Thursday, 15 March 2018

Greta Thilthorpe, A Friend From The Past

There are definite positive aspects to having a Facebook account, although at times I agree that the negatives can be weighty. Without FB I would never have known of the recent passing of Greta Thilthorpe that erstwhile best friend of my early teenage years. It was Dawn who told me, a friend I have never actually met but I feel as if I know. Without FB I would not now be starting this Friday with a rather heavy heart full of sombre thoughts about the Meaning of Life. Does it have any meaning? I was rather hoping Stephen Hawking would finally reveal the answer to this exasperating question but alas he too is now recently beyond recall.

Greta was the remarkably sensible Only Girl in a large family featuring a clutch of moodily handsome boys and a rather exotic mother with a penchant for red chiffon and heavy jewellery. Well so it seemed to me at the time but then you have to bear in mind that when I first became Greta’s friend I had only very recently celebrated my thirteenth birthday. She on the other hand was seventeen and in her final year at Wombwell Hall as I was about to start my first. I think our slightly unusual friendship came about in the first place because my mother had just started to work for Peggy and Vic Troke at their shop in Shepherd Street where Greta’s mother had been employed for several years. I was to inherit Greta’s outgrown school uniforms though for me they were uncomfortably tight around the waist and chest because I was fast becoming what my Uncle Harold described as a Fine Specimen of English Womanhood and Young Harold, his elder son, described as Fat. My mother claimed that I was not fat at all, but merely Stout. I could not decide which of the trio I hated most. In any event, as we certainly did not have Money to Burn on trivialities like school uniforms I was required to wear the cast off skirts and blouses whether I liked the idea or not. At the same time I became Greta’s friend though being several years my senior my mother did wonder if it was a good idea. The one thing she did not want was me being corrupted by an older girl because a few months before the advent of Greta into my life I had become friendly with yet another seventeen year old, this time one called Shirley who worked for Ripleys the greengrocers. Shirley had permed hair and pierced ears and a boyfriend who was doing his National Service. She introduced me to cigarettes and gin and so a halt was called to the friendship quite rapidly.

Greta was an entirely different kettle of fish who wore no make-up and her school shoes at weekends and there was little danger of me becoming corrupted which I could not help thinking was a pity but nevertheless there were definite advantages in the friendship. Shirley had been more than willing to talk about sex and How Far she had Gone with her absent boyfriend whereas Greta had not yet developed an interest in the opposite sex and her attitudes were closer to those greatly applauded by my mother who commented that you could say what you like about Greta but you couldn’t say she was Fast. She may not have been Fast but Greta was canny and had a knack of saying rude things to older women (like Peggy Troke) with a guileless expression in both voice and face that led them to believe she was just being refreshingly truthful. She was also exceptionally generous and my cousin Connie who was not known for her own generosity, said that’s simply what happened within large families and it was an experience I was unlikely to encounter in my own because I was only blessed with one brother. Both Connie and Greta had been blessed with a large number of brothers and of Greta’s I remember Michael clearer than the rest of them because he was dazzlingly good looking and fifteen. For his part he failed to notice me at all even when I wore Evening In Paris to his parents’ twenty fifth wedding anniversary.

I remember Greta as having an extraordinarily good work ethic and during the years of our friendship she seemed able to locate all the local farms that largely and quite illegally employed child labour for harvesting work that the adults in the area were beginning to avoid and paid what my grandmother said was a Pittance. Greta was unconcerned with pay rates and simply lined us up for work that usually began at five am each morning of the school holidays. This meant that unlike many of our acquaintances she and I for a time had money to spend on sweets, ice-creams, Smiths Crisps and bottles of Tizer. My brother, who already spoke longingly of owning a pair of binoculars was, at the age of seven, considered even by Greta as being just a bit too young. Old Nan, not known for having a good word to say about teenage girls was wont to shake her head and admit albeit in a low voice that when all was said and done, Greta was a Grafter and no Mistake!

She was also something of an adventurer and that was an attitude that greatly appealed to me. Although I was quite unable to persuade Molly Freeman to embark upon a train trip in the general direction of London, and when I suggested the idea to Joan Bennett she simply looked dazed and said she’d have to ask her Mum, it did not occur to Greta that mothers should ever be asked for permission to do something as ordinary as get on a train. Mothers were busy people, she said, and had more on their minds than train trips especially when their youngest two, like their Stephen and Christopher both had Mumps. She had an idea, she told me, for getting to London without paying a proper fare, simply with the aid of a platform ticket. In the end we got as far as Woolwich Dockyard where even Greta began to doubt the practical aspects of the plan and she deftly led the way to the correct platform that pointed us back towards Gravesend where we nonchalantly handed in our crumpled, sticky platform tickets and exited the station. And over the next month she and I embarked upon a number of similar outings to Maidstone, Gillingham and even Whitstable. These were adventures unfamiliar to most of my Wombwell Hall classmates and because of Greta I managed to gain a certain amount of kudos among the girls of 1SC.

