I was still living at 33 Villiers Avenue when I started Villiers Primary School at the age of five. All I can recall about my first day is that I was dressed in a new grey suit, which I had strict instructions not to damage. I couldn't get into the classroom because one other new recruit was hanging on to the door handle, while his mother desperately tried to pull him away from it. He was also bawling and screaming, but the place didn't look too bad to me. I had spotted the rocking horse in the corner.
I had no problems learning to read - I had been used to books and enjoyed stories and poems thanks to my mother who was fond of literature. School was tolerable, and the reception teacher, Mrs Farnell was fair and cheerful, except when she slapped my backside while I was kneeling on my chair talking to the boy behind me. The playground was not so good at first; I took my mother's instructions not to damage my clothes very seriously, so spent a lot of time standing by a wall looking in from the sidelines as it were, while the more boisterous boys slid on the ice, threw snowballs, played tag or marbles or conkers depending on the current craze or the season. It was not too long before I began to feel more confident about joining in, especially after I began to play with Steve Gordos, who became my almost constant companion until well into my teens.
Steve and I did not start off too well. For some reason or other we were encouraged to fight each other outside the school gate by some older boys. Very little happened and we became great friends. But more of that later. In the infants I suppose I got into the usual scrapes; going home in the wrong shoes, talking in class, losing things, wandering off after school, getting my clothes torn and dirty etc. but nothing too dramatic.
Miss Carding's class. about 1951/2. I am at the back, third from the left.
I remember really very little about my days in infants' school, but life changed considerably when we moved house. My father's employer, his uncle F.W.Collins the Funeral Director, owned a row of terraced houses adjacent to his office in Wellington Rd. Bilston. F.W. lived opposite in a large house called Tynedale. When he moved out to Albrighton, one of his Managers, Norris Jones moved from one of the terraced houses into Tynedale. The vacant house was now ours to rent! This was 58, Wellington Rd. where I spent the rest of my childhood and all of my adolescence. Sadly, the house exists now only in photographs and memories, but there are many of the latter.
To get from 58 to school I had to cross the busy (well, it seemed busy then!) Wellington Rd, and this meant my mother seeing me safely across and then looking out for when I was due back, at least until I was deemed capable of crossing this road on my own.
Bilston was a far different place in those days. Children were on the whole safe to roam, and roam we did! Prouds Lane had an open field, there were the disused Golf Links, the wooded grounds of the old "Fever" Hospital by Villiers School, open land near Stowheath Lane, in fact plenty of places for young minds to explore. When not at school I spent most of my spare time with Steve, usually at his house, which was bigger than ours and anyway he had plenty of toys!
Aged about 6, with cousin Jean and an unknown elderly gentleman in Beatties, Wolverhampton.
At this time I was deeply into stories of Robin Hood. The Jones' family had left old books and various other fascinating junk in the attic at 58, including their son Gilbert's wide brimmed scout hat! One of the books was the illustrated stories of Robin Hood, and I couldn't put it down. Mum bought me a "Robin Hood Set" from an advert in the paper; I had a bow and arrows, green hat and jacket, and a quiver for the arrows to go in. It was very convenient that mum herself had a green two piece suit, so that she could play as an outlaw with me. And when she became pregnant her role changed to that of Friar Tuck.
On October 15th 1952 my little sister was born. My mum and dad had prepared me well for her arrival; I had even been allowed to choose her name. Denise. Contrary to common belief this had nothing to do with a similarly named character in a popular comic who was known as "Dennis the Menace" although on reflection it would not have been a bad idea. Anyway, our little family had now increased to four, and my father gave me strict instructions to look after my little sister. I have been doing so ever since.
Denise Hawkins in her pram at 58 Wellington Rd. Note the evil glare in her eyes and the almost total lack of hair. She wore a wig until she was 35.
Having a little sister was a novelty at first, but I soon discovered it had it's drawbacks. One of my responsibilities was to rock her to sleep in her pram, and then when she was in the land of nod I could go out to play with my friends. On one occasion she refused to sleep, and I grew increasingly frustrated. My efforts at rocking the pram were proving unsuccessful, so I decided more vigour was required. I rocked it so hard that the thing tipped over, with the handle in the air and the hood on the ground. Denise was surprisingly quiet, but I dashed off to find mother, fearing for my own hide as well as Denise's well being. Mother was calm and unruffled and simply righted the pram, saw that Denise was all right and said I could go out to play! I made my escape to Steve's house, and strangley enough I don't remember having to rock the pram again. I don't think that Denise suffered any long term consequences.
