Memories of, the 50’s
By Roger Turner
Part 1 - From Sheffield to Balbriggan
The last day of the
summer term at Saint Wilfred’s Junior School, Sheffield,
usually followed the same pattern; we were allowed to bring games
and toys from home and spent the morning playing with them in
class. Then, as noon approached, we would have a party in the
classroom and be visited by our headmaster, Mr McThingy, accompanied
by Father Whatever-his-name-was, and his old dog. Once all the
food had been devoured, and the speeches were done with we were
allowed to go home early if we wished.
Normally after school we boys would play football on the field,
or play marbles in the playground, but not today. At least not
for me, for I had to rush home to get ready. No train spotting,
no standing about chatting, no watching the old men playing bowls
at Laycocks Club. For this was one day in the year I did exactly
what my mother told me and came straight home.
|My mother would get me bathed and ready
while our Pat, my big sister brought the cases downstairs. Pat,
being eight years older than me, was quite grown up and must have
been quite a help to mother.
In the fifties Sheffield people tended to go to places like Bridlington
or Blackpool for holidays, nobody we knew went abroad. It just wasn’t
an option in those days, at least not for the working class. It
was also quite normal for many families not even to get a holiday
at all. Mother however, had a friend, Eileen McKenna, who had two
children, Rory and Rita, both of similar ages to my sister and me,
and they lived in this sleepy little Irish town called Balbriggan,
just a few miles from Dublin but hundreds of miles from Sheffield.
Every year she took us all that way for the whole of the summer
holidays. Mother would have been saving up all year for our annual
trip to Ireland and would have been down to town a few days before
to pay for the tickets.
Even now, I do not know how mother, who was never a well woman,
managed to get two children and our luggage all that way, but did
it she did. If funds permitted, which was very rare, we would get
a taxi to the train station, if not, then we would walk down to
Woodseats to catch a tram to the Wicker Arches and then, via a rickety
old lift, up to the Victoria Station.
I should really say something about that station, for it befell
the same fate as many English stations did in the late sixties;
it fell foul of Dr Beeching’s axe, and is no longer used.
But in the fifties, I would spend hours at that station with my
dad or my big sister when the circus train came to town. It would
be shunted into a side platform and the highlight of my year was
watching the elephants and other exotic animals being unloaded then
being assembled prior to the grand parade. It was always the same,
down the slope of the station approach and up through town to where
they were going to perform. All very exciting, if somewhat smelly.
|But let’s get back on track….
I loved trains and always carried the right spotting book to record
train numbers in. Therefore, mother always kept a close eye on me,
fearful that I should wander off and we would miss the train. She
needn’t fret, as I knew every train time and would listen
out to the tannoy. “The train now arriving at platform three
is the three forty-five to Manchester London Road, calling at Penistone,
Dunford Bridge…” Before the announcer finished I was
there, ready to climb aboard the carriage. This was not just any
old train ride, but the first leg of an adventure. The train was
hauled by one of the new electric engines powered, like our Sheffield
trams, by overhead cables.
By the time we were seated the train was ready to set off over the
viaduct and we got a view of Sheffield down below us. Bellowing
chimneys filled the air with acrid fumes and smoke that was destined
to blacken washing on the lines. Countless houses lined the track
and jostled with the factories that provided work for many thousands
Smoothly the train slipped away from the industrial heartland gradually
gaining speed as it climbed the gradient toward the beckoning Pennines.
As we journeyed on the air gradually became clearer and trackside
houses looked in much better condition. Browns and greys became
various shades of green as fields in the valley beneath the track
soon replaced factories. Crossing viaducts and embankments, the
railway hugged the contours of the hillside as the railway passed
through the high Pennine towns of Yorkshire, into the gloomy Woodhead
Tunnel at Dunford Bridge.
At this point I must make a comparison between steam hauled and
electric trains. Steam was, and still is, a wonderful and almost
living means of transport, but it could be slow, dirty and often
uncomfortable. Electric traction, on the other hand, was smooth,
clean and fast, and our train to Manchester on the first day of
our adventure, was all this.
Once through the tunnel some wondrous sights greeted us as the train
rushed downhill through Lancashire towns and countryside, towards
its final destination.
Our train arrived in Manchester bang on time and shortly before
the start of the rush hour. Once outside the station, mother hailed
a taxi to take us across Manchester for our connection to Liverpool.
What a contrast. This station, I seem to think it was called Manchester
Central, was always smelly, dirty and dark. On top of that, the
train to Liverpool was the non-corridor type, which meant no toilets.
‘But I don’t want to go, mum.’
‘Well,’ replied mother, ‘if you don’t go
now, then you won’t be wanting any tea, now will you?’
That always did the trick and I braved the smoky, smelly urinal
as the quickly as I could.
Non-corridor trains were from a bygone age and we always walked,
or in my case ran, to the far end of the train, just behind the
engine to find an empty compartment. Once inside it was up to me
to deter other passengers from trying to join us. A process of pulling
faces, throwing tantrums or even feigning illness achieved this.
