Three Score years and Ten

70Two years ago was my 70th birthday, a notable date in anyone’s life in reaching the biblical three scores years and ten. . In some ways it is a day to reflect on ones life and to take stock of where one is now and perhaps how one arrived at this point in time. In many ways it does represent a lot of proverbial water that has flowed under the equally proverbial bridge. I was a professional firefighter most of my working life and I do belong to a closed group on Facebook which the majority of my retired colleagues also subscribe to. It is a good way of keeping in touch with numerous old friends.

I did write an article for that group of my 70th birthday reflecting on a potted history of my life. I had forgotten all about the article until I recently came across it and I though I would republish it here.


LFB Pump








Well folks, for me, today is the big 70.

It is that day which throughout my life has always been vaguely somewhere in my distant future and now it has finally arrived. It’s strange how only yesterday while still in my sixties it seemed my fifties and all the memories they evoked were still just around the corner, and today that era has become remote and distant. An era that was cherished but can never be touched again.

Even now as I reflect on my past life, it is difficult to comprehend where all those years have gone or how the changes I have seen came about. Born just after the end of WW2, I was one of the original baby boomers. One of those that grew up in the era that was supposed to be ‘in a land fit for heroes’, and I as a baby, like everyone else born at the same time, was expected to be part of that vanguard that would lead our country into a bright and prosperous new world that was the future.

Although I was born in Dulwich Village, an area that is now considered quite salubrious, I certainly did not come from a moneyed family, quite the opposite. Although I lived in what was a large house, it was still never-the-less a case of coal-fired cooking ranges, gas lighting, tin bath hung on the wall and outside toilets.

It was also an era of extreme elitism where people were supposed to know their place, an unhealthy period which many of the older generation had been conditioned to accept. I first encountered this preconditioning through the education system. It was a system that was supposed to allow the brightest to succeed, and to train the remaining masses for work in the factories as plebiscites. It was not until much later in life I realised that even if everyone was equally bright, the goal posts consisting of grammar and secondary modern schools determined by an iniquitous 11+ exam system would have been moved to achieve the same effect. At that time I did not understand how people went to university. My only experience to that highest of all education systems is what I had seen in films. That always portrayed a life of the rich and privileged and certainly not for the common plebs like myself.

So at the age of 15 I went to work, initially as a telegram boy on a push bike, and a year later on a motorbike. It was a fun time for someone who did not yet really know what they wanted to do in life, other than there was no way I was going to work in a factory. It was also the post school period when one knew that in a way, the future was still irrelevant. At that time, one still had to do three years national service when the age of 18 was achieved. Real working life did not begin for males until they reached the age of 21.

Well things happened during that period particularly the scrapping of conscription. That suddenly opened up all sorts of new vistas and the immediate one I was facing was not particularly enamouring to me. 18 was also the age in the Post Office when I would cease to be a telegram boy with all the juvenile fun that went with it. I would have to become a postman and the prospect of trudging the streets of London with a heavy sack of mail slung over my back was the least appealing thing I could imagine. It was a future I could see that had no real prospects and also one of relatively low pay. It was a possible future I held in dread as inwardly I knew I was capable of so much more.

London TLThe question was what future until one of the lads where I worked suddenly came into the office to announce he was joining West Ham Fire Brigade, which covered part of the area where I was based. His tales of what the fire service would be like flooded my imagination and within weeks Dave Clarke who worked with me and myself had both independently joined West Ham Fire Brigade too.

In my own case, the entire enrolment process from walking through the front door of the fire station in Stratford Broadway, to completing my exams and successfully undertaking a medical process and also being offered a job took a total of 90 minutes. Something that is incomprehensible in today’s lengthy recruitment process. Little did I know as I walked through those fire station doors for the first time, it would be another 42 before I walked out of them for the last time. Those 42 years are as they say now history, but what a history that was.

Apart from the fire service side of my career it was also the beginning of the trade union side of my career too. That was only because I did not run fast enough when at a branch meeting the previous branch secretary suddenly resigned and before I knew it, I was his involuntary replacement. It was however a position that was to eventually see me rise to a high official status within the union in London and the main contact between politicians both in Parliament and County Hall. Now that I have retired, others quite rightly quickly replaced me and have since taken over the reins. All that I am now left with is mellowing thoughts of those times.

Now as I look around my largish home with equally large gardens set in the pleasant rural countryside of Somerset, the rooms bedecked with furniture and the like, I cannot but help wonder where on earth it all did come from and how did I achieve all this? Coming from quite poor and humble conditions when I was born until now, something must have happened in-between, but I cannot quite remember what except for perhaps making some wise choices at the right time. Joining the fire service was perhaps the wisest of the all.

With 42 years of service I cannot help but think of the generations of fire service people I have known. There was the generation in already in-situ when I joined, many who had seen war service. The generation that came and went when I first started, and the generation that had completed about two thirds of their career when I left. That is an awful lot of people most of whom I have fond memories of.

It does seem when I take a euphemistic view of life that when we are born, it is as if a small sandcastle representing myself had been built on a beach far away from the sea. Not a sandcastle in isolation though but one that is surrounded by the other sandcastles of people born about the same time and destined to become my future friends and colleagues. Far in the distance is a thin shimmering silver band which is the sea, but too far away to ever worry about. Many other sandcastles lay between mine and the sea representing my parents, aunts, uncles and forefathers. As the years have passed the incoming tide of time has sadly claimed all these other sandcastles, as well as those of a few friends and colleagues who passed on well before their time. Now the incoming tide of time is nearly lapping around the base of my castle. I suppose I can achieve a degree of immortality by surrounding my little castle with a layer of concrete, but then I know the time will quickly come when my little castle is on its own in total isolation, and in a alien environment too, as everything around me changes against my wishes and beyond my control. All my friends and colleagues would have disappeared. Given the choice, I think I prefer allowing nature to take its natural course.

I suppose I like the rest of us have dwelt with thoughts from time to time, if we had out time all over again, would we choose to take different career paths and so on? For most it is probably circumstance that initially determines the paths we tread. Although I now like to think I have the confidence to succeed in anything I might have chosen to do, the truth is I neither had that confidence that comes with experience, or the money needed to follow many careers. If we could go back it time, would that also mean the hindsight we now have would also come with us to be our foresight for the future? Probably not. I would hate to have lived a life where my future was mapped out in advance, knowing what was to happen each day.

That is what I loved so much about the fire service. Like most of us, it trained us to give us the confidence we needed in ourselves to handle whatever scenario we were likely to face. It even gave us the confidence to deal with situations that no one could plan in advance for. We learnt to work and live with each other and with few exceptions, have respect for each other too. It was also the thought that each day we came to work, we could be dragged away from the more mundane routines at an instance notice to deal with the unexpected in a professional manner, and all in the public eye.

So would I have chosen a different path if circumstances allowed? Well that really is a impossible question to answer. What I do know is after all these years; I am more than well content and satisfied to have chosen the path I did. I am also more than pleased to have met all of you.

Walthamstow – A brief return visit

Hoe Street

Compliements of Google Maps

Each December my wife and I make the journey from Somerset to North-East London where I used to live. Our destination is Chingford Mount Cemetery to tend my mothers grave but often on our return journey we travel to an excellent Chinese supermarket called See Woo just south of the Blackwall Tunnel to top up on necessary supplies. Our journey is a distance of some 360 miles for the round trip travelling around both the northern and southern stretches of the M25 motorway. Although this distance is more than enough for anyone to drive in one day, fortunately the majority of the journey is via motorways or good standard dual-carriageway which helps make the journey more tolerable.

For a change we decided to vary our route a little from Chingford Mount to Woolwich to allow a brief visit down memory lane. Our little diversion was a straight line to the Crooked Billet, Chingford Road, Hoe Street and Leyton High Road to Leyton Town Hall before re-joining the East Cross route to Blackwall Tunnel.

Being a considerable number of years since we travelled this route, we fully anticipated seeing changes from what we used to know.

