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

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Buscot Park

In the final part of Lorraine’s memories, she is faced with the realities of the war with Germany. Like many other children it was decided she should be evacuated to escape the worst of the bombing. Most children were sent to a host family, however unusually Lorraine with her brothers were sent to a stately home called Buscot Park where many of her brother’s school were evacuated.  When it was decided to split up the children and put them into private homes, Lorraine’s parents bought the family back home, little realising the horrors of the Blitz were just about to be unleashed.

About this time, everything started to change. The effects of war with Germany were starting to be felt and children from all the schools in the London area were evacuated to different parts of the country. We never went away as my parents did not see the need and they did not want to be without us, so kept us at home.

The war had not affected us seriously yet. We carried our gas masks with us all the time and the windows had brown paper strips stuck on them to stop the glass from flying about in case of a blast. Blackout curtains were compulsory and everyone’s windows had to be well covered so that not a chink of light could be seen. Air raid wardens walked the streets, checking that not a glimmer was showing anywhere.

Rationing had started and families had sons coming home on leave in the uniform of the services they joined. Some looked very smart and older girls would be seen walking proudly beside them.
With the schools closed and children evacuated, there were not many children left to play with. Mum decided she would try to give us a few lessons. Some of the other children who had stayed behind like us were invited to join in. This was fine for my young brothers, but was not good for me. Mum did her best, but I was learning algebra, geometry and French, and poor Mum had no knowledge of these subjects. Gradually my desire and thirst for knowledge began to fade, and with them went my confidence.

My parents must have realised it was not good for children to live this way, so it was decided we had to be evacuated. Mum wrote to Mrs Freeborn, the headmistress of the Cubitt Town Infants School which my three brothers’ attended, asking if we could be evacuated to Buscot Park where the school had been moved to. There was no way that Mum and Dad would allow us to be split up and so she asked for all four children to be together. This meant I was with infants .I asked Mum in later years where my school had been evacuated to, but this was something she could not remember.
But now, through the internet I have found out where my school was evacuated to and it was Chippen Camden in Gloucestershire.

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Buscot Park Gardens

There were three or four teachers at Buscot Park. Mr Wood was one of them. I remember him very well, and I can see his face as clearly as though I had seen him yesterday. There was a big lake and it was part of  Buscot  Park , Lord Farringdon’s Estate. I can recall quite vividly one of the days when we were all swimming in the lake. I swam under the murky water and deliberately grabbed Mr Wood’s leg for a joke. I thought I would scare him and make him think it was some monster fish. A  monster fish in an English lake? I ask you! But don’t forget, this was a child with a lively imagination.

Mr Wood was a nice teacher and took it in good fun. Looking back now, I think it was really quite a cheeky thing to do to a teacher and I was lucky not to be told off, but the teachers were very nice to us and we liked them very much.

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Buscot Park Gatehouse

During this time I missed my parents. It was a very sad and hard time for me. My brothers slept at the gatehouse with the other boys, a large building at the entrance to the estate. The girls had their rooms at the top of the big house, with two girls to a room. The big house was Lord Farringdon’s stately home, standing in acres of land. There were beautiful laid-out gardens, a swimming pool and tennis courts. We were told there was also a small theatre with seating for seventy, but none of us ever saw inside of it, so I do not know if it really existed.

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Buscot Park Theatre

The top floor where the girls slept had been the servants’ quarters, but most of those servants had been conscripted and were busy doing war work or were in the armed forces. The stables had been converted into a dining room and the walls were painted with frescoes. We sat at long trestle tables all joined together to have our meals and I think there were about thirty-five children living there.
Just outside the stables there was a huge tree, it must have been an oak. Thick branches extended from it. Some of the children would sit on the lowest branch and sing songs while we waited for the dining room to open. Even though I missed my parents I can recall some very happy times at Buscot. I used to sit on a branch of the oak tree and sing of a morning and watch for my brothers coming from the gatehouse with the other boys. I used to check them over to see they had washed and were tidy. Nearly every time one of them had a hole in his sock. Darning socks was a never-ending chore.
One day, as I was picking primroses in the woods, a group of children came running, shouting out to me, “Come quickly, your brothers Harry and Donald are drowning.” I was frantic with worry and ran to the lake as fast as I could. There they were, my dear brothers, out in the middle of the lake in a boat that was leaking. I loved them very much and the idea of them drowning was too much for me. I thought of my poor parents, of how they would feel if they were told their sons had drowned. In my imagination they were already dead. I was in a dreadful state by the time I reached the lake. Out of breath, I stood and shouted at them as best I could. They were both laughing at me, provoking me by standing up in the boat and making it rock. It seemed an age had passed before they managed to get the boat back to the edge of the lake. Looking back now, I realise that it was not as serious as I had thought, but I suppose it gave the other children a bit of excitement and something to talk about. I was a very conscientious sister and would sit up in bed until late at night darning my brothers’ socks. Mr Wood came once to tell me that I must turn the lights out, but he let me keep them on a little longer when he saw what I was doing.

