The “Works Whistle” as we called it was a loud siren that sounded regularly at 7:43 am, 12:25pm, 1:25pm and 5:30pm for five days a week. For those who worked on Saturday morning it went of at 8 am and 12pm. I don’t know in what year the “whistle” was introduced but it could be heard all over town. It governed the lives of most residents. When I did a paper round in the 1950s in my teens I was able to observe the start of the working day. Usually we had to be up at 6:30 and down to Muscutt & Tompkins by 7. We sorted our papers into our bags which were permanently greyed with printing ink. The Daily Herald (which later morphed into The Sun) was the worst as they seemed to use a particularly greasy back ink which made our hands dirty and everything else. Men started to appear on the Front at about 7:15 when some of the village buses came in. Very quickly, as the Stony Stratford and New Bradwell buses disgorged their full loads and a stream of workers came from the railway station the road was heaving. Many came into Muscutt & Tompkins for their newspapers and a packet of fags. Some of the popular papers like the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express were stacked about two feet high at 7 o-clock; by 7:30 they were down to a few inches. Most Wolverton workers left their homes at about 7:30 which gave them enough time to walk down to the Front to clock on. The warning whistle went off at 7:43 which gave everyone two minutes to clock on. The street quickly emptied and a great silence fell upon the Stratford Road.
Shops opened at 9 and closed for the day at 5:30 (it might have been 6) and there was an early closing day on Wednesday where shops closed in the afternoon. It was rigorously observed. There may have been a by-law to govern shopping hours.
School hours were from 9 to 4, with almost an hour an a half for lunch. One friend of mine, who lived at Stony Stratford, took the bus home and back every lunchtime. The mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, a custom that had lasted for centuries until recent times. We may have been almost the last generation to experience this. I think that the Primary School and Secondary School had slight variations in time so that the children did not coincide at lunchtime and the end of the day.
The men left at 12:25 when the whistle went and were home shortly after 12:30 when the meal was served. There was a full hour for lunch. Those who came from further afield could eat in the Works Canteen. I am sure that some put in some time at one of the four pubs or the bottom club. Again the Front was a bustling place until 1:25 when it all fell silent again and several thousand men did their work behind the wall.
At the end of the day, at 5:30 the gates opened and for the final time thousands of men and women teemed out of the gates. The buses on hand quickly filled up and the trains were not far behind. Within about five minutes the street was empty again.
In the 1950s we took this as normal, as indeed it was in those times. We probably could not have imagined a time when the old industrial economy which employed people in their thousands would give way to lighter, smaller, more flexible work places. There are still rush hours today, but people are travelling in a multitude of directions at different times to different destinations. In Wolverton in the 1950s there was one destination for almost everybody.
In February, David Marks sent me a draft of his recollections of his years growing up in our small town. It came to me as a continuous narrative but I decided to post it on this blog in nine parts.
Recently I have checked the viewing stats and a rather strange pattern has emerged. There are a lot of readers for Part I and an almost equal number for Part VI; the parts in between have not registered. I’m a bit puzzled by this. I can understand people reading the first part and not bothering to go on (and I expect David would understand this too) but it makes less sense for readers to rush ahead to Part VI without, apparently, looking at the intervening chapters.
So in case there are readers who would like to read the continuous narrative and couldn’t find it, I am posting the links here. Those of us who remember the “old” Wolverton will find much to entertain and nourish our memories.
50 years ago this house, at 97 Church Street, used to be Wolverton’s Police Station. The front room was the reception/office, protected by a high counter. I am told that there was a lock-up cell in the back and a small court for inquests, although magistrate’s hearings were always at Stony Stratford. The ranking officer was one Sergeant Gee who I believe had been there since before the war. It was a small detachment of perhaps two or three young constables who would regularly walk their beat around town. What crime they uncovered I cannot imagine. Criminal activity in Wolverton in those days amounted to stealing a few shillings from the gas meter, drunk and disorderly behaviour at weekends and possibly some domestic eruptions. When there was a real crime it was almost comic, like the time some desperado robbed Sigwarts, the jewellers on Stratford Road, and then legged it to the station hoping, apparently, to catch the next train and evade capture. I know I will not be believed today but the crime rate was very low in those days. Property was respected and because everyone in the town knew one another there was very little you could get away with. People did not lock their doors unless they went away on holiday and even if they did, they would leave the key under the doormat. In 1960 or thereabouts a new Police Station was built on the Stratford Road at the western edge of the town. Sergeant Gee retired and was replaced by an Inspector Wanstell with a larger detachment. The police now had cars, bobbies no longer walked the beat, and the motorist became a target for police activity. My father bemoaned the fact that the ordinary citizen was now criminalized and thought that no good would come of it. I suspect he was right.
The end house of the terrace was originally occupied by renters. The Mansfield family occupied 4 rooms in 1891 and two young single working men occupied another four rooms. I assume they shared the kitchen and any washing facilities. By the 1950s this had become a double-fronted shop as it is today. It was occupied by the Co-op and I think (although memory is a little vague) that half was taken up with fruit and vegetables and the other half with flowers. The shop now occupied by AMA was for many years a butchers shop, first Dewhurst and then taken over by Baxters. My mother used to shop here for meat. The butcher was a genial chap from Leamington by the name of Fred Cross. My friend David Snow, after working as a butchers delivery boy, started his apprenticeship here in 1957 before moving on to a successful business career.
The original occupant was Walter Scott, a coach painter, and his family. The present Lloyds pharmacy was established as a chemists by Douglas Roberts in the early 1950s. I remember him working for Ewart Dale on the Stratford Road prior to that, presumably learning the ropes. The added string to his bow was his extra training as an optician, so he was able to offer this service in a back room, even though there was an established optician, F. Blagrove, two doors down. Roberts had an engaging personality and this must have been a great asset to him in building his business. I note that his name survives with the optician’s business next door.