Apart from the road layout at the Crooked Billet, what was more noticeable was the standard of drivers or more accurately the lack of it. Now living in an area unused to traffic problems, it does seem that drivers in London seem to adopt a far more aggressive driving style performing the most discourteous of manoeuvres simply to gain a meaningless extra inch of advantage in a queue. I sometimes wonder if what some of these people undertaking what they might consider a “good days” driving would ever realise that a short time earlier and also later that day, I would be driving for some hours on end at a speed off at least 70mph and not crawling they way they are used to? I suppose it’s all a matter of perception. I also cannot help but wonder if some rude drivers ever realised I used to drive emergency vehicles and did, ( and still could), perform some driving manoeuvres they could only dream about.

In the main, the part of our journey from the Crooked Billet to the Bell junction at Forest Road did look more or less as I recall it. The old bus garage which was originally a tram depot had however undergone some transformation. The large garage with it’s rows of London Transport red buses were now replaced with housing and the former offices also appeared to have been converted to housing. It did however all appear to have been tastefully done.

Familiar shops in Hoe Street have certainly changed but given the nature of the retail industry, shop types and facades will always be in a constant state of flux. One of my favourite shops which was double fronted and sold items of electronic equipment had also unfortunately gone. I did note a complete new range of buildings from Browns Road to that well known haunt of the Rose and Crown public house. It was good to see this place was at least still flourishing.

Rounding the bend in Hoe Street by the old Granada cinema did however take me completely by surprise. As the vista towards Hoe Street Station came into view, staring me in the face was the uncompleted concrete profile of what appears to be a high rise block of flats or offices in creation, thrusting upwards above the rooftops. My once so familiar skyline  now completely dominated by what I consider a hideous blot on the landscape. When driving it is not possible to completely absorb everything one sees as concentration on the road and traffic clearly take first priority. It did seem as we drove past this building site that this construction was actually sitting atop of the railway bridge but I could be mistaken about that. When one no longer lives in an area it’s always wise to avoid disparaging remarks out of respects for those that still live there. I cannot help however but think that this construction however high it may finally be will visually do little for the future of Walthamstow.

Although it was sad to see the Granada still boarded up, at least the horrible fly posters that always seem to adorn empty buildings have been removed, for now anyway. I was also surprised to see the large open piazza area at the top of the High Street. The last time I saw Google maps this area was all behind hoardings which I fully expected to see. I know there has been much local controversy about this site but it certainly looks much improved at the moment. However as the site is so large and so empty  save for a few seats and flower tubs around the perimeter, I have the feeling this might only be a temporary arrangement. All of this does however is beg the question of why was the prosperous and modern arcade that once stood on this site demolished in the first place? It was an arcade well used by thousands and which enhanced both visually and commercially this great shopping area.

Most of the remainder of Hoe Street to the Bakers Arms appeared unchanged but again it was sad to see the public house which gave this area it’s name was now a betting shop. As I was waiting at the traffic lights at the Bakers arms I could not help but notice a wide concrete column with a white globe on top standing on the small island where the public toilets had once been. I cannot help but think if there was one public amenity so much used by everybody as well as sometimes being desperately required, why so many public conveniences have been removed across London. Their removal served no practical purposes and literally have inconvenienced many. I sometimes wonder if the toilets are still there underground with some sort of lid being placed over the entrances?

Leyton Baths which I knew so well have now disappeared and again by Leyton Green, growing overnight like a concrete mushroom appears to be another high rise block being built in Capworth Street. How nice it would have been for planners to have learned high rise building and suburban areas simply do not mix.

It was nice to see the old area again even if briefly, but such visits are always tinged with mixed emotions. Change is always an on-going process, most of what I saw was well done. Why on earth do planners have to spoil what is good with a few developments that quite frankly, appear so damn awful?

Dulwich Memories

Coal-fired oven range

I was one of the original ‘Baby Boomers’ born in Dulwich Village just after the end of World War II. It may seem strange if not difficult for those trying to recall their earliest memories of life, particularly the first five years, but, even after six decades, such memories are still as vivid to me today as they were at the time. I have been told by various people it is just not possible to remember our earliest tender years, but I disagree. It may well be those who cannot recall their own earliest memories believe this to be true, but that is their personal perception of truth, not mine. What I do not have in my earliest memories, is an understanding of circumstances. Such things develop a little later in life.

I suppose all through history, each generation has seen changes in dress, customs and practices to that of their preceding generation. I cannot help but wonder however, if during my lifetime, my generation has possibly seen more rapid changes from one way of life to another than any other preceding generation. From a post war Britain still heavily endowed with the legacies of Victorian and Edwardian values through the rapid transitional process of modernity into the modern electronic age. Social values have also undergone equally swift transformation from a time when the mention of an unmarried mother would set numerous neighbourhood tongues wagging, to an era where such things have found commonplace acceptability in society without any stigma attached. Unfortunately other values like politeness and respect and general civility for ones fellow-man appear to have taken a tragic decline.

This set of my initial memories of life are however firmly set in a world and a time much different from today. A time despite all its problems, is one that I sometimes secretly yearn for.

My earliest memory is of being breast-fed by my mother. Before anyone says so, this is not some hidden Freudian desire, it is an actual memory. Much else of this early time remains a bit foggy but being breast-fed remains crystal clear. My families Dulwich home like most housing at the time was a rented property. It was never-the less, a large house in Desenfans Road lit by gas only. There was no hot water system and the only heat came from an ever lit oven range in the kitchen. A small scullery adjoined the kitchen and contained a sit up an beg type gas cooker, a butler sink and a copper boiler set in a large block of concrete. There was no room for anything else. A separate fire needed to be lit under the copper to heat water if sheets were being boiled. The boiler was also useful for cooking the Christmas pudding. At that time it was common practice for the kitchen to be both a cooking and dining area. In winter due to the cold, the kitchen became both a play and general living area too. The amount of livable space in most homes expanded or contracted throughout the year according to the seasons. All other rooms in the house did contain fireplaces but to have these all alight at the same time would prove prohibitively expensive.

I have looked recently at the outside my old home on Google Earth and it is reassuring to know that a full-grown rhododendron bush in the front garden which I remember from my childhood is still there.

The oven range served a secondary useful purpose when it came to bathing. With no bathroom in the house, bathing was normally conducted in a shallow tin bath in front of the oven range. The bath normally kept outside hanging from a hook by the outside toilet always reminded me of a large frying pan without a handle. The bath was filled with hot water from a couple of kettles left to boil on the range to about four inches deep. It was not until later in life at Leyton Slipper Baths that I would experience the wonderful sensation of hot bath water that completely covered the body. Bathing was in strict rotation with the eldest first and the youngest last. Water was not emptied between bathers but simply topped up a little by the kettle from the adjacent oven range. Even as I write this article, I find the thought of this arrangement somewhat repulsive but it was the same arrangement that occurred in most homes just after WWII and would have been thought of as completely normal.

Bedtime followed the bath which was something of an ordeal in winter. It involved a quick dash through the cold and darkened house carrying a candle and jumping into bed as quickly as possible. A hot water bottle was always placed in the bed during winter. It was the round ceramic type with mottled brown patterning. Greaseproof paper was wrapped around the stopper to prevent it leaking. It was possible to burn ones feet if accidental contact with the hot water bottle was made. On arising in the morning in winter it was also a case of an equally quick dash back to the warmth of the kitchen. The inside of bedroom windows were always covered with ice in winter caused by condensation from breathing freezing on the icy cold glass.

I suppose the second recall I have of this slightly time disconnected period is sitting in a high chair at meal times while being bathed by the gentle warmth from the ever lit oven range. The high chair was a wooden type which had a hinged flap that lowered over the head to provide a small tray table in front of ones chest.