Mum and Dad were upset when they heard about me darning socks, especially because I had not told them my brothers needed new ones. Times were hard, and I did not want to worry them. I felt responsible for my brothers’ welfare, as Mum and Dad were not around to look after them. My duty as a sister was to see they were all right, and I took this very seriously. My brother, Harry, was ten then. Donald was nearly nine and Derek was six. I was thirteen. We had another scare and this one could have easily ended in real tragedy. One day, one of the little girls climbed outside the window of her bedroom on the top floor and walked out onto the parapet. She would have been about four years of age. A teacher, Mrs Alchurch, tried to coax her back in. She also tried to keep the rest of us calm while she leaned out of the window and tried to talk the child into coming back inside. She had warned us to be very quiet and not make a sound. Mrs Alchurch managed to get the girl to turn round and walk back along the parapet. The teacher then grabbed her and pulled her into the room. The parapet was very narrow and that child was lucky not to have fallen.

The girls in the bedroom next to ours used to put notes onto a Dinkie clip, which was used to curl hair, and tie them to a long piece of string and throw it out of the window along the parapet. We grabbed the clip as it landed near our window. We wrote a note, attached it to the clip and sent it back. It was all very secretive and exciting; even though there was nothing special happening to us that was worth writing about. Sometimes we would go into Farringdon to see a film, accompanied by a couple of teachers. It was so good to walk along the quiet country road all in line. Often I called at the post office to collect parcels from my parents. They contained Mum’s fairy cakes, sweets and pocket money. They were too big to carry all the way into Farringdon, so I would hide them in a roadside bush and collect them on my way back. My teacher congratulated me on my initiative, which made me feel very proud.

Water lilies on the lake and a waterfall were a joy to see. Buscot was a wonderful place for a child to live. There was a big nursery where a gardener grew the seeds he nursed into plants. These would be planted around the grounds in cultivated beds. I remember asking if I could buy one of the beautiful pansies which were growing in the nursery; they were the biggest pansies I had ever seen. I wanted to surprise Mum by presenting it to her as a gift, but when I was told it would cost two shillings and sixpence, I had to forget about it. Half a crown was too much money. Mr Buck was Lord Farringdon’s secretary. We saw him strolling around the grounds. He seemed a nice man and always said hello to us.

On special days we had bread and jam for tea. This was a real treat. I made the little blob of jam on my tea plate last and last. At jam tea we were allowed to have as much bread and margarine as we could eat. I made the most of it, leaving the table with the feeling of having had plenty of food, which was unusual during rationing. When I felt very hungry my Mum’s fairy cakes were very welcome. I divided them equally to share with my brothers, but once I ate some before they knew the parcel had arrived. I never told them about this. I was too ashamed. What a horrible sister I was to do that. To think I stole from my little brothers. Guilt enveloped me and I knew I would never do such a thing again. I realise now that hunger could have been the only reason for my behaviour. When the next parcel came I gave my share to my brothers, then I felt better.

