Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The House By The Station In Northfleet

Hamerton Road lay between Station Road and Railway Street and probably still does. It was a hop, skip and a jump from Northfleet Station, so close that you could feel the rush of the trains from the end of Little Nanny’s back garden which was very exciting when the Express careered past headlong towards London. She was actually my Great-great Aunt Martha Irons but I called her Little Nanny because she was very old and very little and because I got muddled up with all the Greats. I was led to believe she was my Grandfather Edgar Constant’s maternal aunt and presumably she had married a Mr Irons but whatever became of him I never knew. We seemed to know very little about her apart from that and the fact that she had at one time lived in the village of Old Betsham, though we had a great deal to do with her when I was growing up. This might have simply been because she lived conveniently close by in Northfleet whereas my mother’s other relatives all seemed to live in Crayford. She visited us regularly every Tuesday afternoon all through the war regardless of air raids and flying bombs. It would have taken more than Adolf Hitler’s fun and games to deter Little Nanny from her walking routine because she had walked every day of her life. She always counted the steps from her house to ours and although I remember them being impressive in number I now completely forget whether they registered in the thousands or tens of thousands. On Thursday mornings we usually walked to her house and then sometimes we all went together on the bus to Gravesend to buy shrimps for tea, or even a crab if my mother was feeling flush.

I liked Little Nanny although her house was rather intimidating to me when I was very young, being taller and somehow more narrow than our own, with steps beside the front door that led down to a dark and mysterious basement where the Bogeyman lived. Later I learned that a fat woman with curlers in her hair lived there and her name was Bridie so I thought she might be married to the Bogeyman or even perhaps his mother. You entered the house directly into the front room just like ours but in Hamerton Road it was always called The Parlour and nobody ever sat in it not even at Christmas. My mother said you would take the Devil by the horns to light a fire in the grate because the chimney had not been swept for thirty years. By contrast our chimney was swept regularly. The Parlour held a great deal of soft furniture covered by dust sheets and several side boards and display cabinets. The sideboards tops were crammed with glass domes under which were a number of stuffed birds and animals. I remember a squirrel and an owl that I tentatively and unimaginatively named Nutkin and Owley. The glass fronted cabinets were home to various china keepsakes from long ago trips to Margate and Ramsgate as well as a grand collection of Bristol Glass Jars that were said to be Worth a Bob or Two. These items vied with each other for space and were too many for me to count. After the war my mother was given the Bristol Glass and I recall her being very pleased and a couple of her sisters sniffing a bit and commenting that they by rights were due to Old Nan.

It gradually became clear to me that although Great-great Aunt Martha seemed fond of me and my mother she was singularly unimpressed with others in the family, most particularly my Grandmother, and my mother’s youngest sister Freda. I knew I was never to address Freda as Aunt because she didn’t deserve any respect but sometimes of course I forgot and then my mother would close her mouth tightly and slightly shake her head in my direction. Freda did not deserve respect because during the war she developed a habit of selling non-existent nylon stockings to Northfleet residents. The money was of course collected in advance of the promised delivery which never actually happened. My mother tolerated this when the sales were confined to Railway Street and Station Road but drew a firm line when it came to Buckingham Road and Tooley Street. Then she maintained she had never been so ashamed in her life and would never be able to hold her head up in Northfleet again. The other reason that Freda deserved no respect was to emerge years later when to everyone’s surprise she unexpectedly gave birth to Baby Susan. Even Old Nan was very nearly Knocked Down By A Feather when that happened. Freda seemed quite pleased with her infant daughter, visiting all and sundry to display her and collecting knitted matinee jackets and bootees at each stop.

Little Nanny never called my mother Nell, like everyone else. It was always Nellie and sometimes even Helen. Somehow this was because she had been brought up Properly and knew how to behave. She certainly presented her four o`clock afternoon teas Properly. Her jam was always put into a little china bowl and you helped yourself with a silver spoon which I never quite got the hang of. Her bread was always thinly sliced and sometimes she made rock cakes that were never like my mother’s whose version always tasted like rocks, or as my cousin Des said, like ship’s biscuits. Little Nanny’s were soft and crumbly and the sultanas were plump and flavoursome. She always poured my tea into a miniature china cup with a design of cherubs that she said were hand painted. I was tempted to name the cherubs but couldn’t think of anything holy enough.

She generally wore black dresses down to the floor and white caps with a lace trim. Her winter coat was black too with a Persian Lamb collar that Old Nan said was probably full of moth and she wouldn’t give it house room herself because she had never held with Persian Lamb. She held with beaver though and once my grandfather had bought her a full length beaver coat with his winnings at Crayford Dogs. My cousin June told me that it was bought second hand and didn’t really count. Generally speaking Old Nan was not welcome in the Hamerton Road house for reasons that were never actually spelled out but had something to do with my grandfather scraping the bottom of a barrel which just had to be endured because not much could be done about it now and after all she was the mother of his kiddies.

Little Nanny could remember things from back in history like when Rosherville had one of the most popular pleasure gardens in the country that had been open to the public for more than seventy years. My closest brush with Rosherville was on the interminable walks back from Gravesend and the presence of a pleasure garden, which I was told was a kind of a fun fair for grown-ups would have made the walk much more bearable had I only known about it at the time. When she had been the same age as me families visited the gardens for the day, coming even down from London on steamers, and because the entrance fee was so high, they brought picnics with them and ate them whilst watching tightrope walkers and firework displays and even a dancing bear at one time. The Gardens had been a magical place back then. I once asked Old Nan if she remembered The Gardens with the dancing bear and she said it had always been a dead and alive place and could get very rough at times. Little Nanny said that was on account of them letting The Likes Of Her inside the gates. It seemed better not to delve into this difference of opinion too deeply and so it was left at that.

As I grew older and Little Nanny’s sight diminished I was detailed to visit her after school once a week to thread needles, always with robust lengths of black thread because her pastime when she wasn’t walking was sewing. She also sewed with an old fashioned machine which she said was going to be left to me When She Went. I wasn’t terribly keen on sewing myself, however, so this promise did not make quite the impression it should have done. She and my mother grew even closer over the years and it was at the Hamerton Road house during afternoon tea that sometimes a great many tears would be shed after the war when my parents ’relationship began to deteriorate. My mother would say that she dreaded getting onto a bus for fear of coming across one of his Fancy Pieces and Great-great Aunt Martha would commiserate and say that she would light candles on Sunday though that didn’t seem to help at all. She also spoke of wanting Helen to move into the Hamerton Road house When She Went and my mother always told her that would be lovely, nothing could be better but later said to me that she was perfectly happy at 28 York Road. This was because after all these years the agents for the landlord, Messrs Porter, Putt & Fletcher, knew her and had her down as reliable. It would not be easy to start again with perhaps a different agent.

The woman called Bridie who lived in the basement with the Bogeyman was also reliable and Little Nanny said she was always prompt with her five shillings a week rent. This was because she was on to a Good Thing for two rooms, a scullery and a share of the outside lavatory and knew which side her Bread was Buttered on. When I stopped believing in things like Tooth Fairies and Bogeymen I learned that Bridie had abandoned her husband who knocked her about when he came back from The Leather Bottle and for the low rent she also cleaned the upstairs rooms occupied by her elderly landlady. Nobody seemed to think she did a very good job with the cleaning but then when you get older and eyesight fails people like Bridie who was a Smarmy Cow are likely to Take Advantage. For years Bridie Kept Herself to Herself but as Little Nanny grew more frail she seemed to become rather more assertive and at times even hostile. When I visited after school with Molly one day to thread needles she met us at the front door and told us to Clear Off because the Poor Old Soul was sleeping. We did clear off but I was then nearly thirteen years old and uneasy about it. My mother visibly bridled when I told her and said she had never trusted that Two Faced Cow and first thing Monday morning she would go round there and Clean Her Rotten. If she actually did so is debatable because Nellie was always a master at blustering but not so good at backing up her indignation with anything concrete. A week or two later at the age of ninety four, Great-great Aunt Martha died and there was continuing drama because somehow or other Bridie failed to put a notice in the paper and it was only by chance her relatives found out where and when the funeral was to be. These unfortunate lapses of memory around funerals seemed to plague our family and Freda said it was most likely because grief does terrible things to people.

Although over the years my grandmother and aunts had had little to do with Martha Irons, they were collectively outraged. Aunts Maud, Mag and Martha spoke for months afterwards about it and maintained that considering how she benefited it wouldn’t have been much to ask for a notice to be put in the Kent Messenger. It would have given them the opportunity to arrange a Proper Send Off. You could have Knocked Old Nan For Six when she found there was to be only tea at the Wake and not a solitary drop of Gin. Aunt Mag said quite sensibly that maybe we should thank the Lord there was a Wake at all although she did think that Nell, being the Favourite after all, should have made it her business to find out. But my mother was bewildered and kept wondering why Bridie never handed over the Victorian sewing machine that had been promised to me. However, she took comfort from the fact that the wind would soon be taken out of that Brazen Cow’s sails when she was thrown out on her ear. But that did not actually happen because of an astonishing development. Somehow or other and Old Nan could never for the life of her fathom why Nobody Had Twigged, it had escaped our collective notice that far from being the tenant of the house in Hamerton Road, Great-great Aunt Martha appeared to be the owner. In a sudden Will made several months before she died she passed it on to Dearest Bridie Who Had Always Been Such a Support & Comfort.

