So, back to London and back to school. The teacher would ask where people had been for their holidays. There were no trips to Spain then, not from our school anyway. Some had been to Clacton, Margate, and other south coast resorts. Some went to the Isle of Wight and some as far as Devon or Cornwall. I always felt a bit special saying I had been to Scotland, like it was another country.
I remember my first day at Devons Road School, which is probably my oldest memory. The school was built back in the Victorian era and was amongst streets of old terraced houses. The ground floor was the infants school and the upper two floors were the Junior school. I was not too pleased to see my mother setting off for home and leaving me with all these new people. I got used to the idea pretty quickly though, with the big water tank with the boats and measuring jugs, sand pit, toys and most of all the pretend shop. I loved being the shopkeeper with the dummy provisions and fake money. Of course education was gradually introduced, but in these early school days, even that was enjoyable.
When I went up into the juniors things got a bit harder. The arithmetic was harder; it was not called math's until secondary school. We had to learn the multiplication tables by heart up to the twelve’s and all the imperial weights and measures. Was imperial better than metric? To some of us it was, but to those no good at mental calculating, maybe not.
My form teacher through most of the junior school was Mr Islip and a very good teacher he was. Most afternoons for the last ten minutes or so, he would read to the class from William books. All the class seemed pleased with this, though as the years passed I wondered if he would ever run out of William books. When we left the junior school Mr Islip left as well and went off to teach in Africa.
There was a pretty girl in my class by the name of Margaret. One day as she passed by my desk she took my pen out of the ink well and laid it in the pen tray. That’s it I thought, she knows I’m here, but she didn’t speak to me properly until after I won a box of colouring pencils as a prize for my art work, and even that was short lived.
I liked art, and seemed to be quite good at it, but I didn’t like country dancing which was forced on us, or drama. I avoided the school plays, but got pulled into one to open the cave door in Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. The part of the hall being used to stage the play had a classroom entrance and it was made up to look like a cave. It was my job to wait until Ali said “open sesame” and then I would open the door from the inside to let them in. The first time of opening was a little way into the play; I got fed up and sat at a desk where I rested on the top and soon fell asleep. Well, Ali Baba said his words half a dozen times before one of his thieves stepped forward and opened the door. The drama teacher was not too impressed.
From Devons Road school to our house in Purdy Street was not that far. Even so, sometimes our next door neighbour would stop and pick us up in his railway parcels van, and there was the more exciting rides home when our Uncle Bill would pick us up on his coalman’s horse and cart and make a detour to drop us home. It was about this time that my mother was working as an usherette at the Mile End Odeon. She sometimes used to let the local kids into the cinema through the fire exit. Eventually, she got caught and that ended her cinema career.
There was a lot of bullying in school during the fifties, but because I had two older brothers to look after me it didn’t affect me that much. The time came for me to go to secondary school and I was a bit anxious in case I did not get to go to Hay Currie where one of my brothers was, but luckily I was accepted. My other brother had already left school and was working as a van delivery boy.
The tests that I took at Devons Road meant that I was in the top stream 1A, at secondary school. My first form teacher was Mr Surridge; he was an English teacher and a good tutor, although a bit strict. It took about twenty minutes to walk to school so when I went home for dinner I only had fifteen or twenty minutes at home before I would have to set off back. Later I would often take dinner money and go the Chrisp Street market for saveloy and pease pudding, a hot dog, or if I had plenty of money, pie and mash.
When I was in the second year I found a good way to avoid some lessons was to become a member of the choir. I got to quite like it, but one day the music teacher, Mr Burchill, caught me laughing about something instead of singing. He called me out and I got two strokes of the cane. I thought it was a bit harsh, but I never did it again. The highlight of my time in the choir was when we sang “Daffodils” at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. I dropped out of the choir when I was in the third year.
I remained in the A stream for the second year, but halfway through the third year I got dropped into the B stream which gave me the science teacher, Mr Titley, as my form teacher. I didn’t get on too well with Mr Titley and got the slipper from him a few times. The slipper was a little less severe than the cane, but it still stung a lot. Mr Titley was at one time the form teacher of my eldest brother Jimmy. I know Jimmy was a bit disruptive at school, so maybe that was why he was hostile towards me, or maybe not. I was not with him long anyway before we went into 4 Summer Leavers 2, 4SL2, and we got the deputy head, Miss Score, as our form teacher. I was a bit concerned to have her as our form teacher as she seemed a bit of a tyrant around the school and at assembly. But as a form teacher, she was brilliant and much liked by most, if not all, of her form pupils.
