I was born in the early hours of the 25th January 1950, the second child of Cliff and Etta Ballinger, in a time so different to now that you would think it to be a different world. My mother who was Scottish, from the small village of Tranent in East Lothian, a few miles east of Edinburgh, told me she had just managed to hold on long enough so that I was born on Robbie Burns Day. My father was a Gloucester man, the Ballinger family originating from Upton St Leonards.
Mum and Dad at a ball in the Guildhall.
Out with Mum in Hillfield Gardens.
My mother and father had both served in the armed forces during the Second World War and were married just after its end. Their first child died soon after she was born, health care was very poor and living conditions for the 'nations heroes' even poorer. I was their second child born in 1950, my brother Gordon followed two years later. Both of us were born in Sweetbriar Street in the Kingsholm area of Gloucester, known as Clapham. It was classed as a slum with houses that had been built cheaply for manual workers and their families around 120 years earlier and had suffered from years of lack of maintenance by the landlords. They were terraced houses, two up and two down. My earliest memories are of the mouse holes that I am always reminded of when I see a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The mice seemed to have no fear, they sat in the small black tiled fireplace in the living room, looking around without a care in the world. I can still see the scullery at the back of the house, where a large belfast sink and one cold tap serviced two houses. This was where we had to wash ourselves and Mum had to wash our clothes, scrubbing them with an old corrugated tin washboard and wash the dishes after our meals. There was a clothesline across the back yard and a tin bath hanging on the wall, next to the outside lavatory, which was also shared. It always amuses me when I hear people discussing the softness of different brands of toilet paper, this one's a bit rough, that one's not as soft as the other one. All newspaper feels pretty much the same and that's all we ever had then.
One of my earliest memories outside of our house in Sweetbriar Street was when the Coal man came by, on his horse and cart, making slow and gentle progress, his horse going clip clop, clip clop, up the street. His cart was fully laden with sacks of coal. As he passed our door, a full sack fell off the back of the cart. The coal man didn't hear it fall, so there it lay with it's contents spilled out all over the road. Almost instantly, many doors opened and the women came out with buckets. In a few moments there was no trace of any coal ever having been there. That coal was a great help to people who had to watch every penny.
Many businesses used horses and carts and people cleared up any mess they made while it was still steaming. There was always a rush to get to it before someone else got there first. I was told me it was for use on their rhubarb. I thought it was a bit unsavoury, but it didn't put me off stewed rhubarb and custard.
Clapham wasn't a slum to me though, it was just home, the only place I had known. It was a place of wonder, the place that formed my attitudes and a playground that was safe for small boys to explore and act out the sort of fantasies all boys of my era grew up with. We had no television but could take our inspiration from comics such as The Eagle, The Beano and The Dandy. Dan Dare was always a favourite of mine, my friends and I imagined ourselves to be protecting the universe from the evil Mekon. We all wanted a raygun, though none of us had toy guns of any kind, we pretended that the piece of wood we ran around with was any kind of gun we imagined it to be. One minute we could be Flash Gordon, the next minute, Billy the kid and the next, a paratrooper fighting the Nazis. All with the same piece of wood as the main prop. I could wander all around Clapham and nobody ever worried where I was, one of my favourite places to go was the rec (recreation field), in Sebert Street, where there were swings to play on. I used to walk or ride my tricycle through the old foundry to my Aunt Ethel and Uncle Dick's house a few streets away in Counsel Street. They were old age pensioners and were really my great aunt and uncle. They had brought my father up as their own son when his parents had both died not long after he was born. My grandmother died from tuberculosis and my grandfather died from the effects of exposure to mustard gas while serving in the trenches in World War One. They left two brothers, Charles and Clifford. They were split up, Charlie going to other relations and Cliff going to Ethel and Dick Riley. Ethel was my Dad's natural aunt. They looked after him until he joined the 9th Lancers in 1937.
When I got to Counsel Street, I would run into the house, shouting 'hello Aunty, hello Uncle' and launch myself onto the old rocking chair in the corner of the front room and start rocking it so violently that it would move around the room. I imagined it to be a horse and I was a cowboy chasing Indians. There was no carpet to stop it moving, just linoleum which was very slippery.
Uncle would shout, 'stop that you little bugger.'
But Aunty would chastise him saying 'leave him alone Dick, he's only playing.'
Aunty Ethel left me that rocking chair in her will when she died in 1980 aged 94, it is now a valuable antique, I shudder when I think of the abuse I gave it then.
