Back then…..

Disney Garden

In the late 60s and early 70s we used to go from our house in Sunderland to visit our Gran in Boldon Colliery. When we were on the bus or later on in the car we always used to look out for a garden on the main road in East Boldon which was filled with cut outs of various cartoon characters. I don’t recall whether we outgrew it before or after it disappeared but I think the story was that the guy who owned the house got fed up with it being vandalised and ended up taking it down – sad really.

What’s in a name?


One of the first things you see when you come to our house is a plaque next to the door bearing the name Wilfred. It has sadly lost some of the letters so that only the Wilf bit is still visible. It’s intrigued me since we moved in and people often ask us why it’s there and we have to admit we have no idea!

Then today a lady knocked on our door and handed us a file full of documents. Apparently her mother-in-law used to own the house and she had come across the file when she was sorting out her belongings after she passed away. The file contained documents covering all of the sales of the property since the whole estate was sold in 1890 before any houses were even built.


There are some very old documents, some of which look like originals. One even has the original wax seals attached.

Sadly at first glance there doesn’t seem to be any answer to the question “who is Wilfred” but I did find something close!


I shall look forward to having a good look through the documents at some point soon.

Memories of a Great Gran

As the “Annus Horribilus” that was 2011 draws to a close it dawned on me that I never wrote anything to celebrate the life of my Grandmother who died in May this year only days after we celebrated her 100th Birthday (Typical she said she didn’t want to be 100 – I think she only hung on because we told her she had to so we could see the telegram from the Queen!). It’s hardly surprising though given that her only son (my Dad obviously) had died in February which had hit her hard.
Birthday Card from the QueenSo I was thinking about the times that we spent at her house in Boldon Colliery when we were young and the things that stick out in my mind about those times. In the 50 years I had the honour of knowing her she only lived in 2 houses and they weren’t more than a few minutes walk apart. It was in the first of these two houses that I spent a lot of time as a child and Ihave very fond memories of that time which I’d like to share.

The thing I used to love most about staying there was that she’d let us sleep in her feather bed. The mattress was stuffed full of the things and it had to be fluffed up each morning but the joy of getting into it was unequaled. You would just sink into the mattress and be enveloped by the soft cosiness of it all. Unfortunately it didn’t last and by the early hours of the morning you were lying on a flat hard lump of a bed but it was worth it and we never passed up the chance to sleep in it.

She never owned her own house and when we were very young the house had a coal fire and an old range in the kitchen. Sadly both were lost in the 60’s as the house was modernised and while the fire in the living room was replaced by a coke fire, that gave my Grandfather no end of problems, the range was lost leaving only a little alcove which was a great place to hide. In the kitchen my Gran had a larder which was where she stored most of her food. She didn’t have a fridge for many years and all she had to keep things cool was a little coolbox. One of the disadvantages of this was that she always used sterilized milk which we all hated!

Even though she didn’t have a fridge until many years after they became a fixture in most peoples houses she did have an electric kettle many many years before any other person I knew! It was a big silver one which sat in one corner of the kitchen on top of her washing machine (which in those days only came out once a week on a Monday!). It had a huge big connector which was almost industrial grade and was a wonder to us who were used to the kettle on the cooker which, if you were lucky, whistled when it was ready!

Just to the left of the aforementioned alcove was the best thing in the kitchen – a cupboard that the door pulled down and became a worktop. My Gran would open it when she wanted to make a cup of tea, putting the cups on the rear side of the door and getting tea (or later teabags) out of the cupboard and putting them into the just warmed teapot before carrying it back to the kettle to be filled. She’d then return to the shelf/door and get out the sugar from the cupboard. There were always several packets of sugar in there, in fact there were aways several packets of most things – my Grandfather was a very organised person and the thought of running out of anything was abhorrent! He worked as a storeman in a local factory and in his spare time helped out in his brother shop down in the “Colliery”.

The other thing that was in the kitchen was the back door. This was the main entry to and from the house and the only time I remember the front door being opened would be if someone who didn’ know my Gran came round to the house. The main memory I have of the front door being open occurred every year on Christmas eve when the carol singers from the local chapel would come round and sing outside. It was always looked forward to and usually signalled that it was time for my brother and I to go to bed – which we didn’t mind because it meant Santa Claus was on his way!

In the days before Supermarkets and long before Asda opened their store in the town a trip to the big shops in Sunderland, Jarrow or South Shields was a long bus ride away so most of the day to day shopping was done locally in shops like the one owned by Grandad’s brother Uncle Norman. In addition to these there were mobile shops that came round. One was a mobile grocery and another a mobile butcher. I remember they used to stop outside and we’d go out with my Gran while she bought what was needed. The back of the van would be open and they’d put out a step and you’d get in the back where you’d be served from behind a counter. They knew all of their customers by name and knew exactly what they liked to buy!

