Memories Of A Caerleon Schoolboy
by Lyndon Watts
When commencing my education at Caerleon infants school, at Easter-time in 1938, I was never bullied, or “picked on” and I certainly was never considered to be shy-natured so I simply cannot explain my reluctance to enter the playing area until all the other children had left and entered their class rooms. My mother escorted me to a small park opposite the school gates and waited with me until this moment arrived. Once inside my own classroom I was perfectly content to remain until the time of departure.
On the very first day of attendance I was eager to sit alongside a childhood friend named John Thomas. Finding out that this place was already allocated to another boy I turned around with every intention of returning home and informed the teacher of this intent. She, in her wisdom, guided me to an alternative place next to a little blond girl named Wendy Hollister. Obviously this met with my approval and I agreed to stay. Some time later, when my sister was born, she was named Wendy after this little girl who, by then, had emigrated to Australia. Most of the events of those early days are vague and probably a little distorted but some are embedded clearly in my memory. The very first word we were taught to spell was C-A-E-R-L-E-O-N, the name of our very small, but historically famous village. The following year, 1939, war was declared. Reading the headlines in the Daily Herald I asked my mother “What is war?” She replied “It is when a lot of people kill each other”. Little did I realise then what an apt description that proved to be.
At that time there appeared a large influx of refugees. The first to arrive were Basques escaping from the Spanish Civil war. These were billeted at Cambria House in Mill Street until this establishment was converted into a barracks. Next to arrive were girls from the Dover region, one of whom was billeted with Auntie May and remained there for the duration of the war. Finally the London evacuees put in an appearance. These were far more street wise than the young local residents and, in a way, took over. I wonder now if anyone now remembers the occasion when the entire school was assembled and a group of these youngsters were caned in public. They had pre-planned the capture of several local boys and led them to the old ash tip on Tram Lane. There they had an oil drum over an open fire with road tar being melted. A mattress had been emptied of feathers and the real intention was to tar and feather their captives. Firstly everything was taken from trouser pockets before forcibly removing all top clothing then each one was tied to a tree. Why this is recalled so vividly is because I was one of the unfortunates that became a captive. It was by sheer chance that the incident was spotted and reported to my mother who came to our rescue. Despite being small in stature she actually fought with several of the boys until they beat a hasty retreat.
Referring back to Auntie May. She and her husband, Bill, kept a double fronted property in Mill Street. No one I speak to can remember this building, but one side was a newsagents come grocery store. The other side sold fish and chips. One day each week, (I believe it was Tuesday) I would proceed to the shop and read all the comics before they were delivered. My preference was The Radio Fun while my sister preferred The Film Fun. Opposite this residence was the ever popular Oddfellows Hall where working men and their families enjoyed social gatherings. This building was converted into the A.F.S. station during the war, then later became the local mortuary. One incident I shall never forget is seeing a body carried in that had been recovered from the river.
Once the war had started certain precautions were adopted, blackout blinds were introduced to windows and all panes of glass were criss-crossed with adhesive tape to reduce the risk of flying splinters. Food became scarce and, at playtime, as a supplement we were provided with a third of a pint of milk and a spoonful of malt extract. I really can’t remember the spoon being replaced or even wiped clean before each recipient received their allocation.
