CHAPTER 1 – MY CHILDHOOD
I was born in Trecastle, South Wales in 1917. My family moved to Hackney in London when I was one year old. Our new home was just off De Beauvior Square – a small but beautiful public garden surrounded by metal railings. The garden was the pride and joy of “Humpy”, a severely deformed uniformed gardener who tended it zealously.
We lived in a three story brick built house, 80 Mortimer Road, which consisted of a partially below ground basement, a ground floor and a top floor. A different family lived on each floor. There was one outside toilet shared by all three families – remember this was in 1918. Initially we lived on the ground floor. The only lighting was gas. My hard-working mother, Jessie, used a coal-burning oven for cooking the food. It also provided heating for one room. She used a wooden scrubbing board to clean the washing and a wooden wringer with a hand operated wheel to remove as much water as possible before hanging the washing out to dry in the garden. The wringer was so well worn that the washing had to be folded before being placed through it.
My mother was an extremely determined individual and would now be described as an “entrepreneur”. She used to go to Christies auctions and returned with all manner of “bargains” – clothing, books, and ornaments – anything at all that took her fancy. I used to “hawk” some of the goods around the neighbourhood in return for a small margin for myself, which unbeknown to my mother I built into the sale prices. At one time she was a betting agent. She also worked as a barmaid at a local pub – “The Fox” (in Kingsland High Street) which I visited recently whilst in London only to discover that it is now a “gay bar” trading under the same name. Times certainly have changed.
My father, John, a labourer for Hackney Borough Council, was an uneducated ex-coalminer of average height. Tough as old boots with a 48-inch chest, he had been a bare-knuckle fighter whilst in Wales. His main interests were bread, cheese, beer, and horserace betting. Despite his lack of education, he placed complicated small accumulator bets, using terms as “up and down”, “double stakes”, “win or place”.
I had four brothers. We all bathed, one at a time, in a tin bath. Andy and Robert were younger than me and much better behaved than my two older brothers, Saunders and Jack. My swimming lessons consisted of being thrown into the Union Canal at the age of 8 by Jack (who was four years older than me) and told to swim. On another occasion, local kids stole my clothes whilst I was swimming in the Canal thereby leaving me in the embarrassing situation of being completely naked. Saunders had to carry me home where we both got a “good hiding”.
My father gave Andy the nickname, “The Parson”, because he was always wringing his hands. Andy had cute curly hair unlike anyone else in the family. When he tried to join the Army at the start of World War II he was rejected because they discovered that he once had rheumatic fever. He later married Joan, a lovely girl from Wales. Andy spent his entire hard working life involved in the cleaning of the London Underground Railway tunnels, ultimately as a supervisor. Joan died in tragic circumstances some years ago of CJD. Andy lived into his eighties, despite the Army’s bleak verdict on his health.
Brother “Bob” was and has remained a gentleman in every sense of the word even though he had an unsettled childhood during the pre-war years and the early years of Word War II. Bob enlisted in the Army as soon as he was old enough to do so at the tail end of the War. An intelligent and creative individual, he went on to have a successful career owning his own business in the London suburbs. He teamed up with my son and me in a business venture at a later stage – more about that later. He now lives with his wonderful wife, Peggy, in Lincolnshire.
Saunders looked like my father being short and sturdily built – hence his nickname “Busty”. In 1931, unable to find a job, Saunders enlisted in the “buffs” – the Royal East Kent Regiment. This was several years before the start of World War II. He served right through to the end of the war in 1945. After the war he founded his own business. Like Andy, he devoted a lot of time to our mother. When she passed away, she divided her property between Saunders and Andy. Saunders was left her beloved farm - “Studlands”, in Polstead, near Colchester in Essex. Tragically, while weeding the gardens and grounds, Saunders accidentally threw petrol (gas) onto a bonfire, believing the can contained kerosene. He suffered severe burns and never recovered from the accident, dying from a heart attack shortly thereafter.
The oldest brother John (known to all and sundry as “Jack”) was a real “Jack the lad”. I have described my father as being as “tough as old boots” a description that applied equally to Jack. He was the tallest and according to him, the best looking of the bunch. Again, like my father, he was a bare-knuckle fighter. However he became a legitimate amateur boxer who fought many times at Bethnal Green, which is still famous as a UK boxing venue. He was extremely useful with his fists and had a very bad temper – a daunting combination if you were a smaller younger brother, which we all were. Jack also enlisted in the Army and joined the Parachute Regiment, eventually becoming a Captain. He broke an ankle in the now notorious landing at Arnhem – the momentous events in “Operation Market Garden” depicted in the classic war film, “A Bridge Too Far”.
Jack ended up serving on the Control Commission in Berlin where he met and married an attractive young German girl, Gisela (his second wife) with whom he lived the rest of his life. After the war, Jack started out in business as a Public Works Contractor. He subsequently went into house building and in the 70’s was responsible for building some of the most palatial residences for celebrities and business moguls in Burwood Park, Surrey (closest equivalent - Beverley Hills). Jack and I often went on holiday together. Because we were of a similar nature – verging on being cantankerous – we often ended up not speaking to each other and travelled back seated separately in the plane. But we had much mutual affection. Jack and Gisela displayed kindness to my family many times. For that we will always be grateful. Jack passed away some years ago.
