Do you remember playing in streets free of traffic? Dancing to the Beatles? Watching a man land on the Moon on TV? Waking up to ice on the inside of the windows? If the answer is yes, then the chances are that you were a child in the 1960s. This delightful compendium of memories will appeal to all who grew up in the East End during the Swinging Sixties. With chapters on games and hobbies, school and holidays, this wonderful volume is sure to jog memories for all who remember this exciting decade.
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A 1960s East End Childhood
By Simon Webb
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Simon Webb
All rights reserved.
The East End in 1960
We begin in a world which, although only separated by fifty years from our own, is almost wholly unrecognisable. It is a world of steam trains and trolley buses; a world where practically everybody smokes all the time, even in doctor's waiting rooms or hospital wards. Murderers are still being hanged and you would be hard pressed to spot a black face anywhere in the country outside one or two urban ghettoes, such as Notting Hill or Brixton. There are only two channels on television, both black and white, and the majority of British films showing at the cinema are also in black and white. Only a minority of the population have telephones in their homes; for most, making a telephone call means queuing up to use a public callbox. It is a world that, both in photographs and also in the memories of many who grew up at the time, is always seen in shades of grey. We are accustomed to thinking of the 1960s as an explosion of psychedelic colour; Carnaby Street, Twiggy and the Beatles spring to mind. This is not at all how things appeared as the 1950s ended, especially in East London. There, it was a dull, lacklustre world, still blighted by the aftermath of the greatest war that the world had ever seen, which had ended only fifteen years previously.
The decade from 1960 to 1970 was a time of great change throughout the whole country. It is impossible to read any book about post-war Britain without learning that this or that item or event – ranging from washing machines and central heating to foreign holidays – did not become common until the 1960s. Childhood in 1959 was, accordingly, very different from that of 1970. The late 1950s were part of the post-war era, whereas the 1970s were, recognisably, the modern world. Nowhere were the changes during the 1960s taking place more noticeably than in the East End of London; those working-class districts lying between the City of London and the River Lea.
One aspect of change was, of course, the increasing level of affluence, with children expecting more material possessions and wanting regular 'pocket money'. This was no more than a reflection of how society in general was changing. Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister at the beginning of the 1960s, remarked at the time that, 'The luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor.' Of course, those whom Macmillan described as 'the poor' did not all acquire these 'luxuries of the rich' at the same rate. In many ways, the East End was at the back of the queue when it came to the material benefits that were gradually becoming commonplace throughout the '60s.
During the 1960s, this exponential rise in prosperity coincided with the end of a traditional way of life in the East End. The transformation had begun as early as the 1920s, with slum clearance and the movement of many East End residents to Becontree and other parts of West Essex. It accelerated dramatically after the end of the Second World War, with entire streets being bulldozed to make way for new housing. Large-scale immigration from the New Commonwealth completed this process of change during the 1960s. Over a lot of the area though, as the new decade dawned, communities lived in much the same was as they had done since the Victorian era. A great deal has been written about the loss of stable communities that looked out for each other in the East End, but little is said of the extreme discomfort of waking up in a house so cold that frost had formed on the inside of the windows. There seems to be, in many books about this time and place, hardly any mention of the hardship of outside lavatories, or being compelled to wash all clothes by hand; both common enough experiences for ordinary families living in the East End at the beginning of the '60s. Today, the idea of a small child having to leave the house on a cold winter's night and go into the back garden to use the toilet is almost inconceivable.
Many children grew up in homes without hot water or any source of heating other than an open fire in one room of the house or portable, and hazardous, paraffin stoves. Household items were taken care of and whenever possible repaired rather than being thrown out and replaced. The standard of living for some children was not much better than it would have been for a Victorian child. The best way to illustrate what life was like in that part of London in 1960 is to describe the home of my aunt, who lived on the top floor of a small terraced house in Stratford.
My Aunt Joan and Uncle Eddie, her husband, were both completely illiterate, to the extent that neither of them could write their own names even. Eddie was restricted to the most menial and lowly paid jobs, ranging from an attendant in a public lavatory to a labourer on the roads. They lived with their five children in three rooms – the upper storey of a very dilapidated Victorian house. One of the rooms had a gas cooker and sink. The cooker provided the only source of heating in their home; sometimes, in the winter, all the family moved into this room to sleep, leaving a gas ring on to warm the room. There was an outside lavatory in the back garden and no washing facilities at all apart from the sink. Nor was there any hot water, except that which could be boiled up on the stove. Two panes of glass in the window had been broken and replaced with sheets of cardboard. These made the room draughty and cold for much of the time.
