Rik's Story

Rik Heidstra

This memoir was sent to me by Rik during 2002. A few minor alterations have been made to punctuation, but these remain Rik's own words. Sadly I was informed of Rik's death early in 2004. His friend Elaine informed me that Rik had derived a great deal of pleasure putting the following story together. I feel it is a treasure. Especially moving in these days when once again we often show little understanding towards immigrants. Rik went on to work at Blackburns (British Aerospace) and eventually to be Chief Engineer at Smith and Nephew. Only family ties kept him from an even more exciting post in Africa. Rik was well loved and I understand is deeply missed by his friends. I am honoured and grateful that he shared these memories with me and agreed that we could publish them here. His illustrations have been left out but we may put them up later.
Heidstra. 185 Coltman St.

Perhaps the surname needs a short explanation. It really is quite simple. My father, a Dutch seaman was on his new merchant ship sailing back to Holland as the Germans jackbooted their way into the towns of his home country. The ship immediately turned around and headed for Dundee in Scotland. The new fast merchant ship named the Berklestrom, for the remainder of the war sailed solo between the UK, Iceland and Murmansk in Russia.

Mum and Dad therefore met courtesy of Mr A H late of Berlin. The house 185 Coltman Street was bought late spring 1949 and we, a family of four moved from 50 Liverpool st where we had resided for a year in a one up one down with my grandma.


Day one stands out in my memory more than a lot of the days to follow. The house was of course enormous compared to the one up, one down 50.Liverpool St, haberdashers shop. We could actually lose sight of our parents and, wonder of wonders, still be in the same building. The initial elation of my brother and I quickly changed when we realised we were totally alone for the first time in our lives. And then Mum and Dad came back through the debris of 20 years from their own private exploration, and we children were ushered into the rear garden and told to behave. We left the adults in a state of shock as to where to begin to make to make the place habitable. For my brother and I this really was heaven. Liverpool Street had no trees and in fact precious little vegetation of any kind. Here the grass was taller than we were. The trees in the garden were so large we couldn’t get our arms combined around the trunks. The garden had the overgrown remains of bedding borders lined out with low grade metamorphic limestone presumably from some pre war soirée by the former owners. Everything else was a wilderness.

Whether it was on that first visit or shortly afterwards I, as a going-on-for-7 year old, began to comprehend how much work would be required to make the place habitable. On the ground floor the kitchen floor took several hours of scrubbing to reveal a red tiled surface which was very uneven and laid straight on top of compacted infill. This was servants working quarters the original house owners never intended to use or perhaps even enter this area. It needs to be taken on board that we were interlopers in a building from a earlier and grander time. We were a little like vandals entering Rome after its fall and wondering at its decayed splendour.


As to the house. Explaining the areas one by one, room a) was an outhouse containing an outside but undercover toilet, in the other corner of the room was a very large cauldron which took about 12 buckets of water to fill to the required level for use as a basic clothes washing facility. Ironically for many years afterwards around xmas it would also be used to catch feathers from the chickens and ducks we killed and plucked just prior to the festive season. One year in particular I recall, when I was about ten, the chickens had had their necks wrung on the previous evening and were then hung from hooks in the out house until myself and my younger brother got to them the next day to carry out the plucking. I was half way through mine when it started squawking and flapping it's wings. The plucking thing was still alive! And these chickens were not the weedy 4 or 5 pounds of today, these were sometimes in excess of ten pounds and loved nothing better than chasing cats or dogs out of the garden. Room b) was remarkable for its utter Spartan appearance. It contained the one sink with one tap and some old shelving, oh, and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling at the end of three foot flex. A door from this room led to arguably the most important room in the house.

