A few years ago I was involved in the development of a community film with TAPE which brought together memories of Rhyl in its heyday.
See an insight into those times here… Rhyl Reflections
I was amazed to receive this today from my Uncle Glyn Conway. It was written for his grandchildren.
As well as being a beautiful testimony of VE Day in the community of the Geufron in the town of Rhyl, it also shows two images of my mum which I have never seen before. In the first image I did not even recognise the girl as my mum! In the second if was unmistakably like her.
Twenty seven years later I was sitting on those same seats behind the Pavilion, shivering with my girlfriend Lesley and looking out on a grey sea. Coincidentally, Lesley’s mum was part of the Hagin family who had also enjoyed that VE day party!
Thank you for sharing this Uncle Glyn. x
This week is the 75th Anniversary of VE Day and the ending of the Second
World War in 1945. I thought you would be interested in some of my
recollections of that time since most people are now too young to remember
these events. I just asked Gran/Granny Jan could she remember some of
these things and she said ‘No of course not. I wasn’t born until 1947!’
I was born in 1938 so I was still a baby of 18 months when war broke out.
The photo above shows me in the pram soon after the outbreak of war with
my eldest sister Ceridwen and my brother Eddie. It was taken on the Rhyl
Prom. My brother has his bucket and spade so we must have been on a
beach outing. Behind are a group of soldiers who were stationed at an army
barracks near Rhyl.
I remember the great excitement by the public that the war had ended and
that in many families like myself people who were serving their country in the
military would soon be home again. My eldest brother Elwyn serving in the
Royal Marines came home from Germany and my sister Doris in the ATS the
Women’s section of the Royal Army returned from Belgium. My mother I
remember used to encourage me to eat my carrots as they would help my
eyesight. It was said that pilots during the war did the same. My Dad was too
old to be called up but he did his bit for the country by being a soldier in the
First World War twenty years earlier. We still had to wait another three
months before complete world peace when Japan surrendered after the
dropping of the atomic bomb in that country. That day in August 1945 was
known as VJ Day (victory over Japan).
Like all other schoolchildren I received a special souvenir illuminated
certificate signed by King George V1, the father of our Queen Elizabeth II.
Special street parties were arranged for the children and I remember sitting
on chairs from our homes around a long table in the street and enjoying
sandwiches, cakes and jelly served by our mothers and other relatives. One
strange thing I remembered was an argument in the street by two families. I
can’t remember the reason for it but young as I was I did think at the time it
was the very opposite of what the party was all about!
Cinemas showed how the war ending was celebrated all over the country and
how children who had been sent from cities to the country as refugee children
for their own safety were allowed to return to their families. At the end of all
cinema performances everybody was expected to stand for the National
Anthem before leaving though some of us children tried to escape before it
was played to quickly get back to our games such as playing football, cricket,
marbles, rounders, conkers, hop scotch or swimming in the sea. One of my
favourite games was playing soldiers at war but it was always difficult to get
my friends to be persuaded to be German soldiers! My brother brought back
a German soldier’s helmet which for many years was placed at the top of our
This is me at about the end of the war outside our house – together with
Ceridwen, the same sister who you saw pushing my pram in the other photo.
During the war everyone had to do something to help the war effort and she
worked for the National Laundry in Rhyl.
The VE Day party was held near our local Air Raid Shelter which had been
built for people to escape into if there was a bombing raid. We were not
bombed in Rhyl though a German aircraft involved in the bombing of
Liverpool crash landed nearby I remember. My brother Tim served as a fire
watcher in case of raids by the Germans. I still have his badge. I remember
various concrete bunkers with small square openings were dotted about the
coast in which soldiers could defend the country should German Landings
happen. These together with the Air Raid Shelters were a feature of the
landscape for many years after the war.
All these memories are in my mind at this special time of commemoration.
Things gradually got back to normal and whilst life was difficult during the war
years, it made us thankful for the things we took for granted. It’s a bit like this
lockdown period; things will improve and we all look forward to brighter days
Rhyl developed as a tourist resort really, there was very little in the area that became the town before the railway from Chester to Holyhead arrived in 1848. Before that there was the large house called Ty’n Rhyl and a few scattered farms, one of which can still be seen at low tide between Rhyl and Prestatyn, swallowed by the sea.