We lived in a terraced house at the end part of Purdy Street, known by many as The Island because it was bordered by railway lines. The houses were built for the workers of the massive Bow Locomotive Works which built and maintained locomotives for the North London Railway. I only remember the works being derelict, leaving the houses to be occupied by other railway staff. My father was already an engine driver at the nearby Devons Road Locomotive Shed and when my brother left school he joined the depot as a fireman.
The Island was accessible under a pair of bridges: one was the London to Southend and Tilbury line, and the other was the Underground District Line between Bromley-by-Bow and West Ham. Under the first part of the bridges to the left were the gates to the derelict Bow locomotive Works. To the right the unmade road began and ran under the bridges and then turned to the right where the old railways houses stood. There were 19 houses: 9 on one side and 10 on the other side of the road. We lived in the second house and across the road there was a sleeper fence to an extended garden belonging to the first house on the other side. The houses had valley roofs so the tiles could not be seen, just the coping running along the top front. They were two up two down houses with back additions containing the scullery and box room above. There was an outside toilet and a brick boiler in the corner of the scullery, and the usual accessory of the tin bath hanging on the outside wall, when not in use. It was normal for the coalmen to walk through the house with bags of coal and tip them into the bunker in the yard. As well as the coalmen, the dustmen would walk through the house with the steel dustbin full of ashes and rubbish on their backs. There was not a proper garden, just a back yard with a bit of a flower bed with a few roses and seasonal bedding plants when we could afford them. At the end of the yard was a high brick wall and beyond the wall was the derelict Bow Locomotive Works.
Next door to our left lived two old ladies. Well one was an old lady and the other was her very old mother. They would often give us treats of currants, sultanas or raisins. On the other side lived the Dumbrills. They were good neighbours and family friends. They had three sons who were all a lot older than me. Further along were the Bentons who had a girl, Linda, and a boy, Johnny. Linda was a childhood sweetheart of my brother Ian and Johnny was a friend of my eldest brother Jimmy. Across the road was the Nixons, with the two boys Danny and Steven. Further up the street, the Morgans, an Irish family, moved in a bit later on and became our friends. Tragedy stuck one day when one of the boys was killed in a road accident while riding his bicycle; a very big shock to all in the street.
We had some street parties, but I was just a tot at the Festival of Britain so I don’t remember it, but I do remember the Coronation street party. The terraced houses were decorated with Union Flags and bunting hung along and across the street. Long covered tables stretched along the middle of the road with children sat on salvaged timber benches at either side. I had just sat down after my Dad had taken a photograph of me and my two older brothers standing in the crepe paper suits that our mother had made. I liked the paper suit and thought it a bit better than my brothers' suits and a lot better than the other children's. Along the table there were sandwiches, jellies, and lots of cakes.
There were crates of brown ale, pale ale, and stout stacked up beside the front door of our house. After the street party there would be a party in the house for the grown-ups. Just like Christmas they would all be in the front room singing while my mother played the piano, and my father would be singing the loudest and the best. Me and my older brothers would be upstairs in our bedroom singing, dancing about, and joining in with the merriment.
Another event in the street was the annual Guy Falkes night bonfire. The wood would be gathered and stored in the garden on the other side of the sleeper fence. On the night all the men would help to fetch it all and build the bonfire in the middle of the road. Because it was an unmade road it would not ruin the surface. All the neighbours joined in with the firework and bonfire celebrations. It went on for many years, until the fire brigade began to stop the street bonfires and we had to join in with the rest of the street’s bonfire on one of the bomb sites on the other side of the bridges.
There were a lot of children in the street and we would often meet up to play street games such as Tin Can Tommy, Three Bad Eggs, or Rounders; with rounders being the most popular. We would usually play outside our house and the Dumbrills house because there were no houses opposite, just the sleeper fence. Rounders is a game similar to baseball, but a lot more fun. In, Tin Can Tommy, the person who was “on it” had to close their eyes and count to twenty while the others went to hide in doorways or round corners. The person would walk away from the tin trying to spot someone, and if they did they had to run back to the tin and hit it on the ground three times saying 1,2,3 I see Linda (or whoever) in Danny’s doorway. That person would then be “on it”. If you could get to the tin first you would be safe. In, Three Bad Eggs, the person who was “on it” would stand on their own about ten foot from the wall. The rest would pick names for everyone including the one on their own. It could be any names, but if it were pets for instance, the group would shout: dog, cat, budgie, tortoise, and so on. The person “on it” would pick one and throw a tennis ball up the wall and all would run except the one whose name was picked who would have hurry to get the ball before shouting stop when all had to freeze. The person would then take three strides and throw the ball at one of the others. If the ball hit the other person then he was “on it”, but if it missed then the same person had to be “on it” again. If you were hit or you missed when you threw the ball, you would lose a life; lose three lives and you would be out of the game, but could still witness picking the names.
