A GOVAN CHILDHOOD – The 1930s
Observation – More about food –Treating an injury – Toys of the time – Train sets - Other playthings – Games, books & comics – Bagatelle – Humming top & a clock work mouse – Transfers – Foreigners – Radio Moscow – A brief glance at Victoriana – The Organ - Styles of the 1930s – A visit to the pantomime – The Telegraph Boy – Road maintenance – The midnight street cleaners – Stitches of a different kind – The betting school – A sign of the times
An unlikely source of knowledge with an article on what was described as being the ultimate source of energy was found in a children's religious magazine called Our Boys. It was produced in Ireland in monthly editions by the Irish Catholic Church and was available from church bookstalls in the 1930s. An aunt bought it for me for a year or two, but all the stories and most of the articles it contained were slanted towards its mainly Irish readership, with children in country adventures 'running down the boreen' and other Irish idioms, some of which was in Gaelic. At a time of change for me from picture books and comics to written material, I found it interesting but irritating, in that most of the story settings were strange, containing elements of the supernatural mixed with religion as might be expected because of its origin. But it contained a column of brief news items, one of which was a reference to the atom, some kind of matter (or material) which had been discovered, from which energy could be extracted giving mankind the prospect of unlimited power for development in the future. That was how for the very first time I learned about nuclear power.
MORE ABOUT FOOD
Another aspect of life today that has been completely changed is food. While most dishes served up during the 1930s would be recognisable today, at that time any of foreign origin were unknown in working class homes. The most exotic meal recalled is French toast. Bread and potatoes were the main providers of bulk, while rice, served up occasionally at home, was always in the form of a milk pudding. Stews and mince served at the mid-day dinner meal were generally of the cheaper cuts, and sausages figured frequently. Something that made an occasional appearance on our table was skirting, a name unknown in this context to virtually all except the elderly today, because even when well cooked, although tasty it tends to be rather tough. As the name implies it is the meat which lines the cow's stomach, not tripe (which my Mother served up occasionally) which is the stomach itself. It used to be bought by poor people as the best meat they could afford. Today it is probably only used, well minced, as filling for pies, bridies and sausage rolls, and the ready-cooked frozen meals of the supermarkets.
There were no fridges or freezers, so anything perishable not consumed by the following day had to be disposed of. Many foods now available the year round were only on sale in season. Salad was a summer and early autumn only dish because lettuce and tomatoes were available only between April and September. Our main meal on a Friday was always fish and, a fussy eater as a child it was one of many items I was made to eat. Economy reasons meant that every crumb and scrap of what was set down in front of me had to be consumed. But the one item I really loathed was pudding made with custard, sago, tapioca or semolina. The rice milk pudding was the most tolerable. At this time tins of Heinz baked beans contained tiny pieces of pork, which made them a favourite. That novelty disappeared during the war. It reappeared around the year 2000 as 'beans with ham', but it did not seem to last for long.
TREATING AN INJURY
In a previous part there was reference in the section on the coal fire and how the kitchen fireplace was protected at floor level by a fender, and a description was given of the one in the kitchen of the Skipness Drive house which had a pair of boxes with padded tops that could be used as seats. As a further refinement this fender set had a large thin plate of the same metal as a decorative base, which lying flat completely covering the area within the fender itself, the stone or cement hearth. When polished, the base was a considerable improvement on the original surface, although being thin it tended to distort. Its edges were sharp but the weight of fender and corner boxes covered it and held it down firmly enough for them to be hidden. That base was the cause of a quite serious accident that left a scar that has remained with me up to the present day, and was included by the military authorities in a record of identifying features in my description on being called up for national service.
The incident happened on a day when helping with the household chores, Dad was using the cylinder vacuum cleaner, Mum's first suction cleaner. She preferred this type to an upright model and never during her lifetime would she have a Hoover. In the course of using the vacuum cleaner the fender was always pushed back from the front edge of the hearth, the side pieces being able to slide far enough inside the boxes to allow any cinders and ash that had gathered there to be drawn up. When the vacuum cleaner operator moved on, to save them stopping, anyone available in the kitchen would be requested to replace the fender to its normal place.
On this occasion I had been asked to do it, but because of my dilatoriness Dad had progressed round to the far side of the kitchen with the vacuum brush to a point opposite, before I moved to comply. Getting down on my knees facing the fender I gripped it to draw it out, in doing so lifting it up so that the plate beneath also lifted about an inch above floor level at it's front edge. At that instant, in the course of making a sweep from the other side of the apartment and moving backwards so that we were back-to-back, Dad stepped back and his heel struck my left foot. With only my light weight on it, the force of the push thrust my left leg forward, so that the knee came in contact with the edge of the plate with such force that a wide deep gash was cut across the kneecap. Apart from the pain, on seeing the injury I went into shock and do not remember much of what happened for a while. As I lay prostrate on my back on a chair there was one brief glimpse of Dad holding my leg over a basin of water with disinfectant, and him lifting a soaking cloth or sponge and letting the fluid run over the wound.
Through the haze that affected me I was aware of the exchange of recriminations which went on between my parents, with Dad saying to me 'What were you doing down there anyway?' and Mum reminding him rather forcefully that I was doing what he had asked. A result of this was something that suited me but could have done without, being kept off school. Proper treatment of an injury like this for folk unused to it was often a matter of guesswork. Although there was a hospital casualty department there was no easily available, inexpensive transport to get you there. Tel-ephones were few and far between and there was a fear born of cost and ignorance of how to use them, and the proportion of people having a telephone then could be compared to the number of elderly people who own and can use a video camera or computer today. Virtually no working class home had a phone, and anyway the doctor had to be paid for, with the fee for a surgery consultation of around 1/- (10p) and a home call-out at 2/6.
In those days dressing an open wound was a case of dipping a piece of lint in boiling water to sterilise it, letting it cool and laying it over the injury, then binding it firmly with a bandage. With hindsight it is easy to see that this was wrong, for blood seeped through lint and bandage then hardening into a crust or scab which forms a protective cover to allow the healing process to go on underneath. But when the dressing had to be changed, three times a day was judged to be about right, and the lint lifted off, it takes the scab with it leaving the process to start again almost from the beginning. In my case this went on for most of the following week, and as it eventually appeared to be healing there was talk of going back to school soon.
Then I became aware of stiffness in the leg and although I had been walking a little, carefully, it became painful again but in a different way. It felt as if the leg was swelling and becoming rigid and the knee was showing a tendency to turn outwards. Without anyone really looking to see how it was progressing I was accused, in a half pretending/wholly in earnest way, of faking it to avoid having to go back to school. I suppose Mum might be to blame for this, because she would have had the task of attending to changing the dressings. But it has to be borne in mind that with her defective colour vision, and mine, we would not have been alerted by the red aspect of the leg caused by an infection, and here I speak from personal experience of similar situations in later life. By the next day my leg had begun to swell and the wound had a really angry red appearance.