Room c) was the cooking area and had several features. i) A fitted low level seat running the length of the room opposite the cooking range. It was very reminiscent of a church chair and it was the first casualty when we moved in. ii) The black polished wrought iron cooking range reached the ceiling. On the extreme left were 4 cupboards or shelves covered by two doors. These were used to keep food warm or as airing cupboards. The 2nd row comprised two ovens heated from below by virtue of louvered vents to the open fire. The fireplace itself was a 2ft 6 inches wide by a foot deep affair, with a solid brick cavity to its rear. Above the fire on both sides, anchored into the brick, were substantial wrought iron arms from which cooking pots could be hung. These pivoted so that pots could be lowered into the open rear brick cavity. The range was for many years used to boil potato peelings and other waste, to which we then added fish meal. The chickens thrived on this rich daily diet and a ten pound cleaned bird was average.


iii) Perhaps the most socially historic, informative feature of the room was a wooden plank stretching the width of the room, above the exit door from the room into a long lobby, giving access to the rest of the house. Hanging from the face of the wood was a neat row of a dozen bells each about the size of a large teacup. The upstairs people can only have used these to summon service. Since there were twice as many bells as rooms, each room had at least two bells. The different bells indicated that either some simple code was at work or the upstairs inhabitants didn’t even like walking to far to reach a bell. No wonder the empire was lost! The bells quickly disappeared too. It surprised me even at my then tender age the vehement manner in which my mother, quote “ those are coming out. We will have no servants in this house!". Many years later I discovered my grandma had been in service from the age of ten. Mother, a conservative it seems, chose her party but had inherited her strong socialist tendencies.
Living.

In retrospect we moved into the house very quickly. we 'kinder', slept on mattresses in the main downstairs front room, while mum and dad slept in the large front room on the first floor directly above. Let me digress; What modern trappings did the Swiss family Heidstra have?... We had a strident electric front door bell and electric lighting. That was the full inventory. So how were the obvious difficulties overcome?

Ironing; The process of ironing gets its name from the implement used, it was a solid shaped block of iron. 21st century irons still follow the original basic design. The thing with the old irons was that they had to be heated by holding them close to a fire or placed within our new 1870s oven. It was skilled work not to burn your fingers or clothes. But mum was a Scot, to the manner born.

Food was difficult. The shelf life of most products was fairly short by modern standards, and in summer it was sometimes a cold bucket of water and cellar storage. Clothes were washed by virtue of the large pot in the outhouse. This was a step up from the corrugated tub that was used in Liverpool St, and which could only be used outdoors. There was a down side, it was difficult to podger in the pot. It had been designed for use with a corrugated tub. ( Podger, a robust cylinder of wood with 3 or 4 legs at one end and a handle at the other, the whole being used to agitate the clothes. This design was updated and incorporated into modern washing units; it’s now called an agitator.

Bathing; there was a bathroom with a hot water geyser. It was undoubtedly installed long after the house was built and was gas powered. It only ever worked once, the smell of gas or the equipment being hot for the first.


The Times

The war was still a vivid memory for people in 1949. I commenced school for the first time. The family had returned to Britain in 1947 after living in Holland with my Dutch grand parents for a year or more. The problem for me, as I commenced education at Scarborough St at the end of '47, was the minor irritation of being fluent in the Dutch language, and not understanding a word of English. My first day at school was the stuff of nightmares. Play time was particularly bad. The school staff took a few days to realise the futility of trying to teach anything to a frightened young child who, from their perspective, might as well have been deaf and dumb. I was excused school and never returned to Scarbourgh St. School. In Coltman Street 15 months later I was fluent in English if ever anyone really is, and could not remember a word of my father's native tongue. For the next two years we played and grew up in the large garden of 185. School was Gee St school, if you lived to the east of the building, or Constable St if you lived to the west of the Building. But it was the same school.

Walking to school we had to pass the debris of the war time bombing. The main area was on the opposite side of the street and just a few doors down from 185. Little or no clearance had been done since the night the bombs fell. Even in the early fifties the area could have been used as a film setting for a war film. Even today, when watching film footage of the WTC or Palestine, I have no need of imagination. Memory serves me quite well.

Life was also different at a very basic level. As children we had to be in early. There was little opportunity for annoying neighbours. We blended into the background when police appeared, even though we were behaving. But then so did our parents.

