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.”


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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Street Life: Bootees and Bickipegs

I was born in the legendary ‘terrible winter’ of 47.Even when coal ceased to be rationed, the supply often ran out before the next delivery. Consequently, to survive the privations, new-borns had to be toughened up from day one.

My mother used to pin me into the bedclothes of my cot, to prevent me getting my hands free during the night. Even with ice on the inside of windows, I never lost a single finger to frost bite, so it must have worked. However, it has left me with a phobia about having my arms confined.

We were the Virol, rusks and National Dried Milk generation, when clothing substituted for the central heating lacking in our houses. Swaddling was out of date, but babies less than 5 lbs were kept in cotton wool jackets (not removed, even for washing) until the required weight was achieved.Even when a house had a bathroom, lack of heating meant babies were often bathed in a large pot sink in the warm kitchen. A mother whose baby wasn’t wearing wool next to the skin, with its little bottom plastered in zinc and castor oil, would make herself the talk of the Welfare clinic.

Terry nappies were expensive, and only came in one size – huge. They had to survive daily boil washes until the family’s youngest child was toilet trained. By the early fifties, most babies wore rubber pants, but knitting patterns for the ‘pilch’ (a natural wool garment worn over nappies) was still available.

Vest and nappy were covered by layers of winceyette, leaving the now globular-shaped baby to be topped off with something smart but impractical. The preference was for dresses, romper suits or the unisex leggings and matinee jackets with gender appropriate headgear.Unlike many fathers of the time, dad could change a nappy, though his method was unorthodox. He was also happy to baby-sit while mum had a night out at the pictures with my grandparents. One night, following a 12-hour shift on GPO ‘Christmas pressure’, he settled himself to listen to Saturday Night Theatre with his tired feet in a bowl of water. There was a scream, and dad was halfway up the stairs before realising it came from the wireless rather than my cot. Mum arrived home to find him sheepishly mopping the sopping carpet.

The presents babies received were like children of the past: seen but not heard. We had to be satisfied with the sound of rattles and humming tops, while today everything from a mobile to a potty plays a nursery rhyme or animal noise.The most traditional gift for new-borns was a teddy bear. Dad won mine at a fair before I was born. I would describe Ted’s appearance as unique rather than scary, but for the sake of persons with a nervous disposition, his picture has been withheld.

None of my surviving toys has ever been washed. With children’s propensity for putting everything straight into their mouths, it’s amazing so little consideration was given to hygiene and safety in the past.

Another inexplicable thing is the adult conspiracy that kept children believing babies materialised from nowhere. My own first intimation there was ‘summat up’, was getting home from afternoon school to find a ‘little stranger’ asleep in my old cot.

Prior to my sister’s arrival, living alongside me were 4 adults in a small council house. If she had been born in the 21st century, her bath, bouncy chair, Moses basket with stand and the myriad other essentials she couldn’t have done without, would have necessitated an extension.

Unoccupied coach-built prams were a menace in narrow lobbies and passages. But no self-respecting mother would fail to put the swanky pram outside for her baby to get its daily dose of ‘fresh air’.Children stayed in their prams far longer back then. By removing some of the base panels, an older child could sit upright with the rest of the ‘bilge’ being utilised for the shopping.

Tumbles from prams must have been common before harnesses were fitted as standard. Strangely, when there were far fewer speeding motor vehicles, more toddlers were to be seen wearing reins looped over the arm of a parent or responsible sibling.Today’s all-terrain pushchairs and ergonomic baby seats are all very well, but as a child, I would have traded the lot for a bottle of that concentrated orange juice from ‘the Welfare’.

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Street Life: What did you get for Christmas?

According to Woolworth’s archive, clockwork train sets costing from 7 shillings (35p) were the top present for boys in 1951. The same year, tea sets were the most popular present for girls. They came in plastic, pottery or bone china, and ranged in price from half a crown (12 and a half pence) to 5s (25p).

Despite the re-appearance of toys in shops, to make Christmas special, a certain amount of wartime ‘make do and mend’ was still being employed. Anyone handy with a fret saw or paint brush was in demand, as were ladies who could dress dolls, make soft toys or doll’s house furniture from odds and ends.One year Father Christmas brought me a small chipboard kitchen dresser, probably made by someone my dad knew. I loved it, despite its ghastly shade of pink (war surplus paint perhaps?). The painted tin tea set from my grandparents sat on the open shelves, while jigsaws and games could be stored in the bottom cupboard.

Presents tended to be gender specific in those days. They were a not so subtle indication of the futures our parents envisaged for us. Few boys who got chemistry sets actually became scientists. However, most girls who received toy domestic equipment were likely to become only too familiar with the standard versions later in life.

Over the years, I received sewing and baking sets, mangle with wooden rollers, miniature brush and dustpan, not to mention baby dolls.

By the middle of the decade, toys influenced by cinema, comics and later by television, were what children requested. At different times, a Davy Crocket hat or Dan Dare outfit was a must. But perhaps the most surprising TV inspired favourite was a metal Muffin the Mule puppet.

The concept of merchandising had taken root, even if the word was unknown back then. Animated films meant shops were full of Wade’s Disney Hat Box characters, and clockwork Cinderellas who waltzed endlessly with Prince Charming. I had a Cinderella watch with pink strap, which came in a clear plastic (glass) slipper.Whatever the current craze, it was sure to appear on most Christmas lists. The ones I remember best were yo-yos, hula hoops and roller skates. Maybe it was because I was shy, but it mattered very much that my present of desire was exactly ‘right’.

Nothing but a Lumar 99 yo-yo would do. Don’t ask me the reason, but hula hoops had to be smooth plastic to have any credibility. Christmas morning, mine had the dreaded ridges, so any pretensions to be one of the ‘in crowd’ were definitely out.

During the roller skating craze, everybody except me was whizzing about on rubber tyred wheels. It was either those naked metal wheels, or a complete lack of balance, but I never did master the art of roller skating.

Unless it snowed, Christmas holidays were spent inside by the fire. Even if they were ignored the rest of the year, stencil and John Bull printing sets, blow football, Mr Potato Head, and Plasticine with little moulds like inverted butter stamps, came into their own.A compendium of games was up market, but sets of draughts, snakes and ladders, Ludo or even tiddly-winks were not to be sniffed at. Later in the decade, board games like Monopoly and Cluedo came along, but they were expensive, so stockings were more likely to contain a pack of cards.

To make them more attractive as presents, manufacturers often used characters from popular fiction in their games of Old Maid, Donkey or Happy Families. My favourite was a set of Snap cards with characters from the Rupert Bear comic strip.

Christmas annuals containing topical stories, optical illusions, ideas for things to make and puzzles of every kind, could be bought at newsagents. However annuals of the comics we read every week were probably favourite. Someone usually gave me the Beano with Lord Snooty, Keyhole Kate and Pansy Potter, as well as so much more that I never tired of re-reading them.I invariably got one of the things specified on that list (or lists) I sent up the chimney. My parents would have been astounded to learn I felt the best bit of Christmas morning was opening my stocking. I loved those catch penny items such as chalks, crayons, puzzles, books and chocolate money, sold as stocking fillers.

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