When Mum and Dad came to visit Buscot on a Sunday, they would take us out and we would have a lovely time. It was just as it used to be. We were all together again as a family. My brothers and I needed that comfort. Lots of the parents arrived by coach. They would go to the local pub while the children waited outside for them. My parents came by themselves on a bus. Sometimes my uncle and aunt would be with them. I loved those times and remember the Anchor Inn where my parents took us for tea. It was owned by two brothers, their names were Eric and Douglas Cutts. It was a lovely country inn. Everything about it was special for me. Their homemade blackberry jam consisted mostly of whole berries. I have tried to make jam like it over the years but have never been successful. I ask myself now whether it really was that good, or was that just the way a hungry child remembers it? I can still taste and see that jam as I write and I am convinced it was special. We would go to Buscot village and Lechlade to buy sweets and post our letters. Looking back, I think we were allowed to go on our own after tea and before going to bed. I recall the evenings were always fine when we went out. It must have been summer time when we were evacuated. Once there was a dreadful commotion and the story went around that someone had put chewing gum in the service lift. The story went like this: A princess was dining with Lord Farringdon at the time. The butler had lifted a tray from the service lift which had glasses on it. Chewing gum was found stuck to the bottom of the tray. As the butler lifted the tray the gum made him need to pull hard, causing all the glasses to fall to the ground. Many were broken. The story could have been made up to stop children putting chewing gum in places where it shouldn’t be. I never found out, but I did wonder. At the time I was very concerned, thinking one of my brothers could have done it. My imagination, as usual, ran riot and I was very worried. I thought about poor Mum and Dad having to pay for the broken glasses. I knew they would be very expensive because they belonged to a lord. Oh dear!

At bedtime, we would go quietly up the stairs all together, with a teacher in charge. As we went up those stairs we saw rooms leading off the landing. They looked so beautiful and luxurious, I imagined the many guests who must have visited Buscot and been entertained in them. For a child from the East End, it was quite something to see the beautiful peacocks and peahens strutting around the estate. I loved the look of them but hated the screeching sound they made. They were like a fantasy from one of my books. The book I loved most of all had black-and-white drawings in the style I know now to be William Morris. All my books were lost when our house was bombed. That was very sad for me. I have searched hoping to find one of these books. Sadly, I had no such luck. I can still feel the book’s lovely thin paper. The pages felt like silk.

One day, my parents heard that all the children were going to be put into private homes in the nearby villages as a private girls school was going to be moved in. This upset my parents very much as they were socialists and considered this to be a slight on children from the working class area of the Isle of Dogs. I have recently learned a private girls school from Kent was moved in and there are photos of girls on bikes and playing tennis. None of these opportunities were available to us kids from the East End which says a lot.
The possibility that the four of us would be separated would not suit my parents and so they took us back home to London. We had not been home for long when the Blitz began in September 1940. It was a nightmare. There was the smell of burning everywhere. Water was pouring out from the mains, flooding the roads. Chemical factories were exploding. People walked about in a daze not knowing what to do. We listened to the constant drone of the German bombers as they blackened the skies, flying low, relentlessly dropping their heavy bombs over London. Their target was the docks. With the docks all ablaze and the sky glowing bright red it was easy for the planes to return the next night and follow the curve of the river. Inside the curve was the Isle of Dogs, all lit up, an easy target for the bombers. It was an awful feeling, knowing there were men up in the sky, intent on killing us. I imagined the faces of the pilots, their goggles, the leather uniforms they wore, and I was frightened. We all felt so tired during the day, having been woken up so many times in the night. We knew that whenever the sirens sounded, we had to get to the shelter quickly. To leave your lovely warm bed and go downstairs out into the cold night air and into the Anderson air raid shelter was no joke.

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German Bomber above the Isle Of Dogs

Dad had dug our shelter down into the ground. These shelters were sometimes referred to as ‘dug outs’. It was at the bottom of the garden, covered with earth to camouflage it. Sometimes we were down there all night before the all-clear sounded. There were nights when we were forced to make the trip to the shelter three times. Just as we had settled down to sleep in the shelter, the all-clear would sound. We would trail back upstairs to bed. Then, just as we were getting off to sleep, warm and cosy, the siren would sound again. Down we would all go, back to the shelter in the garden.
I remember my mother asking once when we were down in the shelter, “Where is Donald?” Donald, who was always a heavy sleeper, had not followed us. That was very worrying and Dad had to go back and fetch him. A bomb could have dropped and they both could have been killed. We were among the lucky ones. Dad had painted the inside of our shelter with whitewash. Being a decorator he always made everything nice for us in the house and now the shelter was our house too. He did his best to make us comfortable. The whitewash made the place much brighter. When the candles were lit, it was nice and bright. I know a lot of shelters were very dark inside and were quite frightening to be in. It is surprising that we could even speak of being cosy and comfortable. Being together was the most important thing in the world at that time and the shelter offered a sense of security. That was until a bomb dropped so near us that we felt as though we had all been thrown up into the air, spun around and then put down again, shelter and all.

