I remember Stratford in the 1950s...

Welcome to my world!... Or at least what was my world in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The above image was taken from the air in 1945. It was part of a wider survey to assess bomb damage, and sadly isn’t very detailed. But it shows the area where I lived, played, and went to primary school. The old Stratford station is shown top-left. I lived in Western St in a house that backed onto the bombed out ‘Debry’ area that I and the other kids in the surrounding streets used this as a playground. The Debry was bounded by Western St, Angel Lane, Martin St, and Stratford Broadway.

Back in the 1880s the Debry area had been called Primrose Court. However you can just see in the above photo the traces of a rectangle of houses that were then built and became Cullum St and Broad St. These were largely destroyed by WW2 bombing, and the square was razed to the ground to leave an open area. When I played there it still showed the old pavements, and some rubble from the removed houses. There was also at least one old fashioned iron street lamp. This didn’t work, but we used it as a wicket when playing cricket. So during the 1950s the area would have looked from above pretty much like shown above. Because we were near the railway we could hear the loose goods wagons being shunted in the marshalling yards beyond Stratford Station. This used to go on most of the night, but having heard it from birth it never seemed to be a bother as we were used to it. The photo also shows the pub and shops at the top of Western/William streets, although the Theatre Royal is hard to see.

The area to the west of Martin St, and beyond Station St to the railway was in the 1950s occupied by a number of ‘prefabs’. These were quick-assembly prefabricated single-story homes, build to house people who had been bombed out during the war. In some ways they were actually better housing than the surviving houses along the streets! Although ‘temporary’ many of the prefabs went on being used for decades.

The above photo shows my Mother and myself on the debry along with another boy. I don’t now know who the other boy was, or if it was a relation or a friend. But I’m the one with the dirty knees! To the left and behind us you can see the back fences of our house and the others along that side of Western St. The wooden poles at the end of some gardens served two purposes. One was to hold the ends of aerial wires used by radios – TV sets were rare in those days, so during the 1950s broadcast entertainment and news came via the medium-wave BBC ‘Light’ and ‘Home’ Services. Although I also used sometimes tune to mysterious foreign stations on the medium wave band as well as short wave. If I recall correctly our ‘wireless set’ was a Barker 88. The other purpose was to hold a washing line.

Just above and beyond my Mother on the skyline in the photo you can see the tall building that was at the top of Western St. This was the Lion public house. You can also see that the fences of the houses were made using whatever was to hand at the time. Various planks of wood, old doors, etc. In some cases, bits probably scavenged from the bombed out houses that had been in Cullum or Broad St! The photo shows that the area was grassy at the time. Later on the grass was replaced with tarmac covered with cinders and the area was made into a car park. By that time I had a bicycle, and so I and my friends used to play ‘speedway riding’ there. We’d get up speed, put out a foot and skid in a curve as if rounding a corner on a motorbike speedway track. I can recall looking into some of the cars and reading their speedometers. As kids we tended to assume that if the speedometer display went up to a hundred miles and hour, so would the car!

The Beatles did visit and use the Debry and Angel Lane to make a promotional music video and have publicity photos taken for their song, Penny Lane. However this happened after we moved away to a council flat, so I missed that excitement! In contrast one of my earliest and vaguest memories has for years been that there was a fair or circus that came to the debry. I can recall there being a roundabout. (‘gallopers’?) and, of all things, an archery range. Also, an elephant which had some seating on its back and you could pay to ride. Over the years no-one else I’ve spoken to seems to recall this so I have wondered if I imagined it, or am thinking of a fair elsewhere. But recently I found a photo showing a fair...

The above shows a view that has been said was taken in 1953 of a fair on the ground where Cullum St had been. The roundabout looks similar to what I recall, but this was probably an earlier fair than the one I think I can recall.

The Debry area had no street lighting, and the houses, etc, blocked light coming from the the surrounding streets. As a result it was quite dark out on the Debry at night. More so than might be the case now because the London street lighting in those days was dimmer than it would be today. I can recall laying on a ‘bench’ or ‘form’ type of seating – in effect a long plank which a row of children might sit on – and starting up into the clearest, darkest skies I’d ever seen at the time. No idea now where that bench came from, but it was outside the end fencing of our garden. I had just started getting a keen interest in astronomy, science, etc, and was gazing in wonder at the stars. At the time it was science fiction to think about people going to the moon or exploring the planets. But the view on a clear night, combined with my Father encouraging me to read books about science, etc, made me wish to become a scientist one day. Even though I wasn’t doing well at primary school!

