Mr and Mrs Fred Tanner

Childhood experiences of Fred Tanner around the docks

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Fred Tanner (FT): It’s, well, one has to cast one’s mind back to when I was a child and, like I said in my letter, I used to go with my grandfather around the city, around the docks because as I already said, the pilots, who used to pick up the ships, some used to go out in boats down into the roads outside of Avonmouth, and bring them up to the Bristol docks. And then again another pilot would pick the boat up and take it through to a berth which had already been booked in advance by these shipping agents.

Q: That, that was, I mean your grandfather picked them up at Hotwells, didn’t he?

FT: That’s right.

Q: And that was normal was it, to change pilots for the…

FT: Change pilots.

Q: …floating harbour, was it really?

FT: That’s right. Now the other pilots used to have cutters and little boats that would go out from Pill. And they would go out and pick up the ships, it’d be a race to get out and get them, cos they’d all be hanging about waiting, because you would never be certain that ships would arrive on time, because of weather conditions. So there was always a bit of a race. But anyway they would pick up the ship and bring it up to the, into the docks. And take anything out if there was anything there, down the river, because obviously there are channels in the Avon, which are a little bit treacherous depending on the height of the tide. And in my lifetime, there’s been several ships have been grounded and turned over when the tide’s gone out. Now one of them I can remember was a ship called the Ettrick.

Q: Ah, 1924?

FT: Well yes.

Q: I know about this.

FT: And, oh, and I can remember there were a lot of boots on there and all these boots there floated out and people were scrambling down onto the mud and getting the boots.

Q: Well I tell you, I was talking only yesterday to a man called Mr Gray, who lives in Weston-Super-Mare now. He used to work in the docks. He was talking about that very same wreck, he was a boy, he’d be about the same age as yourself. And he said that, he said the people, it was a, was it at Hotwells or further down, it, it was first…?

FT: Shirehampton?

Q: Shirehampton was it? Down there on the Hung Road maybe. He said the people down there had good footwear for quite a time afterwards. He said, “We…”, he said, “Us kids, it also was carrying a consignment of sweets.”

FT: I can’t remember that.

Q: And chocolate bars and things like that, you know.

FT: I can remember the boots. Yes, in any case, I went down with my mother and my aunt, so I, they would have probably prevented me going on the mud in any case, so all I did was see the boots. Well they were, quite a lot of ships did get wrecked, if you like to call it that, or beach grounded, and turned over. One broke its back, so I gather, as a child. But anyway my grandfather he was, he used to pick up boats as I said, in Cumberland Basin and they would moor on the side where there is a bridge now. The foot, road bridge….Anyway he would pick these boats up and then very occasionally I would go with him…

Q: Yeah. Yeah. Just tell me, what did he, what was his own craft, was it a rowing boat?

FT: Oh no, well all he had was a rowing boat called the Nellie, which we were, when I grew up to about 15 or 16, I would borrow it and have a little ride up and down the river with my mates you see. But what they needed the Nellie for, was for a man to row down with ropes. To pick up a rope and take along and put over the bollards. And then you would, the donkey man would wind in the rope and pull, and they’re on, they’re on the capstan and pull the thing to the side and then, then other men would throw over springers as they call ‘em, put on the bollards and pull the thing in there alongside. Then he would come ashore obviously…And occasionally, he would bring up some warships from the same place down in Cumberland Basin, and he’d bring them up to the, up to the old centre, cos there’s St Augustine’s Bridge, it was called in those days. And I can remember going, I can’t remember what the name of the boat was, but I’m pretty certain it was, it was the, destroyer of the, of what we used to call, or have called since then, the V and W class. And they were three destroyers came up, the Vimy, Velox and Verity. I can remember that. And when we got, I never ever came up on the first journey, I went from the centre down to the Cumberland Basin … And then they found me a place to stand so that I could watch the whole thing and going down the river. And then we got down to Hotwells and off we got…

Q: That we’re talking about. You must have thought that’s the world you would live in, when you were grown up?

