Roger’s nostalgia diaries: Life on our street

21 Mar 2023 | Written by By Roger Davies

In this week’s instalment of Roger’s nostalgia diaries, he recounts what life on his street was like, growing up in a close-knit community, with various tradesmen (from ice-cream to coal men) and special events punctuating an otherwise peaceful existence…

You can read the second instalment of Roger’s nostalgia diaries here.

It is hard to imagine now, but back when I was growing up a vehicle coming to our street was such a rarity that it was a notable event. We would stop playing to see who had arrived. However, some tradesmen did visit the street on a regular basis. For us, the most important of these was the ice-cream man. I do not mean the ice cream van with noisy chimes – those were not invented then – but an Italian man, on a three wheel bike, with a cold box on the front. You got one or two scoops in a cornet or (if you were posh) he had a rectangular device into which he placed a wafer. He then shaped ice cream to the top with a spatula, then another wafer was placed on top, a lever pushed and you had a perfectly shaped ice cream wafer sandwich. 

Next in our estimation, was the pop wagon. This was a lorry with sloping racks of cases filled with pop of every flavour imaginable: dandelion and burdock, orangeade, raspberryade, lemonade and ginger beer. There was Corona (before it became a nasty word). The bottles had a ceramic and rubber spring-loaded stopper. They were of course glass bottles and you got a rebate for returning the empties. 

Next of interest was the rag and bone man. He still had a horse and cart and we loved to follow it up the street to see if it would poo everywhere. The man would then jump off the cart and scoop it up into a bag. We thought this was fascinating. And you never knew when one of your mums would come out with something for him. A bag of old clothes would get some goodies off him, not cash but a sort of prize. Some metal, however, may have produced some bargaining for real money. It never hurt to remind him that Macky’s scrapyard was just down at the bottom of the bank. 

There were two milk men who delivered to our road. Frank, who I worked for later as a teenager, and Ted, who came much later in the day and would give rides from one end of the street to the other and – in return – we would deliver the milk to the front doors for him. 

The coal man had a flatbed lorry filled with sacks of coal. He would check how many sacks you wanted, then carry them to your coal shed and, in a cloud of black dust, empty the sacks into to the shed. Mother always kept a close eye on the delivery to make sure there was not too much “slack” in each sack.

Then there was the meter man, who came every couple of months. The mothers knew when he was due and the excitement was palpable before he arrived. Back then all houses had payment meters. He would be invited into the kitchen and with great ceremony he would unlock and open the meter box. Then he would pour the contents out onto the table, in a silver waterfall of shillings, florins and half crowns. He would carefully sort the coins into separate piles, calculate the value and work out what the utility company was owed. The rest would be returned to the householder. The mums would stash it all away before the dads got home. We kids would stand by the table looking up with our best angel-faces, hoping for a shilling. 

The year in our street was also defined by the passage of important days and events. The biggest was, of course, Christmas. This started sometime in the late autumn when Mother would produce a catalogue from which we could choose a main present up to the value of 20 shillings. (To my modern ears that sounds better than £1.00). There were other presents to come from grandparents, aunts and uncles. My mother would also fill a stocking with little goodies: small toys, fruit, nuts and a piece of coal tucked away in the toe. 

We had a relative on my father’s side called Auntie Fanny. She ran a toy shop in Southport and she didn’t really keep track of all her nephews and nieces and their ages, she just shipped out piles of unsold toys to the various families. So it was with a certain trepidation that you would open the present designated from her. Sometimes you would hit gold, other times – hmmm – not so much. All the main presents were in a pillow case to keep them separate from my siblings. We would wake at stupid o’ clock and were allowed to attack the stockings, but the pillow cases were saved till later.

For me, Christmas was a time of opportunity. It was Carol time. Now my brother, my friends and I were not very good at singing, but we could make up for a lack of tune with volume and enthusiasm. We also found a unique selling point, not only did we know more than one song, we knew all the verses to the songs. Then we added a secret weapon. By the time I was nine, my baby sister was five (and cute). We taught her a solo for each Carol and pushed her to the front. Our take at each house rose from sixpence to half a crown. 

We always had a turkey for Christmas and this could make life interesting, especially for Mother. Father had a habit of drinking in the pub next to the yard where sales of turkeys were happening and it was not unknown for him to turn up one afternoon near Christmas with a really really fresh turkey. When he bought it at the auction it had still been alive – you could pay a guy two bob to wring its neck. Mother would then sit on a chair in the backyard, plucking and gutting it in a blizzard of white feathers. One year it was a disaster he had bought the biggest bird at the auction cheap because no one wanted it and it was too large to fit in the oven. Mother was in tears, Father just got out a saw and cut it in half.  We would be eating turkey for weeks afterwards. 

Next was Easter. It started with Shrove Tuesday, when we always had pancakes for tea. I still love them, but the wife isn’t so keen – she is the one who has to mess around cooking them. Then came the visit to Sunday School on Palm Sunday, when we would all be given a raffia cross to take home to pin on the bedroom wall. Good Friday would just be another day as we waited for the main event: Easter Sunday. Every year mother would say “save some for later,” every year we ate chocolate till we were sick. 

Then it was birthdays, featuring presents from the usual suspects and maybe a birthday party. As we grew older though birthdays became problematic. Father was known to enjoy a drink or two and to invite your friends to a party when you were not sure if the party would be over by the time he returned (and what state he would be in when he did), which could a bit of a damper on things. But hey ho, that was how things were, so birthdays go down as memorable times. Brother Ken drew the short straw, however; he was a Christmas baby so his birthday always got swamped by those festivities.

As the long summer holidays came to an end, the next event loomed – no, not Halloween, we hadn’t heard of that. Our autumnal highlight was Bonfire Night. We would start coppicing the bushes and trees in the Sand Pit and the Jungle to give them time to dry out before the “night”. We usually built the bonfire somewhere on the “bank” in Happy Valley. Timing was crucial: build your Bonnie too soon and the “Whitegate Gang” might set it alight before the night. Leave it too late and it might not burn well. Once it was built you could guard it by building a den in the middle. 

We needn’t have worried too much as once our chosen site became clear, adults would bring unwanted burnable items to it and, some years, we had huge piles of rubbish added to it. We always had at least one mattress “donated” and the springs would rust away on the site for the next twelve months. On the night itself, parents would turn up with packs of fireworks. A can of petrol would appear and up would go the heap. 

We boys enthusiastically embraced the idea of “penny for the guy”. We kept running into miserable old people who would tell us that in their day they made more effort and their “guys” were more realistic. This led to a bit of trouble; we decided to go for broke and “borrowed” my sister’s pram. We put my sister in some old “guy” type clothes with a mask over her face and sat her in the pram. Then we went door knocking. Our “guy” was told to sit still till given a prod, then she sat up and said “Penny for the Guy”.

On reflection we shouldn’t have tried this on our neighbours as Mother soon got to hear about it and that little scam came to a swift end. The only thing that got in the way of life in the street was school, but that’s a story for next week…

The next instalment of Roger’s nostalgia trip will be up on the blog next Tuesday!

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