In those early years school meals were non-existent. It was not until the early 1940’s that we took our six pence to purchase a full lunchtime meal complete with a sweet. Contrary to general opinions I adored the milk sago puddings and loathed the stodgy jam rolly-polly or syrup sponge. Whenever these appeared on the menu I sold them for two pence or sometimes halved them for a penny. The headmaster often toured the dinning room and was adamant that elbows should not stick out. Upon finding a culprit guilty of this severe crime he would remind the offender with a slap across the upper arm with his cane. To this day I keep my elbows well to my side. Friday lunchtime was slightly different. My mother would meet my older sister and I from the school then proceed to the nearby Kilvingtons fish and chip shop where she would purchase two fish and a shillings worth of chips. The fries would be divided between three and the two children would have a divided fish portion. The entire meal would cost the princely sum of two shillings and six pence (twelve and a half new pence). It was always more than adequate. I believe that today the presentation would be barred. There was always a written request for old, used newspapers. The food was wrapped directly in sheets of The South Wales Argus or its equivalent with total disregard for hygiene. Nobody, however, appeared to suffer ill effects. Neither was it ever certain what type of fish was enveloped in the crisp golden batter. Perhaps the generous covering was designed to disguise the real content. About this same time there became a shortage of potatoes. School dinners took on a somewhat different appearance. As a substitute for this deficient vegetable large slices of bread were served liberally soaked in thick gravy
A good attendance record was ultra-important to the school. Every pupil that qualified was given a book at Easter time and the same conditions applied for entry into an internal examination for a prize of £5. Only the top ten boys and an equal number of girls received this prestigious award. I did actually claim three of these prizes. On my first attempt I did have an inferior attendance due to illness and I never did discover how or why this strict regulation was lifted. In the junior schools there was segregation between girls and boys, each even had separate playing grounds and never did share bicycle sheds
Immediately after the war commenced evacuee children started to appear in our village. Among the first to arrive were girls from Dover escaping the bombardment by heavy German artillery across the channel. One morning in August of 1939 my father woke me from my slumber and informed me that we had a Dover evacuee girl to live with us. I was instantly distressed but it was only his way of informing me that a baby had been born overnight. It was Wendy, my new sister.
By the time arrived to progress to junior school all of the male teaching staff had joined our fighting forces. Retired or semi-retired female teachers were recruited to fill their positions. One of these was given the responsibility of selecting and grooming certain students in preparation for higher education scholarship examinations. This however was no excuse for certain compulsory lessons, one of which was gardening. It came as no surprise that the garden selected for this purpose was that of our headmaster, Walter Lovatt. One day, while supervising his junior gardeners, he asked one unsuspecting soul if the blackcurrants were sweet. Upon replying, “They’re lovely sir.” he had six cuts of the stick for stealing fruit. Mister Lovatt was very generous when it came to administering punishment. I once had four cuts, two on each hand, for being the last one to close my desk. Later I gained some revenge when two piglets owned by myself and a friend escaped and ate all the cabbages on his cultivated plot. Overall I really did enjoy my attendance at Caerleon School but the preparation was not fully complete for my eventual entry to a Technical College. Initially I found the mathematics far advanced and the science subjects really difficult.
Growing up in Caerleon during the war years contained some excitement. One of the largest buildings was converted into a barracks and it became a past-time to watch soldiers in training. Not too far out of town an old clay quarry became a make-shift battle ground. On one occasion I, and several companions, were strolling towards this area unaware that manoeuvres were taking place. Walking leisurely through a field of ferns this ground foliage suddenly began to move. Until that moment there was no indication that troops were practicing the art of camouflage. To say that we experienced terror would be greatly under-rated statement.
One of my most rewarding activities of that era was to deliver Sunday morning papers to the soldiers in the barracks. After my morning deliveries all the surplus papers were gathered together and taken to their quarters. It was a privilege to even enter the establishment, but I had special concessions to circulate and sell the newspapers at two old pence each. I remember distinctly that the People was the favourite closely followed by The Sunday Sketch and Sunday Dispatch. Other, now extinct publications of that time were The Chronicle and the Graphic. All the papers were accounted for and any deficiency of money was taken from my financial rewards.
Money was terribly restricted. My father worked locally but there were no allowances for sickness, No work, no pay. This was partially overcome by a weekly payment into working mens’ clubs. It was only a pittance but it entitled as family to a small allowance. It also entitled children to attend Christmas parties and occasional trips. Sunday best clothes and spit and polished shoes were the order of the day with hair parted and smoothed down to impress the other attendants.
