By Jill Bryant
We moved to Tewkesbury when I was eight. Daddy decided that as well as being a rep for Hadrian Paints & Synflat he and Mummy could run a shop. He rented a shop with accommodation at 77 Barton Street in Tewkesbury and Fords Decorative Supplies was born.
I now know that 77 Barton Street is one of the oldest and most interesting buildings in Tewkesbury, but I had been plucked from the secure world of Hillside School, playing in Davenham Gardens and in and around the garden and common of 38 Moorlands Road. I now lived in the middle of a town, in a flat with only a small yard as outside space. My mother changed from having the care of myself and my father as her sole occupation, to running a shop in addition to this. Daddy had to go away from time to time to Northumberland where Hadrian paints were made, presumably for training and sales stuff. As well as paint, brushes etc Ford’s Decorative Supplies sold brightly coloured household equipment, Addis washing up bowls and brushes, brooms, all matching in bright red, green, blue, and yellow. Daddy made a special shelving unit for it to be displayed it all looked bright and tempting. It was the beginning of kitchens as styled and co-ordinated rooms unlike the purely functional places they had been in the past, particularly in the war and post war years. Colour was coming back into people’s lives after the privations of World War II.
The shop seemed to do well, and Mummy ran it assisted by a lady who I knew as Sis who was employed to help. We called her Sis because someone thought she was Mum’s daughter. Sis was a lovely lady who lived out at Long Green with her husband Guy and daughter Margaret. I loved to go and stay overnight with them. We used to walk out there and having been back there I realise it was quite a walk, about four miles or more.
The shop led through to the stockroom, which in turn led into the lounge. From this was a corridor leading to the kitchen. On one side of the corridor was a door leading to the little yard and immediately opposite this door was a door leading into Compton’s Alley which ran from Barton Street down to the River Swilgate. From the kitchen led a staircase to reach a room which was not really used for anything. I made this room mine and very soon had created little rooms for my dolls. It was up here too that I made my endless plaster cast models and painted them. From the stockroom were stairs leading to the upstairs accommodation. Two bedrooms in the front with windows looking over the street – my parents slept in one and I in the other. There was a bathroom on this floor and two further rooms, unfurnished and unused, with bare dusty floorboards.
Tewkesbury has alleyways leading between some of the shops from one street to another. Compton’s Alley ran down the side of 77 Barton Street and led to the River Swilgate and a lot of rough ground and housing estates beyond. Halfway down Compton’s Alley lived two brothers who were chimney sweeps. Their tiny cottage was black and smelt of soot. I never saw the door open and seldom saw ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ as we called them but as I remember they were short stocky little men with round rubbery faces bearing resemblance, beneath the soot, to the comedian Charlie Drake. I imagine that inside the cottage was black, dirty and sooty smelling.. They transported the tools of their trade on a wheeled trolley.
Our bathroom window looked out over Compton’s Alley. My friend Mary and I would sometimes amuse ourselves by standing in the bath and filling toothmugs with water and throwing it onto the heads of passers-by. Oh, how we giggled!
My dog Gay used to love the alley way and would sit on the street end watching what was going on in Barton Street. When she had had enough, she would wander back in through the side door or through the shop. The town’s people knew her, but strangers would sometimes think she was lost and would take her to the police station at the other end of town. The police would ring mum and she would tell them to keep Gay there till she could shut the shop and fetch her. My mother was disabled so it was quite a trek for her. Often the policeman would walk Gay back, it was all a lot more friendly and obliging in those days.
Probably the most alarming change in my life was that I was now to attend not a gentle, private school, but Barton Road Junior School. My father had decided that I needed geeing up a bit. Whilst Hillside School was a good school it had allowed me to be slow and precise and painstaking about my work and I needed to speed up. Typical of my father he made a friend of Mr Griffiths, the headmaster, and told him that he needed to jolt me out of my dreamy ways and into the real world. Barton Road Junior School might not have had the gentility of Hillside School and I remember being quite scared of Mr Griffiths who was a very large man with a red face and a Welsh accent, but I soon got used to it. What’s more I quickly grew very fond of the ancient town, and I think the seed of my love of history was sown here.
