We are indebted to Peter Hopper for sharing the following Skegness memories with us. Peter was a journalist for the Skegness News in the 1950s and reported on the Dambusters Filmed in Skegness news story.
The cement mixer in my next door neighbour’s garden in Ipswich looked innocent enough, as it churned the material inside. It was being used in the building of brick porches for our two houses, but the sight of that mixer brought back the shudder of a memory from almost 70 years ago.
My mind went back to the early years of the Second World War and the building of a street air raid shelter in Briar Way, Skegness, where I had been sent as an evacuee at the age of three.
I had been given a large, clear glass marble, my pride and joy, but it rolled too near the half-built shelter and got stuck in a rainwater gulley beneath tons of reinforced concrete. When I asked the man using the cement mixer to get it for me, he laughed and said I would not see the marble again until after the war.
I pleaded with him, but my tormenter threatened to put me in the cement mixer if I did not stop crying. I was terrified and, as a child, remained frightened of all cement mixers – and the men using them.
I never saw that marble again; some other child must have claimed it when the shelter was eventually taken down in the post war years and, by that time, I was old enough not to care.
Like most boys of that wartime era, I loved rolling marbles along the gutter. Hit your opponent’s marble with your throw and you could claim it as yours. The smell of dust in the gutter still brings back memories of a time when children didn’t have to worry about traffic. Kicking a small rubber ball along the street on the way to school was accepted child play.
The walk to school was compulsory for some. In my town, bicycles could only be used if your home was over a mile away; my home to school distance was estimated at nine tenths of a mile, so I did not qualify for pedal power.
I appreciate now that my schooldays were that of a unique generation. War deprived us of some things, sweets and fruit from overseas being the prime examples, but we had freedom from parental control unknown to today’s children.
Pleasures were more often simple things, like visiting a blacksmith’s forge on the way home from school. The smithy, a kindly man who wore a leather apron, allowed me to work the bellows that made the coke fuel in the fire white hot, whilst he used his skill to hammer out a horseshoe and other metal objects on the anvil.
The sense of excitement in a wartime atmosphere prevailed, even for schoolchildren. Living in Lincolnshire, we were surrounded by numerous military airfields and heard the constant drone of aeroplanes. Model aircraft, often made by adults and given as birthday gifts, were treasured possessions, enabling youngsters to imitate the familiar sounds of bombers flying over the coast, on their way to enemy targets.
Shrapnel (parts of exploded bombs and shells) were to be found in and around bombed-out buildings, but parents and school teachers constantly warned about the dangers of touching unexploded bombs, and a few who did not heed those warnings were killed or maimed for life.
In a field not far from home was the huge circular gas holder which served the town. It had iron steps by which I could climb up to a platform two thirds of the way to the top. From there I hurled down small parachutes carrying toy soldiers, and watch them float slowly to the ground.
When the war ended, it was ‘back to business’ for the resorts hotel and boarding house keepers, funfair owners and those known to us as ‘donkey wallopers,’ a term which didn’t imply any cruelty to the animals used for giving children rides on the beach. However, we did note that late afternoon the donkeys came home at a faster pace than they went out in the morning!
Living in a seaside town where the population increased tenfold during the busy summer months had its drawbacks. Visitors on holiday moved slowly along the pavements… naturally. But their casual steps along the pavements frustrated those who lived and worked in the resort, we who were in more of a hurry…naturally.
Here Come the Barrow Boys
It was at a weekends when I came more into my own, a time when I gladly joined the holidaymakers for their arrivals and departures. I was known as a ‘barrow boy,’ one of a unique group of youngsters who should, more accurately, have been termed luggage boys.
Britain was in the throes of national recovery from six years of exhausting conflict, a time when foreign travel for the majority was many years into the future. The solace for thousands of working families was the luxury of a week beside the sea in a coastal resort.
Very few people owned cars at that time, so Midlands holidaymakers en route to Skegness, travelled by train or by coach to their holiday destination, alighting at the railway station and coach terminus and looking out for a taxi to take them to their hotel or boarding house.
The vehicle for hire used by barrow boys was, well, just a barrow: a large wooden box or trolley attached to a pair of discarded pram wheels and two large handles attached at one end. The barrow acted as a mobile receptacle for suitcases, and mine was made for me by my foster father.
No doubt that, at first sight, I and my fellow barrow boys appeared to be scruffy urchins out to make a quick profit from unwary holidaymakers, but our clients were well satisfied with the service. Our hire at very low cost allowed them to stretch their legs after a long journey and walk the short journey to their accommodation, with the added bonus of not having to carry heavy suitcases.
The first question I was asked was always: “How much do you charge, son?” To which I replied, with as much humility as I could muster: “I don’t charge, sir. I will take what you give me.” This was not as gullible as it sounds. The theory, which worked most of the time, was that my hirer, flush with money at the start of his holiday, would give more generously than if I had charged a set amount.. I would expect to be given a shilling (5p), a florin (10p) at most.
I was always careful to book them for the return journey the following weekend, hoping, of course, that they hadn’t spent all their money by then!
There were the occasional exceptions to the theory, such as the family that asked me to take them to Butlin’s Holiday Camp (Billy Butlin’s first, incidentally) a distance of three and a half miles, and a round trip of seven miles. My reward when I reached the camp was a miserly six old pence, which would not have bought even a lollipop today. Needless to say, I did not book them for the return trip when their holiday came to an end.
The real enemy of the barrow boy was his greatest rival for business: the taxi drivers who had paid fees to wait for custom outside the railway station. We had to be quick on our toes to get out of their way and avoid a clip round the ear, no doubt permissible, even desirable, to control cheeky though enterprising, kids in those days.
Only recently, I learned that, in 1950, the Skegness Taxi Proprietors’ Association sent a letter to the local council asking them to request the police to “put a stop” to barrow boys touting for luggage on Saturday mornings as they were a pest and were seriously affecting the taxi drivers’ living.
I was delighted to see that, after consulting with the police, the council replied that as no complaints for obstruction by barrow boys had been received, no action could be taken. From my point of view, a good result for healthy competition. But I wonder if the outcome would have been any different in today’s social climate?
I would be completely exhausted by mid-afternoon and to rest my legs, I sat in my barrow to eat a well-earned ice-cream. My takings late Saturday could be a satisfying £2 on a fine day, most of which was put aside for a holiday with the Boys’ Brigade in October, the holiday month for people who catered for holidaymakers.
Another seaside business enterprise was a bit more sneaky and involved the resort’s day-trippers: weekend visitors who spent their leisure time on the beach when the sun was shining. “Sensible” beach clothes were rare post-war and the dress code of the male head of the household was invariably grey flannel trousers, white shirt and something to protect his head – often a knotted cloth handkerchief had to suffice.
As our man from the city settled back to sunbathe, his back leaning against the foot of the sand dunes, up would go his legs, leaving his pockets at just the right angle for coins to roll out and bury themselves in the sand.
When the breeze stiffened towards the end of the afternoon and the time came for the family to return to the coach park, my beachcomber instincts came into play. No metal detectors were available or necessary, handwork recovered the coins lost by their departed owner.
Written by, and copyright of, Peter Hopper, Ipswich.