Memories of Growing up in East Leeds by Frank Shires


Memories of Growing up in East Leeds (Frank Shires)

Frank remembers his early life in East Leeds in the 1930s/40s: the street games, the ‘black-out’ the ‘knocker-ups’ and particularly the air raids. I love his great little tale of – how, when the sirens went off for the first time, one father soaked all the bed clothes in the bath to seal up the doors and windows in case of a gas attack. When the all-clear sounded there were no dry clothes to put back on the beds.

                              Of course no one really knew what to expect from  an air raid.


When you think back to life in those back-to-back streets of East Leeds it makes you appreciate how the quality of life has changed since the days of the 1930s and 1940s. Television, DVDs, ‘fridges, family cars, mobile and even hand held telephones were unheard of. However I am not sure that the luxuries enjoyed by the youth of today contributes to a happier life! Certainly my early memories are full of fun and good times when we largely made out own entertainment.

Playing marbles or ‘taws’ as we called them on the ‘oller’. The oller was a small rectangle of rough ground facing onto Easy Road at the end of Archie Place and Dial Terrace. Legend said that at one time it had been a builder’s yard.

Having mischievous ‘doggie’ nights when, along with a group of contemporaries, we played practical jokes on the houses in the area. The blackout was a great help. During the war years (1939-1945) there were no streetlights and houses were banned from showing any light after dark. The resulting blackness was a great aid to our nefarious activities. Unlike modern times our pranks were never malicious.

In the warm weather we made gas tar balls from the sticky black substance, which oozed up between the cobblestones of our streets. There was always trouble when you went home with it sticking to your clothes. Then there was playing football, cricket, French cricket, kick out ball and rounders in the street ‘openings. Yes, happy times indeed. To understand what ‘openings’ were you have to understand the topography of the back-to-back streets of houses. They were usually arranged in blocks of eight or four. Between each block there was a small block of toilets – 1 toilet to each 2 houses. The toilet blacks were separated from the houses by ‘passages’, which also gave access to the dustbins, stored between 2 blocks of 4 toilets – toilets and dustbins under one roof. At the other end of each block of 8 houses and before the next block started was an opening, which occupied the same area as 2 passages and the small toilet/dustbin block. Sometimes the openings had 1 or 2 upright posts in the centre.

Way back in my memory I can recall the dustbin areas being ‘middens’. All the refuse was thrown through window into the space behind. When this was to be cleared the refuse collectors or ‘midden men’ had to climb through the window and shovel out the refuse. When this arrangement was modernised the windows were made into open doorways, the space behind was cement rendered and dustbins placed inside. Progress!’ 


We used to amuse ourselves by fishing for ‘tiddlers’ or sticklebacks at Red Walls in Black Road. I believe the official name for Black Road was Pontefract Lane and the Red Walls was a bridge, which spanned a small beck. Other sources of amusement was doing ‘duffs’ or dares around Black Road and Knostrop areas and exploring the ‘Quarry’. The quarry was what seemed a vast area with numerous  tables,pigsties,sheds,garages,ect.between the Easy Road Picture House and Clark Lane Methodist Church. It had a variety of pathways running between the ramshackle buildings.It was wise to be familiar with these pathways in case a fast exit was called for.

One of my earliest memories must be the local ‘knocker up’ I presume alarm clocks  had been invented but probable couldn’t be afforded by the proletariat who lived in the back-to-back houses in my street, Dial Terrace. Our local knocker-up was Mrs Connor who lived at number six and for four pence a week she who would rise early and using a long bamboo pole tap on the bedroom window of each of her customers until they responded. Good timekeeping was obviously more important in those days       


                             Air Raids


There is a tale about a family (Who will remain nameless).  The first time the sirens went off, and bearing in mind no one knew exactly what to expect, the father of the family ripped all the bed clothes from the beds and soaked them in the bath. Then he covered all the windows with the wet blankets to stop gas from entering. When the ‘all clear’ went, they had no dry blankets to put back on the beds.

            I have many memories of the war years. The ‘black-out’ brings probably the most vivid memories. After dark no lights could be shown and when the air raid sirens sounded local volunteers who had not been called up into the armed forces would patrol the streets to ensure the ‘black-out’ was maintained. These men were known as ‘air raid’ wardens and wore a broad armband with lettering to denote their position. Most houses had a thick curtain to seal off the entrance door from the rest of the house; this was to facilitate entering or exiting the premises without showing a light. If a light was allowed there would be an immediate cry of: ‘Put that b…. light out!’ from the air raid wardens, this was to avoid guiding enemy aircraft to the area.

         Moving vehicles had covers on their lights to dim the beam and point it to the ground. Gas lamps, which at the start of the war were the main street lighting, were turned off. It is difficult to imagine how eerie it was walking out after dark – a good knowledge of the area was essential as everywhere was pitch-black, you literally could not see your hand in front of your face.  Any shops which were open after dark (fish and chip shops for instance) had to have a suitable curtain to allow entry without displaying light. There were many black eyes and bloody noses etc. from walking into lamp posts.

            The public transport- trams and buses – had lace curtains glued to their insides to prevent injure to passengers from flying glass should the vehicle be caught up in a bombing raid. It was compulsory to carry gas masks at all times even when at school or visiting the ‘pictures’ as we called the cinema in those days. Thankfully, we never had to use the gas masks in earnest. Certain equipment was distributed amongst the houses in the area, such houses were identified externally. For instance, if a house had a stirrup pump left for emergency use, the letters: SP was pained on the outside of the wall. I have my doubts as to how effective the stirrup pump would have been in a dangerous situation as they were had operated to pump water from a bucket or similar vessel

            The cellars in our back-to-back houses were reinforced by building a brick pillar in the centre to support a RSJ across the ceiling. This was to make the cellar safer to use as a shelter in the event of an enemy air raid, in fact when the alert sirens sounded we invariably sat, suitably padded on the steps that led down to the cellar. That is all except my father, a veteran of the First World War, I’m sure he said he would only get out of bed when it was necessary. The only night he joined us on the cellar steps was the night bombs were dropped on our neighbourhood. I remember seeing the damage caused in Debt Street (Richmond Hill) and a large crater in the ground behind the Prospect Public House. And of course one of the bombs damaged and eventually closed Richmond Hill School. It was believed the bombs were intended for the nearby Marsh Lane Goods Yard. I can still picture the searchlights scanning the skies and the exploding shells from the anti-aircraft barrage attempting to destroy the enemy aircraft. For its size and concentration of industry Leeds suffered comparatively little damage from air raids during the war. I was once told this was due to its position in the air Valley. The resultant fog made it hard to detect from the air. Presumably the navigational instruments were not too sophisticated in those days.    










2 Responses to “Memories of Growing up in East Leeds by Frank Shires”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thank you Frank for reminding me of that piece of rolled steel joist that the men installed over the stone steps that led down to our little coal cellar. I can recall sitting on those stone steps wrapped in a blanket while the air-raid warning was on. In those days as a 9-10 year old I really believed that the girder would make us bomb proof, though of course all it was intended to do was to protect us against falling rubble should the house have fallen down on top of us. I can remember Mr Riley, who was our Air Raid Prevention warden demonstrating the stirrup pump against an imaginary incendiary bomb (represented by a brick). He crawled up toward it, hiding behind a dustbin lid spraying the brick while another ARP man was working the stirrup pump in a bucket about 10 yards behind him. We kids thought it pretty impressive and all wanted a go, but we were told it was too dangerous for children.

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