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I don't think that either Mother or Father were church-goers when we lived in Fairfield Road in the 1920's, although I went to a Church of England primary school and also attended the Sunday School which was held in one of the school buildings. Once, Mother had a visit from Mr Pike, the vicar of St. Luke's Church; he probably wanted to meet his unknown parishioners whose son by this stage attended their C of E school. Mother told him that everyone went their own way through life according to their own beliefs, but expected to reach the same goal in the end. At least, this was what she told us she had said to him but no promises were made about attending church. Mother had a Bible given her by her Father in 1911, and at an early age she taught me a short prayer which I repeated daily. Although I didn't know at the time it was the first verse of a hymn by Charles Wesley: “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. After some time it struck me that it was not necessary to say this aloud as the Almighty knew everything we thought, so I usually repeated it silently when safely tucked up in bed and carried on this practice for very many years. Of course, at school we had Scripture lessons in which we learned many of the Bible stories, and repeated the Creed during morning assembly.
I went to Sunday School under some protest as it seemed to me all wrong to go to school all week and have to go again on Sunday afternoons. On some occasions we were little devils and put our Sunday School collection pennies together to buy a packet of 5 “Woodbines” and a box of matches and played truant. We would go to the “Bongs” where a polluted brook from the Everite Works ran through a grassy valley, well away from houses, and smoke a cigarette each. These experiences effectively put me off cigarettes as I did not enjoy smoking and found it very unpleasant so I felt less guilty and considered that I had been punished for my sins. Some boys at school experimented with something called “smoking cane” which was a short piece of spongy cane through which smoke from the burning end could be sucked, but I had always failed to see the attraction in this and never tried it. Later in the 1920's, I started to go to the Sunday School at Derby Road Methodist Chapel with some of my friends. This was more interesting as we had a good class leader in Mr Angove who took a lively interest in us. The Sunday School had a summer field day and we would be taken by horse and cart to a field at Cronton where we had games and refreshments. Once, I won a prize by coming in second in a race; I must admit there were only two of us in the race! The prize was several thin iron shapes and a magnetic top that could be made to spin round their edges. Not very fascinating.
In terms of other toys and games, I recall that when I was six years old I had a toy rabbit called Wilfred. I imagine that the name came from a popular newspaper cartoon series - “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” - that was running at that time in the Daily Mirror. It was covered in fur fabric, blue on the back and white on the front. This was the only soft toy that I ever remember having.
Sometimes, Father would go down to Widnes market by himself on a Saturday night and from some cheap-jack stall bring home some small toy which was sometimes incomplete or damaged in some way. I recall one toy of a corn miller who was supposed to climb a pole and come down with a sack of flour on his head; the toy was made of painted tin and unfortunately, he was lacking his bag of flour and the toy didn't work! (Much later I saw another of these toys in a complete state and found that the sack of flour was a lead weight which obviously caused the miller to descend.)
Father made me a rough fort from a wooden margarine box by cutting a doorway and battlements and I played many games of soldiers with this. My friend Don Machin had a two-piece metal mould for casting lead Indians and I borrowed this. One Saturday afternoon when Mother and I returned from market shopping, we found Father busy at the dining room fire casting with this mould using scrap lead. It had taken him a long time to get the hang of it and there were splashes of lead all around the fireplace but he had managed to produce about eight or ten, more or less complete, mounted Indians brandishing tomahawks. These were never painted but I played with them for many an hour in imaginary games. At school we had read a book called “Manco, the Peruvian Chief”, and the struggles of Manco with the Spanish invaders of Peru played a big part in some of these games.
Don Machin, who never seemed to be short of toys, had a model of a stationary steam-engine with a boiler heated by a meths burner. He brought it to our house and we set it up on the coal-shed floor to keep the burner out of draughts. It worked very well and went faster and faster until the meths container boiled over and the engine caught fire. (We had probably over-filled it). The heat from the burning meths melted the lead flywheel which put an end to our fun. The coal shed was not in danger as it had a concrete floor and there was plenty of space between the engine and the coal. Don was the only one I knew who had a bicycle and together with one or two other boys I learned to ride it. I never had a bicycle of my own until I started work at Widnes Laboratory in October 1936 after leaving school. He once had the bright idea that we could raise some money by selling firewood from house to house. (In those days, all our houses had coal fires which were lit daily). His idea was to untie some bundles of firewood that they had in their coalshed, chop them into thinner sticks and sell the smaller bundles at houses in other parts of the housing estate. We only did this once but it enabled us to raise a few coppers by selling “cheap firewood”. As both his parents were out at work when we came home from school, he had the freedom to play in the house with his friends. One trick that we tried in the kitchen was to blow soap bubbles using a glass tube connected to the gas cooker. The bubbles rose in the air and could be set alight with a taper. This was good fun but we stopped it after nearly setting the lampshade on fire.
