I cannot claim to be a true Plumstead
Commoner, as we only moved to Ebenezer Terrace about thirty
five years ago, but my forebears have lived in the Woolwich
and Plumstead area since at least 1800, maybe more. I was born
in Plumstead Road, not far from the Middle Gate. We frequently
trudged up Maxey Road, up the steps, along Hudson Road, past
Margaret's and along Blendon Terrace to go to the Globe
We used to show a bill for their programmes
which was viewed by people on the passing trams, for which we
received a complimentary pass for two people per week. By 1935
there were 'picture palaces' being built in Woolwich, the Odeon
and Granada, which were truly magnificent. The Globe was an
early 'Palace,' probably 1920ish, and by the 1940s was showing
its age. The brass work outside was still gleaming, but I did
not know it in its heyday. There used to be a corner shop by
the bridge in Maxey Road kept by Ernie Rodgers and his sister.
They also showed the bill, and had a pass, but Ernie was disabled
and they very rarely used their pass. There were four of us.
My father died in 1928 but my mother and two brothers were film
devotees so Ernie would lend us his pass sometimes. My big brother,
on these occasions, would wear a cap to age him sufficiently
to pass as Mr Rodgers.
the war my brothers were in the Navy and friends who lived in
Plum Lane invited Mum and I to share their cellar shelter when
the raids began, as they thought we were not in a good position,
right opposite the Arsenal wall. Their invitation was so pressing
that we agreed. The raid had already started when we set off.
To protect the Arsenal and the Docks, there was always a very
heavy barrage set up to discourage the bombers a bit. When the
shells exploded there was shrapnel galore. Air Raid Wardens
had tin hats but we were not so equipped and I well remember
the shrapnel pinging down and bouncing up off the road in Blendon
Terrace. We kept to the trees on the Common side, which wouldn't
have protected us much anyway, but luckily we were not shredded
and got to Plum Lane unharmed. We found the cellar full of friends,
and every sort of seating that could be found for so many, from
deck chairs to stools. The comfiest seating was allocated according
to age, and at thirteen years my priority was low. The next
morning we emerged aching in every limb ("death where is
thy sting, where grave thy victory"), so we spent the journey
back home concocting an acceptable excuse, in order not to hurt
the feelings of our friends, which we duly delivered the next
night. Shortly afterwards their firm was moved to Illminster
in Somerset, so all was well.
Ebenezer Terrace was built in 1848 and
is the oldest terrace on the Common. There used to be stucco
fancy work over our house, with the name and date, but it was
leaning forward three inches, according to the cracks in the
party walls in the roof space, and we could not risk it all
descending on us on the front steps, so very reluctantly had
to have it removed. These buildings are listed by the Council,
but they were so short of cash they could not help, asking to
keep the pictures my husband had taken, in case money should
ever be available to restore it, but I doubt this happy time
will ever come.
The terrace used to have quite high
railings in the front but they were all taken for scrap during
the war. The houses on the far end by Vernham Road were damaged
by bombing, when the stucco on that end disappeared. The only
example still remaining is over No. 100. Before 1848 there were
potteries on the site, and in Vernham Road. When gardening we
unearthed a lot of large glazed blocks and lumps, which had
been buried. I was in hopes we had discovered a kiln in situ,
but no such luck. I thought perhaps it might be the inside of
a salt glazing kiln. I imagine that throwing in a handful of
salt to volatise would glaze the interior as well as the items
being fired, but I do not know enough about the process to say.
On the other side of Vernham corner, there is a house which
used to be called "Lugano." Cottingham's College was
on the site now occupied by the old peoples' home. Cottingham's
son spent his honeymoon in Lugano and the house, in Swiss style,
was his surprise wedding present - I am not sure of the date.
The patch of Common opposite here makes a good helicopter landing
place when medics are required in a hurry for road accidents.
In 1936 I won a Junior County Scholarship,
which was before the eleven plus and comprehensives etc. I started
Warren School in January 1937. The headmistress was then
Miss Lillian Summers, whose super high class tones, when addressing
the assembled school I found quite unbelievable. I was three
months behind the rest of my year, who had started in September
(I had been in hospital) and they had had time to get used to
it. Had the term "you cannot be serious" been coined
at that time, I should have used it, but just had to think it.
School uniform was very strict. Dark
brown gym slip with beige blouse in winter, with dark brown
woollen stockings with double sections at the knees for hard
wear. Summer was beige dresses, blazers if you could afford
it - so I didn't get mine until 1938 - and beige lisle stockings
which my brother referred to as my "Old Mother Riley's"
(O.M.Rs for short). Nowadays it would be Norah Batty's. The
school had been the County Secondary School Plumstead, thus
the school motto (CSSP) was Courage, Service, Sympathy and Patriotism.
They celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of the move to
the Old Mill Road site while I was there. We paraded to St Mark's
Church behind the school banner (embroidered by the botany mistress,
Miss Spratt, I believe). Even cream gloves were mandatory with
the uniform on this occasion. Afterwards we had cakes and ICE
CREAM with tinned pineapple in the gym. As only shops had refrigerators
in those days, this rumour caused a sensation in the ranks,
bordering on disbelief until it actually materialised. Heaven
only knows what the present pupils of Plumstead Manor would
make of all this. 1938 was quite a different world. It is strange
that even as little as a decade requires explanation to those
who have not lived through it.
We used to have prayers every morning
and the school keeper would attend in his uniform looking very
smart. He was of mature years, and one morning he was accompanied
by a tall, dark and handsome young man who was his new assistant.
