Michael Gilbey - A few Memories...


29-Oct-2010 : Hello John, I recently wrote the article below for my own blog website at http://mickmuses.wordpress.com As the subject matter also appears to be relevant to your website, I wondered if you might wish to fit it into an appropriate slot. I have added a few alternative definitions e.g. lifts (elevators) as my blog site probably attracts an international reader who may not always understand some of the words we use in the UK. Regards,

Michael GILBEY

Colin BUDGEY

Part 1

I suppose as the years fly by with the passage of time and the gap between our youth and the present lengthens even further, the sense of nostalgia within most of us grows stronger. A feeling of not necessarily returning to the "Good Old Days" which sometimes were not always that good in reality, but enjoying if we could, a short vacation back to times where we probably felt more comfortable with a society that we understood. For myself, Walthamstow in north-east London is where I spent my youth from the age of seven onwards. There was nothing really remarkable about post-war Walthamstow, in many ways it was probably similar to many other areas of London at the time. To me however, it was home.

We lived close to the High Street and its famous street market. A row of grand Georgian terraced houses lined what everyone called the top end of the market near Hoe Street. These houses abutted the ruined steel skeleton of a building on the Hoe Street junction, probably a shop, that I was told suffered war damage. The other end of the terrace ended with a North Thames Gas Board showroom, where we also paid our gas bills. The houses and Gas Board have long since gone to be replaced by a Post Office and shopping arcade which in turn have since been demolished. I always remember accompanying my mother when she went to the gas showroom to pay her bill. The moment one entered the building, a feeling of overpowering hallowed silence that would do a cathedral proud swept over one. Although there were no signs that I can recall with the word silence displayed anywhere, I always had a sense of foreboding that if I made the slightest noise, "I was for it". The payment section was in a dimly lit sub-basement and my mother would produce her gas bill wide enough to do a broadsheet newspaper proud. The information contained on the bill I never understood, I don't think anyone else did either. It was always printed in difficult to read faint blue ink which reminded me of hieroglyphics. My mother always found paying the bill a somewhat intimidating process.

The payment till was not you average shop till with pop-up price flags, it was a monstrous leviathan of a machine festooned with push buttons. The cashier pushed so many of these buttons that she appeared to be typing. The bill was placed on tray on the side of the machine which then burst into life with the whirling and clanking of internal gears rumbling inside. A final dull thud cut part of the bill off before stamping the word PAID in even fainter ink on the remaining remnant.

For a small boy, going to the street market was something of an adventure, the market stalls seemed to go on forever with crowds of people thronging everywhere. At my age, my head reached about waist height of adults making my event horizon limited through the milling crowds. Walking was not an option, it was more of a leg tiring shuffle all the way. The stall holders were real showmen as they called out or demonstrated their goods and wares, many were such good performers they could easily have appeared in vaudeville. The names of many have faded from my mind over the years, but their antics have not. Many of the traders were Jewish but with deep cockney accents. All of them gave more than good value and received more than their fair share of trade in return. I recall one trader that sold fresh-cut flowers. He would take one bunch at a time from a box with one hand and place them in an ever-growing floral display in the other hand containing at least eight bunches. He would shout out as he did so, "Dares Won, dares two" cockney vernacular for there is one, two etc. When he finished he would call out Who wants these and state some ridiculously low price. If there were no takers, he would make a show of smashing the lot to pieces against the side of his stall. He certainly knew what he was doing as the crowds would rapidly buy these huge bunches of flowers to stop him destroying them.

Another Jewish trader had a flat open stall full of bolts of cloth by the dozen. Crowds of women always hovered around this stall in the same way they seem to congregate around handbag stalls. Making clothes at home was still popular as well as a necessity for some time after the war. The cloth on the stall was good quality and always cheap compared to elsewhere. If a lady wanted say five yards of cloth, the stall holder would unravel the particular bolt and held it on edge between the fingertips of his outstretched arms. He did not bother with rulers or tape measures as he took the distance between his fingertips to be a yard of measurement. Again this trader called out aloud the traditional Dares Won, Dares two, (yards), until he completed the order, then he would go on to shout out, "and there is another one, two, three yards for luck. Judging by the amount of business he did, this trader certainly knew what he was doing.

Possibly the most amazing stunt I ever saw was by two traders who sold china ware on a bombsite that was situated in Willow Walk behind shops. These two would sell complete eight piece dinner services including a large meat dish. As one trader called out prices Dutch auction style where the price gets lower each time the trader announced it, his partner would stack the entire dinner service in an intricate butterfly style using the meat dish as a base. When he was ready, the trader would throw the entire dinner service into the air and catch it still stacked in exactly the same way as it fell back down. I never once saw any of the china get broken.

Probably the most fascinating stall for young children was located outside Manzes Eel and Pie shop. Here they sold live eels which slivered around in metal trays on the stall and were graded by price and size. When a customer ordered live eels, the trader would wield an evil-looking knife and chop off the head of the eel on a wooden chopping block. Two deft flicks of the wrist later and the eel was sliced up the belly and gutted before being chopped into sections. What kept us kids agog was the way the sections of eel would still continue to wriggle in unison even though the eel was no longer part of this world. I often wonder: were we really such bloodthirsty little tykes or is this just the type of thing that fascinates all kids?

My last favourite shop was an ice cream parlour names Rossi's. It was such a welcome place to be taken on a hot summers day by our mother and the ice cream was out of this world. The Rossi's menu included ice cream sodas, banana boats and much more. The supreme item on the menu was a Knickerbockerglory. My mother could never afford to buy one and we used to look enviously the children of more affluent parents as they relished this utopia of ice cream concoctions.

My mother belonged to a Christmas club run by a butchers in the High Street. Each week she would put a few shillings into the club so that when Christmas came, we could enjoy a chicken for our Christmas dinner. It seems hard to believe now with the abundance of chickens in supermarkets or take away food establishments that we should save up for a chicken instead of a turkey for Christmas. However, for quite a few years after the war, chicken was considered a luxury and there were very few of them to be bought during the year. The price of turkey was prohibitive and I never tasted turkey until I was about 14 years old. Chicken was a once a year only treat. My mother would bring the chicken home a few days before Christmas as it was deeply frozen and needed to thaw. Again this was something of a novelty for us children as no one had fridges at that time let alone freezers. To touch something that was ice-cold and hard was a new experience and when our mother was not watching, we all used to secretly prod it to see if the chicken was thawing out.

