Local history: 'Even my dad's tools had to be sold’

September 07 2020

This month we continue our serialisation of Memories of a Bristol Boyhood by Knowle resident John Fletcher. As he recalled last month, his early days were not easy and sadly, there was heartbreak for John when his father passed away in 1934, aged just 36

Pictured: John's father, Frederick Alexander Henry Fletcher (aged 20)
 
Frederick Alexander Henry Fletcher
 
Unfortunately my parents' marriage, through no fault of their own, was not altogether a happy one.
It began well enough with the birth of my sister Joyce on 30th November, 1928, but in the next few years misfortune struck several times. Firstly came the great depression when my father, together with many others, was put out of work. He found odd jobs wherever he could but it was a very difficult time. 
He then became ill with cancer and was unwell for a long time before he died in February 1934, aged only 36. I regret that I had not asked my mother to tell me more about my father. The only two incidents that I recall being told about both concern football. 
My mother said that she used to watch my father play. It must have been local teams of a reasonable standard as they were watched by small crowds and one comment she overheard was “That Fred Fletcher spends more time on his ass than his feet"!
The second was potentially more serious. One Wednesday afternoon when he should have been at work he attended a Bristol City F.A. Cup replay at Ashton Gate. 
He would have kept that from Mother but was let down by the Bristol Evening Post who ran a photo competition in which they printed a section of the crowd with one face ringed round. On this occasion it was my father. 
The reward was 10 shillings, probably equivalent to more than £50 today. He offered that prize to Mother who was so angry that she threw it back at him. I expect she relented as it would mean food and clothing for the children.
My mother was left widowed with two children, Joyce, five years old and myself, one and a half years old, and as times prior to this had been financially stretched, Mother had virtually nothing, even my father’s carpentry tools had to be sold.
At that time we lived at 44 Kingshill Road, Knowle, a council house in a relatively new estate. Presumably we paid little or no rent to the council as my father had no pension and I think the widow’s pension was 10 shillings(50p) a week. 
Times must have been hard for Mother, but she somehow rose to the occasion because, with two children under five she could not go out to work, and resorted to taking in lodgers. One of these lodgers who stayed with us for quite a long time was Sister Edith Fielder. 
She was what we would now call a District Nurse, with special responsibility for children. At that time in the mid-1930s following the depression, when money for the working classes was very restricted, a slum clearance, moving families from the smoke ridden centre of Bristol, was in operation and children's health was a big concern. 
This was the field of work Sister Fielder specialised in. Scarlet fever and diphtheria were quite common and treated at Ham Green Hospital, whilst TB was treated at the’open air’ hospital at Broadfield Road in Knowle.
 
Sunday School
Before starting state education I had already been enrolled at St. Martin’s Sunday School. My recollection of it is not good but I do remember playing with a sand pit and using wooden building blocks to build flat-roofed houses, supposedly depicting the Holy Land, and positioning palm trees and figures in robes to depict Biblical times. 
We were also issued with a booklet with special spaces in which we stuck a stamp for each attendance. These were colourful and showed various festivals of the church or the miracles. I don’t know how it came about but at the age of five I found myself being taken to St Elizabeth’s Home on Sunday mornings. 
This was a local orphanage run by Church of England nuns. I was not an inmate but called a‘Boat Boy’. I was put in the care of Sister Kathleen, a very calm and friendly nun. 
She would supervise me being dressed in a black cassock and a starched white surplus, topped off with frilly ruff around my neck. I was then given a silver container the‘boat’ which contained incense. I was then ready to accompany the Server who was in charge of the incense burner, a very ornate piece of equipment which contained the lighted coal onto which the incense was sprinkled, the lid of the burner being lifted and lowered by a system of chains. 
The burner was then wafted backwards and forwards, issuing a sweet smelling scent and making a very distinctive noise as the burner came into contact with the chains. 
 
The Server carried out this operation most of the time, but at other times the Priest would take over depending on some ritual part of each service.
 This all took place in the chapel of the orphanage and was my first introduction to the ornate magnificence of‘High Church’. 
There were the bright colours of the stained glass windows, brilliantly highlighted by the morning sun, the intricate pieces of gold, silver, metal and wood carvings, any number of large classical paintings depicting religious scenes and also stone statues and bright material hangings lit by small chandeliers and many candles. 
Children today are so used to television beaming in pictures of sumptuous palaces, cathedrals and such that perhaps they would not be as impressed as I was with this, to me, new cultural experience, not only the brilliant sights, but the smells and the chanting by the choir all had a ‘wow’ factor for me. 
 
I could not understand any of the ritual of the services, some of which was in Latin anyway, but just followed my leader, opening my‘boat’ to replenish the incense burner when signalled to do so. The one service I did understand was that on Rogation Sunday when we processed through the extensive gardens blessing the crops. 
St. Elizabeth’s Home was situated at the top of Redcatch Hill and the grounds must have afforded some of the best and most extensive views anywhere in Bristol: to the east as far as Long Ashton, Ashton Court and Clifton Suspension Bridge; to the north the houses flanking along Clifton Downs, St. Michael’s Hill, the many hospital and university buildings and the Royal Fort, and to the west, Purdown and now the route of the M32.
 
Besides this one can see almost every detail of the low lying areas of Bedminster, Redcliffe, Central Bristol, Temple Meads and Old Market. 
My walk from home to the Chapel took me along a new road “Stoneleigh Road” where new house building was in progress. It is strange to relate that Mary and I bought one of these 1937-built houses as newlyweds in 1962 and still reside in Stoneleigh Walk over 50 years later.