The doctor was sent for and diagnosed sepsis, as by then it was leaking pus, and he gave my mother fits (a telling off) for not calling him sooner. Today, antibiotics would take care of this condition and banish it in a few days, but the treatment then was unpleasant and long drawn out. A small square of dark material called skin, which was similar to the type of plastic used today for bags of the kind available at all supermarket self-service fruit and vegetable counters a little larger than the lint, was laid over the wet lint, then it was bandaged up. It drew the poison from the wound by sweating it out, but it meant more frequent changes of dressing, two hourly if I recall correctly. Lifting off the damp lint at changing times meant that it could be moved without disturbing the scab.
The healing process was considerably lengthened because the wound could not begin to heal until all the infection had been drawn out. I think I was off school for about a month in all, and it brought the only visit from the School Board Officer to the house. He was the truant chaser, one of the officials then employed by the education authorities to go round the homes of absentees to check that their absence was legitimate, and they were not doing it without their parent's knowledge. A look at my leg convinced him.
TOYS AND GAMES OF THE TIME
The earliest toy I can recall was a tin putt-putt boat, so called because of the noise it made when working. It was about four inches long with a bath shaped blue painted thin sheet metal hull made in two parts, the hull was open and the top and it clipped together. The simple driving mechanism was in the pressed groove of the simulated keel where a thin, open at both ends metal tube was heated by a pellet of flammable material which puffed out at the stern. There must have been something in the tube to stop the pressure from going out the front as well. Just how it operated escapes me now, but sitting in a couple of inches of water in the large household tin bath, the tiny boat could be made to move slowly along making the gentle putt-putt sound. Of course the naked flame requirement meant that this amusement was available to me only as a spectator and was operated under adult supervision.
Another toy never seen today was a pop gun, a smooth wooden tube, probably a length of cane, with a plunger like a bicycle tyre inflator. A cork, attached to the barrel by a length of cord, was rammed in the open end, and when the plunger was pushed in vigorously the cork came out with a mildly explosive pop.
During the 1930s Malcolm Campbell was attempting to beat the world land speed record with his Bluebird car. Models of the car were on sale, and I was given a beauty over a foot long. Although of tinplate it was very realistic, with its low-slung body of futuristic design, disc wheels with solid tyres and a vertical fin at the rear. It gave a lot of fun although I have no recollection if it was powered or not, but it probably had a clockwork motor.
Among many toys and playthings of the time I was given was a torch with coloured filters operated by thumb levers, and a kaleidoscope. Details of the torch colours cannot be given for obvious reasons, but it was a favourite plaything of mine while in Mearnskirk Hospital. Colour changes were effected by pieces of coloured celluloid which pivoted individually over the beam, although just how this was done cannot now be recalled, but what is remembered is that affording the short-life batteries of the time was a problem.
A kaleidoscope is a sealed slightly tapered glass tube of triangular section over a foot long, two of the sides of which were of mirror glass with the mirror inside. A section through the tube was like an arrowhead. The third side, which was half as wide as the other two, was of plain glass except for an uncovered section at the lower end which allowed light to enter, and the outer surfaces of the tube were covered with decorative paper. The outer ends of the sides were cut at a 45º angle, and this angle too was of mirror glass. Inside the tube there were tiny pieces of brightly coloured and sparkly tinsel of a variety of shapes which, when the tube was shaken and the pieces were allowed to settle, looking in the eyepiece with light shining in the opening at the other end, a pleasing multicoloured design which altered with each shake was seen.
Tiddleywinks was another common competitive sedentary pastime played, for preference on a card table, it having the most suitable surface. Each player had a coloured disc of stiff plastic type material about the size of a 2 pence coin that may have been horn or celluloid, and others of the same colour of smaller 5p size, all of which had rounded edges. The object of the game was for players to propel the smaller pieces unto a cup. Taking turns and using the large disc it was possible by pressing down on the edge of a smaller one lying on the felt of the table, to cause it to jump up and forward, aiming to make it land in the cup; it was a skill which needed much practice and a lot of luck.
Another present at this time was the picture-gun referred to and described in an earlier part about children's games. It was a quite realistic looking pistol in cast mazak type metal which split into two halves through the centre with the hinges along the top of the barrel. Inside there were guides on which ran a closed loop of film containing about twenty frames of pictures. The sides of the film were slotted, and when the trigger was pulled a tag on it engaged in a slot which moved it forward one frame at a time in much the same way as pre-digital camera 35mm film is moved. A lens which looked like a silencer, a short polished metal tube fitted into the muzzle, could be moved in or out of the barrel to focus the projected picture. The light was provided by a bulb in the middle of the barrel with two pen-cell batteries in the handle.
As a hand gun its appearance was extremely effective for juvenile play, and when the war began and batteries were in short supply it was used very effectively in street games as such. It arrived in a presentation box containing a number of films in cartoon style, of highly condensed versions of, for example, Davy Crockett, with real actors depicted, Lew Ayres being one. Another actress mentioned in the depiction was noticed in `Hollywood', a history of the film industry programme on TV many years ago - Ella Raines. The frames of the film were probably either taken or copied from an actual film shown in cinemas.
On coming home from Mearnskirk Hospital in February 1937 (described at length in IPaW) I was given as a present an 'O' gauge passenger train set. It was a good quality outfit by the German company Marklin, but it wasn't what I really wanted. Having seen in the house of a neighbour of my grandparents in Hutton Drive a quite elaborate British Hornby set, which I was permitted to watch briefly as the children of the house played with it, my heart was set on having one like it. 'O' gauge was then virtually the only commonly available small model railway scale, and catalogues had been picked up which showed the large number of sets and range of accessories manufactured by the Hornby Company. The rails and sleepers of these sets were thin tinplate pressings made in straight lengths about a foot long, and pre-formed curves each section of which was one-eighth of a circle. What gave them a most unrealistic appearance, though, was that each section had only three wide spaced out sleepers. In the less expensive sets which included rails, there were usually only eight curves making a circle.
The next most expensive sets had two straight sections, making an oval, but my set had four straights so that it made a larger than usual oval. With the exception of the clockwork motor, everything was of tin-plate. Each part of the set was of the high quality for which the Germans were and are renown and it continued to work well for the next decade despite the usual rough treatment to which it was subjected by a juvenile. My memory of the model is of an 0-4-0 tender locomotive with outside cylinders, and three four-wheel coaches of vaguely British railways design.
A foot long fold-down 'tunnel' was included with the set, and there was an early form of mechanical remote control, a sliding lever, which was fitted to the track. The cab of the engine had two, two-position knobbed rods projecting through from the motor, for direct setting of the controls. One rod was for stop/go and the other forward/reverse. Connected to them through other levers were metal flaps which projected below the motor at rail level that were set across the direction of travel. The device fitted to the track had a slider lever with an upward projecting lug that could be placed in one of three positions. Position one was free of any control, set at two made the engine stop, and the third position caused it to reverse direction. Though fascinating for a youngster to play with, the latter device was the opposite of realistic as it made these changes while the running at full speed.
