David Cretney’s column: Gordon shares some memories

Tuesday 22nd March 2022 5:44 am
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This column first appeared in the Isle of Man Examiner of March 15. In today’s Examiner, David writes about the Isle of Man Children’s Home.

Thanks to reader Gordon Cowley from Port Erin, who will be 100 in October, for sharing some nostalgic memories with us this week.

He remembers an ice works in Myrtle Street, Douglas.

I have to say I hadn’t heard of this but large blocks of ice were broken up to spread over meat or fish boxes. He tells me there were no fridge freezers until after the Second World War.

These days you can buy bags of ice at the supermarkets to keep your drink cool!

Next he remembers two large rooms in Douglas in Duke Street and Strand Street (Wrights and Feldmans). Now I had heard of these because I remember my dad telling me that my uncle Jack attended with many others to sing and buy the sheets of music to sing from.

Wrights had a minstrel show at the open-air amphitheatre on Douglas Head. It is good to see it being used now and then by drama groups amongst others, and Feldmans operated a show at White City on Onchan Head.

The ever-popular dance halls included the Palais de Dance in Strand Street, which I’m told had a sprung dance floor, Montavanis dance orchestra in the area where Top Shop was sited and of course the Palace Ballroom, Derby Castle and Villa Marina Royal Hall.

I hadn’t heard of Wonderland but Gordon tells me it was opposite Woolworths and had a large area for amusement games.

In the Second World War it was used as a Salvation Army red shield club, forces canteen for games and meals.

I don’t know if the amusement games were just for fun but who remembers the Leisure Inn, Douglas Head amusements, which then became the popular Foggy’s restaurant, the Crescent leisure centre, Port Soderick, White City with its wooden rollercoaster, little theatres, ghost train and dodgems and many others?

Let me know!

There were cinemas dotted around the island in Onchan, Ramsey, Peel and so on but in Douglas there were five – the Picture House, Strand, Regal, Royalty and in the summer season the Crescent.

Now I do remember all of those!

As a boy we would go on a Saturday afternoon for the matinee and as we got near to Bonfire Night I clearly recall bangers being let off during the show to the annoyance of, I think, Mr Killip.

Everyone of a certain age must remember the sweet smell of Gore’s Manx Rock shop and we could stand on a ledge to watch the skilled workers hard at work making rock for thousands of visitors to take home. What is unique about Manx rock? Well, it’s square of course with three legs through every bar!

Gordon recalls a knife grinder with a large flint wheel on a small cart with long legs driven by a foot pedal, and Flario turning the handle of a large music box to produce music from a roll.

I also remember two distinct characters who would travel around Douglas one selling ‘fresh herring!’ and another appealing for ‘rags and bones!’

More recently I remember Douglas character Bernard Watson who would stand outside Woolworths with his Pearly Queen wife Sandra collecting for the poppy appeal whilst playing his barrel organ.

There were also shoe blacks dotted around with their distinctive Cherry Blossom boxes to make sure you looked smart for your date, and at a number of locations, particularly during the summer months, newspaper sellers for everyone to catch up with the latest from across the sea.

Another task was the street gas lamplighter, who had a long pole to put the lights on or off, replaced in 1929 by electric lights.

I also remember when my father-in-law worked for the Highway Board.

He was one of those who would at dusk light up the paraffin lamps adjacent to the road works.

Gordon certainly has a good memory as he can recall an early type of plane, possibly a De Havilland Dragon rapide 9, operating flights from the Queen’s Promenade.

Somewhere I have an old postcard depicting this exciting novelty. I hope it didn’t scare the nine or 10 donkeys giving rides to children on the beach!

The donkeys came down daily from Noble’s Park with the donkey man – who I think was called Johnny?

Also in the vicinity were horse-drawn high level carts with very large wheels to bring visitors out to hire the rowing boats.

More recently Bobby Christian and Yankee Shimmin were amongst the last to operate this summer attraction. Real characters… the world needs them!

My family’s grocer’s shop RW Cretney and Sons was situated at 30 North Quay, Douglas, and, when my dad’s brothers and sisters were young, they lived ‘above the shop’ and served the fishing and Steam Packet boats.

Gordon has reminded me about how some of the latter would overwinter and be maintained in the inner harbour.

Also, who remembers the coal boats being unloaded on the North Quay?

Very few, if any, houses then had central heating.

There would always be rich pickings for anyone who was about to pick up discarded cargo.

The coal was also used to make gas and coke.

The vessels from Scandinavia with timber on board would also dock in this area with their shipment destined for the nearby yards of Quiggin and Co and the Douglas Steam Sawmill and others further away.

There was a rowing boat ferry across Douglas harbour from the end of Ridgeway Street to the gas works side to save a long walk to the other side to get there where gas was stored. The Douglas Head ferries were also a very popular attraction with Johnny Ventro entertaining.

Gordon recalls the vessels Rose, Thistle and Shamrock.

There were incline railways on Douglas Head and Port Soderick and connecting trams between.

Also available from the Jubilee Clock to York Road tram depot, now the site of Waverley Court sheltered housing complex, was a cable car operation.

The nurses’ home, which has been neglected for years, is set to have a new life soon subject to planning.

Gordon remembers the nurses’ home when it was in full use as do others for differing reasons!

Just down the road in the Athol Street area he tells me there were three garages – Central Motors, Cannell’s with a taxi and Lawton’s with motorcycles.

He also remembers well the long established Athol Garage in Hill Street, now relocated to Ballasalla.

Staying in lower Douglas, he reminded me of the phones in tall blue pillars for the police to be contacted in an emergency.

The soup kitchen in Myrtle Street and free dinners in Noble’s Hall were clear signs of the difficult times many people faced.

What a sad reflection that such situations still exist with food banks and homeless persons.

Gordon reminded me that for those who needed liquid refreshment there were drinking fountains in Finch Road and Noble’s Park. I’m sure I’ve seen others dotted around the island… Peel promenade?

I’m most grateful to Gordon for sharing his memories with us and it’s great that he remains active with the Salvation Army band on bass trombone.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about the old children’s home in Glencrutchery Road. I’m pleased to say I’ve been contacted by a former resident who I will be visiting soon to get more information about those times in the 1950s.

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