Ship off Blackwall Stairs 1930s ( Museum of London )
Recently I have come across a number of authors who have written books about Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. Today I would like to introduce you to another author David Mitchell whose book “A Boy from Nowhere ” is an account of his boyhood memories in the East End especially around the docks.
David has very kindly sent me some of his memories of Poplar High Street and the Queen’s Theatre, in particular, in this first part of his reminiscences David and his friends show some initiative to earn some extra pocket money which they spend at the local cinema.
I wonder how many people recall Poplar High Street and the Queens Theatre before the war? Saturdays was always the day we kids looked forward to. It began with our little gang of boys and girls when we tried to make a few pennies by collecting drift wood washed up on the shore at the very historical Blackwall Stairs and chopping it up for firewood which we then sold at 1d per bundle. But the supply was unreliable and so we had to find an alternative option to earn some money.
A street scene depicting Pennyfields Road, leading towards Poplar High Street. H. Doe.
St John Adcocks Wonderful London 1926/27
This opportunity came when the LCC, our saviour, announced that free disinfectant was to be given to the poor people of East London to encourage hygiene and cleanliness. But the depot where the disinfectant was doled out was at the other end of Poplar High Street, near Limehouse and Chinatown – almost a mile away I would say. That was a long trek for mothers and other older ladies to take and so we kids had the idea of establishing a ‘disinfectant service’. We got up early every Saturday and we went round the houses and flats busily collecting empty bottles and making notes of our ‘customer’s’. Our little wagon which was made from an old wet fish box with a plank of wood nailed to the bottom to which we nailed a small cross piece on the front part with a swivel bolt, then a small piece of wood to the rear and then we attached four wheels; this enabled us to guide the contraption. I must say it was an ingenious way to control the ‘vehicle’ but I am not sure now whose idea it really was. Anyway, our cart could take 24 normal size bottles (we charged a little extra for larger bottles). I think there was another small piece of wood at the front which served as a rough kind of seat – this was for the ‘guider’. Of course we all wanted to be guiders and not pushers but it usually happened that the bigger boys guided and we smaller ones pushed,
Street scene in Poplar, East London Children playing in a street in Poplar c. 1935. Arapoff (Museum of London)
Once loaded with our empties, off we went right to the top of Poplar High Street near to Chinatown and Limehouse – the High Street was used initially to go from the West India Docks to the East India Docks and in it’s hey-day was a very busy street indeed. Many shops, cottages, old blocks of flats, pubs could be found there. But when the bigger, wider, East India Dock Road was built in the 1800s so usage of the old High Street declined and was never the busy thoroughfare it once was. Nevertheless, it was an important street and still contained the Poplar Library, the Mortuary, one side of the Recreation Ground, an old church school and other places of interest – including the old and renowned Queens Theatre and Music Hall in what I would term the lower part of the High Street.
Poplar High Street 1930s
Our charge for this service was 1d per bottle, and so, after we had delivered our bottles to our customers we then shared out the money. So that meant we had 2 shillings to share between us. So how much each child had was dependent on the number who assisted. But sometimes, if it was only four of us, we had a whole sixpence each. For kids who were jolly lucky to get ha’penny a week from our fathers, and nothing at all when he was out of work, that was indeed a lot of money in those days and people today would be amazed at what sixpence (2.5 new pence) could buy back then.
Grand Cinema 1920s
A little later in the morning we would usually go to the ‘tuppeny rush’ as we called it, i.e. the cinema or movies. Mostly we went to The Grand Cinema on the corner of Robin Hood Lane and East India Dock Road, because The Pavilion, a little further along, was a little more posh and therefore more expensive. I think it was 3d to go in there as against 2d only at The Grand. Before going in we would buy a bag of roasted peanuts and maybe an apple and an orange from the fruit lady – it depended, as always, on how much we had to spend. There we would sit munching away watching our old favourites like Tom Mix and Buck Jones – these were our best known cowboys. We called them “the Goodies” but the rustlers and bank robbers we called “the Baddies” and then there were a lot of comedies featuring Our Gang starring Alfalfa Switzer, (what terrific and very funny little actors they were), the Keystone cops, Charlie Chaplin etc. There were a number of others too but I cannot now remember them.
Our Gang (Alfalfa Switzer on the right)
We boys all fell in love with dear little Shirley Temple when she began in films. She was only a very tiny tot but was quite obviously a very talented child – one could see that from the beginning of her career when she was only 3-4 years of age. But we munched away and cheered our heroes too – it was a racket and quite deafening. When the programme was over we trooped out but, my God! – what a mess we left behind us! There were mountains of peanut shells, apple cores, orange peel, etc. The cinema had to be ready for the adult afternoon performances and I expect the cleaners cursed us kids uphill and down dale for the work we had caused them.