MEMORIES OF A CHILDHOOD ON THE HILLFIELDS ESTATE.
People’s usual response to saying “I live in Hillfields” is met with “where’s that”? Hillfields is a part of greater Fishponds and borders South Glos. The estate developed in about 1919, in response to the increasing work and factories in the area and spans a wider area which will be mentioned later in this story.
The experiences I’d like to share with you focus around the time of The second World War, which provided a great deal of freedom to the children growing up in the Hillfields area of Bristol. You may know the roundabout on Maple Avenue. Nothing really significant about it. It’s green circular grass area was at one time the only ‘un-marked’ roundabout in Bristol. It attracted lots of interest from driving instructors who busied the area with three point turns and emergency stops outside many of the houses in the street. But many years before that, when cars were scarce on the roads all over Bristol, on the roundabout on Maple Avenue stood a large water butt. I remember the water butt being huge at the time but at six years old and being very small I can now see it from an adult point of view. Fixed across the top of the water butt was a wire net and being children, who were curious and risk free, we regularly played on top of the wire covering secretly hoping that something exciting would happen, perhaps one of us kids would fall into the water butt! What a commotion that would be but In fact and despite our mischievous thoughts, I can’t remember anyone ever falling in.
Because the houses were built for the workers, our ranks of houses were built fairly well, but were basic on the inside. During the building process they were built with no electricity supply with all the new builds relying on gas lights to illuminate our homes during the dark nights we encountered. I wonder how many of you have decorated your house, stripping the wall-paper, you might find a circle that has since been plastered over? In times past, that’s where the original gas lights used to be. It must have been about 1934 before an electricity supply was installed into the properties, which eventually lit the rows of houses in Maple Avenue and other streets and Roads in Hillfields.
The houses in Maple Avenue were built for workers at ES and A Robinsons and the building process started way back in about 1927, after the First World War. The homes were sold and commanded a price range in the region for £349 for each house. In comparison with today’s standards, you couldn’t even buy a second-hand car for that amount and it might be worth researching the cost of the same houses today.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but have you ever wondered why the houses at the top end of Maple Avenue are so different in style and how different they’re designed on the inside of the house, to those at the bottom end of the Avenue? The reason goes back a long way as the building company, at that time had a very tight budget but despite the builders efforts the firm eventually went bankrupt. Walking up and down Maple Avenue now, you’ll notice all the windows on the left-hand side or the bottom of the street, have bay windows and sloping roofs. However, this wasn’t always the way because originally the roofs were flat (on the bay windows) and wasn’t altered until another firm took over the responsibility of the buildings after the first company went into bankruptcy.
Once the second firm took on the building project it was obvious the other side of the street looked barren and looked a bit like a wilderness. The houses from numbers 13 Maple Avenue up to the Quadrant was planned and built by Bristol Corporation who needed to complete the street and provided much needed social housing. Many of the homes were purchased under the right to buy in the 1980’s leaving very few owned by Bristol City Council, which was previously known as Bristol Corporation.
The fascinating thing about that time was none of the houses had driveways, simply because nobody had cars. I remember there were only two cars owned in the whole of the street, one of them was an old Austin Seven.
Like most streets of the time the street lights that illuminated Maple Avenue were gas and not the posh electric lights we have now. I still remember the man called the ‘gas lighter’ arriving on his push bike with a great big long pole over his shoulder. He would go up to the gas light, flicked the switch and the gas light would come on; he used to come back in the morning and turn them all back off again. A lamplighter’s duty was to carry a ladder and renew the candles, oil and gas mantles. Back then the gas lights were not as tall as they are now which is illustrated in the colour picture of Market Square and Hillfields Avenue. The picture also shows the local shops which have since been replaced by housing. I understand the old street lights were sold off to people. Another feature is the very small stick light trees planted outside the houses of Maple and on the greens of both Quadrant West and East, trailing down through Thicket Avenue and trees are seen along Hillfields Avenue as well as a variety of other places in the area. The trees are now huge and I will tell you of a very dear and meaningful story about the planting of a tree further on in this tale.
Market Square showing the old gas lights
Now I’ve mentioned the Quadrant, of the four shops on the Quadrant there’s always been a sweet shop and those who could afford a ha’penny of sweets had more friends than they could imagine. Next to the sweet shop was the grocers and directly over to the opposite side of the green there was a dairy and a bakery.
I’m sure those who lived in Hillfields for a long time knew the local shop keeper, Percy who used to run the grocer store, his mother had a shop and he also lived on Maple Avenue.
