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.
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.
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).
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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
Like it always did
Like The Spanish City to me
When we were kids.
Whitley Bay is also mentioned in the song:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.