Page 177. " Our side is mainly barbarian, bossed by Chinese burns and half nelsons. "

Public Domainfighting
Rough and tumble was the order of the day in the boys' playground. Chinese burns were painful twists of the skin around the arms; the half nelson was a wrestling lock where one hand is passed under one arm of the opponent and locked at the neck. Serious fights were rare - these always attracted crowds around the scrummage, creating a natural ring while the crowd shouted 'Fight!' 'Fight!', egging the boys on. The effect, though, would be to alert the teachers and real fights were quickly brought to a stop, with both boys getting 'six of the best' with the strap for their troubles.

Page 177. " The chatter is from the dozens and dozens of girls gathered in their twos and threes around the yard who all seem to have exciting news or secrets to tell each other. "
Girls' playground
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumGirls' playground - Credit: Gospel Oak School

Typically, in the junior schools of the 1950s, the boys and girls would be separated from each other. Some had separate schools, often adjoining, or at least separate yards for playtime and dinner breaks. The two yards were very different in character, as the author explains in this story. While the boys fought, played football and 'mount the cuddy' (a game that involves one line of boys bending down to make the back of the 'cuddy' or donkey for the other boys to jump on), the girls would skip, perform handstands against the wall and play 'baysie', a form of hopscotch.

Page 177. " I can see guards with white mugs patrolling both territories but on one side the lasses are forever fluttering in and around them like moths while on our side blocks of lads move away from the patrol like it's an icebreaker coming through. "

Teacher patrol the girls' yard
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumTeacher patrol the girls' yard - Credit: Gospel Oak School
Relations between the girls and the women teachers, though within strict bounds, was generally somewhat closer in the 1950s than those between the boys and their male teachers. This scene would not have no parallel in the boys' yard.

Page 178. " A woman teacher with butterfly glasses steps forward. "

Not a great fashion item, butterfly glasses spread their wings briefly in the late 1950s, probably a result of the appearance of Maggie Stredder, "the girl with the glasses" in ITV's popular music show of the time, Oh Boy! Maggie was part of the all-girl singing group, The Vernons Girls, originally a choir put together by Vernons football pools company, reduced in size to become backing singers for BBC TV's music show Six-Five Special, and later a girl group in their own right, varying between three and five singers. It was producer Jack Good who persuaded Maggie to leave her glasses on in front of the cameras as a gimmick. It worked; she is probably the only member of the group many people remember. 

Listen to The Vernons Girls singing Only You Can Do It.


Page 179. " the lasses are giggling and whispering to each other as they look sideways across our line, weighing us up I suppose. "

Weighing up the boys
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWeighing up the boys - Credit: Gospel Oak School
Boys and girls were made to practise country dances together to perform in the sports field at the Children's Gala. It was a rite of passage for some - the first time they had taken an interest in the opposite sex.

Page 179. " we're stepping and twirling through the EightsomeReel, the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant while Jimmy Shand and his Band wheeze out of the school gramophone. "
Country dancing
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumCountry dancing - Credit: Newcastle Library Service

The dances performed by the children at their Galas were usually some form of Scottish folk dancing, inevitably accompanied by the music of Jimmy Shand and his Band. The Fife-born Jimmy Shand (1908-2000) was a prolific recording artist even up to the age of 88, with more than 330 compositions accredited to him. In fact, he recorded more tracks during his time than Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined. He was also a known TV performer, along with other Scottish stars such as host Andy Stewart on the BBC programme The White Heather Club which ran on and off for ten years from 1958. This show has often been cited as an example of the worst of BBC television in its early years. Jimmy Shand wrote the theme tune for the programme, which was also for many years the BBC's entertainment offering on New Year's Eve (or Hogmanay, as Jimmy would have called it).

Page 181. " they're cutting paper dresses out for a little cardboard figure that's propped up on a stand between them. "

Career girls dolls
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumCareer girls dolls - Credit:
Glamour models doll
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumGlamour models doll - Credit:
These paper doll kits had been popular for many years - in fact, the first ones in boxed set form were produced in the early nineteenth century. In the late 1950s they were often themed - career girl, glamour girl, bridal for example - or were celebrity-branded and endorsed (there were several Doris Day kits, for instance). One or two were available for boys (cowboys, cartoon characters) but they were overwhelmingly aimed at girls. Sometimes paper dolls were offered as promotional items in girls' magazines and comics, with the clothes ready to cut out from sheets in the publication.