Ron and Margaret Wood who owed the other shop eventually purchased a house in Maple Avenue. Surprisingly Ron and Marg Wood purchased the very house Percy, the shop keeper owned until his death. If my memory serves me well the very first proprietor in the shop was called Mr gold.
The residence from Number 12, Maple Avenue, made history by being the first proud and rare owners of a television. His name was Sam Ludwell and his son Gordon was the founder of Ludwells on the Lodge Causeway. It was not surprising then that Ludwell’s were the first to own a television.
Another well known family in Maple Avenue was my neighbour by the name of Clement Arthur Milton. He eventually became a famous cricketer and footballer.
A true all-round sportsman was Clement Arthur Milton: (10th March 1928 – 25th April 2007.) Arthur attended Hillfields Park School, which more recently become an academy and now known as Minerva Primary Academy. He (Arthur) was an English cricketer and footballer. He played county cricket for Gloucestershire from 1948 to 1974 and celebrated playing six Test matches for England in 1958 and 1959. He also played domestic football for Arsenal between 1951 and 1955, and then for a brief period for Bristol City. He played one match for England in 1951.
Arthur Milton at Hlilfields Park School about 1940.
Like most kids in the Hillfields area I attended; Hillfields Park Infants and went onto the Juniors before going onto secondary school at Speedwell. At the time, the head teacher was Miss Wilks and Ms Mogford.
War time brought with it austerity and rationing so it was no surprise that anybody with railings outside their house would have had them taken away for the war effort in a government initiative to melt the metal down to repurpose for war supplies. These railing shown here at the Muga, (Multi use games area) are the original railings, I imagine they were left in-tact because of the school, left to protect the children.
Now what we, as kids used to call the Tin Hut, was situated next to the junior entrance of Hillfields School and had a water supply plumbed into the Tin Hut. One of the things I don’t miss is in those days boys had to wear shorts, so if you did something wrong it wasn’t un-common for a teacher to lift up the bottom of your shorts and whack you with a wooden ruler, bang slap on your thigh. Back in these days this type of punishment for being ‘naughty’ was common and acceptable practice. The emphasis was on good behaviour, being polite and well mannered. “If you were naughty in school, you had the painful choice of either having the cane or going outside the classroom and stand up against the wall. You can imagine how many kids settled for; standing in the corner facing the wall. That said, aching legs, boredom and threats of being taunted by the other kids wasn’t an easy option either. Choosing to stand against the wall posed a threat of its own because if the headmaster happened to be walking past he would stop. Look at you and want to know the reasons you were there? Once you’d stuttered the reasons why you had been sent out, he would command that you follow him to his office saying, “come with me my son” and we’d get the cane anyways! There was little in the way of getting away with it.”
School classes used to hold about 30 to 40 pupils and all had a desk, blotting paper and an ink well. One of the residence on Maple Avenue was the school inspector. If you kept your children home from school for what-ever reason or if the kids truanted from school, he would come knocking on your door and want to know why you weren’t in school. Similarly, today children of statutory school age risk court action or a fine for persistent absentees. Children often left school earlier than most children of today, to seek out work to bring another wage to help the family. Many children left school to find work at the age of 14 years old.
“My most precious memory and joy is the Oak tree which still stands in the school. Our class planted it – I would have been about 6 or 8 at the time. We all stood around in a half circle and watched as we planted the sapling and waited for the tree grow. How proud I am that this very tree is now about 75 years old and commands a prominent place in Hillfields living history.”
Living in such proximity to Hillfields School meant my day was broken up because I like others had the chance to go home for dinner. The bell rang loudly in the playground where there was a flurry of activity. Many children left to go home for lunch and returned to start the afternoon lessons.
For many years school children received free milk mid-morning. We had a whole ¼ pint of milk a day which tasted blooming horrible. The milk was stored on or near the radiator and the mere thought of the taste of sour milk still ‘churns’ me up today. Milk in school continued to be free right throughout the 5o’s, 60’s, 70s and beyond.
I well remember there was once a church, where the site of Cherry Tree Flats are and the church was known as St. Bedes which was part of St. Johns Church on Lodge Causeway. The church was constructed of a small wooden building that used to have a bell, sitting on top. The bell rang loudly every Sunday and could be heard by residence in Maple Avenue and the surrounding areas. I remember one Sunday not hearing the familiar “ring, ring, ring” bit the sound was replaced by “clunk, clunk, clunk”. An investigation discovered someone had placed a cocoa tin over the bell to stop it making so much noise.” We never knew the identiy of this person or perhaps we were too frightened to say.
