‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Family Christmas in Lawrence Avenue and Gipton Wood Crescent, Leeds 1950s-60s.

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Christmas in the late 1950s, early 60s was a very different beast to the overindulgence and massive consumerism that is the norm in 2021. Not long out of rationing, there was a simplicity to Christmas festivities that were still steeped in the Christian rather than commercial faith.

As a child, though, the whole period was one of excitement. It was a time when special songs were sung, stories were told, parties were held and it also signified the ending of winter and the soon to arrive New Year. This is my account of Christmas at this time, and whilst not everyone would have had exactly the same experiences, I am sure that many of you would recognise what we did, in your own families. As Christmas Eve got nearer, my excitement would build. The weather was usually fairly awful, cold and grey, but suddenly things changed. An old artificial Christmas tree would be dug out from the loft, given a bit of a dusting down, glass baubles added and a little tinsel. It was only about three feet tall, but to us, it was magical. Occasionally, streamers and balloons were hung around the front room and lounge and this seemed to bring colour into a very monochrome world. We would take a Sunday annual trip with Dad to Hetchell Woods to collect some holly with blood-red berries. Mum would arrange these around the circular metal-framed mirror that was over the fireplace.

We never had Advent calendars, but at Stainbeck Preparatory School, Miss Cowling did, and the opening of the little card window was a major part of the morning ritual. Inside would be a little picture of something linked to Christmas: a snowman, tree, baby Jesus, or Magi, with maybe a smattering of glitter. At home, Christmas cards would start arriving in the post. At these times, they were not quite as grand as today but were more simple, traditional affairs, with maybe just a trace of glitter to the religious or Dickensian themes. I have noted this year that the cards in Australia have lost their glitter as it is microplastic waste. Mum would start to hang the cards up as they became too many to house on the mantelpiece. I remember counting them, and seventy was quite normal. We have received two this year, which is part of an ever-decreasing trend.

The postmen, I don’t ever remember a postwoman in these times, worked very hard and their bags must have been very heavy. It was a time when parents discovered how people they knew, but saw only rarely, had fared over the year.

For those who enjoy a fast-paced thriller then this might make an ideal read over the holidays. I am well into writing the follow-up, A Trembling Of Finches. It is available in eBook and paperback from Amazon and Kindle. You can use the link below.

Winters tended to be quite depressing, and this mood was lifted with a general sense of anticipation. I do not know how traditions start in families, but somehow they do, and in ours, Mum and Dad would host the family party where my grandparents, Harry and Mary Wray, from Chapel Allerton, Aunty Joan and Uncle Ernest, and later their daughter Angela, from Coventry and later Kenilworth, would all arrive and enjoy the festivities. On Boxing Day, we would all have a second go and my grandma and grandad hosted the party in their house in Regent Terrace in Chapel Allerton. It was a very small house, and we certainly filled it.

My older brother and I went to sleep on Christmas Eve in a great state of excitement. A pillowcase was placed at the bottom of the bed in case Santa decided that we had been good enough to warrant a visit. My younger brother didn’t experience this in Lawrence Avenue as he was too young, but he did later, in Gipton Wood Crescent. I can still remember the recurring dream/nightmare that I used to have. It was like a circular pattern that started and just when I thought it was reaching the end, it went back to the beginning again. This probably has some deep meaning of insecurity or something, but I experienced it every year as a child. Eventually, I would wake up and I think it was about one in the morning or some similarly ridiculous time. I would feel down at the bottom of the bed in the dark to see if there was anything there, or whether I was wrong and it wasn’t Christmas at all. Usually, I felt the pillowcase, and it held some things inside. I would put the light on and very quietly sit up and begin to explore what treasures there were. Now I am sure that modern children would be very disappointed with the presents, but I wasn’t. I remember one year there was a small slate and slate pencil. Remarkably, it looked very much like the current iPad. It was about the same size, had a wooden border and a slate pencil. I thought it was great. There would usually be a comic annual of some sort, a selection box of chocolate, an orange, as fruit was quite a rarity at this time of year, and a few other toys. Toy soldiers, a wooden castle one year, assorted guns that sometimes fired rubber darts or caps, clockwork robots and, when I was very little, a donkey on wheels that was about eighteen inches high. I think this was mine, but it could have been my older brother’s. It is the same donkey that a few years later, in Gipton Wood, he nearly killed himself whilst sledging down a hill on the metal frame and hitting his head on the ice.

