Memories of a Baguley Boy

Geoff Frost's happy memories of being a 'Baguley Boy' in the 1950s . . . 

It was 1950 when I moved to Wythenshawe with my parents and younger sister from the slums of Rusholme and Moss Side. I had lived there since my birth in 1943 and my memories are of dark, dirty brick tenements, castellated chimney pots, bomb sites and an ever-present smell of dog dirt and coal smoke.

The journey to Wythenshawe was thrilling as I was allowed to go with the removal men in their large van. I sat on a sort of hot hump which throbbed with the diesel engine below, squashed between the driver, his mate and an extremely long gear stick. My most vivid recollection of the trip was of a beautiful stretch of road with vast lawns, shrubs and trees on either side which I later discovered to be Princess Parkway.

Arriving at Leaton Avenue, Baguley was like paradise. Not only was the house new and painted white but it had a garden and a bathroom. And oh joy; there was a railway only about thirty yards away. In front of the house was some open land and to the left an even larger oval-shaped plot that stretched all the way to Floatshall Road. These were the areas we would use in the future to play football, cricket and rounders much to the annoyance of the adult residents.

Once settled in, I soon made friends with other lads in the avenue and we made our ‘den’ underneath the narrow footbridge across the railway that led to the Royal Oak estate. The bridge was ideal as we could hide, light fires, shelter from the rain and secretly pee without having to go back home. The walkway of the bridge was constructed of concrete sections with narrow expansion gaps in-between each block.

A favourite game was to hide very quiet under the low end of bridge and when a woman approached walking above us, suddenly push a thin piece of wood up through one of the gaps and let out a banshee yell. Occasionally the fright would make some of them scream but one unfortunate woman also dropped her shopping bag and we had to flee as potatoes and carrots cascaded over the side of the bridge accompanied by loud curses from above.

When the steam trains were pulling coal wagons and had to stop at a nearby signal the wagons would clank together sending bits of coal spilling out onto the embankments. As soon as the train had gone, people would shout to each other and run onto the embankments gathering up as much coal as they could in bags and old prams. All the homes were heated with coal fires and coke stoves at that time.

For us the railway was ideal for squashing pennies on the lines and making larger knifes out of small penknives. Challenges of dare were undertaken by walking along the parapet of the bridge and if you did this while a train passed underneath you were classed as especially brave.

Across the green and opposite to our house was an entrance to allotments and after that to the open countryside. We would walk through the allotments to pull up rhubarb that grew prolific in the nearby fields, sometimes ‘borrowing’ a wheelbarrow to carry the stuff home. Living in Baguley at that time was just like living in the countryside and we were always in the fields or pinching apples from the orchards along Shady Lane.

Cycle trips would take us to Castle Mills near Styal where we went swimming in an open air pool after first having to walk through what appeared to be something like a smelly sheep dip. If we didn’t have any money for Castle Mills we would swim in the River Bollin but that wasn’t always good as there were leeches. After swimming we’d sit on the river bank pulling the leeches off each other a procedure which left little pin pricks and smears of blood.

Ringway Airport was also a favourite stomping ground and many hours were spent watching the planes through the chain link fences. The RAF was stationed across from the commercial flying area at Ringway and our favourites, the Vampire jets and Vulcan bombers were often seen. Before Ringway became developed security wasn’t strict and we were able to amble around the sheds and hangars before being shooed away by some official. Occasionally, a workman would take us in the hangars and show us some of the engines and planes. On our way home along the winding country lanes we would stop at a little cottage cafe that sold ice cream and had an advertising sign for Turog bread. Our last lap home took us past Baguley   Hospital with its traffic signposts stating Hospital, Quiet Please – and we were!

Our main place for enjoyment though was Wythenshawe Park. We would spend evenings, weekends and holidays there, not returning home until late in the day but nobody bothered so much then, it was part of growing up. And of course every boy had a gun. I should hasten to add that these were cap guns, spud guns or air pistols. There were no police armed response units in those days thank goodness!

Games such as Cowboys and Indians and Robin Hood were regular pastimes. We would make our bows from tree branches bending them and linking the ends with twine. The arrows were made out of garden canes sharpened at one end with the use of a penknife; the feathers came from dead birds or inside nests found in the park.

During hot summers we would peel tar from cracks in the roads, wrap it around the end of the arrows then set fire to it, a bit like we had seen Red Indians do on the Western films. I believe that’s how the roof at Baguley Hall Junior School was set on fire – not by me though! Playing at Marine Commandos was also a regular game and we would creep on our bellies through the undergrowth and get tangled up amongst the rhododendron bushes that seemed to be everywhere in Wythenshawe   Park . Climbing trees and balancing on logs across ponds was common as was falling in and emerging filthy with bits of duckweed and stinking mud.

