Street Life: Are you sitting comfortably?

‘Listen with Mother’ started two days before my third birthday, and I always called it ‘my programme’.

Miss Chamber’s classroom had a wireless set, so each day at 1.45 her kids could continue to ‘Listen with teacher’ at school. My misfortune was to be in the ‘overspill’ reception class, necessitated by the baby boom when servicemen returned home after the war. Sadly, our prefab annexe never thrilled to the sound of Faure’s Dolly Suite.

Much as I enjoyed Children’s Hour, it was on at 5pm, so unless it was dark or wet, playing out took preference.

One of Children’s Hour’s supposed aims was to introduce nature to city kids like me. ‘Out with Romany’ and talks by Nomad were interesting, but the countryside they portrayed seemed less real to me than the fictional stories in the programme.

The serial readings brought characters like Jennings and Worzel Gummidge right into our living room. Dramatisations of classics such as the Secret Garden and the Railway Children sent me scurrying to the library for more books by the same author.

For me, the personification of a ‘triumph of hope over experience’ was Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch). Every Saturday morning I listened in the hope that the Happy Wanderer, Runaway Train or The Auctioneer would not come up on Children’s Favourites yet again. But from bitter experience I knew nothing short of a nuclear holocaust would prevent that man playing those same tunes week after week, after week.

My sister’s age group could ‘Watch with Mother’ instead of merely listening. I was too old really, but have to confess Picture Book, Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Rag, Tag and Bobtail, not forgetting The Woodentops, became something of an addiction.

Today, it’s difficult to believe there was a ‘toddler’s truce’ that shut broadcasting down at 6 pm. I dare say some children were in bed before the restart at 7 o’clock, but not many of them lived in Moston.

The radio’s ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ like Violet Carson were side-lined on radio, while children’s TV programmes became the province of middle aged, middle class men who spoke with a plum in their mouth.

For ‘All Your Own’, Hugh Wheldon conducted starchy interviews with children about their hobbies. The only bright spot I recall was a boy who used grape stalks to make trees for his superb model railway layout created entirely from recycled material.

Whirligig, a sort of variety programme, showcased acts the BBC believed were suitable for children. Apparently it was where Sooty and Rolf Harris first came to our notice.

In Crackerjack, Peter Glaze and other actors performed comic playlets, very loosely based on historical characters. But the highlight of the show was Double or Drop. Contestants were asked a series of general knowledge questions, which earned either a prize or a cabbage. The one who didn’t drop anything they were holding, was the winner and got to keep all their prizes (don’t know about the cabbages). Runners up were presented with the famous Crackerjack propelling pencil, which became as sought after as Blue Peter badges, a generation later.

In the fifties, schools broadcasting came via old valve wireless sets that took an age to warm up. In order not to be caught out, our teacher always turned the set on far too early. For weeks we had to sit through the final five minutes of ‘Bridge of the San Luis Rey’ (dreariest book ever).

My husband’s school joined in ‘Singing Together’, while mine opted for nature study. Both were accompanied by the relevant pamphlet. The colour photography in the nature study one was so exceptional that I hung on to my copy for years.

In the old days, most households possessed only one television or radio set, and adults were the sole arbiters of what was viewed or listened to. In the middle of Saturday afternoons children’s programmes, the television was unceremonially muted, and the wireless turned on to warm up.

Apparently it was absolutely necessary for dad to hear the football results immediately, while Grandad religiously checked his pools coupon in case he had to claim for that elusive £75,000.

Meanwhile, I stared at the Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho as they postured silently on the TV screen. In our house, it seems the BBC’s pledge to ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’, got temporarily suspended during Sports Report.

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Street Life: The Old School Yard

Our school yards were far from being the playing fields of Eton, but they were the place we developed non-academic skills that have lasted a lifetime.

For instance, by manipulating an intricately folded piece of paper, and offering you a selection of options, I could tell your fortune. And although I learned the skill nearly 70 years ago, I can still make a Christmas cracker out of a hankie.

Up to age seven, we were ‘mixed infants’, and playtime activities tended to be choreographed by adults. Ring games like ‘farmer’s in his den’, ‘poor Mary sat a weeping’ and ‘in and out the woods and bluebells’ were the sort of gentle games they favoured. A good tug-of-war at the end of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ was the best you could hope for.

Left to our own devices, juniors often played games that were reserved especially for the school yard. Two I recall were ‘The big ship sails through the Alley, Alley O, and ‘the whip’.

The latter was sometimes banned because of its lethal consequences, the least of which was a bitten tongue or bloody nose. To play, a line of kids linked arms and the leader ran pell mell, twisting and turning. Praying to stay on their feet, the tail-end Charlies covered twice the distance of the front runners at warp speed, flailing about like rag dolls.

For girls, an activity lacking a chant was the equivalent of dancing without music. Clapping games like ‘my mother said, I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood’ and, ‘each peach, pear plum’ were popular.

At playtime, there would be several long ropes, each with girls either skipping or waiting their turn to skip, all chanting rhymes that seemed to have been universally known. One of these was ‘Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Jews, bought his wife a pair of shoes’, etc. The most popular had actions or cues for the next skipper to enter the rope. ‘I was in the kitchen, doing a bit of stitching, in came a bogey man and pushed – me – out’ (exit first skipper) is an example.