Lighting for the house was provided by gas and electricity blackouts in nearby houses were still a frequent occurrence. In today’s modern electrical age we simply flick a switch to turn a light on and think no more of it. We probably do not even give a second thought of passages and hallways that can be illuminated by using a switch at one end with the light being doused by different switch at the other end. Gas lighting however is entirely different. Either a pipe terminating with lighting rose descends from the middle of the ceiling with a see-saw chain valve to turn the gas on or, the lamp projects from a passage wall with a thumb twist valve. The lamps would normally be lit by a wax taper ignited in the eternally lit cooking range fire. The lamps are set too high for a child to light. The disadvantage with hallway gas lamps is they can only be turned off at source leaving an individual in the dark. In practice they were rarely lit and candles for moving around the house were use instead.

Occasionally the gas mantle which looked like a fine mesh incandescent white ball when lit required replacing. I recall seeing my father tie what looked like a little white babies sock around the gas lamp outlet. When the gas was turned on and lit, the little sock immediately shrivelled up into the familiar white ball. The gas mantle also became delicate and flimsy once in reached this shrivelled state and would easily break if touched. I do recall going to bed with a lit candle holder which I was allowed to carry even under the age of five.

The only toilet was set outside the house. I think at the time this was considered by planners to be a more hygienic arrangement. Little thought was given by the same planners that to visit the toilet in the middle of the night or in inclement weather was something of an ordeal. It was for this reason that use of the bedroom potty continued to thrive until more modern homes with indoor bathrooms were built or, older but still good properties eventually converted to indoor sanitation. I think it is probable that the requirement to run to the toilet through torrential rain or sit on the loo in bitterly cold conditions, accelerated the growth of indoor bathrooms from about the 1950’s onwards.

My Grandmother, a more kindly and informative woman whom I have never met, also used to live with us. Granny was born in 1881 and possessed extensive knowledge of both World Wars and the Boer War prior to that. Unfortunately her husband, my grandfather who I never knew, died a few years after the Great War possibly from after effects received during the war. Granny was the daughter of a farrier and one of six children born in Camberwell, London. Her family name was Pawsey who are believed to be direct descendants of Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France. My grandmother’s family heritage is something she was immensely proud of. I have looked at maps of Camberwell at the time of my Granny’s youth which was then part of the county of Surrey. The maps show large areas of fields and I often think of how much change my Grandmother must have seen as the area rapidly transformed from rural countryside into an urban conurbation.

Apart from creating meals and delicious Eiffel Tower size Yorkshire puddings on the cooking range, Granny also thoroughly cleaned the range once a week. Apart from raking the flues, the process also involved applying a tin of Zebo liquid lead polish to the metal surfaces and then polishing it all to a shine with a stiff black brush. The polish steamed from the heat of the cooker.

Granny also took me on outings and shopping while my parents were at work. Memories of the electric trams which continued to run along Lordship Lane at this time still fill my mind. Being very small, the conductor would always lean down from the tram and lift me aboard by my arms. The seats were a wooden bench type arrangement and quite uncomfortable for a young tender bottom. At the end of the journey the conductor would walk through the tram pushing the upright backs of the seats which were hinged at the base. The seat backs would then face a different direction for the return journey. I am sure my Granny would have pointed out places of interest on our tram journeys but I think my eyes were always glued on the driver. The driver stood at the front of the tram with his hands on two large rotating metal levers. I never really understood how they worked but the driver always appeared to be twisting the levers to and fro. I was fascinated by these levers and like all little boys, I imagined it was myself driving the tram.

My Granny would also take me to Dulwich Library located on the Lordship Lane/Eynella Road junction. I was still being pushed in an upright pram at this time and our journey took us along a long road named Woodwarde Road. All along this road every morning could be seen housewives on their hands and knees scrubbing and polishing the front door step as well as the entrance stone to their garden paths. This is a practice that has long since died out but at the time it was considered that well scrubbed and polished doorsteps were a public reflection on a well-kept house inside. If a dirty doorstep was spotted, tongues would soon start to wag.

Rationing was still very much a way of life during my early years and was something well beyond my understanding. I do recall however when I went shopping with my Granny at the Co-operative Store in Lordship Lane, watching the lady behind the counter scooping butter from a large tub and then patting it into a brick shape on a marble slab with two wooden paddles. My Granny then paid for her shopping and recited a long membership number while the shop assistant cut a little paper square from a ration book that my Granny carried.

On one shopping trip my Granny was pushing me in an upright pram when she met a group of friends also shopping. To a young child, this little group appeared to be chattering away to each other for hours as they gathered in a small huddle, oblivious to the rest of the world. To make matters worse, the group were chatting directly outside a baker’s window and staring at me from inside the window was the most wonderful ginger-bread man I had ever seen. I recall continuously touching the window trying to get at this tasty relish that kept smiling at me, but a small belt with clips I was wearing kept me firmly anchored in the pram. Finally to my childish dismay, I saw the ginger-bread man being picked up by a shop assistant, my eyes never left this little edible creature for a moment. A few seconds later my dismay turned to great joy as this member of staff came out of the shop and thrust the ginger-bread man in my hands much to my Granny’s surprise. On reflection I suspect the staff probably saw my pram-bound gastronomic dilemma and took pity on me. There was at least one happy little boy in the world that day.

Occasionally my parents would take me to Brixton Market. Although this was not far from Dulwich Village, the difference in environmental surroundings between the two were a stark contrast. For some reason my parents did not appear to need the ration book when buying food in the market and always came home with bags laden. I particularly remember the smell of the paraffin lamps that burned on every stall during the winter months as they spread their golden glow into the surrounding street. In many ways the market after dusk was like a fairy land with lights everywhere and people hustling and bustling as they went about their business. The winter months also meant crumpets, (muffins), were on sale and during the evening my siblings and I would sit around the cooking range in eager anticipation as our father toasted each crumpet in turn on a toasting fork in front of the oven range fire.

Our garden in Desenfans Road was an average suburban garden but my father did maintain two bee-hives. Under rationing regulations, bee keepers received an additional quota of sugar. My parents also used the honey which was hard to come-by as a form of bartering tool for obtaining other foodstuffs to supplement our otherwise meagre rations.

The outside street was paved and I could hear an occasional rumbling sound like thunder as older children coasted down the gentle slope on their home-made scooters. As virtually everything was rationed, metal for large toys like scooters was still considered an unnecessary luxury. The home-made scooters consisted of two lengths of wood joined by a hinge for steering with wheels made from ball-bearing races. It was these metal wheels that caused the low rumbling sound from the scooters along with a clickety-clack noise as the wheels went over the gaps in the paving slabs.

The other regular visitor in the street every day was the milkman with his cart. The cart with rubber wheels was pulled by a horse that must have known the milk round by heart. Apart from going to and from the dairy at the start and end of his round the milkman never rode the cart. The milkman simply walked up each garden path in turn to deliver fresh bottles of milk and return the empties to his cart, repeating the same process for each house in the street. As the milkman threaded his way in and out of each front garden to the doorstep, his horse would follow him without any form of instruction and obediently wait for him at the next house.

Sometimes my father took me to Dulwich Park which was a short walk from our home. I can recall gentle rowing sessions on the lake with my father rowing. On one day a number of people were flying kites. In those days kites were either a flat triangular shape or like an oblong box with material wrapped around each end. I still have a vivid image in my mind of one box-shaped kite which had a small dog lying prone inside the kite between the ends of the box. When the kite eventually landed, the dog jumped out and ran around before sitting back in the kite awaiting another flight.

My father also had an allotment located in Grange Lane. Our journey would take through the village where I recall a drinking fountain located at the College Road/Gallery Road junction. I think there may also have been a horse trough there but I am not certain of that. There was also a public house near this junction and on one occasion a large group of men had gather outside the public house encircling two men fighting each other with broken beer bottles. My father soon hurried me past this grisly scene. A duck pond was located at the College Road/Dulwich Common junction and we always had a small bag of breadcrumbs to feed the ducks. In the late 1940’s there was very little traffic at this junction but the last time I saw this location it was a major highway with high traffic volume and full of choking fumes.

