Life in Reading, UK, circa 1961

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May 23rd 2017
Published: May 23rd 2017
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May 2010

I was born in 1951. I lived in Hatherley Road, Reading, from 1955 (when my father bought our terraced house for £1500) until 1970. The years I recall with the greatest nostalgia are the late 50's and early 60’s, when I was attending Redlands Primary School and when life was very different from how it is today. I have many fond memories of daily life in the Redlands area (bounded by St Luke’s, St Joseph’s Convent, Alexandra Road and the bus terminus in Addington Road) at that time, which readers may be interested to hear.

In those days, all the houses in Hatherley Road were owned by, and inhabited by, families. Many of the families had been living there for a very long time. It was rare to see a 'For Sale’ sign. Today, many houses are owned by landlords and rented out, mainly to students. Houses are continually up for sale. Pride of ownership has declined, resulting in houses that are poorly maintained and ugly to look at.

Mass immigration to Reading did not begin until later in the 60’s, so Hatherley Road circa 1961 was populated by British families. Nowadays there are many Asians living in the area, and most of the shops are Asian-owned. At my Primary School we were all British, except for some Poles, a Hungarian boy, two West Indian boys (the Bullen brothers) and one boy from Tristan da Cunha (a refugee from the 1961 volcanic eruption). Let me hasten to add that I am not in any way criticising my Asian neighbours; on the contrary, they are industrious and enterprising people. I am merely pointing out the difference between the homogeneous British society of yesteryear and the more mixed society of today.

Every morning the following items were delivered to our front door: two bottles of gold-topped Jersey milk, the Daily Express and the mail (there was a second mail delivery around noon). During winter, the milk bottle tops would sometimes be punctured before my mother opened the door – by the beaks of hungry blue tits.

The other early morning ritual etched in my memory is the extinguishing of the gas lamps. Hatherley Road used to be lit by gas lamps. Every evening a man would climb up and light each of the lamps that fringed our road, and in the morning he would return to extinguish them. It seems amazing now that these gas lamps were never vandalised. Vandalism hardly existed in those days, when children deferred to their elders, and the local bobby, on his bicycle, was a respected figure.

Nowadays shopping is dominated by the retail giants, but back then there was plenty of scope for small family businesses. Our milk came from Winterburn’s Dairy, just down the road. (Before Winterburn’s, we used to buy milk from a horse-drawn milk dray. The horse would defecate outside our house, causing my father to dash out with a bucket for the precious manure, with which he fertilised his beloved mushrooms.) Our newspapers (and my Beano comics) came from Strong’s, on the corner of Erleigh and Blenheim Roads. There were three local butchers to choose from: Arkell’s, Hieatt’s and one other. There was a long-established sweet shop in Erleigh Road, A.J.P. Johnson, where my mother used to send me for her "ten tipped Woodbines". We had two greengrocers: Penny’s and, at the junction of Hatherley and Erleigh Roads, Nobby’s. ‘Nobby’, as he was nicknamed, was an earthy and affable man with the gift of the gab. Opposite Nobby’s was a fish and chip shop. Next door to that was Oliver’s, the electrical and TV repair shop. There was a barber’s shop in Donnington Gardens and an off-licence on the corner of Addington and Hatherley Roads. Off-licences abounded in those days, before supermarkets began to sell cheap alcohol.

The only supermarket was Baylis’s, across from Strong’s. I remember my mother’s excitement over a new-fangled food called ‘frozen fish fingers’, which she bought in Baylis’s and served to us for breakfast. (Incidentally, there was no healthy vegetable oil then; our fish fingers were fried in dripping.) An incentive to shop at Baylis’s was the award of Green Shield stamps with every purchase; the stamps were pasted into a book which, when full, entitled the customer to a gift.

All of these businesses have disappeared except for the supermarket and the fish and chip shop. The only difference today is that the fish and chips are rolled up in clean white paper; in 1961 they were wrapped in old newspaper pages, so you could enjoy a free read of the News of the World as you wolfed down your cod.

I must mention the coinage of half a century ago. As a schoolboy, I was fascinated by the variety and antiquity of the coins in my pocket. There was the tiny farthing, the halfpenny, the penny, the chunky little thruppenny bit, the elegant sixpence or tanner, the shilling, the florin, and the beautiful half crown. Today’s decimal coinage is more logical and much lighter (there used to be 240 heavy bronze pennies to the pound!), but oh so bland and characterless. The chief beauty of the old coinage was its historical roots. It was commonplace to find Victorian pennies and halfpennies in one’s money. A pocketful of coins could span a hundred years – from 1861 to 1961. One day I heard the chimes of the Tonibell ice cream van that used to cruise our neighbourhood and ran out to buy a vanilla cone. I will always remember what the vendor gave me in my change: a Victorian bun shilling in mint condition. No wonder coin-collecting became a hobby of mine.

Unforgettable characters who rang our doorbell back then, and who have since disappeared, were the travelling salesmen, the gypsies and the evangelists. All of them were very persistent and hard to get rid of. A travelling salesman would go from door to door with his suitcase of knickknacks and his smarmy sales talk. The gypsy would always be a woman offering good luck and a bunch of lavender in return for money. The evangelists were usually very serious American males, either Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.

Sundays were special and very quiet days. All the shops were shut. My Sundays were dominated by the ritual of going to St William of York Catholic Church. We had a choice of masses: at 8-15 or 10-30 or 5pm. All of these services were very well attended, and the congregation was all-white. Imagine my surprise when I visited St Williams recently, after a lapse of 40 years, to discover that only one service now remained – at 5pm – and the majority of the church-goers were black.