Almost the whole family had become involved in World War II – even my Mother, who drove an ambulance in wartime London during the worst of the bombing raids by the Luftwaffe.
PC Penfold, a burly six-footer Policeman with an impressive moustache, upheld the law in Mortimer Road. Although he was not averse to giving youngsters a clip round the ear, PC Penfold nonetheless gained our respect and we often went to him if we had a domestic problem. The strict policing policy worked very well to the extent that most homes kept their front doors unlocked – burglaries were practically unknown. Knives and guns did not play any part in day-to-day life – only in films screened at the local cinema. I became friends with PC Penfolds three sons, Jackie, Alfie, and Reggie. The friendship gave me an elevated status in the street and even better, Mrs Penfold often used to feed me along with her boys. The relationship with PC Penfold was put under strain as a result of a prank played by Saunders and me on some unfortunate victims. We rigged up a string between two trees in the local vicarage gardens – St Peters. We placed a white sheet on the line and waited in the dark for some poor soul to walk past, before pulling the sheet between the trees while making appropriate ghostly noises. We must have given heart attacks to a number of people before being caught in the act by PC Penfold. He hit us with part of his cape. Our father also strapped us when he was informed of our unholy exploits.
With five brothers there were bound to be sibling rivalries and childish jealousies, which often ended in confrontations and fights. I cannot recall the reason for the dispute but one incident between Saunders and I ended in a typically childish escalation. He went to a drawer containing my collection of favourite comics (the “Beano” and “Dandy”) and tore one up. I responded by doing the same to one of his. Within a few minutes, we had destroyed both of our entire collections. If Saunders were still alive he would probably claim that I started the exchange (which may well have been the case).
Of course it was a totally different world 80 years ago. Britain ruled one third of the earth’s land surface. On the other hand, practically every household in our area, including our own, kept chickens in the back garden mainly for the supply of fresh eggs. The chickens were safe until Christmas. Public road transport consisted mainly of the first petrol driven buses and electric trams. There were also numerous horse-drawn and man-powered carts and barrows. We had all kinds of tradesman who pedalled their wares on a door-to-door basis - knife sharpeners, muffin men, winkle-sellers, bakers, milkman etc. There were many interesting aromas wafting around, mixed with the smell from smoke generated by coal and coke burning fires from countless homes, shops and factories, the combined effect of which accounted for the famous London fogs. There was a bleak side to life: Jobs were scarce so soon after the great depression; the public health service was pitiful (it still is); TB was rife; people looked old and wizened at the age of sixty.
When I was eleven I used to sell newspapers up and down the Kingsland Road during the evening – I still remember the refrain - ”Star, News and Standard – all the latest prices”. In the daytime I used to buy tar blocks from Hackney Borough Council – they made ideal firelighters for which there were plenty of customers. Gas lighters used to go down the streets at night to light the gas lamps – the only form of street lighting in those days. We used to mark our cricket wickets on the lamp posts - most of the leisure time of youngsters was spent on the streets. Wireless was in its infancy - the only radios were home made crystal sets. Television was yet to be invented. In short we mostly had to create our own entertainment. We played with hoops, home made wooden scooters and pushcarts, and with a variety of spinning tops. The only music outside of the home came from barrel organs and the Salvation Army which played outside pubs and at street markets.
There were many characters in the area. “Daddy Grainger” used to keep and breed Pekinese’s dogs. He had a goat that pulled a cart to collect his shopping. There was a local dog called “Bob Sutch” – a very solid large dog of unknown pedigree who lived on the street. He was always outside the front gate of his family – the “Sutches”. He was top dog in the area. Every so often he would have a fight with another local top dog called “Dinkie” who lived in a sawdust factory in Hertford Road. This would be a regular public spectacle.
Along with my brothers, I went to Enfield Road School. My mates included Alfie Kelsey (who died of diabetes when he was 15) and Freddie Grainger, one of the sons of Daddy Grainger. Tragically, Freddie committed suicide when he was called up for compulsory service in the army. I enjoyed school, probably because I found it easy to learn. My schoolmaster for the last three and a half years at school was Mr Pearce. He had an unnerving accuracy when throwing a piece of chalk at anyone who misbehaved. I was in the top class X7, for this entire period because the school did not have a facility for the more gifted pupils to progress any higher. I eventually won a scholarship (to Christ’s College, if I recollect correctly - a medical school), but my parents could not afford to pay the costs that would have been involved.
So at the age of 13 I left school because there was no point in staying. I had a series of jobs – a messenger boy for Marconi, a pageboy for a cinema, and helping at a sawmill. I left the last job in great haste after I noticed with alarm that the owner had already lost most of his fingers.
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