My Father was born in 1904 in the East End of London. During 1983 and 1984 I made some cassette tape audio tapes of conversations with him. This was because I wanted to keep a record of him recounting his stories and recollections. The first recording was made on 17th April 1983, in the Council flat where my parents lived at that time. The last was made in St Andrews on 28th April 1984 a few days after I got married. He and my mother had come up from London to be at my marriage and stay with us for a while.|
My last recollection of him is of seeing him on the train they took when they departed back to London. He was walking along the isle of the carriage, looking for their seats as the train pulled out of Dundee station. He died suddenly a few weeks later, just before what would have been his 80th birthday.
The photo on the left shows him as I remember him. This was taken on the landing of outside our Council flat in the mid 1970s.
The following are a transcripts of the first recordings. It is over a hundred years, now, since he was born. For most people it will read like something out of Charles Dickens. I’ve slightly clarified the spoken English in a few places to avoid repetitions, etc. But for me, this was my Father and the world he’d known. So I’ve mostly left any ‘incorrect’ english unchanged to illustrate how he spoke.
N.B. For those who don’t know the area of the period, some of the places mentioned like Goodmays and Claybury were local hospitals or asylums. And for those young enough not to know, “3d” means three (old) pence from a time when the currency was “Pounds, shillings, and pence” with 20 shillings to the pound, and twelve pence to the shilling. i.e. a pound was worth 240 pence, not 100 (new) pence...
Q: First of all, when and where were you born?
I was born in June 1904 in Abbey Lane, Bow - just missed the aristocracy. The first thing I remember when I was born, Mum and Dad weren't so bad off - Father was working. He worked in the skin factory, Rice's, in Lett Rd. He worked for Mrs Burling in Stratford. Everybody knew him in Stratford. Mum used to take in company, friends used to visit, we didn't use't do bad out of it for pennies like they'd give you - a penny was a lot of money then. Then, all of a sudden, it disappeared. They came down and told mother one day - he'd fallen out of work, I can't tell you how - but he'd started to lose his mind.
Well he'd been in the South African War and he got the Queen's Medal along with two bars. I've got his papers at home now. First of all he was in the Queen's Regiment, then he must've hopped out of that and joined the Artillery. Well then they wanted - this is where the word Commandos comes from, the Boers used to 'hit and run', so they called it - they wanted Mounted Infantry to keep up with the Boers, to chase them round after whatever happened, and he went into that. As far as I could make out, he suffered with head wounds. Now what they knew about medicine in those particular times wasn't much, especially as applied to the head. Although he seemed all right when he came out and married mother.
The first thing I can remember that mother told me about it was that they had me dressed up in a red cape and a jockey's hat and she used to go and meet him when he finished work on a Friday Night and they used to leave me outside the pub - the Oak at the top of Lett Rd - in the pram. They were in the company of Mrs Archer who lived around our house. They came out of the pub to see if I was alright and I was gone. Now the cut run alongside of it and a there was a forge next door with a blacksmith There was a woman half way down the cut with me - running she was - but Mrs Archer caught up with her and gave her a bashing. The idea was she was going to take my clothes off and chuck me in the cut! The clothes I had must've been good clothes. That must've been shortly after I was born because a little later things started to go wrong and I wouldn't have had good clothes like that.
Father must've been working and we were doing all right. This is something I was told about I don't remember it. Things then used to be alright then. When Father was working he used to come home and bring all the kids in off of the street and he'd say "put the kettle on, Liz," and mother'd put her feet up. And he'd say "Try my boots on" and he'd fit the kids up with clothes - mostly mine - and he'd say "Its alright John, I'll take you up the top and buy you a pair tomorrow". He would, too, he never broke a promise. When they tried the boots on there was something hard stuck up the toe. It'd be a penny he'd stuck up the toe, thats the sort of lark he'd get up to. When he came home all the kids knew him and would race up the street and all the winners and losers they all got something.
The next thing I knew about it was, apparently he'd been standing up the top of Abbey Lane standing out in the road directing the traffic - or so the police said. Now one of the blokes along there used to have a flour mill - Rodgers, his name was. One of the the drivers on one of his carts 'and horses chucked a flour-bag over him. Then they told mother they'd taken him away to Claybury. When mother found out what'd happened she told my uncle Jim and he went and sorted this bloke out. I can remember that happening. I must've been four or five about then. He came home and the next thing I can remember is another trick. You see he' be out for three or four days and he used to go off his head and suddenly become sensible again.
We all used to sleep in one bed with all sacks and thing over the top of us, anything pawnable was in the pawn shop. We had a couple of brooms and he came in one night with an old tin lamp with a hole in the back to hang it on the wall and he'd got a broom in his hand. Mother didn't like the look in his eye so she said "Where're you going with that?" He said,"We're going to move." "We're not going to move, "she said. "Yes we are, "he said, "I'm going to sweep up a bit. " So with that he goes out carrying the lamp and the broom. The door goes bang and the next we heard they'd picked him up and taken him away. This was the second time. During the time he was in Claybury we moved over to Plaistow Broadway.
There's a little church called St Mary's right down the end of Green St as you come to the Broadway. It was a little old church'd been there donkeys years and we used to go there and play Romans and English with the other kids. It was Romans, not Russians, in those days. We were the Roman soldiers and the others were the English. The English always used to win so we wanted to be the English.
