In a series of chapters to be posted, this blog will tell the story of a childhood in South-East London in the years after the Second World War.
PrefaceI have increasingly wondered about the contemporary appeal of nostalgia. The word 'nostalgia' was made up from the ancient Greek words for 'homeward journey' and 'pain' by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student in the 17th century, who observed how his countrymen would sometimes break down in fits of mania or melancholy during long spells of soldiering in foreign lands. The page may also appeal to what is known as topophilia, love of place. Nostalgia has also been defined as a 'bittersweet, selective longing for things, persons or situations of the often idealized past.' There are four forces that may contribute to such a longing for an idealised past:
- The idea that we are leaving behind a golden era saturated with the concept of home.
- An increasingly diverse and fragmented society in terms of both beliefs and forms of behaviour. Although this has many positive features in comparison with a relatively monochrome past, it may imply some loss of wholeness.
- loss of individual autonomy, linked in turn with a need for greater connectivity.
- A loss of simplicity, authenticity, genuineness and spontaneity. Life is much more complex than it used to be and more pressured.
A historian of the town where I now live (Leamington) Bill Gibbons expressed the appeal of nostalgia well when he said, 'A lot of people are attracted to things of the past because you are leaving the conflicts and doubts and worries of the present, and by going back there are no decisions to make - it's all happened. In a way, it's a much more safe atmosphere.' A contributor to this page commented, 'Nostalgia is only good for eleven years. After that places and people become unrecognisable.' This page started by recalling how in many ways relatively little had changed in the road in which I lived some fifty years ago.
But in the meantime I have changed a great deal. This was brought home to me recently when I was talking to a young friend about accents and I remarked that I once had a London accent. 'Don't talk utter rubbish, Wyn', she replied, 'you've never had a London accent in your life.' The more we change, and the more 'globalisation' accelerates and accentuates pressures for change, the more we may want to cling to identities from the past - even if contemporary friends may see them as constructed, retro and down market identities.
When I am on my way to home games at Charlton, I pass an extensive development of new flats between London Bridge and Deptford. On a number of balconies can be seen tricycles and other children’s toys. Their parents are probably relatively affluent, but their children have to live in a high rise environment and they may well be renting their homes. When I was growing up in the 1950s, although my father was a skilled worker earning £500 a year (£10,569 a year in 2012 prices) around the middle of the decade, and my mother did not work at all, they could afford a 1930s terraced house with a decent sized garden.
This contrast reflects a number of factors, not least the development of an ‘hourglass’ society in which the number of relatively well paid skilled manual jobs has declined. It also reflects the high cost of housing in the world city of London in which supply does not grow quickly enough to match demand and where many properties are bought by foreign investors and then left empty. Many Londoners can no longer afford to live in the city.
This book looks at the experience of growing up in the south-east London suburb of Plumstead Common, London SE18 in the 1950s with some reference to both the academic literature on the 1950s and that on suburbs. It is not meant to be an uncritical celebration of the past. It does not seek to present an overly nostalgic view of the 1950s, to recreate an imagined past, which is not to say that I had an unhappy childhood or there were no positives.
A friend of mine commented that nostalgia about the 1950s was all very well, but 'does not explain the desire to "escape" from the 1950s clearly felt by many folk.' Manchester University's Michael Moran has commented, 'It is salutary to recall what an appalling, repressed, monochrome world existed in Britain in the 1950s and how far we have come since then.' A more optimistic view is taken by Katherine Whitehorn (2008: 44): ‘There’s been a tendency to look on the fifties as simply a damp patch of ground between the battle ground of the forties and the fairground of the sixties; yet it was anything but. It is true that there were austerities, but we were used to them, and as they gradually ebbed away, we had the heady sense that everything was getting better.’ This was encapsulated by the 1950s exhibition staged by Compton Verney, Warwickshire in the summer of 2016 which emphasised the bright new designs of the era. 1950s exhibition
One person who E mailed me when I developed a web page on the experience of growing up in the 1950s commented, 'Our generation was the first to challenge parental precepts; we had disposable income thanks to the security provided by our fathers and we also benefitted from the '44 Education Act, school milk and the Welfare State. We also developed a rebellious streak as personified by the Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers; and later the Hippies. Whether we belonged to these groups or not, they had a major effect on societal thinking.' Another person commented, 'Life then was simpler, more uncluttered, more focused. We did not want as much. Our only aspiration was to get an education.'
Recalling what he terms a lower-middle-class-London suburban life in the 1950s, David Lodge writes, 'Its anxieties and privations made us temperamentally cautious, unassertive, grateful for small mercies and modest in our ambitions. We did not think that happiness, pleasure, abundance, constituted the natural order of things; they were to be earned by hard work (such as passing examinations) and even then it cost us some pains to enjoy them.' On the whole, life at the beginning of the 21st century is better than in the 1950s for the majority of people (although clearly there are exceptions such as the homeless and even the 'working poor'). However, for most people life is more varied and challenging, offers more opportunities and is generally less constrained about how one should live one's life. There is a greater tolerance of diversity and less pressure to conform to a uniform, 'approved' lifestyle.
Quite a lot of social control was exerted over children. Playing in the traffic free road was possible and permitted, but there were strict boundaries. If games of hide and seek took us into the back passageways between the roads, irate residents would appear at the doors of our parents to complain about the noise, disturbance and invasion of privacy. Similarly, attempting to play hopscotch on the pavement led to complaints about the chalk marks.
The aftermath of war
It is important to remember how close the experience of war was in the 1950s. Many families had lost at least one family member, although ours was fortunate in that respect. The physical aftermath of the war was evident in the number of undeveloped bomb sites, or even damaged buildings. I remember travelling through the Barbican area of London and seeing a whole zone of the city completely levelled.
The other aftermath of war was rationing. I remember sweets still being on ration. The early 1950s were very much an age of austerity, although there was the hope of a better future, exemplified by the 1951 Festival of Britain. As the Compton Verney exhibition revealed, once Winston Churchill became prime minister he ordered the demolition of the symbol of the Festival, the Skylon. He thought that it represented a socialist statement rather than an aspiration for a better future. I can just remember going to the fun fair at Battersea that was part of the Festival. What distinguished the latter half of the 1950s from the first half was the growth of conspicuous consumption and in particular the availability of labour saving devices for the home.
House and home
The view across the road from our house gives an idea of the style of housing.
By using Google Earth, it is easy to visit the ‘banjo’ cul-de-sac where I grew up and look at the front of my house in some detail. The top of the cul de sac led to extensive allotments which were also at the back of the house so it was a relatively quiet location. The allotments were later abandoned, but have never been built on. In 2016, I sponsored the creation of a 1950s allotment at the Compton Verney exhibition. The house was a terraced one, just six houses in the terrace, built in the late 1930s and my parents moved in when they married, along with my maternal grandmother. My father had been living on an early experiment in social housing, the Progress Estate at Eltham. My mother and her mother had been living in a rented Victorian house in nearby Plum Lane, where my grandfather had died not so long before.
The inter-war housing boom had first been directed at those in secure non-manual occupations such as teachers. However, this market quickly became saturated and builders started to look to the better paid working class occupations as potential purchasers. Indeed, an uncle lived on a large-scale development at Elm Park by Costains which was specifically targeted at this market. ‘From about 1932, with mortgage interest rates coming down, and building costs at their lowest since 1914, a fair number of houses appeared in the market in the price range £350-550 … opening up the possibility of house ownership … to the better-paid manual workers.’ (Jackson, 1973: 190). Whilst there has been some debate in the literature about who could afford to buy in suburbia, a case study of nearby Bexley ‘demonstrates that the affordable loans would have been available to skilled manual workers’. (Mace, 2013: 60). My father, a carriage and wagon fitter for the railways, obtained a mortgage from the Modern Permanent Building Society which was run by a local firm of solicitors and later absorbed into the Woolwich. In the 1950s the other people living in the road had better paid working class, although in some cases semi-skilled, occupations such as postal sorter, lorry driver and shop assistant.