One game that all children universally play is the game of tag or "it" as we called it. This is where one child chases another group of children in an attempt to touch them and if they succeed, it is then the turn of the child who was touched to chase the others. After school we used to go to a housing estate named Priory Court. The buildings here were groups of apartment blocks with long internal corridors each with a number of lifts, (elevators), located on each floor. This was in the days prior to the push button age and lifts were still a rarity. The lifts also added an exciting new dimension to the game as not only did we run up and down the corridors as we chased each other but we also used the lifts too. Needless to say the games were short-lived as residents soon came out to complain about the noise we were making. It was then a case of moving on to the next apartment block.

There are so many memories that come flooding back about my childhood in Walthamstow that to add them here would be to make this article too unwieldy. The above however are indelibly etched in my mind.


Part 2 - Entertainment

(sent in 2 Jan 2011)
For a young growing lad, it would be difficult to describe Walthamstow in the 1950/60's as the cultural or entertainment centre of the world. Apart from a large number of cinemas either located in Walthamstow or the surrounding areas, something of an entertainment vacuum pervaded this large area of outer north-east London. A number of local public houses did sponsor some decent folk music clubs which I was to discover in later life, but until I was legally old enough to go to these venues, a ghostly dearth of silence descended over the area during the evenings. A large neo-gothic building called the Assembly Hall adjacent to the Town Hall frequently hosted dances at weekends but to a schoolboy this cost money which my 3d (three old pence) a week pocket-money did not permit access to.
Travelling to the west-end of London was also a difficult option. Apart from the question of non-existent money for the fare, transport links into London were very poor of an evening. The only two realistic choices were by bus or train. The bus journey would take one via Tottenham, Holloway and so on and would take an eternity to arrive. This journey would also face one with the daunting prospect of returning the same way. After a night on the town, the lengthy return bus journey home could only be described as something of a passion killer.
At this era of time, the Victoria Line did not exist leaving only two other options for travel into central London. Either a long wait at Hoe Street Station for a steam train to arrive belching steam, smoke and fumes all over ones clothes, followed by a journey in a normally unheated carriage into Liverpool Street Station or, another bus ride to Leyton Station to catch the Central Line into London. Whatever the choice, all were a wee bit impracticable one way or another for travel into London during the evening.
It was almost as if unknown strategic planners had decided that the population did not need to travel far in the evening and it was their sacred duty to stop such a mass exodus by all means possible. These same mythological planners also managed to work out ingenious methods of ensuring that all public transport back to Walthamstow ceased before the end of any of the West End shows. I take my hat off to these unknown planners as the exceeded in their task well.
A few church based youth clubs existed which were useful if one wanted to play a game of badminton, however some of these suffered from the drawback of also requiring church membership to use the facilities. Even the High Street, busy and bustling during the daytime, became something of a ghost town during the evening. The most exciting thing I can remember occurring in the High Street was the opening of a Wimpy Bar in the parade of shops that replaced the old Palace Theatre when it was demolished. It was hardly the sort of place one could hang out with friends all night and I recall the price of a Wimpy hamburger was always exactly 5 shillings, (25 pence in today’s money). These were not the double or triple hamburgers of today with lots of fillings or relishes, these were simple small hamburgers in a bun with a few fried onions and a dash of tomato ketchup if required.
All in all, the youth of Walthamstow were poorly catered for if at all during the 50/60's. I suppose it was obtaining by first motorcycle in 1961 that enabled me to escape the dreary humdrum and non-existent mundane nightlife of Walthamstow.
Numbers of motorcyclist cafes sprung up on the outskirts of north-east London, the Bee-Hive in Woodford I recall the most, where tales of doing the fabled ton, (100 mph), down the Epping New Road used to abound. Outside conversation in the car park or more precisely, the bike park would often be interrupted by the noise of a fellow motorcyclist screaming past the establishment. This would soon be followed with the smell of Castrol R wafting across the area followed by nods of approval from the motorbike gurus of the day. Castrol R was a more expensive than usual vegetable based engine oil that was supposedly better suited to high revving engines. It certainly had a distinctive smell and to use it in your motorbike was something of a status symbol. Other motorcycle cafes were located at Charlie Brown’s round-a-bout and on the North Circular Road. Charlie Browns was buried years ago under the concrete of the M11 when it was built. This was a brief era which signalled the transition from the age of the Teddy Boy and prior to the advent of scooters and the Mods and Rockers age.
The cinemas in Walthamstow briefly mentioned earlier ranged from what could be best described as the local flea-pit type through to the middling with the Creme de la creme being the Granada in Hoe Street. I always got the impression that I was entering a mid eastern potentates palace when I entered the Granada. Ornate columns and furnishings abounded everywhere and the seating was plush and comfortable. With some other cinemas one could feel the springs in the seat digging into ones behind after a short time.
My first experiences of the Granada were the Saturday morning pictures for kids. I think the cost was then 3d and it tended to be more of a social service than a profit-making exercise. The programs always had the same format starting with a few cartoons. Cartoons were a rare luxury then and not the voluminous computer animated material which is churned out today. There was always a cowboy film with the likes of Roy Rogers, Tom Mix or Lash Larue. Whatever the story line of the film, the characters were always stereo-cast. The “Baddies” always dressed in mandatory black clothing, had moustaches and hung around in the local saloon which was normally owned by the Chief Baddie. The Goodies on the other hand were always clean-cut, shaven, did not drink and wore light immaculately ironed clothes. The penultimate finale to all the films always ended up with a horseback chase with the Goodies in the form of a posse chasing the Baddies. The chase always started with immortal lines that went something like “Ok Boys, After them.”. As the film shots switched between both the Goodies and Baddies all the children in the audience would either boo or cheer. The hero always seemed to ride off into the sunset which struck me as being rather peculiar. How many of us would wait until morning before embarking on such a journey?
I recall once at the Granada they were screening a film called “Smiley” as their main feature film for the week. It was the story of a young freckle-faced Australian lad who was always getting into mischief and trouble. As I left the cinema one Saturday morning with my younger brother, we were approached by the manager. It turned out the my brother was the splitting image of the main character in the film and they wanted him to assist in a promotion for them. In all fairness the manager did come to our home to seek my mothers approval and at the end of the week, my brother, (Smiley), was presented with a brand new bike on stage. I also recall I never got a ride on it though.
The cinemas that were on the lower end of the scale appeared to suffer similar fates when VHS tapes and video shops led to the decline of this form of entertainment. First they would suffer from falling audiences and become rapidly dilapidated. Introducing adult sex films often followed before their eventual closure.
One such cinema I recall was located on the corner of Hoe Street and Forest Road opposite the Bell Public House, I believe it may have originally gone under the name of The Empire. Due to the natural sweep of the road at this point, the pavement immediately outside this cinema was wide. Unfortunately this additional pavement area proved to be a bit of a set back to patrons visiting the cinema on a Sunday evening. This was also the spot the local Salvation Army chose to hold their open air service. I can recall on many occasions watching a film only for the soundtrack to be drowned out by what sounded like the massed bands of the Salvation Army playing outside. The noise from tambourines, tubas, trumpets, the big bass drum let alone the vocal accompaniment flooded through the cinema much to the annoyance of the patrons. While I do support the Salvation Army, I do think they could have been a little more circumspect in both their timing and location.
The Empire also had a reputation for introducing something novel during film performances to liven up the atmosphere. Although the intentions were well meant, they were ideas that had a habit of going disastrously wrong. One such occasion I recall was during the showing of a horror film. The cinema staff had rigged a wire line around the outside aisles and during the showing of the film, a skeleton with a few internal lights and dangling from the wire suddenly came out of a side door of the stage. I think the intention was for the skeleton to raise a few screams of terror as it made a circuit of the cinema before disappearing back though another door on the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately the staff had not foreseen the possibility of local lads in the audience sticking a foot out into the aisle and bringing the entire contraption to a halt. I recall this rather stupid looking skeleton just hanging in the side aisle for the remainder of the performance. More people in the audience died from laughing that from a fit of terror.
The Carlton cinema that was located on the corner of the High Street and the former Colebrook Road also suffered terminal decline before it was transformed into a local supermarket store and then eventually demolished to make way for the new shopping arcade. I always remember the Carlton as a functional cinema rather that one in the luxury bracket. It was clear this cinema was apparently struggling financially when the already meagre staff were further reduced. Towards the end, what was probably the manager would sit in the ticket box and sell you your ticket and then run out a side door as you approached the doors of the cinema, tear your ticket in half before directing you to your seat.
Although I have not lived in Walthamstow for over 20 years now, its nice to be able to use advances in technology like Google Street maps to take a virtual walk around the place. This however can be both a positive and negative experience. Many of the original cinema buildings still exist but unless you have either personal knowledge or are fortunate enough to see old photographs, frequently few external clues remain as to their former existence or glory. I find it sad and hard to believe that the Creme de la creme that was the admirable Granada complex has become little more than a dilapidated billboard for posters.
For some reason whenever I see sad sights like this a verse from a long forgotten song or poem always crosses my mind. “I have walked this way before, I may never walk this way again.”


