Having two brothers and no sisters limits my memories of growing up in Leeds in the 1950s-60s an so I apologise for the one sided view. However, we did play with girls at times, so it is not all boys only. I am sure we had left Lawrence Avenue for Gipton Wood Crescent before I started Harehills so these memories are up to the age of six.
I remember quite clearly playing out in the street with my older brother and wandering around the local streets. I believe there was the wreck of an old scout hall behind where our house was and I have a memory of jumping and snapping sections of broken asbestos. There was also a ‘slag heap’ along Lawrence Road, and the remains of the pit tower that would have lowered the miners underground, but I assume they are all long gone. We used to climb up the steep black slopes and look over the tops of the houses in the area. I think it was fenced, but there were gaps where the fence had been cut or trampled down.
There was also a beck that ran behind the houses across from our house on Lawrence Avenue and we used to spend many hours building dams and generally getting muddy and wet. It was a little wild strip and we had lots of fun. Some of the houses in the street were beautifully kept with greenhouses and beds full of flowers around manicured lawns, but ours was our playground and had a rockery and row of trees across the back. I remember once my parents inheriting an old grandfather clock and as they wanted things modern, not old, we were allowed to play with it. It was laid flat in the garden and we used to sit on it as it would become a canoe or raft in some adventure we were having. In retrospect it was a real shame, but generally people wanted things that were modern. I remember games on TV to have competitions where there was a race with two teams and they had to smash a piano up into pieces and the first team to pass all the pieces through a foot-square hole were the winners. I think it was the start of the ‘It’s a Knockout’ type game show. I remember the house we moved to in Gipton Wood Crescent having colourful leaded windows and my father spent days removing them and having plate glass fitted. The lead was removed and sold to scrap merchants, but the glass just thrown away. Such a shame, but the windows did make the house dark and the new ones made it much brighter and more modern. Nowadays they would not suffer the same fate and people would treasure them, but times now are very different.
I do remember scooters with quite big wheels. The metal frame was bright red and it had a small wooden board that you stood on and a brake at the back that you pressed with your heel to slow it down. My pride and joy, though, was a tricycle. This was quite a big wheeled one and it had proper bicycle brakes. I loved it. I rode it with pride. I was the bees knees and the envy of all around, at least in my own mind. We all played in the streets, but we kept to the pavement and would fly down the slight gradient and woe betide anyone stepping out of their gates without looking.
A song about the joys of living and making the best of it. Video from Papua New Guinea and Singapore.
It was at about this time that I remember the first Hoola Hoops appearing. We must had had access to one as I remember giving it a go, but failing miserably. My love was comics. Dandy, Beano, Topper and Beezer, I believe. They were fascinating reading. Who couldn’t be captivated by Lord Snooty and his pals, Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids and the others. The best editions were ones with free gifts and amongst these was the Clapper. It was a folded piece of cardboard with a brown paper insert. If you held it by the corner and flicked it in a downwards motion the brown paper section shot out causing a loud bang. We loved it, but I’m not so sure about the neighbours. Another freebie was the twirler. This was two circles of card and you threaded string through the holes and you twirled the cards around whilst holding each end of the string. When it was wound sufficiently you pulled on both ends in a concertina motion and the card circles whizzed around making a loud humming noise. Great fun! One of them had a ‘did you know’ section and it would have interesting facts from history and science and I remember cutting out these sections and pasting them into a scrap book. I can still remember the tallest spire in Britain, and that Hans Holbein painted a portrait of Sir Thomas Moore and many other useful pieces of information. Well, useful if you are a boy.
Another craze that came in at various times during my childhood were Clackers. These were two plastic balls on string and by holding the string in the middle and moving your hand up and down the balls would bounce off each other and become a blur and produced a loud clacking noise. These became such big news that there were reports of wrist injuries. A second craze was alien antennae. These were sparkly balls on springs that fitted on a hair band and children and some adults, would walk about wearing them with pride. Probably the most famous was the Yoyo. These became popular on many occasions and if you could master the skill of ‘Walking the Dog’ and other tricks, then you became a legend. Unfortunately, despite several yoyos and hours of practice, I was only able to achieve the very basic up and down and then for only a short time. Just another one of my failures in life.
Another joy at this very young age was the collecting of PG Tips cards. Each packet of tea would have a card and these included British butterflies, explorers, wild flowers, wildlife and many others. I think they were a child version of the cigarette cards and I loved to collect them. You could send off for the albums to stick them in and these were full of additional information. I did manage to get a full set of British Butterflies, but I think that was my only one. There must be something genetic about collecting things. Some people have it and others don’t. Two of my four sons have definitely inherited it. I did start collecting stamps, but that was when I was at Harehills C.P. School and I remember buying packets of stamps from the sweetshop across the road from the school. There was great anticipation and delight in opening the packets and gazing at stamps from exotic sounding countries that I had never heard of and some with brilliantly coloured illustrations. I still have some of the stamps and albums from these days, stashed away. I had a theory and still think it is true, that the least desirable countries often have the most enticing stamps. My uncle went to Russia with work in the early 1960s and he brought back Russian stamps that showed their cosmonauts and even their first dog in space. I did save up my pocket money to buy the Stanley Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue in 1967.
Breakfast sometimes brought excitement with the cut out animal heads on the back of Cornflake packets. I was only allowed to have them when the packet was empty. I loved breakfast cereals: Cornflakes, Rice Crispies and Honey Smacks, with the cream off the top of the milk. I still don’t think there is anything nicer, but now it is all low fat, low sugar, due to misspent youth. The animal heads, tigers, zebras, elephants, hippos and lions were two dimensional models, that when cut out, tabs folded and glued in place, produced a three dimensional head. It wasn’t the end product that I liked, but the process. Some were abject failures, but like most things you get better with practice. I did once buy a book from Varley’s that was a much more complicated kit of cardboard templates that made a pirate galleon. I spent ages making it, was frustrated by my lack of skill scoring along the folds with a scissor blade and glueing, but in the end produced a reasonable model. Blue Peter had a lot to answer for! They made everything look so easy. ‘Here is one I started earlier!’
Before the age of seven, my greatest pleasure was my toy soldiers. I had a wooden castle and I fought many battles between the knights. Varley’s Toyshop at Harehills also used to sell little boxes of Airfix soldiers. These soldiers were tiny, but you got lots of them and there were so many kits. You had to separate every figure off the plastic frame and they ranged from World War II soldiers, to knights in armour, foreign legion, cowboys and indians. There were many on offer and they allowed the young mind to live out adventures. You could take them outside and hide them amongst the rockery and plants and fight out any battle you wanted. Trenches could be dug, mines and tunnels built with supporting beams of twigs or little forts with twig stockades. There really was no limit.
I am not sure that it is any different for children nowadays. Yes, they are provided with so much more, but really they disappear into their own world if given half a chance. Technology is a good child-minder, but not necessarily a great mind stimulator. Playing outside, whenever possible, was the first option, but this has sadly been taken away. Oh, what we got up to in the streets and woods, but that will have to wait for another day!