Richard Allen's Childhood Memories of Melbourne St
In these notes compiled by Richard, he remembers the Melbourne St of his early years, including its layout and witnessing at first hand the fire at Hatherley Works.
I was born in Melbourne Street on 23 December 1938, and lived there with my mother, father and sister Valerie, now Valerie May, who was two and a half years older than me. My father spent most of my early childhood in the army during the War and in the Allied Military Government until late 1948 when he left the army. He started his enlistment as a Private and reached the rank of Captain. I lived at No 114 until 1956 when I moved to Swansea to attend an OND course for two years as part of my four and a half years training to be a marine engineer officer. This was followed by another year in Glasgow where I worked at Yarrow Shipbuilders in Scotstoun, gaining practical experience of shipbuilding and marine engineering.
During the latter part of my period in Scotland I met a young lady, Una Craig, to whom I have now been married for almost 50 years. To complete my apprenticeship I then had to spend 18 months at sea as an engineer officer cadet at the end of which I was appointed to the rank of Junior Engineer Officer of a 32,000 ton deadweight tanker (deadweight was the actual weight of oil cargo the ship could carry). I was promoted to Fourth Engineer of a 35,000 dwt tanker some six months later. I spent a few more years at sea rising to Third Engineer officer of another 50,000 dwt super tanker, before “swallowing the anchor” in 1965. It was during this time that my parents moved to Granville Street.
I do not remember much about my first year at Hatherley Road Infants School except that my teacher was a Miss Moss and that in the afternoons we pupils had to lie on folding canvas beds. We had air-raid shelters made of sandbags in the playground and would occasionally go into them as part of emergency drill. That was a great adventure. I vaguely remember taking part in a school play when I took the leading role of the King. I do not recall what the play was called but I had to dress-up and wear a gold crown – that would be over 70 years ago.
I then moved from Hatherley Road Infants to Finlay Road Primary before passing my 11plus examinations admitting me to Sir Thomas Rich’s which I joined in September 1950.
My mother had a number of relatives in the street, her sister Gwen and husband Gordon (Randle) at No. 104. Her brother Ron and wife Dorothy lived at No. 124, and her father Lionel Vernon Best at No. 126 together with her sisters Clare and Doris, with her husband Ted (Summerhill). In addition I had many friends in Melbourne Street. We all played games together in the street and had many a happy time there. Particular friends were David Bourne, Royston Payne and Terry Cole, all from the street. Two of my younger cousins Raymond and Graham Summerhill also lived in Melbourne Street. Other good friends were Kenny Marsh and his brother Brian, from Matson Place which was connected to Melbourne Street by an alleyway about half way between Hatherley Road and the railway line. My sister, Valerie, had her friends in the street too, Josephine Lee and June Barnes being among them, but the two I remember most.
David Bourne’s father was skipper of the barge Fanny Jane, originally a sailing vessel of Bridgewater and used to carry wheat from Avonmouth or Sharpness to Reynolds Mill in Gloucester Docks. One day during the school holidays David’s mother took David and me to the vessel in Gloucester Docks where we were towed with several other barges to Sharpness. We left the boat in the Sharpness lock as it was going on to Avonmouth. Mrs Bourne then took us to Sharpness railway station where we took a train across the Severn Bridge to Lydney. We changed trains there, boarding one that was going to Gloucester and home again. David’s brother Tommy was skipper of one of Regent Oil company’s tanker barges and one day he took David and me up-river to Tewkesbury. Tommy was also at one time the engineer of the company’s larger coastal tanker Regent Jane.
I mentioned Matson Place which was an unadopted road (in other words had no made-up road surface) with terraced houses along one side of it. On the other side of it ran the River Sudbrook, known locally as ‘the Brook’. This was a great favourite place to play, as on the road side it was about 6 feet below the road level while the other side was a grass and weed covered tree-lined bank, irregularly sloping down to the water, which despite its name, was only from about 6 inches to a foot deep. One could jump straight over onto the sloping bank in several places and via some of the tress in others. Of course, several jumps were unsuccessful and wet clothes and water-filled shoes resulted. It was a great place for catching minnows and catching a stickleback was considered quite an achievement. I remember on one occasion, near the bridge where the river flowed under the railway, seeing a snake swimming along. No one tried to catch that!
