Street Life: Sugar and Spice (and all things nice)

If 1963 was Philip Larkin’s ‘annus mirabilis’, we baby boomers had ours in 1953. On the 5th of February that year, along with butter and sugar, sweets came off ration. Suddenly all that governed our purchases was how much we had to spend.

Although it wasn’t the closest to home, the sweet shop of choice was known to us kids as ‘the old man’s’. As I went to school with his daughter, he must have been considerably younger than I now am.The shop’s attraction was that while the front window displayed packets of dried peas, Kingpin flour and custard powder, the side window was a child’s box of delights. Standing outside discussing what we should choose was almost as enjoyable as the sweets themselves.

Glass jars of 6d a quarter items such as sherbet lemons, pear drops or cinder toffee were ranged along the back. These sweets were not individually wrapped as they are today; on the rare occasion we laid out 3d for 2 ounces, they were weighed out into a triangular poke bag. A few minutes in a warm pocket soon bonded the sweets into a solid mass which stuck to the paper more effectively than any glue.

Immediately In front of the jars were display cartons of the more expensive toffee bars and packet sweets such as spangles and fruit gums that mostly cost 3d. In my humble opinion, the banana split Palm toffee was well worth the investment.

The very front of the window had the cheap and cheerful stuff like ‘all day sucker’ lollies, arrow bars or 4 for a penny fruit salads, mojos and blackjacks.Photo compliments of Brian Winstanley

I seem to recall tuppence (less than 1p) being regarded as the amount grown ups were likely to part with on an ad hoc basis. The most popular tuppence worth was Kali and Spanish. I searched for Kali on the internet and was surprised to find it still available under that name. Kali is tart lemon crystals not at all like sherbet or the insipid rainbow crystals also available at 6d a quarter.

For tuppence you got a poke bag containing an ounce of Kali and a halfpenny Spanish to dip in. The Spanish was hard with a bitter taste and should not be confused with the soft sweet liquorice whirls, pipes and shoelaces sometimes also known by the same name.

The Kali/Spanish combination was one of the finest taste sensations ever. By the time the Kali was finished, there was usually about 2 inches or so of Spanish left. Without the Kali, the taste was too strong for me and I generously donated what remained to my granddad who loved it.

Another treat was penny ice lollies. They were made in flat aluminium moulds and came from a freezer whose large cabinet belied the smallness of its interior. Our favourite flavour was Vimto, but there were a minority of kids who favoured milk lollies.

And then there was ice cream. In the early years of Victoria’s reign, Manchester began to attract Italians who were skilled workers in stone or glass. Musicians and peddlers followed and swelled their numbers so much that part of Ancoats was known as ‘Little Italy’.Photo of J Burgon’s horse drawn ice cream cart (with the kind permission of Mr Ray Boggiano)

Fortunately for us, some Italians turned their hand to the manufacture of ice cream. Originally it was dispensed in licking glasses which gave it the nickname ‘hokey pokey’. The derivation was hocus pokus because the thick glass magically magnified the small amount of ice cream it contained. This unhygienic method of service was replaced by the variously shaped and uniquely textured biscuits known as wafers.

The family preference was for twists, but sometimes my granddad would ask me to bring him what he called ‘a shutter’ (an ice cream wafer to the rest of the world).

There were no electronic chimes for us. It was a brass hand bell that summoned us to Bertaloni’s cart that was pulled by a beautiful white horse (similar to that pictured). The driver was known to everyone as Tony – which might have owed more to our stereotyping of Italian names than his birth certificate.

Another of my all time favourites was a scoop of Tony’s ice cream collected in a bowl taken for the purpose. Back home I dropped it into a glass of Limeade. This was a double treat as fizzy drinks were a rare luxury in our house.

I wonder if you can still buy that hard Spanish at the chemist’s, because the thought of that on-line Kali is making my mouth water.

Walking With the Scholars

Unlike the city centre districts, in Moston the event colloquially known as ‘the scholars’ took place on Whit Sunday.

The pre-war slum clearances had re-located families like ours into better houses in the suburbs, where the churches mainly walked on Whit Sunday. But as Whit Monday and Friday were both Bank Holidays, we Moston children were willing spectators when the old district’s churches processed through the town centre.

It was the tradition for former adult residents of Ancoats or Collyhurst to return and walk with their old Sunday schools. This meant we saw plenty of familiar faces as church after church marched behind a variety of bands.The old township districts were rightly proud of their Sunday schools. From 1784, they had been offering free education to poor children and adults. And until child labour was abolished altogether, Sunday school superintendents and teachers were in the forefront of the battle to achieve safer and healthier working conditions for their scholars.

When the walks began, around 1800, the long lines of orderly children ranged behind banners, was a visible symbol of the Sunday school movement’s success. The majority of scholars who took part in those early walks would have worked long hours, six days a week, in mills and factories.

On Sunday they earned prizes for good attendance, while being presented with the opportunity of learning to read books that would provide a glimpse into a world outside the slums. Then, at Whitsun, there was the annual Sunday school outing with a picnic tea – a treat which must have been the highspot of a poor child’s year.