Sunday schools played a memorable part in those early days. The Methodist Chapel in Church Street and the Baptist Chapel in Castle Street were regularly attended. For those who attended the compulsory amount, a trip to Barry Island was the reward. It was discovered that by careful calculation it was possible to qualify for both.
It requires no great effort to recall other events that may be restricted to the residents of Caerleon. Children looked forward to weddings with eager anticipation. As each marriage party made egress from St. Cadocs church it was customary to bar their progress with a length of rope held across the letch gate until the best man had thrown a handful of loose change for the children to “scramble” for. It was always a scant amount but, since a penny would purchase a large bag of sweets at that time, it was well worth the limited applied effort.
Goldcroft Common, an area of grassed, common land situated on the High Street, was the venue for two annual events. The May Fair appeared early in the month. What appeared to be overnight, stalls and amusements mushroomed. Bright lights illuminated roundabouts, dodgem cars, roll-a penny and hoopla stalls were there for our enjoyment and the evenings echoed with shrieks of laughter and squeals of excitement. In the same month an annual horse fair occurred. Having a rural environment, and once the location of an established racecourse, this event was always well attended. Lads of my era led the horses around for approval by their prospective purchasers. On one such occasion the shire horse I was attending decided to take a walk. It was not until much later we were both discovered quite some distance away from the parade area. Still on the subject of horses. Adjacent to Goldcroft Common is situated The Angel Hotel. Behind this was a riding school owned by a Mr Howells. The horses were not permanently kept in the stables but allowed the freedom of a field some distance away. It was a fine opportunity for the young male local residents to ride. First catching the horses they were either led or ridden, bare back, to the stables, taken to the “tack room” and saddled up for the privileged young ladies to participate in their chosen past-time. On their return the animals were rubbed down, groomed and returned to their grazing area. That is the horses, not the young ladies
The Angel Hotel became the venue for another, perhaps criminal, activity. If a few pence were required for the cinema or perhaps to visit the local swimming pool, it was discovered that empty bottles were stored at the rear. By “claiming” a few of these and handing them in to the landlord we would receive a penny for each bottle. This practice was not performed with any regularity and I’m convinced that this activity was not unknown by the proprietor.
As the war progressed an army of foreign soldiers were billeted close to the town. Asian troops camped on the hillside and American soldiers frequented the local dances. We were pleased to welcome the latter knowing of their generosity for sharing chewing gum and chocolate. It was then that I was introduced to Boogie-Woogie music. A passion I retain to this very day. Of course confectionary was almost non-existent during the war years. Notices were posted in shop doorways informing the public of this deficiency but, in reality there were often items hid “under the counter” saved for the privileged few. I, as a paper boy, did have access to an occasional treat. I often bought sweet coupons from my friends then sold them back an occasional toffee or piece of chocolate.
The nearest cinemas were located in Newport some three miles away. One major treat for any was the Odeon Saturday Morning Club. For a mere six pence a full morning’s viewing was available watching the adventures of The Dead End Kids or Flash Gordon. The queue for entry commenced a full hour before opening time and it was essential to be near to the head of the line to claim your favourite seats. It was not unknown for the first children in the cinema to open the fire escape doors allowing their friends free admittance. Apart from this, every Friday evening, an abandoned mushroom farm was converted to display films and cartoons. A local builder, Mr. Cook, provided this popular entertainment comprising of Popeye and Disney characters. All these movies were silent and with only one projector available it was a common occurrence to wait for one reel to be replaced by another to the chorus of young voices yelling, “Why are we waiting.” There was no definite charge for entry but a collection box was assessable to cover the hire of films. The box was often found to contain nothing but metal washers or buttons. This may be the reason why it terminated after an extended trial period.