Following Dawn’s message today I’ve thought a lot about the time when Greta Thilthorpe was my friend and have come to the conclusion that she may not have been a particularly sophisticated seventeen year old but she was never simply Run of the Mill or Ordinary. It’s a pity we seem destined to lose touch with the friends that populated our past.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Cobbler of Shepherd Street

Throughout my childhood and teenage years Mr Hammond was the person we took our shoes to when they needed mending. Later on I learned that he was proficient in a wide range of repair services including watches and jewellery but our relationship with him only concerned footwear. He was an old fashioned cobbler and at times was heard to claim that theoretically he should not be called a cobbler at all, but a cordwainer because he was a skilled artisan. Not so very long ago he said, he had on a daily basis constructed luxury footwear and back in those days the cobbler was simply the person who repaired the shoes that men like him had made. And warming to his theme he was heard to add that back then the cobbler was actually forbidden from working with new leather and even had to use old leather for repairs. The difference between these two trades had once been considerable to the extent that to call a cordwainer a cobbler was to greatly insult him. In Mr Hammond’s opinion the long and proud British tradition of shoe-making was slowly Going To The Dogs. None of this was of any interest to my mother or grandmother when they handed in items to be mended, the latter remarking that in her opinion he talked a lot of Twaddle which was probably on account of him being Chapel rather than Roman Catholic.

When I was a pre-schooler my extra special black patent round toed shoes with traditional ankle straps were handed over to this Cordwainer-turned-Cobbler simply to see if he was able to stretch them a little. I had outgrown them long before my mother considered it to be Normal and as they had cost a Pretty Penny and the soles showed evidence of plenty of remaining wear, stretching might solve the problem. Mr Hammond was not enthusiastic and said that in any event he was not a fan of stretching children’s shoes because in the long run it did their feet no good at all. My mother’s neck bristled with annoyance as she thanked him for his advice and later told Mrs Bassant next door that not everybody was Made of Money and new shoes for kiddies of my age not only involved expense but were hard to come by in wartime even if you had the required coupons. A few days later I inherited ankle strapped footwear that had once been red but were now a strange sludge colour, from my cousin Connie who lived in Waterdales.

No one could say that Mr Hammond was not obliging and on occasions he went above and beyond the call of duty in service of the public. When my father came back from the war, later than his compatriots because of the debilitating illness he contracted in North Africa but by mid 1946 looking hale and hearty once more, the first local shop he visited was Mr Hammond’s. His black Sunday shoes needed attention if he was to attend Mass the next day at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption looking his best. Cognizant of the importance of the situation, Mr Hammond did not allow his own religious affinity to stand in the way of his obligations and my father’s shoes were attended to in record time causing him to remark to my mother that the Shepherd Street Cobbler was a decent chap. My mother did not respond except to sniff a bit but the good thing was that at eleven am Mass my father looked very dapper indeed in his pin-striped demob suit, white silk scarf and the newly mended shoes that had been shone to perfection. Mrs Judd whose husband had been Lost at Dunkirk, two of the Campbell girls and Sister Camilla all commented upon the fact that he was a Very Pleasant Chap and it was good to welcome him back into the Roman Catholic community.

There was no doubt that Mr Hammond was a committed Christian despite his unfortunate association with Chapel. On a number of occasions when delivering footwear to him as we grew up, he would talk to me and my friend Molly about the life of Jesus, a topic which clearly absorbed him – and to a lesser extent also interested us. He was convinced that Jesus had visited Great Britain and probably even spoke English, perhaps almost as well as we did ourselves. When we exchanged glances and wondered how The Reverend Gunner at St Botolph’s might view this information, he warmed to his theme and asked us if we agreed that Jesus would have been a strong and adventurous young lad. Molly nodded a little doubtfully and Mr Hammond turned to me and wanted to know if I believed that Jesus was the nephew of Joseph of Arimathea. I nodded enthusiastically anxious not to display my ignorance about who this particular Joseph might be. Mr Hammond became more animated because didn’t this Joseph trade with the Tin Islands? Were not the Tin Islands the very land on which we stood? Wasn’t it plain common sense to accept that a healthy and adventurous twelve year old lad would have been desperate to accompany his uncle? Yes, yes, yes we agreed! But later it turned out that The Reverend Gunner was less enthralled with the information and so I chose not to mention it to Father O`Connor or even to my own father.

The last time I remember calling upon the services of Mr Hammond was when I was twenty years old and had returned from a somewhat illicit period in Amsterdam in the company of a man who had assured me that he thought extremely highly of me but turned out to have a wife he was even more fond of in a suburb of The Hague. Although I had been forced to reluctantly relinquish him and the future we were going to have together, I was not required to surrender the very expensive shoes and matching shoulder bag he had bought for me in a pleasingly upmarket Amsterdam store. The Cobbler of Shepherd Street was on my To Do list upon my return and I was more than pleased to be told that mine were the finest shoes Mr Hammond had seen in many a long year. Fashioned from the very best leather, superbly crafted, they had been a joy to repair. He recognised their excellence he told me because of course he had begun his working life as a cordwainer rather than a cobbler and he carefully and at some length explained the difference between those two terms. Not that there was shame in simply being a cobbler of course he added, but over time the profession had diminished and leant itself to less than perfect work. Standards had fallen everywhere. Which of course, he said, half shaking his head as he handed the shoes back to me had led to that ungenerous term – Cobbling Something Together.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

BERNARD HENDY....A Memory of a Life

I wrote MORE THAN JUST SKELETONS largely as a tribute to my brother who died in April 2016. We had always planned to write the book about our early lives in and around Northfleet & Gravesend together but fate intervened as it invariably does.
Bernard was never a straightforward human being and his life became ever more complicated as he aged. Like so many of those who loved and admired him I think I simply wanted the echoes of that life to continue to resonate.
The book is available in both print and ebook versions and can be found on Amazon or Smashwords.