Friday, 24 February 2017

A Constant Approach To Matrimony

My Constant cousins all seemed to be getting married from 1953 onwards and once my services were even required as a bridesmaid which should have been exciting and perhaps would have been a few years previously when playing Weddings was a popular game between the under twelves of York Road, Buckingham Road and Tooley Street. In those days the most testing aspect of that particular game was persuading a Real Live Boy to play. Colin Bardoe could always be relied upon but was generally demanding about what the bride wore and his twin, Alan was never all that keen in the first place. I remember we were all most impressed when Kathleen McCarthy whose parents ran The Queen’s Head on the Hill and were thought to be well off, was bridesmaid at a family wedding and had her hair permed for the occasion. She consented to answer a lot of questions and told us that the dress she was to wear was pale blue velvet with a sweetheart neckline. Colin was very positive with regard to this description.

When my older cousin Margery got married to Jock who was very handsome and drove a red sports car, the dress I was to wear was disappointing to say the least. A cast off from yet another wedding from her father’s side of the family, slightly grubby acquamarine imitation satin and rather too small for me. Aunt Madge said I was piling on the pounds but we all knew that as a fourteen year old I shouldn’t be trying to force myself into a dress more suitable for someone of eleven. Margery wondered if we could let it out and my mother said she would try which horrified me. As I have said before, she was enthusiastic but had no talent for dressmaking.

The wedding was fairly uneventful except that I managed to get very drunk on gin and had to be almost carried back to the house in Iron Mill Lane and put to bed with instant coffee. A year or two later the happy couple decided they were not meant for each other after all and parted in what seemed to be an amicable fashion. This Simply Wasn’t Done in the mid fifties particularly in Roman Catholic families and so of course not only did the neighbours gossip but the immediate family gossiped even more in hushed and horrified whispers. Because ours was a family where intimate matters were not openly discussed at all lies and fabrications were thus piled onto secrets. I was more recently surprised to find that in certain corners of the family this is still happening today when we tend to live within a far less surreptitious, cloak and dagger environment. My mother and Old Nan both blamed the man Margery worked for, known simply as The Boss at that time, because at Easter and Whitsun he whisked her off to Paris to help him take care of urgent jobs that simply couldn’t wait until after the Bank Holiday. Old Nan said everybody knew exactly what kind of jobs they would be and not only my mother agreed, but several other aunts also. Those who knew more details added that it was his poor wife they felt sorry for. Margery’s own mother, Aunt Madge was tight lipped and held her head firmly in the air humming We’ll Gather Lilacs.

My cousin Pat was married in a great hurry at about the same time though she was only just sixteen and we all pretended not to know that she was, as Old Nan put it, In The Pudding Club. One of my older male cousins described this as Being Up The Duff which none of us really understood at that time but then he was in the Merchant Navy and came out with a lot of odd statements. The only bridesmaid she had was Little Violet who did not get a great many treats and was highly excited in a pink crochet dress generously made by one of the aunts. Less than two months later Pat gave birth to baby Sharon causing all the aunts to forget their previous censure and disapproval and vie with each other for turns holding the newborn. Pat, despite all predictions of doom and gloom for her possible future, remained married and had several more children.

When Cousin June walked up the aisle a great deal was expected of the arrangements for the Do afterwards. June had issued various appeals on the invitations to the guests concerning such matters as not wearing what she described as Dangly Ear Rings or colours that were too bright. My mother said that if any more demands were made then she wouldn’t go at all but we all knew she didn’t mean it. June’s wedding differed from those we were accustomed to in that there was no Sit Down Wedding Breakfast but a great many cocktail sausages and cheese on sticks instead, and only beer and wine to drink. A live band played subdued music and nobody was allowed to dance the Conger Eel. Many of the guests were disappointed but shortly after the event the newly weds disappeared to South Africa and were not seen again for many years. Aunt Maud then read excerpts to us from June’s letters home, especially bits that said she had a Girl coming in each week to do the ironing and the heavy work. The aunts whispered among themselves that it was a Black Girl that was being referred to because Over There the Whites were not allowed to do any real work. Old Nan said she’d be buggered if she’d want one anyway and as for herself she had always been capable of doing her own ironing. Everyone knew that she didn’t know one end of an iron from the other but of course nobody said that in her hearing.

When mutterings were made about whether I would be Next I said nothing having very recently discarded my first boyfriend Barrie of the Flint House in Springhead Road. Aunt Madge observed in rather acerbic tones that I would have to get myself a Young Man first and one of the others tut tutted that I was No Longer Courting. My mother said not for the first time that it was unlikely I would do any better than Him Who I Dumped and I was a fool but then I always had been apparently. Later when the visiting relatives had gone back to Crayford she remarked in a clearly aggravated tone that she could have done without Madge’s opinions considering what became of the marriage of her Margery and Jock who very soon was known as That Poor Sod Jock. It rapidly became clear over the next few weeks that Margery was now living at The Boss’s new flat in Old Bexley and that his wife and children had refused to leave the house. Aunt Martha said you could hardly blame them and still referred to him as The Boss even though he had now become Ron. This state of affairs caused even greater consternation within the family who despite their more than humble origins were generally unified in turning a staunchly upright and moral front to the world in general. To her credit, with the ongoing support of her steadfastly loyal parents, Margery ignored the wagging tongues and continued to regularly pay visits to the family even when she seemed to be strangely gaining a great deal of weight and had swapped dirndl skirts and high heels for stretchy Swiss knit suits and sensible flat shoes. Nobody openly discussed her Condition and when she visited with baby Nigel a couple of months later my mother rather inappropriately queried if she would perhaps consider going back to Poor Jock now if he would allow her to take her baby with her. Margery said definitely not and added that she was considering moving away from Crayford altogether.

When the old Vicarage by St Botolph’s Church on The Hill was demolished and a number of smart and modern houses built in its place, the little enclave was called Vicarage Drive. My mother had observed the annihilation of the Vicarage with some regret but when Margery burst through the front door of 28 York Road one afternoon to say that she and Ron had just bought one of the Vicarage Drive homes there was rejoicing over the teacups and I was informed of this exciting development with all due haste. When I innocently enquired if that meant they were now actually married my mother reverted back several years and said Layos For Meddlers which I thought yet another inappropriate response considering I was now grown up. Whether or when they finally entered the state of matrimony is still unknown because it is not something anyone ever spoke of, particularly when Ron proceeded to shed his original persona as a Bit Of A Wide Boy and become a successful businessman. He and Margery certainly stayed together for a long time and had three children, each one born in Vicarage Drive and each greatly loved by my mother who did the family babysitting with her usual enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Walking Back From Gravesend

Sometimes when I was still quite young, perhaps under five years of age, instead of taking the bus back from Gravesend, we walked and I always complained bitterly because the journey seemed overly long and mostly tedious. There were times when I was pushed in my pushchair because we had walked both ways. In those days pushchairs were less mobile and not taken onto buses unless the situation was dire because there were conductors who seemed to greatly disapprove; at least that was my impression. Anyhow, my mother largely ignored my complaints and whether I was forced to walk or being pushed when we almost reached the Pier Road point of The Overcliffe, she would point out the Northfleet Parish boundary stone and tell me to stop grizzling because now we were back in Northfleet again. I never believed her because I knew we were entering Rosherville and that still seemed to me to be far away from Northfleet. From time to time we stopped off in Burch Road to visit a woman who had married my Uncle Arthur Steele who had previously been married to my mother’s younger sister Poor Vi who like another sister, Poor Phyllis, had died in childbirth. Poor Vi had just given birth to Little Doris who, unlike Poor Phyllis’s daughter Little Violet, was not forced to live with Old Nan ever after, but was passed around the family who all had turns of her. We had two turns and as she and I did not get along at all there was a great deal of relief when she was bundled onwards to her next foster mother. Little Doris had lovely curly hair which reminded everyone of Shirley Temple and I clearly recall a game of hairdressers when some of the curls might have been cut off. Meanwhile her father had remarried to a large and domineering woman called Edna who had an equally large and domineering daughter called Josie and a previous husband who had somehow been Lost in an Accident Before The War. My mother was very keen to persuade this new Aunt Edna, to take responsibility for the future nurturing of Little Doris but Aunt Edna was not so keen. The problem seemed to be Her Josie who needed to be an Only Child on account of being Delicate. Old Nan said, `Delicate my Arse – what she needs is a good kick up the Jacksie’ and there the matter rested for the time being which I cannot help thinking was probably fortunate for Little Doris.

Old Nan said that once, long ago there had been a very posh hotel at the bottom of Burch Road, a proper hotel with bedrooms that you could hire and sleep in upstairs and a lounge downstairs with red carpets and a bar that sold all manner of drinks, not just gin and whiskey. She said you wore your Sunday Best to go there and that one time when she and her Edgar had won at the races they went in there on a Saturday evening and had a few. She had entertained everyone in the bar with her singing. A week later she went back and sought out the Manager to tell him she would not be averse to singing for them on a regular basis but he said No, not to bother. Her Edgar had told her it was a silly idea but she wasn’t good at listening to him. Her Edgar was my grandfather, dead from a heart condition and mostly a mystery to me.