The town quickly developed as a coastal resort when the railway arrived and there was a massive building programme which included hospitals and sanatoria as well as private schools, of which the town had many. Other than the railway station, which was further expanded in 1900, the most impressive building was undoubtedly the Queen’s Building.
The Queen’s Building occupied a commanding position at the top of the High Street and faced north onto what was being turned from a beach with sand dunes, into an extensive promenade. The building developed quickly into what we might now describe as a leisure complex. From its opening in1902, it provided a host of facilities to keep both locals and holidaymakers amused.
Initially the building had a large glass dome in which an exotic zoo was housed and a tower above in allowed visitors an unbroken view towards Snowdonia, Blackpool Tower, and some say the Isle of Man. I can remember a small but engaging exotic zoo on the second floor of what later became the Queen’s market. The zoo had such exotica as piranha fish and large snakes, all presented in the semi gloom. I remember looking for what I think was a python, only to find that it had moved imperceptibly to within a few inches of me behind which I hoped was unbreakable glass.
Looking down from the balcony, which also housed a fortune teller, one could see the full extent of the Queen’s dance floor, a beautiful sprung floor which rivalled, and some say exceeded the floor at the Blackpool Tower. John Jones in his book Rhyl: the Town and its People (1970) reckoned the floor could accommodate 2000 couples. Certainly in the war years it was full to bursting with the troops, Canadians in the first war and Americans in the second who were based at Bodelwyddan Camp a few miles away. My mum and her friends had tales to tell of nylons and sweets readily available there, often in return for a dance. Delly Hagin told me of the excitement of dancing there and the disappointment of choosing a boyfriend for his looks and not his dancing ability, which resulting in her abandoning her dancing stilettoes, and walking home barefoot with her sore feet.
There was also a theatre which accommodated all the stars of the day from the music hall acts to more modern singers like Cliff Richard. My uncle was lucky enough to meet Laurel and Hardy there and was presented with a book in recognition of his creative writing.
The first talking picture shown in Rhyl was shown at the Queens Show Boat being followed by The Singing Fool and All quiet on the Western Front. Much of this part of the complex closed as a cinema in 1960.
I have only one memory of one of the two night clubs at the Queens. That was sneaking in whilst still at primary school in 1968 with a friend who crept between my legs to avoid paying. Being tall, I was not questioned about my age, although I doubt they would be happy to have known that two 11 year olds had gained entry. It was the first time I’d heard live music from a local band called the Purple Chapter and we placed ourselves next to the enormous speakers. It was several days before we could hear again.
In latter days the building experienced a rapid decline and only recently has it been purchased for development from the Parker family who have owned it for a number of years.
All the various elements and entertainments mentioned so far are as nothing when compared to the original building, much of which was destroyed by fire in 1906. It was rumoured that the original facilities extended to a large aquarium which was situated, appropriately at the road now called Aquarium Street, where my girlfriend used to live. That is a distance of almost half a mile from the initial Queens building. It was said that the sites were connected by a Venetian style canal with gondolas and gondoliers imported from Venice!
Many people have shown a great interest in what became of these underground canals. Certainly my cousin Gerald, has seen the entrance point to the canal system over fifty years ago when it was in disrepair. My friend, Rhyl Historian Stuart Jones, has become intrigued by the canals and set up a social media group to ‘Save Rhyl Queen’s Building!’ in the hope that some of the building could be restored to its former glory.
There have been documentaries and historians covering the canal system and it is part of the local mythology. The fact that the Parker family were so intent on keeping people out of what might remain of the system on safety grounds, only added to the mystery, with some people saying the system was intact, whilst other claiming that it had been filled with concrete and that there was nothing left to see.
The building is in the process of re-development and probably little of the original building will survive the process.
Stuart and another local entertainment guru, Karen Woodham, were recently granted access to the building by the developers. Certain parts were off limits due to safety concerns, but here is their report of what they found of the former splendour of the building…
Bonfire night was always a major celebration in our family and our back garden was the location for the annual festivities.
In the 1960’s the family bonfire party was the norm and the back garden was the venue. In all honestly we kids used to be purchasing and letting off fireworks from the time they became available in the local shops in late September. We’d go to different shops, often away from the Reso so that our firework purchasing would not draw the suspicion of the local shopkeepers. We would club together to extend our purchases from a single banger to a box of ten, and there would inevitably be disputes about who had contributed most, and who would decide where and when we would let off the fireworks.
