Chapter TWO THE TEEN YEARS
So now I am nearly 14 living in the Highlea hotel in Weston-Super-Mare with my mother, I'm not going to school so I spend my days down on the Marine Lake helping old Tom the boatman with the 20 or so rowing boats. The town council ran the Marine Lake and hired out the boat's, for a few pence per hour, the advantage was that when it was slack those that had helped the boatman, could take a rowboat out whenever they felt like it.
It was like a permanent holiday, I guess I was a beach bum, but having just moved to Weston it was a great way to get to know a few of the locals, and of course the place was swarming with holidaymakers, known to the locals as grockles, it was in the early days of plastics and you could hire a swimsuit and towel, the one size ladies bikini swimsuits were all red and very often left little to the imagination as the girls were not all of one size.
The Marine Lake is a body of seawater that is held back from receding by a wall that has been built across Glentworth bay, the only problem is the amount of mud that collects in the bottom of the lake. Every winter they used to rig up a mud plough which was operated by a huge steam winch with steel cables that moved the Plough backwards and forwards across the mud as the water was allowed to drain out through the outlet the plough was aimed at, by persevering all the winter they used to manage to get most of the mud cleared.
The Knightstone theatre was thriving, as was the Pierotts and the Rozelle bandstand, the Knightstone used to have a variety show every week and I usually managed to go each week, I used to sit in about the third box from the stage on the left hand side, great excitement one week when they had a naked female on the stage, rules were that she was not allowed to move, so she performed in something like a telephone box with a curtain drawn across the front, the curtains would then open, she would pose without moving for about 30 seconds, the curtains would close, a new pose would be adopted and so on through the months of the year, all terribly exciting.
The other thing I remember about the Knightstone was the huge electric sign overlooking the harbour that spelt out THEATRE with each letter coming on one at a time to form the complete word, that is one word that I will never forget how to spell.
The motor boat's that provided the visitors with trips around the bay were another source of fascination, one I remember was called the Doris, and one called Flora Glen, these boats were almost all the same, about 25 ft open boat no cabin, with seats all round the front section, on a busy day the six or seven boats would be in and out of the harbour as fast as they could load the passengers. At about this time as an alternative to flying to Cardiff they had a trial hovercraft service, there was a roped off area just by the swimming pool on the sands, the advantage was that the hovercraft didn't care whether the tide was in or not, it just came charging up over the mud on to the sands, with huge clouds of sand flying everywhere and the pilot did his best to turn the craft round whilst it was still moving in order to be able to go straight back out to sea. It was great fun watching the crowds scatter when he made an error with his approach and demolished the ropes and posts on the beach.
One of my friends used to be the delivery boy for the greengrocer's in Upper Church Road called Sandy's, he used to live up the hill that the Highlea hotel was on and would come hurtling down this steep hill on his delivery bike, his method of breaking was to put his foot in front of the downtube, on the solid brake link to the back wheel, locking the back wheel and going past the hotel in a screeching skid, much to my mother's annoyance. I think his name was Brian.
The hotel was purchased with sitting tenants in the front basement two rooms, a couple called Mr and Mrs Plummer, and because of this was bought at a much reduced price, due to the housing shortage and the laws at the time you just couldn't get rid of them no matter how much you wanted to.
I do not know how much my parents paid for the hotel, but I do know that it cost my brother and I all the National Savings that we had contributed to all those years, I don't think we were even consulted, it was just for the common good.
It was at this time that I had my first real romance; she was a holidaymaker from Penarth just 10 miles over the water from Weston. I only saw her for a week but was so enamoured that I took my first flight in an aeroplane from Weston to Cardiff to go and visit her. I used to watch these aeroplanes flying over on the Scheduled flights every day, and I thought they were real aeroplanes. They were actually de Havilland Dragons, when I walked on to the airfield to board the plane I found it was a metal tubular frame covered with canvas, it didn't have real seats, they were like metal deckchairs, it was a twin engined biplane that carried about 14 passengers, but all went well, nearly missed the plane home, but got there and back and safe and well.
The telephone number of the hotel was 942 and you spoke to the operator to be connected, the railway station was 32, and the bus garage was 110, there weren't many telephones in those days.