There used to be a shop on the corner where you could go and buy a farthing packet of sugar or tea, cocoa or milk. You could get a loaf for a penny or three-farthings. One of the things we used to do was go down to Price's. They had a place down there where they used to bake bread. We used to take a rag and a halfpenny and mother'd say go and buy some broken bread. When we got there it didn't matter how big the rag was. When they were baking it was cottage loafs and the tops would come off so they couldn't sell them in the shop so they'd bung them in the rag. We'd have enough bread in there to last us a while. It used to get hard, but there's a cure for that. When it got so hard you couldn't cut it we made kettle broth. Kettle broth was crumbled bread in a cup with hot water poured on top of it and a bit of pepper - and salt if you had any. That's what we ate.
We only lived in a couple of rooms downstairs in the house. I used to forage around for boxes down Green St market. I'd smash the sides out of one and use it like a float to drag a dozen or so home behind me. Then we'd burn them to cook and Keep warm. If you had any money you could get seven pound of coal for about tuppence, you could just about light a fire wlth that. But that's how rich you wasn't. If you'd ordered fourteen pounds they were so struck with the large order they'd lend you a trolley to get it home. When the coal-cart came around he never had- anything on there over half a hundredweight. Most people'd buy a quarter-hundredweight - if anyone bought more everyone'd think they were rich, like the aristocracy strayed into the wrong district!
While dad'd been away mother'd had a row with the woman upstairs and her husband had hit her. So when dad came home, me, I told him. It turned out I couldn've done anything worse although I didn't know it at the time. Downstairs he went, into the kitchen - it was upstairs we lived then. Terrifically strong he was, and the last one to get upset. My uncle was a booth fighter, he used to go around taking on all the yokels and anyone who lasted three rounds got five pounds off the govener. Well you had to be pretty tough to knock people out In three rounds because if you couldn't you'd get the sack. The point was they used to tell father to go and do it and he used to say, "I'll do my fighting when it's necessary". When I told him he walked downstairs into the kitchen, picked the bloke up out of the chair and crash, knocked him as flat as a pancake. That didn't do him any good.
A couple of days later he went back to where he was before they let him out. They came and took him away again. During that time we moved again. I'd been to every school in Newham. Now we were in Abbey Lane right opposite Three Mills School - Mother knows that, she worked there. We lived in the second house along the road and on the corner there was a shop that sold wire traps for birds, rats, mice and all the rest of it. A favourite trap the kids used to buy was one that opened with two half-circular jaws. They'd open it up with bait in the middle, put it in the road and cover it with dirt. When the sparrow landed on it the jaws'd close and catch it. I couldn't tell you why they did it - I never used to get up to such capers.
Later on I used to catch rats and I took some up the town hall and won a medal, but this is earlier, when Father was still alive. The last time they took Father away Mother used to go and visit him and tell me what he was dike. He used to sit there tearing up bits of paper and chucking it up in the air. If she took him anything he'd say,"I don't want that Liz, I had it yesterday." But he hadn't had it yesterday because no-one had been there. He wasn't violent or anything. They used to keep them in padded cells and they always said to Mother that she was the lady who got the crockery sorted out. The cups and saucers was rotten and the visitors could buy tea. She complained about the state of the crockery and the next time she went they were clean.
Well she came home on a Saturday and said,"Your Father'll be home Monday, John, he's all right." Monday morning five. o'clock there was a rat-tat-tat on the door and this piercing scream to go right through you. It was a telegram to say that they regretted that her husband had passed away. He'd died in Goodmayes. that was when I was six. George was four a and Albert was just a baby. I did have a brother, Arthur, between Albert and George but he'd died - I don't know what of, starvation most likely. That's what was happening.
My family came down from Manchester. A lot of our name lived up there. Of course there were a lot of girls. I had three aunts there, one married Pickup, one married Leach, and one married Cummings. They came down here for the funeral. There was plenty of room to bury him. They brought him home, the coaches were outside to pick everyone up and they cart him out to Chingford Mount and buried him out there. I didn't go, I stopped at home. Of course I got money off my aunts although I'd never seen them before.
Grandmother used to send us something at Christmas - mostly it used to be a horn like a cowhorn, and it was hollow and it used to be filled up with chocolates. Apparently, she used to live down Abbey Lane and my Grandfather was 84 when he died. An iron-grey man he was, upright. And he used to work in Bell's the match factory. Well they had this funeral, went to Chingford Mount and took all day getting there and back again. I remember my aunt louie, the eldest one, taking me up to the top and buying me some sweets holding my hand. Then they went back home and the only time I ever saw them again was when they came down for the funeral of my uncle Jim, which was the youngest one of the lot - the youngest brother. My father had six-seven brothers. They were all in the 14-18 war and the young one, Ted, got killed but the others lived through it. One of them went down to Wales, to Port Talbot, changed his name to Williams and tenet digging coal. Another one came up to London and lodged with Albert.
Before father died we got chucked out and we slept by the side of the cut. The cut at Abbey Lane used to lead right down to the football ground. That was mother and us three kids. Right opposite was the Abbey Lane workhouse - but only for children - and of course we knew we'd have to go in. The adults had to go into Langly House. I can remember that you could look over the pailings at the top of Abbey Lane and look down into like a courtyard and there was a boy in there the same time as me who chopped his finger off chopping wood on a block. We had to go in there because father was out of work.
I used to go to Three Mills School about then and they used to give you free meals. The thing about those days was that they didn't expect you to eat in the holidays or at weekends, only on schooldays you'd get a ticket for breakfast and a ticket for dinner. They used to expect you to fast or get manna down from heaven or something. The first few times I was in the workhouse I wasn't in long. When you went in they used to scrub you up in case you was lousy. But I wasn't - just dirty and hungry! Some of the workhouses were better than others and I was in all of them at one time or another.