Invariably our journey to the allotment was on a Saturday afternoon and on our route we passed the Dulwich Art Gallery and Dulwich College itself. As we passed the college, on the opposite side of the road, pupils from the college always seemed to be playing cricket on the sports field dressed in their immaculate white outfits.

Dulwich Toll-Gate by kind permission of

When turning into Grange Lane I was always fascinated by a white fence and open gate that straddled the road. This was the Dulwich Toll and which I believe is the only toll gate left in London. Apart from there being little traffic at that time, very few vehicles used the toll road either. I did however see a few cars stop at the gate waiting for the toll keeper to come out of a nearby house before continuing on their way. It always made me wonder just how expensive in might have been to travel in days of old if one had to pay a toll fee at different locations throughout ones journey.

While my father tended his allotment the remainder of our family used to play. A little further up the hill where my fathers allotment was located were woods where we sometimes used to go to play. My father did tell us the woods were private but woods and children are drawn together like irresistible magnets. The allotment being on a hill that forms one side of the Thames Basin it was possible to see across the whole of London. My father used to point out salient landmarks of places which we did not know in our as yet young lives.

Set on the top of a hill in Carlton Avenue was the imposing structure of the church of St Barnabas where I was christened. I understand the church was completely destroyed by fire several years ago and wonder if my name on the christening scroll was destroyed as well. The church did not have a hall that was attached to the church but located in the village. My Granny took me to pantomimes held in this wooden hall at Christmas time. A line of large trees fronted the road between the hall and North Dulwich Railway Station all which had wide bands of white lines painted around them. In the recent war due to blackout regulations, these trees presented something of a hazard to drivers in the dark unable to use their headlamps. The painted white bands were an attempt to make the trees more visible in the dark. When I visited Dulwich a few years ago, the white bands had faded away with time. I did however inspect the trunks of a few trees closely and sure enough, little flecks of white paint still remain lodged in cracks of the bark to this day.

As I approached my fifth birthday my mother took me to be enrolled at the village school located at the junction of Turney Road/Dulwich Village. Although I only attended the school for a short time due to family circumstances, it is reassuring when looking on Google to see that the original building is still there.

On Sunday afternoons, we children went as a group to Sunday School at Herne Hill Baptist Church about a mile away. Most people did not have cars and even small children like ourselves were expect to walk as the norm. It was one of those Sundays that changed my family life forever. I remember at the school we baked tiny loaves of bread in a small oven and this I put in my pocket to proudly show my parents when we got home. Alas it was never to be. Even at that tender age we could all sense something was wrong when we arrived back at our strangely silent home. My parents obviously had a violent argument during our absence and I saw my mother sitting down crying unable to speak due to extensive dental injuries. It was a gut wrenching sight and one that it is not possible to deal with at such a young age.

The rest of the day was one of complete confusion as large numbers of strange people entered and left the house. I cannot remember who put me to bed or got me up again the next morning. All I know was I awoke to the rare site of a large black car outside our home waiting to take me and my younger brother to Waterloo Station and from there to an unknown children’s home where I would not see either of my parents for several months. After that I went to my dreaded maternal grandmothers home in Leyton.

As the car pulled away all I could see through the back window was my home and the only way of life I had known disappearing in the distance. In my pocket I still had the tiny loaf of bread I baked the day before. To this day, I sometimes wonder in reflection, if people or parents ever appreciate the damage they do to others with their petty squabbles.


Memories – 3

File:William Morris Gallery Walthamstow.jpg

id=”” align=”alignleft” width=”449″ caption=”William Morris Gallery – copyright David Gerard”

Life is something of a transient nature, nothing is permanent but ever-changing as we progress on our own personal journeys creating the history of tomorrow. We remember our childhood, our teen years, through to married life, middle age and if you are anything like myself, who has just touched the threshold of later life on reaching my 65th birthday, our thoughts turn to the next chapter awaiting to be written as it occurs.

As life changes, so does the environment we live in and Walthamstow is no exception to this. Although not quite in Walthamstow, I recall once seeing a series of photographs looking north,  taken of Leyton Green from High Road Leyton. Although I cannot remember the dates, the first photograph was taken in the late 1800’s and shows Leyton Green to be mainly open space. A few buildings at the top end of what is now Capworth Street can be seen. It is however the bend and line in the road that remains unchanged in each photograph which remains the same today. Over successive photographs, buildings arise obscuring the Capworth Street properties which were still there until recent re-development. What this series of photographs show is that out local environment is also of an ever-changing transient nature. A constant state of flux that goes unnoticed on a day by day basis. It is only memories or photographs that permanently capture the physical state of a location at any given period of time which hopefully will be passed onto future generations. Unfortunately, photographs rarely capture the essence of how life was, the public mood, practices or moral outlook of the time.

Although change occurs on a day by day basis, overall change mainly goes unseen if we live in a particular location. It is normally only those who occasionally visit a location after an absence of a few years that suddenly see changes to what their minds-eye and memories had anticipated.

It is possible however to still see a glimpse of how things looked in undeveloped sections of our shopping areas. Although shop fronts rapidly change as new products and traders seek to capture the public eye, the buildings above shop level rarely receive attention and frequently remain the same as when they were first built. Buildings above shop fronts can be compared to living photographs of our history. The next time you are in Hoe Street, the High Street or St James’ Street try to look at the scene from above ground level and a wonderful living history of Walthamstow, often unnoticed, will be revealed.

Although I no longer live in Walthamstow, the modern technology of Google Earth does present the opportunity to look at locations as they are today. It is possible to do a virtual walk around ones old haunts and reflect on changes and memories of times past.

I have been recalling some of the places and locations I either used to visit or that have substantially changed from what they used to be. None of which are in any particular time-frame order.

Jobstocks was a small business that attracted people from far and wide. Located at the St Mary Road/West Avenue Road junction, Jobstocks dealt exclusively with ex-army surplus equipment. Just as the handbag stalls in the street market seem to be honey-pot for attracting females, Jobstocks was a similar magnet almost exclusively the preserve of men. The windows were crammed full of what looked exotic equipment at the time, all normally coloured army olive-green or black. Switches, knobs and dials festooned most of the equipment, all of which engendered masculine thoughts of what I could do if only I had one of those.

The inside of the shop only sported a tiny space for customers to stand in front of the counter. The space being so small that two customers would form a crowd, both not daring to breathe in at the same time. There always appeared to be about three or four shop staff manning an equally small space on the opposite side of the counter, each one who would scurry away to rummage through vast unseen stock in back rooms to fulfil an order.  The remainder of the building including the back rooms appeared to sag under the voluminous weight of little brown boxes containing numerous unseen exotic items. It was not possible to even tell the content of the boxes as the labels only displayed WD markings and codes with an equally unintelligible abbreviated description of the contents.

I do not recall ever seeing the colour of the walls or even the walls themselves, as every square inch of the building was covered by waxy brown boxes stacked one atop of the other. I always felt certain the building would erupt like Vesuvius if it ever caught fire. No matter what one wanted, Jobstocks had it. Even if one did not really know what one wanted, it was only necessary to give a brief outline of  the task you wished to accomplish and a member of staff would soon find something that would do the job. Overall the shop always gave me a feeling of a subterranean cave full of goodies.

The thought often occurred to me why NASA spent billions of dollars putting a man on the moon? Possibly they were unaware that Jobstocks existed and could have supplied them with everything they needed. Looking at the building using Google Earth, it now appears to be a private dwelling with an upper floor seemingly to have been added to part of the building from what I recall.

In the early 1950’s car ownership was still something of a rarity. As a consequence the Bank Holiday traffic did not yet exist and frequently a family day out was much closer to home, sometimes almost on ones doorstep. It may be now difficult to visualise, but one such location people flocked to was the lake on Woodford New Road adjacent to the Rising Sun public house. An aerial view using Google Earth shows the lake to now be much smaller and giving the appearance of being no more than an overgrown bog. The lake was completely visible from the road but again it now appears to be completely obscured. However on summer weekends hundreds of people used to flock to this location. Deck chairs were available for hire as were rowing boats for use on the lake. Swimming and paddling were also popular features and a permanent refreshment kiosk selling teas, sandwiches and ice cream was located near the shallow sandy banks of the lake. This is a good example of the ever-changing and transient environment we live in that I mentioned earlier.

