Winter of 1947

Thank you to Frank Ferri, now living in Newhaven, Edinburgh for sending me these memories of living in Leith.

Between 1939 and 1958, Frank lived in Ballantyne Road, Leith, opposite the State Cinema.


Frank Ferri

Newhaven, Edinburgh

Frank wrote:


"I remember the winter of 1947 well.  I was only aged 12.  It was one of the coldest winters on recoded, with some places in the country recording temperatures of -20 degrees C.

Icicles, a couple of feet long, dangled dangerously from roofs of buildings and external water pipes.  Plumbing services were overstretched and impossible to come by."

Coal Deliveries

"Fuel, such as coal, already in short supply due to post-war shortages, was difficult to get due to the weather.  Even if there were supplies available it was hard to deliver because it was distributed by horse-drawn carts

I remember seeing these Clydesdale horses - these poor beasts used intensively to transport goods all over the city until the late 1950s/60s - as they struggled to keep their feet slipping on the hard, frozen, compacted snow on the slightest of gradients."

The Fire

"I used to wander all over the place trying to get some form of fuel to burn, such as fruit crates from the fruiters or grocers, or as kids we would raid our local cooperage to get discarded broken barrels.

The houses were freezing and everyone used coal for heating in those days.  There were no electric or gas fires then, and houses had no regular hot water supply such as emersion heaters or geysers.

If you were lucky, you might have a back-boiler at the back of your coal fire to heat about a gallon of water at a time, but that was useless if you had no fuel. It was not uncommon that winter for people to rip up pieces of linoleum from areas of the floor that would not be seen, such as under furniture, to burn.

In desperation, we would roll up sheets of newspaper into tight twist to emulate firewood, but that was not much good.  You would gather up all the dross (coal dust) in your coal cellar  and try to light a fire with that, but it was difficult to make it combust."


"At bedtime, dad would fill up a couple of lemonade bottles with hot water and place them in the bed, fine for an hour or so but gave you a shock if your feet touched the bottles when theyíd cooled down.

Old army greatcoats or dad's overcoat was thrown on top of the bed covers to stop you freezing during in the night."

In the Morning

"In the morning, dad would light every gas ring, grill and oven on the old  'New World' gas stove to convect  heat into the living room."

Sent for Coal

"One day, with my father being at work, my mother in desperation, asked me to take the pram and go to the local coal merchants for a bag of coal.  She could not go herself as there were two other children to look after at home, my brothers aged one year, the other five.

I took the pram, which also served as a means to carry the washing to the local wash house in Bonnington Road (but thatís another story). 

I went to the local merchantís coal yard in Coburg Street, just off Great Junction Street Leith, known colloquially as 'the coaly'.

The Journey Home

"The coalman loaded the pram with a one-hundredweight bag of coal and I proceeded to make my way home pushing my precious cargo, with pleasurable thoughts in my head of a warm glowing fire and hot water for a spell.

Well this poor, wee, frail body of a twelve year old was not prepared for the journey home. The coal yard was situated about 300 yards down Coburg Street on a hill.  I now had some idea how these poor Clydesdale horses must have felt as MY feet were slipping on the ice, one pace forward and one pace back, trying to push this load all the way up the hill to Junction Street.

Even when I got to the top, I still had a long way to go for a child. I lived in Ballantyne Road, yet another 400 yards or so, and when I got there, I had to bump this heavy bag of coal one step at a time up four flights of stairs to my house.

The Chimney

"In those days of prolific use of coal burning fires, keeping chimneys clean was quite expensive and few of the working classes could afford a chimney sweep.  The solution to that problem was simple, naive and dangerous.

I've seen my father wrap a bundle of newspapers around the shaft of a broom, set the paper alight and push it up the lum until soot, dry as tinder in the chimney shaft caught alight.  When the fire was well underway, the chimney would make a constant eerie roar for quite some time until it extinguished itself.

What was not realised, was, that this fire could have spread to the flooring joists all the way up the building, thus putting the whole tenement at risk of fire. The fire services were very frequently  called out to deal with these fires by neighbours or passers-by who saw the sparks and flames shooting out of the chimney.  Ye!  Needs must when the devil drives in hard-up times."

 21st Century

"To the kids of the 21st century, playing with your Wiiís, ipods, mobile phones and computers, have a thought for the amusements available to forefathers of the 20th centaury as THEY struggled to read their weekly pleasure, the Beano or Dandy comic, in the dim light of a gas mantle that was lucky to emit light in a room further than six feet, in front of a lit  fireplace if they could have one."

Frank Ferri, Newhaven, Edinburgh:  April 11, 2008


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