Playing out ended like a guillotine at dusk. Perversely, neither parent saw anything wrong with buying me a seven inch bladed sheaf knife, which was carried everywhere. Not bad for someone still in short pants. Oh yes designer clothes and such things were 20 years away.

By the time I was nine, the range my brother and I covered had extended to cover the much larger garden of 184 Coltman Street and the bombed buildings on the opposite side of the street. The police and parents were far from happy about this turn of events and we were banned on several occasions. Exploring the bomb site in the very early fifties often allowed you to get down into the cellars of damaged and derelict homes. Quite often there would still be pathetic reminders of the former occupants. An old pair of shoes, family photographs, or a child’s comic. Some child had an accident during these daily adventures, after that the bulldozers moved in and flattened the site. It was abandoned in that manner for many years afterwards. Another thing which was different, was that my parents never ever had any visitors who were not related to the family. In other words; I met very few grown up strangers barring schoolteachers, until I started work in 1959. People in the posh Coltman St of 1949 did not quickly mix or integrate new comers, particularly if the father’s speech sounded very similar to German.

Dinner parties were a once a year event for family and cousins at Xmas. It took 2 years for the Burgess children next door, at 186, to talk to us foreign sounding new comers. It took the adults at least twice as long, and relations on the male side were never totally relaxed. After all dad was a labourer. Mr Burgess next door at 186 was a proper painter and decorator. The class division had to be observed. The other difference here was Mrs Marjory Burgess did not have to work, my mother did. And Hebert Burgess' skilled wages were double that of my fathers.

But life continued to improve in terms of possessions and modern conveniences. I think the family infiltrated rather than integrated into the local community. One or two examples for instance; From 1950 dad started buying day old chicks. These where fattened up and sold at Xmas. Only about 50% of the birds survived through to maturity. Or to put it anther way, we had 50 noisy birds that greeted dawn every day. However this was still a time of 'grow for victory', and most people in the area were still fighting to survive. Fresh cheap eggs (not on ration) and chickens, affordable and big enough to feed any family across the whole of Xmas cut down complaints to almost zero. However we also sold into Gordon St police station.


By perhaps 1952 we also could offer ducks, rabbits and geese. The household menagerie included dogs, cats, snakes and a tortoise. Mum was happier, she had an electric iron. So it did not have a thermostat, but burnt fingers ceased to an issue. The telephone, and Redifusion radio were added at around the same time. We 'the kinder' were also introduced formally into local society by virtue of a no arguments enrolment in the small Methodist church at the top left hand of Coltman Street. This developed into a war of nerves with my mother. She didn’t want to lose face with the lay clergy, and so we were bribed by being allowed to listen to Archie Andrews and 'life with the Lyons' on the Radio. We got pushed out to Sunday school as Billy Cotton came on at 1.30am with his theme tune of "Wakey, wakey". The deal was re-negotiated to cover the program 'Journey into Space' which came on at about 7.30 on a Sunday. The series was more popular than the Beatles, the Olympics and cup final combined.


By 55 the chicken thing became easier; We bought 3 dozen, 8-week-old White Leghorn or light Sussex pullets in early spring, and a Rhode Island Red cockerel that took to its guard duties with a fanatical intent. Pullet mortality was minimal, however these birds were added too in curious fashion; Fathers work entailed the handling of waste from a local frozen food manufacturer. One day he came home carrying a well plucked, half scalded, half dead chicken, which he had rescued from the mincing process used to produce fish meal. The bird placed under ultra violet heating re-grew it feathers and survived to lay eggs. It was joined by perhaps 2 dozen more birds over the next few 2 too 3 years. The press would have a field day with this in the 21st century. Let me quickly expel any latter day eco-warrior battery hen ethics, father died still very much a product of his upbringing in farming Holland.

