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Memories Of Childhood

by Alan West

My earliest memories are of the barrage balloons tethered to cables and being pulled down by a huge drum winch, situated in front of the Co-op buildings at the Links. Also the underground public air raid shelter, situated at the same site.

In the winter of 1947 there were very heavy and deep snow falls. My grandfather had to clear access to our house as the arrival of my new sister was imminent. The snow proved to be more fun though, than my new noisy baby sister!
I was then frequently shunted off to other adults after she arrived. One such adult was Harry Finch, who had a shop in Waverley Crescent and also a garage backing onto it, in Villas Road. I spent many happy childhood hours here and acquired a lifelong interest in the motor trade . Next door to the shop was a bakers, owned by relatives of the Finches, who were of German/Austrian extraction and had been refugees. Uncle Werner was an imposing figure who always had superb cakes at hand! As Harry had one of the very few usable cars available after the war, groceries for special customers were delivered, usually while driving Dr. Wise around on house calls.

One particularly grand house was Powis Lodge, situated behind St. Margaret's. It had a huge garden which was typically Victorian, full of statues and was also abundant in wildlife. The occupants were two spinsters and an artistic nephew, Jidge. The house of Dr. Wise, in Burrage Road also seemed huge. Quite often I was taken into the consulting room to observe the patients. Then, at the mid morning break, I had to recount to the Doctor what I had observed, while sherry and biscuits were consumed before the house calls, which could be fun!

Uncle Harry would drive Dr. Henry and me around Plumstead. If the Doc lit up a cigarette before getting out there was a good chance I would be invited in, "To build up your resistance young man." Frequently, as we were leaving one of the little terraced houses, one of the residents would hover near the front door to see us out and after a short muttered conversation Dr. Henry would explain that now, with the new system, there was no need to worry about paying, although often enough, something wrapped up (and dead) would be discreetly handed over to him!

1947 was a memorable year for me. My first visit to St. Nick's, was with a broken leg and the first time I saw a television, which was in the Lord Raglan pub, was to watch, I think, some Royal event.

Early Common memories were, an assortment of old boys sitting near the bowling green in Waverley Crescent with various limbs missing, they were probably WW1 veterans. Opposite where they were sitting there was a large hill, possibly another public air raid shelter I think. Heavitree Road provided us kids with an adventure playground which were large bombed out houses with only the cellars left which had very ornate tiling.

At Conway Primary School my first classroom was next to a room that had lots of mini beds. I never got to have a siesta there though! Milk was dished out with cod liver oil and malt, much better than the capsules, although if you could get the top off the milk carefully and drop a capsule in and replace the top it was fun watching who got it and whether they started to drink it before the curdling had started! I have remained in touch with my two 'minders' who were a couple of years older than I. They prevented any problems for me and it also meant that I was invited to play cricket and other games with the big boys.

The first teacher I remember was Miss Weekes [it must have been very early days of pointed bras] with hindsight, all the teachers were probably very young. Others I recall are, Mr Mockeridge, Mr Lovatt, Mr Jenkins, Mr Given, Mr Ellison, Miss Hancock, Miss Carruthers.

Mr Given had a motor cycle combination with a very pretty young lady passenger [Kings Warren uniform]. Somehow, he recognised me some 15 years later, when I had a petrol station in Blackwall Lane!

Mr Jenkins, my last teacher, had an autocycle, [a bicycle with a small motor] which was repaired in class, my first lessons in small engines!

The Headmaster was Cyril Bull, who was also a local JP. Cakes were always available at his house situated in Grosmont Road, on Winn's Common by a car breakers yard. Even if he found us caving nearby, I think near to Grosmont or Purret Roads, in the very sandy soil around those areas. The council later erected flats on this same land.

The first time I remember the Tannoy speaker system being used at Conway School was in 1952, when we were called to the assembly hall to be told the King was dead. I think we were then sent home.

The next year we all trooped along to the cinema near Plumstead Police Station to see the film, 'The Conquest of Everest.

