FBJoin the Exeter Memories Group Page

Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

Winter on the Canal
by Roland Hugh Tuson

As the nights began to draw in and the days to shorten our outdoor adventures came to an end except for just one more thing – Bonfire Night. At that time of the year, by the time we arrived home after school, it was usually too dark for roving far so our activities were confined to the weekends. In the run up to the big night we had two pursuits, the first to make a Guy Fawkes and tour the neighbourhood collecting pennies and half pennies for the Guy. To make him, we had to ask and scrounge any old bits of clothes that anyone could spare, even so, it was hard to tell which was the better dressed, the Guy or we boys in our so called play clothes. The small sum of money we collected we used to buy fireworks for the Bonfire Night itself. We were only able to buy rip-raps and sparklers for the rockets were far above us (too expensive).

Our second task was to build the bonfire itself, with the one aim to make it the biggest in the area if not the whole City. At the weekends, we spent all our time looking for anything that would burn, to add to building the fire, in particular old car tires were highly prized, but in those days scarce, so when we did get one it had to be well hidden until the night the fire was to be lit, otherwise lads from nearby areas would come and take them for their own fires. We of course would not be averse to taking theirs, given half a chance. The great day finally came: our Guy was placed on top of the pile by the men who then set it alight. Everybody would come out and enjoy the warmth of the blaze, we boys would set off our rip-raps and have great delight in scaring all the young lassies as they jumped and gave loud bangs around their feet. Then out came the potatoes to be baked in the red hot ashes around the edge of the blaze; they were delicious. When at last, the centre core of the fire collapsed and our Guy fell into the flames, everyone cheered, then as the fire slowly died to a glowing heap of ashes everyone returned to their homes and the winter had arrived with Christmas just around the corner.

Christmas arrives

Christmas in those days in the 1920s and 30s were a far cry from today’s commercially driven, spend spend attitude, that seems to start earlier each year. In the weeks following Bonfire Night, families started preparing, everyone doing their bit to help, mothers busy in the kitchen making the Christmas puddings, which all the family helped to mix and stir, while father would throw in one or two threepenny pieces. Children would be busy making paper chains to decorate the room with.

There was an air of excitement and anticipation among the children, wondering what Father Christmas might bring them, for they knew there was little money to spare for expensive toys, but they knew he would bring something. That something might well be, and often was, a doll or a wooden engine, car or boat made by the parents, but they were appreciated just as much as a shop bought one, and just as treasured.

Late on the evening of Christmas Eve, the families with whatever small amount of money they had, went to the large market at the top of Fore Street Hill, where now stands St Georges Hall. The traders were left with their unsold veg, fruit, meat and poultry which they would gladly sell it very cheaply, rather than have to throw much of it away.

For me, as there was only my Granny, and myself, I missed out on a lot of the fun that children with brothers and sisters had, although I did sometimes go and see the Hamiltons. But they were only girls. However I did not really mind – my Granny was always doing her best for me, and I had my books to read, I had only a few, but would read and re-read these many many times, and never tire of them. Just like all the other boys and girls, I would wonder what I might find on my bed Christmas morning. I knew there would be a book from Granny, she would save the odd penny from the little she had and buy it at Woolworths, where nothing cost more than sixpence. I also knew there would be something from my father, looking back, as I now do, my only hope that he was generous and gave Granny some money to help her ease her worries. In my stocking there was always the usual orange, some sweets, and the traditional piece of coal for luck. There are two Christmas mornings that remain very clear in my memory. The first was when waking I found a large parcel at the bottom of the bed, when I unwrapped it, there was a Meccano set, not an ordinary one but a special one with which you could build models of all kinds of aeroplanes. It was a wonderful surprise and I spent many happy hours with it. A few years later, on Christmas Eve, my Granny told me that my father had been a day or two before and he had said my present would not be on my bed because it was too big. Instead I was to take a letter to the Cycle & Toy shop in Cowick Street on Christmas Eve and they would give me my present. Granny gave me the letter and off I went as fast as I could run. At the shop, the letter was opened, the note read and I think it also contained some money. The shopkeeper went out through a door and came back with my present – A BICYCLE – my first real bicycle, my very own and that coming summer it opened up a whole new world for me.

