Buckingham Street

This is a bit of a mystery photograph. The shop was on the corner of Buckingham Street and Radcliffe Street, opposite the Gas Showroom. I cannot remember anything about it. The “Dura Glit” signs in the window suggest that it may have been an ironmongers  but that is purely a guess.

By the time this photo was taken (1968) the shop had probably fallen on hard times and closed. You can see from this photo how the wall stepped down as the road sloped down to Church Street and Eady, the butcher.

Fish and Chips

One of the weekly rituals in the40s and 50s was a mid-day meal of Fish and Chips on Saturday.  Virtually everyone did it so the queues outside Wolverton’s two Fish and Chip shops were always long. I expect the practice originated out of a desire to give the housewife a bit of a break.The following morning (Sunday) she would be preparing one of the major meals of the week.

The fare was simple, undeviating and nutritious – cod fried in batter and deep fried chips. An order was placed on paper, sprinkled liberally with salt, wrapped, and then wrappedin newspaper to keep it warm while it was carried home.
As I say, there were two shops.  Lloyd (I think that was his name) Billingham  has the outlet on Creed Street. I took this photograph in the late 60s shortly after the demolition of the Little Streets. For some reason, probably because he had to carry on with his trade, he was given a stay of execution, so the shop remained for a while quite isolated amidst the rubble. In the background of the picture you can see the Training School.
In general the fish and chip shops opened weeknights and Saturday.
The second outlet was located in the middle of the block at the top of Peel Road. The St. Johns Ambulance had their headquarters here and a garage for the single ambulance. Mr Larner,a cheery man with a toothy smile, ran the shop which I think was on the ground floor of the back building. The buildings have been modified since those days so it is hard to picture it exactly.

The Square 1968-2008

The first picture was taken in the mid to late 60s – I’ll say 1968. The corner shop was a Co-op grocery. The Co-op, the Wolverton Industrial and Provident Society, to use its proper name, was a dominant force in Wolverton shopping. About half the retailing outlets in the Square and a good number in Church Street were run by the Co-op.

You can see the houses that used to be part of Buckingham Street and the Gas Board showroom on the corner of Radcliffe Street. The old style corner lamppost has been removed but the post box (presumably the same one) maintains its place. The pram that the woman is holding, although smaller than those of the 40s, is of a type not seen nowadays.
1968 pre-dates the supermarket, although groceries like the Co-op and Dudeney and Johnston on the diagonally opposite corner were  offering a larger range of foods. Food shopping was still a daily occurrence in the late 60s but the acquisition of fridges and the arrival of packaged foods meant that more could be stored at home.

A Theatre Production at the Church Institute – 1958

As this is the centenary of the opening of the Church Institute on Creed Street, and MADCAP are celebrating the event, I thought I would post this programme from 1958 – exactly 50 years ago.
The G&S production by the grammar school had been an annual event since 1949. The driving duo behind this enterprisewere Harold Nutt, the Music master (pictured above in a woodcut by Peter Lowe the Art and Woodwork teacher) and Robert Eyles, Senior Master and English teacher.
Mr Nutt was a very energetic and charismatic teacher and it was entirely due to his enthusiasm that there was a school orchestra and musical productions. Andrew Morgan, son of Donald Morgan the headmaster, has remarked elsewhere that Harold Nutt was the first music teacher employed by the school, so he was the originator of many things. As we lined up outside the music room to go into class he would invariably say “Lead on Macduff!” to the boy at the front. I only found out years later, when I actually read Macbeth, that Shakespeare wrote “Lay on MacDuff!”
Mr Eyles was a good English teacher, although he could be a little tetchy at times. One occasion sticks in my mind because I was on the receiving end of his tongue-lash. he was taking us through a poem and told us that a tabor was a musical pipe. I looked it up in my dictionary and offered, “It says here sir, that it’s a drum.” “What sort of dictionary is that?” he rounded on me, “A Woolworth’s dictionary!” To which of course there could be no response.
Anyway, Harold Nutt looked after the musical side and Robert Eyles the acting side, also taking for himself the part that had the clever lyrics – in this case the First Lord of the Admiralty.
The pair were also good friends as well as colleagues and ould regularly meet up in the Saloon bar of the Vic on Sunday lunchtime.
The school orchestra rehearsed separately from the cast until about a week before the event. I think there were about three performances and the Church Institute hall was packed always. The orchestra took up its place in front of the stage, roughly in the area now taken up by the thrust stage and the whole cast managed on what is quite a small stage. I think the the school’s G&S productions were performed in the Empire theatre in the early years, but I suspect that the cost became too high.
In 1956, G&S was dropped for a production of a play called “Lady Precious Stream” produced by the history teacher, Oscar Tapper. Music still featured, as Mr Nutt composed (or perhaps orchestrated) some entracte music for the occasion. The musical production returned in 1957 with “Lilac Time” based on the story of Franz Schubert, and of course using his music. And in 1958, the witty and popular Gilbert and Sullivan mad their return to the Church Institute stage.

