Growing Up

A Memory of Bristol.

I was born on the 24th of July 1929 above a shop next to a pub called the Rose of Denmark, in Hotwells, Bristol, very convenient for Father to wet his whistle and my head at the same time. Father was born in 1893, Mother in 1895. They were married on the 9th August 1924. My older brother John was born in 1927. Two months after I was born the New York stock market crashed, but I don’t think that was anything to do with the news of my birth. Earliest memories are few, but one or two stand out. We had moved to a flat in Freeland Place, as far as I know, my brother John and I with our mother and father, when I was about two or three and John about five or six. I don’t remember much about this place, but I do remember mother one day taking me just down the road, to the Clifton Rocks railway and having a ride up through the steep tunnel to the top of the gorge, and seeing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, where we could look down on the River Avon. It was rather dark inside the tunnel, but I remember noticing the railway cars were the same design as the electric trams that ran on the Portway Road outside. I must have been about three years old at the time as the funicular railway closed in nineteen thirty three. There are moves to reopen it again now, 2011. I have never heard of any other funicular railway that was enclosed in a tunnel. Trams that ran to the suburb of Downend terminated at this point on the Portway, next to the derelict old Port Railway and Pier station. Father was working on the collier’s ships at Portishead, Somerset that sailed to South Wales fetching coal for the power station. One of my earliest memories is of being put to bed for my afternoon nap, on father’s bunk, so I must have been very young. We would walk across to Clifton Bridge station on the other side of the river, at weekends when father was in port, to take the train to the dock, very exciting. The small steam engine, (GWR Prairie) and just one or two carriages would hiss into the station, then with doors slamming, and people getting on and off, mother would get us on the train. My face was then glued to the carriage window with mounting excitement, waiting for a sight of the small boats pulled up on the shore at Crokerne Pill, I knew then that we were not far from the sea. We would arrive at the dock station that was close to the entrance lock, and go either to the beach, or aboard the ship, the SS Lunan, (belonging to the ship owners Osborn and Wallis) on the Power Station coal unloading wharf in the dock. Father would sometimes put steam on the deck winch and hoist out the ships dingy, so that he could row John and me over to the trestle that carried the railway across the end of the dock, to collect Mussels from the wooden supports. The SS Lunan was later blown up by a mine, during the war, and sank in the Ely River near Cardiff, but father had left her by then. Mother once took John and myself on the Electric Tram up to the Tramway Centre in Bristol, where we went down some steps by the old bridge (this was before that part of the Frome was covered over) and on to a motor launch. I can't remember the name of the boat but it had a scalloped canopy to keep off the rain. There we sat with the other passengers, for a trip down through the Floating Harbour past all the ships, tugs, and barges to the landing stage at Hotwells. Those days in the early thirties must have given me a lifelong love of boats and water, like most of the kids in our neck of the woods. Many years later, my brother John was to work briefly as a fireman, on a similar but much larger boat called the River Queen that ran day trips from Bristol Bridge, to Keynsham on the River Avon. It was in the year of nineteen thirty three that my brother David was born, we had moved house by then to a flat on Hotwells road above another pub (Father did not like to be far away from these places) and I went to school nearby in Albemarle Row, it must have been then that I had my first school picture taken, as this was dated 1933, and I still have it. With a great deal of trepidation, I was taken to Hotwells infant’s school, the head mistress, Miss Richardson, was enthroned behind her big desk on a platform in the big hall. After staring down at me from her great height, (I do not think she was as impressed as she should have been looking at a future genius) I was given into the care of a Miss Brown, and was placed at a desk next to a girl called Molly Applin. I often wonder how Molly fared in later life. Unfortunately this was the only mixed class I was ever in, until we were evacuated during the war. I never really liked school very much being rather shy and a daydreamer, so ended up usually at the back of the class and left to my own amusements.