For example Xmas 53 brought this home. My brother and myself had pets. And to be truthful, as with most children the job of looking after them often defaults to the parents, particularly if there are 6 inches of snow covering the ground that you need to cross in order to feed them. It was close to Xmas, mum was working, and father very unusually volunteered to make the family meal. I remember him laughing and chuckling all the time. Us kids were banned from watching. The family duly sat down to the evening meal which was a thick meat and potato stew. Even now I admit it was tasty. After the meal he said he had presents for myself and my brother, which raised mums eyes. He never ever, ever had money. We unwrapped the presents a fortnight later at xmas, small brown paper parcels. He’d made a pair of mittens for both of us. The problem was that the fur matched the colours of our pet rabbits. As I stated, food was food, times were hard, dad was Dutch.


The downstairs posh part.

Leaving the household's working area, one entered the long hallway with two doors to the right and a staircase on the left leading to the upper rooms of the house. The floor of the hallway was partly covered in dingy frayed old lino. The walls were covered in a very heavily embossed wallpaper, which featured a dark brown shiny tiled pattern. The staircase was bare, with a tell-tale untreated 18inch strip in the middle. The carpet had been removed. The staircase banister rail was pure mahogany and heavy duty. The hallway some how summed up for me the pre-war period, dark, built to last, and austere.

Two electric light bulbs, one above the front door and the other above the start of the staircase, were pitifully inadequate. Changing the colour scheme of the area did little or nothing to help. The ceilings were too high. It remained a dismal area to the end.

The two rooms on the right of the lobby contrasted vividly with the hallway. Both had large windows and direct sunlight. The first room had double French windows, and remained my favourite place in the house. Both of these rooms had ornate marble fireplaces. The rear room white marble, the front room black marble. The front room fireplace had a stamped iron smoke guard in the form of a face with holes in the metal for eyes. The whole thing looked demonic when the fire was lit and the room dark. It certainly kept us kids awake many a night, during the years that this was our bedroom, and our beds floor mattresses.


Easy Living.

In the late forties and early fifties the summers seemed predictable or reliable to us kids. Winter was snowballs and fireside, summer was fishing nets, frogspawn, and butterflies. Snow always fell in winter. It always got hot during the school summer holidays. Winters contained a atmospheric menace that is no longer present. This was killed off by the introduction of the clean air act or smokeless fuel thing. Up until that time, winter was ushered in with smog, the result of household fires coming on line for the winter. In the cities this was a hundred times worse than the present day minor nuisance of internal combustion engine emissions. You choked on the mixture of fog and smoke, you tasted it, and if you were vulnerable or venerable you died. Within a year this all ended. Perhaps, sometimes, governments do get it right. It is difficult to convey how bad it could get, but on bad days conditions were life threatening. A slight aside for naturalists; In those days a particular species of moth was almost always black or dark coloured, even though pre-industrial revolution it had been white. 50 years later natural selection has restored the balance. The same moth now is most often found in its white form. [“OU”. Et al.]

The overgrown garden of 185 also paid its way over the years. Trees were cut down, logs heated the grates of the house. The garden had potatos, sprouts, strawberries, gooseberries. The elder tree produced a white wine. In the early years, barring butter milk and bread, we lived the good life. But not through choice.


Late 51 early 52 was particularly hard. Father had a accident at home during xmas, he was out of work for 3 months and that meant no wages. Mother had to get work. The work was making bundles of firewood by hand at a joiners in Edinburgh St. The work was outdoors in all weathers and included tying the bundles with thin wire. After the first week she came home and cried most nights. Her hands were lacerated, blood seeped through the home made bandages. Ironing and washing duties did not help. Mum was never a young woman again. The job lasted for four or five years. Things did improve in 53, we went to visit fathers parents in Gronigen, Holland at the time of the first Asian flu epidemic. We caught the real version and brought it back with us. A foot note; However poor we were, the Dutch people were much worse. But then the Germans had stripped the country. A major row broke out when father handed over an overly generous amount of cash for the 3 weeks stay.

1953 I got a job as a paper boy from Ringrose paper shop in Chomley St, some weeks with tips, I could earn 8 or 9 shillings. At xmas this soared to 3 or 5 quid! It was taxed domestically, I like to think it helped.

