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I have in front of me a copy of my certificate of birth. In black ink it states that I was born in Birkenhead on 20 June 1955. Of course, I know this. It was my mother who added that it was early on a Monday morning (about 5.30 a.m.) when I arrived in the world. The precise location was 'Annandale', a private nursing home in Storeton Road in Prenton, Wirral, Cheshire. Apparently, it was a sunny morning, windows were open and bees hummed around the cut flowers given to my mother. Storeton Road is not far from Higher Bebington, where my parents then lived. My father, Sydney Eveleigh, was from Yorkshire, and had served for several years as an engineer with the Blue Funnel Line. They had met two years earlier at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton, and married in May 1954. I was the first born; two sisters were to follow.
The family home was '178', a 1930s semi on Higher Bebington Road that my mother's parents had purchased new in 1934. My mother, Barbara Wynne Jenkins, was the only daughter of Fred and Margaret Jenkins. Fred – and that was the sum total of his forename – was also a native of Birkenhead but had spent most of his early years in Liverpool. There he had trained as an architect at the Liverpool School of Architecture at the university. His wife, my maternal grandmother, was Margaret Coucil; she came from a respectable working-class family who lived in a council house in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. Fred and Margaret had married at St John's the Evangelist, Knotty Ash, in October 1928 and their daughter was born in Knotty Ash in August 1931. The jam butty mines of Knotty Ash, 'diddymen' and tickling sticks all lay in the future, but perhaps Fred and Margaret had ordered their coal from one 'Dodd, Coal Merchant', as the father of the entertainer Ken Dodd was a coal merchant in a big way in that part of Liverpool.
The decision to relocate across the Mersey to Wirral was not untypical at this time. With excellent links by ferry, underground electric trains and, after July 1934, by road through the Mersey Tunnel, Wirral was rapidly establishing itself as a popular dormitory area for working families in Liverpool. Facing Liverpool, the Wirral peninsula was predominantly industrial and urban in character – all the way from Birkenhead Docks for about 4 or 5 miles upriver to the entrance locks of the Manchester Ship Canal at Eastham. But away from the Mersey, it was a different world: a place of ridges and outcrops of sandstone, gorse and pine trees, patches of woodland and pretty winding roads linking its villages, hamlets and farmsteads. It contained some old sandstone churches with broach spires – which are easier to admire than explain – and also several windmills. The Wirral was ideal windmill country, windy and exposed, and in the 1930s a handful of these windmills still survived. Bidston Mill, which can be seen from Liverpool, was the first windmill to be preserved in Britain, in 1894. The head of Wirral faces out to Liverpool Bay. Here is true coastline containing several small seaside towns like New Brighton, Hoylake and West Kirby, which expanded after the opening of the Wirral Railway in the late nineteenth century.
So, Wirral was ripe for development and this was no isolated phenomenon. From the late 1920s and through the '30s, the development of new suburban estates, typically on the edges of towns and cities, was rapidly accelerating. The building of local authority estates had begun shortly after the end of the First World War to ease a chronic national housing shortage but by 1939 they had been outnumbered roughly two to one by privately built houses aimed at a new class of property owners. It was in these inter-war years that Middlesex, for example, largely succumbed to concrete, bricks and Portland cement (except for some generous grass verges and golf courses) and when several parts of Wirral acquired a distinctly suburban character.
Wirral suburbia was no different from suburbia anywhere. Indeed, one particular feature of 1930s housing is that it really did not matter where you were: it all looked pretty much the same – from Sidcup in Kent, most of Middlesex, Westbury on Trym in Bristol to extensive developments in Birmingham and Liverpool – and elsewhere. Whilst there were a few detached houses, and bungalows were quite popular, the greater part of this new wave of housing consisted of the three-bed semi, typically rendered in grey or brown pebbledash with cumbrous round arch open porches over and around the front door. They were laid out in avenues, ways and lanes, and the odd boulevard, but never or rarely was the name 'street' applied. Whilst ribbon development out of town of semis on busy roads was common, the typical development followed the garden suburb ideal that had emerged in the 1890s. The idea of a street conjured up a way of life that was the antithesis of the new estates, a world of dense town housing, some of it with backyard WCs, trams rattling by, smoky brick and little greenery. Life in the 1930s brought the opportunity for some of 'living the dream', of acquiring a home in a spaciously laid-out suburb with open country most likely nearby, but with the assurance that the new home had gas (for cooking), electricity (for lighting, the wireless set and the laundry iron), good drains, a bathroom and an indoor WC.
Such was 178 Higher Bebington Road, and when my maternal grandparents moved in there with their little infant daughter in February 1934, they were very likely home owners for the very first time. And 178 was close to open countryside. Higher Bebington Road was a 1930s development that ran downhill through former heathland towards Lower Bebington. The two settlements of Lower and Higher Bebington are about a mile apart and connected by a main road that runs all the way from New Ferry to Birkenhead, changing name several times on its route, although on its passage through Higher Bebington we simply referred to it as the 'Main Road'.
