Memories of Gerald Street, prompted by a photograph of Aberdyberthi Street
taken in the 1960's.

Hafod's Long Shadows

by Felicity Kilpatrick
Aberdyberthi Street. 1960's. With the Hafod Tiip in the background.
Though my home was in Gerald Street rather than Aberdyberthi Street, the scene in the photograph captures what could be a moment in my childhood. The skipping rope in the photograph could have been mine, and the dresses I wore were almost identical to the ones the girls are wearing. The white ankle socks, the t-bar sandals and the hand-knitted cardigans are emblems of my childhood. The up-to-the-minute wallpaper glimpsed through the open door of a house that is already more than a century old and the diminishing tip in the background symbolize my experience of growing up in an era that would soon be described as post-industrial and in a place that was deeply rooted in Swansea’s manufacturing past. This is the Hafod I remember.

As an only child – and the first girl in my father’s family for almost twenty five years – I was not without new toys and I had a skipping rope just like the one in the photograph. But my skipping rope was made by my father, the wooden handles turned on a lathe in the machine shop in his workplace. My cardigans and jumpers were hand-knitted by my mother but the dresses my friends and I wore were shop-bought. Whitsun was the time for a new summer outfit, and you would usually have a new pair of sandals as well. They’d have to last all summer and they’d be polished up for best, using tan Cherry Blossom polish to cover the scuffs and nicks in the leather.

No one I knew had a washing machine and all our clothes were scrubbed by hand in the sink in the back kitchen and wrung out using the mangle in the yard. The rope line, attached with a pulley to the house wall, would be lowered. Then, drooping under the heavy load, the rope would be hauled up – one wet hand over the other – and made taut by winding it round the metal cleat on a wooden pole. The clothes would flap in the air, miles above the tiny backyard, and they’d stay there all day until they were dry as a bone in summer and stiff as a board in winter. On grey wet days they would steam on the fireguard in front of the fire in the middle room. Dresses and shirts, just like the ones the children are wearing, would be ironed on a kitchen table covered in a thickly-folded bed sheet. The cable of the electric iron would dangle from the light socket and the hot metal plate hissed as it pressed the dampened collars until they were stiff.

If you look closely, you can see that the jumpers and cardigans the children are wearing are hand-knitted. Each of the girls would almost certainly have a white or pale yellow cardigan that was carefully folded and only for best but the children in the photograph are wearing darker school or play cardigans, probably re-knitted from worn-out jumpers. The pieces of a discarded knitted garment could be unstitched and then each piece would be unravelled row by row, producing miles of crinkly wool that would have to be wound round outstretched hands to stop it tangling. Even bought wool would have to be rolled into balls before use and this was a job reserved for the evening when my father was on 2-10 shift. I’d have to hold out aching arms to gather the unravelling yarn or offer up a new skein of wool that would be expertly rolled into a tight ball by my mother’s deft fingers. In the days that followed, a cardigan or a jumper would gradually emerge from the quick as lightning knitting needles. The day would come when I’d push my arms into the stretchy sleeves for the first time, clumsily doing up the pretty buttons with excited pleasure before going outside to show my friends.

The street the children are playing in would not only be their home but it would also be the centre of their universe. Like Aberdyberthi Street, Gerald Street was a safe place in a safe world, a world where you felt sheltered and protected. You could play outside for the whole day and you were out of harm's way because everyone knew who you were. I was barely three years old when I found my way down to Neath Road on my own. A neighbour’s niece asked me where I was going: “To my nana’s on a bus,” came the confident reply. I was gently coaxed up the back lane of Gerald Street into the arms of worried parents by someone who hardly knew me but who cared enough to take me home.

