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

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‘Bridger’ at Westferry Road

In the next instalment of  Lorraine’s memories of  the East End in the 1930s, she finds going to a new school presents a series of challenges. She also recalls the pleasure of trips to the seaside and Sunday excursions around London.

I had passed the exam to get into a grammar school. To get to my school in Millwall it was necessary to take a bus over a bridge. This was an enormous swing bridge which opened to let the ships pass through. Many times our bus would have to wait while a big ship passed. Sometimes there was more than one ship, and this would make us very late for school. It was not a serious problem as teachers were used to this happening. All we had to say when we arrived late at school was “Sorry Miss, we had a Bridger.” If we saw that there was going to be a very long delay we would get off the bus and walk along the docks, cross a bridge further down which had not yet been opened and finish our journey to school on foot.

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Manchester Road bridge 1931. A.G.Linney.

I was really happy at Millwall Central School because at last I was free from the name-calling I had suffered at my other school. “Chinese eyes, Chinese eyes” is what the children would call after me. The bullying spoiled those early years, but somehow I still managed to do well at school, considering how unhappy I was. My parents were very proud of me and they saw I was a good student and always did my best. My marks and position in exams was always very good and once I came top of my class. I was very happy and proud of my new school and I looked forward to being free to study without having to cope with the unkindness I had been subjected to.

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Millwall Central Grammar School

My summer uniform was a Panama straw hat with a blue-and-white gingham dress, a navy blue blazer, white ankle socks and black shoes. In the winter, I wore a navy blue velour hat, matching gabardine coat, a striped blue and white tie, navy blue gym slip and a white blouse. Around my waist I wore a girdle that matched my tie. Black woollen stockings and black shoes completed the school’s regulation uniform, and I felt proud and privileged to wear it. The school emblem was an enamel badge with the design of a windmill.

I can remember being very worried the night before I started my new school. Mum and Dad had fulfilled all the requirements laid down by it. I had a brown leather satchel and my name was written inside it in ink with all the necessary equipment inside. However, there was one thing missing: a fountain pen. I had wanted so much to have a Conway Stewart Dinkie small fountain pen. I am sure had I asked Mum and Dad they would have got one for me, but instead I was given a big fountain pen the night before I started school. I was so worried I would not have a pen at all that it was a relief when I was given one. In those days, children were aware of the financial strain it was for parents to buy their school uniform, so they did not ask for a special sort of pen. We could not be disappointed about anything for long, as we were taught to appreciate and be thankful for what we were given. I counted my blessings and the little pen I had wanted so much was soon forgotten.

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French lessons were a breeze and I learned very quickly; I had a flair for the language, so I was told. I remember after the first few days at school one girl asked me if I could roll my Rs. I thought she said roll my eyes. It was quite funny when I said “Yes”, and proceeded to roll my eyes. This made us laugh and I have never forgotten it. I enjoyed indoor sports and was made vice captain of the team.
At my previous school I had been chosen to swim in the London Schools Swimming Gala. I swam breaststroke and won a bronze medal. I was a good swimmer, having already had three life saving certificates by the age of ten.

My aunt came to watch me with Mum and Dad. She and my uncle were so pleased with me that a few days later they took me across the water to Peckham Market and told me to choose whichever doll I liked. I chose one that was not very expensive and they told me to choose another, “It doesn’t matter how much it costs”, I was told. We had been brought up not to be greedy, so I stuck to the one I had chosen, even though there were dolls that were much more beautiful. I was about ten at that time. I called my doll ‘Rosebud’ and my uncle made me a rocking cradle for it. I used to have the cradle at the bottom of my bed with a piece of string tied to it and the head of my bed. I would pull the string gently as I was going to sleep and rock the cradle.

I loved babies and my life would have been ruined if I had found that, like some women, I was unable to have children. Happily, I married and had two sons and a daughter, but that’s another story.
After a while, Mum decided that I was too old to carry a doll around and looked silly because I was now growing fast and was very tall for my age. Without my knowledge, she gave Rosebud to a cousin I didn’t like. One day I saw Rosebud lying in my gran’s Airey with her head off. I think Mum would be upset if she had known how much this hurt me.

Going away for summer holidays was not a typical part of East End life in those days. We were lucky children though because we were taken on day trips of a Sunday. Quite a lot of the community went on holiday once a year to go picking hops in Kent. That way they earned money and also got away to the country. Big lorries collected families and off they went, returning a week later with big green apples to give to their friends. I had never seen such big apples in the shops.

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Southend 1930s

Trips to Southend-on-Sea were a real treat for us. We went there on a big steam train. The smell of the train’s smoke lingers in my memory and makes me relive those times as if they were happening now. Mum would be dressed-up smart with high heels that by the end of the day were crippling her feet so that she could hardly walk. This was something Mum always did because new shoes were part of the fashionable image she was obliged to portray. She was not alone in this as so many women did the same and because of this have suffered with bunions and bad feet for the rest of their lives.

When the tide was out, there was mud instead of sand and this was really something to see. A mile of mud to walk through to reach the sea, but we children never minded. You could smell the strong salty air and there were cockles and winkles, soft ice cream and the fun fair on the famous Southend Pier, and after that the ride home on the train. What more could a child ask for? Who cared about the mud?

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Speakers Corner 1930s

I have memories of days out going by bus and riding into the country with Mum and Dad. I must not forget to mention the Sunday trips to Hyde Park where Mum and Dad could listen to the soapbox orators. That was the time when Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were spreading the word of Fascism around the East End. In 1936 there was the Battle of Cable Street: a clash between the Metropolitan Police overseeing a march by the British Union of Fascists and anti-fascists made up of local Jewish, socialist, anarchists and Irish groups. There were not many working class people who were not politically minded in those days and rightly so, for they had little to lose, but much to gain if the right party came to power.

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London Zoo 1930s

Another of our famous London parks was Regents Park, which housed London Zoo. On other Sundays we would go to Hampstead Heath. Some Sundays we would all be dressed in our best clothes to go and visit our paternal grandparents. They had an antiques shop at one time and I used to be fascinated by some of the ornaments and furniture in their home.

I loved those visits because all the brothers, sisters and their families would be there. It was good to see Mum and Dad laughing, joking and also having heated political discussions. We children would play with our cousins and I would feel very happy. It would be late at night when we finally left and we would fall asleep on the bus going home.

We had many Sunday trips and I think we were very fortunate children because all those outings cost money. We had our first real holiday in August 1939. This was to be for two weeks with Mum, Aunt Con and Grandma. Dad was to visit at weekends. We went to Basildon, but war was imminent and Dad thought we should all return before the two weeks were up. So that was the end of our holiday.

We were fortunate to have our extended family living nearby. This allowed us to grow up feeling secure and protected. Aunt Con, Mum’s youngest sister, lived a few houses along the road. She was only ten years older than me, so she was more like a sister. She married at nineteen and seemed to be well off as she was always buying expensive food, such as mushrooms and cream cakes. Mum did not buy cakes, but made them herself. They were lovely but the cream cakes Aunt Con bought were so much better.

 

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 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.