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Trokes' Shop In Shepherd Street

The Trokes lived above the shop on the corner of Tooley and Shepherd Streets. None of us were aware at the time that Peggy Troke’s real name was Marguerite because she was always known as Peggy, and sometimes just Peg. If we had known my mother would undoubtedly have thought her pretentious which is not exactly fair as none of us are able to choose our given names. As it was she labelled her as no better than she ought to have been because it was rumoured that she spent too much time up in the flat with certain travelling salesmen.

Victor Troke, known simply as Vic, seemed not to concern himself with idle gossip and described his wife as An Angel and even gave her a beaver jacket for her thirtieth birthday making my mother snort and toss her head back in a strange gesture of general disapproval that was clearly supported by some of our neighbours. One of the reasons for this reaction was that apparently Peg was forty five if she was a day. Quite apart from that back in those days it wasn’t a good thing to dress flamboyantly and be no better than you ought to be and furthermore Peg should really have had more sense than to court gossip by courting salesmen.

She was not popular with local children and did not have the patience of Aunt Elsie as far as her youngest customers were concerned. If we did not smartly make up our minds when comparing the attributes of Sherbert Dabs as opposed to Liquorice Wheels, she would tap her long red nails sharply on the glass counter top, purse her matching red lips and advise us to Get a Shuffle On. Generally speaking we only patronized the Trokes when Aunt Elsie was closed or when sent there on other errands by our mothers. On one occasion my occasional friend Greta Tilthorpe who was three years older than me and considered odd for wanting friendships with younger girls, reminded Peggy that as she was about to spend more than one shilling she would appreciate being accorded more courtesy. She made that statement in order to impress me, which indeed it did, standing at her side and hoping that the sweets would be shared – which they were. Furthermore Mrs Tilthorpe, always known as Tilly actually worked part time in the shop which gave Greta a definite edge over any other youthful customer with an intention to be rude to adults. Peggy Troke said nothing in response but gave us both long and hostile looks when she placed the Polo Mints and Spangles on the counter with just a fraction too much force. As we wandered up Dover Road and into the grounds of the library, Greta told me that in her opinion Peggy Troke was just a bit too Big for her Boots and clearly thought she was a Cut Above the rest of us. Peg needed taking down a peg or two in her opinion - and sucking hard on shared confectionery I nodded enthusiastically.

Shortly after this exciting exchange my mother announced she was going to work for the Trokes one morning each week, not serving in the shop but doing Peg’s housework to release her for more important tasks. Despite her reservations regarding the general values held by her new employer, she seemed quite excited at the prospect and within a short space of time the relationship with the Trokes and their staff resulted in me becoming even more friendly with Greta. It also occasioned the making of a red chiffon blouse for Greta’s mother. I am uncertain about Tilly’s satisfaction with the blouse since my mother’s dress-making ability had not improved over the years but she was far too polite to complain and wore the blouse to her twenty fifth wedding anniversary party to which we were invited. If you didn’t examine it too closely it looked reasonably presentable worn with a great deal of chunky jewelry. Peggy and Vic were also at the event of course, arriving by car which Greta told me was an MG and Peggy very smartly attired in a pink tweed two piece costume.

Becoming more friendly with Greta, the only girl in the Tilthorpe family, meant becoming acquainted with her six good looking brothers, two of whom were of an age that interested me, particularly one called Michael who was sixteen and moody-looking in a manner that would have made even James Dean envious. At the time, as I was yet to stumble across James Dean who had in turn not yet embarked upon his short but stellar film career, Michael Tilthorpe emerged as a younger and more accessible version of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and therefore highly desirable. Unfortunately for me he failed to notice my presence at all and the somewhat forced friendship with Greta began to pall despite her astonishing rudeness to adults, her sweet tooth and willingness to share.

It would be fair to say that my mother enjoyed the time she spent cleaning for the Trokes because the job seemed to provide a constant stream of minor scandal resulting in endless rumour and gossip in the neighbourhood, which could be commented upon and spread with ultimate efficiency. Peggy Troke bought far too many pairs of shoes apparently, and occasionally even drove down to Maidstone, where the shopping was legendary, in order to do so. She also went in for what she called Afternoon Dresses acquired from the newly opened Chiesmans Department Store in Gravesend and when the travelers called, she wore them in the morning if necessary. If she and Vic went out for their tea, which they certainly did from time to time, they drove into Gravesend to the Clarendon Hotel and ordered steak and chips. When the Berni Inn chain opened they became regular once a month customers. Peggy once even persuaded Vic to take her to the new Pakistani restaurant near the bottom of Harmer Street but my mother failed to be impressed because nothing would have persuaded her to eat the kind of food foreigners seemed fond of. Vic said that he hadn’t found it to his liking either if he was to be honest. Peggy ignored him and said she always had a gin and dubonnet with her tea when dining out but Vic, bless his heart, always stuck to pints of mild.

