Street Life: The Queen and I

We were not fortunate enough to have a television for the coronation, but we knew a family who did.

On the morning of the day itself, the wireless broadcast the news that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had ‘conquered’ Everest.

With my baby sister in her lemon matinee jacket, matching leggings and bonnet, mum, dad and I set off with the pram to walk through the flag- and bunting-bedecked streets towards Rochdale Road.

The friends of my parents who had the television kept a greengrocers shop. Not only was this my first experience of a television set, but also the first time I had been ‘behind the scenes’ of a shop.

It’s estimated that an average of 17 people watched each set on the day. That number certainly accords with my memory of the crowd of people squeezed into the shop’s little back parlour.

On the Queen’s insistence, cameras had been allowed into Westminster Abbey to film the ceremony. 200 microphones were set up in the Abbey and it’s said 3 million people lined the streets along the route. With all that build up, we were anticipating something very special.

We kids sat around on the floor for what seemed like an age while the set was ‘warming up’. The tiny screen showed people standing in the rain, or perhaps it was the ‘interference’ we later came to associate with Outside Broadcasts.

To fill the gaps when not much was happening, the plummy-voiced BBC commentators interviewed members of the public who thought it worth a night sleeping on the pavement to secure a good place for the procession. They also went on at great length about the headgear and robes of state we could expect the different ranks of nobility to be wearing.

It’s hardly surprising we youngsters (as well as some of the grown-ups) got a bit restive. Mary, the daughter of the house, was directed to ‘take us off somewhere’ to play. As it was raining outside, we ended up on the staircase, amusing ourselves as best we could, until mum announced it was time to get my sister home.

If it hadn’t been for the cinema newsreels, I might have gone through life with only the grainy grey images of a day which cost an estimated £157 million.

Of all the dignitaries attending the Abbey, it was Queen Salote of Tonga who stole the show. She rode in an open-topped carriage with the Sultan of Kelantan. The Queen was as large and imposing as the Sultan was diminutive. Someone asked “who is that man sitting opposite her?” – the answer (wrongly attributed to Noel Coward) came back as “her lunch”.

At the luncheon, what Queen Salote and the other guests were actually served was Coronation Chicken, a dish specially devised for the occasion.

More than 20 million viewers around the world were able to watch the coronation. With 750 commentators, broadcasting in 39 languages, it was truly an international spectacle.

RAF Canberras flew BBC film recordings across the Atlantic so CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) could put it out on 2nd June. The Canadian servicemen, fighting in Korea, might have missed out on the coronation, but they had an improvised celebration by sending up red, white and blue flares.

Australia didn’t then have a full-time TV service, but a Qantas airliner flew film of the coronation to Australia in a record-breaking time of 53 hours 28 minutes.

In London there was a fireworks display on Victoria Embankment, but because of the inclement weather many street parties were either called off or moved to church halls.

I’m wondering if the elaborate Britannia costume my mother made me was intended for a fancy dress competition at a party that never happened? I can’t think of any reason for the time and expense that went into it otherwise.

In coronation year, the GPO issued special edition postage stamps to satisfy the philatelists. For the ordinary souvenir hunter, there were commemorative crown (5 shillings or 25p) coins and medals which are probably still knocking around in their thousands.

Of all the coronation memorabilia, the one thing best forgotten is Dickie Valentine’s recording of ‘In a Golden Coach, There’s a Heart of Gold’, which reached number 7 in the charts. Those lyrics probably stripped the nation’s teeth of more enamel than all the sweets consumed since rationing ceased in February of that year.

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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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