I quite liked some of the buildings that we passed as we walked towards Northfleet. There was a tall and square brick building that was the Ministry of Labour Employment Exchange and it had separate entrances for men and women so for a long time I thought it was a school for much older people, who could already read and write and knew the capitals of countries. This was simply because I knew that at St Botolph’s school where I would be going as soon as I was five, there were separate playgrounds for the boys and the girls. Molly Freeman was already a pupil and had told me all about the place. Near St Marks Church we came upon the typical late 1920s style shopping centre always called The Parade by my mother. There was a fish and chips shop on the corner where we sometimes bought three pennyworth of chips to sustain us on the rest of the walk and then Mrs Kean’s Haberdashery where you could buy elastic and buttons and odd bits of felt and cotton. My Aunt Maud once rushed in there for a couple of pins because her knicker elastic had snapped while walking around Gravesend Market and she said that soon her drawers would be round her ankles to which Old Nan made some remark so rude that neither my mother or aunt spoke to her for the rest of the afternoon. Mr Reason, the grocer was a bit further on and from time to time when feeling flush a few slices of ham would be bought for our tea, especially if one of the relatives was coming back to have their tea at our place because it was agreed that Mr Reason had the best ham in the district. Once or twice, when accompanied by other members of the family we even paid a visit to the nearby cafĂ© the name of which is long forgotten and had cups of tea from a big brown pot. Then if one of my cousins was present we would whine and nag until a plate of biscuits appeared in the middle of the table and we were told we were Greedy Little Buggers. I remember also Jo-Anne’s Hairdressers close by where my Aunt Martha once had a Wave and Set causing my mother to shake her head at the extravagance of it all. Years later Pearl Banfield told me she always had her hair shampooed and set there on Saturday mornings because it was a great pity if she couldn’t do that after working all week. When she got married she vowed she would continue to do so come what may. Further on but on the other side of the road was a Post Office and a general store which we never visited but where the owner did his own deliveries on his old fashioned bike with a large wicker basket on the front. There was also a little school badly damaged early in the war standing defiantly on the ridge and looking as if it was prepared to take on anything Hitler could dream up. It was constructed partly from flint like my future boyfriend Barrie’s house in Springhead Road and it stood perilously close to the chalk pit and alongside it were a number of grand detached houses overlooking the river. I used to linger as we passed these houses, greatly admiring them and contemplating even then what kind of bathrooms they might have. My Aunt Maud said you could never tell what the insides of places like that were like and some folk who should know better were filthy in their habits. There were people living in Crayford Council Houses where the khazi wasn’t fit to enter unless you held your breath. Old Nan said she didn’t hold with inside khazis anyway because it stood to reason. She also told me I was a Right Brahman and needed to be Told. I didn’t know what this meant but realised it was not complimentary.

If we were by ourselves, to keep me amused as we got closer to home my mother would tell me the same stories each time we did this walk. The house at Number 11 London Road belonged to John Lincoln the chemist who had two shops, one in Dover Road and the other in Northfleet High Street and he was a very rich man but said to be tight with his money. He was choosy she said about who he extended credit to and only showed leniency to the rich, never to the poor. In other words, she elaborated, He Wouldn’t Give His Shit To The Crows! Next door to him was Dr Outred at De Warren House, he who had saved my life when I was four and was to kill my father when I was eleven. He probably later also had blood on his hands regarding the death of Mr Davis of Tooley Street because didn’t he drop dead inside the chemist’s shop having just come from the doctor? Though had he not had to wait so long for his prescription things might have turned out differently so there the blame should probably be shared. All this slightly convoluted reasoning I concluded years later at a stage when walks back from Gravesend were not quite as draining. Very shortly I knew we would reach the house known as Fernbank that had recently become the first Northfleet Branch Library which my father would within a year or two insist that I join and which afforded me information and amusement for years into the future. But this was in that time when I had not yet become a Borrower and Fernbank seemed simply another grand house, belonging to grand people with front lawns and flower beds, people who often employed others to do their housework and even their gardening, people who my mother firmly maintained were, `Better Than Us.’

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Hill, Northfleet

I read somewhere quite recently that The Hill was once famous in the world of transport. This is very hard to believe of course but apparently in the late nineteenth century it was the site of the first electric tramway in Europe to operate on what was known as the Series System. This was something to do with the way the rails were constructed and enabled the current to be more efficient thus reducing operating costs. The route for this endeavour wasn’t terribly long and only ran from The Hill to Huggens College where you got off if you wanted to go to the station. Apparently during the experimental stage local children were given free rides. Sadly the system did not last long and was abandoned in favour of a return to horse drawn vehicles after a year or two.

During my time at St Botolph’s School the whole area still retained a village feel with old fashioned shops giving old fashioned service. Most prominent was Penney, Son & Parker’s who were general grocers and also sold some fruit and vegetables. Many day to day items were sold loose, dried fruit and sugar being twirled into red and blue cones of soft paper. Biscuits were weighed and sold in brown paper bags. We always bought broken biscuits because they were cheaper and to me more exciting as you never quite knew what you were going to get. Occasionally when Old Nan came visiting with my motherless cousin Little Violet she would send us up to buy half a pound of custard creams and we would always eat one each on the way home and strenuously deny the misdeed when she called us Lying Little Buggers. Little Violet’s mother, Poor Phyllis had died in childbirth from the effects of TB which was a condition we were all fearful of. Everyone felt sorry for Little Violet because not only was she motherless but we were told that her father had Buggered Off too. I was sorry for her mostly because she had to live with Old Nan.
Next to Penny, Son & Parkers’ was Eggletons selling newspapers and magazines and jars of bulls eyes and pear drops. From time to time they also sold Liquorice Wood, looking like wood and tasting like liquorice and Locust Beans, tasting like dried figs only worse and full of maggots. Later on they also sold Bubblegum and Sherbert Dabs. Trotts, next door, sold a few electrical items and also did repairs to irons and radios and wasn’t of the slightest interest to any child under twelve, neither was Jennings the butcher on the corner. Apparently they had their own slaughterhouse out the back and that gave Old Nan The Creeps because the place reminded her of Sweeny Todd. When the story was explained to me I was so terrified I point blank refused to go onto the premises at all to ask for ten pennyworth of scrag end and some bones for the dog. Towards the end of the week my mother, running short of cash elected to send me on errands rather than go herself telling me to wait until the shop was empty before going in. I hated that particular chore, most especially as the butcher knew very well we didn’t have a dog.

The circle in front of St Botolph’s church was once the Village Green apparently equipped with a proper Well and Stocks. When I was a child the most enticing place was Harris the Bakers always with a selection of cream buns and doughnuts on display to tempt the palette. I was not nearly as keen on loitering near Horlocks the Undertakers who in 1951 arranged the burial of my father though of necessity I passed by the place each morning on my way to school.
The central point of the old Village Green was the Lychgate to the old church yard and the ancient church where we played frequently after school even though we were repeatedly told not to. Next to the churchyard I remember a row of ancient weatherboarded cottages, one of which had been a shop at one time. Old Ada lived in one of them until her death at the age of ninety and we children were afraid of her and thought she might be a witch. Jennifer Berryman maintained that she saw her once on her doorstep talking to The Devil. It was an alarming idea but as Molly Freeman told me, it had to be remembered that Jennifer was fanciful and once said she had seen two angels in her Gran’s back garden. Nearby was Dr Crawford’s surgery and you consulted him if you were not a patient of Dr Outred who worked out of De Warren House on the London Road. We always went to Dr Outred though later my mother was to maintain that it was him that killed My Poor Father when he failed to notice it was Acute Hepatitis he had and not The Flu. Even so, she did not even then abandon him in favour of Dr Crawford because he had saved my life when I was four and suffering from Pneumonia. He organised this saving of my life by going to the Hospital Pharmacy to get some Penicillin.

I remember only two pubs on the Village Green though there were probably more. The most atmospheric was then and still is The Coach and Horses said to date from the 1500s. From time to time my father would take my mother there to drink Gin & Orange whilst I sat outside minding my brother in his push chair and eating a packet of crisps. When he reached his sixteenth birthday and was eager to introduce me to his very first girlfriend, Christine, we repaired to The Coach and Horses once again only this time we went inside and drank Vodka and Lemonade. On the other side of the road, facing the War Memorial was The Queen’s Head and for several years Kathleen McCarthy’s parents ran the pub. She had red hair and went to the Catholic School and was always held up to me as a paragon of virtue most particularly by my father. Needless to say I did not like her terribly much.
Revisiting the area a year or two ago I was sad to see so many changes but fundamentally traces of the old Village Centre still remain if you have the Will to see them.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Your St Botolph's Stories.....

There must be others who have some really interesting Starting School experiences....why not document them?