FT: That, well I, I thought, I thought that was my world. You see that is, the way everything looked with the, with the boats and ships coming in and out and pilots as you know, and all that kind of thing. And there were, they, they had of course there, there was the river police which is a little police force on its own. They were part of the Bristol police thing but it was like a separate unit and they wore different uniform with “The River Police” on a blue jersey. And like a naval jacket with brass buttons. And a small naval cap of the 1914-18 vintage. Not the wider one, the smaller one.

Q: How were they looked on by people like your grandad?

They all knew one another. And I think they all knew each other, they were, they all knew what was going on, I think. They were all part and parcel of it, but…they used, their headquarters was by Prince Street Bridge and I don’t know whether it still exists but it was a small wooden building, built up on like stilts.

Q: I don’t think there’s a building like that there.

FT: I don’t think so. Anyway adjacent, alongside it was a fire boat called the Pyronaut. And I think the, the one I remember was the Pyronaut One, and there was a Pyronaut Two built in Bristol down at Hill’s Dockyard. Anyway these policemen had to double up as firemen on these boats, you see, because they were already going up and down with launches and rowing boats, policing the city docks and so that was natural that they would take it over because the only thing was, there was big pumps aboard. And they had two like, well like guns there, but hydrants, they could direct these big things on the buildings. And they doubled up on that sort of thing. Anyway they were all right but they did keep their eye on any contraband or anything like that.

FT: I look at things as they were, with a harbour full of ships going to all places. In Europe, some going to America, Canada, and a lot of them going round to Empire ports, and I realised then as a boy that Bristol was one of the focal points of Empire. And as a boy I went to Redcliffe and Down School, and I liked to go along Redcliffe Parade and I’d stand there by the railings looking down into the docks. Because you could see it all. And I’m one of these boys that thought a lot about what was going on in the world. Obviously with seeing all these boats and working, going with my grandfather, I had an interest. And I then realised that Empire was the thing which was feeding all this business into the city of Bristol and making Bristol prosperous. But of course the last world war changed.

Discussion of poverty – slum housing in St Philip’s and the building of Southmead

Q: And there’s one other thing. Quite different subject actually, that I just wonder if you can advise me on. Somebody I was chatting to, a friend of mine, said, “Oh you’ll find that a lot of dock workers used to live in St Philip’s, that’s St Anne’s area, just happen to know it”.

FT: Edna?

Edna Tanner (ET): Yeah.

FT: Are you free a minute?

ET: Mmm, hello.

FT: My wife. I’ll introduce my wife, Edna, she’s, she’s younger than I. Sit down a minute, we’re talking about St Philip’s.

ET: Oh yeah.

Q: It’s just my very last question, really, it’s, it’s a different thing. Somebody said to me that there used to be a lot of men who worked in the, men and women but men on the whole, who worked in the docks, who’d live in St Philip’s and St Anne’s, that area. And then because there was that clearance, you know, which they’re only, even now, rebuilding. A lot of them were then moved to Knowle. Is that right?

ET: Oh yes, yes.

Q: I mean a lot of old dockworkers…?

ET: Yes, they moved, yes, they were all moved, weren’t they? From lots of places in St Philip’s and St Anne.

FT: Yes at that time, people don’t like to think this, it was a Conservative council and Conservative governments and they called themselves Citizens, not Conservatives, they called themselves a Citizen Party. Well anyway they introduced a policy of getting rid of slums, slum clearances they called it. Now lots of dockers and shipworkers lived round that part of, near the centre, where I said there, Cabot Street and all round there. All these hovels they lived in, more or less, and they lived down St Philip’s and…

ET: Courts, in courts and squares, you know, the houses all round and a square in the middle with a tap.

Q: Really? …With a tap in the middle of the yard?

ET: In the yard, yes, yes, in St Philip’s.

FT: And that’s how it was and of course the, they had this policy of moving people out to Southmead and Knowle West. And they helped finance it by building houses to sell, make a profit, and to, that would finance the ones for the poorer people. These here have, were sold for profit, this road, but the ones down the bottom of the hill there, they were council houses.

