Early Memories of Our Home

My parents bought the ground floor maisonette in 1943. Quite a surprising thing to do in the middle of the war and with very little money, but considering the bomb threat maybe the houses were cheaper than they might have been?  Worsley Bridge Road was one of a few roads of private housing on the south side of the estate squeezed in between the gasworks and the Kent Boundary line and indeed the road continued across a bridge over the River Ravensbourne into Beckenham. Our address was Lower Sydenham with the post code SE26 and not SE6 (Bellingham). Until 1953 or so, around the time that sweets came off the ration (which memorable day I remember going with my brother to the newsagents halfway up Southend Lane to buy sweets for the first time without a ration-book), the road was ‘unadopted’, which meant just a loose stone roadway with grass verges. Horse and carts were still around in those days and I remember going out to shovel up the horse dung from the stony road to put around the rhubarb as fertiliser. 

 

My Father was working as an engineer maintaining the printing presses at the Amalgamated Press in Summner Street and would get the train from Lower Sydenham Station to London Bridge. Sometimes when he was working overtime at the weekend he would take us with him to work. Very often he had little to do and so we would get to go on a tour of the printing works before going home leaving the doorkeeper/watchman to clock my Father out on the time machine some hours later. ‘The Print’ was rife with such practices in the 1950s and indeed until Fleet Street itself was effectively destroyed in the Murdoch era.

 

The maisonette consisted of a small hallway leading onto one living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a combined bathroom/lavatory. My Brother and I shared the slightly larger bedroom at the back of the house with two single beds and a single bar electric fire built into one corner. There was no central heating of course and our bedclothes, long before the days of duvets, were layers of heavy blankets which pinned you to the bed once you were tucked-in for the night! In the winter frost would form on the inside of the windows. Mum and Dad had a double bed in the slightly smaller bedroom along with a range of wartime ‘Utility’ furniture which seemed to be built out of veneered cardboard. The garden was a good size accessed from the Kitchen. There was a lawn and flower beds immediately behind the house and then at the end of the garden there was a plot where Mum grew runner beans, tomatoes, cabbages, and other vegetables as well as loganberries and blackberries – the latter trained over the Anderson Shelter at the far end of the garden where the garden tools were stored along with the mangle for washdays. In the beginning we kept some chickens for eggs and also for meat. I remember granddad coming round to dispatch a chicken with a sharp penknife to cut its throat. 

 

The one item of luxury that we had was a large Ferranti radio which stood in the corner of the living room with short wave, medium wave and long wave bands, each with evocative names on the tuning panel Hamburg, London, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Odessa, Paris, Moscow, Hilversum and so on. Not that I had any idea where many of those places were in those days. Years later Eileen and I were to live very close to Hilversum, and it was not until then that I understood that in the Netherlands all of the Radio, and by then Television Broadcasting, was provided from a central facility in Hilversum with different broadcasters effectively renting facilities – very Dutch. A very crowded Hilversum shopping centre also featured as the venue for the trauma of losing our son Thomas when he was just three years old: Fortunately he came to no harm - just wandered off by himself rather than having been abducted – but we were temporarily traumatised. 

 

On the opposite side of the road to the Maisonette was the Baird Television Company Factory and further down just before crossing into Kent was Lower Sydenham Station, and around it further small factories, a technical college and a Science Museum store. As a consequence quite a lot of cars would park on the road and so I learnt, anorak style, to identify almost every pre- and post-war car at a distance – although we did not have a car ourselves until 1953 when my Dad bought a 1935 Standard 10. Dad demolished part of the front wall so that the car could be parked in the front garden where to protect it from the weather it was covered by a heavy tarpaulin. It was a pig of car, very difficult to start, the starter motor was fairly useless and mostly dad had to resort to multiple efforts with the starting handle. On one memorable occasion Dad and a friend from work, with my brother and I in the back seat, were driving up Sydenham Hill when a hot exhaust pipe set fire to the wooden floorboards and Dad had to run into the nearest shop to get jugs of water to put the fire out. Eventually the Standard 10 was part exchanged for a super car which I regret we did not keep. Today, if you could find one it would cost a fortune. It was a 1936 Vauxhall 16 horse power convertible. A beautiful car that saw a lot of mileage on Family holidays from Worsley Bridge Road to Weston super-mare following those linear page by page AA route maps. These were the days when AA patrolmen standing by their motorbikes with toolkit sidecars would salute members as they passed by AA telephone boxes.

