Past Times

I only recall brief moments of my activities and past-times between the ages of approximately 4 to 9, none of any great consequence, but some of which illustrate changing behaviour and attitudes between then (1949 – 1954), and now. I can’t explain why such things remain in my memory, yet I have undoubtedly forgotten more important events.

It was still common to see cattle being driven from Overton, down Ann Street to the slaughterhouse. Ann Street was not divided in two at Roxburgh Street, as it now is, and I believe parts of the street were still cobbled. On more than one occasion I saw a cow break away from the cattle drive, and run amock in the street. Pedestrians ran for cover, in to shop doorways, with shouts of “mad cow”. This was notuncommon the nearer the cattle got to the slaughter house, and I believed then they had a sixth sense or scent, about their destiny.

There were many regular activities in the area, which are no longer necessary in today’s society, including the following. The door to door salesman with a very large suitcase containing bed linen, towels and household implements, was Indian or Pakistani , and referred to as Ali. I don’t believe anyone ever thought referring to Ali as a Paki was racist or offensive as people know to be the case today. Given the word’s history though, the word must have had racist connotations, whether used with malice or not, and the very fact that we were ignorant of Ali’s ethnicity and deferred to using the word ‘Paki’ probably says enough in itself.

The lamp lighter could be seen at lighting up time, opening a glass panel of each street lamp post, turning on the gas supply and lighting the mantle. I believe he
carried a small ladder. On several occasions entertainment was provided by a street musician, playing his accordion as he walked around the streets and back courts. Those who could afford it encouraged him by throwing down pennies from their tenement windows. Another street trader or peddler was the “rag man”, with his pony and flat back cart. His arrival, heralded by the sound of his battered bugle caused children to run indoors, and beg their parents to find the poorest of their woollen jerseys, which the rag man exchanged for a balloon. The knife sharpener wheeled a large wooden barrow, adapted to carry a large round grindstone vertically mounted, which he rotated to sharpen kitchen knives brought out to him, presumably for a few pence. Perhaps the strangest street trader of all was the man who arrived with his pony and cart, yelling “butter milk soor (sour)milk”. Customers would arrive carrying large jugs or pitchers, which he would fill from the appropriate milk container on his cart. I still don’t know what the attraction was for “soor milk” – Was it used to make pancakes? – but without doubt the whole practice would fail any hygiene test today. In an earlier article I referred to the coal man who I admired for his strength in carrying a 1cwt bag of coal on this back to the top flats of the tenements. Similarly the council bin man had to swing a full metal bin on to his shoulders and carry it from the back of the tenement to the bin lorry in the street.

Finally in this group of street characters I must mention “Charlie the Dummy”, although like Ali, perhaps people should have been more sensitive to Charlie’s feelings, as although he was mute, he was neither deaf nor stupid. Charlie was very friendly, and would quickly make a small drawing for you, as he always carried a small notebook and pencil. Unfortunately in his attempts to communicate he groaned and grunted very loudly which was a bit frightening to a child who did not fully understand the issues. In his favour Charlie was a welcome and popular sight, and one of the few adults referred to by his first name, as children were expected to be “respectful ” to adults.

Although not a frequent or regular sight at the Heid O’ the Hill , on a few occasions I did see American sailors in uniform. Somehow we children learned to ask them for “any gum chum”, and the American, presumably briefed on public relations, would take a packet of strip chewing gum from his pocket “just like they did in the movies”, and issue one stick to each child present.

I would like now to describe a few “traditions” which regularly occurred. A bride from the tenement , en route to her wedding, would be met at the close mouth by a group of well wishers, some of whom threw paper confetti. The bride and her escort would have with them a quantity of pennies, threepences, and sixpences as they entered the wedding car decorated with white ribbon. The white ribbon was a magnet to children in identifying where to gather in anticipation of a ‘scrammy’ (probably derived from scramble). As the bridal car moved off, the occupants would throw handfuls of money out of the vehicle
window, and the children would rush forward to cries of “scrammy weddin” to gather as much as possible. It was not unusual to see some adults also participating…maybe times were hard. I think I was a bit reserved, and didn’t really get involved in the scrammy, but my brother had no such inhibitions.

Another tradition was the christening piece. The post war baby boom and religious beliefs at the time meant christenings were quite frequent. The mother and baby would
be met at the close mouth by a group of well wishers, as they started on their way to have the baby christened. The mother had with her a prepared “christening piece”, usually consisting of 2 buttered digestive biscuits, with 2 shillings or half a crown sandwiched between them , and wrapped in paper. There was no scrammy on this occasion, as the mother chose a child to be receive the christening piece. I was flattered to be given this prize on several occasions, and I sometimes wonder what factors influenced the mothers decision.