The kids and the adults used to be kept in seperate workhouses and sometimes mother'd be out when I was in the workhouse. Then she'd get us out when she got a job. While I was in they used to take us down in a sort of black maria - although there weren't many visits I used to make because I'd hop it out of it - and all the women used to be lined up out of the workhouse with a white mop-cap and a blue pinny on. The kids would sit at a big wooden tressle table with the women and my mother used to give her fruit she'd saved for me. My two brothers never used to go there at the same time, I don't know why, they were kept in a different place to me.
When mother got us out we moved into a place down the first turning along Abbey Lane. That was where we were when dad started to carry the lamp about. When he went away we was out again and back into the workhouses. The minuet you couldn't pay the rent you was out. We never had any furnature, just orange boxes. Nor for grub, then. When father was about he'd stop out for two or three days at a time and try and get jobs wherever he could. One morning after being out for a few days he came home and said to mother, "get up and light the fire, Liz, and we'll have some breakfast." So she said,"We haven't got any money," and he said, "Look under that newspaper". This was the sort of game he used to like to play, and when mother lifted up the newspaper on top of the orange box she found 15 shillings under there. He'd been out working on the fish barges - practically night and day, I'd imagine, for 15/-.
The next time he was out they came and told us he'd been picked up again for holding up the traffic in Stratford Broadway and he'd been taken to Goodmayes. Father was a six-footer, and strong as a lion. He could pick you up in one hand. Blue eyes, fair hair, mustache. He was in the Royal Fusaliers at some point, I can remember the picture of a bomb in their hat-badge. Before mother got married again we didn't see too much of her. She'd be working during the day and, later, she'd stop out courting my stepfather. Well, we lived then down Bickerstaff Rd. During that time we were in and out of the workhouse and moving every few months because we had trouble paying the rent. It must've been a year or so after father died that she started courting. This is where the trouble started. We used to sleep just inside a bay window and there was no glass in this window, just brown paper. Mother used to reach in and shake me awake and I used to get up and go and open the door.
The room we occupied then was the first room you walked into as you went into the house. From there we moved back down to Abbey Lane. With mother out till late we used to sit up the passage and watch the rain pouring down, freezing cold, and there were people in the room just along by us - in a warm room, with lights on - and there was us three kids sitting up the passage. I was about eight then. And they never came out and gave us a cup of tea or anything. Upstairs, we never had a penny for the gas, no fire, no light, no food, no nothing. We'd just sit there and wait for her to come home. I used to lay there at night watching the rain belting past the lamp-post and in the distance I could hear the train and it sounded like a banshee in the night a long way away. When she came in we'd put a penny in the gas, although we couldn't afford a mantle. Just a flame fit to burn the ceiling down before you got enough light.
Then we moved again, to Handcock Rd, Bromley-by-Bow. The house we occupied was right next door to the beer shop. Downstairs there was a family named Fry. She used to ask her to go and get errands for her. Well steak was 3d or 4d a pound and she'd say, "fourpenny steak," because she'd got to have the best. Of course I used to pay 3d for a pound of that and keep the other penny. Necessity is a funny thing what it'll make you do.
Then mother got remarried. When he started I was the main target, being the eldest. I used to go to St Leonard's Rd School and I used to get iron knives to sharpen or clean. He used to get blind drunk and he hated me because he couldn't get his own way with me. He used to come home blind drunk, knock my mother about - smash her teeth and face in, black her eyes. The times she went to went to her sister's and got separations... then she go back to him again. This went on until I joined the army and for all I know It went on then. But I was the main target because as he knocked her about I'd break all the crockery chucking it at him. If I could get near I'd stick knives and forks in him. Of course I'd have to make sure he didn't catch hold of me because if he did it was my turn.
Well I used to like playing football in the street with a tin can or a ball of rag, whatever I could get, and I said one morning, "I'm going to play football, mum." That was for St Leonard's Rd. And she said, "Take him his cup of tea." I said, "No, I'm not taking him in no cup of tea," because I knew what'd happen. "Go on," she said, so just to please her I took in this cup of tea and said I'm going to go and play football for the school today. "You ain't gonna play for no effing school," he said. "I am!" I said, and with that the cup and the saucer and the tea shot at him, still in bed, and out I went. I played for the school. When I got home I got a bashing and after this bashing he went up the top. Of course I knew he was going to come home blind drunk. I used to creep out into the kitchen when he was out and mother'd give us a piece of bread to eat and then retreat into the bedroom.
When he came home that night he must've been paralytic and the first thing he sets about my mother. So after I'd done what I could to injure him I shot in the bedroom and pushed the bed up against the door and got the other two kids to sit on it with me. Then he came and bashed the door down and I had to drop out the window to the back yard. We never used to lock any yard or front doors at night - we never had nothing to pinch, and we had to go outside to the lavatory. Anyway, the door came down and I went with it and fetched a copper. I don't know whether they fined him or give a lecture or what but mother summonsed him. My aunts came down and they went to her sister's with her. She had a terrible life. When they were separated we were starving but it was heaven - he wasn't there. [end of tape]
|The above transcript was taken from the first recording, made on one side of a cassette tape. The following is a transcript from the second side of the same cassette. Both recordings were made in April 1983.|
I was in a station at Templemore, County Tiparary. I was in the Northampton Regiment, and I was only about 16 then - or a little bit more. I was detailed with a lance-corporal named Pettit to take dispatches to a place called Limerick which was the army headquarters. So they dished this out in the stores – they gave us half a loaf and a lump of cheese – and they dished you up with what they called a Martin Henry in the Army, which was a suit that fitted everyone. It was a mustard-coloured affair and if you got safety-pins and all sorts of things you could make it fit everybody. Well there was me in this, with my cloth cap and half a loaf and lump of cheese in my pocket. They issued me with a Webley. They fired a round as big as a cotton reel, so I gets this in me pocket, and half a dozen shells. Down the station we goes and boarded the train. it was full up with Irishmen with their upside-down pipes sitting around in the coach. They were looking at us and they knew exactly who we was ‘cos we had army boots and socks on – so you can tell how well disguised we was. They’re all looking at us and my hand was on my cannon. But if I’d pulled the trigger the train would have come off the line! That’s the kind of report it had – it would have stopped an elephant if it was charging, it would.
