Moving from East London.
I had a friend who lived through the bridge in the main part of Purdy Street. We became friends when we started walking to Devons Road junior school together and we remained friends for many years. We had many adventures and an early one was at the bottle washers. The bottle washers was a factory opposite the houses where my friend lived, but I have never known them to wash bottles, maybe it got the name from a previous use. The building was protected by a seven-foot brick wall, but we dug bits out of it so we could climb over. We never went into the building, but we had many camps in the open areas around the works. The goods railway line was just beyond the factory and was not fenced off, a sign of the times when wagons would get shunted into the works. We found some detonators one day and put them on the running line. We hid in one of our camps and waited a while until three diesel shunters came along all coupled together. When they set off the detonators they came to a screeching halt. We had done them a favour by putting their emergency system to test and it worked perfectly. The signal box was a short walk through Devons Road bridge, so they were soon on their way again. We escaped unseen and laughing.
London was our playground and many weekends we would buy the Twin Rover tickets and mess around on the Underground Trains as well as the West End in places like Marble Arch and Trafalgar Square, a favourite pastime was sliding down the escalator bannisters at an impressive speed. We were chased off by the staff a few times, but it all added to the fun. Sometimes if we had no money we would just walk onto the platforms at Bromley-by-Bow from the Devons Road entrance and no one would question you. We’d spend a few hours messing about on the system and then go home. It was not so easy getting out as it was getting in. We would have to wait until the alighting passengers had left the station and the ticket man returned to his office then we’d walk towards the ticket office and when we got near we would just sprint past and out onto Devons road. The man would often shout after us but never gave chase.
Although the Bottle Washers didn’t wash bottles, there were a couple of bottle dumps in the area. One was near Bow Church and the other was near Stinkhouse Bridge. Both places were worth a visit and we could often get a few R Whites or Tizer bottles to take to the local shops for the deposits. We would also visit the local army dump where we could get army belts and other bits. Most of the good stuff would be locked up inside, but I did find a nice sporran once. The owner must have got fed up with the local kids helping themselves to his stock and he soon erected a more secure barb wire protected fence. Then there were the oranges. A lorry was often parked in Reeves Road just round the corner from where my friend lived. Most of the time it was of no interest and often seemed to have aeroplane wings and other parts stacked on it. I don’t know if they were from old Spitfires and Hurricanes, but they looked like they were. We were only interested though when it was loaded up with crates of oranges or apples, probably loaded from a ship in the docks. We would open up the back of the tarpaulin and help ourselves. Being good citizens we always put the tarpaulin back in place afterwards.
Back before the hop picking was mechanised, the hop picking season was heavily populated by Londoners who would turn up in whole family groups. I went once with my friend's family just before the machines took over. My friend’s family would go down to Kent in a Thames van. The back of the van was cleared out and a sofa and chairs put in. We were away for a couple of weeks. We lived in what can only be described as old tin sheds. Two long rows of them ten feet away opposite each other and the ablutions at the end which if I remember rightly were not too desirable. The adults were well into it and would gather their baskets of hops quite eagerly. But my mate and I soon got fed up and went to do other things like scrumping apples and damsons as well as getting up to other mischief. There were fires at night between the sheds where potatoes were cooked and sausages fried. It was a dismal forerunner of the barbeques which were later to become so popular. It was an enjoyable experience, but I never had the inclination to go hop picking again.
My friend’s brother was an associate of those well-known twin brothers from Bethnal Green. They used to organise regular wrestling matches at The York Hall and we always got complimentary tickets from them. A balcony ran around the hall and we would always sit up there, getting a great view of the action. Of course, we didn’t know at the time the things they got up to; they were just grown-ups going about their business. I do remember the cars though. My mate's brother used to have a Mercedes Benz saloon at a time when most working class people could not afford a car at all. He was also always smartly dressed in immaculate fitting suits, very impressive but we had no idea of the menace which accompanied his occupation.
My friend’s dad owned a demolition company and we would often go to work with him and clean the mortar off the reclaimed bricks. After we cleaned them we would have to stack them up in banks so that his dad could count them. We often used to get enough for us to get the train to Southend-on-sea the next day and have a good day out down there. One particular Saturday, his dad had a demolition job at Bethnal Green and we knew we could earn at least ten shillings each. It was a great deal of money to me and a lot more than I would get for my weekly pocket money. We caught the Underground train to Whitechapel then walked down to Old Montague Street.