Embarking on Education At St Botolph's

I was enrolled at St Botolph’s School in September 1945 by my mother much against the wishes of my staunchly Roman Catholic Father who had not yet returned from serving in the Eighth Army. When he did return there were many Words about it because quite apart from the differing spiritual dimension, the Catholic School was a mere hop, skip and jump from our backyard and altogether much more convenient. It wasn’t as if my mother was a follower of a different faith, she had been brought up within a large and dysfunctional family that was steeped in Catholicism but where religion was concerned she was known to vacillate wildly. For that reason my brother was baptised as an Anglican, I was baptised twice and both of us were regularly sent to various Fundamental Christian Sunday Schools. As if all that wasn’t confusing enough we were also required to attend eleven am Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church on The Hill, a tall and forbidding building that I intensely disliked. By way of contrast, St Botolph’s Church was a breath of fresh air, its interior always welcoming. After a shaky start I enjoyed my time at the adjacent school and for the most part during those formative years, there I was allowed to remain. The school had first opened at the side of the churchyard and perilously close to the chalk pit in 1838 and remained relatively unchanged for a hundred years. Electricity was not installed until June 1938 but in 1977 sadly, as far as former students like myself were concerned, the place disappeared from its old site to an entirely new location in Dover Road. When I last visited the site a year or two ago, the old school buildings were mostly demolished and an air of gloom and melancholy seemed to pervade the space where the classrooms once had been. But long ago it was for most of us, largely a happy place in those years between 1945 and 1951. The alternative for those who did not identify either as Catholics or Anglicans was the local Council establishment, known as The Board School where I was told the students were a Rough and Ready Lot and regularly attracted the attention of The School Board Man. My maternal Grandmother, Old Nan, did not hold with school at all having never attended at any stage herself but even she was fearful of The School Board Man and said she’d had Many a Run In with him years before. During my first couple of years at St Botolph’s Mr Tilley was Headmaster and I knew him only as a distant and Very Important Person. I started on the same day as my best friend Molly’s younger brother. It would be fair to say that the only thing Georgie and I had in common was his sister, but on that day in September 1945 we sat companionably together crying loudly and piteously for in those times our mothers were told to simply disappear and not return until three pm. There were no pre-visits to the infant classroom to help us adjust and in fact I don’t believe for a moment that any parent would have deemed it necessary. Going to school was simply a traumatic adjustment that you were expected to cope with like everybody else and little fuss was made about it. The Year One teacher at that time was Miss Honor, a young, tall and slender woman with long blonde hair that curled below her shoulders. She wore a smock over a smart plaid skirt and sometimes rode a bike with a basket on the front. When I managed to stop crying, after a day or two, I found I liked her very much. I liked her even more some weeks later when I heard her discussing me with the Year Two teacher, Mrs Johnson. Miss Honor had decided I could not be my mother’s natural child. She thought I must be adopted. I should state here and now that this was largely because of my mother and I being ardent followers of the BBC and not because of innate scholastic brilliance. In our house the radio was on all day long and much of the night and even curled up in bed I was still able to hear it. As far as the presumed adoption was concerned, Mrs Johnson seemed to be in full agreement with Miss Honor and said it was a Phenomena. They did not often come across children like me. I glowed with pride though I was not entirely sure what adoption meant and certainly did not understand the idea of a Phenomena. I was hopeful that I might be being singled out because of my cleverness with recognition of upper and lower case letters, or my familiarity with the day to day doings of various animal families such as rabbits or squirrels in the books that were read to us or even perhaps my ability to count up to fifty. But I rapidly came to realise that my only area of talent appeared to lie with the fact that I was speaking Correct English. Just like someone on the Wireless, Miss Honor observed and despite the disappointment as far as early academic success was concerned this gave me a definite jolt of smug self importance. I immediately decided to devote even more attention to the BBC, especially The Shipping Forecast which was quite a favourite of mine at the time. Mrs Johnson looked at me approvingly and said she would be glad to have me in her class next year and as soon as school finished that day I asked my mother if I was indeed adopted and she reassured me that of course I was not and that she didn’t hold with adoption because you never knew how they would turn out, it was a mystery. Once the fundamentals of adoption were explained to me, however, I told everyone who would listen that I was an Adopted Child and nobody knew how I would Turn Out because it was a Mystery. This eventually became ever more confusing for everyone involved in this odd deception including myself. If these two infant teachers were waiting for me to display further ability of an intellectual nature to add conviction to the idea that I somehow or other came from an upper echelon of society they were sadly disappointed. For the next two years I did nothing to distinguish myself except show off my secondary talent, that being an ability to recite prayers and sing religious songs. My mother had a weakness for prayers and a very good singing voice. I could also sing Edwardian Music Hall items a la Marie Lloyd and Nesta Tilley faultlessly but at the age of six wisely decided Bless This House and Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam were safer choices. In Year Three I went into Mrs. Allen’s class and she was a no nonsense woman who got a handle on me almost immediately. Her knowledge increased ten fold when my father for some reason best known to himself decided to acquaint her with just how difficult and contrary I was at home and from then on she treated me accordingly and I was punished, most of the time physically, for every slight misdemeanour. One day she even advised me to Stop That Stupid Affected Manner Of Speech, causing me a great deal of offence and ensuring that our pupil-teacher relationship reached a new low. I very much looked forward to becoming old enough to transfer into Miss Biggs’ class where I pledged to myself I would give less time to the BBC and please my mother by acquiring more friends. Never having had much luck with friendship herself, she was most anxious for me to do better in this respect but so far there had been little rapport between me and the rest of the class. Many years later when I already had children of my own, one of whom appeared to be suffering from a similar problem, we discussed these early social problems that seemed to afflict me. In her old age she was direct, unambiguous. `Your problem has always been you are much too quarrelsome – you were then and you are now. That’s always been your problem and always will be!’ I elected not to argue though I didn’t for one moment agree and instead thought back to the painful year in Mrs Allen’s class. One day I plucked up the courage to directly ask a new and so far friendless girl called Erica if she would like to be my Best Friend. She looked me briefly up and down and then shook her head. `Why not?’ I wanted to know. She hesitated for a second or two and said, `Because you talk too daft – and anyway I don’t like you.’ At the age of seven this was demoralizing and a distinct blow to my confidence.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Recording of Reminiscences.....

My recent posts about growing up in Northfleet in the 1940s and 1950s have elicited literally dozens of really lovely comments from others who remember those times or who have a family link to them. I have tried to acknowledge each of them though sometimes this isn’t possible because somehow or other I manage to `lose’ the original response and not being technically all that competent I fail to find it again! At times my own memory of what happened over sixty years ago does not strictly co-incide with other people’s, where for example I have muddled up certain members of an extended family and peremptorily made them a member of an organisation (the much hated Brownies for instance) when they never were! Or I have given a harassed housewife seven children when she had only three, or dogmatically stated a neighbour worked in the coal industry when he was in fact a butcher. Regrettably this is the way a memoir works and perhaps it is the downside of reminiscences because we will all recall eras and incidents somewhat differently. I have, however, tried to stay true to the mood and atmosphere of the times and candidly represent how families like mine, situated at the very bottom of the social heap, conducted their lives, how they reacted to important issues and the language they used to express their thoughts. Expressions and terminologies that were acceptable then would certainly not be tolerable in these more progressive times where hate speech is fully understood and same sex marriage and gender choice simply an option depending upon preference. We have all changed significantly in the ensuing years and for some of us how things used to be is irrelevant. For me though it has seemed valuable to document a degree or two of the differences that existed back then, our acceptance of what Life dealt to us, our attitudes to social change perhaps. Soon all direct memory of the time I write about will be gone for ever and then it will be too late to do so.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Speaking Of Springhead Road