I was riding my tricycle to Aunt Ethels taking a shortcut through the old foundry one day when one of the back wheels went down a hole and threw me off onto a piece of corrugated iron which severely gashed my leg. A lady on hearing my screams came running to my aid, she knew who I was and took me home, I don't know who she was but I am eternally grateful for her help. The cut was quite serious and I was taken to the casualty unit at the Royal hospital in Southgate Street. The wound was stitched up and I don't remember much about it. What I do remember vividly is when the stitches were removed, the pain was so excruciating that I remember every detail of it and carry the scar to this day, but I soon got over it as small boys do and didn't lose any of my youthful recklessness.
I had friend called Paul Thorpe in Counsel Street, which gave me another reason to regularly make the short journey round to Aunty Ethel's. I found the biggest torch I had ever seen standing in the corner of Aunty's front room. It was made of tin plate and would have taken four large C cell batteries, alas there weren't any batteries in it so it had no life, but that didn't matter to me, it was still the best raygun I had ever had in my hands. I asked Aunty if I could take it to show Paul and she said I could but only if I was very careful with it as it belonged to Uncle Dick. I ran across the road to call for Paul to show him my prize raygun. A game soon started and we were running up and down the street zapping each other, using the lamp posts for cover, I was running to take advantage of this cover when I misjudged it and ran straight into a lamp post, banging my head and nearly knocking me senseless. During this collision my raygun suffered a serious dent about half way along the shaft, but worse still, I had to tell Aunty what had happened, but I needn't have worried, she was so concerned with the bump on my head that she hadn't the heart to tell me off. She said she would sort it out with Uncle Dick. What she told him, I never knew. I was a bit sheepish the next time I saw him but he never mentioned it.
Uncle Dick died not long after this incident and even though I was only five or six years old I can still see his face whenever I think of him, he had been a small slim man, who always wore a cloth cap. He had been a regular soldier who served with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry from1911 to 1918. When the great war broke out in 1914, he was recalled from his posting in Bermuda to go to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force intended to hold the German army until more troops could be made ready for war. He was one of the brave men known as 'The Old Contemptibles' so called by the Kaiser when he derided them as a contemptible little army with no chance against the might of the German war machine. How wrong he was, he soon learned that men like my Uncle Dick should never be underestimated.
I spent even more time at Aunty Ethel's after Uncle Dick died. Mum and Dad were happy for me to be there, so it was like having two homes, but at Aunty Ethel's I got undivided attention not divided two ways, as it had to be at home, between me and my brother Gordon. I had another set of toys there that that I didn't have to share, I was quite happy to play on my own for hours with tanks I would make out of matchboxes and empty cotton reels, powered by elastic bands. I got a stamp album which I kept there, I started my collection by taking stamps off some of the postcards Uncle Dick had sent to Aunty Ethel during his time in the army. I now have those cards kept in an album and wish I had left the stamps on them, they are wonderful to browse through occasionally.
I had a scrapbook too, with cuttings of the comic strip 'Bruin the Bear', that I cut from 'The Citizen', sadly lost now.
We had no pets at home, Aunty Ethel had a dog called Rufus, he was a mongrel who stood about 15 inches to the shoulder, I thought he was huge and compared to me, he was. Rufus was a gentle, friendly soul with a long brown shaggy coat. I would often take him, or he would take me to the rec, where we would run after each other and play together, throwing sticks, or rough and tumbling on the grass.
I didn't know it but Rufus was old too and when he died. I was inconsolable, he had been my best friend and in it's way his death brought me greater sorrow than when Uncle Dick had died.
After a few weeks I asked Aunty Ethel if she would get another dog but she said she would take me to the pet shop and buy me something small. I chose two white mice, ironic really when I think of it, seeing as my own house was overrun with wild mice. My white mice lived in a metal cage, painted green and had the usual exercise wheel, I would visit them every day and take them out of the cage so that they could run around little obstacle courses I would make for them. They were the first pets I ever had and I loved them dearly.
I went to nursery school at St Marks, then to Kingsholm infants. I remember playing for part of the day and lying in a canvas cot along with all the other children and being told to go to sleep.
Dad at St Marks
When it was time for me to go to junior school, I went to Widden Street, an old red brick building with large classrooms, high ceilings and windows so high up you couldn't see out of them. They had to be opened with a hook on the end of a long pole. I went to school each day wearing the same as everyone else, the school uniform being very important then. Grey shirt that was hairy and itchy, grey short trousers, grey woollen socks and black shoes, finished off with blazer and cap. These clothes weren't very much different to those that I wore out of school time, there were no fashion statements for children then, There was no such thing as a T shirt or sweatshirt, no trainers, just grey or white shirts, grey or black short trousers and black shoes. I only had one pair of shoes, so they had to do for school and for everything else.
