Derek Barnett, House of Commons Gallery Staff of the Times, who learned the
journalistic trade at the Chester Chronicle, has set down his recollections of
boyhood at Upton, Chester. The Second
World War had started, Mr Churchill was rallying the nation on the radio, the evacuees were arriving in the country from
I spent my boyhood years in the
My two brothers and I, like most of our friends were free of some of the tougher disciplines of family life because our father was away at war. Small wonder, then, that some of our hair-raising boyish exploits occasionally brought us into conflict with my mother’s neighbours, and, from time to time, even the village policeman.
My mother was always warning “One of these fine days you’ll all kill one another!” and looking back now I marvel that her dire prediction never came true. But for most of the time our pursuits were harmless enough – pretending to be Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the nearby woods, playing gangsters or cowboys and Indians for instance.
I do recall that once, though, our gang got into hot water with the mother of a somewhat shy, nervous and highly-strung boy whom we captured and tied to a post in the middle of a ring of fire while we ‘redskins’ did a war dance around him, brandishing our home-made knives and tomahawks and chanting blood-curdling yells.
It was only a little fire which singed but a few hairs on his legs, but his mother was soon round at our house with her sobbing offspring, complaining bitterly to my mother about how we ‘little devils’ had almost put her son to death at the stake.
Naturally, between such escapades we had to go to school. This was a small, red brick Victorian
building on the edge of the village. I
remember the smell of chalk dust, of newly opened exercise books in which we
wrote with ‘
The headmaster, Mr Chidlow, was a strict but kind man in grey flannels and brown tweedy jacket with leather patches at the elbows. He took us for more advanced lessons as we got older and also for ‘games’ like rounders and handball in the small rear playground. We wore coloured bands of red, green, blue or yellow across the shoulders like bandoliers to distinguish opposing teams.
Marbles and Conkers
It was in the playground, too, during ‘playtime’ as it was called, that we enjoyed our own games such as marbles, conkers, tick and hide and seek. We carried our marbles, or ‘olleys,’ in home-made marble bags with a drawstring around the top. Every boy had his favourite marble. This was usually a ‘blood olley’ so called because of their attractive red and white streaks and whorls. These cherished possessions were usually taken out only to be shown off and handled lovingly. Certainly they were almost never played with, to be won by any victor.
We got our conkers by hurling sticks up into the autumn chestnut trees to bring the green, spikey casings showering down to the ground. These were then cut open to reveal the conkers, gleaming French-polished brown in their freshness.
The teachers were mostly elderly maiden ladies with their hair done up in buns. Miss Baker, whose fingers always seemed to be stained with red ink she used for marking our work, taught us reading, writing and arithmetic, and sometimes took us into the woods to learn nature study first hand by opening up horse chestnuts or dissecting wild flowers and showing us how they were pollinated by the bees,
Then there was Miss Houlbrook, who did her best to teach us a love
of music. She would strike chords as
she stood at the piano (we always wondered why on earth she didn’t sit at the
instrument) and then point to a boy or girl and fire the question “What key was
that in?” We were sometimes allowed to
sing as she played and the room would resound to the out-of-tune but lusty
strains of ‘Rose of
The names of some of the other teachers I have forgotten. But Miss Jenkins and Miss Williams were both somewhat younger. Miss Jenkins taught only the ‘infants’ class, so we didn’t see much of her. Miss Williams was courting an army officer who would sometimes meet her at the school gates when they would stroll off arm in arm. We always giggled and thought it ‘soppy.’
There was one other teacher, a winsome young woman with raven hair and big, bright brown eyes. Though we would never admit it to each other, most of us boys secretly adored her. Ironically her name eludes me, though I can still see the pretty blush which suffused her face whenever she happened to notice one of us boys staring at her in rapt adoration.