His dad had the contract to demolish the whole Victorian terraced block. It was half completed and a huge pile of bricks was heaped up in the middle of the site, waiting to be cleaned for resale.
We got through a hole in the fence and saw a boy of about our age smashing some of the bricks with an old cast iron sash weight. My mate shouted and started to run towards him, expecting the boy to run off, but the boy just looked at him then carried on smashing up the bricks.
"Oy, what do you think you're doing?" My mate said as he reached the boy.
"What's it got to do with you?" The boy replied menacingly.
"Put that lump of iron down an' I'll show you what it's got to do with me." The boy gave a sarcastic laugh then continued to smash the bricks. "Oy, pack it in."
"Make me." He gave a look of contempt as if he thought that we were powerless against him.
There was a fruit crate amongst some rubbish. My mate picked the crate up and smashed it over the boy's head causing him to scream out in shock and pain. He grabbed the sash weight, but the boy would not let go of it. He pulled hard on the weight, pulling the boy towards him. When the boy was close enough he punched him in the face. The boy let go of the weight and fell back onto the rubble.
"Not as tough as you think you are, are you?" He tapped the sash weight on the palm of his hand a couple of times. "What do you think, shall I break his arms?"
We laughed as the boy jumped up and ran off. Because the men were not working that day, we searched around and found the trowels stashed under a piece of sacking where they had been left for us. We had cleaned the mortar from no more than a couple of dozen bricks when I noticed the boy coming back onto the site through a hole in the fence. "That brat has come back for some more, looks like he's not on his own though."
My mate looked over. "Well if there's just the four of them, it's only two each." He reached down and picked up a short piece of timber.
Six boys had come through the hole, and there were still more coming. I spotted another group coming in through a missing panel further up. A huge section of the temporary fence was swaying back and forth, there was a large cracking sound then three sections collapsed and fell flat onto the site. Dozens of boys started running across the site towards us shouting, only stopping to pick up sticks and lumps of wood.
"Shit," I muttered. I looked to the hole that we had used to enter the site, but there was another group coming in from there. "There's bloody hundreds of them."
We dropped our trowels and ran across the site. We ran through one of the derelict houses and out through the front door, closely pursued by the large gang of youngsters, girls as well as boys, all shouting and screaming like an uncontrolled mob of rioters as they chased us back up Valance Road and into the high street.
"The bus," my mate shouted. "Jump on the bus." The bus had just started to pull away from the traffic lights. We sprinted along the road and made it onto the open back platform before the bus began to speed up. We turned around and began laughing as we gave V signs to our pursuers.
The bus conductor told us to move off the platform, and we went up the stairs making our way to the back seat of the bus as it headed towards Bow. We dropped onto the seat puffing heavily while laughing aloud.
"Well who wants to clean bricks anyway?"
"What shall we do then?" I said.
"Let's go down to the canal at Three Mill Lane. See what's in the barges."
When we got a bit older we started going to the Lincoln Hall Community Centre on the Lincoln council estate. They had dances for the local youngsters a couple of times a week with all the latest pop record and album tracks being played including The Beatles who had just started to become famous. Everyone would turn up there reasonably dressed, even more so the girls. That’s when we started to notice that they were not just mates to play rounders with but were quite pleasant and pretty girls, well most of them, and our whole world started to change.
In 1958 Devons Road became the first British Railway's Locomotive Depot to be fully dieselised, the old steam "Jinties" being replaced by single cab, English Electric, Type 1 diesels. However, its glory was short lived and in 1963 the company decided to close it down. Everyone was offered employment at other depots and my father and brother accepted jobs up in North West England at Northwich, Cheshire.
Northwich was a small town, but had a lot of industry around it, with the ICI chemical and soda ash works, ship building yards, salt works, and many other smaller factories including Broadhurst, a large bakery factory on the outside of town and a major employer of local girls. A lot of the buildings in the town were Mock-Tudor and the black and white effect was very impressive. We moved from London early in 1964, but I finished my schooling in East London and lived with my Grandmother in Mile End until I left school in the summer.