CHILDHOOD - Part Three

Childhood for many in the old days was short and sweet; often children started running errands as young as seven and working in regular jobs after school in the evenings at the age of ten or eleven. This week, our series on Childhood looks at the lighter side of life for youngsters; how they devised their own fun and mischief, the games they played and the sort of activities they enjoyed most.

In summer, children used the lakes as swimming pools, however cold, and spent many happy hours splashing about and teaching each other to swim, while a number of very cold winters in the early years of the century caused the lakes to be frozen over for weeks, allowing plenty of scope for skaters. Most older children begged, borrowed or cobbled together old skates and took to the ice for hours at a time, often skating in the evening by moonlight in case the ice should crack and thaw overnight.

The First World War brought its own particular games, and a popular matinee of "The Battle of The Somme," even without sound, inspired the boys to invent new games:

"We used to play in a builder's yard, and it had everything that boys could wish for. There were planks and trestles and during the War we made War games with planks and pipes set up on them for big guns and dugouts, it was a boy's paradise."

Comics like "Comic Cuts" and "Chips" gave children endless hours of fun, and they were encouraged to read "good" books from an early age such as "Kenilworth" and "Hereward The Wake" which were borrowed from school on a week's loan. Stories of the Wild West with The Lone Ranger and Zane Grey were much sought after, too, and often borrowed from privately run libraries for a small fee.

One of the most exciting events of the year was when the Circus came to town, and small children loved to play circuses for weeks after, digging a circus ring and making a lassoo or a long stock whip out of Mother's clothes line. Childish ingenuity was also stretched during the time that hoops, or bowlies, were popular. Some children were lucky enough to have a hoop made out of iron at the blacksmith's while others got an old bike wheel without a tyre on and ran miles and miles bowling it along.

Then there were various games using marbles, like Bounce and Span or Tommy, which involved getting a "Tommy" marble out of an old-fashioned cider bottle, usually to be begged or found at the local bottling factory. Each area had its own variations on games of marbles, and even special names for each game, but the purpose of the game was generally to end up with more marbles in your pocket than you started with.

Games like Snap, Snakes and Ladders and Ludo were popular in winter,but toys were few and far between for most children forced by bad weather to stop at home. A train set was a rare sight, and even Meccano was only for the wealthy, although its cheaper imitation, called Happy Knack, offered children lengths of piping to make simple constructions.

Some of the best games were invented by the children themselves. Rat-catching was always worth a try because most local councils offered a payment of 3d a tail. But perhaps the best invented games were those that had an element of danger to the children and a large measure of annoyance to adults, like the game of step-riding;

"Many Lakeland hotels had their own horse-drawn omnibuses which would meet passengers off the steamers and the drivers would say, 'This way, Sir, Grasmere 1/6d., Ambleside 1/-', or something like that. So you'd jump on the step part and have a ride on and if there was nobody happen to be inside you'd be inside as well and having a free ride. There was an art in getting off; you had to jump and run a while because if you forgot to do that, if you jumped straight off the moving vehicle, away you went, flat on your back. And then there was a whip behind, and if some boy should see you running behind a coach he'd shout to the driver, 'Look behind!', and he used to come round with his long whips and if you were just in the wrong position this whip caught you across the face, which wasn't very nice at all.

Some country children from outlying areas would rely on the mail coach coming through early in the morning for an illegal free ride on the back to school, despite the high risk of a crack on the face from the whip.

Children frequently scrumped apples, while others were bolder and devised ways of scrumping oranges, and even the sugar to go with them:

"You know how oranges used to come in - in boxes with a division in it, and you couldn't get an orange out because there wasn't room to pull it out. So you'd cut the orange in two in the box and bring it out in two...then we used to go with a pencil to the sugar bag and shove it in and it would start running out, and we'd get all the sugar too!"

Enterprising young errand boys needed bikes, and the village tip would provide all that was needed:

"You'd find an old bone-shaker and shove a poker through the front for a spoke for your bicycle, no tyre on, and nine times out of ten you couldn't reach it because it would be a big bicycle, so you'd ride with a leg under the crossbar."

Saddles were a luxury and considered quite unnecessary for this novice rider: "You'd go down the sewage tip and look for two wheels minus tyres. You found a frame and if it had handlebars on, that was great; you didn't bother about a seat because you just wrapped a bit of sack round and then off you went. That's how you learned to ride a bike. They went, even though they had no tyres and no saddle. That was how you set off learning to ride a bike. You got on and somebody gave you a push and if you stayed on you were lucky!"

Most parents gave their children pocket money in the form of a Saturday penny or halfpenny; and despite pressures from teachers to save money in various school savings accounts, redeemable only when you left, most children headed straight for the nearest sweet shop on a Saturday with their pocket money and any other small earnings. Just one penny bought an entire sticky feast

"We could buy toffees, dolly mixtures, coconut maroons, liqourice twists, sherbert and even a small chocolate bar for just a penny. There was so much choice, it was marvellous. We felt like kings!"