My best friend was called Mary Treen and lived opposite in Treen’s Electrical Shop, next door to Wilkins the Bakery. Mary had a little brother Billy who was a bit of a pest and always wanted to play with us. If we said no, he would bawl and cry and Mary’s mum told us we were mean, so he had to come. I also made friends with Dennis Kingsley who fascinated me. He came from a family with lots of children who lived in a row of council houses looking over the River Swilgate, turning left out of Compton’s Alley and walking a couple of hundred yards. I aspired to friendship with Richard Green, the coalman’s son but I thought he was so gorgeous that I was shy with him. Also at school were two extremely large girls, Margaret Bassett and Marion Jones. We had school trips to Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre, in the days when it was just a lake with some ducks on, and I remember quite a lot of mud. But it was a convenient distance for a school trip from Tewkesbury, so we went. I remember Marion Jones sitting next to me. She was a flabby pasty-faced girl whose parents ran a little grocery shop near the Abbey. Marion was always travel sick, so no one liked sitting next to her. On one occasion she felt sick, and Miss Davies grabbed my Bunty comic and Marion was sick in that. I cried and was told I was a spoilt little girl for begrudging poor Marion my comic to use as she was not well. I said that she was always ill and why did she come and if she did have to come why didn’t she bring her own comic to be sick into. About 20 years later I was in Tewkesbury, and I think I spotted Marilyn who had slimmed down and was a nice-looking girl. I lost touch with all these girls because I passed my 11 plus and they didn’t. Consequently, they went to the Secondary Modern School, and I went to the Tewkesbury High School for Girls. I don’t know where Dennis Kingsley and Richard Green ended up – probably at the Boys Grammar School which was way out of town.
The big fear at this time was catching polio. I was told that if I paddled in the Swilgate or mixed with Dennis Kingsley and his family I would be at risk of polio and might end up in an iron lung or wearing callipers. I was happy to not paddle in the Swilgate but I could not resist visits to Dennis Kingsley’s house. It was such a busy, jolly house where there seemed to be no rules. I was fascinated by life there which was a world away from the gentle life in 77 Barton Street.
At Barton Road Junior school we had a huge cast iron stove which heated the room, and our bottles of milk were put on it in the winter to warm. I never have been an enthusiastic milk drinker, and I can remember the torture of drinking this tepid milk through the paper straws provided. Thank heavens for Tommy Biggs! He was a lardy, bad-tempered boy who sat next to me. The desks were joined together in pairs and consisted of a compartment beneath the writing slop and a bench to sit on, all joined together in a fixed unit, so distancing myself from Tommy Biggs was not an option. He was untidy, smelly, and always in trouble but, his saving grace was that he loved his food, and this included tepid milk, so he was a very willing recipient of my third of a pint, minus the two sips I had to take under the watchful eye of Mr Griffiths, every morning. We had dancing lessons as part of our timetable; country dancing, I suppose you would call it. I longed to dance with Richard Green, the coalman’s son with his dark hair and brown eyes, but I was always forced to partner the clumsy Tommy Biggs. He had clammy hands and he panted as we lumbered around. We listened to educational radio called ‘People, Places and Things’. This was the latest technology and a great thrill for us. I remember a lot of crackling and intermittent sound quality, but we thought it was wonderful!
We were divided into teams – red, blue, yellow, and green. I was in green team, and this meant that my dipping pen which we were all given to use in conjunction with the inkwells on our desks, had a green handle. I also had a green hoop and a green sash to use during games. My mother continued the green theme by buying me a green hula hoop which were all the rage. I tried hard with it but as with most physical activity I was inept. As well as hula hoops, we played five stones which I was far better at.
One vivid memory I had of this school was the girls’ toilets. We had pet goldfish in the classroom, and they died of some ulcerative disease and Mr Griffiths (I presume) tried to flush them down the girls’ toilet. They would not go away and bobbed up and down, their heads above the water. I had nightmares about these fish even after they had eventually gone and could not be persuaded to use the toilets for several weeks. Once again, my mother was called in to discuss the problem with the teacher, in this case Mr Griffiths. When the problem was identified I was told not to be so ridiculous, and my Bunty comic was stopped for two weeks in the same way that my Robin comic had been stopped after the Jeremy Tallowin incident. I can still vividly remember those bobbing dead goldfish now, sixty-five years later.
More ambitious than the Slimbridge trips was a week-long trip to Belgium to the World Exhibition in Brussels. We stayed in a boarding school in Ostend and my overwhelming memory of the school was the smell of chips. We slept in little curtained cubicles in a very long dormitory. I still sucked my thumb and was worried that someone would find out, so I slept lightly. We went on to the beach and were allowed to bury Mr Griffiths in sand which was huge fun. We visited the Exhibition in Brussels, and the only thing I remember was a thing called the Atrium which was big metal balls joined together by big metal tubes – I think it was the icon of the exhibition. I’m not sure that the Exhibition impressed any of we kids very much. What did impress us, especially the girls, then 10/11 years old, was the men peeing in the street, which was something we had not witnessed in England, especially in Tewkesbury. As if this were not enough, we were taken to a village or town square and let off the coach and told to amuse ourselves for a set amount of time, probably an hour. It was quite something for a group of children to be released unaccompanied in a foreign country. We found a gents’ toilet with the door open and entertained ourselves just watching for what seemed like ages, but I’m sure we would have been moved on. We all bought little brass models of the mannequin pis which seemed to say everything about that trip. That trip to Belgium, my first trip abroad, educated me in a way that my parents had not intended it to. I had always realised that boys were different to girls – Noel Habgood had shown me this on Malvern Link Common. My trip to Belgium enlightened me further on this biological difference.
Mr Griffiths must have been a bit frustrated that he could not explore the World Exhibition as much as he wished so a couple of weeks after we returned, he and Daddy went for a long weekend. They had a good time and must have walked far further than Mr G could with a party of school children following him. My Grandma used to knit socks for Daddy, and he said after walking in them for three days he would never wear them again as they were so coarse on his feet. That was his only comment on the weekend that I heard but I’m sure he had a good time as he and Mr Griffiths got on well.
The big annual event in Tewkesbury was the Mop Fair. It had evolved from the Medieval Hiring Fairs and took up most of the streets. The swing boats were always outside 77 Barton Street and looking out of my bedroom window it always felt as if they were going to come in. As well as the swing boats there was a big wheel, helter-skelter, dodgem cars, ‘galloping horses’ carousel, wobbly mirrors, and all manner of stalls where you could win goldfish, teddy bears and other things that might be considered tat, but we loved it. The fair would appear by magic overnight and then equally magically after three days it would disappear overnight as if it had never been.
One morning there was enormous excitement at Barton Road Junior. Mr Griffiths told us that the BBC Children’s Newsreel were coming to make a short film of the fair and wanted local children to take round and film. Ten of us were chosen and I was among them. As I was to be on television Mummy insisted I wear my best pleated skirt. The other girls were sensibly wearing trousers. Although I was thrilled to be one of the chosen few, I was not the best child to take. There is a photo of the group of us with candy floss and toffee apples, we had been asked to choose which one we would like. I didn’t like either, so they bought both for me and in the photograph, I am standing holding one in each hand wondering what to do with them. It is a shame that Tommy Biggs wasn’t one of the group, as he would have gobbled both of them up in a moment. We went on the helter-skelter and I clung to the sides all the way down thus holding up the children who came behind me. We went on the dodgems, and I carefully avoided bumping into any other cars. However, I did like the big wheel, the swing boats and the ‘galloping horses’, and I was delighted to win a goldfish on the hook a duck stall.
In 2006, I visited Tewkesbury and showed the photographs of the BBC filming to people in the library. They said I should go and see Billy Treen who had now taken over his father’s television business. I was reluctant but I went and found that he had grown into an attractive and intelligent man. We talked and he sent me a DVD of the film that went out on Children’s Newsreel. It had not been a great idea to wear my best pleated skirt as my knickers were on view on the big wheel and the helter-skelter. Billy suggested a reunion of the group at the next Mop Fair to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the event, I believe the BBC were even interested in filming it. Sadly David Griffiths, one of the group, who was Mr Griffiths’ son, died, so out of respect the reunion never happened.
The BBC must have liked Tewkesbury because they came and did a talent show there. My friend Pauline and I sang Sweet Molly Malone, but we didn’t win. Also in that hall the school put on a production of Hansel and Gretel. Richard Green was Hansel, and I was Gretel. At one point in the performance, I was supposed to get cross and smash a white jug which Richard Green’s mother had provided for the purpose. So besotted was I with Richard Green that I could not bear to break anything associated with him, so I took it off the table and placed it carefully on the floor. I cannot remember what happened then – I’m guessing there was laughter. Obviously, it was not my finest acting moment. It might not have been such a flop had Gretel not had such a gigantic crush on Hansel!
Tewkesbury was, and is, renowned for its floods in winter. In early 1960 Barbara Moore walked from John’o Groats to Lands End in 23 days, via Tewkesbury. We were all given the day off to meet her and it was planned that we would accompany her through Tewkesbury. However, the floods were up so she had to enter the town along the railway line. We all trooped along the railway line and escorted her back along it – imagine being allowed to walk along a railway line now. There was a great crowd of us, and we all felt very important because once again TV cameras were there to capture the moment.