Page 182. " I hear the chimes of the ice cream van coming along the road. "
Perselli's ice cream van, 1950s
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumPerselli's ice cream van, 1950s - Credit: Tony Rea
Carlo's ice cream van 1950s
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumCarlo's ice cream van 1950s - Credit: Tony Rea

Walls started the business of selling ice cream on British streets, originally from specially-adapted tricycles with containers on the front. A few of these were still operating in the late 1950s, but they were steadily being replaced by the motorised ice-cream vans. Ice cream selling became associated with the Italian population from the 1940s, so much so that non-Italian makers and sellers sometimes adopted Italian names for their business, knowing that the public trusted the quality of 'Italian' ice cream. British ice cream vans had (and have) music-box style chimes to announce their presence in the street, the most common in the Fifties being 'Greensleeves'.

Mr Softee (Conehead) badge
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMr Softee (Conehead) badge - Credit: Leo Reynolds


A new phenomenon in the late 1950s was 'soft' ice cream, which was introduced into Britain from the USA through the entrepreneurship of a North East company. The MD of Smith's Delivery Vehicles was on a sales trip to the USA when he saw the new Mister Softee mobile ice cream operation. He saw an opportunity to increase vehicle production at his  Gateshead factory, effected the introductions to his ice cream supplier Lyons, and Mr Softee (UK) Ltd was launched in 1959. Mr Whippy came along as a soft ice cream competitor in 1962.

Page 183. " we've even got a brass band heading the parade and I'm swinging Judith's arm to the beat. "
Brass Band leads the parade, 1955
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBrass Band leads the parade, 1955 - Credit: David Williams

Many towns in the North of England and Scotland held an annual Children's Gala Day, with a parade to the park followed by sports, games, dances and exhibitions. A brass band would often head the parade. (In the accompanying picture, which is actually taken from a Miners' Picnic parade in 1955, the author's father Ellis Williams is in the front row of the band playing the E flat bass.) Each school would march its pupils to join the ever-growing parade to the park gates, where every child would be presented with half-a-crown, a present from the workers of the town, collected by subscription. In earlier days, children were presented with fruit at the gates, a welcome gift in poorly-nourished days.




This rare footage of a Children's Gala parade comes from Dunfermline in 1952.

The following account from Ashington's local paper describes the Gala that is featured in the story A Merry Dance. An interesting footnote is that the MP mentioned respectfully in the article, Will Owen, was disgraced in the 1970s and had to resign his seat. He was branded as a Soviet spy when it was discovered that he had been in the pay of the Czech intelligence service for two decades.

From the Ashington Advertiser Friday 26 June 1959

(reproduced by permission)

Children enjoy 59th Gala at Ashington

The 59th Annual Ashington Children’s Gala was held last Saturday in the Hirst Welfare Sports Ground. Over 6,600 local children took part and the cash gift of 2/6 was distributed at the entrances, cash being the modern equivalent of the memorable penny, bun, apple, orange and sweets.

Children from Ashington’s seven schools marched to the sports ground headed by Lynemouth and Newbiggin Colliery Band, Woodhorn Colliery Band, North Seaton Colliery Band, Ellington Colliery Band and the Salvation Army Band.

In the ground, Woodhorn Band played selections before the commencement of the children’s programme, when the various schools gave an exhibition of dancing, a recorder band recital, and a massed singing demonstration.

While most parents watched their children competing in the various sports, others examined the exhibition of arts and crafts, by the schoolchildren, which was displayed in Hirst Welfare Gymnasium. The exhibits in the display were of a very high standard, several of them earning high praise from the visiting public. At the close of the exhibition, the cookery exhibits were auctioned.

Among the many well known personalities who attended the Gala was Mr. Will Owen, M.P. who marched down to the Welfare Ground with St. Aidan’s schoolchildren, visited the exhibition and then walked round the field watching children competing and chatting to the parents.

The weather was fine, but a blustery wind blew in from the sea, creating flurries of dust which did nothing to dampen the high spirits of the children of Ashington as they were determined to enjoy themselves on this, their particular day.

