Photo Margaret Monck 1931-40 Museum of London
In the fifth instalment of Lorraine’s memories, she writes about the importance of her extended family. In the 1930s and 1940s on the Island it was not unusual for family relatives to live near each other and formed the nucleus of the close knit communities. Lorraine also discusses how difficult it could be for women especially widows with a large family.
I was born on my Grandma’s fiftieth birthday and I was her first grandchild. Maybe that is why I always felt such a strong bond with her. Grandma would never put on the gaslight till it got very dark. She was left a widow with seven children when she was forty-two and had learned to live on a very tight budget. We would sit in the glow of the firelight. I would talk and she would listen. There was a black stove with a kettle always on top of it, steaming away, ready for a cup of tea for whoever called. I loved my Grandma and I really enjoyed being with her. I would sit and watch her comb her long grey hair, and when she had finished she would take the hair that was in the comb, hold it in her fingers and twist it into string. With this she would tie the end of her plait to stop it from unwinding. Then she would wind the plait round and round the back of her head and with large hairpins she would fasten it into place. While she did this, the curling tongs would be heating on the gas ring. Holding them near to her face she would test their heat and when she felt they were the right temperature she curled her short fringe. This daily ritual would be in readiness for her youngest son, my Uncle Bill, coming home from work. Most men of his age were married in those days but he was the breadwinner and needed to help Gran.
Photo Margaret Monck 1931-40 Museum of London
Hair done, it was time for her daily change of overalls. This was always prettily printed cotton, which crossed over and folded across her big tummy and was tied at the back. Poor Gran had bad feet and wore black plimsolls. After all these preparations had been completed, Gran was ready to sit in her chair, resting and reading the evening paper, The Star. This was her time, and she deserved every minute of it.
Photo Cyril Arapoff 1931-1940 Museum of London
At one end of the room was an old organ and sometimes my Aunt Con would play it and sing. She was great and she and my Mum had good singing voices. Granddad, who died before I was born, was supposed to have been a great pianist and played and sung all over London. He was a ladies’ man so I have been told, and would be out all the time, working by day on the wharves and out all night, leaving my poor Grandma at home with the children. He was a bully and a drunk like a lot of men were in those days. Mum used to say that she wished he was still alive so she could give him a piece of her mind.
Grandma had a very hard life with him by all accounts and I used to feel very sorry for her when I looked at her stooped figure and the plimsolls on her poor feet. She had no real enjoyment out of life, especially as one of her beloved twin daughters had died at twenty-one. How could she live through such trauma and be so nice? This set an example for me, which I have always tried to follow. I often wonder if Gran knows what an important part she played in my life. I would like to think she does.
Crowded backyards at Totnes Terrace and Totnes Cottages on the Barnfield Estate, Millwall, in 1932
Every Saturday I would do her weekend shopping and she would give me a penny for doing so. Running errands was the way we children were able to save up and buy birthday and Christmas presents for her, Mum and Dad.
One day I tore my new best Sunday coat while climbing over a high fence at the Mudchute, another of the Isle of Dogs’ large parks. I ran to Grandma and she sewed it for me so Mum would not know and I could avoid a telling off. Later, I realised Mum must have known because the sewing was not very good and you could see it a mile off, but Mum never said a word and I think Grandma must have warned her not to say anything. That was my Gran!
Grandmas had a very special place in those days and provided security when children felt parents had been unjust or did not love them. I always knew that my Grandma understood, whatever the problem was. She would tease me about my long legs and say, “You will catch your legs in your dress if you are not careful.” Seeing as my dress was short this was quite a joke.
One day I saw a pair of brown brogue shoes in a shop window at Greenwich. I asked Mum if I could have them and she gave me the money to go “over the water” and buy them. I was so thrilled and showed them to Grandma, who said, “That is the first sensible pair of shoes I have ever seen on your feet.” You can imagine how happy that made me. I think Mum used to put me into ankle strap black patent shoes. I do not think she considered a brogue shoe fashionable at that time. My Mum was a very smart and fashion-conscious young woman; she was good-looking, tall and slim. I was very proud whenever she came to my school as she always stood out from the other mothers.
I realise now that she was only young then. She was twenty-nine when I was ten. I never thought of her as young, which is sad really, but then she was my Mum and that was all that counted. Most children never seem to care or know how old their parents are.
Now my Gran was always old, though looking back I realise she was only fifty-eight when we first came to live near her. A hard life does show, that’s for sure. She had lived on the Island for many years and was just a few houses away from us. Of course it was rented, as most houses were, and she had a living room in the Airey which was down a few steps and under the house. It never saw much daylight or sun.
On nice days people who lived in Aireys would lean on the railings at the top of the steps and watch people go by. Neighbours on their way to Mrs Kirks’ shop would stop and have a chat. My Uncle Bill would be there on a Saturday morning and would ask me to get him some razor blades or a packet of cigarettes and I would go to Mrs Kirks and he would give me a penny for going.
Grandma had the downstairs room and two bedrooms on the first floor and in the rest of the house there lived another family. At the back was a scullery where the washing was done in a copper. This worked by lighting a fire under it to heat the water and so the washing was boiled. The scullery always smelt of Sunlight soap and boiled beetroot. It had a damp stone floor and this is where Gran did her washing for all her family as well as the washing she took in to earn a few extra bob. One outdoor toilet served both families, but everyone had a jerry under the bed for use at night.
Gran had a hard life and died at eighty-six, having lived for twenty years with her youngest daughter and family in Reading. Sadly, my mother was full or remorse after Gran died. She cried as she told me how she would hide when she was little to avoid helping Gran. When she got older she realised how unkind she had been and sadly the guilt never left her. I am sure there are many children who carry some form of guilt in their later years, but as they were children one can forgive them.
With Tootal ties and pocket-handkerchiefs to match, my Dad was also a smart dresser. My parents loved going to the West End to see the latest shows and I was so pleased for them when they got all dressed up. I would feel very happy when they were going out to enjoy themselves. I was left in charge of my brothers when they went out, but Aunt Con and Gran were nearby if they were needed and Aunt Con would call and check on us every so often. She told me that once when she looked in I was dancing on the table with a friend watching me. I don’t think Mum would have liked to know that.
Before the war, Mum and Dad owned a hardware shop and Dad had a business as a master builder and decorator. He was a true artist and the work he did was beautiful. I would go to a house where he was working and watch him. His graining and marbling looked so real and he was always praised for his work. I was very proud of him. In those days, you could not buy ready-mixed coloured paint, so Dad had to mix his own.
Watching my father work was a real joy and I loved to be with him. There came a day when everything in the shop had to be sold off cheaply. There were Ack Ack guns on the Mudchute. Whenever the guns went off, the blast would knock some of the china off the shelves, ending up broken on the floor. It became necessary to sell everything and close the shop. This was sad, as it was a thriving business and the sale of the stock brought little of its true value. I remember we sold toilet rolls, which were a very new product and were special, as everyone had used newspaper until then.
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
Memories of an East End Child by Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part Three
Memories of an East End Child by Lorraine Roxon Harrington – Part Four