Following Christmas, and the activities and its excitement there, was the long, cold winter to be faced. I seem to remember it nearly always snowed and often the canal would freeze over with a thin covering of ice. Keeping warm was the main problem; the one fire we had, needed to be kept burning day and night, before going to bed. It would be damped down with slack (coal dust), wet tea leaves and any vegetable peelings. The chimney damper was closed to cut off the draught; the fire would then be reduced to a low smouldering glow ready to be revived with a few sticks in the morning. Upstairs the beds were piled with extra blankets with hot water bottles; sometimes the water in these was used to wash with in the morning. Buckets of cold water had to be kept in close to the fire in case the tap in the yard froze, which it so often did.

A sort of education

In those days of the 20s and 30s, there was no television; that was just a science fiction story, wireless was in its infancy and well out of our reach. In the long dark evenings I had my books and my Granny; it was in these winter evenings that my real education began. I always read stories of adventure, exploration, far away places of the sea and ships and pirates. Among my favourites were Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Blackbeard the Pirate, A Coral Island and accounts of famous voyages of people like Captain Cook, who explored so many strange and distant lands. Whenever I came to a place in a book that I did not quite understand or wished to know more about, I only had to ask my Granny. She would tell me just what I wanted to know, she would show me where places were, tell me of the people who lived there and of their customs and way of life. Often I would sit and listen while she told me stories of the countries she had visited, India and the east, South Africa in particular and Cape Town. I can still hear her telling me that when low clouds gathered on the top of the Table Mountain, it would roll over the edge, the local population in the town below said it was just The Gods laying their tablecloth. The desire to travel to see these strange lands was born within me, and I resolved that one day I would, even though in those days to a young boy the world seemed and was a big place.

These lessons in travel, and other lands, were not all she taught me, for I learnt how to behave when in the company of other adults. To be polite at all times when with an adult, no matter who they might be, was most important, be they of a lowly or a high station in life, was her firm rule. Other rules, on which she insisted I must always follow, were when in the company of grown ups, never to speak or interrupt in any way, unless I was spoken to first, and when I did speak, I must address the men as Sir and a lady as Madam. Should a lady enter a room, politeness dictated that, I must rise and stand until she was seated, or until I was given permission. My manner of speech and grammar were also subject to her tuition and instruction, including the correct laying out of a dining table in a gentleman’s house, or a grand hotel, together with lessons on behaviour when eating at such a table, although in our very poor and humble situation I could never hope to use all this information.

Good manners and politeness when in the town also was important to her. When travelling on a tram or, in later years, a bus, if it was full and a lady came on, it was and is still, only polite for me to stand and offer her my seat, and when passing through a door, a gentleman always would open and hold it allowing the lady to pass through, before himself. I remember how I discovered that been polite had its rewards. One day shortly before Christmas while out with my Granny, she went into Courtneys a drapers shop, on the corner of Alphington and Cowick Street to buy a hairnet which she always wore.

The book

The shop sold a variety of goods including books, one of which caught my eye. I picked it up, and read the synopsis, and thought how much I would have liked to be able to read it, but I knew my Granny simply could not afford the price of one shilling (5p today). Although I was unaware of him, an elderly well dressed gentleman must have been watching me for when I had placed the book back he came and spoke to me. He asked me several questions, did I enjoy reading? What kind did I like to read?, what books had I read? And so on. My Granny having made her purchase came for me and he raised his hat and told her how pleased he was to hear how much I enjoyed reading and the kind of books I liked also how polite I had been.

Turning again to me he asked if I would like to have the book I had been looking at I replied "yes sir, very much", he took the book to the counter, paid for it, came back and gave it to me, raised his hat, and then left the shop. I was overjoyed and after all these years still clearly remember that incident, the book was called A Coral Island.
Earlier in this narrative I told of the time when I was age around thirteen and my Granny was getting too frail that I was taken by my parents to Sidmouth, there to finish my schooling and how Phyllis and her mother did all they could to care for her.