Two 4-wheel carriages were of the type common to all toy train sets then, but unusually there were three of them which had the peculiar Marklin type coupling, the only part of the set that gave any trouble which was caused by rough treatment, for their design intended that they would be unable to uncouple accidentally. If the coaches were lifted when coupled, held by the outer ends it bowed, this caused the tongues of the couplings to distort and lock, making it impossible to separate them. For many years the three coaches remained coupled up, which rather irritated me because it was impossible to put them away tidily in the box, a situation which lasted until I learned to use pliers to free them.
Various catalogues had been acquired showing the large variety of accessories available in the Hornby and Meccano ranges, but I had not seen any for Marklin so did not know whether this company had a similar range. Long after, I found they had, but the items were not as available in this country as those of Hornby. Apart from the Marklin set, and a Meccano No. 00 construction set that came later which produced additional desires, these catalogues sustained me for a decade or so. It may have been that had much of what I saw and desired in the illustrations in these booklets been made available to me, through immaturity I might have been disappointed, but the interesting ones would have more than made up for it.
Much time was spent studying the pages and looking at the fascinating variety of train-sets, models of engines, rolling stock, track and points, stations, level crossings, tunnels, signals and so on in the former, and all the vast variety of parts in the Meccano list that only a scarcity of funds which my parents probably couldn't afford, or regarded as somewhat frivolous desires denied me. Anything mechanical fascinated me, especially trains, road vehicles, ships, and aircraft and models of these forms of transport, an obsession that wasn't satisfied until middle-age was reached and it came at a significant point in my life.
In later life as a long time member of a model railway club, and having constructed a number of unusual models by scratch-building, mainly of diesel locomotives of which there were then no commercial models available, I was approached by a group of fellow members for advice on some point or other. Lacking enough confidence to advise on the matter in question I suggested they ask other older members who were surely better qualified, telling them to consult `the experts', when one of them said `What are you if your not an expert?'. Realisation dawned that I had reached a point of seeming competence at which, as a new recruit at the start of my membership, I had regarded those who were then the older members. I am indebted to Arthur C. Clarke for providing the following quotation which he thinks may be by Freud - Happiness is a childhood dream achieved in adult life!
Among my documents there were lists of model railway equipment I had in later life, some of which I made. Included is a diagram and photographs of the last layout I built and operated when living in a multi-story flat, and fourteen diesel locomotives. In addition I built three models of naval ships, two of which had radio control equipment installed. Everything described here can be seen in the family photos.
Would any young person today know what 'blow-football' is and is it still around? It was a sheet of stiff paper about four feet by two feet marked out as a football pitch, which could be folded up like a map to A5 size. There were collapsible card goalposts with their bases glued in position which self-erected when the sheet was unfolded. A dense marble-size ball of cotton wool was attached to the centre spot by a length of ordinary cotton thread long enough to reach beyond the goals. With my persistent lung trouble and being naturally short of breath I was not much good at it but it still gave a lot of fun, in which the added refinement of using a straw to concentrate blowing helped.
When folded up it was easily carried around from house to house and was extremely popular with children and adults as a good if less energetic substitute for the real thing on wet days or the dark evenings of winter. My father was a keen footballer who in his younger days was a member of the Govan Cross Church team. At one stage, which must have been before I became aware of it, he travelled to Wembley twice for international matches. A tartan tammy with a toorie, and a scarf he wore as part of the gear worn by supporters of the time, lay around our house for many years. What struck me most about the tammy was that it appeared to have been made from extremely coarse wool. I found it too prickly to wear for more than a few minutes. He and I played blow-football when he would sometimes let me win.
Granda Joe Chambers had a very unusual domino set which went up to double nine. A normal set to double six has 28 dominoes, but a nine-high set has 55, and although it may not be as uncommon as is imagined, a set like it has never been seen anywhere else. The dominoes themselves were made of two layers, the topmost of which was bone or ivory discoloured by age, to what seemed to my defective colour vision eyesight to be a dark russet yellow, on which were the recessed black dots. The backing was of ebony and the two parts were held together with a flush brass pin, on some of them, however, the layers had become separated causing them to pivot independently on the pin.
Collecting cigarette cards was a popular pastime. Of roughly business card size, sets were produced portraying in pictures various scenes on a particular theme, such as different types of motor cars, motorcycles, aeroplanes, types of trees, flowers, ships, railway engines etc. The reverse side was numbered and had a description of the object in the picture. They were included singly in packets of some brands of cigarettes. The intention was to collect them into sets of up to 50 cards, but having no close adult relative or friend who smoked who might have saved them for me, I was at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, by swapping and trading around it was possible to make up a collection, but to my lasting regret I never managed to gather a complete set as these were highly prized. My favourite was the W.D. & H.O. Wills cigarettes set entitled `Railway Locomotives of the World'.
Most men had no interest in the cards and tossed them away when the pack was opened. During the usual randomly occurring season in which card collecting was in vogue, we would scour the pavements outside newsagents in the hope of picking up any discards. Following on from this, hanging around tobacconists in Linthouse with a pal is recalled, waylaying men coming out after buying a packet hoping they would part with the card with the plea, 'any cigarette cards, mister?'
GAMES BOOKS AND COMICS
By the late 1930s I had a collection of children's books that had been received as presents, which were read and re-read many times. One or two had a powerful appeal and certain details of stories and illustrations in them have remained with me. Just recalling them can bring on a feeling of nostalgia. Walt Disney had produced the first Mickey Mouse cartoon film in 1928, and one of my books was a hard-back entitled Walt Disney's Silly Symphony, which may have been published before MM arrived. Among the children's picture-story comic papers, Mickey Mouse Weekly was for a time my favourite reading material. The Dandy and Beano comics were first published in 1937 and ’38. Then there was the more substantial stuff, of stories without pictures in the comic magazines Hotspur, Rover, Wizard, and Adventure. These names were always recited to acquaintances in the order of our personal preferences.
A domestic chore delegated to me at this time was the pleasant job of walking each Saturday morning from Linthouse to McGregor's newsagents shop in Harmony Row in central Govan to collect the weekly papers, the People's Friend and Women’s weekly for Mum and the Radio Times. In doing so I was allowed to choose one for myself although the choice was limited to one comic at a price of, I think, three-half-pence (1½d). That apparently odd situation of travelling so far for magazines which could be bought in Dick's paper shop across the street from us was because of maternal trader loyalty that had lasted for thirty-five years. McGregor's shop was next to the close in Harmony Row in which my grandparents, Mother and her sister had lived for more than a decade, from where they had moved to Hutton Drive Linthouse in 1912. The proprietor of the shop and his family had lived nearby also and had been friendly, and the loyalty had endured during all that time and was to continue until we left Linthouse and moved to Pollok in 1945.
Referring to a preference for a particular comic sets up a conflict in memory because there are fond recollections of good stories for juveniles in all of them. Much detail contained in one particular serial in the Hotspurhas remained with me, and its powerful effect was sustained by a half-held belief that it was a true story. It was called `The Truth about Wilson', the author of which was anonymous, for comic-book stories were never attributed, and only drawings by the original artist, Dudley D. Watkins were signed. In that story I had my first encounter with fantasy fiction (after nursery and fairy tales).