As a terraced house, the house represented a lower cost solution as the market for the semi-detached houses became saturated. However, it was still important for private developers to distinguish their product from the ‘grimly uniform neo-Georgian facades of local authority estates.’ (Scott, 2013: 69). ‘One of the most visible differences between speculative and council houses was the ubiquitous front bay window.’ (Scott, 2013: 70). This was duly supplied, along with the French doors in the rear reception room to provide access to the garden. (Scott, 2013: 71). Tiling was placed on the wall underneath the upstairs bay and other features included a porch and ‘leaded lights’ in the front door.
It’s a surprise to see the front door of the house painted blue when we always maintained it in a red colour. A garage has been let into the large front garden. What I did not recall was how much fussy detail there was on the exterior of the house in terms of such features as tiling on the bays which must have been fiddly and quite expensive to apply. This reflected the fact that ‘private developers were at pains to separate their product from the stripped down neo-Georgian aesthetic of public housing.’ (Mace, 2013: 60).
The interior of the house has probably not changed very much. The front room or lounge, which was only used when we had ‘company’ (visitors), or where my grandmother was placed in her coffin before her funeral, is now used by a chiropodist who lives in the house for his practice. Family life was centred on the living room at the back of the house which was of a similar size to the lounge. Whereas the front room was heated when necessary by an electric fire, this room had a fireplace where lighting the fire involved much fussing around with a gas poker and sticks of woods and often necessitated holding a sheet of newspaper against the fireplace. There were often complaints about the quality of the coal and the presence of ‘slack’ in it. The chimney had to be swept regularly, which invariably left a film of dust over everything. Once this task was neglected and the chimney caught fire with a great roaring sound.
In the rest of the room was a dining table with chairs, a settee and, from around 1954, a 12 inch black and white television in one corner. There was a carpet, but it was not fitted, leaving the edges covered just in linoleum. There was also a sideboard for storing plates, glasses and table cloths. High quality glassware was displayed in a cabinet in the longue which I still have in my house today. A ‘serving hatch’ in the wall opened on to the kitchen, but this was rarely used in practice.
As was typical of houses of the period, the kitchen was a small galley like room and really totally inadequate, given that it also housed the copper and mangle for washing clothes. Washing was heated in the copper and the squeezed through the mangle. There was no fridge which meant that shopping had to be conducted on an almost daily basis. In modern homes, the kitchen-diner is often the focal point of the house and in a room on which much money is lavished on state of the art equipment. In part, this reflects a more diverse cuisine and a greater interest in innovative cooking, the first stirrings of which were being encountered in the 1950s.
Upstairs there was a large bedroom in the front of the house which could be heated in very cold weather by a gas fire. The back bedroom was also of a decent size and was occupied by my grandmother. The bathroom had a bath, wash basin and toilet, but no shower which was relatively rare in those days. Most people took a bath once a week which was a great ritual but did not involve the inconvenience encountered by many people who still had no bathroom.
The final room upstairs was the box like bedroom which I occupied and which was over the downstairs passageway. There was a large loft space above to which there was access, but it was never used for any purpose.
The back garden was laid to lawn with flower beds along the side. At the end of the garden were a few fruit trees. A back gate opened on to a back passageway where the dustbins were kept. Vegetables were not grown in the garden, as we had an allotment garden at the top of the adjacent cul de sac where we also had fruit bushes.
A distinctive suburb
London suburbs vary in their composition, but this was not one of the complete suburbs built from scratch on farmland like Queensbury in North London studied by Mace (2013). Plumstead was not a place where there was ‘no there, there’. Victorian housing started at the bottom of our cul-de-sac and extended all the way down to the River Thames, having been built to accommodate workers at the Woolwich Arsenal (where my maternal grandfather had worked). This was of variable quality. Some of the houses were quite large and of good quality, e.g., those on Plumstead Common Road. Others were modest versions of the Victorian villa and there was also slum housing that was eventually demolished.
Further up Shooters Hill was an area of more expensive housing erected by John Laing and Company and always referred to as the ‘Laing’s Estate’. A relative by marriage who was a teacher lived there, as did the headmistress of my primary school. Parts of it had some excellent views over London up towards Tower Bridge, but although the houses were superior to ours, the treatment of this site was not that special. It was as high as Hampstead, but this was South London rather than the more prestigious north and it did not become another Hampstead.
In some respects the area was quite cut off. The underground network did not then extend into South-East London at all and the Southern Electric trains at Woolwich Arsenal were some way away. There was a good London Transport bus service along Plumstead Common Road, but that was ten minutes walk away. South-East London had a certain distinctiveness, marked by its own version of the London accent which I was always able to identify in later life. It was some time before I realised that it was the London accent with an underlay of the old rural Kent accent.
An article published in The Guardian in 2015 portrayed the area as a potentially trendy hidden gem: Let's move to Plumstead.
There is ‘a very long and continuing critique of suburbia that sees it as inherently problematic’. (Mace, 2013: 5). The critique runs along the lines that suburbs, particularly those of the inter-war period, offer a repetitive monotony that is not aesthetically pleasing. For gentrifiers it has little appeal: ‘the inter-war suburban semi-detached house would not communicate the same cultural kudos, it simply doesn’t have the same cultural power as its Victorian predecessors.’ (Mace, 2013: 166). There was also an argument that the inhabitants of suburbs were too preoccupied with status differences and with consumer durables as a means of demonstrating them. For the new suburban working class, ‘respectability generally involved adopting, or at least projecting to the outside world, a broader, coordinated material ‘lifestyle’ that encompassed all aspects of observed consumption – creating consumption communities, tied together not by background, workplace or religion, but by shared material values.’ (Scott, 2013: 138).
Suburban life could be dull and relatively conformist in the 1950s, but this was to some extent offset by the fact that London was a capital city of what was then seen as a major world power. Life in the suburb might be limiting if secure, but there was also an awareness of a bigger, more cosmopolitan and racially diverse world within touching distance and that was important for me in shaping my later life.
Jackson, A.A. (1973) Semi-Detached London (London: George Allen and Unwin).
Mace, A. (2013) City Suburbs: Placing suburbia in a post-suburban world (Abingdon: Routledge).
Scott, P. (2013) The Making of the Modern British Home (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Whitehorn, K. (2008) Selective Memory (London: Virago).
Chapter 2: Family
As I have noted already, I lived with my parents and my grandmother. My father's family had Scottish origins way back in the 18th century. One of my great (just a few times over as they were very long lived) paternal grandparents fought at Waterloo and acquired a French wife (information via Ancestry.com) His son was a letter carrier, later a railway goods checker and my grandfather was a chargehand on the railways at North Woolwich. My father (Robert Frank Grant) was born in North Woolwich and lost his mother when he was about twelve years old from the 'Spanish' influenza outbreak at the end of the First World War. His eldest sister looked after the bereaved family of five children. They were allocated a house on the new 'Progress' estate at Eltham built by the Co-op. My father left school at fourteen and obtained an apprenticeship with the Great Eastern Railway as a carriage and wagon fitter. This eventually gave him a steady if not spectacular income as a skilled worker. As he was in a reserved occupation, he did not fight in the war.