My father finished up at the Queen's head and came to Weston, because I wasn't needed to travel as a contraband runner any more it was decided that as the war had ended and the Summer visitors had all gone home I had better get a job, it was September 1945, my cousin Bill was working for the local bus company as a mechanic, so he got me a job in the same place, I started work at 6 o'clock in the morning, the working week was 48 hours and my weekly wage was £1 and 6p. We did have a strike later on. The men were claiming an extra penny an hour.
The first task every morning was to start up the hundred or so buses, most of the buses were pre-war veterans, four-cylinder petrol engined Bristol's and Dennis Lancet’s, it was no longer in use but at the back of the garage they still had an old breakdown lorry that actually had solid tyres, The bus garage on Weston sea front was huge with no ventilation in the roof and after starting half the engines there was so much exhaust smoke in the building that you couldn't see half the length of a bus.
The main task was to service the buses, each one would be done every four weeks, so we did four or five each day, I of course was working as the mate of one of the mechanics, spending most of the day working in a pit that the bus had been driven over, it was not a pleasant task and if the bus had been on a country route and was still wet from the road we sometimes had cow manure dripping down our necks.
I soon came to the conclusion that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and talked my way into being the mate of the man that road tested the buses after their servicing, so during the morning we cleaned the carburettors, changed the plugs, serviced the magnetos or changed the injectors and cleaned the filters in the case of the diesels, the afternoon's were spent on the road out in the country road testing.
One big advantage of the road testing was that the route took us past the local girls grammar school and this is where I first saw my future wife Bertha we used to look out for each other every day and during the summer I would deliver ice-cream which was passed over the fence of the school. Bertha lived with her grandparents in a small village five miles from Weston called Lympsham. When Bertha left school she went to work at the local town hall in the salaries department. We were together constantly and spent a lot of time queuing for the local cinemas that were very popular in those days of no television. There was the Regent, the Central and the Odeon. There used to be one called the Tivoli in the Boulevard but it was destroyed during an air raid. We cycled a lot, played tennis, visited Fortes ice-cream parlour opposite the Regent Cinema we generally had a wonderful time, Bertha's aunt Bess lived in Clevedon Road and she used to go there for lunch every weekday.
At about this time my eldest brother Charlie was released from being a Japanese prisoner of war, after spending some time in Barrow Gurney hospital he was well enough to return home, his wife Elsie used to say that he would eat anything, if it was kippers he would mash the whole fish up and eat the lot, head and all. He used to get a special ration of liver from the butcher's, to get the most vitamins out of the liver he had to eat it raw. He would never talk about his experiences but the lack of vitamins had seriously affected his eyesight, he used say that he didn't mind riding his bicycle around the town but coming across a red traffic light when you can only see a few feet was not very pleasant. I remember him peering through his strip magnifier to choose the horses to back that day. I did some work for him later on an old house they bought in Edinborough Terrace just above Grove park, changing all the sash cords in the house.
My other brother Clifford had been conscripted into the army to do his National Service and he served as a dental mechanic, this spectre was hanging over my head and although I was in a reserved occupation I knew that I was going to have to go sometime to do my 18 months in the army. I could defer my service until I was 24 but I knew that by the time I was 24 I would be married with children, so I decided that I had better go at 18 and get it over with.
Whilst I was working for the bus company I bought a new bicycle, a sports model, it was tomato red with white mudguards, not lightweight but with chrome north road drop handlebars, I hadn't had it long before I injured my left knee whilst playing tennis with Bertha in Clarence Park, I went up to the net for a smash and finished up kneeling on the spike that held the net post up, I never went to the doctors but it did take about six months before I could bend that leg. I had to cycle to work with a stiff leg and a piece of string to pull the pedals round.
The man I was working with was called Les and he got to know a man called Eric that owned a boat in Weston. It had a diesel engine that needed some attention. So we did the servicing and we got to know Eric quite well. We used to go out into Weston Bay with Eric on fishing expeditions. There were plenty of fish to be caught in the Bay in those days. We caught catfish, dogfish, skate, cod, flat fish and far too many eels. Eric was quite often intoxicated and carried an axe in the boat with which to kill these huge eels, they were quite big enough to bite right through your wellingtons, but the biggest danger was Eric putting the axe through the bottom of the wooden boat. Thinking back we were very reckless, we had no emergency equipment, no radio, no lifejackets and very little experience.