Part 3 - Schools

(sent in 1 Feb 2011)
One thing I have fortunately been blessed with is a good memory, not necessarily actual dates but I find I easily retain all I read, learn and experience. I only have to either think about a subject or see something that triggers off an ancient memory, to have full and immediate recall of the subject and circumstances behind it. Although everyone says such thoughts are impossible, I can still clearly recall both being both breast-fed and sitting in a babies high chair. Before anyone suggests so, these are not some sort of sexual Freudian thoughts, they are actual memories and very clear ones too.

Although I briefly touched on school life in previous articles, as school days did have such a powerful impact on all of us for the rest of our lives, it seemed worthy of mentioning some of the highlights here.

I arrived in Walthamstow in 1954 having been brought directly from my previous Junior School in Church Road, Leyton. The move was so sudden and unexpected I did not even have time to say goodbye to all my school friends. Remarkably within the last month I managed to trace my best friend from that school but sadly he has a mental block on his school days and does not remember me.

Greenleaf Road Junior School is where I was enrolled the day following my arrival. I think arrangements were made prior to my move to Walthamstow as I appeared to be expected when I arrived there. I recall feeling a little alienated being taken to a class where the teacher and other school children were at that time complete strangers to myself. However children being children it was only took a few days before I had found new friends. I found myself in something of a time warp for my first year at Greenleaf Road. This was not because I was in any way backwards or did not understand subjects, it was simply because they were still teaching everything I had learned a year earlier at Leyton. My teachers seemed impressed with my existing knowledge and which they still had yet to teach the remainder of their pupils. In the 1950's each borough, Leyton, Chingford and Walthamstow were independent education authorities in their own right and their teaching curriculum’s did not necessarily flow in tandem with each other.

It was only a few months after my arrival in Walthamstow when out shopping with my mother, I told her I had a pain in the side of my stomach to which she did no more than take me directly to the doctors, shopping bags and all. Although I was unaware of it, my family apparently had a record of appendicitis problems and my mother fortunately knew the symptoms well. Our doctor a gruff but wise man by the name Dr. Belton did not mess around and called an ambulance directly to the surgery. Within the hour I had an emergency operation for a severe case or peritonitis, (ruptured appendix), which kept me in hospital and confined to bed for six weeks.

Connaught Hospital in Orford Road previously the Old Walthamstow Town Hall is where I was located, I really felt proud when about the second week of my stay I was inundated with dozens of letters and cards on the same day. It would appear that the Headmistress at Greenleaf Road School asked the entire school to write letters to me. Being confined to bed for so long is not easy for a youngster especially as one starts to get better and somewhat fidgety. I recall one day of suddenly being surrounded by an army of nurses during the doctors daily rounds. Even as a child I could sense that something ominous was afoot just by the number of nurses including the ward sister and in the way they positioned themselves around my bed. Before I knew it, four nurses held down each arm and leg as the sister painfully tore a large elasoplast type dressing from the scar on my stomach and then proceeded to cut the stitches off with a pair of scissors. There were a considerable number of stitches as micro-surgery did not exist in those days and I still carry the quite visible scar and stitch marks. My eyes still water at the thought of that day.