The Trokes had a bob or two, there was no doubt about it because during those early years of the 1950s the shop did very well, hosting a constant stream of customers six days a week and they were quite adept at anticipating the buying needs of all, from the very poor to those who worked extra shifts at Bevans and were not doing badly at all. Grace Bennett from Buckingham Road, however, declared that one of the reasons for their success was that Peg was not beyond putting two fingers on the scale when weighing confectionery, especially when serving children who hadn’t got the nous to notice. Her Joan, she said, was told to buy from elsewhere but of course when Aunt Elsie’s was closed her Joan did what the rest of us did.

The majority of the customer base, living right on the doorstep in Shepherd Street were very poor indeed and to their credit both Vic and Peg were capable of extending a friendly and helpful hand towards many of them. In fact Peg herself seemed particularly fond of the Reads, Les and Elsie who lived at 55 with their large mostly male family and when Elsie gave birth to yet another son expressed concern towards the only daughter, Jill, commiserating with her that a baby sister had not yet eventuated and handing over a few humbugs by way of consolation. She also showed unusual patience towards Brian Philpott from number 60 when he appeared with a collection of fast disappearing farthings in his hand enquiring the price of gobstoppers. This was, my mother said, because he was a Mongol and therefore lacking in understanding. The term Down’s Syndrome had not yet infiltrated among us. For some reason the Vandepeers at number 90 and the Baldwins at 122 did not inspire the same care and concern within either of the Troke breasts.

Quite the most sensational piece of gossip my mother was able to come up with during her time of employment was the confirmation that Peg was undoubtedly Carrying On! It had not escaped her notice that Derek, the traveler in stationery invariably made a monthly visit, as regular as clockwork and it almost always co-incided with Vic’s monthly visit to the wholesaler in Gillingham. Other travelers were scheduled in for quarterly visits, but although the shop sold far more confectionery and biscuits than birthday cards, for some reason the traveler in stationery called with unusual frequency. And what was more, decisions about writing pads were so complicated they demanded an unusual degree of discussion in the flat upstairs during which more than one glass of sherry and gin was drunk, never mind that it was only eleven in the morning. You couldn’t pull the wool over my mother’s eyes because she wasn’t Born Yesterday.

It was shortly after the dissemination of this piece of information around the neighbourhood that Marguerite Troke, known simply as Peggy, came to the decision that she no longer needed a cleaner. My mother sniffed a lot and said she didn’t really care because she’d been considering handing in her notice for a long time.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Aunt Elsie's Shop In Tooley Street

Aunt Elsie ran the sweet shop on the corner of Tooley Street and The Old Green throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. She wasn’t really anyone’s aunt as far as I know but we all referred to her as such. Her full name was Elsie Bull and she lived with Her George at number 17, the front parlour of which had been turned into a shop at some stage and the window fitted with a smart wooden Venetian Blind that grew decidedly less smart as the years went by. One of our York Road neighbours maintained that there had not been a shop at all on that corner back in the 1920s and that the business had emerged with the coming of the Bulls to the neighbourood, from Margate or Ramsgate and why they had chosen to uproot and settle in Northfleet she had no idea. The Bulls did not appear to have a family but for a number of years a lodger called Joe lived with them and was said to be George’s nephew though he looked too old to be entirely comfortable as a nephew. At times, particularly on Bank Holiday weekends visitors crammed themselves into the back kitchen and the two upstairs bedrooms and on summer evenings drank beer in the back yard, sitting on planks supported by wooden fruit boxes. On these occasions there was a certain amount of jollity emanating from number 17 but other than that it was a quiet household with Aunt Elsie doing all the work because Her George only rarely appeared in the shop and my grandmother noted that he must have been a Lazy Bugger.

It’s possible that Aunt Elsie sold tobacco products as well as sweets because she would have needed a varied stock to Get By On during the many years of sugar rationing but I only recall the tall glass jars of Sherbet Lemons, Aniseed Balls, Bulls Eyes, Butterscotch and Hard Gums and I have no recollection of male customers requesting Hearts of Oak and Rizla Papers. By 1952, excitingly for her child clientele, the jars shared the shelf space with coils of Liquorice, Sherbet Dabs and Barratts Sweet Cigarettes and a little later with the newfangled packets of Spangles and Polo Mints. She was our most preferred source of all those products that were going to rot our teeth and generally we made our glass jar purchases two ounces at any one time and after a great deal of indecision. The sweets would be weighed with precision on the little brass scales and tipped into small white paper bags.

Aunt Elsie herself was a small dumpy woman of indeterminate age with red-brown hair, often half hidden under a hair-net. She invariably wore flowered smocks that hung loosely to her hips and fur trimmed slippers with slightly elevated heels that made her appear to topple forward as she walked. By the time we were twelve years old most of us were the same height as she was, the boys often towering over her. She always waited patiently behind the counter for us to make our important decisions, staring at us unsmilingly from behind rimless spectacles, her bosom, ample for her small frame, often heaving and her breathing laboured. My mother said she might well be harbouring the TB germ though Molly Freeman’s mother said it was probably only a touch of asthma and nothing to get too alarmed about. I have a sneaking suspicion that my own mother quite enjoyed alarm over illness but in any case I chose to believe Mrs Freeman. You could say that Aunt Elsie didn’t go out of her way to be all that friendly but overall she had been bequeathed with a certain amount of patience which she definitely needed with her youngest customers.

