My first school at four years of age was Holloway Street School and it was hardly a place to encourage a budding genius like me to rise to great heights! I do remember how I always wavered over which colour of thread I would choose when we did 'our hemming' in class. One chosen child would come around with two reels of Sylko. Always one was mauve and one was pink. I just loved both colours, hence the tricky choice! But, did all this haute couture grounding have any influence on me ... certainly not! According to my mother, when one day she came to meet me from school for some particular reason, she was accosted by the head mistress, whose name eludes me just now, but who lived with her sister somewhere in our area - Miss 'whoever' , when asked by my mother, "How is Olive getting on?" gave the answer, "Her hemming is atrocious!". Little did she know that within some fifteen years, I would be making garments for Vogue Patterns and having models come down from London for fittings! I wonder if she ever knew about this in the years to come and remembered her comment?
I had been fascinated back around the early twenties by the injured war veterans who seemed to be everywhere in the town. They had trays of match-boxes hung about their necks and the locals certainly had enough pity on them to buy their wares. I was already a dressmaker! I would have been about six years old at the time. Whenever my mother made me a dress, I used the bits left over to make my doll one exactly like it! I had the best dressed dolls in the city! With a little friend who lived a little lower down in Weirfield Road, called Lois Gribbons (her father did champion work for ex-prisoners, incidentally, even having some of them working for him at his own house to give them encouragement), I decided that 'No 3' would be my shop. I pulled the sash window down to an appropriate level ... at eye level for passers-by ... and pinned several of my dolls dresses in a row - to the lower frame. With a notice saying, "If you don't want to buy a dress, don't look in!" (luckily written in pencil which could be washed off the paintwork) and which my mother later told me was rather blunt - I waited for buyers. They didn't come, so I decided that 'if the mountain wouldn't come to Mohammed etc.etc.' and I made a tray from an old box and hung it around my neck. Off we went to try our luck in St. Leonards Avenue where I called at the top house on the right, waiting for the first sale. Though obviously amused, the lady was not very keen to buy, so I tried the next couple of houses with the same result - nil. At the fifth house, a man came to the door and talked extremely seriously to me. He had to stoop down to do so, but he made his point! "Do you have a licence to sell?" her asked me. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about, but I could hear sniggering from within the house. He gave me a 'right good telling-off' and Lois and I slunk back home to decide on another ruse.
I feel sure that anyone who has lived in Exeter for any length of time, knows Dawlish Warren! As children, back in the twenties we had little money spent on us, but a family outing to the Warren by train, was a treat planned with care and enjoyed immensely. Even standing on the platform to watch the noisy train arrive was wonderful and if we could stand close to the engine and witness its huffing and puffing, whilst it waited for the happy travellers to get on board with all their swimming gear, towels, picnic baskets filled with goodies and the essential buckets and spades, we would rush aboard to find the most convenient apartment for 'our lot' which would consist of the two sisters, Mum with my sister and me and often the children of our neighbours from Weirfield Road, St. Leonards, where we originally lived - and Auntie Happy (Ethel), and her two children, Isobel and Leonard. We never sat still of course. We spent most of our time running up and down the corridor, looking in at other families sitting sedately in their compartments! Having decided that there was nothing more to investigate, we would generally do the very thing which we were warned NOT to do - lean out of the window! Without the obligatory 'smut in the eye' which was painful, the trip would have been spoilt! Then the excitement of arriving at the Warren and having yet another examination of the engine and its clouds of steam - then on to the beach area and the most important quest to find the very largest and flattest rock, preferably fairly close to the sands, which had just been freshly washed by the tide and just asking to be walked upon. By the time that our parents had settled themselves on folded towels on the rocks and dumped their hand luggage on the 'table', we divested ourselves of our outer clothing to reveal our swimwear which we had cleverly donned before dressing that morning. Our first dip in the cold water brought forthscreams of delight, until we were swimming like fish and thoroughly enjoying the experience.