It may be that a few readers are not familiar with the use of the word “piece”, in this context, but it is was a piece of bread/loaf, (before the introduction of sliced bread), normally a bread and jam sandwich. It was quite common for a child playing in the street, to shout up to his/her mother at the window of her tenement home, “fling me doon a piece Mammy”. The piece duly arrived wrapped in newspaper, although I have seen the newspaper blow away while the piece was in flight, (or gravitational pull ). This practice
suggests to me that mother was aware of the child whereabouts at most times, could identify her child’s voice from a distance, and both parties avoided the necessity of
climbing the many flights of stairs.


Image courtesy of Eric Webster

There were a few activities we children engaged in which today may be considered unusual: On Drumfrocher Road, at the top of Lyndoch Street, there was a sugar refinery (Tate & Lyle ?). The flat back lorries delivering sacks of raw sugar would slow down to enter the Refinery. We chased the lorry, and grabbed a hand full of raw sugar which had spilled on the floor of the lorry. Also, somehow we learned that if you stood on the pavement and shouted up at the windows of the refinery, a worker would sometimes come to the window and throw down large lumps of brown sugar, like a lump of candy. We called it demerara sugar, which we had been learning about in school, but I later learned it was “pan sugar” a residue from the refining process.

In Nile street and Trafalgar Street, which were connected before the wall was built, was a foundry. The Nile Street side of the building had windows at pavement level, and you could kneel down and see the men working with hot metal, and furnaces. The foundry also had a high chimney stack, which I recall watching on several evenings, spewing flames high into the sky, which was particularly spectacular on a dark winter’s evening. I now believe this was probably a cleaning out/shutting down process on a Friday (?) about 5.00pm.

At about the age of 7, I was able to earn 6 pence, when a woman who lived in the ‘new’ houses in Ann Street, paid me to collect 6 coal briquettes from the coal dipit (depot) at Upper Greenock railway station, on a Saturday morning. The briquettes were blocks of compressed coal dust, and were quite heavy.

A less glamorous activity carried out by me and a couple of friends my Mum told me ” not to play with”, was known as ‘midgy proge-ing’. My adult interpretation of this, based on midgy being a ‘midden’ or refuse collection area, and ‘proge-ing’ being to ‘prod’, or ‘rake through’. At the rear of the tenements was a small area of grass, a brick built wash house , and a walled refuse bin storage area, ‘the midden’. Occasionally, in passing we could see that someone had thrown out a bundle of comics, or toys, which to us seemed reusable, so
we rescued them from the bins. Because the area was overlooked by tenement windows on two sides, we were often shouted at and chased away. I thought the owner of the comics didn’t want us to have them, but of course I now realise they were worried about the health hazard. I’m not proud of this, but neither am I ashamed, as it was just an activity of many children at the time. It was common to fill a bottle with water from the tap, break a liquorice stick and dissolve it in the water. This gave us a brown liquid called ‘sugar alley watter’ which we thought (or were persuaded) was as good as lemonade.

As I got a bit older, I was trusted to “go a message”, for my Mum. Usually mid week, when Friday’s wages were spent, I was given a written note to take to one of two moneylenders in Drumfrochar Road to borrow 5 or 10 shillings until pay day. How I hated that errand, and those people whom I could still name and describe today, but won’t. On a similarly embarrassing errand, mid week, to supplement our (non) finances, I learned how to take an item to the pawn shop. The pawnbroker was Duncan MacKenzie, with premises at the bottom of William Street, and he was referred to by most people as ‘Uncle Duncan’, ‘Uncle’ being code for pawnbroker. Normally the only item worth a 10 shilling loan, was Dad’s best suit, or dress shoes, pawned on a Wednesday, and redeemed with interest on Friday. Believe me anyone in the Cathcart Square area carrying a small, badly wrapped brown paper parcel, tied with rough string was either coming or going to their Uncles, and trying not to show it. These last two examples definitely shaped my attitude to debt, self sufficiency, and sympathy for the less wealthy.

Perhaps it is time to tell you about more healthy pursuits, and activities undertaken with my parents. A favourite picnic was to walk with my parents and siblings to the Bees Dam, or The Cut, or the dam at the Golf Club. We would fish for minnons (minnows), using a jam jar with a length of string tied around the neck. Those we caught were doomed to die within 24 hours because we fed them on bread crumbs. My Dad gave me a lesson in plumbing, sewerage systems and water recycling, when he flushed the dead minnons down the toilet, “sending them back to the sea where they would be happy”.