My father's journey to work involved an early start to get a bus to Woolwich, across the foot tunnel under the Thames and then a train from North Woolwich to Stratford. When I was very young, he was home at 6.30 Mondays to Wednesday and 6 on Thursdays and Fridays. In those days you had to work Saturday mornings as well, but this was then cut back to every other Saturday and eventually phased out in the early 1960s.
My grandfather Thomas May (first left) with colleagues at Woolwich Arsenal
My mother's family moved to Plumstead during the First World War so that my grandfather could take up a post as clerk of works at Woolwich Arsenal. He died relatively young in 1934. I suspect that carcinogenic substances he encountered in his work at the Arsenal may have played a part. Way back my mother's family was of Cornish origin from the Falmouth area and their first detached house in Feltham in Middlesex was called 'Pendennis' (it's still there today). They all worked in the building trade, usually as carpenters and joiners.
My mother trained as a hairdresser and worked at a salon in The Hollow, Plumstead Common where she made some lifelong friends. She stopped work when she got married, as was not unusual in those days, and never worked again, even in a part-time capacity.
My grandmother was born in 1875 and was in her mid-twenties when Queen Victoria and in some ways she was an embodiment of Victorian values. She didn't like me playing out in the street with other children as she did not think this was respectable.
My grandmother Lucy Adelaide Florence May (formerly Smith) in middle age.
However, she was also very interested in football. Admittedly, this was partly for gambling purposes with the Racing and Football Outlook carefully studied each week. However, she was also fascinated by issues of promotion and relegation and spent much time discussing these with me. What interested her were the factors underlying success and failure. This gave me an interest I was to pursue systematically later in life.
Completing the family
My mother was in her 41st year when I was born. She was not able to have any more children. My parents decided to pursue the route of adoption. To qualify, they had to first act as foster parents. I particularly remember Margaret who was around my age and from the flats near Charlton village. Whenever I pass them, I wonder what happened to her. She was with us for several weeks while her mother was in hospital.
Eventually my parents qualified for adoption and were allocated a girl about eighteen months younger than me and of Irish heritage (this entailed a visit from a young Catholic priest). Her father had been widowed and did not think he could bring her up.
I am not sure exactly how long she was with us, I have one photo of her on holiday in Cornwall when I would have been seven. She was certainly with us for one Christmas. However, her father met a new partner and wanted his daughter back. I am not sure how far the adoption process had gone, but the London County Council social worker allocated to us was prepared to fight the issue in the courts. My parents wisely decided to let her return to her natural father. When I undertook a counselling qualification many years later, I was asked to recall a traumatic event from my childhood and I described seeing her walking down the road with her father as I watched from the window. If you have no siblings, there is no one you can check childhood memories with.
The wider family
Lakedale Road, Plumstead, then a busy local shopping centre.
However, my wider family were also important. My mother's sister, Doris, had married a newsagent who had a shop in Lakedale Road, Plumstead. Late on Sunday morning my father and I would walk down the hill to Uncle Sid's shop to collect the papers. Against the background of the hissing gas lamps, my father and my uncle, joined by the occasional customer, would discuss politics and football. All the Sunday papers were available, and my uncle urged me on the importance of 'reading between the lines'. In this way, a lifelong interest in politics was developed.
In the garden of my uncle's shop in Lakedale Road, aged two or three.
My uncle was an intelligent man. He had started life taking an engineering course at Woolwich Polytechnic, but had to abandon it to go and work in his father's shop which was 'his livelihood'. The most fulfilling part of his life was when he was assigned to RAF ground crew during the war and was able to use and develop his engineering skills maintaining planes. Late in his life he told me that he felt it had been a wasted life 'chained to the shop counter'. His generation did not have the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in higher education.
My aunt and uncle enjoyed a slightly more affluent lifestyle in Belvedere
Initially Doris and Sid have lived over the shop. However, after the war they were able to afford a semi-detached house in Belvedere which was then officially in Kent. Green London Country buses went past the window. They had a large garden with a steep slope at the back and meandering paths which I enjoyed following as a child. I have one or two of their garden ornaments in my garden today. Childless, and running their own business, they were more affluent than we were which was a cause of some slight resentment on my mother's part.
My father's oldest brother, Walter, had a junior management position. He was a home movie enthusiast and my cousin has showed me some of these, reminding me that he was a rather dapper, suave individual. He used to go on cruises with his wife and friends long before this was a widespread practice. He made various toys for me such as bus (large enough to sit and ride on) with working lights. He was also someone with a considerable intellectual curiosity.
Visiting him in East Ham and my father's eldest sister and her husband involved a trip across the river, using the Woolwich Free Ferry. In those days, it was still operated by paddle steamers. These were replaced by diesel boats and these in turn are going to be replaced soon. At peak times, three boats operated, which required a bit of juggling at the landing places, but there were generally just two operating when we travelled at the weekend. There is more about the Ferry in a chapter on local transport below.
We then had to catch a bus and this involved crossing the docks which were then busy with traffic. We were often held up by a 'bridger' as a large boat went across in front of us, providing a link with more exotic parts of the world.
There was also a contact with a wider and more exciting world. Somewhat unusually, our house was named after a state of the union (Virginia). From time to time, letters would arrive from our relatives in the southern states where some of them were involved in courthouse politics. Most exciting of all, one of them might come to Britain, and we would be swept off to a Park Lane hotel for a meal. Naturally, I was fascinated by this country, glimpsed through movies, where people seemed to be so rich and where every other person seemed to be a gangster.
Chapter 3: Holidays and major festivals
These were an important part of our life and provided a welcome interruption to routine.
Days or afternoons out were themselves enjoyable. One was to ride on the trams (I still have my Last Tram week ticket) to Well Hall Pleausance at Eltham, a pleasant set of gardens with ponds full of fish which fascinated a small boy. When I was last there, the ponds were empty, but the gardens were re-opened after a major restoration in December 2002. Before re-opening them, it had been necessary to install a security system following vandalism. There have been repairs to the Tudor moat, garden walls, water features and fountains, and the park has a new sunken garden and a rockery.
As my father worked for British Railways one of the perks of the job was privilege travel at reduced or no fares. As far as I recall, these included two family tickets that could be used anywhere in the country (or abroad), and six that could be used in what was then the Eastern Region.
One day trip was to go to Fenchurch Street and get the train to Chalkwell, then walk through the gardens to Southend Pier and take a ride on the electric railway out to end of the pier and enjoy the various amusements.
A favourite Saturday or Sunday trip was to Frinton and Walton. This involved going to London Bridge, getting a bus to Liverpool Street and then catching the train to Frinton. There was an hourly Clacton interval service that divided into portions for Clacton and Walton at Thorpe-le-Soken, but very often we got one of the supplementary summer services to Clacton and got off at Thorpe-le-Soken. This was a country junction station some way from the village and seemed to be plagued by wasps. A class N7/0-6-2 tank engine would take the three coach shuttle train for Walton away from Thorpe on a steep gradient. After calling at Kirby Cross, the train would arrive at Frinton. This was then a passing point for trains, but is now single track.
Frinton was a very exclusive resort first developed in the Edwardian era ('Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent') with the main entry being by a level crossing over the railway. There was an uproar when the gates were replaced by barriers in 2009.; Connaught Avenue, named after the Duke of Connaught (the third son of Queen Victoria who died aged 91 in 1942) was once known as the 'Bond Street of East Anglia'. A ban on public houses was lifted in 2000. We always followed the same routine, first going to the Copper Kettle Café (now an up market fish and chip shop, eventually allowed in Frinton) then we would call in at Woolworths towards the bottom of the street.
