The 1930s were a troubled era, and England was a land of contrasts. This work gives a vivid impression of growing up in a working-class family in the East End at this time. It should be of interest to anyone who remembers the interwar years, and anyone interested in London's social history.
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By Alan Wilson
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Alan D. Wilson
All rights reserved.
A Silver-Plated Spoon
I was born in 1928, when peace was at its zenith and the British Empire splashed red across the globe; never had it reached a greater extent and never had it appeared more powerful. It was an empire on which the sun never set, although James Joyce said that this was because God did not trust the English. But, sceptics apart, the sun of Empire shone brightly on all, and the sky seemed cloudless. Alas, before long that sun was to set and there would follow a sinister twilight of troubled peace and the darkness of prolonged war. The Empire and its greatness were soon to go, but we did not know that then, for none but the wise knew that the glittering imperial robe was but the shroud of a corpse. The majority, whether they stood in frock-coats or rags, were still proud of the Empire.
English cricket was at its height. Jack Hobbs still batted gracefully at the Oval, while the mighty Hammond effortlessly stroked the ball high over cover. Larwood, Tate and J.C. White skittled their opponents out, and in the fullness of their pride English bowlers had no need of body-line. Bradman's time had yet to come. English tennis, too, was about to revive with the young Perry although, for the moment, the four French musketeers ruled the tennis world while Big Bill Tilden glowered across the Atlantic from his fastness in Forest Hills. Glasses still jingled in the speakeasies of America and Al Capone ruled openly over his gangster empire in the Loop. The aged Hindenburg reigned over a quiescent Germany and, for the moment, Hitler was in decline. Coolidge presided serenely in the White House; the financial collapse of Wall Street, and its portentous consequences, were yet to come. Peace was at its height.
I was born into this world on the first day of spring, 21 March. I had been due on 1 April, an expectation that was a source of considerable worry to my mother – indeed, it appears that this was her principal concern. But, fortunately for her peace of mind, I was in a hurry to meet the world – don't ask me why – and was born ten days early, thus avoiding the mistake of arriving on a day dedicated to the follies of mankind. I much prefer my spring day.
My birthplace was in the East End of London at the home of my mother's parents, 13 Beale Place, just off the Roman Road; a lively, living place. As I grew up I became very familiar with this house where the greater family gathered. Each week without fail all the married daughters and their husbands paid a visit to Nan and Grandad. This was before the universal motor car and the weekend outing. But the greater family died with the war, as did the house. No. 13 does not exist now, nor does the rest of Beale Place for that matter. All the houses were blown to pieces by Adolf Hitler. There is not a brick left, nor, indeed, so much as a mark on the London street map, for the area was redeveloped after the war. Beale Place was literally wiped off the map, and with it part of me.
My mother was a slight, talkative woman with a quicksilver tongue. I am sure she would have made a fine advocate given the chance and as a child I could never tell a lie without being exposed by her forensic skills. I found it simpler to tell the truth. Mother was born a minute baby – Nan said she could have been put in a pint pot – and the doctor did not expect her to live. In this the doctor was mistaken by some eighty-seven years. Father always thought that Mother was a scatterbrain. Maybe she was, but she had a native, if untrained, intelligence and a quick wit. She was difficult to defeat in argument as she had a patented, perverse and persistent logic of her own.
My father, like myself, was a large man, over 6 foot tall; in this he took after his father. He was sensitive, hot-tempered, but intensely loyal. To this day I remember his hands were large but gentle and his fingers were like bananas. But they were skilful: he was a good amateur cabinet-maker.
For the first two years of my life I lived in Cadogan Terrace, on the second floor of a flat that overlooked Victoria Park. The park played an important part in my early life and is my first memory. I was lying in a large old-fashioned pram pushed by my mother along a pavement that skirted the park when my eyes took in a view of a strange flickering world of grass and trees; it was like a scene from an old silent film. I was looking through a passing fence of chestnut palings. Its oddity impressed itself on my memory and remains with me to this day. I was less than one year old.
Later I remember toddling in the landlord's cabbage patch at the rear of the house and looking in wonderment at steam trains that rumbled by on the railway track at the end of the garden, puffing out white clouds interlaced with streamers of black soot. For this was the age of steam, and steam never fails to excite both young and old.
But strange are the ways of memory. For although I remember these inconsequential events, I do not have the slightest recollection of my tryst with death during the Christmas of 1928. I was just nine months old and had contracted pneumonia. And I have no recall at all of my fight for life, nor of the closeness of the struggle, for there were no antibiotics then. Strange that one remembers trivialities while forgetting the dramas of life.
My mother was certain that I had picked up the infection at a baby show. If this is so, then I still have a permanent reminder of that event and its dramatic sequel. I came second, a result that rankled with my mother – she had expectations that were altogether too great. Most of us are the also rans of life – that is, if you look on life as a race. But there was a consolation prize for this failure. I had not been born with a silver spoon in my mouth – nothing so uncomfortable – but I acquired a silver spoon that day, for that was the second prize. It had a teddy bear handle and I have treasured it to this day. But I have to confess that it was only silver on the surface. Below was nickel and copper.