There was once a definite feeling that those living in Springhead Road were a Cut Above the rest of us, and it’s easy to see why because even these days the houses have retained an ambiance of solidity and permanence whereas many in the surrounding streets have gone for ever. Back in 1949 they seemed very nearly elegant though you have to understand that this particular opinion arose from a York Road perspective and in the mind of a nine year old. As far as I was concerned any home that was entered by a narrow entrance passage called The Hall was seen to be hurtling towards the Upper Middle Classes. A bath that did not have to be detached from an outside wall every Saturday night spoke volumes about lavish comfort to me and I think I would have found Coronation Street and its inhabitants verging on Upper Class but of course they were destined to remain in the future for decades to come. My mother firmly maintained that where you kept your bath, whether outside or inside, didn’t make you any cleaner than the next man but I think she missed the point because it wasn’t simply a matter of cleanliness. As a teenager I was impressed that my first boyfriend, Barrie Wallwork lived at No 10 Springhead Road in a solid looking flintstone house that I am certain had a Front Hall and a properly plumbed inside bathroom. I can’t be totally sure about this because I never got further than the kitchen and that was on one solitary occasion because Barrie’s mother was not particularly welcoming. My own mother was initially equally guarded about the relationship which was perhaps understandable as from memory I think we were only fifteen years old at the time of our Great Affair but she too admired the house and rapidly decided that I was unlikely to Do Better Than Him. Years later I discovered from Barrie himself that the Wallworks were not actually the proud owners of this impressive Flint Construction – it had merely come with his father’s job! The Scutts family lived at No 15 and I only remember Barbara who may well have been an only child. Several of the women in York Road regarded her as Old Fashioned, a state that seemed to apply only to female children and generally went with being either an only child or the youngest in the family. Barbara wore the kind of clothes that lesser mortals like myself, greatly admired – angora boleros, smocked dresses, white socks, patent shoes and of course the inevitable statement denoting the fashion conscious under twelve of the era – embroidered felt Dutch Bonnets. I both envied and disliked her but attempted to cultivate her friendship at the same time so that when we played Call In Skipping Rope games (Vote, Vote, Vote For Dear Old…….?) I always called Barbara into the rope and hoped she would remember the favour. She never did of course and in fact treated me with growing contempt. On one inauspicious day in a fit of showing off that wasn’t repeated for a long time, I had an argument with her mother who said I was a Cheeky Little Cow and quite unexpectedly smacked my face. It was all to do with me maintaining that I was not responsible for some misdemeanour concerning chalked drawings on their front steps and that I had witnesses to prove it. She took exception to me using the term Witnesses. As I recall, my own mother reacted badly to the slap and there were threats to call the local Police but that came to nothing and so the situation did not escalate further. After all the fuss it did not seem a good idea to admit that I had in fact actually been responsible for the drawings. Alice Gouge lived at No 24 and Mary Gouge who was presumably her daughter, went to St Botolph’s School and was treated with more respect than the rest of us because her uncle was Sir Arthur Gouge and famous. We were not entirely sure what he was famous for but it appeared to be something to do with flying. My father said I wasn’t to muddle him up with Landed Gentry because he was in fact Only A Life Peer. I had no idea whatsoever what either of these terms meant and it was to be a long time before I could see the dichotomy of Landed Gentry living at 24 Springhead Road no matter how upmarket I considered the house to be in 1949. Doris and Roy Snelling lived at No 40, relatives of Margaret Snelling who lived near the station at Northfleet and was to become a close friend when I transferred to Northfleet Secondary School For Girls. It was to Margaret’s house I was invited on the occasion of her cousin Philip’s fourth birthday and so attended my very first birthday party. Our family, large and diverse though it was, was definitely not big on celebrating rites of passage like birthdays. At Philip’s birthday we were served with both red and green jelly topped with Libby’s Milk and there was a birthday cake in the shape of a train made by his grandmother. I was most impressed knowing that my own grandmother, Old Nan Constant would have been both disinclined and incapable of producing such an exotic item. Shortly afterwards I went to the second birthday party of my life given by Jean Taylor’s family who lived in the hastily erected post-war Prefabs in Meadow Road at the bottom of Springhead Road. Jean was best friends with Wendy Selves who lived in the other Prefabs close by in Orchard Road. Both girls were well behaved and diligent as far as school work was concerned and had their hair put into painful curling rags each night so they arrived at school every morning sporting impressive ringlets. The ringlets were never quite as remarkable on rainy days of course. The Campbells lived at No 42 Springhead Road with three daughters in their twenties, each of them a little immature. They were called Iris, Phyllis and Kathleen and two of them eventually ran the newly established Brownie Pack at St Botolph’s Church that my mother, to my horror, suggested I might like to join. My experiences with Brownies were not happy ones but fortunately I managed to persuade her that it was not a good idea as I was rapidly becoming too old for Brownies. Fred and Ethel Finch lived at 79 where Ethel taught piano. Greatly admiring those children who entered her front door clutching their music cases, I took to sitting on the Finch front wall to listen whilst the students each belted out A Carnival In Paris mostly in a fairly pedestrian and unmusical manner. After a week or two Mrs Finch told me to move on. 83 Springhead Road was the site of Simms’ shop where we bought newspapers, sweets and ice cream because it was in fact the closest shop to us, though my mother maintained she had never had much time for Hilda Simms and couldn’t overlook her behaviour with coupons during the war. Further down Springhead Road on the left hand side before the railway overbridge and adjacent to the driveway into the Catholic School, a most unsavoury character lived with his wife and small daughters though in a house that would certainly have had an inside bathroom . At least when we curiously scrutinized the layout of the rear of the place there appeared to be no zinc bath hanging anywhere. This was a man whose name is long forgotten and maybe I never knew it. Some people said he had once been a schoolteacher in one of the Medway towns but that assertion may well have simply emerged from a desire to make a bad situation even worse. He was a large, untidy, gingery individual always wearing a grubby pale raincoat who used to follow small girls around the local alleyways, preferably as darkness was falling. Although he was renowned for this behaviour nobody had so far reported him to the local Police though we children were warned to hurry away if we found ourselves on the receiving end of this peculiar habit of his. This advice went unheeded a lot of the time because the excitement of leading him a merry dance around the local alleyways was intense. Once Molly and I managed to entice him into St Botolph’s churchyard and with baited breath waited to see what would happen next. When he came close and actually spoke about a kitten he had in his pocket we took to our heels and ran off through to Church Path at the back of the school and reached home breathless and elated. None of this detail was ever shared with our parents of course although this miscreant in our midst was frequently discussed between neighbours. Mrs Newberry from next door commented that it was his poor wife she felt sorry for but my mother was pitiless and said the woman seemed dozy to her and anyhow dozy or not she had made her bed and on it she would have to lie come what may even though there were little kiddies to be considered. The dozy wife and little kiddies were largely ignored in the neighbourhood and eyes were averted from all members of the family in Hilda Simms’ corner shop where the man bought his tobacco or at Penney Son & Parker, the grocer on The Hill where his wife shopped. There were of course no supermarkets at this time to add the slightest dimension of anonymity for those shoppers with a yen for it. The London trains went under the Springhead Road Bridge and in those days all of them seemed to be steam trains. I recall now with ever mounting horror the game of First Across The Line Is A Cissy and though this was a pastime largely confined to the older boys, foolhardy girls desperate for attention such as myself occasionally played it, presumably hoping to gain some kudos in the local child community. In my case I was rewarded with no esteem whatsoever and boys like Kenny Bardoe still looked disdainfully down upon me. Cat & Mouse games involving transport were, however, generally popular at the time and I clearly remember the exhilaration of tempting the 495 and the 496 buses to dare to hit me when I dashed out in front of them as they gathered speed on the hill leading down to The Old Rec. The alarm on the drivers’ faces was so gratifying and the rush of power so pleasing that this hazardous game was played again and again. Strangely the Recreation Ground was not considered to hold much worth as a place to play, except with boys who wanted to kick balls, but the cemetery alongside it held far more possibilities and organised sessions of old fashioned Hide & Seek were regularly held there and as we grew older, Kiss Chase also. Pat Turner lived somewhere at the bottom of Springhead Road and I think she was a pupil at the Catholic School but she came regularly to play with us on The Old Green and the back alleyways around York Road. Years later as a young teenager she became engaged to Colin, one of the Bardoe twins, and importantly communicated this information to us looking very slim and smart in a new red coat with a velvet collar. She said that Colin was a wonderful fiancĂ© because he advised her which colours and styles looked best on her and she was anxious to always look well turned out. In those days what is now known as The Old Rectory was then called Gemmels’ Farm and those families who engaged in field work, such as ourselves, worked regularly for them picking peas and beans and digging potatoes. Years would pass before Christine, my brother’s first girlfriend and her family would occupy a cottage in the same area of Springhead Road as Gemmels’ and by that time I imagine her childhood experiences of the district would differ vastly from my own.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Shepherd Street Shenanigans