The sea now beckoned and we would walk across the Greensward and down the cliffs to the gently sloping sandy beach. Uniformed beach inspectors ensured that public decency and order was maintained. The promenade was lined by beach huts which are still there today.
In mid-afternoon we would walk towards Walton-on-the-Naze. At one end of Frinton were some beautiful 1930s houses which were said to be homes for film stars. Oliver Hill was appointed as the architect for this scheme in 1934. A handful of houses were built in a rigorous modern idiom, but in others the impact was toned down by the application of pitched, green-tiled roofs.
Each year more of the cliff had crumbled away between the two towns. Houses were sometimes seen tumbling down the cliff. The erosion in this area has now been halted by coastal protection works, but in an earlier period (1929) the railway had to be relocated. The Naze continues to be eroded: Falling into the sea
One of the big attractions at Walton was the pier, the second longest in England at 793 metres. A little two foot gauge train hauled by a petrol driven engine with a steam outline went out to the pier head. According to Keith Turner, Pier Railways and Tramways of the British Isles it had a half mile length and was 'Simply laid with light, flat-bottomed rails bolted to wooden sleepers laid directly on the decking'. The open coaches had tramway-type cross-bench reversible seats. There were extensive amusements at the landward end of the pier: I particularly enjoyed the ghost train.
We would then walk into town and buy shrimps or crab. We would try and catch the interval service and at Thorpe run across the platform to the buffet car where we would have toasted tea cakes. The engine was invariably a Britannia, a powerful and majestic engine, possibly too powerful for its task. It also ran for insufficient years to provide an economic return Electrification was completed in 1963.
In times past there would have been a little train in silhouette moving along Walton Pier.
I greatly enjoyed a return to Walton and Frinton in the summer of 2017. The pier survived storm damage in 1978 and there were ongoing repair works. The railway closed in the late 1970s, but we enjoyed the walk out to the pier head. All the old fashioned rides were there, now with an historic value.
On the cliffs at Frinton in 2017 with Victoria and Clarissa
I think the last time I was at Frinton was in the 1960s. In those days you could see Radio Caroline offshore whereas now wind turbines can be seen in the distance out at sea. If I had been told then that I would be back in 2017 with two charming teenage granddaughters, I would have been very surprised.
Frinton is less exclusive than it was, with closed nail bars in Connaught Avenue. We drove to the beautiful 1930s houses and they had a 'wow' factor for the granddaughters. The tall 1960s blocks of flats did rather spoil the look of the Greensward.
What surprised us was that house prices were significantly lower than in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. However, there is not much employment in the vicinity and many of the houses are too large for retired people wanting to downsize.
Our summer holidays were usually taken in Cornwall where we would rent a cottage in various parts of the county, although I remember that one year we stayed in a converted bus at Bude. I remember enjoying the sandy beaches. It must have rained sometimes, but I don't recall it happening that often.
Tighbeg looks as good as I remember it.
For a couple of years we took our summer holiday in Scotland and went to Cornwall at Easter. This involved a trip on the sleeper and waking up among the Scottish mountains and lochs. One year we stayed in a guest house in Fort William and took the train to Mallaig and the ferry across to Skye. On another occasion we rented a remote cottage on a loch near Oban, now advertised as a luxury property and 'one of the ultimate secluded Highland hideaways'. It was used in the filming of Ring of Bright Water. We took a sea trip to Staff and Iona, but became fogbound so we never made either destination and had to stay on the ship overnight in Oban.
Another destination was a farm on the edge of Exmoor near Lynton and Lynmouth. This involved plenty of walking, but the healthy farmhouse food made up for it.
Was Christmas more special then or does it always seem that way to a child? As I watched our three granddaughters unwrap their presents at Christmas 2002, our eldest daughter reminded me, 'It's really for the children.' Toys were in short supply in the immediate post-war period. I remember that I used the small wooden boards in date boxes to make train platforms with toy bricks used for the trains.
Christmas was always looked forward to for what it would bring, in one year a much desired train set. This was a Trix Twin set and consisted of an oval with a passing loop. The rolling stock was an engine with three 'custard and cream' carriages. There was also a station, a tunnel and a couple of signals. My aunt and uncle gave me a small goods train for my birthday.
Presents I could always expect included boxes of confectionery (e.g., from Fry's) and the Eagle annual. The Eagle was a supposedly wholesome boys' comic which featured the Mekon, a Venusian evil doer who was always ultimately vanquished by 'Dan Dare'. For adults, of course, if Christmas was on a Wednesday as it was in 2002, this meant working on Monday and Tuesday and then back to work on Friday. No holiday shutdown then and no public holiday for New Year's Day.
My aunt and uncle would come for Christmas lunch with the meat provided by a chicken, then an unusual luxury item. It was the only time in the year when my parents would drink wine, invariably a sauterne which my father would say was 'a nice drop of wine'. On Boxing Day we usually went to my aunt and uncle across the river in Elm Park.
One person who wrote to me had the following memories of Christmas in Woolwich: 'Christmas, now that was a time to remember back then. All the stalls on the square filled with Christmasy fare like nuts and dates and tangerines, and the stalls that used to appear selling toys. Powis Street and Hare Street lit up with Christmas lights together with all the stores, and looming above it all was the tower of the Co-op building, with its illuminated clock which was never quite on time. On Xmas morning most of the front doors of the houses would be left open and people would go from house to house exchanging greetings and having a tipple, no invitation neede here, you just walked in. Dad would smoke cigars, an aroma I adored and still associate with Christmas to this day. Brian, my elder brother and I had to wear our new suits purchased specially for Christmas. By toady's standards we were poor, but we were happy and content and appreciated the small things.
This was, of course, a 'one off': I may not see another in my lifetime. I remember the death of King George VIth and the truncation of radio programmes. The coronation marked a time when the worst of austerity was coming to an end. Like many people, I watched it on black and white television which was the first time I had seen it. This was on a ten inch set bought by my aunt and uncle at Elm Park. Subsequently, there was a colour film in the cinema which we were taken to see from school. We also received a Coronation mug which I still have. I was presented with a set of coins for 1953 which annoyingly my parents later emptied for my savings account, not realising that this was a limited edition.
A neighbour opposite picked out his door in red, white and blue lights, but this was generally regarded as being over the top. There was no party in our close, although there was one in nearby Tuam Road.
This was a time when Britain still regarded itself as a great imperial power, an illusion that was shattered by Suez. We all walked round the school playground on 'Empire Day', waving union jacks. There was a lot of talk about 'a new Elizabethan age', and although this was largely bogus, there was a sense of renewal as we escaped from the long shadow of the war years.
I remain a supporter of a constitutional monarchy above politics. I appreciate that some people consider that the hereditary principle reinforces inequalities in society. The risk with any republican regime is that the election becomes contested on party lines and you end up with what is known as a 'semi-presidential' regime where the president chooses or is required (Italy) to intervene in political disputes.
Being a constitutional monarch is a difficult role (a friend of mine had a very interesting conversation with the Queen about it) but I think that Queen Elizabeth has generally been exemplary at discharging it. She is a master of the subtle hint. When the late Ben Pimlott published his excellent biography of her, she invited him and his wife to stay at Windsor Castle. She never mentioned the biography, but the message was clear.
Prince Charles is determined to 'slim down' the monarchy. Of course, the total family is now huge. They even had to have a minibus to take some of them to St. Paul's for the Queen's 90th birthday celebration. Some of just plain 'Mr' and 'Mrs'.
In a recent edition of the quiz show 'Pointless' only one person out of a hundred identified the Queen's cousin, the Duke of Gloucester. He trained as an architect and was in a practice when his older brother, Prince William, was killed in a plane crash. He then had to step up to the royal plate. The Court Circular shows him often undertaking as many as seven tedious engagements a day, but always with good humour. It would drive me crazy.