Theatre in Wolverton – 1958

Last week I visited the Church Institute, probably for the first time in 50 years. It is now MADCAP Centre for Performing Arts; structurally, the building is little changed.

The stage is a proscenium arch type and was the only kind known to our Edwardian forebears, but the present incumbents have built a thrust stage in front of that to give themselves more production flexibility. Modern lighting hangs from the ceiling tie rods and modern blinds have replaced the old blackout roller blinds. The parquet wood block flooring is original and has now lasted exactly 100 years.  The architect was John Oldrid Scott, who, like his more famous father, was responsible for the design of an extensive range of ecclesiastical architecture across the country.
I’ve written about the Church Institute before, but I now want to reflect on its role in theatre production.
Typically theatre was not a very accessible experience for Wolverton’s inhabitants. Only large towns and cities had professional theatre companies in the 1950s. Northampton was relatively close with the Repertory Theatre and the New Theatre. Oxford offered the only other provincial alternative, otherwise it was London. I do not recall Bedford having a professional theatre. The Northampton rep. used to put up weekly posters outside Dimmocks Grocery store on Aylesbury Street, so they must have attracted some regular theatre-goers from Wolverton. The New Theatre was, I believe, largely given over to Variety Shows. I have some photographs of my father singing there in the 1940s which would suggest that this was so. I do recall going to see pantomime there as a child.
Repertory theatre was probably very hard work – rehearsing next week’s production during the day and performing the current production at night, with two weekly matinees. I think we were taken to see a Shakespearean production once as a school party and I know that on my own initiative I went to see the rep’s production of Sheelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, which was the hot play of 1958.
But back to Wolverton. I think touring companies would come through every now and then. I do remember the D’Oyly Carte touring group coming to Wolverton in the late 40s, because my mother boarded some of them in our house. This was my first encounter with thespians. Touring Variety Shows also came to Wolverton  and usually performed on the stage at the Works Canteen. Local amateurs and semi-professional entertainers frequently put variety shows together; several were held at the Top Club.

A Gora Blimey!

Today I stepped inside the Agora. I was shocked. My expectation, given that the planners of the day had seen fit to demolish  complete sections of Church Street and Buckingham Street and isolated the Square from Church Street and the Front, was that the interior would be an indoor shopping centre. Instead I encountered a warehouse. I see now that it must have been the planner’s intention to replace the traditional market with a new superstructure in the middle of the town.

Well, let me say this. The project is an abject failure.
The market that ran every Friday in the Market Hall was a vibrant living organism. Many traders of all stripes set up their stalls inside and out and I don’t recall many vacancies. United Counties scheduled buses from all the outlying villages on Friday morning and returning at lunchtime. They were mostly full and the Friday market was a very crowded place.
One job which I took on in my teens was to help one trader, Harry Tooth, to unload his rugs, tablecloths and bedlinen from his van. I would help him unload before school in the morning and load up after 4 in the afternoon. So he got in a full day’s trading at Wolverton market.
Fifty years later I still see town markets flourishing so I see no reason why the old Wolverton market could not have continued to thrive.
Wolverton had certainly grown in an unusual way because of Railway Board decisions. Once Bury, Garnett and Walker Streets had been razed, the commercial traders had to move but before too long the Front and Church Street had formed a new shopping centre ith residences to the east, south and west. When the little streets were flattened in the 60s the eastern side was gone and the town became once more lop-sided.
The planners and builders of the Agora could have justified their decision had they built a shopping centre with important tenants – but a warehouse doesn’t cut it!

