A Moss Side Childhood

Dennis Gent


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I WAS BORN at 6.40 am on the 12th January, 1922 at 168, LloydStreet, Greenheys, Manchester 15, exactly twelve months to the dayafter my parents married. My grandfather owned quite a lot ofproperty, mainly rows of terraced houses, and soon after my birth myparents moved to one of his houses at 147, Bishop Street, Moss Side,Manchester. I don't think my mother was very happy there. She hadbeen born and brought up at Sharston Farm, near Northenden, and inthose days it was like the heart of the countryside with woods andgreen fields, and lots of wildlife. There was hardly a leaf or ablade of grass in Moss Side, apart from Alexandra Park. The houseswere in rows, back-to-back with small backyards opening onto narrowentries (passage ways). It was a grey, bleak and sooty area, but thepeople were very houseproud even though they were mostly desperatelypoor. The winters were bitterly cold, with one coal fire the onlyheating. The bedrooms were freezing, and a hot water bottle wasessential, even though we children slept three in a bed when we wereyoung.

My father worked as a packer in the basement of a textilewarehouse near Piccadilly, but was sacked along with many othersduring the slump in the 1920s. There was little help for the poor inthose days, and certainly no dole. With a wife and baby to supportDad was desperate, not least because his tight-fisted father stillinsisted on the rent being paid every week. Almost as a last resort,Dad bought a cheap brush, a bag of lime, and a bucket, and went roundknocking on doors asking people if they would like their cellars orbackyards whitewashed. That led to colour-washing ceilings inside andeventually to painting and paperhanging. Poor Dad learnt the trade bytrial and error, and in retrospect I think the standards heeventually achieved were remarkable. Not only did he become a firstclass decorator, but he could imitate walnut and mahogany wood grainswith amazing realism.

The 1920s and 1930s were not good years for the decorating trade.Estimates had to be low to have a chance of being accepted. Paintswere of very poor quality compared to today and, generally speaking,tradesmen in all the building industry were looked down upon andregarded as being inferior. Because paints were very slow drying andmost houses unheated there was little work from the end of October tothe beginning of March, and long hours had to be worked during thesummer months to make up. This continued until the 1960s. My fatheremployed as many as seven or eight men and apprentices in the 1930sbut never made any money mainly because he was much too honest andtrusting.

I don't really remember much about my early years. I was very thinand underweight with a terrible inferiority complex, and I wasbullied mercilessly at school. I do remember my first day. I refusedto go through the gate and clung to the railings screaming my headoff. Even when I was dragged into the classroom I continued at thetop of my voice, utterly disrupting the class. In desperation theybrought Russell Talbot in from the next class to sit next to me and Ifinally shut up. Russell lived next door to me in Bishop Street.Russell was about a year older than me. When he was about eleven hewas waylaid on his way home from school by the Fletcher twins, twobullies from the same class. They jumped on him from behind andinjured his spine. He spent years in a kind of straitjacket and wascrippled for life, being unable to turn his head from side to side. Iused to go round and we played various games together for hours. Theschool, incidentally, was St Margaret's Elementary in Great WesternStreet, and was demolished over thirty years ago like most of thestreets in Moss Side and Hulme. My schooldays at St Margaret's werenot happy: discipline was harsh and a lot of bullying went on. Theboys' school consisted of one huge room with a class in each cornerseparated by folding screens. There was an open coal fire at each endso that the boys at the front of the class roasted and those at theback froze. As the screens were only about six feet high you couldclearly hear what was going on in all the other classes, and it's amiracle we were nearly all proficient at least in the three Rs. Theheadmaster sat behind his desk like a bird of prey just inside themain door where he could see all, and no one could sneak past. Hisleather tawse with four thongs was always at the ready for latecomersor any unfortunate pupil who had committed some heinous crime, suchas talking in class, not doing homework, or having unpolished shoes.One interesting ritual took place most play times. The boys' andgirls' toilets were roofless and separated only by a six-foot brickwall. Our objective was to try to get a jet over the top of the wall,success being greeted with girlish screams, and cheers and raucouslaughter from the boys.