The second notable day that I recall during my hospital stay was about a week before I left. Again I was surrounded by several nurses and the ward sister. They told me I had to get out of bed and learn to walk again. This I did not understand as clearly I already knew how to walk, however with the nurses tightly holding each arm as I stood on the floor, my legs simply gave way under me. It is quite remarkable how quickly leg muscles can simply forget walking movements. I felt a little like Douglas Bader as I lurched around the ward trying to drag one leg in front of the other in turn. I was only allowed to exercise for about five minutes but remarkably the next day I found I could walk reasonably normal again but quickly became tired at the effort. Fortunately being a child with the excess of energy one has at that age, I found that my walking was back to normal by the time I left.

I returned to my school the following week to find I had been missed during my long absence and was welcomed by everyone. As normal with schoolchildren there were countless requests to see my scar. With my shirt being pulled out of my trousers top so many times that first day to oblige the scar viewing requests I am certain I must have look like “Just William”.

One of the things I think we all enjoyed at Greenleaf Road was the annual visit by the police road safety unit. This normally occurred during the summer months when it was dry. The entire school would be led into the playground where we would sit in one half. The other half of the playground was converted into a mock street with wooden poles on the ground representing the edges of the pavement. A black and white striped pedestrian crossing complete with Belisha beacons was also laid out across the dummy road. I like the rest of the boys was agog at the shiny black police car in the playground. It was a Rover with two loudspeakers mounted on the roof. As dated as it would look today, to us boys at that time, it was modern and enthralling, conjuring up thoughts of cops and robbers chases.

Apart from the police in uniform, there were two other members of the team, One was called Safety Sam who would always cross the road in the correct manner. The other was dressed up in a clowns costume and would always make silly mistakes. The police car would make a number of trips along the dummy street with Safety Sam crossing the road observing all the rules of the Highway Code. The climax was when the person dressed in the clowns outfit crossed the road ignoring all the rules only to be apparently knocked down by the speeding police car. Clearly this was very well rehearsed and no one was ever hurt but it did look realistic.

We all knew that one day we would have to sit what was known as the 11 plus exam at our final year in junior school. This was the method that was supposed to determine those pupils bright enough to go to Grammar School and higher education, with the remainder going to a secondary modern school. The simple truth was there were insufficient grammar schools to accommodate large numbers of bright pupils so the system was designed to ensure that great numbers did not pass. Many parents who were wise would ensure prior to the exam, their children studied up on the relevant subjects. I do not recall receiving any special preparatory teaching for the exam at junior school.

I sat my 11 plus exam at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School. This I found a daunting place to go to. All the teachers wore gowns, something I had never seen before and somehow to myself as a ten-year old, the entire place seemed aloof and snobbish. I did not pass the 11 plus exam, I am reluctant to say I failed as the process was to ensure that only given numbers of pupils filled the limited places at a grammar school. It’s also worth noting that this is the only exam I did not pass in my entire life. As my career progressed I passed all necessary exams and tests. In some ways I am glad I did not pass as Grammar school pupils were required to wear smart uniforms, which was something well beyond my mothers limited pocket. Although all schools had their own uniform, in keeping with most children at my secondary school, I never once wore one. Duffle coats with wooden peg button and accompanying duffle bags slung over the shoulder were all the rage at the time and in a way, they made a type of uniform in their own right. Such clothes could be bought cheaply on the market stalls in the High Street.

I expect the inside of a schoolboys pockets are the same everywhere and in some ways not dissimilar to the inside of a ladies handbag on those rare occasions I have been permitted to look into one. There were bits and pieces for everything, just in case, including scraps of string, a penknife and probably a compass. Some boys proudly sported scout type penknives with the obligatory spike for getting schoolboys out of horses hooves. Every child had a penknife as indeed did most male adults including many females. Thoughts of using a penknife to inflicts a wound on someone else simply did not cross ones mind. They were purely functional items and mainly used for sharpening pencils. How times have changed.

So I entered my secondary school with the grand title of William McGuffie Secondary Modern School but also nicknamed locally as “Scruffy McGuffie”. Like my school mates who also came with me from Greenleaf Road Junior School, we all entered the playground for the first time with a little trepidation not knowing quite what to expect. We knew that the cane was used in this school for punishment and somehow I had advanced visions of school teachers wandering the playground lashing out at any miscreant in sight. There was a number of teachers already waiting in the playground as I entered and to my immediate relief, not a cane in sight. It became clear in reflection that the additional teachers were there to pull new school entrants to one side for induction into the school, as well as protecting newcomers from any school bullies. A number of these did exist like any school but fortunately they were few in number. I do not know if the school had a motto but if it did, I always felt it should be the word “Supersto” which is Latin for survive.

As one grows into adulthood, there comes a point where an individuals age does not make too much difference to relationships. However to a school child, age is everything, possibly as one has not lived too many of them at that stage. Older schoolchildren in different grades were almost like gods to us in our first year and to schoolchildren, age definitely creates a hen pecking order. I suppose the time one spends at a secondary school is also the period when the most dramatic changes happen to a person. One enters as a child and leaves as an adult albeit a young one. It is a four-year period when puberty sets in, voices break and as a boy, one starts to become attracted to our female school mates more physical attractions than we had previously noticed. After puberty, although we still continue to age and grow, an adult is still recognisable as the same person they were years earlier. However with a child, they undergo a complete transformation in short period of time emerging as completely different and sometimes unrecognisable person to when they first entered school. I sometimes liken it to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.

I found most teachers at the school were quite good in their subjects, it all depended on the individual pupils willingness and attentiveness to learn.

Each morning used to start with Assembly in the lower hall where a few songs were sung, a prayer recited and the headmaster delivered his mini-lecture of the day. I am not certain if this format still exists due to the more modern cultural and religious diversity of pupils today. All the pupils sat on the floor when the headmaster gave his daily address. He did however used to splutter a bit and anyone sitting at the front beneath him would be aware of the fallout from his spluttering. This was one reason the back of the hall was considered a prime position but like of not, someone had to be at the front. As the headmasters address continued, it was possible to see a semi-circle of floor space appearing in front of him as pupils gradually eased away from him. I also recall one morning as the first hymn of the assembly began, a teacher who played an upright piano in accompaniment to the hymn was continuously hitting wrong notes. In the end the teacher struck a loud chord which stopped everyone in their tracks and stood up as he opened the top of the piano. Reaching down into the bowels of the instrument, the teacher removed three beer bottles, one by one, much to the howls of laughter of us all, except the headmaster who remained stern-faced. The bottles were clearly left there from the night before by a night school that also used the premises. One thing I always remember seeing annually through the windows of the assembly hall was large numbers of policemen returning to the police station further down the road. However these policemen were all dressed in different period costumes of police dress over the ages. Some even looked like the original Peelers outfits. Where they were coming from, or why is something I never found out.

