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recalled by Grafton Maggs in his
Memories of old Mumbles in the 1930s and 1940s
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“Now, look! I’m telling you for the last time,” (Voice, raised in anger, from the kitchen. My mother), “Shut up and do what you’re told! I don’t care what your arrangements are! I don’t care if you’ve arranged to meet Doctor Crippen! You are beginning to look like that old goat Lloyd George! Now get down to Ted Priddy’s, this minute, OR ELSE!”
The last sentence was delivered through clenched teeth and at this stage, it began to dawn on me that defeat was imminent. My mother’s subtle hints were getting home and so, with ill grace, I conceded, and scowling, stepped out into Gloucester Place with four pennies jingling in my pocket.
It was half past eight on a glorious Saturday morning, in mid July. A shiver ran down my back as the freshness of the morning air touched my bare neck and arms, bringing out goose pimples. Not surprising really, as I was dressed spartanly in the, then-seasonal style of all Mumbles lads. A thin cotton shirt, with open neck and untidily rolled sleeves, was tucked into short grey trousers. Skinny bare legs led to sockless feet shod in canvas ‘daps’ (blancoed white on the kitchen sink, the night before).
I turned the corner into Dunns Lane and was now able to look down over the Station Square and across the sparkling sweep of Swansea Bay. A heat haze obscured Kilvey Hill and the Docklands, promising yet another day of cloudless sunshine.
I passed the weed-enshrouded ruins of the old fire station which was yet to see the first signs of activity on its promised clearance and replacement with a Public Library. Commuters, happy in the warm sunshine, bustled their chattering ways past me towards Oystermouth Station, for conveyance to Swansea on the Mumbles Train.
Not one of them glanced twice at that horrible little boy who slouched past with hands in pockets and discontented look on his pinched face. They had no idea of the mental anguish that I was enduring and which was manifesting itself in this sullen demeanour. I was desperately unhappy even though the sun shone and it was a glorious Saturday morning.
For most youngsters, Mumbles childhood in the thirties was a time of supreme happiness during which the sun always seemed to be shining, with few clouds in the sky to mar that happiness. Yet, clouds there were occasionally, for nothing is perfect, and on this Saturday morning, I was under one of those clouds!
This particular cloud drifted over, at regular intervals, in the shape of the visit to the Village Barber. I was not alone in my misery, all the village boys, without exception, shared this abhorrence of having a haircut! Especially upon a Saturday morning!
There was no way of avoiding it, (short of terminal illness), and, no matter who you were, what you were, poor or rich, or whatever your religion, you had your hair cut short, every three weeks. It was part of some rigid code of conduct, enforced by all parents, and of such importance that if a lad were seen around the village, with an uncut head of hair, he was a social disgrace and a shame to his family. Dirty boots, dirty neck, armed robbery, breaking and entering, sacking and pillage, even murder, received a degree of tolerance, but uncut hair, - No!
As a result, I was on my way toTed Priddy who exercised his tonsorial skills in a cabin, in the Dunns. It was situated between Peachey’s Garage, and Sanders the Greengrocers (then, on the corner of Newton Road). Opposite Ted’s was an interesting conglomeration of Victorian shops which shut off the open seaward side and, in so doing, added considerably, to the charm of the approach into the village. In their wisdom, the powers-that-be demolished this row after World War 2 and henceforth, rewarded Mumbles residents with an unobstructed view of the Somme-like Station Square along with all the benefits of full exposure to icy North-Easterlies, on winter days.
But what was so awful about having a haircut, (or ‘a crop’ in local dialect)? Why all this dread? Well, a number of reasons. The main one being that during school term, a visit to Ted’s, had to be on a Saturday morning which encroached upon the precious, hard earned leisure time of the weekend. In winter, it interfered with football up the Rec’, but far worse, was the disruption of a Saturday morning in summertime. Even though the sparkling tide was lapping at the bowling green steps, offering swimming delights of immeasurable magnitude, all the pleading in the world left parents totally immutable. There was no way of getting out of it. You went to Ted’s. You had your hair cut. Tablets of Stone and hence the little drama recounted in the leading paragraph.
Ted was capable of executing a “short back and sides” in the space of six minutes flat. That was not the problem! It was not the time in the chair, it was the time spent waiting to get into the chair. That was the rub! The demand for Ted’s services on Saturday mornings was immense and no matter how early one went down the Cabin, there was always a queue waiting and this meant a long, long delay.
So, on this particular morning, after an early breakfast of “Force”, (not, as the name may suggest an aggressive laxative, but a cornflake-like cereal) and a boiled egg, I was off to Ted’s to join the queue.