The 'pointless' answer was Lady Amelia Windsor, 39th in the line of succession (her two older siblings have been disqualified for taking communion in the Roman Catholic church). I found that odd because she is invariably photographed when the Queen holds her annual Christmas lunch for the wider royal family: she works as a model.
My favourite royal related anecdote comes from Chile. With a small group of others, I went to meet the then president, Michelle Bachelet. She asked if I had ever been to Buckingham Palace. I said that I had been twice, once when Nelson Mandela came over. She then said she would give us a tour of the presidential palace. She turned to me and said mischievously, 'Does the Queen do this?'
Chapter 4: Charlton Athletic
Saturday afternoons at Charlton were the highlight of the week. On 11 January 1947 my father went to watch Charlton beat Rochdale in the FA Cup. Then he walked up to St.Alphege's Hospital in Greenwich where I was born at 7.30 p.m. I have been trying to work out when my father first started supporting Charlton. He was born in North Woolwich, that odd bit of Kent across the river, and I think that his loyalties were originally divided between West Ham and Charlton (he was at the famous first cup final at Wembley involving West Ham). He also played non-league soccer for a team on that side of the road (certainly the only time he went abroad was to play soccer in France and Belgium). However, his older cousin Ted was a Charlton supporter and when the family moved to the Progress estate at Well Hall, my father's loyalties switched firmly to Charlton. As a youngster, he made money for tram, admissions and refreshments by looking after horses while the owners made commercial deliveries (the horses could be frightened by the growing volume of motor traffic).
It is now sixty years since I started supporting Charlton. Unlike many people, I cannot remember the first game I went to. The one that stands out most clearly in my mind is the 6-0 defeat of Liverpool on 26th September 1953, even more than the 8-1 win over Middlesbrough in the previous home game. However, probably the first game I went to was the home game against Burnley on 22nd August which Charlton won 3-1.
Getting to the game in those days involved walking from our house down to Plumstead Common Road, catching the 53 bus and then walking through Maryon Park, past the deer abd other caged animals, amongst a large crowd. My mother usually came as well as my father which could be a slight embarrassment as she was convinced that some referees had it in for Charlton and would shout ‘Dirty ref!’ in a loud voice long after the incident that had offended her.
Until I was seven years old, I went through the turnstile with my father and I was quite daunted the first time I went through on my own clutching a few old pennies to hand to the gateman. We would then walk on to the East Terrace, first crossing what seemed like a sea of scrunchy pebbles, standing some way back from the pitch, not far from where I sit in the East Stand today.
The Valley was built in an old chalk quarry. With its terraces, particularly the vast East Terraces where we stood, it was capable of holding over eighty thousand people in its heyday. In the early 1950s, crowds of over forty thousand were far from unusual, although they tended to drop by two thousand if [Woolwich] Arsenal were playing at home that day. When I went to buy my tickets at The Valley for the playoff final, Arsenal had just won the double and there were a number of Arsenal supporters on the train returning from the celebrations. Some even got off at Charlton.
More often than not the pitch was a quagmire. The fluent passing play Charlton seek to provide today was impossible under such conditions. Better drainage, higher standards of groundsmanship and the right sort of grass have all contributed to better playing surfaces today. No longer does a player's skill include making ingenious use of puddles, as reported in one programme from the 1960s. Remember also that the game was played with a leather ball to which the mud readily adhered.
Charlton were a leading first division side then, if a somewhat quixotic one. David Lodge recalls in one of his novels, 'they were always an interesting team to watch, fickle and unpredictable, but capable of heartwarming flashes of brilliance. More than once he and his friends left the Valley a few minutes before the end of the game, dispirited by their team's poor performance, only to hear, as they passed through the quiet, car-lined streets, a huge explosive roar filling the air behind them, indicating that Charlton had scored a last-minute goal and snatched a point.'
Some players were real attractions for a small boy and first and foremost among those was Sam Bartram who was known for his flamboyant style of keeping goal. I particularly remember the match on 6th March 1954 when Sam was presented with a special cake by Pompey skipper Jimmy Dickinson to mark his 500th league match for the club (actually it was 497th as the three matches played in 1939/40 didn’t really count). A film clip of the day can be seen here: 500th match
It was a real shock when Bartram was not in goal and was replaced by his loyal understudy Eddie Marsh as happened on March 20th 1954. I asked my father why this was and he said that Bartram had been injured in training, although quite how that had happened is unclear as training usually involved running around the pitch and up and down the East Terrace. The idea was that keeping players away from the ball made them hungry for it when the match came, but I think that the keeper did practice saving shots.
In any event I could see that Marsh was under real pressure in the Charlton goal and in a match full of fouls they scraped home 3-2. However, Bartram was still out the following Saturday when they lost 4-1 at Huddersfield. Perhaps he had strained his back lifting a heavy package in his shop round the corner. My father was rather sceptical of this business venture, noting that people would go in there hoping to see Bartram and instead would meet a manager he had installed.
Once we got home, my father would check his football pools coupon. He never won a big prize, although he did win small prizes with the ‘Easy Six’ made up of matches that were difficult to forecast. Sunday morning would see us make the long walk down to my uncle’s newsagent shop in Lakedale Road to collect the Sunday papers, but also to discuss the previous day’s match. As the gas lamps hissed, customers would give their opinion on the game and the result. One of the perennial subjects of discussion was perceived tensions between manager Jimmy Seed and trainer Jimmy Totter. Eventually, of course, Trotter replaced Seed as manager.
It was, of course, a different game in those days. Players were paid the same as a skilled worker which is how they were seen. They would often walk to the ground or come on the bus and on Christmas Day might rely on a lift from fans. The pace was slower, with no substitutes players had to play on if they could when injured, and the leather ball was heavy, particularly when much of the pitch was a sea of mud, as it often was. With no floodlights, matches in winter were often played in gloomy conditions towards the end of the game, even with a 2.15 start. What I did get was a taste for was supporting Charlton which has remained with me until today.
A key match against Wolves
What follows is an account of the key match against Wolves in November 1953.
On Saturday 21st November 1953 my father, mother and I set out from our home in Plumstead Common to watch Charlton play Wolverhampton Wanderers. As usual, we caught the 53 bus from Plumstead Common, walked across Maryon Park with the crowds and joined the crowd of 35.935, many of whom, like us, were on the East Terrace.
The weather that month had been dry and relatively mild, reaching a maximum of 14 degrees, with an absence of ‘pea souper ‘ fogs. As I recall, it was dry on the day and the pitch would have been in relatively good condition for the period with no puddles and not much mud.
I can still remember not being particularly optimistic about the game. Wolves had finished third in the preceding season, two places above Charlton and were to go to win the championship in 1953-4, the first of three such title victories in the 1950s.
Wolves had as their captain Billy Wright who was also the England captain. By the time of the game he had played in 54 internationals. He was to marry one of the Beverley Sisters who were big names in what passed for entertainment in 1950s. They were effectively the Spice Girls of their day and Wright and his bride became precursors of Posh and Becks.
Previewing the match, the Aberdeen Evening Express forecast an away win and commented: ‘Charlton have not impressed recently. Injuries have hit the side, and I have more liking for Wolves who are very consistent.’
Since the 1930s Wolves had been an innovative side. Major Frank Buckley, who was manager from 1927 to 1944, undertook a number of initiatives. At that time and into the 1950s, players were denied the ball until Saturday because it was thought it would make them hungry for it. The training regime at Charlton centred on running round the pitch and up and down the East Stand steps.
