|Bernard was born at 7 King’s Crescent,
Stretford, a suburb of Manchester, on May 13, 1926; he was the second child
of Charles William Riley, a mechanical engineer, and Lily May Riley. Eileen,
his sister, was fourteen months older than he.
Bernard had a fairly typical middle-class
upbringing. Of his boyhood years, he spoke of family life, especially of
his father, whom he adored; school and his school friends; holidays
in Anglesey, Wales; long walks in the Pennines; musical events, such as
going to classical concerts at the Halle with “Aunt Edith”, who was no
relation, but who was an important influence on Bernard’s musical
with sister Eileen aged ?
( Much of what follows is from
Bernard’s own accounts, written more than sixty years after the events)
“My parents were born in
South London, in Battersea and Clapham, with the result that we echoed
our parents’ accent and pronunciation in our speech patterns, and thus
deviated from most of our Mancunian neighbours. We were targets for
the school bullies, who accused us of being ‘stuck-up’ and ‘la-di-dah’.
Our ‘different’ way of speech was heightened by our frequent listening
to the BBC Radio, for our father had built a series of radio receivers.
“ I was not a robust child, being
subject to frequent bouts of “croup”, which were invariably prolonged,
due to my bronchial weakness. Under stress, I had a sporadic stammer, and
I was also left-handed, all of which conspired to make me seem “awkward’.
Because of these handicaps, I was usually excluded from cricket and other
sports at school. My writing was difficult to read, because of my
left-handedness. But I was compensated when I found that I had superior
visual comprehension, co-ordination and recall.”
(Bernard, throughout his life,
as I – and many others - can attest , had a remarkable visual and
factual memory.) When he was in his mid 70’s, Bernard compiled a
list of his contemporaries, starting with primary school, remembering the
names of most of his classmates and teachers. One of his fellows at Stretford
Grammar School was Arnold Wolfendale, later to be knighted
as Astronomer Royal; he remembered Bernard clearly and kindly.
Two significant events marked
his childhood. the first being traumatic for Bernard., who wrote a 24 page
account of his ordeal, as he correctly termed it. One week before
his tenth birthday, in May 1936, Bernard became ill; when the family physician,
Dr. Walker, arrived, he immediately diagnosed Scarlet Fever, but Bernard
was not told. Instead, the doctor, in accordance with established medical
practice of the period, called an ambulance to take Bernard into quarantine.
“Two burly men ,wearing masks and
thick rubber gloves, barged into my bed-room…I was unceremoniously
stripped and bundled, naked, into a thick, grubby, tattered, blue-striped
blanket, tossed over one man’s shoulder and carried downstairs…the man
reeked of stale tobacco and his breath stank of stale beer…I was placed
on a stretcher and put in the ambulance. There was no talk, but I could
tell by ships’ horns roughly where we were going….at the hospital (later
identified as Ladywell Sanatorium), I was taken into a room with an enormous
deep bath, full of steaming hot water, and was summarily deposited in the
bath by a gargantuan Amazon hospital orderly, who wore thick sulphur rubber
gloves. I was scalded by the hot water, and I screamed, whereupon
another female apparition, wearing a dark blue uniform, shouted at me
:“ Stop yelling, Be quiet, Are
you a spoilt baby?” This person was Sister Banton, the personification
of rigid bureaucratic authority, who became my nemesis for the ten weeks
duration of my stay at the hospital.
“ After the bath, a masked orderly,
with no explanation, used surgical tweezers to deftly insert thimble
sized padded gauze plugs into each nostril; the pads were soaked in nauseating
Iodoform. Then I was put in a bed in a room on my own, alone, bewildered,
and feeling abandoned. I could see other children, but I could have no
physical contact with them. Although my symptoms disappeared in two days,
I had to endure having freshly soaked gauze rolls inserted in my nostrils,
thrice daily, until I left the hospital.
“ For ten weeks, I was allowed
no visitors, and the only books were used comics. However, in the day I
could go out in the grounds, and observe the ships and barges in the Manchester
Ship Canal, and the buses passing by. Meals were monotonous and tasteless.
“When I was eventually allowed
to leave the hospital, at the end of July, I received another blow: I was
told that the day after my removal, when my parents were out,
our house had been fumigated and sealed. A Health Inspector removed
all my possessions from my bed-room, leaving me without a single reminder
of my childhood. In addition, all Mother’s home-made cakes, puddings, jams
and pickles were destroyed , including, to Eileen’s chagrin, the Christmas
pudding that had been prepared in advance.