It was probably the coming of mass car ownership that sounded the death knell for the lake. People could now travel further afar to real sea-side resorts or the countryside. People simply stopped coming to this location and the boats, deck chairs and refreshment kiosk all disappeared without trace. The next time you have an opportunity to drive along Woodford New Road, spare a glance for the lake which may have gone unnoticed before. Try and visualise this sorry-looking bog which once rang to the sound of children’s laughter, sunbathers, swimmers and serene boating.

Close by to the Rising Sun lake and also part of Epping Forest was Whipps Cross Lido and the Hollow Ponds. The ponds originally created in 1905 as relief work for the unemployed and I believe the Lido may have been built about 1920 with the modern utilitarian look. During summer school holiday, large as it was the lido would be packed with swimmers and sunbathers. I do not recall any grass at the lido, just concrete which acted like a storage heater on hot summer days. Sailing model boats on the smaller of the Hollow Ponds was and I think still is a popular pastime, with boating on the large pond available for those is search of more tranquil and leisurely pursuits. Although the Hollow Ponds still remain, alas the lido fell victim to a combination of vandalism and falling numbers. Sadly the lido eventually closed and the land was returned to the forest.

I lived for some time near the Hoe Street/High Street junction before moving elsewhere in Walthamstow. Understandably I remember locations around that area reasonably well.

Selborne Park was my local playground and the park was divided into two sections separated by a long pathway lined with trees. One side of the park backed onto the library and old swimming baths and was also overlooked by the long closed Selborne Restaurant. This was the children’s side of the park with swings, roundabout and slide. A large grassed area also allowed a ball to be kicked about. As a child the slide seemed quite tall and was very slippery. On more than one occasion I got a sore bottom as I shot off the end of the slide and my backside made painful contact with the ground.

The opposite side of the park was for more sedate leisure activities. It contained a well manicured bowling green and an open air draughts board surrounded by wooden benches on three sides. Several huts around the perimeter allowed  shelter to usually elderly people, to while away the time with each other. Players moved the draught pieces using long wooden poles with flat bladed hooks fitted on the end. Flower beds adorned the outer perimeters of this section of park. Generally children were tolerated provided they were quiet and just watched the bowls or draughts. However children were never allowed to use the equipment. It really was a case of children should be seen and not heard in that section of park.

Alas with the redevelopment of the town centre the park had to go. The children’s side of the park is now a bus station and the adults side of the park is an open grassed area with pathways leading to and from the bus station and Selborne Walk Shopping Centre. The tree-lined pathway between both sections of park is the only feature to survive. I remember watching with great dismay the day a bulldozer tore up the bowling green.

The library still remains and from the outside looks unchanged but the adjoining swimming baths have long gone to be replaced by the new swimming pool in Chingford Road. I never used the new swimming pool but I do remember the old one quite well. A set of large permanently closed wooden doors separated a narrow walkway around one end of the swimming pool from the pavement of the High Street. The pavement was always wet at this location as dripping water from the wet feet and bodies of swimmers leaked under the door. Upper galleries with stepped seating ran along both sides of the pool but I never recall seeing the galleries in use. There were no real changing rooms just wooden cubicles with half height doors lining both sides of the pool. The cubicles allowed a view of changing bathers heads and feet. Females and males used the cubicles on different sides of the pool. I think one got about 45 minutes – 1 hour of swimming time for one’s money and although no tickets were used, our clothes were left in the small changing cubicles so attendants knew if anyone overstayed their time.

Opposite the swimming baths and library was the Congregational Church. This was set back a bit from the pavement of the High Street with a low boundary wall defining its perimeter. The entrance to the church had the fossilised remains of a tree trunk on display. I do not know the history of this tree trunk but I was always fascinated by this wood turned to stone feature. I believe the church once had a tall spire which was replaced by a more smaller squat shaped one more like a small circular roof. A pathway alongside the church led to a hall known as the Conway Hall. A youth club used these premises several times a week to play badminton. I went to the afternoon Sunday School at this church when I was young. I don’t think it was my mother caring so much for our moral upbringing, but more of a case of getting rid of the children for a bit of peace and quiet for a period of time.

Adjacent to the swimming baths and facing the High Street was an old school which housed the Youth Employment Service. I never really found out what this organisation actually did. A few months before I left school, I did receive a letter from the Youth Employment Service inviting me to attend an interview. When I arrived I was told by a smartly suited man sitting behind a desk in his office to “Find myself a job”. That was it, no advice, no nothing other than find myself a job. As job seeking was something I was already undertaking the advice seemed as pointless as the organisation itself. I am not certain if a Y.E.S. still exists but if it does, presumably they have changed their working methods from years ago.

Further down the High Street where Palace Parade now stands was the huge and towering edifice of the Walthamstow Palace. This was Walthamstow’s own theatre which had seen better days. I was  normally taken there by my mother during the pantomime season to watch a production. It always seemed to me that foreigners must have thought the English a very strange people with male actors dressing up as women and vice versa in a pantomime. I also recall seeing a production of a play called the Black Narcissus. The auditorium of the Palace Theatre was large but I always thought this monolith of a building looked a bit ominous when silhouetted against the skyline.

The shop I think I remember most in the High Street was Woolworth’s or to give its correct title blazoned on the outside of the building, F.W. Woolworth & Co.Ltd. Woolworth’s was located on the corner of Blackhorse Road and the High Street. The location of the building was the cause of an acute double bend between the Blackhorse Road/St James Street junction. The inside of this Woolworth’s was never subjected to the more modern and I think disastrous layout of its successor. This was full of long dark wooden counters everywhere, all manned by shop staff. Each counter was crammed full of the minutia of items needed for the everyday running of a household. This Woolworth’s always felt warm and welcoming. The big advantage of the low counters being it was possible to see from one side of the store to the other and I cannot but help think this is one things the planners got wrong in the new store.

An ironmongers shop used to be located in Hoe Street in the section between the High Street and Selborne Road. It was opposite a large Halfords cycle shop which Google Earth now shows to be a fruit and vegetable store. I cannot recall the name of the ironmongers, (possibly Colemans), but it was always manned by staff wearing long brown overall type coats. This was not a self-service shop but the staff were always quick and efficient locating ones requirements. I loved this shop and how I wish ironmongers of this type would return. Nails and screws were at that time sold by weight and not just a couple of nails in a cellophane packet. Normally one could buy a pound of nails quite cheaply and hear them clattering into the weighing scales. Normally the staff added an extra handful of nails just to ensure you were not short-changed. The inside of the store always had the aroma of oil and paraffin pervading the air. Paraffin was used a lot for heating prior to the wide scale introduction of central heating. One had to bring your own container and the paraffin dispenser in the shop was like two large one gallon glass jars encased in a metal box. One jar was always full and a hand crank was used to draw paraffin from an unseen reservoir into the empty glass jar. Graduation markings on the jar showed when the required amount had been reached and then by putting a hose into your fuel container, a valve was opened discharging the contents of the jar. As a firefighter I always though paraffin heaters were dangerous. Normally they worked well when new but neglect in maintenance over years of use caused problems. I unfortunately attended a number of incidents, some fatal, where paraffin heaters were involved. For some strange reason whenever paraffin heaters are mentioned, I always think of the “safe” indoor fireworks that were once advertised. As if there could ever be such a thing.

