#”Knuckle Dusters, Chalk Theft & the 1950s”: Reminiscence at Millman Street Centre


HCA members enthralled by 1950s memories…

Last Friday (20th January), apparently saw the inauguration of the self-styled ‘The Donald’ Trump as the 45th President of the United States, or so this reporter is told.  Possibly there was some sort of media coverage of the ceremony – good luck trying to find mention of it on the internet.  Meanwhile, here in Holborn, Millman Street Community Centre members were enjoying the latest Reminiscence workshop.

These have been hosted by Sarah W from Westminster Kingsway College since last autumn.  This term, the theme is the 1950s, and each Friday, from 1:15pm t0 3:15pm, Sarah will be discussing various aspects of said decade with HCA members, the better to spark their recollections.

Last Friday’s subject was Hobbies & Pastimes.  In future workshops, various other aspects of the 1950s will be discussed.  As is often the case, the Hobbies & Pastimes conversations strayed a little from the 1950s to include many of our members’ childhood recollections of WW2, so there was (ahem) ‘bonus material’ discussed.

The first topic Sarah introduced was Hopscotch, which most of our female members recalled playing as kids.  “We used to play it in the streets,” recalled Ivy, also confessing that: “We used to nick chalk – some of it – from school.”

Seeing as the Met is yet to make much headway with its investigations into Jack The Ripper’s 1888 murder spree, the petty theft of chalk for use in an innocent child’s game in the 1940s or ’50s doesn’t seem likely to inspire the ‘Bluebotttles’ (as they were nicknamed at the time) to re-open this chilliest of cold cases.  And so the ringleader of the Hopscotch/Chalk-pinching gang remains at large.  At least for now…

The next subject was Skipping.  “Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper,” chanted Janice, recalling the accompaniment to her youthful pastime.  Ivy recalled singing other rhymes, including Oranges & Lemons.  “Boys didn’t do skipping,” George insisted, perhaps forgetting that boxers have long used it as part of their training.

Next up was Leapfrog.  “More for boys,” it was generally agreed, but Ivy also joined in.  “I used to climb trees and do everything boys could do,” she said.  Mulegetta couldn’t recall if he had enjoyed leapfrog; his childhood was, he said, “A long time ago.”

Several members recalled playing Tag (or It).  “We used to run around a big square,” George remembered.  As with all of the topics raised, Sarah illustrated the subject with photos from the era.

Some of our members’ most vivid recollections were of Playing on Bombsites during the war and in the immediate post-war period.  Some played rounders or cricket, but Janice recalled: “One day, the Headmaster came into our class – this was during the war – and said: ‘You must not play on bombsites!'” – due to the dangers of unexploded bombs.  This inspired Ivy to recall a “280 lb firebomb” that fell on Millman Street, adding that she’d “had a premonition beforehand.”  There had been no air raid warning:  “It came down into the sewer outside,” she said. Her brother took pieces of glass out of his feet in the aftermath.

On to less hazardous matters, and Sarah asked if our members if they recalled playing Conkers (“You had to bake them to make them hard,” said George), and Fireworks.  “You couldn’t have fireworks in the war,” Janice explained, prompting Helena to recall.  “We used to go to the tube station in Chancery Lane,” during the Blitz.

Our members recalled participating in Three-Legged Races, Egg & Spoon Races and the Sack Race (no, not the dismissal of Premiership football clubs’ managers after calamitous runs of poor form).

The advent of Television inspired various memories.  “It was tiny – everyone used to sit around it,” Janice said.  “It was all in black and white,” she added.  George, a former engineer, built his own TV and radio sets.  “You got a few transistors and wires to join them all up,” he explained, “Then bought a screen to put on it.”

As for television programmes,  some people had seen the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, though TV ownership was still quite a rarity in post-war Britain – and, initially at least, there was only one channel.  Members recalled seeing Muffin The Mule, Peregrine Penguin, Pinky & Perky, Sooty & Sweep, Lenny The Lion, and Mr Pastry – “Barmy as a coot, he was,” Ivy chuckled.

Members had mostly been on visits to London Zoo and the Natural History Museum (the former the alleged site of this reporter’s birth; the latter, where his birth certificate is said to be kept alongside other ancient relics), and they also recalled Go-Karts – George had made himself one, and Ivy said: “We used to sit on it and went flying!”

They had all read Comics, including The Beano, The Dandy (including Desperate Dan) Dennis The Menace, Topper, Tiger, Bunty and Janice’s erstwhile fave, Girls’ Crystal.  They also recalled Dinky Toys, Matchbox Cars, Hornby Train Sets and Meccano – nascent engineer George said: “They were good; you could build anything!”

From her girlhood, Janice recalled Rosebud Dolls – no, nothing to do with Citizen Kane’s beloved sledge in Citizen Kane. “You could bath them,” Janice said, “They were made of plastic.”  There were also Rag Dolls, Peg Dolls, China Dolls, and Heather Dolls – “More fabric, but half of it was made of china,” Janice enthused.