My other religious memory is of the Salvation Army band that used to play in our area every Sunday morning. I rarely saw the band, but the sound of hymns was always there in the background.

For entertainment we listened to the radio. ‘Workers Playtime’ was a favourite programme, along with ‘Children’s Favourites’, ‘Housewives Choice’ and ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. The music of those pre-Beatles days was quaint and innocent: ‘Last Train to San Fernando’, ‘Magic Moments’, ‘Moon River’, ‘How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?’ When we finally bought a black-and-white TV, it received BBC only, and I envied the boys at school who bragged about the wonderful things they watched on ITV.

It seems to me that people back then took more pride in their gardens than they do nowadays. Hatherley Road used to have some very pretty front gardens – with grass, hedges and flowers. Today’s front gardens range from nondescript to plain unsightly – they are mainly repositories for junk and rubbish. Our back garden in 1961 was well-tended and a miniature nature reserve – with a lawn and flower beds, a pond and lots of birds. Today the birdlife has shrunk alarmingly (especially the swifts and martins, which used to fill the summer sky with their calls), and my tenants, who come and go, take no pride in gardening. The same can be said of the back gardens adjacent to mine; where apple trees and flowers once flourished, there is now only concrete and clutter.

During the winter we relied on electric-bar heaters, coal, coke and paraffin for warmth. Our back garden had a coal bunker, which was periodically filled by the coal men, who carried their bulging sacks across our linoleum-covered floors to the bunker outside. The coal was then shovelled into a metal receptacle known as a 'coal scuttle', which sat beside our fireplace. Every so often the chimney-sweeper would come to relieve our chimney of soot. Later we switched from coal to paraffin-heaters, and it was my job to carry home two gallons of paraffin from the local shop.

A huge difference between Reading 1961 and Reading today is the quality of the local bus service. There used to be buses to town, and beyond, every 15 minutes from early morning until late in the evening. I remember paying 2d (i.e. two old pennies, the equivalent of one new penny today) for the ride to Broad Street on the old No 31 bus. Nowadays, public transport has been ‘rationalised’; buses from Hatherley Road to town are non-existent after the early evening and in short supply at the best of times. One small memory of the old days is of the bus driver sprinting out of his vehicle to use the public urinal, long since gone, at the junction of Addington and Erleigh Roads, the terminus of the 31 bus route.

Cars were less plentiful and less affordable in 1961. Very few people in our road owned a car – just the odd Anglia or Zodiac. The advantage of this was space. Hatherley Road today has cars parked on both sides, bumper to bumper, all the way along, which is unsightly and a nuisance; whereas in 1961 the road was virtually car-free – a pedestrian’s paradise!

Life in Hatherley Road was certainly tougher in the old days. I was a child then, growing up in the bosom of a happy family, so naturally my memories are somewhat rose-tinted. I may have filtered out some of the bad memories – winter nights with only a hot water bottle for warmth, the freezing cold outside toilet, the stodgy and unhealthy diet – but, all things considered, I prefer Hatherley Road circa 1961 to the Hatherley Road of today. We had no computers, no internet, no cell phones (indeed no telephones at all, apart from the public telephone box outside Nobby’s), no colour TV, no central heating. But we had law and order, social stability, lovely old coins, an excellent bus service, apple trees, birds and beautiful gardens!


10th January 2020

Redlands area
I came across your blog while looking for information about Reading's old cinemas, and was delighted to read that you grew up in Hatherley Road, as I went to Redlands Primary from 1948 --1951, and walked up Hatherley Road every day on my way to school. I'm older than you, having been born in 1940, but so much of what you write about old Reading is familiar to me. Like you, I have fond memories of the neatly tended front gardens, and I was distressed to see, when visiting Reading last year, that the current inhabitants don't seem to care for gardening. When I was at Redlands Primary, Miss Miles was the head, and Mrs. Taylor the top class teacher. Were they still there in your day? Also--do you recall a sweet shop at the corner of Lydford Road and Blenheim Gardens? The proprietor used to make his own ice-mollies, which cost a penny each in 1949. I now live in the United States, but often look back nostalgically to those Redlands days!
10th January 2020

Thanks for message!
Dear Alison, I have written several blogs about old Reading. Yes, Miss Miles was the Headmistress of Redlands when I was there. I do not remember that particular sweet shop, but in those days homemade lollies on sale in shops were fairly common. Here are links to the other Reading blogs I have written: Redlands Primary School, Reading, UK (1956 – 1963) | Travel Blog Redlands Primary School, Reading, UK (1956 – 1963) | Travel Blog We moved into 36 Hatherley Road, Reading, in 1955, when I was three years old. Redlands Primary was a few minute... Shops of Old Reading | Travel Blog Shops of Old Reading | Travel Blog I grew up in Reading during the 1950’s and 60’s and have written essays about the family house (36 Hatherley Roa... Requiem for William Smith’s | Travel Blog Requiem for William Smith’s | Travel Blog My friend, Dave Cooke, whom I grew up with in Reading in the 1960’s, has written an evocative poem about the old... Life in Reading, UK, circa 1961 | Travel Blog Life in Reading, UK, circa 1961 | Travel Blog May 2010 I was born in 1951. I lived in Hatherley Road, Reading, from 1955 (when my father bought our terraced h...
10th January 2020

Mr Price ...
Was Mr Price a teacher at Redlands when u were there?

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