Page 183. " the man with the megaphone gets everybody organised for stagecoach races, egg-in-spoon races and what he calls 'foot running', which as far as I can tell is the same as ordinary running. "

Sack race
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumSack race - Credit: Derek Tait
Basket race
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBasket race - Credit: Derek Tait
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book Drum"Foot running" - Credit: Derek Tait
Wheelbarrow race
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWheelbarrow race - Credit: Derek Tait

Unlike the traditional school sports days, the Children's Gala days offered sports events that were a bit less serious. The children had fun, but were still desperate to win.

Page 184. " Her mam reminds me of the woman on the cover of the Littlewoods catalogue "

Littlewoods catalogue 1952
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumLittlewoods catalogue 1952 - Credit:
The Littlewoods catalogue introduced home shopping to Britain in the early 1930s. Although the concept was fairly well-established by the 1950s, the beginning of the decade was still a period of post-war austerity. By the end of the decade however, with greater affluence and more security of employment, spending was up and women in particular were seeing a great improvement in their quality of life through the introduction of labour saving devices such as vacuum cleaners and electric twin-tub washing machines into the home. Often these would be purchased through the catalogues on the instalment plan. The images on the catalogue fuelled working-class aspirations for a more comfortable, up-to-date lifestyle. 

Littlewoods catalogue 1960
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumLittlewoods catalogue 1960 - Credit:
The boy in the story sees Judith's mother as fashionable and even glamorous - hence the reference to "the woman on the cover of the Littlewoods catalogue", an enviable role model for the young working mother.    

Page 186. " My tooth's come out, Mam. Can I put it under my pillow to get sixpence? "

Britain has a long-established tooth fairy tradition whereby children who lose their baby teeth (milk teeth) hide them under the pillow at night for the tooth fairy to find and take away in return for a small sum of money. According to the legend, the fairy uses the teeth she gathers in the building of a new castle.

The mention of it here is appropriate as the story is partly a rite of passage tale. Fitting too that the boy's sister combines one tradition with another when she examines the gap in his teeth and asks, to his embarrassment, "Who's been kissing the girls?" This is a reference to a Northern England legend/joke that kissing the girls causes you to lose your baby teeth. 


Page 189. " While our friends went off to Butlins or Blackpool, or at the very least on day trips to Whitley Bay or Saltwell Park, the two of us were left facing the big dig. "

The boy's complaint here is that the brothers had to dig the overgrown back garden while their friends went off to holiday destinations.

Butlins was the holiday of choice for British working class families who could afford it. the favoured camps for North East families were Ayr, Filey and Skegness.

Here's a Butlins TV ad from the period.

Blackpool, with its Pleasure Beach, Tower and celebrity entertainment was another favourite of the time. These three short period clips show respectively the joys to be had on the beach, at the promenade shows and at the fairground, where the Big Dipper was a popular ride.





Here is a short piece of North East TV that shows Whitley Bay at this period.

Like Newbiggin-by-Sea in the story, Whitley Bay could at that time (before Dr Beeching's savage cuts) be accessed by railway, the trains arriving at Monkseaton Station, just a short walk from Spanish City and the promenade. As well as being popular with the locals as a day trip destination, Whitley Bay was a holiday resort especially for working class families in Scotland, who came in their droves during what was known as the 'Scottish fortnight'.

Whitley Bay showing St Mary's Lighthouse
Creative Commons AttributionWhitley Bay showing St Mary's Lighthouse - Credit:

The Spanish City, now demolished except for its (restored) famous dome over the Empress Ballroom, was a permanent fairground near the promenade at Whitley Bay. It was made even more famous by Mark Knopfler when he wrote the Dire Straits 1980 song 'Tunnel of Love'. The song is set partly in the Spanish City:

Girl it looks so pretty to me

The Spanish City
Creative Commons AttributionThe Spanish City - Credit: Andrew Curtis

Like it always did

Like The Spanish City to me

When we were kids.

Whitley Bay is also mentioned in the song:

Rockaway rockaway

From Cullercoats and Whitley Bay

Out to rockaway

Here is a lovely glimpse of the Spanish City in its heyday.

Listen to Tunnel of Love on Spotify. 

Saltwell Park
Creative Commons AttributionSaltwell Park - Credit:

Another local destination, for day trips and Sunday School trips, was Saltwell Park in Gateshead. As well as the play areas and boating lake there was a museum with Victorian-style shop fronts, Victorian paraphernalia and an aviary. At the centre of the park was (and is) Saltwell Towers, the former home of Victorian industrialist William Wailes who once owned the estate. 