Around about nine, Ted appeared, having walked down from his Park Street home, carrying a little brown attaché case which probably contained his working tools (or, as I came to wonder, later, possibly something of a more exciting nature). He was a short man of slight stature, with jet black hair and dark brown hooded eyes set in a pallid face; already a Woodbine was drooping from the corner of his mouth, probably not the first of the day.
He rummaged for his keys, unlocked, threw the door open with a crash and entered the dark, fetid room that housed his armamentarium.
Immediately there was a melée as the waiting boys surged forward, with cries of,
“I was yere before you, Meyrick!”
“Shurrup Gammon! I was yere when you was still in bed!”
“I was yere before either of you!”
“No you weren’t Webborn!”
….and so on
Ted, who had been swept into his shop by the avalanche shouted, “None of you will get thee ‘aircut if you don’t shut up and behave. I’ll say who comes first! Sit down and shut up, you little….!”
The atmosphere inside his salon had all the miasmic attractiveness of a morning-after, public bar. Little daylight penetrated through the clutter in the window which, amongst other things, accommodated curling and faded cardboard signs proclaiming the virtues of ‘Brylcreem’, ‘Adonis’ Brilliantine, ‘Amami’ Shampoo, ‘Nitkill’ Ointment, ‘Minora’ safety blades,
and the like. On one side of the window, was a section, set apart for local adverts and offered a source of entertainment for those heading the queue outside. I read one particular advertisement, repeatedly, for many years. On a curling, browned piece of paper inscribed in large capitals was the annonucement:
“For Sale. As new. Two ton blacksmith’s anvil. Hardly used.
Ideal Christmas present. Only 8s.4d.
Buyer collects. Top House, Tichbourne Terrace.
Forced to sell due to hernia”.
It appears that the demand for anvils in those days was not a great one and I often wondered if it was ever sold. I told my grandmother but she was not interested. Perhaps it’s still there.
Having made entry,Ted fumbled for the bulbous brass switch just inside the door and switched on. There was always a little buzzing noise from the switch and Ted would pull his hand away sharply with a muffled oath. To say that this action flooded the interior of the Cabin with light, would be a slight exaggeration. A bare forty watt bulb, suspended from a cobweb festooned piece of flex, glimmered and seemed to accentuate the gloom. Eight restive youngsters forced their way in, leaving the rest in the queue outside.
For the convenience of the waiting customers, an assortment of wooden chairs was distributed along two of the walls, every one was different. Strewn, haphazardly across them, with tattered and stained covers, was an assortment of reading matter. Inspection within their covers revealed that every crossword, every quiz and every competition had been attempted and abandoned. However, if one had an interest in such matters as the “Coronation of King Edward VII”, “The Rechabites Annual for 1909”,or “How to live with a rupture” then there was some interesting reading to be had. I usually settled for a tattered copy of the “Godregraig Bugle”.
Ted was a minimalist. There were few luxuries. A cracked wash basin, with a mottled green brass tap, stood in front of his iron and wooden chair. Above this was a large discoloured mirror, adorned peripherally with curled cards, granting admittance to such past social functions as, “The Upper Cwmtwch Philharmonic Orchestra in the Central Hall”, “ ‘The Mikado’ performed by Mumbles Baptists,” “Mumbles Pier Fete”. Etc.
To the right, on a little table, was a chipped enamel kettle resting on a gas ring. This was the source of hot water for shaving, and alongside it rested two cut throat razors, a leather strop for those razors and a soap bowl. A brush rested its polished bony handle at an angle against its lather caked rim.
High up on the walls, above the mirror and barely perceptible in the cobwebbed gloom, were two heavily framed pictures of football teams, the members of which were all heavily moustached and wore ankle length shorts. One day whilst I was sitting in Ted’s chair, a freak shaft of sunlight was reflected in, to illuminate one of these sepia pictures and I was able to read a hand printed caption underneath one of them:
“Accrington Stanley” 1908-09”.
I never found out the connection between Accrington Stanley and Ted Priddy. What untold drama lies there? Amongst other pictures was that of a row of wounded British soldiers sitting in their hospital garb. This picture, surprisingly, was to find a worthy home.
On the other side of the basin, stood a waist high cupboard which, because of Ted’s peculiar stance whenever opened, gave the impression that its content was of a highly confidential nature. For the greater part of my life, I wondered what was in there and its significance to Ted? It came to haunt me. The top of this cupboard was used as a work surface and upon it rested sets of hand clippers, a comb, several assorted scissors and tapers for singeing. These items made up Ted’s arsenal.
