South Derbyshire in the 1950s - Pauline Williams
South Derbyshire in the 1950s
Reminiscences of a childhood in Newhall,
Swadlincote and Church Gresley,
by Pauline Williams

My peers and I grew up in an era of austerity in post World War II England, but we were relatively trouble and worry free and basically fairly naïve about the world around us.   The summers were long and fine and it stayed light until 10pm; the winters were cold, with snow, fog, rain and hail and it was great to curl up in front of the coal fire.  When it was fine we were outdoors most of the time, and were allowed to wander around the whole neighbourhood without a care in the world.   Television was restricted to the BBC and used to close down during the day.  It was only later that we were able to get ITV.  Few women worked, and if they did it was at unskilled part-time jobs so they could be home for their children and husbands when they came home from school and work.  There were few cars and we relied on walking, bikes and buses for local travel and trains for greater distances.  I did not go to London properly until I was around 17 years old.

I lived in Newhall in a “prefab” or bungalow, which was the local council’s response to demands for accommodation from ex-service men and their families.  The early baby boomer generation.  I had an older sister and younger brother.  My dad used to grow a lot of his own veggies – peas, runner beans, cabbage, brussell sprouts and potatoes.  He also had an allotment behind the house and initially had two sheds full of hens which used to supply eggs and the occasional dinner.  Some of the eggs would be sold as a means of supplementing our cash income.  We used to help dad to dig the garden so that we could find worms to feed to the hens.  Meat and two veggies with gravy formed the basis of our diet, winter or summer.  Fruit was limited to apples, pears and oranges, sometimes bananas.  A special treat was mandarins at Christmas time.

Occasionally we had fish (cod only) and my mum used to batter it for cooking.  Fish and chips from the Chip Shop were a special treat on weekends sometimes.   My mum and dad used to take us for a walk through the fields and we’d end up taking fish and chips home.  These would be liberally doused with salt and vinegar and we’d ask for “fish-bits” the crispy bits that would fall off when the fish was deepfried.  Mushy peas were also a favourite.  At home, we’d make sandwiches with chips (a chip butty).

Another outing, especially in summer, would be to go for a walk with our parents and end up at the local pub.  Our parents would go into the bar or lounge, and we children would be put into the “kitchen” where we would play games or watch TV, regularly supplied with crisps (potato chips) and lemonade (no coke in those days).

It was great going for walks with my dad, because he had grown up in the area and knew all about birds.  He would show us birds’ eggs in their nests in the hedges and tell us what kind of bird had laid it based on the colouring and patterns of the eggs.  He always put them back.  He called thrushes “throckies”.  He could also identify various plants and flowers.  Time spent with our dad was precious because he worked a 3-shift rotation, days (6am-3pm); afternoons (3pm-10pm) and nights, so we only saw him one week in three.

There used to be railway line which wandered through the local area, the main station being at Swad.  This railway line closed down whilst I was still young.  The cutting at Bretby became an ideal place for picking blackberries and this was also close to a quarry.  We would take my mum’s preserving jars and go off for a few hours to collect these and she would make blackberry and apple pie, and jars of jam.  It always took ages to get the juice stains off your hands and you also had to be very careful of the nettles which always seemed to grow next to the best berries.

There were lots of children around our own ages in the local area and behind our house, there was the local Rec (playground).  A large portion of this was a grassed area, then there were some swings and slides, climbing frames, two tennis courts and, the pride of the park-keeper, the bowling green.  Despite all the signs about keeping off the grass, we kids used to dare each other to see who would risk going on to green.   My younger brother was a bit of a dare-devil and he fell off the top of the slide, landed on the concrete base and ended up in hospital with a fractured skull!!

Girls would play a lot of skipping games and ball games.  Many of the rhymes are still used today.  Ball games played against the wall of a house used to be quite competitive.  We also played marbles in a very competitive way, all of us hoping to increase our own supplies.  Since there were few cars, we used to play in the road.  The boys had their toy cars – dinky toys, toy soldiers, bikes, etc. and played football, mainly on the rec.  Parents were not too happy if their front windows were smashed by a ball!