There was a night when we could hear heavy footsteps walking over the top of us. Dad was not with us. Mum and I were awake and frightened in case it was a German who had managed to get out after his plane had been knocked down. We sat there terrified until the footsteps died away. The next day we saw big footprints in the earth on top of the shelter. Someone said it could have been a scrounger. These were people who went searching in houses that had been bombed, taking the belongings that were left there.

At that time Dad was doing war work over the water. This meant he was across the river, on the other side of the Thames. When the sirens sounded, the tunnel was closed and Dad and many others were unable to get home. Mum used to be worried and because I was the eldest she shared her worries with me. We made sure my brothers were never troubled by our fears. They were little and had to be protected as much as possible. She would read to us from a novel Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping. It was a sad story, but a lovely one. I looked forward to Mum reading a piece each night but my brothers soon fell asleep. I was the only one listening to Mum after a little while. She also used to knit socks for my brothers in the candlelight and some nights we would all play guessing games until we were tired and fell asleep, exhausted.

My parents didn’t wait too long to move out of the East End once they realised how determined the Germans were to destroy London, the Docks being their main target. We had all been under the illusion that the German planes would never be able to get through the barrage balloons that flew high in the sky over the city. Now we realised how wrong we had been. On one particular night, we went to see my father’s parents to ask them to move away with us. They said they couldn’t leave the rest of the family. That night on our way home the siren sounded earlier than usual. The streets were suddenly deserted. An air raid warden directed us into a public shelter under an electricity showroom in Poplar. It was already full with beds on the floor and people standing. We had no room to move. We were squashed together all night, standing in the same place. Suddenly there was an enormous crash. We could hear the sound of plaster falling. People started to rush to the exit but were turned back and told to keep calm. We waited for another loud bang, but it never came. All we could hear was a rumbling sound, which seemed to be all around us.

Early in the morning, after the all-clear had sounded, we walked to the bus stop to catch our bus home to the Island. We waited and waited. Mum began to get very cross because we were waiting such a long time and no bus had arrived. It was decided that we had better start walking. We were all tired and worn out from standing up for eight hours without sleep. As we walked through the familiar areas we realised the extent of the devastation that had taken place while we were down in the shelter. Houses were still burning; people were standing in groups, crying. Whole streets were gone. It was unbelievable. No one could imagine a bomb flattening a whole street of houses. This night was the start of the use of land mines. We walked through the devastation, passing the shells of houses that had stood tall the night before, wondering what we would find when we reached Stebondale Street. Would Gran and Uncle Bill be there? Would Aunt Con, Uncle Chris and their baby Terry be all right?

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East End War Damage

We wanted to get home and find the answers, but our legs were tired and it took ages to reach home that day. We were lucky. Our house had been bombed, but was not completely demolished and all our family were  alive, but it was still a nightmare. The smell of burning was everywhere. Water was pouring out from the mains, flooding the roads. Chemical factories were still exploding. People were walking about in a daze, not knowing what to do. We saw people with blackened faces, crying because they had lost everything. The London Fire Service was working so hard, but they were worn out, having worked all night fighting blazes in the docks. These pictures remain so vividly in my memory.
Our cat, Ginger, had managed to survive the night. He came up to us, purring and wrapping himself around our feet. I picked him up and cried, burying my head in his fur. I cried for Ginger, for myself and for everyone. The worry of the bombers returning suddenly during the daytime was very frightening. This was always in my mind when people were standing around chatting. Didn’t they realise that the planes could come again? Why were they outside in the street where they could be hit by planes swooping down to machine-gun them? What were they thinking of? I thought then that adults should show more sense. That night we slept in my Aunt Con’s shelter. It was dark and claustrophobic. I stood outside with the grownups, watching the planes flying low in great numbers. You could see them so clearly as the whole sky and docks were lit up. It was like Guy Fawkes Night, with the noise of the bombs dropping and chemical factories exploding.

