Growing up in St John’s
By Laurence Davidson
Born in 1957, I grew up witnessing the end of steam, the rapid growth in technology, cars, fashion, the use of plastic, and a good deal more. On the world stage there was the cold war, the terrible famines of Biafra and Bangladesh, Vietnam and our entry to the European common market. Like many others of my age, I was gripped by the Space Race and read anything I could get my hands on about the latest rocket developments and launches.
All the houses in our quiet road, Claverham Close were built in the early 60s, largely attracting young families. There were at least twenty children of similar ages, for my two brothers and me to mix with. We played in the road a lot, racing and skidding our bikes, playing endless games of cricket at the cul-de-sac wall that still bears the scars of a wicket carved into it. Being mischievous, we pushed the limits of what we could get away with. We often made a nuisance of ourselves to the few older residents, who probably regretted ever moving there. On darker evenings, we sometimes used fishing line to secretly pull a door-knocker from a distant hiding place, then delight at watching the hapless adult curse after finding nobody there. We overstepped the mark when once we tied together, across the street, the tops of two metal dustbins that were put out on the pavement for collection. We excitedly waited for a car drive past and drag the lids clacking behind it down the road. Various grocery vans would regularly visit our close, selling Wonderloaf and Sunblest bread, fruit and vegetables. During the summer season (everything was seasonal then) we bought sweet cherries for 2d a bag and by the end of July the road gutters were full of cherry stones!
All the local children went to Pitmaston Primary school, with its excellent teachers whom I fondly remember. In my case, between 1961 and 1968 they were; Mrs Crockett, Miss Bund, Mrs Porter, Miss Jenkins, Miss Acton, Mr Sutton and Mr Goode. Almost all children walked to school and back each day and we were ‘crossed over’ the Malvern Road by lollipop lady Mrs Raybone, even though traffic was quiet by comparison with today. The adjacent Pitmaston Park became our playground where we climbed the trees, played games such as hide-and-seek, ‘1-2-3’, British bulldog, and football with a heavy leather, often waterlogged ball. Sometimes we played ‘footy’ until we could no longer see the ball as dusk descended. In my time there, the school headmaster was John Smith. With typical class sizes of 44, he personally took aside a group of ‘average’ perfoming pupils in their final year, and gave extra tuition in English and Maths. In my case, it worked as it enabled me to move up from 22nd in the class to 8th. Another great teacher, Bob Goode taught me in my final year. He sparked my interest in art and was also my first piano teacher.
We were given a lot of freedom back then, spending hours chatting with friends under the streetlamps, on the park or the nearby playing fields. Once we had bikes, we began to stray further away from home; as far west as Rushwick, across Boughton Golf Course, and along the rivers, Teme and Severn. Fishing was popular; in the Teme, off Powick Bridge and in the Severn from the riverbank opposite the Diglis Hotel. A favourite spot was under the huge willow that still reaches out over the water where once, to my great surprise, I caught a beautiful, good sized Tench. I remember it took forever to get the hook out of its mouth. We all knew the best places to scrump apples and pears and we often made ‘dens’ in the woods and hedges where we cooked sausages and beans over an open fire. One day, some friends and I were sitting in a den (a disused coal bunker in our back garden) when my elder brother excitedly banged in the hatch to tell us that England had just won the World Cup!
For my brothers and me, pocket money started at 3d a week, each year increasing to about 2/6, enough to buy a good supply of tooth-rotting sweets from our nearest corner shop in Vernon Park Road. Many parents placed a weekly grocery order with them which was delivered each friday by van. We boys were then expected to return the emptied cardboard boxes to the shop. I once bet some friends that I could cycle from home to the store, about 500 yards, with a large, upturned box over my head. Setting off, I could see my pedals and a bit of road, but it is no surprise I soon careered into a parked car, and we all collapsed in laughter. Corner shops constantly needed to adapt to counter the competition of the emerging supermarkets. But even with the arrival in St. Johns of Burtons (which became Fine Fare) there remained many thriving small shops along the Malvern, Bransford and Bromyard roads.
