Oral History

Recollections of the 1930’s in Hinckley

by Arthur Timson

I offer some recollections, which may give flashbacks to octogenarians and perhaps also be of interest to readers born after these times. Unless my memory is playing tricks everything reported is factual, although I readily bow to those with greater accuracy and insight of any of the places/events covered. The recollections range from my first schooldays in 1929 through to the early years of the 1939/45 War but in the cause of brevity, I have been heavily selective in what is reported.

With Hinckley's population below 20,000 the short walk from Clarendon Road to the Church School in Station Road was tranquil and unaccompanied — so different from today with the school-runs on congested roads. The General Post Office on the left looked busy and important while the Council Offices and Library on the right were beyond my comprehension at the time. The Swimming Baths were tucked behind the Council Buildings but it was some years before I tasted the chlorine delights of the 25-yard pool. Opposite the school playground the big windows of Parsons & Sherwin offered a final distraction. The school was well run by the legendary Miss Ismay but I recall little of the early lessons apart from my very first days when I was let loose in a sand-pit armed with a wooden spade and a small bucket.

An early memory is of being aroused and taken into the backyard to see an airship-passing overhead; this must have been quite an event in the late 20s. A 1914-18 Tank was an immobile black lump in the Coventry Road 'Rec' opposite The Gas Works. Tractors towing coal trucks ran a shuttle service from the rail-yard to the Gas Works and this provided the opportunity for the more foolhardy lads (self included) to swing from the back along the Hawley/Rugby/Granville Road route. Although the speed was modest this dangerous habit was exciting, especially when the driver noticed and gave chase. Later I enjoyed the school holiday experience of sitting in the cab of an uncle’s ‘Ford tin-lizzie’, open backed lorry, and helping him with the collection and delivery of the coke by-product around the area. A more sedate hanging ride was available from the splendid Sketchley Dye Works horse drawn cart, but the sight and sound of the whip and the vigilance of the driver was a deterrent to most. The same uncle later worked as a long distance lorry driver for George Woodward of Barwell and I enjoyed several trips with him to London and Manchester. The London trip meant an early morning pick up, around 4 am, by the ‘big lamp’ at the top of Cemetery Hill. The journey, in the cab between the driver and compulsory mate, along the Watling took about 4 hours and included an early breakfast stop at a ‘greasy spoon’. The breakfast stops were crowded, the plates of fried food were enormous, and the ‘one-armed-bandits’ seemed to be disgorging rewards with a constant raffle. Goods were dropped off in East London during the morning and return loads collected. The return journey to Barwell being completed about 4 pm, which left little time for a round of collections from local factories ready for a repeat performance the following morning.

Hinckley boasted thee cinemas in these times, The Regent, the Borough (transformed into The Odeon) and The Danilo. My favourite was the Odeon, perhaps because of Harold Wightman’s sports display windows in the foyer although a feature of the Regent was the military bearing of a commissionaire complete with bright coloured peaked cap and long buttoned tunic. He (Bill Hayward?) also had a baton and a strong voice and he could certainly keep order and direct young folk to the small cheap entrance in Regent Street. The Danilo came a little later and, perhaps my memory is playing tricks here, the opening ceremony included an escapologist who walked blindfold across the parapet above the entrance. I found a way of financing a weekly Monday trip to the pictures. A stall in the Market bought used comics and a diligent collection of a small bundle could amass a fund of 3d, some week's 4d (it took 240d to make £1). A front seat cost 2d, two currant buns Id (Squires/King Street) chips from the ‘Boro’ 1d; funds permitting another 1d gave a ride home to Netherley Road on a Red or Green Bus.

Netherley Road featured an open-air swimming pool (The Lido), marvellous place this was with its little islands. One day a well-known cricketer (George Geary) dived into the shallow end and split his head great excitement! Hinckley cricket ground was then opposite the Cemetery and occasional County matches were hosted. Hinckley United played their football below the Workhouse and behind the Holywell; my memory is that residents of the Workhouse gave their support from behind the top goal. The Rugger club played in Coventry Road below the Gas Works and opposite the ‘Rec’.

Besides St Mary’s Church was the wooden Scout Hut; the fact that it is still there is testimony to the workmanship and materials used. Up through Argent’s Mead, past Jasper (a swan presented to the town by Mr. Boil in the 1920s which died in 1964) on the Moat, was the walled Co-op field in Hill Street. This is where the members (our number was 4446) children assembled for the annual summer Co-op Gala. Band led, the youngsters, each with their tin mug, paraded through the town to the Co-op field below Netherley Road and opposite Barwell Lane. Marquees in this field provided entertainment and all the kids were given a box of cakes and sandwiches. Sweets were scattered to the kids and one enthusiastic committeeman (who shall be nameless) once disappeared under a pile of young bodies.

My grandfather had two of the numerous allotments that stretched for a long way, astride a path that led off De Montfort Road. On his walk from Druid Street he always carried a bucket and shovel, he said to gather the fruits of the local trade horses. Many a raid I made on his allotments to gather gooseberries and other seasonal fruits. Allotments seemed common at this time and many a family benefited from home-grown fresh fruit and vegetables.

In Lancaster Road, where The Bus Station now stands, was the wooden YMCA building. This was a large, single storey building that catered for many activities, but of particular interest to young males were the billiard/snooker, and table tennis, tables it housed. For a modest membership fee and low table charges many a happy hour was spent. Later in the 30’s a dedicated Billiard Hall was built in Station Road where the Public Toilets are now sited. This was intended for adults and was taboo for teenage schoolboys; one was careful not to be seen with HGS cap and blazer. Hinckley Grammar School at this time was quite small, with some 250 pupils, and sited on the corner of Leicester Road/Butt Lane. When the 1939/45 War started Mr. Frank Oldham was Headmaster. I well remember the male pupils helping to dig out air raid shelters on the adjacent school playing field and filling sandbags. Because of the risk of enemy bombing the pupils of Saltley Grammar School were moved to HGS in 1940 and to cope with the increased numbers a shift system was operated. HGS worked in the mornings and SGS in the afternoons. This system worked for about two years but then, because some SGS pupils moved back to Birmingham, the remainder merged with HGS. Hinckley must have had some attractions as some SGS pupils remained in the town after the war.

The start of the war brought many changes. Some factories were merged and surplus workers were redirected to war work; as an example my printer father was hastily trained to inspect aircraft parts at Humber in Coventry. Not so old adults were conscripted into the armed forces and found themselves in various parts of the World. The teenagers found their way into cadet forces. My memories here are of the Air Training Corps, with squadrons at the HGS and Hinckley Tech. The Workhouse was the base for many activities, which included the rudiments of navigation and flying skills. Young men were volunteering in droves and even younger ones found ways of following in their footsteps. It was not uncommon to see Sgt Air Gunners home on leave who were still far short of their eighteenth birthday. Myself I was one of many who volunteered to join the Royal Navy. Strange that, although far from the sea, you could have crewed a battleship with Hinckley ratings. The old and the women folk had to contend with many problems in Hinckley: working in munitions, the blackout, food and many other forms of rationing.

The preceding words are but a few personal recollections and I am sure that many people could add to this memory bank.

Arthur Timson became a lecturer at Hinckley Tech in 1960 and taught in the department of Knitted Textiles with the late Dennis Goadby for 28 years. He had earlier been a student at the Tech and he now lives in Bedfordshire.