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Two Rooms And A View: Always Something New

...Making home-made kites was very popular for a while until the local shop ran out of string. Playing marbles, conkers, collecting cigarette cards and swopping comics all came and went. We even tried making our own telephone system with two old cans and a length of taut string. It never worked. Another time we tried to make a bogie with an old set of pram wheels. It didnít work either...

Robert Owen recalls the fun and games of childhood. To read earlier chapters of Robert's fascinating life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

I was never bored at Fence Houses, and there was always something new to do. Making home-made kites was very popular for a while until the local shop ran out of string. Playing marbles, conkers, collecting cigarette cards and swopping comics all came and went. We even tried making our own telephone system with two old cans and a length of taut string. It never worked. Another time we tried to make a bogie with an old set of pram wheels. It didnít work either.

During the long summer holidays we would often leave home in the morning equipped with jam sandwiches and a bottle of water and not return home until it was dark. Nobody knew where we were, yet nobody worried. We would ramble up the pit heap, play around the pit pond, explore woods, cross streams and climb trees. We got dirty, wet, scratched, bruised, cut and stung, but it was all part of growing up.

As the years passed by, life became a little more prosperous and in 1945 I remember being asked for the first time what I wanted for my birthday. It was my tenth and rather significant. I remember replying, "a football or a bike." I didn't get a football, but I got a second-hand two-wheeler bike. This was only with Addie's help. In her words, she, 'picked it up cheap at Sammy Harrison's shop.' I was delighted. The only problem to her was how to get it from South Shields to Fence Houses. This was not a problem to me. The following weekend I confidently rode it the fifteen miles from 19 Reed Street to 19 Finchale Terrace.

That bike opened up a new world to me and encouraged my independence. During the next twelve months, I explored Finchale Abbey, visited Penshaw Monument, cycled to Chester-le-Street and Houghton-le-Spring and visited most South Shields away cricket matches in the Durham Senior League. My only regret was that as I was growing so quickly, it was soon too small.

Our neighbours in Finchale Terrace were the Ramshaws and the Wards, who both kept themselves to themselves. The Ramshaws did, however, have two boys about my age, Walton and Joe, who were valuable members of our football team.

The Ward family were different in that they were the only people in the street who owned two unusual things - a motor car and a pig, with the pig being the most useful asset in the wartime environment. Due to the petrol shortage, the motor car was stored in their back lane garage opposite our back door gate. Whenever the garage was opened, we would stare at this wheel-less car on bricks. The pig and some hens were kept at the bottom of their garden. Like several other neighbours, we saved vegetable peelings in return for some extra pork when the pig was slaughtered, usually just before Christmas.

The main source of entertainment in Fence Houses during the war was the Palace Picture House. Seats in the Palace were in demand and the programme often changed three times a week. If it was an adult film, under fifteens had to be accompanied by an adult. This could result in a crowd of children standing outside the box office saying, "Will you take me in, please?" to any adults entering the cinema.

If we had no money, which was often the case, we would arrange with a friend for him to discreetly open the fire door near the toilet and let us in illegally, free of charge. The promise was that we would do the same for him next time.

A poor second to the Cinema was the wireless. Fortunately, the Charlton household had a relatively modern set that didn't require an accumulator. The Home Service programme was mainly for news, and the voices of Stuart Hibberd, John Snagg and Alvar Liddel became known throughout the country.

The Light Programme was used for entertainment and included popular programmes, 'Monday Night at Eight', 'Music Hall', and 'Variety Bandbox'. Our favourite was Tommy Handley in 'It's That Man Again', which became nationally known as ITMA. How we used to laugh at the simplistic fun of Colonel (I don't mind if I do) Chinstrap and Mrs (Can I do yer now sir?) Mopp.

During lunchtime after returning home from school dinners, we used to listen to 'Workers' Playtime' - a thirty minute variety programme from different factory canteens, 'somewhere in Britain' as the announcer used to say. My mother's favourites were the so-called Forces Sweetheart, Vera Lynn, and the girl from Rochdale, Gracie Fields. That was until Gracie 'escaped' from the country during the early years of the war and went to live in America. Like many other people, she then disowned the 'Lass from Lancashire'.

Gardening was a favourite hobby of many of the local miners, and Bob Charlton was perhaps one of the most knowledgeable and conscientious gardeners in the village. His allotment and greenhouse were his pride and joy. They were situated about 200 yards from his house and during the winter, Bob used to call on the way to work in the moning,at lunchtime and again in the evening, to stoke up the greenhouse boiler. The result was that we always had an excellent supply of quality tomatoes as well as most vegetables.

However, that was the secondary aim of his gardening. The primary one was much more serious and competitive - growing for the annual garden produce shows usually held in September. These were very big events in the mining community and Norman Emery (1992) describes how at show time, intended exhibits were subject to jealous surveillance and night prowlers had been known to wilfully damage fine specimens, which they feared might beat their own on the show bench.

His suspicion that certain prize-winners' produce was not always grown in the exhibitors' own gardens, was confirmed by my own experience at Fence Houses.

While Bob proudly grew and won many prizes for his tomatoes and vegetables, he bent the truth a bit with his flowers. Every year at about the flower show time, I was instructed to accompany him to some address in Pittington, near Durham, where he collected some marvellous blooms. My task was to help him carry some of these back on the bus without damaging them. The blooms were then kept in the house overnight before being taken to the show the next day.

One member of our family who Bob got on with straight away, was my Uncle Bob. (Was there a shortage of names in the early 20th Century, or was everyone called Bob?) They were two of a kind in not only name. My Uncle Bob was a long-time secretary of the Perseverance Club in Hudson Street and once he found out Bob Charlton was a keen gardener, he invited him to exhibit his produce at some local flower and vegetable show. Afterwards, he must have wished he hadn't, because the visitor from Fence Houses won many of the prizes and I recollect helping him carry the flowers in the bus to South Shields and holding them while he arranged the displays.

"Dig for Victory" was a national publicity campaign during the war to encourage the cultivation of every spare piece of land in order to grow extra food. At a national level, millions of acres of grassland and wasteland were ploughed to grow crops. At a local level, new gardens were opened in the area near where Cedarwood now stands. Bob Charlton took over one of these, in addition to his existing garden and greenhouse and John and I were detailed to help him cultivate it. He told us that if we eat what the garden grows, we had to help to grow what we eat.

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