Although nowadays many children are either driven to school or accompanied by an adult, it was normal practice for children to walk to school on their own. The shortest route for myself was along Hoe Street although other longer routes were available. Some of the shops or premises stick in my mind on my Hoe Street walk. Adjacent to the Granada cinema was the entrance to Hatherley Mews which was under an archway formed by homes above the shops. This really was a Mews at the time in the real sense of the word. Shire horses were still stabled in the Mews and used by the Holdstock Bakeries to pull their carts at a time when bread was still delivered to homes like milk. A few of the old stable buildings were converted into small garage workshops, but it was the horses I liked to watch. Their keeper would allow me to feed them a few sugar lumps if I remembered to bring some. If you forgot the sugar lumps, the horses would soon let you know as they learned to recognise individuals and they never forgot they were due for a sugary reward. George White undertakers was another premise I remember. As you passed the premises it was possible to see skilled carpenters making new coffins which they did in the front of the premise. Coffins were still made out of solid wood at that time and the carpenters used to take pride in their work planing and finishing their latest creation. It’s a pity in a way their pride and joy would only be publicly seen for a short time before it was buried forever.

Just before the Granada complex was the school uniform supplier named Henry Taylor which had quite a large shop frontage. Google maps show this site is now occupied by a HSBC bank but the original building is now demolished. The uniforms of several schools were display on dressed dummies in the window including my own. Each uniform was in pristine condition without a mark on it. It seemed strange each day seeing the uniform that I was never destined to wear due to its cost. Sometimes I would travel via Erskine Road to my school and go to a news agent/sweet shop located in the buildings directly opposite Melville Road. There also used to be a public house on the corner of Gainsford Road but all appear to have been converted to housing. The sweet shop sold two of my favourite sweets which were also cheap to buy. One was called flying saucers designed to look like an alien spaceship and which contained sherbet on the inside. The other sweet was sticks of what was known as Spanish Wood, the like of which I have not seen for many a year. These were long twigs of real wood which released a delicious liquorice flavour when sucked. The flavour would last for hours and even when the wood was finally reduced to shreds the flavour still permeated the remains.

Everyone was required to go to school sports once a week whatever the weather. It was a journey undertaken in an old double-decker bus. The sports field was located on the North Circular Road and the map shows part of the sports field still exists next to what is now a Sainsburys supermarket. The grim small concrete building that was an excuse for the changing rooms is however gone. I must say that building is one little piece of history that will not be missed. Dressing only in shorts, singlet and plimsolls whatever the sport and weather did little to enthrall the finer sporting instincts in me. Some pupils of more affluent parents wore football boots but the sports teacher could never apparently see the inequality of a football game played by some of the team wearing football boots and the others wearing plimsolls. There simply was no match. The other problem with plimsolls was kicking the football. These were not the lightweight footballs of today, but more the original heavy balls made completely of leather. Anyone kicking such a ball in plimsolls risked at least a stubbed toe if not worse. I remember once heading one of these footballs, this is easy to remember as I never headed another one again. The force was something like a pile driver hitting the top of the head. I could almost swear I came away a few inches shorter. Cross country running took place in the summer except there was no country to run in. We used the streets instead in what was the forerunner of jogging today. Chingford Road – Westward Road and finally back to the North Circular Road. The hot showers in the changing room in reality were at best tepid bordering on the cold side. The shower area was dark and dingy with a peculiar smell of stale air permanently pervading the place. It was not a long shower born out of necessity and everyone was in and out as quickly as possible. I think the North Circular Road outside the changing rooms was the only road in the borough to have no speed limit. The lamp posts displayed the traditional black diagonal line on a white circular disc and the black line was studded with reflecting cats eyes. Today we call it the national speed limit sign but I am not certain if it was the name used in the 1950's. In those days there was no upper speed limit on unrestricted roads so it would have been legal for a car to drive at 150 mph on that stretch of the North circular Road. Car technology however was not what it is today and most drivers thought they were going fast if they could achieve 50 mph.

I was in my third year at secondary school when homework was introduced, up until that time homework was unknown. When I arrived with my first homework, my mother took one look at it and told me to immediately put it away. It was my mothers point of view, (with which I do not agree), that as she had never done homework as a child, her children were not going to do it either. She firmly believed that school was for learning which finished the moment one walked out of the school gates. My mother even wrote a letter to the headmaster making her views clear than neither I nor my brother and sister should do homework. A few days later I opened the door of our house in response to a knock only for my mouth to drop open as the shape of my headmaster filled the doorway. To me it was as if God was paying a visit to our house. The headmaster debated with my mother for over an hour the benefits of homework but she stood firm and defiant. No homework under any circumstances. The headmaster finally left and myself and my siblings were the only pupils in the entire school excused homework. Even when teachers reprimanded other pupils for not doing their homework on time, never a word was said to any of my family. I am sure there are laws nowadays that would compel parents to ensure children do homework, but all this was in a different era than today.

On the approach to one Christmas the school arranged an educational cultural afternoon. This was the only time I ever recall being subjected to culture while at school. The dais in the assembly hall was relocated to a different position on which a string quartet and a rather rotund male baritone were positioned. It was the first time I had seen musical instruments live and the singer wore a bow tie and tails. Again except for films starring Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, this was an outfit that most pupils had never seen before. No one quite knew what to expect or even that the baritone was a singer, I think we all assumed that he was an announcer of some kind. The performance commenced and the man suddenly burst out into the song Figaro from the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Within seconds, the entire school burst out into uncontrollable spontaneous laughter. It was not planned it really was spontaneous. In reflection I expect it just appeared so strange and alien to anything that pupils had experienced before and as such was completely comical. The Headmaster however was furious and leapt onto the dais threatening severe punishment to anyone who continued laughing. This in some ways was a hollow threat in the short-term as everyone had great difficulty in stopping laughing. When we finally managed to calm down, the performance restarted. Most of us spent the remainder of the time with our hands clamped over our mouths trying to stop ourselves from further laughter at what we all perceived at the time to be a comedy act. What the string quartet and the baritone singer thought of our school afterwards I never heard. By strange contrast, my musical tastes have mellowed over the years and I have a large collection of classical music. To me it seems so timeless as well as being pleasant on the ear. Heavy Metal music I never understood and I found myself cringing at the sound of it. I am glad it was a relatively short-lived musical era.

