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.


 

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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.

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 dulwichonview.org.uk

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.

 

Leyton Memories


Due to family circumstances, in 1951 my mother moved to live with her parents in Leyton in East London with four of my five siblings. The house, a large three floor Georgian building with a cellar was rented like most housing at the time. Although I was only five years old at the time, I do recall feeling my original unease at this strange bustling environment which was in complete contrast to the quiet serenity of Dulwich Village which was the only place I had known for my short existence.

My grandparents were typical Victorians in both their manners and outlook. Born in the 1880’s, Queen Victoria and Empire clearly influenced their own childhood and carried through to their post World War 2 years. In common practice with many Victorians they had a large family of eight children to support them in their latter years. Apart from my mother, two of their daughters, both married with their husbands and children also lived with them. It was fortunate that the house was so large. To me the difference in the disposition of my grandparents was like chalk and cheese. Both were large people but where as my grandfather was one of the kindest people I have ever known and whose memory I still cherish, my grandmother was very strict and something of a martinet.

In a modern household, we all take for granted essential services and appliances such as washing machines, fridges, freezers and central heating rarely giving them a second thought, but in truth these are still relatively recent developments which for most households only started to appear from the 1960’s onwards. I also found electricity in my grandparents home something of a novelty. My previous home in Dulwich was gas lighting only with a coal-fired cooking range. Candles were used for lighting the way when going to bed and in winter, ice would be frozen on the inside of the windows.. Adjoining houses did have electricity but these suffered from frequent power cuts that followed the war. I still remember my father saying that like the first car without a running board, he did not think electricity would catch on as a workable idea. I recall this wondrous fascination with electric lighting led to me standing on a chair and repeatedly turning a light switch on and off during my first day in my grandparents home. The rapid reprimand via a clout around the ear from my grandmother swiftly and painfully alerted me even at that tender age, that she was also someone to steer clear of.

Day to day management of such a large household was clearly a major undertaking with daily and weekly routines executed with military precision to a set of unwritten, yet never-the-less, fully understood rules. Monday was always laundry day, a process that continued through subsequent days of the week until Thursday. This included washing, drying followed by ironing. There was a scullery at the rear of my grandparents house fitted with a copper boiler and two large butler sinks. Washing laundry was a three female process, two manned scrubbing boards in one sink while a third undertook rinsing in the second sink. All linen was initially soaked and scrubbed before being transferred to the copper boiler, other laundry avoided the boiler process. Soap powder was not in general use at this time but all households had soap flakes that required dissolving before use. A bag of “blue” was also added to linen in the boiler to help whiten it. As children our task was to operate the mangle outside the scullery door. For those unaccustomed to mangles, these were two large rollers of solid rubber mounted in a cast iron frame. A large crank wheel to the side was turned to operate the contraption and voluminous amounts of water was squeezed out of laundry as it passed through the rollers. As a child I could just reach the crank handle when it was at its zenith. It was only natural as children to make our mangling duties a fun game. Trying to turn the mangle as fast as possible to see how quickly we could pass a sheet through the rollers being part of the game. One day my sister while feeding laundry into the rollers let out an almighty scream as her fingers went through the rollers due to a momentary lapse of concentration. One of my aunts immediately appeared at the door to instantly and wrongly appraise the situation followed by the customary retribution of a clout around the ear. My sisters fingers were treated by being smeared in butter which was thought somehow to have miraculous healing properties.

It may seem strange in today’s protected society that anyone other than a child’s parents should physically chastise them, however in the early 1950’s aunts, uncles and grandparents frequently did this at a whim without fear of legal retribution. I received more clouts around the ear during my time living with my grandparents than any other time of my life including a boxing match.

The midday meal on a Monday that we now call lunch was always referred to as dinner in those days and consisted of a stew made from the remains of the Sunday dinner. Similar set meals followed on the same day of each week with a Friday always being reserved for fish. Cutlery for eating fish was not immediately washed following the meal as it was considered the soap flakes and scouring powder of the day did not remove the smell of fish and as yet, washing up liquid was not available. Cutlery was always pushed into the earth for 24 hours and looked like a small forest of cutlery sticking out of the ground as it was believed that this neutralised the odour of fish. One day Snowy the pet rabbit disappeared only to re-emerge on the dinner table as the main course. No one could bring themselves to eat a much-loved pet and if ever a death was in vain, Snowy was a prime example.

