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Memories of Empire Day and Wagga Fair

Empire Day

On the whole, I liked going to that school.  The teachers that come to mind were Mr. Taylor, headmaster, who loved conducting the whole school singing the patriotic songs for Empire Day – “Land of Hope and Glory” was one; Mr. Fuller; ‘Daddy’ Burns, who was Father Christmas every year; ‘Pa’ Cuby, my favourite; and ‘Ma’ Bulmer, who played the piano as necessary, for marching round the hall, or hymns at prayer and singing songs – I think she enjoyed doing it.

Then the most impressive building in Belle Vue next to the school was, of course, St. Aidan’s Church.  I was a probationer choirboy there, and Freddie Hall was the choirmaster.  I remember an incident at the church – prior to being a choirboy, I must emphasise; going with a few more boys one Sunday night for the service, we were all ejected by an irate verger for flicking little glass stink bombs around the pews.

Crossing from the church on the last Oxford Street corner that ended at Stockton Road was Frank Rogers’ sweet and tobacco shop.  It was only a small corner shop then, and belonged to the father of Councillor Rogers.  Close to him on the same block, as you once more re-track in the South Parade direction, was Ferry’s the chemist.  Ferry’s was on Northumberland Street corner, and on the other was a pawn shop, which was well patronised in those days.

Next door you came to Joyce’s the wet fish shop, then Stokes, noted for their fourpenny meat pies and one or two other goodies, including sweets.  The most popular seemed to be the Garnett’s toffee – a wrapped lump bought for a ‘ha’penny’.  Inside the wrapper was a printed strip with the name of a position in a football side – centre forward, left back, and so forth.  The list included two linesmen and they were the scarcest.  Once‘gotten’ you were ‘made’.  After collecting the set and returning them to the shop, a block of toffee in palatable squares was given free in exchange.

Next to Stokes’ on the other corner of Oxford Street was a little shop, but I cannot bring to mind what its wares were.  Then, I think, came Stockdale’s newspaper shop and a gents’ hairdresser, followed by a boot and shoe shop, with poles outside draped with boots for display.  Lightfoot was the name I believe, and he was partially, or totally blind.

Lastly came St. Aidan’s Hall on the next block, ironically close to the off-licence.  Church dances were held there, besides the usual functions, and they always had a Christmas ‘do’ of some kind, when all the children got an orange and a penny from around the Christmas Tree.

Up the side street from Dyer’s off-licence was a house where you could buy home-made treacle toffee in round cake papers and toffee apples – very nice.

So, on the whole, Oxford Street was a compact, shopping high street that met the needs of the community for clothing, eating and drinking, and on that note I close the description of Belle Vue Way and of the good, old bad days.  But Belle Vue itself had other ways of life that have never been erased from my memory.

Heroes of Wagga

In Wagga, for instance, Jo’s football team, from St. Joseph’s Catholic School seemed to win the school cup every year.  I think they paraded their heroes around their neighbourhood with some sort of jazz band playing tunes with what they called ‘tin submarines’.  They were shaped that way, one end a flat mouthpiece and the middle raised up like a conning tower, which was unscrewed to replace paper on a round wire mesh.   When you sang your tune through it, the result was the same as singing with paper and hair comb.

The South Durham Steel Works was the main bread winner in those days.  It was the main source of pollution as well!  The wind off the sea brought red ore dust drifting over roof tops and settling on the paintwork, and in the rooms if the windows were open.  You also got the sooty smoke from a massive smoke stack when it discharged and then, for good measure there could be gassy fumes.

I had often laid in bed being wakened by the early morning shift steelworkers, some going to, and others, finished, leaving from work.   There was a sharp plop and clang from their wooden-soled clogs, leather topped, and edged with steel strip sole and heel.  These were the chaps who worked in the sheet mill.  One man pushed a white hot thick plate, probably two foot long by about ten inches wide, into large steel rollers with long tongs, and another man with tongs deftly got a grip with them and heaved over the plate to the fellow on the other side, and kept doing that whilst another man on either side of the rollers turned the ‘screw’ down till they had a long piece of sheet steel rolled to the right gauge.  Hence the wearing of clogs; the hot ground and retreating and going forward as the sheet got longer – this tough footwear was essential.  On a still night, the boom and the simultaneous ring of the steel from the rollers echoed for miles around.

An uncle of mine, a steelworker, used to give me some coppers at the weekend when he was on 6 am till 2 pm shift if I took his breakfast for 8 am before I went to school.  When the 8 am till 5 pm workers were finished, it was a common sight to see children waiting at the bottom of the Newburn footbridge in Greatham Street, greeting the men with a call of, “anything left, mister?” hoping there’d be something left in their tommy tins which most workers used for taking meals to work together with a can with a lid for tea.  The entrance to the Expansion Works was also at the foot of the bridge, which was also convenient for the same practice.