HCA members remembered playing I-Spy, for which there were a series of tie-in books released during the ’50s.  Janice also recalled something called Embroidering Maths – no idea, but sounds like something a corrupt Chancellor of the Exchequer might get up to before announcing the budget.

Our members’ memories of Pocket Money – and what it was spent on – seemed very popular.  Sweets, mainly: Ice cream, sherbert dabs, liquorice allsorts, toffee apples and ‘flying saucers’ – not the little-green-men occupants of alien spacecraft, but a confection containing sherbert or some such.  There were also gobstoppers – which were thought dangerous, as Bridie recalled.  George played Chess and Draughts, others Snakes & Ladders and Janice Gin Rummy.  Mulegetta – raised in Ethiopia – had played cards, particulary Canasta.

Moving onto the Seaside, many members recalled Donkey Rides, at Southend or other coastal towns.  “The beaches were barbed wired-off,” Janice recalled.  “We had horses,” said Mulegetta.  Took it to the waterhole.  The horses in our country are kept at home.  They are well fed, but can be dangerous,” he added.  George said, “The milkman used to come round with his horse and cart – we’d feed the horse carrots.”

Members remembered Pea Soupers – the London Smog of the 1950s; horrendous pollution that caused many deaths before the Clean Air Act of 1956.  This somehow led on to reminiscences of Tap Dancing and Ballet – “There were real maypoles to play round,” Janice said.

Another thing that all seemed to recall were Coronation Day Parties, but Mulegetta said “We celebrated New Year and Easter, but not the Coronation, as we were not British.”  – fair enough.  “Ethiopia was a different country.  We had our own Emperor – Haile Selassie.”

Next up for discussion was Trainspotting.  Anyone who has conjured up an image of senior citizens tucking into buckets of popcorn as they relish the antics of Edinburgh druggies in Danny Boyd’s quite jolly 1996 film of Irvine Welsh’s relentlessly grim 1993 novel of the same name can take that smirk of their faces right now.  Spotting trains and buses was an inexpensive pastime during the post-war years.  None of our members seem to have taken part in it, however.

As for Saturday Morning Picture Shows, most members recalled going to them, if not the films they were shown.  “They were terrible,” grimaced Ivy.  “They were indescribable!”

More popular, it seems, were Stink Bombs.  “They used to sell them at High Holborn,” Ivy said: “Stink bombs, knuckle dusters, etc.” – Knuckle dusters?!?  “Horrible boys used to have them,” she recalled.  Of the stink bombs, “They smelt just like a sewer!” she remembered.  This reek-related recollection led onto Chemistry sets, cap guns, water pistols and home made swings – loose rope hung over lampposts, according to Ivy (perhaps in case Mussolini chanced by).

Also discussed were a whole host of other activities enjoyed (or not) by HCA members who had lived in Britain during the war years and 1950s.  Favourite Books were touched on – Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories (“Tuppence every Friday”, apparently), and The Children’s Newspaper (no doubt brim full of chalk-theft, knuckle duster usage and non-junkie Trainspotting tips, all written from a kid’s perspective).  The Secret Garden, Swallows And AmazonsThe Wind In The Willows and, for George, “Atlases and technical books” were big favourite reads.  Edna, however, was “Not really into books; I liked sewing.” – and she later worked doing just that at Hardy Amies for decades.

Around the time that the 1951 Festival of Britain was being discussed, this reporter was thinking that far too much went on in the 1950s, that Sarah’s workshops were all too thoroughly illustrative of this, and that our members were getting their money’s worth out of her session.  He wondered whether to feign writer’s cramp or claim that his pen had run out of ink in order to slink away for a cuppa under the auspices of preparing his smudged notes for writing up on the Millman Street Blog.

Before doing so, he did, however, ask our members if they’d enjoyed the Reminiscence workshop.  “It was very interesting,” said George.  “I enjoyed hearing what others had to say,” Janice added.  “All of that was lovely…thank you (to Sarah).”

Helena “Enjoyed it a little, but it was good; very good!”

Rose and volunteer Gloria also enjoyed themselves. “That was very good,” Ivy enthused.  There follows a poor slideshow featuring a set of blurry photos, as ever Only Tenuously Linked to the Relevant Subject™:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As for Sarah W, she is London-born, both of her grandmothers lived to be 100, and prior to working for Westminster Kingsway College, she worked at Middlesex Uni, Morley College and WEA – not the record company, but the Workers Educational Association.

Holborn Community Association would like to thank Sarah for providing her Reminiscence workshops for the benefit of Millman Street Community Centre members.

In future workshops – each Friday, from 1:15pm t0 3:15pm – if you can remember as far back as the start of this article – Sarah will be discussing various aspects of the 1950s with HCA members, and again asking them for their recollections.  If you are a Millman Street Community Centre member, why not come along and stick you two penn’orth’s worth in, too?

Poxy photos and rambling report by Notes Smudger

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