Barbara Moore was, for the 1950s, a bit of an odd ball, a vegetarian and a breatharian who believed it was possible for people to survive without food. She walked with only nuts, honey, raw fruit, and vegetable juice for nourishment. She held that people could live to be 200 years old by abstaining from smoking, drinking alcohol and sex, and claimed to have cured herself from leukaemia by a special diet. She died in a London hospital on 14 May 1977, bankrupt and near starvation because of her refusal to eat.
The following year, when I had officially left Barton Road Junior School and was between schools waiting to go up to Tewkesbury High School for Girls, Mr Griffiths took us on a camping trip to Dorset to Carey Camp – amazingly this facility still existed in 1980/90 and both Tom and Rose went there from Broadmayne School. I can remember very little about my visit there except that we used to sing songs around the campfire at night which I enjoyed. There was someone there who would make up verses containing our names; mine was ‘Oh, you’ll never get to heaven in an old Ford card, ‘cos an old Ford car won’t go that far’. There was a boy from another school who used to practise the bagpipes in the woods in the morning and made a terrible din. It was a good trip though with no bad memories and finished off my time at Barton Road Junior.
Clothes became important to me. It was the era of circular felt skirts with flowers appliquéd on them, they would swirl out satisfyingly when you spun round. I also had a stiff net petticoat which was in rainbow colours when everyone else’s was plain. I had a pretty pale blue party dress, net over satin, the net with tiny circular patches of sparkly stuff scattered on it. On the day I left Barton Road Junior School, I wanted to wear my dress with squares marked in pale mauve and scattered with small, coloured butterflies. Instead, I was made to wear my more workmanlike dress with navy blue flowers with red centres. Horrible child that I must have been I made it quite clear that by making me wear this my mother had totally ruined my life!
Life in Tewkesbury at this time was so old fashioned, so simple, even more old fashioned than I remember my earlier life at Malvern. I think it was because the little shops were almost Dickensian and the town centre where I predominantly spent my time was mainly comprised of old quaint buildings. There were little sweet shops with sweets in jars, such as are seen in Museums these days. There were tiny little shops that sold groceries almost from the proprietors’ front rooms. They were good days and I remember them fondly.
Having been successful in passing my 11 plus, I went up to Tewkesbury High School for Girls which was in the town, in a Regency house half-way between 77 Barton Street and Tewkesbury Abbey. I met Valerie Jones and Pam Bowen there and we became good friends, especially Pam Bowen. She took me on holiday with her to her grandmother’s in Ogmore-by-Sea, South Wales. Her grandmother lived in a bungalow in a quiet road leading down to the sea. Ogmore was a quiet place, I dare say it is more developed now. The thing I remember most about this holiday was breakfast which always included lava bread which I enjoyed although I have never eaten it since. In return I took Pam up to Redhill to stay with my grandparents and my aunties. I was mad on horses and Pam was besotted by her intention to become a doctor. Aunties took Pam and I up to London for a day. Auntie Gertie took Pam to Harley Street and my treat was to be taken to Moss Bros and kitted out for riding with jodphurs and jodhpur boots, a riding hat and a crop which was to be my birthday present. In Moss Bros they had a model horse which I had to sit on to make sure that the jodhs fitted correctly. I was in heaven and didn’t want to get off it. To be honest it was my kind of horse because although I loved horses, a gentle hack on a quiet one was my idea of heaven and this model one in Moss Bros was my sort of placid. I wonder if Pam ever became a doctor; if she did, I have no doubt that she went to the top of her profession. She had a passion for Biggles books and her parents were lovely. The other thing that my aunties remember about that holiday when Pam came to Redhill with me was that Pam’s food passion was melon and mine was baked beans! They made sure that we were both satisfied.
Tewkesbury High School for Girls was presided over by Miss Craighead and was housed in a glorious Regency building, red brick with an elaborate white loopy metal canopy stretching all along the back. There was a creeper or Wisteria clambering over the canopy. We wore a navy and silver uniform. I was happy there although for the first time in my life I struggled with the work and was not top of my class. My body was developing, but not fast enough for my liking. My mother bought me my first bra which was no more than a shaped band of elastic, but it was tight enough to enable me to stuff hankies in it to give the impression of boobs. We were all desperate to start our periods and although not actually lying about it we all implied that we had. Pamela Bowen had genuinely started hers and we were all quite envious – little did we know! She had real well-developed boobs too.
I remember very little about the lessons although I do recall the dusty bare staircases as we tramped up and downstairs between lessons. We started French lessons and were all given a French name which we had to assume during the lessons; mine was Marie Therese. Pam’s was Marie Antoinette and once again we were all a bit envious as she was known to be a queen, but we didn’t realise that she had been beheaded.