We did not have a television for a while, but Steve did and so did my Grandparents at 94 Prouds Lane. At Steve's I sometimes watched the Cisco Kid and the Range Rider, good old fashioned Westerns, but at my grandparents I remember Muffin the Mule, and going to watch television on special occasions. Newcastle United won the FA cup one year, and because mum (like myself!) was a Geordie, we watched the match with my Uncles and Grandparents. The most important occasion however was the Coronation in 1953, when the whole family gathered dressed in their Sunday best to watch this auspicious occasion. There was a party atmosphere, and everyone was present, and on their best behaviour.
Coronation Day, June 1953. back Row, L to R; Grandad Hawkins with cousin Linda Crowther, Nana Hawkins with Denise, cousin Colin Piper. Front Row. L to R; cousin Anne Porter, me, cousin Geoffrey Crowther, and cousin Jean Piper. Sadly Geoffrey and Colin are no longer with us.
Living at 58 gave me a new hobby. At the bottom of the garden was a fence which separated us from the railway embankment. The garden actually extended further, but the fence was to keep us away from the railway. However it was easily climbed over, and together with any other lads who were interested we would pass the time train spotting. These days this would probably mean daubing them with paint, but then it was simply a case of underlining the numbers of the locomotives that we saw in Ian Allens trainspotters book. This opened a world of steam trains to me; those named after Castles, Kings, Dukes etc etc. to those with simply a number; goods trains and expresses, saddle tankers and heaven knows what else. It was harmless fun, but it was more than that; the names and destinations conjured visions of unknown places and unknown people, things to find out about and explore; it expanded our world and left us wanting to know more.
Another hobby of course was football. As we grew older Steve and I would sometimes go to Molineux together to watch the Wolves play. Steve and his dad had season tickets, and occasionally we would use them to go to reserve matches if his dad did not want to go. For first team matches I would go with my dad, and stand on a brick or a box so that I could see. There was no crowd trouble then, just the pleasure of the game and an acceptance of the result. Crisps and Bovril at half time were a treat on a cold day, and after the game we would take Mr. Collins (who had a season ticket for the stand) back home to Albrighton, where we would listen to the other football results on the radio before going home for tea. Lucy, the maid, would give us tea as well, so we were well fed on a Saturday afternoon.
Steve and I were not great football players, but we did discover table top football, and Subbuteo was the order of the day. I dread to imagine how many hours of our childhood, and indeed early teen years were spent playing this game. We were highly organised; we had teams in most of the colours of the teams in the First Division; we organised a cup competition (the Ghawkinsos Cup!) and spent hours playing all the different rounds through to the semi finals and final. Finals day was a grand affair; there was the cup itself of course, but also miniature certificates for all the players, both winners and losers. The names on those certificates were the names of the actual players in the real teams replicated on the table top. Steve would record a commentary of the games on his tape recorder; an early indication of his later very successful career as a sports journalist.
The Ghawkinsos cup today, looking rather tatty, plus my remaining subbutteo players, the ball from the last "cup final" we played, and one of Steve's hand written certificates for the "players!"
Steve and I, aged about nine, in the garden at 58 Wellington Rd. He looks rather glum and I look rather quizzical. It must have been something about the photographer, who I assume was my mother (perhaps she had forgotten to put her teeth in)
However, back to my little sister, who was by now growing up. I seem to have had a considerable influence on her life in those early days. She seemed to prefer playing at boys games rather than girly things. This was probably due to the fact that I made her play boys games; after all if I was to look after her as my father had said, it might as well have been on my terms! Anyway, she became what was known as a "tomboy" particularly before she started school. (At school she came under the dubious influence of one Hilary Harper, but more about her later!)
Actually Denise was quite good at boys games, and made an excellent Davy Crocket, Will Scarlet, Ciisco Kid and target for my spud gun. (If you don't know what a spud gun is, go to a museum of childhood) She was good fun, and I was allowed to use her doll's house as a billet for my toy soldiers, and as a setting for their attempts at urban warfare.
Denise dressed as Davy Crocket. The fur hat was made from a pair of mother's old gloves, and the knife was the remains of a wooden sword that father made for my games as Robin Hood. Quite why Davy Crocket is carrying a replica of a German Officer's Luger pistol I really can't remember.
It was at about this time that my mother began to refer to me as a "rake." This had nothing to do with the interest I took in the garden (I began to grow flowers from seeds; Night Scented stocks, Lobelia, Sweet Williams etc etc) but more to do with my wanderlust. I was happiest going off for long walks, exploring the area. One of my favourite expeditions was to walk to the canal bridge in Coseley Road, where, if you were lucky, you might see a horse drawn canal barge. Sometimes I would wander to the railway sidings near Monmore Green, where on one occasion a rather close inspection of a goods truck resulted in being chased off by a railway worker. Since I was inspecting the truck from the inside, he was none too pleased. However, I did learn that I could run rather quickly. Steve and I also had to run rather quickly on another occasion, when having boarded a bus to steal some used tickets from the waste bin, the bus began to pull away. We hastily jumped off with the conductors angry cries ringing in our ears. We decided that playing at buses was not an interesting game after all.
