Chapter 6 Birkenhead

MY STORY

CHAPTER 6

BIRKENHEAD (SOCIAL LIFE)

One of the reasons why I was attracted to Birkenhead was that Anthea had two sisters living in the Wirral, Paddy Smith and Bunny (Honor Mary) Neale. In fact these two were later joined by Berta and Wendy making all five Gillard sisters living on the Wirral. The Neales were building a bungalow and I do mean building for Walter Neale did it all himself. I thought it would be a good idea if I built a bungalow for with Anthea’s heart condition it would be much better for her not to have stairs to climb. But I was going to get people to build it for me. I would do the contracting. I found a plot which cost £1,200.00 which seemed such a lot of money that Birkenhead solicitor Barney Berkson, thought I was buying a completed bungalow rather than buying just a plot of land. It shows how prices have gone up since 1959.

Walter had become friendly with Sid Gower the building inspector for Wallasey and suggested Sid design a bungalow for me. However I did not like Sid’s design. I thought it lacked flair. The Goulds, a couple who owned a plot opposite to our site, were having a house designed by an architectural student. I asked him to design one for me. He did not have the time to do this but introduced me to Raymond Binyon ARIBA who was working for Wallasey at that time. Ray and I remain friends to this day some 47 years’ later. Ray told me that ARIBA stands for “Always Remember I’m the Bloody Architect”.

I well remember my first meeting with Ray and Elsie his wife. They lived then in a house at Bromborough. Ray was not home when I first arrived. I saw a pram in the hall and enquired if they had a baby. “No” said Elsie “We are expecting a baby in a few days time”. I looked at her and it was obvious she was not pregnant. She laughed and said they were adopting. Ray turned up soon after and asked me all about myself and family. The design he later produced reflected all that I had told him. I was amazed at how appropriate the design turned out. It was without doubt the best house we would ever have.

My address on Ray’s drawing was given as 4 Heygarth Drive, Greasby, Wirral because I lodged for about six months with Anthea’s sister Paddy Smith and her husband Jack Smith and their children Mary and John. Anthea stayed at home in Worcester with Elizabeth and Anne. I travelled between Birkenhead and Worcester every weekend during all these six months. After that we secured a six month’s lease on a furnished flat in Hoylake. Would you believe it once we were installed in the Hoylake flat MAFF immediately sent me on an extended visit to Worcester on Fowl Pest Duty? so I was still motoring between Birkenhead and Worcester each weekend but starting from different ends.

West elevation

As I wrote Ray produced a very satisfactory design for a four bed roomed self-build bungalow with a kitchen/dining room, utility room, a study, a lounge and a playroom. The building was in two parts. We proceeded to get this built with the help of the Wallasey Building Inspector Sid Gower acting as overseer and recruiting people to dig out the foundations and do the brickwork and the joinery. Things went wrong right away. The site sloped quite a lot. Sid insisted digging down much deeper than called for by the plan. Ray was dismayed when he saw what had happened but it was too late by then. He had expected the site to be dug down to about half the level and the surplus soil disposed of. Ray was not hired to supervise but did some supervision anyway. When I was sent away yet again on FMD duty he gave Anthea splendid support. At one stage the bricklayers had run out of bricks and the brickworks could not deliver the bricks which were called “City Facings” for six weeks. Ray got the brickies to just mix up what they had with some similar bricks.

East elevation

I learned a few things myself. I discovered it was of no use asking bricklayers to think ahead. The building material suppliers were always closed at weekends. If you wanted something delivered before the weekend you had to get the order in by Thursday noon at the latest. So I used to go round on Thursday mornings and ask them if they had everything they needed. Almost invariably they said they did not need anything. Then I would check visually that they had a sufficiency of such items as sand, cement and mortar. Very often they had not!

Another problem was with the cills and lintels which were of pre-cast concrete. Their delivery was much delayed as was the delivery of the window frames. The two firms concerned claimed they had not been told delivery was needed by any particular date. Had I to do it again the orders would be in writing. But then other problems would arise. The windows when they did arrive were not to Ray’s specification in that they could not take double glazing. But in the end we did just as well with plate glass as there was a lot of solar gain. In other words a lot of heat came in from the sun and stayed in the building.