My struggle with pneumonia took the traditional course in those days before antibiotics. My temperature rose to 104ºF and stayed there for days. Our doctor warned my parents that a 'crisis' would come when nature would make the decision: life or death. The crisis did come and my temperature plummeted. In an hour it was below normal, but my heartbeat dropped with it. My mother called the doctor. 'Should I give him brandy, doctor?' 'I have something better, Mrs Wilson. Strychnine.' It worked and I lived to see my first Christmas.
There was another crisis – a financial one. My parents had exhausted their meagre savings. There was little left, but the doctor still continued to call, unasked for. Unlike today, doctors were assiduous with their house calls. Was it because before the National Health Service there was an extra fee for call-out? Whatever the reason, the frequent house calls of the doctor became a cause of great concern to my parents. Their savings, so slowly accumulated over the long years, had gone and there was a stark choice between doctor's fees and the necessities of life – food and rent.
My parents were desperate to do their best for me. Not to have the doctor when he was needed lay on their conscience. Granny Wilson was asked to give of her sound practical wisdom. She was certain and blunt. 'He doesn't need the doctor any more. The doctor's only coming for the money.' Mother was embarrassed, for the doctor had saved my life. 'I'll do it,' said Granny, and so she did. Today, telling a doctor not to call seems very strange.
I have no other memories of those early days except the mantelpiece. It was just an ordinary mantelpiece of dark oak, but in my infant mind it was the symbol of home. The fire in the hearth lies deep in the human psyche, deeper, by far, I think, than the television set. And it was to be the first lost thing of my life. For the time was to come when my parents decided that the flat was too small and we would have to leave. We went to 12 Darnley Road. I remember standing in the living room of the new home staring desolately at a white marble mantelpiece. In my distress I cried out: 'I want my old mantelpiece! I want my old mantelpiece!' And burst into bitter tears.CHAPTER 2
Home – 12 Darnley Road
We left Cadogan Terrace to live in a tree-lined street, Darnley Road, which lies just off busy Mare Street, the artery of Hackney. It was a quiet road where the wealthy and the poor, workers and professionals, Jew and Gentile, lived side by side.
Our home was 12 Darnley Road, a stately Victorian four-storey terraced house with a flight of balustraded stone steps that led to an elevated ground floor. Inside the main entrance was an old-fashioned, spacious entrance hall, well lit by the coloured light that filtered through the stained-glass windows of the front door. On this floor were the sitting-room, dining-room and study. Above were two more floors with bedrooms. The bathroom, an afterthought, was on a mezzanine floor. Of course, we did not live in this part of the house; no, this was the domain of the middle-class Hubbles; we lived down in the basement or, as Father insisted on saying, semi-basement. He said this with some pride, making the best of a bad job, ever the dreamer. In truth, as Mother, ever the realist, said, it was a sunless place.
My first memories of the house are of my mother struggling up the 'airy' (basement area) steps with a small collapsible pushchair, and me. I did not like that pushchair, for it was much less comfortable than my full-sized baby pram. Nevertheless, it was better than walking. Sadly the day came when my mother left the pushchair behind in the passageway. I looked around puzzled. 'You can walk today,' she told me. This I did not like; indeed I felt hurt and deprived. I am inclined physically to be indolent and no doubt this characteristic showed up at a very early stage in life.
In our basement home the kitchen was my favourite room; it was full of interest. It was not one of those fitted kitchens of today's gleaming white or bogus oak. It was the ultimate in an unfitted kitchen. The kitchen had a dresser, a deal table, an easy work made from a piece of office furniture, and a motley collection of chairs. There was an old gas stove, with a maze of exposed pipes, and a butler sink with brass taps. Everything happened in the kitchen. There we ate, there we washed up, there I had my weekly bath and there my mother did the weekly wash. The weekly wash was done with equipment that is now only to be found in museums: the zinc washtub, the wooden dolly, the scrubbing board and large mangle with wooden rollers. Life was hard work in those days.
There was an old-fashioned fireplace: one of those huge Victorian grates, a tall black basket with half a dozen cast-iron bars. Such things have long been swept away by the dictates of fashion and comfort. Even in the thirties they were becoming unfashionable and a sure sign of being poor and behind the times. People were just beginning to aspire to fashionable things, and tiled fireplaces were becoming popular for those who could afford them. Nowadays the Victorian grates are once more appreciated and much sought-after.
This fireplace fascinated me. Often it was dead and filled with screwed-up newspaper to catch the soot that fell down the chimney. But just once in a while, on a cold winter's day, the fire was lit and then it would consume coals like Satan's furnace and glow like a great basket of red and black coals and white ash. A fierce heat radiated from this pyre that seared face and arms; it also sucked in cold streams of air from every crack and crevice, so one was at once roasted and chilled. But if open fires were not as comfortable as central heating, they were infinitely more interesting than flat radiators.
