Jeanette Colgan


I was born in the west end of London. During WWII my family moved to Berkshire then in 1947, when I was 9, we moved back to the “Smoke”. We lived in Mersey Road and I went to Forest Road Junior School. Then we moved to Lloyd Road. and I went to Coppermill Secondary School.

Walthamstow in 1947 was a strange world for a kid from the country. There were big bomb sites on Forest Road and Blackhorse Road where we weren’t supposed to play but of course, we did. When I lived in Mersey Road, Lloyd’s Park was my stamping ground and I used to catch newts in the pond. I missed the country a lot but I could always go “up the Forest”.

Most things were still rationed, coal, furniture, bread, meat, fish & dairy products, sugar & products containing sugar. You couldn’t just go and get sweeties you had to get Mum to give you a ration book so that the shop-keeper could take a sugar coupon for the sweets.

The High Street was a seething mass of humanity on a Saturday. A crowd that sort of oozed up and down in haphazard streams. Little kids, hands held tightly by Mum’s, would be squished between grown-ups bums and couldn’t see a thing. Or they’d get lost in Woolworth’s. While the traders, each with their own vocal creations would sing out their wares from shops and stalls in an operatic cacophony.

There were always queues at the bakers where hot bread, buns, rolls smothered with poppy seed, French Squares, Eccles Cakes and Bakewell Tarts were purveyed by Rosin’s and Liszt in High Street, and Holdstocks in St James Street. Sainsbury’s the grocers, was popular for their Danish bacon, smoked or green, sliced to order from a side or gammon and their various varieties of fresh bulk butters. Bach’s the grocers was unique for the vat of Rollmops that stood just inside. They also sold hot Savaloy and Peas Pudding.

There was the Offal shop that sold tripe, organ meats and horse flesh for human consumption and the stall outside sold various meats for cats and dogs. Further up there was a shop that sold horse and whale steaks for humans too. The whale steaks looked dark red but the horsemeat seemed popular.
Bear in mind that meat and petrol were still rationed. Horses were on the wane but were still often used to deliver daily bread and milk round the streets and to cart heavy goods such as beer and coal. (I was bitten by a bloody great coal horse once on my way to school).

You could buy “hot roasted chestnuts” near Pretoria Ave. A bit up from Buxton Road you could buy a plate of cockles, whelks, winkles or jellied eels (yuk!) to eat on the spot or shrimps and prawns to eat as you moved with the crowd. Supplemented with rolls from the bakers and fruit from the stalls, that was the fast food of those days.
The High Street was alive with a pulse all it’s own, typically old London.
At first, my Dad, Len Colgan, a butcher, couldn’t get a job in his trade so he went to work for a friend, Connie (Cornelius) Paul, as a fruiterer and ran a stall in the High Street. His first pitch was outside of Marks & Spencer’s then he had a pitch, near the top, a little way down from Hoe Street, nearly opposite Cleveland Park Ave. Even though he was selling fruit, Dad was known on “The Street” as “Big Len the Butch”, to distinguish him from the other Len’s (he was known to be a butcher and he was a certainly heavier than the others). Many of the traders had street names.

In those days, I used to earn my pocket money early on Saturday mornings, by helping Dad load bushels of apples, pears, oranges etc. on to the stall at the shop at the corner of South Grove and Gosport Road. Then while he pulled, I’d push the stall all the way uphill passed the Carlton, the Palace, the Public Baths and the Library to the top of
High Street. There we would unload and while he setup the display for business, I’d go to get our breakfast from the cafe (bacon on a roll and a jug of tea).
Around noon my Mum, May (Maisey) would arrived with my little sister Carole. Then Mum would relieve Dad for lunch and I’d get my half-a-crown pay to take Carole with me to the pictures. We would go to The Empire at the Bell corner where we would watch the Saturday Matinee serials of Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and they threw in an old movie too, maybe a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or a gangster. All that for 9 pence or a shilling, if you went upstairs to the balcony (but I wasn’t rich so I didn’t splurge).

After a few years, my Dad moved back to his own trade and took over as manager of Ward & Sons, Butchers at 36 High Street. just down from Sainsbury’s.. It was a big, open-fronted shop with a large clientele. Dad had a staff of cutters, cashiers, apprentices and a Saturday staff which included my Mum and a butchers boy.

One day while Dad was in front of the shop at his block, engrossed in splitting a lambs carcase with a meat cleaver, he was approached from the rear by a certain Eric Horst who’s habit it was to intimidate the local trades people and demand “protection money”.

Events proceeded as follows and I’m quoting my Dad “Big Len the Butch”:- “I’m standing there with my chopper in my hand, I turn around to find this Ponce standing there with a hatchet . I looked at my chopper then I looked at him and told him to F*** off which he did, only to go 3 or 4 stalls up and bash poor George (George Orris) on the back of the nut without a word. When George put his hand up to protect his head the nutter hit him again and cut off one Georges fingers, then he Scapa’d. I shouted to Jess (the Cashier) to call the police and I picked up George’s finger, and put it on ice. Then they bunged him in a car and took him and his finger off to the Connaught (the hospital not the waters)”.

At Christmas the shop was stocked with all usual beef (fresh and salt), pork (fresh and cured), lamb and sausages in addition to fresh turkeys, geese, ducks, capons and the occasional pheasant. The place was pandemonium!.
Poultry was hung up undressed, meaning it was partially plucked but hadn’t been dressed. A customer had the option of buying a bird and taking it home to dress it themselves or they could order a “dressed bird”. Most dressing took place after closing time, it entailed finished plucking, complete evisceration, head, neck, feet and tendons removed. (Let me tell you, turkeys have bloody tough tendons.) The technique for removing them was to carefully disjoint the ankle, then tying the feet together with the twine looped over an S hook suspended from a high rail you grasped the body of the bird and pull down hard. With luck the feet came away with the tendons attached. The old hands made it look easy but if you mastered this trick as a novice, a mighty cheer went up. Today they refer to dressed poultry as “Oven Ready”.

Just round the corner from Wards was a short cut to The Prince of Wales, known to the locals as “The Artful” with reference to Dickens’s Artful Dodger. You could miss the pub entirely if you didn’t know it was there, hidden behind the Tollemache Brewery. It was here that Pat and Flo Merrison presided as Licensed Victuallers. This was where Dad and many of the High Street denizens “held court” and had their “lunch’.
I left for Canada in 1964 and by the mid 1960’s Dad had acquired his own shop, L. Colgan English Meats in the, then newly built, Arcade at Hoe Street and High Street. I saw the shop a couple of times. It was so small that the cold room was above the shop and you got to it via an iron spiral stair. To get the quarters of beef and sides of pork up and down Dad had an electric hoist installed. That was considered very high tech. then.

I hope that the photos of Mum and Dad flogging their meat bring back some happy memories to the people who knew the High Street between the late 1940’s and late 70’s.

The photos I include are of open-fronted butcher shops. A thing that certainly wouldn't be allowed today, so I guess they are museum shots.
Before the days of efficient shop display refrigeration, open-fronted shops were preferred by many butchers and fishmongers. Wasps and flies love fish and meat, but they would not settle on the food in the moving air of an open front. In the window displays of many closed–fronted butchers and fishmongers of the time you would see insects drowning in the effluence of the slabs.

Best wishes to all.

Jeanette COLGAN, Toronto, Canada. Feb. 2005


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