The field that belonged to the church, housed a donkey owned by the Rev Dimmock. You could ride the donkey for a penny or a ha’penny and the money was put into the church fund. The church was closed in the 60’s and made way for Cherry Tree Gardens and only the vicarage remains.
Hillfields Baptist church pictures below
Hillfields Baptist church has not always been as you see it today. Because of the war effort, materials were short in supply. The old Baptist church was made of a wood hut type structure that used to be in the same grounds as the Baptist church is now which has been repositioned to the left of old building. If you look carefully at the grounds in the Baptist church you can still see the little path that lead to the front door and the path that goes down to the back where the Sunday school once was. Apart from Sunday school which was well used by local children, we held concerts and many other events before it finally became the local Scout Hut. “Eventually the new church was built – with the Rev. Barry Morgan. Every girl was expected to sit on the right-hand side and the boys would sit on the left. We weren’t encouraged to sit or speak with each other during this time and our behaviour moulded by respect and just the fear of being told off.
Hillfields Park Community Centre picture below
Apart from the church, there was a need for local people to meet up. A community hut which was situated next to where the Hillfield football club is now and the community centre was built by local inhabitants. All who were involved built the community Hut voluntarily. For example, one man was a plasterer, another an electrician, whilst others helped with ground work or the structure of the building. A lot of hard work went into building this dwelling and was all built for free. The building was eventually taken over by Bristol City Council as it fell into disrepair in the 1990’s and was eventually deemed dangerous and demolished. Sadly, there were no plans or funds to rebuild this building.
Every ha’penny had to be earned through little jobs or what was traditionally called ‘running errands’. We earned money, using a little cart that we dragged around the estate asking people if they had any Jam Jars. They were eagerly collected and taken in by two Jam Factories, one over the back of Woodland Way and the other on the Lodge Causeway. For 1.lb jars we would get a ha’penny and 3 farthings for a 2lb jar. In those days, we had a ‘make do and mend’ attitude. Rags were collected for pennies, the lack of pockets on clothes saved material and during war time brides made their beautiful silk wedding dresses from a parachute if one could be obtained. Pieces paper and string was wound up, saved and used for re-wrapping. Nothing was wasted and these days we call this type of saving recycling, or up-cycling
Old money or pre-decimalisation as it was known, was eventually phased out in the early 1970’s. To give an example there were four farthings to a penny, twelve pence made a shilling, six pennies which were also called ‘coppers’ made a ‘tanner’ also known as sixpence and twenty shillings made a pound. Pennies in those days were massive pieces of brass. Can you imagine carrying 240 of those old and large coins around in your pocket as this only amounted to one pound. Not that this would have been a problem because if you had £1 or 20 shillings you would have been a rich kid. Mind you, £1 would have come in the form of a note. The face of the current monarchy depicted on currency today faces in the opposite way to the previous notes?
At the very bottom of Maple Avenue is Quadrant West where like many places in Hillfields, there is a lush green space between the Quadrant and the main Thicket Avenue. Facing the green is Hillfields Baptist Church, which can also been seen from the length of Maple Avenue. I recently took a stroll with some local residence across the green and explained the pre-existence of about Ten Anderson shelters that had been used in the war. If you are patient and attentive enough you might see where the grass undulates slightly, and the shelters removed and the holes filled in.
The other side of the green housed a Morrison shelter, it was buried underground unlike the Anderson shelters which were only half buried.
Entering the underground shelters meant going through passages. At the corner of the shelters were escape hatches so if the entrance was bombed the hatches provided a method of escape. As well as the shelters, benches were situated all around the green.
You would have thought that being 8 or 9 during war time and coping with many war time problems including the air raid sirens you’d be worried. But no, as kids we were kind of used to the sound of the air raid sirens squeezing away, whilst I grabbed what I could and made my way to safety. Although the real fright was contending with the big, black spiders that shared the air raid shelters with us and enduring them for as long as the raid lasted.
Railway Arches and the Underground
Railway arches, constructed of brick, offered good protection from falling bombs and they were certainly used as air raid shelters in the Blitz. The only problem was that railway lines were sometimes targeted by the Germans in bombing raids.
The Government was against people sheltering in the Underground tunnels during air raids. They thought that disease would spread (due to the small number of toilets in some stations), people would fall on the tube lines and that people might be tempted to never leave the safety of the tunnels. These arguments were proved wrong and Londoners took matters into their own hands by forcing their way into the Underground stations.
The Government changed its views on this type of shelter and started fitting out Underground stations with bunks, first aid kits and chemical toilets.
Underground stations were not completely safe as bomb shelters – they were still vulnerable to a direct hit.
