The Early Years

On the morning of the 22nd July 1944 Hitler sent a V1 flying bomb, the fore-runner of the cruise missile, from a launch site in the Pas de Calais aimed at London. As it cruised across the Kent countryside with its deadly payload attempts to shoot it down failed. It continued on its way until around 3.41 pm.  My mother heavily pregnant with me was beginning to prepare the tea-time meal of liver and bacon when it finally started its descent. The engine cut out and it plummeted to earth and exploded loudly but harmlessly at the end of Worsley Bridge Road not far from our house. It had fallen just short of London landing in Kentish fields which still existed just to the south of the London County Council’s Bellingham Council estate. The bomb landed in a field used as a sports ground  by the Hong Kong and Shangai Bank – a bank born of empire in 1865  – which like many other banks bought fields just outside London to use as sports grounds for their staff on half-days (Wednesday afternoon) and Saturdays.  That the bomb fell short of heavily populated areas of London was a success perhaps for the counter espionage tactic of feeding misleading information back to the Germans. The Germans believed their ‘agents’ who reported that the flying bombs were overshooting their London targets: this caused them to pull back the range so that many fell in more open countryside to the south of the capital.  Nevertheless a glance at the records shows 67 V1 bombs landing on Beckenham alone during the period from June 1944 until the end of August 1944. These unpredictable daylight attacks from pilotless high speed pulse jet missiles must have been terrifying after a period when conventional German air attacks had been reduced to a minimum by the superiority of the allied air forces. 


Years later I unknowingly renewed my ante-natal connection with the Hong Kong and Shangai Bank. Having left school and working in a range of part-time and short term jobs I used to play rugby as a guest player for various teams on Wednesday afternoons. Brixton Building College was one such team because my friend ‘Bert’ Baker studied there Another such team was The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, probably for no better reason than that my friends and I thought it a wonderful name. Part of the fun of Wednesday games was that a few friends and I who were playing 1st team and County rugby would suddenly, and from the oppositions point of view unexpectedly, transform one of these lower ranked Wednesday teams into something rather more formidable. It gave us the fun of more uninhibited play, running and scoring without the seriousness of Saturday 1st team matches.


But to return to that V1: Perhaps the shock of the explosion induced my birth. Certainly I was born at home not long after the bomb exploded. On such stories are family myths created. In any case my Mother was disappointed. She had been hoping for a girl and instead she got another boy and the prudent economics of working class life, at least my Mother’s, dictated that there were to be no more children: So just two boys, David born in May 1942 and myself  two years later. My father was a Staff Sergeant in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and was posted to France soon after my birth. He did not return to England until after the war had ended in Europe having been part of the Allied Army as it advanced across France then down through Belgium to Maastricht in the south of the Netherlands and finally into a conquered Germany. 


I had been ‘induced’ if indeed that is what happened, in a ground floor maisonette just off  the edge of The Bellingham Council Estate, which was part of the London County Council’s slum clearance programme after the First World War (David Lloyd George’s “Homes fit for Heroes”) . My parents’ families were rehoused there in the 1920’s from inner London. My Father’s family moved from Malt Street just off the Old Kent Road (the cheapest property on the Monopoly board and not without reason) and my mother’s family moved from a rented back-to-back terraced house in Peckham.  


Bellingham Council Estate

In more recent times the designation ‘council estate’ acquired too many negative associations with dysfunctional families and old sofas and other debris in the front garden but the Bellingham Council estate of my childhood and of my parents was quite other: It was a large sprawling village of cottagey houses of varying styles and sizes arranged along tree lined avenues and crescents and pleasant greens. The houses had back gardens tended with great devotion, and in the islands of land behind some of the rows of back-gardens from adjoining streets were allotments where those living in the estate’s maisonettes grew vegetables, fruit, and flowers for the house. The small front gardens were hedged ubiquitously with dark green privet and the identical half glazed front doors were painted in a limited range of standard colours. This uniformity, far from turning the estate into a flat repetitive landscape, worked to bind together the delightful variety and orientation of the houses built of red and yellow brick into an attractive village. What could have been an exercise in providing decent, but mundane homes, was instead inspired architecture and town planning by the LCC Architects Department: A great social and socialist achievement of which Londoners should be proud. 


In the 1920s the Bellingham Council Estate was a community of young working class families, “the deserving poor” perhaps, made up of families where the men were skilled and semi-skilled workers in regular employment who could commute to the great factories of Inner London: The deserving poor, or perhaps the ‘more’ deserving poor. My Mother always maintained that there was a difference between those housed on the Bellingham estate compared to the Downham Estate just down the road, which was much bigger and less ‘villagey’ with fewer green spaces and trees. 


The consequence of the imposed demographic of rehousing young  working class families was that a whole generation of children, including my parents grew up together – only to reach adulthood just as the Second World War began in 1939. My father was 20 having just finished a five year apprenticeship as a printing engineer with Hoes who manufactured printing presses for the newspaper and magazine industry. In 1939 he had just started working for the Amalgamated Press on Bankside in Southwark where his Father was also a printing engineer, and who later became Chief Engineer, making the transition from greasy blue overalls to a suit with a white shirt, tie,and stiff starched collars –  laundered weekly by The Glennifer Laundry. 


Years later in 1958, my own father made the same transition at the age of 39, eventually becoming Chief Engineer of what, by then, had become Fleetway Publications. Many years later I too was to make a further aspirational transition becoming the first member of my family to go to university.


My father, Ronald, was the eldest of three brothers, Uncle Len was two years younger, and Uncle Alec must have been six or seven years younger. They moved from The Old Kent Road to 35 King Alfred Avenue when my father was five or six. The Sargeant brothers living as they did in the centre of the estate were it seems well known, fun loving lads and popular among their peers. Like most of their generation they smoked quite heavily and were all to die unpleasant deaths in old age as a consequence. Uncle Len was the first to die in a 'Home for the Incurables’ in Roehampton. Then my Father died a miserable demented death of cancer which had spread to his liver giving much pain. In the last few months he became confused and paranoid as the blood reaching his brain became increasingly full of toxins. The last to go was Uncle Alec.

But all that lay in the future. 


Growing up on the estate in the 1920s and 30s must have seemed utopian for those rehoused from the inner London slums of Bermondsey and Camberwell to the very edge of the city when there were still open Kentish fields to the south of the new ‘village’. My father and his brothers would have left school at 14 years old. The two older brothers took up apprenticeships as printing engineers, working during the day and attending classes in mathematics for engineers in the evenings. My father had also joined the Territorial Army when he was 18 and so was among the first to be called-up on the outbreak of war.