Weird & Wonderful
Many a knuckle got badly bruised as a conker, threaded on a piece of stout string or an old bootlace, was swung at the opponent’s but missed the mark. Our conkers were given a number each time they smashed another. But boys can be boastful creatures and many a ‘ninety niner’ or ‘hundred and oner’ was in reality a ‘two-er’ or ‘three-er’! We tried many weird and wonderful methods to harden our conkers, including soaking them in vinegar, baking them in the oven, or keeping them for a whole year in a dark cupboard in readiness for the next conker season.
Sometimes a boy would insist on examining an opponent’s conker before a game so he could be sure that like was being matched with like.
A Human Chain
A popular game was ‘Pie Crust.’ I have never heard of it being played in any other part of the country. A group of boys would make a human chain by bending forward from the waist and locking arms around the hips of the boy in front. The opposing side would run from behind and leap one after another on to the bent backs in much the same way as cowboys in the Westerns would jump on to their steeds from behind to make a quick getaway. The idea of the game was to make the chain of backs give way by sheer weight.
A more hazardous game was called ’duckstone’ and involved hurling fairly heavy stones at another on the ground as boys took turns trying to retrieve their own stones from around it. Hands were frequently bruised or chipped in this reckless pastime. Sometimes, in the middle of a game a fight would break out between a couple of boys. We would gather round the combatants, egging them on, shouting encouragement to whichever one we hoped would triumph. If Mr Chidlow happened to see the ‘scrap’ from his window he would rush out, drag the pugilists apart and hustle them inside for a caning.
Now and again our play would be interrupted when one of the former pupils who had only recently left school would sit astride his bicycle at the school railings and regale us with grand takes of life at work….until Mr Chidlow, who never seemed to lose his authority with the old boys, told him to clear off back to his factory or farm instead of boasting to his chums.
Mr Chidlow did not object to our having a little fun but came down hard on anyone guilty of infractions of school rules, particularly when they concerned safely. One of these rules was never to interfere with the stirrup pumps and fire buckets placed in the cloakrooms in readiness for air raids.
Well, one hot summer day, I and a fellow ruffian, now a respected builder in the Chester area, decided that the other pupils standing in line waiting for a singing lesson, needed cooling down, and while I was at the pump and buckets he manned the hose.
The cloakroom was filled with hissing water and the cries of boys and girls running hither and thither to escape the inevitable wetting.
Blazing with anger
Suddenly there was a silence. There stood Mr Chidlow, eyes blazing with anger and head dripping from the spray which had caught him as he opened the door to investigate the din. He cuffed both of us soundly around the ears and administered a vigorous and – on reflection – deserving caning for that particular outrage.
On Friday mornings the Reverend Thomas Oliver Cromwell East came to school to look after our spiritual needs and the most literate of us were called out in front of the class to read the Lesson. This was invariably done to the accompaniment of rude whispers, nudges winks and giggling amongst the other girls and boys who revelled in tying to ‘trip up’ the reader.
An even worse fate occurred with the dreaded visit of the school dentist, a brusque elderly man who was never seen to smile and threw all of us into fear and trembling. A pupil whose name began with ‘A’ was always first for the ordeal in a room set aside for a makeshift dental surgery in the nearby village hall. This boy or girl would then act as runner, coming back into class and calling out the name of the next victim. These little horrors would add to the sense of dread and foreboding by relating fearsome stories of their own nasty experiences in the chair. They took a fiendish delight in fibbing “You’re down to have six (or seven or eight) out”.
We rejoiced at anything which took us out of the classroom, especially when we were taken in a crocodile to see geography or other documentary films in the village hall. Surprising though it might sound to today’s more sophisticated children, we were taken several times to the village’s one and only telephone box to learn how to use the phone!
Even more popular were the times when we descended into the damp-gloom of the school shelters to learn the drill for air raids or gas attacks, carrying our gas masks in square cardboard boxes with string shoulder straps. Sometimes the departure from the schoolroom was purely imaginary. This was when, about twice a week, we listened to the BBC’s ‘History for Schools’ programme on the school’s radio.
