At Arlington Street Chapel, as well as the Sunday Services, there were many other activities; concerts (on Sunday nights they were called Sacred Concerts) lectures, Guilds, bazaars, and later on Boys Brigade. So there was always something to do, something to be involved with, as there was no mindless entertainment provided by television, although the wireless was rapidly gaining a foothold, or perhaps an ear hold. However, as strict as it may have been, I am not sorry to have been brought up in the tenets of Nonconformism. Although in later life I have moved to a more agnostic stance, I have tried to maintain the basic ethics. of my upbringing. Well, within reason, although on the odd occasion I may have slipped up a tiny bit on the Total Abstinence aspect. This was the one thing about which Father was fierce, but even he in later life was a little more tolerant and I have known him actually go into a pub for a meal. Mind you, he was turning eighty at the time, but he never did allow the Demon Rum to pass his lips.
Surprisingly, as they were strict chapel goers, using that expression in the more old fashioned sense, Mother and Dad were mostly quite tolerant. Of course Roman Catholics were considered to be a bit beyond the pale, with their long banners on poles and smoke bottles on chains, and Anglicans were not much better. Those of the Jewish Faith were respected, in spite of the fact that they were believed to have the odd custom of wearing their hats in church rather than removing them. The Sally Army, although reputed to be rather strict, were well thought of in their principles. At least they had a good band, and according to Dad, during the war ran the best canteens. The C of E ones were the worst, he said. He also, on many occasions, went to the original Toc H at Poperhinge, run by Tubby Clayton.
Noncomformist strictness did not run to the prohibition of visits to the cinema or to the theatre when a visiting company presented a Gilbert and Sullivan, or some other decorous show. The first stage performance I ever saw was The Mikado, and loved every minute of it. The cinemas showed silent films in which it always seemed to be raining, and of course the favourite was Charlie Chaplin, closely followed by Tom Mix the Cowboy. Great annual events during the Christmas periods were the performances of Handel's Messiah by local choirs. The soloists mainly came from the same source, although often, for its drawing power, one would be of some renown from outside the town, even from as far afield as London. I have before me the programmes of the 35th and 36th Annual performances at the George Street Methodist Church, and the bass soloist was Mr. Robert Easton (London) who must have been good to have come two years in a row. Sadly, whilst writing this book, his death was announced. And there was other music around - apart from the local flea pit, cinemas before the advent of the talkies each had their own orchestra, even if only a trio, and some were highly regarded.
In many ways, considering their religious beliefs, my parents showed much tolerance. For we did live in a seaport, and seaports are the same the world over, especially one such as ours where an unusually large proportion of the local menfolk spent much of their time away from home. Yes, there were Ladies who Earned their Living. Some to make ends meet, some out of loneliness. And some because they liked it. These things were a way of life and had to be accepted. It wasn't until I was about fourteen, and told a thing or two by cousin Ted, that I began to understand a few happenings in our own street. At one end was a lady whose husband had died at sea fairly young. And there was little in the way of widows pension in those days. Nearer still was one whose husband was long-time unemployed. But there was another always very smartly dressed, whose husband, a prosperous Skipper, came into the shop one day in some distress and later I overheard Dad say to Mother He had no idea what was going on. One could have supposed that my parents should have been outraged; possibly they were, for we knew the ladies - customers of ours. But that is how life was - and still is!
Life for children could be quite pleasant; we had the park nearby, and nearer still was a piece of waste land complete with several ditches for throwing things into as well as getting us fearsomely muddied-up. As road traffic was light in those days, we were able to play in the street with reasonably safety, and on fine evenings they would be full of groups of children skipping, playing hopscotch, or perhaps football or cricket. In addition, there were hoops to be bowled along, tops to be whipped up, and perhaps marbles to be rolled. All in their own season of course. Do such games have seasons now? Autumn provided what are widely known as conkers, although we called them bongcongs. Great was the lore concerning these - which were the best, how to get them hardened up for the championship matches, and other such erudite matters. Once, from somewhere or other, we acquired a pair and a half of roller skates. One skate each for Ted, Stan and myself, with ruinous effect on our boots. Mother was not at all pleased when we each appeared with one sole worn right through. Skates were expensive and we couldn't afford new ones, so the edict went forth take turns at a complete pair or not at all. Farther afield was a spot, determined by counting the right number of telegraph poles down a particular road, where the ditch was reputed to have the greatest concentration of the finest struts in the district. Struts? This was the local name for things otherwise known as tiddlers. Why I do not know, but conkers and tiddlers are names that still instinctively seem wrong.
