Bristol Chronicles 1920s

Bristol Chronicles 1920s

1920s – This story, written by G T Morgan and sent in by a reader, gives us a glimpse into what life must have been like in Bristol in the 1920s – a time which saw extremes of poverty and wealth. His home was a small pub, but his working day was spent as a page boy in a leading city hotel. Here are his evocative reminiscences.

In 1926 I lived a life in two worlds. For by day, at the hotel, I made personal contact with film stars, actors, millionaires, famous aviators, commercial travellers and professional tipsters. But by night, in east Bristol, I experienced the blue, smokey atmosphere of a spit and sawdust public house, a place which happened to be my home. Here and there was a bar spittoon, and a gas jet was used to seal bottles in the ‘bottle and jug’ with red wax.

Our way of life was very different in those days, and I saw much poverty among my good friends and neighbours in Derby Street. Comparing our back street struggle for the very necessities of life with the soft lights, sweet music and plush carpets of the hotel, I felt I was living a Jekyll and Hyde existence.

From the pub window in the early morning, I could see women queuing up outside the pawnbrokers shop opposite. Clutched closely to their white laced cotton pinafores were white sheet bundles tied at all four corners. These women also wore their husband’s caps, but to add a feminine touch they pushed an oversized steel hat pin through the top.

Those were the days of the dreaded means test, and unemployment was rife. Groups of men would stand idly on street corners, their only possession a packet of Woodbine cigarettes. But this was also the era of the Bullnose Morris car, the lamplighter crystal set, the tin trumpeted gramophone, the barrel organ and radio stations 5WA Cardiff and 2LO London.

This was still the age of the smithy – the clanging, dancing hammer on the anvil, and the fumes from burning horses’ hooves. Cockle-sellers in Welsh national costume would roam the streets, their cries of ‘cockles!’ mingling with the melodious rumbling of a side street barrel organ. Kids would be in the streets playing conkers, kicktin, monkey tops, bedlam, hoops and skipping.

They also swapped or exchanged cigarette cards known as ‘generals’. There was also a wonderful series of ‘Do You Know’ and ‘Cries Of London’. A weekend chore for them was polishing knives, forks and spoons on a scouring board, The sweet shop on the corner sold aniseed balls, humbugs and halfpenny gobstoppers that changed colour with every few sucks.

Wire-rimmed glasses and spectacles came from the sixpenny bazaar. A cry of ‘ripe bananas’ came from barrow boys, and weekend joints were sold by butchers at Saturday night giveaway prices. Horse dealers trotted their horses up and down the side streets under the watchful eye of would-be buyers, and sheep and cows, being driven from the market to the slaughterhouse, would dirty the streets.

An occasional escaped bull would run amok, causing excitement and scattering pedestrians in all directions. My playground, St George Park, was where many ex-professional soccer players – such as Billy Coggins, Walt Jennings and Ted Hathway – booted red rubber gaskin balls about on the grass.

Even Bob Hope, in later life America’s king jester, sought pleasure in the park. He, like may other youngsters, fished for tiddlers in the lake and quenched his thirst from the chained copper cup water fountain at Park Crescent.

But each morning I left this world behind me as I boarded a tram to the Centre to take up my duties – a long 12-hour day working at the hotel. Alongside the docks, by the city Centre, was ex-Bristol and England rugby player Sam Tucker. By day a foreman docker, he would stand on a box and select his men for the day’s work. Hundreds more, with cigarette in mouth, would miserably disperse to idle away yet another day of unemployment.

At the top of Park Street was the Princes Theatre, destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. Pauline Frederick, the silent film star and stage star, made an appearance there in the late 1920s after a two-week run of The Wandering Jew featuring that very famous actor Matheson Lang. It was Miss Frederick’s manager who offered me a film test at the Fox Studios in Hollywood. It was all very exciting – until my parents objected and dashed forever my hopes of seeing Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Ruth Roland, Tom Mix and William S Hart in real life.

My wages at the hotel were six shillings a week, but tips gave me an average of £2 per week. At Christmas the kindly chairman of the board of directors handed me a gift of two brand new half crowns (25p)

Bert Hinkler and Captain McIntosh, two famous aviators of the time, often joked with me. One day they even signed my autograph book. I remember seeing Yehudi Menuhin, and I became friendly with Will Hay’s son, who often accompanied his father. The Bristol Times and Echo newspaper paid cash for news items in those days. This offered me a sideline, as my job often threw into my lap many good stories.

When a famous film star tried to make her presence in the city a secret, it was no mystery to me how it became known to Bristol readers. Old Bill Hooper, at the Princes Theatre stage door, was a well- known personality. Known as Larry Lynx, he obtained good information about horses from stage personalities. His tips seldom failed.

On classic race days, such as the Derby or Lincoln, I would pluck a pigeon from dad’s racing loft and transport it to the hotel in a box. I had a pigeon post operating. Gambling of any kind was forbidden in the pub, so the gent’s toilet was used, with bets often written on the back of a cigarette packet..

