Home » Human Life » Memories of an East End Child by Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part Two

Memories of an East End Child by Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part Two

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Greenwich Park 1940s (National Maritime Museum)

In the second part of Lorraine’s memories of the 1930s on the Island, she writes about the joys of visiting Greenwich and Blackheath Fair. Closer to home she describes how children made their own entertainment and remembers visits from a couple of street sellers.

Greenwich is of course famous all over the world Greenwich Meridian, Greenwich Mean Time and the fact that Queen Elizabeth I resided there. I remember Greenwich Park and the worn brass handles that gave a measure of some sort, but I can’t remember what it represented. I only know we always tried to stretch our arms to cover the space. I bet the brass handles are still there. Not far from Greenwich is Blackheath, which was a very special place on account of the big fair that took place once a year.

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Blackheath Fair 1930s

In those days you could win really big prizes. We would leave home when it was dark and the fair would be lit up like fairyland. Mum and Dad would give us sixpence to spend, which was a lot of money. This was a special treat and we were able to afford lots of rides and goes on the glass cabinets with little electric cranes inside them. We would try to manoeuvre the cranes and pick up one of the gleaming prizes that lay amongst the jellybeans. It was all a matter of skill, but we were never lucky.

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Mum and Dad would join us on the rides. They had married in their teens and were still very young and enjoyed the fair as much as we did. It was good to see them happy, as I knew it was hard sometimes for Dad to provide for us all. Women stayed home and looked after the house and family in those days, so there was only one breadwinner and there were times when life could be hard. Fairs such as those I knew as a child do not seem to be around any more and those today do not offer the big prizes that were there years ago. A plastic toy of little worth will not make a child’s eyes light up as ours did. It is very sad that children today have no knowledge of the wonderful fairs of bygone days which gave such pleasure to many children who lived dull and drab lives.

Many children lived with fathers who came home drunk, spending more on drink than they gave their wives to live on. They would cause havoc and violence in the home and produce baby after baby which they could not afford to keep. Older children were often forced to live out their childhoods as drudges, cleaning and helping the poor mothers look after the little ones, sometimes having to miss school if their mother became sick. For many children a lively imagination was the only way they could add colour to their lives. I believe that it is due to the use of the imagination that the East End of London produced so many well-known writers and theatre personalities.

Our house was a rented, double-fronted shop. The living area was behind the shop and the bedrooms were upstairs. There was no bathroom; you washed in the kitchen and bathed in a galvanised bathtub on a Friday night. There was an outside toilet and yard and at the bottom of the yard was a fence. When older, many went to the local public baths where you paid and would be given a towel. You were allowed a certain amount of time and if you overstate, the attendant would knock on the door and shout “Get out!” and you would rush and dry quickly.

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Millwall open air swimming pool

The bottom of our garden looked onto a park , and what a park it was. There was a recreation ground for football, a big open-air swimming pool, a playground with swings, slides, roundabouts and a sandpit. In another area were tennis courts and a big grass area where girls would dress up and play May Queen on May Day and have picnics after school. In the summer holidays we would play out all day long. We never thought about being in danger as children do today, and so we kept our childish innocence a little longer. Of course, we were told not to speak to strangers; this was drummed into us regularly.

On cold winter nights, friends would play ‘I Spy’, looking in the shop windows near us. We lived in the middle of a row of six shops. At the corner, near the entrance to the park was Mrs Kirk’s shop. This was our shop for sweets and groceries, although she never sold the unsalted butter Mum liked and I used to go to a shop further along our street to get that.

Every season had its games. Whipping top, hopscotch, marbles, roller skates, cigarette card swapping, hula-hoop, yoyos and too many more to mention. I cannot remember any child ever saying they were bored.

There was a pub on the corner of the other side of the park entrance and I used to love to lie in my bed and listen to people singing on a Saturday night on their way home after the pub had closed. They would sing the songs Mum and Dad sung with us on a Sunday evening. Some would be drunk, and they all sounded happy. My parents never went to the pub, but would have a drink at home with friends or family when it was a special occasion. They used to think it was shocking to see children outside the pub while their Mums and Dads were inside drinking. This was a part of East End life, and one that many children grew up with and accepted. So long as they had a packet of crisps and lemonade while they waited, they didn’t seem to care.

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 No 57 Bus from the 1930s – Photo (Island History Trust)

With my bedroom facing the street, I felt comforted by the light of the buses as they passed our house. Their headlights would move across the room as the bus went by. Because I was afraid of the dark I would imagine all sorts of horrible creatures lurking in my bedroom. The bus passing would comfort me and make me feel less frightened. I would lie awake and when the last bus had gone all would be still and quiet. My brothers would have been asleep for ages and I would hear Mum and Dad come upstairs. They always kissed each other goodnight, which I could hear, after which I knew I was all alone. Some nights a mist would cover the area and the boats would sound their foghorns, which made the atmosphere even more eerie. I would lie awake and sometimes morning would arrive and I had not slept, or so it seemed at the time. I never told Mum about this, but it was a very bad time for me.

Some nights the toffee apple man would come round the streets, always walking in the middle of the road with his barrow. We would hear him call “Two a penny toffee apples”, just after we children were tucked up in bed. Mum would get cross when we would call out, “Can we have a toffee apple please Mum?” “No! You can’t. It’s not good for your teeth,” was her usual reply, although she did surprise us a few times and brought one up to us.
His call was so loud we couldn’t miss him, but why did he have to come so late we wondered? At times during the holidays a man would come round the streets with a horse and cart. It was only a little horse and on top of the cart he had a roundabout which was also small. It could fit eight children squashed together on the little seats. We had to climb up a little wooden ladder to sit on the seats while he turned the roundabout with his hand and we would go. The ride did not last very long but we all loved it. An empty jam jar was the price for a ride and we would rush to get as many jars as we could from relatives and neighbours before he moved further down the street. I often wondered why he wanted the empty jars but I never asked and so I never found out.

Lorraine at nineteen was a Lucy Clayton Trained Model and modelled in many of London’s top fashion houses.  In 1949, she married a Doctor of Medicine who later became a Consultant  Psychiatrist. and had a daughter and two sons, and is now a grandmother to nine grandchildren.
In 1979 she left England and with her second husband and moved to New Zealand and opened a number of beauty salons and her own Beauty Therapy Training College.
 Lorraine also began to write her own regular page on beauty in The NZ Headway Magazine. In 1987 she and her husband retired and moved to Australia where she developed her creative skills becoming an artist, ceramicist, sculptor, poet and a published author.

Other related posts

Memories of an East End Child by  Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part One

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