As a present one Christmas I received a chemistry set which kept me happily occupied for hours. I had to carry out my experiments on a rectangular wooden tray to catch any spillages. In later years, I would go down to Towers' Ltd. in Croft Street on a Saturday morning with a few kindred spirits and buy small quantities of chemicals and glass tubing for experiments. Towers' was an imposing brick building where chemical glassware was made for the various works laboratories and I always felt it was rather cheeky of us to go there. On the first floor of the main building they had a “bargain table” of odd bits of glassware and bundles of short lengths of glass tubing were sold to us very cheaply. On the other side of Croft Street was a smaller building where chemicals could be bought. The people here were very long suffering and sold us paper packets of chemicals in quantities of one or two ounces. For liquids, we would take our own small bottles. We were able to get hold of many chemicals that would never be sold to the public today. On one memorable occasion I bought some ammonium sulphide to make “stink” bombs and got a medicine bottle full for a few coppers. On the way home, we went into Woolworths and unfortunately the cork came out of the bottle and I had to beat a hasty retreat to the street where I found the cork loose in my pocket. Back at home, this bottle of smelly liquid was not allowed in the house and now the rabbit hutch at the bottom of the garden came in handy.
I had a Bunsen burner which could be connected to the gas supply at the gas cooker and this allowed me to do some simple glass-blowing and make bulbs and manometers. Father showed me how to use a water manometer to measure the pressure of the gas supply. While on the subject of chemistry I should mention our attempts to make fireworks. We had got hold of various recipes for gunpowder and mixed charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate together very gingerly in the requisite proportions. We made a number of small fireworks with various mixtures but never got any really satisfactory results, the mixtures burnt very well but all we got were a few sparks and a quantity of red-hot molten lava. We did manage to burn some slats of a park bench once but this was not deliberate; we were only using it as a handy place to hold the firework in an upright position.
It was possible to buy small screws of paper containing a small quantity of a powder made from potassium chlorate and sulphur together with a few small pieces of a flinty stone. When these were thrown violently against a hard surface a satisfying bang was produced. It was our aim to make these “bombs” but the difficulty was to get hold of potassium chlorate from local chemists who were very suspicious of our intentions. After trying at chemists shops all over Widnes we were sometimes lucky enough to get a small amount of this rather hazardous material. We could detonate our more effective mixture by putting one of the paper screws containing it on a stone surface and hitting it with a hammer. This made a loud bang. Despite all these experiments we did not injure ourselves, except perhaps for a few burns.
Don Machin's parents were unusual in our area in that they were both out at work all day. Mrs. Machin was a schoolteacher but I never knew what Mr.Machin did for a living. (possibly he was a “bookie”). Consequently, Don came home from school to an empty house and several of us would join him in playing games of Cowboys and Indians, especially on the stairs in his house using sticks for guns. He would sometimes take us into his parents' bedroom where, in a box in a wardrobe, was a revolver and cardboard box of ammunition. This we would play with, even going so far as to load the revolver with six rounds to see what it was like. We would have loved to fire it in the garden but were too scared to risk it. The cartridges had to put back in their box in their correct order so that they would look undisturbed. However, Don took one to school one day and on the way home, threw it into a watchman's brazier near the new houses which were then being built in Beaconsfield Road. There was an almighty bang but fortunately for us no damage done.
Now I must detail some of the more traditional and somewhat less hazardous games activities that were carried on at this period. We played a number of games out of school, some by ourselves and others involving a group of boys. In this case, there would perhaps between three, four or more of us who lived near each other. Some games came and went in phases, much as they still do. Tops and whips were popular at times, a variety of top shapes being used, usually with a metal stud in the base to take wear. One kind was known as a “Window-breaker”, perhaps because it could be made to fly in the air with vigorous whipping. A hoop was another form of personal play, the operator running alongside it and controlling its speed and direction with a stick. Although usually made of wood, a superior hoop made from iron and controlled with an iron hook was sometimes seen in use by some lucky boy; these hoops made a satisfying noise when trundled along a pavement. Pea-shooters were sometimes used, the missiles usually being split-peas or barley blown from the mouth in an unhygienic manner.
