Kaleidoscope: Toys, games and sweet treats from my childhood

Judith Barrie from SWit’CH writers, based in Swinton at Critchley Community Hub has recalled her memories of toys, games and sweets when she was younger… all the best bits from a childhood!

I have no recollection of my earliest toys, but there are a couple of photographs of me as a baby holding various playthings. There is a soft toy looking like a puppy or kitten – difficult to tell, but the expression on my face gives the impression that I wasn’t too enamoured by it. There is a picture with a rubber duck and one with an ebony elephant, which I do recall. It was a present from my Uncle Jack, who was in the merchant navy after the war and brought all manner of exotic gifts from his travels to the ‘Gold Coast’, most of which ended up on the mantelpiece.

There is also a photo of a scruffy toddler with a dirty face, un-posed for once, intent on the teaspoon I was carrying, which, if I remember correctly, was full of soil. I had decided it needed to be taken from the front garden to fill in a hole in the back. A trait I retained all my life, of doing things the hard way!

Visiting my grandmother in Salford

On visits to my grandmother in Salford I was never a crumb of trouble. She had an ancient out-of-tune piano in the front parlour – never used except for very special occasions – and I was lifted onto the piano seat and allowed to ‘play’, usually singing some little ditty to accompany the playing. This would keep me amused for hours while the grown-ups talked in the kitchen round the fire. If I did get fed up, she had a wondrous tin full of buttons to root through, where I would find ‘jewels’: odd bits of broken brooches and necklaces and she often let me take some of them home.

I always loved playing outside in our small garden and my father fixed a wooden swing on a lower branch of the sycamore tree and that was enjoyed for years. When Susan Baker moved into the street when I was about four, at last I had a playmate and we would spend hours on the swing, or trotting up and down the street ‘dressed up’ in various princess outfits. The skirts were usually made from old curtains simply gathered round the waist and secured by a belt. They had to be long, and they had to be very swirly. An old handbag was sometimes cadged to complete the outfit, although I never remember tottering round in high heels.

The tiny garden shed was taken over as a substitute for a ‘Wendy House.’ We had a couple of old plates and would collect things to make a pretend ‘meal’. Mud was fashioned into various shapes, and leaves were collected to represent other items of food – not always vegetables! For reasons maybe never known to me, plantain leaves were used to represent bacon, and sorrel leaves were duly collected and gingerly munched on for real: they have rather a pleasant taste of vinegar.

Dolls and presents

I don’t think I ever showed much interest in the two large dolls that I remember, Pauline and Christine. My interest in dolls came later, when I was eight or nine. But skipping was a great game. It could be played alone, or if you could find two other girls to hold a longer rope, a great time could be had, with many simple rhyming songs to accompany, like blue bells, cockle shells, eevie, ivy, over, or salt, vinegar, mustard, pepper, where the turning became faster and faster, until you tripped to a stop. Of course, you had to wait until the washing line snapped to get the rope in the first place.

One Christmas, when I was about five, I received an umbrella! It was snowing outside, and I spent the whole day walking up and down the street in my wellies, enchanted.

Sweet treats

Sweets were on ration during my early years and my mother would take the coupons to the corner shop every Friday morning, when she got her ‘order’. There might be a penny bar of Cadbury’s chocolate, or ‘floral gums’ or Pontefract Cakes – still a favourite of mine. Liquorice was always known as ‘spanish’, and could be bought in many forms: shoelaces, wheels or bars with a flattened end. These could be dipped into ‘kali’, a powdered sherbet, and sucked. Kali was very tangy and left you with a yellow tongue, as did gobstoppers, which could leave you with a tongue of any colour: pink, blue or green. If I ever got my hands on a Mars Bar, it was carefully sliced into eight or nine sections, and each piece savoured separately making it last a whole day.

In 1953 I discovered bubble gum. Suddenly on display at the corner shop was a small packet called ‘Wow’, and at a penny a time, you got a small pink square of gum and a tiny photograph: ‘Favourites of the Stars’! At that time I had never been to the cinema, but I had seen pictures in magazines and the exotic names thrilled me: Pier Angeli, Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson. Of course another collection was started and eventually these miniature photographs – less than an inch square – were put into an album. Swaps were made all over the street and eventually I was only one missing to complete the set. Gene Kelly finally turned up on a railway station platform somewhere in Wales, as we were wending our way to Tenby, rather trodden on, but seized upon with glee. I don’t think I ever touched bubble gum after that; I must have chewed my way through a hundred packets.

Scarlet fever

Some time in the summer of 1954 I became very ill with scarlet fever. I was in bed for six weeks, very poorly and unable to keep down the new penicillin medicine that the doctor had given me. My father was banished to the bed in the box room while my poor mother nursed me day and night, and as I started to recover, keep up with my constant demands for amusement. It was at this time that she brought me a book that yielded a cardboard doll and pages and pages of ‘outfits’ that had to be cut out and fastened to the doll’s shoulders and waist with paper tabs. A tiny pair of scissors was provided and I sat for days, fascinated, giving my mother some well-earned respite. It was so successful that she then found me a similar book with a pixie and friend to be dressed in paper outfits, which was even more exciting. Of course, she was reading to me every day and I had paper and crayons to keep me occupied.

