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Memories of an East End Girl
By Jeff Smith
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Jeff Smith
All rights reserved.
Origins and Early Days
* * *
My grandparents came from Hoxton in the East End of London. Grandad had been a farrier, then a carman, and ended up as a piano-remover, which tells you something about how different life was then. For some reason he lost his job and things got tough for a while, but Grandma was a real worker and started to take in washing. Very soon she could afford to have a shed built in the backyard to house some washtubs and she employed some women to come in two days a week to do the washing. There was no heating, but they worked out there in all weathers, even when there was snow on the ground. Mum used to get quite upset and say that Grandma was wicked, but Grandma didn't care. The women she employed didn't care either. For the little bit of extra money they would have come in seven days a week in any weather if they could. Grandma did all the finishing work herself, and she had all the different special irons for doing cuffs, lace, collars, the lot. She worked hard all week, but once finished on a Friday night she would take herself over to the pub and pretty well stay there until Sunday night. Mum said that she even cooked the Sunday lunch from there, telling the kids when to put the joint in the oven, when to turn it over, and in between they would take a bowl of potatoes over to be peeled, then the peas for shelling, and so on.
When Mum and Dad got married they decided to move away from their parents and go off into the country. So they moved to a country cottage down Mortham Street in Stratford. You can't imagine it now because Stratford is as much part of the East End as Hoxton. To be honest, I couldn't believe it myself when I grew up in the 1920s and '30s because it was already a bit of dirty, industrial, London sprawl and there was no country until past Ilford. Later though, after the Second World War, we lived just around the corner from there, so I went for a walk down to the end of Mortham Street. Sure enough, there was a row of little cottages. By then they were surrounded by London terraces, just like all the rest, but you could see that once they had been in the country – they just had that look about them. So Mum wasn't exaggerating after all.
When they got married Dad used to work in the Borough Market but by the time they moved to Mortham Street he was working in Stratford Market so it was quite convenient really, but they decided that it was too quiet out in the country after the hustle and bustle of London. About that time the Carpenters Company decided to develop the land they owned in Stratford and they launched on an ambitious project to build a whole new residential area. I suppose it would be called a New Town these days. That was the start of the Carpenters Road estate and it was the most modern thing you could imagine then – every house had its own water supply and a toilet that you could flush with a chain. They also built a school for the children and public baths – it was out of this world. It was also nearer London, so Mum and Dad moved there and took a house next door to Mum's aunt.
The trouble with Mum's aunt was that she was always borrowing things. Every day she was in for a cup of this or a bowl of that and in the end Mum got fed up with it. So one day she decided to move away. It all seems ever so lax and hit-or-miss these days, but she did not make any plans or arrangements. There was a house empty more or less across the road, so after Dad had gone to work she just set to and moved everything across the road. That afternoon she had to stand on the doorstep to catch Dad when he came home. Mind you, that house had its disadvantages too. There was a dairy just down the road (can you imagine a dairy in Carpenters Road?) and the fields were a bit further up the other way. So every morning and every evening the cows were brought past Mum's windows, to and from the dairy, to be milked. Then the horses that pulled the milk carts were brought along the same route. She did not put up with that for long and moved back across the road but a bit further up and this was the house where they started their family.
My sister Doll was the first to be born, then came another daughter. When she was about three she took ill and eventually Mum had to call the doctor – a serious decision because doctors had to be paid so you only called them in an emergency. The doctor sent the baby straight off to hospital. On Christmas Day, as Mum was serving up the Christmas dinner, two policemen arrived on the doorstep to tell Mum she should go up to the hospital – sadly her daughter had died that Christmas afternoon. Mum was pregnant at the time and the baby (I think it was a boy) was born prematurely a couple of months later. The poor little blighter was blind and did not have much of a chance – they just didn't have all the medical services in those days. He lived for a couple of days though, but that meant that when he died they had to have a proper funeral for him as well. So Mum had funerals for two of her children within a couple of months of each other. I was the next one born, but that is the reason there is such a big gap between me and my eldest sister – there should have been two others in between.
I can just about remember Grandma. She did very well with her laundry business and, if the truth be told, earned more than Grandad. She was quite comfortably off at the end. I can remember her coming to visit us at least once a week, always dressed in the same way. On her head she always wore a black bonnet. During the week it was a plain one but on Sundays she had a Sunday best, trimmed with ribbons. Then she had a black cape that was trimmed with beads and braid, and a long black skirt which went down almost to the ground. What fascinated me as a kid, though, were her long, black, button-up boots. I used to think they were wonderful, and it was always my ambition to have a pair myself. By the time I was old enough, though, they were completely out of fashion and I never did get a pair.CHAPTER 2
The First World War
* * *
I was barely three when the First World War started but that is the cause of my earliest memory. We lived in a half-house in Lett Road at the time, and were very lucky to have that much to live in. I suppose Dad had a good job, as jobs went at that time. He was a market porter in Stratford, which meant that at least we always had food on the table. He used to enjoy his beer and usually came home the worse for wear, I suppose it was part of the way of life down the market, but he always made sure Mum had enough money to feed us. We had the upstairs half of the house and the kitchen opened off the landing at the top of the stairs looking straight down to the front door.
