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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.

catholic procession poplar 1931

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 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.