One day John came to meet me as I left school, and told me that he had come to bring me to our new house, Eleven Woburn Place, Hotwells, where we were to live for most of our younger days. I think this must have been the old home of our grandparents, as there were two pictures on the wall of some old people I had never met. The only relatives that I knew of were two uncles and a maiden aunt called Annie, on my father’s side. Of my mother’s side, I have no knowledge whatsoever, except her sister Alice. When I was about six, Auntie Annie took me down to Weston Super Mare where she ran a small tobacconists shop, for a holiday. One day she gave me a small model yacht from the shop window to take down to the boating pond on the beach that was about half a mile away. Woburn Place was half of a concrete road of 13 small houses and three gas lamps that were lit every evening by a certain Mr Bawn, with a long pole that he would push up through a little trap door in the bottom of the lamp, and open the gas valve, then pull a lever and a spark at the top of the pole would light the Gas Mantle. Every so often a man would come along with a ladder, put it against a bracket that stuck out from top of the post, (we used to fling a rope around this to swing on), then climb up with his bucket and wash leather to clean the lamp glasses. The other half of the street was called Charles Place and consisted of another half dozen houses, a small shop (Fouracres sweet shop), and the Merchants Arms public house. In Hotwells, when I was small, it would have been difficult to live more than a few yards from one public house or another. Our Auntie Alice, (mother's sister) lived in a small cottage in Little Caroline Place that joined onto our street, with her son Bill, and as this was below street level, was always getting flooded. My Auntie Gladies owned a small general stores on Ambra Vale Hill, in Hotwells. Number eleven was a small terraced house with three bedrooms upstairs, and two rooms and a scullery downstairs, with a small back yard and outside toilet, coal shed, and a ladder up to the top of the back wall, where father had a couple of window boxes in which he grew mint, to flavour the Sunday joint, (if we had one that is) the only gardening he ever did in his life. Hotwells was a hive of activity in the thirties, with a timber yard at the top of the street, Cumberland Tidal Basin and the docks along the road, an Abattoir that used to process the cattle brought from Ireland and landed at the basin. Ships loaded with timber from Scandinavia for the Sawmills, tobacco in hogsheads from the United States for Wills cigarette factory on barges. Railway trains on route to Cannon’s Marsh goods yard, ship builders, and coal yards, then in the summer the White Funnel paddle steamers, taking passengers down channel for day trips. It was about 1935 that I was taken to the Royal Infirmary with a burst appendix. In the thirties Peritonitis was a very life threatening condition, and I was only expected to live for another few hours. Father was on a ship in Belgium at the time, and was called home, as mother was pregnant with my youngest brother Dennis. It was a very frightening experience being wheeled into the operating theatre under those big lights at six years old, without my mum. The problem started with a pain in the stomach, and as mother did not have the two shillings for the doctor she asked a local woman (who was supposed to have been a nurse) what she should do, the woman told her to give me castor oil. This had catastrophic results, (a burst appendix). When the doctor was finally called and I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance wrapped in red blankets, it was nearly too late, but I was very lucky to be operated on by a very competent young surgeon, (Mr Melville Capper) who cleaned me out and stitched me up again, but did not give me much of a chance of survival. I think what enabled me to survive, was the fact that I had been promised a new brother or sister at that time, and was desperate to see the new baby. I was placed on a Male Ward in a cot with drop down sides, and if I cried in the night, the nurse would take me down to the open coke fire by her desk, until I went off to sleep again. In the middle of the ward was a sort of big cast iron radiator, on which was placed a large glass jar, full of red rubber drain tubes. I would watch if a nurse came in with a Kidney dish and some tongs, and commence to extract one of them, and then if she came to my cot and began to pull the curtains around I would be in a screaming PANIC. Being the only child on the ward, the nurses made a bit of a fuss of me, and for the first time in my life I had all the food I could eat, they used to stand around my cot and smile, as I licked my plate clean. The down side was when they brought in the needles to stick in my arm and would promise me the earth if I would only stop howling. I think on my second stay in the Infirmary, later the same year, one of the ward maids that scrubbed the floor around my cot on her knees, for what then would have been a pittance, asked me what I would like for my birthday, I told her I would love a crane to play with. On my birthday that dear girl brought me a beautiful wooden crane, with four wheels, a brass chain and hook plus a handle that would wind up the hook. It must have cost half her week’s pay; I only hope my delighted excitement was reward enough for her, I never knew her name, but she will always remain in my memory. I think we kids, all had Jubilee mugs full of chocolate that year and later a coronation mug with more chocolate. This was the year I think that the King died of the same kind of illness that I had, and Dennis was born, so we were a family of six, and I was sent to a small house in Almondsbury, Gloucester for convalescence. This was my first time in the country, and