One day the teacher, Mr Clarkson, called me to his desk at thefront of the class and asked me, very quietly, if I got enough toeat. I was quite shocked and said, 'Oh yes, sir, I do sir.' Therewere few luxuries in our house but I never ever remember beinghungry. I realised much later that my mother deliberately deniedherself so that Dad and us children had sufficient. My mother's oneluxury was a hot bath every Sunday afternoon. She would run thewater, hand hot, until the bath was a quarter full. Then she wouldget in and continue running really hot water until the bathroom wasfull of steam. After an hour she would come out looking like alobster, but relaxed and happy.

I remember the holiday in, I think, Penmaenmawr, when I asked ifthe mountains were made of cardboard. The only mountains I had seenwere those at the Belle Vue fireworks, backdrops for the wonderfulbattle scenes, and they were made of cardboard. Every Sunday duringthe summer months (it had to be Sunday, because Dad worked five and ahalf long days a week then, and it was always football on Saturdayafternoon) our parents took us all out for the day, sometimes toAinsdale Sands near Southport, but more often it was a tram or trainride from Central Station into the country. It was really unspoilt inthose days with hardly any cars, and we usually had the fields andlanes to ourselves. I remember particularly Dunham Park, Altrincham,and Alton Towers. At Ainsdale we seemed to be the only people on thatvast expanse of sand dunes. Mile after mile of hot, soft sandhillsrelieved only by patches of cotton grass. Often it was dark as wetravelled home, our backs so burnt with the blistering sun that wedaren't lean against the wooden backrests on the number eleven tramas it rattled and swung from side to side down Lower Mosely Street,Jackson Street, Alexandra Road and Yarburgh Street to the terminus onWithington Road. These were happy times which compensated a littlefor our drab existence among the brick walls and smoking chimneys ofMoss Side.

At 149 Bishop Street lived my Auntie Dora and Uncle Dan, who was atraveller for a paint and wallpaper company. They were the first inthe district to get a wireless set and a telephone. A few doors uplived a stout old lady who used to stand on her front doorstep withher arms folded. She was famed for a saying, often quoted by myfather, which was 'It's bin one of them days as is days.'

Every street corner had its shop. I was sent to one called Jones'sto buy a crusty cob with a sixpenny bit. Whilst standing waiting tobe served I put the sixpence in my mouth and swallowed it. It wasrecovered the next day.

We formed gangs with other neighbourhood kids and played out tilllong after dark. We always ran home though when we heard the familiarundulating whistle as Mam called us in, the same whistle that GranpaNeild used to call the hens from far and wide when it was feedingtime.

Dad used to take us into Alexandra Park on Sunday mornings,through the rockery, round the lake and the rose garden. It wasbeautiful then with masses of flowers everywhere and a magnificentcactus house, but no one was allowed on the grass and parkies withwhistles kept an eagle eye on us. We always ended our morning at theDemesne Road end of the avenue of lime trees where we dug smallpieces of granite out of the path. These we took home and attemptedto polish by laboriously rubbing them on the back doorstep, which wasmade of sandstone.

Sunday dinner was always wonderful, which was not surprisingconsidering Mam had spent most of the morning preparing it. Iremember most of all the tiny new potatoes, which must have takenhours to scrape, and the glorious fruit flans, a pastry base filledwith whatever fruit was in season, all smothered in thick, whippedcream.

Uncle Harry worked for Dad in Bishop Street days and slept in theattic. My job was to try to get him up and I used to climb the steepstairs time and again to shake him. He just muttered 'Alright',turned over, pulled the sheet over his head and promptly went back tosleep, while Dad and his men waited fuming down below with thehandcart loaded ready for off.

Cockroaches were a pest and used to live in cracks in the narrowback scullery. After we'd been to the pictures - the West End inWithington Road, the Imperial, Brooks's Bar, or the Regent on thebridge on Princess Road - we used to creep in quietly, switch on thelight, and I would dash round stamping on as many as I could beforethey got away.