Sometimes a boy living in Farnworth Street where pigs were kept would come to school with an inflated pig's bladder which we would use as a football. In cold weather we made “Winter warmers” from small tobacco tins, perforated with nail holes, and containing smouldering rags; needless to say, these were only used out-of-doors.
A popular game was “Peggy”, played using a short, thick wooden rod, a few inches long and sharpened to a point at each end. It was placed on the ground and struck smartly on one end with a stick so as to throw it into the air, when it could be given a further whack to drive it as far as possible. This game needed plenty of space as there was no knowing where the “Peggy” would go. It is interesting to find that the game that we called “Peggy”, and in some places as “Tip Cat”, was played in Ancient Egypt during the XII Dynasty (1991-1786 BC). Flinders Petrie, excavating at the town of the pyramid workmen at Kahun, came across some examples of “Peggies” as well as wooden tops.
“Ledge-ball” was played against a house-wall. The ball, which could be an old tennis ball, rubber ball or golf ball, was bounced against the house-wall by a player standing in the gutter, and caught on the rebound. It was usually played in terraced-house areas like Belvoir Road where there was a course of angled brick a few feet above the pavement. If the ball could be bounced from this surface and caught in one move, it scored higher than if it just bounced on the wall and on the pavement before being caught. Another common game that we played in Belvoir Road and elsewhere involved cigarette cards. Squatting on the kerb or in the gutter, we flicked the cards in turn towards the house-wall. The player whose card landed nearest to the wall won his opponents’ card. This game caused considerable wear and tear on the cards!
On dark nights we would play a game called “Jack! Jack! Shine a light” on a field between Lockett Road and the railway line. One of us would have an electric torch and we would all spread out over the field out of sight of each other. Someone would call “Jack! Jack! Shine a light” and the one with the torch would then shine it on his face for a few seconds. Then followed a frantic dash to try and catch him before he could run away to another part of the field. In the same field at night time we played another game called “Gaining”; this was a kind of night football. Again, we spread out over the field and the ball was kicked from one to the other in the dark, the object being to kick the ball back in the general direction from which it had come. I don't recall any goal scoring in this game but it was good fun. Of course, the field was not completely dark as there were some distant gas lamps in Lockett Road and when our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, it was occasionally possible to see the dim outlines of other players. If the night was at all misty or foggy, the game was much more fun.
Victoria Park, just over the road from our house was a favourite place for outdoor play and adventures. There were wide open grassy areas, shrubberies to hide in, and best of all, a large lake with shallow sloping edges. There was a concrete rim to the lake but owing to leaks it was never full and apart from wet boots and stockings we couldn't come to much harm. There was always the lurking menace of the “Parkie”, the park-keeper, with his stick. We were chased by him many a time when playing in the shrubberies or doing other things that we shouldn't. There was a feud between us and him and sometimes we would play naughty tricks on him when he came round to lock up the park gates at dusk. A bell was rung as a signal that the park was closing so we knew when to expect him. We would call him names through the park railings as soon as he had locked the gate, and even put clay into the padlock and hide so we could hear him cursing when he couldn't get the key in the lock.
Sometimes, grown-ups came to the lake to sail large yachts which were fascinating to watch. One of my friends, Don Machin, who was an only child and never seemed to lack for toys, came one day with a clockwork submarine which would dive and re-surface when the clockwork ran down and we played with this. After a time, he got tired of this and set it off towards the middle of the lake, saying that if anyone wanted it they could have it. I don't think anyone of us however had the time or the patience to wait until it had drifted ashore from way out in the middle of the lake. We made model “catamarans” or more accurately outrigger canoes out of pieces of wood, and these usually sailed very well, although we had to improvise rudders using old razor blades inserted in their sterns, so as to keep them on a reasonably straight course. They would sail very fast and we would race them across the lake.