We finally got to Limerick and the sergeant said, “What you got to eat?”. They used to call me ‘skinny’ in the Army. And I said, well, we’ve got the cheese and a lump of bread. And he said, “Well, chuck that away. I can take you somewhere while you’re here and feed you up as you looks like you could do with it.” Anyway we had a good old stew and we came back again. We didn’t have any bother, but it was like being one of these ‘under cover men’ on that particular journey[laughed] .
[Q] Before you joined the Army did you life go on as you’ve described before wrt your stepfather, etc?
[A] Yes! Until I got fourteen there used to be murders in that house, and we moved all round the show. I went to nearly every school in Newham including the ones that are now out of existence such as Channelsea and of course Salway Rd school, alsoCarpenters Rd I don’t think exists any more, and of course all the rest of ‘em from Bromly-by-Bow by the Seven Stars Old Palace to St Leonards Rd further down. Then coming down to Stratford, went to Three Mills and Abbey Lane.
[Q] When you joined the Army you were very young, weren’t you?
[A} Yup. I joined in 1920. I walked to Worley first. I thought I’d get out of all this bashing and crashing. First of all I had to work, first. At fourteen I used to roam around and get a job, easy. They used to leave a card outside. I’d take in the card in and say, “Want a boy, sir?” The first job I had was for Benjamin Hotine in Leadenhall St. He dealt in turkeys and poultry. Oh, no - it wasn’t – the first one I had was at Lusties at Bow. I had the job of cleaning the edges off... y’know the machines cut the edges off the planks as it went through. They was piecework but I was getting ordinary money. I was expected to move like a racehorse to keep the grooves clear so the machines could get about with this. They might give me tuppence at the end of the week but...
[Q} How old were you then?
[A] I’d just left school, at 14. Got out of shorts – used to wear knickerbockers then, and I put on my first pair of long trousers that were made by my mate’s wife – who incidentally was a coloured, he was a negro. Although he was and Englishman, actually. His mother was a negro, his father was white. I used to go around their house and she used to give me bread and butter, whatever they had. He was my first mate – darkie Pearson – you’ve heard me talk of him. First pair of long trousers I’d ever had, and that’s where they came from. I got this job Benjamine Hotine and I thought I’d got these ducks and chickens all around me. Of course I thought, “We’ll have this duck”. So I puts this duck out and hides it. When it comes to time to go home I gets it out. Course at that particular time the Metropolitan station at Aldgate and the Aldgate East station were separate. You had to get out at one station and walk to the other one, not run like you do now.
I came down to there and I passed Aldgate station itself and I got to Aldgate East. I used to live at Plaistow then, Marker St. And course, I thought, this duck don’t half smell, I thought it must be bad, see. So it’d been raining and on the other side was the Minories and we used to call it the Haymarket on one corner and the pub on the other. So anyway I gets this duck out and skates it – and I can still see it – you know how a stone skates across the top of a pond? Just how this duck slid across the top of this rainy road. And in those particular days they used to have the tram island out in the middle of the road. The trams used to stop out in the middle of the road. If you want to get on one you had to risk getting run over, running out to get on the tram! Never had the idea that might ought to put the trams by the kerb where the people was. You’d got to run out. The conductor either held the people up or if he didn’t feel like it, he didn’t! Course when I got home and told Mother about it “I dunno”, she said, “There was nothing a matter with that, it was alright”.
The rows and fights were still going on, and I worked there for a time and I got home and there was no grub, there was murders all night long, no sleep, no proper meals. I got fed up with that. I thought I got to work anyway. Previous to that I had a job working for the City of London Corporation. Now, you had to run after horses and clear up after them, clear up all their muck, dump it in bins. The first depot I went to was at Stoney Lane – down Pettycoat Lane, down there. I was on the Minories cleaning up, and I’d cleaned it all up and was sitting on me scoop out beside the bin where you chucked it. And I had a bloke, the foreman, come round and I heard him say, “Oh this is where you lay and waste your time”. I said, “I don’t waste any time. If I wasted time the road wouldn’t be as clean as this, would it? It did’t do itself, did it?” I was quick on the uptake when I was young. Anyone who tried to come the old acid... I said “I tell you something else, I’ve left. So I can say what I like now. You can’t give me the sack because I’ve left.” So down the depot I goes and he says “Well, you can work on for a little while”. I said “I ain’t gonna work on for no little while.” But he wasn’t too bad. So I went to another depot, at Upper Thames St. Now, one of the beats at Upper Thames St was on the Billingsgate Fish Market, see, where they used to start at 3 o’clock in the morning. I worked there and caught the train out of Plaistow to get down there and open up at 3 o’clock. First train out, it was. Anyway I used to go around and it used to grieve me to see the stuff chucked away.