Coronation celebrations included the school giving out commemorative gifts and the street parties had mums dressed in more colourful clothes than I could ever remember.

War with St. Patrick's RC School, on the corner of Griffin and Conway Roads, was a permanent war in our junior school days. [the girls were, I thought, rather attractive when dressed in white, on their confirmation day] however, it was a radical change when these young ladies went on to Ursuline Convent School in Blackheath.

School uniform was instigated during our time at Conway. We were told how the castle motif on our school badge was modelled on Conway Castle in North Wales.

I was usually the wicket keeper in the school cricket team. Matches were played opposite The Brown School, [King's Warren ] in Old Mill Road. The end of the match was the best bit, when teachers and enthusiastic parents adjourned to the Woodman Pub or The Old Mill for post match celebrations.

During the thick London smogs we kids actually looked forward to being out in them. Adults were often completely lost while some of us developed the ability to recognise where we were, by remembering the front walls and gateposts of the neighborhood houses . On one occasion, during one of these thick smogs, my mother and I helped to get some younger kids safely over to the Links. Strangely, from Conway Road to the top of Griffin Road we were all invisible in the smog. Yet, when we got to the Common the taller adults heads were visible above the smog while all us kids were still invisible, engulfed in the acidic murk, the taste of which was horrible.

My last year at Conway was enlivened by the school journey to the Isle of White. Memorable events were a car rally along the sea front, also stressing teachers out on the ferry crossings. It was great fun and the trips were even better than our short trips on the Woolwich Ferry!

I recall the reopening of the Ravine pond pools just after the war, after they were cleaned up. The pipe entering the top pond went up and branched off towards Slade School and the other towards the Working Mens, as best as I can remember. There were lots of bats up the pipe past the intersection. At one time I saw snakes of some sort swim across the top pond, (probably grass snakes) also plenty of newts. Occasionally, slow worms could be found among the gorse bushes. The jungle above St Nick's (Hospital grounds) also was good for wildlife nature hunting, if we didn't take noisy whinging kids with us! The fence wasn't any better years later, when we needed to smuggle young ladies back in after hours!

Boney's sweetshop, which smelt of battery acid (used for recharging the radio battery accumulators) gave us money for empty lemonade bottles which he stored in the alley way at the side of shop, where they were liberated by kids and resold back to him! They must have been recycled so many times! Neighbours paid us to take their radio batteries, which were big glass accumulators, for recharging. A scrap paper merchant was based in the street opposite, Elmley or Robert Street.

Collecting horse manure was another good earner. Gardeners were always willing to pay us for this valuable commodity and their wives sometimes paid us with cake or fruit tarts etc., all very desirable for growing lads! More bonuses could be gained by following the Co-op or Beasley Brewery dray horses. A food offering made to these horses when at rest often produced quick results!

Most homes had a vegetable garden, especially just after the war years when things were in short supply, many folk were breeding chickens and rabbits for the table as well. On one occasion I remember we were in a brand new Austin A90, a company car, that was being used to transport some of my dad's cricket team mates from Gillingham to Plumstead with a very large and very noisy pig in the boot, liberated from somewhere in Kent! I think it met its end in Burrage Road, because everyone seemed to be eating pork all of a sudden!

Firework night left a lasting memory. "Flash Bangs" (firecrackers to simulate live fire) surplus from the Home Guard, were tied to the wood paling fence in the garden and lit, the fence going up in flames was brilliant I thought, and the war issue stirrup pump had to be deployed to extinguish the fence. The next door neighbour was most upset though, because his rabbits almost got roasted in their hutches!

The disused Anderson shelters made brilliant dens for us boys to chat. They were usually full of creepy crawlies that conveniently kept any nosey sisters away!