The most carefree times were those we spent at Sharston Farm, onlyfour miles from Bishop Street, but another world. That short journeytook us from the terraced houses, back yards and entries of Moss Sideto the green, unspoilt countryside of Cheshire. There were absolutelyno restrictions and we could do as we pleased. We went acrossShenton's field to the pond where we used to swing up and down on along branch stretching out over the water. We went to Gatley Woods,where the undergrowth was like a jungle, but we could play there allday without fear. There was a den over the shippon where we hadorange boxes for seats and a table, and jam jars full of buttercupsand daisies. The cinder-covered yard between the Tea Rooms and thebig ash tree was where we used to play trains. One of us wouldshuffle around, pushing a yard brush in front to make the track,round and round, twisting and spiralling, crossing and re-crossinguntil the track was like a maze, and the rest of us had to try tofollow.

Every Easter chocolate eggs were hidden in hen's nests in theoutbuildings, and we searched excitedly until we found them. Therewas a very old hen house where, reaching across the perches to thenest boxes, I slipped and fell into about eighteen inches of soft,foul-smelling droppings. I ran howling to the house and wasunceremoniously dumped into the sandstone trough under the pump andsluiced with ice-cold water.The summers must have been generallyfine, dry and often hot because I don't remember much badweather.

I think the happiest times of all were the summer holidays. Oh thejoy of packing the huge, heavy, leather portmanteau as we preparedfor our annual trip to Newton's farm at Langdale End. The tram rideto Victoria Station, and the steam train through Lancashire andYorkshire to Scarborough, then Mr Noble's bus through the beautiful,leafy lanes until we rattled across the wooden bridge over the riverDerwent, and we were there. Every day was sheer magic. Long, longwalks over the heather-covered moors, down the banks of the riverwith huge anthills every few yards, through the dales where the densefoliage overhead made it a green semi-darkness underneath, and the 7am plunge into the icy waters of the river with Dad always first in.And, above all, the glorious silence and solitude. I think we werethe only visitors in the whole area. We walked for miles in alldirections, and rarely saw a soul, apart from the occasional local.But we did see lots of wildlife: whole colonies of rabbits inwarrens, stoats, water voles, trout and other freshwater creatures,adders, herons, various birds of prey, and hosts of insects. Wegathered wild strawberries, blackberries and bilberries, and MrsNewton and Kathleen made them into pies for us. It seemed only rarelythat we had to shelter and make a log fire under the stone bridgeover the river Derwent. Other outings would be to Belle Vue for thezoo and the firework display, and to Smithfield Market everyChristmas Eve.

 

I don't remember much else about my life during those years, apartfrom going to Saturday morning matinee at the Park Picture Palace for1d admission, Sunday School at the Wesleyan Methodist Church on thecorner of Great Western Street and Withington Road, and then joiningthe Wolf Cubs, and later the Boy Scouts. Three brothers named Fodenran the Cubs, Scouts and Rovers, and they set a wonderful example forus boys. They organised games, shows (very amateurish) and campingholidays. I remember one show which was based on a radio programmecalled 'In Town Tonight'. Celebrities visiting London wereinterviewed. I was supposed to be an American, Hiramsomething-or-other, who had to say, 'Advertising pays. A codfish lays100,000 eggs and nobody knows. A hen lays one egg and tells all theworld.' I had a check jacket and flat cap that Dad lent me, and hemade the big mistake of lending me his one and only cigar he wassaving for Christmas. I was so nervous I chewed the cigar to raggedshreds before I even got on the stage.

Most camping holidays were locally in Derbyshire, but there wasone memorable year when we went to Scotland and crossed on the ferryto the Isle of Arran. I can still smell the bacon George Foden friedfor breakfast over an open fire. There is just one other campingholiday I will never forget and for good reason. It was organised bySt Margaret's, and was a week in bell tents in Hayfield. It startedbadly because my parents couldn't afford to buy me a rucksack so myspare clothing was made up into a brown paper parcel tied withstring. It was raining as I made my way to the school and, as Iwaited in the playground for our group to assemble, the brown paperstarted to disintegrate. The other boys laughed at me as I clutcheddesperately at my shirts, short trousers and underwear, and tears ofshame rolled down my cheeks. A teacher took pity on me and made up myparcel again with fresh brown paper from inside the school, and savedme from further humiliation.