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East End War Damage

A few days later Dad made the decision that we had to leave in order to be safe. My mother’s two sisters, May and Con, with their children and my maternal Grandmother came with us and the husbands left Dad to take care of us all, saying they would join us in a few days’ time. My father’s parents having refused to come with us and stayed, as many Londoners did, living through the whole of the bombing of London. They lived through the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs, sleeping every night in the nearest underground tube station till the war in Europe ended. Such bravery is written about in many books. It was a time of great fortitude and courage. A time when no one could think of tomorrow. We left with nothing. We were refugees from London. It was planned that we would all live at Buscot and we caught a train, intending to go there. It was late at night when the train stopped at Reading. We were all so tired and worn out that it was decided we should stay the night there.

My Aunt May and my parents had friends who lived there. They made up beds on the floor, gave us food and made us very welcome. I will never forget that night. It was like another world and yet we were only forty miles from London. It was quiet and peaceful, almost unbelievable. There was not a sign of a war going on. No sirens sounded and we were able to sleep right through the night until the morning. It was on that night that I made myself a promise. I would in future always appreciate my bed and my sleep. Many years have passed and I still appreciate my sleep and a comfortable bed, for I can never forget the tiredness we suffered and the torture of not being allowed to have a full night’s rest.

The next day the grownups decided that we would not go on to Buscot after all, but look for a house so that all the family could live together until each had found suitable accommodation. They found a large house. Mum had to take the top floor, as we were all older children. Every drop of water had to be brought up from three floors down. There were times when we had only coal dust to make a fire in the room. All our family had to sleep in one room and eat, cook and wash in the other. The toilet was downstairs in the garden. Dad was away working at Rochester and came home at weekends when he could.

Life was never the same again for me. My schooling had been so disrupted that when I was sent to E.P. Collier Grammar School in Reading I could not concentrate or remember anything. I did not know which was North, South, East or West. I did not know which was my right or my left, and the most ordinary simple things I had learned when in primary school had gone. All I could do was simple maths and this I did well. Children were unkind, as children will be, and again I suffered name-calling. This time it was “Evacuee”. I was nearly fourteen when I started at the Reading school. I was put into a class lower than where I was at my school in Millwall. “Oh! You are an evacuee?” This was said as if I had something wrong with me. Children would call after me too. It all became too much and I begged my mother to let me leave school. I think she must have realised that I was no longer the keen, industrious student I had been and finally she went to the school and asked if they would release me. I was supposed to stay until I was sixteen, but by then I was fifteen and they allowed me to go.

Even though I was not happy at school I was certainly not ready to go out into the wide world to work. I had been playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers and still felt like a child. I know I felt very uncomfortable in my shoes that had Cuban heels, flesh-coloured stockings instead of black wool tights and curled hair. No more white ankle socks; no more school uniform. I had to grow up suddenly. Children adapt easily so they say, and I was one who did.

Soon I was into fashion, make-up, and curling my long thick chestnut hair into the latest styles, a skill that I developed a flair for. I was now grown up, and I had no idea it had happened. I had always thought I would feel different, with the world suddenly opening up, giving me the chance to do all the things I wanted to do and be all the things I wanted to be. But it was not like that at all. So the years passed by and the war ended. Reading became the place where my parents settled for the rest of their lives. Mum lived there until 2001, when she passed away aged 95. Even at 90, she still looked good and liked to present herself well. Every morning she made-up and put on her earrings. She cooked every day for herself and was still fussy about hygiene. Dad died nine years before Mum, and she missed him an awful lot.

Many years ago we returned to Buscot Park. The gardens and lake looked unkempt. The stately home was no longer stately. Everything seemed to be so much smaller than I remembered it to be. It was all very disappointing. The wonder it once held had gone and I was sad.
However, memories stay and I can still visualise the wild primroses growing in the woods. I can hear and see the peacocks, and the bluebells are  still tall and blue. The lake is as it was and the gardens with the water lilies in the pond are still beautiful. The enormous oak tree we used to swing on while waiting to be called for breakfast is still there. So I will not be sad for what no longer exists but I will close my eyes and reawaken the many scenes that made me happy as a child.

Since my visit, I am happy to write that Buscot Park has been restored. The gardens are well kept and it belongs to the National Trust.  it is open to the public and well worth visiting.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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

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Photo taken 1933. Left to right. Donald, Violet and Harry.

