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The Childhood and Adolescent Years of Les Birkett

Rabbits were a good source of food and we loved helping Dad winkle them out from the station yard buffers.

I was born on 28th April 1925 in the flat above what was, until recently, the Gent’s Outfitters shop in West Percy Street, North Shields, owned by Leonard Grant.  I have no recollection of living there, as my family moved further along West Percy Street when I was quite young.  I did feel privileged to be shown around the flat in 2002, by then a storage area, by Leonard Grant, who is now retired.

We moved again in 1929 to The Nook, opposite Ralph Gardner Senior School.  I have two vivid recollections whilst we lived there.  The first was the sighting, more or less directly above The Nook, of the Airship R101.  The second was the sighting of a prototype Autogyro, which was a precursor of today’s Chinook Helicopter, very much a mini version but it was driven by two separate blades.  I cannot recall the name of the Autogyro pilot.  He was, however, in the forefront of wingless aircraft development.

Once more, in 1930, we moved to Amble.  My father was a van/lorry driver, employed by the London & North Eastern Railway Company (LNER).  We lived in Amble for only one year, although we did manage to live in two different houses during that period.  In 1931 the LNER moved us to Acklington, all of three miles from Amble.

For the family it was a good move, as we had a nice semi-detached house adjacent to the station offices and Station Master’s house.  We were only 20 yards or so from the main railway Newcastle to Edinburgh line.  It was distinctly noisy when the steam trains, such as The Flying Scotsman, The Queen of the Scots and the many 1,000-ton freight trains rattled through.  One does, of course, quickly become accustomed to noise and vibration and none of us were, in any way, conscious of the trains running through at speeds up to 100 mph day and night.

It is worth pointing out that whilst we had a nice little house, with garden, and the whole area surrounded by fields and woods, idyllic for children, the facilities which nowadays we all take for granted were quite primitive.  Our water supply was from a rain-butt, which was obviously dependent upon rainfall.  Out toilet was a dry toilet at the end of the yard, and it needed to be emptied frequently, a job for my father!  The contents were spread over our allotment, located by the side of the railway line, and, it has to be said, which nurtured high quality potatoes and vegetables.  Rabbits were a good source of food and we loved helping Dad winkle them out from the station yard buffers.

We children attended Acklington Village School, a walk of three quarters of a mile each way from home.  The headmaster was Mr Smith.  We didn’t think that he had a Christian name, but he did have a car – rare for 1931.  Our teacher was Jean Thompson, a lovely lady.  Remarkably, Allison and I got in touch with an old school friend, still living in Acklington and discovered that Jean Thompson was still alive and living in Alnwick.  We visited her two years ago, some seventy years after I had left Acklington, and whilst she did not remember me personally, we were able to talk about the years 1931-34 and recall much of the school and its activities.  Sadly, she died recently aged 96 years.  A remarkable lady.

During 1934 the family was moved back to North Shields and we took up residence at No. 88 Lansdowne Terrace.  Schooling was at Spring Gardens Junior School and Ralph Gardner Senior School.  I left school in 1939, aged 14.

I started work in August 1939, with Wright & Eddie, Norwegian Fish Importers, located on North Shields Fish Quay.  That employment lasted until the middle of 1940, when Norway was invaded by Germany.  Very quickly I found employment at Preston Hospital and worked there until 1943.  I then moved into the shipbuilding industry with the North Eastern Marine Engineering Co. Ltd., makers of ships engines and boilers.  I remained with this company for the rest of my working life, albeit we, and all other marine builders were nationalised under the umbrella of British Shipbuilders and I was seconded to other BS companies in Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Greenock on the River Clyde.

I retired, aged 60 in 1985 to live the life of Riley!

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