I was born in 2 Stirling Street, next to Stevenson Street where the Robertsons Jam works had its factory. To this day I can remember the smell of the fruits drifting in through our back windows. I don’t think the house in Stirling Street still stands, as it was gutted by fire shortly after we moved away to Thrushcraig Crescent. My mother and I went to the scene and were both saddened by it, because although Stirling Street could only be described as being a bit of a dump, it had been a big part of our lives until then. My brother and I were both born there, a fact which added extra significance to our feelings when we saw the effects of the fire.
We had lived in a single room, 4 of us, until we could move to a double in the same building. Mum, dad, my brother and me. There was only one toilet which we all had to share with 4 families. No toilet paper – everyone would use newspapers cut into squares, hung up with string and placed on a nail on the wall.
At the back was a washhouse, called the Steamie, where a large copper boiler would be filled with water. All the women had their day for washing, and would need to get up early to light the fire underneath, put coal onto it, and wait until the water began to boil. Then they would stir all the cloths with a wooden pole.
Next the women would transfer the laundry, using the wooden pole again, into two large tubs, and then start using a scrubbing board and large bar of soap. No washing powder back then. Once scrubbed and rinsed, the washing then had to be put through a wringer, and any large items had to go through the mangle.
I would watch my mother, her face covered with sweat, thinking what sheer hard work doing the washing was. No washing machines. Not back then. Mother never seemed to get any rest, especially with all the other chores she had to perform during every day.
When we moved to 31 Thruscraig Cresent, it was such a luxury to have a toilet which we didn’t need to share. Best of all, we had a bathroom, with hot water running out of the taps, and we also had a front garden. It was really magic. We still didn’t have a fridge, a washing machine or television, but we were quite contented with what we did have.
A few years after us moving to Thrushcraig Crescent, my brother became ill and died. Not long afterwards my mother died, and I left Paisley. I returned occasionally, but found going back depressing. I lived at different places. Edinburgh, Yorkshire, Ireland and finally I moved to London, where I still live, beside the River Thames in Fulham.
But I always think about Paisley. It is in my heart. All of my childhood memories are there. St. Charles School where the teachers were really sadistic, some worse than others, and they seemed to always terrorise us with their straps, men teachers and women teachers alike. There always seemed to be children crying. I remember that well.
Then I went to St. Mirins Academy.
In 1948, when I was just 12 years old, I knew that I must get a job to help my mother’s budget. With my brother in and out of hospital, it was a great expense, especially when he was sent to the Isle of Cumbrae for 2 years. We had to get to Gilmour Street Station, and board the train to Stranraer, from where we had to go by ship across the Irish Sea to Millport. What a long and tiring journey that was. And my mother couldn’t really afford it, but we went every Sunday, taking little gifts for my brother each time. I found that journey very tedious, and terrible in the winter time. So I began looking for a job.
I became a delivery boy with Thomas Fairley, a grocer in Causeyside Street. Never before had I ridden a bike, and the load on the bike was always heavy. One time I was sent to Foxbar, but couldn’t find the house, so after about 2 hours I had to go back to Causeyside Street! The following day I was told that the other delivery boy had left, and that if I did his run also, I would get extra wages.
I was really keen about that! Everything went well for 2 days.
It was raining, and once again I was up in Foxbar. I can remember going down a Lane and then nothing else. I woke up in the Alexandra Hospital, with a surgeon leaning over me, and a policeman at the foot of the bed. I had 24 stitches put into a wound on my head, and the injuries to my hands and legs tended, but I felt inside that something was missing. I was terrified to look down, until the policeman produced my shoe! He said that I was lucky to be alive, and that I could very easily have been killed in the accident. The local paper, the Paisley Express ran the story, and when I got out of hospital, looking like a mummy, several neighbours turned out to welcome me home.
I swore never to ride a bike again, but here in London I have often ridden in marathons for charity, although bike riding in London is probably more dangerous than bike riding in Paisley!
When I had recovered from not only the injuries, but the shock of the accident, I got a job at Ross dairy in Causeyside Street, starting work at 6.30am. I hated getting out of bed at 6am, but it brought in extra money.
As I turned 13 in 1949, I get a job in the New Alex Cinema, working as a page boy. I had to carry messages and films to the neighbouring
West End Cinema. Sometimes I would take the doorman’s place at the front entrance, but I hadn’t been there long, when I was told to join two other men who worked there, dealing with fights and disturbances. That also meant flinging the offenders out, so I guess I was more of a ‘chuckeroot’ than an usher.