It was a sports story set initially in the north of England in the mid 19th century, about a mysterious man who appeared to be young, who had phenomenal physical abilities, who won by a wide margin every athletic event he entered, who was, it was gradually revealed as the story unfolded, about two hundred years old. It ran through a number of series ('The Further Truth about Wilson etc.') over the period during which I was a reader. It told of his life from when, in his youth, he had gone to Tibet to live with a mystic and learned all kinds of body control devices which gave him the incredible longevity and the ability of a super-athlete.
It will be understood that at that time stories of this genre enthralled many youngsters, which of course is why it is possible to recall the details after the passage of seventy-five years. Trying to interest my Dad in it I encountered for the first time the scornful rejection I was to experience from him soon after with astronomy and science fiction. However, Dad wasn't a reader. He occasionally toiled over a book on the two subjects that interested him most, sport and politics. He dipped into them occasionally, sitting with a book on his knees in a crouch and holding his head in his hands and repeating the words slowly sotto-voce, but he soon gave up.
Other comics were Radio Fun and Film Fun in which personalities from these mediums in the form of actors and comedians of stage, screen and radio were featured. Individuals such as Laurel and Hardy, Arthur Askey, George Robey, George Formby, and detectives, magicians, cowboys etc, from many film series and radio programmes portrayed as comic strip characters. For the very young with very few words in the speech balloons there was Tiger Tim. One of the best comic magazines for teenagers was The Knock-Out whichhad a great mixture of comic strips and stories. Others were Magnet and Billy Bunter comics, but they were never very popular with us, no doubt due to their mainly upper-class slant with the Bunter stories set in an English public school.
These magazines were ideal trading material among children and were swapped around with enthusiasm. If you were keen enough and sufficiently motivated you could get to read each issue of every comic. I seem to have been unfortunate with this because when trying to follow up a serial story, often I failed to locate anyone with the issue I wanted who was prepared to part with it for what I had to offer. The Daily papers all had strip cartoons, and of these my favourite was `Miffy' in the Evening Times, andThe Daily Record had 'Lauder, Willis and Gordon' which was based on living Scotch comedians, Harry Lauder, Dave Willis and Harry Gordon, all of whom I saw live in various pantomimes, heard them on radio and saw them in the early days of tv.
The Sunday Post started `The Broons' and `Oor Wullie' in 1937 which was first brought to my notice by neighbours of my grandparent’s. I was captivated by them, and `Nosey Parker' and 'Nero and Zero, the Rollocking Romans'. There was also a half page of jokes, crosswords and other puzzles, as well as rhymes, numbered dot-to-dot pictures to draw, and other trivial pursuits for children. The Broons’ Twins would have been the same age as me at that time, and now more than 70 years later they are still at around ten years of age.
I agitated for Mum to buy the Sunday Post but there were socialist principles involved. The editorial policy of that paper was, and still is so far as I know, anti-union and my left-wing socialist father would not allow it into the house, describing it and other papers and magazines with similar policies as ‘rags'. For a time I had to depend on grandparents neighbours to keep their copy for me. Somehow the fact that Mum’s People's Friend was published by the same company was overlooked. A few years and the hostility of Dad were to pass on before she was able to buy the Sunday Post, but by then I had outgrown the ‘funnies'.
Today, the puzzle for me is the kind of reading material juveniles prefer today, because my sons and grandchildren showed no interest in what I found so absorbing until I was in my late teens. Was it really too tame for them and their generation? No doubt TV, computers, electronic games and other attractions have taken over.
Among other reading material for boys there were two 6d (sixpenny) booklets devoted to stories about detectives ‘Sexton Blake' and 'Dixon Hawk'. I may be wrong but I think one was a police officer while the other was a private detective. One had an assistant called Tinker, and they were written in the exciting ‘Richard Hannay' style of author John Buchan in what was then the popular type of small-format roughly A5 size pulp magazines. They were probably issued monthly, usually with one story per issue, and my friends and I found them irresistible. But none of us could stretch our pocket money to buying them, and had to depend on picking them up from various sources, one of which might have been the midden. They were treated like gold with a high value in any swop transaction.
Straying for a moment again beyond the start of WWII date limit of these reminiscences, a present for Christmas 1939 was a curiosity which baffled everyone – me included. Even the person who gave it did not know its purpose. Wartime scarcities were making their presence felt and items suitable as Christmas gifts for children were hard to find, so that practically anything was being snapped up, even objects like this one with obscure functions. A long time went past before its extremely simple action was discovered.
It consisted of half-a-dozen pieces of unpainted quarter-inch thick plywood about four inches by three, the edges of which were smoothly rounded, and one of which had an extension from a broad edge of a bat-type handle. They were linked by three narrow strips of dark ribbon in the following way. When the `plates' were laid out flat in line with the one with the handle at one end and with all the shorter edges not quite touching, one length of ribbon was fixed at the outer edge of the outermost plate, the one with the handle. It was then laid along the middle of all the rest of the pieces in the manner of over the first under the second over the third and so on, and secured at the outer edge of the piece at the opposite end. The other two ribbons were laid in the same way, but in the opposite sequence and near the outer edges. I cannot remember exactly how, but the ribbons must have been loosely stapled to the edge of each plate, or the plates would have tended to fall out, but that didn’t happen.
The puzzling object arrived as a neat pile of smooth pieces of wood and ribbon, but nobody could figure out what it was meant to do. The best we could manage was to hold it by the handle with the pieces stacked up on top and heave it up in quick successive lifts, although all this did was to allow the plates to separate momentarily, like a simple bat-and-ball game with a captive ball, they then settled down again with a rattle. Then one day when holding the handle, the plates were accidentally allowed to fall over and hang down like a long flag or pennant - not for the first time I must say. But this time I happened to turn the handle over through 180 degrees in the vertical plane so that, retained by the ribbons, the flat surface of the piece with the handle met that of the one below it. What happened then was that the second piece toppled down within the ribbons through 180 degrees to meet the next one in line, which then flopped down on the third, and so on to the final piece. This meant that each section had performed an about face within the line. Such were the simple amusements available to us in those days, and they were as highly thought of as the latest electronic game might be today.
Is there anyone today among the younger generation who knows what a bagatelle game is? I had one, and so did my sons, but I haven't seen or heard anything of bagatelles since that time, and I suppose the introduction of electronic games is the cause. While bearing a passing resemblance to the pinball games still encountered in amusement arcades, bagatelle was a tabletop game played on a board on which were confined a number of marble-sized ball bearings. The board was of distinctive shape with one end rounded, and the objective was to score points by propelling the bools into various compartments having different scoring values spread over the surface.
My board was 3ft x 1½ft with a solid plywood base and an all round thin ply edging strip an inch high, and the game was played from the straight end. Along the bottom there was a narrow compartment with a sliding lid, stretching for the full width of the board, in which the ten ball bearings were stored. Along the right-hand side, from the bottom there was an open slot in which the bearing being played was confined so that it ran up to the end of the curve at the top. If pushed slowly the bearing might land in one of the scoring circles or depressions there.