Further along Hoe Street at the junction with Orford Road was the Co-op department store. This was a veritable emporium of a store supplying everything necessary to furnish a home. I am not certain if it was at this store, but I seem to vaguely recall a system of wires running from counters to a central teller. Money would be placed in a metal container suspended on a tight wire. By pulling a lever a pinging noise was heard and the container shot along the wire over everyone’s heads to the teller. Change and receipts returned the same way. The  location of the store may seem a little strange being some distance from the street market but if one looks above shop level as I suggested earlier, the moulded relief near the roof shows the building was constructed in 1911. At that time the High Street market would not yet have developed to its full potential and the Hoe Street/Orford Road junction was an important crossroads leading to what is now known as Old Walthamstow.

Just across the old borough boundary of Lea Bridge Road  stood the Leyton Swimming and Slipper Baths in High Road, Leyton, the site of which now appears to be a large supermarket. Although I went swimming there on a number of occasions, my mother used to take me and my siblings there weekly when I was younger, to the slipper baths, when we lived with my grandparents in Leyton. I suspect the concept of slipper baths may seem a bit alien to a younger generation, but it should be remembered modern equipped bathrooms are still a recent historical development starting from about the 1960’s.

Much of the older housing stock prior to that time still had tin bath ablutions and outside toilets. Although I had always bathed in a tin bath prior to moving to my grandparents, with so many families living under the same roof, obtaining sufficient hot water let alone the tin bath was almost impossible. By comparison the Leyton slipper baths were pure luxury. For a small fee my mother would be handed a number of bath towels and we would enter a numbered tile lined cubicle with a voluminous enamel bath. There was a long line of these bath cubicles all in constant use. The bath had no taps only an outlet about the size of a drain pipe. An attendant who patrolled the corridor outside used a special key they carried to turn a tap outside the cubicle and fill the bath with hot water, a process that took less than a minute due to the size of the outlet. Prior to the slipper baths I had no experience of hot bath water completely covering my body as one had to make do with only a few inches of rapidly cooling water in a tin bath. Random calls from the cubicles resounded along the corridor for “More OT in number 4”. This was local vernacular language for more hot water in cubicle four.

The Vestry House Museum is a location I enjoyed visiting even with its creaking floorboards. My first visit was a school excursion and something of an eye opener. I find it surprising that little mention is every made in history programmes of the Bremer car at the museum which must be one of the earliest cars ever made. One room of the museum was converted into a Victorian parlour and it is amazing the amount of paraphernalia that was considered necessary for the well-to-do Victorian family to display. The thorough dusting of such a room and the laying of a coal fire must have taken some time and it is little wonder that so many maids were employed by those that could afford them. Sometimes I come across semi-historical objects in a museum that I have personal experience of using. It is on those occasions that I always realise just how much has changed in the world since my youth and that perhaps I may have reached my “sell by” date.

The other museum I liked visiting was the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park. I always found it fascinating to try to visualise the view from the house as it would have been in William Morris’s day. Splendid laid out gardens which now form the back bone of the park with much of the housing and shops in Forest Road yet to be built. I imagine the view in the mid 1850’s would have been of pleasant rolling fields leading uphill to Walthamstow Village. Although William Morris was a socialist, he certainly knew how to live in opulent style.

I suppose in about another 60 years or so, Walthamstow will have donned yet another new face as the relentless change we call progress continues ever onwards. There is probably a small child already living somewhere in this north-east London community who in future years will put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or even more likely just their thoughts which will automatically appear in electronic form. What ever the method of committing ones thoughts to the media, those words will probably start, “I remember Walthamstow when…………”.

Roger King who worked in Coulston’s, the ironmongers shop I mentioned above, and also its sister shop, Cole and Deakin located towards the S James Street end of the High Street, kindly sent me his memories of working in both shops.


“I started working in the ironmongers shop ‘Cole and Deakin’ at the St James Street end of the High Street as a Saturday boy in 1957. I enjoyed the work so much I took on a full time job working for the boss, Douglas Cole after leaving William Elliot Whittingham school in 1958.

It was a family company registered as H.J.Cole and Son (Ironmongers) Ltd.

The company also had the branch at 220 Hoe Street, R.F.Coulston, a tool specialist, selling top quality branded tradesman’s tools.

As with tradition, the High Street shop was old, dingy and very cold during the winter months. I was the paraffin boy measuring the smelly liquid into 1 gallon measuring cans and pouring it into customers own carry home cans. This was before the automatic vending machines that you very accurately described in your article. Aladdin Pink was the brand. Another rather lucrative side of the business was the general overhaul and cleaning of paraffin heaters..As to the loose nails, I wouldn’t mind a penny for each time that a nail made my fingers bleed. No work gloves in those days.

Over the next five years or so I studied retailing in the tool and hardware industry and eventually became manager of the Hoe Street shop.

Why the High Street shop had Grey coats and the Hoe Street shop had Brown coats was a mystery to me. One of my first management decisions was to have all staff in Grey coats. Good decision, the staff enjoyed the change.

By the early 70s, the two old shops were looking very tired and needed modernising, and so over a 12 month period each shop was closed for a short time, while the buildings were gutted and a new shop front and internal fittings installed. The trading name of both shops was changed to ‘Coles of Walthamstow’

I thought the change was a bit of a shame as the tradition had been lost, however retailing was changing, pre packaged goods were coming in, everything was hanging on hooks, gone was the advice that we gave to our customers, we just became till operators.

I stayed with the company for 23 years,”

School Days

Copyright Keith Foster

One thing I have fortunately been blessed with is a good memory, not necessarily actual dates but I find I easily retain all I read, learn and experience. I only have to either think about a subject or see something that triggers off an ancient memory, to have full and immediate recall of the subject and circumstances behind it. Although everyone says such thoughts are impossible, I can still clearly recall both being both breast-fed and sitting in a babies high chair. Before anyone suggests so, these are not some sort of sexual Freudian thoughts, they are actual memories and very clear ones too.

Although I briefly touched on school life in previous articles, as school days did have such a powerful impact on all of us for the rest of our lives, it seemed worthy of mentioning some of the highlights here.

I arrived in Walthamstow in 1954 having been brought directly from my previous Junior School in Church Road, Leyton. The move was so sudden and unexpected I did not even have time to say goodbye to all my school friends. Remarkably within the last month I managed to trace my best friend from that school but sadly he has a mental block on his school days and does not remember me.

Greenleaf Road Junior School is where I was enrolled the day following my arrival. I think arrangements were made prior to my move to Walthamstow as I appeared to be expected when I arrived there. I recall feeling a little alienated being taken to a class where the teacher and other school children were at that time complete strangers to myself. However children being children it was only took a few days before I had found new friends. I found myself in something of a time warp for my first year at Greenleaf Road. This was not because I was in any way backwards or did not understand subjects, it was simply because they were still teaching everything I had learned a year earlier at Leyton. My teachers seemed impressed with my existing knowledge  and which they still had yet to teach the remainder of their pupils. In the 1950’s each borough, Leyton, Chingford and Walthamstow were independent education authorities in their own right and their teaching curriculum’s did not necessarily flow in tandem with each other.

It was only a few months after my arrival in Walthamstow when out shopping with my mother, I told her I had a pain in the side of my stomach to which she did no more than take me directly to the doctors, shopping bags and all. Although I was unaware of it, my family apparently had a record of appendicitis problems and my mother fortunately knew the symptoms well. Our doctor a gruff but wise man by the name Dr. Belton did not mess around and called an ambulance directly to the surgery. Within the hour I had an emergency operation for a severe case or peritonitis, (ruptured appendix), which kept me in hospital  and confined to bed for six weeks.

Connaught Hospital in Orford Road previously the Old Walthamstow Town Hall is where I was located, I really felt proud when about the second week of my stay I was inundated with dozens of letters and cards on the same day. It would appear that the Headmistress at Greenleaf Road School asked the entire school to write letters to me. Being confined to bed for so long is not easy for a youngster especially as one starts to get better and somewhat fidgety. I recall one day of suddenly being surrounded by an army of nurses during the doctors daily rounds. Even as a child I could sense that something ominous was afoot just by the number of nurses including the ward sister and in the way they positioned themselves around my bed. Before I knew it, four nurses held down each arm and leg as the sister painfully tore a large elasoplast type dressing from the scar on my stomach and then proceeded to cut the stitches off with a pair of scissors. There were a considerable number of stitches as micro-surgery did not exist in those days and I still carry the quite visible scar and stitch marks. My eyes still water at the thought of that day.