“I can now (2001) see that
the procedures were “normal” for the times. Communicable diseases were
endemic in many areas in Greater Manchester, including where we lived,
and quarantine was mandatory and rigorous. However, I do wish that some-one
had explained to me what was happening!”
The first family residence at
7 King's Crescent , Stretford.
L-R = Bernard, a family friend,
Edith Brownhill, Bernard's father, Charles Riley (standing at rear),
Mother Liley Riley holding the
family cat and Bernard's sister Eileen
As a young boy, Bernard had,
as already mentioned, a marked stammer, which led to his being regarded
as dull at school, where he was relegated to classes for the less intelligent
boys. On a visit to a fairground, Bernard, aged then about nine years old,
was in a little car, which revolved at high speed, while attached
to a central pole. The machine went out of order, and started going faster
and faster. With great presence of mind – Bernard attributed this to his
father’s teaching him about things mechanical - Bernard clambered
to the central pole, knowing enough about centrifugal force to realise
that this was the safest place. When the machine finally stopped, Bernard
was shaken, but unhurt, and his stammer was cured! Immediately he did better
at school and was soon promoted to the top classes, where he excelled.
Bernard had more pleasant memories
of his boyhood – of the milkman delivering milk from a churn in a
horse carriage, drawn by “Dolly”; of he and his sister Eileen collecting
horse droppings for use as manure in their father’s garden; of loose hay
being strewn over the cobbles when a house was in mourning; of cycling
to school over the cobbles; of going by tram, to hear Kathleen Ferrier
sing, with the Halle orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli,
in temporary auditoriums – the original Halle concert Hall having
been bombed in WW11. Perhaps his happiest days were the summer holidays
spent at Wem, in Shropshire. Certainly, when he took me there in 1985,
he relived a series of carefree summer days.
The family moved in 1936 to 144 Lostock
Road, Davyhulme; the new home (only four years old) was not only
more comfortable, and larger, but had the status of being owned, not rented
from the Council. Davyhulme was on the western margin of the Metropolitan
centre, close to the Ship Canal, and to the main railway connections. The
next year, 1937, Bernard won a scholarship to Stretford Grammar School,
of which he always spoke kindly and proudly, and where he did very well
, becoming both a prefect at “Sherwood House”, and also appearing
on the School’s Honour Board, for academic accomplishments.
Early in WW11, Manchester
was heavily bombed by the Germans on two consecutive nights, December 23
& 24, 1940, when Bernard was fourteen years old.
In July 2003, after his stroke,
Bernard dictated the following passage in a letter to Barbara Freese, author
of COAL : A HUMAN HISTORY , a book he much admired.
“ The destruction , especially
in the western and central parts of the city, was devastating and thorough;
most urban services, including electricity and gas, ceased to exist
in a few hours. The water main bringing the city supply from Thirlmere
in the Lake District was buried in a field opposite our house. The aqueduct
survived both raids, with no interruption of water supplies. The raids
coincided with one of the bleakest and coldest winters that I remember.
“ When dawn came on Christmas
Day, the wind had shifted direction, coming from the east, and bringing
to our western suburb a confetti shower of scorched fragments of commercial
ledgers and accounts, covering every available horizontal surface..
“ My mother’s immediate problem
was Christmas dinner. By good chance, friends who lived near Wem, in Shropshire,
had sent us two rabbits, and also some home grown vegetables. In wartime
rationing, these were most welcome gifts. Although we had neither electricity
nor gas, we did have a coal stove and oven. My father, an electrical engineer,
knew how fragile electrical connections could be, and he was also aware
of the dangers of combustible gas in domestic dwellings. His pre-war perspicacity
in installing the coal stove saved the day. Most of our neighbours never
anticipated an interruption in their usual fuel supplies, and they also
had an aversion to a closed coal stove – see p. 96 of COAL
, “The British couldn’t bring themselves to adopt abhorrent devices”.
“ Fortunately, our coal ration
had been delivered the previous week, and despite my mother never having
used the coal stove/oven, she produced a delicious rabbit stew for our
Christmas dinner, 1940. We were able to keep warm and to enjoy a fine dinner.”
aged 14 yrs
As a result of wartime bombing, in
1940 the boys of Stretford Grammar School were evacuated,
along with thousands of other British school children. They went
to a school in Macclesfield, where Bernard was billeted successively
on two families, the first being grim, inhospitable and mean, the second
much more welcoming. After less than a year, the danger from air attacks
having receded, the school returned to Stretford..
Bernard completed his secondary education
in 1944, and in December of that year he was conscripted and allocated
to Army Intelligence.