Dad worked as a driver for the Bristol Omnibus Company who were the operators of the local buses then, he also worked part time driving coaches taking people on daytrips to the seaside and other places of interest. He was a hard working man who always had more than one job all of his life. Even with two jobs, money was always tight, but he provided for us and we never went short of lifes essentials. From my earliest memories, he had a car, it was the only one in the street. Most working men having only a bicycle, or a motorcycle.
One day, amid great excitement, the car was loaded with our luggage, we were going on holiday, to stay with Mums sister, for two weeks. The journey was a very long one, taking around twelve hours driving to travel the 350 mile journey, we went up the A38, through Tewkesbury, on through Birmingham, up Shap fel to Carlisle, right through the centre of the towns, there were no by passes. Over the border through Gretna Green and on through the southern uplands of Scotland to Edinburgh and finally to our final destination, Tranent.
Aunty May and Uncle Bill Langlands still lived in Tranent where Mum was born . this was the first of many trips we would make to Tranent over the years I was growing up. I had two cousins there, Victor, who is the same age as me and Jennifer, the same age as my brother, Gordon. They lived in a small flat, with only two bedrooms, which made it a bit of a squeeze when another family of four moved in, but it was all part of the adventure and nobody seemed to mind. In the mornings we would all sit at the table for breakfast and Aunty May would serve home made soup and morning rolls. They were soft fresh rolls that are a speciality in Scotland. Some mornings we would have porridge floating on a pool of milk, it was wonderful.
Tranent, being on the east of Edinburgh, not far from the coast, had lots of beaches near to it. We could choose any beach for the day and there would be hardly anybody there, our favourite was Gullane. The two families would usually go together so the four children could play together, running in and out of the sea, hiding in the dunes, or digging in the sand and making sand castles.
We also went to Portobello, a small fishing village. It was fascinating to watch the small boats come in with their catches of mackerel and crabs. I saw some people lying on their bellies on the jetty, curious as to what they were doing. I asked Mum, she told me they were poor people who were hoping for a free fish from a generous fisherman. Sure enough when the boats got close to the jetty a few fish were thrown up for the people to catch. We went on to the beach at Portobello and gathered mussels from the rocks and watched crabs in the rockpools. Altogether an idyllic scene far removed from the streets of Clapham.
I was always pleased to see home though. It's nice to go on holiday, but it's nice to come home too. I went straight round to see how Aunty Ethel was, I ran into the house shouting 'hello Aunty, how are the mice'? She laughed and gave me a big hug and told me she had missed me. She gave me some money to go to Tartaglia's ice cream factory, which was in Sweetbriar Street, across the road from my own house, to buy a small box of ice cream. They would assemble the box then scoop the ice cream into it, Vanilla was the only flavour available. Then it was off to Mrs Redburns shop for a bottle of Tizer. I would run all the way, as soon as I got the ice cream so that it wouldn't melt before I got back with it. I sat at the table with my Tizer and ice cream and made a Tizer float. I would pour the Tizer into a glass, filling it only to about half full, then drop a spoonful of ice cream into it, it would froth right up to the top of the glass. I ate the ice cream from the glass with a spoon, then drank the Tizer, I repeated this procedure until I couldn't drink any more and then finished the ice cream on it's own.
Later that day, we all walked up Kingsholm Road, through the old cattle market, into Whitfield Street, where my Aunty Ina, Uncle Den and Cousin Hugh lived. Aunty Ina was my Mum's sister who had also moved to Gloucester from Scotland, so we had lots of things to tell them about our holiday in Tranent.
Their flat in Whitfield Street was in the basement of a solicitor's office that had been crudely converted into living accommodation the worst thing about it was that it regularly flooded when it rained. If the rain was heavy, the doors had to be sandbagged, sometimes that didn't work and things had to be stacked on top of the table to save them from being ruined by the flood water.
