Here, Chris Mutton from SWit’CH (Swinton Writers in t’Critchley House) reflects back on growing up in the fifties in Little Hulton, entertained by playing outdoors, inspired by the adventures packed into her well-loved Enid Blyton books.
Having recently celebrated my grandson’s third birthday, and seen the thoughtful and varied presents he received despite the current lockdown, my thoughts turned to the toys of my childhood when money was scarce but my parents managed to regularly prove the adage ‘poverty is the mother of invention’.
I grew up, in the fifties, in Little Hulton, when it was a small coal-mining village and don’t remember being aware that life was hard. All it took was a piece of string and my mother in a good mood and I was happy for hours playing cat’s cradle with her.
If her mood was really good she would use some of her precious donkey stone to draw the numbers for hopscotch on the main road pavement, at the front of our terraced house and, on occasion, even join in the game!
The donkey stone was a bone of great contention to me. It was acquired from the rag and bone man in exchange for old clothes (those that hadn’t been ripped up for dusters) but the alternative swap was a balloon which I really really wanted! I had no chance – my mother’s maxim for judgement was, a) how white your ‘whites’ were and b) how clean your front path, including and especially how clean your doorstep was. Not only did your step have to be clean, it had to have a straight white edge – produced by the donkey stone.
She also taught me how to play two balls against the kitchen wall and how to skip, including the very fancy French skipping -quite a different technique which necessitated the rope to be around the ankles of the two ‘holders’. I also learned all the rhymes that went with these activities from her.
We were lucky to have a largish back garden in which we had a sandpit in an old sink and a nature table where we put our captured tadpoles and caterpillars in glass jars – the caterpillar jar holding lots of leaves. We had a swing in the coal shed doorway and woe betide us if we swung on the day the coal had been delivered and scattered it all over the yard. Many a happy summer day was spent in a tent made from an old army blanket thrown over the washing line, weighed down by as many old bricks as we could find.
If it rained, our tent was made indoors using the wooden maiden. Being an avid Enid Blyton reader a password was usually required to enter the tents and many an adventure was planned beneath the well-worn blanket.
My father was a great DIYer, not always successfully in the home – but, boy, could he knock together some great toys. My brother, Andrew, and I had walkie-talkies made from used bean cans and a piece of string, which we stretched between our bedroom windows for secret talks and messages.
Dad also made us kites – which flew, spud guns from bits of wood and elastic bands and stilts from bean cans and pieces of string- these were a source of great envy amongst our friends until they too gained a pair, He also made us wooden ones but I mainly remember the splinters from the rough wood he used. Rough wood was also used to make us a ‘bogie’ – a handmade go-kart fashioned from a plank of wood, a bit of rope and wheels from an old pram.
As children, we didn’t think to ask where he’d managed to get them from: as adults we think it probably better we don’t know. A few years on, my brother proved he had inherited these skills when he made himself a skateboard – using MY roller skates (without permission I might add!)
As children, it was always a good day for us when the washing line broke and had to be replaced and we gained a new skipping rope or lasso, although we quickly learned not to ask if the washing had been on the line when it snapped.
Many of our Christmas and birthday toys were made by our father. He used to get The Hobbies Magazine and kept each issue. Looking through these when sorting his possessions after he died was like taking a walk through our childhood, my brother’s garage and fort; my doll’s cot and a high chair; my double-fronted doll’s house, with a front door that opened; a long wooden train with carriages and a large car transporter.
We didn’t have a television for years because my father thought they would be the end of civilisation as we knew it – but we had a radio and parents who were always singing, my mum to herself, my dad to her. Not surprising then that my brother and I were both drawn to music.
We learned how to play the spoons, and also the comb and my mother was not amused when father fashioned us a one-string instrument out of her sweeping brush – and yes, the inevitable piece of string. We also got sore fingers from strumming the grill pan. But we thought our skiffle band was the best!
We had some bought toys – I think my best-loved one was my doll’s pram with my treasured doll called Betty. Her arms and legs used to regularly fall off but my dad was always able to mend her with elastic bands and infinite patience, both skills I must be lacking because I am unable to fix her and so she lies, limbless, in a box in the loft.