At first it was only the protestant denominations who witnessed their Faith by ‘walking’ on Whit Monday. Later the Roman Catholics chose Whit Friday when they also adopted the custom, and all the processions became larger and more lavish. But whatever the day or the location of their particular ‘walks’, to Manchester children, Whitsuntide was synonymous with new clothes.

C & A’s January sales was the place many mothers bought whit week clothes. But it wasn’t unknown for less well off families to resort to a clothing club to ensure their children were well turned out.The dresses girls walked in were showy, but totally impractical for the often damp and chilly Manchester weather. But even when they became available, it was an indulgent parent who allowed a plastic mac to cover up those swanky new clothes for anything less than a torrential down-pour.

I was one of those unfortunates for whom the night before Whit Sunday was reminiscent of a session with the Spanish Inquisition. On 364 days of the year, I was that skinny girl with the extreme parting and two long, fat plaits. But for some reason known only to my mother, Whit Sunday necessitated ringlets, and that meant a night in what we called ‘sore fingers’.

Before my hair was washed and brushed out, some old cotton material was torn into strips about an inch wide. While the hair was wet it was divided into strands and one of the rags was attached close to the scalp. Next, each strand of hair would be wound into a tight spiral around the rag then the remaining material was wrapped over the hair in the opposite direction to hold it in place. The two ends of the rag were knotted together firmly, leaving my head looking like an inept first aider’s attempt to bandage a badly crushed hand – and was about as painful to sleep with.

Girls’ dresses ranged from white through all the pastel shades. On reaching the assembly point, each colour was sorted and allotted a banner or flower basket with long ribbons attached. The Sunday school teachers clucked about, placing girls at strategic intervals along the ribbons.Boys were grouped into uniformed, grey-shorted or even sailor-suited lines. They mostly walked in single file, sometimes holding on to a fancy cord; woe betide any scholar who didn’t maintain the required distance between themselves and the next child.

Pre-school age children walked holding the hand of an adult who might be called on to carry them if they got too tired to complete the whole distance. At the designated time, one of the local Silver or Brass bands struck up a hymn tune, and we followed, accompanied by our parents who kept pace with the procession on the pavement.

Then, suddenly, the music stopped and it was the end of walks and ringlets for another year.

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Queen of the May

Just like Molly dancing, our May queen was organised and performed by a fluid group of girls who played together in the street. It has little connection to organised events featuring Rose queens or intricate Maypole dancing, but it was a good excuse to dress up.

In the 1950s, fancy dress hire was unimaginable. Thankfully crepe paper was amazingly strong and versatile, if not actually colour fast in a sudden downpour.

The money earned by Molly dancing provided the wherewithal to ensure we were well turned out, but it was the older girls who passed on the May queen ’knowledge’ year by year.

The first of several decisions to be made was the choice of queen. Anyone in possession of a long dress was an automatic contender. That’s how I came to be queen in 1952. The previous year, tricked out in blue georgette, elbow length lace gloves and ringlets, I was my auntie’s bridesmaid at St. John’s, Ashley Lane.

The next important choice was the May queen’s attendants. Their duty was to hold the decorated garf (or garth) over the queen as she waited expectantly at each front door. A garf was a half circular hoop of anything that could be decorated with crepe paper flowers.

With the exception of the queen, everybody else would be dressed in a paper pinafore type garment with matching headgear. The final decision was which two colours would form that year’s theme. Some flexibility was necessary as it was possible the newsagent’s might not have enough crepe paper in either colour to satisfy our needs.

It was the older girls who did the cutting out, but we all had to sew our own outfits.

The main colour was used for the skirt section and the heart-shaped top of the pinafore. Colour 2 was cut into 3 or 4 inch wide strips for apron ties and the rosette style caps held on with hair clips. Some of the secondary colour was gathered into a frill and sewn around the heart shape bodice.

The Maypole consisted of a brush stale (broom handle) wrapped in some of the remaining crepe paper with the required number of ‘ribbons’ attached. It was usually the tallest girl who carried the Maypole while the rest held onto the streamers.

The favourite and most artistic task was sculpting the crepe paper into flower petals to be attached to the garf.

By the 1st of May, we were all set. The girls with the Maypole stood poised while the queen and her entourage approached each front door and knocked…

Crepe paper doesn’t stand up to being threaded and plaited like a real Maypole, so no actual dancing took place. To make up for the static nature of our display, we sang instead:-

Around the merry maypole, and all the live long day,

We crown you [first and surname of the queen], we crown you queen of May.”

We sang several variations on the theme, but I’m sorry to say I have
forgotten the others.

Our reward for the efforts put into Molly and Maypole dancing was a ‘garden’ party. That is to say, a kitchen table covered with a cloth was set up in someone’s back garden.

The pennies and halfpennies collected by us bought the ingredients for the feast, and our mothers prepared it. Most foodstuffs were off ration by that time, so we were able to enjoy as many sandwiches, jellies and fancy cakes as our funds would stretch to.

We played games until it went dark, and I don’t remember a single occasion when our celebrations were rained off.

It’s 67 years since my debut as May queen, and I still remember it as one of the highpoints of my childhood.Modern day May Queen’s preparing for a ceremony in Failsworth in 2018

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