Broken arms, split heads, cuts and general bruising were common; especially for boys because we all wore short trousers until about twelve years’ old. During class in school we would pick at the many scabs formed on our knees and elbows, usually making them bleed again. Official council play areas such as park roundabouts and slides always stood on concrete bases to ensure that we received plenty more injuries.

We didn’t have much to do with girls apart from playing doctors and nurses with them in Blackcarr Wood. It was all innocent fun in those days but no doubt today we would probably be taken into care, analysed by a psychiatrist and locked up as potential sex deviants. I never recall any boys being openly homosexual, we didn’t even know what that was; if they were effeminate or weak they were just known as sissies and that was that. Lesbian was a word I never heard and if it had been mentioned I would probably have assumed it referred to Les Bean who lived in Consett Avenue.

In Wythenshawe Park, there ran a stream named Baguley Brook and there we fished with our nets for frogspawn, newts, minnows, sticklebacks and fearsome looking catfish. In the 1950’s, ponds were abundant in Wythenshawe and looking back it must have been an environmental disaster for the area to have hundreds of council-house kids carry off such rich diversity of aquatic life in jam jars. It feels odd now when I hear about some building development being halted because Great Crested Newts have been found nearby. We had dozens of the creatures.

The park was patrolled by a ‘Parkie’ who dressed in a police type of uniform complete with peaked cap. He resembled Blakey from On the Buses and carried a stick with a spike on the end for collecting litter.  He was kept fit by chasing us and brandishing his stick so we might know what to expect if caught – but we never were.

Wythenshawe Park also hosted funfairs and many happy hours were spent amongst the smells of hot dogs, toffee apples and candyfloss. At one fairground there was even a boxing booth where, if you were old enough and bold enough, you could fight the resident boxer to win a pound note. The boxer was of course a professional and rarely did anybody come near to giving him any worries.

I also remember a penny slot machine which tested how much of an electric shock you could stand. Holding two brass handles and turning one handle slowly would increase the electricity. A dial with a pointer showed the various stages of success from weakling to superman. I never got past the ‘weakling’ rating. As soon as the shock came through I would let go. I think reaching ‘superman’ must have been the equivalent of the electric chair.

On our way home from the park we would often call at the chip shop at the top of Hall Lane and ask if they had any scrapings. These comprised bits of fish batter and burnt chips that had fallen to the bottom of the frying pans. They oozed fat but were delicious and we scoffed them straight out of old newspapers. Sometimes we’d club together to buy a loaf, pull out the inside, then fill it with the scrapings and share it between us. With all the chocolates, sweets, ice creams and stodgy meals we used to eat it’s amazing that we are still alive according to present day health experts. The ice creams were proper ice creams and especially delicious, supplied by touring vans from Italians such as Marco Rae or Granellis.

But kids weren’t fat in those days. Sure, there might have been chubby ones here and there but none were really obese. Perhaps that’s because we were always on the move, always running about, playing outdoor games or cycling. Even when televisions first appeared in homes we would still play out and about for long periods.

Fashion was something that our mothers talked about to other women. Things like that meant nothing to us. There was no such thing as moaning because we didn’t have the latest Nike or Reebok trainers. Apart from ordinary shoes or boots, we had Wellies for winter weather and pumps (made of canvas and rubber) for summer; these were either black or white and if you had white ones you were posh. In the winter we all had duffle coats so everybody looked the same. And that was about it until you became teenagers and started to wear winkle-pickers and drainpipe trousers.

Despite televisions appearing into some homes during 1953 because of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, cinemas were our major viewing entertainment. The one we visited most, but not exclusively, was the ABC Forum in Northenden usually for the Saturday matinees as we all belonged to the ABC Minors. Here we were shepherded in lengthy queues by the ABC Monitors - kids of authority who got in free for helping out. Occasionally we managed to sneak in without paying by having one of our friends open a fire exit door from the inside but this was risky and not for the faint hearted.

The other local cinema was the Coronation on Longley Lane better known by us as the Bug Hut. If the film at the Forum wasn’t to our liking we would move to the Coronation.  Films were mostly cartoons and Westerns with Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers, etc. Batman and Robin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello also featured regularly. If the projector broke down or the projectionist took too long to change the reels the whole audience would shout for them to ‘put a penny in it’. One place we never sat was underneath the circle seats because somebody would always drip ice cream or send a lolly onto your head from above.

Travelling was usually by foot or by cycle. Buses were mainly used for long journeys such as to Manchester city centre. We would mostly catch the number 101 from Floatshall Road. These buses had open platforms at the rear and if you were late sometimes you could run to catch up with the bus then jump onto the platform, much to the conductor’s disgust.