From about eight years old, we brothers were volunteered to join St John’s church choir. We were frequently stunned by the loud and fiery sermons of the vicar Malcolm Richards who often leant right out of the pulpit as if to grab hold of a fearful member of the congregation. We were taught how to sing by the able organist and choirmaster ‘Dinky’ Protheroe. On some Saturdays, we were rewarded with a fat half-crown (2/6d) as we filed into the vestry after singing for a wedding service – sometimes two! That was more than a week’s pocket money for less than an hour’s work. And we were also paid every quarter, for the choir practices and Sunday services we had attended. At about the same age, we enrolled as cubs at the Worcester 2nd’s scout hut in Swanpool Walk. After each cub night, we bought a 3d bag of chips from the nearby chippy, and sometimes a carton of flavoured milk from the vending machine that stood at the junction with Bransford Road. We took ages to walk home, ambling along, savouring our freedom.
My brothers and I came to know St. Johns like the backs of our hands. Each fortnight we visited the old library, a dark, Victorian edifice that was demolished in 1966 to make way for the three Bull Ring ‘skyscrapers’. Once, when really bored, I ran excitedly around the quiet reading room, pushing as many of the books to the back of their shelves as we could. I was soundly scolded by the old librarian who made me put everything back exactly as it was.
Over the road from the library stood Pimley’s, our family dentist. A man of few words, Mr Pimley, whose chilling utterance “This is going to hurt” was responsible for my half-dozen black fillings that are still doing a great job, more that fifty years on. Just up the hill towards the church was the barber Mr Davies who also sang in the church choir. On one visit, I confidently stated “Just take very little off this time, please”, hopefully to avoid the usual scalping that befell all young lads who were sent there. I desperately wanted to look less like a choirboy and more like Ringo Starr, but my father promptly sent me back to ask Mr Davies to finish the job!
We went through many phases of childhood. There were roller skates, trolleys (our road was on a hill!), catapults, pellet guns for which we bought dried peas from Perk’s garden store, cycling, guitars and of course, on Saturday mornings, catching the latest chart-topping records in a listening booth at Boots in town. My father, who loved classical music and strongly disagreed with pop, confiscated any records he caught me playing loudly on his Bush gramophone player.
While ‘still in short trousers’, my interest in electronics was ignited after visiting what became my favourite shop in town – Jack Porter’s, right next to the cathedral. It was packed full of the latest electronic imports from Japan and the US. For my tenth birthday, I was given an electronic projects kit which developed my limited understanding of transistor radios, amplifiers and transmitters. Later that year, I repeatedly nagged my parents for a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder that was in the shop window, costing the princely sum of 26s/6d. My persistence paid off as it appeared as my ‘main’ Christmas present. My life was complete!
In 1968, I started at the Grammar School but throughout my time there, it was mainly with my friends back across the river in St. Johns I spent my free time. Each weekday, I caught the W4 bus to Angel Place and walked through The Tything to school. On the way back I sometimes popped into Coombers to buy electronic components. They made tape-recorders and radios for schools and are still thriving, having relocated to Norton. It was not a retailer but they let me in all the same, just pleased to help, seeing that I was so enthusiastic. Once a week, I also spent an hour or so at Austin’s music shop near the junction with Castle Street, where I received my higher piano lessons from Avril Austin.
On turning sixteen, it was time to find a Saturday job. I was lucky enough to be taken on at Worcester Music Centre in the basement of Russell & Dorrells. It was part-owned by Worcester’s very own music producer and entertainer, Muff Murfin. It felt so cool to work there as I got to tune up and play the best guitars and other instruments, meet local band members, and even use their 4-track recording studio for a discounted £3 per hour! I was also clued up and able to tell my friends all about the up-and-coming gigs in Worcester and the Malvern Winter Gardens.
