Being unemployed at any time is not funny and in ’46 I had been unemployed for three months, and any resources I might have had had gone. I worked to reach a standard for the university entrance exam, and then I became a student on an ex-service grant of ?200 a year. I think if it hadn’t been for the generosity of my in-laws, we would have starved, our finances were so tight. It is said the purpose of university life is that it broadens the mind as well as the backside, the latter from hours of sitting in the Stack, mugging. In the first year Laura, my daughter, was too young to know she even had a father so I was able to take part in a lot of what went on in the college, before the needs of family were greater and something had to give. Rowing was the first to go.
Loving boats I naturally joined the Rowing Club, a lowly Fresher Oarsman. We had racing shells and practice shells, those with the sliding seats and out-rigged rollocks; and rowing boats variously termed the tubs or the punts in which we, the raw recruits, were trained. Unfortunately, the people who were to teach us were also part of the first and second eights, so we waited until it suited them to teach us – anything up to four hours later – during which one did nothing but chat in a desultory fashion. I enjoyed those days on the river, I was tall which was good, I could handle an oar, which was essential and I was keen. When the tide was in we would row right down to Belfast Harbour, or up as far as the weir, but the real pleasure was all in the rhythm. When everything was going well there was a poetry about the way the boat responded and we responded to it, which has to be experienced to be appreciated. Alas, while the youngsters could relax in the boathouse, I had plumbing and paving and presents for the parties on my mind and worse, on my conscience. With the deepest regret I gave up after a year.
When my daughter was old enough to be invited to children’s parties we were presented with yet another financial problem, how to keep up with the Joneses. The children Laura played with came from homes across the social spectrum, but as the trend was set by the more affluent, all toed the line, with the result Laura would come home laden with bits and pieces. Not only that, but she had to take presents which were on a par. Often still skint, when it came to funding Laura’s, and later Lizzie’s, presents, both to take and to give, I had to find a solution.
At that time James came home from work at the Belfast Shipyard with pieces of rough sawn timber, which had originally been part of long lengths used as templates to pattern the plates for the ships. He cut these, when their useful life was over, into manageable lengths and brought them home for firewood. In the first instance, using this wood, I made Laura a small Irish cottage with a hinged back, opening front door with a little porch round it, all on a small board and decorated with roses growing up the sides and round the porch. The next venture was to make small simple jigsaw puzzles out of the ply obtained from tea chests, with the pictures from colouring books. Very soon Laura could do them, picture-side down. These prototypes in the end solved our problem. Then it was not possible to buy wooden jigsaw puzzles with big or small pieces, and dolls houses were scarce too.
The next requirement was an assembly line and armed with a treadle sewing machine base, a grinder head-stock, some steel channel, I made a circular saw cum-lathe. The people who run the dodgems at funfairs use hinges on all sides of the floorboards connecting them to each other. The pins in the hinges can be withdrawn, making it easy and especially quick to assemble and take down on each move. I used this system to mount and take down the saw table when swapping from sawing to lathe work. I produced the houses and other items by batch methods. True I have a nick in the bone of one finger where I inadvertently put my finger into the saw, but Sophie was never party to that bit of carelessness. Later the machine became electrified instead of the laborious treadling, and later still I made dolls from broom handles – long lengths of dolls on the lathe, head to foot, with their arms from doweling and wool for hair. Not only had we solved the problem of the presents we now had a minuscule income. . What had started as an idea, in the end turned into a mass production industry with the houses and puzzles also being sold in our shop