I was big for my age, and that helped, but the trouble with the chuckeroot job was that gangs sometimes would wait for us to leave work, after we had ‘chucked them oot’ and although the two men and me left work together, at some point of our journey home we had to separate.
Then I had to be aware of who may be behind me looking for revenge!
The Alex had the nickname of The Flea Pit, and rightly so. When you sat down, within a few minutes you could feel your legs getting bitten, and my mother would often scold me for taking the fleas home, saying that she knew they were the Alex fleas, because they were bigger!
The manager wouldn’t buy us new uniforms, and ours were all raggedy from being in so many fights. Even the gold braid had been ripped off our hats. Come to think of it, the sight of us just about represented the Alex.
One night after some trouble, one of the men I worked with said that if he really damaged his jacket, then the manager would need to replace it, so he ripped the whole arm out of his jacket before taking it up to the Managers office. We waited to hear the result, and when our colleague came down, weren’t really surprised to learn that the manager had told him to take the jacket and sleeve home and ask his wife to sew the sleeve back in!
Later that year there was a vacancy for an ice cream boy at the Alex and I was told that I could earn more money doing that, so I started work selling ice cream, with another lad. We were paid no set wages, but worked on commission. That tray! I can still feel the straps digging into my shoulders as the under manager loaded boxes of tubs, choc bars and drinks onto the tray. It was really heavy, especially when I had to keep racing up and down from the balcony. I always earned more than the other lad by working hard, and a bit of devious fiddling!
When fights started, the manager of the Alex would climb onto the stage in front of the screen and yell at the unruly audience, trying to make them behave themselves, saying he would stop the film! Most of the time, he would get as far as his office and it would all erupt again.
Those not brawling would be shouting FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT, and the thunderous commotion of everyone stamping their feet in time, made it absolute mayhem.
Another part of my job was to go round the local shops, asking them to hang the bills for the following weeks’ films, and in return, give out free passes for two. Mostly people wouldn’t want the passes when I said they were for the Alex, as everyone knew about the fights, the films were old, second and third runs, and inferior B rated. Given a choice, folk went to the better class cinemas like the Picture House, Regal, Kelburne or La Scala.
If I made a mistake in giving out change, or if I accepted foreign coins, any shortages would be taken out of my earnings. It was easy to make errors when it was dark and I only had a small bulb shining above the money box, plus there was a lot of pushing and shoving. In the summertime it would get tremendously hot in the Alex, and the audience often felt like they were in the Sahara desert! So when I made an appearance with the ice creams, there would be a stampede towards me. There was a drinking tap in the toilets of the Alex, but the crafty manager would turn off the water! It certainly boosted ice cream sales.
I left school in 1950, and began work in a shipyard at Abbotsinch, and from there I worked as a van delivery boy at City Bakers in High Street. At the same time, I was at the Picture House, working Saturdays and nights. I liked it there. We had attractive clean uniforms, and there was never the trouble which the Alex generated. And, no fleas!
An ex policeman was night watchman at the Picture House, and one evening he asked an old friend of his to do his job. For some reason, the ex policeman couldn’t work that night. The friend did. During the night, however, he was having a look round and he fell through the roof above the projection room, and he was killed. He fell behind the screen, right down to the basement. What a shock for the cleaners when they found him the following morning.
My father was a railway gangerman at Abercorn, and he was responsible for a certain length of track. Other gangermen would be in charge of the next length. It was dangerous work, and one day this other gangerman was killed by a train. We thought it might be my father, until he arrived home safely. He would never speak about that incident – I guess it was that awful for him.
A gangerman was classed as a plate layer, and had a certain number of other men – his gang – to walk along and inspect the track, but the wages were very low. That had been my fathers work since he was demobbed from the Army, and after leaving Ireland.
Mum was Irish also. She worked at Coats Mill before getting a job at the Robinsons Jam works, and the Royal Oak Restaurant in Moss Street. One day she took me to see ‘her rats’ – and I could hardly believe my eyes when she went into the food store, put on the lights, and the rats began running up the walls, between her legs, under the bags of cereals – everywhere – and mum began hitting them with a broom. They didn’t scare her, but they sure scared the pants off me.
I began an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, at the side of the railway where my father worked. He had asked the foreman builder if he could get me a job, which he did. There was only digging really, and I didn’t have a lot to do there, so went to a site at Glenburn and started to learn to lay bricks.
I got to know most of the places in Paisley by working inside many – for instance the Alexandra Hospital, the Asylum (which was in Crow Road), even the Slaughter House which has given me many a nightmare. I worked in the Ice Rink, The Swimming Baths, Dobbies Four Square Works, The Tannery. I worked in Ferguslie, then Gourock and Port Glasgow.
