Geronimo (1829-1909) was a prominent Apache leader, active in trying to protect his tribe and their lands from American and Mexican incursion in the Apache Wars. For such a brave, it's odd that his name means 'one who yawns'. For British children, Geronimo became a popular figure through cinema and television. In the 1950s alone there were at least ten films on general release featuring him prominently.
The exclamation Geronimo! seems to have been first used by an American paratrooper Private Aubrey Eberhardt in August 1940, who carried out a promise to yell it when leaving the aircraft to prove he was not scared of the jump. The cry caught on. In 1941 the Army's first parachute battalion, the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB), incorporated the name Geronimo into its insignia. The cry was also incorporated into the song Down From Heaven by Lieutenant Colonel Byron Paige. Coverage of the paratroopers' exploits made the cry more generally known, and its use soon spread outside the military and air force.
In the old currency (before Britain turned to decimalisation in 1971) half a crown was a single coin worth two shillings and sixpence (one eighth of a pound, or twelve-and-a-half pence in new money). In the North East the coin was sometimes referred to as 'half a dollar'.
The other pre-decimal coins and notes current in the late 1950s were:
Halfpenny; in practice the smallest coin of legal tender. (Farthings, with a wren motif, were still technically legal tender until 1960, but were already a curiosity in the late 1950s and were virtually never spent in the shops.) Children frequently used halfpennies to buy ha'penny chews, or even two farthing chews.
The old penny, 1d. Known as a 'copper' for its colour and main metal. Around that time, bubble gum machines appeared outside some general dealers, offering a ball of bubble gum for a penny dropped in the slot. Twist a handle at the front, your penny disappeared, and a ball of gum dropped down into the collecting chute. If you were lucky, you might get a plastic lucky charm as well, or two bubble gums would fall through instead of one; if you were unlucky the door of the chute failed to hold the ball and it would drop down onto the ground at your feet.
Threepence, 3d. Usually referred to as a 'thrupenny bit' it was twelve-sided and made of a warm bronze-coloured nickel-brass, though it was still possible at that time to come across smaller silver threepenny pieces. The middle classes put these in Christmas plum duffs; the working class mothers of Ashington would wrap them (or other small coins) in greaseproof paper to put in the middle of scones laid out for children's birthday parties.
Sixpence, 6d. The equivalent of two-and-a-half-pence in new money, this small silver coin was colloquially referred to as a 'tanner'. Around this period the sixpence could purchase a big bag of chips, and people would often ask for a 'fish and six' at the chip shop. Brides would traditionally put a tanner into their left shoe on their wedding day.
Shilling, usually written as 1/-, and colloquially referred to as a 'bob'. As a fund-raising venture each year boy scouts and cubs would be busy with 'bob-a-job week', earning a shilling a time for doing small jobs and errands for their neighbours. (Or not so small; at the age of nine, the author was asked to weed a large garden for which he was paid one bob.)
Florin, 2/-. No-one in the 1950s ever called this coin a florin in everyday life; it was always known as either a two-shilling piece, or a two-bob bit.
Crown, 5/-. Theoretically still legal currency in the 1950s (the last one was minted in 1965) the crown was virtually unknown in everyday currency. These large coins were generally reserved for commemorative gifts, often presented in boxes. The author still has one he was given as a toddler for Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953.
Ten shillings, 10/-. A reddish-brown banknote, valued at half a pound, the equivalent of 50p in decimal currency. Usually known as a 'ten bob note'. It was withdrawn to be replaced by the 50p coin in 1969.
Pound, £1. The base unit of currency, available in the 1950s only as a note, and now available only as a coin in decimal currency. The pound was commonly called a 'quid' in the 1950s. Larger banknotes was also available in the 1950s, but it was rare for working people to see one larger than a five pound note.
So soon after the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) the practice of buying and displaying poppies was even more poignant than it is now.
World War I (1914-1918).
This a line drawing by Paul Goldsmith of the statue in the story Old Man Tate. (The drawing can be found in the book.) The statue was placed accurately in the story in the 'flower park' side of Hirst Park, Ashington, where it was erected in 1923. The plate underneath reads:
In memory of their fellow workmen who lost their lives in the Woodhorn Colliery explosion on Sunday, August 13th 1916.
There is a list of thirteen victims under the inscription.
The statue stayed in the park until 1991, when it was moved at the request of Bob Howard, son of one of the victims, to Woodhorn Colliery Museum, the site of the disaster. The statue was first located in the car park, then moved near to the pithead building.
The 'flower park' area of Hirst Park:
In the 1950s Northumberland children were unaware of 'trick-or-treating'. Their Halloween tradition was to scoop out a turnip, cut out a scary face and insert a lighted candle to scare off the witches. Occasionally there would be Halloween parties (usually organised at church halls by the Scout movement) when the kids would bob for apples, trying to catch apples in their teeth from where they were floating in a bowl of water.