Two of the young children had not been reliably potty trained and my uncle and aunt could not always keep up with all the washing of nappies and so on. Remember that all this had to be done in the one sink. The two small children were, therefore, often naked from the waist down, urinating frequently and defecating occasionally on the furniture and floor. The smell and filth in that one cramped and cold room, where two adults and five children spent almost their entire lives, was truly indescribable.
My uncle and aunt were not an extreme case; many children were living in unbelievably squalid conditions in that part of London in the early 1960s. These were genuine slums, of the kind that one simply does not see today. It is worth bearing in mind when we are waxing regretful about the destruction of old houses and the fragmenting of communities, which took place increasingly during the 1960s, that most families were only too happy to move into homes with inside lavatories, bathrooms, proper heating and plentiful hot water on tap. They did not bemoan the loss of their community so much as congratulate themselves on their good fortune in being granted a vastly improved standard of living.
Outside the doors of East End houses were the last vestiges of Victorian street life. Some of the smaller streets were still cobbled – a type of road more suitable for horses and carts than for motor cars. From time to time, one still saw men pushing barrows laden with groceries or milk through the streets. One old man who sold milk in this way used to halt his handcart and cry, 'Milk-oh!' a street-cry dating back centuries. Itinerant knife-sharpeners would set up a grindstone on the street corner and, of course, there were the rag-and-bone men with their horses and carts. The chimney sweep used to arrive at our house on a bicycle. Chimney sweeps on bicycles; it sounds like something out of Mary Poppins! A photograph taken in one of the little streets of Bethnal Green or Whitechapel at this time would have looked little different from one take at the end of Victoria's reign.
Two pieces of legislation, both passed in 1956, took a few years to have an effect, but when they did they altered the face of the East End forever. In 1960 though, neither had been in force long enough to make any major difference. The first of these was the 1956 Housing Act. This gave local authorities a financial incentive, in the form of enhanced rate support grants, to build taller buildings for housing council tenants. Anything over six floors attracted very favourable terms indeed. Up until this time, local authorities had been erecting sprawling, brick-built blocks of flats or ordinary houses; most blocks were no more than three floors. As the '60s drew on, the trend was for estates of tower blocks – fifteen, twenty or even twenty-five storeys high. Now, while those being re-housed from slums were initially delighted to be given a flat on the eighteenth floor of a tower block – with central heating, a bathroom and running hot water – the fact is that such blocks might almost have been specially designed to disrupt the ties which bound the old communities together. We shall see more about this later.
The other law which changed the character of the East End was the Clean Air Act. This would ultimately ban the burning of coal in domestic fires in London. Since at the time that it was passed practically every house in the East End was heated by open fires, this too had a great impact. For many years, London had been famous for its 'peasouper' fogs and these were almost entirely caused by smoke from domestic coal fires; not for nothing was London known colloquially as 'The Smoke'.
This was the East End into which I grew up; a place with many characteristics of the late Victorian period and little evidence of the technological revolution that soon-to-be Prime Minister Harold Wilson was to talk about in 1963.CHAPTER 2
Bombsites and Building Sites
It is the archetypal image of East End childhood in the years following the end of the Second World War: a gang of children playing on a bombsite. Bombsites were the remains of buildings destroyed during the Blitz, and provided natural playgrounds for children living nearby. The East End was, of course, particularly badly hit during the bombing of London. This was mainly due to the close proximity of the docks; a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Whole streets were flattened and twenty years later, the former sites of houses, shops and factories still awaited redevelopment. In 1960, there were still many such places, although they were being transformed by that time into building sites, which provided other – although less attractive – places to play.
There are two things to consider about bombsites, which were the forerunners of today's adventure playgrounds. The first is that these fields of rubble and debris, surrounded by ruined buildings, were enormous fun. You could start fires, smash things up, set off fireworks, fight, climb, build dens; in fact do anything at all that one wished. Thomas Hobbe's description of the state of man before civilisation, where each man was, 'constrained only by his ferocity, daring and imagination' is pertinent here. This is not at all a bad description of the situation for children playing on an East End bombsite in the early 1960s! The chief attraction was that bombsites were recognised to be the natural territory of children, and adults seldom made any attempt at all to interfere with what went on there. Probably, they were only too glad to see unruly children smashing things up on a derelict piece of wasteland, rather than rampaging through the streets.
The other point to bear in mind when discussing bombsites is that they were very dangerous and, in many ways, thoroughly unsuitable places for children to play. The ground was covered with a thick layer of bricks, stone, mortar and plaster. Mixed in with this was broken glass, pieces of sharp metal and wooden boards with rusty nails protruding from them. It was rare for a session on a bombsite not to end with cuts and grazes, and more serious injuries were not uncommon. These were caused by the nature of the activities undertaken during play – the most popular of which were war games. It must be remembered that in 1960, the Second World War had only been over for fifteen years; it was still very much recent history. Most children had fathers who had fought in the war, and war stories were a staple of comics such as The Victor, which was launched in 1961. Rather than 'Cowboys and Indians', children mimicked warfare with games of 'Germans and English'.