Near the lake was a play-ground with swings and a roundabout that was known as the “Monkey's Gramophone” and also a shallow concrete paddling pool, and when we played here we were not menaced by the “Parkie”. In the park was a bandstand where a band played on some Sundays in the summer, and on these occasions, green-painted, folding chairs were set out round it on which people could sit for a small charge. One object of interest to us was set in a small flower bed past the bandstand, towards the Appleton Road entrance. It was a sandstone milestone which had originally stood near the Horns bridge and had been damaged by fragments from a German bomb dropped by a Zeppelin during the War.
Another place that we were fond of playing was in an old railway carriage sited on a field between Lockett Road and the railway line. Part of this unfenced and neglected field had once been used for a tennis club but the courts had been long abandoned. An old railway carriage had been mounted on blocks and converted into a clubhouse for players but by our time had been considerably vandalised and any steps leading up to it had been long removed. It was not too difficult to climb into this rather sordid and smelly carriage as the doors still opened although all the windows had been broken, and we often played in it.
Although we didn't actually play on the railway line, several of us did walk about half a mile along the line to the east, away from Farnworth Station, on one occasion, as far as the Bongs. Much of this line ran in a deep cutting with steep, grass-covered sides and we kept a careful look out for trains, listening on the rails to see if we could hear one coming. There was also a signal gantry which was climbed by one of our bolder members. The Bongs was a place of some interest to us as Bower's Brook, a very polluted stream, reputed to be the home of “Water Rats”, ran through it. At some risk of getting wet and muddy it was possible to creep through a tunnel under the railway line and along a culvert and actually get into the Everite Works, a great thrill!
Not far from the Bongs, on the west side of Derby Road and near the corner with Lunt's Heath Road, was a very large pit known as the “Clayhole”. This had probably been excavated for clay originally, but was at this time, a large hollow with steep, grass-covered sides, containing a big pond which swarmed with life. Some older boys were said to swim in it, but to us it was a source of “Jackies” (sticklebacks), and later on a popular fishing place for roach.
While on the subject of pits, I should mention that not far from the “Clayhole” but on the south side of Marsh Hall Pad, and behind Farnworth Street, was a field which had two rectangular pits at right angles to each other. These pits were known to us as the “Brickies” and I would think that they were also the result of clay digging; at this time they were grassy, shallow ponds with rich plant growth and pond life. The one that lay at right angles to Marsh Hall Pad was something of a dumping ground for old cans and scrap, but despite this, it was very rich in newts and we caught a good many here.
We would sometimes venture as far as Pex Hill on our travels, and once when Norman had a tricycle, I took him as far as Cronton, using the tricycle as a scooter while he kept his feet off the pedals. The outing was spoilt to some extent by an encounter with a small gang of Cronton boys who were resentful of our visit and wanted to fight. The journey was a long one for Norman who was very young at the time, and on the way back, he fell asleep while pedalling his tricycle and fell off while we were crossing a field footpath, (near Farnworth Station), which had been ploughed across and was rather bumpy.
Next door but one to Don Machin's house lived an older couple, Mr & Mrs Varley. During the school summer holidays they had a boy of about our age staying with them named Ronald Lamb. He lived at Heswall and would come to stay with his grandparents for a few weeks. I would play with him at times and we would range the countryside as far as Pex Hill where we would explore the quarry and look into a nearby tunnel into the hillside, reputed to be a “secret passage” to Farnworth Church, but was blocked a short way in by a roof fall, perhaps fortunately for us. Ronald was not popular with everyone as he was rather a “know-all” and was always an “expert” whatever the subject and this we found very irritating. For example, once when I was painting some wooden boards in our garden, he came to help and insisted on showing me how the brush should be held and how “professionals” painted. Eventually we fell out over some trivial matter and parted company.
I was always interested in ponds and pond life and later got interested in fishing. We tried all the well known pits and wandered the countryside around Farnworth and Cronton in search of pits in which to fish, often crossing farmer's fields to explore. However, I think the subject of fishing needs a section to itself later!
When not playing games or fishing, I was able to occupy myself with a selection of books and comics, residing in the “Ottoman”, which had been made from plywood by Father. It was a repository of all sorts of interesting oddments. There was Mother's ostrich feather in a large cylindrical tin tube to prevent it getting damaged. At times, I would take this out of its tube to admire because it was very attractive. (Mother also had a fox fur which she would wear round her neck at times. A long tail hung down on one side and the head with beady glass eyes and long snout on the other. Both ends were complete with paws, and were held together with metal hooks. I used to like to stroke the fur as it was beautifully soft). Father's books were also kept there and some of these I read and re-read many times. He had a number of Sunday School prizes awarded when he was a boy, as well as other books which he must have bought at second-hand stalls.
