Street Life: Coronation Fever

One dinner time in 1952, I was going home from school down Bordale Avenue when I noticed all the houses had their curtains shut. Nana explained that it was because the king had died, and we had a new queen.

By the time Coronation fever really hit, I had moved up from reception to the middle infant class.

From that Easter, we spent many hours learning the significance of the arms on the royal standard, and exactly how the flags of the Saints George, Andrew and Patrick had been combined to make up the Union Jack flag. The rest of each afternoon was spent colouring in flags on pre-printed sheets of paper that were destined to decorate the school. Woe betide the child whose crayon strayed over any of the lines.

Each year on Empire Day (24th May) we paraded around the school yard singing ‘What is the meaning of Empire Day? Why do the cannons roar?’ – the answer still eludes me 70 years later.

For Coronation year, this Empire Day was decreed to be special, and we were instructed to wear fancy dress, or at least something red, white and blue. Sometime between Empire Day and 2nd June must have been when our school’s Coronation party took place.

Sugar came off ration in February 1953, so at last parties could include the cakes and jellies the nation’s children had been craving since 1939.

Growing up in the post war austerity years, I was unprepared for the lavish spread set out on trestle tables in the Infant’s hall. The most amazing thing of all was that every place had a bottle of what we called mineral, with a straw bobbing about in it. Fizzy drinks were so rare a treat in those days that I didn’t even realise they came in individual bottles.

Within two minutes of sitting down, there were a hundred or so kids, red in the face from sucking on the totally collapsed and useless paper straws. The daily school milk routine included straws, so could a teacher really have been ignorant of the fact that, if immersed in liquid for more than a couple of minutes, the paper turned into a flaccid soggy strip, unfit for purpose? I can think of one teacher who would have been highly amused that so many kids could be disappointed in one fell swoop.

As the Coronation drew nearer, every street vied to be the cleanest and best decorated. There was a street in Moston that had a mural depicting a large crown painted on the gable end of the terrace, I wish I could recall where it was located.

Flags, that hadn’t seen the light since VJ day, were dusted off and hung out along with miles of bunting. After a couple of fruitless searches, grandad located our large union jack, and set it up poking out of the transom in the box-room where I slept.

Judging by the amounts produced, the whole country must have been whipped up to fever pitch over Coronation memorabilia. 200 products out of the 750 submitted were chosen as official souvenirs. That didn’t deter manufacturers from turning out unofficial souvenirs by the million.

Some products were more tasteful than others, but only one merited a mention in the House of Commons. An MP asked why the nation’s sensibilities were being offended by red, white and blue pencils stamped ‘Made in Germany’.

My Coronation mug from the school party disappeared long since, but I still have a couple of commemorative crown (5 shilling) pieces. I have also kept a Sharp’s (the word for toffee) tin. Printed on the lid is a picture of the queen on horseback dressed in military uniform.

George VI’s untimely death meant his Silver Jubilee never took place. Amongst a host of souvenirs already created were toy replicas of a coach with figures of the king and queen. Undaunted by the setback, the manufacturers sold the coaches (minus the male figure) for £1 as a souvenir of the Coronation. The few that escaped the hacksaw now command a king’s ransom. Toy makers such as Dinky, Corgi and Britain’s also made models of the famous Windsor greys with the Coronation coach in tow.

It was inevitable the Platinum Jubilee would generate a rash of souvenirs. But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a Queen Elizabeth Barbie doll would be amongst them.

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Wireworks to wireless: Ferranti Moston

The story of the vast electrical empire begun by Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, born in Liverpool in 1846, is complex, but many Mostonians remember the firm’s local connection. When the wireworks of Johnson, Clapham and Morris, off St. Mary’s Road, was put up for sale in 1934, Ferranti’s domestic wireless (radio) market was already booming, more so than the Wickentree Lane factory could cope with, and so the Moston site was purchased, refitted and enlarged considerably.

Said to be the best-equipped radio works in Europe, it opened on 29 April 1935 and initially employed around 1,000 people. Within 4 months the workforce had reached 3,000 and it was notable at the time that three quarters of the staff were women.

1970’s Aerial view of Ferranti Moston

The wireless had become the essential news and entertainment console in most homes, and was considered a stylish item of furniture, to boot. Cabinet-making and glass-working skills were as much in demand as metalwork and electrical assembly. The range at Moston soon expanded to include meters and all kinds of domestic appliances: portable radios, gramophones, televisions, radiant fires, clocks and even electric irons.

Ferranti were also major producers of components for other manufacturers. When war was declared in 1939, the Moston site concentrated on instrument panels for aircraft and naval vessels, and were leaders in gyroscopic guidance systems, military radio systems and the development of radar. Other factories were opened to continue this work, in Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Although not directly involved in aircraft production, there was encouragement during the war for large firms to sponsor the building of aircraft, often supplemented by voluntary donations from the staff, and the St. Mary’s Road workforce ‘did their bit’. In 1940 they raised funds for the building of Spitfire P8465, which served with the RAF 303 (Polish) Squadron until shot down in 1941.

Not only in the air, Ferranti instruments were to be found on the bridges of Canadian and Royal Navy ships and many terrestrial defence systems. A spin-off from wartime research, particularly in the USA, was the development of the computer, an early use of which was in trajectory calculations for gun and missile aiming.

The essential quality of a computer, as opposed to a calculator, was that the same machine could be set up to do many different types of calculation, and that each set of instructions (program), and its results, could be displayed and stored electronically for future use. With the guidance of Dr. Alan Turing, a frequent visitor to Moston, a prototype computer was built by Ferranti for Manchester University in 1949.