School curriculum 1931-1958

I just discovered my Mother’s school certificate, awarded in 1931. I’ve contrasted it with my GCE O Level, taken in 1958. We both went to the same school and in some cases had the same teachers, but things did change over a generation.
In 1931 she studied:
English Language and Literature
Needlework (These subjects written on the back in Mr. Boyce’s elegant handwriting.)
In 1958, I took:
English Language and Literature
General Science
Additional General Science.
6 subjects were identical; the other three represented changes.
The obvious difference was that some of the subjects she took were gender-specific. like Botany and Needlework. Although Physics and Chemistry were taught there in 1931, they were not taught to girls. It is also probable that the Zoology aspect of Biology was not deemed appropriate for a girl’s tender sensibilities.
In my day we were required to drop subjects like Art and Woodwork in favour of more academic subjects. Physics, Chemistry and Biology were lumped together  for a General Science paper, but in 1957, after the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite, there was a great scurrying around to improve science teaching. As a consequence, we were given extra science lessons and entered for an extra science paper called Additional General Science.
Later, Physics, Chemistry and Biology were offered as separate papers 

Church Street Shops

On the north side of Church Street, between the Wesleyan Chapel and The Victoria hotel stood a parade of shops and commercial services.

At Number 6, The “Brighton” Bakery run at the time by Cyril East. Next door at No: 8 AG Leigh a Chemist. I think there had been a chemist here since the 19th century. These two old 3 storey terraced buildings still survive.

I can’t remember who was at Number 10, but at Number 12 Ken east and his wife ran the Central Cafe together with a banquet catering business. These two buildings are now demolished.
After the GPO and the Empire there was a Gentleman’s Outfitter, Chowns. Mr Chown also supplied boy’s school uniforms for the Grammar School. Next door at Number 28, a jewellers, as indeed it is today. In the 50s the proprietor was W.S. Hawkins.

 Number 30 was called “Donnies” in the 1960s – a sweet shop. Before that I do not know what it was called. I am not sue at this atge about no 32.
At Number 34 a grocer – Ellerys in the 1950s and earlier and subsequently a food or convenience store of some sort. Next door a confectioner Pollard.
Next door to the Vic was a watchmaker and jeweller, T F Taylor

The Empire

Of the two cinemas in Wolverton I tended to favour the Empire. This probably dates from the Saturday morning experience in the early 50s where we could go to watch a collection of cartoons and short features for 6d. The manager of the Empire at this time was quite enterprising and offered prizes for various talents during the interval. He thus guaranteed that the auditorium was packed.

Where there are now two windows and a double door was an open foyer. The ticket kiosk was on the right . Inset were two double doors leading into the picture house. The walls held posters featuring the latest films.
In the 50s cinemas still offered a main feature film and a “B” film as part of the same programme. In part this practice dated back to the times when films were much shorter but it was also a means of protecting the declining British film industry. Even though Hollywood films were the main attraction, a British film could still get into the cinema as a “B” feature. This was a restrictive trade practice but it did ensure that quite a lot of good British films, albeit low budget, found and audience.
The film programme probably changed twice weekly on Wednesday and Saturday. I would imagine that in those pre-television days many people went to the “pictures” twice a week.
Showings were also continuous, so if you missed the first ten minutes of the film you could sit through the entire programme and pick up the first ten minutes at the beginning of the next showing.
In my child’s imagination The Empire was an important and imposing building. It looks rather unimpressive today.

The Postal Service

Back in the 50s the Postal Service was the cheapest form of long distance communication. Telephones were expensive and uncommon – a few minutes telephone conversation might cost four times the cost of sending a letter. Nowadays those relative costs  have been reversed.
The General Post Office, built in the 1930s, has changed little externally. The main entrance led to a public area on the left with counter stations where one could buy stamps, postal orders, pay for parcels etc. The rest of the building was given over to a sorting office and administrative offices. I think there was a public call box inside the front door.
Until the creation of British Telecom the Post Office had charge of the telephone service. The telephone exchange may have been located here. I am not sure.
Telephones were rare in the 1950s. A few residences had them and people who provided services like doctors and plumbers. Not many retail businesses had a telephone. I don’t suppose they saw the point. Shops were open during strictly enforced opening hours. Shoppers bought from the stock you had on hand. It would not have occurred to anyone to phone up and ask if they had such and such in stock and what was the price.
To give some idea of the general scarcity of telephones, Wolverton was in the Bedford Telephone Directory which was about 1cm thick in 1955 and covered Bedfordshire, North Bucks and North Hertfordshire. Public call boxes were also rare. Apart from the one at the General Post Office, I can only remember one other – at the works entrance by the Station. There may also have been another by Anson Road. Even if they wanted to use a phone Wolverton residents would have had to walk a long way  for a call box.
There were still two daily postal deliveries in the early 50s. There was never as much in the “second post” as in the first one in the morning. At Christmas time delveries were constant. 
Our postman was a man called Charlie Phillips whom we children regarded as rather strange. He used to call across the street to us phrases like “Ows yer mother off for soap?” To which there could be no reply because we did not understand what he meant – possibly something to do with rationing.  He was regarded as quite harmless.