I stayed overnight there in Whitfield Street with Hugh, quite often. Hugh is two years older than me so I liked to play with him because there was always something I could learn from him. One thing I didn't enjoy learning from him though was how to count from one to ten. We were in the dark, damp coal cellar one day when Hugh decided he would teach me to count. His method was somewhat unorthodox. He had just got a Gat air pistol and he told me he would shoot me if I didn't quickly learn to count from one to ten. I remember the blackness of the place, the quietness, the cold and the fear I felt. It was a fear that I don't think I have ever felt since. He held the gun to my head and taunted me, to get it right or die. I did learn quickly and he never did shoot me, but he had me worried for a while. I soon got over it though and when Aunty Ina called us for tea there was a rush for the table and everything else was forgotten. We had egg and chips which was my favourite. At home Mum made us put our tomato ketchup on the side of the plate and dip our chips into it, but here we could pour it all over. Pouring the ketchup all over seemed to make the meal taste so much better. After tea we would play games of all sorts. Hugh had a magic robot game that answered questions you put to it. It was called 'The ingenious, amazing, mystical, infallible Magic Robot.' There was a selection of questions on overlays, world events, realm of nature, sports and games and countries and cities. The layout of the questions and answers, being in two circles. One for questions and one for answers. You pointed the robot to the question, then moved him to the answer circle, where he quickly spun round from any position to point at the correct answer. I still don't know how it worked. it certainly was a mystery to a young mind. Hugh also had a bagatelle with marbles we had to get into different holes. Uncle Den came in one night with a large luminous skeleton that danced on strings. He turned the lights out and gave us a show and told jokes and funny ghost stories. We laughed till our sides ached. I thought Uncle Den was a very funny man
When it was time for bed we had to get washed and brush our teeth then Aunty Ina would inspect us to make sure we had washed behind our ears. We could get incredibly dirty in the course of one day. When we got to bed we would fight with pillows and roll about on the bed we shared, jumping up and down and getting louder and louder until Aunty Ina would come in and threaten to 'scelp our asses' if we didn't settle down. It always worked, we knew it was time to go to sleep, after a little more muffled giggling.
I cannot remember my Dad ever making me laugh or playing with me at any time throughout my childhood, he was a serious type, who showed very little emotion of any kind, while Mum was an outgoing, very loving person. Dad never seemed to be around that much. I assumed he was working all the time, or playing cricket, which was his sporting passion.
Mum was with us all the time and was real good fun, she gave us all the love and attention anyone could ever want. She always wanted the best for us and tried her hardest to give us everything she could. She was a great cook and would make cakes and biscuits for us to eat. Everyone loved coming to our house, Mum made everyone welcome and would always give them something nice to eat. Her meringues were a legend, we couldn't get enough of them. She also made toffee, fudge and tablet (a kind of sweet favoured in Scotland). It always smelled wonderful in our house when Mum was baking. She was very talented and would make birthday and Christmas cakes for other people, she would ice them beautifully. Her talents were always in great demand. She always seemed to be busy, but never too busy for Gordon and me. We had been reading in our comics about Davy Crocket, so Mum cut up her old fur coat and made Gordon and me a coonskin Davy Crocket hat each. They were our prized possessions, nobody else had anything like it.
Even so, I spent as much time at Aunty Ethel's as I did at home. When I was there, it was just me and her and I enjoyed the love and attention she gave me.
Aunty Ethel took me with her every opportunity she had, she often took me shopping in town and I always enjoyed going with her. We went into the Co-op in Eastgate Street, where they had large mechanical cash registers with a row of levers on the front. When you made a purchase they asked for your dividend number, then they would line up the levers to correspond with your number. This was a way of collecting a form of discount that you could cash when you had enough. I still remember Aunty's number, 13497.
She also regularly took me with her to visit her brother Ben Ballinger and his wife Gertie. My great Uncle Ben and great aunt Gertie lived in Painswick in a stone cottage in Tibbiwell, overlooking a beautiful valley. It was quite a day out, we walked to the bus station and boarded an old green country bus. Then off we'd go, up the Painswick Road through Upton St Leonards, where Aunty Ethel and Uncle Ben had been born, up the hill, over Painswick beacon and into Painswick village. It takes only about fifteen minutes by car now, but it took an hour by bus as it struggled up the hills, just about making it over the top.
Uncle Ben's cottage was at the end of a row of Cotswold stone cottages, with a garden at the front, so steep that I had difficulty getting up and down it. I used to roll down it, over and over, then struggle back to the top. I don't know how Uncle Ben did it but the garden was well kept, with rows of flowers and vegetables. He often gave Aunty Ethel some rhubarb or gooseberries to take home. In the summer he always had a strawberry patch and would pick some to serve with cream for our tea.