The second notable day that I recall during my hospital stay was about a week before I left. Again I was surrounded by several nurses and the ward sister. They told me I had to get out of bed and learn to walk again. This I did not understand as clearly I already knew how to walk, however with the nurses tightly holding each arm as I stood on the floor, my legs simply gave way under me. It is quite remarkable how quickly leg muscles can simply forget walking movements. I felt a little like Douglas Bader as I lurched around the ward trying to drag one leg in front of the other in turn. I was only allowed to exercise for about five minutes but remarkably the next day I found I could walk reasonably normal again but quickly became tired at the effort. Fortunately being a child with the excess of energy one has at that age, I found that my walking was back to normal by the time I left.

I returned to my school the following week to find I had been missed during my long absence and was welcomed by everyone. As normal with schoolchildren there were countless requests to see my scar. With my shirt being pulled out of my trousers top so many times that first day to oblige the scar viewing requests I am certain I must have look like “Just William”.

One of the things I think we all enjoyed at Greenleaf Road was the annual visit by the police road safety unit. This normally occurred during the summer months when it was dry. The entire school would be led into the playground where we would sit in one half. The other half of the playground was converted into a mock street with wooden poles on the ground representing the edges of the pavement.
A black and white striped pedestrian crossing complete with Belisha beacons was also laid out across the dummy road. I like the rest of the boys was agog at the shiny black police car in the playground. It was a Rover with two loudspeakers mounted on the roof. As dated as it would look today, to us boys at that time, it was modern and enthralling, conjuring up thoughts of cops and robbers chases.

Apart from the police in uniform, there were two other members of the team, One was called Safety Sam who would always cross the road in the correct manner. The other was dressed up in a clowns costume and would always make silly mistakes. The police car would make a number of trips along the dummy street with Safety Sam crossing the road observing all the rules of the Highway Code. The climax was when the person dressed in the clowns outfit crossed the road ignoring all the rules only to be apparently knocked down by the speeding police car. Clearly this was very well rehearsed and no one was ever hurt but it did look realistic.

We all knew that one day we would have to sit what was known as the 11 plus exam at our final year in junior school. This was the method that was supposed to determine those pupils bright enough to go to Grammar School and higher education, with the remainder going to a secondary modern school. The simple truth was there were insufficient grammar schools to accommodate large numbers of bright pupils so the system was designed to ensure that great numbers did not pass. Many parents who were wise would ensure prior to the exam, their children studied up on the relevant subjects. I do not recall receiving any special preparatory teaching for the exam at junior school.

I sat my 11 plus exam at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School. This I found  a daunting place to go to. All the teachers wore gowns, something I had never seen before and somehow to myself as a ten-year old, the entire place seemed aloof and snobbish. I did not pass the 11 plus exam, I am reluctant to say I failed as the process was to ensure that only given numbers of pupils filled the limited places at a grammar school. It’s also worth noting that this is the only exam I did not pass in my entire life. As my career progressed I passed all necessary exams and tests. In some ways I am glad I did not pass as Grammar school pupils were required to wear smart uniforms,  which was something well beyond my mothers limited pocket. Although all schools had their own uniform, in keeping with most children at my secondary school, I never once wore one. Duffle coats with wooden peg button and accompanying  duffle bags slung over the shoulder were all the rage at the time and in a way, they made a type of uniform in their own right. Such clothes could be bought cheaply on the market stalls in the High Street.

I expect the inside of a schoolboys pockets are the same everywhere and in some ways not dissimilar to the inside of a ladies handbag on those rare occasions I have been permitted to look into one.  There were bits and pieces for everything, just in case, including scraps of string, a penknife and probably a compass. Some boys proudly sported scout type penknives with the obligatory spike for getting schoolboys out of horses hooves. Every child had a penknife as indeed did most male adults including many females. Thoughts of using a penknife to inflicts a wound on someone else simply did not cross ones mind. They were purely functional items and mainly used for sharpening pencils. How times have changed.

So I entered my secondary school with the grand title of William McGuffie Secondary Modern School but also nicknamed locally as “Scruffy McGuffie”. Like my school mates who also came with me from Greenleaf Road Junior School, we all entered the playground for the first time with a little trepidation not knowing quite what to expect. We knew that the cane was used in this school for punishment and somehow I had advanced visions of school teachers wandering the playground lashing out at any miscreant in sight. There was a number of teachers already waiting in the playground as I entered and to my immediate relief, not a cane in sight. It became clear in reflection that the additional teachers were there to pull new school entrants to one side for induction into the school, as well as protecting newcomers from any school bullies. A number of these did exist like any school but fortunately they were few in number. I do not know if the school had a motto but if it did, I always felt it should be the word “Supersto”  which is Latin for survive.

As one grows into adulthood, there comes a point where an individuals age does not make too much difference to relationships. However to a school child, age is everything, possibly as one has not lived too many of them at that stage. Older schoolchildren in different grades were almost like gods to us in our first year and to schoolchildren, age definitely creates a hen pecking order. I suppose the time one spends at a secondary school is also the period when the most dramatic changes happen to a person. One enters as a child and leaves as an adult albeit a young one. It is a four-year period when puberty sets in, voices break and as a boy, one starts to become attracted to our female school mates more physical attractions than we had previously noticed. After puberty, although we still continue to age and grow, an adult is still recognisable as the same person they were years earlier. However with a child, they undergo a complete transformation in short period of time emerging as completely different and sometimes unrecognisable person to when they first entered school. I sometimes liken it to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.

I found most teachers at the school were quite good in their subjects, it all depended on the individual pupils willingness and attentiveness to learn.

Each morning used to start with Assembly in the lower hall where a few songs were sung, a prayer recited and the headmaster delivered his mini-lecture of the day. I am not certain if this format still exists due to the more modern cultural and religious diversity of pupils today. All the pupils sat on the floor when the headmaster gave his daily address. He did however used to splutter a bit and anyone sitting at the front beneath him would be aware of the fallout from his spluttering. This was one reason the back of the hall was considered a prime position but like of not, someone had to be at the front. As the headmasters address continued, it was possible to see a semi-circle of floor space appearing in front of him as pupils gradually eased away from him. I also recall one morning as the first hymn of the assembly began, a teacher who played an upright piano in accompaniment to the hymn was continuously hitting wrong notes. In the end the teacher struck a loud chord which stopped everyone in their tracks and stood up as he opened the top of the piano. Reaching down into the bowels of the instrument, the teacher removed three beer bottles, one by one, much to the howls of laughter of us all,  except the headmaster who remained stern-faced. The bottles were clearly left there from the night before by a night school that also used the premises. One thing I always remember seeing annually through the windows of the assembly hall was large numbers of policemen returning to the police station further down the road. However these policemen were all dressed in different period costumes of police dress over the ages. Some even looked like the original Peelers outfits. Where they were coming from, or why is something I never found out.

Although nowadays many children are either driven to school or accompanied by an adult, it was normal practice for children to walk to school on their own. The shortest route for myself was along Hoe Street although other longer routes were available. Some of the shops or premises stick in my mind on my Hoe Street walk. Adjacent to the Granada cinema was the entrance to Hatherley Mews which was under an archway formed by homes above the shops. This really was a Mews at the time in the real sense of the word. Shire horses were still stabled in the Mews and used by the Holdstock Bakeries to pull their carts at a time when bread was still delivered to homes like milk. A few of the old stable buildings were converted into small garage workshops, but it was the horses I liked to watch. Their keeper would allow me to feed them a few sugar lumps if I remembered to bring some. If you forgot the sugar lumps, the horses would soon let you know as they learned to recognise individuals and they never forgot they were due for a sugary reward. George White undertakers was another premise I remember. As you passed the premises it was possible to see skilled carpenters making new coffins which they did in the front of the premise. Coffins were still made out of solid wood at that time and the carpenters used to take pride in their work planing and finishing their latest creation. It’s a pity in a way their pride and joy would only be publicly seen for a short time before it was buried forever.