But…..the one street merchant we would always love the arrival of most was Tommy, the Ice Cream man! His chimes would usually be heard around tea time and our ears would suddenly prick up and we’d look hopefully at Gran and Grandad. We’d usually get a ice cream cornet with “monkey’s blood” drizzled over it. If we were really lucky we’d get a 99 with a chocolate flake in it. Grandad was partial to an Ice Cream sandwich which was ice cream between 2 flat waifers and sometimes I’d have that. Often he would come before we’d eaten our dinner and on those occasions Grandad would take out a bowl and get it filled with dollops of ice cream which he’d then put in the pantry until after tea – how it didn’t melt I’ll never know!

Gran worked in the (Co-operative) Store in Sunderland, upstairs in the women’s clothing department, she was in her element as she always liked to be smartly dressed. We’d often pop into see her while she was at work which I loved but there was something that i always found daunting! As she worked up stairs we’d have to go up and see her and despite there being a lift my mum would always make us walk up the stairs. The stairs were wooden and open which meant that you could see right through them and this used to terrify me and I was always glad when we reached the top.

There are two things that I remember about being in the Store – the first was that while visiting my Gran at work my Dad suddenly appeared from behind a rack of clothes with a huge grin on his face and announced that he had passed his driving test! The other was most likely in around 1967 and there was a mobile display at the other end of the floor advertising the new radio station Radio1 – my Gran went off to get the DJ to sign an autograph for us and although at the time I had no idea who he was I would, many years later, discover that it had been Alan “Fluff” Freeman who had signed a bit of an old shoebox for her!

We’d go to my Gran’s by bus and this would take two bus journeys. The first would take us into Sunderland’s bus station from where we would have to walk around to Fawcett Street to catch another bus which took us over the bridge and out along the Newcastle Road (passing the bottom of the street we’d eventually move to) and on to West Boldon. There was a house on the right just before we got off the bus that we’d always look out for as he had filled his garden with wooden models of cartoon characters. Once we got off the bus it was still quite a walk to my Gran’s house and the journey would take us down through some open fields and over the burn.

The burn was a small stream that we crossed by an iron bridge but it was also so much more. It was an adventure playground for us kids and it was there we would play with one of the local kids who was slightly older than us (and apparently I found out later our parents hated!). I remember there was a little path that ran down the side of the bridge which gave us access to the side of the stream. It also allowed us to get under the bridge and hand from the supports. I don’t thing we ever managed to get across the river that way but I seem to recall falling in once so we must have tried. In later years we would be allowed to take the latest in a long line of dogs that my Gran owned (all of which seemed to have names that started with an S) for walks along side the burn but I never got to do any courting down there which my father told me he used to do!

Once on the other side of the burn it was a short walk up the other side and then you entered the estate between two blocks of garages. It was here that my earliest memory takes place – I can remember being pushed through the snow in a pushchair and being intrigued by the tracks left in the snow – I have no idea how old I was at the time. You then turned left and walked down the street and my Gran’s house was on the corner number 3. She used to have this really big garden as she was on the corner and we’d have bonfires on November 5th. I remember we’d go round the neighbour’s houses to see if they had any wood for the bonfire. One year my Grandad gave us his cap to put on the guy and that night we watched as it went up in flames. He then amazed us the next morning by coming down stairs wearing the cap! He’d bought a new one and had given us the old one to burn!

Sadly at some point the council took most of the garden back and built a block of seriously ugly garages on the land. We missed the garden but I think it was better in the long run for my grandparents as it was easier to mange and gave them a nice sheltered back garden. Once while playing Cowboys my Grandad helped us build a fire so we could cook some baked beans – he opened a tin and we heated them up over the fire – however when it came to eating them I lifted the folk to my mouth but just couldn’t put them in – I found the smell repulsive. I’ve never been able to eat baked beans and I’m sure this incident left me with a pathological hatred of the things!

My Gran on the other hand had a pathological hatred of thunderstorms. At the first sign of one she’d clear the stuff out of the cupboard under the stairs and replace it with one of the dining room chairs – she’d then stay in the cupboard until the storm had passed and stopped making her heido (never found out what that meant!). When she got older and moved to a bungalow, after my Grandad died, there wasn’t a cupboard under the stairs so I have no idea what she did. Maybe the fear subsided – if it did her other great hatred did not! She hated onions! Couldn’t bear them and she continued to tell everyone this almost till the day she died! My Dad explained in the eulogy he’d written for her funeral that it was because her father used to like to eat a boiled onion after his shift at the mine and in order to “please her man” her mother would spend most of the day cooking it which filled the house with the smell of onions!

The living room always held happy memories for us as that was wear we spent our Christmas’s. I can still remember the apprehension I would feel standing at the top of the stairs wondering if it was safe to go downstairs, had HE been yet? And coming down into the living room to find the floor strewn with toys and presents. Santa always used to set up the main present so one year we came down to find a Hot Wheels track, another year it was a Subbuteo set complete with floodlights and in the year that I have a picture of my brother and I smiling at the camera, still in our pyjamas, it was an Action Man Space capsule!