Ted was not one to hang about. As soon as he had gained entry, he shed his street clothes, donned a whiteish coat and was ready to go! After the usual scuffle and argument, Ted would grab a boy and shove him in the chair. With a matadorial sweep, a sheet was twirled around the lad’s neck, tucked into his jersey collar and Ted would pick up a clippers. He placed his left hand flat on the top of his young client’s head and with his right hand, operated the hand clippers at incredible speed. He always started at the back of the neck and, by virtue of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the vertical force exerted downwards upon the crown experienced an, equal and opposite, reactionary force from the clippers cutting upwards. Hair flew off the head at alarming rate, cast in all directions by quick flicks from the clippers and, as the day progressed, covered the worn lino with a multi-hued furry carpet. Layer upon layer was deposited and, by the end of the day, the pile was ankle deep. Rumour had it that Ted refused to stop cutting until it reached his waist. I cannot verify that.
What skill! What speed! Around the head he’d go, over the ears and up towards the centre of the scalp. Every now and then, a hair would be trapped in the blades and elicit a yelp, a jerk of the head and a drumming of the lad’s boots on the chair. Ted would immediately regrip the lad’s head and mumble, “Keep still you little ….!”
The entire crown was clipped almost to the scalp but, for some reason, a small tuft of hair was left over the forehead which had a quick snip from the scissors. One can only assume that this was the current coiffure a la mode, as sported by all the young bloods of Mayfair and confirmed Ted’s position as being at the leading edge of contemporary tonsorial fashion. After that last snip, a small whitewash brush was then dug out of Ted’s pocket and, in rather cursory fashion, used to flip away some of the cut hair trapped under the collar. The sheet was then removed, flicked and the lad would step down. Ted would put out his hand and his shorn victim would hand over four pocket-warm pennies.
The 1937 Penny
For the rest of the day, the sheer purgatory of the prickly hair down the back of his neck would have to be endured. This was intensified by the repeated hunching of the shoulders as the cool morning air, played around the bare clipped neck. This, coupled with the trauma experienced from the clippers, added to what was, indeed, a most unpleasant experience.
Hours would slowly tick by as the sun shone outside, on a world in which there were so many things waiting to be done! In spite of Ted’s terrifying rate of work, there was always a long wait, not helped by the fact that any adults who chose to go in on Saturdays, immediately went to the front of the queue. Ted would take longer cutting an adult’s hair, finishing each shearing with a singe, a dowsing from a hand spray and a careful brushing and combing. Every adult left with a head of hair that looked like it had been put upon with a varnish brush. The singeing was an alarming spectacle for the young audience, but did not seem to cause the recipient any pain in spite of the crackling sound as the lighted taper touched the hair. Smoke rose and filled the room with the acrid smell of a blacksmith’s forge.
And so, the greater part of the morning would pass before stepping out again, into the freshness of the Dunns.
Not all those adults who called in, wanted a haircut or a shave. Often, young village men, with bowed heads, would sheepishly enter the shop, interrupt proceedings and mumble something to Ted who then went to that mysterious, aforementioned cupboard and opened it in such a way, that no one could see in. He would reach in and take out a little package, palming it with all the dexterity of a stage magician. This was handed over, again completely concealed, and a coin would change hands. Rather furtively, the young man would take his leave.
My father, in a rather abrupt way, refused to discuss it with me.
Then, one day when I came home from Ted’s, all prickly necked, and itchy, I submitted to my father, a theory expounded by my friend Mark Glover (Mark was a deep thinker who had read all the labels on the sauce bottles and was now half way through the epistle on the Harpic tin). According to Mark, Ted was a Freemason, (whatever that was), and that Freemasons were always exchanging secret signs and messages. My father again refused to discuss it.
After seeing a Dr. Fu Manchu film, I became convinced that Ted was a drug baron! Here was a supply depot at the end of a long route from Shanghai. Here was a supply of opium for the drug addicts of Mumbles! I had thought for a long time that quite a few people in the village had a drugged look about them.
When I expounded this theory to my father, all he said was, “If that’s true I’ll get some for your Grandma. That should slow her up a bit”.
The mystery remained unsolved for many years.
Ted Priddy gave sterling service to the villagers all his life and not only was he adept at cutting hair but to see him shave someone, was awe inspiring!
