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The First Seventy Years: 8 - Home Fires

...One of the abiding pleasures of these open fires was the smell and taste of bread toasted on a long fork which had been held in front of them. Toast out of a modern digital toaster just does not compare...

Eric Biddulph continues the story of his boyhood in Nottingham. To read earlier chapters please click on The First Seventy Years in the menu on this page.

A passageway led off Birrell Road to a number of houses with addresses on Wiverton Road. In one of them lived the Chandler family. It was a large family and always attracted attention because of their London accents. They had probably moved up to Nottingham because of the bombing. I was quite friendly with the two youngest sons, Steve and Andy. We played together; climbing those old style gas-lamp posts, hide and seek, marbles and numerous other games and activities which were popular during those years.

Wiverton Road was home to the notorious Wivo Gang, a group of male tearaways. It caused me some grief over the years. I was frequently ambushed and pinned to the ground under more bodies than I care to recall. I cannot remember ever shedding tears as the victim of this wanton bullying, but I suppose I must have done so, as the primary purpose of these ambushes and sometime raids into Birrell Road was to achieve maximum humiliation on the victims. Needless to say, Gordon Sandford and his cohorts never had any problems with the Gang.

Although I did meet up with other children to play, the frequency of this contact was much less than that experienced by my peers. In the years before I hit my teens this can be attributed to the reasons already described.

At some point in time my father fixed up a punchbag suspended from the attic ceiling. This was a military kitbag filled with housebricks and packed with sawdust. He bought me a pair of boxing gloves, and I recall spending time in the top of the house punching away.

My father was aware of me not being a member of any established peer group in the neighbourhood and decided that I needed to be toughened up in order to be able to protect myself. Whatever his motives, I don't think I ever became aggressive towards my tormentors in the Wivo Gang or Gordon Sandford. It was strength in numbers that was the determining factor in self preservation, not individual heroism.

Like most working class houses built at the end of the 19th Century, ours had a cellar, principally to store coal. There was a dividing wall. On one side there was a coal grate at street level. It was into this section that Mr Draper, our coal merchant, dumped the contents of his bags whenever he made a delivery.

In the other section my father fixed up a small bench. He stored a small set of tools in a box and would carry out many of the small repairs which he was unable to persuade the landlord to complete.

I can recall vividly his repeated attempts to try and coax the rent collector to report some of these problems. Rent was collected weekly by Mr Snapper. As a small boy I found his visits somewhat daunting. He wore a pair of half-moon spectacles, which lodged on the bridge of his nose, a black Homburg hat, a dark suit and in winter a black overcoat.

Most homes had a number of firegrates. Ours had one in the living room, the sitting room and in each of the three bedrooms. Most families only lit the living room fire on a regular basis. If you had invited visitors for Sunday tea during the winter months, the fire would be lit in the sitting room. You had to be ill and confined to your bed before a fire would be lit in any of the bedrooms.

One of the abiding pleasures of these open fires was the smell and taste of bread toasted on a long fork which had been held in front of them. Toast out of a modern digital toaster just does not compare.

In bitterly cold weather my parents would attempt to retain a burning fire overnight in the living room. This was easier to achieve when my father was on the early morning shift. Getting up between 4 and 5 am, there was a good chance that the fire would still be burning from the previous night provided there had been sufficient damping down immediately before going to bed.

This was achieved by putting a blanket of coal dust called' slack' on the dying embers. This usually had the desired effect and my father would be able to re-ignite the embers by putting the poker into them and shaking it to allow sufficient air to penetrate. Sometimes this procedure failed, and my mother and myself would rise to a very cold room.

It has to be remembered that we were merely moving from one cold room to another. This was the norm because it would have been too expensive to retain a burning fire for 24 hours a day every day throughout the winter.

There was a daily routine for most of the year between late September and early April in respect of the living room fire. My mother and myself would get up around 8 am and eat breakfast in the living room. Because we were both going out soon afterwards, a fire would not be lit. We made do with a small electric fire. If there was sufficient time my mother would clear out the remains of the previous day's fire and dispose of the ashes in the dustbin.

If my father was on an early shift he would not be home until 2 pm at the earliest. If he was on a split shift he would come home for a couple of hours around 9.30 am. Either way he would make a fire. If he was on a late shift he would not rise until 9 or 10 am. He would make a fire before he sat down to have his breakfast. At the weekend a fire would be made early in the morning and kept burning throughout the day irrespective of my father's shift. As he normally worked six days a week, his day off was Sunday, two weeks out of three, so he normally took it upon himself on that day to get a fire going.


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