I would even unhook the strap that lowered the window and stick
my head out to tell the world that I felt sick again. I never was
though, and once the guard blew his whistle, we would settle down
to a nice picnic tea. Well, settle down was the wrong way to put
it with me. I doubt if I sat down at all during either train journeys.
Sitting down was not, and still isn’t one of my better traits.
I wish I had a shilling for every time my mother needed to get sooty
fleck from my eye with spit and clean handkerchief. My head was
always stuck out of the train window. ‘Look Mum, Old Trafford….
Look Mum, Ship canal…’ I never stopped until Lime Street
appeared on the station nameplate.
I always looked forward to hearing the Liverpool porters who spoke
with a nasal laugh in their voices: ‘All right, whacker? You
bound for the Irish boat?’ Mother always kept a few shilling
in her pocket for a tip once our baggage was loaded into the waiting
bus, and on this occasion she was only too happy to pass one over.
It was only a short trip down to the docks and we were soon passing
through the gates of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board towards
the large shed that was the sailing assembly point. Would it be
Munster or would it be Leinster? Munster was always my favourite,
although I don’t remember why.
Now, if our timing was right we didn’t have long to wait before
embarking and once we had our tickets inspected, we were ushered
up the gangplank to the waiting boat.
Total excitement for me, but not for my sister for as soon as her
feet touched the deck, the colour drained from her face. She hated
sailing, but not me. I loved that part of the trip most of all.
Sometimes, depending on funds, Mother would have booked a cabin
with the hope of getting some sleep. Fat chance with me about. I
was up and down like the yo-yo I kept in my jacket pocket.
No, a cabin and a nice warm bunk was a waste of money for me so
invariably we would settle down in one the lounges. Settle down?
Not me! Far too much to do and see. The first thing was for me to
check that we were on the right boat, and that meant looking for
the nameplate next to the Purser’s office. Next job was to
look up at the Liver Birds on the building behind the Princess dock
and see if I recognised any seagulls. (Seagulls would often follow
the boat, occasionally landing on the rails for a chat when their
wings got tired.) Then I had to make sure the Belfast boat had not
sailed yet. Yes, there she is on the fare side of the dock. I never
knew what that boat was called, but whatever it was, it couldn’t
hold a candle to the Munster. I would then count the lifeboats and
check the lashing on the upturned rafts that doubled as seats on
the upper decks.
One thing that always fascinated me was the lights that were attached
to the rafts would only work when turned upwards so the all had
to be checked. Any found not working were reported to the first
member of the crew I happened across. God only knows what they thought
|Getting a boat like
this one ready for sea was quite an important task for me and I
would wonder who did the job when I wasn’t travelling.
Mother and our Pat would, by now, have made themselves comfortable
and had long since learnt that the easiest thing was to let me tire
myself out. Believe me when I tell you that never happened!
As departure time approached, excitement swelled within me. I loved
watching the stevedores removing the gangplanks and untying the
thick ropes that held us against the dock.
Gradually the throb of the engines became stronger and slowly the
giant propellers would stir up the rubbish in the dock and we were
off. At a snail's pace we edged away from the dock and through the
maze of other docks until we arrived in the lock. Now, depending
on the state of the tide, the boat would slip down the lock exposing
slime-covered walls. When the levels were equal, the front doors
would swing open to let us out into the murky waters of the Mersey.
The throb of the engines increased and we slipped smoothly out into
On the south bank I watched the twinkling lights of Birkenhead,
New Brighton and Wallasey pass by as we gathered momentum and headed
out to sea. I would stay on deck until the last speck of electric
light vanished from my view. After a quick check on my wristwatch
to see if we were on time I was off below deck again to inform my
mother and sister of our progress.
‘Anything left to eat, Mum?’ She always had. ‘Don’t
you want anything to eat, our Pat?’ She never did. She was
far too ill to eat so it was left to me finish off the food. I never
could stand waste. ‘Nice cake this, our Pat,’ I would
say to her with crumbs spilling from my mouth.
‘Tell him to go away, mum!’ Pat would say, looking rather
upset. I could never understand why she was ill when we went to
Ireland. I never was.
‘Stop annoying your sister, and settle down.’
Fat chance. It was time for my next inspection.
I was up and down all night long. I could tell when the current
changed as we passed the Isle of Man and I would be in position
to observe the lights that twinkled off the starboard side. One
of my other tasks was to keep an eye out for other boats. Sometimes
I would be lucky and would write down the time in my little book.
I wonder what happened to my spotting books?
Occasionally I would go back to mother and our Pat for a rest, but
once I was warm again off I would go.
I was never shy and would talk to the crew, asking them all sorts
of questions. I remember one year there was a gale blowing and the
boat was being tossed about all over the sea. Everyone, including
the crew, was ill, that is apart from little me. Our Pat was in
a right state when we finally docked many hours late.
