Recollections on Tape – My Father

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The photograph on the left, above, shows my Dad in his Army uniform, and was taken at some time during the 1920s. The photograph to the right shows him in our back garden at Western St, Stratford. Because it shows him holding me as an infant I can date this photo to about 1955. The Western St photo was taken from next door by someone in our neighbour's garden. In the distance you can see the tops of buildings along Angel Lane

During 1983 and 1984 I made a series of tape recordings of my Dad’s recollections of his early life. As he was born in 1904, and had been very unwell on a number of occasions, I’d become aware that if I didn’t do this soon, it would be too late! All of the recordings were made onto C90 Cassettes, but I altered the equipment as a result of experience, so the sound quality of the results varies. I have now processed the recordings and produced a set of audio files which are linked, below, to this page so people can listen to them.

His recollections span various periods of his life, beginning in an East End of London (Bow, West Ham, etc) which Dickens might have recognised! I remember him saying that at the time he and the other kids used to steal coal from the barges along ‘the cut’ (a local canal that came down though the area and fed into the Thames). This was the only way to heat their homes. They often moved house because they couldn’t pay the rent. And he also spent periods in the local Workhouses.

After his father died his mother remarried, but his new stepfather was a brute who used to come home drunk and beat his mother. My dad would then fight with him. However in 1920 he decided to leave home and joined the Army. He then spent time in Ireland before being moved to Imperial India, and later on to the Sudan and elsewhere.

Having served his time in the Army he came home to a UK where unemployment was rampant and did various jobs which ended up including everything from selling fruit on the street to melting down silver for Rothschilds and the Royal Mint! He married his first wife, Amy, who became very ill. Before and during World War Two they moved more than once, partly due to being bombed out. But mostly lived in or near Stratford. Amy died in 1948 and the taped recollections end at around that time.

The recollections contain some remarkable stories but they do also ramble because, by the time they were recorded, his memories were fading or becoming confused. Some details may also be inaccurate. Fortunately, I found a copy of his Army Service and Pay Book. This provides a useful written record. The excerpts illustrated below show the main examples.

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Predictably, the Book gives dates and locations for his service. This therefore represents an official record of where and when he served. However it should be noted that in those days it would have taken many weeks to travel from, say, the UK to India - and I do not know if some of the dates represent an arrival or an assignment! I was surprised to find two details in the book. One is the name given for his mother as Mrs Bailey under Next of Kin. However I then realised that this must have become her name when she re-married. So it is the name of the step-father who beat her, and my Dad, and prompted him to leave home and join the Army.

The other surprise is that the entry specifying where he lived at the time is given as Primrose Court, with 37 Cullum St struck out. The book shows signs that various entries were made at different times, but these details are curious because old maps have led me to believe that the bombed out area bordered by Western St to the North, and Angel Lane to the East had originally been called Primrose Court, but then had its name changed to Cullam/Broad Streets. However perhaps the old name continued to be used by residents along with the newer names. (?)

The first page of the Book confirms that my Dad did lie about his age to get into the Army! The details have been (re-)entered by an Officer in Hyderabad, India, in October 1926. They state that my Dad's birthdate was in 1903, not 1904. And that he enlisted at Warley in Essex on 22nd Nov 1920 for a term of 7 years colours, followed by 5 years as a Reserve. In essence, committed to a minimum of 7 years in the Army, with longer service being possible.

I had planned to make further recordings to cover later years, and to add more details on the earlier period. But, sadly, he died shortly after the last recording I managed to make. When listening, bear in mind that he was describing events, circumstances, and attitudes during a period which is now up to more than a century ago! We still have poverty, etc, though, despite the recollections now often sounding like an echo from another world. So perhaps they may help people put the present day into context and see what still needs to be changed, and also what we can be thankful for having now in comparison with many decades ago...

The first tape recordings were made on the 17th of April 1983 at my parent’s Council flat in Forest Gate E7, London. As with the rest of the tapes I’m the main person asking the questions. But you can also occasionally hear my wife, Chris, or my Mother.

Note that side ‘B’ of the cassette was the first recording, hence the above ordering. Sides 1A and 1B mostly deal with the period before 1920 and are the most ‘Dickensian’ in what they describe. They were made using a portable cassette player/recorder + stereo radio with its own internal microphones.

The second cassette was made a week later, also at Forest Gate. Having listened to the earlier recordings I decided to try using a pair of separate microphones to see if I could get better results. Unfortunately, the recordings I made onto cassette 2 were worse, not better, than tape 1! This was because the external microphones output a much lower signal level, and as a result the recordings were submerged in tape noise. This made them very difficult to listen to and hear what had been said. However I have now reprocessed the recordings and made the noise levels much lower. The noise is still obvious and the sound quality is poorer than that from tape 1, but it is clear enough to listen to and comprehend - providing, of course, my Dad’s east end accent is understandable for you!

These recollections are mainly about the period when Dad was in the Army and stationed in Ireland or India.

The third recording was made a week later on, again at Forest Gate. However having listened to the poor quality of tape 2 I’d built a small low-noise preamplifier to boost the output from the separate microphones. As a result, these recordings have a much better sound quality.

These recollections are mostly about being in the Army in India, although 3A starts with a story about the time in Ireland.

The fourth recording is undated, and only used one side of the cassette. It was probably made in Forest Gate.

The recollections are mostly about Sudan, Egypt, and returning to the UK and Aldershot.

Tapes 5 and 6 were recorded in St Andrews on the 28th of April 1984. My parents had come to stay for our wedding. The recordings were made using a better audio cassette recorder/player that was a part of my hi-fi system at the time. I also used a good pair of microphones, placed to give a decent result, and managed to get better sound quality than had been possible with the old portable recorder.

These recollections cover the period after my Dad left the Army. It includes the depression during the 1930’s and the ‘Blitz’ in Stratford during World War Two when he and neighbours had to move because their homes were destroyed. After the war it covers when his first wife died, and he came to meet my mother and marry again.

The above map may help listeners to see where some of the locations mentioned were. The entire area has now been ‘redeveloped’ so they now exist only in memory or maps. The areas highlighted in pink were bombed out during the war. The water tank was added as a source useful for dealing with the fires caused by bombing.

During the tapes you will hear various family members mentioned, but not always identified. So it may be useful to know that my Dad’s brothers were George, Albert, and Jim (who died very young). John and Alan were the children of Dad and his first wife, Amy.

One of the tapes recalls a ’riot’ in their house in Stratford without clearly identifying precisely where they were living at the time, so the account is unclear regarding if it was Cullum St or Western St. A number of families moved from Cullum St when it was bombed out, and they went to Western or William St. However the houses in Western St had ‘boxed’ staircases at the back. As a result they had no banister anyone could ‘lean over’ to hit someone else. So I think this ‘riot’ must have been in Cullum St.

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I was intending to make more recordings, but my Dad returned to London after our wedding, and died shortly afterwards, just short of his 80th birthday. He was buried in a churchyard in Laindon, Essex beside his first wife, Amy.

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