Saturday, 25 November 2017

Out of Northfleet Long Ago

My three part memoir about Northfleet in the 1940s and 1950s is now, at long last and not before time, available from Amazon as paperback print versions. Most of us still prefer to read an actual book rather than those designed for kindles. The reminiscences below are revisited for newcomers.

Growing up in North Kent in the immediate post war years, Northfleet seemed to be a thriving town rather than a suburb of Gravesend as it appears now. My mother and I made regular trips to shop in the High Street and to visit Great Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road and a distant cousin called Edie in Stonebridge Hill not to mention yet another who lived in Huggens College and whose name I have long forgotten. Walking the area today ít’s hard to believe that this quiet place where footsteps now actually echo was once a veritable hive of industry. The shops on each side of the High Street then offered all that a local resident could possibly desire and included a grocer, greengrocer, baker, butcher, newsagent, hardware merchant, sweetshop & tobacconist and florist not to mention a post office, dentist, optician, photographer and even a cinema. I remember standing impatiently in a queue at Lincolns the chemists where the only amusement was staring at the little wooden drawers behind the counter with strange names on them which were probably Latin. We seemed to go to Rayner’s on a regular basis for things like screws, nails and sometimes huge bars of yellow soap and broom handles. The fish and chip shop was a highly exciting place because sometimes on Fridays my mother would stop by for fish and chips with vinegar. My favourite High Street shop though was Frosts, full of things like radios, bikes and even toys and I loved it when my mother decided to browse there for ten minutes or so.

One morning towards the end of the war we visited the photographer whose name is long forgotten, to have a photograph taken together to send to my father serving in North Africa. When he at last returned he visited Bareham’s the Barbers on a regular basis for a short back and sides. There were also corner shops tucked away in the side streets and of course a number of pubs including The Edinburgh Castle and the Dorset Arms. Not a supermarket in sight of course and indeed I don’t think we had heard of them although we knew from our weekly cinema visits that Americans were likely to shop in a completely different way to ourselves. At home most of us had a radio for entertainment and information but as yet no television. Without a doubt we all loved the radio and there were plenty of programmes to amuse us such as Paul Temple and Dick Barton, both serials of the Special Agent variety. We also listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show and ITMA starring Tommy Handley. His cleaning lady, Mrs. Mopp seemed to greatly amuse the studio audience simply by asking week after week, `Can I do you now Sir? I was confused by the ongoing merriment at the time. If we felt we needed to be further entertained we went out into the community, visiting the Wardona Picture House or the Astoria Dance Hall. Most local men, and some women said by my mother to be `fast’ also visited the various pubic houses. After the war I recall my father going to the Factory Club opposite the cinema and from time to time my mother and I went with him and watched what she called Variety Shows. These were organised by the local scouts I believe and at least once a year there was an extra special event, The Gang Show produced by Ralph Reader. To me the Factory Club was a fascinating place and my first introduction to live theatre. Years later when passing the building my poor mother shuddered and muttered and said the place had been the ruin of my father and I imagined that it had been in some way connected with the fights and tears that later took place between them involving mysterious fast women who were no better than they ought to have been. It would be true to say that for all his good points my father had a weakness for women. He was also a football fan and sometimes on Saturday afternoons I most unwillingly accompanied him to matches at the ground at the bottom of Stonebridge Hill. I was much keener on joining the group of local children to fight over the swings and slide in Ebbsfleet Park.

People did not travel out of the area a great deal and although there was a regular bus service linking us with Gravesend and Dartford, only important citizens like the doctor and those living close to him in London Road, whom we thought to be seriously wealthy, owned vehicles though some shop owners who made deliveries had vans. Many deliveries were still made by horse and cart and boys on bicycles, however. During the years that immediately followed the war we, like many of our neighbours, kept chickens and rabbits in our back garden to supplement our diet. Once the rabbits had been killed their skins were sold to the Rag & Bone man for six pence apiece. I was usually allowed to organise the sales and keep the proceeds just as long as I made as little fuss as possible at the slaughter which I generally found to be more than I could bear. Nobody owned a refrigerator back then, let alone a freezer and so fresh meat was kept in small wooden safes with mesh doors that were fixed high on an outside wall. During the hottest weather we kept milk and butter in a bucket of cold water in the outside lavatory which I admit now seems rather less than hygienic. Very few women went to work but stayed at home attending to home chores and children. Every Monday they rose earlier than usual to do the weekly wash and a fire would be lit under the copper boiler in the kitchen so that sheets, towels and pillow cases could end up as white and bright as possible. First of all the items were rubbed vigorously on a washboard, transferred into the copper, prodded for a while with the copper stick, rinsed in the kitchen sink and finally put through the mangle outside the kitchen door before being pegged onto the line!

Most local families had very little money and so large items like a birthday bicycle or a replacement radio would be financed on Hire Purchase offered by some local shops. The National Health Service did not exist until 1947 and as a rule we were reluctant to consult a doctor unless absolutely necessary. I remember the local doctors were Dr Crawford in Granby Place and Dr Outred in London Road. There was no appointments system and no receptionist and all you needed to do was sit and wait your turn. When I was very small there were no antibiotics so some conditions, today easily treated and minor, were very dangerous and could kill. There were a number of local schools including Lawn Road School, The Board School, St Botolph’s C of E School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School. I was initially enrolled at St Botolph’s and thought I was an Anglican but later removed by my father and told I was a Catholic. Although I years on briefly flirted with becoming a nun, on the whole I vastly preferred St Botolph’s. Gradually in those years following the war, we became accustomed to having more goods in the shops to choose from and we increasingly abandoned Northfleet High Street as the main focus of our weekly shopping to venture regularly into Gravesend where there was a Woolworth’s and a Marks & Spencer’s and of course a Saturday market. The great entertainment of the market was Sid Strong who sold his wares from the back of a lorry and always attracted a huge audience. It seems now that community life in those days moved at a slower pace and involved us all in a way that now seems completely absent. We no longer know anything about the characters behind the household items we buy and the services we use. Perhaps not a huge step forward in human progress.

More memories are within the pages of CHALK PITS & CHERRY STONES and EIGHT TEN TO CHARING CROSS. Volume 3, IN DISGRACE WITH FORTUNE concerns, as my mother would undoubtedly have said, A Fast Life and is perhaps not for the faint-hearted.

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