Shepherd Street seemed a lively place where almost anything could happen and this was mostly because a large number of the roughest boys at St Botolph’s School gave it as their address. It would never have been the first choice for a game of Knock On Doors & Run Away in case one of those boys happened to observe the activity and take it up at school the following day. We knew relatively few of the people who lived there first and foremost because they were placed just a bit too far away from us for ease of brief chats over garden fences or at front doors. Apart from that it was a lengthy street of 136 houses interrupted by just a couple of shops. One was the cobbler whose name I’ve forgotten but he was there for years, mending boots and shoes the old-fashioned way and selling shoe polish and laces. A deeply religious man with views that differed vastly from the basics of my own Roman Catholic upbringing and which my mother viewed with suspicion saying he was in all likelihood Chapel and making that sound unwholesome. She said I was to just bid him good morning politely and leave the to-be-mended-shoes on the counter and not indulge in too much conversation with him. But of course, once armed with those instructions I encouragingly asked him questions such as why he thought Jesus had never come to England, and Kent in particular. He then developed a booming voice and told me that of course Jesus had come to England, though maybe not to Kent….but had not his uncle had been Joseph of Arimathea who traded with Cornwall? and was not Jesus a curious and strong lad who would most certainly have accompanied him? I chose not to share this interesting information with Father O`Connor or either of my parents but I did tell a couple of my Crayford cousins, Margaret and Ann Linyard who were decidedly disinterested. The only other shop I remember in Shepherd Street was a general store run by Vic and Marguerite (known as Peggy) Troke. Peggy was very fashion conscious and liked to wear only silk blouses and during the war she was reputed to obligingly purchase everyone else’s clothes coupons. Following the death of my father, my mother worked for her as a cleaner and on the surface at least they became quite friendly. However even at the time it was obvious how fragile that friendship really was. Peggy Troke was no better than she ought to have been, apparently, and definitely had a high opinion of herself. It was a wonder how that poor Vic managed to put up with her. You should just see the way she carried on with the travellers at times, especially that one in stationery. Why it was so necessary to take him up to the flat to talk about cards and envelopes my mother just couldn’t fathom. It was quite beyond her. Despite this antipathy, however, she managed to carry out the cleaning on a weekly basis for several years. My classmate Kathleen Draper lived at number 64 and next door were a number of Philpotts, among them Little Brian who had Down Syndrome though at the time we were told he was a Mongol. He was a delightfully friendly boy, welcomed into most group games and closely supervised at all times by Kathleen who defended him to the death should he be criticised. Brian’s love for her was great and he referred to her as his Kath. At number 69 were The Jenkins, one of whom was called Rita and a close friend of Doreen Lacey who I thought lived at number 67 but have recently been told came from York Road. Perhaps the Laceys at 67 were a different branch of the family. In any event I recall Doreen and Rita, as a twosome, very well. They appeared to be Joined At The Hip as my Old Nan would say or Stuck Together Like Glue. I was more than a little envious of them. For one thing they both wore beautifully embroidered felt Dutch Bonnets, something of a fashion at the time whilst I seemed always destined to wear my mother’s rapidly knitted and hideous woollen Pixie Bonnets that no self respecting Pixie would have tolerated for a second. For another thing, they both at one stage were members of the same Brownie Pack as myself but earned far more badges far more easily than I seemed to be able to. Their Semaphore was, according to Brown Owl, quite superbly executed! To be honest I wasn’t much good at being a Brownie and I was a most reluctant one which I put down to the fact that my mother had insisted on creating her own version of the uniform in quite the wrong shade of brown. It was a feat she did not accomplish well. Doreen and Rita took to pointing this out as they walked behind me on the way home which did not exactly lay the groundwork for a solid friendship. Today it would be described as a cut and dried case of Bullying and treated seriously. But back then victims of such harassment were simply advised to pull themselves together and fight fire with fire. It did not cease until I bit Doreen on the arm one day, quite hard. She was not at all happy and I remember a complaint being made to both Brown and Tawny Owls a few days later who jointly appeared to become faint with shock at the thought of biting in the ranks. This event luckily co-incided with my father deciding I wasn’t really cut out for Brownies. On a more positive note a number of boy-heavy Dyke families proliferated in the area, not just Shepherd Street but in the surrounding streets as well and I remember at least two, Peter and John, in my class at school. Decades later when taking a holiday photograph of the Prince Albert pub at number 62, I met a female Dyke, a cousin or grand-daughter who was curious as to why anyone in their right mind would want to take photographs of back street beer houses and obviously still lived in the immediate district. The Prince Albert was first opened in 1855 and was always popular. During the post war years it did a thriving trade, especially on Friday and Saturday nights of course. As a teenager, Pearl Banfield, who lived at the top of York Road, had a close relationship with the place even though she, and other members of her family were definitely not drinkers. It largely concerned her boyfriend. Not wanting he who visited every Saturday evening, to realise that their house did not have an inside lavatory, she was in the habit of sending him round to the Prince Albert whenever he expressed a need to use the Bathroom Facilities. I could not but wonder if he then decided that the house had no lavatory at all. Pearl said that was preferable to him being exposed to the true situation. Well perhaps she had a point. The family that still stand out as memorable Shepherd Street residents were the Reads, Elsie and Les and their many children. Of their offspring I only clearly remember Jill and Jack who were probably the oldest two but there were certainly many more. My mother, predictably perhaps spoke of them quite disparagingly saying they didn’t wash their necks nor change their clothes from one week’s end to another and describing Mrs Read as that-Elsie-Smith-that-was or: that Elsie-Read, her-that’s-always-carrying. I envied the Read children for their freedom to roam the streets long after dark and their early experimentation with cigarettes which they made themselves from gutter abandoned dog ends re-rolled with Rizla papers. At one end of Shepherd Street there was a Baptist Chapel where any child of any denomination was invited to attend Sunday School from three until four on Sunday afternoons. It was a popular activity with many of us because glasses of orange juice and ginger biscuits were handed out as well as transfers for the backs of our hands or arms depicting such uplifting scenes as Daniel entering the Lions’ Den. From time to time coach outings were also organised to picnic spots like Cobham Woods or the village of Eynesford. Even we supposedly Roman Catholic children seized the generosity of these Baptists with enthusiasm and later thought, if indeed we thought about it at all, that we had been the fortunate recipients of an astonishingly open minded spiritual education.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Buckingham Road & Blasts From The Past

You could see quite a wide arc of Buckingham Road from our back gate, much more than the view of Tooley Street. It’s only in recent years I’ve realised that the road actually bisected The Old Green, where houses no longer stood and extended to the foot of York Road itself, probably even encompassing the unexpected little row of four dilapidated cottages straggling the edge of that enticing playspace and overlooked the Catholic Primary School where my brother went at the tender age of four. Even we, who were only too aware that we fell into the category of Impoverished Poor were cautiously self satisfied, even sanctimonious when surveying the decidedly less than salubrious conditions those living in the cottages tolerated. Even in 1948 they seemed to represent the kind of housing more commonly found a century or two before. Each consisted of two tiny ground floor rooms with a corner staircase leading up to two even smaller sleeping areas above. The cottages had no running water and this had to be collected from a tap outside. Neither did there even seem to be gas lighting, the occupants all appearing to use oil lamps of some description. Two lavatories serving the block had been erected close to the lower end of our own street and could be entered by a door adjacent to the alley that led directly to the front entrances of the York Road houses and provided a quick access through to Simms’ Corner Shop. My mother often commented that she certainly wouldn’t want to live like that and added that it would be easy for disease to spread. These observations were odd considering the even more disadvantaged conditions of her own early years but probably indicated that for the first time in her life she felt in a better position than someone else – these local residents in particular. I no longer remember who originally occupied the end cottage where we practised ball games and hand stands against the wall, but I do recall the flambuoyant couple who replaced them. My mother told me that Myra had appeared on the Halls for years with her husband as a Magic Duo, performing tricks like Sawing The Lady In Half. For some reason we called Myra’s husband, a bad tempered man who clearly despised children, Treacle Pants. The exciting thing about this couple as far as my mother was concerned was that they were not simply tenants; they had actually purchased their cottage for the grand sum of two hundred and fifty pounds. As this information spread through the neighbourhood as it did rapidly, Myra and Treacle Pants were accorded a certain amount of respect befitting genuine property owners. Next door to them lived the Stewarts who eventually had three children, Beryl, Julie and Richard. Julie was born in the same week as my brother, and to me was an altogether more appealing baby. She was first and foremost female which I felt was infinitely more acceptable than the child we had been forced to accept. She was usually dressed in pink which I found most attractive and Mrs Stewart had lovingly embroidered her name onto the pillow cases that propped her in her pram for the world to admire – Julie-Anne! Not simply Ann without an E like my younger cousin, but Anne with a proper E at the end like a person in a book. What could be better? Had my own mother gone in for similar embroidery I realised that in any case Bernard John would not look nearly as eye catching. When the babies were a few weeks old and Beryl and I were entrusted to rocking them in their prams and perhaps pushing them to the end of the street and back, Beryl confided that her parents had been hoping for a boy. I could hardly believe my good fortune and at once devised a plan to persuade her to do a swap as I was sure my parents would just love a girl. Well I knew I certainly would. The fall out from the execution of this plan was momentous when a couple of hours later each mother went to attend her newborn only to find a Changeling in its place. I won’t go into unnecessary detail but the incident did nothing to make me popular and Beryl joined the list of those who were not to play with me any more. Molly said wisely that it had been a stupid idea to begin with and she couldn’t understand what made me think it would make anyone happy. The Murphys lived next door to the Stewarts with several children, one called Josie who was older than me and I don’t remember much about her. At the end of the row were The Shipps who had one child, a girl a year or two younger than me called Kathleen. Kathleen was outgoing and even though she was younger always seemed to be the bearer of interesting bits of information relating to the subject I had so recently been told must absolutely never ever be discussed again. Molly and I listened avidly whilst Kathleen regaled us with doubtful snippets of information about the number of her mum’s friends who had somewhat surprisingly given birth to puppies or kittens. We always endeavoured to include Kathleen in games not only because of her remarkable sexual knowledge but also because her mother regularly made huge roasting pans of toffee which she broke with a hammer and distributed generously. Kathleen’s father was a volunteer fireman and their kitchen had a device alerting him for when he was needed for fire fighting. He would then speed off on his motorbike. Those who were already old themselves in the 1940s claimed that they could remember houses standing on The Old Green in times gone by but they must have been referring to far, far back as an Ordnance Survey map of 1905 seems to show two areas of wasteland already in evidence. There were no shops in Buckingham Road but it did have its own pub, The British Volunteer which first opened in 1889 presumably when the houses were built. It was known locally as The Volley and well attended on Friday and Saturday nights when the piano that for years needed tuning and never got it, belted out the same catalogue of songs that everyone knew and in the same order. Nellie Dean, Sweet Adeline, Waiting At The Church, A Long Way To Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Show Me The Way To Go Home, Oh Mr Porter, Any Old Iron, Two Lovely Black Eyes ……I could go on and on. Most of us living close to any pub where these numbers were sung vigorously on a regular basis became totally familiar with all the words and they still lie there in the sub-conscious needing just a few chords to bring them to life again. My mother had an excellent singing voice, inherited from her own mother and the early years of my childhood are filled with memories of her singing her favourite melodies which she did regularly. Sadly she failed to pass on this musical ability to either me or my brother although my oldest son must have inherited his aptitude from somewhere as he became a professional violinist, and my daughter who ended up favouring a career in Law rather than one in music, is certainly possessed of perfect pitch. My memory tells me that the Dawson family lived at No 54 Buckingham Road although I was told the other day that they definitely lived in Tooley Street. Possibly there were two lots of Dawsons in the district, but the ones I knew had a daughter called June, an outgoing and well developed girl, a year younger than me and already importantly wearing a bra at the age of 10. June was rightly proud of this early step towards the world of adult women and keen to show the pink satin item of underwear to anyone who expressed interest. `Me and my mum went and bought it from Marks & Spencers on Saturday,’ she told me with more than a small note of self importance in her tone, `And it’s size 32’. I couldn’t help feeling even then that a size 34 might have been a rather more prudent purchase. Beryl and Horace Ribbens lived near the pub and I imagine they must have been the Tooley Street in-laws. Further down the street Ann Coppins lived with an aunt and uncle and although I played with her from time to time she was a reticent girl, always secretive about her parents and sometimes said she was not really supposed to talk about them. Next door to her was a rather unfortunate little girl with a Scottish background. Her name was Elsie and she was permanently confined to a wheelchair. She was very keen to be included in as many activities as possible and had a most uncomplaining nature so that when various among us dragged her from her chair, convinced we could teach her to walk, she was most accommodating. At least once a week one or other of us would rush to her mother or grandmother urging them to come and look because we were totally confident Elsie was about to take a step or two unaided. She never did. The Bennetts lived at No 26, Frank and Grace with son, young Frankie and daughter Pat, both of whom were probably in their late teens and Little Joan who was my own age and much spoiled by everyone in the family. There had been a second son called Georgie, a year younger than Joan but he had died during World War Two following a nasty accident involving an air raid warning and a newly poured pot of boiling tea. Mrs Bennett was quite friendly with my mother over a number of years who said she had never really got over the child’s death and was over protective of Little Joan as a consequence. When I was about 8 or 9 Pat Bennett married an Irishman called Mick, moved out to what had been for years an empty shop on the corner of Tooley Street and had a baby girl called Linda. All and sundry were advised by Mick who clearly disapproved of his in-laws and their neighbours, that under no circumstances was anyone to talk Baby Talk to Linda as he was keen to have her grow up speaking Proper English. Neither was Joan allowed to push Linda around the streets in her pram but that may have simply been in response to my own baby swapping activities which everyone seemed to be familiar with. The Bardoes lived at No 28, Wally and Eliza with their three boys, Kenny and the twins Alan and Colin. Both Kenny and Alan were overtly macho boys who like to play aggressive games and didn’t at that stage of their lives, have much time for females. Colin on the other hand was a sensitive and insightful boy who not only greatly enjoyed playing with girls, but was a master at taking existing games and creating astonishingly creative twists. One entire summer, primarily choreographed by Colin, we played extensive Pony Club games although not one of us had ever been on a horse’s back. Colin researched all the salient equestrian facts needed for the organisation of a gymkhana, even making silver cups by covering egg cups with foil and appropriating broom handles and old socks to form the basis of each individual steed. Mares and stallions were very soon lined up in a Buckingham Road abandoned Anderson shelter and the game continued for weeks. I cannot pretend it was totally popular with local housewives continually misplacing their garden brooms and the work socks from their washing lines. We were all very fond of Colin and it was with great sadness that decades later I heard via his twin brother Alan that he had died very young. It would be true to say that the children of Buckingham Road, like those of York Road and Tooley Street, had in many ways a happy childhood although I am certain we were a thorn in the side of the adults around us, most particularly those who were childless or whose children had already grown up. The couple next door to the Bardoes undoubtedly came into that category because before the war they had made the significant and costly purchase of one of the earliest TV sets to be commercially produced. When broadcasting resumed in 1947 they were of course inundated with requests for invitations into their front room to witness the extraordinary technology. If we were refused we simply jostled each other outside their front window, even standing on each other’s shoulders to scrutinise the tiny screen to best advantage. It is unlikely that this long suffering couple thought our childhood was as much fun as we did.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Tenants of Tooley Street