A memorable series was the 6 volumes of the Harmsworth Household encyclopaedia, which he must have bought in fortnightly parts in the early 1920's. Each volume consisted of 7 parts, the complete series having 5408 pages. Father had also got the binding cases for these six volumes but they remained as separate parts until I bound them rather unsatisfactorily in the 1950's. As a boy, I found this encyclopaedia of great interest and frequently consulted it for any information I needed. It was very good on practical details of all sorts of subjects with diagrams showing how to make things. He also had a copy of Elementary Lessons In Chemistry by Henry Roscoe, a 19th C book which was rather out of date by the 1920's. Also in the “Ottoman” were some large, bound volumes of “The War Illustrated”, which I understood to have been bought by Grandma Adams during the 1914-1918 War. This was a periodical containing articles about the progress of the War with lots of photographs (of poor newspaper quality) of military and naval operations on all fronts. There were also full-page, dramatic drawings of bayonet charges and scenes of trench warfare, with a good deal of propaganda, the “villainous Germans” always getting the worst of it.
At times, I had some pennies to buy boy's papers, and I remember one which offered a free model of a battleship with a certain issue. (I believe that this was only a small, die-cast lead object.) There must have been a run on this issue and I never managed to get a copy despite repeated visits to the nearest newsagent at the corner of Peelhouse Lane and Farnworth Street. The reply to my enquiry was either “Sold out” or “Not in yet”, a great disappointment to me at the time. (I suppose I must have been about 8 or 9.) Most of the comics I read, and the “Tuppenny Bloods”, which was what we called the boy's weekly magazines, were passed round amongst us until everyone had read them. In this way, I managed to read quite a lot of this “literature” without having to buy much myself. The younger children's comics included the “Rainbow”, “Tiger Tim's Weekly” and when Norman was three or four, he used to read one called “Sunny Stories”.
Among the “Tuppenny Bloods” were the “Wizard”, “Rover”, “Hotspur”, “Magnet” and “Modern Boy”. (There was also the “Children”s Newspaper” which by comparison I found rather boring). The stories in these magazines were about Greyfriars School (Billy Bunter - “the fat owl of the Remove”), football and cricket yarns with the hero saving the match by a hair's-breadth at the end (the suspense!), one about a kind of “earth submarine” which could screw its way through the ground, another about a man who was saved on many occasions by his friend, an Indian hill-man, whose weapon was a cricket bat (“Clicky Bat”), and another hero who got out of all the scrapes he got into by reference to a large book of newspaper cuttings that he carried around with him. There was another magazine whose name I have forgotten, which was full of lurid and weird stories, and which Mother tried to discourage me from reading. One story concerned a “Mad Scientist” who had his laboratory above a stand at a football ground. There was a big football match and the stands were crowded with noisy spectators. After the match the crowds went home feeling strangely tired and drained of energy. The “M.S.” had installed “collectors” around the field and extracted all the energy from the spectators shouting and cheering, which he then used to animate an Egyptian mummy, which then, naturally went on a destructive rampage.
Another series of stories, “The Phantom of Cursitor Fields”, always started in the same way with evening setting in and the mists arising from the River Thames, leading to the appearance of the Phantom who then proceeded to put right some wrong in the city. For example, an evil villain, who sold some dubious patent medicine, found himself confined inside a giant medicine bottle which was slowly filled with his noxious medicine until it was level with his mouth and he was forced to drink it! I have forgotten the plot of another story but remember that it was illustrated by an horrific picture of the hero and his friend, tied hand and foot in a cellar, one wall of which was made of glass. On the other side of this were large numbers of unpleasant fungi which were presumably on the point of being released on their victims. No wonder that Mother wasn't keen on me reading this stuff! The “Modern Boy” was a much better-class magazine and had rather more traditional stories, and at one time printed a serial version of H.G.Wells' “War of the Worlds” which I enjoyed.