So I used to maunder around the market on the scrounge and if I could find fish – didn’t matter what it was – herrings or bream or haddock, they had it all. I used to get hold of what I could, but I couldn’t take it home. So one day I was going round and Swain – the governor – he was there and he’d got a straw hat on with a white overall. All the stuff they had on show they used to throw away afterward – not sell it! Because if anyone bought anything they’d give the porter a ticket and tell the customer to go along with him. He’d take a case and put it on his cart. So he said, “How’d you like to work for me, son?” I said, “How much?” which was the main article in my time, me being the chief wage-earner. He said, “I’ll start you on twenty-five bob.” Twenty-five bob! I couldn’t believe my ears. I wouldn’t let on, though. I’d only been getting fifteen. The dockers were only getting about nine bob if they got called on. The bloke downstairs from me only worked two days a week and couldn’t get enough to keep his family! Twenty-five bob, and that man was a smasher as a governor. I used to go home to his house and take fish to his wife. Shepherds Bush, he lived. Knocked at the door, the maid would open the door. In I’d go, and they’d feed me up on tea and cakes. I got quite one of the family, real concern. I never told none of them about my griefs. When I got back I said to him, “When you chuck all that stuff away, is it alright for me to take some home?” He said, “Take the lot home”.
So I said, “have you got any bags I can put ‘em in?” So he said, “No, we don’t exactly stock bags, but I’ll tell you where you can get some. You go over to the dry fish market”. That’s where they’d got the crabs and prawns and winkles, the wet fish market is where the herrings and that were. I went over there and saw Mr Searl, I think his name was, and said, “Mr Swain says I can ask you if you’ve got a couple of straw bags to let me have.” He said, “You don’t want anything else? No fish or nothing?” “Well, no", I said, “but to be honest – I do!” He said, “What would you like?” I didn’t like the look of the crabs and lobsters, so I said, “I’ll have a load of prawns, I think for a start.” He said, “What do you mean, ‘for a start’?” “Well, if I don’t like them I can start on something else, can’t I!” So he said, “What’d you like?” “I’m used to winkles and shrimps, I’ll have some of them”, I said. I had some and when I went back I gave Mr Swain the bags and told him I’d been asked if he wanted anything. He said, “I wanted a lobster, and I forgot to tell you.” So I went over and said, “Mr Swain said he wants a lobster, and he said, ‘Do you want anything?’”, ’cos that’s how they used to do it to one another. But he said, that’s alright, see you tomorrow. See, they was decent people, they was. I cried when I left that job, but I had to at the finish.
Anyway I went back and had these two bags, and home I used to go. I used to take home the best parts of the fish, what they used to chuck away! Course the old tramps used to live in lodgings houses around there and they used to come round, y’know, they know what was chucked away and it where they used to get their grub, poor sods. Got no home, no nothing. Its not much better now with some of them, the lodging houses and the Salvation Army are all full up with ‘em.
I used to get fish every day. Whatever I wanted I could take. One day I couldn’t get any bags. So I thought, how am I gonna do this? I had an old coat I used to work in. So I got my coat, ties the sleeves up and I poked in there herrings and bream and cod and all sorts of capers as I could get hold of – filled it up with sprats, kippers sticking out of the pockets, cos they was flat-like. Down I goes and I gets ‘em on the underground, like, and home I goes with a drop of water coming out of them, nothing much to notice, see.
Well they come a day then – they was a real smashing firm to work for, but I got home and every night the same, murders! He used to come home blind drunk. He was a drunken monster, he was, it’s all you can call ‘im. Murders used to go on, and you couldn’t get in the kitchen to get any grub. Mum used to try and sneak into the bedroom. Course, he knew I was in there and we got the same old bashing in the door. Cups are flying about.
One day when I went in, I said I’d take some fish home, but I aint’ got anything to take it home in and I fancied half a case of whiting and it was in the box. So said, I could take the box. I drags it along until I got to Marks Lane underground and traipsed it down the stairs and onto the tube. Stands it up in the corner. The ice and all that was melting and running all over the floor. Well I had to use my coat at this time because before I got to Bow Rd it the ice was running out, everywhere was flooding and everybody was looking. I took my coat off and tied up the sleeves and bunged as much up as I could get in and chucked the box out on the line! I was that young that I didn’t know I could have done a lot of damage with that box on the underground line. Anyway, I got them home.
After a while it got so bad, well I said that I’d have to leave, so of course, I left. I was out of work for a couple of days I suppose. It was because of the life at home. I had no sleep, no food. I had to be up at about half past 12 – well, you wouldn’t call that getting up, would you, to catch the twenty-past-one train out of Plaistow. The market used to be open at 3 o’clock and there was no motors then. It all used to come up by rail. The railways was separate at that time, and our stuff used to come down from Fleet. Swain had his own boats as well. The railway vans was waiting for us when we got there. The people – the tradesmen – used to be down that market, buy their fish, and open their shops up at 8 o’clock or before that, some of them. I used to finish about half-past-nine – I might have to run a couple of errands or take something [to Swain’s] home in Shepards Bush. He’d say “there’s the money” – the fare – and I might get home half-past-ten or eleven. I hadn’t got to get up until half-past-twelve. But you can’t sleep in the day. First there’s the row outside for a start, and then him, in there, and after he’d been up the pub, he’d come home. This used to keep going on until it was time to go to work, I just couldn’t stick it. I’d had enough of that. That’s why I left it. It was a matter of compulsion.
The next job I got was Bishop’s. Where I was in St Batholomews Hospital [in the 1970s] I could look out the window from where I was in the ward and see the place where I used to work. A little alleyway there and their was a firm there called Bishop’s. They used to make tin boxes, barometers, and clinical thermometers. And they also used to repair siphons – the things you squirt into wallop. There was a card outside and I walked in – Mr Homes – he said, “Yes, son, you can come and start with me.” I said, “And the money, sir?” “Well, I think I can pay you twenty-two shillings”, which wasn’t much of a drop. I always used to give mother the most I used to keep a dollar and give her a pound. That was money, then. But she needed it for herself and the others... Oh no, a pound a week it was he gave me, not twenty-two bob. They was a good firm, there was only about ten or a dozen worked there. The foreman, the under-foreman and his daughter used to work the office, and the typist – she was a great girl she was, my idea of a lady. She was about twenty or twenty-two. I used to work there and they’d treat you like one of their own.