Typically, one group would defend a position established in some ruins. The other party would then launch an assault, hoping to dislodge the enemy and over-run their base. These battles could be very violent and bloody; a bit like an urban version of Lord of the Flies. The aim was not actually to injure your opponents, but to cause them to fall back through fear. Half-bricks would be lobbed as close as possible to the enemy, stones were thrown, and chunks of plaster chucked against walls, where they exploded in a most satisfying fashion. Catapults could be used, but attempting to actually hit a person was considered unsporting. The same applied to airguns. In the autumn, fireworks could be thrown. The knack of it was to light a banger and then hold on to it until you were sure that it would explode, either in mid-air or actually in the midst of the enemy. Own goals, where the thing exploded in somebody's hand, were not uncommon. On one occasion, a party to which I belonged found a length of copper pipe and launched rockets horizontally against a fortified position.
It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that children in urban, working-class districts like the East End were at a vastly increased risk of injury and death than those in more respectable areas. And what were the girls doing while their brothers were re-enacting the Second World War? Generally, they were building dens and playing at house-keeping. Although there was a convention that girls were not to be targeted during battles, there were inevitably occasional incidents of 'collateral damage' and civilian casualties.
Readers might, at this point, be asking themselves what on earth parents were thinking of to let their children run wild in such dangerous environments. There were two main reasons for this apparent carelessness and laxity on the part of our parents: one is that there was little for the kids to do at home. In 1960, a third of homes still had no television, and record players were even rarer. The average family had four or five children, rather than one or two, and many of the flats and houses were cramped. Having children stuck in the house squabbling, with nothing to occupy them, was something of a nightmare for mothers who wished to get on with the housework; far better that they should be working off their excess energy out of doors. Poverty was also a factor. These days, parents often pay for their children to attend various activities. Failing that, they give them £10 or £20 and know that the kids will be in a cinema, leisure centre, or some other indoor environment. Parents in the East End simply did not have money to throw about in this way fifty years ago. Children had to discover their own means to fill up time.
By the mid-'60s, the bombsites had mostly been cleared up and redeveloped. Building sites became a poor replacement as playgrounds; there always seemed to be somebody ready and willing to chase children away from them. For the more adventurous and foolhardy, the areas alongside railway lines provided a similar sense of freedom from adult interference to the bombsites of the past.
The Woolwich Ferry
There is an amusing moment in an episode of Only Fools and Horses from 1985, when Uncle Albert asks Rodney if he has ever been on a ship. 'Yes,' replies Rodney, who then pauses before admitting, 'Well, only the Woolwich Ferry.' Many children living in the East End during the 1960s would have said much the same!
A trip on the Woolwich Ferry was something of an adventure in those days. There were several reasons for this: for one thing, it meant crossing the River Thames, which in itself represented a formidable psychological barrier. For the true-born East Ender, South London was 'south of the river' or 'across the water'; it may as well have been another country. Our explorations tended to be exclusively eastwards: Forest Gate, Manor Park, or Ilford if we felt like going a little further. In the other direction, we might go 'up west', but only as far as Soho or Oxford Street. Beyond this was definitely Terra Incognita. But south of the river – well we had heard that people lived there, but few knew more of the matter than the streets of Woolwich on the other side of the water.
Getting to the Woolwich Ferry meant a tube or bus to Stratford and then switching to a minor line which ran to North Woolwich. Much of the railways had been electrified by 1960; steam trains had stopped running from Liverpool Street to Southend in 1956, but steam engines were still used on the Stratford to Woolwich line until 1963. Coincidentally, that was the same year that paddle-steamers were withdrawn from service on the ferry. This meant that a trip from Stratford and across the river on the ferry was completely steam powered!
The railway line ran through Silvertown, separated from the street by only a wire-netting fence. This was in contrast to most of the lines running through the East End, which were carried overhead along viaducts. Once we reached North Woolwich railway station, there was a chance to get close to the engine and perhaps chat to the driver.
Excerpted from A 1960s East End Childhood by Simon Webb. Copyright © 2012 Simon Webb. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The East End in 1960,
2 Playing Out,
3 Family and Home,
4 Holidays and Days Out,
9 Comics and Toys,
11 Fireworks, Knives and Other Dangers,
14 Law and Order,
15 The East End in 1970,
16 Childhood in the East End: Separating Myth from Reality,
Appendix 1: The Origin and Extent of the East End,
Appendix 2: The Secret Language of the East End,
Appendix 3: A Walk Around the Old East End,