On the Reso there were some houses which had a covered entry between the houses. We used to gather to light fireworks in such entries because the sound and awe of the bangers going off in such confined spaces was spectacular. The game was to stand next to the exploding firework and only then run and hide as the local house dwellers came storming out to investigate the deafening explosion. It was sometimes difficult to think coherently and run when you had been so close to the explosion and you could only hear the jabber of your friends as a high-pitched yet muffled rumble.
My mam was probably the most dangerous person I knew around fireworks. On the one occasion when my dad was working an afternoon shift and would not be home until at least 10.30, she took charge of the proceedings. It was mayhem!
The rocket which was designed to commence the proceedings was too large for the milk bottle in which it was placed. My brother and I pointed out the danger, but mam thought we were questioning her ability and waved aside our warnings. As she lit the outsized rocket, sure enough the milk bottle fell over. Luckily, on the rough furrowed soil that my dad prepared at the end of the vegetable growing season, it fell facing into a neighbours garden. Had it fallen the other way it would have shot straight through our back room window and exploded on the dining table. As it was, it managed to penetrate the chain link fence and was caught miraculously in a large bra, injudiciously left on the line by our neighbour. Caught and held firm in the bra, the firework worked itself to a crescendo. Mam immediately urged everyone in, and suspended proceedings until she was sure the neighbours were not going to come out and complain. I was the only one who stayed out to see the rocket explode, closer to the ground than intended. In a crescendo of red and green stars one bosom of the bra was turned into a colander.
To her credit when both Ruby, the neighbour, and my mam were in the garden the next morning sorting washing for the line, she feigned innocence, being dumbfounded by the damage to the bra… ‘bloody kids, eh!’ were her words of commiseration to Ruby and her air ventilated left bosomed bra..
After a 15 minute hiatus, my mam reconvened the firework party and things started to approach normality. A succession of Roman Candles and a Vesuvius were successfully lit and we ooh’ed and aah’ed at their wonderful showers of colour and volcanic lava spurting.
My mam, emboldened by these successes, now proceeded to prepare a Catherine Wheel. Again we gave her wise advise to attach it to the washing line post, but she insisted it would look better pinned to the recently painted shed door. She picked up a handily placed half brick and proceeded to hammer the Catherine wheel into the door. It was clear what was going to happen and assuredly it did. Mam lit the holy firework and retreated as fast as her furry boots would allow her. The Catherine Wheel spluttered into life, but effectively nailed securely to the door, refused to turn, and instead expended its fiery fury down the paintwork of the door, burning a neat vertical line in the paint, which given the furious temperatures, continued to burn after the firework had expended its sparkling contents.
My mam was crestfallen that the Catherine Wheel had not performed as desired and immediately advanced on the door to pin a second wheel below the first. This time she summoned me into the house to bring a small hammer from my dad’s toolkit. She tacked the pin very carefully this time, ensuring that the firework was able to spin freely. Like a surgeon, she handed the hammer back to me and instructed me to retreat as she lit this second firework.
She was delighted when this Catherine Wheel spun flawlessly, showering sparks in silver circles at a faster and faster pace until all the gunpowder was expended and a burning disk was all that remained. In the darkness and with our eyes overwhelmed by the sparky, mesmerising display, we could not see the full damage to the shed door.
My mam’s efforts had burned a large exclamation mark into the door, which would form the basis of a family argument the following day, in which, for my part, I repeated my advice of the night, which had been to use the washing line post for the Catherine Wheels, my dad nodded in agreement, and my mam gave me a withering look.
On the eve of the seventies, the popularity of the family garden firework display declined. This was in part due to the sheer volume of accidents which inundated hospital accident and emergency wards each Bonfire Night. It might also have been a signal of the weakening of family ties. either way, it seemed the future belonged to large organised displays. Ironically, at the first organised display I can remember taking place, on the promenade, a fireman was tragically killed by a massive firework detonating prematurely.
The organised displays comprise massive expenditure on spectacular fireworks, but the children are now passive onlookers, rather than active participants in the events of the night. As I was never hurt by fireworks, other than the odd burn, and temporary loss of hearing. I don’t feel so keenly the demand to control fireworks as those who were more grievously burned.
The pictures were taken last week at the annual Southwell Rugby Club display.
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