Page 191. " let's get the train to Newbiggin. "
Ashington railway station
Public DomainAshington railway station
It used to be possible for passengers to travel by rail from Ashington, not only east to Newbiggin-by-Sea, but south to stations such as Bedlington, Blyth and Monkseaton, terminating at Newcastle Central Station. Ashington Railway Station was situated near the Council Chambers at Station Road, below what is now known as Wansbeck Square. The line was closed to passengers in November 1964 as a result of draconian cuts to the UK rail network by the Conservative Minister of Transport Dr Richard Beeching.  More than 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations closed in the decade following Beeching's 1955 report on reducing the cost of rail transport to the government purse; this was a reduction of 25 per cent of route miles and 50 per cent of stations.

Train crossing over River Wansbeck
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumTrain crossing over River Wansbeck - Credit: Graham Galbraith
Ashington train
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumAshington train - Credit: John Brierley

Page 191. " we climb up to poke our faces over the side of the railway bridge and catch the steam off a coal train coming through. "
Steam train 2 (500 * 360)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumSteam train - Credit: Pete

Although the passenger train the boys travel on to Newbiggin-by-Sea would be a new diesel engine at the time of the story, there were still plenty of steam trains carrying coal from Ellington, Lynemouth and Ashington to the power station at Cambois and other destinations.

Ashington railway complex
Creative Commons AttributionAshington railway complex - Credit: Roger Cornforth

Page 192. " On the platform there's a machine that lets you print your name onto a strip of aluminium, threepence for up to ten letters. "
Name printing on a metal strip
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeName printing on a metal strip - Credit: Douglas Bryce

Platform ticket dispenser, North Eastern Railways
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumPlatform ticket dispenser, North Eastern Railways - Credit: Streetlife Museum: Hull Museums
Were these name printing machines still around by the time British currency was decimalised in the early 1970s? - perhaps this example pictured at York Railway Museum may have been adapted for the museum's commercial use, hence the 10p price tag. It's otherwise exactly like the one the boy uses in the story.

Most of these machines were made for the railways by the British Automatic Company, who also made platform ticket dispensers. In those days, if you were visiting the station but did not intend to travel (train spotting for example, or even just seeing someone off) you had to purchase a platform ticket which normally cost 1d or 2d.


Page 193. " He takes us the long way round to the prom past Bertorelli's where the penny arcade is. "
Bertorelli's cafe, Newbiggin by Sea (225 * 113)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBertorelli's cafe, Newbiggin by Sea - Credit: ian56

Bertorelli's ice cream was first sold in England from a family shop in Covent Garden, and was said to be a great favourite of Queen Victoria's. In the 1930s a young member of the family, Benjamin Bertorelli, came north with his wife Rosie and developed the Riviera Café (popularly known as Bertorelli's) from a group of cottages that overlooked Newbiggin Bay. He sold ice cream from the family recipe handed down through the generations and coffee from a blend he created himself. The café was eventually taken over by his son, Armando, who kept it just the way it was in his father's day. Bertorelli's ice cream was also sold from a handcart on the beach and around the town and later from insulated pedal carts, then motorised carts.

Customers flocked to the café, not just for the ice cream and coffee but for the attraction of slot machines in the penny arcade built inside the café. In the late 1950s the games included a circular race track where you could bet with your penny on one of the wooden horses ridden by jockeys with famous names like Lester Piggot, Michael Scudamore and Scobie Breasley. Other slot machines included the Laughing Sailor (see below), the Crane, Steer-a-Ball, fortune-tellling machines and various peep shows where the customer turned a handle to get the impression of a moving picture show with slightly saucy scenes - most famously, What the Butler Saw. There were various wall-mounted machines where, with the flick of a lever, the player would send a metal ball spinning round concentric circles  before dropping it into one of the win-lose holes that might deliver a penny or two or, in the case of one machine, a prize of a single cigarette.
Here's the somewhat scary (and rather tedious) Laughing Sailor in action.
The newest machines of the time were the electro-mechanical games, which offered flashing lights and stop-button electro-technology. With most of these games the idea was either to hit or release a button to stop the lights on a winning number. One of these machines in Bertorelli's was called the Roto-Fruit; the player tried to release the button to stop the lights at one of the winning combinations of fruit. Below is a video demonstration of the Roto-Fruit.
Page 193. " There's the shuggy boats, look. Should we have a ride before we go in the sea? "
Swing boats (shuggies)
Creative Commons AttributionSwing boats (shuggies) - Credit: crunchcandy

Shuggy boats was the Northumbrian name for swing boats, amusement rides for two people that depended on each rider pulling a rope alternately to swing each other. There was a set of shuggy boats on the beach below the quay wall in Newbiggin, just as there was on most popular beaches at the time.