At playtime, you might see a girl standing with arms outstretched reserving a ‘two ball’ wall until friends arrived. The attractive looking sponge balls from the newsagents had a sloppy bounce compared to tennis or hollow rubber ones. But as long as they bounced, a good two baller could cope successfully with the most ill matched specimens.

According to which of the extensive repertoire of rhymes we chanted, actions included passing one of the balls around your back, under the knee, or tossing it up vertically while keeping the other in play.

Dipping was employed for deciding things like who would be ‘piggy in the middle’, or ‘first ends’ at skipping. Possibly the best known was ‘Dip, dip, dip, my blue ship’, but ‘eany, meany, miney, mo’ was also common.

With no school field, our games lessons took place in the yard. But unlike one school in Ancoats, ours was at least on ground level. George Leigh Street was one of several city centre schools to have a ‘sky’ playground on the roof.

In the juniors, games equipment seems to have consisted of little more than bean bags and wooden hoops. Some activities demanded jumping between hoops laid on the ground, but otherwise we used them for skipping races. Before the hula hoop craze came along, nobody had the imagination to twirl it around their middle.

We played netball, because the harder balls used in rounders were more likely to break a window or end up in the traffic on Kenyon Lane. Stripped down to blouse and navy knickers, the older girls first had to erect the portable netball posts. Teams were chosen, and different coloured woven bands distinguished one from another.

At my first school, the sexes were separated by a high wall which resulted in gender specific games. To judge by boys’ street games, that wall hid much rushing round the yard with outstretched arms being Spitfire pilots, or thigh slapping as cowboys, not to mention British Bulldog.

At nine, I moved to a ‘mixed’ school where ‘kiss chase’ was played. I modestly stayed loyal to games like skipping or two balls (for a while at least).

Boxes on Wheels

Brownsfield Mill, by the Rochdale canal just off Great Ancoats Street, was built in 1820-5 as a spinning mill, but by the 1880s was already home to various small traders, making umbrellas, prams and other items. One such trader was William Payne, a wood-turner and chair maker originally from Berkshire, who settled there in 1889. Another was Humphrey Verdon Roe, who made surgical dressings and “Bull’s Eye” braces.

Brownsfield Mill in 2008

In the early 1900s, Humphrey let his younger brother, Edwin Alliott (who always preferred his second name) use his workshop for making experimental model aeroplanes, and later full-sized ones, William Payne often supplying the timber. William’s grandson, Jack Whitehouse, would occasionally hang around his grandad’s workshop, and many years later recalled Alliott as a very friendly young man, asking how he was getting on at school, and so on.

With help from his brother, in 1909 Alliott founded a company that was to become world-famous: A.V.Roe & Co, shortened to AVRO. Some of his early designs, including the “Bull’s Eye” triplane, which was the first successful all-British aeroplane, were fabricated in Ancoats. After being disassembled they were taken by horse and cart to London Road station, to be sent by train to places like Brooklands for assembly and testing.

Newton Heath branch

In 1910, the firm moved to larger premises at Clifton Street, Miles Platting. By then, young Jack had left school and found work on the railway, but Alliott offered him a job as a wire splicer: early multi-wing planes needed a lot of wire bracing, to give strength while keeping the weight down. Three years later an even larger works at Newton Heath was acquired, at the corner of Briscoe Lane and Ten Acres Lane, in an extension originally built for Mather and Platt.

Jack (who by the way was my grandad) was photographed here, with the splicing team, in 1914; he is at the back, second from the left

The First World War, of course, established Avro as major aircraft designers and manufacturers, and the experience Jack gained with them led to his being recruited into the Royal Flying Corps as a rigger, making netting and other ropework for reconnaissance balloons, which were still very much in vogue. After the war, he was offered his old job back at Avro, but said he preferred being in the open air. He went back to the railway, first as a shunter and eventually as a goods guard.

Avro’s went from strength to strength, with premises at Woodford, Yeadon and Hamble being used at various times. In 1939 another huge works was built at Greengate, Chadderton, although the Newton Heath works was retained until 1947. One of the best-known aircraft of the Second World War, the Avro Lancaster, was designed here, around half of the 7,000 built coming from Chadderton. Another famous design followed just after the war: the Vulcan bomber, also designed at Greengate.

BAE Greengate, Chadderton

AVRO became part of Hawker Siddeley Aviation in 1963, during which period my uncle, Albert Robinson, worked in the offices at Chadderton. In 1977, the year he retired, the merged company was acquired by British Aerospace (later BAe Systems), who continued making aviation equipment until 2011.

I have not discovered what became of the Miles Platting works, but the other three buildings mentioned are still standing. Brownsfield Mill, after many years housing small businesses, is now an apartment block. The Briscoe Lane works, once used by the Co-operative Wholesale Society as a repair depot for their vehicle fleet, acts as a clothing warehouse, and the huge Chadderton plant is now home to Mono Pumps and Kitbag Ltd (sports clothing).

“Bull’s Eye” triplane

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has an example of a “Bull’s Eye” triplane, although this is actually a replica, built from original drawings in 1964 for the film “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”.

In the 1950s, my grandad was interviewed by a reporter from the Manchester Evening News, recalling the pioneering days in Ancoats, so perhaps I should let him have the last word:

“Those machines looked for all the world like boxes on wheels, but we thought they were wonderfully up-to-date then.”

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A much more complete history of AVRO, its sites and products, can be found at their heritage centre in Woodford, Cheshire. Click here to view their website.

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