The curved end of the board was raised, creating a slight slope with a pair of peg feet inserted in a row of holes along the edge of the base by an amount that could be varied according to their position in the selection. Scattered over the playing surface were the compartments which were mainly circular with one or two V-shaped, made up of spaced out partly punched in nails like panel pins having a springy bounce. These shapes were laid out with a restricted opening at their high point for a rolling bool to enter. The first compartment, a large circle in the centre near the top of the board, was divided down the centre with the easier to enter left hand compartment having the lower scoring value. A second divided circle of similar size below the first one had a smaller concentric circle making three compartments, each again with a numbered value according to ease, or luck more likely, of entry. There were a few other circles and V shaped catchments formed with the pins, and small depressions in the board surface backed by a single pin placed to halt and trap slow rolling bools, one of which was at the very top.
All had different values in the scoring line-up, with the highest value points allocated to the most difficult to enter compartments. Method of play was to place a bool in the slot on the right, then using a short wooden rod shaped like a drum-stick, each bool was propelled with carefully judged force up the slot, for it to pass anti-clockwise round the curve at the top. On reaching the 9 o'clock position the bool struck a pin placed strategically close in at the side, which caused it to deflect out to the centre and, according to the amount of force applied, hopefully it would roll into one of the catchments and score points. Much excitement was generated by the ball bouncing, as in pinball, from pin to pin down the length of the board in an erratic and extended path, until it came to rest. Lighter pushes were required when trying for the catchments at the top of the board.
Other bagatelle boards were seen with a spring loaded plunger instead of a pushing stick for propelling the bools. Initially, the steepest angle the board could be laid at was chosen, but eventually it became obvious that a shallow angle was best, with the bools slower progression seeming to give better results. It was really a game of chance because the only opportunity for the application of skill was in the pushing, and the level required was much too fine for anyone other than individuals with good physical control.
HUMMING TOP & CLOCKWORK MOUSE
A humming top was ideal for the very young. They are still available today, but because plastic is an unsuitable material to make them from they are much less common than they once were. They are best made from tinplate in a 'flying saucer' type shape, and the sound produced by air passing through holes of different sizes round the edge. My top was so large that adults had to operate it for me until I reached school age, and of course it didn't last long after that because the vertical corkscrew push-rod for operating it rapidly wore out and finally became bent, which finished it for good. What strikes me now about it is that it was bigger than any others I ever saw, and the noise it produced when pumped up to speed was quite organ-like, a deep harmonious hum.
Another plaything that gave a lot of pleasure and amusement was a clockwork mouse. It had a mechanism inside a made-up body, with a permanently fixed winding key projecting from its side which ran on three tin disc wheels. It was the correct size and was extremely realistic, and there were the unsuspecting visitors, women mainly, who received a bit of a shock when it ran across the linoleum floor when released from a suitable hiding place. But it wouldn't work on carpets.
Yet another item, longer-lasting than most others, was a John Bull printing outfit. It consisted of an ink pad in a metal lidded box, and a wooden stamping block with slots into which oblong pieces of rubber with a letter formed on the end were placed. It wouldn't have stood up to today's demanding standards of quality, as the oblongs tended to be of slightly different depths. This meant that it required more weight than I could at first bring to bear, when trying to make a proper clear impression after pressing the block on the ink pad. However, it lasted for such a long time that eventually, having gained the required weight and strength, for a time I was able to make effective prints if the pad was kept moistened with ink.
They were a frustrating amusement for me because I could never achieve satisfactory results with them. Sold in sheets with around a dozen prints, each about an inch-and-a-half square, they could be bought from most newsagents and sweetie shops at a cost of a ha'penny a sheet. They depicted a comic scene popular at the time in the same way as `He-man', `Transformers', `Thundercats', and `Turtles' were favourites in more recent times. Produced on a thin absorbent punched backing paper from which they could be torn off like stamps, they were placed face down on wrist, arm or back of the hand and licked until the paper was saturated, after which the backing was supposed to peel off, leaving the picture stuck to the skin like a tattoo.
Some children had forearms covered with them, with each one successfully transferred as if painted on individually. Then there were others like me who found it impossible to make a success of it, and I wonder now if certain types of skin, or maybe saliva, contain an element that made it work which we lacked. I even remember taking a course of instruction from another boy who was always successful with them, doing everything in step with him, but while his transfers were perfect mine were patchy. However they only endured until the next time of washing.
A RARE SIGHT - FOREIGNERS
Coloured people or foreigners of any nationality other than Italian, were almost unknown. There were no Pakistani, Indian, West Indian, Chinese, Greek or Turkish shops or restaurants. All shops that today are Pakistanis owned were then run by local people who often lived either in the back-shop or near by. In proportion to the population there were many more of these shops than there are today. The only time we encountered foreigners other than cafe and chip shop owning Italians, were the coolies described before in connection with Prince's Dock who were crew members from cargo boats docked there and at Shieldhall. From Shieldhall they walked through Linthouse to visit premises known as rag stores in Govan and beyond.
Looking for cheap second hand goods to take back home to the Indian subcontinent. Invariably, they were dressed in a uniform, a kind, ill-fitting crumpled suit/overall and peculiar hats made of a kind of blue dungaree material, which were probably shipping company issue. In summer some were barefoot or wore shoes without socks even in inclement weather and they walked in a manner that indicated they were not used to them.
The following story was recalled by a recent newspaper article on some of the difficulties encountered by Italian immigrants in the early decades of the century, when in trying to run a business they had to put up with a certain amount of insolence and interference from local worthies. My father was one of them and he used to tell of how, along with a group of pals, they went into the local Tally's ice cream shop and order plates of hot peas, which was apparently a favourite dish in those days.
Café owners provided entertainment by playing records on a windup gramophone. Before the electric speakers were developed, early gramophones had a large ornate horn that rose up from the turntable pickup with the mouth pointing towards listeners. When the proprietor's back was turned they would entertain themselves by tossing peas into the horn. When the sound became muffled by the peas and he discovered what they had been doing, the man berated them with `You no' spit-a-da peas doon 'i' gramophone'. Hilarious to these reprobates at the time, it was something to be regretted now.
Around 1930 my mother had corresponded with a remote and unusual organisation. Radio Moscow was broadcasting programmes in English of general interest at the time, with sections devoted to the home, women, recipes, etc. and had invited people to write to them on any subject in which they were interested. Mum had followed the programmes, and had written three times and had received a reply on each occasion, although whatever the subjects were is long forgotten. The letters with their Soviet stamps lay in our three dwellings from Howat Street to Pollok for decades. They were the kind of keepsake taken out like our collection of photographs, and looked at with interest every so often.
Through time the letters became mutilated and defaced by being used for scribbling and drawing, and of course the stamps were cut off, the intention no doubt being that they would one day be the foundation of a stamp collection. Eventually they all, letters, envelopes and stamps, disappeared from sight, probably into the living room fire. The broadcasts were a propaganda exercise by the Russians, but they were a tangible souvenir from an isolated and mysterious part of the world to dwell on with wonder. Soviet Russia was regarded with an odd mixture of wariness and fear, or curiosity by people in our level of society, but with implacable hostility by the government and the upper and most of the middle classes. That was because of the fear that the working class of this country might be encouraged to rise up in revolt and force a change of regime similar to the one in Russia which appeared to them to be benevolent.