There would of course be a stocking and a sack full of presents from relations and neighbours like Mrs Dummer or Daisy from across the road. We’d eat all of the sweets from our stockings and never eat our Christmas dinner, much to my father’s annoyance! There was a long standing joke that whenever we sat down to eat on Boxing day a Police car would pull up outside (my Gran never had a phone in that house) and my Dad would be called away to investigate a murder or sudden death. We’d often end up getting the bus home with one small Christmas prezzie that we could carry and Dad would have to go and pick the rest up later!

The other thing that stood in the living room was Gran’s Cocktail cabinet – not that she was a great drinker (and gave up altogether after my father got her drunk one Christmas at our house years later). The cocktail cabinet was in my Gran’s living room for as long as I can remember and it could even have been as old as me! It’s certainly in the background of the Christmas picture and was there right next to her when she died. It was with great sadness that I had to accept that we couldn’t really give it a home when we were clearing out her house. But why was it so special? Simple really – whenever the door to that cocktail cabinet opened it meant something special was about to be given to you. When I was little it was sweets, as I got older it usually meant the Sherry (or Port) was coming out! or she’d have some money stashed in there ready to give us. The most magical words in the world were “Kevin, open that door for me will you…….”

Grandad, on the other hand, kept his money safely under lock and key in one of those old fashioned money boxes in the bottom of his wardrobe. When we went to visit he would always disappear upstairs into the front bedroom and get out the little black box before returning downstairs with it and handing us some money. It was at the window of the front bedroom that I saw him for the last time – he hadn’t been well and we’d been to visit. As we were leaving we l looked up and he was waving at us. Beth, my eldest daughter, suddenly shouted out “bye bye Great Grandad I won’t see you anymore!” much to our embarrassment – but she was right we didn’t.

Sometimes we’d sleep in the little front bedroom where there was only enough room for a single bed so we would top and tail – me at one end and Garry at the other! I would often lie awake at night listening to the sounds outside, few cars in those days but I remember the sounds of people walking home late at night and the clip clop of high heels as they approached and then receded. On another occasion I was ill and my Gran must have sat up with me most of the night as every time I woke she was there. Gran often made us feel better when we were ill as she would always turn up with a bottle of Lucozade, which was quite expensive in those days!

Sunday night my Grandad would go out and he would always have a shave before he did. He would boil the kettle and fill a big metal mug with water and take it up to the bathroom with him. I must have watched him shaving and think that was where I learned to do it as my father always used an electric razor. When he was ready he would head off to the”Chapel” for the Sunday service, he took us once and I recall it was seriously dull (and we were used to church as we’d be sent off to Sunday School every week) – he belonged to something called the Fellowship which I didn’t understand but he has a badge and they sent him a magazine every month. After the worship she would retire to the Wheatsheaf for a couple of pints.

During the times we spent at Gran’s house we would find things to occupy us. Often we would play with the kid down the road (who our parents hated remember – this may have had something to do with him teaching us things like how to spit!) or just with each other. Objects from Gran’s house were pressed into service in our games. My dad had been in the Boys Brigade and had a bugle and a wooden stick from those days. The stick had a brass end to it and was the sort of things that Sargeant Major’s tuck under their arms while barking orders. Once we watched a film about a hammer thrower and keen to try this out we used my Gran’s dog lead to simulate what we’d been watching. Unfortunately when we let go of it the wind caught it and blew it onto a neighbours roof! We tried to think of a way to get it down but in the end we just pretended that we had no idea where it had gone!!

I could go on for ages, there is so much I haven’t covered. Uncle George and his cine camera (that I now own), the wonderful smell of the bottom kitchen drawer where the shoe polish was kept, the day my Gran tried to smarten us us by plastering our hair with hairspray, going to visit Auntie Aba in her prefab or Auntie Edna in Jarrow or even the infamous visit to the Mill photo studio in East Boldon for the “pandies” photo that Sarah loves so much! However there is one last memory I’ll finish with.

At the top of the stairs was the toilet and seperate bathroom. The toilet was quite small and it was lit by a single lightbulb fixed to the ceiling. The lightbulb was unlike any I had ever seen before and I have no idea how old it was. It was small and not very powerful – about 10 watts I seem to recall but it was just bright enough to illuminate the loo. The thing that makes it stand out is that it was there for as long as my Gran lived there. I remember it being there when I was little and it was still there when she moved out. There’s a part of me that thinks that had she still lived there I would have gone to the loo after her funeral and it would have gone pop!

Mary “Maisie” Potts 13th May 1911 – 29th May 2011

Ashes to Ashes

On 16th April 1990 the unthinkable happened, my mum passed away in the early hours of the morning. The reality should have been that I was prepared for what was the obvious eventuality of lung cancer but you don’t expect your mum to die do you, not at such a young age – she was 53. My Dad was with her when she died and he took me and my brother down to see her later that day. He also arranged for the funeral director to call that afternoon, even though it was Easter Monday and things were quite understandably quite raw. During the discussion it became obvious that my Dad wanted my Mum to be cremated – this came as quite a shock…..