A Doctor visits

I said I would tell you of the big debt they felt they owed to her and they were trying to repay that debt as much as they could. The incident occurred during a very cold and hard winter, so now it seems an appropriate time to tell you. It was however not until over forty years later when Phyllis and I were to meet again and marry that she told me the whole story. As I have told you, my Granny was known along the canal as Nurse West, and people would come to her for help in times of sickness. Phyllis had two younger sisters – Beryl who was living in London with an Aunt who was able to pay for her to have a good education; her youngest was Eileen, who was never very strong. At this moment in time she was just a few years old and fell ill. She became progressively worse, and a Doctor was sent for. He prescribed some medicine but to no avail. Within a short space of a few hours, her little body became burning hot and her joints swollen. The Doctor was called again, and this time he told her parents that she had a fever which he could not explain, and he did not think she would survive the night; his advice was to build up the fire, cover her with all the blankets they had and hope it would burn the fever out. This they did as soon as he had left but it seemed the child was slipping away. The parents, in despair, sent Phyllis to ask Nurse West if she might be able to help. She returned with Phyllis and after a quick examination of little Eileen took charge. Outside it was a dark, bitterly cold winter night but the first thing she did was to open wide the window, she then told them to dampen down the fire while she removed all the blankets that the Doctor had said to put over her.

Leaving the sick child with just a light covering she went back to her cottage returning shortly after with a bottle of medicine she made up, a little of which she managed to get down the child's throat. She then told the parents there was nothing more that she or anybody could do, all they now had to do was just sit and pray and follow her instructions exactl. These were, keep the window open and the room cold, if or when the fever broke and her body temperature fell, close the window, keep the fire damped down so it just kept the room above freezing and give her a spoonful of the medicine and she would sleep peacefully. In the early hours of the morning all this took place, the fever reached its peak and broke, the crisis was over and when Nurse West came again in the morning Eileen was asleep and on the road to recovery.

This then, was the debt Phyllis and her mother and family felt they owed to my Granny for saving the life of their youngest child when others had given up all hope.

The drowned bike

As always spring and summer came and with it our freedom to roam and explore. The year that followed the arrival of my first bicycle widened our horizons, many of my friends had also acquired a bike and we roamed the country lanes for miles around always wondering what lay round the next bend and where it would take us. There was just one incident that summer I will not forget and it always makes me smile.

There was and perhaps still is a section of the tow path that was about a quarter of a mile long, it was also fairly wide so we decided to use it as a race track. Off we set, just as we reached full speed my front wheel touched the back wheel of another bike I and my bike took off and landed right in the middle of the canal. My bike sank to the bottom, but as I could swim, I was safe but soaked through. Some of my friends had cycled on to the council yard and alerted the men who told my Granny, while others got the lock keepers boat and carrying a very long pole with a large hook on the end, rowed down to the spot where I had gone into the water. Meanwhile I had been taken back to the cottage – looking back now I think my Granny was so relieved that I was safe that she forgot to give me a telling off, but later the council foreman did, at least I think he was the foreman. From then on our bike racing on the canal tow path was forbidden. My bicycle was recovered using the long pole and hook mainly undamaged and returned to me with more words of warning as to what would happen if we did it again. When it had dried out and had been given a good cleaning , given a good oiling it was ready for use once more.

We resumed exploration of the lanes and byways, enjoying the open air with feeling and desire for adventure. We had not forgotten however our financial enterprise of patrolling the canal in the evenings and returning abandoned boats to their owners for a few coppers to spend on sweets or comics. At that time I must have been about twelve and a half and unaware that for me it was to be my last summer there on the canal. I did not dream that so soon I was to leave my school, my friends and that wonderful playground that was our Never Never Land, so much better than one created by a pop stars wealth. In ours we were completely free, our worlds came from within us, from our imaginations, we created what ever we desired and within those creations we could run, jump, climb swim and do whatever we wished. We lived with nature, we had nothing but we were generally healthy, safe, contented and happy. So came the day when I was to say goodbye to my friends and the canal, the river and my Granny who had taught me so much. I went to Sidmouth where I now had three sisters Margaret, Ruby and Mary, together with a very young brother John. Just a little more than a year later, at age fourteen, my school days were over and my working life began, my boyhood disappeared into a land of bygone memories but with me they are still fresh and green and will ever remain.

Roland Hugh Tuson © 2013

Rowing on the canal Rowing on the canal near Roland's house.

Top of Page