‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Build-Up to Christmas. Winter and Christmas Parties at Harehills County Primary School in the 1960s. – Cup of Tea Tales
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Build-Up to Christmas. Winter and Christmas Parties at Harehills County Primary School in the 1960s.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hippy Attempt on the Summit of Mount Snowdon. What Foolish Things We Did as Students!
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Ashworth’s Sweet-Shop, Harehills. Sweets, Victory V Lozenges, Sweet Cigarettes and Other Delights We Have Lost Over The Years.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A’ Levels, the Final Year at High School, Planning to Leave Home, Getting into College and Growing Older if Not Wiser.
- David’s Bookshelf Issue 5
As a child, there was always great excitement during the buildup to Bonfire Night. For one thing, my mother’s pet toy poodle, Sabeau, went hysterical at this time of year. For at least the month before the special night, there would be regular bangs as probably teenagers set off bangers around the area of Harehills, Oakwood, and Gipton. (I’m not sure where the boundaries are. We were living in Gipton Wood Crescent at the time, just behind Gipton Wood). The dog would go mad and, if given the chance, would have run off into the sunset to escape the horrors of it all. I know many dogs suffered and still do. The next dog my mother had when she lived in Shadwell Lane, years later, was even worse and it made her life a misery.
Anyway, as a child at Harehills Primary School, it was a great time of the year. The buying of the fireworks was exciting. The names, the shapes, and the smell of the Standard Fireworks were exotic and exciting. I remember opening the box in front of the lit coal fire at my grandmother’s house in Chapel Allerton, which clearly wouldn’t meet modern health and safety standards, and arranging each one: Mount Vesuvius, Spitfire, Roman Candle, Jumping Jacks, Traffic Lights, Bangers, Rockets. Each name was full of exciting potential. Catherine wheels were always a bit of a hit-and-miss as they often failed to spin, but when they did, they were wonderful. Older children would be armed with pocketfuls of Bangers. These would be lit, held in the hand, and thrown at the last minute at the feet of unsuspecting victims.
During the weeks before November 5th, Guys would be seen on street corners. Effigies of Guido Fawkes would be made by padding old clothes and either drawing a face or using a mask. Sometimes they were positioned in pushchairs or bogies (carts) to add to the effect and children would sit next to them asking passers by, ‘Penny for the Guy?’ Any proceeds were used to replenish the firework supply, or for older children to purchase cigarettes. It all seemed good-humoured and wasn’t done with menace.
Another feature of the time was the building of bonfires. Any waste ground, and there always appeared to be no shortage, was used to build enormous community bonfires. I have no idea how, but children in an area seemed to suddenly become organised and masses of old doors, furniture, large branches, and any other items that would burn were collected, and towering pyramids of bonfires appeared ready for the night. Unscrupulous urchins would plunder other local pyres and strong rivalry and occasional violence occurred between groups, particularly if someone’s gang was thought guilty of plundering another. Rivalry became strong about whose pyre would be the biggest, and guards were posted to prevent looting. Sometimes dens were built into the heart of the piles and children would act as sentries. I have heard of dreadful accidents where fires were set alight early by rivals and children were caught inside. We didn’t really give safety much of a thought at the time. As youngsters, we were invulnerable, or at least so we thought. On the day, large guys would be positioned on the top ready for the official lighting, and families would come out, gather around and enjoy the spectacle, and let off fireworks.
When my brothers and I were very little, the bonfires were in the back garden and we would put potatoes in the fire to cook and there was nothing like a bonfire-cooked jacket potato. The blackened skins just added to the flavour and were accompanied by treacle toffee, parkin, gingerbread, cinder toffee, or other delights. We all stood too near to the fire, burning hot on one side, freezing cold at the back. November was always icy cold, and frost and fog were common additions. My dad would light a firework with the rope tapers. As the instructions said: Light blue touch paper and stand back. If, for some reason, they didn’t light, you were not supposed to go back to them. My dad would help each of us take a turn to light one and we all had a packet of Sparklers. We would draw patterns in the night with the white-hot tip as they sparkled and nearly managed to put the odd eye out! We loved it! We would light the next from the one that was finished but still glowing red hot.