To the Woods and Fields
Several times unexploded land mines in the surroundings fields meant that we would all be sent home for the day. And in winter, if the classroom was too cold or the outside lavatories froze, that also got us out of lessons so we would joyfully rush out to spend the time sliding on ponds, tobogganing or having snowball fights. There were times when it was whispered that a certain boy had put a tiny piece of ice in the schoolroom thermometer to bring about the temperature necessary for our release!
Outside school and at weekends and holidays we became creatures of the woods and fields. We sailed home-made ships on the ponds and in the ditches around the farms. We make these rough and ready vessels by sawing a flat piece of wood to a point for the bows.
We used a hot poker to make a hole in the deck for a mast and stitched up pieces of old sheets or any other odd bits of cloth to be fitted as sails. Once upon the water these humble little craft underwent a magical transformation.
In the mind’s eye of their young makers they became majestic clipper
ships, outward bound for
We climbed trees and peered into hedgerows, bushes and pond reeds in our search for birds’ eggs. Our code of conduct never allowed anyone to take more than one egg from any nest. One of our school friends lived on a farm and often we went home with him to roam around it, watching the milking and haymaking, romping in the hayloft and making secret hideouts in the bales of straw stacked in the fields.
We swam in the river and canal, the latter despite the warnings that we would probably catch some dreadful illness because of the foul disease abounding in its murky brown water. We became Robin Hood, Tarzan of the Apes, Captain Blood, cowboys and indians, secret agents or science fiction heroes.
Our imaginations soared into the realms of fantasy as we crossed swards in mortal combat amid the greenery of ‘Sherwood Forest,’ swung and leapt from trees with wild jungle cries or high-tailed our horses across the hot plains pursued by the screaming red hordes after our scalps.
If you happened to be playing one the these noble savages that particular day you would very likely be decked out in war-paint made from mum’s valuable lipstick, blackberry juice and a head-dress of bird or poultry feathers picked up in the woods or on farms. These were stuck into a band of corrugated cardboard and fastened around the head.
Made Weapons Ourselves
Most of our weapons we made ourselves, partly because there wasn’t much money to buy the real McCoy and partly because we derived a great deal of satisfaction from doing so. Guns were carved from wood with penknives (or illicitly, with absent fathers tools). Bows were made from yew or willow boughs and arrows from garden canes, sometimes tipped with a small screw to make them ‘carry.’
Our gang leader once carried realism a bit too far and tipped one or two of his with steel knitting needles. These were supposed to be purely for prestige and for frightening captives from rival gangs. But I remember that our leader once loosed one of these deadly shafts by mistake and pinned a hapless prisoner by the trouser leg to a tree where he was being interrogated about the enemy’s whereabouts.
Swords, spears and daggers were made from odd pieces of lath, found on building sites, and sharpened to a point. Tomahawk heads were lovingly fashioned by chipping patiently away with a stone at a piece of slate to achieve the correct shape and sharp edge. The head was then fitted into a slot in the end of a wooden handle and tightly bound.
Sometimes we played Roman or Greek warriors too, probably because they appealed to our sense of romance and history. As Romans we carried the short sword (we always strove to achieve realism) and shields. These were not so realistic because they were round lids from disused creosote or paint drums, also found on building sites. But they had a convenient handle in the centre, perfect for carrying into battle.
We also liked to paint coats of arms on our shields, and if a warrior wanted a cloak, a bit of old curtain or, if mother didn’t know about it, your blue school mackintosh thrown around the shoulders and buttoned at the throat served quite well.
We could just as easily turn ourselves into the spacemen we saw at the Saturday morning pictures where a few pence brought two or three hours of murder and mayhem and a sing along between films. The melodic strains of the organ, which had risen slowly from the pit, would roll through the darkened cinema, and on the screen a little white ball would bounce over the words of the songs to provide the rhythms for old favourites like ‘Where the Blue of the Night,’ ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside,’ and ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.’
