Greenwich – the mid 1930s
As far as I could ascertain, the family moved to Greenwich in about 1934, it may well have been earlier, but whenever it was, I did not recall the move at all. My first recollections were just a few years prior to starting my first school which was at Royal Hill Primary School in Greenwich in September 1936. I have a lot of memories from this time at Greenwich and wherever possible I have related them in sequence,
I had mostly happy but also sad memories of this time, I suppose you could describe the early 1930’s as the halcyon years for me, before WW2, although it had not been for many other people. It was a period of change for everyone and I felt this period was the formative years for me, for they proved to be a very enlightening part of my childhood.
Our new abode in Hyde Vale was in a pleasant setting with Blackheath just a short walk up the hill, and the rooms being on the top two floors of the maisonette, were light and airy. As already mentioned, by the time of the move Ivy, my eldest sister, had got married in 1934 and Leslie, the eldest brother, who had started working for John Knights in 1931(now part of the Unilever Group), and was by then working, away from home, for his company at the British Oil and Cake Mills at Gloucester. So Mother, Gilbert, Rosemary and I started to settle in to our new environment.
In March 1935 Ivy’s first child who born and was christened Shirley, so at the tender age of 4, I became an Uncle
My earliest memories of Greenwich were walking and playing in Greenwich Park and on Blackheath. In the park I often watched the tennis being played in the garden of the Rangers House which was in the park. My brother Gilbert used to belong to a club called “The Imps” and they often played tennis here. It was at this club that Gilbert met his future wife Peggy Gamon, whose mother owned a laundry in Royal Hill, Greenwich. If I walked in the park with my mother or Gilbert they would often treat me to a ”Walls” ice lolly, for often in the park, was a “Walls” three wheeled tricycle barrow that had an ice box between the two front wheels and a saddle at the rear and the whole outfit was painted Navy Blue. These tricycles used to display a sign saying “Stop me and Buy One” and their lollies were great, they were about four inches long and were triangular in cross section and about an inch on each face and they had a wooden stick on the inside, they came in several flavours and were really juicy. My favourite was Lemon. I also remember playing cricket on Blackheath with Gilbert and Les Pinhay (the son of my mothers friend, and who was also in the “Imps”), although this must have been later on in my life at Greenwich. Les Pinhay was a good spin bowler and he probably started my love of the game of cricket, both as a player and spectator. He was to subsequently marry Olive Gamon, an elder sister of Gilbert’s wife.
Those early years in Greenwich were exciting and pleasurable for me, especially the annual holidays. I specifically remember waiting at Greenwich Pier with the family, for the paddle steamers to come alongside and take us to either Margate or Clacton. The paddle steamers we used for our holidays, were run by the General Steam Navigation Company (for whom my father, having served an apprenticeship with, then went to sea with them as an Engineering Officer on their coastal ships) . As the paddle steamers came alongside the pier to embark the passengers , they all ways played rousing tunes on their loudspeakers, which were mostly brass bands playing Souza marches “Liberty Belle” or “Washington Post” but often the Abe Salzmann march “Blaze Away” . I never hear these marches played, without thinking of those holidays. These sea trips for me, were very much a part of the holidays and I all ways enjoyed them. The family mostly took sandwiches to eat on the way, which we devoured on the deck with the wind in our faces (no Health and Safety Regulations in those days). My favourite steamer was the “Crested Eagle” which was unfortunately sunk at Dunkirk by Stuka dive bombers but her sister ship ”Royal Eagle”, which was another favourite of mine, did three trips to Dunkirk and rescued 3,000 troops. She also went into service again after the war finished. Many of these Thames Paddle Steamers were used in early September 1939 to take evacuees to destinations on the English East Coast.
During this time, my brother Gilbert often joined the family on their holidays. Gilbert enjoyed sculpturing in the sand and made beautiful models, mostly of boats or ships. He often sculpted the Eagle Paddle Steamers and I vividly remember he used drinking straws for the masts. On one holiday Gilbert built a model motor launch that both my sister Rosemary and I could sit in, and was named PAM which were my initials, and then the next day, when that had been washed away by the tide, he made a model racing car for us both to sit in. These models were so good, that there was often a small group of people looking down from the promenade above, who stopped to admire Gilbert’s handiwork. My mother always went and bought lovely hot rolls and some butter each morning, for the family to have for lunch on the beach, and sometimes an ice cream during the afternoon. Even when the holidays were over, there was always the river trip home to look forward to.
During this period, I well remember when both of my brothers owned motorcycles, brother Leslie a 500cc Matchless and Gilbert a 350cc AJS, Gilbert used his for work and I would often walked down the road when he was due home and Gilbert would sit me on the petrol tank and take me up the hill. Whenever Leslie came to see the family, he would do the same. Leslie had a nasty accident on his bike at a roundabout somewhere, at one time, and suffered slight concussion. He quickly recovered however and was soon riding again.
If I was asked to compare the two brothers, I would have said that Leslie was probably the most adventurous and certainly the most ambitious. Gilbert on the other hand was a much more staid and homely person, he was very thorough in all he did and because of his craft training he was very practical and able to turn his hand easily to any work in the house. He worked hard at his studies but was not as academic as Leslie. Both of my brothers were very industrious and conscientious people and both had good senses of humour.