The above photo was taken in our back garden. I now have no idea who took the photo, but it may have been my Uncle Frank. He had quite a good job with the GPO as an engineer having learned basic electronics in the RAF during WW2. The main figure in the photo is Mary Irving (or possibly Irvine, I’m not certain of the name). Jack and Mary Irving were our neighbours (on the side to the left in this view). My Mother is in the background, just beyond me in a pram. At the backs of the houses a scullery was built on which served as a kitchen. Beside that was an outside toilet, and my Father had added a wooden lean-to where he kept his gardening and work tools. My bedroom window can be seen at the top of the photo, above my Mother.

So far as I can recall, Jack Irving was the only person on the street at that time who owned a car. He’d shack-built a garage for it at the bottom of their garden, assembled from various scrap bits of wood, corrugated sheeting, etc. Jackie Irving was one of their children and he and I occasionally would climb up on top of the garage... Until caught and told off because it was dangerous and might collapse under our weight!

We had a cat which used to go out on the Debry along with another cat which the Irvings owned. (In so far as people own a cat rather than the reality being the other way about!) I noticed one day that next door’s cat was hiding behind some grass on the Debry while our cat was beyond a flock of birds that were pecking around on the ground. Our cat was slowly moving towards them as if stalking, but was in full view of the birds. So as our cat advanced, the birds kept wandering away from it... towards next door’s cat, which they couldn’t see. I got the distinct impression that the two cats were working together, with ours deliberately driving them towards the other. But the birds flew away before they got close enough for the hidden cat to spring any trap.

We’d had the cat since it had been a kitten and I think than in modern terms it had ‘imprinted’ on my Mother as also being its Mother! When she went shopping on Stratford Broadway she’d go via our back gate and walk across the Debry to get there via the far corner leading into Martin St. Our cat used to follow her. But she would stop and tell it not to, when she got to the corner. So it would then sit and wait there until she came back. Then walk home with her! If she was a long time it might come back and sit on our back fence, waiting. Then when she came back round the far corner it would hop down, run to her, and accompany her home.

I can also recall waking up one morning during the ‘Big Freeze’ winter of early 1963 and looking out to see deep snow all over our garden and the Debry. This must also have been when I found an inch of snow along the inside sill of my bedroom window where it had blown in overnight. Going outside and playing in the snow was fun, but it being cold and wet in my bedroom wasn’t.

The above photo shows my step-brother, Alan, sitting on our front step in Western St with me playing at the kerb. Alan had married but he and his wife, Ann, couldn’t initially afford a home of their own. So during the first few years of my life they’d lived with my parents. As a result I slept in cot in my parent’s bedroom until they left and I then got a bedroom of my own. One detail I recall about the houses is the metal item you can see fitted into the base of the wall, just beyond my head. I’ve learned later in life that this was a ‘bootscraper’ designed so visitors could remove any mud or dirt from the undersides of their shoes before coming into the house. At the time, though, I thought it was there for milkbottles! i.e. a convenient place to put out empties for the milkman.

When I was 5-11 years old I went to a nearby primary school. This was at the corner of Salway and Great Eastern Roads. Whenever I walked to or from the school I would go past the Theatre Royal in Stratford but at the time had no awareness of Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop. Although I did go to one or two Christmas Pantos at the Theatre Royal. I think I saw “Dick Whittington” there.

The teachers were fairly kind and helpful, but I didn’t get on very well. Often absent, and I ‘failed’ my 11-plus exam. I’d been unwell and off school when my class sat their 11-plus. So I, and I think two other children, sat it later in the Headmaster’s office. No-one had ever said anything about the exam to me, so I had no real idea how to answer some of the questions. Whereas in later years parents would sometimes be able to buy books full of ‘IQ test’ questions which can let you learn how to answer them and “improve your IQ” rather than actually test it.