The boat was very well known in Weston, it was unusual being clinker-built with a very sloping bow it also had this single-cylinder diesel engine that had no exhaust system, just a simple expansion box leading to a vertical stovepipe about four inches diameter, they used to say that you could hear it coming about two miles away. It was painted bright yellow and was called Pride of the West. We had a near disaster on one occasion when we were fishing just off the end of Brean Down, the tide was running out quite fast and the rip over the rocks was forming a vertical wall of water that was higher than the stern of the boat, as the speed of the water increased with the falling tide the anchor started to drag and the stern of the boat was getting closer to the wall of water, this was despite the fact that the engine was flat out trying to ease the strain on the anchor and the clutch was slipping like mad. When we finally escaped we decided we'd had enough fishing for that day.
When we got to work the next day we found that one of our buses had been struck by an aeroplane landing at Weston airfield, the collision had torn the roof off the top deck of the bus and killed 14 young RAF men who were going into town from Locking camp, the number of the bus was 3637, and a constant reminder was the fact that it looked different from all the other buses of that type with its odd shaped reconstructed roof.
Later on I was working with a man called Sam Govier and was talking with him about the lack of opportunity in Weston, he decided that he would start Engineering classes for youngsters such as myself, the only place that was suitable was the local School of Science and Art in Lower Church Road and at that time they only did classes for gas fitters, so for a few years I went to night school and studied the new UEI engineering courses, I of course had a distinct advantage working with the instructor all day and helping him build the demonstration examples of cut away engines etc. and as a result I finished top of the class. I was even awarded the Gydar prize for that year, and I remember going up onto the stage at the Playhouse to receive the prize.
I used to spend my spare time at work building model steam engines and making tools such as box spanners, good tools were almost unattainable I had a passion for American Bluepoint ring spanners and I can remember Bertha and I scouring Bristol tool shops looking for these Bluepoint spanners to build up my toolbox. I still have some of them even today.
There used to be a model shop in Oxford Street that was owned by a man we called old Bill, his shop was full of model aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, and he used to sell control line models, the type that flew round in a circle controlled by the pilot standing in middle, at one time I remember seeing him flying a very special control line model of an aeroplane that was powered by a pulse jet engine, the same type of engine that the V1 flying bombs had. The normal length of control lines was about 25 ft, this monster had to be flown with control lines more than twice as long, because of the speed that it developed, the police finally banned him flying it on safety grounds. The noise was absolutely deafening.
At about this time my parents decided to move out of the Highlea hotel across the road to the Conway at number 34 Upper Church Road, I think this was to please my father whose breathing was getting more difficult, Conway had a nice big front-room at street level into which my father had arranged to have fitted a closed anthracite burner which did not produce any fumes or smoke into the room. It may have also had a psychological reason my father whilst in the Highlea had tried to operate a bookmaker's business and lost most of his money.
My sister Doris and family decided to move to Weston Super Mare, so they bought a hotel that was being be derequisitioned just down the road from where we lived, this was No. 9 Manila Crescent, it had been occupied during the war by the American army and was in a very dilapidated state, they had had a fire that destroyed the staircase to the first floor, nevertheless it was in a good position right opposite the Marine Lake and was very reasonably priced, it was called the Birchfield Hotel. Husband George with my fathers help bought a car. It was a Wolseley ex-police car and I remember the number of the car was GVW 168. I don't know whether this was an official number as his name was George Victor Wright.
It was about this time that I made a silly mistake; I was entitled whilst working at the bus garage to an annual increase in my wages that amounted to 10 shillings a week. I was notified on my birthday that my wages were going up, and because they had neglected to give me the increase on the previous year, I would be entitled to £26 as back pay. My silly mistake was to show it to my mother, she took it out of my hand and saying, “Just what I can do with” and that was the last I saw of it.
At the Conway I had set up a little workshop in the cellar and I spent my time playing with model the aero-engines, I had an ED 2cc diesel that I used to run in the cellar managing to nearly chop my right index finger off in the process, I also made a model of the Queen Mary, one day my mother asked me to open a Kilner jar which was filled with slices of apple, the top was so tight that she couldn't move it, so I took it downstairs to the cellar where I proceeded to put the lid ring in the vice. On giving the jar a slight twist the whole thing exploded spraying rotten apples everywhere, fortunately the glass managed to stay in one piece.
This could of course been her revenge for my leaving eels in the back kitchen sink from my fishing expeditions but I don't think so, I don't know why I brought eels home, as far as I know nobody ever ate any of them.