To extend my musical prowess, I had cello lessons. I had already been having piano lessons with Miss Irene A Fincken, a very elderly Austrian lady, with long thin greasy grey hair secured in a scanty bun with an army of adornments so great that the bun was barely visible. She lived in a big, terraced house almost opposite the post office. The house was furnished with huge furniture, and I now realise that it must have been worth a fortune. The room I learnt in was large and was dominated by the full-sized concert grand. The other notable piece of furniture was a big old squashy sofa on which stretched full length was Billy, Miss Fincken’s old dog, a sort of sheep dog style and very smelly. He died on that sofa. As well as having my weekly piano lesson I used to pop in on my way home and do Miss Fincken’s shopping. She would write her list on a scrap of lined paper torn from a tiny notebook. Her instructions – half a dozen stamps with a bit of sticky on – this enabled her to stick them in a notebook to keep them safe prior to use. I had to buy bundles of kindling, carrots of a specified length and other small items. On reflection I think all her pupils performed this service for her as she could never have gone out to the shops for herself as she was quite stout and immobile – a bit like Queen Victoria. It was one evening when I called for my shopping instructions that I noticed an unpleasant smell and observed that Billy had not moved for a couple of days. I mentioned this to my father who paid an unscheduled visit to the old lady and confirmed what we suspected that Billy had died. Miss Fincken was a kindly lady in many ways. She rewarded me with gifts of books and the occasional chunk of dark bitter chocolate when I did her shopping, but as a piano teacher she was strict and ferocious. Her hands were knarled and had prominent veins and copious age spots. She wrote furious illegible notes in my notebook and all over my music with a blue Bic biro, and she rapped my knuckles painfully with a ruler if I did not hold my hands properly – as if holding an imaginary apple in my hand. She was a tremendous character and about fifteen years later when I returned to live near Tewkesbury and work for Mrs Taylor, I learnt that Miss Fincken had died. Mrs Taylor’s husband had been Miss Fincken’s solicitor. I have no idea what happened to the wonderful house and its beautiful furniture – no doubt a neglectful distant relative appeared!
I grew fascinated by Tewkesbury Abbey and used to go to the library which was opposite the Abbey and having chosen my books would often visit the Abbey on the way home, and climb the tower thrilled every time by the Devil’s Bridge. Whenever we had family or friends to visit, I would take them to the Abbey and show them round. I don’t remember ever going there to a service, although I’m sure I probably did with the school. As a family we were still Christian Scientists and we used to go to Cheltenham every Sunday to the CS church there. I would also go on a Saturday morning to a lady who would give me Bible study classes which just involved me learning psalms by heart. On Saturdays I went by bus but on Sundays we went in the car. We would then come back and have Sunday lunch in the Ancient Grudge, a tea-room half-way down the High Street, now an estate agent, I think.
My favourite shop was W H Smiths, and I would spend time in there reading pony books, especially the Jill series of books by Ruby Ferguson and the Three Jays books by Pat Smythe. Horses and riding became my big desire, and I was taken to Michael’s Riding School, a tumbledown stable yard on Cleeve Hill on the outskirts of Cheltenham. I rode a staid horse called Benjamin who always seemed to be very tall but was probably in reality only about 14 hh. The rides were just quiet hacks and I never remember anything exciting or alarming happening, but I did enjoy them and was undoubtedly the poshest one there in my Moss Bros gear which was always worn with a yellow polo necked sweater for some reason.
Auntie Gertie & Auntie Winnie would often come to stay, one at a time because one of them always had to stay with my grandparents. Sometimes whichever one of them came would take me back with them which was always a treat. They and my parents were getting on well, so well in fact that they decided to go into business together. My father had always fancied running a hotel and one day I was told that my parents and my aunties had been to see a hotel in Newquay in Cornwall and were planning to buy it. We would all move down there and run it together. By this time, I had grown to love Tewkesbury but the lure of living with my beloved aunties and grandparents, in Cornwall and the possibility of having my own pony there (oh, they knew how to get me on side!) and earning pocket money washing up and making beds (what a treat!) softened the prospect of the move. I was very excited, so when my parents told me that my aunties had decided it was too much for them and were withdrawing, I was upset and cross to say the least. Instead, because once my parents had decided to move, they just had to move somewhere, I was told that we were going to move to Worcester and my father was going into business with his friend John Ide, also a rep for Hadrian Paints. They were to open a Do It Yourself store and we were to live in a flat over a greengrocers shop in Lowesmoor. I was furious – begged to be sent to boarding school – all to no avail. How much more difficult I must have made an already unhappy situation for my parents.