I was down the front in 1b at the time. During proceedings my
friend Audrey grabbed my arm and said "Oh Sheila, I do
feel weird" and promptly collapsed on me. I was hanging
on to her with chairs shooting about in all directions, when
the young man stepped forward, gathered Audrey up and carried
her to the sick room in a positively Douglas Fairbanks fashion.
When she recovered and came back to class rather grey looking,
she asked me what had happened. I reported on proceedings and
Audrey was aghast. "Whatever happened to my skirt?"
said she, with a vision of the dreaded brown bloomers, suspenders
and brown stockings on full view. But I was able to assure her
that he had done the job properly and secured her skirt with
his arm. "Did he?" said Audrey, brightening up immediately.
The next morning there were no less
than three young ladies, higher up the school who succumbed
to an attack of the vapours, and the young man had his work
cut out to deal with the situation. Miss Summers took immediate
action and by the very next morning he had been transferred
to the Roan Boys, and the health of her pupils took an upturn,
and life was no longer exciting. Spoil sport.
My brothers were on their yearly training
(Royal Volunteer Reserve) in August 1939 with H.M.S. Coventry.
It was supposed to be for two weeks, but we didn't see them
for years. They were in Alexandria when war was declared. When
they left my instructions were to look after Mum, so I did not
evacuate with the school, but stayed at home. There was no school
for a whole year. Then a
teacher started up in Bloomfield Woodwork Centre in Sandy Hill,
setting homework and marking it for us. As numbers grew they
opened up Bloomfield main school for boys and girls from all
of the Plumstead schools. We were all settling in there nicely,
when it was announced that the South East London Emergency Secondary
School for girls was opening at the Roan Girls in Greenwich,
and the boys at Colfe's in Lewisham. Naturally we did not want
all this hassle, but it was that or lose our grants, so from
1940-1943 I attended there.
King's Warren became an Ambulance Station
and a Fire Station, but a bomb destroyed half of it, though
it was rebuilt after the war, and "you can't see the join."
In 1940 the party walls of the houses in Warwick Terrace remained
standing and it looked like a toast rack, with just rubble where
the toast should have been.
In the 1930s we always walked to Plumstead
cemetery most Sundays to tend my father's grave. Everybody seemed
to do it in those days, as we frequently met mysterious relatives
that I did not know, also tending their graves. From Plumstead
Road near the Middle Gate that is quite a hike. My mother had
great difficulty in keeping afloat, as she didn't even qualify
for the 10/- (50p) widow's pension, and jobs were unobtainable.
But in those days everybody was in the same boat - or at least
everybody that I knew?. Nobody entertained the vast expectations
of this day and age. We used to walk up Maxey Road, Richmond
Hill and round to Durham Rise, where we often met friends who
were "Peculiar People," which was a very strict religious
sect. The Plumstead Peculiars are given an entry in the 1911
Britannica, but I think they have all died out now, as our friends
were leading lights in the movement. They would not have doctors
or any medical treatment. There was an outbreak of typhoid and
Lily nearly died. The authorities took a hand and she was taken
to hospital willy nilly. There were several little chapels in
Durham Rise: Baptists, Strict Baptists and Particular Strict
Baptists. They seemed to get stricter as you went up the hill!
We then proceeded along Waverley Terrace,
Old Mill Road, down and up the steps at the ravine to Winn's
Common - which was not the lush prospect it is now, but stony
and dusty, with just a few little chamomile daisies here and
there - down King's Highway, where there used to be gypsy caravans
on the right hand ravine. Then it was all along Wickham Lane,
which was all brick fields on the right, and the left was allotments.
When the Ayling Houses were built along there, there were tales
of rhubarb coming up through the floorboards.
When we had weeded and watered the grave,
Mum gave us the option of a tram ride home or an ice cream.
As I was only six or seven, I would have opted for the tram
but the boys, thirteen and fifteen, chose the ice cream usually,
and gave me a piggy back home.
My grandmother, Louisa Dodsworth, 1860-1916,
as a child lived in Garland Road and my mother told me that
she went to school in the Ascension Church Halls, behind the
Ascension vicarage on Winn's Common (as confirmed by Ivy Runacres)
all now demolished. Louisa later trained as a nurse at the Woolwich
Union Infirmary, which later became St
Nicholas Hospital, all now closed. Even as late
as about 1933 there was a workhouse there as well. The men wore
a uniform of grey tweed suits (reminiscent of the demob. suit
my husband was issued with circa 1948). The ladies wore pink
dresses with grey shawls and bonnets - I dimly remember seeing
them when I was very small.
Louisa was on duty in the Infirmary
the night the survivors from the Princess Alice disaster were
brought in, when, if they were not in time with the stomach
pumps to get the river water out of them, they died of poisoning.
Five hundred and fifty died, and it is still the greatest loss
of life in a land-based disaster. There have been more at sea,
but that is not the same problem, as this one necessitated identification
and inquests that went on for months, depending on which county
foreshore the bodies were washed up. Most of the inquests were
held in the old Town Hall in what is now Calderwood Street,
next to Woolwich Library. In 1878 this all proved a terrible
problem. Their memorial is in Woolwich Cemetery in King's Highway.
The Common seems to have had its fair
share of disasters. According to W.T. Vincent, when the school
(now St Margaret's) opened, a poor little chap died walking
home alone during a blizzard. It was some time before the snow
melted and he was found underneath a hedge in Swingate Lane.
About twenty years ago a father bringing his children to school
was shot in full view of all the parents and children. Mercifully,
though, the Common is usually a peaceful and pleasant place
to be, and long may it remain so.