Lower Bebington was – and remains – the more important of the two, with an attractive parish church, St Andrew's – a sandstone church and one of those Wirral churches with a broach spire – municipal offices in Mayor Hall, and a railway station on the main line between Birkenhead and Chester. Between the railway and the banks of the Mersey lie New Ferry and Port Sunlight. Brunel's famous steam ship, the Great Eastern, was broken up on the beach at New Ferry in 1889–90 and it is claimed that it is still possible to find slivers of wrought iron from the hull in the sands of the beach. Port Sunlight, a model industrial village, was begun in 1889 by William Hesketh Lever (1851–1925) to provide homes for the workforce of his famous soap works. With its pretty cottages recalling vernacular building traditions, formal gardens and imposing art gallery, Port Sunlight is like nothing else on Wirral – except perhaps for Thornton Hough, a rural estate village of similar architecture that Lever also laid out.
Higher Bebington lies about a mile or so up this main road past the new grammar school, which had opened in September 1931 in what was then virtually open countryside. It was a village of small farms, quarries and stone cottages chiefly occupied by quarry workers and farm labourers. There was also a scattering of large red brick houses standing in their own grounds and typically screened from the road by tall trees: these were usually occupied by wealthy merchants and professional people who worked in Liverpool. On Kings Road, part of the main road heading towards Birkenhead, a parish church had been added in the late 1850s and, like so many Victorian churches and church restorations of the time, was finished in a textbook version of thirteenth-century ecclesiastical architecture. It was built of the hard, creamy white Storeton sandstone that had been quarried in the village since Roman times. Close up, chisel marks on the blocks used for the walls and buttresses can be clearly seen. They give the exterior walls a robust finish – like the 'rusticated' stonework of classical architecture – contrasting with the smoothly finished stonework around the windows and doors: these chisel marks stand as a silent and unwritten memorial to the forgotten local men who hewed each building block out of the quarried stone ...
The centre of Higher Bebington was Village Road, which climbed from the main road (Teehey Lane) towards the wooded Storeton Ridge. Village Road contained a rather handsome Arts and Crafts style village hall – the Victoria Hall of 1897 – a straggle of stone cottages, some Victorian red brick shops and houses, three public houses (the Royal Oak, which carried a date stone of 1739, and then further up the hill, the George Hotel and the Traveller's Rest). Near the top end of the village, at the end of Mill Brow, there was an early nineteenthcentury windmill and just beyond the mill, a large and deep quarry that remained a going concern until the late 1950s. The windmill had ceased working around 1901 and by 1934 it presented a forlorn spectacle: its sails and external timber gallery had been removed and its cap had blown off in a storm the previous year, but the red brick tower, still and silent, remained a familiar landmark visible on the approach to the village, especially from Lower Bebington, and provided a focal point and some character to this otherwise unremarkable village.
The top end of Village Road ended at a crossroads where it met Mount Road. The Traveller's Rest stood on one corner and opposite was a small corner shop. Across the road were Storeton Woods, which contained several disused quarries of the same Storeton sandstone hidden amongst the scots pine, birch and oak. Mount Road followed the ridge and in the Birkenhead direction crossed into Prenton, where it became Storeton Road. And that takes us back to my first few days in Annandale nursing home ...CHAPTER 2
A terse entry in my grandfather's diary for Saturday, 2 July 1955, records, 'Barbara came home from Annandale. Meaney used his car.' Edward (Ted) Meaney lived next door with his wife, Gwen. Fred had also recorded the delivery of a pram and cot in readiness on the two previous days. Margaret, my grandmother, was no longer there. She had died suddenly of a stroke in September 1953. For Monday, 18 July, my grandfather wrote 'Baby 4 weeks old today'. But he had not long to live. Fred had terminal cancer and made his last diary entry on 30 August. He died just a few days later.
We were to leave 178 just before my fourth birthday in 1959. I was happy there. I recall a tranquil and comfortable home and when it came to leave, I experienced nostalgic regret and sadness for the first time. The houses in Higher Bebington Road were built by Ben Davies, who was responsible for several other developments in the area. The interior that I distantly recall was fitted out and furnished largely as my grandparents had arranged it in the 1930s and '40s.
Oak panelling in the hall and stained glass at the front were standard but my architect grandfather specified that these were omitted. Of the houses built by Davies in Higher Bebington Road, only 178 lacked these features, which Fred doubtless regarded as pastiche. The interior décor was different from the neighbouring houses, with furnishings, pictures and ornaments that reflected my grandfather's interest in art and his circle of artist and craftsmen friends in Liverpool.