Mother told me to look for faces in the fire. And sure enough they were there when I gazed at the red-hot coals and the yellow flames that writhed between them. I saw the fiery demons of the fire come and go, grotesque peoples of the flames, their faces of red and black breathing out yellow smoke, ever-changing in shape and size, transient creatures that existed for the moment before crumbling in the flames. This fiery dance of the ephemerals fascinated me for hours. So it was that I loved those winter days, in that time before computers when children had to use their imagination and find their own amusements.
Bath night in Darnley Road in the 1930s was an arduous affair, but not lacking in interest. It was not a routine daily occurrence but an exciting, and for me a dreaded, weekly event. My bath was taken in the kitchen before a red roaring fire. It was a family affair. First, Father placed a great zinc bath on the floor and dismay crept in my heart. In vain I protested, 'Dad! I've kept clean this week!' He and Mother laughed. 'I don't need a bath!' But my pleas were ignored. Kettles and saucepans were filled to the brim with water and put on the gas stove. Soon clouds of steam filled the kitchen. The moment of truth was at hand.
Father emptied the kettles and pans into the zinc bath. Steam billowed, only to be quenched by buckets of cold water. Meanwhile, Mother undressed me and my morale plummeted. I stood naked, scorched on one side by the fire and frozen on the other by cold draughts. Then came the dreaded plunge into the water. Gradually I relaxed but not for long, for soon mother was lathering me all over with a hard bar of Sunlight soap. It was not pleasant, as her hands were rough. 'Mum, you're hurting! Let Dad do it!' So Dad would take over with his large but gentle big hands. They were almost too gentle for they sensitised my skin and raised goose pimples.
Covered with soap, I waited for the worst moment. It came with the pouring of a jug of water over my head. It was either too hot or too cold. Water flooded my face, into my eyes and ears. I held my breath and clenched my teeth. Then I had to stand up, face the heat and the chill, and be dried. Dad said, with a broad smile, 'That wasn't too bad, son, was it?' I didn't agree. Bath night was not my favourite night. As I dressed, mother and father undertook the tedious process of emptying the bath with bucket and saucepan. The zinc bath would be taken out and hung on an airy wall.
When I was older Mrs Hubble offered the use of her bathroom on the mezzanine floor. There was an old-fashioned enamelled bath that rested on four ornamental legs and above it a ferocious geyser of glowing brass that consumed pennies and ejected scalding hot water. Geyser was an apt description. On ignition, there was a terrifying rocket-like whoosh followed by a moment of fear as boiling water gushed forth in turbulent flow. Such were the thrills of taking baths in those days!
One bath night I formed a cunning plan and persuaded my parents to let me bath myself. 'I'm getting a big boy now!' My idea was to mimic bathing without the unpleasant experience of immersion. So I splashed away with one hand in the bath water for some minutes. But my performance was not convincing. My parents burst in and caught me in my deception. I was surprised when they laughed and did not get angry. I have always found it very difficult to get away with anything.
When I look back from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, I realise that our household was remarkably free of gadgets. For the poor, and many of the rich, household technology was little different from Victorian days. There was no washing machine. Washing was done in a tub and clothes cleaned with bar soap on a scrubbing board. There was no electric iron. The irons my mother used were heavy cast-iron objects; they are prized antiques today. They were heated by the coal fire in winter or on the gas stove in summer. There was no vacuum cleaner, although middle-class Mrs Hubble upstairs had an ancient Hoover. The broom and duster, supplemented by a battered Ewbank carpet-sweeper, had to suffice for cleaning. The air was always dusty. But I liked dust and watched its haphazard flight in our dark rooms where it sparkled in slivers of light.
There was no refrigerator, so our food was stored outside in the cool airy, in a meat safe. The only kitchen appliance was the mincer. We did not have a telephone. What on earth would you do with a telephone when your relations were so near?
Needless to say, we did not have a motor car, nor did we ever think of having one. We could not afford one. We did not need one. Our weekend outings were not to the seaside but to my grandparents who lived within easy walking distance. That was fun enough. Rarely did we stray beyond the confines of our family area. Even the Hubbles did not have a car and they could afford one. The truth is that in those days cars were not ingrained in the culture as they are today. They were not an essential element of transport. One of the Hubble sons had one, but it was a sporty affair for fun and not utility.
The electric bell I remember with affection, for it had an antediluvian charm. It was powered by an old-fashioned wet battery, a Leclanché cell, a square 2-pint jar containing a liquid in which was immersed a zinc and carbon rod. Unlike the modern dry battery, you could see how it worked. It also lasted for ever.
Excerpted from Hackney Memories by Alan Wilson. Copyright © 2013 Alan D. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 A Silver-Plated Spoon,
2 Home – 12 Darnley Road,
4 Victoria Park,
5 Saturday & Sunday,
6 Morning Lane School,
7 The Question of My Estate,
8 Silver Jubilee,
9 Summer Holidays,
10 Death of a King,
11 Orchard School,
13 A New Church Hall,
14 The Streets of Hackney,
15 Submission of a King,
16 The Crowning of a King,
17 My Fortune is Told,
19 An Uneasy Spring,
20 Talk of War,
22 Crystal Night,
23 The Ides of March,
24 Parmiter's School,
26 Summer Camp,