If we rewind back a few years to when my first wife’s Gran died and my mum came to the funeral with me. I remember her crying and telling me that at funerals she often shed tears for her father who had died when I was only a very young child. She told me that she had been upset that her Dad had been cremated and how she would have liked to be able to go and sit next to his grave and talk to him when she needed comfort. She said that when she died she wanted to be buried, somewhere that just simply said that she had been here.

So on that fateful day I related all of this to my Dad and the Funeral Director but was talked down – I was told how graves get forgotten about as time goes on. In order to pacify me my dad said that once things had returned to normal we would all go somewhere as a family and scatter my mums ashes. Reluctantly I agreed but I wasn’t happy and even went to visit my mum in the chapel of rest, against my father’s wishes, to see her and apologise for what had been decided. The funeral was on the Friday and was a lovely event but I still wasn’t happy about the cremation. As we stood talking in the garden of remembrance after the ceremony there was suddenly a plume of smoke from the chimney which seemed to swirl around us as we got into the cars – it felt as though my Mum was expressing her anger.

Over the next few months I waited for my Dad to get in touch regarding the scattering of her ashes but what happened was that he formed a new relationship with the woman who became his second wife. It all happened very quickly and I began to feel that my mum’s ashes had been forgotten about. As time went on it became more difficult to raise the issue as I felt that he didn’t like my mum to be mentioned in case it upset his new wife. Slowly months passed into years and it got harder and harder to deal with and more difficult to ask the question that I needed to know the answer to.

As both my wives would probably testify the issue caused me much distress over the years. I contemplated asking the question many times, going over and over it in my head but whenever I was there in front of him or talking to him on the phone it just wouldn’t come out. The fact I had no idea what happened to my Mum’s remains was probably a contributing factor to repeated bouts of depression. In 2009 with the 20th anniversary of her death looming I sought counseling and it was one of the issues that I needed to talk about. At the end of the sessions though I was only a little bit closer to asking the question and then something happened.

Just as I was getting up the courage to ask my Dad was diagnosed with cancer and as his illness proceeded it seemed wrong to ask the question. As he approached death I had almost reconciled myself to never knowing what had happened to the ashes. One day in my Dad’s final week I was looking through the notes about his funeral on his computer and I found a document relating to what he wanted to happen to his ashes after his death. This made me quite angry as the issue of Mum’s ashes suddenly came crashing back.

He died on Friday 25th February and two days later I sat with my brother in the Hospice where he died waiting for the death certificate. It was at this point that I decided to ask him if he knew the answer to the question that had been troubling me for so long. He confessed that he didn’t but said he was happy to try and find out. So true to his word during the next week he made some time and eventually tracked them down to the funeral directors where they had sat in a cupboard for almost 21 years.

In the days between my dad’s death and his funeral I ruminated on what had happened and the instructions he had left for his ashes. He wanted them to be scatted in 4 places by 4 different groups of people. He wanted one lot to be scattered on Penshaw monument by members of a walking group he had been part of which was made up of ex Policemen. The second lot he wanted scattering on the Bents at Whitburn by his school chums. The third lot he wanted to be burried on the grave of the parents of one of my mum’s friends in Corbridge and he said he hoped that his second wife’s ashes would one day join him there. The final set he wanted to go to the home of his step-daughter in Spain.

There were two things that annoyed me about the arrangements. The first was that none of the scatterings were for his family – we were off handedly invited to the Penshaw monument scattering and obviously the one in Spain would include one of his Step -children but it didn’t include his actual offspring. the second thing was that he asked for his ashes to be scatter on the grave of one of my Mum’s friend’s parents (her friends ashes were also scattered there) and he wanted his second wife’s ashes to be scattered there. This hurt – what about my Mum’s ashes why didn’t he want to be scattered with them.It was like she’d been forgotten.

I contemplated how to raise these issues with my brother but in the end I didn’t have to because I think he felt the same way. This came up when we discussed my mum’s ashes and what to do with them. The logical thing would have been on the grave of her friend’s parents along with the remains of her friend and my Dad but that didn’t seem right – if he’d wanted that he would have said so. I suggested that we find somewhere near there and the place that sprang to mind was a pub called the Rat where we’d often gone on Boxing Day with Mum, Dad and her friend Maureen and husband Charlie. Then however it didn’t seem right scattering her ashes there without my Dad’s – this was getting complicated! My thought was that we should split my Dad’s ashes into 5 rather than 4 but who to raise that with…..In the end I didn’t have to as my brother had obviously been thinking along the same lines.

Then one day I was re-reading his instructions and his opening lines suddenly jumped out at me. He’d written

After my cremation I wish that my ashes be scattered in specified places. I do not want my ashes stored in some funeral parlour or buried in a plot in a crematorium where I will become one of the forgotten. My wishes are to have my ashes scattered where people will look and say to them selves that’s where Macs ashes lie and hopefully remember the good times


I suddenly thought was this a dig at us, had he also been waiting for all that time for us to ask about her ashes? I have resolved not to think about this too much otherwise it could be another 21 years of wondering and that is the last thing I need.

