing my legs through a hole in the operating table. A mask was placed over my mouth and the gas administered. I awoke with a kidney bowl to be sick into. My throat was so sore that I have never forgotten that time and they gave me ice cream to help soothe the soreness, that did not help a lot.
The war ended in 1945 and we all celebrated like mad. The picture of the street party outside number 75 shows me and my best friend Alan Dyer tucking in to the goodies that came out of nowhere in a very “rationed” Fern way.
My Junior School was Stanborough Park where I moved to at age 7 and this was a very different kettle of fish. To start with they taught us the American way of spelling; without the u in colour for instance. It has plagued me all my life. We all had to be vegetarians as the school was run by The Seventh Day Adventists. It was a mixed school and was very strict. The form master used a Perspex cane and the Headmaster a proper cane, but we had to hold a cricket ball in our hand to present the knuckles properly. Much of the emphasis was placed on finding students with a calling to become missionaries in some far away land. I don’t think I was taught, nor did I learn very much there. It was not until I went to Leggatt’s that I discovered how far I was behind. Expected to work in fractions I did not even know what fractions were! My Mum and Dad paid 29 guineas a term for me, and senior school would have been even more costly; so I moved to good old Leggatt’s at age eleven with most of the Fern Way gang.
Leggatts was a bit further away than the other schools and sometimes we would catch the 345 or 346 bus. Walking back would take us past the open space on the corner of The Kingsway and The North Orbital, both roads were much narrower in those days. This open space now contains one side of Evans Avenue and all of Orbital Crescent with its shops, it also donated part of itself to widen Kingsway to dual carriageway. It was on this piece of ground that Flanagan’s Fair was sited and there was a large hut near to the Orbital that was painted green and served coffee and teas. At Fair time I remember we were all very excited. Life was good.
We had to be initiated at our new school as we were classed as sprogs. It involved being dunked under the tap on the sports field. Once over it was forgotten but later the sprogs were bumped; which must have hurt. The Boys were upstairs and the girls downstairs which I’m not sure this helped us as it made both sexes shy I am told. (Editor’s note.”I do not believe it!”) We were all very well behaved and had good manners. We always opened doors for ladies and gave up our seats on buses and trains. These actions were the norm; like standing for the National Anthem. We did not have to think twice about them.
Perhaps not quite as wholesome was our use of Rizla cigarette paper to roll our own. The tobacco came from discarded stubs; kept in an Old Ogden tin with a piece of orange peel to keep the tobacco moist. Did we really do that? Later it was a shared packet of Woodbines.
Kingswood School ran a Dramatic Society and we rehearsed and performed plays in the school hall. Where only a few years earlier I had sat on an oval mat on the floor as an infant I was now a young actor. I had roles in “The Happiest Days of Your Life”, “The passing of the Third Floor Back” and others I cannot remember. I do recall I played opposite Ann Brookes from Briar Road as a St Swithin’s girl whilst I was Hopcroft Minor from the boys school in The Happiest Days…. And they were!
We moved from Fern Way when I was 13 years old. Dad worked at Fishburns Printing Inks so Copsewood Road was nearer. He worked opposite “The Flea Pit”. What is the Flea Pit you may ask? It was officially known as the Plaza Cinema in St Albans Road and you can only guess why it was known by everyone by this alternative name, justified or not! I still traveled to Leggatts Way School until I left in 1953 to earn a living.
My first job was as a shoe salesman at “Lilley & Skinners” in the High Street. I learned from the manager some of the art of displaying merchandise in the shop window for visual impact, and my second employment; using this experience, was as assistant window dresser at Boots the Chemist on the corner of Queens Road. I qualified and was put in charge of all 14 windows, but the call to see the world was quite strong.
What followed is another story which I will try to recall.
27 May 2014
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