The families who lived in Tooley Street where there were a mere 28 houses were definitely considered rather detached from us in York Road. However, a corner of the street could be seen from our back yard by hanging over the back gate, and scanning across the Old Green where houses had once stood that would certainly have blocked this minimal view in times past. My mother insisted that The Old Green had been there long before the war. It was there when she moved into 28 in August 1939 and Old Mrs Bassent had told her that there had definitely been houses on it during the previous war. In the late 1940s, however the demolished houses had met their fate, The Old Green made a splendid playground for local children even though we were constantly told to be wary of Dene Holes. Apparently falling into a Dene Hole was tantamount to falling to your death and had certainly claimed lives in the past. Not comprehending the dangers involved we largely ignored the warnings. Much of the bricks and mortar that had formed the original buildings still remained and were used and reused by at least two generations of children to become forts, mansions and department stores or simply to delineate play houses that emulated those we already lived in. Buckingham Road was in my direct line of vision but to the left was Tooley Street where the first and most important building was No 17 where George and Elsie Bull ran their corner shop. We didn’t see much of George who spent most of his time in the back reading the racing papers and left the running of the business to Aunt Elsie, a small plump and bespectacled woman who sold newspapers, tobacco, ice cream and sweets, the latter from tall glass jars. Lemon Drops, Bulls Eyes, Aniseed Balls, Liquorice All Sorts, Toffees and much more, all of which could be purchased in one ounce lots by local children with restricted financial resources. Molly Freeman and I having saved sixpence between us would always make an assorted purchase of six differing items, each patiently weighed by a sighing Aunt Elsie and deposited into small white paper bags. She was an ever uncomplaining woman only remonstrating with us from time to time for playing Two Balls & Three Balls against her outside wall. Because, she maintained, it upset Uncle George so much. Uncle George could never seem to move himself from his chair to broach the subject himself. My mother sniffed a bit when she spoke of him and said he suffered from Lazyitis and although he was rumoured to have a bad back she didn’t believe a word of it. Cis Layton had lived next door to the Bulls years ago in Tooley Street when she was married to her first poor Bill and she said bad back be-buggered and she should know. Years later Aunt Elsie was to die of a stroke and Uncle George made an effort to keep the shop open for a while but had problems with the usual definition of opening hours. Within weeks the business was closed and Aunt Elsie’s demise was mourned for a very long time. Further up the street at 21 lived the Davis Family with the Davis grandmother, Edith. Alma and John had four attractive and always smartly turned out children, Ann, John, Hedley & Ellison. John Davis Senior had not served during the war because he was engaged in War Work and this fact, when applied to men of serving age, always brought out to worst in my mother. Mistrustful by nature she became most especially doubtful about the reasons surrounding the supposed essential nature of the work involved. They lacked backbone, she decided and maintained she had been told that John Davis had gone crying to his foreman and begging him to make sure he was exempted. Surprising though it may seem this foreman in the particular industry in which John Davis worked had been possessed of enough influence to make sure the tearful request was granted. Well that was the story anyhow. Later on John Davis Senior was not so fortunate when he dropped dead to the consternation of both customers and staff in the Dover Road pharmacy waiting for a prescription to be filled. He had just come from the local doctor who had told him the pains in his chest were nothing to worry about. The eventual outcome seemed to suggest a sudden heart attack. But long before this could happen the two youngest Davis boys were born and each named after the junior doctor who had delivered him – Hedley and Ellison. This love affair Mrs Davis had with the medical profession not surprisingly ceased after the death of her husband. Ann, the oldest Davis child was the talk of Tooley Street and beyond when in her final school year she fell in love with a merchant seaman, causing her mother a great deal of concern. So much so that she banned the relationship completely and would not allow the young man’s letters to be delivered to the house. Ann merely organised for them to be sent instead to the Buckingham Road address of an elderly neighbour who said she knew how it felt to be young and in love. It was said that the object of her own affections had been gassed during the First World War. It was a solution to the problem that mesmerised those of us similar in age to Ann herself and scandalised the older generation. Whether Mrs Davis ever found out about the arrangement is lost in the midst of time but Ann could be seen on Monday mornings in her school uniform on her bike, stopping outside the Buckingham Road house to enquire if any mail had arrived. Needless to say Molly and I were both enormously impressed by Ann’s bold audacity and felt she was a model to us all. Ann went on to marry very early and become a teenage mother, again to the admiration and envy of many of her former classmates and neighbours and the tight lipped disapproval of our parents. I remember Mrs Maxted and her daughter Wendy living at No 19 but have no recollection if a Mr Maxted existed or indeed if Wendy had any siblings. She was a well behaved girl who didn’t play much with the rest of us. Her hair was always in neat plaits and even at primary school she wore a gymslip and white blouse which I thought set her apart from the rest of us. Molly said she had inherited it from an older cousin, a Colyer Road Secondary Modern student who had been the victim of a sudden growth spurt. The Hammonds at No 27 were largely a mystery to me as the only son was quite grown up as far as I was concerned. I was content merely to designate them suitable targets for the ever popular game of Knocking On Doors & Running Away which was played with great enthusiasm whenever boredom set in. Mrs Hammond was known to use colourful language from time to time and Mr Hammond even chased me the length of Tooley Street one day which was terrifying and a little bit exhilarating. The Ribbens family lived at No 12 and were quite the most colourful family in the street. Vi, a tall, slim and eye catching woman, and her husband Sid were proud of their untidy brood of six good looking children who according to my mother were both wilful and disorderly and would get into Trouble some day. However, even the unmanageable Ribbens boys managed to evade the attention of the local Police Force whilst my own brother, whose activities were far more controlled, did not. Mr Ribbens wore a cap and worked diligently in some industry that ensured he returned home each evening looking as if he had been pulled through a coal mine backwards. Mrs Ribbens stood at her front door a great deal, greeting passers by and when she wasn’t doing so made batches of toffee apples and hand sewed dresses for her oldest daughters, Angela and Sandra whose long hair was put into curling rags each night. The Ribbens boys were called Siddy and Roger and the youngest two in the family were Jeremy and Sonja-Kim. Jeremy had been born with a disfigurement of one foot and ankle that was supposed to have regular treatment from the hospital. However, Vi opted out of the routine saying the poor little bugger’s screaming broke her heart. My mother was somewhat predictably, affronted by this and told all and sundry, though not Mrs. Ribbens herself, that it Just Wasn’t Right and that the Poor Mite Deserved Better! I liked Mrs Ribbens and when she presented baby Sonja-Kim to the street told her that I thought she gave her children lovely names. She looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and murmured that she had little enough to give the poor little blighters and so she liked to start them off with a really good name. On one dramatic occasion young Roger Ribbens found himself on the front page of the local newspaper having carelessly fallen from top to bottom of one of the local chalk pits, a distance of one hundred metres, and escaping without injury. His mother was quoted as saying that the angels must have been watching over her little Roger, causing my ever critical mother to make loud comment that Violet Ribbens wouldn’t know what an angel was if she was to bump into one in the dark. It is probably fair to say that she disapproved of the poor woman perhaps for being too attractive or too indulgent with her children. Or maybe it was simply because she demonstrated a degree of affection for her family and disregard of what the neighbours thought that Nellie Hendy simply wasn’t capable of herself.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Getting To Know The Neighbours

