( A memoir by David Brokensha)

1926 - 19441944 - 19521952 - 19591959 - 19691969 - 19891989 - 19991999 - 2004
Early Years

with sister Eileen aged?

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 education.


 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
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.”

Bernard aged 14?

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.

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