Buckley thought this was all nonsense. He introduced systematic coaching and he staged a practice match on Friday afternoon to ensure that the platers were familiar with their respective roles. He also set up a youth academy at a time when this was unheard of. Manager Stan Cullis reaped the benefits of this in the 1950s. Wright joined the club straight from school, although he was nearly turned down because he was so small.
Particular controversy surrounded Buckley because of his practice of injecting players with monkey glands. In 1937 Buckley was approached by scientist Menzies Sharp about a radical new treatment that could improve stamina, accelerate recovery times and improve performance revolving around monkey gland implantation. It was based on the work of Serge Voronoff, a Russian medic who claimed that injecting testicular implants from animals into patients would rejuvenate them faster. It was, and is, a bizarre case of alternative medicine.
The Major was clearly intrigued by Sharp’s proposal but decided to try out the treatment himself before administering it to his players. Buckley was astonished by the results. Soon Wolves players were given a course of treatment over a six week period during which they received an injection every three or four days, and this was to last them over the whole season.
There can be little doubt that this practice had no physiological benefits whatsoever. However, its main benefit was psychological, aided by the Major’s skill at public relations and generating favourable media publicity. The players were convinced that they felt better as a result, although they undoubtedly benefitted a lot more from the Major’s rigorous training regime with its emphasis on physical fitness. What was more important was that opposition teams feared that they were up against a team with special powers, and indeed some other clubs experimented with the injections.
In the 1950s, Wolves continued to be innovative, being one of the first clubs to install floodlighting and also to play matches against European teams. Perhaps the most famed of these friendly matches saw Wolves defeat a Honvéd side including many members of the Hungarian national team that had recently humbled England twice, leading the national media to proclaim Wolves ‘Champions of the World’.
I have the programme for the game, eight pages, each of them about the size of my tablet. Wolves were hailed as a team ‘whom we have always associated with all that is best with the game.’ It was noted that ‘Many and exciting have been the tussles between Charlton and Wolves.’ Of the matches played until then, Wolves had won 12, Charlton 10 and four were drawn.
Echoes Across The Valley recorded that the last minute selection of Benny Fenton as captain for the Football Combination side that drew 2-2 with Brussels in Belgium had disturbed the Sunday afternoon rest of The Valley administrative staff as he had to go and collect his passport from the ground. Quite why the club retained it is not clear.
It was recorded that ‘The roar of cheering that went up when Gordon Hurst scored the winning goal against Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago was the loudest at The Valley for some time. No longer can Charlton supporters be styled the most undemonstrative crowd in London.’ Any supporters who had got hoarse from shouting could take the Kilkof Kones advertised in the programme.
It is not clear why anyone at Charlton should listen to Radio Moscow, but ‘Over the Moscow radio the other day we heard an announcer thank Charlton Athletic for the splendid hospitality accorded the three Russian Football Association delegates on their recent visit. The delegates from Moscow witnessed the Charlton-Arsenal match. Our guests from the Soviet politely declined alcoholic refreshment and drank mineral waters.’ Perhaps they had their own stash of vodka for consumption later.
The legendary Sam Bartram was in goal. Hewie and Ellis were the full backs with Fenton, Ufton and Hammond as half backs. The forward line was Hurst, O’Linn, Firmani, Evans and Kiernan.
The Coventry Evening Telegraph report of the match stated: ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers gave a sparkling display against Charlton at The Valley. A goal in each half gave them a comfortable 2-0 victory and carried Wolves run to 16 games without defeat.’
‘After some smart work by the Wolves wingers, Charlton held the initiative for a long time. When Short mis-kicked, Firmani, the Charlton leader, missed an easy chance. Williams kept goal well for Wolves, but generally Charlton’s finishing was poor. Wolves took the lead when Broadbent swerved, causing Hammond to slip, and the little inside right beat Bartram with a fast rising shot. Charlton attacked hotly but Williams kept them out.’
In the second half ‘O’Linn was a vigorous raider for Charlton but Wolves with Wright playing well within himself, were not extendend in defence. A brilliant solo effort by Hancocks gave Wolves another goal. He seized on a long clearance by Short and deceived Bartram with a rasping shot from the wing.’
All that was left was to wait to catch a bus home to learn that the Piltdown Man had been declared a hoax. Charlton finished the season in ninth place.
Chapter 5: Local Transport
We didn't have a car. In fact no one in our road had a car, apart from a gentleman at the end of the terrace who had kept it up on bricks during the war, it was a Standard Morris or something similar. I remember him preparing for use again with his son. One big difference in the road today is the line of cars on one side of it.
An AA publication The Great British Motorist states, 'At the start of the 1950s Britain was a country where most people travelled by bus and pedal cycle. Cars were relatively rare; ownership was limited to middle class and affluent people. Car traffic more than doubled during the decade after the end of petrol rationing in 1950.' In 1950 85 per cent of households had no car. This had only fallen to 70 per cent by 1960. Households with a car did not overtake those without them until the mid 1970s.
As I noted earlier, the trams were still running for the first five years of my life. At some boarding points you had to get on board in the road, dodging the increasing traffic. By 1952 they had become outdated and noisy. Trolleybuses ran much more smoothly and didn't need tracks. We had two routes in Woolwich and we also used them when we went across the river to visit Uncle Walter. I suppose that the tangle of wires they created was unsightly, but they were much more environmentally friendly than buses, if less flexible. When I spent a few months working in Seattle, I commuted to work by trolleybus, although they were single deckers. In my home town, there are now plans for electric buses that would top up with a pantograph in the main street.
However, mainly we used buses, especially the 53 to go down to Woolwich or to the football at Charlton. (There was also the 54 and the 180 in peak periods, the 153 ran to Hampstead on Sundays). Sadly, the 53 is threatened with being cut back in terms of its route and frequency: 53 bus
Back in the 1950s, one could use a workman's ticket to go to London Zoo. The 53 would go through Blackheath, past the Elephant and Castle and then, more excitingly, across the river, past the House of Commons, up Whitehall and past Downing Street, then Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus. One felt that was living in a major capital city. The conductors had racks of paper tickets and I collected them in a rack my Uncle Walter made for me. He also made a bus big enough to sit on with seats and working lights.
Some years ago a reader reminisced in the then Greenwich Mercury about 'the noble 53 ... so many SE Londoners' taxi service to John Lewis and the West End. The 53 has taken me over the years to spend birthday and Christmas money up town (and in Woolwich when it still had Cuffs), to London Zoo when it ran all the way to Camden Town (a great tragedy when they withdrew that section of the route), to my first job after university.'
When we went to my aunt's house at Belvedere we would occasionally see green London Country buses, also we would go out into Kent on the Green Line express buses. One of the teachers at school actually commuted from Westerham on one of these, getting off at Eltham to catch a red bus. So there were long commutes even then.
The Free Ferry
The news that the Woolwich Free Ferry diesel boats that were introduced in 1963 are being withdrawn and replaced reminds me of the old paddle steamers they replaced. They were named the Gordon, the Squires, the Will Crooks and the John Benn, three of them thus named after politicians, one an ancestor of Tony Benn. Colin Weightman recalls in 'A Good Cheap Day out on the Ferry' 'The sight and sound of the large coal-fired engines that drove the two large paddle wheels and the big revolving piston shafts pumping away. The constant ringing of the telegraph bells signalling the many changes in the speed and paddle direction as these very busy ferry boats manoeuvred the very active stretch of the Thames and fighting the often strong flowing river currents.
The ferries that are being replaced (the John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman, again named after politicians, are discussed here: Last trip There is an interesting site on the Free Ferry here: Free Ferry.
There will be just two boats replacing the three that have gone.