As I said, it was raining, and it never stopped all week. A tentin a field was the worst possible place to be - and the tent leaked.The never-ending rain caused a thick mist to develop which broughtvisibility down to a few yards, and soon we were ankle-deep in mud.My clothes were wet, my straw palliasse and blankets were wet, and Iwas wretchedly homesick. The outcome was that I developed rheumaticfever from which I nearly died, my temperature once reaching106ºF. Most of the next six months or more I was unable even tostand, and I remember very little apart from frequent visits by thedoctor, and my mother carrying me in her arms and immersing me inrock salt baths several times a week. I must have been ten or elevenyears old and, although I recovered, it left me with swollen joints,knees like door knobs and a murmur of the heart. The last was onlydiscovered on a trip to Italy in the late 1940s. I contractedpneumonia (and again nearly died), the doctor saying I had a murmurbut fortunately my heart was otherwise very strong. Incredibly I hadbeen passed A1 for the army only a few years previously. Reminds meof an old joke during the war: a man in a wheelchair goes for hismedical, the doctor looks at him, turns to his assistant and says,'Oil his wheels and pass him A1.'

I think I was slightly above average at school because I alwaystried hard. English was easily my best subject, and I was ok on mostothers including arithmetic, but algebra I found completelyincomprehensible. Life could be cruel at times though. When I wastwelve one of the sections in English was spelling. There were twentywords, given verbally by the teacher, and some were quite difficult.I spelt every one correctly, but was given three marks only. Why?Because I began each one with a capital letter, and the only onesmarked as correct were the three words which did begin with acapital, like Australia. I was heartbroken and only came third inclass. With full marks for spelling I would have been first for theone and only time in my life.

Shortly afterwards I sat an exam for entrance to the Junior Schoolof Art, and to my amazement I passed. The School of Art was on thetop floor of the School of Commerce building in Princess Streetwhich, I believe, was originally a Trades Union headquarters. I wastwelve and a half when I went there for two years. I quite enjoyed myart study there, and on leaving joined a small firm in ChepstowStreet behind what was then the New Oxford cinema. There was only asmall staff of about twenty, about three quarters of them girls. Themanager, Mr Speakman, was a young man in his late twenties who was abrilliant artist and had all the worry and responsibility. The boss,Mr Cotton, came late, left early, and sat in his little office allthe time. I soon saw there was no future for me in textile designing,though I enjoyed it. There was no equality and the girls, who were atleast as good if not better than the boys, received 7s 6d a week andwe got 10s. I talked it over with my father and he agreed to me goinginto decorating, but not with him. He said I should be apprenticed toa big firm so I could learn every branch of the trade. So I went intoMr Cotton's office and told him I wanted to leave, and he immediatelyoffered me a rise to 12s 6d per week. My mind was made up and I wentfor an interview at the firm of G. F. Holding Ltd, Withington Road,Brooks's Bar, Manchester. They were rather reluctant to take me onbecause they usually took a boy straight from school aged fourteen,and I was just fifteen. However, they gave me a chance (maybe the ArtSchool training helped) and I did just one year in the 'paint shop'instead of the usual two. In those days there were few ready-to-usetins of paint and in the paint shop were kegs and barrels of variouspigments in paste form- Venetian Red, Golden Ochre, Brunswick Greenetc - which had to be weighed out into smaller containers ready to goout to the jobs. Also there were forty-gallon casks of pure Americanturpentine, boiled linseed oil and raw linseed oil. The main item andthe basic ingredient in most paints, which had to be mixed on thejob, was white lead. This was delivered to the yard a ton at a timein smallish metal kegs each weighing one hundredweight (fifty kilos)and it was hard work carrying them from the lorry in the back entry,across the yard, and stacking them in a corner of the paint shop. Themain task for the boy was 'getting jobs up', i. e. getting out allthe large variety of materials: tackle (ladders, steps etc.), paints,brushes, dust sheets and so on. All quantities had to be marked downagainst a printed list which was given to the foreman. On completionthis list was returned and all items checked off and remainingpigments weighed and marked down. This system certainly gave a goodidea of the actual cost of each job and kept pilfering down to aminimum. Perhaps the worst job was cleaning out the paint kettles(cans). These came back with thick layers of dry paint inside. At oneend of the yard was an old iron bath on trestles. This was filledwith water in which a large quantity of caustic soda crystals hadbeen dissolved. The cans were immersed in this until the paintsoftened, usually several days. They were then scraped clean andwashed out with a hosepipe. You quickly learnt that great care had tobe taken when putting the cans in the caustic soda: any splashes onyour skin immediately resulted in large blisters. A copy of theFactories Act Safety Regulations was displayed on the wall butcompletely ignored. No goggles or gloves were supplied, no first aidbox, not even anywhere to wash your hands except a cold water tap inthe yard which had the hosepipe attached, so you ate your buttiesafter handling white lead, lime, caustic and other dangeroussubstances.