For many years People's Park in Ashington had a bandstand near its south-west corner. The idea that a Black Monk lived there behind the shutters was a common rumour.
From the Ashington Advertiser Friday 23 October 1964
(reproduced by permission)
The “Black Monk” gets around fast
Is it mass hallucination or young people’s imagination? Whoever the ‘Black Monk’ is he must have transport – supernatural or petrol driven. Reports from schoolchildren of all ages, from infant to grammar school, all tally about the ‘Black Monk’, allegedly seen at Ashington, Blyth, North Seaton and Newcastle.
Parents of Ashington schoolchildren were all told the same tale by their offspring last week, with some embellishments.
A tall hooded figure, with cloak, in black, had been seen in the Hirst area, they alleged. Some have seen him carrying a shining axe, while others are reported to have seen him carrying a curved hook.
One girl was said to have been scratched on the face by the mysterious figure.
Even grammar school pupils from Newcastle report the same story, again with added dressings.
But Ashington police report that they have not received any complaints about the Black Monk. They know about the story, having children of their own, who reported the same tales.
“We have not received any complaints about this mystery man, but we are keeping a watch on the situation,” said an Ashington police spokesman at the weekend.
As the stories spread, children have added their own local flavour to the ‘tale from school’.
Fish hooks scratched a girl’s face, one story went; the figure disappears when a policeman is about; it becomes invisible and passes through walls; the black-cowled thing has staring eyes; the axe it carries has a blade of shining steel; it sometimes appears out of nowhere.
Two Blyth girls allege they have seen the figure, but young imaginations, coupled with darkening nights, can turn a tree into a wrinkled armed monster.
Another theory advanced is that schoolchildren start on projects of local history at this time of year, and old tales of haunted priories become a little too real to them.
Hallowe’en is also not very far away, and horror films are quite common today.
The only thing that is puzzling, is how the same tale was heard in two separate areas, 20 miles apart, on the same day?
Zorro, starring Guy Williams, was a favourite on children's TV between 1957 and 1959.
Zorro's theme, version by the Chordettes on Spotify. The Chordettes – Zorro Theme
And here is the opening of the original1950s TV show:
77 Sunset Strip was an American private eye show by Warner Bros that played on British TV from 1958 to 1964. The programme starred Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Stu Bailey, Roger Smith as Jeff Spencer and Edd Byrnes as the ultra-cool Gerald Lloyd Kookson III (Kookie). Set in Hollywood, the private eyes worked out of office 77 on Sunset Strip.
Listen to theme tune on Spotify. The TV Theme Players – 77 Sunset Strip .
Watch a clip featuring Kookie.
The Grand Corner in Ashington (so-called because it is situated at the corner of the town centre crossroads where the Grand Hotel has stood since around 1890) has been a meeting place for years, not least when the first hot dog stand appeared there in the late 1950s. For many, this was their first taste of American-style hot dogs.
The brick-built schools of the old days had buttresses jutting out. On cold days children would form a line against the wall and squeeze against the buttress chanting the rhyme, "Squashy in the corner, keep yourself warmer."
Watch the intro to the movie, featuring the haunting Ballad of High Noon (Do not forsake me, oh my darling), the theme tune sung by Tex Ritter.
Keystone Kops, created by Mack Sennett. Although these films were made between 1912 and 1917, they were still occasionally played on TV in the late 1950s.
Here's a quick burst of the Keystone Kops in action.
Here's Cliff and the Shadows singing and playing in the Expresso Bongo coffee bar. Cliff's on bongos.
The street kids of the 1950s would not buy pre-selected boxes of fireworks like these; they couldn't afford a box at a time, and anyway preferred to choose their own and buy them loose.
Jumping Jacks (generally called jumpy jacks in the North East) have always been among children's favourites because of their multiple bangs and their unpredictable trajectory, which becomes the focal point of this story.
Viv Nicholson won £152,319 on the football pools in 1961, and excitedly told the press she was going to 'spend, spend, spend'. She and her husband subsequently became tabloid fodder because of their extravagant lifestyle and high profile absurdities. Shortly after her husband Keith died in a car crash in 1965, Viv Nicholson was declared bankrupt. She continued to attract interest among the tabloids for her many marriages and her attempts to obtain money, including a spell performing Big Spender in a strip club. A 1976 book of her life story was dramatised as a BBC Play for Today production Spend Spend Spend and a musical with the same title enjoyed some success in London's West End in 1998. Barbara Dickson won the Olivier Award that year for her starring role in the show.
Enjoy some clips from the musical, and the surprise presentation of the Olivier Award to Barbara Dickson. (There are some passing shots of the older Viv Nicholson dancing too.)