I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood, pretty unremarkable as it was. I knew it was over as my father told me as much on my sixteenth birthday when he handed me back a stack of pop records that he had confiscated over the years. He said I was now old enough to make more of my own decisions, including the music I played and listened to. I promptly joined a school rock band and have been in bands, on and off, for most of my life! It must have been hell for him to hear my friends and me jamming every Friday in our front room, before I left home at 18.
Completing my education, finding a career and the responsibilities of adulthood, now beckoned!
Condemned houses, sad stories and a happy coincidence
Sometimes a photograph has the power to tell a story so much greater than just the image in front of you. A tragic, yet poignant story unfolded this week after a remarkable coincidence led to a bittersweet reunion.
A few months ago, we were contacted by the family of Tom Marsden, the former Public Health Inspector in Worcester. The family were keen to donate an important collection of photographs to Museums Worcestershire that Mr Marsden had taken during his time in this role. Knowing that he had been in post during a key time for the city, in the late 1950s and 1960s, we were excited to see what this material might contain. We were not disappointed.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about the lost buildings of Worcester, but many of the demolition works that took place during this period were as a result of the 1957 Housing Act, which called for houses to be fit for human habitation and led to around 3,500 houses in Worcester being condemned as unsanitary and unsafe. During the course of this project we have already talked to local people who described the terrible living conditions, and the impact that this had on their health. The new estates constructed around the city during that time were, for some, a chance to escape appalling conditions and very much welcomed.
As Public Health Inspector it was Tom Marsden’s role to ensure that housing in the city conformed to the 1957 Act and his incredible photographs capture the conditions that many families experienced after a half century of neglect, economic depression and two world wars. Rising damp, rat-infested courtyards and cramped, airless spaces were just some of the scenes captured as he surveyed the city. What followed was the mass demolition of many areas, including the tenement houses of the Blockhouse, Tybridge Street, The Moors and Dolday.
Roll forward 60 years and after careful digitisation of the photographs by John France at the Worcestershire Archive, we were able to share a handful of images as part of the weekly ‘Lockdown Quiz’. One photograph that stood out from the collection was this wonderful image of demolition contractors posing for the camera at Spring Gardens, near Britannia Square. The photograph was included as part of the quiz.
The following day, I received a message which read as follows;
“Hi Sheena. Where do you get the pics from? The photo of 3 men and a digger. 4th pic on quiz is my father. He’s the 1 leaning on the shovel. He died in a demolition accident 13 days after I was 13. I’m 70 now and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I only have 1 photo of him. I would dearly like that one too. Can you help? Gill Brooks.”
Having spent some time reviewing the photographs, I was able to respond to Gill with the news that we had not one, but two photographs of her father. It was an emotional moment. Through a series of messages, Gill shared her story. Her father, Tom Bagley, was a foreman working for Charles Eden, demolition contractors. The company undertook much of the work to clear the slum properties around the city and he was shown in the photograph alongside Walter Davies and Bill Jones. Tragically, Tom was killed on November 19th, 1962 when a wall at a property in Diglis Road collapsed onto him.
We had been unclear of the date of this particular image, but by making reference to another source in the Historic Environment Record, the Register of Demolished Properties, we discovered that these houses were demolished between January and June 1962, only a few short months before he died.
Gill shared some wonderful memories of her father. He was a shy man, who hated having his photograph taken which seemed to come across in the photographs we have. One particularly remarkable story was of a demolition job at the old Barbourne Leather Works in Pope Iron Road. A tall and troublesome chimney which had gained the name ‘Temperamental Annie’ was causing a few complications in the process of site clearance. Tom scaled the chimney to the top and began the process of taking it down, brick by brick.
Tom Bagley was only 45 years old when he died leaving behind a young family. Charlie Eden paid for the funeral and plot at Astwood cemetery, which is marked only by a marble pot that says “from his fellow workmates”.
While this story is a desperately sad one, it has been such a wonderful outcome to reunite the family with their father in some way, more than 57 years later. These photographs really unlocked a powerful and poignant story which demonstrates their true value.
We would like to say a huge thankyou to Gill for taking the time to share her memories with us, and allowing us to retell her story.