Like the children in the photograph, we’d confine ourselves to our own area of the street. There were few cars and so the road would be scattered with older children – grouped according to unspoken rules based on age and gender. These were the children who were old enough to be allowed to wander up to the tip, or down to Neath Road where the big boys went. In Gerald Street there was an unmarked territory beyond which we younger children would never go. Left to our own devices we would venture up no further than Graham Street, and definitely no further down than Morgan Street. At the age of four, the top of Odo Street was another country; the bottom of Aberdyberthi Street was a whole other world.
I didn’t have a bicycle like the one in the black and white photograph but my bright blue tricycle was my pride and joy. Gerald Street, like Aberdyberthi Street, was on a slope and just the right incline for racing down at an unbelievable speed. The braking mechanism was rudimentary and only dragging my scuffed shoes against the ground would slow me down enough to take the sharp turn at the end of the terrace. Not many children had a tricycle let alone a bicycle, so whatever was available was used by everyone: from toddlers too small to reach the pedals, to older children scooting down the street on battered old bikes that could barely accommodate their gangly limbs. Real energy was needed to go full pelt down the slope so you’d need a friendly shove to get you going. You’d be aiming to go fast enough to make the metal frame clatter as you went over the cracks in the pavement or the gravelly tarmac of the road. You would never go quietly and, no matter how old you were, the shrill battle cry you’d yell for the full length of the street would turn into a throaty machine gun rattle as you dragged the toes of your shoes along the ground and came to a shuddering halt at the bottom.
Birthday party. Gerald Street.
Felicity Kilpatrick. Gerald Street. 1964
There were no distractions away from play in the time of my childhood. Other than the scratchy tunes that accompanied pass-the-parcel and musical chairs at birthday parties, music didn't feature in our lives. Television was still in its infancy, and blurry black and white images would appear at lunchtime. At 10 o'clock, long after my bedtime, a white dot and a piercing note would signal the end of broadcasting for another day. Just as it had been for generations of children, our street was the playground of choice and, with so many houses and so many families, there was no shortage of someone to play with. Even an only child would never have to play alone. In the morning we’d assemble in the front passage of someone’s house. If it was raining we’d stay there most of the day, crushed into the minute world between the front door and the glass door inside. If it was dry we’d spill out onto the pavement as soon as the sun warmed the front of the house. When the long shadows darkened our side of the street and the lights went on one by one, we’d collect up our possessions and head home for tea in the chill of the evening air.
The children in the picture lived in a world that was much more distinct from the adult world than their clothes might suggest. I remember a childhood of games and open spaces, a secret life outdoors that we lived in parallel to the lives of adults who were never far away. Looking at that black and white photograph now, I feel a profound sadness. The sadness isn’t for the children in the photograph but for the parents they have become. Their children, like mine, may never experience the sense of close community and the sense of endless freedom that generations of Hafod children took so for granted.
first shoes: coppered in 1991
Dad took this photograph in about 1963. The shoes were my first shoes, placed artfully on the polished surface of a mirror. I can imagine my mother and father working together to set up this photograph; my mother asking Dad to reach for the mirror above the fireplace and polishing it with a cloth before giving him advice about how best to position the shoes; Dad checking the light several times before finally pressing the button that made the shutter whirr to the final click that signalled the image had been captured. 

The photograph would have been developed under the red light in his dark room, the pantry in the back kitchen that my mother had persuaded him to convert into his own space. It was one of a collection of Dad's black and white photographs, all mounted on stiff cream card and kept in a large black file. At various points in our lives the file might have been found on the shelf in the darkroom, under a pile of clothes stacked in the spare room or in a box in the attic. At some point they became separated from each other, the cream card reused and the photographs lost or destroyed. Only this photograph survives, together with a vivid memory of a photograph of my mother’s carefully posed hands as she threads a needle.
First Shoes. JRK. 1963.

by Felicity Kilpatrick
Soon after the birth of my first son my mother recalled these first shoes, made from soft leather and fastened with miniature buttons. Dad didn’t say a word but a few weeks later he arrived with a box for me. Inside were the shoes. Not even my mother had known that he had packed them in an old film box and kept them safe for more than thirty years. Dad had them ‘coppered’, the bright, cold metal tracing the creases in the leather made by the tiny feet that had taken their first steps all those decades before. 

Each shoe is now preserved forever in the metal that was once smelted on the banks of the Tawe and that was the source of employment for my father’s family for five generations. Did Dad ever think of the coppering of these precious shoes as an appropriate link with his past? Or was the fine electro-coating too different for him to make any association with the heavy industry he knew so well?  Perhaps he was telling me in his own way that, as I took my first steps towards motherhood, I was ready to value the shoes – a link to my own early years and a tangible link to the time when my mother and father were new parents too.