I had two special books of which I have fond memories. One of these was a children's annual which came through the post from Uncle Norman and Aunt Winnie as a surprise birthday present; the only parcel that I remember getting as a boy. It was a book of stories and poems; one about two boys, Anthony and Hugh (a good rhyme for “canoe”), paddling a canoe along a stream, and was illustrated with a full-page, colour picture showing them in their canoe passing through a dark, overgrown stream that I always thought of as the Amazon jungle. The other book was given to me as a birthday present by a friend from Farnworth School, Ernest Swift, and was a copy of “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read it time and again and enjoyed it very much, so much so, that I later read all the Tarzan books that I could lay hands on, as well as Burrough's other books about adventures on Mars which I didn't think anything like as good as the Tarzan books.
The Caretaker at Farnworth School, who lived in the adjoining house, once had a sale of unbound parts of the Children's Encyclopaedia, and I was able to buy a few of these which wetted my appetite for more. One day, Father opened the door to find an encyclopaedia salesman who said he had come by arrangement. This was my doing as I had sent off for information about the Waverley “Book of Knowledge” in secrecy. The salesman was sent away but I was given the choice of a bicycle or the 6 volumes of this encyclopaedia if I was successful in passing the Scholarship Examination to the Grammar School. I chose the books and when they arrived in 1931, spent many hours in the Lumber Room reading them from cover to cover. At about that time the house was being wired for electricity, and I would come home from school to find the electricians, who kept their gear in this room, having a tea break and looking through my encyclopaedia.
It wasn't until we moved to 34 Pit Lane in the 1930's that I paid my first visit to Widnes Library with Mother on one of our Saturday afternoon shopping trips and this opened a whole new world to me. The first book I borrowed was the story of polar exploration, a subject that I had not come across before. After this, I always called at the library on a Saturday afternoon on our shopping trips and read a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books, my favourites being stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and accounts of polar exploration and the Mount Everest expeditions. At a later date I would buy a second-hand book from a junk stall at Widnes Market, and especially in the 1930's, amassed a lot of interesting books, some of which I still have. At this time I also won a few Sunday School prizes for regular attendance to add to my collection.
We lived on a bus-route and the Corporation buses passed our house at infrequent intervals. They were Tilling-Stevens buses - “petrol/electric” - which meant that a petrol engine drove an electrical generator which powered the bus. This service ran between Widnes Town Hall Square and Farnworth Street. Steam wagons could be seen in the streets of Widnes but as they were chiefly used for industrial purposes, they were not often seen at Farnworth. They were heavy vehicles with solid rubber tyres and a coal fire burnt under a boiler at the front end by the driver's cab. Another rare sight was a “street roundabout” which I would sometimes come across in Farnworth Street on my way home from school. These roundabouts were built on a low cart and were turned by hand when loaded with small children. They only operated in built-up areas where there were plenty of children to patronise them. Fairfield Road, outside our house, was not busy and we often played on it. There was a long strip of tarmac in the middle of the road to the left or our house and Norman and I would ride his tricycle in turns, round and round this, to see who could do it the most times. A rather futile game!
We would all listen to the “Children's Hour” on the wireless at 5 o'clock each weekday at about tea-time. Although very unsophisticated by modern standards, this was popular and we continued to listen to these programmes well into the 1930's. There were several “Aunties”, Auntie Doris and Auntie Muriel and “Uncles”, Uncle Eric and others who presented a mixture of playlets, stories and songs. I used to enjoy the Toytown stories when the voices of the various characters were performed by the Aunts and Uncles. I can hear them now! Larry the lamb, Dennis the Dachshund, bad-tempered Mr Grouser, Ernest the policeman and others. At times, someone would play the part of an “affected” little girl who had come to the studio. Grandma Hinde used to say that she was probably the child of some “toff” in the BBC, but the child was obviously played by one of the “Aunties”. From time to time, Uncle Eric would sing a song about a mother who had lost some item of luggage while taking her family on a seaside holiday by train. Explaining the situation to the Station Master, she would say:- “Let me see - there was only a large trunk, a small trunk, a box or two of the maids, a leather bag, a carpet bag and the children's wooden spades. Brown paper parcels? - well only just a few. A perambulator and a bath and the dear old Cockatoo - and four little boys and girls who all belong to me!” One speaker on Children's Hour was Commander Stephen King-Hall who did his best to inform us about current affairs. He was rather boring and invariably ended his talk with the advice:- “Be good, but not so frightfully good that anyone will say: Now what mischief have you been up to?”