When we were allowed into the Beasley Brewery stables, the Shire horses, which were huge, were really docile animals. But when out working some appeared to be real handfuls, maybe it was something to do with the use of those huge whips or, perhaps, the liquid refreshment taken by their driver's at every delivery! Those horses were seriously strong . I vividly remember the carnage many years later when a dray and horses bolted into a house, in the lower part of Ancona Road. Similarly, the milkman's horse and float that went through the railway fence and down the embankment on the up side of Plumstead station.

Builders sent to repair our house, on war damage repair work some years after the war, failed to get our front door and frame to line up, so they carefully cut a pane of glass trapezium shaped to fill the gap, they said it was to compensate for a bit of tilt!

Most days I was sent to get bread at the bottom of Griffin Road, watching the chaos relieved the monotony of queuing. Trolley buses and trams were often forced to a stop when their conductor poles left the cables above, causing delays while the huge pole was taken out and used to try and lift the contacts back onto the power lines.

Practically all the Arsenal workers rode bicycles and so would weave in and out. But whenever a bike wheel got stuck in a tram rail groove, look out! Even cars behaved strangely on the wet cobbles and these tram tracks if they had bald tyres, (bald was quite normal until some politician thought up 10 year tests.)

My grandfather worked in the Arsenal, in Naval Ordnance, for some years after the war. He usually took me to Woolwich when the huge 'Queen Mary' trailers, that contained glider kits, tried to manoeuvre around Woolwich. Being 60 ft long without a tractor unit, some drivers got into a right mess. (many drivers had passed armed forces driving tests, ie. if you moved the vehicle you got a driver's license!) The exception being Tiny and his mate who drove tank transporters, Diamond T before the Mighty Antars came in, loaded with a tank from the Arsenal to Artillery Place, the tanks often still in German livery. As I remember, it seemed Saturday was the preferred day to do this, I didn't know why, but it caused chaos through the Square and up Greens End. The tanks often came into contact with the overhanging first floor buildings, even with lots of onlookers assisting, plus street fittings had to be removed for extra clearance. Transporter and tank often sat on the Artillery Parade Ground for days before they eventually drove off somewhere, at a slow snails pace.

As a Cub I can remember being taught various Scouting activities in the grounds of the East Plumstead Baptist Church, with the 12th Woolwich Troop.
Visits to Plumstead Common were somewhat restricted, probably because of our Akela not being able to control our pyromaniac intentions on open land. We did visit a church near the ravine on different occasions, during get togethers with other troops. On these occasions there always appeared to be more adults around, maybe, as I suspected, to stop our very youthful excesses of exuberance. I'm fairly sure that the church was St. Mark's.
Camping trips were designed to get us unruly young creatures as far as possible from our home territory. Our local expeditions were to Meopham but our annual camp was much further away.

The annual trip I particularly remember was to the farm belonging to Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister. A few years before his election slogan was 'Back Mac'. We were transported to Wiltshire in the back of a furniture pantechnicon with large amounts of kit. The lorry didn't make it all the way though. We had quite a few breakdowns and we were eventually towed to our campsite in the finish. However, most trips in those days were made a whole lot more interesting by the 'Gone Wrong factor!'

Most Sunday School trips were much more fun when things went wrong, especially on one memorable occasion when our coach had to park alongside a field which contained a herd of cows. The adults encouraged us to watch them to keep us occupied, that was until they realised we were all being given a serious sex education lesson, courtesy of the bull who was in the field to do his mating business! I still remember the great glee of some of us and the huge embarrassment shown on the faces of some of the rather more demure Sunday School teachers (both male and female).

The class photo was our Induction Class photo, taken in the playground of Conway Infants School, in 1950.

The photo of the Cub Parade was taken in Brewery Road at the junction of Griffin Road in 1953, outside East Plumstead Baptist Church.
I am the Standard Bearer. We marched to Woolwich on the annual St. George's Day Parade.

This photo is the children and teachers on the Sandown, Isle Of Wight school trip 1954/55. I am second row from back, 8th from left.

This is a Conway School Class photo taken in 1954/55, top class (1A). I am second left, second row from back.

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