I recall one teacher giving each of us a small toy at Christmas one year. I got a ’Matchbox’ toy motorcycle and sidecar combination in RAC livery with a rider. She had also during one summer been on a – then amazing! – trip to Italy and brought back a novelty. This was a long strip of boiled sweets. Each sweet was in its own individual package, all attached in a long ribbon. She said they could be bought like this from vending machines and she gave each of us a few of the sweets. At Christmas time one year we were also shown some old silent films – comedies and cartoons – as a treat.

It was at school that it was realised I was very short-sighted. The discovery was almost like a music-hall comedy routine. I was called into the school hall and told to stand on a chair. Then asked to read a line from a chart. My response was, “What chart!?” because I couldn’t see one!

The school used to organise their classes so that the ‘best students’ were often given a seat towards the back of the class, whilst troublemakers or the dimwitted fidgets were given a seat near the front. Not knowing this, I’d assumed that it was normal to have difficulty reading what was written on the blackboards. Thus the smarter children were able to sit further back because they could cope better with not being able to see clearly! I’d not realised that my not being able to read the board clearly wasn’t normal. The glasses changed that, but by then I was well behind and continued not to enjoy school, or, indeed, to go every day!

The irony here is that at about the start of the 1960s we had been given a TV set by Alan. The only daytime TV on weekdays in those years were test transmissions and programmes for schools and technical colleges. As a result I became fascinated by the broadcasts for secondary school science, maths, etc, and the technical college programmes for engineers and technicians! I therefore soaked up a lot of information and understanding which was meant for people much older than myself. This strengthened my interest in science and engineering. Along with reading two or three science fiction books a day, along with textbooks, from our local library which was in Water Lane – about the furthest East I’d venture alone! So although I didn’t go every day to school, I actually learned quite a great deal. And to be honest, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt handicapped by not being able to give the names and dates of ancient Kings and Queens, or details of the longest rivers in the world. The only non-science subject I really enjoyed at school was music. So far as history, geography, etc, were concerned my attitude was that if I needed a ‘fact’ I could look it up when I went to the library...

Initially, most of the second-hand paperbacks I bought were ones I discovered on a table outside Shingler’s ‘rag and bone’ shop at the top of William St. However one day I was walking down Angel Lane when all the market stalls were out and I noticed that one of them had lots of secondhand books and magazines. (The image, above, shows the part of Angel Lane where the stall would have been out when in use.) Amongst them was a second-hand copy of ‘Analog’, an American magazine that printed a mix of science fiction (SF) stories and science fact articles. These were often written by professional scientists or engineers. I’d heard of this, so bought it! I can still recall that it’s cover featured a story in the ‘Cities in Flight’ series by James Blish, and I still have the magazine.

It may these days be worth clarifying one point. Back in the 1950s and 60s a lot of SF was very much based on firm science or knowledgeable speculations about what might be scientifically possible. Much of the content of ‘Analog’ was what has been referred to as ‘injuneer fiction’ which set a puzzle and solved it by the ingenious use of science or technology. So you could actually learn a lot about genuine science from reading the SF of the period. Whereas much of what is labelled ‘Science Fiction’ these days is essentially fantasy with little relationship to actual science.

Back in the 1950s it was very difficult to get American books and magazines in the UK, and a lot of SF was only published in the USA. So I was excited to get the magazine. However I found it was a ‘British’ copy that republished most of the original material. Slight disappointment, but it included an advert for a company called ‘Fantast’ which said it bought and sold SF books, both American and British. So I sent them a letter. Hence at the age of about 8 or 9 I started getting book lists from Ken Slater who was part of what used to be known as ‘Operation Fantast’. This had been set up around the time of WW2. It was similar to other ‘enthusiast’ or ‘fan’ activities which were bringing Jazz records, etc, to Britain. People working on the ships that crossed the Atlantic would buy a lot of books when in the USA and then sell them to Ken.

He then sent out lists, and his customers – now including myself – could buy the ones they wanted. The snags being to have the money and to request something before someone else did! The prices were low because it was largely an amateur/enthusiast operation and most of the books were second-hand. So from about 1960 and for decades afterwards I regularly bought books from Ken. And also found a way to subscribe to Analog. Although very enjoyable in terms of being entertaining easy-to-read fiction, this was also a factor in the unusual ‘education process’ I went though when young, quite distinct from what school often failed to teach me. Education founded in the shops and market stalls of Angel Lane, and in secondhand items from the USA!

Jim Lesurf 
3,000 Words
18th Apr 2020

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