A BRIEF GLANCE AT VICTORIANA - THE PERIL OF THE ROCKING CHAIR
Maternal grandmother Mary Chambers and her sister-in-law, my Auntie Mary Ann each had one of these chairs in their houses at 13 Hutton Drive in Linthouse, which dated probably from Victorian times. They were much favoured by older folk and children found them irresistible. While no-one seemed aware of it at the time, the rockers of these chairs were a trap just waiting to cause serious injury to some unsuspecting toddler. They had a heavy open plinth base standing on four feet, with a flat level strip on both sides on which the rocking surfaces of the chairs rested. On each side, running the full length under the chair itself there were two gently curved strips of wood. The strips were about two inches wide and rested on the wider flat bearing surfaces. Chair and base were held together by a single heavy coil spring fitted on the inside on both sides in the centre of the rocking sector.
Amazingly, that mounting was completely unguarded. Anything soft or breakable getting between rocker and the surface it rested on, like fingers or toes, would be severely crushed, depending on the weight of the person sitting in the chair. Even empty the force exerted by its weight and the strength of the spring, would have caused severe crushing to tiny digits. Somehow, despite having early memories of playing on and around these chairs, I managed to avoid the danger. While there is no recollection of hearing of anyone actually being caught by it, it was the kind of hazard that today could not exist unguarded.
The aunt Mary Ann Himsley had a full domestic size organ worked by foot pedals which operated a pump to generate the air pressure for the pipes which produced the sounds. It was of quite large size, not as big as an upright piano, but it was still an impressive instrument to sit at. She used to let me try it, but I didn't then possess the co-ordination necessary to allow me to do more than one thing at a time without a lot of practice, so I never got beyond the one-finger stage. The main problem was that my junior height did not permit sitting comfortably on the stool and work the pedals while trying to play. An abiding memory of the instrument is the pleasant musty smell of Victoriana from it, probably the aged wood and decades of dust in it.
The stool fascinated me as much as the organ. Its base had three lion's feet which flared out from a large thick hollow cast iron column with an internal screw, and a round padded seat on a giant screw which could be turned inside the column to alter its height, like a mini joy wheel. I wonder now what happened to that organ and the painting of Bonnie Prince 'Chairlie' as the family referred to it, which hung above the bed in her bed recess, when she died and her house was cleared out in the early 1940s. The only item my parents acquired was her clothes mangle, the operation of moving it and its use is described elsewhere in these pages. It was in her house that I first tasted the Cremola Foam drink made from sherbet powder bought in a tin, and another delectable bottled drink called Boston Cream, which later became American Cream Soda.
DRESS STYLES OF THE 1930s
Older women invariably wore clothes which indicated they were old. Ankle-length black or dark hued dresses and coats, large brimmed hats of similar dark colours, some of which had veils, thick stockings of dark grey, and low-heeled shoes sometimes shaped to accommodate bunions were the usual apparel. Bunions, a swelling at the side of the foot at the base of the big toe, are never encountered today. They were caused by wearing poorly fitting shoes. Poverty was the main cause of this and progress made on shoe design and fitting, plus the ability of even the poorest of the young and old to buy shoes which fit properly, has all but eliminated the condition. Another affliction affecting feet and hands never heard of today except in reminiscences like these is chilblains. They showed in the form of painful red welts on the extremities that were attributed to excessive exposure to cold. It seems now to be very much like a mild form of frostbite sustained by living in houses that were poorly insulated.
An item of women's apparel never seen now is the 'stole'. It resembled a bulky furry scarf and was worn draped round the neck, and Mum had two, one for normal dress wear and another of better quality for important occasions. Stoles were made from the full skin of a fox or other animal of that size, which included head, tail, and paws complete with claws. Others that were much more expensive were made with the skins of more exotic animals, such as mink or silver fox were worn by the affluent. It was treated of course for elegant wear, and was draped over one shoulder and fixed under the opposite arm with a length of dark silk cord having a tassel which was passed through a loop at the other end, or it was simply looped round the neck like a scarf.
My mother's stole had a wooden spring clip in place of the animal's lower jaw which, with it draped round a shoulder, was clamped on to a section at the base of the tail on the opposite side at waist height. In the photo below of mother and me taken in Dundee in mid 1930s, with on the left behind, my grandmother Mary is seen with her younger sister Jemima (Mem) who is wearing a fox fur stole. Another fashion Mum adopted was wearing a hat with a veil when dressed in her best clothes. It was generally of the large mesh type shaped to cover the face and to fit under her chin.
Day wear for most housewives indoors was a sleeveless housecoat of cotton print, which crossed over at the front and fastened at the back with tapes, and a dust cap made of similar material the ends of which were knotted above the forehead. Mother generally wore one of these until in later years the 'pinnie', the apron which older women may still wear today came into use during household chores. A change in nomenclature is evident in that what she used to call a frock is now a dress. The other item was the hairnet to keep straggling curls in place
Photographs of street scenes from the 19th and 20th centuries taken in slum areas of Glasgow will show `shawlies', women with babies who needed their hands free to carry things. They were usually the very poorest who could not afford a pram or go-chair, and had been unable to acquire a discard. The difficulty was overcome by wrapping a large shawl tightly round the body in such a way, under one arm and over the other shoulder, so that the infant could be carried somehow suspended inside at the front. They were still to be seen in my time, giving the impression that the wearer had plumbed the depths of degradation. While some could appear respectable, clean and tidily dressed, with a nice white crocheted shawl, it was mainly the sight of those in the worst slums in Govan that remains in my memory. In Nethan, McKechnie and Wanlock Streets they were to be seen dressed in little more than rags using a check or tartan blanket to carry the infant, the colours and pattern of which was obscured by dirt in place of a shawl, often with an edge draped round the neck and gathered under the chin.
When not carrying an infant, the excess material of the blanket was wrapped round and folded with the arms in front like a muff. The local term for that was, I think, a 'mutch', which may have been the origin of the scornful saying 'Ach, yer granny's mutch' when ridiculing something someone had said. My mother used to knit regularly, and she also crocheted shawls for many people which the recipients prized. There is no doubt that as a baby I would have been carried around in this way if she had found it necessary. I certainly remember seeing her carry my sister, born 1941, wrapped in a shawl, but this may have been due to scarcity caused by wartime conditions, which made it difficult initially to find a pram when she was born.
Another curious item of apparel from the past which disappeared around this time was gaiters. Just thinking about having to wear them in winter conjures up memories of an interminable and excruciating ordeal. Made from thin stiff leather or rexine, they were worn wrapped round the calves so that the shaped bottom came down over the tops of boots or shoes in a tight fit, the tension of which made them difficult to fasten. The method of securing them was peculiar. The fastening was a row of tiny bead-like buttons set close together down one edge of the gaiter, which had to be levered with some difficulty through button holes along the other edge, for which a device known as a button hook was used. My mother had one - a small rigid wire hook, the other end of which was bent back on itself in a loop to form a handle. It was put through the hole to catch the button and pull it through. A strip of strong material was fixed on each side at the bottom which, when passed over the foot and secured at the instep, held the gaiter down securely over the foot. Gaiters were worn too during my military service (below), but they were held place with straps and buckles.