When I was little Mum used to stand me in a bowl on the kitchen table for my wash before bedtime. I could stand there and watch down the stairs to the front door. This particular evening I was watching when Dad came in. He looked a bit different; I suppose he was fully sober for a change. He came up the stairs, into the kitchen and stood, looking a bit uncomfortable. Mum carried on washing me, until at last he broke the silence.
'I've done it Doll,' he said.
That was all he had to say. I suppose he and Mum had talked about the war and what he was going to do, and no doubt Mum had made clear what she thought about it. There was silence. Mum lost all interest in me and just looked, though goodness knows where she was looking. Then suddenly she took the flannel she had been using on me and flung it down on the ground between Dad's feet.
'You stupid bastard,' she said, and that was that.
I didn't know what was going on, I was still a baby really, but even I could tell this was something important. It did not take Mum long to regain her composure and then the fireworks started.
'What did you do that for? You can't just walk out like that ... What am I supposed to do with the children [there were three of us then]? You silly bugger, you'll get killed ...' And so it went on. It did not take long to develop into a full-scale fight between the two of them. Not that my mother needed much excuse for a row anyway. If she wanted to, she could have started an argument with the stones in the street. I cannot recall how it ended and how I eventually went to bed. Of course, I had no idea what it was all about. How should I know what 'volunteered' meant, what was 'war' that kept being shouted, in fact how should I know what adults were talking about at any time. However, I think that was the moment I became aware that the world and other people were something different and separate from me. Up until then I had just accepted them as part of what happened to me, but now I realised that they had their own existence – from that moment I started to grow up.
Those stairs figured again a couple of years later. Dad was away in the army by now and we barely ever saw him. Buying food was difficult and you had to know where to go, which shop had what available, and then be prepared to queue for it. Mum had gone shopping and, along with my baby brother, I was left at home in the care of my big sister. Our baby brother was the first boy in the family and so all his life was known as 'Son'. Anyway, our street door was the typical half-glazed sort, all the houses in the street had them. It had leaded lights, and in our door most of them were red with a narrow strip of plain glass like a border. I used to like sitting on the stairs looking through the translucent red at the street beyond. Really it was too dark to make anything out clearly but you could see the shapes of people going by and hear the noises. On this particular day I was sitting on the stairs looking at the window in the door and waiting for Mum to come home to cook some tea. Suddenly the door lit up. The whole world lit up. I looked around and the whole house was red light. I wondered what was happening. It was amazing. I was completely surrounded by red light; everything was red light. And then it faded until, after a couple of seconds, there was a distant rumble. That was the Silvertown Explosion, when a huge store of explosives being stockpiled for the war went up by accident [Editor's note: January 1917].
As I said, getting food became very difficult and queueing became a way of life. Once, I think it was when Dad was coming home on leave, Mum decided that she wanted a good piece of meat for the occasion. She was working by then and had to go out early in the morning. So on this particular day I was got up at about six in the morning and went down to wait in the butcher's queue. That takes some thinking about because I could have only been about five, or maybe six, at the time. I stayed in the queue until my sister Doll came along at about half past seven. She had got our brother up, dressed him, and after having some breakfast taken him downstairs to the lady who looked after him during the day. She also made some toast and tea for me and it was left ready on the table when she came to take her turn in the queue. Then I went home to have breakfast. Doll queued until Mum came back from work on her 'breakfast break' to buy the joint when the shop finally opened. Meanwhile, Doll came back to collect me and off we went to school – all to get a decent joint of meat.
Luckily, though getting food was difficult, Mum had the knack of making a decent meal out of anything or nothing. I can still remember the recipe for a meal for four from two (or even, one) cod heads. You boil and mash a good pile of potatoes. Meanwhile boil the heads in milk and when cooked pick off every bit of meat and 'soft stuff' you can find. Use the milk to make a white sauce with lots of parsley (if you can find any). Then mix in all the fish meat and pour it over the mashed potato. We used to think that was a great treat, though I am not sure that you could put it in front of anybody today!