North London has always been more fashionable than South London. One difference between them is the relative absence of a tube network south of the river. There are a number of reasons for this, including geology. However, perhaps the main reason was the availability of extensive overground services, exemplified by the third rail of Southern Electric: Why are there so few tube lines in South London?
Southern Electric (the southern region of British Railways) operated on the basis that the service was so frequent that you didn't need a timetable. Nevertheless, the local paper the Kentish Independent did publish a cheap booklet covering local train and bus services. However, it was always difficult to calculate how long it would take to get down to Woolwich Arsenal.
The basic service pattern was one fast train an hour to London Bridge and on to Charing Cross (the return journey was Gillingham front, Maidstone rear, the only train that had first class accommodation). Off peak there were two trains an hour to Cannon Street via Blackheath and two to Charing Cross via Greenwich (this pattern has only recently changed so that Greenwich trains go to Cannon Street and vice versa). In the opposite direction, trains terminated at Gravesend and Dartford and (mainly in peak periods) at Plumstead and Slade Green where the main depot was. Trains had four carriages off peak and eight in the peak period.
There were Sunday excursions to Margate, hauled by steam trains. The carriages were kept in sidings at Maze Hill, but eventually there was a serious accident when they were being shunted.
There was an experiment with double decker trains, but because of the loading gauge these were much more cramped than the equivalent trains one finds elsewhere in the world. They took too long to unload at peak periods because of the number of passengers per door. The upper level compartments were cramped and poorly ventilated, and the upper level windows could not be opened due to tight clearances. The compartments were pressure ventilated, but the equipment did not work well.
The third rail system meant that 'ghost trains' had to run at night in cold weather to keep the points free of ice.
Chapter 6: Shopping and Eating
The Links shopping parade at Plumstead Common in its early days
Our day to day shopping was done at the shopping parade with its distinctive clock tower built at 'The Links' at Plumstead Common by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (sometimes irreverently known as Rob All Customers Slowly). It's where we did much of our shopping with the Co-op also delivering bread and milk by horse and cart. There were local corner shops where I would go to buy sweets.
The Co-op issued customers with small paper slips which could be exchanged for tin checks at the check office. When the tin checks were tipped on to the kitchen table, they looked like a treasure trove to a youngster. The checks could be exchanged twice a year for the 'divi', but the sum received always disappointed my parents. Bigger purchases meant a trip down to the Royal Arsenal's art deco department store in Powis Street, Woolwich. With its lifts and escalators, and topped by a tower pointing skywards, it looked both huge and sophisticated when I was five or six years old. For some reason, the lifts could only go down to the basement with difficulty. The third floor had a restaurant, bookshop and hairdressers and lifts went 'express' there in the lunch period. After many years of going down hill, it closed and was left as a vandalised shell, but has now been converted into apartments. There are some photographs of it in its derelict state here: Abandoned
As the years went by, the Co-op lost its market share. As people became more prosperous, the 'divi' paid to Co-op members lost its attraction, and its goods seemed less sophisticated than those of its emerging competitors. We moved away from what the late Mick Moran called 'a world of deferential citizens and grateful consumers'. The Co-op also suffered from the spread of car ownership: its stores were in traditional shopping parades or, as at Plumstead Common, formed suburban parades.
Where the Co-op was very successful (and continues to be) was in providing a funeral service. They provided my grandmother's funeral. I wondered irreverently if that qualified for a dividend.
With Father Christmas, probably at Cuff's, neither of us looks too happy with the situation. Santa looks glazed after seeing too many kids and I am in a ridiculous outfit.
Another major store in Woolwich was Cuff's with its polished wooden floors. I remember going to see Father Christmas in his grotto there. One correspondent recalled it as an 'Aladdin's cave'. It used to have vacuum chutes taking money tendered by customers back to the office: the change and a receipt came back then. (Another, older store in Hare Street, a kind of haberdashers, had a wire and pulley system - I can't remember the name of the store). As these systems slowed down transactions, presumably they were there because the sale staff were not trusted not to pocket money. Cuff's was apparently part of a small chain of department stores. It closed about 1984/5 and was knocked down as it was full of asbestos.
Food was, of course, much less varied than we have today and less well cooked. I have to admit that I did like bread and dripping which was fat that had melted from a roast joint and was then spread cold on bread. It almost certainly wasn't very healthy, although apparently it has staged something of a comeback in recent years.
Seasonality was important, particularly in terms of what we derived from our allotment. We always had an excess supply of runner beans. There was always a glut of strawberries around Wimbledon fortnight time and I would eat these for my lunch, accompanied by bread and butter.
Some of the foods I enjoy today were simply unknown. I think I was 14 before I ate avocado (in Soho!) and I didn't like it the first time I ate it.
Chapter 7: Environment, Health and Lifestyle (in progress)Pollution
One big difference in those days was that there was an acceptance of levels of pollution that would not be tolerated today (of course, the problem in London now is of pollution of the air from 'mobile sources' as cars and lorries are referred to). However, in the 1950s there was bad air and water pollution in London. The combined output of industry and domestic coal fires in the Thames Valley produced 'peasouper' fogs when one could only see a few yards at most. The most notorious example was in December 1952 when large numbers of people were killed, estimated at up to 12,000. Politicians tried to dismiss it as a natural disaster and even blamed the death toll on a flu epidemic.
This catastrophic event led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 and the institution of 'smokeless zones'. However, the real progress was technological rather than legislative: the advent of gas fired and other forms of central heating offered less labour intensive forms of domestic heating - and also meant that effective heating was not confined to one room of the house.
As far as water pollution was concerned, it was actually possible to smell the Thames on Plumstead Common (well over a mile away) on a hot summer's day. And when the wind blew from the direction of the cement plants at Greenhithe, a gritty dust would be deposited on the window sills. Then, of course, the whole emphasis was on production and problems of the environment were hardly recognised at all - or, at least, only as health problems. In many ways, the years of austerity makes the notion of recycling very acceptable to someone of my generation.Health
I grew up under the National Health Service which has existed virtually all my life. In the 1950s the doctor was almost a member of the family. Our youngish woman doctor (early thirties?) would faithfully drive over from Blackheath to Plumstead Common whenever someone was ill. She was unfailingly through and kind (I particularly remember her being so when I was dispatched at the age of seven to send for her after my grandmother died).
She was very committed to the National Health Service which she thought was helping to build a better society, as in many ways it was. Today, of course (for very good reasons), doctors work in a group practice and the personal relationship is often no longer there. Our group practice when recently advertising a new post described home visits as 'a necessary evil', limited in the practice by the fact that the affluent and educated clientele realised that they could often be avoided. If I was a doctor, I would not want to be called out at all hours for problems that could wait until the morning.
Much has improved in the meantime. Paradmedic interventions help stabilise patients until they can reach hospital. The notion of the 'danger list', spoken of in terms of hushed awe, has been replaced by professional intensive care which I benefitted from when I contracted sepsis in 2018.
Anyone who can remember dental treatment in the 1950s will be grateful for today's more sophisticated treatment. At one time having one's teeth removed and being fitted with dentures was seen as a positive milestone. Today, the emphasis is on conservation dentistry and everything is done to make the patient comfortable. However, getting dental treatment under the NHS has become difficult for many.
Smoking was very common in the 1950s: my father smoked and my mother didn't. If you went to the cinema, the screen was sometimes obscured by a haze of cigarette smoke. Some doctors advised smoking as a cure for 'nerves' and many doctors smoked. Non-smokers were sometimes seen as not being very sociable, as offering someone a cigarette was a way of 'breaking the ice' socially. Pipe smoking was far less common than cigarette smoking, although my newsagent uncle smoked a pipe and had a ready supply of tobacco.