We had our tea in the mid afternoon, it would be fruit and cream with bread and butter. Uncle Ben would stand the loaf of bread on its end and butter it, then cut the slice off the top, repeating this procedure until enough was cut. After this we had cakes and a pot of tea. Uncle Ben had the old fashioned habit of pouring his tea from the cup into his saucer, before slurping down. He insisted that it tasted better that way. In the winter when the fire was lit, the kettle would be set to boil on the black leaded coal range in the living room. In the summer Aunty Gertie used the gas cooker in the kitchen. The cottage had two rooms downstairs, a living room and a kitchen, with an outside toilet. A door from the living room hid the stairs that led to the two bedrooms. We always visited on a Sunday and it was Uncle Ben's ritual on the Sabbath, to retire to bed for a short nap in the afternoon. It made no difference who was there, he would disappear through the door to the stairs and not reappear for about an hour.
There was no electricity in the cottage, but it had gaslights that you had to light with a match or taper. It was well into the 1960's before electricity was installed. I was always fascinated by the radio they had, which was powered by a large battery they purchased from a local shop. I had never seen a battery-powered radio before.
It was a lovely walk down Tibbiwell Lane, it is very steep leading down to an old mill which used to be a pin factory. Aunty Gertie, being from Painswick, had worked there when she was a young woman, in the 1920,s. In the summer there was an abundance of wild flowers, growing out of the high banks at the sides of the lane. No cars and very few people passed through this lane. The area had been largely unchanged for over a hundred years.
Walking up Tibbiwell one day, on our way to the bus stop to take us home, we went into the shop at the top of the street, it was a small shop that sold a little of everything. I saw a red plastic water pistol in the window and asked Aunty Ethel if I could have it. She bought it for me and we took it home to her house. Everything she bought me I always kept at her house and never took it home. It had 'Empire made' moulded into the plastic. I didn't know what that meant, then. I later found out that They were cheap imported goods mainly from Hong Kong. I had great fun with that water pistol until it broke. Plastic was very brittle then and never lasted long.
Aunty Ethel also took me with her when she went to visit her sister, in Swindon, my great Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie Harding. It was an epic journey to get to Swindon by bus, on a Sunday. We caught a bus to the centre of Gloucester at around 8.30. took another bus to Cheltenham, then another bus, which went to Swindon stopping everywhere in between. It took so long to get there that we only stayed about three hours, before we had to start the reverse journey home. We always had a nice tea with Alice and Charlie, they were really nice people. Charlie would keep asking me if I wanted more of everything. Sometimes Alice said to him 'shut up Charlie we haven't got anything left', we all laughed because it was just a game Uncle Charlie and I, used to play. He always knew what was all gone and always asked me if I wanted more of it. Uncle Charlie worked most of his life for the Great Western Railway in Swindon. They owned their own house, the only ones I knew of, in our family, that did. It had a flower garden at the front of the house and a large garden at the back where Charlie grew his vegetables. He was very proud of his garden and we strolled around it together, like old friends, while he showed me how his beans and vegetables of all sorts, were coming on. Their way of life was very different to our poor existence.
In 1957 the elections for Parliament were held, Aunty Ethel was a staunch Labour Party supporter. We went to a rally in support of Jack Diamond, who was subsequently elected as the Member of Parliament for Gloucester. I carried a placard with a poster stuck onto it, proclaiming 'vote Diamond Labour', printed in the shape of a diamond.
Not long after this my small world started to change forever. I was told that Aunty Ethel was moving to Matson, as they were going to demolish all of the houses in Clapham and Aunty Ethel was to be one of the first to go. When she was gone I didn't know what to do with myself. I knew where Matson was, because we passed it on the way to Painswick. It was only three or four miles but to me it seemed like a very long way. Paul Thorpe also went somewhere and I never saw him again.
Demolition began, the cranes with their wrecking balls hanging on wire hawsers and chains bashed away at the fragile old houses and soon they were reduced to rubble. For a while it was a new adventure playground, a lot of the houses were empty, I could climb over the piles of brick rubble and go into the houses to see what I could find. Things people had left behind were of great interest, but there was nothing of any value. I found a green glazed pot in a back yard. I thought it was a treasure, but when I took it home, Mum made me throw it away, it had a chip out of the rim and a crack in it. I had been so excited, finding it that I hadn't noticed any of that.
Soon it was our turn to go and that was the end of Clapham.
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Copyright © 1999 Cliff Ballinger. All rights reserved.