It is estimated that over 170,000 people used the London Underground as an air raid shelter during the Blitz.
Other Tunnels and Caves
Throughout Britain during the Blitz, people were making use of any underground spaces as a means of sheltering from the German bombs. Naturally forming caves and tunnels under castles, palaces and other historical buildings were frequently used.
Cellars and Basement
Cellars were used as very effective underground bomb shelters. Unfortunately, compared to other European countries, very few houses in Britain had cellars – they were only built in large houses and older properties.
The basements of public buildings such as schools, hospitals, and the basements of businesses were used as shelters during the Blitz. The basements offered underground protection from bombs, but there was the risk of heavy machinery falling on top of the shelter if the site was hit.
Street Communal Shelters
The Government started a programme of building street communal shelters in March 1940. These shelters were to be constructed by private builders (under the supervision of Government inspectors and surveyors).
The shelters were built with thick brick walls and a reinforced concrete roof.
They could house about 50 people.
Many street communal shelters were built.
Unfortunately, the shelters didn’t perform very well in air raids. The brick walls were often shaken down allowing the concrete roof to fall on those inside.
Improved designs were introduced, but public confidence in the communal shelters had been lost.
The trend moved towards individuals building shelters on their own property with materials supplied by the Government.
Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters
Anderson shelters were designed to house six people.
They used curved and straight panels of galvanised corrugated steel, and they performed really well in bomb tests.
Over 3 million Anderson shelters were put up all over Britain. They were free to all families who earned less than £250 a year.
Many people still have air raid shelters in their back gardens. One resident tried and failed to take the air raid shelter down taking nearly two weeks, three men and some heavy-duty machinery. The residents decided to give up on removing the shelter and the small brick building is a reminder of times past.
Green and open spaces.
There was no electric when I was growing up. One of the things that haven’t changed is the green and open spaces. Outside the houses and the green open spaces either side of Maple Avenue, the Library and at the bottom of the road behind the houses on Thicket Avenue you have the REC (Hillfields Park). This is a lot of grass to cut and maintain but the corporation used to employ a man who would come and cut the grass. He was the same man that always had the job of cutting the grass and was a big bloke and he did it all by hand, it would take him about a week just to do Maple Avenue. Taking a piece of string, he would use it as a guide to measure how far the grass had to be cut down. Using the string ensured he would cut the grass perfectly straight. Can you imagine this being done in this way today?
War time saw the rationing of so many things and the government introduced ration books as a method of solving the problems which would also make sure things could be bought more fairly. Pregnant women could have a little more food but everything became in short supply. Sugar, tinned fruit, chocolate, meat and fuel was just a few things that were rationed. Some got around this problem by hunting and teaching their sons to hunt food like wild Rabbit. Pigeon and mostly anything could be killed and eaten and most men in those days had a gun and boys were encouraged to learn to be pretty good shots with their catapults and lead shots which could be as lethal when used as a weapon to kill.
The whole Rec and many gardens were dug into allotments. The war years saw every bit of land was made use of for the growing of vegetables and fruit. Water butts and shelters were a must have for the allotments and you could rent a bit of land and grow your own potatoes, cabbages and everything you needed. Apart from the odd cabbage, it was rare if anything from the allotment or gardens were stolen, sharing or swapping any surplus vegetables or fruit with others were also very generous gestures.
People were very versatile in ‘lean times’ or through the shortages. Vegetables were also used for a number of other things like clothes or hair dyes. Beetroot juice, drained from boiled beetroot would make a lovely red hair colour. Gravy which is brown in colour was smothered over the legs and using an eye pencil, a straight line was drawn down the back of the leg which looked as if stockings were worn on the legs. Women who used these methods couldn’t afford to get their legs wet in the rain as the colour would run all down their legs.
At the bottom of Hillfields Park is Beechen Drive, this street is where the first council housing community in Bristol was started as Hillfields Estate; homes for heroes and their families returning from WWI after saving Britain. The first two houses built had this plaque added to them during construction in 1919.
Fun and entertainment.
Entertainment was governed mostly by our imagination. We chatted and played marbles, knock out Ginger and hop scotch. Some kids went Apple Knobling (stealing apples from people’s gardens). Nearly all street play was an acceptable part of every day life. Some children wandered, whilst many played on old bomb sites in other areas of the city, where the adventure opened a new and exciting imagination; climbing on the rubble of houses that had been bombed or wandering in some of the disused and abandoned homes.
I have a good memory of how the summer holiday brought Charles Heals fun fair to the Rec. It wasn’t much of a success but I remember the dodgems and the Golden Gallopers. Fun fairs of today are completely different as the need for speed, twist and turns can be found annually at Eastville Park or on Mangotsfield Common.
