image: c.1923: Wine Street from Narrow Wine Street (later Newgate): a gentleman adjusts his suspender; the hanging signs indicate Verriers the Drapers, beyond are United Clothiers, The Don and Baker Bakers. Samuels are on the Union Street corner, and F. K. Lewis & Co. are to become the present House of Lewis, in College Green. Centre, a model T Ford (the “Tin Lizzie”); the two-seater on the right might be a Darracq of c.1912.
Memories of Bristol in the 1920s
1920s – This story, written by G T Morgan, it 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 *****, 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 ***** 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.