On another occasion I was put into a new clean shirt because I was going somewhere with mother during the afternoon. I asked if i could go to Steve's in the morning, and was told I could as long as I kept myself clean and tidy. I agreed of course, fully intending to keep my promise. Steve and I ended up playing in the woods which surrounded the old "Fever" hospital in Mountford Lane. After struggling through the undergrowth we eventually came across the ruined buiding. It had been a children's hospital, and we could see abandoned toys among the dereliction. It was then that Steve announced that he thought he could smell the fever. We beat a rather hasty and undignified retreat back to his house, hoping that we weren't infected. It was then that I noticed the green stains on my shirt, and thought with horror of the consequences! But desperate times mean desperate measures, and I suddenly had an inspirational idea! I took off the shirt and put it back on inside out. If I put on a jumper mother would never notice. We played for a while and then it was time to go home, the dirty shirt completely forgotten. I had hardly walked through the door when mother looked at me and said " You are a silly lad - you've put your new shirt on inside out - I can see the label at the back of your neck!"
My wanderings began to involve Denise when she was old enough to walk. She was about three when I decided that she might like to walk to Sedgley Beacon. This was about three miles away, and somehow we got there and back safely. I remember giving her a lift on my back at times, especially coming up Coseley Road on the return journey. She seemed to enjoy the experience, but then she had little choice I suppose. No wonder that she took to horse riding in later years!
Life was not so complicated in those days. Children were free (within reason) to explore their neighbourhoods, the parks and ornamental gardens, the open fields like the old golf course in Bilston, or the ground between Stowlawn and Stowheath Lane, the "Forest" in Mountford Lane, the temporarily abandoned playing fields in Prouds Lane. They were the days of making "camps" in the long grass, playing "tin can o'lurky" in the street. The latter was a game which could last all day. An empty tin was placed on the ground, and the person "on it" would stand behind the tin while one of the others kicked it as far down the road as possible: over a wall or fence was ideal. The poor soul who was "on it" had to retrieve the tin and replace it and then pursue the others until they were ticked. They then stood in a group beside the tin. If an unticked participant could kick the tin away, then those ticked were freed and could re-join the game! For anyone without a penchant for tactics, it was exhausting!
I left Villiers Primary School in 1956, having against all expectations managed to pass the Eleven Plus to enter the Grammar School. Steve had already left before the end of the Summer term to start at Tettenhall College, a private school for the sons of Gentlefolk. I also left before the end of term, to go on holiday in a caravan in North Wales. We hadn't been on a proper holiday for some time, at least not since our last visit to Northumberland in about 1950. We had been there since then, to attend my grandfather's funeral, which was before Denise arrived, but it was hardly a holiday. Our holidays had been day trips to Rhyl in a car borrowed from the Funeral Directors. But now we were going for a fortnight. One of father's work colleagues had a half share in a caravan at Llandulas, and this is where we were headed.
On the beach at Rhyl on one of our day trips. Denise is carrying a bucket (she always had a weak bladder) and is trying to escape. Mother is trying to look cheerful and I am pretending to have the sun in my eyes.
The same day at Rhyl. I am tied to the railings for having offensive legs and a tie, while Mother and Denise look anxiously for somewhere to empty the bucket.
The first holiday at Llandulas was one of several over the next few years. I was about sixteen or seventeen when we last went together as a family, after a gap of two or three years. It was another magical place to explore for a young boy. There was a pebbly beach (no sand until the tide went out), a river which disappeared into the pebbles and which contained fish and water rats, a nearby village, hills just a stone's throw away, and best of all, a cave!
On two occasions the car that Father borowed from his Funeral Director employer was a limousine, admittedly an old one. However, it meant we travelled in style, and was particularly useful when for two years running we teamed up with a nice family from the Manchester area. I cannot remember their names, but we all got along well together and there was room in the limo for the four adults and four children. We got as far as Llandudno and picnicked on the Great Orme, we visited Conway Castle and Colwyn Bay. popped into Rhyl and explored Gwrych Castle. But most of the time we stayed on the caravan site, playing cricket in the field or going to the beach for a swim. At least Father had a swim, he was the only one in our family who could, and not very well at that. Once, when we were together in the sea and he was teaching me to drown, he said something about wondering how far he could swim. What with the noise of the waves, and water in my ears, I misheard something he said. I thought he wanted me to walk alongside him as he swam, probably for safety. Not that I could have done anything if he sank, but I guessed that he didn't want to get out of his depth. So off he set away from me, with me walking slowly behind him. After about seven or eight minutes of puffing and gasping, changing from breast stroke to side stroke, he stood up,coughing and wheezing and absolutely exhausted. Proudly I stood beside him having accomplished my allotted task. He took one look at me and his jaw dropped; he looked at the beach and the direction from which he had struggled through the water, and went as ballistic as his lack of breath would permit. Foam and sea water spurted from his mouth to accompany the stream of abuse I suffered. I felt somewhat hurt that my efforts were not appreciated, but when the exhausted tirade was over, I gleaned that he had actually wanted me to stand still and act as a marker so he could see how far he could swim. I retreated to the safety of the beach before he had the energy to start another storm. We did not go in the sea the following day!
Sitting on the running boards of our limousine! I am in disguise on account of being wanted by the North Wales Police for squirting a water pistol through the car window at one of their Officers. Not to be outdone Denise is wearing a funny hat. Strangely we are accompanied by two quite normal children whose names I have forgotten
I suppose that at this point I really ought to make mention of the family pets, since in many ways they played an important part im my childhood and adolescence. The first pet that I can recall was a brown mongrel dog called Rex, with whom I used to have boxing matches up until about the age of three (me, not the dog.) I can recall the poor creature standing on his hind legs with his paws on my shoulders, and what a patient and lovely natured dog he was. I can't remember what became of him, except that he disappeared from my life. He was replaced after a few months by a black and white mongrel called Mickey. My Aunt Nell took ownership of his brother, who they called Jimmy. Mickey was another lovely dog, and came with us when we moved to 58, but after a few weeks he escaped and presumably headed back to Villiers Avenue. Despite father doing much searching, he was never seen again.
One day at the Grammar School a fellow pupil was overheard saying that his corgi had had puppies, and that they were for sale. I persuaded my parents that having another dog would be a good idea. Denise needed no persuasion, and so for her began a lifetime of owning corgi dogs. However, we collected our cross corgi bitch puppy (it was a cross between a Pembroke and a Cardigan corgi) and it was so lovely we named her Beauty. She grew into a gorgeous dog, and was very protective especially of Denise. One Sunday morning the two of us took her for a walk into Bilston town, and we were looking into Cotterill's toy shop window when a drunk lurched by. As he staggered into Denise, Beauty got him by the ankle, refusing to let go. Eventually we persuaded her that he wouldn't taste too good if the smell was anything to go by, so she reluctantly released him and he staggered, cursing,on his way.
Sadly, Beauty did not live very long. She developed fits on a holiday to the Llandulas caravan, and went blind. Father and I took her to a vet in Rhyl and she was put down. We were devastated.
Denise and Beauty on the fateful holiday. The day after we lost the poor dog Den developed measles and we had to go home.
The next dog we had did not fare much better. Brandy was a male corgi puppy which we bought from a breeder. In no time at all he developed Distemper and then convulsions. The vet who put him down said he must have been infected when we bought him.
Before another dog arrived Denise had a white mouse, which she named Ferdinand. I kept telling her not to lose him because a Ferdinand was worth two in a bush.
And the next dog? Another corgi who lived to a good age. Mandy was a lovely character who got rather weighty in her old age. She must have reached at least thirteen or fourteen years of age because I was in my mid twenties when she was eventually put down, having lost the use of her legs.
The only other pet I can recall was a budgie which father caught after he found it flying around the funeral directors yard. After unsuccessfully attempting to find the owner he brought it home and it became ours for several years until it literally dropped off its perch. I am ashamed to say it gave me much amusement when I occasionally threw paper darts at it which stuck in the bars of its cage. It actually seemed to enjoy pecking at them afterwards.
To finish this section I must mention decorating. At 58 Wellington Rd Denise and I were introduced to the Laurel and Hardy School of House Decoration. Painting was not a problem, but when father decided to do some paper hanging then we both shook with fear and trepidation. This was because we were always pressed ganged into being his assistant. Mixing paste was fairly straightforward, as was wiping down the decorating table when the paper had been pasted and applied to the wall; it was the latter activity that was the problem. Father had his own particular ritual to get through when hanging paper. Clutching one end of the length of well pasted wall paper he would mount the step ladder and attempt to manipulate the top of the paper into position. Either Denise or myself would have to hold the bottom of the paper, and we could never do it properly. "Your holding it too close to the wall" would come the message from the top of the steps. " Now you're pulling it off" would follow after you had adjusted the position of the paper by a quarter of an inch. "It's too far to the left - no put it back a bit - your pulling it off again!" This would go on until the paper was eventually stuck to the walll, at which point father would descend the steps to examine his handiwork, while we retreated to the far side of the decorating table and busied ourselves in wiping it clear of surplus paste. Father would then announce in well chosen words that the whole thing looked a mess, and that there were bubbles and creases that somehow had conspired to add to the overall effect; he would then leap up and down and tear the offending strip of wallpaper from the wall, squash it up into a ball, throw it on the floor and jump up and down on it. At last, eventually exhausted by his exertions, he would calmly cut another piece, paste it and apply it to the wall without further trouble or strife. The rest of the room would be decorated like clockwork!