After a year I went out on the job with the painters. Transportwas by foot, bicycle, tram or bus, even train. Only the bosses hadcars. G. F. Holding had jobs throughout the North West and NorthWales, and included cinemas, churches, shops and offices as well asprivate, but the bulk of their work was for breweries, everythingfrom the street corner pub in Salford to huge hotels. I'll neverforget one four-storey, plaster-fronted pub called 'The Grapes' inSalford. It was on a busy main road, and as the pavement was not verywide the foot of the ladder was in the gutter. Even then it had to bevery straight up, and it was not pleasant for the painters working atthe top. My job was 'footing' the ladder, eight hours a day, dayafter day. The only relief came when I made the morning. midday andafternoon brews, usually about twenty, some without milk, somewithout sugar, but most heavily sweetened, even some with condensedmilk. The latter was mixed into a paste with the tea and sugar, andhad to be scraped off the waxed bread-wrapping it was usually broughtin. At lunchtime, twelve until one o'clock, I went to the shops witha list for meat and potato pies, chips, fish, steak puddings etc.,and it was woe betide me if I forgot anything or mixed them up. Iwent out with my list at 11.30 am. We worked from 8 am until 5.30 pm,and 8 till 12 on Saturdays We apprentices had to put up with a lot ofragging, but it was all good fun. I was sent to the shops once for apound of glass tacks and a rubber hammer - or was it the other wayround? Another time I was told to ask for a long stand. Of course,the shopkeeper was in on the time-honoured joke, and told you to waitin the corner.

A year passed by, and then came the best years of yourapprenticeship, which really did give you a thorough grounding in thedecorating trade. I spent a year with a first-class paperhanger, thensix months with the grainer (he really was an artist and couldimitate any kind of wood and marble), another six months with thesignwriter and so on.

Just before Christmas 1940 we had heavy air raids on Manchesterand all staff were put on bomb damage repairs. 'All staff' actuallyconsisted of elderly or infirm painters and young apprentices. Thework involved covering roofs which had had slates blown off withroofing felt, fixed with laths, and nailing transparent sheeting overglassless window frames. The 'Big Boss', G. F. Holding, had retired,and his son, F. L., took me on as his assistant. I went round thebomb sites, took a note of materials required, saw that they wereordered and delivered, collected time sheets, and took the wagepackets to the foremen to distribute. I felt quite important, andbelieve my call-up was delayed because of this work. Eventually - Ican't remember exactly when - I went for my medical, and took anaptitude and intelligence test. I was asked which service I wouldprefer, and I said the R. A. F. I thought the uniform was rathernice, and I had an idea it would appeal to the girls more than khaki.I didn't fancy the Navy at all. Of course, when my papers arrived Ifound I was not only joining the Army, but the Tank Corps - me, whoknew absolutely nothing about mechanics or radio and had never drivenin my life. So much for the aptitude tests.

From here on my story is told in my letters home. I wrotefrequently, and generally in great detail about life in the forcesand my travels in North Africa and Italy, culminating in that magicalmoment when I first set eyes on that lovely, vivacious girl in CusanoMilanino who was to become my wife.


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