My mother always considered herself fortunate to have secured the rental for 28 York Road, Northfleet an area curiously known in the nineteenth century as Barrack Field. She said the alternative had been a flat at The Overcliffe end of Pier Road, Gravesend and she had never really held with flats. `You don’t even get your own lav half the time,’ she added and said that she had never held with sharing such amenities. In York Road not only did she have her very own lavatory but also a little stone flagged yard where clothes could be mangled, hens could be kept and children, should she have any, could play safely. She was not an overly outgoing or sociable individual and so it took time to get to know the neighbours no matter how closely packed together we then lived but she soon became friendly with Old Mrs Bassent at No 27 and when I was very small avoided The Willis family on the other side at No 29. This antipathy involved several nappies my mother claims were stolen but more probably borrowed by the family matriarch who also lived there, one Edith Freeman who was in fact the paternal grandmother of my future best friend Molly. The Bassents had an adopted daughter called Ina who was living in Burch Road, Gravesend with her second husband and her vastly overweight daughter, Evelyn. At various times during my childhood Evelyn, who had a much nicer nature than I did, was my friend and grateful to be so, a fact that fed my ego when I was five and she was six. At some stage after the war, Mr Bassent died and his wife moved out to live with Ina and I never saw her or Evelyn again. They were soon replaced by The Newberrys, Charlie and Mary and two small daughters called Janice and Barbara. When the Newberry girls started school they had freshly washed and ironed dresses morning and afternoon because their mother’s hobby seemed to be washing. Mary Newberry often washed and ironed into the small hours of the morning and because there were no machines to help shoulder the load, her hands were red, raw and blistered. My mother said she brought it upon herself, there was no doubt about that. There were no children at No 26, just Mr & Mrs Morris and their adult son, Norman. Mrs Morris had TB and was described as being a hopeless case by my mother who always covered her mouth with her hand, and sometimes even the corner of her apron, when standing at the gate in conversation with her. I was so frightened of catching TB that I always passed the Morris gate at top speed and without breathing. On one occasion when early on a Monday morning Mrs Morris gave the remains of her Sunday joint to our dog, I removed it from him fearful that he might catch the disease. He was not co-operative and I risked being bitten but I wrenched it off him all the same because in those days even the youngest child was aware of the dangers of TB. The Finch family were at No 24 with their little boy David and later their adopted daughter Nova who my mother said might be the ruin of them because with adopted children you never knew. Mrs Finch did not altogether approve of me because on more than one occasion I encouraged David to play unacceptable games and expose what his mother called his Lily. They later moved out to a new Council house at Erith with three bedrooms and an inside bathroom, close to the trolley bus stop. The Laytons replaced them, Cis with her grown up son Ramon, her second husband Bill and their young daughter Jeannie. Cis was a large and affable person and quickly made my mother her closest friend, swapping paper back love stories and confidences about men that were whispered during their afternoon tea drinking session and which, irritatingly, I could neither hear nor comprehend. Those living further up the street remain a mystery to me although No 19 was I think the residence of May and John Bardoe and May’s sister, Amy. May and Amy were so alike they must have been twins and also in the house were two well behaved girls, Vera and Audrey. At some stage John Bardoe had a work place accident gossiped about locally for months and said by some to be murder although finally whoever was responsible was charged merely with manslaughter. The only other family I recall with clarity was the Banfields at No 7, Doug and Hilda and their two children Pearl and Derek. Hilda strived valiantly to ensure that the children kept themselves a little apart from the rest of us. This was not an easy task but I never knew them to be allowed out playing on the street or taking part in collecting for the Guy. Neither did the family ever indulge in field work, even Hop Picking. My mother even called them Toffee Nosed but that was only after the sad Eleven Plus Affair previously recorded. The Giles family lived further down the street towards Springhead Road at No 30 with several grown up daughters, Ada, Amelia, Edith & Grace. The girls who all looked alike to me, knitted socks for soldiers during the war years and put notes inside them hoping to catch a husband which made my mother sniff disapprovingly a great deal and call them desperate. For one of them at least, this strategy worked beautifully and in 1946 she married a rather overweight soldier whose name I’ve forgotten and rented a house opposite us where on account of her culinary ministrations he gained even more weight. The house I knew best and visited frequently was No 31 where Molly Freeman lived with her big sister Pam and younger brother Georgie. Ivy Freeman was a small woman with admirable posture who always wore high heels. It was rumoured she had been a maid in a Big House and she certainly spoke well and knew how a table should be laid though the family were clearly on the same level of poverty as ourselves. My mother for some reason best known to herself claimed to be scandalised to find Ivy Freeman ordered coke from the Hardy’s delivery man rather than coal though why she thought this was any business of hers is hard to know. She also criticised the family for having newspaper on the kitchen table seven days a week. It should be pointed out that at 28 we had a proper cloth on Sundays which undoubtedly placed us in a slightly elevated position on the social scale. Apart from this, apparently the Freeman children did not have proper blankets on their beds in winter and were allowed to Race the Streets on Sundays whereas I was only permitted to read a library book or play Ludo once I had come back from Church. Naturally enough I envied them. Next door to Molly lived Aunt Maudie Obee who was a very elderly lady dressed always in black and not really anyone’s aunt. She lived alone in her little house surrounded by china knick knacks from days out long ago to Margate and Southend and even grew vegetables and made Parsnip Wine. On one occasion she gave us a bottle to celebrate some major occasion but my mother poured it into an outside drain once darkness fell and told her later it had been delicious. Ernie & Flo Eves lived at No 35 with a grown up son and when our father died she gave Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck soap in gift boxes to my brother and myself and when he lunged towards Mickey, reprimanded Bernard and said he must let his sister choose first like a gentleman. I was greatly impressed. The Hinkleys who repaired cars and ran a taxi service lived at 37 on the corner and always had gleaming black vehicles parked in the small space beside the house. Opposite them was the corner shop run by Hilda Sims and although we saw it as our very own York Road shop I think more properly the address was in Springhead Road. Sims’s Shop sold most things that were available during the war years but later specialised in newspapers, magazines, ice cream and jars of sweets. Molly and Georgie had a weekly order from Sims’s of comics such as Film Fun and Rainbow and their mother took Picture Post and Reveille all of which were later usually passed on to us, my mother protesting each time that it wasn’t necessary. Whilst turning the pages of Picture Post on Sunday afternoons she was often heard to mutter comment that a lot of money was wasted in the Freeman family. Meanwhile, I was more than thankful for this habit of extravagance and vowed that when I grew up I was definitely going to squander money.