Many families now all wait to open presents together, but we didn’t. After eating too much chocolate and opening presents, I would often fall back asleep for a while but always got up very early. When we eventually had one, we would put the television on and watch a range of programmes. Usually, there was a carol service and when I was older Leslie Crowther, from Crackerjack, hosted Meet the Children, where he visited a children’s hospital. I seem to remember a programme where a hospital was visited, and they showed patients in iron lungs. Around the Christmas period, there were TV Christmas specials such as Steptoe and Son(1962). The BBC in 1960 had the following on Christmas Day:                                                          

 I remember playing with whatever we had been given and Mum and Dad would get up, and after breakfast, Mum would start getting ready for Christmas lunch. Chicken, not turkey, was our feast in the early years and Mum was always tremendously stressed about whether it would be too dry or undercooked. She panicked about whether the vegetables would be too hard or too soggy, that the roast potatoes were still hard, whether her gravy would be lumpy. The kitchen was tiny and my dad tried to keep out of her way and would often be vacuuming the carpets to help keep the peace. As we got older, we were instructed to set the table. Clean tablecloth, candle display, courtesy of Harehills C.P. School, crackers and, for us, tomato sauce. I don’t ever remember the Christmas lunch being up to the standard she wanted. She was convinced they were all failures, but it never bothered any of the rest of us. We would eat, after pulling the crackers, donning our party hats, reading the poor jokes and fighting over the trinkets that shot out of the crackers with the bang.

Of course, the stress of preparing Christmas lunch was just the start of my mother’s worries and, for the rest of us, ours. My mother had spent weeks preparing for the Christmas party and she had a wide range of games that she organised. The type of thing that she did was to cut famous faces out of magazines and number about twelve of them on a sheet of paper. The game was that you had to list as many as you could. Some were obvious, but others were less so. Another might be the linking of catchphrases with a range of celebrities. Usually, we would work in small groups and we youngsters would rely on the oldies for film stars etc., but the youngsters came into their own when it was children’s stars such as Pinky and Perky, Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope, Torchy the Battery Boy, the Wooden Tops or Bill and Ben. There was also the pass-the-parcel and these would have a selection of forfeits interspersed amongst the wrapping. We didn’t have a record player, so the large wooden radio provided the music at first. Who could forget the need to go out the front door and shout ‘Merry Christmas everyone,’ or having to tell a joke, or sing a carol?

My mother’s greatest claim to fame was her Christmas ode or rhyming story. Maybe this was where my writing of pantomimes started, a genetic trait from my mother, but she would put together a long poem or song with parts that everyone had to take. She would often use tunes that were well known and parts would be shared and, after a few drinks, the adults were more open to taking part. There was humour, there was noise, there was laughter, and we really enjoyed ourselves. We soon forgot the terrible mood that gripped my mum as she built up to the start of the party. My father rarely escaped her ire in the afternoon. According to her, he had no idea what she went through, and he probably didn’t. The stress always ate into her. When the party was well underway and the adults had enjoyed a few drinks, Babycham for the ladies, or my father’s standard joke, ‘Would you like a Madeira, my deara?’ and whisky for the men, she seemed to relax more and felt it was worthwhile. It was the same every year, until we had our own children and it became too much for my Mum and, my wife and I took it over and hosted it.

Most people smoked at this time and the rooms would fill with a dense cloud of smoke that stung the eyes. My dad smoked Player’s Navy Cut and Catton’s Foundry would give him large boxes as part of his Christmas gift, along with bottles of whiskey. This is a tradition that has died out.