On many Sunday mornings, Dad would take me to the Murdieston Dam, where we could watch the model yachts being sailed, and sometimes got a close up look inside the yacht house. On one occasion only, I sailed my toy yacht successfully from the shore, out about 20 feet, where it promptly keeled over and sank, just too far out and too deep to recover. Behind the yacht house, there is/was a grass park where we and many others went to roll our painted eggs at Easter. Also it that area was a play park with swings and a roundabout. Nearby was the park keepers house, and a football pitch with a gate on to Dempster Street. I don’t suppose many people are aware that if you walked the lower path at the side of the green keepers house, on a Sunday morning, you could buy home made potato scones served at a hatch/door.


Image shared by Eric Webster

After my paternal Grannie died in 1952, I would walk with Dad to the cemetery in South Street on a Sunday morning. At the entrance to the cemetery was a man , with a large wicker basket, about 4ft in diameter, filled with the most beautiful daffodils for sale. At that time, not having a garden, such a display of flowers was special. After
paying our respects, and Dad had tidied the lair, we would spend some time at the monument and fish pond at the top of the main drive. The pond was stocked then with the most beautiful large gold fish.

I recall one occasion when Dad took me to a variety show in the Empire Theatre in Clyde Square, where there was lots of music including community singing to the words of a song projected on to a screen, followed by the bouncing ball. I walked home that night singing the half remembered songs, “Goodnight Irene”, and “After the Ball”. For me the greatest entertainment was, and still is the cinema, or “pictures’. At that time there were 7 cinemas in Greenock, Gaumont, Odeon, Central, B.B. Cinema, Regal, La Scala, and Pavilion, with another in Port Glasgow, The Plaza. Cinemas showed a main feature A film, a smaller B film , a newsreel and (yes) Pearl and Dean adverts, and coming attractions, or trailers. The programmes changed mid week, meaning that in a 7 day period, if you could afford it you could go to the cinema 14 times and see different films each times. All this was of course pre TV., and soon died out when TV arrived in volume. The Central was known as ‘The Ranch’ because it showed so many cowboy films, and the Pavilion, in Rue End Street was legend because when the tide was in… the people in the front seats got their feet wet… I think this was just a joke?

I had been taken to the cinema several times by adult family members or friends, and was so impressed I still fondly recall part of these occasions and the films, ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Lorna oone’, ‘Zorro’, ‘Alice In Wonderland’. On a Saturday, if my parents could afford it, and I hadn’t already spent my 6 pence pocket money on chewing gum with picture cards, my brother and I went to ‘The La Scala’- it was never just ‘La Scala’, but always had the superfluous ‘The’. If you could afford 7 pence, you could enter by the front main reception area, and be admitted to the cushioned seats at the back of the cinema. If like me, you could only afford 5 pence, you queued in the ‘tunnel’, which was a covered corridor down the side of the building, and admitted through a door at the front of the cinema, to uncomfortable wooden seats. I often sat so close to the screen that I got a stiff neck looking up. The show consisted typically of a main B film, ‘Roy Rogers’, ‘Hopalong Cassidy’, ‘The 3 Stooges’, ‘Old Mother Riley’, ‘Abbott And Costello’, a cartoon, and a ‘cliffhanger’ 13 part serial, such as ‘Captain Marvel’, (Billy Biggelow changed from boy to superhero by shouting “shazam!”), ‘Superman’, ‘Flash Gordon’, And ‘Zorro’. Such was the effect of the children’s matinee, that loud cheers went up when the hero appeared, and equally loud boos when the villain appeared. Imagine the noise, when the scene was the goodies chasing the baddies for ten minutes! Loud cheers , boos and feet stamping were also heard when the the film it often did, and the projectionist threaded it so that we missed a bit of the film!!! . If we had just seen ‘Captain Marvel’ or ‘Superman’, my brother and I would shout “shazam!” and pretend to fly up Mount Pleasant Street, the Goose Stairs, and down Prospecthill Street. If we had just seen ‘Zorro’, we would sword fence all the way home, pausing only to pretend to scratch a ‘Z’ on a door.

There are many minor memories I have failed to mention because I feel I have rambled on too long, such as my one visit to Johnny Buntains Hall, the small church hall in Prospecthill Street, to see a lantern slide show. My first rejection, aged 8, when in a game of ‘Kiss, Kick or Torture’, I opted for a kiss… how embarrassing! The use of rationing coupons, pipe clay to whitewash stairs, white clay pipes with long stems, used for blowing bubbles, primary school, and so on., but I think I should finish with the Street party in 1953 for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

My brief recollection is of good weather, a variety of tables up the middle of the street, some colour flags, lemonade, orange squash , sandwiches and cake. I don’t think there was so much food that one could gorge ones self, and I suppose adults had to keep an eye on fair distribution of limited supplies, but I do know it was a special occasion at the time, probably officially promoted and supported, to help people forget their less pleasant war memories, and current problems.


Image courtesy of Eric Webster


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