So last weekend I went with my family and my brother and his family to the Rat in Nortumberland where after lunch we walked down a footpath, through a wood and into a field where we scattered their ashes together on a beautiful sunny day high on a hill overlooking the Tyne Valley. So much time had passed that Garry and I were the only people there who actually knew my mum. We had both been married at the time of her death but had both since divorced and remarried. Beth, who would have been her eldest grandchild was only barely in existence at the time of mum’s death – we discovered the pregnancy the night before her funeral!

The whole process almost didn’t happen because when we arrived in the field Garry got the box containing Mum’s ashes out and when he looked at it we discovered that we needed a screwdriver to get it open! However I hadn’t come so far to fall at the last hurdle and after searching our pockets Garry found a key which fitted the screw heads and I sat and slowly unscrewed the six screws fastening the box. Then we looked at each other, wondering what so say, my Dad was always the one who found the right words to say and he was no longer there. In the end there were no words to be said…..

So we all took handfuls of the ashes and without pomp or ceremony scattered them in the field. I think she would have loved the idea of all of her grandchildren participating and laughing and joking as we scattered the ashes. She would have loved them all so much and it’s such a shame that she never lived to see any of them. Even the youngest participated – although Noah was a little too enthusiastic and ended up being covered in ashes when he got too close as Garry tipped the last of the ashes out of the box.

So that was the moment I had waited for 21 years for, not what she wanted and to be honest anything would have come up short. I would have liked her ashes to be scattered somewhere I would be able to go to on a regular basis but if I’d done that it wouldn’t have been somewhere that meant anything to her so this was the best compromise. I’m just glad for the closure that it has given me – the fact I’ve been able to write this shows how far I have come in the past two months.

It was forty years ago today

Something happened 40 years ago that some people still haven’t recovered from!

On the 15th February 1971  a monetary system that had lasted for centuries came to an end. The old system had to give way to a new modern system that was based on the decimal counting system of units tens, hundreds etc. Old money, as it became known, was originally based on the value of gold hence the name pound. A pound was subdivided into 20 shillings and each shilling was divided into 12 pennies (symbolised with a d) so One pound seven shilling and six pence (~£1.37) could be written £1 7s 6d or more usually £1/7/6.

The penny was then subdivided into a half penny or ha’penny and even that was subdivided into a farthing (although these were phased out before I was born I would occasionally come across them when I was young. In much older times even the farthing was subdivided into smaller denominations such as the half farthing and quarter farthing but these  had ceased to be used in the 19th century (presumably due to inflation).

Before you even got as far as a shilling there were a number of coins, all of which have passed into history but still linger on in our language. There was a three pence coin known as a thrupp’ny bit and a six pence coin or tanner – the former was bronze coloured and had multiple edges (like a 50p piece), the latter was round and silver. The thrupp’ny bit was a quarter shilling and the tanner a half shilling, there had been up until the mid 19th century a third of a shilling coin too called a groat – in case you ever wondered what one was!

One of my earliest memories was lying awake just before I started school worrying in case they tested me when I got there (I was that sort of kid) – I could count up to 11d but didn’t know what came next! I knew I had never heard anyone say twelvepence and anyway it just didn’t sound right! I didn’t know that the next stage was a shilling. Chances are I’d never had as much as a shilling (5p) in my life!

Obviously there was a shilling (also referred to as a bob) 1/- and then of course a two shilling coin (or a florin) – these became the 5p and 10p pieces in 1971 and were still around for many years to come before being finally pulled from circulation in 1990. Then there was the coins so beloved by children’s storytellers the  half a crown! The half a crown was worth 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) and was essentially an eighth of a pound. These had disappeared in 1969, two years before decimalisation and a few years after the coin which was double it’s value the crown (5 Shillings) – although again I don’t remember ever seeing a crown.

1953 half crown reverse

The half a crown (12.5p) was a standard gift or treat – say for a Birthday or Easter (in lieu of eggs) and was invariably spent buying an Airfix model! These were the last of the coins after that the next piece of currency was paper. The piece of paper in question was the much lamented Ten Bob note!

The value of this was ten shillings or half a pound (ie 50p in today’s money). The replacement of the note by the rather vulgar coin caused probably the most outrage at the time! the pound and five pound notes survived unchanged into the decimal era. The expression Guinea was still in use although again i don’t think I ever saw one – the Guinea was equivalent to 21/- or a pound and a shilling!

As I said the change wasn’t popular, about as popular as the thought of introducing the euro would be today. People saw it as an erosion of our national identity and traditions (and most likely a nasty alignment with Johnny Foreigner!). The change of a currency is not something that happens overnight so there had been lots of preparation for the big day in the months leading up to it. In those pre-computer, pre-internet days the Government still relied on printed matter to spread the message and we were all given a card with a currency conversion table on it.

Shoppers' Guide

One of the things that confused me, I was only 10, was how could 1 new pence (which I recall we wrote as 1np for a while) be equal to both 2 old pence and 3 old pence at the same time? The same was true for 9 old pence and 10 old pence which were both equal to 4np! I never really got a satisfactory answer to that one but I guess it was the only way they could make 12 go into 5!

The more observant among you would notice that there is a half pence shown on the list above. This was one of the original coins that was introduced in 1971 and was used until it was withdrawn from circulation in 1984 and ceased to be part of the currency of the uk. The only two coins that were introduced that day that still remain unchaged are the 1p and 2p coins – all the rest have been changed in some way. The 5p, 10p and 50p coins have all shrunk since they were introduced. The 20p coin along with the £1 and £2 coins have all been introduced in the years following decimalisation . The £1 note has also followed the 10/- note into the history books.

The other thing I remember about the introduction of the new decimal coinage was that a new set of stamps had to be issued and being a keen stamp collector (told you I was that sort of kid) we wanted to get the historic first day cover. The only problem was that in that typically British way back then the Post Office staff were on Strike! I can’t remember if the post office opened just for the day but we bought the first day cover and posted it in the special box and it was then delivered to us after the strike has ended so the special piece of history has a little stamp on it explaining that it was delayed due to a strike!

The change was inevitable I guess – the system was outdated and as the world was opening up we needed to have a currency that worked alongside the other currencies of the world. Given the increase in prices over the years I think that even if we still had the old system most of the coins that people still mourn the loss of would have gone the way of the groat by now anyway. I’m old enough to remember it, just, my brother who was a year younger than me doesn’t. My wife was born into a decimalised world three years later.  My children would probably wonder what the hell I’m going on about! So why, after 40 years, does it still raise such passion?

Well I guess you can’t erase centuries of history overnight (or even in 40 years) but I suspect it goes deeper than that. The old money had become entrenched in our language, “Bob a Job Week”, “Sing a song of sixpence”, “If you haven’t got a penny then a ha’penny will do” etc – the names of the old coins gave them character – how often do you hear someone waxing lyrical about a 50 pence piece? (Mind you we used to say Vic Halom had a head like a tenbob bit! but that was in 1974 and as you can see the new coin was still known by the old demomination!) Do we still give things alternative names?

Then there’s the argument that the decimal system was all too clinical, it fitted nicely in a box, something we as a nation have never been too good at. It could be that it was the beginning of the dumbing down of our national psyche – making it easier but not necessarily better! Maybe decimal coinage was demonized as being the event that heralded the modern era and the huge amount of change in our society in the last 40 years.

Who knows given another 500 years or so the new currency will have integrated itself into our culture (although whether the decimal system will remain the Pound or become the Euro remains to be seen) and when we finally adopt the Martian hexadecimal dollar we will wax lyrical about the good old days of pounds and pence – that may well be the case but somehow I doubt it!

For those who are interested there is a list of British Coins on Wikipedia

Interesting view by Stephen Bayley in the Telegraph

Up to full steam

Yesterday we went to the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway to travel on their first trains to run in almost two years. The line which celebrates it’s 40th year as a heritage line this year had been forced to cease operations when the land it ran over was sold. There then followed 2 years of negotiations which resulted in a partial service running for one week only during the October half term. We had been following the news about the line via their website and facebook page but we only found out on Friday evening about the trains.


The instructions sounded more like we were off to a clandestine meeting rather than a day out with the kids! Access, we were told, is via the gate in the fence line at the far side of the Asda store car park in Mill Road. the reason for this was that the trains could only run over part of the track as the line between Milton Regis Halt and Sittingbourne is yet to be returned to service. So the trains were running from Milton Regis to Kemsley Down and back again.

The website had said that there would be a mixture of steam and diesel trains running and it was initially disappointing to see the train arriving at Milton Regis being pulled by a diesel shunter as we arrived. However we were told that the steam train was coming along behind us and sure enough a few minutes later we heard the whistle and saw smoke billowing above the hedges. Shortly around the bend came Melior, the line’s 1925 Kerr-Stuart Locomotive in full steam. In the end we were lucky enough to do both journey hauled by Melior.

Milton Regis halt

At shortly after 2pm with a full set of carriages the whistle blew and the train set off down the track towards Kemsley Down. The line was originally built in the 19th century to move goods around the paper mill and was originally horse drawn. The line was then converted to steam in 1905 and ran until the mid 60’s when it was handed over to the Locomotive Club of Great Britain. The line opened as a heritage line in 1970 although the part of the line between Kemsley Down and Ridham Docks was closed.


The good news is that work will continue over the winter to reopen the rest of the line between Milton Regis Halt and Sittingbourne. All of which is good news and judging by the turnout on Sunday there is still plenty of interest in the line which, although it may not be the prettiest heritage railway in England, is still of significant historical interest and well worth preserving. A big thank you should go to all of those involved in getting the line up and running again.

Family History

This is my maternal Grandmother (or Nana as we called her) Beatrice Ainslie (nee Scott) She was born in 1898 and died in December 1990. She lived most of her life in and around Sunderland but she did live briefly in London when she entered service in a shop in Edgware Road.  She married my Grandfather Christopher and they had 5 children – 4 girls and one boy. My mother was the youngest born in 1938 when my Grandmother was 40. She outlived all but 2 of her children and had many grandchildren and great gandchildren.

The other day I was looking through a bag of things that my father had given me and I found a battered small brown box. When I picked it up a medal fell out of it and my first thought was that it must have belonged to one of my Grandfather’s who both saw action during the wars. However when I turned it over I found it was addressed to my Nana.

The medal in question was awarded to men and women who were service personnel or in one of many civilian organisations for three years service in non operational areas subjected to air attack or closely threatened. I presume my nana was awarded the medal for her work during the war in munitions factories. The area around Sunderland was heavily bombed during the Second World War due to the shipyards and other industries – there were still bombsites around when I was a youngster in the 1960’s.

Along with the medal in the box was a note with the official crest on it from the Home Secretary saying that the medal was awarded for service during the war of 1939-45.

My Nana was a tough old boot – she had to be she lived through both World Wars and much more besides. My Grandfather had joined the army in the first World War after lying about his age to sign up. he joined the Cavalry and my Nana still had the spurs he wore during the war. They also lived through the great depression in the 1930’s when times were tough and jobs were few. My Grandfather was, by all accounts, like Norman Tebbit’s father who went out to look for work and din’t give up till he found some. He would later tell my mum that if she went for an interview and was asked if she could do something to say yes and worry about learning how to do it later! here he is with his family in about 1912 – a couple of years before he joined up. he is at the front on the left.

My Nana had also been a member of a ladies football team in her youth, at a time when women didn’t really do that thing. I have somewhere a picture of her holding a football when the Sunderland Echo did a feature about her when she was in her 80’s. I will have to try and dig it out sometime but in the meantime here is her medal.

This is now part of BBC Radio 4’s History of the World Project

Back Home

ne of my favourite Radio programs has got to be Desert Island Discs which I listen to every Friday morning with a regularity bordering on Obsession! I should start work at 9:30 but I’m invariably late and this bothers me every day except Friday – in fact it used to be so annoying to arrive at work on time and miss the last fifteen minutes – this is less of a problem now that the show is finally available on iplayer but it’s still annoying!

As well as the music I find the life stories of people, some of whom I’ve never heard of until they appear on the show, quite fascinating. There are stories to which I cannot directly relate and can only image what that person must have been going through, for example violinist Gyorgy Pauk telling of his life in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest during the second world war and how he was brought up by his Grandmother who he eventually had to leave behind in order to live freely in the west. Then there was Dame Stephanie Shirley who escaped Nazi Germany when she was sent to the UK by her parents to be brought up by complete strangers. Things that happened before I was born and which, as I said,  I can only imagine what it was like.

More and more frequently now  there are guests who are the same age as me and although they may have been brought up in a different place with different experiences I can still still relate to their memories and musical choices because they are from a time and mindset that is recognisable to me. One such person was Morrissey who I blogged about on a previous occasion and today it was Frank Skinner who although he is a few years older then me I recognise the world he grew up in and some of his musical choices hit the target and fired off memories of my youth.

This was probably helped by the fact that I had spent some time the previous evening looking through some carrier bags of stuff that I had brought back from the garage where we have some of our stuff in storage. A lot of stuff has been in storage in one place or another since  Sarah and I moved in together and has been too painful to sort through due to the memories of a acrimonious divorce. However I’m starting to be able to move on and in the bags I found some interesting things such as almost all my school reports – junior and secondary, my Chipper club membership card from the Sunderland Echo,  even my Baptism Certificate.

Frank Skinner’s fourth track, amongst a very eclectic choice of music, was the 1970 England World Cup song Back Home, possibly one of the first (and best – alongside Frank’s own effort Three lions)  World Cup songs ever and one which reminds me of my first World Cup. As far as I know I did watch the 1966 final but was too young to remember it. In fact my only memory of 1966 was World Cup Willie the mascot who I missed in 1970 and wanted to know where he had gone!

There were huge expectations as the Mexico finals approached, as England were the champions, but as we all know they crashed out in the second round to eventual winners West Germany, who we had beaten to win the cup 4 years earlier. We had been winning 2-0 but eventually lost 3-2 after extra time when Gerd Muller put the winning goal past Peter Bonetti who was playing as Gordon Banks had come down with food poisoning a few days before the game.  This experience seems to have been repeated every couple of years in either the World Cup or European Championships by the English football team. The constant expectations of success in the build up, the inevitably disappointing first game, followed by a scrabble to qualify for the knock-out stage only to lose on penalties or after extra time in either the quarter or semi finals!

Frank commented that football was different in those days and I think he is right. His memories of watching West Bromwich Albion were summed up by saying that football grounds smelt of Woodbines and Meat Pies struck a chord but I would have also added Bovril to that list! Watching Sunderland in the early 70’s at Roker Park would on occasion lead me to buy a cup of the meaty drink. The drink had such a wonderful smell but to me tasted bloody awful, a fact i would remember after a few sips!! He also mentioned the terraces and how small boys would take crates to stand on so they could see.

Well I never did that but have fond memories of standing in the Fulwell end on the terraces….there was a section in the middle at the back we used to call “the Chanters” which was where the most noisy fanatical fans used to stand and from where the most enthusiastic chanting used to come. It was always rough and fluid in that section and you had to be brave (or big) to stand a chance. The most wonderful thing about the terraces was the movement of the crowd. The Fulwell end was almost always full and when the team came running with the ball came towards the goal in front of us about 10,000 people would all stand on their toes to see what was happening before inevitably loosing their balance and falling forward causing the crowd to surge forward to be stopped only by the crash barriers that were spaced at intervals down the stand.

At the back of the stand where the steps opened onto the terraces there was a shop, selling amongst other things, the aforementioned Bovril, running along the back of the stand was a fence, but ducking behind the shop you could get up behind the fence and this would afford you the most wonderful view. You were right behind the most ardent supporters and could see the whole ground. The experience of seeing the fans react when a goal was scored from up there was incredible and worth the risk of occasionally getting told to get down by a Policeman or steward.

The other thing I miss is the event that used to be the FA Cup final – watching it on TV was an event that used to start at about 11 in the morning and slowly build up, following the teams on their coaches to the ground, covering their paths to Wembley and then finally the game itself and then the interviews and celebrations afterwards. I think the first FA cup final I watched was the 1969/70 final which Chelsea won after a replay. A few years later Sunderland made it to the final and although only a second division team beat first division Leeds Utd 1-0 in an historic win. Sadly I wasn’t there but watched it in colour for the first time!

Anyway my flirtation with football was short lived, I seem to recall the last time I went to see Sunderland play I was queuing up to get out when the doors opened! My first love was and still is music and bringing this back to that topic I will move onto Frank Skinner’s 7th choice namely George Formby’s Why don’t women like me? When I was growing up my earliest musical likes were Military brass bands and George Formby – a diversity of taste which has stood me in good stead for the following years! It was good to see someone else my age still has a soft spot for the ukulele wielding comedian other than me (although I understand that the late George Harrison turned Bob Dylan onto him as well) but unlike Frank I have no desire to take up playing the thing!

I loved the stories about his father, how he would not go to the pub or betting shop without putting his suit on first! he even used to say to his wife – nip down the bookies for me because if I put my suit on I’ll have to go to the pub as well. It’s strange now to think that men used to be like that. I remember my dad, who it must be said must have been quite modern and with it, expressing surprise when we bumped into a neighbour in Belgium while  we were on holiday and found he was wearing a suit even on holiday. I watched a wonderful old film on youtube the other week from 1927 which, surprisingly was in colour and in one scene there is a shot of Petticoat Lane on a Sunday and in it all the men are dressed in suits. (I was also amused by the fact that the crowd was almost exclusively men – strange given that my father used to hate the idea of going shopping).

So that’s it for my trip down memory lane for now but in the near future I will scan some of the things I found and no doubt pour forth on a variety of subjects triggered by memories.

They think it’s all over

Last night I was working at an awards ceremony and the guest speaker was former England goalkeeper and member of the 1966 World Cup winning squad Gordon Banks. After cracking a few topical jokes about recent sporting events and the forthcoming World cup he started to reminice about his career and then got onto the subject of 1966. It was a really interesting and amusing tale which featured one name in particular – that of Nobby Stiles.

While I am told that I watched the 1966 World cup Final I was actually only 4 so I don’t remember doing so. I do remember the 1970 World cup Finals in Mexico and his wonderful save from Pele in the match against Brazil – probably the second greatest save I’ve ever seen eclipsed only in my somewhat biassed opinion by the double save from Jim Montgomery in ithe 1973 FA Cup Final. Bank’s career was cut short by a car accident before I was old enough to go to football matches butI did however get to see Nobby Stiles play.

It was towards the end of his career* when he was playing for Preston North End under the management of former 1966 England star Bobby Charlton. Sunderland beat them (3-1 I think) and at one point Nobby was a source of amusement for the crowd when he went to kick the ball, missed and fell over! After the game we waited outside the players entrance trying to get autographs of the two England world cup heroes. Nobby Stiles came out and started to sign peoples programs etc. However after a minute or two Charlton emerged and not only brushed away anyone who asked for his autograph but made Nobby Stiles get on the coach as well. Sore loser?

* I think it was the 1973/4 season, the year after the FA Cup win against Leeds, because I remember being in the Roker End as my dad wouldn’t let us go in the Fulwell End where the  Sunderland fans were at that point. A very scary experience in amongst a bunch of Middlesborough fans during a local derby did finally change his mind though!

A Picture that touched the world

This picture taken during the Vietnam war was seen all over the world. I seem to remember seeing it on the news at the time in 1972 – it shows a family running from a napalm attack. the girl at the centre was running naked because the 1200° C heat caused by the napalm burnt the clothes from her back.

Today on Radio 4 there was an interview with the girl, Kim Phuc, who now lives in Canada. She was interviewed by former ITN reporter Christopher Wain who was there with a film crew on that day and who along with Nick Ut, the photographer who took the iconic picture, helped to save her life that day and in the days that followed. She was taken to a Vietnamese hospital but she wasn’t expected to live and the men from the international press who witnessed the event organised getting her transferred to a better hospital.