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.