although I was homesick at first, soon settled with the other kids, and began to enjoy myself. I was sent back to the big school later that year and received the only prize I ever won at Hotwells council school. I have no idea what it was for, it was a book “the ABC for you and me” and I kept it until it fell apart. The real achievement to my mind of that year was a Friday afternoon so called art class, where we were given a piece of paper and pencil, then told to draw whatever we liked. This was very unusual, as most times we had to copy boring old patterns, (I never took lightly to instruction in art) having decided to make the most of this opportunity I set to work. In 1936 there was a great deal of coverage in the newspapers about a new ship being launched on the river Clyde the biggest ever built called the Queen Mary, so living in a dock area and being mad on boats I thought that’s what I would draw, the teacher had offered a penny prize for what he judged to be the best. At the end of the lesson, much to my surprise, I was called out in front of the class, and presented with the penny, and in one afternoon I went from being a nobody at the back of the class, to being a 'somebody' at the front of the class, and it became a matter of pride every Friday afternoon to try and win that penny. Thus did I discover the power of art to raise my status among my fellows, although perhaps, not among the teachers. Discipline was quite strict at Hotwells council school (being a very poor district of Bristol), and if there was any inky elastic band nonsense at the back of the class, the Master would reach for his thick bamboo cane that he kept for smacking the blackboard to the chant of the twice times table, then it was “Cottrell out! Hand! Thwack, Other Hand! Thwack, back to your desk”. With burning hands clenched, eyes tight shut, back up the isle to my seat. If one small tear had escaped, my classmates would have made my life a misery, this was thirties Hotwells, and the chant of "crybaby" would have been worse than any stick. Living in Woburn Place with all the Industry going on around us could be quite exciting at times, for us kids. The railway that ran to Cannons Marsh Goods Depot in the centre of Bristol, was not far from the top of our street. If we could run and get on the step of the Toad Brake Van, we could ride up the dock unless the guard happened to lean over the side and spot us, then we were lucky to get away without the dregs of his teapot being thrown over us. One of our chores each Saturday morning was to fetch the weekly coal for the fire, or if money was short, coke from the Gasworks, in an old pram or Dandy cart. Coal was obtained from a place called Pools Wharf where we had to go into a dusty old Dickensian office with high stools and double sided desks to pay for the ticket, about one shilling and four pence for a half hundredweight, ten or eleven pence for Coke, at the Gasworks. Then to the dockside where a Mr Silk took the ticket filled the scales with half hundredweight of coal, then tipped it into our sack and lifted it into the pram. Back home it would be unloaded into the coalhouse. Sometimes we would be sent to the gas works much farther away, to get coke as it was cheaper, but I did not mind this because I could watch the shunting engines making up trains in the Cannons Marsh goods yard. Then down Gas Ferry lane to the docks in front of the gasworks, where we could watch ships loading and unloading, tugs with strings of barges, loaded with tobacco, grain, timber, and other goods making their way up the harbour, and then to the gasworks to fill a big sack full of coke, and push the pram back home, ( we were away so long, that mother must have wondered where on earth we had been) if it was Coal we fetched we maybe got a halfpenny or a penny, if it was coke and money was short then it was “look at the state of your shoes do you think I am made of money”, for walking one and a half miles. Pocket money as such did not exist (for us anyway), we would run back and fore to the shops all Saturday morning to get about three pence from the neighbours. The worst errand was to the cooked meat shop, after having a slice of bread and dripping, or Porridge, for breakfast, we would stand waiting to be served, looking longingly at the lovely Ham and Forspur, (a kind of processed Ham), in their glass cabinets. Some of the money that was earned on Saturday morning was spent at the Hotwells Picture Palace, (known locally as the bug house or flea pit), on the Saturday afternoon tupney (two penny) rush, where the scruffy young gentlemen (and young ladies), of the district would descend for the matinee, fully armed with catapults, pea shooters, etcetera, to express their displeasure with any bad guys, or soppy stuff. A break down in the film or any interruption would result in a mini RIOT. We were made to go to Trinity Church, Hotwells, every Sunday morning, just to get us out from under Mothers feet, while she got the dinner ready. I could never understand a word the Vicar said, when reading from the Bible, even though it was in the old Quaker English that most Working Class Bristolians spoke then, although corrupted just a little, ( “where bist thee goin”, “hast thou seen our mother”). Then Sunday school in the afternoon, that paid a dividend in the form of a trip to the seaside at Weston Super Mare once a year, and a ride to the Hippodrome on the top of a tramcar to see the pantomime at Christmas. Our favourite playgrounds were the Brickworks at Ashton gate, where we could push trucks along narrow gauge railway lines at the bottom of the quarry, the closed South Liberty mine, coal tip, and the occasional foray over the big wall into the Lady Smyth estate, keeping a sharp lookout for rough game-keeping gentlemen that might enquire as to the precise nature of our business there. The Avon Gorge woods and old stone quarries along the river towpath, where we could light fires and toast our sandwiches were also worth an expedition. There was also the railway tunnels, where we hid in the alcoves, and waited for a train to come through. We would crouch down in the darkness, watching the tunnel mouth that would suddenly become dark as the train entered, then with a roar of smoke and steam and lighted windows, the ground shaking, it would flash past. We also put to good use, a railway cattle siding at the back of the big red bonded warehouse, where the railway sometimes kindly left empty vans and trucks for us to play with. I only wish that the advocates of road transport could have seen two or three of us eight year olds pushing these ten ton vehicles up and down the tracks with one of our number inside, having a ride. We had a problem sometimes if the brakes were pinned down as we were not strong enough to release them. We would pick up a piece of timber from the stacks on the dockside, and with a big stone for fulcrum, place it under the wheel of a goods van, or flat truck, then with a couple of us hanging on the end, start the vehicle moving, drop the stick and keep pushing to get it up to speed, until it crashed into another truck with a big clang. Great fun (danger? what danger was that then?) Then there was the brickyard. There was a big open space on the Somerset side of the river Avon opposite the tobacco warehouse, called the white city, where the Dragoons were encamped during the Bristol riots. I found a rusty Sabre in the mud one day, and wondered what had happened to the poor trooper that lost it, in the days when the army still used the cat and nine tails. This open space was occupied by a firm of breeze block makers, but had a right of way passing through the yard, so it was open sesame to us dear little children. We could make houses out of the breeze blocks and mould boards, and light fires with coal from a nearby tip. This all went very well until one day we came across a cement mixer, just standing there, doing nothing. I suggested to my brother David that I would tip the hopper down, and he could get in and I would turn the engine starting handle like a merry-go-round. Unbeknown to us there was a small amount of Petrol left in the carburettor, and with a Bang! Bang! Bang! The darn silly thing started up, with David screaming his head off. The whole gang fled to the four winds, knowing full well that this kind of noise could attract the attention of people who had nothing better to do than poke their noses into things that did not concern them. Thankfully the petrol soon ran out, so we came out of our hiding places and turned the hopper down so that a very hot and petulant David could crawl out. He got even with me next day by dropping a plank on me, and splitting my head open. I have many fond memories of our young and innocent play in that particular brick yard, now covered by a flyover. It was in the middle thirties, that coming home from school one day, I saw a very frightening placard on a wall, of buildings being blown up and fires burning, and a prediction that war was coming, in a very big number year that I couldn’t count up to but I thought was eleven, that would have been 1941. They were two years out, it started in 1939. The first indication for us was when a little Belgian boy from a family of refugees turned up at school and became the centre of attention, his name was Andrei. Shortly after we were issued with these gas masks that smelled of rubber and made ones voice sound funny, and we had to carry them everywhere. The fall of France, came as a terrible shock, then the little ships (and big ships) evacuation of Dunkirk. This was the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Our piece of the action was so called 'The Blitz'

With thanks to Arthur Cottrell for this memory of Bristol

Added 11 August 2012


Comments & Feedback

My nan, Rosina Elliott was bon in number 9 Woburn Place in 1888 and her family stayed on there for a some years after. I think one of her sisters used to work in the Rose of Denmark. It could have been her sister Elsie Elliott. Does this ring any bells?
Jim Wager
Very interesting reading. I lived at No 8 Woburn Place from 1955 and my Granfer Chard lived at No 6 - that was either side of the alley way that went through both houses to the garage behind The Bear Hotel. I used to fall a sleep with the music coming from the hotel - Jazz
I remember the old gas lamps - they were subsequently converted to electricity. My great grandparents(named Ball) also lived at no 8 so their paths must have crossed. The name Elliot rings a bell. I think I went to Junior school with a boy called Elliot ( cannot remember the first name)

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