We often went upstairs, not just for the view, but because there was no standing allowed so you didn’t have to give up your seat for an adult which you did downstairs. And you certainly did. There were no ifs or buts, it was either you gave up your seat or the conductor would grip your ear and have you off the bus. But kids used to stand-up for adults as a matter of course; it was something you just grew up with.

The problem with upstairs on buses was the smoke. When every seat was taken and everybody was smoking, especially with windows shut in winter, the fug was green and impenetrable. Sound effects of coughing and clearing of lungs added to the scene although spitting was strictly not allowed.

When going to the cinema we would often save our bus fare (so we could buy extra penny or halfpenny chews) by walking. This took us through a rather sinister woodland trail called Gib Lane that went from Altrincham Road to near the Henley ’s Garage at Northenden.  We thought this lane to be haunted which of course added excitement to the journey.

There were always tales of ghosts around Wythenshawe; the Benchill Grey Lady comes to mind as one. Following the television production of The Quatermass Experiment not many children would sit on out on park benches when it was getting dark.  Our favourite scary adventure was exploring around the outside of Baguley Hall trying to find a tunnel purported to link with Wythenshawe Hall. Somebody would always see a ghost inside the place as we were searching which brought on immediate panic and we all struggled to get away as fast as we could.

My first school in Wythenshawe was Baguley Hall Junior School. Looking back, this was a wonderful place as we were taken out to Blackcarr Wood on nature rambles and such.  Class sizes numbered about fifty and we all had forward facing desks with inkpots and had to practice italic handwriting with scratchy nibs. Discipline was no problem as ADHD hadn’t been invented then. If you were naughty you received a slap on the thigh, a rap on the knuckles from a wooden ruler, or a leather strap to your hand. And you would beg your friends not to tell your parents if you were so punished in case they added to it.

Oddly, despite the threats from poliomyelitis, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever and such, we were rarely ill. If we were it was either a tummy bug, a bad cold or we’d just had our tonsils taken out. The almost universal treatment for a cold was Vick. I used to have the stuff rubbed on my chest, stuffed up my nose or have to breathe its vapours from a bowl of boiling water with a towel over my head. If lucky, cuts and abrasions were treated with pink Germolene – if unlucky it was iodine!

On mischief nights and bonfire nights we ran wild, throwing Mighty Atom or Little Demon bangers into ginnels (passageways between terraced houses). Tying washing lines to adjacent house door knockers then knocking on the doors and running away was a common game called black and white rabbit. But it was always just mischief rather than malicious trouble. And of course the best thing of all was there were no drugs or alcohol.

Boy Scout and Cub groups had plenty of members. At Baguley Congregational Church on Floatshall Road we would play British Bulldog and other rough and tumble games. Processions of all types often marched around the streets accompanied with the sound of drums and trumpets, especially at Easter and Whit Week.

Most boys wanted some form of extra income to supplement their pocket money and newspaper delivery rounds usually had long waiting lists for a job. I obtained casual work as an order boy at a greengrocers on Bowland Road, delivering heavy boxes of fruit and vegetables carried on a cradle on the front of a heavy pushbike - a bit like Granville out of the ‘Open All Hours’ programme. My favourite shop on that parade was a grocer called Pegrams. It had a wonderful aroma of cheese and ground coffee. The biscuits were stored in metal boxes that had glass tops and I would buy large bags of broken ones for a few pennies.

Amongst our ‘gang’ we had a boy who we called The Prof for obvious reasons of him being clever. He discovered how to make gunpowder and we were thrilled as he showed us the method and that by folding the powder inside paper and making little packets we could hit these with a hammer and get some really good explosions. Chemicals were easy to obtain in those days and most lads were given a chemistry set at Christmas.

Of course, boys being boys, we gradually increased the size of the gunpowder packets until the explosions became strong enough to crack the paving stones. This was a bit hairy as it not only caused sudden deafness but the hammer would fly out of our hands. To get round this we stuck cotton wool in our ears and ‘borrowed’ a scaffolding pole in which we lashed the hammer to its end so we could stand well back from the actual explosion.

We decided to give up on this activity when a policeman caught us near Wythenshawe Park and asked what the scaffolding pole-cum-hammer was. It was autumn at the time and we quickly convinced him it was for knocking conkers off the trees - but it was a close call, our pockets were stuffed with our homemade packets of gunpowder.

When Prof said he had found out how to make nitro-glycerine we decided there and then enough was enough. And perhaps that’s where I should finish this ramble through nostalgia - enough is enough. Hope you enjoyed reading this.