The next operation then would have to be our sandpit, for without this, we couldn't have our picnic! This table/pit was always exactly the same, perfected over the years. It would be marked out for the outer trench, then leaving the central part untouched, we would shovel the sand out of the circular trench and pile it around the pit, leaving a bench seat to surround the table. This finished, we were both tired and hungry, so it was then the most appropriate time to have our packed meal. We kids would sit around the sand table and the two women would brew up tea in a picnic kettle, secure on the flat rock - then pass down to us the sandwiches and cakes, so carefully prepared the previous day. Of course, when the tide was due to come in, our pit had yet another function! A tunnel was bored through the front of the circular seating, on the sea side, so the very first trickle of sea-water which the tide brought to our section of the beach, rushed through the tunnel to wash our feet as we sat at the table. More shrieks of laughter as the lowest part of the ring gradually filled up ... by this time, our parents had collected all the gear and had moved to a more strategic position higher up on the rocks, to watch our manoeuvres in a drier spot, as the moment the tide rose high enough to hit the lowest section of the rocks, the splashes were terrific. All this for the price of our train tickets! Back then, we were easily delighted!
In my teens, I remember the High Street. The cinema was probably the most favoured leisure venue for the general public back in the thirties. We had a number of large cinemas, The Gaumont, off North Street - Palladium and Savoy in London Inn Square, and the most recent one called The Odeon in Sidwell Street - all running continuous programmes from about 2pm each day, apart from Sundays. But as well as these, we had the flea-pits. Whilst waiting for a particular bus, we could pop into tiny 'flicks' in the High Street to while away the time. One, I remember had no toilet, so if nature called, one had to ask to pop out to find a public toilet and be re-admitted! I think this had a small 30 minute feature film, a news film and a cartoon in each programme for a few pence. Another was called The Plaza, running a similar programme. Cinemas grabbed the public so dramatically, and most of them changed their programme twice a week to gain as many customers as they could. There was the Theatre Royal too of course, so entertainment was profuse and available for everyone. Even when at school, provided that a clean record of work had been maintained during the week thus avoiding the penalty of having to return to Bishop Blackall School on a Wednesday afternoon, our half-day, to provide 'detention material', we girls would discuss which film we would be seeing on our half-day off and meet up, prior to 4pm, for four pennyworth of enjoyment! Such extravagance!
The shops too, were so different. Woolworths (this may have been Marks and Spencer - editor) had a shop at the top of Fore Street with an exit in South Street I seem to remember, but my memory is a little short here. It is keen enough to recall the long open counters with salesgirls standing in the central area to take cash and give change, Was it that the corner space was taken up by a butchers called Stillmans, because I have this picture in my mind of a corner shop with a long sawdust covered wooden floor with a long open-spaced side in South Street where customers could stand on the pavement and point to whichever joint they happened to like, from a long row of joints, sausages, rabbets, birds etc., hanging on large hooks in a long flat metal rack along the whole side of the shop. A butcher, from a row of them within, would then hoist the chosen joint off the rack with a long hooked pole, whip it inside for the customer to inspect it more closely, if needed - to decide if it really is what she wanted and then - if it was a Saturday evening - he would roll around it a breast of lamb, free! Then money would be dropped into a wooden lidded drum, clipped onto one of the several delivery lines and catapulted with a most satisfactory swishing noise to the 'office' which was a high sided enclosure, topped with desk-high viewing glass, where the cashier would check the bill and cash and return change promptly to the appropriate butcher! She reminded me of a spider in the middle of its web. To me, this was 'magic' though hardly hygienic, I feel! Late on a Saturday evening, the pavement would be crowded with shoppers, hoping for a bargain!
Pinder & Tuckwell was another shop which fascinated me as my own Bishop Blackall uniform was bought there. Besides this they dealt with all the required uniforms for most of the schools in the Exeter area.
© 2006 Olive Johnson - David Cornforth
Olive Johnson nee Nibbs was born and brought up in Exeter. Her father was employed at Standfield and White, in Sidwell Street. The family lived in Weirfield Road in 1920. She married in 1942 and moved away from the city. In these extracts from her emails, she remembers the Exeter blitz.
Olive's home in Weirfield Road The family around the sand table at Dawlish
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