The paper shop were the first people to get TV in the area, I think about 54. The owners were clever, they positioned the unit so it could be just seen from the shop. It certainly brought in the customers. 1953 was also the year I was allowed into long pants. It was the year I was turfed out of the infants section of Sunday school and into the seniors, it was the year I failed my eleven plus because of extended confinement to bed. Mum and Dad although unhappy, breathed a sigh of relief school uniforms were not cheap, and admittance was dependent on uniform a form of proof of class status. I declined to take the resit the following year, after accidentally over hearing the same financial discussions late one night. Mum and Dad never knew.


I seem to remember that lots of streets were still cobbled, foot paths were of flag stone, and electric trolley buses with overhead cables had only recently taken over from trams. It was several years before the tram line tracks were finally removed. They had been a death trap for cyclists. Hull started its school building programme at that time. Riley High pupils at the top of the Boulevard were re assigned to Northfield on Anlaby road. The older pupils from Constable St school commuted to Francis Askew for some lessons and gradually into the deserted Riley High. So I still got to attend the school for clever and well off kids, even though they were no longer in residence. The trips to Franny Askew from Coltman St were made on roller skates. We beat the buses that were occasionally provided and even at that tender age it was nice to be in the old Liverpool St area, standing on the railway bridge as steam trains passed underneath our feet. It was also nice to be able to hang on to the trolley bus depot roller doors as they rose. And of course be the last to drop. Again one kid took it to far and broke both legs on impact. Everybody got a visit from the police, the pastime however continued.


The bizarre

One weird incident has lived with me since October 53, The Burgess boys Richard and Geoffrey, together with brother and myself were doing the Amazons and Swallows bit. We decided that digging for treasure would be an excellent way of raising cash for fireworks. So we hopped over the rear garden wall of 185 into that of the house next door 184 or Fountain Villa. We mulled around as most of garden was totally overgrown. After checking the small pond had no frogs, we migrated to furthest south west point of the garden. Here was and probably still is a very large aspen tree or ash? The soil around its base formed a cone the surface of which was bare of vegetation. Rain run off had leeched the soil over many years. So I pointed to a spot and said "dig". The first thrust with a garden trowel hit metal, the toffee tin type box was pulled from the ground. Inside were sufficient coins to buy quite a few fireworks, although the job of prizing them apart took some time and some remained unrecognisable. Pawsons paper shop in Queensgate Street still happily accepted a combination of silver three penny bits, Silver sixpences and copper coinage.


Upstairs

The house was gradually taken over. But there was always too much room for to few people, and too much building for too little money. And there was always too little money. The bare boards of the upstairs room were soon varnished. Walking up the first flight of stairs you reached a landing. If you walked on, you had to climb another few steps. The bathroom and separate toilet were just on your left and a small room directly in front, this room was the only modern height and modern sized room in the house.

The bathroom toilet bowl I recall being richly decorated in dark blue, inside and outside. It also worked. There was no need for a bucket of water to complete the flushing. The bathroom was basic by modern standards, it was after all Victorian. The small utility was memorable for its window which gave access to the roofs of the ground floor buildings. Mary Poppins springs to mind, as does the threatened corporal punishment if we were caught again dangling our legs over a 20 foot drop.

The 2 main bedrooms were boring, and had no history as far as we children were concerned. The only time these rooms became remotely of note, was when for few months we took in lodgers, a married couple, a nurse and a policeman. I don't remember the names, I remember more the state that the rear bedroom and utility room where left in, after being vacated. However the extra cash finally got the family off the poverty line, and mum no longer qualified for the wood choppers ball!

One final anecdote, and here we have to track forward a few years. Following a father/son bonding exercise to Brandesburton ponds, we caught a Pike and wrapped it in brown grease proof paper for the journey home. Pike makes good eating. At home the bathtub was filled with water because the fridge was full. Yeah we now had a fridge. The fish was dumped in the bathtub and forgotten. Mum came home and went upstairs to change. I still remember the scream. she must have walked into the bathroom and switched on the light, the sight of a pike in the tub would have been bad enough, but this one was doing a wall of death impersonation around the bath tub, things were fairly quiet in the house for a while after that……. Rik Heidstra…….