Drinking alcohol in pubs was not seen as very respectable in the circles in which I moved. As noted above, drinking was something that was reserved for special occasions such as Christmas.
Just a mile or so away from all this suburban respectability was a different, much less respectable world. Woolwich was, after all, a garrison town. In its issue of 18 March 1955, the Kentish Independent published a feature on night life in Beresford Square at the heart of Woolwich. The story was printed in the usual close gothic type, but the tone was clear enough, if rather melodramatic: 'Day gives way to night in Beresford Square ... Some [of those there] have criminal records, others balance on the knife-edge between the legal and the illegal, and often there are prostitutes out on patrol.'
If this was not enough to make the residents of Shooters Hill choke on their cornflakes, the article had some revelations on the use of bad language. 'Bad language (which is much more prevalent among all classes of society than is generally realised) can be heard anywhere. When bad language is allied to obscenity, however, and used most unstintingly in the presence of immature girls, the effects can be far-reaching.'
The emergent youth culture was also in evidence. 'The "Teddies" were more in evidence in a cafe. They were noisy and boisterous in their actions, but there was no real trouble.' Should there be, 'two policemen were silhouetted against a window.' Social control was reinforced by the long arm of the law. What is lawful today was punishable then. An issue later in the year notes that a fine of three pounds was imposed 'for loitering for the purpose of betting.
Chapter 8: the Church of England and St.Margaret's school
My parents were keen to get me into St. Margaret's Church of England School which was quite a long walk from where we lived but was perceived to the best school in the area. St.Margaret's had some good teachers, one of whom I kept in touch with until I went to University. Another was quite a successful writer of adventure novels for children.
In general, though, primary education in the 1950s was not as challenging and interesting as the education my children received twenty-five years later. Maths was taught by the endless chanting out loud of tables combined with repetitious exercises from books, while English was taught through exercises which largely consisted of filling in the appropriate blank sentences in words. I am sure it was no different from other schools at the time.
I had to have an interview with the headmistress at the time, a Miss Bratton, who I believe came from the Isles of Scilly, although Christopher Martyn in his account (in Colin Weightman's volume More Common Folk says she was a Geordie. He says of her, 'Red hair, conspicuous make-up and high-heeled shoes, she was in no way your traditional school marm.' I also remember that she wore rather strong perfume. When I had my interview for the school, she said that I would be musical because of the relative length of my fingers. Of course, I wasn't. I tried to learn the piano, but failed to make progress, although I can still play the national anthem.
Like Colin Weightman, I recall my first two teachers, Mrs Fairbairn and Miss Turnbull, 'grey-haired and over 50. These two were kind motherly types.' Like Weightman, I didn't get on with Miss Thrift in the next class up. Mr Callard was well known as a writer of fictional books for children (under a pseudonym), stories about highwaymen on Shooter's Hill and the like. The last teacher I had before we moved away was Mr Van Eyck. When I got my university place, I made a point of visiting him in his new role as Head of Plumcroft School. Sadly, he died relatively young.
The school was linked with St.Margaret's Church across the road. This was later found to be riddled with dry rot and was demolished and replaced by a block of flats. Another problem was that it was built of Kentish ragstone which does not weather well. I am chair of the Friends of the Parish Church in Leamington and a major problem is that it was built of local sandstone that does not weather well. The school is now linked with another Church, itself rebuilt (St Marks).
I found it interesting to look at the school's website, to see how it is prospering and to admire the new two storey block at the back of the school: School website
We would go across to the Church for services such as Harvest Festival. We also got days off for major religious events such as All Saints Day and Ascension Day. This was supposed to allow us to attend services, but I don't think many of us did. The vicar (a canon of Southwark Cathedral) would come across once a week to conduct a service in assembly.
In many ways this was the aspect of the school which had the most lasting effect on me. I still regard myself as an Anglican, although I was never confirmed. Having become chair of the Friends of the Parish Church in Leamington, I did consider whether I should be so that I could attend services occasionally (of course, one can do that without being confirmed, but it is rather awkward if you cannot take communion at a mass). Indeed, I went to the trouble of getting a copy of my baptism certificate with the help of a museum run by the City of London.
Without going into a theological discussion, I regard myself as a rather liberal Anglican, certainly one very supportive of the ordination of women. For example, I think that the New Testament provides a valuable ethical framework, especially the Sermon on the Mount. However, being confirmed would have meant making commitments which one might be able to treat casually at twelve years old but not at my age.
I have particular difficulties with the doctrine of transubstantiation, although this is really a Roman Catholic doctrine. Henry VIII adhered to it despite breaking from Rome, but the settlement under Elizabeth 1st moved away from it. I can see that the bread and wine has to be more than merely symbolic. The prayers of consecration place the emphasis on the idea of the bread and wine being a memorial of the last supper. A common view would be that the bread and wine are special, a foretaste of heaven but not in themselves literally the blood and body of Jesus. Perhaps I am being too rigorous, as Anglicanism does allow for doubt (see the poems of John Betjeman).
There is, of course, a wide variety of forms of Anglican worship. I went to one local church for a wedding and it seemed to be Pentecostalist with a great emphasis on communicating with the Holy Spirit. This seemed to be treated as a kind of spiritual WiFi with the vicar extending his arm in the air, but some good friends of mine go there, so I shouldn't be too critical. My local church down the road is evangelical and the parish church is rather high church. The middle of the road Anglicanism I grew up with seems to be disappearing. Perhaps people feel that if they are going to commit they need something less anodyne.
I do think that I was influenced by some of the Biblical teaching I received, notably the parable of the talents, i.e., the message that one had to do the very best with the gifts one had received. As I progressed through the school, we began to receive more theology and I found this the most intellectually stimulating teaching I received.
I had difficulty comprehending some of it, but that only made it more interesting. I suppose what I found most difficult was the difference between the Roman Catholic church and the Anglo Catholic wing of the Church of England. I got into trouble for suggesting that perhaps the schism could be mended if we had an English pope.
There is now increasing momentum for disestablishing the Church of England and I can see the argument for that in a multi faith and diverse society. Anglican congregations are ageing and declining (just 14 per cent of the population now declare themselves to be adherents and the percentage that attends even Easter communion is lower). The buildings are expensive to maintain, as I know from my experience with our local Church. The Church often seems to be beset by internal divisions with even more fragmentation than in the past. It is perhaps associated with a particular idea of England that is no longer seen as relevant. However, I see merit in the view that some liberals hold who see Establishment as a guarantee that the Church will try and reach out to the whole community, rather than being a rather exclusive, cult-like church.
Yet I retain an affection for it and see value in a state church that is available to me as a citizen. Other countries, of course, have church taxes which are obligatory (a friend in Finland found it very difficult to withdraw) but not established churches. In England, of course, it is very much associated with the monarchy.
In January 2019 I borrowed a friend's flat in Central London for a couple of nights when I had to have a minor operation. It reminded me how much I liked being a Londoner and still identify myself as much. Even the subterranean rattle of the tube trains seemed reassuring, as did the bustle in the street outside. In April I travelled down the river from Westminster to North Greenwich. The announcement 'This boat terminates here' would not have been heard in the 1950s. It is also the only TfL service on which you can have a drink. Once again I felt that strong identity with London, reinforced by the fact that the destination was my birthplace of Greenwich.
I went to see my osteopath recntly. He knows that I am a Charlton supporter and he lived in Greenwich himself for over ten years. He said yesterday, 'I always knew you were from Greenwich because you pronounce it like the locals' ('Grinidge' rather that 'Grenwhich').