Whilst in Greatham Street, I would like to mention the steelworks site, called, or nicknamed, ‘the Diamond Field’.  Bordered partially by Greatham Street and the full length of Baltic Street it was a sort of tip.  A massive heap of red iron ore dominated the site.  I believe boiler cinder ash was also dumped there because during the general strike, when no coal was available, the people of Belle Vue visited it with buckets and spades or packs, anything that would hold the cinders or bits of coal for which they foraged to help keep a bit of fire going at home.

Turning round from Baltic Street was Sydenham Road.  I think there was a pawn shop about where it started, with some more miscellaneous shops here and there as you went along.  Then one reached Kendal Road, just past the end of Studley Road on the left-hand side.  There was a large field there, now built on – Kendal Estate is its present name.  Every year, in the summer, it was the site for the fair.

The Annual Summer Fair

My first, and worst, memory on that show ground was the ‘Tilt-a-whirl’; like a covered-in roundabout, it was a good way off the ground and perched on the top of a spindle.  It had long seats pointing to the middle and you had to climb a flight of steps for entry.  When everyone was seated, it started to rotate faster and faster, and when it reached top speed it would suddenly tilt over, giving me nausea, first diving to the ground and zooming up the sky seemingly.  I finished the ride handing round the middle pole, feeling very bilious.

Very often, the great attraction would be ‘Peg-leg Peggy’, a one-legged diver, who would slowly hoist himself up ladders, one step at a time, to a very high platform.  Watching him ascending gradually brought the tension to a climax when he stood on the platform edge, looking down until he was satisfied everything was OK.  Then the crowd would gasp and murmur as he took his high dive down into a tank of water, lined with tarpaulin.  With a mighty splash he’d enter the water on his near side and appear on the other, with helpers ready to support him.  To me there was no doubt that a mistake could cost him serious injury or his life.

Another high diver was Powsey, and his act was called ‘Powsey’s last dive’.  At a time given in advertisements he would climb the same sort of set-up as ‘Peg-leg’, but made it more spectacular by soaking his clothing with inflammable material and diving into flames.  A very carefully worked out act, I would say.

Going westwards from Kendall Road to Brenda Road and crossing the same, there was Ashgrove Avenue, with the Belle Vue Congregational Chapel that is still there.  I attended it after leaving St. Aidan’s as I didn’t like church.  A better thing couldn’t have happened to me.  It lifted me from a depressing environment of poverty to a life that gave more hope and inspiration.  Everybody seemed to want to help you, and seemed happy to do it.  A Mrs. Jolly, an apt name if I may say so, delighted in getting children on concerts and dressing them up in costumes, even using coloured crepe paper if money was hard to come by for some.  Mr. Yates was the organist and Mr. Wright looked after a lot of the business for the chapel.  My Sunday School teacher, Mr. Billy Braithwaite, was, to me, a great chap; he pointed the way for me to a new life which had more purpose and meaning.

My schooldays up to the age of 12 were at Oxford Street School; after that there was a sorting out with exams that decided whether you went to Elwick Road School or Lister Street School.  On the whole, I thought that my experience with Oxford Street School was of mixed feelings.  We were taught sportsmanship, integrity, religion and all things that mattered, to help us try to be honest citizens of the future.

The difficult times everybody was going through in those days made ideals seem doubtful, but I think that generation came out in good stead.  The things I remember at school that made me sad, were the lads who were even worse off than I was.  Some mornings, before lessons started, the teachers had to inspect the pupils.  We were lined up in front of the classroom and looked over to see if our shoes and hair were brushed, and our faces, hands and knees, washed, even checking for dirt left in our ears.  Of course, the unfortunate, neglected ones suffered every time, and were caned.  They had to attend school or the ‘school bobby’ – a name for the school official who called at the homes of children who were absent – would press their parents to make sure they attended ‘or else’.  Only genuine illness excused them.

Some of the kids must have lived in hovels, and most of their parents were probably spending what money was available on drink.  It was a common sight to see children barefooted, raggy and dirty, in some cases half-starved and with no resistance to the pestilence of ‘nits’, ringworm, scabby skins and the usual measles, chicken pox etc.  You’d often see some outside the pubs, waiting for their parents to come and take them home at closing time.

The school has now been pulled down, along with the ‘Long Back’. Taking with it, in my opinion, the main characteristics of Belle Vue as I remember it.  In spite of the misery I, and a lot more, endured then, the good things, though few, enlightened me and prepared me to tackle life in a more down to earth sort of way.

Hartlepool Symphony Orchestra

 I played the violin and had some experience playing in small groups in the odd dance-hall etc.  Anyway, somewhere around 1936 I got an invitation to practice with the symphony orchestra.

We arranged a concert in 1937/38, which was their fifteenth season, covering twenty nine concerts.  A vocalist called Fred McIntyre, the conductor, George W. Pearson, and the pianist, Clive M. Lambert, were the main artistes on the programme.   This was to be their last concert, as the 1939 World War was imminent.  I think admission was about three shillings and sixpence.  It was an exciting experience for my girlfriend and future wife, Olga, and myself, wearing a dickey-bow!

When war came, our headquarters in Musgrave Street were damaged, and music and other essentials lost – so that finished everything.  I’d like to see a revival of the symphony orchestra, but nothing seems on the cards at the moment.

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