Walthamstow Memories

 I suppose as the years fly by with the passage of time and the gap between our youth and the present lengthens even further, the sense of nostalgia within most of us grows stronger. A feeling of not necessarily returning to the “Good Old Days” which sometimes were not always that good in reality, but enjoying if we could, a short vacation back to times where we probably felt more comfortable with a society that we understood. For myself, Walthamstow in north-east London is where I spent my youth from the age of seven onwards. There was nothing really remarkable about post-war Walthamstow, in many ways it was probably similar to many other areas of London at the time. To me however, it was home.

We lived close to the High Street and its famous street market. A row of grand Georgian terraced houses lined what everyone called the top end of the market near Hoe Street. These houses abutted the ruined steel skeleton of a building on the Hoe Street junction, probably a shop, that I was told suffered war damage. The other end of the terrace ended with a North Thames Gas Board showroom where we also paid our gas bills. The houses and Gas Board have long since gone to be replaced by a Post Office and shopping arcade which in turn have since been demolished. I always remember accompanying my mother when she went to the gas showroom to pay her bill. The moment one entered the building, a feeling of overpowering hallowed silence that would do a cathedral proud swept over one. Although there were no signs that I can recall with the word silence displayed anywhere, I always had a sense of foreboding that if I made the slightest noise, “I was for it”. The payment section was in a dimly lit sub-basement and my mother would produce her gas bill wide enough to do a broadsheet newspaper proud. The information contained on the bill I never understood, I don’t think anyone else did either. It was always printed in difficult to read faint blue ink which reminded me of hieroglyphics. My mother always found paying the bill a somewhat intimidating process.

The payment till was not your average shop till with pop-up price flags, it was a monstrous leviathan of a machine festooned with  push buttons. The cashier pushed so many of these buttons that she appeared to be typing. The bill was placed on tray on the side of the machine which then burst into life with the whirling and clanking of internal gears rumbling inside. A final dull thud cut part of the bill off  before stamping the word PAID in even fainter ink on the remaining remnant.

For a small boy, going to the street market was something of an adventure, the market stalls seemed to go on forever with crowds of people thronging everywhere. At my age, my head reached about waist height of adults making my event horizon limited through the milling crowds. Walking was not an option, it was more of a leg tiring shuffle all the way. The stall holders were real showmen as they called out or demonstrated their goods and wares, many were such good performers they could easily have appeared in vaudeville. The names of many have faded from my mind over the years, but their antics have not. Many of the traders were Jewish but with deep cockney accents. All of them gave more than good value and received more than their fair share of trade in return. I recall one trader that sold fresh-cut flowers. He would take one bunch at a time from a box with one hand and place them in an ever-growing floral display in the other hand containing at least eight bunches. He would shout out as he did so, “Dares Won, dares two” cockney vernacular for there is one, two etc. When he finished he would call out Who wants these and state some ridiculously low price. If there were no takers, he would make a show of smashing the lot to pieces against the side of his stall. He certainly knew what he was doing as the crowds would rapidly buy these huge bunches of flowers to stop him destroying them.

Another Jewish trader had a flat open stall full of bolts of cloth by the dozen. Crowds of women always hovered around this stall in the same way they seem to congregate around handbag stalls. Making clothes at home was still popular as well as a necessity for some time after the war. The cloth on the stall was good quality and always cheap compared to elsewhere. If a lady wanted say five yards of cloth, the stall holder would unravel the particular bolt and held it on edge between the fingertips of his outstretched arms. He did not bother with rulers or tape measures as he took the distance between his fingertips to be a yard of measurement. Again this trader called out aloud the traditional Dares Won, Dares two, (yards), until he completed the order, then he would go on to shout out, “and there is another one, two, three yards for luck. Judging by the amount of business he did, this trader certainly knew what he was doing.

Possibly the most amazing stunt I ever saw was by two traders who sold china-ware on a bombsite that was situated  in Willow Walk behind shops. These two would sell complete eight piece dinner services including a large meat dish. As one trader called out prices Dutch auction style where the price gets lower each time the trader announced it, his partner would stack the entire dinner service in an intricate butterfly style using the meat dish as a base. When he was ready, the trader would throw the entire dinner service into the air and catch it still stacked in exactly the same way as it fell back down. I never once saw any of the china get broken.

Probably the most fascinating stall for young children was located outside Manzes Eel and Pie shop. Here they sold live eels which slivered around in metal trays on the stall and were graded by price and size. When a customer ordered live eels, the trader would wield an evil-looking knife and chop off the head of the eel on a wooden chopping block. Two deft flicks of the wrist later and the eel was sliced up the belly and gutted before being chopped into sections. What kept us kids agog was the way the sections of eel would still continue to wriggle in unison even though the eel was no longer part of this world. I often wonder were we really such bloodthirsty little tykes or is this just the type of thing that fascinates all kids?

My last favourite shop was an ice cream parlour names Rossi’s. It was such a welcome place to be taken on a hot summers day by our mother and the ice cream was out of this world. The Rossi’s menu included ice cream sodas, banana boats and much more. The supreme item on the menu was a Knickerbockerglory. My mother could never afford to buy one and we used to look enviously at the children of more affluent parents as they relished this utopia of ice cream concoctions.

My mother belonged to a Christmas club run by a butchers in the High Street. Each week she would put a few shillings into the club so that when Christmas came, we could enjoy a chicken for our Christmas dinner. It seems hard to believe now with the abundance of chickens in supermarkets or take away food establishments that we should save up for a chicken instead of a turkey for Christmas. However, for quite a few years after the war, chicken was considered a luxury and there were very few of them to be bought during the year. The price of turkey was prohibitive and I never tasted turkey until I was about 14 years old. Chicken was a once a year only treat. My mother would bring the chicken home a few days before Christmas as it was deeply frozen and needed to thaw. Again this was something of a novelty for us children as no one had fridges at that time let alone freezers. To touch something that was ice-cold and hard was a new experience and when our mother was not watching, we all used to secretly prod it to see if the chicken was thawing out.

One game that all children universally play is the game of tag or “it” as we called it. This is where one child chases another group of children in an attempt to touch them and if they succeed, it is then the turn of the child who was touched to chase the others. After school we used to go to a housing estate named Priory Court. The buildings here were groups of apartment blocks with long internal corridors each with a number of lifts, (elevators), located on each floor. This was in the days prior to the push button age and lifts were still a rarity. The lifts also added an exciting new dimension to the game as not only did we run up and down the corridors as we chased each other but we also used the lifts too. Needless to say the games were short-lived as residents soon came out to complain about the noise we were making. It was then a case of moving on to the next apartment block.

There are so many memories that come flooding back about my childhood in Walthamstow that to add them here would be to make this article too unwieldy. The above however are indelibly etched in my mind.

One Response

  1. Reading this article brought back so many of my own memories as I too lived near the Market in Erskine Road and attended Mission Grove School until I was almost 8 years old when my parents and my brother and sister and I all moved to Priory Court – as mentioned in Michael’s story. I also recall the eel stall outside Manzes and agree that it was kind of barbaric but to us kids, we were completely facsinated. Thank you Michael for bringing all those memories back.

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