My eight year old brother was capable of standing lost in thought for ten minutes at any one time before he could be persuaded to hand over the hot two pence clutched tightly in his hand, in exchange for a long rope of liquorice. On one momentous occasion, however, quite uncharacteristically, he bought two Mars bars at fourpence each without much prior thought and even gave one to Hedley Davis who lived a few doors along from the shop. I knew at once that he had come by the money by foul means rather than fair and it had most likely been uplifted from my mother’s purse. Whatever lay behind the purchase it was a significant one because it wasn’t very often those under twelve or thirteen years of age could be persuaded to spend up large on chocolate items. Chocolate of any kind we usually left to the discretionary spending of the adults around us.

When Aunt Elsie was on shop duty between the hours of nine and five, with a break at lunch time, we were all at liberty to use the long expanse of her side wall that bordered the Old Green for hand stand practice and improving our dexterity for the ball games that required a hard surface. To do so once the shop closed, however, was to invite the wrath of Her George who would appear promptly, red in the face and shouting at us to Clear Off, which we usually did.
By the time I was fourteen Aunt Elsie had died quite suddenly of a stroke and after a while the shop closed because Her George was disinclined to carry on the tradition of service to the public that she had initiated. It turned out that if she had not presented the warmest side of her personality to local children, he positively disliked every single one of us. We were strangely dejected when the slatted wooden blind came down for the final time and we wondered what might have become of the many jars of sweets. Molly said that it was always possible Her George had a reasonably sweet tooth himself.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Northfleet Pubs & Little Links to Social History

Apparently The Black Eagle in Galley Hill Road first opened in 1866 but had definitely closed by the end of 1968 when I decided to visit one evening with my brother and his first wife Janice. A little disheartened, because there is nothing more disheartening than a pub that is definitely closed, ultimately we ended up in the nearby Ingress Tavern which luckily had stood the test of time. I vaguely knew both places from my childhood when on summer evenings my parents once or twice visited on my father’s motorbike, me and Bernard in the side-car. I certainly hadn’t given either much thought in the intervening years though which is perhaps not surprising as each was somewhat devoid of character. Many pubs of that vintage are apt to be so no matter how much we eulogise them later. The nearby Plough in Stonebridge Road and of a similar vintage where a boy in my brother’s class at St Joseph’s had celebrated his twenty first birthday earlier that year in fact underwent several rapid changes to celebrate the new century that unnerved those who knew it well. It became The Cosmopolitan in 2010 and was The Golden Grill by 2012. Perhaps predictably, despite our complaints of drinking venues being dull and dreary none of us are ever terribly enthusiastic about those we remember from our youth changing too much. My friend Margaret had a grandmother who lived in Stonebridge road and said she clearly recalled The Plough at the beginning of the First War, as a place where a group of local lads met up for pints to send them on their way to The Front. They all looked so handsome and so brave, she told us – and yet despite their courage not all of them had survived – the likes of young Freddie Holt and Arthur Deadman for instance and she could she said, name at least a dozen more if she had all her wits about her but at her age memory was fading. She’d only been a slip of a girl herself back then and helped out in the bar at weekends when called upon to do so

Another nearby Northfleet hostelry much favoured by some of our aunts was The Railway Tavern at 69 The High Street that had opened in 1858 and met its demise in 1967 along with a number of similar establishments. Little Nanny from Hamerton Road always found it an acceptable place to visit for half a pint of Milk Stout. She said it had in general been a more genteel place than most. She could never be persuaded to enter The Edinburgh Castle also in The High Street or The Rose in Wood Street, both of which were still thriving a few years ago. Old Nan, our grandmother once was reputed to have descended upon The Edinburgh Castle dressed in her best intent upon just one drink before proceeding onward for an afternoon at Rosherville Gardens, then famous for a variety of entertainments. Unfortunately on this occasion she made the fatal decision to have a second then a third drink and even missed the last train back to Crayford. This, she always felt was a pity, since she had been Dolled Up To The Nines and even sported a brand new hat with an ostrich feather.

I don’t remember much about The Huggens Arms at 10 The Creek which opened in 1860 and apparently changed its name in the 1960s. I recall visiting the place only once in 1955 as a teenager and feeling very nervous. I had dared my boyfriend Barrie to take us there and order us both gin and tonics. Although he was barely sixteen we were served without incident despite looking strangely out of place among the half dozen or so elderly men leaning over the bar who only seemed mildly unsettled by our bursts of giggling. Later I learned that it was said to be one of my father’s favourite places to pop inside from time to time with his latest Bit On The Side on his arm.

The New Blue Anchor at 5 The Creek that closed as long ago as 1908 was definitely spoken of by my grandmother who claimed to have pulled her Edgar out of the place more than once and furthermore said that it was a dead and alive hole which meant little to me. Its only family significance was that apparently it closed in the year my mother was born in the hop gardens at Mereworth. Locally it was known that Old Lil who delivered babies and laid out the dead lived nearby and was in the place twice a week as Regular as Clockwork should anyone wish to converse with her.

