Photograph Margaret Monck 1931-1940 Museum of London
In Lorraine’s latest memories, she remembers how people helped each other out, the deliveries of beer by horse and cart ,the Irish community and how visiting the local cinema left her starstruck and dreaming of stardom.
The Isle Of Dogs was made up of many nationalities and religions. People helped each other and if the man of the house was sick and could not work, or when the mother was ill and the children needed care, everyone mucked in and no family was left in trouble. If a man was very drunk and violent there would be men from other families who would go and ‘sort him out’. It was a close-knit community and looking back I feel privileged to have been a part of that life and have had the opportunity to experience the spirit that existed in the East End at that time. It made me grow up understanding what poverty and social inequality does to people and how unfair life can be for some.
Around Easter time, Irish Catholics would make a display of Jesus and Mary with candles and flowers in the windows of an upstairs room. The displays would be draped with lace and the windows looked like beautiful framed pictures. The Priest walked around the streets and blessed the houses, swinging a container of sweet-smelling incense. Some of the children would follow the priest from street to street, stopping to look at the wonderful window displays, which were lit up like fairy grottos. Well, as I imagined a fairy grotto would look. It was all very exiting.
When Good Friday came around a couple of the older girls would take a big thick barge rope, extend it from one side of the road to the other and use it as a skipping rope. The grown-up married women would take it in turns to hold the rope, as it was very heavy. Everyone would be expected to jump in as the rope was turning. This would go on along all the streets, not just ours, and it was a sight to behold with all the mothers and aunts jumping in and having their turn.
I was about eight when we came to live in Stebondale Street on the Island. Recently, I read in one of the Island Trust magazines that Stebondale was one of the island’s worst hit streets during the war. Every day brought a new scene for us. Beautiful draught horses hauled heavy barrels of beer from Whitbread’s Brewery. You could not help but stare in wonder at these beautiful animals, which were always so well-groomed and handsome. Tall horses with enormous hooves and drays reaching high up into the air, so high we had to lift our heads to see the drivers. The drays were always driven by big, strong men who wore leather aprons and sat proudly holding the reins, guiding their charges.
Photo William Whiffen 1935
The horses had big leather halters round their necks and their manes were plaited and knotted with coloured ribbon. The leather straps around their necks were covered with ornamental brass emblems. These horse brasses are now bought by people to display in their homes. The originals are very collectible and it must be something to hold an authentic brass knowing that at one time a beautiful draught horse wore it proudly, and its owner polished it with pride.
Our street was paved with cobblestones when we first came to live there, and I loved to listen to the sound of horses hooves on them and see such large animals trotting so gracefully while carrying such heavy loads. Sometimes they would leave droppings on the road and it was commonplace to see someone rushing with a bucket and shovel to collect them. This was not to make the road clean but for the manure to use on their allotment. Sadly these horses are no longer seen on the streets of the East End, and are only seen on special occasions like the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court. These wonderful scenes that were free for me to enjoy as a child now live only in my memory. How I would love my children and grandchildren to share these pictures. I hope that through my writing I will be able to conjure up the scenes of my childhood for them.
Sometimes buskers, hoping to earn a bob or two, would walk in the road dressed up and playing an instrument to entertain us. I remember my Mum’s reaction when two men dressed as women came along one day. “They are Aunt Sallies,” she said, “Don’t look at them. Come indoors!” I never knew why she said this and still don’t know to this day. I asked my Aunt Con about it one day and she said my Grandma used to say the same thing to her, but she never knew what she meant by it either.
Pavilion Cinema in Poplar 1930s
I used to love to entertain the local children. They would sit on the pavement and I would dress up, dance and sing for them. I loved the films and grew up with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and all the wonderful Ziegfeld showgirls who could be seen at the cinema in those days. You would see the main picture, then a B-Movie and during the interval an enormous Wurlitzer electric organ would rise up slowly from below the stage. The organ was white and glowed with multi-coloured lights and the organist wore a white suit. With a microphone beside him he would announce the songs he would play. The organist would end with his signature tune and wave. As the organ slowly descended back down below the stage you could hear the music slowly fading. Outings to the cinema with Mum and Dad in those days were wonderful.
During this entertainment the audience would have the opportunity to buy ice cream and sweets from girls with their goods hung on a tray by a strap round their neck. They wore white overalls with little caps and always looked clean and smart. Getting into the cinema wasn’t always easy; sometimes people would have to queue for a long time, especially if it was a good film and a Saturday night. The evening could end with disappointment if a sign suddenly appeared in front of the queue informing the public that all the sixpenny-and-one-shilling seats were now sold out. The cinema attendant would call out, “Sorry, no more seats, but there are some left in the one and sixpence.”
Some people would move over to the shorter queue and would stand in front of the sign that read ‘one shilling and sixpence’, but often for our family of six the difference was too much and we would all go home feeling disappointed.
After watching a show I would be full of thoughts of how much I would love to be an entertainer like the organist or a film star and dream of all the wonderful things I could do. At ten years of age everything seemed possible and that is the way I used to think. The world was my oyster, I told myself; all I had to do was to grow up. But I was not grown-up yet and the next best thing I could do was pretend to be and entertain my friends. So, I’d sing When the Poppies Bloom Again at the top of my voice, wearing my red tap shoes with some old lace curtains draped around me. I would dance and sing thinking I was Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland and the children would sit on the cold pavement to watch me.
Star struck is what I was, but I was not alone, as a lot of little girls felt the same way. This was a time when film stars dressed beautifully and wouldn’t be seen unless they were made-up and wearing the very latest fashions. Photos would show them smiling, looking glamorous, with beautiful furs draped around them and jewellery worn to excess. This was the way it was, fashion from head-to-toe: hats, matching gloves, handbags, shoes, and hair never out of place.
This was also the time of the Eugene permanent wave machine, fabulous furs, powder puffs, compacts, cigarette holders and silk stockings. Nylon had not been invented then and it was pure silk stockings for those who could afford them or lisle stockings for those who had to make them last.
People tried to present themselves with a good image and I loved to see my good-looking, tall mother dressed-up smart, and looking like a film star. Of course, how you dressed made an impression in those days, and it is a sad reflection to know that the poor were already being stigmatised by what they wore.
Mum was very conscious of cleanliness and I can recall the day when she called me to the window, then, with an air of secrecy, opened the curtain and told me to look out. “See that man selling the candy floss. Well you watch him. See how he has just licked his fingers and is now touching the floss which he is selling to that child. Can you understand why I do not want you to buy that stuff from him?” That picture was worth more than a thousand words to me. Mum was clever; I knew that. I dare not think what she would have said if she had found out about the locust we ate off the ground.
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
Memories of an East End Child by Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part Two