There were other more risky games though, such as the old favourite, Knock Down Ginger, which was nothing to do with knocking down a ginger person, then there was the throwing stones battles with rival kids, and that old favourite and sometimes naughty game of True, Dare, Kiss or Promise.
People would dump unwanted items on the old bomb sites and pram wheels were always a great find. We would make a cart with the wheels and old pieces of timber. Small wheels at the front with a bolt through so it could be steered. No brakes of course and we used to pick up a bit of speed going down Devons Road hill, scraping our feet on the floor near the bottom because there was a sharp right turn on the wide pavement and if you didn’t get round you would either turn over and go tumbling over the pavement, or go careering out onto the road, which could be a bit dangerous.
There was an old favourite pastime to a lot of London kids, and probably kids elsewhere as well, known as Saturday morning pictures. We used to go to the Regal by Bow Church. The place was always packed and they used to show a variety of films: cartoons, Roy Rogers, Laurel and Hardy, Keystone and all the other comedy black and white film stars, including some silents, but my favourite was The Little Rascals. We used to try and leave before the end and walk along to the Pie & Mash shop so as to miss the big queue when the place got mobbed with kids from the Regal. It was a nice area around there with all the shops and stalls along Devons Road. There was a pub on the corner that was bombed by a Zeppelin in WW1 and further along was Flectures, that wonderful local toy shop where I used to get things for my train set, parts for my Meccano and lots of Airfix kits.
About 100 yards away from our house, on a street corner, was a small off-licence called, Yarmouth Ale Stores, I think. It was better known as The Offy. A small place with the door on the corner and when you entered a single loud bell would sound. If nobody was in the shop the owners would be watching TV in the adjoining room and would come out to serve you. Apart from the beers, wines, spirits and tobacco products, they sold crisps and a large selection of sweets as well as a small selection of groceries such as margarine, tea and sugar. They also had a couple of hand pumps and the old ladies would sometimes gather in there, drinking glasses of beer or stout. It was strange that although they would be obviously gossiping, they would stop talking when we came in and would remain quiet until we left.
Over the railway bridge and into Campbell Road there was a newsagent and tobacconist called Barratts. I often would walk to school with my brother and his friends. They were all smokers and would call at Barratts to buy penny or penny ha'penny cigarettes. I had a puff of an Abdula cigarette once and nearly choked on it. I never felt the desire to smoke after that so I used to save my money for other things. That did me a favour really, and saved me a fortune; only sweet cigarettes for me. Anyway, Barratts sold comics. Comics were a big thing when I was young. Not just the throwaways like the Beano, Dandy, Eagle and Topper, but WW2 Fleetway comics like Air Ace, War and Battle. Then there was the DC comics, Superman, Detective (Batman), and all the others. I also had Creepy Worlds, Tales of the Unexpected etc. That’s the thing about Barratts, they would buy the comics back (Cheap) and then have a great pile of second-hand comics for sale a lot cheaper than the new ones.
I only knew of one girlfriend for my brother Ian, but my eldest brother Jimmy seemed to have loads. There was Betty and Margaret in Scotland, he had a girl in King’s Lynn, and the local girls I knew were Barbara, Denise, (who he claimed was a school friend of Helen Shapiro), Jeanette, Hazel, and Brenda who he married. He did get engaged to most of the others as well and the reason was, well we can only speculate.
I used to go to Victoria Park a lot, sometimes with family and sometimes with mates. It was a great place in those days. There were rowing boats to hire on the lake and a motor boat used to do trips round as well, afterwards there was a lakeside café to get refreshments. The Lido was also a very popular place and is sadly missed; we all spent many hours there. The water was freezing cold, but you seemed to get used to it after a while. They used to close for dinner and throw everyone out. Most of the people would wait on the grass, sunbathing, picnicking or playing games until the pool opened again and we would all go back inside. Then there was the small zoo, the pond where you could watch the enthusiasts with their model boats, the paddling pool, the band stand by the lake where older folk would spend time dancing to the band, and of course the visits by the fairground.
As well as being a driver at Devons Road Locomotive Depot, my dad was also a deputy foreman. Sometimes when he was foreman at the weekend he used to take me to work and he would take me round the engines parked in the shed before going to the office. I loved going there and sometimes I went out in one of the diesels. I even remember going out in one of the little steam engines to do some shunting in the yard, which at the time seemed like a magical experience.