The rise in traffic, fear of crime and new technology all play a part in today’s society, keeping children in the home and therefore restricting the freedom of play kids like us once had. In our day, we played out for hours got heaps of fresh air and exercise as we were always on the move and had to rely on ourselves for entertainment or play. It’s rare a child is seen climbing trees or building a fire without the supervision of an adult or these days it might require a risk assessment. We had a healthy respect to things like fire as many children helped out in the home and some in charge of setting up the fire in the morning.
Law and Order – Police
Some things don’t change, like all estates Hillfields was regularly patrolled by a policeman on his push bike. We were always climbing and clambering onto things. The trees by the air raid shelter was a favourite as children. “If the policeman caught you, you knew you were for it. We used to have a look out (a kid who would look out for someone coming) who would tell us when the copper (policeman) was coming up the road and we would stay so silent, staying really still in the trees until he passed. At the end of the policeman’s round, as kids we watched him stop, phone back to the station to say all was alright. The phone would be in a small box on a telegraph pole and could only be used only by the policeman.
Near Arcadia Road was Hornby’s Dairies; every morning about 7am until about 11am they used to use a horse and cart to deliver the milk. We used to ask the milkman if he needed a hand as it was a special treat to ride on the milk cart.”
“I recall there being about 29 factories in the area. The area is far reaching and spans from Lodge causeway right to Kingswood where Iceland is now and down to Staple Hill. The other direction is along Fishponds Road and right back around to Lodge Causeway. There was a lot of social pressure on people to get work and being out of work was unheard of. It wasn’t until 1948 in what was known as the ‘National Assistance Act’ came into practice and was because of the poverty many families suffered in Britain. In cases of severe poverty and hunger the Government gave a small amount of money to families to help them if they couldn’t get or couldn’t work. It wasn’t easy to get this money and many people felt humiliated and embarrassed if they had to ask for this type of help. Many feeling they didn’t want charity or made to feel they couldn’t look after their own children properly.
During the last 80 years there’s been times of enormous change. There’s been lean, mean and not so keen times. However sharing my childhood memories with you all has been balanced with the freedom and fun children back then experienced.
A local Resident.
Years later from a different generation.
The railway path as a children’s play area 1983 – 1989
As we reached seven years of age ‘The Rails’ as it was then known as was a neglected route, a casualty of the ‘Beeching Cuts’ from years earlier where great manufacturing companies alongside the track relied heavily on the once Midland Railway line with our playground now stretching from Mangotsfield Station to Greenbank Chocolate Factory. Ironic that our street was called Beechen Drive, as we inherited the work of Beeching to adventure however older people in the area who had lived near the railway stations only saw this route with great bitterness & neglect. People had worked on the railways and in those large factories which by 1983 were closed, run down or facing an uncertain future, Coal would soon have no place in modern society so we even inherited Silvey Coal. As a group of several friends we had inherited a real life action computer game. This once booming industry was available to us, we were ‘The Goonies’ with great imaginations, our own offices in neglected buildings, our own subways, our own orchards, our own dens and railway stations and even places to climb and to go underground.
1984 to 1987 were the golden years of primary school and Robin of Sherwood was being filmed in our Vassalls Park where we ventured out like ‘Huckleberry Finn’, discovering Ice Houses lost in the hillside and raced down the River Frome on rafts, inspired by Robin Hood, again Ironic that this was actually King John’s hunting forest in the 12th Century.
The Rails for us was one of several options and boy did we explore every part of it where we lived, old buildings had rope swings hanging from the tall ceilings, one warehouse where Morrisons is today was later destroyed by a massive fire and alongside it was a cladded warehouse the size of a supermarket with desks and all neglected! We had our own fireplace at Mangotsfield Station, later a homeless man moved in & lived there for years so we all stayed away, the Staple Hill Tunnel (half Mile Tunnel as it was called) had no lighting and man caves were built in to the walls, great for scaring each other before the tunnel was closed for a year while they created the Railway path ot today with lighting.
The Railway Path as we knew it today made use of this area and by the later 1980s we were cycling in to central Bristol and out to Saltford, then during the 1990s regeneration saw the start of new developments on a grand scale as our playground was replaced by supermarkets and future jobs but even today in 2017 the true home to Rolls Royce in Bristol next to Graphic Packaging and more is still waiting to become a new housing estate and the once huge China works off Lodge Causeway was reborn as an industrial estate while quarries had become our playing fields and Royate Hill offered us another route to Eastville Park.