ET: [Falcon] [ph] Road and that, they were, yes. These were sold.

FT: So these were sold to make a profit and that’s the way the citizen council worked. Make a profit and use it on that and that’s how they worked it. Same thing at Southmead.

Discussion of poverty and the means of poor relief

FT: … But in the, this, throughout the country there was an organisation started up and it was called the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. You may have heard of it.

Q: I’ve heard the name, yeah.

FT: Yes. NUWM and the man who started I think was named Wallace Hannington[?]. And they had, they would hold meetings in different parts of Bristol and down in the, there’s, down near where the Board of Guardians used to issue money to the unemployed, or not unemployed, the destitute. Now you hear, now my wife can come in here.

ET: Yeah, that was up at St Peter’s Church.

Q: Oh was it?

ET: Near Castle Street.

FT: Yes, and what was the lady’s name?

ET: Mrs Dalbenny was the lady, I remember her very, very plain.

FT: Was the chair woman of…

Q: Do you know, earlier this week I had to visit a man who used to work in the docks. And he lives in that development called Merchant’s House right down in Prince Street.

ET: Oh yes, yes.

Q: And his actual address is Dalbenny Court. I wonder if it’s named for that woman?

ET: I expect so.

FT: It could be.

ET: She was a very strict, awful woman. Awful woman.

FT: Her job was to, after all she had to safeguard the citizen’s money and at the, at the same time, she had to issue money to deserving cases. So it was…

ET: Yes, but how deserving did you have to be?

FT: I don’t know?

ET: When they would, to make you sell up every stick and stone you had, barring the bed you had, or the tables or chairs.

FT: Yeah, I was nearly, I was always quite well off, as, as the…

ET: Yeah well I know it only too well.

FT: My wife, she, that’s why I brought her in then because she lived at St Philip’s.

ET: Yes I did.

FT: And things were rather different, weren’t they?

ET: I remember Mrs Dalbenny.

Q: When you say she was an awful woman, what do you mean?

ET: She was awful. Well you see if you had anything at all coming in, you got nothing. And when you go before her, you go before the Board, she was the one that had all the say, and she would issue out with, you, with a ticket to get groceries. No money at all. Just groceries and say, “And you’re not to buy a cigarette, you’re not to buy this, you’re not to buy that”. And she would get to know if you’d done any of these wrongs, and cut you down next week. Yeah, and that was all for three and sixpence.

FT: Yeah but then, let’s look at it this way, three and sixpence, the…

ET: Yes but Fred, when you paid seven and sevenpence ha’penny for rent, three and six was not gonna go far, was it?

FT: No. when you paid how much?

ET: Seven and sevenpence ha’penny for rent.

FT: Seven and sevenpence ha’penny, no.

Q: Was that, that would be paid for the unemployed?

FT: No, no.

ET: No, no, you had to, my father was ill for two years. He was ill with pneumonia first of all then he, he contacted, ‘er contracted some paralysing disease. For two years he was like that and course we were forced to go to Mrs Dalbenny because he paid in the Hearts of Oak, it was sixpence…

FT: That was a society, society, you were friends of society.

ET: But they only paid for six months and after six months you were finished. So all you had coming in was, whether there was any panel money, I was only young then, I don’t know. But I know we ended up at St Peter’s…

FT: Before Mrs Dalbenny.

ET: I went, I went with my mother, yeah, so I know.

Q: How, how do you think the rent was paid if it was…?

ET: I don’t really know. I know the vicar of the church where we [inaudible] was there every week, was very good to us. He brought us a two pound loaf a week. And I suppose somehow or other the rent got paid, they would have put us out, wouldn’t they?

FT: I should think so.

ET: I don’t really know how that was paid, because we never had any money as such from, from the Board of Guardians.

ET: They say about poverty today, there is no poverty at all today, it don’t matter what, they always get something. If they’re sat in the road, they get something. Years ago, you had nothing until you sold everything you had. If you had a picture on the wall, you had to sell it. Yeah.

FT: It was absolute grinding poverty.

ET: Poverty, yes.

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