Later refinements led to the Ferranti Mark I, the first reasonably successful commercial computer to be made in Britain – also at St. Mary’s Road. Although these early machines used valves in their logic circuits (and could easily fill a large bedroom!), Ferranti were in the vanguard in developing solid-state components such as transistors and, later, silicon devices and integrated circuits; much smaller, faster and cheaper than valves. Today, the average smartphone has far more computing power than the Mark I, but the essential operating logic is the same.

The Moston factory continued to diversify, particularly into telephones, automated switchboards and scientific instruments, and the Ferranti Group established several general divisions, such as the large transformer works opened in 1955 on Hollinwood Avenue. In 1958, the domestic appliance business was sold to the (then) well-known ‘Ekco’ brand (E.K.Cole Ltd) and the focus turned to military, commercial and industrial equipment.

By the 1960s, Ferranti was producing guidance systems and radar equipment for the Bloodhound missile, and had opened other plants at Wythenshawe and Cheadle Heath. From the 1980s they were making integrated circuits for (amongst others) the Acorn and BBC home computers, as well as their own ‘Advance’ range of IBM-compatible machines.

Defence work, telecommunications, instrumentation and component manufacture were all money-spinners, and at their height Ferranti owned twenty-two sites in England, Scotland, Wales and other countries. The Moston site was enlarged several times and as recently as 1986 was extending its training centre at Moston. Then – it all went wrong!

Ferranti made a disastrous investment in USA-based International Signal & Control, whose valuation proved to be completely bogus; they were ultimately prosecuted in the U.S. for fraud. Ferranti inherited massive debts, their share value plummeted and redundancies began in 1990. A last-minute rescue plan by GEC failed and receivers were called in during December 1993. Asset-stripping followed, some divisions being sold off entire (continuing to trade under Ferranti and other names), other parts being acquired by Siemens, Plessey and others.

The Moston site had closed completely by December 1994 and over a few short years was erased from the landscape and replaced by housing. The vast empire was no more.

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Street Life: Oh no it isn’t!

Pantomime has proved to be one of the most enduring forms of entertainment for all classes and every age group. There must be something innate about it, because within minutes of the curtain rising on their first theatre visit, the tiniest tot will be calling out “it’s behind you”, like a veteran.

Over the years, small innovations may have crept in, but woe betide companies who ignore sacred panto traditions. One is that the (good) fairy comes on stage from the right, while the (evil) villain always enters from the left. Other conventions are that cross-dressing is mandatory, the dame’s voluminous union jack bloomers must be exhibited at every possible opportunity, and topical or local jokes get the biggest laughs.

Even the wardrobe department has traditions to maintain. Costumes for the finale must be so outrageously fabulous they command rapturous applause when, two by two, the cast enters. Goodies take their bows, hand in hand with baddies, to show that all ill will has been put aside for another year.

Oldham Coliseum pantomime Cinderella 2018.

Panto has proved to be a money spinner, so companies are prepared to push the boat out with costumes, scenery and special effects.

Live animals and local dance troupes go down well, but perhaps the real favourite are the ‘skin roles’ which don’t really exist outside pantomime. An actor named George Conquest built a career around playing animals in panto. The most ambitious of his costumes was an octopus 28 foot wide. Skin roles didn’t seem to do an actor’s career any harm either. Henry Irving once played the wolf in Red Riding Hood, while Charlie Chaplin was the front of a pantomime horse in Stockport.

Panto has enriched the language with words and phrases everyone recognises. Cinderella is shorthand for a drudge, or something unvalued. And we are warned not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The name of an inferior brand of green tea called Widow Twankey would no doubt have disappeared unremarked if it hadn’t been immortalised by Pantomime.

I never went to a lavishly produced extravaganza at a large theatre. I regret not seeing Norman Evans, the ultimate dame in my opinion, when he appeared at the Palace theatre, Manchester in 1952. But that year, without being aware of it, I was taking a tiny part in local panto history.

Queen’s Park Hippodrome on Turkey Lane was our nearest theatre. By the time I was old enough to go, saucy French variety acts had become its normal bill of fare. However, in 1952, there was one last pantomime before the theatre closed altogether, and I was there.

Buttons had us singing along to ‘you push the damper in and pull the damper out and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same’, so I guess it was Cinderella. I was only 5, and my clearest memory is of the long, cold walk home up Church Lane afterwards.

With the exception of that one visit to the Hippodrome, all my childhood pantomime recollections are of amateur productions at St. John’s church hall. What we really loved about it was that, with the exception of the name, nothing ever seemed to change.

Year after year, the pianist’s ‘victory roll’ hair style stayed the same, the Sunday school superintendent played the dame, and the kids you went to school with, were the ‘village folk’.

Sunday school benches formed the front three rows, and they were exclusively for children. Adults were accommodated on chairs behind them.

Our move to New Moston meant I left St. John’s Sunday school when I was nine. That was the minimum age to audition, so 1956’s panto would have been my first.

As a painfully shy, ungainly child, any part I got would have been entirely due to regular Sunday attendance rather than talent.

Despite being devastated at missing my chance to participate, I still looked forward to going to the pantomime as usual. When the curtains opened on the ‘village square’, I was horrified to see that amongst the ‘villagers’, there was a girl from my class at Lily Lane.

She didn’t go to Sunday school in my time, so must have joined just before the audition. How was it that a part, that should rightfully have been mine, went to this interloper?

It might be over sixty years, VH, but don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet…

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