Every year there would be a Fair on Newhall Rec.  There would be the usual rides and stalls, where you could try and win prizes by throwing darts or balls or shoot rifles.  You could pick lucky numbers.  Treats were candy floss or toffee apples.  We often won goldfish, which were lucky to last out the week.   The Newhall Fair, however, was no comparison with the Wakes at Gresley.  This would be set up on Gresley Common, which meant a long walk for us, there and back.  The lights and music all gave a real excitement to the evening, especially if we had won prizes.   Many of the fairground people were regarded as a little disreputable and so there was a sense of doing something out of the ordinary.

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, (November) was also really exciting.  Kids would prepare for weeks by collecting things to put on the bonfire.  There always had to be a guy and fireworks.  Standing around a bonfire on a cold November night was worth all the preparation.

Church Gresley also meant Polio and other injections.  There was a health clinic there and hundreds of kids would troop through the doors and be injected with whatever the latest thing was.  The smell of the antiseptic was terrible and you were left with an orange/brown mark on your arm.  Since all you could hear when kids went from the waiting room into the surgery was screams and crying, this was not a favourite outing.  We were able to put our arms around a fairly large motherly nurse while the dreadful deed was done and we never went out the same way we went in.   These experiences have probably scarred a generation for life in relation to injections.

There were few doctor or dentist surgeries.  At the doctors, everyone was given the same time and you just sat there and waited for your turn.  You had to memorise who was there before you to make sure no-one pushed in front.  Dentists were more concerned to take teeth out rather than save them and an aching tooth meant a half-hour bus-ride to Burton, a 20 minute walk to the surgery, extraction of the tooth while sedated by gas, and then the whole journey in reverse.  The opening of a dentist surgery in Swad was a significant advance.

Most of our shopping was done in Swad.  The main shop was Salt’s.  It had several shops along the High Street and sold everything from clothes to furniture.  There were no cash registers.  The assistants wrote out a bill, took the money and put it in a container which went along a vacuum tube to a cashier’s office.  Eventually the receipt and any change would come back the same way.  The main shop was a bit like a rabbit warren as about three different shops were connected internally with different stair levels.  Other shops included Woolworths, where I had my first Saturday job, butchers, bakers.  Scraggs the Chemists always fascinated me as it had large coloured glass bottles in the window and they could make up medicines there for you, as opposed to Boots which sold packaged things.  The market hall thrived on Fridays and Saturdays and an undercover market was eventually built instead of using the market hall itself.

We had two cinemas in Swad – the Majestic and the New Theatre.  It was always really exciting to go to the matinees, westerns were a particular favourite.   These cinemas often showed older movies, we had to go to  Burton if we wanted to see new ones.

Our life in Swad/Newhall and surrounding areas was fairly circumscribed and separate from the outside world.  My grandparents lived in Liverpool and we therefore travelled to see them each year.  It was incredibly exciting to travel on steam trains, although the noise could be a bit scary.  We had to change trains at Crewe, which was always a nightmare, because it wasn’t easy to find the platform and then to alight at Lime Street Station in this huge city was almost a nightmare.  Lots of people, buses and other traffic.   Visiting Liverpool meant that we could go to the seaside.  The Pier Head was fascinating with all the ferries, sights and sounds.

Well ... I’ve triggered off so many memories as I’ve been writing this ... A lot of it relates to experiences in the 1950s, when we were all so innocent.  We didn’t have much, but then our expectations weren’t high.  My life took a different path from my sister and brother and many friends from the local area, as I passed the dreaded 11 Plus exam and went to the Girls Grammar School in Ashby-de-la-Zouch and so I embarked on a more academic path, which took me out of the local sphere.

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This © 2001 Pauline Williams