My job was to take out and deliver the stuff, what they made. I used to go to the Victoria Wine company and bring back a load of siphons what needed repair. They wouldn’t squirt, y’see. Or I’d take out a load of thermometers to Moreson and Sons, Aldgate St. The hospitals used to have them, to deliver them to the hospitals. And the barometers to different places. Used to go right up in the West End – all over the place. On a trike. Used to come down Holborn Hill with my feet stuck on the top of the bar, and get down the bottom and Gamages used to be there. As you come down Holborn Hill... all right going up – I used to look to see if there was a cart and horse about. If there was I’d wait for it to come and get hold of a chain and get pulled up the hill, see?
Past Greys Inn Rd down to Bartholomews. But coming back I used to get down to Holborn Hill and go down about hundred miles an hour. You got a sharp left hand turn at the bottom and turn into Hatton Gardens and from Hatton Gardens I could work my way though Charles St. Cut across Farringdon St into Bartholomew Close – its only round the back of it. I knew all the ways. Got down the road and up the kerb I used to go. Crash! Straight into the railings. The trike used to be in repairs for about three weeks. Rapids, it was, in Glazing Rd. I used to take it in there and say, “Had a mishap”. They used to say, “Looks a bit of a mishap!”.
And after I’d done my journey I’d have a comic and I’d sit on that saddle reading and all of a sudden a voice behind me’d say, “Oh, this is where you do the work, is it?” I’d look round and – I don’t know her [first] name, I called her Miss Holmes. I’ve done me work, I’d say, I’ve got time to peruse this comic. “I suspect you has”, she said, “you’re perusing it, by the look of it. Let me have a peruse”. So I’d let her sit on the saddle and she’d say, “I suppose it’s last week’s”.
“It ain’t, it’s this week’s”, I’d say, “I wouldn’t have last week’s, I’ve read that already.” ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Chuckles’, you know. She never told her old man or anything. No matter if she did. Her old man was a gentleman and all. Well I hadn’t been there very long, and I got a Christmas box, they doubled my wages. Well a pound was a load of money then. Y’see, he didn’t give me tuppence, he gave me a pound. So I had two pound to draw as a Christmas box. Chap named Brown - called him lighty Brown – he lived at Tottingham, he said to me, “Why don’t you come to watch Tottingham?” “Nah”, I said, “I wanna watch West Ham”. “They’re playing away next week”, he said, “why don’t you come and watch Tottingham? Me Mum’ll give you a bit of grub.”
He had one of those houses what we had over the back, and we went there. The pitch wasn’t far away at White Hart Lane. His mother gave us a feed and we went to Tottingham. Now one of the blokes in the firm used to do bets on the pool – the odds for picking out so many teams – and he picked out a team to get the highest score and it was Tottingham Hotspur. So that was one of the reasons I went. They won six-none. They beat Lincoln City, I’ll never forget this, six-none. And you know what, they could have had sixty-six! They were passing it in front of the goal. When I got home the team that we’d backed with that man – Douglas his name was, ‘Dougie never owes’ was his motto – it was Tottingham we picked. And I’d watched them chuck it away – another team – Bradford City – had got six as well. So although we wrote to ‘Sporting Life’ they said it has to be absolute top score and unfortunately Bradford City got the same. So we got nuffing. And I’d watched Tottingham Hotspur passing it on the goal line where they could just as well have kicked it in. This must have been around 1920, or 1919.
The next job I had was I worked for a meat hockey and I used to take the meat around to the hotels for the staff. I’d changed job for the same thing – the life at home, no grub, no sleep. I was made of iron, I could stick anything, but it was getting me down it was. That was what made me decide to join the army.
Oh! I worked for Bryant and Mays – another lot, and this was the same sort of lot – y’know, casual work, humping this, and doing that. They used to issue vouchers like ha’penny tickets and you could get a cup of tea and so many biscuits, like lunchtime for these. They was a sort of subsidized. I worked there for a time. Well, I chucked that up as well. I was working for Holmes, I think , when I finished. I had a couple of other firms but I can’t remember them. Anyway, I decided to join the Army so I marched down to Sorely [?] and the bloke said, “How old are yer?” I said, eighteen. I wasn’t eighteen and he knew it. He said, “Well, got your Father’s permission?” “Yes”, I said. So he said, “Well, make sure. You go home and ask your Father.” He made me out a return warrant Sorely to Plaistow – I lived in Marker St, see. Yes, they’d finished the war in Marker St and I took part in the tea party down there. Y’know they had barrel organs and that out in the street. Set fire to the barrels they go down from Frence’s at the top of the street. They were rolling them down the street and making big bonfires on the Armistice Night. I lived down there so that’s the time it was.