Fred was a member of the Sandon Studios Society, a club of architects, artists and sculptors, founded in 1905, that met in the Bluecoat Chambers, an early Georgian building in the centre of the city. One of his close friends was the well-known Liverpool sculptor, Herbert Tyson Smith (1883–1972): Fred owned several pieces by Herbert, including a beautiful small green bronze figure of a woman. Another of his friends was the photographer Edward Chambré Hardman (1898–1988), whose house and studio in Rodney Street is now owned by the National Trust. Hanging on the wall were original drawings and paintings by artists he knew, including an oil on canvas portrait of Margaret painted by another Sandon Studios member, the painter Henry Carr (c. 1872–1937). There were Japanese prints – a fine engraving of an early-Victorian steam ship, the Archimedes, which I remember was in the hall – and there was also a striking drawing of a nude by W.L. Stevenson, who went on to become the principal of the Liverpool School of Art; he was there when John Lennon was a (troublesome) student at the college in the late 1950s. As a young child I saw this drawing, which resembles the art of Eric Gill, as an indecipherable mass of scribbled lines.
The interior colours were muted. There was a lot of cream and green and the curtains in the front room consisted of floral prints. The dining room was papered in a light-cream textured wallpaper. The carpet was a mid-green, plain apart from a subtle twirl in the weave; the furniture included a mid-eighteenth-century panelled oak chest and a large, tall and dark oak bookcase – a wedding present to Fred and Margaret – which my mother later gave to the Salvation Army. There was also a large radio or wireless set – this was a Pye model, pre-war, with a cut out rising sun design over the speaker, a trademark design feature of the company. I also recall that there was an old-fashioned wind-up gramophone in the front room. Upstairs there was a separate bathroom and WC with a wooden seat, but the two rooms I remember most clearly are the morning room and the kitchen, doubtless because these were the rooms of everyday living. The morning room led off the hall and looked onto the side of the house and had an open tiled fireplace: the fire was lit regularly (with Co-op or Bryant & May's Pilot matches). The room was furnished with a pine kitchen table with a drawer at one end and three Windsor chairs. One of the few changes made by my parents in the home in the late 1950s was the addition of a television set, which was purchased around 1958. Whilst I have no recollection of the arrival of the TV, neither do I ever remember life without television, and this was to be another major influence on me – as it doubtless was for many children – through the following decade. The morning room led through into the kitchen, which occupied a single-storey extension at the rear of the house. This created a more spacious ground floor plan than some inter-war semis, which instead had a small 'kitchenette' squeezed into the basic rectangular house plan. Our kitchen was quarry tiled and fitted with a white fireclay sink and a scrubbed wooden drainboard. The back door led to the side of the house and another door opened into a small walk-in pantry cupboard.
The washing machine was a Hotpoint with a wringer that swung out over the drainboard on washing day. Cooking was done over a New World gas cooker. By 1939 roughly 90 per cent of British households cooked by gas and this was a very typical cooker of that period. It stood on short legs and was finished in a mottled grey and white enamel. As an infant, I had a near-fatal attraction to the row of brass keys that controlled the burners. These were just above the oven door and within easy reach of an infant. There was no safety 'push in and turn' device: turning the key simply opened the supply of the deadly town gas. And one morning, with my mother out of the room, that is precisely what I did. Fortunately, my mother smelt the gas from upstairs and rushed down to find me 'grovelling' on the brown mat by the back door: this, I can remember. The doctor was called and, apparently, I was walked around the garden to clear my lungs.
The back kitchen door opened onto a concrete path that ran down the side of the house to the back garden: 178 was the left-hand house of the pair. There was a brick and concrete air raid shelter here that my grandfather had built in time for the Blitz. Of course, I knew nothing then of the Second World War and had no comprehension that the shelter was used by the family and some of the neighbours, including Gwen Meany – and her fur coat, apparently – in a time of great fear and stress during the height of the Blitz. Later, as an older child, I was told that my grandfather had a collection of firearms and, worried that in wartime they might have attracted the attention of the authorities, he buried them, wrapped in tarpaulin, in the concrete base of the shelter. I have often wondered if they were ever discovered ...
Early memories are fragmentary and follow no chronology. I have a curious first-hand recollection of trying to steady myself by clutching the green stalks of plants in an attempt to stay upright but finding they were not strong enough to take my weight. The story I was later told was that on a fine spring day I had been put outside in my pram – a large black 'Silver Cross' vehicle – and had rocked it so vigorously that it upturned and I tumbled out, held precariously at about ground level by the pram straps. And so, was I found, dangling in a bed of bluebells, under an evergreen tree. I know this is a first-hand memory even though I must have been just ten months old. Another random memory is being taken to post a letter in Ted Meaney's car – the same one I was first brought home in. I clearly remember sitting in the front of the car for the short drive down the road and seeing the red post box ahead. When we stopped, I was lifted up to post the letter. Generally, there were few cars in the road. Most were black, and I remember the occasional passing of a rag and bone man with a horse and cart.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Escaping Suburbia"
Copyright © 2013 2019.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 1955-59 13
1 Introductions 15
2 Inside 178 23
3 Suburban Spread 31
4 Living in 1 Orchard Way 37
Part 2 1960-66 45
5 Starting School 47
6 Train Journeys 61
7 Evenings and Weekends 81
8 The Facts of Life 97
Part 3 1966-69 101
9 Grammar School 103
10 'Progress' 127
Part 4 Ireland 155
11 The Emerald Isle 157
12 The Secret Garden 165
13 Broken Glass 179
Further Reading 189