One site I worked on in Greenock had an alcoholic foreman, who drank mostly cheap red wine, and who was drunk in his hut each day… The men were almost as bad as he was, because they would disappear to the pub without notice, then come back to start working again, sometimes falling off the scaffolding.
The buildings on the site were going up alright, until I wondered about the windows and doors. We were up 10 feet without any! I went to find the foreman, but when I looked into his hut he was sleeping. I left that site.
During the Paisley Fair, I started work on another site, to work the 2 weeks holiday, and found to my dismay, the same foreman, drunk again, and the bricklayers not knowing what they were doing. We couldn’t even look at the plans. If you ever go to Gourock, there is a row of houses all facing the wrong way! The back of the houses face the main road – the front of the houses face the back.
Growing up in Paisley, I often wondered what the building was in the water that I could see when going to the Glennifer Braes, and why it was in the middle of the water. I now know that the building is the remains of Stanely Castle, and dates back to the 15th century. The water is a reservoir.
I wondered why they called Canal Street Canal Street when I couldn’t find a canal. Now I know that there was a canal – and a boat called the Countess of Edlinton sank there, drowning 85 people, in 1810. They filled the canal in during 1883, and turned it into Canal Street railway, which is now the Castlegait Housing Development.
My father would speak about the Glen Cinema disaster, and I also wondered about that. I found out that the Glen Cinema was in the High Street, where Burton the Tailors is now. In 1929, 70 children died at a matinee on Hogmanay. Smoke came out of the operating room and the children panicked. There is a large memorial stone at Hawkhead, commemorating the terrible tragedy.
There is a lot of Paisley history that I never knew whilst I lived there. With the help of Viv and the Website (and Brian), I am beginning to learn. Sometimes I think you have to leave a place in order to appreciate how wonderful it was.
The Alex is no longer standing. It is now a petrol station.
So much has gone. Mostly demolished. I do find that sad, because I would have liked to revisit the places I remember so well from my youth before they were demolished.
On the My Toon Website, James Tervit writes that he remembered the Picture House, and Sam Ross, the organist. Sam was an Englishman who always wore a kilt, and when he finished playing the music, he would swing round at his seat, always trying to keep his legs together! To the relief of the audiences.
When I worked at the Picture House there was no longer any organist, so one of the projectionists and myself used to try and play the music. He was better than I was, because he could master the piano, whereas I played accordion. I was more your one handed musician. The organ was a Hilsdon Console, and it changed colour as it rose up, thanks to a lift which had been installed in 1935. The Regal had an organ in 1934, one year before the Picture House.
I was scared, as a child, watching the organ rising from the floor of the Picture House, and the colours changing. My child’s mind thought the thing might well blow up.
Sadly the Alex was closed and demolished in 1959. I guess the fleas were sorry.
The other picture houses, the La Scala, Picture House, Regal, Kelburne, Astoria, Palladium and West End are all gone now. The Astoria used to be called The Bug Hut – for obvious reasons.
James also recalled when he went to see The Queen on her visit to Paisley with the Duke of Edinburgh, and how he was standing; with his school chums waving flags. Well, I was at Gilmour Street station as the Queen and Duke emerged, and what James failed to see was a woman who shouted ‘Get away you dirty besom’ – and the royal couple looked alarmed as they were speedily ushered into their waiting car and quickly driven off to Glasgow. Their visit to Paisley was cut short. I was only young, but I recall feeling embarrassed, although HRH wouldn’t have known what a besom was. That woman’s voice certainly scared them.
James also wrote about the Race Course. I wonder when it was a race course? I can never remember seeing horses running.
Remember Galbraiths warehouse? We bought all our food from Galbraiths, which was on Causeyside Street. I worked there, too, but only for a couple of weeks, delivering milk with my brother before he became ill. Another 6am start!
Before I go, I must mention my most vivid memory of the days when I was young, dyeing eggs by dipping them in tea, and then going to the Bonnie Wee Well to roll the eggs down the hill. I can remember lying up there, eating the eggs afterwards, amongst the heather.
I am tremendously obliged to Viv (and Brian) for giving me the opportunity to be in contact through the website with all the Buddies. I guess it proves somehow why we are called Buddies.
My relations were Keanans, MacGuires, Donnellys – my best pal was George Ferguson who lived up Barterholm Road. And pal Johnny Caldwell whose granny had a fish and chip shop at Calside, where he lived.
But I would love to hear from anyone.
Sadly Tom “Big Tam” Griffin died of a heart attack at the end of May 2005, at the age of 77 years.