Gang Warfare

As the children got older, it was considered sissy to play with girls and the boys, aged seven or eight, would form into one or two gangs. With the town beginning to sprawl in the early fifties, new housing estates were springing up all the time and the green fields around Wellington Avenue were gradually built-over. Every estate would have its own gang. With all the house building going on, gangs would purloin pieces of wood, sheets of corrugated tin and large empty metal drums from the building sites to build gang dens.

A den would be a meeting place for the gang members, usually in a corner of one of the few remaining fields. There would be a fire onto which potatoes would be thrown to bake. I can still remember the taste of the charred potato skins and the sweet smelling, undercooked flesh within. Other edibles could be found in the surrounding grass and hedgerows. Field sorrell, or 'sarlix' as we called it, hazelnuts, blackberries, rose hips and even the leaves of the hawthorn bush, called 'bread and cheese' provided tasty snacks – for free.

When we went home at half past five for tea, the gang from a neighbouring housing estate would invade and steal our accumulated building materials. If any of our gang were still around, they would be given a hard time, so, somebody would run around to each member's door and muster a posse to go and get the stuff back. Then things would get a bit rough. Out came the catapults, slingshots, bows and arrows, bamboo spears with six inch nails in the end and the odd air pistol. The favoured weapon, however, was a simple stone or small rock fired from a catapult made from bicycle tube rubber, or just thrown. Some of these kids could throw stones extremely accurately and over considerable distances.

Pitched battles would ensue, starting off in a field and eventually spreading to the streets. Windows would be broken. The melee would continue until some adults came along and broke it up or until some poor waif was seriously hurt having been hit on the head with a rock, bleeding all over the place and bawling profusely.

Then there came a time of year when things got even worse. Halloween. Where Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated with fireworks in England, in Northern Ireland, the fireworks were set off at Halloween. Yes, we had all the witches masks and apple dunking too. Trick or treating was called 'Halloween Knock' and was always for money, not 'treats'. Fireworks would arrive in the shops a month or so before Halloween and any kid could buy them. Penny bangers, penny halfpenny cannons, thruppenny and sixpenny rockets – and all the other stuff. Gunpowder! In the hands of six year olds!

I was not long before the off-the-shelf fireworks were being modified for gang warfare. If you opened the top end of a thruppenny rocket and stuck a banger into it, you had a warhead. Launched from a metal tube instead of the more usual bottle, it became a poor man's bazooka. This could be fired quite accurately towards a group of rivals and where it was not intended to do any real harm, it certainly made them scarper.

By tipping out the gunpowder from several bangers into one larger closed container and using a long sparkler as a fuse, it was possible to make bombs that would demolish a rival gang's den – when they weren't around. Although all this sound horrendous, I don't remember anybody actually getting hurt, although the potential was certainly there. The kids were just too smart, or though they were!

Another improvised weapon was the spud gun. There were various types of spud guns but my favourite was one like a Wild West Derringer pistol. It had a removable bullet into which you could put caps at one end and you would stick the other end into a potato. When the trigger was pulled, the cap would go bang and eject the small piece of potato fairly harmlessly. However, if instead of putting one cap into the bullet, you put ten and instead of a potato, you put a piece of Plasticine with a ball of fishing lead shot embedded in it, you had a fairly formidable weapon. Not as dangerous as an air gun by any means but the loud bang was impressive and if you were hit on the bare skin, it certain stung. Duels were fought with these. Eyes could have been lost, but weren't – mercifully.

Kids do stupid things. Some kids grow up and remain stupid!

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.