Ian Giles (1949-52): The way it was

GilesLife is punctuated by defining moments, how many defining moments we are allotted in life I have no idea, but do we recognise them when we experience them? Well, looking back on my life I can trace several, but at the time, they came and went without even registering a flicker on the Richter scale of defining moments. Apart from my birth being the first, the next must have been the year 1945, when as a 7 year old, the ending of the second world war was signalled by having a victory party held in the street where I lived, races were held, and during the 60 yard sprint I stumbled at a critical moment, it robbed me of victory my Uncle always told me. I only mention this, because 6 years of grinding war had passed me by almost unnoticed.

It was the following years of the late 1940’s, my education, such as it was, progressed to me winning a scholarship to the Grammar School, which in a way must have been another oblivious defining moment, because apart from my Mother announcing the fact, very little else in the memory department seems to have registered. Yes, there was one thing, to celebrate this result I was rewarded with a brand new gleaming Hercules single speed bicycle, with rod brakes. I well remember preening up and down on my new bike telling anyone who would stand still and listen, that I was going to the Grammar School, what a complete prig I must have been.

Another defining moment was ‘lost’ when; in the September of 1949 I started at Burton on Trent Grammar School. Try as I might, I can honestly say that I cannot recall a single happening of that day, so, it is to elsewhere that I must look for help. First, I would like to take a look at what the social conditions were like at that time, looking back, I was clearly aware that Victorian values were still in evidence, as the foundations of the Victorian era were still very much in place, like all institutions of the time, Burton Grammar School reflected and promoted the ethos and values of the Victorian age, it was a fact, anyone over the age of 50 was born a Victorian.

How hath the mighty fallen, from being a respected member of the hierarchy of Junior School I found myself catapulted into the abyss of the unworthy, mine was to obey, to be seen and not heard, to touch my forelock and passively submit, anyone older than me was god, and if I momentarily overlooked this fact, I was instantly reminded by a swift ‘kep’? around the ear. Beware of those clad in beribboned blazers for they were the High Priests and to be revered accordingly, for they were the police lieutenants of the Masters themselves.

When the grading of newcomers took place, each pupil was allocated to a Form, (class) in other words selected and streamed according to intellectual ability, the elite went into Form 1A, the midstream went into Form 1C and the also-rans went into Form 1B, the logic of A C B alludes me to this day, needless to say I was in 1B. In addition to being selected into a Form, every one was also allocated to a House. The House system comprised of Drake (blue), Nelson (black), Clive (green) and Wellington (maroon) we soon discovered the importance of the house system, which more will be said later. We had barely become accustomed to our new surroundings when 1B had its first incident, we were all waiting in the gym for the PE teacher to arrive and start our first PT lesson. Standing around, curious at the site of strange equipment two or three of the boys started messing about on the ropes, suddenly the cry went up, ‘somebody’s coming,’ by this time one of the climbers was at the top almost touching the ceiling, on hearing the warning from below, he slid down to the bottom like a fireman on a ‘shout’, the state of his hands and legs told their own story, as did the look on his face.

I was struck by the difference of the routine at my new school, laden with books in the ubiquitous satchel (leather bag) I navigated my way around my new surrounds, unlike my previous school, here, different classrooms were used for different subjects. Classrooms were positively Victorian in appearance (probably were) heavily constructed desks made of oak and wrought iron, complete with inkwells. On top of the thick, hinged lid of the desks, was generations of graffiti engraved by former occupants, what stories could they tell? Behind the master’s desk a huge blackboard was affixed to the wall, indispensable, for theses were the days of traditional blackboard teaching, nestling handily nearby, the blackboard rubber, which in experienced hands could be hurled with unerring accuracy at inattentive or fidgeting youth. The be-gowned eagle eyed master, would be perched in his eerie with a clear view of his charge and within handy distance would lurk the whip-like blackboard pointer, which doubled as a rapier when called upon to quell the unruly mob.

All work and no play made Jack a dull boy; cerebral exercise was generously alternated with exercise of the body in the shape of PT in the Gym or games on the playing fields. This is when I came to life, for sport of any kind was the elixer, inter house competition was promoted by the school, thereby inculcating ‘team spirit and what is known nowadays as bonding, victory was desirable but never paramount, modest in victory, magnanimous in defeat, win or lose, it was the taking part that counted. Rugby, cricket and athletics were all played on the schools sports ground, which was located off Branston Road next to the Peel Croft (Burtons RFC playing field) I had completely forgotten (until I recently read on BGS website) that we were also bussed to Shobnall fields for games afternoon. To be caught playing soccer with an oval ball was a cardinal sin and the assembled culprits would be bawled out. (Brab Smith?) Actually, many of the better Rugby players were in fact very good footballers, Gary Jordan (Burton Albion)- Dennis King (Gresley Rovers) – Keith Miller (Albion). I’m sure readers can name more. Obviously, Cross Country was different, an excellent account of the courses and wheezes are documented elsewhere on the website, my abiding recollection was, when on the return home, on the straight passing the Victolac (?) paint factory, the place was turned into a world war I battle scene, as skinny, singlet clad bodies, collapsed, clutching their throats and coughing blood, having inhaled the vitriolic fumes wafting across the fence. What price health and safety at work?

I became acquainted with discipline during my time there, both as a recipient and as an observer, I lived the other side of the river and travelled to school on my now, not quite so shiny Hercules, I had to use the Ferry Bridge and of course had to dismount and walk across the bridge, the penalty for being found guilty of riding was a Fixed £2.00 fine (not an inconsiderable amount) Well, you guessed it, one day I was caught riding by a member of the ‘allo, allo’ allo, who, decided to give me a good ‘wigging’ on the spot, just as this was taking place a Master from the school came walking by pushing his cycle, he strode over to join us, enquired my name and then carried on his way. He duly reported me to the Headmaster who, in due course, kindly invited me over to his study. He proceeded to read me the riot act about bringing the school into disrepute, after which, he picked up a whiplash cane and instructed me to ‘bend over’. In this undignified position he fine-tuned my posture for maximum effect, just like a golfer addressing his next shot, he calmly took aim and proceeded to thrash my backside. This is procedure is euphemistically called ‘six of the best’ or more commonly the ‘Whack.’ There was no emotion from either side, just “Now get back to your lesson” from the Headmaster. There is a sequel to this story, for not long afterwards, the Master who shopped me to the headmaster, was himself caught riding his bike and was fined £2.00.

On another occasion I witnessed a further example of how errant pupils were dealt with. A class was taking place and the master called for ‘quiet’ as some pupils (who were standing behind his desk) were talking. The master was examining a boy’s work and the talking continued. With no more ado, the master casually turned round and grabbed the nearest offending boy, got hold of his ear and proceeded to twist it, at the same time forcing the boy’s head slowly down on to his (Masters) desktop, the boy’s features were contorted and twisted as he was forced to look up at the ceiling to ease his pain, I wanted to shout out and stop it, but couldn’t, I did nothing, I just sat there I was impotent; we all were. This type of behaviour was by no means rare; in my time I saw numerous such incidents.

Mentioning the Ferry Bridge reminds me of a strange bird (of the feathered variety) which appeared around 1950, every day, this bird of swan proportions could be seen ‘swanning around’ on the water near to the ice factory end of the bridge, this unusual, nay, rare bird, was identified by one of the gang as a Canada goose. It was (to my mind) a handsome bird, yet solitary and lonely, where it had come from was a mystery, (please don’t say Canada) there were no signs of any of its brethren at all, even today I cannot recall seeing another. This bird must have been an advance goose-scout on reconnaissance for a resettlement programme, because as we all know, this area of the river is to-day, 50 years on, teeming with them, so much so, culling looks a possibility. Another memory of crossing the Ferry Bridge during this period was when the river was in full flood, each year without fail, the whole area was under water, often several feet deep, to be on the bridge surrounded by acres of deep water was thrilling for a boy on his way to school, I well remember on one occasion when the water was so deep you could touch the surface from the bridge itself.

On school days I used to cycle to my Grans for lunch, she lived nearby so it was handy to nip round on my bike. This meant going past the woodworks (Midland Joinery) and across the railway crossing at Bond End. I remember winters mostly, was it my imagination or were winters really so, so, cold? Fog seemed more frequent in those days too, I can recall many a journey on my bike in clinging freezing fog with visibility measured in feet, clad only in a light-weight school ‘mac’, on arrival at my Grans, the ice on the old, huge beer barrel water butt, would be several inches thick. I hated winters, I was always cold, there were no padded, rainproof winter coats with deep lined pockets or fur lined hoods to retreat into, no instant gas fires or central heating, the only concession to warmth was a few spluttering coals in a dusty grate, always provided there was coal to be had of course.

If my Gran’s house was still standing it would now qualify as a museum, in fact the whole street would, as it consisted wholly of terraced houses, built for the workers and was a monument to the Victorian way of life. On my bike, I would approach down the back way to the house, which was a long narrow alleyway with huge brick walls either side, these prison-like walls were at least ten feet high and stretched the whole length of the alley. Over the wall, was the site of the Burton Corporation waste disposal plant, which everyone referred to as the ‘Destructor, on this side, ancient gas lamps stood sentry at regular intervals down to alley’s abrupt end, which came in the form of large padlocked gates. On the right hand side, the walls of the backyards were punctuated with solid doorways set in the wall and as you entered, you brushed past the wall of the outside toilet. On the left, another high brick wall, which divided you from your neighbour. Equally high on the opposite wall was a substantial wooden lean to shed, which was dark and musty inside and contained a heap of dusty coal and old wheelbarrow, which was used for carrying produce from the allotment. Underneath the kitchen window stood the water butt. To complete the picture, under the left wall a token rockery where scraggy ferns struggled for survival. The backyard faced north and was forever in poor light, the only sign of hope being the beleaguered ferns, struggling for life in the permanent gloom.

The kitchen was built as an extension from the main building and protruded into the backyard, as did all the houses in the street for they were clones of each other. Inside the kitchen there was no direct light so it was as gloomy as ever, even on a sunny summers day, all the old technology of the day was present, in the corner there was a brick built copper hearth, this was integral to the kitchen, it was a brick structure for boiling water on wash or bath days, it had a huge vat shape and sat in the brick framework like a cradle, underneath was a fire grate to heat the water. Strategically placed would be odd looking contraptions to help my Gran to do her washing. Things like a large brass plunger on the end of broom handle, I remember such a tool quite well but hadn’t a clue what it was used for or it’s name, even to this day I had no idea, so to the internet I went, (wonderful thing the internet) apparently it was called a posser and was used to agitate the clothes in the water, all by hand of course, a sort of prototype automatic washer, another similar object called a ‘dolly’ was also used, it looked like a three legged milking stool attached to a long handle, the three legs facing downwards, the whole thing would be twisted left and right alternately by hand to agitate the clothes in the water, it must have been exhausting work. A mangle was a most important machine on washday, it was a heavy wrought iron contraption for wringing the clothes dry; the waterlogged washing was placed between the two sponge-like rollers which were located on the top of the frame, the rollers were powered by turning a huge iron wheel fitted with a wooden handle. When all the water had been squeezed out, the washing was then ready to hang up to dry. Where on earth did my Gran dry it? The only place was in a four by two backyard with little sun or wind, if it was raining or the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and blowing soot on to the nice clean washing, then the whole lot would have to be hauled down and hung inside the house from lines suspended from the ceiling. The combination of problems must have seemed endless. Then of course there was the ironing, the iron was, as it’s name implies, a solid moulded chunk of iron with a handle attached, this was placed on the black leaded grate, which was heated by a coal fire, when the iron was sufficiently hot, then it was then ready to do its job.

What did it all add up to? As I check and reread this script, I find it is impossible for me to convey the conditions and ambiance of those times long gone, to those readers of say under 50 years of age, the world as I have tried to describe must be almost impossible to grasp. Everything I was taught and brought up to believe, became part of me, indeed became me. In the course of my lifetime I have seen and continue to see a systematic dismantling and jettisoning of everything that I am and the values I hold. I think the generation to which I belong, must surely qualify for entry into the Guinness Book of Records, for seeing and experiencing the most dramatic changes (of all kinds) in the span of single lifetime. In the summer of 1952 I left BGS, my parents decided to move home and start a new life, taking me with them.


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