Heating was by warm air ducted through floor channels. The tunnels for these were all over the building. As a result of the delays building went into winter and wet weather. I was worried about this as the channels were cork lined. We bailed the water out and kept bailing but it all dried out in the end. Ray had specified a waterproof membrane throughout the building. Sid questioned the need for this. He had never known this done he said. Ray eventually exploded and said that the membrane was as essential as the roof. Several other innovations were questioned by Sid. One was the roof. The roof was of “Stramit Board”. This was compressed straw board and an excellent insulation. The roof was flat for part of the building and sloped for the main section but not tiled. It was finished by three layers of felt all bonded together. Plastic guttering and down pipes also offended Sid because he said they were of untried material. There is nothing so traditional and conservative as a building inspector.

Elizabeth became old enough for school and secured a place at Birkenhead Girls Public Day School junior school. She wore the uniform and a black hat with a cockade. Miss Tregenza was her teacher and Miss Winter the headmistress. Lizzie went unwillingly to school. Miss Tregenza used to attract her attention with something and signal us to disappear. About a year later Anne also sat the entrance exam. I think Anne was only four at the time. “I got all the answers right” she said as she came out. She probably did too because Miss Winter asked us straight away when did we want her to start. One day Princess Alice visited the school and there was a picture of her with Lizzie. Miss Winter gave up wearing her gown in the junior school after Anne was heard loudly asking “Why is that lady wearing a nightgown?”

Anthea had been taken ill when we were at Hoylake and had to go by ambulance into Clatterbridge Hospital and stay in the hospital for a time. I explained all this to the girls. They said “We know, we were listening at the door”. The illness underlined the need for a bungalow for Anthea. Before we were married she had had an operation on the mitral valve to enlarge the opening. That had worked quite well but she had to take care of herself. She was very good at that, watching her diet, taking walking exercise. All her life she was a model patient.

I enjoyed my six months stay with Paddy Smith. Mary her daughter came to me one day for advice. She was working at the time at the local Co-op shop. She was at a dancing class and had been offered a job in a Summer Show at Rhyl. She told me she hated the job at the shop and that she was to be paid by the theatre almost twice was she was earning at the shop. She loved dancing. I said she ought to give it a go. I don’t think Paddy has ever quite forgiven me but it launched Mary on a theatrical career and for many years Mary was never out of work. Occasionally during “resting” periods when there was no theatrical or circus work because she was very pretty she worked at a beauty counter in stores such as Harrods. I had told 16 year old Mary that there were many wicked people in the theatre but there were many wicked people everywhere. All she had to do was to be careful and look after herself. We saw the show at Rhyl. After the show Mary outside the theatre with a glass of white wine in her hand. To my astonishment Anthea took the glass and emptied it handing it back without a word. I was not asked for my opinion but I thought it was a bit high handed of Anthea but it was all probably for the best.

I did not have so much to do with John save that as his father Jack refused to go to the school open day at Caldy Grammar School I went with Paddy. John was doing well there but afterwards rather fell by the wayside. His father’s support was needed I feared and I do not think John got it. John was subsequently married at an early age and that marriage and a number of subsequent marriages failed. John is now living in the USA. Mary was also married and had a lovely daughter called Catriona. Mary was killed on a bicycle accident when she was hit by a lorry in Ealing. She was then about 50 years old.

Of my two brothers-in-law I much prefer Walter Neale. Walter Worthington Neale had a number of talents. Walter’s parents had owned an antique business run from a large house in Grange Road Birkenhead.In working for them Walter became very skilled at repairing furniture. I think his parents rather patronised him. I never met them but according to Anthea the parents always called Walter, “Sonny”. Walter was a good violinist, much more skilful than I ever was. He played regularly in a well known Liverpool orchestra, “The David Lewis Orchestra”. Walter was also an expert motorcyclist who regularly won scramble races.

When I first knew him Walter had a clock making and repair business and also did jewellery repairs. The shop was on Grange Road Birkenhead. He gave that up when he moved into his new bungalow at Upton Wirral. This new bungalow was situated in a fairly rural spot at the time. With Walter I once saw some cow dung on the road. “That only serves to emphasise the truly rural situation” said Walter. He then until he finally retired became an instrument maker working on secretive work at Capenhurst and afterwards for Liverpool University. I discovered years later that Capenhurst was concerned with the processing of radioactive material.

My other brother-in law, Jack Smith, Paddy’s husband, is a different kettle of fish. He is a fantasist and claimed at various times to have been in the Army (commandos of course), the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. He had been in submarines he said and had also piloted bombers. I know he had been in the police force because he had been booted out of that early in the war and told he had to join up or go to gaol. Paddy had problems with her father who had old-fashioned ideas on how a daughter ought to behave. With some reservations he gave his permission for Paddy to marry Jack. This was required as Paddy was under-age. Paddy had claimed she was pregnant. But her first baby did not appear until two years later. Paddy was conscience stricken about that. I never met Anthea, Paddy, Berta, Wendy and Bunny’s father but Walter told me he could be very difficult.