Pubs more familiar to us as we grew up in York Road, Northfleet were those that were not in fact Destinations but rather places we dropped into from time to time as we passed, almost becoming an extension of home. Neither of my parents were habitual drinkers and my mother put this down to the fact that both her parents had been alcoholics, a situation that invariably creates ambivalent feelings where alcohol is concerned; nevertheless they were certainly occasional imbibers. In those days when the Wireless was the only form of home entertainment, casual pub visiting was possibly more customary than it is today and with one on every corner, more accessible a pastime than Going to the Pictures. A place that was spoken fondly of by one very elderly neighbour was The Dove which had been on The Hill adjacent to the lychgate of St Botolph’s Church, and sadly burnt down in the early years of the twentieth century, presumably making way for the Infants’ Playground of St Botolph’s School. As a small child old Mrs Beresford had lingered in the doorway frequently, observing her parents consuming quantities of gin. If she complained she was given a drop of gin and water and sometimes fell asleep outside. At other times a complaint might simply result in a clip around the ear. On one momentous occasion she had been completely forgotten about and woke up to find everything still and quiet and had to run home and let herself in the scullery window. She was fearful that it might turn out to be her fault and result in a beating but luckily it didn’t.

A year or two ago, I was cheered to find that The Coach & Horses at 25 The Hill, was still open and serving a hearty Sunday lunch. It was also a remarkably atmospheric place with many of the original features still intact. The proprietor told us that although it was said to date back to the mid-1700s, it had been around since 1686 when it had a different name – The Three Horseshoes. It was the fact that it had been rebuilt in 1764 that caused the confusion. This had been one of my brother’s favourite Inns back in the early 1960s when he proudly introduced me to his first girlfriend Christine, the girl he was going to love for ever. They were both sixteen and lost within an intensely passionate relationship. To Bernard The Coach & Horses was simply the smartest place he knew locally and therefore fit to entertain his Beloved and his sister and so we sat beneath its ancient beams sipping slowly on our vodka, nibbling Smith’s Crisps and trying desperately hard to look sophisticated. When I revisited the place more recently I was impressed both with the way it had stood the test of time with little visible deterioration in its antiquity, and also with the Sunday lunch which was substantial and delicious.

Happily I also discovered that The Leather Bottel at 1 Dover Road and dating from 1706, was also still open for business. However, the inside of the building has been so modernised and upgraded as to be all but destroyed from a historical perspective and completely belies the enticing promise of the exterior. This was my mother’s favourite Local if one of her sisters should suggest a Milk Stout or Half of Mild and a Sunday afternoon gossip. It appears to have been a coaching inn at one stage and apparently it provided excellent stabling. As the adjacent road into Gravesend was said to have been dangerous at the time, presumably eroded by the incessant digging for chalk, it is possible that The Leather Bottel was a convenient place in which to take pause and consider the best progress forward. Back in the early days of the 20th century Little Nanny had been friendly with Martha Johnson, apparently the mother of the then proprieter and told us that coming from Dublin she had found Northfleet a difficult place to settle into. My mother always maintained she wouldn’t have relished being in the building alone because it was haunted by not just one, but two different lost souls and that was why she needed company to visit the upstairs Ladies convenience. A former maid was only seen on the upper floor but downstairs a tall dark man was seen frequently and was said to have committed suicide. At one time The Leather Bottel was the venue for holding inquests into the deaths of those born in the parish and if I had known all this when I was patiently waiting for my mother and aunts outside the place in 1948, devoid of entertainment I might not have squabbled quite so much with my cousin Pat, who was a more patient waiter than me!

Those public houses closest to us we always treated with disdain and in fact my mother who said that you wouldn’t catch her walking into them even if she was dying of thirst. I suspect Little Nanny might have felt the same as they were determinedly lively places with nothing genteel about them. The Prince Albert at 62 Shepherd Street was almost on the corner of York Road and had opened in 1855. This was the place where my friend Pearl whose York Road address was conveniently close by, sent her boyfriend when he was visiting and happened to want to use the Gentlemen’s convenience. She did not want him to know that there were no indoor facilities at her place and thought she would keep him in the dark with this clever ruse. I can only imagine that it confused him further. This pub closed a few years ago and has now been converted to a Pre-school but before this happened I was able to visit one summer afternoon and sit drinking shandy in the recently established tiny courtyard (where the Gents, much visited by Pearl’s boyfriend was situated in the 1950s). A little later I took photos of both the front and rear of the place and the bar staff then took photographs of me simply because they thought it decidedly odd that a stranger should be so taken with a backstreet bar.

The British Volunteer was in Buckingham Road and quite the rowdiest and most popular place in the neighbourhood on Friday and Saturday nights. It opened in 1889 and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the building of flats. But in 1948 it was very much still open for business and my mother’s best friend, Grace Bennett, whose husband frequented the Public Bar regularly told us that it was there her Frank happened to hear that the local council in their stupidity were about to create rose beds and flower gardens in the New House Farm housing estate and what a waste of money it would be. Frank also heard that The Battle of Britain at Shears Green was shortly to open as a Charrington House and suggested he and Grace might pay a visit at the earliest opportunity. Despite the interesting gossip, some of which was more salacious and could not be repeated, my mother could still not be persuaded to patronise The Volly. Even without her patronage, however, it went from strength to strength and at times was so crowded that the patrons spilled out onto the pavement and into the very road itself. The British Volunteer not only went in for Darts matches and illegal betting but also regular sing-songs to keep their decidedly working class clientele happy and the local children for miles around, awake. In its heyday it was quite the most popular public house in the area.

