My memories of Wolseley Street
There are nearly two hundred two up two down terraced houses in our street; every house has a small front garden, and nearly all of the gardens have a rickety wooden seat built for two by the front door. On warm summer evenings the residents sit outside gossiping with their neighbours, whilst keeping an eye on all the comings and goings in the street.
‘It ‘ent fair,’ my friends moan, ‘you can’t get away with nothing round here, there’s always some old nosy parker watching us and shouting they’ll tell our mum and dad.’
On Sunday afternoons while we laze in front of the fire digesting our dinner and listen to comedy programmes on the radio, we wait for the sound of a hand bell being rung outside in the street. As it begins to clang, Mum fetches a pudding basin and hurries out to a tiny old man wearing a padded flat cap and with a large tray balanced on his head. The tray has straps and when he lifts it down, the straps stay around his neck making him look like a cinema usherette, but instead of ice cream the tray holds winkles. A pint basin-full costs sixpence. Dad loves them. He uses a pin to pull the insides out then waves them at us. He says they’re delicious but we pull faces and scream as he pops them in his mouth with relish. In the summer the winkle man sells muffins instead, but we never buy them. Mum says they’re not very different to bread, so it wouldn’t be a treat.
The ice cream man has a bicycle with a box on the front. The ice cream is stored in dry ice to keep it cold. He rings his bicycle bell and shouts as loud as he can and is mobbed when it’s hot. Mum always has a first lick of ours just to make sure the ice cream is ok and hasn’t been touched by the dry ice, which makes it taste funny. At least that’s her excuse and we don’t mind, because she can’t afford to buy one for all of us.
Sometimes a rag and bone man calls in the street with his horse and cart. One year he gave out baby ducks in exchange for rags. Mum felt so sorry for them she took out a big pile of clothes, and he gave her six in return. She and Gran put them in a box by the range to keep them warm and tried to feed them, but they died. Sometimes he gave out baby chicks and one year mum swopped for four. She said we’d fatten them up and have them for Christmas dinner. Dad licked his lips and said they would taste better because we’d know what they were fed and was looking forward to as much chicken as he could eat. Gran said she’d learned how to wring chickens necks while she was an assistant cook in service, and every year at Christmas she pulls the insides out and plucks the feathers, so we thought we had it all planned, but when it was time to kill our chickens, she couldn’t bring herself to do it, because she’d been feeding them all year and they liked her. Luckily Mr Rumble from across the road offered to do it, and mum said he could have one for taking the trouble. When he went down the garden we pulled the curtains and turned the radio up as loud as it would go then shut our eyes and put our fingers in our ears. He came in dangling our dead chickens by their feet and we all cried – even Gran, so Mum said he could have them all, and we had one from Bert Bristow as usual for Christmas dinner.
While Mr Turner the greengrocer weighs out vegetables from the back of his cream coloured farm cart, his scruffy piebald horse eats from a bag of oats pulled tightly over its face, and usually leaves a nice pile of manure on the road. It’s dangerous to go too near the horses hooves and cart wheels and we get shouted at if we forget, but no-one shouts when a grown up darts around the back of the horse and happily scoops up the steaming heap.
During the war, two big dustbins were put in our street for leftover cooked and raw food. The scraps would help feed pigs, which in turn would help the war effort. Although the war has been over for a few years, the bins are still there and now the scraps are collected by Charlie Martin for his pigs. Charlie drives a pony and a home-made cart styled after a Roman chariot. His heavily brylcreamed, black hair is brushed straight back and his face and hands are a deep golden brown from being outside all the time. He always wears a clean shirt, but holds his grey flannel trousers up with a tie or a piece of rope, and we’ve never seen him in anything but turned down Wellington boots. Every couple of days he drives into our street at a fast trot and empties the bins. Although Charlie is friendly and waves to us, we don’t hang around him because the bins and his cart smell even in the cold weather. The pigs are kept on a large allotment by Coley Rec. When we’re playing on the swings we can hear the pigs squealing impatiently as he boils up the food that’s come from our bins.
The Co-op bread man has a huge black horse called Nobby. Nobby is mum’s favourite. He won’t wait for the bread man to finish delivering to the other customers at the end of the street. He ignores his driver’s shouts to wait, and walks down to our house, steps onto the pavement and stands in our tiny front garden resting his nose on our front door until mum opens it. Then they both wait for the sweating bread man to catch him up. Mum always pulls a bit of bread from the end of the bloomer loaf she’s just bought and feeds it to Nobby. She only buys the Co-ops bread because of the horse.
Sometimes a flock of ducks and geese are moved to a stretch of river that runs just behind our street. For a few moments everything comes to a standstill as they are driven along. They look so fierce I stand behind our front gate as they rocket along in a blur of movement and sound. With feet flopping and slapping on the hard road they stretch their necks skywards, and indignantly honk and hiss, and leave a silent swirl of downy feathers in the gutters when they have passed.
Gascoignes is a local factory that makes galvanized milking stalls. For a few minutes, four times a day our quiet street gets very busy as the workers who live locally, and walk or bike to work hurry to and from the factory. Even indoors I can hear their chatter and their steel tipped heels briskly clicking on the pavement. There is always someone whistling, and the smell of oil that seeps into their clothes during the day lingers in the air for ages after they’ve passed. The factory bosses drive cars. When we’re playing outside, one of us keeps lookout and shouts, ‘car coming!’ Then we have to stop playing marbles in the gutters or skipping games across the road, and wait on the pavement until they have passed.
Simmonds Brewery is just around the corner. The beer is brewed in huge copper vats in whitewashed basement rooms. Further along in another basement room artists touch up or paint new pub signs. They work with their easels facing the window and we always try to guess the name of the pub when we kneel down on the pavement, and peer through the barred windows. The brewery is on both sides of the street. The smell of malt and hops is overpowering and it’s extremely noisy with the sound of banging as the Coopers make and repair oak beer barrels. Workers whistle and shout cheerily to each other as they load and unload lorries, and in the background beer bottles being washed rattle and clank and are then re-filled as they speed along the conveyor belts. Across the road from the bottling section are the stables for two pairs of shire horses. They deliver the brewery’s beer to most of the pubs in our area. Their hooves strike sparks against the cobbled yard as they strain to pull the heavily laden wagons through high, iron gates; while the driver who wears a bowler hat, a brown belted raincoat and drapes a tartan blanket over his knees in cold weather, sits high on the front of the wagon as they begin their days work.
Television made the rickety wooden seats redundant. Houses have been pulled down and cars are parked nose to bumper in the narrow streets where we used to play. The Brewery was taken over and moved to the edge of town, most of its buildings knocked down and built on, and now blocks of flats stand where men and women once made milking pens for Gascoignes – but something has survived.
Their driver in his smart bowler hat flicks the reins and talks gently as the descendants of my childhood Shires, beribboned, groomed to perfection and as powerful as ever, pull a smart Simmonds cart full of oak barrels in front of admiring crowds at shows all around the country.