Shopping for Food

Milk was delivered daily by the milkman – glass pint bottles with foil tops – we had red top with thick yellow cream at the neck of the bottle. My mother always had the cream in her tea. Silver top milk was slightly cheaper but without the cream. 

 

Other related memories are of NHS concentrated orange juice in small square bottles; NHS powdered milk in round tins with blue and white printing; Galloways’ Cough Syrup delightful and containing opium albeit in very low concentration (as printed on the detailed label). Thick delicious Cod Liver Oil and Malt in wide necked dark brown glass jars. 

 

Bread was delivered by a small bakers van from the South Surburban Co-operative Society (SSCS). The ‘breadman’ would arrive at the door (I only remember him appearing in the late winter afternoons when it was already dark) with a large wicker basket containing bread and usually some cakes with which to tempt customers. Quite a lot of the day-to-day food-stuff was ordered from the Bellingham branch of the SSCS and delivered on a weekly basis in a cardboard box the contents of which would be carefully checked on arrival by my mother and woe betide the shop which was in Randlesdown Road if there were any errors. The delivery system was important because any food bought would have to be carried across the estate a distance of a mile or more. Even allowing for the fact that women went shopping most days you would not want to be carrying too many cans of baked beans or processed peas that sort of distance. As a member of the Co-op we had a share number (155607) and every time we bought something the money spent would be noted down on a small yellow slip which the customer retained with a carbon copy underneath for the Co-op accounting department to calculate the dividend due at the end of each year. My mother always checked this, never quite trusting others to get this right.

 

Meat like many foodstuffs was still on ration up until the 1950s and we bought ours from the Co-Op butchers, which was next door to the main shop, which sold dry groceries and some other products such as butter and bacon – sliced while you waited on an enormous red slicing machine to the thickness the customer wanted. This was the first shop in the neighbourhood to become self-service with wire hand baskets (no trolleys because nearly all shoppers were housewives on foot and they had to carry anything they bought home in shopping bags).  Our greengrocery was bought from an open fronted shop just over the Railway Bridge on Randlesdown Road. Fruit and vegetables being displayed in boxes and racks spilling out onto the pavement – King Edward potatoes at 2 or 3d per pound, 

 

(note: d not p in the days when many hours were expended teaching small children to divide and multiply in pounds shillings and pence for goods bought in ounces, pounds and stones avoirpoidus of course – not to mention pecks and bushels. What fond remembrances that brings back of the backs of exercise books of the era printed with tables of all the imperial measures), 

 

cabbages cauliflowers onions and brussel sprouts. British apples and pears and soft fruit - cherries, strawberries, blackberries and red currants but only in season and mostly from the Garden of England, Kent. I do remember mum buying us pomegranates as well as the occasional peach. But no really exotic fruit in those days – I was 17 before I tasted my first melon in 1961 – although hardly an exotic fruit by modern standards.

 

Living in a small maisonette meant that there was little privacy and I think that both of my parents were under a lot of stress not only in their relationship but also financially in those early years despite my father taking on a lot of overtime to make ends meet. The consequence of all the stresses was that the child grew up to be a painfully shy and nervous adult. Although I did develop strategies for coping with my shyness in professional situations I have never enjoyed social situations where I have to meet large numbers of people. 

 

The extreme nervousness also persists: Loud noises or being surprised by someone from behind still makes me jump.

 

And another legacy?  Growing up and in adulthood a hatred of injustice towards other people in whatever guise – whether institutional or personal – which may be the reason for my political allegiance as a lifelong socialist.

 

 

During my early years my mother didn’t work outside the home as was normal for married women with small children at that time, but she was an out-worker for Fergusons a knitwear company in Newcastle on Tyne, specialising in baby clothes. They sent her parcels with wool and instructions and she sent back finished knitwear. She was a very good and very fast knitter and so she was given the more complicated items to make. As a consequence I retain the knowledge and skill to make wool pompoms around two cupboard discs with which task I helped mum in completing babies hats. 

 

It wasn’t until I was ten years old that my mother started to work outside of the home. First as a part-time electoral canvasser and then as an accounts clerk for James Robertson’s Jam manufacturers who had their London Factory and Offices in a grand rather art deco building on the Bromley Road just beyond Bellingham traffic lights. In the summer if the wind was in the right direction the delicious smell of strawberry jam would fill the air on the Bellingham estate, a smell that 60 years later takes me back to childhood – a madeleine moment?