 The memories of my earlier Christmases saw not only changes in the house we lived in but in society and in technology. When my brothers and I were little, as with all children, we were happy that Santa brought us anything. For several years, we visited Father Christmas in one of the big stores in Leeds, probably Lewis’or Schofields. We lined up and waited as patiently as young children can near his grotto for our turn to sit on his knee and tell him our deepest wishes. There was the timeless question of whether we had been ‘naughty or nice’, and then we were given a gift. It was usually a blow football game, which was basically two straws, a small football, and a couple of goals. It wasn’t much, but it was still a thrill.

The home parties became more elaborate as we got older and I remember that for my birthday, which is early in December, I got some money and I bought a puppet theatre kit from Varleys’ at Harehills’ shops. I spent time building the theatre and even added lights, using a battery, wires, bulbs and holders. The actors were card figures on a long wire that could be pushed in and out. The stage wasn’t very big, maybe 14 inches, but in a small room, with the lights out and with the stage lit, it produced a decent effect. Mum, my brothers and I took the parts and read from a script. I can’t for the life of me remember whether the script was written by me or my mum. Anyway, the captive audience was appreciative and it clearly must have been fantastic! Well, at least nobody complained.

My brothers and my cousin Angela were also roped in to perform at the parties. Anyone with the hint of a talent was brought out, and over the years, recorders, violins, clarinets and guitars made an appearance, usually never to return. Many a carol was sung and now I realise the bittersweet pleasure that the young are to adults, especially at Christmas. They are innocent and their life is before them, whereas we wonder at how quickly ours has slid away.

Catton’s Foundry

My father worked at Catton’s steel foundry on Black Bull Street in Hunslet and he became the Chief Inspector of steel castings during the 1960s. I would occasionally visit the foundry with him if he had to go in and check on some work and I remember the smell well. There was a very distinct odour as molten steel was poured into the sand moulds. Sparks would fly everywhere and it was exciting and like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Of course, children wouldn’t be allowed in a foundry nowadays with modern health and safety regulations, but I loved it. Every year the foundry held a Christmas party for the children of the employees. It was on a Saturday afternoon and my older brother and I would go. The party was in a large upstairs room with tall industrial windows along each side. I don’t know what it was used for normally, but on these days it was full of scores of children and was decorated with streamers and balloons. There was also a large Christmas tree near the front. Thinking back, it was probably the works canteen. I am not sure of all things that we did, but I recall we had quite a feast and then they showed films. The projector in those days was very unreliable and I can still hear the cries of anguish from the children as the film snapped at the most dramatic point, or the funniest if it was a cartoon. At the end of the afternoon, each of the children was given a present from Santa, often a blow football game and a tired and excited horde made their way home in either cars or on local buses.

As I got older, Christmas evolved. Many of the simple prior experiences changed. The introduction of television was major, but so was the ready supply of compact and portable record players. I remember one Christmas, my brother received a red Dansette record player. I don’t think it was new but came from a neighbour. However, for a pre-teen boy, it was wonderful. Pop music was in its halcyon days: Elvis, Cliff, The Shadows, Billy J Cramer, Adam Faith and many others were coming in and going out of style fairly rapidly. Of course, Cliff Richard is still about, and Elvis never really went out, even after his death, but the biggest rising stars were the Beatles and ‘Please Please Me’ was released in 1963. On November 22nd of the same year, the second album, ‘With the Beatles’ was released, and that was the year my brother got the Dansette and the album. I know that my mother was keen on the Beatles and so she probably was the reason that this album was bought. It came with some old records and one was by Joseph Locke. It was a very old rousing song called ‘Blaze Away’, which my father loved and would sing at the top of his voice. We all hated it! Another record was a Frank Sinatra long player ‘All the Way’, released in 1961and had the song ‘High Hopes (the rubber tree plant song) which I liked. The record player was useful for Christmas parties as it allowed better control for pass the parcel and other games, though I’m not sure that dropping the very heavy arm onto a new album would have added a great deal to the sound.