A village fete occurred annually. This comprised of stalls being erected in a local field, the election of a carnival queen, a procession of floats through the streets and people just enjoying a carnival atmosphere. I can’t remember an occasion when I was not involved in the fancy dress competition. One year I became the carnival queen complete with my friends dressing up as court ladies. Another occasion I became a baby becoming pushed around the village in a pram. One prop was a beer bottle filled with milk and having a teat secured on the end. This particular incident caused great amusement when the wheels started to fall off. On completion of the tour only one wheel remained. Two brothers, Eric and Rhys, became my proud parents for the day’s duration. Over the years I became Robin Hood, one of the three bears, a member of a chorus line and others that now escape me.
Mrs Strong of Backhall Street decided to turn her front room into a tea room. This was in instant success with the younger element. Every night at quarter to seven we ordered faggots and peas and devoured them when listening to the adventures of Dick Barton, special agent bellowing out from Rediffusion speakers. This venue became a form of youth club and we eventually produced Christmas pantomimes. One year, performing as an ugly sister I had mumps. It was not too long before the remainder of the cast were also affected.
Train spotting was another favourite past-time. Armed with spotter books and pencils we would assemble on Newport or Hereford main line stations hoping to “spot” a member of the King, Castle or Hall class locomotives or tick off the numbers of lesser class engines. This was a highly competitive occupation and comparisons were made to who had actually located the most numbers or who had seen the rarest train name. A penny platform ticket was required to stay on the station but this was regarded as a good deal when it lasted for a whole day.
Naturally there were times of mischief like scrumping apples or knocking doors at night and being pursued by irate householders, but I can honestly claim that there was never any violence or malicious behaviour. Perhaps Mr. Lovatt and his collection of punishment canes had some effect on our activities. In those days television was not available and most radio programmes were of little interest to teenagers. Entertainment was mostly restricted to what was devised by ourselves. Bows were made from ash tree branches and arrows from hazel twigs. Catapults were crafted from willow forks and cut-up cycle inner tubes formed the elastic projectiles. Larger inner tubes, from lorries or such, provided swimming floats and empty oil drums lashed together made excellent rafts for sailing. Old discarded prams provided the wheels for Go-carts and worn car tyres became hoops for chasing down embankments. It is correct to say that all of our pastimes or activities contained something of home manufacture.
My father did not enter my early life to any great extent but when he did it was very entertaining. He possessed the knowledge of a huge amount of comical songs and did not take much persuading to render a version of Felix The Cat, a Naughty Sporty College Boy or My Brother Sylvest. He even performed these in local working men’s clubs. I remember him on one occasion being very excited about a twelve year old girl who had performed that evening. This youngster was none other than Shirley Bassey. My future father in law also entertained. Being a member of an old time musical group he also often rendered comical songs, the favourite being The Laughing Policeman. I understand he sent all of the more senior ladies into raptures. I don’t believe they threw their knickers on the stage, but he was a popular man. I actually knew Albert long before becoming involved with June. On most Saturday mornings we would deliver firewood and logs to the residents of Newport - that is after making deliveries of chopped firewood to the residents of our home village by horse and cart. There were several street deliveries at that time. I marvelled how a slight girl like Megan Phillips could heave those milk churns around as if they were feather light. Mr Knorz, the baker, delivered his delicious newly baked bread every morning. It was customary for him to leave this delicacy on the front window sill, often removing the pet cat first. I remember too deliveries of faggots and peas and taking a jug container to collect them in. Ice-cream was brought to the door by “Snotty” Williams and coal delivered in hundredweight sacks (nobody ever checked the weight content). With being reliant on coal fires it was critical to occasionally employ a chimney sweep. Whenever this occurred I would make my way up Lodge Hill and book the attendance of our local specialist. The booking would often be taken by his daughter. Never in the wide world did I realise that this same person would one day (much later) share my life as my wife
This then was the basis of growing up in the rural environment of Caerleon, there must be many other incidents whose memories have now faded with time, but life was good despite the deficiency of all of the modern-day equipment and technology. Memories of those days with near empty roads and gas street lamps will remain far longer than many of the more recent occurrences.
Read Lyndons poem Caerleon Remembered.