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Two Rooms And A View: 33 - Back Lanes

"During out-of-school hours back lanes were always full of children of all ages. Girls would be skipping and playing hopscotch, while the boys kicked every stone or tin as a substitute football.

Every respectable back lane had a gang, who thought they had a territorial right to everything that went on in their respective patch. Rival gangs that encroached on this area were shown no mercy,'' says Robert Owen.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's engaging life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

During out-of-school hours back lanes were always full of children of all ages. Girls would be skipping and playing hopscotch, while the boys kicked every stone or tin as a substitute football.

Every respectable back lane had a gang, who thought they had a territorial right to everything that went on in their respective patch. Rival gangs that encroached on this area were shown no mercy.

In large families, older children would often be kept off school to look after younger brothers and sisters. Occasionally very young children would be seen running around the back lane, semi-clothed, runny-nosed and shoeless with dummies in their mouths, while their mother washed or worked indoors.

Throughout the post-war years in Reed Street, I remember Friday night was an important and busy evening. It was pay night – a time when the weekly collectors came knocking on front doors, hoping to obtain their dues before the man of the house went out for his traditional end of week drink. Failing to get a reply at the front door, most would venture into the back lane in search of the rear entrance. If families didn’t or couldn’t pay, they would play ‘dead’ and refuse to answer the door.

The rent man was usually the first to call, closely followed by the insurance man, then the ever-important ‘club’ man. Collectors would also be seen in the area for coal, papers and even the corner shop, which very likely had allowed customers credit during the week. In our house, my mother used to say, "You could set the clock by the time the rent and insurance men called on a Friday night!"

Money was very tight during the post-war years, but I soon discovered a new, if dubious, source of income. I was supposed to go to school dinners every day. The cost was 6d (2˝p) per day and we would order them on a daily basis. I was always reluctant to part with any money, so unknown to my mother, I didn't go to school dinners on a Tuesday and Thursday. Instead, I pocketed the money and as the house was empty, I went home and had something to eat there.

My illicit methods of making money didn't stop there. At Fence Houses, I had been tutored by Bob Charlton in the system of selecting a race-horse from a newspaper, and placing a bet with a street bookie. Back at Shields, I thought how I could do this with my spare school dinner money. I knew my mother would not approve, so I had to keep my venture into gambling to myself. The problem was that I didn't know any street bookies. My informant, unknown to her, turned out to be the middle-aged lady who lived downstairs to us at No 21 Reed Street.

One day when I was at home for an unofficial lunch, I discovered that she had experienced a minor accident and couldn't get out. She asked me if I would take some money wrapped in a piece of paper to a man standing in the back lane at the junction of Alice Street and Reed Street. My problem was solved. It didn't take a brain surgeon to work out that this was the local bookie! During the following weeks, I used to buy a morning paper on the way home for my lunch, select a horse, write out my bet, wrap a sixpence in it and take it along to the bookie. He took my money and didn't ask any questions. Any winnings were collected the following day. I rarely lost.

Unfortunately, my illegal gambling came to a sharp end when one day, I bumped into the lady downstairs, at the bookies. She informed my mother and I got the telling-off of my life! I should have known better because my mother loathed gambling. It was only then that I learnt that a back street bookie risked going to prison for taking bets from anyone - never mind an eleven-year-old! It was many years before betting shops were to become an integral part of every High Street.

After a winter of living in Reed Street but usually going to Jenny's for tea, it was suggested that I should live at Cranford Street to allow my mother greater freedom to find a full time job. I didn't like the idea but had no say in the matter. She decided to try this during the summer months of 1947 and paid a visit to the Smith's Employment Agency in Stanhope Road, which specialised in recruiting staff for holiday hotels. The result was that she obtained work with accommodation; first at the Princess Hotel, Scarborough, and the following year at the Green Park Hotel, Harrogate. After all the family trouble and stress of the last ten years, she really enjoyed working at these hotels during the summers of 1947 and 1948. I was not forgotten and her extra earnings helped to pay for my increasing needs. While she was away, Jenny used to collect my mother's weekly maintenance money at the Magistrates' Court - a task she absolutely hated.

While living temporarily with Jenny and Leslie at Cranford Street and going to Stanhope Road School, I joined the local Boys' Brigade Company at St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Talbot Road. This resulted in my making more friends than I had ever had at Reed Street. It was also like being back at Fence Houses, because we all met at the local 'rec'. The difference this time was that the 'rec' was known as the Daisy Field. It was at the top of Ashley Road behind Harton Lane where the present mis-named Brinkburn School stands. During the school holiday and the long summer evenings, the Daisy field was always crowded. In addition to football and cricket, the Girl Guides and Brownies played rounders; children flew kites; greyhound owners raced their dogs; athletes practised sports and many younger children just played. The football field was also used by Readhead's shipyard team.

When not at the Daisy Field, we would be in the back lane playing cricket or football. When it was football, somebody's door would be chosen as a goal and when it was cricket, we would illegally borrow a dustbin to act as the wicket. The noise we made and the damage we caused by climbing over walls to rescue our ball, did nothing to promote good relationships with local residents. We were chased away many times and threatened with the police on a number of occasions.

The 'Daisy Field' was located alongside Harton General Hospital, which then housed the remains of the old Victorian Workhouse. In the late forties, part of the old workhouse was used to accommodate many mentally handicapped personnel. Many of these were physically able and most days were allowed out of the hospital in groups, without any supervision. Some groups used to wander around the Daisy Field, while others migrated down Ashley Road to the West Park. They caused no trouble but unfortunately, some teenagers used to occasionally tease and torment them. The result was often an unpleasant affray, as the handicapped sought refuge away from their tormentors, in the back lanes of nearby streets.

I recollect going many messages for my sister while living at Cranford Street. Many of these were to the local Co-op Store in Stanhope Road. Most people did their weekly shopping there, but every time I was sent there, it was usually for missed or urgently required items. What I hated about the store was that it had three counters - groceries, meat and bakery, and there was always a queue at each. This meant that if I wanted a loaf of bread, a pound of sausages, and two tins of beans, I had to stand in three different queues. With a football waiting to be kicked at the Daisy Field, this stretched my limited patience. Repeated requests to my sister that I should go elsewhere, got the standard reply, "That's impossible - we get a dividend at the Co-op!"

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