A Dansette Record Player

I know that one of the first records my brother bought was ‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals. The two of us went to Varley’s shop at Harehills and bought a copy of the single in June the following year. The Dansette also featured in one of his most disappointing presents a few years later in 1968. He was into Pink Floyd and the previous year, he had bought a copy of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which I still have. He saw himself as quite hip and trendy and you can imagine his reaction when our lovely grandma from Chapel Allerton gave him a present. He opened it in front of everyone and, to his surprise and horror, it was a single by The Seekers, Morningtown Ride. He nearly died of embarrassment, but he put on a brave face. Even worse, we all had to suffer it, as it was played constantly for pass the parcel and any other reason that mum could think of. Grandma never realised, and she had tried her best to get him something he would like. She loved the song. It was number two in the charts that Christmas, and therefore, she was sure he would love it. I don’t think she ever knew anything different.

I suppose it is part of the growing experience, but as we got older, bit by bit, the older generation of family and guests began to disappear. First, my grandad passed away and, a few years later, Grandma. Those present still seemed to enjoy the occasion, albeit with a tinge of sadness. The innocence of being a child gradually ebbed away, and we became more reticent to perform, and eventually, as teenagers took any opportunity to separate ourselves, or excuse ourselves and go out with our friends.

It seems obligatory that teenagers are embarrassed by their parents and nothing they could do would ever change that, but a few short years later we realised and appreciated what they had done for us. I don’t know if it is the same for girls, but boys spend the rest of their lives trying to undo some of the hurtful things they said and did to their parents.

Maybe it was to partially fill the void, but elderly neighbours or people my mother knew from St. Wilfred’s church, at Harehills, were invited and everyone seemed to have a great time without us being there for more than a short while before we escaped. Things changed a few years later. I married, and we had our first son. Christmas then became very important again for us and we took over the tradition and hosted the parties. Everyone came to our house, and we enjoyed the same games, the same food, the same jokes and the same laughter. Over time, we moved from being the youngsters, with wide-eyed wonder, and became the older ones and now the oldest ones. If you are lucky, you will share Christmas with those you love and keep your own traditions alive.

5 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Family Christmas in Lawrence Avenue and Gipton Wood Crescent, Leeds 1950s-60s.”

  1. More memories of merry Christmases gone by. Many thanks for them.

    I too had a pillowcase for the expected presents. I still don’t know if pillowcases are a Yorkshire or a more general UK-wide custom, and I never did understand why Santa would leave a couple of oranges and some Brazil nuts along with the Meccano set and an Airfix model aeroplane.

    Those Dansette record players – I never had one, but my next-door-neighbour in my first house (a Wimpey semi-detached in Dukinfield, near Manchester) had one, and she only ever played two records. One was “Bimbo” (maybe the Jim Reeves version), the other was “Danny Boy”. She used to leave the auto changer arm in its off position, so that the 45 would play repeatedly; it used to drive me crazy! The sound insulation on those semis was almost non-existent.

    “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” is still one of my favourite albums. I even had the pleasure of experiencing one of Pink Floyd’s concerts back in 1967 (or early ’68) while at university.

    Cheers and a Merry Christmas,

    Terry Lowe
    Virginia, USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My brother apparently helped with the Pink Floyd lightshow at urham University around the time of Piper at the gates of Dawn, Terry. I still have his album. I have no idea whether the pillow case was just a Leeds thing, but it seems most of us did it.
      Have a great Christmas, Terry
      David

      Like

      1. I’ve just watched a nostalgic short film on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iCZC395T80), made by a photographer in Whitby. It’s called “A Moorland Christmas”, and as the title implies, it’s a reminiscence of Christmases in the North Riding in the middle of the last century. Wonderful to hearthose accents!

        It’s only available until the end of December.

        Cheers,

        Terry.

        Liked by 1 person

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