The my last year at school also saw a school holiday to Interlaken in Switzerland. I think the cost was £30 which was a considerable amount of money at the time. How my mother managed to save that money I shall never know but she clearly scrimped and saved on her low wages in her determination to see me go. The school issued some weeks in advance of the journey a detailed itinerary in the shape of a small booklet produced on the schools Gestetner duplicating machine. This I read over and over again until I literally knew every word and the places we would visit by heart. Travel was by rail all the way there. First to Dover for the ferry and then onto a French sleeper train to Berne where we switched to the Swiss railway system. I was that excited I did not sleep throughout the journey. Both the French and even more so the Swiss trains seemed to glide smoothly over the rails. This was in stark contrast to the side to side buffeting experienced on British Rail. It was also strange to experience the more human side of teachers on the trip, some who were normally quite stern in the classroom. We travelled to many local places and saw many sights. One evening we went to a casino. This however was not to gamble but to see an evening show also held at the same location. More importantly, it was also my first experience of learning first hand of different cultures and their way of life. Ever since that visit I have always learnt how to say Good Morning, Afternoon or Evening as well as Goodbye, Thank You and Please in the language of the country I am visiting. I find it not only impresses people but also commands their respect. Learning a few words of local dialect is simple but can pay great dividends. One dialect I have learned reasonably well over the years is Illongo from the Philippine Visayas region. Sometimes it amuses me when shopping to overhear loud conversations between two Filipino women who are completely unaware I can understand every word they are saying. I did return home from Switzerland with a small cuckoo clock and man/woman weather station as presents for my mother. I still have them today.

I certainly had mixed feelings when I finally left school at the Christmas of 1960, it was like the ending of an era. In many ways I was glad to have left but it also meant the end of my daily association with school friends. I often wonder if the 11 plus exam really made any difference at all? Now that I have retired I know that I had a very successful career. I also know that education did not cease as I walked through the school gates for the last time, it is in fact a lifelong process. Many of my school mates are spread across the four corners of the globe which was seemingly impossible at the time. I too have travelled reasonably widely not only in Europe but to Asia, the Orient and Australia. When I was at school, international travel was only for the rich and a flight to the other side of the world would take days with overnight stops in hotels. But the world shrank, the last vestiges of Empire vanished and attitudes changed, not always for the better. As for my old school William McGuffie, that was sadly demolished to make way for a social housing development. This means I will never have the opportunity for a nostalgic visit to wander around those not so hallowed halls again.


Part 4 - Changes

(sent in 10 Mar 2011)
Life is something of a transient nature, nothing is permanent but ever-changing as we progress on our own personal journeys creating the history of tomorrow. We remember our childhood, our teen years, through to married life, middle age and if you are anything like myself, who has just touched the threshold of later life on reaching my 65th birthday, our thoughts turn to the next chapter awaiting to be written as it occurs.

As life changes, so does the environment we live in and Walthamstow is no exception to this. Although not quite in Walthamstow, I recall once seeing a series of photographs looking north, taken of Leyton Green from High Road Leyton. Although I cannot remember the dates, the first photograph was taken in the late 1800's and shows Leyton Green to be mainly open space. A few buildings at the top end of what is now Capworth Street can be seen. It is however the bend and line in the road that remains unchanged in each photograph which remains the same today. Over successive photographs, buildings arise obscuring the Capworth Street properties which were still there until recent re-development. What this series of photographs show is that out local environment is also of an ever-changing transient nature. A constant state of flux that goes unnoticed on a day by day basis. It is only memories or photographs that permanently capture the physical state of a location at any given period of time which hopefully will be passed onto future generations. Unfortunately, photographs rarely capture the essence of how life was, the public mood, practices or moral outlook of the time.

Although change occurs on a day by day basis, overall change mainly goes unseen if we live in a particular location. It is normally only those who occasionally visit a location after an absence of a few years that suddenly see changes to what their minds-eye and memories had anticipated.

It is possible however to still see a glimpse of how things looked in undeveloped sections of our shopping areas. Although shop fronts rapidly change as new products and traders seek to capture the public eye, the buildings above shop level rarely receive attention and frequently remain the same as when they were first built. Buildings above shop fronts can be compared to living photographs of our history. The next time you are in Hoe Street, the High Street or St James’ Street try to look at the scene from above ground level and a wonderful living history of Walthamstow, often unnoticed, will be revealed.

Although I no longer live in Walthamstow, the modern technology of Google Earth does present the opportunity to look at locations as they are today. It is possible to do a virtual walk around ones old haunts and reflect on changes and memories of times past.

I have been recalling some of the places and locations I either used to visit or that have substantially changed from what they used to be. None of which are in any particular time-frame order.

Jobstocks was a small business that attracted people from far and wide. Located at the St Mary Road/West Avenue Road junction, Jobstocks dealt exclusively with ex-army surplus equipment. Just as the handbag stalls in the street market seem to be honey-pot for attracting females, Jobstocks was a similar magnet almost exclusively the preserve of men. The windows were crammed full of what looked exotic equipment at the time, all normally coloured army olive-green or black. Switches, knobs and dials festooned most of the equipment, all of which engendered masculine thoughts of what I could do if only I had one of those.

The inside of the shop only sported a tiny space for customers to stand in front of the counter. The space being so small that two customers would form a crowd, both not daring to breathe in at the same time. There always appeared to be about three or four shop staff manning an equally small space on the opposite side of the counter, each one who would scurry away to rummage through vast unseen stock in back rooms to fulfil an order. The remainder of the building including the back rooms appeared to sag under the voluminous weight of little brown boxes containing numerous unseen exotic items. It was not possible to even tell the content of the boxes as the labels only displayed WD markings and codes with an equally unintelligible abbreviated description of the contents.