I went home and told Mum I’d joined the Army. Course, the next day I went. He said, “What regiment you want to go in?” “I dunno. What regiments are there?” He started to read ’em out Northumberlands, Durham, Sussex, Somerset, Highland Infantry, Duke O’York’s, and he went all round the block, until he got to the Northamptons. I’d never heard of this. I’d heard of most of the others, but I’d never heard of the Northhamptons. So I thought, “That’s a long way away”. What I wanted really was a ride out in the country to see how the periwinkles grew on stalks. That’s what the kids reckoned in London, that winkles grew on stalks in the country! [Laughs] Course, it’s only a hour’s run out of Euston to Castle St, Northampton. But the remarkable thing about this was – I left it as long as I could and I told Mum before I decided to go – and when I went... When I got out of Castle St station I’d been there before! And I’d never been in that place, not as I know of, I’d never been there before. Y’know I recognised buildings and I made my way to that depot as if I knew the place. By then it was getting dark, late at night. And I walked down the High St – depot was in the High St, actually – there’s trams run by. But I made me way down the depot, and the bloke was on guard – he didn’t have a rifle, not in town, he had a stick, like down at the gate. “Northhampton regiment, mate?” and he said, “Yes, come in.” And I had to report to the sergeant, I did. He said, “There’s the bungalow, over there , where all the newly enlisted men go. Are you joining? See who’s up there and get yourself a bed tonight.” Course, that’s what I did. That’s how I come to join it. Then had about three months training and out I went, stationed, chasing the Irish around.
I joined for “nine and three”. Nine years service, three for the colours – three years reserve. That was a boy’s contract. Now where they made a muck-up is I should have been treated as a boy soldier. Although as he accepted me as eighteen it should have been ‘seven and five’. But when I got there I was treated as a man, not a boy. I was on a man’s pay straight away. I could have gone in a band or anywhere. But I’d got a boy’s contract.
Later on I got up the barrack room, just enlisted men up there it was. We’d done one or two parades. You go downstairs, and get fitted out with kit and the rest of it from the stores and draw everything out. One day it was belting down with rain – well if they wanted you to go on no parades they’d sound ‘no parades today’, see. So, of course, you wouldn’t go out. But if they didn’t think it was raining hard enough they’d blow ‘overcoats’, see, on the bugle. Well they blew ‘overcoats’ and it was belting down with rain. I though, “I ain’t going out in that!’. And when I saw one or two of ‘em getting ready to go out I said, “You must be a load of mugs, going out in that! You wouldn’t get me out in that. You want to go out and get wet, that’s up to you.” They said, “We’ll get in trouble if we don’t”, and I said, “I can’t help about that, I’m gonna get in trouble anyway!” So of course, they all went, bar me. There was a little tiny sergeant-major come up. I didn’t know him then, they called him ‘pea-head’. Matter of fact he was made up on the field, he was a great guy, he was. Only a little bloke. He come and sat on the side of the bed, and he said, “Y’know, Lesoof,” – he used to call me ‘Lesoof’ – “if there was a war on they could shoot you for mutiny.” So I said, “Glad there ain’t any war on.” ‘Cos I ain’t fell in. He said, “Not only have you decided not to go on parade, you’ve been telling other people not to. That’s incitement to mutiny.”
I said, “Well, I wasn’t trying to incite anybody to mutiny. I was just telling ‘em I wasn’t going to go out in the rain and get drownded!” [laughs] Course, Army rules and regulations, they’ve a code of their own. He spoke to me like a mother and father, and these is things you mustn’t do, he said, because you’ll get more trouble than you’ll ask for for this. So I finally come round. If he come in there bawling and blinding I’d have told him to eff off. But he spoke to me just like a father would, or better. I got on alright because I got to thinking – if he can so it, so can I. I wasn’t so good at it but I knew time’d take care of that. I said to him – do you know what, sir, this is the first time I’ve ever had a suit the same colour. I had red jersey and knickers and a blue ribbon in the workhouse. Get a blue ribbon all the week – that’s the Tory party – and on Sundays where you go to church they give you a bit of red ribbon with a rubber collar. Bow in the front. I was in a place called Savage Gardens, incidentally, when I was in the workhouse. Gotta go back for this. Everybody had a job, there was about 14 kids in the hutch, and first job was cleaning windows outside. And this old cow she used to find fault about how I hadn’t done the corners. I had a pair of steps, doing the corners. And it was in the winter, mind yer, so I thought I’d get off of this job. So I shoves the steps over, lays on the ground, hollers and hoots as if I’ve been murdered. She comes rushing out and says, “You clumsy lout”
Now if anyone’d given me a kind word I’d probably’ve cried or something like that, but anyway, she called me a clumsy lout and said, “I can’t trust yer to do anything, and if I leave you on it you’ll most probably get injured and I shall get the blame. I gotta take you off that job.” So the bloke who was doing the ‘taters – or the spuds in the vernacular – he used to leave the eyes in. So she said, “Well, I’ll put you on peeling the potatoes, ‘cos he don’t take the eyes out.” Well I took the eyes out, but there wasn’t no spud left by the time I got though with it, so I got the chuck off of that! Then she shoves me on another job that I liked. Well you imagine 14 kids in the winter, going though all the puddles they could find, and mud, and I’d got to clean their shoes. That’s my job. So I duffed up a few of ‘em. This was when I was about nine, about that.
When I was at Memby House, that was the best place I went to. I was going to school, then. That was prior to this. Anyway, she shoved me on cleaning the shoes but of course you couldn’t clean them properly – you couldn’t clean mud and that off – it wasn’t good enough for her. I knew it wasn’t gonna be. But she didn’t get the satisfaction of inspecting em because I put me own shoes on and about three o’clock in the morning, I departed, like. Stole away as the Egyptians say. So of course I stole away and went home to Mum and then said I’d go and see my Aunt now at Lowth. [?] Well they came straight over there ‘cos that was where I’d pretty much every time. There was always a welcome and feed over there. They used to go and answer the door, gives you courage to say the ‘man’s come’.