After the war Jack Smith claimed to have all sorts of skills. He was an expert on TV he said and an electrician. On the strength of this he got a job as an electrician on Cadbury’s night shift. He was doing that when I was staying in their house. If it was a warm night the chocolate would not set and so then Jack came home and put his feet up. He was good at that sort of thing. All went well at Cadbury’s until one night he fused all the electricity and was given the sack. Eventually the Smiths split up. Jack is still alive and in his nineties. The last time I saw him was at Mary’s funeral. This was a spiritualist funeral. Jack was evidently into that. The spiritualists had an office in Belgrave Square next to where the RCVS HQ was for a time. Looking through the spiritualist’s window I used to see telephones. I thought it betrayed a certain lack of confidence in their ability to communicate.

Another thing that happened when I was with Paddy is that Paddy managed to get her sister Berta out of the Berkshire mental hospital where she had been for many years. We were always told Berta had been committed but Paddy found out Berta was a voluntary patient, got her out there and then and brought her home. Berta had no shoes to wear so Paddy put her own shoes on her for the trip home. Berta recovered slowly and was able to get a job, then a flat of her own and finally a small house in Hoylake where she stayed until she died in 2006. At one time Berta was being evicted from her rented flat for non payment of rent. She told me a very garbled story about items which would soon go into her account which would enable her to pay the landlord. It sounded fishy to me but I knew Berta was telling the truth so I went to the landlady and after some time convinced her that Berta was OK as a tenant. I in fact paid three months rent there and then. Berta later paid me back every penny on the nail as I knew she would.

Berta’s house in Hoylake came about by the good offices of a solicitor friend, Arthur Shearer. Kath and Arthur Shearer’s daughter Alison was in Lizzie’s class at Birkenhead Girls’ High School. Arthur found this very small cottage and got it for Berta. The Shearer’s became good friends over the years. After both Kath and Arthur had died Alison lost touch with us. She and Lizzie never got on. It was Arthur who suggested I ought to read for the bar “or at least eat your dinners” this was a reference to the requirement of all bar students to eat at least three dinners in hall for a number of terms, I think twelve terms. This was difficult and expensive to do for anyone living in the provinces. But I afterwards did that when stationed for six years in London and also attended classes and was called to the bar in 1975 by Lord Hailsham.

Trearddur Bay Anglesey

To come back to the 1960’s Ray Binyon’s in-laws had bought a flat in Trearddur Bay Anglesey. Ray and Elsie invited us for a weekend. It was the first of many visits to this delightful area. I was at first reluctant to accept Ray’s invitation. But he pointed out with truth, that it was no use having a place if it was not possible to enjoy it with friends. By this time we had both built a boat. We each bought a Heron sailing dinghy kit. I no sooner got this kit I was sent away for FMD duty. Ray meanwhile had built his boat from an identical kit. On my return home we two put my boat together. By this time of course he knew where all the bits fitted. We both now had boats and we both needed a trailer. At the lairage there was someone who knew where we could buy an axel and wheels. Both Ray and I both bought such an axel. Using mine I built a trailer without cutting the axel into two parts. My boat was thus effectively sprung rather than the trailer itself being sprung. Ray built his trailer in a more conventional manner cutting the axle into two and attaching the springs to the cut ends of the axle. He was scornful of my design effort. I dismissed his trailer as being a good engineering job but no more than that. On this first visit to Treardhur we set off for Anglesey. Two of us in the car with two small children and a boat in tow.

Somewhere in Snowdonia a trailer wheel collapsed. It was failure of a bearing. The wheel would just turn and no more and we limped to Trearddur arriving as I remember after 11.00pm. Ray was I think pleased rather than otherwise by our delayed arrival. “I knew it, I knew it” he kept repeating. “I knew that that trailer would let you down”. In the morning I managed to buy a new wheel from Mr A H Peters who had a garage in Trearddur. I kept on insisting it was the wheel which had let us down, not the trailer. I got my revenge years later in France. The “good engineering job” had been sold to a friend of mine. As I mistakenly and secretly thought Ray’s was the better trailer, I had borrowed it for our trip to France only to have it break down on the way back from Brittany. A U bolt had collapsed. I sketched out what I wanted and a French garage owner, a Monsieur Giles, made it up for me.

