In last week's Bugle, Alan Goddard provided us with a host of anecdotes from his childhood and the unique experience it was for Black Country kids growing up in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
It was a tough time, of shortages and rationing, and of course a world war going on around them, but the innocence of youth also made it one big adventure for the likes of Alan and his contemporaries whose powers of ingenuity seemed to know no bounds.
Scrap was a valuable commodity and it's in a Blackheath scrapyard where we rejoin Alan's journey down memory lane ...
"It was from the scrapyards that my elder brother Tony and I created bicycles that cost us absolutely nothing.
Picking up bits and pieces that were no use to anyone and slinging them over the fence may have seemed like a fool's errand, but it didn't take us long to put all those bits and pieces together.
“One of the bikes had a fixed back wheel, and the braking system for a second one was a boot sole pressing on the front tyre behind the wheel forks. But we used both of them daily and we even took part in races on the Tump in front of the "Dad's Army" barracks.
“When we didn't have a ball we played a game called Tip Peg. You had two five inch pieces of thin branch, plus a two foot piece, then one short piece was placed on the ground, the second at an angle over it. The two foot piece was held like a baseball bat and swung down on to the raised end. It flew skywards, and as it fell the bat drove it a long way and the winner was the one who drove it the longest distance.
“Very often we'd leave the security of the terraced houses behind and armed with a piece of black cotton and a jam jar we headed for the cut. On the outward journey we'd turn over a few stones to collect worms, which went straight into the jar, and then using them as bait we fished for red butchers and jackbannocks in the basins and catfish (Miller's Thumb) by the railway bridge.
“Empty narrow boats that had been moored for as long as I could remember provided another playground.
When we got bored with fishing, and from the vantage point of an empty, we'd watch men and women leading big shire horses along the towpath, hauling the boats at the end of an angled tow-rope that were either filled with coal, coke, or steel tubes from Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks at the far end of the mousehole tunnel, under Gorsty Hill.
“With a razor blade we cut pieces of reed growing on the canal banks, then cut into each reed a series of holes and Bob's yer uncle, we had pipes for making music. On hot days, swimming in the cut was a must, or if we were near Hayseech Brook or the factory near Haden Hill, a dip was inevitable.
“We often found plants with hollow stems near the chemical outhouse toilet behind the Bethel Church on Beeches Road, and with a plentiful supply of hawthorn berries we made use of an arsenal of ready made pea-shooters.
Looking back we were well versed in the science of ballistics and another favourite of ours was the arrow launcher; a two to three foot long, thin and well-pruned branch was fitted with wire at one end to give it some weight, and flights of cardboard at the other. The range of each cardboard arrow was only limited by the strength of the boy at the other end.
“Some sunny days were strictly reserved for train spotting which we did from a concrete retaining bank wall top about twenty yards from the Old Hill side of the railway tunnel, which afforded us a grandstand view. Food was never far from a growing lad's mind and there were always plenty of blackberries to be harvested from the railway embankments.
“This food was free, but we did scrump other foodstuffs including the odd apple, and visits to allotments for a potato or carrot, which were cleaned with grass before being devoured. The last wheat field in the area also yielded a handful of corn.
“Every year at the beginning of August the Goddard family, minus my dad, departed the smog and grime of the Black Country and together with other Blackheath and Whiteheath families boarded coaches for pastures new in the Worcestershire and Herefordshire hop fields.
“We were quartered in either stables or wooden huts, slept on bales of straw and worked all the daylight hours, seven days a week. The very large crib which each family tried to fill with hops, handpicked from the vines, was emptied twice a day by the gaffer (farmer) using a bushel basket measure. The pay was sixpence per bushel, so to earn a quid we had to fill forty bushels. The wages were handed over just before we boarded the coach that would take us back home, less the cost of the food we had consumed during our stay and any subs drawn, and it was always the end of September or first week in October when we returned to the Black Country.
“Throughout October we collected anything we could to build the biggest bonfire in the district in anticipation of Guy Fawkes night, mainly rubbish that couldn't be recycled, and all this was hauled into one of the bigger, communal backyards in Heath Street. It was fronted by six terraced houses which had just one entry from the street.