Every move, oozed confidence as he lathered bristled faces and then stropped the cut throat razor, applying this most frightening tool boldly with a sweep that rasped crisply down the cheek. Noses were pinched and lifted to safety as the cutting edge flicked over the lip. Then, up that most vulnerable area, the taut stretched throat, so near to a dramatic accident! Sadly, we spectators were denied ever having the privilege of seeing the razor slip, but we lived in hope. After each stroke, the blade was wiped on a small piece of newspaper resting on the client’s shoulder. A face flannel would wipe off the surplus soap and the face towelled dry. Rarely a nick! The customer was always offered a drink of cold water afterwards, to make sure his throat did not leak. A shave cost fourpence and an adult haircut sixpence.
Ted was an institution, but, by the mid-thirties, alas, his days, and the days of his contemporaries, were numbered. New technologies were reaching the barbers’ shops. Ted Priddy, Sammy Harris and Ron Toomey (“Late of Ben Evans’ Hairdressing, Swansea”) were all of the old school and were to suffer as a result.
In 1935 a revolution came to Mumbles, in the shape of George Staples. It was George who introduced the electric clippers, and, with this machine, (then bigger than a baguette), plus the modern, light surroundings of his immaculate premises in Queens Road, a new generation of hairdressers had arrived. The smooth glide of the new electric clippers against the neck was a joy compared to the torture of the old hand clippers. In addition, not only was a sheet draped around the customer’s neck but cotton wool was carefully inserted between neck and collar reducing the post-operative discomfort of prickly, cut hair.
However there were hiccups!
George’s new business took off well, but, to his surprise, there was a sudden dropping off after a few weeks. No one ever found out the source of the rumour (who ever does?) but I heard it in the school yard when John (“Butty”) Hinds, the Woodville Road sage, came up to me with a warning,
“Have you had your ‘air cut at Staples? If you ‘ave, don’t go back! It’s those ‘lectric clippers! As he takes it across your ‘ead, the ‘lectricity goes into your ‘ead and fries up your brain! You’ll come out like Mr. Hyde!”
This upset me a bit and when I looked in the mirror I thought I could already see a change in my face for the worse, I was beginning to look like Lon Chaney. I spoke to my father who comforted me and ridiculed the whole hypothesis of the scrambled brain menace. It was mixed comfort, however, because as he went on,
“In any case you, Jack Timothy and all your crowd, have brains that need scrambling up a bit”. George Staples weathered the storm and so the new world of modern men’s hairdressing arrived in Mumbles, setting a pattern for the future.
It is easy, now, to mock the standards and behaviour of the old school but one must remember, that is the way life was! These good men lived up to the benchmarks of their time and played a very important part in the community. They were good, hardworking men. It was a demanding job, a long day always standing and the stress placed upon that right hand and arm by the hand clipper, beggars belief.
Unappreciated at the time but now, in retrospect valued, is the compensation for those long, boring waits. First of all, it was a bonding experience with all my fellow sufferers! Secondly, I was present and a part of Mumbles society in action, eavesdropping upon the constant interchange of gossip between Ted and his adult customers. I was listening to all the exclamations, the humour, the leg-pulling, the gossip, voiced in the richest of Mumbles dialect, memories that I now cherish.
Many more were to follow George Staples. The talkative Stanley (“Pug”) Bryant; the dour Theo Rowlands, self taught scratch golfer and marquetry wizard; the ebullient and popular Bryn Wroe. They came, they served and they went.
Fortunately, we are still well blessed in Mumbles. All is not lost! A visit to Don Piper’s shop, in Queen’s Road, is evocative. Here is a breath of the past but coupled with modern technique and skills, gently applied. Here, still, exists some of the social atmosphere of the old village barber’s shop and here is a real Mumbles man with a ready smile, plenty of badinage and village gossip.
No! It hasn’t all gone and, as a reminder of the past, Don has given pride of place on his walls to that very picture of the wounded soldiers that once hung in Ted Priddy’s. Here is a direct link with the past and a charming gesture of respect from Don for his forebears.
The Ted Priddy enigma was eventually solved. One night sitting in the Tivoli Cinema, watching the very first James Bond film, “Doctor No”, there came a dramatic enlightenment! All the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place! I suddenly recalled that one morning, when Ted was handing over one of those small mysterious packages, I was granted for a fraction of a second, a glimpse of the cover and distinctly saw the letters- “REX”.
This I knew, from my Latin lessons, meant “KING”!……… King and Country!.......
…OHMS!...The passing on of secret messages!...
Ted, of course, was a secret government agent, a forerunner of James Bond.
He was 003! Licenced to kill! The small brown case conveyed his deadly weapons. The barber’s shop was just a front, masking his true profession.
At last, after all those years, I could purge this nagging worry from my mind!
Peace at last!
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