A busy street
Melbourne Street was quite a busy street as far as industry was concerned. At one end there was High Street and at the other the GWR main line from Paddington to Gloucester and Cheltenham Spa. High Street was quite a long road with a wide range of shops along its length from Patterson’s newsagents near Tredworth Road to an ironmonger and pawnbroker at the other, Rycroft Street end. (It was always interesting to look into his windows at the variety of items on sale; I was fascinated by the Jews’ harps and wondered how they were played). About midway along High Street were a bakers and cake shop, greengrocers, 2 fish and chip shops, butchers, chemists, barbers etc. Another favourite shop among the children was the Co-op, not for what it sold but for its ‘overhead railway’. When one’s mother paid for what she had bought, the bill and money were put into a cup which the shop assistant attached to a unit sitting on an overhead wire. When this was done a handle attached to a rope was pulled down and the cup, money and bill shot off along the wire to a central booth where the money was extracted and the cup, together with any change, sent back on to the wire to the counter from which it had originated. Despite the number of shops there, a milkman – I seem to remember his name was Mr Price and he came from Upton St Leonards – used to come round every Saturday morning. His milk came in large metallic churns and he collected jugs from peoples’ doorsteps and used two metallic measuring pots (one half-pint and the other a full pint) on the end of long handles. The appropriate one was dipped into a churn and emptied into the jug or pot. I used to collect the jugs from the doorsteps for him and take them to him and back to the house, taking great care not to spill any of it. I did this for a number of houses along the street at the end of which he gave me two pence.
The street layout at that time
Starting from the High Street and going towards the railway, on the left hand side there was Say’s the scrap metal merchants. During the war this company came along the street cutting off all the front garden railings for salvage. These were piled up in the yard (where he also kept pigs which could be heard but not seen behind the high wall surrounding the yard); the railings were still stacked up in Say’s yard for some time after the war. Moving further along, past the Chapel on the left hand side there was Griffin’s soft drink manufacturers next to Terry Cole’s house. Part of Griffin’s land was taken up by a huge static water tank for use by the fire brigade if necessary. A bit further along on the right hand side of the street was an open space, where we children played various games, at the back of which was a high corrugated-iron fence with gates closing off the area where further items of Say’s scrap metal were stored. Opposite here was the home of Frank William, the wholesale greengrocer.
On the right hand side about 10 houses away, and next door to our house, was the entrance to Hatherley Works. This very large factory manufactured household furniture, such as three-piece suites, and folding canteen furniture, deck chairs etc. The factory occupied most of the block between Tarrington Road and Hatherley Road. I later learned that during WW2 it was employed in the manufacture of various aircraft parts, for example the Bakelite housings for the wingtip navigation lights (I know that because one of the workmen gave me one that apparently was sub-standard). The entrance to the works ran alongside the garden of our home at No. 114. It was called Oakridge House which was surprising as it had three large horse chestnut trees alongside the works entrance – they were great for climbing!
Moving further along the right hand side of the street were terraced houses culminating with the double-fronted grocers shop of L Stevens & Son. This was at the junction of Melbourne Street and Hatherley Road. On the corner diagonally opposite Stevens’ shop was another factory, Steps & Tables, whose name was an indication of what it manufactured. Beyond this junction, both sides of the street to the railway wall were occupied by houses, but about half way along on the right hand side was the alleyway leading to Matson Place (where my friends Ken and Brian Marsh lived). There was also an alleyway at the end of the left hand side and adjacent to the railway wall leading to Adelaide Street.
Wartime and afterwards
The following events are strictly from memory and are probably not in any chronological order.
One thing that really sticks in my memory was hearing the sound of lots of aircraft and I went into our back garden with my mother and her sisters who had come along to join us. I remember looking up and seeing many, many aircraft, most, if not all, with gliders attached. I do not remember how long it took for them to pass over but it seemed to be never ending. It is only recently that I learned Gloucester was a navigational turning point for aircraft transporting paratroopers of the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division from Elmdon Airfield, near Birmingham, to the landing zone in Normandy as part of the D-Day landings. I was about five and a half then!
The air raid sirens went off from time to time and Mum, Valerie and I would go under the Morrison table shelter. It had very thick angle-irons at each corner and along the base and was surmounted by a thick steel plate – the table top. There was a steel mesh along the sides and ends to protect us from larger pieces of debris should our house be damaged. Other brick and stone shelters were built along the left-hand side of Melbourne Street taking up part of the pavement and part of the road leaving enough space for traffic (usually horse and cart) to pass along. After the war the shelters were being demolished using a steel ball connected by a chain to a crane. When I saw the damage done to a shelter by this ball being dropped on it or swung into its side I thought it wouldn’t have been very safe if a bomb hit it! When the demolition work was being carried out, there was a watchman on duty every evening. He had a small wooden hut outside of which was a brazier. We children would go and talk to him and took potatoes with us to bake on the fire.
One day, coming home from Hatherley Road Infants School and turning right into Melbourne Street there were Union flags and bunting stretched from one side of the street to the other. I am not sure who was walking with me but our immediate thoughts were that the war was over. They were actually for the son of one of our near neighbours, Mr and Mrs Carter; he had just arrived home after being a prisoner-of-war. I think his name was Norman and the flags were to welcome him home. A similar display of flags, etc took place when the war was ended. This was probably VE day followed by yet another street party for, presumably, VJ day.
Either during the latter part of the war, or perhaps after it ended, there was a need for waste paper and schoolchildren were encouraged to collect it and take it to school. At certain points in individuals’ collection totals, a cardboard badge was given to them. I can’t remember now exactly what it said on the badges, but I think it was something like Citizen, Councillor, Mayor and Lord Mayor and each badge was a different colour. The badges were proudly worn on the jacket collar or dress (for the girls). The children attaining the highest rank – of which I was one – were invited to tea with the mayor and mayoress at the Guildhall, where we were presented with a certificate. We also had our photograph taken. I was at the extreme right side of the front row standing immediately in front of the mayor, Alderman Harry Cole. Unfortunately I held my certificate inverted.
We often saw horses pulling carts along the road. The carts were loaded with various things, boxes, barrels, etc. On two occasions I remember the horse bolting. One made it all the way to the railway wall where it had to stop. In the other instance the horse had just started running when a man walking by saw what was happening, took off his coat and threw it across the horse’s face and it stopped. Weekly equine visitors were those horses pulling the dustcarts which had a curved top and a number of hatch openings on each side into which the dustmen emptied the metal bins of rubbish and ashes (of which there were plenty as all the houses had coal fires). The hatches were fitted with covers which were closed as each part of the cart became full to prevent the dust blowing about. When the dustcart was full, a lorry would come along with an empty cart which it would detach whilst the horse was being detached from its cart. The lorry then took away the full cart and the horse was reconnected to the empty one. This too was quite an operation to watch.
Another regular horse visitor to the street was the one driven by our next door neighbour (No. 112) Mr Stubbs, who worked for the council cleansing department. He would come home for his lunch and leave his horse and cart outside his and our house. He would give his horse a bucket of water to drink and then gave the horse its nose bag. That horse stayed still chomping away and didn’t move until Mr Stubbs emerged from his home and away they both went.
I mentioned the railway wall; this was made of Cotswold stone with mortar holding it together. Even so there were plenty of footholds for boys such as me to climb it and have an excellent view of the passing rail traffic. By this time, about 1946, several of us were ardent trainspotters. Interspersed with the main passenger trains, carrying the destination boards along the top of the coach sides with the words Paddington, Gloucester and Cheltenham Spa, were what we called the ‘Chalford Flyers’. These were normally 0-4-2 tank engine (1424, 1441 and 1464 were regulars) and (usually) a single coach with a driving cab at the opposite end to the locomotive. Sometimes the locomotive would be sandwiched between two autocoaches, to give them their proper name. Going in one direction, pulling the coach, the driver was on the footplate with the fireman, and when in the reverse direction the locomotive pushed the coach end with the driver controlling the locomotive from the cab on the coach.
Summer Saturdays were absolutely brilliant with what we called the WPs which were holiday trains from Wolverhampton to Penzance. The variety of locomotives used was quite amazing as were the destination boards on the coach upper sides, with intermediate station names such as Bristol, Taunton, Exeter, Kingswear and Plymouth being carried. This hobby was very educational as School atlases were scanned for the places named and the routes taken. From our Ian Allan’s ABC books we found a great deal of technical information about the different locomotive classes. Melbourne Street was a great place for trainspotting because the line between Swindon and Gloucester was used for ‘running-in’ of brand new locomotives as well as those that had undergone a major overhaul at Swindon works. Consequently we were greatly surprised when the gas turbine locomotive no. 18000 came along as there was nothing about it in our ABC’s and none of us knew anything about it. One other thing that sticks in my mind was seeing two very old locomotives (built 1895) travelling coupled together as light engines (i.e. not pulling anything). One of these two bore the name COMET. However someone with a sense of humour wrote in chalk in front of the name, the letters ‘IN’ and chalked behind it ‘AX’ making the name ‘IN’COMET’AX’. On the (officially) un-named locomotive was written, in chalk, the name SIR STAFFORD CRIPPS; at that time, 1947, the two were well connected!
Hatherley Works Fire
Early one dark morning I was awakened by my parents looking out of my bedroom window – my bedroom was at the back of the house, which adjoined Hatherley Works’ entrance – and hearing my mother say to my father, “It must be another practice, Ern”. I pretended to be asleep, and as soon as they left to go to their bedroom, I got out of bed to see torches being waved about as firemen were running along the drive to the works. Shortly afterwards there was a very, very loud ‘Whoof’ as the whole of one large building burst into flame. I went scurrying to my parents’ bedroom at the front of the house to wake them up and tell them about the fire. I didn’t go back to bed as so much was happening outside, but I did put some more clothes on as there was no central heating in the house at that time, but after a while the window was getting warm from the fire raging outside!
Later in the day I went round to the back of the building and joined many onlookers there. It was tricky underfoot, particularly climbing the slope up Hatherley Road as water emanating from the hoses was freezing in places – it was December after all – and I saw a lady slip and fall. Another thing that sticks in my mind was seeing the firemen directing a hose at one part of the fire that just wouldn’t go out. However, someone from the gas board arrived in a van and when he turned a valve in the road that part of the fire soon died down.
The works canteen was one area of the factory that was damaged by the fire which meant that there was no kitchen available for hot food and drink for the workers. My mother was asked if the canteen staff could use our kitchen for this purpose to which she agreed. I benefitted from this because at that time Lyons Red label Tea had coupons on the packet for collecting cards and posters about aircraft. As I was very keen on aircraft and gallons of tea were drunk, I soon had enough coupons for all the items on offer. I still (2012) have the complete set of 50 cigarette card type photographs of aircraft!
Melbourne Street was a very happy street in which to grow up. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, looking out for the older members of the community, like Mum’s and my shopping trips to High Street, where I could be added to the other workhorses. During the Coronation Mrs Webb, our neighbour on the other side of the entrance to Hatherley Works, invited quite a number of us to watch the coronation on her television. There was quite a crowd of children and adults round her television set which had a screen size about nine or twelve inches and all in black and white!
Later on Coronation Day we had a great party in Hatherley Works canteen (this was before the fire) which lasted for quite a while and a great time was had by all. It was quite a change from the previous year’s austerity. The parties we had for other great events, V-E Day and V-J Day, were held in the street and we children sat at tables arranged along the street and the evening closed with a bonfire in the middle of the road!
Mrs Webb’s hospitality was again shown when she invited me to watch the Coronation Review of the Royal Air Force which was absolutely amazing. I had earlier become a cadet in the Air Training Corps (ATC). A short while after the review Russell Adams, the well-known Chief Photographer of Gloster Aircraft Company and who was an officer in the ATC, pinned on the ATC hut wall an air-to-air photograph he had taken while flying in a Meteor taking part in the review. I said to him how much I would like to have been there and he took the photograph down and gave it to me as a souvenir. I will never forget his kindness and I still have the photograph not only as a reminder of a great time but especially of a very kind gentleman.
Since leaving Melbourne Street, I have travelled the world both as a ship’s officer and as the editor of marine technical journals. These travels involved visiting 37 countries, and over 600 flights. I have many memories of journeys I have made and places I have stayed, but the memories of my life in Melbourne Street will always remain with me. A great place and great people.
Richard Allen, Dartford, Kent
9th May 2012