In keeping with many homes still influenced by the Victorian era, the front room of my grandparents home was a parlour. This room contained all the best furniture and was thoroughly cleaned and dusted every day but was never used except for special visitors and at Christmas. An obligatory upright piano that no one could play also adorned this room. As children we were forbidden to enter the parlour under any circumstances. The rules were simple to understand even for us, to so much as touch the door handle meant death.

One thing my grandparents did posses was a television. These were still quite rare and very expensive. In keeping with the trends of the time, such items were disguised to look like other pieces or furniture. This television resembled an oblong radiogram with a hinged lid on top. The lid was raised and propped up at a 45 degree angle. Beneath the lid was a mirror and set into the bowels of the cabinet was a tiny television screen pointing upwards to the ceiling. Viewing the television  required sitting in front of the cabinet and viewing the television reflected in the mirror. Why such a Heath-Robinson device was ever made I will probably never know. The television was always turned on for the children as we were never allowed to touch it. There was only one TV channel at the time which was the BBC. I remember my favourites were Hank the cowboy and his arch-enemy, Mexican Pete. Muffin the Mule  presented by Annette Mills I also liked. Muffin the Mule attached to strings would dance across the top of a grand piano while Annette Mills played the piano and sang a song. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, half of the street who did not posses a television were crammed into one room attempting to watch the ceremony on this small screen.

In those days even as young children it was quite normal for us to be allowed to play in the street, go to the park or walk to school unaccompanied. One place we always went to was Leyton Orient football ground when they were playing at home. After half-time admission to the ground was free. It was not a case of budding footballers idolising their heroes, it was more a case of being aware money was to be made. Many of the fans bought bottles of Coca-Cola during the interval. Being glass, a deposit of 1d, (one old penny),  was incorporated into the purchase price. Most people could not be bothered returning the bottles as their attention was fixed on the second half of the game. Adults always allowed us to take their bottles back to the canteen to collect 1d deposit for every bottle with which we could buy a slice of bread pudding for 3d as well as making a few bob on the side. For small children in the early 1950’s this was serious money. We did however always take our money back to our mother as financial times were hard and to which see was always grateful. Our mother would give us a small proportion of our earnings back to us to spend, the rest going into a lockable money-box that she kept for rainy days.

It was possible to take a number of variations on our route to school, one of these was via a footpath through a graveyard that was part of St Mary’s Parish Church, Leyton. Many old Victorian graves festooned the graveyard with a number of large family graves abutting railings that lined the footpath. One particular grave always frightened my sister and I. This was a large stone box like grave surmounted by a baby’s cradle type sarcophagus. In our simple minds we thought the bodies of adults were inside the stone box and the body of a baby was contained in the sarcophagus cradle. It was at this point in our journey that we always ran as fast as we could before returning to a walking pace once we emerged from the graveyard.

It was after 18 months of living in my grandparents home that sadly my grandfather died. I was awoken by the sounds of crying and wailing throughout the night, my mother telling us the painful news in the morning. I loved my grandfather not only for his kindly understanding ways but also as a protector from the worst painful disciplinary excesses from other adults but rarely from my mother. With my grandfather gone it was only a matter of time before disciplinary excesses for childish mischief grew exponentially. It was not unusual for one adult to administer physical chastisement for a supposed childish misdemeanour to be followed by similar treatment from a different adult who thought they should also administer discipline for the same misdemeanour. Such treatment was not at all unusual in many homes in the early 1950’s

One day after finishing school I found my mother waiting at the school gates to collect both myself and a younger brother to whisk us away to another home in Walthamstow that she had been secretly preparing. I was not aware when I left my grandmother’s house for school that day I was never to return, something that I have always been eternally grateful to my mother for. The saddest thing I recall at the time is not being able to say goodbye to all my school friends. I suspect my friends would have been equally sad the following day to discover they would never see me again. I have not written any of the previous paragraph to engender sympathy, it is more to illustrate how life actually was for many children at that time period coupled with an unwillingness by authority figures to get involved in family matters. On reflection although we had fun times as most children do, this undoubtedly was the unhappiest period of my life.

 

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