Additional diversions come our way through living at a shop. Each Friday afternoon, Mr Wilson the Carrier came in from a distant village bringing fresh vegetables, eggs and home-made farm butter. These didn't interest me, but his Model T Ford van did, and he showed me how to drive it, in the static state unfortunately. Another pleasantry was the arrival of a steam lorry from Marshall's Mill delivering the flour. This came in hundredweight sacks and was kent in the stable, separated from the coal by a partition. One of my jobs was to weigh the flour into stone, half-stone and quarter-stone brown bags that had to be folded over in a particular manner. For some reason, at that time in our part of the world, potatoes were also sold by the stone.
But the lorry was the real interest. It was driven by a horizontal steam engine which ran at a surprisingly high speed and with much less noise than a petrol engine. Occasionally, I would be allowed to stand on the cab step and watch the driver's mate shovel a small quantity of coal into the furnace, before with a gentle hiss and sigh, the truck moved away. Because of carrying the heavy sacks on their shoulders, both the driver and his mate had their caps pulled right down over one ear, virtually covering that side of the face. I remember getting into trouble with Mother for wearing my little round school cap at the same angle. I thought that it was most dashing! One fine summer's evening in 1921, the 24th of August to be precise, the family were sitting around the tea table when there was a loud roaring thump outside that shook the windows. Wondering what it was, Grandma suggested that it was something to do with the airship. Sure enough, later that evening the paper boys were around selling a special edition with news of the disaster to the R38 that had blown up near Hull whilst on a proving flight and fallen into the Humber. Although it had happened over thirty miles away, the explosion had been violent enough to really rattle our windows. Many years later, someone told me that he too had heard it while standing out on the local golf course with his fatter. This was at Stamford, even further away - fifty miles.
War stories, or at least those swapped by Father and his friends, were a great source of fascination and I was well versed in the Big Push, the Second Retreat and Going Over The Top. It is curious that after the second world war, similar stories did not seem to be recounted; any that were usually concerned more ribald incidents. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that by 1939 the people had reached greater horizons through the radio and the films. In pre-1914 days, only a comparatively few had been abroad, and these were either Colonial Administrators, more affluent sections of society on rather luxy holidays, or the poor working man who had joined the Army and seen service in the Colonies.
Uncle Wilf had followed the sea for a time as an engineer on trawlers, but gave it up after being mined and sunk early in the war. He often recounted a story that impressed me, perhaps with some form of glamour. At the beginning of August 1914, when the political situation in Europe was grim with threats and counter threats, his ship left the docks for a normal trip to the North Sea, but had stayed at anchor in the roadstead overnight. As they steamed out of the Humber the next morning, a destroyer crossed their bows at high speed, heading southwards. With a bone in her teeth and the bow so high out of the water that we could see down the funnel. So we knew it was war! Now how they actually knew this he didn't explain, but I felt that it was the most dramatic story I had ever heard.
Some time later, Uncle Wilf was involved in the episode of the fire engine. At the time, he was working at the Cleethorpes Council disposal plant, which embraced a disused brick pit, full of water. For some good reason, the Council Engineer decided that it should be emptied, but had no funds to buy equipment. However, at the fire station next door was a disused engine that seemed to offer a possibility. The trouble with the engine was that it was a horse drawn steamer and the boiler had not been alight for years. So as Uncle Wilf had been a ship's engineer, he was given the job of getting it serviceable - in his own time! This he did, making the necessary replacement parts himself, even cutting up old boots to make gaskets. Eventually be boiler was fired, brought up to pressure, and surprisingly didn't burst. Then the engine was man-handled to the edge of the pit to do a three week emptying stint. It was a fine sight to see the old Merryweather belching out smoke and steam, and actually pumping water again. After each day's pumping, a close examination would reveal that the water level was clearly lowered. Unfortunately it rose again during the night! This was not surprising, seeing that the bottom of the pit was probably below sea level and the sea was only a few hundred yards away. So after a couple of weeks the attempt was abandoned. However, it was a good try!