The films? Serials like ‘Charlie Chan,’ ‘Don Winslow of the US Navy’ and ‘The Clutching Hand.’ The last was a spine-chiller about a silent strangler who terrorised an American city and never failed to set the girls screaming. As boys, of course, we never admitted to the shivers which ran down our own backs.
I suppose, though, that our favourite serials were the Westerns, particularly ‘Kit Carson’ and ‘The Oregon Trail’ with the ‘goodies’ in crisp white cowboy suits and riding beautiful white steeds and the ‘baddies’ in scruffy jeans or breeches and astride seedy brown nags. Another cowboy serial was ‘The Black Raiders’ in which the baddies were all masked and dressed in black silk outfits and the leader had a black stallion which reared up and trampled his enemies to death at a signal.
Many of our ideas for cowboys games were dreamed up from the ‘pictures,’ but in one respect our imaginations exceeded themselves. While my mother was out shopping on Saturday afternoons our dining room was turned into a Western Saloon where we knocked back rye whiskey (well, lemonade or dandelion and burdock) and smoked mother’s cigarette ends or some of the household’s scarce tea ration in our pipes – hollowed out acorns with stems of straw. We lounged around in our cowboy outfits talking in Wild West jargon (waaal, howdy stranger) and pretending to aim at the spittoon (our copper coalscuttle).
As the youngest of these village cowboys, it was my job, in addition to being bartender to keep a lookout for mother coming down the street. But often she would unwittingly almost catch us by surprise and never was good liquor thrown away so wantonly, glasses washed so fast or pipes knocked out with such haste on a cowboy’s boot. Often, as mother was even almost at the back door we would be at the French windows frantically wafting away the smoke.
Our addiction to the nicotine habit once got us into bad odour with the village bobby, P C Turner, known affectionately ‘Ginger’ because of his red hair and moustache. He was always trying to catch us out in some minor infraction of the law and would eye us suspiciously as he rode past on his bicycle.
One night he ‘copped’ us smoking cigarettes in a dark alleyway alongside the fish and chip shop. He demanded to know where they had come from and in a moment of panic one of my brothers blurted out the truth. This was that whenever we had a few pennies to spare we would buy a packet of five woodbines from the village newsagent and, I am sorry to say, fib and tell him they were for a young lady who lived in our street.
‘Ginger’ hustled us round the shop, made a strong complaint about selling cigarettes to minors, and then made one of his all-too-frequent visits to our house (and those of our friends) to ask mother to “keep a tighter reign on these lads.”
The young lady in question, for whom we also ran genuine errands, was instructed to send us for cigarettes in future only in exceptional circumstances (whatever that might have meant) and told that henceforward they would be supplied only on production of a signed note.
We always had to watch out for ‘Ginger’ when we were around the village after dark, usually because we were up to some mischief we knew he wouldn’t like. We got heaps of fun knocking on doors and bolting in the hope of a chase or rattling the bar parlour doors at ‘The Wheatsheaf’ to startle the drinkers.
One night we even dared to knock off ‘Ginger’s’ helmet by stretching a piece of string across the road as he approached. Only the cover of darkness saved us from his clutches as we ran for our lives!
Th local zoo was only about half a mile from our house and if we wanted a free look at the animals it was an easy matter to climb the wall and penetrate a barbed wire fence. The only problem was the Indian elephant keeper, a splendid figure in his turban and native garb as he rode around the grounds on his two beasts and gave rides to the children…..those who had paid for admission, that is. He often gave chase if he saw us lurking about but was never able to catch us.
Nocturnal Garden Raids for Thrills
Like most boys we often went ’scrumping’ and even raided Mr Chidlow’s pear trees in his back garden next to the school playground. From time to time his daughter would distribute her dad’s pears to the children in class. But we felt sure Mr Chidlow was only trying to buy off the unknown culprits and we continued our nocturnal visits to his garden, mostly for the thrill of mischief and danger, I suppose.