Some of the crew would talk and show me various parts of the boat,
and over the years I visited the engine room, the radio room and
up to see the captain on the bridge. It was all very exciting to
a little lad.
the first fingers of daylight appeared, I would be as far forward
as I was allowed, searching the horizon for the first signs of
It was about now that the boat started to swing back to life;
Crew moved around with a sense of purpose, Shutters were opened,
Waiters clattered plates and cutlery, Chefs filled the air with
the smell of cooking bacon. God, I don’t half feel hungry!
But I was lookout duty and could not leave my post.
An increase in the number of seabirds meant that Ireland's Eye
and Howth Head would soon come into view and it wouldn’t
be long before we slipped into the Dublin Bay channel. Out of
my pocket would come my little binoculars and I would search the
horizon until land was sited. ‘YES! Well, perhaps, it could
be?’ I carried on searching the horizon. ‘Yes! Land
ahoy. Three points of the starboard bow.’ Must go and tell
Mum. Dash below deck and shake my mother from her sleep. ‘Mum,
we’re nearly there. Time to get ready.’ Shake our
Pat. ‘Time for breakfast, our Pat!’
‘Shut up and go away!’ She was never happy in the
morning, our Pat.
Mother by now would have started to stir and soon she and I would
have been eating breakfast, but not our Pat, miserable sod, she
wouldn’t even come in to restaurant with us. You know, over
the years, our Pat must have tried every remedy know to man to
prevent her becoming seasick; Barley sugar stuffed in her ears,
Mothballs in her socks, Garlic hung round her neck, she tried
the lot, but they all failed.
Once I had eaten, it was back on duty one again and I stayed at
my post, off and on, until we tied up on the north wall.
Dublin, from the sea, was a wonderful sight to a little lad from
Sheffield, and from my vantage point I watched in awe as we steamed
towards it. Passing marker-buoys that swayed in our wash and bobbled
the bell on top. Now we were in the channel the next thing was
to sweep past the wall of the port side that told me we were now
in the river. Ahead of us, sunlight reflected in window whilst
our resident flock of gull squawked vociferously behind us.
Below decks, the activity was frenetic. Luggage was brought up
to the deck and families assembled together, but not ours, because
I was far too busy and our Pat far too ill. Slowly but surely,
the throb of the engines slackened as speed was reduced, and soon
we were beside the north wall. Stevedores appeared on the quayside,
caught ropes cast down from the boat and tied them to the bollards.
Gangplanks were pushed into place and secured to the boat.
Mother took a firm hold of my collar and ushered us along into
the customs shed. Now there’s a job I always wanted. Customs
officer. He shoved a notice in front of us and tapped his finger
on my little case. ‘Have you anything to declare?’
‘You asked me that last year,’ I replied. ‘Look.’
I pointed to the chalk mark on my little case.
He looked at my mother. ‘You’ll be English, then?’
‘That’s correct, Sir.’ Mother was always polite.
‘Will you be wanting to look in our cases?’ She fumbled
in her handbag for the keys and unlocked the big case.
‘You’ll be here on holiday, then?’ the customs
man asked as he ran his fingers through the clothes in my mother’s
‘That’s correct, Sir.’
The customs man pressed the lid of the big case down, smiled at
my sister, and put his chalk mark on all our cases. ‘Have
a nice holiday, now.’ And off he moved to the find his next
An English woman with two children in tow very rarely had any
trouble at the customs point. They were after bigger fish. Not
that we were totally innocent. If he had opened my little case
he would have found a couple of pounds of tea or a big tin of
coffee. We would bring in items in short supply in Ireland and
take back items in short supply in Sheffield. Free trade they
now call it.
On the North wall were taxis and busses waiting to take passengers
into the city, and usually we had time to take the bus, but if
we had been delayed then a quick taxi ride to the bus station
was the order of the day to catch the Dundalk bus.
To an English kid in the fifties, Dublin looked a wonderful city,
and nothing like Sheffield. No bombsites. Smart houses with real
iron railings in front of them. (Our railings had gone during
the war to make battleships.) Most of all, Dublin was clean.
Now, Irish buses were something else in the fifties and ours was
always a single-decker with a curved back and a ladder that led
up to the roof. If the bus had been full, then our cases would
have been put up there, but it never was, so the cases came on
board with us.
By now, I was starting to tire, and would fall fast asleep once
on the bus, but as it sped north from the city, I would get a
new lease of life and take an interest in the surroundings. Green
fields took over from houses and occasionally the bus would stop
miles from nowhere to pick someone up. And it wasn’t just
people the bus carried. It took packages from one village to the
next, bicycles up on the roof, dogs, cats, goats, hens, sheep
and boxes of vegetables… the list was endless. And if the
driver saw one of his cronies he would stop the bus for a chat.
No wonder it never ran on time. I bet it doesn’t happen
Eventually the bus passed the church and stopped to let us off
on Dublin Street and right opposite Market Green. Any tiredness
in me had vanished and seasickness was distant memory for our
Pat, but all our mother wanted was a sit down and wet of tea.
Our annual six-week stay in Balbriggan was just about to begin………..
To Be Continued…………