Wireless broadcasting arrived in. the early twenties and we were soon caught up in the new craze. Uncle Wilf and Father made several crystal sets, ably hindered by myself, my job being to hold a coil of wire while they wound it on to a cardboard tube, for many components had to be made at home. For some of our sets we used bits of boxwood and Meccano parts. Soon, all the backways were full of tall poles and long aerials, and many were the learned discussions as to which make of aerial wire produced the loudest signal and which types of crystal gave the purest sound. In time, we acquired a real set from a shop at a cost of twenty five shillings. As Pa objected to paying the ten bob licence fee, an illegal aerial was strung up in the loft where it could not be seen. Then came the general election of 1924 which was probably a turning point for the BBC, for the polling results were to be broadcast as they came in, so obviating the wait for the morning newspapers which would have incomplete listing in any case. The public were thus made well aware of the possibilities of immediate news. The election was an exciting event for us, as Father was a Liberal and the fortunes of that party had been waning. In order that he could receive the results clearly, a clothes prop was pushed out of an upstairs window to support an outside aerial. Our job was to hang on to the end of the prop to prevent it sagging, while Pa sat on the top of the stairs with the headphones clamped to his ears. In no time at all, things became very exciting. On the one hand was Mother complaining that it was getting late and we should be in bed and in any case, she was worried that we would be caught without a licence and fined. On the other hand was Pa, getting more and more worked up as the results started to flow in. Sometimes be would get so excited that the cats whisker would be knocked off the crystal and the next result would be missed while he retuned. Then came the loudest cry of all Asquith's defeated!. This was IT. Mother put her foot firmly down and we had to pack up. But I didn't care; it was after midnight when I went to bed - quite an event.
As well as the building of the crystal sets, there was another pointer to my future career in communications. Doctor Felton, he who brought me into the world, lived in a large corner house not too far away; the surgery was at the end of the yard and warmed by a flickering and smelly gas radiator. If you were prescribed a bottle of medicine, it had to be collected the next day from the house side door, where all the bottles neatly wrapped in white paper were laid on a small table and you paid the becapped maid the sum of one shilling and sixpence. At the apex of the Doctor's house was a small sunroof on which was a mysterious array of poles and wires that were the source of some puzzlement. Then Uncle Alf (he always seemed to know these things) told me that Doctor Felton could sometimes hear broadcasts direct from America during the night, and that it was due to the special aerial he had on the roof. So that was what it was. Even today to do this on medium waves would be a bit of a feat, but in those days it was a veritable miracle. After this I would sometimes gaze in awe at this wonderful aerial that had plucked out of the air those peculiar voices. For as any ten year old knew, Americans talked through their noses and not their mouths. For I did know someone who had actually been there, and they said that it was true. Later, even conditioned by the early talkies, when I first heard a broadcast from there it was with a certain amount of fascination to realise that ordinary Americans did in fact have this trait. The occasion for this was on my first voyage to sea, and when off the coast of Greenland heard This is KMOX the voice of St. Louis And as far as I know, it is still the voice of St. Louis. The only problem at that time was that I did not know where St. Louis was.