Just before the Granada complex was the school uniform supplier named Henry Taylor which had quite a large shop frontage. Google maps show this site is now occupied by a HSBC bank but the original building is now demolished. The uniforms of several schools were display on dressed dummies in the window including my own. Each uniform was in pristine condition without a mark on it. It seemed strange each day seeing the uniform that I was never destined to wear due to its cost. Sometimes I would travel via Erskine Road to my school and go to a news agent/sweet shop located in the buildings directly opposite Melville Road. There also used to be a public house on the corner of Gainsford Road but all appear to have been converted to housing. The sweet shop sold two of my favourite sweets which were also cheap to buy. One was called flying saucers designed to look like an alien spaceship and which contained sherbet on the inside. The other sweet was sticks of what was known as Spanish Wood, the like of which I have not seen for many a year. These were long twigs of real wood which released a delicious liquorice flavour when sucked. The flavour would last for hours and even when the wood was finally reduced to shreds the flavour still permeated the remains.

Everyone was required to go to school sports once a week whatever the weather. It was a journey undertaken in an old double-decker bus. The sports field was located on the North Circular Road and the map shows part of the sports field still exists next to what is now a Sainsburys supermarket. The grim small concrete building that was an excuse for the changing rooms is however gone. I must say that building is one little piece of history that will not be missed. Dressing only in shorts, singlet and plimsolls whatever the sport and weather did little to enthrall the finer sporting instincts in me. Some pupils of more affluent parents wore football boots but the sports teacher could never apparently see the inequality of a football game played by some of the team wearing football boots and the others wearing plimsolls. There simply was no match. The other problem with plimsolls was kicking the football. These were not the lightweight footballs of today, but more the original heavy balls made completely of leather. Anyone kicking such a ball in plimsolls risked at least a stubbed toe if not worse. I remember once heading one of these footballs, this is easy to remember as I never headed another one again. The force was something like a pile driver hitting the top of the head. I could almost swear I came away a few inches shorter. Cross country running took place in the summer except there was no country to run in. We used the streets instead in what was the forerunner of jogging today. Chingford Road – Westward Road and finally back to the North Circular Road. The hot showers in the changing room in reality were at best tepid bordering on the cold side. The shower area was dark and dingy with a peculiar smell of stale air permanently pervading the place. It was not a long shower born out of necessity and everyone was in and out as quickly as possible. I think the North Circular Road outside the changing rooms was the only road in the borough to have no speed limit. The lamp posts displayed the traditional black diagonal line on a white circular disc and the black line was studded with reflecting cats eyes. Today we call it the national speed limit sign but I am not certain if it was the name used in the 1950’s. In those days there was no upper speed limit on unrestricted roads so it would have been legal for a car to drive at 150 mph on that stretch of the North circular Road. Car technology however was not what it is today and most drivers thought they were going fast if they could achieve 50 mph.

I was in my third year at secondary school when homework was introduced, up until that time homework was unknown. When I arrived with my first homework, my mother took one look at it and told me to immediately put it away. It was my mothers point of view, (with which I do not agree), that as she had never done homework as a child, her children were not going to do it either. She firmly believed that school was for learning which finished the moment one walked out of the school gates. My mother even wrote a letter to the headmaster making her views clear than neither I nor my brother and sister should do homework. A few days later I opened the door of our house in response to a knock only for my mouth to drop open as the shape of my headmaster filled the doorway. To me it was as if God was paying a visit to our house. The headmaster debated with my mother for over an hour the benefits of homework but she stood firm and defiant. No homework under any circumstances. The headmaster finally left and myself and my siblings were the only pupils in the entire school excused homework. Even when teachers reprimanded other pupils for not doing their homework on time, never a word was said to any of my family. I am sure there are laws nowadays that would compel parents to ensure children do homework, but all this was in a different era than today.

On the approach to one Christmas the school arranged  an educational cultural afternoon. This was the only time I ever recall being subjected to culture while at school. The dais in the assembly hall was relocated to a different position on which a string quartet and a rather rotund male baritone were positioned. It was the first time I had seen musical instruments live and the singer wore a bow tie and tails. Again except for films starring Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, this was an outfit that most pupils had never seen before. No one quite knew what to expect or even that the baritone was a singer, I think we all assumed that he was an announcer of some kind. The performance commenced and the man suddenly burst out into the song Figaro from the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Within seconds, the entire school burst out into uncontrollable spontaneous laughter. It was not planned it really was spontaneous. In reflection I expect it just appeared so strange and alien to anything that pupils had experienced before and as such was completely comical. The Headmaster however was furious and leapt onto the dais threatening severe punishment to anyone who continued laughing. This in some ways was a hollow threat in the short-term as everyone had great difficulty in stopping laughing. When we finally managed to calm down, the performance restarted. Most of us spent the remainder of the time with our hands clamped over our mouths trying to stop ourselves from further laughter at what we all perceived at the time to be a comedy act. What the string quartet and the baritone singer thought of our school afterwards I never heard. By strange contrast, my musical tastes have mellowed over the years and I have a large collection of classical music. To me it seems so timeless as well as being pleasant on the ear. Heavy Metal music I never understood and I found myself cringing at the sound of it. I am glad it was a relatively short-lived musical era.

My last year at school also saw a school holiday to Interlaken in Switzerland. I think the cost was £30 which was a considerable amount of money at the time. How my mother managed to save that money I shall never know but she clearly scrimped and saved on her low wages in her determination to see me go. The school issued some weeks in advance of the journey a detailed itinerary in the shape of a small booklet produced on the schools Gestetner duplicating machine. This I read over and over again until I literally knew every word and the places we would visit by heart. Travel was by rail all the way there. First to Dover for the ferry and then onto a French sleeper train to Berne where we switched to the Swiss railway system. I was that excited I did not sleep throughout the journey. Both the French and even more so the Swiss trains seemed to glide smoothly over the rails. This was in stark contrast to the side to side buffeting experienced on British Rail. It was also strange to experience the more human side of teachers on the trip, some who were normally quite stern in the classroom. We travelled to many local places and saw many sights. One evening we went to a casino. This however was not to gamble but to see an evening show also held at the same location. More importantly, it was also my first experience of learning first hand of different cultures and their way of life. Ever since that visit I have always learnt how to say Good Morning, Afternoon or Evening as well as Goodbye, Thank You and Please in the language of the country I am visiting. I find it not only impresses people but also commands their respect. Learning a few words of local dialect is simple but can pay great dividends. One dialect I have learned reasonably well over the years is Illongo from the Philippine Visayas region. Sometimes it amuses me when shopping to overhear loud conversations between two Filipino women who are completely unaware I can understand every word they are saying. I did return home from Switzerland with a small cuckoo clock and man/woman weather station as presents for my mother. I still have them today.

I certainly had mixed feelings when I finally left school at the Christmas of 1960, it was like the ending of an era. In many ways I was glad to have left but it also meant the end of my daily association with school friends. I often wonder if the 11 plus exam really made any difference at all? Now that I have retired I know that I had a very successful career. I also know that education did not cease as I walked through the school gates for the last time, it is in fact a lifelong process. Many of my school mates are spread across the four corners of the globe which was seemingly impossible at the time. I too have travelled reasonably widely not only in Europe but to Asia, the Orient and Australia. When I was at school, international travel was only for the rich and a flight to the other side of the world would take days with overnight stops in hotels. But the world shrank, the last vestiges of Empire vanished and attitudes changed, not always for the better. As for my old school William McGuffie, that was sadly demolished to make way for a social housing development. This means I will never have the opportunity for a nostalgic visit  to wander around those not so hallowed halls again.

%d bloggers like this: