Di Rayburn – Coley

Possibly from letters to the Evening Standard in the 90’s

For Ernie Clift the Generation Game is all part of Coley’s charm. He was born in Brook Street West in 1918 and went to Coley School in Wolseley Street.

His sister Cynthia Hall was born in 1935, in a shared tiny two -up two down house with her parents and six brothers and sisters,

Her niece Linda Dalfsen was born there in 1955, and also went to Coley School.

Ernie, 81 remembers Coley Steps and many of the families who lived in the teeming cottages. He says “All my school pals lived there. They were tiny houses and in one particular lane people could lean out of the bedroom window and shake hands with the other side. Some people had huge families. I knew one which had 19 children, one with 21 and one with 23. They were rough slums but you couldn’t have got a better lot of people anywhere and my sister who went to Australia cried when she came back and saw they’d gone.”

Ernie, now living in Magpie Way, Tilehurst, especially recalls his days at Coley School where the headmaster Mr Piper a small dapper man earned his admiration.

“He wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but he stood up to rough parents. I remember he’d caned one of two twins and the other had stood on the desk and jumped on his back. The father was about 6ft 6 tall and wide and he came to the school and really went after to Mr Piper but he stood up to him.

The day I left school in 1932, he stood by the gates and beckoned me over. He said “Clift, you’re the worst ever hand writer that’s ever come here.” He spoke jokingly, and I laughed because he was right. I can’t write.”

Ernie worked as a grocery delivery errand boy for Freeman’s grocers in Castle Street, riding his heavy delivery bike as far out as Burghfielld.

While still at school he earned 3s/3d a week as a paper boy and once in a Maitland Road driveway discovered a woman’s handbag stuffed with five pound notes. Ernie rang the bell and handed it over to her.

He adds: “About two weeks afterwards, Mr Goodchiild who had the paper shop said a woman had left 6d for me and asked me what it was for.” He said “that’s a poor reward for honesty lad isn’t it?” He upped my money to 3s/6d and gave me two weeks money that week and a Christmas album I’d been saving for.

Cynthia Hall also had distinct memories of her childhood: “We had a scullery and a tiny back yard, and the old tin bath used to hang on the back brick wall and come inside on Sunday evenings.” Cynthia was the first school captain elected at Coley School when George Chandler became head teacher in 1949. She says “I wasn’t very good because I supposed to keep the girls out of the cloakroom when it was cold, but I used to put their milk on the radiators and warm it up.

I didn’t do the 11 plus because mum couldn’t afford the uniform, and I didn’t even ask her. I just wrote the note myself.”

Cynthia’s mother was virtually blind after suffering a serious eye disease and her father died when she was young. Her mother worked at the CWS jam factory in Basingstoke Road for a while but received National Assistance for the children at home: 7shillings for Cynthia and 3/6 for her sister Shirley.

Cynthia who now lives in Hardwick Road, Tilehurst remembers a family trip to the theatre during wartime when an enemy plane flew low over Coley and machine gunned them. “We just flung ourselves flat on the pavement and my dad cut the bullets out of the wall afterwards.”

Cynthia used to cut through Grape Passage into Castle Street to fetch her mother’s prescription. She remembers the old shops in Coley like Bristows in Wolseley Street where baby Jenny was sat in a box. “I remember men coming home from the war and I can remember sitting on the pavement hearing babies being born.

We had good Christmases where we always had a fire lit in the front room and mum played the piano. The neighbours would come in and mum used to play the old songs When my dad was alive he had a little barrel of beer delivered from Simmonds and he set it up in the cupboard.”

Linda Dalfsen’s mother, Shirley Clift, lived on in the Brook Street West house and Linda remembers front doors kept open and hours spent playing in the nearby bomb shelter and going to local sweetshops.

She says “lots of the old ladies used to run shops from their houses. They had a big window with everything in it but there wasn’t a counter. You just went in their front door.

There were two sweet shops in Willow Street and I remember Shiptons where I bought quarters of sherbet. There was another shop on the corner of Garnet Street which everyone called Stoney Hill where there was a dog parlour now, and a fish and chip shop at the top.

It was absolutely brilliant because they’d give you a free bag of what they called crackling, all the bits and pieces of batter which came off and we’d put salt and vinegar on them. They were better than the fish and chips.”

Linda remembers Coley Park being built on. “It was just a potato field and once a year the farmer let everybody go over their back gardens and pick potatoes. She also took part in the annual sports at the Courage Sports Ground in the Back Alley behind Coley Avenue.”

George Chandler was headmaster of Coley School from 1949 to 1954, and inherited one of the last all age’s schools in Reading with pupils from five to fifteen. He transformed the old Victorian schoolrooms by levelling the floors and getting rid of the desks which rose on steps towards the back of the class.

He recalls it was often closed because of cold weather. He said. “The heating wasn’t very good and the outside lavatories inevitably froze up in the winter.”

Mr Chandler has fond memories of the Midsummer Revels the annual summer pageant put on by pupils and remembers one trumpeter, Derek Watkins, who went on to join the James Last Orchestra.

His top year girls age fourteen and fifteen studied cookery but the school was too small to cope and they regularly attended Katesgrove School to do their domestic science, until in the early 50’s, all the secondary school children transferred to Katesgrove.


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