The house at the centre of the terrace, with the central doorway flanmed by an optician and a Lloyd’s pharmacy was originally a single residence and in 1891 was occupied by William purslow and his family. He was the works manager and one of the most important men in the town. His occupancy may have coincided with the period when two of the canal-side villas were demolished to make way for workshop expansion and the construction of The Gables.
The shop frontage at number 9 has preserved its Edwardian frontage. In the 1950s the occupants were paint and wallpaper dealers, Byrne and Kershaw. In those days wallpaper was popular and the wall-covering of choice. Paint was mainly reserved for wood. These were still pre vinyl and acrylic paint days. Paint was oil-based, required a lot of preparation and took a long time to dry. The primary component of white paint was still lead oxide.
the residential occupants in 1891 were James Carter and his family. He also had two young male boarders. James Carter was an “Iron trimmer” by trade, which sounds very much like a lost occupation. Morland terrace begins with the Newsagents at number 5. In 1891 the Biddis family lived here. Walter Biddis was a works foreman and was then 41 years old – well established with his family. In the 1950s Sid Davies ran this as a sweet shop. They sold Walls ice cream here and Woodwards across the Square sold Lyons.
Next door lived quite a small household – Henry Gamble, a coach painter, and his wife, and her younger brother, the 20 year old William Jones, a music teacher. This corner building was not identified with Morland Terrace in 1891 and looking at the variations in architectural styling I would guess that it was erected by a different builder, possibly a year or two after Morland Terrace. The occupant in 1891 was Richard Stapley, a 38 year-old Draper. He and his wife came from Brighton and presumably had sufficient capital to set up in business here. The older children were born in Brighton but the youngest, just 2 months old in 1891, was born in Wolverton, which would suggest that they had not been resident for very long and may well have been the first occupants of the building. This was a commercial establishemnt from the very first. Stapley also employed a 29 year old Draper’s Assistant and a 13 year-old domestic servant. As I mentioned earlier, the shop was a grocery – Dudeney and Johnston. To some degree the present occupiers have returned to Richard Stapley’s trade.
Seeing this pay cart at the MK Museum reminded me that one of my great uncles, a senior accounts clerk, was actually responsible for the payroll in the 1930s. This cart has B.R. painted on the side so it must have been used after nationalization in 1948, although it continues to use LMS livery colour.
Workers were paid only in cash until the transition was made to bank accounts in the last quarter of the 20th century. the pay cart was wheeled over to the bank to pick up the money and taken back under guard of course, where the money was counted out in pounds shillings and pence into each pay packet. Checked, sorted by workshop. All this work would take the betterpart of the morning, then the cart was wheeled throughout the works where the men would sign for their packets. The name, hours worked, rate and total pay was written on each packet, an open brown manilla packet with holes punched through so that the money was visible.
Pay was weekly on Friday and usually before lunchtime at 12:30. Some would go up to the building society to make their mortgage payments (probably about 10/- a week) and others would add to the lunchtime trade in the four pubs and the bottom club.
The only source of milk, the other staple in our lives, was the Co-op. Reuben “Pop” Bremeyer had run a small dairy at 115 Windsor Street before the war, but he had retired when I knew him andhis sons had left home and his daughter Alice operated a small greengrocery/corner shop at that address.
The Co-op dairy was on Jersey road at the back of the Co-op grocery on Church Street. The building have been changed and adapted now but there were stables for the horse here and a shed for the horse-drawn dray. This was another job that required an early start and each morning Mr & Mrs Odell (I think that was the name) would don their brown smocks, harness the horse known as “Dobbin”, load the dray with crates of milk bottles and work their way quietly around the town.
Milk was paid for by the purchase of tokens from the Co-op on the Square. These were aluminium disks about the size of a penny, smaller for a half pint and coloured red for special items like cream. Tokens for whatever you required could then be left on the doorstep overnight. The milk carton had yet to be invented, so all milk came in bottles sealed with cardboard caps with a pull tag – they fitted into the slightly-recessed bottle top. Later on in the 50s the aluminium seal began to appear.
Milk was either tuberculin tested (TT) or pasteurised before it was bottled. Co-op milk was pasteurised. Cream was not entirely separated from the milk and each pint bottle would have an inch or so of cream rising to the top. On the occasional frosty winter morning the milk would freeze and the expansion would pop the cardboard cap and poke up a finger of frozen milk.
In the early years of my life there was no such thing as sliced bread because it had been banned by the government as an economy measure, so it was something of a revelation to me and my contemporaries when the ban was lifted in 1950. No more diagonal cuts or “doorstep” wedges; each slice came beautifully uniform. I don’t think we were conscious of the nutritional price we were paying for this machine made consistency but there must have been a dawning of understanding since advertisers a few years later were making a virtue of the addition of niacine and thiamine.
Looking back it appears that one of the unintended consequences of this government ban was to allow small bakers to survive a little longer.
Wolverton had four bakery outlets – The “Brighton” Bakery at number 6 Church Street, King’s at number 41 Church Street, the Co-op Bakery at the back of the Co-op Grocery on the Square with its retail outlet on the corner of Aylesbury St and Bedford St. and Faithfull Brothers on the Stratford Road, who had their actual bakery in New Bradwell.
My mother bought her bread from King’s, so I can’t speak to the quality of other bakers, but I do believe that each baker had a different taste because I remember people asserting that so-and-so’s bread was the “best”.
Mr King used to deliver bread in the afternoon in a pony and trap very much like this photo of the bread van in the MK Museum. Of course if yu wanted oven fresh bread you would have to go down to the shop early and join the queue.
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.
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!
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.