Perhaps it was poetic justice, then, that Mr Chidlow should benefit in another way at our expense. American military convoys frequently passed along Long Lane, the main road which we had to cross on our way back to school after lunch. They seemed never-ending and regretfully, made us late for lessons.
The GI’s would invariably throw lots of good things to us as they went by – chocolate, chewing gum, cigars and cigarettes in particular. They probably thought we would give the latter to our mums or big sisters! However, when we finally got back to school Mr Chidlow always asked us to turn out our pockets “just to be sure you haven’t got anything that boys shouldn’t have. I know what these Americans are.” We were allowed to keep all the chocolate and gum. “But I’ll have to confiscate the cigarettes and cigars,” he’d say with mock solemnity. We all knew what that meant.
The Americans had a ‘clean rubbish’ tip at one end of the village. Well, it might have been rubbish to them but to us it was a source of pleasure…and much needed income. “I’ve found a fountain pen!”…”Just look at this cigarette case”…”Who wants a super flashlight?” There were lots of books too, and stacks of magazines though some of these were obviously not intended for juvenile reading!
We also found cast-off soldiers’ uniforms, caps, badges and ‘US’ buttons and for years afterwards I kept a nice silver propelling pencil discovered at the dump. But most of our ‘finds’ we would sell to our school friends to get cash, perhaps to buy comics or foreign stamps. The magazines we hawked around our streets calling out the title of any particular batch like newsvendors and knocking on neighbours front doors, thrusting grubby publications into reluctant hands of householders at a ha’penny a copy.
Another source of income of a more conventional nature was potato picking for a local grower. He paid us a pittance for this backbreaking work, which we usually did on our way home from school for tea. But it was arranged between the grower and Mr Chidlow and as we were told it would “help the war effort” (though we never did discover how) we didn’t like to complain. We also did newspaper rounds, which yielded a few shillings a week from Mason’s newsagent’s shop, the one from which we obtained our illicit ‘smokes’. Mr Mason was a kind, hearty man who always doled out a few sweets to his boys before they left the shop on their rounds at 6.30 each morning.
Plum ‘rounds’ were those which included one of the three or four army camps where it became traditional for the lucky paper boy to be given porridge and bacon and egg alongside the soldiers at breakfast in the mess hall. Growing boys being what they are, this didn’t prevent our going home afterwards and having a second breakfast before going off to school. These rounds were the preserve of older boys who benefited particularly at Christmas time when they experienced the delight of being served Christmas dinner, in addition to which the soldiers would chip in to provide a special Christmas box for them.
The younger boys viewed all this with envy and looked forward to the day when they would become seniors so that they, too, could benefit from such perks. But even the Christmas boxes handed out by kind householders could yield more than one week’s pay.
The older paperboys were also provided with box bikes, which had a metal frame at the front to carry a wooden box containing the papers. The less fortunate humped around a sacking bag across the shoulders. We never minded the weather, even in winter when the pavements and roads were deep in snow. On the contrary, this added an element of novelty because we were able to pull the day’s papers along on our home-made sledges.
On dark, cold frosty mornings we often carried a flask of tea and wore knitted ‘Balaclava’ helmets and mittens which mother made by cutting the legs off a pair of worn out socks and stitching in the ‘fingers.’ To keep our feet warm we wore stout clogs with steel rimmed wooden soles and heels. These, unlike boots and shoes, were not ‘on coupons’ though I can’t remember why. We preserved them and kept waterproof with liberal applications of dubbin.
Memories of the war years are stamped indelibly on my mind. At school we painted “Save or Slave” and “Dig for Victory” posters. Some of us knitted scarves for prisoners of war and in the evenings collected rose hips in the countryside for making into rose hip syrup. This also had something to do with the war effort. So did collecting books from neighbours. I think these were needed to help keep servicemen occupied in their spare time in barracks and we were given badges of differing colours according to how many books we managed to bring in.
Novelty to Swap Beds for Bunks in Shelter
At home during air raids our family slept in bunks which my father built under the stairs while on leave once. Later we were given an indoor Morrison Shelter. These had a sheet steel top and corner posts and steel mesh sides.