Mamoud, a Derby winner, proved one of Bill’s certs.

My autograph book was stuffed with names – Yehudi Menuhin, Larry Gains, Layton and Johnstone, George Formby, Houdini, Nellie Wallace, Ella Shields, Henry Ainley, Richard Tauber, Talbot O Farrel, G S Elliot, Kreisler, Mona Vivian, Flotsam and Jetsam and many others. But the book, just like the Princes Theatre, was burned in the Blitz. Now, those big names are just a memory.

Charlie Stephens, a barber from Bedminster. tries to shoot Niagara Falls in an oak barrel.

1920 – On Sunday July II, 1920, Charlie Stephens, a barber from Bedminster. tries to shoot Niagara Falls in an oak barrel.

Sadly, Charlie’s barrel is way too heavy and he crashes straight onto the lagged rocks at the bottom. – The following morning, an arm is rescued from the water bearing a tattoo that reads, Forget me not,Annie! Charlie has previous: when he was five years old he was pronounced dead and laid in a coffin before springing back to life; at 16 he was almost run over by a coal wagon. – Then he spent three years in the trenches of World War One and came home without a scratch. – As well as running a busy barber’s shop and bringing up 11 children with his wife Annie, Charlie fancied himself as a bit of a stuntman. – First, he began performing daring tricks in a lions’ den; then he parachuted from a balloon; then he dived off the Forth Bridge head first Niagara should have been Charlie’s finest hour. – Instead, Bedminster’s answer to Houdini had tried his luck once too often.

World’s first express coach service

1920s – ‘A Bristol coach company introduced the world’s first express coach service, linking Bristol with London. Travel back in time to the days of Greyhound and Morning Star’

The Greyhound coach that zoomed passengers from Bristol to London in a mere eight hours in 1925, was the first to make the through run since coaches were pulled by horses. Greyhound was one of a number of coach companies competing aggressively for the growing market for long distance travel, and it scored a major coup with its fast London run.

Just £1 return for the longest through route ever attempted to a timetable.

These were no mere people carriers but what the company called ‘Luxurious travelling parlours’, albeit with solid tyres and a speed limit of 20 mph. These long distance coaches were first tested along Ladies Mile on the Downs by placing three tumblers of water in the gangway. If no water was spilled, the coach was accepted.

One of the first drivers on the route, Ted Bryant, recalled leaving Bristol at 11 a.m. and getting into Hammersmith London after seven that night. ‘But they were really beautiful buses and everyone was so helpful and polite. In those early days, we had quite aristocratic passengers’.

Ted also took out the first Bristol bus to be equipped with a radio, as far back as 1926. It worked well when the bus was standing still but reception vanished on the move.

Trips weren’t always incident free either – inspector Bill Lander remembered being delayed in Calne when a pig escaped from the bacon factory and became caught beneath the hot exhaust pipe. On another occasion, the radiator boiled over and passengers had to carry cans of water from a nearby RAF station.

Greyhound ran two coaches a day to London, leaving at 9 am. and 11 a.m. via Bath, Marlborough, Newbury, Reading and Maidenhead. The earlier one travelled via Chippenham and stopped for refreshments at Newbury The second went via Devizes and had a break at Hungerford Wiltshire.

The company originally offered a ticket from Bristol to London for just £1

In 1927, the luxury travelling parlours were replaced by super deluxe buffet coaches, upholstered in red antique leather with smoking and non smoking sections. Each seat had a folding table, windows were curtained and there was a steward’s pantry for tea, cigarettes and chocolate. There were also on-board toilets but these were removed after a year because passengers found using them was ‘somewhat hazardous’.

Greyhound had a competitor in 1928 in the Super Comfort coaches introduced by Morning Star of Lawrence Hill. The Leyland Lioness coaches were painted in sumptuous scarlet and cream and ran via Warmley, Wick and Marshfield to Chippenham, Marlborough, Newbury and Reading.

An early review of the new service pointed out that the Lioness had the same type of chassis as that supplied to the King, while the clutch was designed by racing ace j. C. Parry Thomas. The 29.9 hp engine ( 58 bhp ) provided ‘remarkable’ acceleration and ample power to get up steep inclines like Tog Hill.

The only problem, an unnamed Bristol Times reporter wrote, was that the coach was so comfortable, passengers were tempted to fall asleep instead of enjoying the unrivalled scenery;

‘To travel to London by road may be a novelty to those who are inexperienced but to business men in a hurry or to people who desire the health-giving air and the exhilaration of speedy and reliable motoring, the new Morning Star service is undoubtedly a blessing’ he added.

‘Those who try it as a new sensation will adopt it as a permanent means of journeying to the Metropolis, for it combines safety, speed, comfort and cheapness’.

And if you think an eight hour trip to London is hardly of much use ‘to businessmen in a hurry’, bear in mind that even modern coaches used to take more than six hours along the A4 before the M4 opened fully in 1971.

1925 – King George V and Queen Mary open the new University buildings.

1926 – Opening of the Portway between Bristol and Avonmouth.

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