Nothing was easy during the war and there was nothing like the medical services we have now. I remember when Son and I were ill at one time – I think it was in one of those 'flu epidemics that caused so many deaths. We were so ill that we could not go to school, though Doll seemed to go through untouched. Anyway, us two could not go to school but Mum could not afford to miss a day's work – if you did not work you did not get paid, it was as simple as that. So she tucked us up in bed as warmly as she could each day and off she went. We were not getting any better though, and I think she was beginning to get worried so she started thinking about getting the doctor round. Trouble was, doctors cost one-and-six a visit and Mum just did not have the money. She was talking about this at work and one of the women told her that, because her husband was away in the army, if she went to the RO (Relief Office) she would get a doctor's visit for free. So off she went, queued up for ages, and finally got in to see the clerk. She explained her problem, at which point the clerk asked why she had come to the RO.
'Well, I haven't got any money' she replied.
'But you have got a wedding ring haven't you,' he said, pointing at her finger, 'Pawn that first before you say you haven't got any money!'
Can you imagine it? Mum was really scandalised and walked out. Instead she came home and told us we could have any toy in the toyshop if we got better. I think that really she just begrudged giving any money to doctors. We did both recover and Mum went and got some money from the Provident to buy our promised toys. Son got a trolley full of building blocks and I got a dolly. I had that dolly for years and loved it more than words can tell. Mind you, I think Mum was paying off the club for the rest of the year, if not the rest of the war!
While Dad was away in the war we only saw him once in the next four years. I don't know much about what he did and what happened to him during the war, though I know that at one time he volunteered to be the cook for his regiment or unit or whatever it was. Perhaps he felt it was safer to be away from the shooting. It might have been safer for him but I am not sure about the rest of the soldiers. He only had the job a short while – apparently one day some of the men killed some rabbits and said that they would really like a rabbit stew. He had no idea what to do so threw the rabbits into the pot, skinned but still with their furry feet on and complete with their innards! He was court-martialled for that and returned to more regular duties. He did see some action though. I remember him talking about 'going over the top' and for some reason I think it was that awful Somme battle. Anyway, he said he left his trench and marched straight ahead towards the enemy lines with bullets flying all around him. It was pretty bad so he stopped to look around him and suddenly realised that he was the only one left standing! It did not take him a second to realise that this was too dangerous so he quickly laid himself down in the nearest shell-hole and stayed there until it was dark. Then he made his way back to his own lines. I suppose that if he had told his story it would have been called cowardice or something, but there were so few survivors from his regiment that nobody had the nerve to ask him how he managed it. I don't know if that was the occasion, but for years the pride of place on our mantelpiece at home was taken by his cap-badge, with its top half carried away by a bullet. It went straight through the hat he was wearing without even ruffling his hair!
It must have shaken him a bit though and I think that may have been the reason he got a thirteen-day leave. On the first morning of his leave, Mum got us – that is me, Doll and our Son – up early and dressed us in our Sunday best. After breakfast we went straight down to Stratford Market station (it is not there any longer) and stood on the platform to wait for Dad. We waited all morning and trains came and trains went. Lots of soldiers got off and were welcomed with hugs and kisses and tears, but no Dad. Mum had given us some sandwiches and we had our lunch sitting on the platform. Then we waited all afternoon but it was the same story as the morning. Eventually it began to get a bit dark and we had to go home for dinner. We stayed up for a long time but there was still no Dad and so Mum sent us to bed. I don't know how long we slept but it was well into the night when I heard Dad come in. I heard his voice talking to Mum for a couple of moments and then he came straight into us. I was awake anyway but he just grabbed me, Doll and our Son and hugged us. He was crying, something I had never seen before or since. I suppose he thought he would never see us again. Doll and I were crying too, but our Son was too young to know what was going on. He just kept moaning that Dad's whiskers were covered with snow and made him cold!
Excerpted from Polly by Jeff Smith. Copyright © 2012 Jeff Smith. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Origins and Early Days (1900–12),
2 The First World War (1914–18),
3 School (1915–25),
4 A Woman on the Bus (1916),
5 Standard of Living (1920–8),
6 Derby Day (early 1920s),
7 The Holy Cups (about 1920),
8 The Prize (about 1920),
9 A Daughter's Story (about 1925),
10 The B Family (1920–7),
11 Families (1925),
12 The Goose (1921),
13 Working Life (1925–54),
14 Meeting and Marrying Fred (1929–32),
15 The Second World War (1939–45),
16 The Blitz (1940–4),
17 The Dirtiest Woman in the World (1940–50),
18 War Babies (1940–5),
19 Farewell to Arms (1940–3),
20 Produce (1940–5),
21 Doodlebugs and Rockets (1944–5),
22 Early Post-War (1945–50),
23 The Fog (1950–1),
24 The Flats (1952–6),
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