Women's footwear also had this type of fastening, particularly the calf length boots. The buttons had a piece of wire passing through them, which ended in the tiny loop by which they were stitched into position. My gaiter-wearing days date back to pre-school times, and what I remember about them was that they were an ordeal to put on and very tight and uncomfortable to wear. They would have been ideal in providing support for the elderly and anyone suffering from what today is known as DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis). Another contemporary item of children's wear was pants for outdoor winter wear with straps which looped under the shoe instep. Then called pantaloons, they were similar to the garment called 'leggings' of more recent times, but were made in the '30s from that stiff rexine type waterproof material.
There are fond memories of being taken to the pantomime at Christmas, with two visits in particular during the time we lived in Howat Street. The first time was to the Empress Theatre near St George's Cross. As members of a small group of acquaintances with children from Howat Street, we travelled with our mothers by subway from Govan Cross to St. George's Cross. What I remember of that occasion in 1936 is that it was just before the propulsion system for the trains had been electrified. The highlight for me was the two trips out and back on the underground railway. When originally set up the two coach trains were pulled along by steel cables fourteen miles long, which lay along the bed of each track in their individual tunnels that was powered by a steam engine located in a building above the tunnels in the Scotland Street area. Each car had grippers operated by the driver which clamped on to the cable.
Another visit was to see the then famous pantomime show at the Alhambra Theatre in Wellington Street where Harry Gordon and Will Fyffe (above) did their stuff, keeping the audience, most of them children, in stitches. One episode, reminiscent of clowns at the circus, greatly amused everyone except me. For some reason I was terrified after a large square box with external black quilting was brought on to the stage and one of the comedians sat on it. Suddenly, from a door at the back behind the sitter a figure in black from head to toe appeared at a bewildering speed, so fast he was just a flicker, and whacked the sitter on the head with a balloon then disappeared back below. The sitter, in mock puzzlement, then moved round and sat with his legs over the trap-door from which the balloon wielder emerged. Of course the apparition with the balloon, who was suitably made up to frighten, appeared again from behind, in an ongoing sequence of appearing always from behind the sitter that had the audience in stitches. All, that is, except me. For there was something menacing and frightening about that scene in the way the person from below was attired and the manner in which he moved, that I had to hide under the seat, much to the mystification of the others.
THE TELEGRAPH BOY
Before the telephone had been invented the post office operated a system of transmitting urgent messages by wire, using the dot-dash code, called the telegraph. This is why young folk might hear older people refer to poles carrying telephone wires as telegraph poles; that term dates from before the middle of the 19th century. The telephone service in the 1930s, then part of the GPO (General Post Office), was a branch known as GPO Telephones that continued to expand, but because of the cost, installations were confined to businesses and upmarket dwellings. My first opportunity to use a telephone in 1941 left me awestruck with the technology. But phones were still few and far between, so anyone needing to send an urgent message to a distant destination used the telegraph service.
My first time of using a phone was when sent to a family friend who lived in the then new upmarket council housing scheme in Drumoyne with a message. My sister Nancy had just been born in the Montrose Nursing Home in Merryland Street, Govan, and I was sent to convey the news to the friend. After talking briefly the woman who had a phone, she suggested that she call the hospital to ask how Mum and the baby were doing and pass on her congratulations. She did so and said a few words then passed the instrument to me for me to do the same, but overwhelmed by the situation I only managed to say a few words. From that event it will be seen that the telephone was so unfamiliar that no-one at home thought to convey the message from a telephone box.
Sending a telegram required going to a post office during normal hours, but when the branches were closed there was a main office in George Square in Glasgow which gave a 24-hour service. Probably by the 1930s messages were transmitted verbally by phone between offices. A supply of telegraph forms was kept in a small rack in every office, and the user, after filling in the message form using the least number of words, it was presented at the counter and the cost calculated at so much a word. It was then transmitted by phone and the receiving office despatched their `telegram boy', to the forwarding address on his distinctive red and white upright bicycle. He was dressed in a uniform resembling that of the Boys' Brigade at that time in having a waist-and-sash belt with a small pouch for carrying the messages, and a dark coloured Foreign Legion pillbox type hat. They were seen occasionally going up closes to deliver messages, but they were regarded with apprehension as possible bringers of bad news.
Roads with cobbled surfaces were an ongoing feature complicated by tram lines. The Tramways Department was obliged to maintain the area to within a foot on either side of the double tracks, for which they had a squad to attend to this as well as maintain the track itself. The Highways Department maintained the rest of the road surface. Any photographs of tramlines on cobbled roads in Glasgow will show these boundaries. The Highways Department had many squads, and the labour intensive work was slow and laborious. As there was less traffic on them of heaver commercial vehicles, side streets surfaces were more enduring, and even the cobbled roads suffered far less from surface break-up and the potholes which are encountered today.
What happened was that when areas developed depressions that were liable to become flooded, repair work involved lifting the cobbles out over a section of road, building up, smoothing out and levelling the bottoming, then re-laying them. When necessary a regular squad sometimes worked on long sections along a road, and because of the nature of the task it was all manual with no mechanisation which caused it proceed at a slow pace. At a guess, to cover one side only of the quarter mile stretch of Govan Road at Elder Park between Elderpark Street and Drive Road might have taken two weeks.
Everything was done by hand, with each individual stone having to be broken away from its neighbours in the surface and levered out using a pinch, a long heavy steel lever with a chisel edge, and lifted clear and stacked in random heaps adjacent to the area being worked on. The sound made by cobbles being bumped together is still recalled today as similar to the deep `clunk' produced by curling stones or bowling green bools striking. What used to intrigue me was `how did they get the first stone out from the continuous dense layer?'
Once re-laid, the task of tarring the cobbles in place was undertaken. The tar boiler seen above was a large black bath shaped tank with an estimated capacity of about 500 gallons, which ran on four spoked iron wheels with flat treads, and a towing bracket was attached to one pivoting axle mounted at the firebox end. Coal was burned to melt the tar, and in an attempt to emit the smoke from it above the level of passers by, a tall thin chimney which rose to a height of around fifteen feet emerged at the rear when being towed. There was a large tap low down at one end for drawing off the tar into a bucket. When fired up, as well as smoke from the chimney, the tank itself gave off clouds of white acrid fumes that always took the breath from me, although it was reputed to be good for 'clearing the (bronchial) tubes'. Tar arrived at the site in large rough blocks that had to be broken up into smaller pieces and dropped into the tank, the top edge of which was just below head height. This could be hazardous because of the risk of being splashed with the hot material as the lumps went in.