Recently I was contacted by Lorraine Roxon Harrington who kindly sent some of memories of her childhood on the Isle of Dogs. Lorraine paints a vivid picture of the Island in the 1930s and 1940s, in those days she was known as Violet Smith and lived in Stebondale Street.  Her recollections begin at the start of the World War II, where she describes her family, surroundings and  the strange appeal of  ‘locust’.

When World War II was declared I was twelve-and-a-half years of age. I had previously attended Cubit Town Infants School but had passed my exams and was now at Millwall Central Grammar School. My name was Violet Smith and we were a family of six. There was Mum, Dad and my three younger brothers. I remember us as a close, loving family.
I believe the war did a lot of harm, but as the saying goes, “Out of evil cometh good”, and the one good that came out of the bombing was the demolition of houses ridden with bugs, mice and fleas. Most of these slum houses were owned by the church, and I can understand why my parents were non-believers and could see no good in religion when church authorities allowed such houses to exist, whilst collecting rent from poor people. But our house was not one of them, and Dad, being a builder and decorator, kept it in good order. The area is now very different and part of it is called the Docklands. New, expensive town houses have been built where the wharves once were, and by their sides are moorings for their owners’ boats.

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Island Gardens 1945

As a child, I would sit in Island Gardens, a park at the end of our street. The gardens had a playground with a cafeteria and the river Thames flowed past. This is where the underground tunnel to Greenwich is situated. It stands as it was, unchanged by the war. Before the war it was usual for me to sit on one of the park benches on my own and watch the boats go up and down the river laden with cargo. The Thames was always dark brown and murky with bits of old wood and rubbish floating along in the current. Hours would go by and I would write down the names and draw the flags of the boats as they sailed along the river.

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Millwall Central Grammar School

Because I was a child with a lively imagination quite a lot of my time was spent daydreaming. My thoughts would carry me away to the countries the boats had come from. Here there was a particular smell, which can still easily evoke memories of the past. When a mist surrounded the area, the smell became more prominent. Of the many things that made up the smell was something called locust. There would be lots of it lying on the ground in the street near the wharves and we children would pick it up and eat it. It was sweet to taste and many years later while on holiday in Spain I saw this curved fruit hanging from the tree. In Spain, the fruit was a nice, fresh, green colour, but it was black and dried when we used to eat it. We had no idea whether it was suitable for human consumption, but we all ate it and no harm came to us. I think it was ground down and used as cattle feed. In those days, children never thought of hygiene and maybe a few of the germs we picked up gave us some protection from disease.

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Lots of children would go to the wharves and play on the barges moored by the river, but my brothers and I were never allowed to go near them because Mum and Dad told us it was dangerous and that children had been known to drown or be crushed between two barges. We never heard of any child getting hurt, but that was the story Mum and Dad told us and it was good enough to keep us away. I did go with a friend a couple of times and was amazed at the pieces of broken white clay pipe that were washed up on the muddy beach. I would take a few pieces and use them to draw hopscotch lines on the pavements. How they came to be there, I still do not know. The only reason I can think of is that sailors threw them in the sea when they were broken. They must have been discarded years ago and so they were of great interest to me.
We were lucky children as a park backed onto the end of our garden and although a great deal of poverty existed in the East End, children were never short of parks. There was Greenwich Park with Plum Pudding Hill and Island Gardens where the large domed entrance to the foot tunnel was situated. There was also Blackheath and Kidbrooke, but they were too far away to go to alone.

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Greenwich Tunnel Entrance

We lived in Stebondale Street, which led to Island Gardens. The park was home to a round iron lift built in Victorian times. A ride down the lift and a walk through the tunnel and then up another lift and you would arrive in Greenwich. Sometimes, I would play a game with myself imagining that the tunnel suddenly cracked and the river came rushing in and I would run quickly through the tunnel in order not to drown. White glazed tiles covered the tunnel’s curved walls, which were always wet with condensation; I used to think this was the river seeping through. We would shout while running through the tunnel so we could hear the hollow sound and the echo of our voices. I can still hear the noise of the gates as they closed. It was all so exciting and the use of the tunnel was free for everyone to use, and still is today.

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.