Well, prior to this leaving with the boots I’d always had a job earlier on and it was making the beds – no – beeswaxing the floor, galloping round with that. But we had to go to church every Sunday. There was a little church – dunno if it’s still there now – over Beckton Park, been there donkey’s years it had, top of Savage Gardens. And we had to go to Church every Sunday in the morning and in the afternoon. Well, I used to pump up the organ for the parson, see? He used to bring me sweets. So of course, one day he said, “Well, I haven’t got any sweets today, John. I’ll give you the money. Give me a penny. All the other kids was there. They come copper-eyed, y’know. And I thought I ain’t going home here for ‘em to nick the penny. I made my way round Cyprus Place – that’s on the way to what used to be the ferry. The road what led to it, they had sweet shops round there, and I bought myself a stick of Spanish, and ate it. By the time I got home, she wanted to know where I’d been. As if she didn’t know, ‘cos the other kids had told her. She cracks me on the head with a pudden spoon – y’know one of them wooden spoons. Hit me on the head with it and broke it! So I achieved a sort of notoriety – the boy whose head was harder than the porridge spoon, see?
Then I get sentenced to bed. Now, this, in my opinion is what they do to murders. Solitary confinement. They find the quietest part in the house. And all the windows was frosted, and the walls was yellow and green. I’ll always remember this lot. And there wasn’t a sound. Now they used to put you to bed after you’d done your work. And if you laid there, specially weekends, an able and alert-minded child – that’s purgatory. No books or anything, not a soul, can’t read or look at anything, just laid there. ‘Nuff to drive you barmy. But I didn’t get driv barmy. I had a few of these capers. She used to have her door open so she could hear, and on the table she used to have a load of fruit.
Bananas and grapes and all that, see. I got fearful ideas in me head, like, about these apples and grapes and that. They was annoying me, like. [laughs] I though I could move some of them. So about two or half-past two – they used to have a clock what used to chime – I got out of bed and crawled on my hands and knees round, up to the room. She was fast asleep. I sticks me hand up like, hoping, and I got a lot of grapes and a pear. I scarpers back and had a nosh-up. Then I went to the lavatory and washed the pear core down there, and the bits I got off the grapes. Made out I’d been to the lavatory. Course the war was going on and I used to have a map. I used to take the map in the lavatory and put the light on, bolt the door as if I was busy, and trace the map of the Allies as they was going across Europe in the war. Well, then it got to the boot episode and I departed.
Once at my Aunts, the bloke comes and back I goes. Previous to this I went into Langley House. It was from there that I went down to Hutton in Essex. Langly House was a good place. They was human beings in there. One great big fat woman with a red face. “Poor little sod”, she used to say to me. Took a fancy to me, used to bring me in bulls-eyes and them clover things – clove sweets. And I used to think the world of her. They made me up foreman, and I’d call out “quiet down there” if they was talking when it was time to go to sleep. She had her window here and her room backed into the dormitory. Anyway, they made me up looking after the dumb waiter that come up from the ground – pull the rope and up it come – and I was on it for the dinners and things like that. Funny enough I used to help myself – put lump of pudding up me shirt or a couple of spuds, anything like that ‘cos you never got enough grub. Although me brother was in there with me , George, at the same time. And they used to get us on the box, singing a duet. We couldn’t have been so bad at it because there was often encores.
At that particular time they brought down the first Zepplin at Billericky, Lt Leith of the Air Force he got over the top of this Zepplin and dropped a bomb on it, set it alight. Well, actually I was at home at that particular time and you could see ‘em jumping out because they never had any parachutes, they hadn’t got round to making them parachutes. Anyway we used to give ‘em this song and then I was on the dumb waiter and we’d get our spuds and that, and pudding. And I had a girl friend. Well, how I got this girl friend was I’d done something or other and they stood me up in the corner near the french windows. The back yard was round the side, so to speak, y’know you entered from the front – the main road – but the playground, asphalt, was on the side of the house. With a wall preventing you – if you’d wanted to scoot you could have got over the wall easy. I looked though the french windows, like, there was a bloke pulling her hair. Girl named Martha Roberts, never forgotten this. So I sailed out and I landed him a four’penny one – that was it. All the attendants rushed out. Course I was the cause of the trouble I was. No two ways about that. So I got stood up in the corner agin for an indefinite period. Anyway, I still had my job on this so when it finished I used to get the spuds, creep around the corner cos it went round in a half-moon shape, like, the playground. Go round the corner with Georgie and my girlfriend. We used to go and have a feed-up there. Well that was alright until they sent me down to Hutton in Essex, with that lot. They taught you everything there. They was doing bootmaking, how to plough a field and scatter, they grew all their own grub .
But they didn’t have – what shall we say, coaches or people that treat you like human beings. It was all like this ‘whip and whistle’ lark, see. And I was the last one to buckle down to that because I’d had worse than that at home. I was on a last doing something or other and I got such a bang around the ear that made me head sing. Ring like it was a lot of bells. So I just simply turned round and chucked the last at ‘im like hocky puck. Caught him in the ear’ole – wonder it didn’t knock his head off. Anyway, they held me down and they walloped the daylights out of me. One bloke said, “Frenchmen don’t cry”. I was crying, but this was with rage. If I’d’ve been as big as him I’d have strangled the lot of ‘em, I would. The end was the same as the other places – at night I ‘opped it and walked all the way home. When they took me back again they found me in my Aunt’s down Frith Rd as usual, where I used to go for a feed. ‘Cos Mother used to move all over the place and if I’d went to where she used to be, she wasn’t there. Same thing applied when I went in the army. ‘Cos I know the kind of capers he must have got up to when I went in the Army. It was worse than awful.
Anyway, I went home, went to me Aunt’s and the bloke come. Heard a knock at the door and she said to me, “There’s a bloke outside for you, John.” The man come in and she give him a cup of tea and all that. And he wasn’t a bad man. Mother sent me a letter and she put a penny stamp in it. Well they had a tuck shop as they calls it... [end of tape]