In a surprisingly short period of time the homes that we live in have undergone quite major changes. My parents’ first house was in Lawrence Avenue and I imagine it was built after the First World War. My dad saw owning a house as an opportunity to change and modernise them and the first alteration that he made to the house was to partition one of the bedrooms to make it a three bedroom house. Number 36 was originally a two bedroom semi and like many similar houses it still forms part of the major housing stock of the suburban landscape. Like other houses it has been changed, modernised and altered to meet modern tastes, technological and decorating advances.
My first memories are of a small house with a separate wooden garage. This isn’t surprising, as there were few cars even when I was born in the 1950s and the garage was more of a shed and never housed a car during our time there. We had the first television in the street, I believe, and were one of the few families to own a car, an Austin A7 Ruby, followed by a Ford Prefect. Within a short space of time the streets were changed forever as cars parked alongside the pavements, filling the streets. Nowadays it appears that even the houses that do have garages seldom use them to house the cars and the garages are usually used to store garden equipment, bicycles and assorted junk that can no longer fit in the house.
When we started outgrowing the house at Lawrence Avenue, with the birth of my younger brother, we moved to 19 Gipton Wood Crescent, which was not far, as moves go, just the other side of Easterly Road, but the house was a bigger one and a step up. This was a three bedroom semi-detached and I didn’t realise it but it was a better spot to grow up in. It had very close access to the Little (Fairy) Woods and just a little further to Gipton Wood. When we moved in the roads were still cobbled and the houses didn’t have driveways, just paths that led up to the front and side doors. The design of both of these houses reflected the social attitudes that were prevalent at the time. The kitchens were tiny, and my Scottish father referred to them as the kitchenettes. There were no fridges, but they had a pantry that fitted into the space under the staircase. This space was shared by a coal store that had an outside door and so the pantry was still quite small. Both of the houses had only one form of heating and that was through fires in the dining and front rooms. There were boilers built into the chimney spaces and the fires used to heat the water.
The fuel for the fire was coal and this was replaced by smokeless coal during the 1960s in response to London’s Great Smog in 1952, with the Clean Air Act of 1956 and finally another Clean Air Act of 1968. I can still taste the sooty swirling smog that blanketed Leeds in autumn and winter. It had a green tinge and made the journey on the bus a nightmare as you were unsure where you were and I often got off at the wrong stop. Thousands of people died each winter due to the increase in bronchial disease. The thick fog produced an eerie, shrouded city, deadened the sounds and created a horror and alien landscape. All the city buildings were black and, as a child, I assumed that they were made of black stone, but in the 1960s buildings were washed and sandblasted and the true colour appeared like magic.
The house in Gipton Wood Crescent was near the crest of the hill and the pathway up to the house was steep, tree-lined and had flag stones. The front had a wooden fence and a bank up to the front door. Inside the house it was quite dark and it had rather splendid real leaded windows made with separate pieces of coloured glass, held in a lead framework. Because of this the windows were a bit wavy and the house interior very dark. All of the pipes were lead and the change to copper was only just starting. I am not sure what attracted my parents to the house, apart from my mother liking the extra space and the more upmarket district, or at least as she saw it. My father was probably attracted by the challenge. He was an engineer and Do It Yourself was becoming a feature of modern life.
Some of the delightful wallpapers we had.
There was a real sense of a science-led optimism. This was seen in TV programmes at the time: Supercar (1961) The Jetsons (1962), My Favourite Martian (1963), Fireball XL5 (1962) and many others. Science and technology would improve the lot of the ordinary man and woman, and it was in the home that these changes were more obvious to me.
I don’t think that my dad could wait to get started, whilst my mum was too busy looking after all of us, cooking, washing, cleaning and holding down a job. I can not remember the order of the developments, but they started with the removal of the windows. My dad removed the lead windows a room at a time and replaced them with large plate glass windows. The lead was removed and gathered and he took it to a metal merchants and got a payment. The plate glass certainly brightened the rooms and ventilation was provided by a couple of small side lights at the top of the windows. These were left open during summer but shut the rest of the year. Dad worked though the house doing the windows and shortly afterwards they had gas central heating fitted in downstairs. The boiler was placed in the disused coal store and it made a major difference from previously having to keep fires going. Most bedrooms also had fireplaces and, now they were obsolete, dad had the chimneys capped and removed the fireplaces and blocked the chimneys off.
Now, in case you think we were spoilt, I must add that now there was no heating upstairs so the bedrooms were icy during winter. I don’t remember the heating ever being on at night and many were the nights I completely cocooned myself under the covers and I am surprised I didn’t suffocate. I would wake up and the windows were frozen and covered in a wonderful filigree of ferns as the condensation had frozen. My brothers and I would scrape away a small section and look longingly into the garden, hoping that it had snowed. Often we were disappointed, but sometimes the back garden was a wonderful sight.
Another problem with the central heating was the vast amount of water from condensation. Pools filled the window-sills and it was a daily routine going around with a sponge and a jug and soaking the water up.
My dad’s next challenge was modernising the doors. The doors were traditional panel ones and modern ones were flush. He fastened panels of hardboard over each side of the door, covering the panels and this gave a smooth profile and when they were painted Dulux brilliant white the house began to look modern. The only problem was that the paint took ages to dry and with having three small boys it wasn’t long before one of us had placed our hands on it, left a forensic hand print, and required turps before we left traces over the furniture or our clothes.
Picture rails adorned each downstairs room and dad soon had them gone and the walls were stripped of the old floral wallpaper. It was practical and trendy to initially cover the walls with woodchip paper that could be painted over when required and lasted for years. The woodchip was also painted brilliant white and soon it was a dazzling experience entering our house. The next challenge was the ceilings. These were a little cracked, but nothing that a bit of polyfiller couldn’t have fixed, but no, the new way was to glue polystyrene tiles onto the ceiling. My dad went into this with gusto. The new tiles added extra insulation, dampened noise and provided a perfect death trap if there was a fire. The tiles would burn with acrid, deadly black smoke and, to add to this, would drip burning plastic onto anyone found underneath them. These tiles could also be painted over, which probably added to their danger. Over time, woodchip gave way to anaglypta wallpaper that provided an embossed pattern that was then painted. Now we didn’t only just have white, at least not at first. There were experiments with green bamboo patterned wallpaper used as a feature, bright orange geometrically patterned paper that was challenging even then and later experiments with plum flock wallpaper. But in the end, the ease and the simplicity of childproofed white painted woodchip or anaglypta won the day.
Curtain pelmets were removed from the now large, airy windows and small tracks were installed. We even stepped into the realms of science fiction by having fibreglass curtains. As a young lad I couldn’t get over how glass could form a fabric, and to add that modern touch, they were orange.
My dad was really getting into this DIY and he started furniture-making night classes. The first piece he made was a glass-fronted bookcase and it sat in the front room for the rest of his life. I can still remember the books. He had the self-help series of How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. There were also My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell and a host of other Penguin Books. One book I remember vividly was Hurricane and I remember this because it showed a scantily clad lady as a hurricane raged on a Pacific Island. I guess that one was one of my mum’s. His second project was a drinks trolley. I remember going with him to collect it and bring it back home. He was very proud of it and it was a very modern style with a small tray above a larger one. It was on castors and was beautifully crafted. Again, this sat in the front room and came into its own during the Christmas parties.
There was still a lot that he had plans for to bring the house into the modern world, and technological advances were lining up to change the way that we all lived, enjoyed life and maintained health, but that will have to be another tale.