At the end of the six weeks, I found that I was too weak to walk, so that had to be learned all over again. In those days, following an infection of scarlet fever, the house had to be fumigated and the whole family was told to remove themselves from the premises while this was done. Fortunately for me, the time coincided with the release of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan at the pictures, and my brother, who would have then been almost eighteen, took me to see it.


I can’t ever remember going to the pictures before that and, of course, from then on I became a great fan of everything Disney. A Peter Pan book was procured, probably for my birthday in September, along with a Peter Pan jigsaw. I sat in one of the armchairs in the front room, a tray placed across the arms and another delightful discovery was made. Over the months I collected almost all the old Disney stories in jigsaw form, my favourite being the Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland. I loved the innocent faces on the row of baby oysters being lined up for dinner!

I was sitting on this chair, the tray in front of me and reading a copy of my mother’s Woman’s Own, when I found out the shocking truth about Father Christmas. I must have been able to read fairly well, or at least better than my mother thought I could, as I found an article about finding the right time to break the news that Father Christmas didn’t exist.

‘There is no Father Christmas, is there?’ I asked my mother. The shock on her face told me it was true. I took it well, looking back. There were no tears, perhaps I had already worked it out. It hadn’t helped when, one Christmas Eve a couple of years before, a doll’s house had been put at the side of my parent’s bed in preparation for the morning and my father, getting up groggily in the dark during the night, had tripped up over it and badly stubbed his toes. The resulting shout and cursing woke me and I was out of bed like a shot. ‘Has he been?’ It was clear that he had been, but I was told he was coming back later with the rest of my presents. I wasn’t convinced. Also, on running downstairs, the reindeers hadn’t taken their mince pies. Definitely something fishy going on.

My kaleidoscope

When did I get my kaleidoscope? Probably around this time, maybe the same Christmas, but I had no idea when I lifted the unpromising tube to my eye and turned the end what joy it would bring me. It was truly like magic, a wonderful trick that I could perform to transform these tiny pieces of coloured glass into such beautiful patterns. It must have kept me quiet for hours and I never tired of it.

My mother came back from the corner shop one day in 1954 with a packet of Brooke Bond tea. She opened the packet and handed me a small picture card of a bird called a fieldfare, which I had never heard of, but it was an exquisite miniature artwork of a beautiful bird perched on a branch covered with berries and another passion was born. I don’t think I ever had an album to put them in, but they were treasured, as were the new series of wild flowers that followed.

It was a good job that about that time my brother had married and moved out of the house, giving me the much larger back bedroom, still with the old sideboard in place to keep my collections in.

Plasticine was much in favour in those days and a new packet with bright new colours was always appreciated. Sometimes the colours became mixed and ended up in a ball of sludgy brown – a great lesson for when I started painting and learning to mix my colours. Plasticine plates were fashioned and tiny pieces of green plasticine rolled to make peas. Eggs were made from yellow and white, red sausages rolled, mashed potato moulded. I was never much good at figures or animals, but had a bash at making a farmyard scene once.

Riding bikes with friends

One day Susan Baker’s older brother, Philip, appeared in the street on a three-wheel bike. Suddenly, he was my new best friend. I had always wanted a bike, but there was never enough money to buy one, but I loved hurtling down the street, which was quite steep, and begged a ‘go’ whenever I saw him outside. Kids came from all around to take turns and his parents must have been horrified to see this new bike being given such a bashing. We probably wore it out in a few weeks.

By this time I had learned to knit and sew, so dolls began to dominate the scene. Small scarves were knitted and my mother helped me to cut out and sew tiny dresses and jackets for them. Any scrap of fabric was coveted and I remember receiving a precious remnant of ice blue brocade, embroidered all over with silver flowers that had been used by one of our neighbours for a wedding outfit. It came along with a strip of white cotton daisies that had been used to trim it. The resulting creation, although a bit stiff for a small doll, transformed her into a fairy princess. Although I played endlessly with my dolls until I was about eleven, I can’t remember a single name I gave them, although I’m sure they had them. I spent a lot of time with Joan, my friend from school, and we each had a small cardboard suitcase full of doll’s clothes. For some reason we were particularly keen that our dolls had ‘travelling suits’, although, of course, they never went anywhere.

Paints and crayons were always in good supply and at some stage I got a toy typewriter. The letters were on a dial that had to be swizzled round to the right position, a tedious procedure, but it eventually produced acceptable results on the paper. It stood me in good staid later when I started work, as, without Tippex in use at that time, accuracy was essential.

My ‘newspaper’ 

When I was about ten I started to ‘publish’ a newspaper with my friend Joan. This work was done in the shed and the resulting tabloid– there was only one copy per edition – was called The Bluebird News. Pictures and snippets of news and fashion were culled from women’s magazines and catalogues and stuck on the paper with glue. We put in our own news items as well, such as Mr. Trengove has some new fish in his pond, or Mrs. Wood’s cat has eaten her budgie – big news, that was.

One thing is certain, along with wandering the fields and ponds every fine day to collect wild flowers and reading every day, I was never short of something to do. Not a single one of my ‘toys’ required a battery or a plug and I still believe that to be brought up as a child in the 1950s was the very best time in the world.

This story is taken from the writing group’s most recent anthology Memories Unlocked, which is available from Amazon and good book shops around the world.

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers? Drop us an email at [email protected]



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