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History

Roger’s nostalgia diaries: My grandma, the slum landlord

09 May 2023 | Written by By Roger Davies

In the penultimate instalment of his ‘Nostalgia diaries’, Roger touches upon the darker side of his upbringing…


They say that into every life a little rain may fall. In my case, as I headed into my teens, I hit a torrential downpour. Let me recap. We lived in in a very nice 3 bedded semidetached house in a nice part of town. A typical middle class family. Mum, dad, three boys and a baby girl. Father went out to work and mother stayed at home looking after us. There were clouds on the horizon from my earliest memories. Father liked a drink and could be “unpredictable”. But we learned to stay out of his way when he was “worse for wear”.

Life went on but father started to attend fewer and fewer markets, which for a market trader meant less and less income. He justified it by saying he was concentrating on his more important venues. In the end, he was only going to two markets a week and a monthly trip to the Potteries to restock. This meant that he had more time to spend in the pubs during the day.

Unfortunately, a falling income and rising costs – there was inflation even in the 1960s – meant that a financial crisis was inevitable. As I understand it, the mortgage payments were the final straw. The nice house had to go. I have mentioned before that my home town had a huge concentration of council houses. Father decided that we would have to have one of those. However, there were rules. If you made yourself homeless, then you went on the long waiting list, but if you were homeless through no fault of your own, then you went straight to the top of the list. Father hatched a cunning plan worthy of Baldric.

This was the early 1960s and Britain was in the midst of a post-war building boom. Throughout the land, the terraced streets of our great cities were being torn down and a “land fit for heroes” was being built. Massive concrete tower blocks of flats rose from the ashes of the Victorian streets. It turned out that my paternal grandfather had been into a bit of property speculation and, before
the war, had bought some of these old Victorian, terraced houses to rent out. When he died my grandmother had inherited them.

The Council had decided to demolish this whole area and Grandma had been given advanced notice that the council was going to slap a compulsory purchase order on them. Father’s cunning plan was to sell our house quickly, move into one of the soon-to-be condemned houses and then be rehoused into a shiny new council house. So, in flurry of magnolia paint, our lovely house went onto the market. It was sold for £3000 and we moved into the hell of Nelson Street.

Our new house was two-up-two-down – and I mean that literarily. You entered from the street straight into the living room, then there was a door under the staircase leading to the kitchen. That was it. The stairs led from a corner of the kitchen up to two bedrooms the “Master” bed room was just big enough for a double bed and a single. Obviously my parents had to sleep in there and my sister (maybe 10 years old at the time) had the single bed. We three lads had the smaller room. Mother invested in a new bunk beds which were for me and my younger brother and a single bed was squeezed in for older brother. We were 16, 14 and 12 when we moved in.

The bunk beds are now coming up to their 60th birthday and are a family heirloom. They moved from Nelson Street to my parents’ council house, then when we were setting up my new house in Exeter – as an impoverished couple looking for furniture – they came down to us. When we retired and moved back home to North Wales they still were with us. And, even as I sit here writing this, they are in the room next to my office.

It wasn’t just that there was no bathroom, there was no space to add a bathroom. There was a Belfast sink in the kitchen – luckily it had both hot and cold water. Baths were taken in a galvanised bathtub that was kept outside the back door in a small yard. Water was from the hot tap and from a boiling kettle. We had to make do with a flannel, all over wash more often than not. There was a
small fire in the kitchen which heated the water with a back boiler. So, in the summer, when the fire was not lit there was no running hot water. The toilet was outside, at the end of the yard which backed onto a small ally. Not so much of an issue in the summer, we were used to this system from my maternal Nana’s farm, but in the winter it was hell on wheels.

The wait for the compulsory purchase order was interminable; the Council, like all councils, worked at their own pace. So we had to adapt to our new life. Mother got a job at the local Tesco, father continued to work intermittently and most of his days were spent in the pub. But now there was nowhere to hide when he returned in one of his moods.

My parents loved each other in their own way and even when things were at their worst they still tried to sort things out. One day they decided, that as we lads were now older, we could be trusted to look after our little sister, while they would go off to stay in a hotel to celebrate their wedding anniversary. It was their 15th but they didn’t tell us that because I was already 15 and my older brother was 17.

Oh dear did I say trust! Who in their right mind would trust teenagers? Big brother was straight out to join his rocker mates at their biker coffee bar hangout. Me and younger brother went to the off-licence to buy some bottles of their cheapest cider and were joined by our girlfriends. Our younger sister was persuaded to go to bed early with a combination of promises and threats. I am ashamed to admit we gave her a cigarette to implicate her if there was any comeback. Then it was party time!

Unfortunately my parents’ hotel was double booked and, after their meal, they came home. They found me lying unconscious in a pool of vomit in the local park in the pouring rain. Next morning father asked me if I felt as bad as I looked. “Yes” I replied. “Good” he said, and that was the last I heard of it. (Except my sister still reminds me of that night.)

Eventually the council got their act together and started to demolish the street. But they decided to just do the other side of the street, the odd numbers first, so those of us living in the even numbers had to continue living there as the houses opposite were knocked down with all the noise dust and inconvenience this entailed.

This produced an unexpected financial opportunity for a young man like me. I don’t know if any of you can remember but very old electrical wiring was sheathed, not in plastic but in lead. As the builders knocked down the houses there were miles of this wiring left in the heaps of rubble. After they finished for the day, I would go to the ruins and strip the lead off the wiring by hand then, using a little paraffin stove melt it down into ingots, which I sold to “Maccies” scrap yard. One day I thought I had found the motherlode. Sticking out of the piles of bricks was a large lead pipe. I pulled and pushed and twisted till it finally broke off. The water fountained up into the air. I legged it and my metal reclamation scheme was at an end. Little did I know but the value of the lead covered wiring was not in the lead but in all the copper wire I left behind…

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in the end the council built blocks of flats and maisonettes on the land where these Victorian “slum” streets stood. These were badly built and full of damp and eventually became so crime and drug infested that no one wanted to live in them. By the 1980s – barely 20 years later – they also were knocked down and replaced with more new houses. In my opinion if the original houses had been knocked together in pairs and converted into three bedroom terraced cottages with indoor bathrooms they would have made good homes and maybe kept some of the old communities together. When the council did purchase the old houses they paid £5.00 each for them.

Living in this environment eventually took its toll and helped me to make a decision that changed my life for ever as I will relate in the next and final instalment of my nostalgia diaries…


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