Tar didn't set in the way today's mastic does, melting and hardening being effected by temperature. Very hot weather could melt it and make it run to the consistency of syrup and shoes sometimes became contaminated un-noticed. This could cause it to be unwittingly walked into houses and deposited on carpets which took a major operation to clean. The molten tar was drawn off into a large metal bucket with a long spout and a carrying handle that could be hung from the tap during filling. After the cobbles had been re-laid the tar, controlled by a side handle on the bucket, was poured in to fill the gaps between the stones. Having to work in a stooped position all day, keeping the fire going, and manipulating the tar bucket, this squad had one of the most unpleasant and backbreaking jobs around.
Although they were never used to level re-laid cobbled road surfaces or the side street asphalted roads, steam-rollers (steam-road-rollers as they were commonly known) were sometimes seen in operation. Traction engines too were employed to take heavy, mainly engineering loads to or from the docks. Both of them were a source of excitement to us youngsters because they travelled at not much more than walking pace, and could be followed for as long as you cared to tag along. Their attraction for me came somewhere between railway engines and ships, the big advantage being that small boys could get much closer to them when they were working than any of the other forms of steam traction, to hear the noise and feel the heat as well as see the smoke and steam.
With steam and smoke puffing out the chimney, road-rollers really did give the impression of being a living entity, the controls being somewhat imprecise with a similar slightly fidgety lurching behaviour as a horse. But the broad steel large-diameter wheels and the roller at the front must have given a ride that was marginally more uncomfortable on cobbled surfaces than the narrower solid rubber treads of the traction engine. If the tv programmes made by the late boiler house chimney demolisher Fred Dibna during the 2000 decade are shown again in the future, all of the above activity described and much more can be seen.
THE MIDNIGHT STREET CLEANERS
Up to the 1960s, starting in the Spring all the main roads were hosed down by a squad of men who worked their way round the city and suburbs. They operated during the night and as I grew old enough in the next decade to be out late in the evening, perhaps journeying home from the cinema, they were seen heading towards the area of their night's work with their barrow. It carried the reel containing sections of heavy hosepipe of fire brigade dimensions. As one of a small number of groups permitted to do so, they connected into the fire-fighting water supply. Street washers probably covered about a couple of miles a night, going over the full width of the street from the back edges of pavements on either side, so that in the morning the washed section was sparkling clean.
Although aware of them trundling through the streets and setting up the hosepipe, I didn't get to see them in action until I was driving buses in the early 1960s. Bus crews took turns on night service, and the street washers were one of the occasional middle-of-the-night hazards to watch out for. To avoid the risk of icing up the streets during a frost, they worked only between late spring and autumn. The main reason for the operation was to flush dung from roads at a time when there were so many horses, that even a prolonged spell of wet weather did not do the job properly.
STITCHES OF A DIFFERENT KIND
Mention was made previously about how my Mother was able to keep family and friends going with her knitting, mainly jerseys, sweaters, pullovers, cardigans, socks, scarves and gloves. Her production of shawls using best quality white Cashmere wool too was much appreciated, and she had many commissions through the years, to the extent that there may even be some in different parts of the world that are now handed down as antique heirlooms. She bought the wool in four ounce hanks, loops of about two feet which for convenience of the knitter, had to be unwound and rolled into a ball. This was done with the aid of a helper who held the loop out loosely between hands spread wide for Mum to uncoil and roll it up into a firm ball, a job regularly performed from when I was old enough, and even up to after I was married. She could do it on her own but complained that it took twice as long.
To keep a ball of light coloured wool clean it had to be kept in a paper bag with the neck restricted during the knitting operation, but any of darker colours lay on the floor at her feet, and tended to roll gently around as it was used up. Sometimes this tendency to wander could be a problem if her attention was concentrated on the work, allowing the ball to roll un-noticed into a danger zone. If one of us walked past her chair without paying attention and a foot caught the strand, although not strong enough to trip anyone the knitting could be seriously affect. When that happened you had to keep out of the radius of the swing of her arm or risk getting a clout or prodded with a needle. I like cats and always wanted one at home, but my pleadings were ignored and it is obvious now that it would have been impossible. A cat would have ruined the knitting operation by chasing the ball as it moved around, as was seen in a 1990s TV advert.
As a youngster I used to watch fascinated as the strand of wool unwound off the ball, climbed up to the flashing needles and metamorphosed into an item to wear at a quite brisk rate. Although her products were never of professional standard; if they had been she might have been able to earn something from her work. Her garments were quite serviceable and must have saved the family quite a bit over the years on what would have otherwise had to be bought. I am sure she never charged for her work; being reimbursed for the cost of the wool satisfied her
THE BETTING SCHOOL
Betting did not become legal until 1961. Previous to this there were no betting shops and the bookie had to conduct his business surreptitiously by hiding up closes and in back courts or, for preference, on any vacant ground away from public gaze. Bookies had assistants called 'runners', and the ones I saw of were invariably either wiry young unemployed adults or still spry older retired men as they had to be fleet of foot. Their job was to go round regular customers collecting bets and occasionally delivering winnings, and acting as a lookout watching for the 'polis'. No member of the extended family or any acquaintance I knew of indulged in it, and it was regarded in our house with the same abhorrence as alcohol. Except for fleeting glimpses of the activity, I didn't find out what it was all about until well into my teens. Police played a game of cat-and-mouse which I am sure they enjoyed, with much spying and infrequent raids on known haunts.
It only intruded at the edge of my awareness, so most of what is relate here about betting is hearsay. Local haunts were unknown to me until one occasion during mid morning when, with a group of pals we were exploring a vacant area somewhere around the top of Helen Street, close to the railway in the area where the Corporation bus garage at Ibrox was later built. We climbed an embankment, and through a screen of bushes looked out on to an area of bare earth which was probably a football park. Immediately we became aware of a large crowd of men of all ages who, from their appearance most were unemployed, standing in a dense circle with their attention fixed on a small group of people in the centre.
Instinctively we froze, sensing that something outwith our experience, well mine anyway, was going on. Men were constantly coming and going, a few of whom would have been runners on missions to collect bets from the surrounding area. We turned round and crept off as quietly as we could to a safe distance to talk abut what we had seen. The older and more worldly of our group knew well enough that it was a betting school and suggested we had been lucky, for it we had been spotted we might have been taken for spies, and if we could not convince them that we were accidental intruders, we might have been in trouble. My feeling now is that no harm would have come to us. The worst we could have expected was simply to have been ignored or chased off, for those times were less evil than are the present.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
A final reference to the decade dealt with in the first of this biography, is a recollection of receiving as a present in 1939 a cellophane wrapped length of fruit rock type candy in the shape of Prime Minister Chamberlain's black umbrella. It was a forlorn indication that his efforts in Munich with Hitler to avert war might succeed.
Morris Pollok's silk mill was built on the river bank in 1824 where Fairfield's shipyard was established, just north of where Howat Street was laid out in the 1890s. See page 103 in TCF Brotchie's History of Govan (1905).
The second book of reminiscences IN PEACE & WAR from the early 1930s to 1945 follows on from here.
Text © Copyright G. Rountree 2015
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