I do not recall ever seeing the colour of the walls or even the walls themselves, as every square inch of the building was covered by waxy brown boxes stacked one atop of the other. I always felt certain the building would erupt like Vesuvius if it ever caught fire. No matter what one wanted, Jobstocks had it. Even if one did not really know what one wanted, it was only necessary to give a brief outline of the task you wished to accomplish and a member of staff would soon find something that would do the job. Overall the shop always gave me a feeling of a subterranean cave full of goodies.

The thought often occurred to me why NASA spent billions of dollars putting a man on the moon? Possibly they were unaware that Jobstocks existed and could have supplied them with everything they needed. Looking at the building using Google Earth, it now appears to be a private dwelling with an upper floor seemingly to have been added to part of the building from what I recall.

In the early 1950's car ownership was still something of a rarity. As a consequence the Bank Holiday traffic did not yet exist and frequently a family day out was much closer to home, sometimes almost on ones doorstep. It may be now difficult to visualise, but one such location people flocked to was the lake on Woodford New Road adjacent to the Rising Sun public house. An aerial view using Google Earth shows the lake to now be much smaller and giving the appearance of being no more than an overgrown bog. The lake was completely visible from the road but again it now appears to be completely obscured. However on summer weekends hundreds of people used to flock to this location. Deck chairs were available for hire as were rowing boats for use on the lake. Swimming and paddling were also popular features and a permanent refreshment kiosk selling teas, sandwiches and ice cream was located near the shallow sandy banks of the lake. This is a good example of the ever-changing and transient environment we live in that I mentioned earlier.

It was probably the coming of mass car ownership that sounded the death knell for the lake. People could now travel further afar to real sea-side resorts or the countryside. People simply stopped coming to this location and the boats, deck chairs and refreshment kiosk all disappeared without trace. The next time you have an opportunity to drive along Woodford New Road, spare a glance for the lake which may have gone unnoticed before. Try and visualise this sorry-looking bog which once rang to the sound of children’s laughter, sunbathers, swimmers and serene boating.

Close by to the Rising Sun lake and also part of Epping Forest was Whipps Cross Lido and the Hollow Ponds. The ponds originally created in 1905 as relief work for the unemployed and I believe the Lido may have been built about 1920 with the modern utilitarian look. During summer school holiday, large as it was the lido would be packed with swimmers and sunbathers. I do not recall any grass at the lido, just concrete which acted like a storage heater on hot summer days. Sailing model boats on the smaller of the Hollow Ponds was and I think still is a popular pastime, with boating on the large pond available for those is search of more tranquil and leisurely pursuits. Although the Hollow Ponds still remain, alas the lido fell victim to a combination of vandalism and falling numbers. Sadly the lido eventually closed and the land was returned to the forest.

I lived for some time near the Hoe Street/High Street junction before moving elsewhere in Walthamstow. Understandably I remember locations around that area reasonably well.

Selborne Park was my local playground and the park was divided into two sections separated by a long pathway lined with trees. One side of the park backed onto the library and old swimming baths and was also overlooked by the long closed Selborne Restaurant. This was the children’s side of the park with swings, roundabout and slide. A large grassed area also allowed a ball to be kicked about. As a child the slide seemed quite tall and was very slippery. On more than one occasion I got a sore bottom as I shot off the end of the slide and my backside made painful contact with the ground.

The opposite side of the park was for more sedate leisure activities. It contained a well manicured bowling green and an open air draughts board surrounded by wooden benches on three sides. Several huts around the perimeter allowed shelter to usually elderly people, to while away the time with each other. Players moved the draught pieces using long wooden poles with flat bladed hooks fitted on the end. Flower beds adorned the outer perimeters of this section of park. Generally children were tolerated provided they were quiet and just watched the bowls or draughts. However children were never allowed to use the equipment. It really was a case of children should be seen and not heard in that section of park.

Alas with the redevelopment of the town centre the park had to go. The children’s side of the park is now a bus station and the adults side of the park is an open grassed area with pathways leading to and fro the bus station and Selborne Walk Shopping Centre. The tree-lined pathway between both sections of park is the only feature to survive. I remember watching with great dismay the day a bulldozer tore up the bowling green.

The library still remains and from the outside looks unchanged but the adjoining swimming baths have long gone to be replaced by the new swimming pool in Chingford Road. I never used the new swimming pool but I do remember the old one quite well. A set of large permanently closed wooden doors separated a narrow walkway around one end of the swimming pool from the pavement of the High Street. The pavement was always wet at this location as dripping water from the wet feet and bodies of swimmers leaked under the door. Upper galleries with stepped seating ran along both sides of the pool but I never recall seeing the galleries in use. There were no real changing rooms just wooden cubicles with half height doors lining both sides of the pool. The cubicles allowed a view of changing bathers heads and feet. Females and males used the cubicles on different sides of the pool. I think one got about 45 minutes – 1 hour of swimming time for one’s money and although no tickets were used, our clothes were left in the small changing cubicles so attendants knew if anyone overstayed their time.

Opposite the swimming baths and library was the Congregational Church. This was set back a bit from the pavement of the High Street with a low boundary wall defining its perimeter. The entrance to the church had the fossilised remains of a tree trunk on display. I do not know the history of this tree trunk but I was always fascinated by this wood turned to stone feature. I believe the church once had a tall spire which was replaced by a more smaller squat shaped one more like a small circular roof. A pathway alongside the church led to a hall known as the Conway Hall. A youth club used these premises several times a week to play badminton. I went to the afternoon Sunday School at this church when I was young. I don’t think it was my mother caring so much for our moral upbringing, but more of a case of getting rid of the children for a bit of peace and quiet for a period of time.

Adjacent to the swimming baths and facing the High Street was an old school which housed the Youth Employment Service. I never really found out what this organisation actually did. A few months before I left school, I did receive a letter from the Youth Employment Service inviting me to attend an interview. When I arrived I was told by a smartly suited man sitting behind a desk in his office to “Find myself a job”. That was it, no advice, no nothing other than find myself a job. As job seeking was something I was already undertaking the advice seemed as pointless as the organisation itself. I am not certain if a Y.E.S. still exists but if it does, presumably they have changed their working methods from years ago.