Going back to our first visit to Anglesey the approach to Trearddur Bay is magical. The drive takes you across an area called the inland sea the part marked “four mile bridge” on the map. Once at the flat the view from the lounge window is breathtaking. It is a panorama of the whole of the Bay with the Lleyn peninsular in the distance. There are no buildings in front of the flat, just the rugged coast. It looks good even without a gin and tonic in your hand.

In Birkenhead our domestic life continued. Berta conceived the idea of getting a car and my dad gave her driving lessons. Berta’s car never materialised. Dad had given lessons many times in the past to purchasers of his cars. Dad also became a member of the British Legion on the strength of one day spent with the colours during WW1 as part of Lord Derby’s 1916 scheme (Lord Derby was the friend of Lloyd George if you remember). Dad got thrown out of the Upton public library for arguing politics with someone or at any rate for talking in a prohibited area.

Anthea did stints at her old hospital, Mill Road Maternity Hospital. I used to drive her through the Mersey Tunnel returning later to pick her up. Anthea would never leave a patient who needed her. One night I sat in my car for well over an hour with the light on reading and waiting for her. She had been due to come off duty for well over an hour when I heard someone asking “Who is that man sitting reading in that car? He has been there for hours.” “Don’t worry about him,” came the answer, “He is only Sister Gillard’s husband”. It made me realise how wrong it is to expect our wives to surrender their identity after they are married. We husbands do it without much thought. Nowadays of course that doesn’t happen so often. Cheri Booth stays as Cheri Booth and does not become Mrs Tony Blair. However the dragonish Mrs Margaret Thatcher was never given her correct title of Mrs Denis Thatcher!

Anthea had qualified as a midwife before she was 21 and she had to wait until her birthday before she could have the qualification. She told a number of stories about her work on the district as a pupil midwife. She was under the supervision of Sister Fowkes, old Fanny Fowkes who was a bit of a tyrant but Anthea liked her and got on well with her. Sister McCartney she also spoke well of. Sister McCartney was also one of her supervisors and also was the mother of Paul McCartney of the Beetles. By the time we had arrived in Birkenhead the Beetles were already famous although I confess at that time I had never heard of them.

One night when Anthea was on duty she was woken by a chinese man who summoned her by signs to attend his wife. She gave him the gas and air machine to carry through the streets. Liverpool was and is a pretty lawless place but nobody in those days attacked midwives going about their business. The man eventually got Anthea to the foot of a ladder and motioned for her to climb up it which she did, not without some fear. In the room was the man’s wife and Anthea delivered a baby. She afterwards thought that the man had probably no right to have a wife in that room hence the need for the ladder approach.

Anthea, before we married had done long spells of night duty as a midwifery sister and ever afterwards put down her mitral stenosis to that cause. The medical superintendent Dr Macfarlane, misdiagnosed the problem and Anthea nearly died. But thanks to the intervention of Dr Clark, afterwards Sir Cyril Astley Clark, she got slowly better but only after six month’s bed rest. Just before we married she had the first of three heart operations, finger splitting of the valve by Mr Ronald Edwards at Broadgreen Hospital. Ronnie Edwards was the son of a veterinary surgeon. Sir Cyril Astley Clark eventually became President of the Royal College of Physicians.

Elizabeth became old enough for school and secured a place at Birkenhead Girls Public Day School junior school. She wore the uniform and a black hat with a cockade. Miss Tregenza was her teacher and Miss Winter the headmistress. Lizzie went unwillingly to school. Miss Tregenza used to attract her attention with something and signal us to disappear. About a year later Anne also sat the entrance exam. I think Anne was only four at the time. “I got all the answers right” she said as she came out. She probably did too because Miss Winter asked us straight away when did we want her to start. One day Princess Alice visited the school and there was a picture of her with Lizzie. Miss Winter gave up wearing her gown in the junior school after Anne was heard loudly asking “Why is that lady wearing a nightgown?”

When Anne was about four years old we went one day to New Brighton Walking on the shore beside the lighthouse clouds were scudding by overhead. When you looked up at the lighthouse it really appeared as if the building was moving and not the clouds. The lighthouse seemed about to topple over on to us. Anne immediately grabbed my arm and tried to pull me away. I was very touched. Much later Anne, who had been increasingly suffering Ear Nose and Throat problems, was taken to an ENT consultant at a New Brighton clinic for removal of her tonsils and adenoids. Anthea knew what that entailed as she had nursed many children post operatively after T&A removals. Children are always told they can have as much ice-cream as they like afterwards. They are not told that their throat will feel as if it is full of barbed wire and eating ice-cream will be out of the question for quite a long time.