By the mid-twenties, the depression was really gaining momentum and there came into being a new race of men - The Unemployed. We already had The Ex-Servicemen, who were genuine, but The Unemployed were different. It was All Their Own Fault! At least that was the tone of many adult conversations I overheard (except when it affected themselves). But the realities were there. Men were out of work, and try as they might, could not find any. There was none! And harder times were yet to come. For the long-term unemployed, after the dole had run out, there was the Poor Law relief, when they received vouchers exchanged at selected shops for food. The lowest stage of all was the workhouse, although I do not recall anyone who had actually had to go there, apart from itinerants seeking a night's lodging. Even considering the difference in the value of money in those days, generosity was not a feature of the Poor Law. A single person would receive a voucher to the value of, say 7/6d, and a married man perhaps 12/6d. For a family, it may have gone up to about a pound and one for 25/- was unusual and generous; it probably required a whole brood of children. These great sums were to provide food for a whole week. A very strict rule was that only normal groceries could be supplied and this did not include cigarettes. But I do know that sometimes Dad would slip a packet of Woodbines under the packet of cheap margarine and put it down as something else. Of course there were regulars who may have been perhaps just a little workshy, but the majority really felt ashamed at being reduced to vouchers - it took away their self-respect. For in those days it was not fashionable to believe that Society had a responsibility to Society. All this was a giveaway, a free giveaway to those who had reduced themselves to that Predicament by their own laziness and not by the general malaise of economic disaster. Or so one read in the newspapers.
Cleethorpes as a holiday resort was not everyone's cup of tea, but it attracted a goodly number of visitors, many of them day trippers, mostly I would imagine from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Most came by train, and at the Bank Holiday periods twenty or thirty excursion trains would be waiting in the station sidings. Undoubtedly, these day trips were the only holiday many working people had. Even in the late thirties, one of the political slogans was Eight hours a day. Holidays with Pay.
The Cleethorpes shore is hard sand with a gentle slope, so that at low tide the water's edge was far out, almost far enough to require field glasses to see it. As it is a well known fact that Time and Tide Waits For No Man, especially a trainload of trippers from Barnsley, many was the complaint that they had come for the day to the seaside and couldn't see the sea. This fact was capitalised by an enterprising local man who fitted a boat hull to a motor lorry chassis which enabled him to offer a bus ride into the country, followed by one across the beach and a trip on to the water. It was a remarkable sight to see a boatload of holiday makers cruising down the main street. Whether these conversions were the first amphibious vehicles I do not know, but I must confess to a wry smile during the (last) war when similar newly developed army vehicles were being boosted up as the very latest thing. Old hat to we Meggies!
Naturally, there were the usual amusements on the promenade; a Big Dipper, Helter Skelter and others, to say nothing of the penny-in-the-slot What The Butler Saw machines. But one of the most interesting diversions was to listen to a salesman conning the trippers into buying large bags of rock. In this bag folks, I am going to place a giant stick of Cleethorpes Rock, with the name right through at both ends. That alone is worth two shillings. I am also going to place in it one or two sixpenny sticks. Plus another pineapple-flavoured one. And throw another in for luck. AND one for Grandma. I'll tell you what I'll do. Here's a couple of tanner ones for the kids. Now I'm not going to charge you ten bob for that lot, not even nine shillings or seven and six. No. You can have it for six and six. Thank you Missus, six and three to you. It was all perfectly genuine, all the sticks went into the bag and everyone was happy including Grandma. The only snag was that you could have bought the lot for five bob at any sweetshop in the back of the town. But how they loved it.
There was always a knot of visitors around the booths selling sheet music. New songs were being popularised at a rate never known before, mainly due to the late night dance music broadcast on the wireless; as gramophones were still cumbersome affairs and cheap records had not yet arrived, people had to make their own music. The attraction of the song booths was that they each had a resident pianist and singer who had to cope with the crowd noise and the distant steam organ of the round-a-bout. But despite all this, they brought in the customers. Maybe the singers were not of Savoy Orphean standards - although they also sang with the local dance bands, the results were better by far than the overblown amplifiers of later years.
Sadly, time passed; I reached the school leaving age of fourteen, went into long trousers and worked in the shop full time (well almost). Office boy jobs were hard to find and I was at a dead end. Dad didn't want me to go to sea on trawlers as he reckoned that the life of a fisherman was no great cop and not for me. The trawlers were beginning to be fitted with wireless, and operators had to be found, so the Owners sponsored a Wireless School at the Grimsby Nautical College that had a high reputation in the training for Mates, Skippers and Engineers tickets. Bowing to what appeared to be the inevitable, I enrolled there in 1928 to be instructed in this up and coming art by one, John Strang. I don't think that he was any great shakes on the technical side of things, but he was an operator par excellence and distilled into us a great deal of the lore of the sea and its traditions, as well as the art of operating.