The back garden gave way to organised events, and the first was held at Ladywood Methodist Church. There was a large lawn in front of the old and beautiful church now, sadly, demolished. It was on the lawn that an enormous bonfire had been built, or so it seemed, compared to our backyard one. A large crowd of church members and locals gathered, and the fire was lit with great ceremony. A Guy Fawkes was seated at the apex, with great historical significance. There were stalls selling various goodies, and after a while, the fireworks started. They were much grander than our own displays and multiple fireworks were set off at the same time, an extravagance we could never have enjoyed at home as they were too expensive to waste. The event was family orientated, and I loved it. For some reason, we stopped attending Ladywood, but then we found an even greater display was held at Roundhay Park, near the arena. I would still have been only about seven at the time and had just started Harehills C.P. School, so it would have been 1960-61. The event wasn’t the major show it later became, but the groundsmen and park keepers had gathered a great pile of fallen timber from around the park and set up the bonfire opposite Hill 60, on the side where you sledged if there was snow. The first time I remember going, the crowd was large, but nothing outrageous, and the firework display was good, but still quite basic. We had parked the car along the Soldiers’ Field and walked over the ridge to stand on the terraces of Hill 60. Nothing was organised and I don’t think anything was on sale. I do remember the fire being enormous and the flames danced, reaching high into the sky and casting a warm glow across the large distance of the arena.
We went for a number of years and in time it became more organised. The crowds grew, caravans selling various foods to eat popped up, and the firework displays became much more professional and impressive. It was one of those annual events that punctuated a child’s year with a smattering of magic, or at least it did for me.
Unfortunately, I started to grow up and change, and family events held little interest for me, whereas friends, excitement, and girls suddenly did. I have told of attending youth clubs at St Edmunds and Lidgett Park Methodist Churches, and certainly, the Methodist Church held an organised bonfire. This was not the same family affair that Ladywood had held as it was mainly youth club members who attended, but there were some families there. Now teenagers believe that they are immortal and taking risks is what they do. The bigger the risk, the bigger the kudos, particularly if there is an audience. As a result, fireworks and teenagers are not a good combination. We arrived at the bonfire with pockets bulging with bangers, jumping jacks, and matches. The ‘Stand Back and Light Blue Touch Paper’, of old, was now totally ignored. The new paradigm was pull out banger, light blue touch paper, hold in hand as sparks flew out of the end and then, at the latest possible moment, hurl the banger towards some unsuspecting victim. We aimed mainly at the feet, and whilst you were in the process, someone else had probably thrown one at you, just to catch you unawares. I am sorry to say, and please do not follow my example, but it was fabulous. There was a real thrill in holding the lit banger for as long as possible. Timing was all, and experience was everything. How could girls not be impressed with such behaviour? How could the boys not be impressed with the girls who could handle the bangers with equal skill and courage?
The bonfire itself held less attraction, and we tended to wander off in a pack to find another fire or gathering where we could liven the evening up. Jumping Jacks were equally exciting and for some reason when they started banging and jumping, they had an uncanny knack of following you around. Another thing to try was emptying out the gunpowder from a number of bangers and then putting a match to the powder. There was a flash and a great cloud of smoke. We called these Genies, and I loved the smell. Those who live in Yorkshire will know that the fourth of November is Mischief Night, and all types of tricks were played on unwary households. Dustbin lids were tied to door handles and then there would be a knock on the door and when the occupant opened the door, there would be a crash as the metal dustbin lid was pulled off, crashing to the ground. Door handles could be spread with grease and occasionally doors would be egged. Unfortunately, sometimes these pranks got out of hand.
One of my friends, who will remain nameless, paired up with another boy and launched an attack at the female hall of residence at the Womens’ Hospital behind the Roundhay Schools. They crept onto the grounds, armed with plastic drainpipe and assorted rockets. They angled the pipes, wedged on bricks, inserted rockets, and launched a missile attack on the building. Goodness only knows what the poor, tired nurses trying to get some sleep thought as they had explosions around their windows as some, at least, of the rockets met their mark. No real damage was done. The building did not set alight, and the arrival of the police marked the end of the onslaught. When my friend related this to me and the rest of the class, the next day at school, we were all very impressed and wished we had thought of it.
The aftermath of Bonfire Night was very distressing for some families. I was lucky and escaped any damage, and I didn’t harm anyone else, but a close friend of one of my friends was badly maimed by fireworks catching alight in his pocket. I was told he begged for someone to put the fire out, but unfortunately, chemical fires are not easily extinguished. St James’ Hospital at Harehills was always busy, with burns, fingers lost, eyes damaged, and even deaths. The pleasure of the many was paid by the suffering of the few. Here in Western Australia fireworks are banned, apart from in organised events. I believe they are still legal in Canberra and the Northern Territory, but for the rest, there are massive displays for New Year and here in Perth, on Australia Day. These cost millions and are impressive, but they certainly lack the excitement and danger of the ones we experienced in Leeds in the 1960s.