Before leaving Anne at the clinic we took her and Lizzie to the New Brighton funfair. Anne later said she knew something was up because quite out of character I let her go on anything she wished. After the operation she was very sore and could eat nothing. Her tummy rumbled due to lack of food and Anthea massaged it to take away the wind.

On my own initiative and without telling Anthea I had bought a caravan with the idea that we could live in it on the building site. But unfortunately as the building was so delayed we found ourselves still without a house in the depths of winter. That is why we took a lease on the flat in Hoylake. But we afterwards had marvellous trips in the caravan visiting Cornwall, the Lake District, John O’Groats, the New Forest, London (staying at the Crystal Place site), and Rhyl. This latter was so near we went a number of times. It was very economical and with two sets of school fees that was important. One weekend only cost a total of £5.00 and that included petrol, site fees and food.

The trip to John O’Groats was to see Andy Skea who had been promoted DVO and was now DVO Wick. The Skeas were living in a rented manse in a very windy location. When we were there the fitted carpets were continually being raised by the wind outside. Andy said this was normal. The trip up to Wick involved tackling the fearsome Devil’s Elbow. I think my car clutch may have been damaged by the sharp steep hairpin bend we had to negotiate.

The family had been enlarged by the advent of a Jack Russell called Rusty. The roads in the north of Scotland are very narrow making caravanning difficult Passing places are provided but at very lengthy intervals. We had stopped for lunch and a few miles further on I realised that Rusty was not in the car. It was a long time before I was able to turn the car and caravan round and make out way to where we had stopped. Rusty was there waiting for us! He had waited for about two hours.

During Worcester days I had become friendly with a 14 year old Scout, Dominique Jacob from Paris. He was an exchange student with Nigel Clemens one of my scouts. Dominique wrote to me to ask if I could find him a job on a farm. I wrote back that we had built a new bungalow and had lots of decorating to do. If he liked to spend six weeks with us he would be very useful. He was indeed a great help but Anthea had the habit of throwing down the bed sheets on to the floor when she changed the beds. Dominique thought these were decorating sheets. Thus some of them became liberally spotted with various shades of vinyl paint. We never told Dominique.

We wanted to set off on a fortnight’s caravan holiday to the Lake District. Dominique at first refused to come with us saying he was there to work not on holiday but was persuaded to come on holiday with us. I made up a bunk in the caravan to allow us to sleep five and we set off for the Lakes. Dominique loves mountains and in fact finally settled in the Pyrenees Atlantiques where for many years he was in veterinary practice. But coming back to the now 15 year old scout au pair we climbed Scafell Pike together at one time. I still suffered from Vertigo and gibed at the final bit of the climb. Dominique said it was ridiculous to have climbed so far and then fail to get to the summit. So I was shamed into taking a chance and reached the summit of the highest mountain in England.

Our social life in Birkenhead was excellent. The best thing was the children’s parties. The earliest such was organised by Lizzie but she only knew the names of the invitees. When the day arrived I went down unexpectedly with rigors and a temperature of 104oF. We were unable to cancel the party because Lizzie did not know the full names of the invitees. Our November 5th Bonfire night parties were always good. Ray Binyon came with his two children for at least two of these. I discovered he was very wary of fireworks and I think he we right to be so.

Towards the end of our time in Birkenhead a parent whose daughter was at school with Lizzie brought along to our bonfire party a set of lifeboat distress rockets. These were spectacular but of course quite illegal. It was foolish to let them off because we could have called out the lifeboat on a search although as we were inland perhaps it did not matter. I still think we might have been prosecuted and it was foolish of that parent. He was wealthy and owned a thriving joinery business run with the aid of his very attractive wife. They were a lovely family. But the husband played away and one night the wife took a knife and stabbed him to death whist he lay in bed. It was a tragedy and I felt very sorry for the family.

A school friend of Anne’s called Ann Reynolds lived nearby. Ann had a brother, David. When David was born Jean Reynolds his mother had been obliged to travel to Yorkshire because Jean’s husband Mike was a keen cricketer and wanted his boy to be able to play for Yorkshire. At that time all Yorkshire players had to have been born in Yorkshire. I think Jean made it as far as Pontefract. It was Jean who had got us Rusty but to my sorrow Rusty had his tail docked before I was able to stop it. “I thought they all had to have their tails docked” said Jean. The Reynolds boarded out their pet rabbit with us. I tried to sex this rabbit but obviously failed because “sugar” later gave birth to a litter or whatever a family of little rabbits is called.

Anthea Lizzie and Anne outside our caravan in Trearddur Bay.

We had been out in the heron sailing dinghy and had had a good haul of mackerel. We found we could not give them away.

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