At first we got out of bed to use the shelter only when the sirens wailed to herald an attack. But we began so to enjoy the novelty of sleeping downstairs in it that we never bothered to go upstairs at all.
At night we watched the searchlights stabbing the sky. When they picked out a German plane they would open up, rocking houses and rattling windowpanes. Next morning there might be the wreckage of a plane in the surrounding fields and once we children were allowed by the services to view one of these. It must have been considered as a boost to the morale!
The plane was roped off but each of us was allowed to take home one piece of salvage. How proudly we carried off our trophies – mine was a jagged piece of fuselage – to show to our friends.
At first the artillerymen roughed it under canvas. Hot baths were a luxury they enjoyed only in the homes of local people. In this way friendships were struck up and the soldiers were sometimes invited for tea on Sundays. Later, wives and fiancées began staying with us for weekends to be near the camp. Inevitably this led to us boys hanging about the camp entrance and eventually being spirited in to sit among our soldier friends in their tents and to eat hot toast and drink soup from billy cans.
Security at the camp never seemed to extend to youngsters like us. My elder brother once told how he and a friend returned to the camp with fish and chips from the village chip shop and were caught in an air raid. Instead of dropping them off at the sentry box and hurrying home to worried mothers they faithfully delivered the fish and chips to the gun emplacements and handed them over to the soldiers as they blazed away at the Luftwaffe overhead. Boys can tell some tall stories but my brother still tells it convincingly even today.
During raids the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) wardens in our street kept an eye open for careless householders turning on lights without drawing the blackout curtains properly. “Put that light out!” they would shout; a cry which came to occupy an immortal place in World War Two humour.
Comedians started using it as a catch phrase on the radio and children called it out to each other in the street. Another familiar catch phrase was “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” It was trotted out whenever you shovelled too much sugar into your tea or complained about the meagre ration of meat on your plate.
Two of the ARP men once had the opportunity to put some of their training into practice though it had nothing to do with the Germans. One of our friends had a mania for lighting fires and I regret that there were times when he would persuade one of my brothers to join him in his pyromaniacal escapades.
One summer afternoon they were setting light to clumps of dry grass in a field behind our house when the breeze carried the flames into a gorse and hawthorn hedge running the length of the field, setting it ablaze.
The wardens, sensing the opportunity to cover themselves with glory in this emergency, were on the scene in little more time than it takes to strike a match. Dutifully, their wives rushed in and out with buckets of water while the men-folk bore heat and flame with fortitude. This was their own fire and nobody was taking it away from them!
The stirrup pump hissed until the self-appointed leader, who had insisted on handling the hose to show he was in charge, was satisfied the conflagration was over and called out to his colleague the traditional command: “Waaater off!” Much of the hedge had been reduced to ashes but our heroes pushed back their helmets, gave the miscreants a lecture on the dangers of playing with matches, and carried away their gear to the plaudits of the neighbours.
Prisoners of War
Our association with the army camp lasted right through VE Day
I think it was towards the end of hostilities that German and Italian prisoners of war in the area were allowed out to work on the farms and spend afternoons and evenings at weekends walking around the village and lanes. They wore British soldiers’ uniforms dyed dark brown and with a large pale blue circular patch on the back for identification.
Curiosity got the better of us children and we were soon on friendly terms with them. We spent hours talking about their own countries and learning words and phrases of their languages. The Italians used to make rings for us from sixpenny and shilling pieces.
Suddenly the war was at an end and it wasn’t long before I came into my youth for I was almost thirteen. Boyish pranks and games in the woods and fields were gradually left behind. We all began instead to play snooker and billiards in the men’s institute, to put on neat long grey flannels and sports jackets for the local hop in the village hall on Friday nights and to slick down our hair for clandestine trysts with the village girls in the lanes on summer evenings.
How fast the days of boyhood fly! But the memories linger on to warm and cheer the heart as the years go by.