A typical day at this time was to be at work at 6 o'clock, see Bertha at lunchtime, meet her after work and probably have fish and chips at Coffins or Farrs chip shop in St. James street escort her to night school in Lower Church Road and then in the evening after her night school classes, we would go to the Conway where my father would always arrange that the front-room would be available for our use, he was a nice old fellow, then we would have to walk down to the bus garage to catch a late bus out to Lympsham to take her home, I would then wait outside the church school for the two minutes past 11 bus from Brean to take me back into Weston, it was the fashion in those days for young men to wear Brylcreem on their hair and I was no exception, horrible greasy messy Brylcreem I remember I used to put my shirt over my pillowcase every night, otherwise after a few days the pillowcase was filthy. We also sometimes ate at a Chinese restaurant called the Wun Wah that in those days was situated down an alley beside a leather shop in Regent Street, I have never had spare ribs that tasted as good since the old chef retired.
My days at the bus garage were not uninteresting, was out on our test runs my mate Les sometimes used to let me drive the buses out in the country, we have on occasion to go and recover vehicles that had been damaged in accidents, on one occasion there was a double-decker bus that had nearly slipped off the Puxton railway bridge, when we arrived it looked as if it was about to topple into the field. I was given the job of going up onto the top deck with a sledgehammer to break the window so that we could attach a safety rope in case it slipped any more. Young and silly I suppose.
There was a young lad working with me whom we used to call Greyhound because he was so tall and thin, he used to bring me a carnation when they were available from his mother's garden when he came to work, this I think was because I used to wear a clean shirt and a tie together with a sports jacket, the carnation was the finishing touch, I guess I was not cut-out to do a dirty job.
The man that was employed to paint the buses used to keep tropical fish, that was until one day whilst waving to the driver of the bus that was passing the Odeon he managed to step in front of the bus and was run over and killed, it was the habit prior to that to always look to see who was driving and acknowledge them, this was useful in so much as if you were walking between stops they would very often slow up so that you could jump on.
During the summer season Weston-super-Mare would be inundated with thousands of day-trippers from Bristol and in the late afternoon hundreds of these would be going home, queuing inside the bus garage about four deep for the number 24 bus with the queue winding its way to the back of the garage where the maintenance area was. They would be driving double-decker buses to the front of the queue as fast as they could load the passengers on. On the country routes we had some strange buses called V types, these buses had had all the seats removed and replaced around the sides leaving a big area in the middle for standing passengers, they had straps hanging down just like London Tube trains, they could carry twice as many passengers by this method as a petrol saving method.
One summer I was invited by my sister Doris to join then on a caravan holiday to the south coast, this did involved me in helping George to fit the Wolseley with a caravan hitch, on picking up the hire caravan from St Georges we are hardly gone 100 yards when the tow hitch that he had fitted collapsed onto the road. Hence my involvement in supplying material and bolts for a stronger replacement, things were not as easy to do in those days and poor old George managed to crack a couple of ribs whilst using a hand drill under the car chassis. The holiday was notable on two counts first George backed the caravan into a post, and blamed me, and then Doris put the porridge on whilst George and I went for a walk, when we returned Doris is jumping up and down because the porridge was boiling over and she was locked out. I saved the day by climbing in through a very small window.
At work we used to have morning and afternoon tea breaks, there was always a dash up to the canteen to get on to the skittle alley where we could manage to play a few hands for a penny a hand and 2p for the game total, wooden skittles and big rubber balls. Sometimes we used to play a game called Tippit, an old English game where each team of three or four would sit on opposite sides of the table and take turns to hide a coin in their fists under-the-table. On the shout of “ two, three, up” the clenched fists would be put up onto the table where the opposing team would take turns to try to find the coin. The chosen caller would either say “off” or “tippit” whilst touching one of the fists, it was usual to call “off” several times in order to narrow the choice before committing yourself to calling “tippit”. The prize was usually a bronze three-penny piece, the type that had eight sides.
So there we were in 1949 I had bought a ring and Bertha and I were engaged, we had it all planned out. I would go into the Army, do my 18 months national service and when I came out we would be married and start having the children which we had already chosen names for.
And so it was my not having applied for a deferment soon after my 18th birthday on May twenty-ninth 1949 I received my draft papers to report to Catterick army barracks in Yorkshire on 1st September, but that's another chapter.
If anyone can remember the names of the other boats like the Doris and the Flora Glen please add this info in the comments section, all comment are welcome it gives the authors the will to write more.