In the late nineteen forties one of our Sunday afternoon destinations was The Fleet Tavern in Waterdales. It was a thoroughly modern and up to date place, having opened in 1938 and it had a Children’s Room for the use of those with baby-sitting problems or the kind of offspring it would not be safe to leave home alone. We went there to meet up with my Uncle Walter, who was my father’s older brother and lived in Waterdales. Sometimes he would bring his wife and two or three of his many children. If that happened, my father would disappear into the Public Bar with him and the rest of us would remain in the Children’s Room. It was all a bit boring once we got over the initial excitement of being given lemonade, sometimes with ice, and a packet of crisps. I solved this by initiating fights with my cousin Georgie who was only there because he was one of those children it was not safe to leave at home. This always worried my cousin Connie who was a year older than me and a very responsible child, possibly she knew that in the end it would definitely be her fault for not coping with the situation properly. Uncle Walter was a very hard taskmaster and I was definitely frightened of him but he had an impressive intellect coupled with very old fashioned ideas. It was he who informed my father during the late 1940s that Wombwell Hall had just been purchased by the Kent Education Committee and would shortly be turned into the kind of girls’ school where those like me and his Connie might be taught a number of housewifely skills that would prove invaluable in years to come.

The Battle of Britain pub increasingly became a weekend destination for families like ours in those years that followed World War Two and the stories concerning how many brave young pilots had made the place their own abounded and the undoubted truth became intermingled with the undoubted fiction about the place. Gravesend air base had become a satellite airfield for Biggin Hill in the early stages of the war under the control of No 11 Group Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain it was the Hurricanes from No 501 Squadron that were primarily using Gravesend. As an eight year old I found it exciting to go there though I was uncomprehending of the history of the place. More interesting to me were the piles of comics and Rupert Bear Annuals on hand for the amusement of young visitors. There was also play equipment in the garden in the form of swings and a slide. This forward thinking of the owners ensured that the place was constantly busy.

I had a poignant reminder of the place a few years back when listening to late night radio in New Zealand. I was enormously cheered when the Midnight To Dawn host, a well-known Maori broadcaster who had just come back from his first visit to England, began to talk about his trip. He said the highlight had been going to a place called Gravesend in North Kent, twenty miles or so from London. He went there he said, not because he had any connections whatsoever with the district, but because he wanted to visit the place where the only battle that was ever fought and won in the air, took place. Over time he had developed a yearning to stand in the nearby fields and look up into the very sky in which it had all happened and cogitate upon those events of WW2. And then he was thrilled to be able to go into the local pub, aptly called The Battle of Britain, a place those young pilots would have undoubtedly been familiar with. He drank a pint of beer and was glad that the pub existed and had been preserved for the memory of that critical point in history!

And I was glad too – glad that an important link to those historical events remained at least as a place where someone from across the globe and completely disconnected, but with a yen to uncover a splinter of modern history could sit and muse and sample English beer. It is therefore difficult to make any sensible comment on the fact that The Battle of Britain has since been demolished.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Sad Demise of Huggens College

Auntie Queenie, my hermaphrodite Aunt who wasn’t really an Aunt at all but a first cousin on my grandfather’s side of the family had very much wanted to be accepted as a resident of Huggens College, or at least that is what she said. Not unexpectedly in the final analysis her application was turned down. My mother said it was because of her unresolved gender, though she didn’t express it quite like that. Great Aunt Martha who lived in Hamerton Road maintained that the place was for more middle class and educated persons who were regular church goers and the indecision about whether she was male or female would not have come into it. My Grandmother said that far be it from her to spread rumour and gossip but if she had been inclined to do so she could tell a story or two about Queenie that would have prevented her ever entering the local fish and chip shop, let alone Huggens College. I wondered what on earth could be so very special about the place, sitting as it did behind what seemed impenetrably high walls. The only people we ever saw coming and going, apart from delivery vans, were elderly ladies carrying shopping baskets or bunches of flowers and walking slowly though purposefully along the High Street.

Until I became friends with Brenda, the oldest daughter of my father’s foreman at the Cement Works, I had never been inside the place but I was increasingly curious as to what might lie behind the rather intimidating exterior. From what I could glimpse of the Gatekeeper’s Lodge, I began to rather fancy living there myself. Once the friendship with Brenda was established I did not have long to wait because her family had a relative in residence who was definitely keen on visitors. It was remarkably easy to become Brenda’s friend because she was not particularly likeable and of a highly nervous disposition which made her mother very anxious about her welfare whilst very much desiring she should make friends with other girls.

Before long we found ourselves visiting her Great Aunt Lavinia together with a basket of vegetables from Brenda’s garden and I was pleased to find that once inside, the place was pleasingly reminiscent of Days Gone By and I felt that we should really be wearing the kind of clothes worn by Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s `The Secret Garden’. I mentioned this to Brenda but she said she’d never read it and asked me why I was whispering. In fact it was a place where whispering came easily, feeling as it did just a little like entering cathedral cloisters. I suggested perhaps playing a game where we pretended to be book characters from long ago but it turned out that Brenda was not really much of a reader and was even dismissive of Enid Blyton which was surprising in 1952 and rather shocked me.