Page 193. " I catch a picture of the sea with people plodging all along the shoreline, a few deeper in to swim, the pleasure boat out in the waves, and a glimpse of Blyth in the far distance. "
Newbiggin Bay from the east
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumNewbiggin Bay from the east - Credit: Jason Thompson
Newbiggin Bay from the south west
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumNewbiggin Bay from the south west - Credit: Jason Thompson
Here's a couple of period picture postcards of Newbiggin Bay, different viewpoints.
Page 193. " we park ourselves in the sand below the middle shelter "
Newbiggin promenade and beach at the middle shelter
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumNewbiggin promenade and beach at the middle shelter - Credit: Jason Thompson

When Newbiggin beach was a popular destination, the sands below the middle shelter always seemed to be filled up first, partly because it was near to the steps leading from the railway station, partly because of the shelter offered nearby in case of rain or while dusting the sand off before leaving, and partly because the shelter was a useful landmark when the beach was crowded. (See also the photograph of the author's extended family, taken at the sands below the middle shelter. bookmark p.3.)

On the beach
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumOn the beach - Credit: Paula Williams

Page 194. " It's freezing! "

The North Sea was bracing even in the warmest of summers. This picture shows the author, his brother and a cousin shivering on the sands.

Freezing at Newbiggin beach
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumFreezing at Newbiggin beach - Credit: David Williams


Page 194. " we spend our time looking in rock pools for crabs and starfish, picking up slimy seaweed to burst the bubbles as we go. "
Seaweed on rocks
Creative Commons AttributionSeaweed on rocks - Credit: cyanocorax

The rocks at Newbiggin-by-Sea were a rewarding if sometimes dangerous place to explore. Despite warnings that the shellfish may be contaminated, many people roamed the rocks to collect a form of whelk ('wiliks' they were called locally) which would be taken home, boiled and eaten with a pin. Wiliks had the consistency of thick mucus. 

Page 198. " Malcolm throws his soaking wet shirt over his bare shoulder and leads the way to the railway station like a Boy's Own hero "

The Boy's Own Paper was a British story publication aimed at boys which was published from 1879 to 1967. It was first conceived as a way of inspiring young boys to lead a Christian life. While this objective receded into the background, the paper was always somewhat moralistic and worthy - it seemed at times almost like a companion to the Boy Scout movement with its emphasis on a clean, healthy and hearty lifestyle. Its staple content was adventure stories, mixed with 'how to' articles on such activities as lighting a camp fire, and features on hobbies such as stamp collecting and keeping pets. Many well-known names wrote for the publication over the years, including Arthur Conan Doyle, RM Ballantyne and the cricketer WG Grace.

The paper was still popular in the 1950s. The air hero Biggles was featured. As well as the short stories there were serials which in the Fifties included  'Jackals of the Sea' by Arthur Catherall and 'Majorca Moon' by Jack Cox, the editor of BOP during this period. Ronald English was the cycling expert, and George Graham wrote about astronomy. In addition to the BOP there was a Boy's Own Companion, a sort of handbook for the adventurous and curious, published annually.

In British popular culture even today the phrase Boy's Own stuff is used to describe daring or improbable ventures, while a person performing adventurous feats would be a Boy's Own hero; hence the expression used in this story.

Boy's Own Paper, October 1953
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBoy's Own Paper, October 1953 - Credit: Jim MacKenzie
Boy's Own Paper, November 1955
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBoy's Own Paper, November 1955 - Credit: Jim MacKenzie
Boy's Own Paper, December 1956
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBoy's Own Paper, December 1956 - Credit: Jim MacKenzie
Page 198. " halfway through an Orange Maid "
Lyons Maid ice cream van
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeLyons Maid ice cream van - Credit: Gizurr

Orange Maid, 'the drink on a stick', was one of the brands produced by Lyons Maid, close competitor to Walls among the leading UK ice cream companies.Lyons Maid was bought up and absorbed by Nestlé in 1992.

Orange Maid 1950s trade ad
Creative Commons AttributionOrange Maid 1950s trade ad - Credit: phantom of the flicks