Gilbert used to have a shiny black heavyweight raincoat, that he wore when riding his motorbike and he also had goggles and a cap which was the same material as the coat. When dry, he used to hang them all on a hook on the inside of the opening door of a big cupboard, at the top of the stairs to the top floor of the Maisonette. He would always arrange them on the hook so that the coat went on the hook first, followed by the goggles and finally the hat on top. This was fine when the door was shut, but one evening it was left open and as I walked up the stairs in the semi dark to go to bed, walked straight into the shiny surface of the coat and looking up in the dim light saw the long coat with goggles and black hat and screamed out, thinking there was a burglar in the house. Gilbert came rushing up the stairs to see what was wrong, to be greeted by a very shocked and shaking little boy. We all laughed about it afterwards but I didn’t find it amusing at the time!
It was in June 1936 that Ivy gave birth to another child who was to be christened Anthony Kenneth so I had become an uncle again.
It was during this period that I saw my first films. On some Saturdays Rosemary (by now shortened to Mary by her own request) and I were often taken by our mother to “the pictures” or “The Flicks” at the Gaumont Cinema in Lewisham. In those days there was always two films in the programme, the main feature film was called the “A” film and the other, which was often much shorter, was called the “B” film. I remember that if we couldn’t get in at the beginning of the programme we would try to enter, either at the interval in between the two films or during the “B” film so that we could always watch the feature film from beginning to end. The theory was good but if you had to queue up to get in, which was often the case, you had to enter as your turn came and this was often during the main film, so it didn’t always work!! Often the cinema laid on entertainment before the films started and this was usually the Wurlitzer Organ that used to rise up from the orchestra pit. I don’t remember all the names of all the organists, but my favourite was Sandy MacPherson who always finished his repertoire playing the tune “Here’s to the next Time”, as he slowly went down again into the pit. On occasions they started with a musical act and one that I particularly remember was a troupe called “Troise and his Mandoliers” I could not remember the country they came from, but I’m sure they were Russian. They all wore white very baggy blouses with baggy arms, black trousers and shiny black boots. I thought they were excellent musicians and dancers and provided a very lively and stirring performance.
It must also have been around this time that I was introduced to the toy department in the Chiesman’s department store, also in Lewisham. The toy department was in the basement and I invariably encouraged mother to go there, so that I could have a look around. My favourite toys at that time were Minic vehicles of all kinds. These were very well made from pressed tin, and all were powered by clockwork motors and all had rubber tyres. I had several of these models and one Christmas a beautiful Minic fire engine was in the Bran tub with my name on it. That was a lovely surprise. The electrical goods department was also in the basement and it was here in early 1938 that I watched my first television broadcast. Also in Lewisham was a David Grieg grocers shop who used to sell cold meats and butter etc. I used to enjoy going with my mother to shop there and if she bought butter, a piece would be to cut off a large block, placed on the marble surface of the counter, and patted into shape with two wooden paddles and then a piece of greaseproof paper put on top and wrapped up (so much for health and safety). I used to love watching them do this as well as cutting slices off a large block of corned beef or a ham, which the operator caught very deftly with a piece of paper in his right hand as he pushed the meat through the rotary slicer with his left one. You can still see this being done in delicatessens and supermarkets today.
On the one occasion at Greenwich, I met my Grandmother, on my mother’s side. She only came for a brief visit and I cannot remember ever meeting her again. She seemed a very pleasant old lady but was very quiet and didn’t communicate very much. Apart from meeting Uncle Guy, my father’s eldest brother on a few occasions, I was never to meet the other brothers or the grand parents of my father.
In September 1936 I started at the Royal Hill Primary School, which was just at the bottom of Hyde Vale and a relatively short walk from home. Most schools in those days were very large buildings and mostly three or four stories high and quite impressive structures. I did not enjoy my first day at school and I had to suppress my tears when my mother left me, I was not a happy bunny, although I was told later, that I soon got used to it. My memories of school at this time were, the daily spoonful of Malt, which I disliked intensely and the small bottle of milk which I enjoyed. You were not allowed one without the other however, as you had to queue up and were given them both and that was that. I also remember being put on a little camp bed for a sleep every afternoon in the main hall. Another memory at this time was on Empire Day on the 24th May each year, when all the pupils were expected to sing the hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past” and dance around the Maypole in the playground. I did however also remember some of the lessons and particularly liked the Art Classes. I was usually made to sit at the front of the class because I talked too much if left at the back.
There was a sweetshop called Nunn’s, which was strategically placed outside the school gate on the opposite side of the road. In those days you could get a surprising number of sweets for as little as a farthing (a quarter of a penny), although to get the best from you investment, it was important to have small sweets where you got the best return on your money. My favourites were small round hard gums that were all different flavours. If I was very good I used to be given a halfpenny. I was only allowed to buy my sweets on the way home from school. Nunn’s also made lovely ice cream wafers which were unusual as they were circular, they were made in a small round container with a lever on the handle in the base. First a wafer was put in the container, the soft ice cream was scooped into the top and filled right up to the brim of the container and scrapped flat and then the second wafer was put on top, the lever on the handle was then pushed up and you were left with a round ice cream wafer about five eighths of an inch thick. They were delicious!! Ice creams were only allowed on special occasions.
It was later on that same year that I, who slept in the front bedroom at that time, awoke to see the rest of the family looking out of the window at a bright orange glow in the sky. This was the night in November of that year, when The Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill caught fire and was completely destroyed. The Crystal Palace was a cast iron and glass building that was originally erected in London’s Hyde Park in 1851 for the Great Exhibition and which was completely dismantled and re-erected at Sydenham in Kent in 1854. The park surrounding the Palace became the home of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre and where athletic events are still held to this day. At one time Speedway and Motor racing also took place here, on a circuit outside the sports field. Also the famous W.G.Grace used to play cricket on a pitch that was part of the complex.