The forty or fifty tidily identical little houses seemed to be built to form a square and they were surrounded by very well kept lawns and gardens. From memory, a further wing faced the river down to which the whole complex gently sloped. There were rows of horse chestnut trees against the walls which I noted would come in very handy should the residents have an urge to play Conkers later on in the year. Though of course this game, mostly favoured by boys was not one that generally involved adults of any age.

Aunt Lavinia looked as if she was expecting us and immediately poured glasses of her home made lemonade which was completely different from any version I had previously experienced and to be honest not entirely to my taste. She was a small plump woman wearing a long muslin dress and a little white lace cap making her very similar in appearance to Great Aunt Martha of Hamerton Road. Her little house, sitting as it did alongside the hustle and bustle of Northfleet High Street, yet clearly quite apart from it, was to my mind rather like a fairy tale cottage. It had an enticing porch entrance into the living room and a kitchen that I believe must have been equipped with a bath because I don’t recall a bath anywhere else. A narrow staircase led up to the bedrooms, the smaller of which our hostess told us was originally intended for maids or companions as so many of the earliest residents preferred not to live alone.

I decided to ask how she came to be living in such a lovely place and if it was totally necessary to be well educated in order to do so. She explained that the cottages were in fact an estate of almshouses, a term that was new to me, and had been built to accommodate genteel ladies of the High Anglican Faith who found themselves in Reduced Circumstances. I didn’t like to ask what she meant by that because it sounded like something I ought to know about so I just listened. She said that one of her mother’s cousins had in fact been a Founder Resident as long ago as 1848 when the College first opened to receive those who had passed the entrance qualifications. Back then each resident was allocated a monthly allowance along with a ton of coal each year. John Huggens the instigator of the idea was a wealthy corn merchant and philanthropist from Sittingbourne and originally the College was going to be built there but try as he might he simply couldn’t get the required permission for the venture no matter how great his financial resources were. It was that misfortune and difficulty that became Northfleet’s gain! He was said by some to be an abrasive man but ultimately became extremely well thought of because he had not only provided homes for the elderly Anglicans but also a chapel with a cottage for the vicar and a croquet lawn for those who enjoyed the game. At the mention of croquet I pricked up my ears because although I had never played the game in my short life and the only thing I knew about the rules was what I had gleaned from Lewis Carroll, it sounded like a splendid opportunity for an extended fantasy that might last for days. It seemed a pity that Brenda was a playmate so lacking in imagination.

Aunt Lavinia went on to say that originally there had been a statue of John Huggens over the entrance gates but that had to be taken down during the war for fear of it falling on someone during the bombing. Later on the gateway itself had been struck by lightning and had to be restored so these days the main gates were only used occasionally and residents and visitors alike were required to enter via one of the smaller entryways in College Road.

She showed us a photograph of John Huggens sitting in an armchair with eight stern looking women around him which she said had been taken when the first cottages were pronounced ready for occupation. Then she showed us another photo of his funeral procession which had apparently been one of the most impressive ever seen in Northfleet or possibly even Gravesend as well with a hearse drawn by six plumed black horses and a young man in front holding a canopy of ostrich feathers. She told us he was buried in St Botolph’s Churchyard and there had been coach after coach of mourners all dressed in black and that after a month or two a Board of Trustees was appointed to run the College. It was said that the Board were not nearly as efficient as Huggens himself had been and the monthly allowance and allocation of coal soon stopped. By the time we were acquainted with all this information about the rather saintly benefactor it had become totally clear to me that my poor Auntie Queenie would never have been an entirely suitable resident and I felt a twinge of regret because it was clear she would have very much enjoyed living in one of the little houses. My brother and I would have definitely appreciated visiting her and perhaps even learning to play croquet whilst she made tea and chatted with our mother.

More than a decade later when attending the first wedding of my young brother I learned from one of the guests that the pretty little almshouses had been rather unwisely built from Kentish Ragstone which was said not to have weathered well but the speaker obviously found that hard to believe saying that it had been used locally for over a thousand years and in fact was the hardest rock in the county. After all neither local churches nor Leeds Castle were in danger of disintegrating were they? It was his belief, the guest said, that there was Much More To It than simple wear and tear of Ragstone. And of course he may well have been right. Nevertheless by 1966 Huggens original College had been largely torn down and a new, smaller complex built in its place with the promise of a brand new chapel but no sign whatsoever of a croquet lawn.

Apparently ten acres of the formerly pristine grounds had been sold to the local council who built flats for pensioners there and named the venture The Wallis Park Estate. In 1969 my mother moved into one of them and with memories of the Huggens College Almshouse still fresh in memory, was excited to do so, leaving 28 York Road behind her without a backward glance. Sadly the move was not a happy one with the delinquent behaviour and vandalism of bored local teenagers almost impossible to put up with. She was more than happy to move on to Pickwick House on the Painters Ash Estate.

At the time I could quite understand the ease with which she left Northfleet. When I had visited her at Wallis Park I found the rapid local changes made it almost impossible to recognize the area as the environs of the old High Street that I had known so well as a child. College Road, Samaritan Grove and Hive Lane all seem to have evaporated along with the myriad of familiar shops and businesses. The last vestige of bygone days was a block of flats called Rayners Court which presumably had been named in honour of the local family of Rayners who had run the hardware store with such fortitude and determination for so many years. It always seemed a great pity to me that the Kentish Ragstone so favoured by John Huggens had weathered quite as badly as it did.