My friend Christine Ireland had a bigger doll’s pram than me but we frequently used to swap. My love for her pram was obviously greater than my love for my doll. However, we were always sent to swap back by our parents.
New toys were only given at Christmas, I can only remember a chalkboard, a desk and a toy tea set, which apparently led to the quietest Christmas my parents ever had as Andrew and I, concealed by mother’s ‘best’ table cloth, played house under the table and drank sherry from the toy cups and then slept for the rest of the day.
Mostly I remember the books. We always got two annuals each – Andrew got The Beano and Dandy and mine were Bunty and Schoolgirls’ Friend, but best of all I got an Enid Blyton book every year, from either The Famous Five, Secret Seven or Adventure series. Our uncle in Australia also sent us books every year and, to my disgust, I always got a Rupert Bear annual – I was told to be grateful but actually, I was envious of Andrew who always got the adventure ones such as The Walkabout Plot, The Railway Children, Robin Hood – little surprise that I used to think that ‘boys books’ were better than ‘girls’.
The other much-looked-forward-to present, this time in my stocking, was a tin of Holland’s Caramels, which had a different picture on the front every year,- not only for the sweets but for the picture on the lid, sometimes flowers, other times Scottie dogs or kittens. Having eaten the sweets, the tin was used as a crayon box for the rest of the year. In the stocking, along with the toffees, was a tangerine, an apple and a shiny new penny to be kept until New Year’s Eve when it was put under my pillow to ensure I would never be without money through the next year.
We played out a lot, either in a ‘gang’ or just my friend Christine and I making perfume from rose petals or playing with our cut out dolls bought from Hennan’s bookstall on Farnworth Market or from the back of our weekly comic, Bunty. If we were lucky her dad, Uncle Ted, would make us a see-saw from his garden roller and his decorating plank.
Another favourite activity was to go to The Co-op Bakehouse, which was just off the A6, before Clegg’s Lane, to see the cart horse in its stable – and shamefully, to help ourselves to the vanilla cream left in plastic buckets near the large wooden doors – no wonder we were regularly chased away by an irate Mr Crompton!
Bike riding was always done in summer – the trend being to put an ice lolly stick in between the spokes of the wheel to make it sound like a motorbike. Often bikes were inherited and something to ‘grow into’ No problem was unsolvable in those days and if the bike was too big and pedals couldn’t be reached, blocks were made over the pedals. Picnics, with the obligatory jam butty and bottle of water were held in our dens made from debris found on the bankings and materials begged, borrowed or stolen from Dad’s or Uncle Ted’s garden sheds.
However, the bankings weren’t only seen as a source of foraging. One of our favourite games was to slide down the banking on an old piece of lino or in a cardboard box (easier to hold onto but not as long-wearing as the lino) – usually waiting for the train to be coming before we set off! Other sources for our dangerous activities were stairwells – sliding down them on old trays or, as we got older, jumping down them, increasing the number of steps each time we jumped.
We also played ‘dares’ and my heart still goes into my mouth when I remember one of these and my brother walking across the railway bridge on Mount Skip Lane- along the edge of the parapet! On one side of this very wide lane was new houses, on the other a large field where the Co-op horses grazed, alongside the geese and chickens who had their pens there. The only accidents I can remember was: when our friend Martin got his head stuck in the railings and, on a separate occasion, his brother, Michael, got his foot stuck and was attacked by the geese.
These antics never went unpunished because despite there not being any phones, when we got home, all our parents knew where we had been and early bed without supper was imposed. I’m sure the ever-present danger of the railway track was the reason this was forbidden territory because, in summer, we were allowed to walk through Bluebell Woods (now the huge Madam’s Wood Estate) to Mosley Common and a strange little place called City, which consisted of just a row of terraced houses and a post box. Independence that we probably wouldn’t be allowed these days.
Discussing these memories before putting them into words has made my brother, friend and myself laugh, a lot. We certainly hadn’t realised quite how ‘feral’ we were as children. Whilst I wonder how surprising it is that I don’t remember many of the bought toys, but can rattle off the made and invented ones, there’s no question that what IS surprising is that we all survived to tell the tales!
Christine Mutton is a member of Swinton Writers in t’Critchley Hub and, like us all, is looking forward to getting together again for face-to-face writing group meetings. New writers always welcome. Email [email protected]
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