Another programme we would sometimes listen to came from Radio Luxembourg in the early evening (on a wavelength of 208 metres). This was a commercial radio station and the programme we listened to was sponsored by the manufacturers of “Ovaltine”. It was made up of stories and songs, mostly by request. I can well remember the regular theme song:-
We are the Ovalteenies, little girls and boys,
Make your requests, we'll not refuse you,
We are here just to amuse you.
If you like our songs and stories,
Will you share our joys?
At games and sports we're more than keen,
No happier children can be seen,
Because we all drink Ovaltine,
We're happy girls and boys!
The interesting thing is that, I cannot remember anything about the programmes apart from this advertising jingle!
At this time, one of the everyday remedies for flatulence and stomach pains was “cinder tea”, in which a glowing cinder from a coal fire was dropped into a cup of cold water and the liquid drunk. I remember having a cup of this remedy at the home of Uncle Mark in West Bank when we were there on a visit. Another version was to use a red hot poker to warm a glass of Mother's ginger wine, which was already hot stuff!
Although most of my friends were reasonably well behaved, I came across one who was a potential villain. He was Sidney Davidson, the older brother of Frank Davidson, who lived in Elm Avenue quite close to us. He was light-fingered and would often come out of a shop with some sweets he had stolen. On one occasion we were playing in our garden and he thought it would be fun if we used a row of tulips in Mr Clayton's garden as a coconut shy. I am sorry to say that I joined in throwing clods of earth and stones and we rather spoilt the tulips. When Mother found out, she sent me off to bed before Father came home from work and when he did arrive there was serious trouble for me. I had to go round to apologise to Mr Clayton, which I found a great ordeal and also had to promise not to have anything more to do with Sidney Davidson. Sometime later, I believe that he ended up in trouble with the authorities but I never had any more contact with him. I heard later that as an adult he emigrated to Australia where he died, but I cannot be sure about this.
We did get up to some mischief of course, but it was harmless and not vandalistic or destructive. I don't remember playing the traditional trick of tying strings to door-knockers that was often talked about, but we did sometimes run along a street of terraced houses rattling door-knockers as we passed, and making off before the angry occupants came out to investigate. There was often an old tramp wandering about at Farnworth who we could get to chase us when we called him “Nitty-whiskers!” but we were more scared of him than he was bothered by us and we always kept at a safe distance from him.
During the 1920's it was not uncommon to see barefoot children wearing ragged clothing in the streets of Widnes, especially as the Depression deepened towards the start of the 1930's. Some could be seen in the area of Farnworth Street but they were more common down West Bank and when we went over on the Transporter Bridge there were usually barefoot boys begging for passengers to throw them pennies to scramble for in the mud.
Farnworth Street had a number of sweet-shops selling a variety of cheap and colourful sweets. Some could be bought in ha'penny-worths, weighed out from large glass jars and sold in small conical paper bags. Old favourites like gob-stoppers which changed colour as they were sucked, aniseed balls with a central core of an aniseed, scented cachous, acid drops, hundreds & thousands, tiger nuts, locust beans and kali suckers with a tube of liquorice through which to suck the sherbet from an attached paper bag, come to mind. Liquorice in the form of “hard-juice” or natural root was also popular. The favourite, and more costly, was “Palm-toffee”, which was broken out of a tray with a toffee hammer. This pleasantly flavoured toffee had a sandwich like structure with a paler inner layer and came in several flavours. I didn't buy this very often as it was “very expensive” but my favourite was the pineapple flavoured kind.
Some of these shops had gratings running along the pavement under the windows, presumably into coal cellars, and inevitably coins would slip from children's fingers down these gratings. We could sometimes see one or two coins in a cellar and occasionally try to recover these by lying on the pavement and fishing with a string tied to a stone with an attached piece of chewing gum, but I never recall anyone managing to win a coin by these means. Very frustrating! No-one had the nerve to go into the shop and claim to have dropped a penny down the grating! Another form of this “grid-fishing” was carried on in Liverpool but here a more scientific method was used, namely the use of a long metal strip (from an old bed-spring) with the end bent at a right-angle. This sounds a much more satisfactory method!
While I was still at Farnworth School I joined the Farnworth Cub pack. This pack was run by Mr Ward who lived in Acacia Avenue, and on Cub nights several of us would call at his house and accompany him to the Scout hut which was on the field just behind Farnworth school. He was an excellent leader and was popular with everyone. I became very interested in the Cubs and soon learned, among other things, how to tie various knots and the development of the Union Jack - making a model from a three-folded paper to show how the flag formed.