Further down the High Street where Palace Parade now stands was the huge and towering edifice of the Walthamstow Palace. This was Walthamstow’s own theatre which had seen better days. I was normally taken there by my mother during the pantomime season to watch a production. It always seemed to me that foreigners must have thought the English a very strange people with male actors dressing up as women and vice versa in a pantomime. I also recall seeing a production of a play called the Black Narcissus. The auditorium of the Palace Theatre was large but I always thought this monolith of a building looked a bit ominous when silhouetted against the skyline.

The shop I think I remember most in the High Street was Woolworth’s or to give its correct title blazoned on the outside of the building, F.W. Woolworth & Co.Ltd. Woolworth’s was located on the corner of Blackhorse Road and the High Street. The location of the building was the cause of an acute double bend between the Blackhorse Road/St James Street junction. The inside of this Woolworth’s was never subjected to the more modern and I think disastrous layout of its successor. This was full of long dark wooden counters everywhere, all manned by shop staff. Each counter was crammed full of the minutia of items needed for the everyday running of a household. This Woolworth’s always felt warm and welcoming. The big advantage of the low counters being it was possible to see from one side of the store to the other and I cannot but help think this is one things the planners got wrong in the new store.

An ironmongers shop used to be located in Hoe Street in the section between the High Street and Selborne Road. It was opposite a large Halfords cycle shop which Google Earth now shows to be a fruit and vegetable store. I cannot recall the name of the ironmongers, (possibly Colemans), but it was always manned by staff wearing long brown overall type coats. This was not a self-service shop but the staff were always quick and efficient locating ones requirements. I loved this shop and how I wish ironmongers of this type would return. Nails and screws were at that time sold by weight and not just a couple of nails in a cellophane packet. Normally one could buy a pound of nails quite cheaply and hear them clattering into the weighing scales. Normally the staff added an extra handful of nails just to ensure you were not short-changed. The inside of the store always had the aroma of oil and paraffin pervading the air. Paraffin was used a lot for heating prior to the wide scale introduction of central heating. One had to bring your own container and the paraffin dispenser in the shop was like two large one gallon glass jars encased in a metal box. One jar was always full and a hand crank was used to draw paraffin from an unseen reservoir into the empty glass jar. Graduation markings on the jar showed when the required amount had been reached and then by putting a hose into your fuel container, a valve was opened discharging the contents of the jar. As a firefighter I always though paraffin heaters were dangerous. Normally they worked well when new but neglect in maintenance over years of use caused problems. I unfortunately attended a number of incidents, some fatal, where paraffin heaters were involved. For some strange reason whenever paraffin heaters are mentioned, I always think of the “safe” indoor fireworks that were once advertised. As if there could ever be such a thing.

Further along Hoe Street at the junction with Orford Road was the Co-op department store. This was a veritable emporium of a store supplying everything necessary to furnish a home. I am not certain if it was at this store, but I seem to vaguely recall a system of wires running from counters to a central teller. Money would be placed in a metal container suspended on a tight wire. By pulling a lever a pinging noise was heard and the container shot along the wire over everyone’s heads to the teller. Change and receipts returned the same way. The location of the store may seem a little strange being some distance from the street market but if one looks above shop level as I suggested earlier, the moulded relief near the roof shows the building was constructed in 1911. At that time the High Street market would not yet have developed to its full potential and the Hoe Street/Orford Road junction was an important crossroads leading to what is now known as Old Walthamstow.

Just across the old borough boundary of Lea Bridge Road stood the Leyton Swimming and Slipper Baths in High Road, Leyton, the site of which now appears to be a large supermarket. Although I went swimming there on a number of occasions, my mothers used to take me and my siblings there weekly when I was younger, to the slipper baths, when we lived with my grandparents in Leyton. I suspect the concept of slipper baths may seem a bit alien to a younger generation, but it should be remembered modern equipped bathrooms are still a recent historical development starting from about the 1960's.

Much of the older housing stock prior to that time still had tin bath ablutions and outside toilets. Although I had always bathed in a tin bath prior to moving to my grandparents, with so many families living under the same roof, obtaining sufficient hot water let alone the tin bath was almost impossible. By comparison the Leyton slipper baths were pure luxury. For a small fee my mother would be handed a number of bath towels and we would enter a numbered tile lined cubicle with a voluminous enamel bath. There was a long line of these bath cubicles all in constant use. The bath had no taps only an outlet about the size of a drain pipe. An attendant who patrolled the corridor outside used a special key they carried to turn a tap outside the cubicle and fill the bath with hot water, a process that took less than a minute due to the size of the outlet. Prior to the slipper baths I had no experience of hot bath water completely covering my body as one had to make do with only a few inches of rapidly cooling water in a tin bath. Random calls from the cubicles resounded along the corridor for “More OT in number 4?. This was local vernacular language for more hot water in cubicle four.

The Vestry House Museum is a location I enjoyed visiting even with its creaking floorboards. My first visit was a school excursion and something of an eye opener. I find it surprising that little mention is every made in history programmes of the Bremer car at the museum which must be one of the earliest cars ever made. One room of the museum was converted into a Victorian parlour and it is amazing the amount of paraphernalia that was considered necessary for the well-to-do Victorian family to display. The thorough dusting of such a room and the laying of a coal fire must have taken some time and it is little wonder that so many maids were employed by those that could afford them. Sometimes I come across semi-historical objects in a museum that I have personal experience of using. It is on those occasions that I always realise just how much has changed in the world since my youth and that perhaps I may have reached my “sell by” date.

The other museum I liked visiting was the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park. I always found it fascinating to try to visualise the view from the house as it would have been in William Morris’s day. Splendid laid out gardens which now form the back bone of the park with much of the housing and shops in Forest Road yet to be built. I imagine the view in the mid 1850's would have been of pleasant rolling fields leading uphill to Walthamstow Village. Although William Morris was a socialist, he certainly knew how to live in opulent style.

I suppose in about another 60 years or so, Walthamstow will have donned yet another new face as the relentless change we call progress continues ever onwards. There is probably a small child already living somewhere in this north-east London community who in future years will put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or even more likely just their thoughts which will automatically appear in electronic form. What ever the method of committing ones thoughts to the media, those words will probably start, "I remember Walthamstow when... ".


Top of Page


Copyright notice: Images on this site are reproduced for the purposes of research and study only. Whilst every effort has been made to trace the Copyright holders, we would be grateful for any information concerning Copyright of the images and we will withdraw them immediately on Copyright holder's request.