Each side wall had one outhouse which provided a tap and a pair of toilets. The rear wall contained four outhouses.
“I cannot emphasise enough how hard those times were, especially for my parents, but being so young us kids just got on with it. I used to scour the streets for our mother, looking for cigarette ends, the tobacco from which she would use to roll her own.
“But there was still the fun side of things and I well recall the old pram which we made into a racing machine. Two wheels and axles, one short piece of rope, a short plank and a few nails created a formidable go-cart that sped down Perry Park Road (affectionately called ‘The Snake’) with its three shallow bends and a quarter of a mile downhill, and picked up considerable speed on the way.
And during those autumnal days we'd visit Quinton woods and collect conkers and chestnuts by the barrel full; the nuts were great to eat and everyone I can think of played conkers.
“The Black Country is roughly six hundred feet above sea-level, so no one who lives in the region should really have to dream of a white Christmas. Well that's what it seemed like when I was a young lad growing up.
There was frost, snow and ice without fail; snowball scraps galore, a ferocious competition at building snowmen, and slides on any sheet ice.
“And of course, with a few pieces of wood and a handful of nails, you could knock up a rudimentary sledge in no time. Everyone used the Highfields Road side of the Highfields, which had a long, steep grassy slope down to the railway fence which had gaps between the uprights just wide enough for a sledge to pass through.
“Then it was over the Devil's Hump and down towards the lines, by which time most of us had rolled off into the snow, and under normal circumstances sucking an icicle is a thirst quencher, but back then icicles were contaminated with the soot and dirt that filled the air, so we had to forego that pleasure.
“Most people cooked meals on their cast-iron grates, and because of fuel shortages, in the winter on a Saturday morning we young ‘uns had pre-dawn visits to the gas works located at the bottom of a steep hill in Powke Lane, about a mile from where I lived.
“Most parents were at work on a Saturday morning, so it was up to me, brother Tony and our mates to haul either a sledge, pram or a home-made cart through the dark of a bitterly cold morning, and no matter how early we arrived at the gates, the queue always seemed to go back up the hill a considerable distance. We reckoned on a two hour wait if you were unfortunate to get there late and sometimes you ended up with no coke at all.
“Each family was allowed one half hundredweight of coke in a bag, but often the pile became exhausted before the queue came to an end.
Needless to say we always tried to get to the gas works early to be near the front of the queue, but there was the odd occasion when the gas works gate was slammed shut and Tony and I had to move on to a nearby redundant open cast coal field site to hack at frozen coal dust, until enough nuggets were found to keep the home fires burning for a couple of days.
“The communal outside toilet we shared with the neighbours generally froze solid at some stage during the coldest of winter weather and could only be used after boiling hot water had been poured down the pan or a liberal amount of salt to free up the ice, and then you had to be quick before the water froze again.
“Inside the house it became so cold the washing on the downstairs lounge lines froze as stiff as a board. In bed we used a heated up house brick, freshly removed from the fireside oven and wrapped in newspaper, to try and warm the cockles of our heart, but often it was impossible to get warm and sleep, especially when we ran out of fuel, and then even the bed bugs suffered.
“In the winter of '47 as many will remember it snowed day and night for weeks. In the Black Country and wider West Midlands the snow ploughs had to give up trying to the clear the drifts that were as deep as second floor windows. To get out and about every household had to clear a path from their front door to the centre of the street; the cut froze to a depth of 6 inches, therefore becoming both a highway for getting around and a playground for us to play on; and the narrow boats were unable to move their loads for many weeks.
“It was the time of year for children to make fire cans, and any household that could, would, the bigger the better.
Using a tin opener and a nail a small brazier was made, and then a piece of U-shaped wire attached to the top.
“All that was then needed was to swipe some gleeds from a nearby fire and the fire can was complete. The piece of candle from one's tools of the trade and a few fire cans made an abandoned air raid shelter or a wrecked uninhabited house a den of considerable value, and indeed comfort.
And every time the snow fell it glistened until the soot and grime from the air turned it grey and then black, before melting away and bringing our enjoyment of winter sports to an untimely end."