I wore a uniform of a dark-green jersey and some shorts sporting an S-snake belt, knee-length stockings with green tape garters each with a short pendant tab. Round my neck I wore a triangular scarf with the ends passed through a leather woggle at the front. On my head I wore a green cap with a badge, Baden-Powell hats being a prerogative of the Scouts to whom we were supposed to graduate at a suitable age. After passing a few tests I had a metal star and a cloth badge to fasten on to my jersey.
We met one night a week to learn the various rules and promises of the Cub Law (We'll D.O.B. -Do our best- etc), learn the salute, play games and have sing songs. On rare occasions these were round a campfire in the open. One song was:-
Here we sit like birds in the wilderness,
Birds in the wilderness,
Birds in the wilderness,
Here we sit like birds in the wilderness,
Down in Demerara
Another song was:-
There was an old man who had a horserum.
Had a horserum.
Had a horserum.
There was an old man who had a horserum.
Down in Alabama.
Now that old horse he fell asickerum. etc.
Then the old man he called the doctorum. etc.
That old horse he went and diederum. etc.
It went like that as far as I can remember and there were other verses too.
On some special Sundays the Scouts and Cubs would march through the streets of Widnes as far as the Town Hall square and back up Kingsway and Birchfield Road, the drums and bugles of Scout bands playing and trying to keep in step. This was quite a long walk for small boys and there were some stragglers on the way back. Sometimes we attended a church service and I remember that on one occasion we called at a works recreation club (possibly the I.C.I Rec) where some of us went into a room where a number of men were drinking. It was here that I had my first taste of beer when one of the men offered me a sip from his glass.
On one of our evening meetings, Mr Ward set off a hot-air balloon made from paper with a tin spirit burner attached. It floated away to the north and caught fire, falling into a meadow, setting fire to the grass. Very exciting!
Once a tented camp was organised for us on a farm near Cronton, from a Friday night until a Sunday afternoon, and we travelled from the scout hut to the site on a lorry with all our tents and gear. We set up several bell-tents in a pasture field and slept feet to the pole under rather cramped conditions. This was my first experience of a night under canvas. The weather was reasonably fine but there had been rain during the previous week and there was a lot of mud about. On the first night, some of our tent guy-ropes came down due to the presence of a cow in the field, and one of my companions found that his enamelled iron plate, which had been near the side of the tent behind his pillow, was bent as though it had been stood on by a heavy foot.
We had the usual Cub activities and games and cooked our food on a camp fire around which we had evening sing-songs. (I got a bit fed up with sing-songs in the Cubs). On the Sunday afternoon we returned by lorry to the Scout hut with all our equipment and I walked home. When I knocked at our front door, Mother answered it and when she saw me, muddy, unwashed and dishevelled, she burst into tears!
Later that year, a Scout and Cub camp was organised at Blackpool but for some reason I was unable to go (probably due to some ailment). It was a wet week and the Cubs who went to this camp told harrowing tales of being kept in the tents by the rain, water dripping through the canvas on to their beds and having to hold earwig races to pass the time. I always associate this period with a popular song of the time: “We'll make a bonfire of our troubles”.
One year, a Scouting Jamboree was held at Farnworth and Scout groups from all over Widnes took part. I struck up a friendship with some older boys who were in the Sea Scouts at West Bank and after the party broke up, two of them insisted on seeing me safely home. I admired their navy jerseys and sailor hats and made up my mind that when I was old enough I would be a Sea Scout, but, of course, I never did. In 1929, the World Jamboree was held at Arrowe Park in Wirral and although I didn't get there, I was in Liverpool with Father during the time it was on. When we visited the Pierhead, as we usually did when in Liverpool, I was very interested to see groups of visiting foreign Scouts walking about in unfamiliar uniforms, some wearing turbans.
Mr Ward worked at Gossages Soap Works and as this works was being run down, he moved away from Farnworth, perhaps to Port Sunlight as a number of other employees did at that time, including two of my uncles, Uncle Tom and Uncle Frank, who moved to Lever's Soap works there. Grandad Adams retired from Gossages also, the works closing completely in 1932. After the departure of Mr Ward, the new leadership was poor and the Cub group deteriorated and became dull and boring so I left it and found other interests, such as days out fishing.